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Willow, weep for us

Since when do we expect our kids to go through life named Skyler? And to do it unarmed.

September 14, 2008|Joe Queenan | Joe Queenan writes frequently for Barron's, the New York Times Book Review and the Guardian.

When I heard that John McCain's running mate had children named Track, Willow, Bristol, Piper and Trig, I was floored. My reaction, like that of many of my acquaintances, was: Forget her views on religion, abortion, immigration or that bridge to nowhere, the American people are not going to let a person with children named Track, Willow, Bristol, Piper and Trig anywhere near that red button. The American people are too sensible for that, too traditional for that, too classy for that.

Au contraire. A lot of Americans, myself included, want to believe that this is still the country we grew up in, a country where no one even dreamed of giving their children names like Brooklyn or Rhiannon or Darcy. We want to believe we are still living in a country where even the silliest Irish Americans hesitated to name their daughters Shannon, and, when they did, at least made sure not to spell it "Shannen." We want to believe we are still living in a country where naming children is a cultural self-preservation tactic, a means of maintaining an institutional memory of the ethnic and religious groups from which the newborn has sprung, a way of maintaining a link with a heroic past rather than a cute or ironic future.

But that country no longer exists. American children are no longer named after prophets, warriors, healers or cultural titans; they are named after Welsh fairies, characters in science-fiction movies, the outer boroughs of New York and trees. This is a country where people name their children Tron. Where no one can spell the name "Sean" correctly. Where people actually expect their progeny to go through life with names like Skyler. And in some cases, to do it unarmed.

I fully admit that there is something desperate, almost pitiable, about this desire to believe that the United States is still the salt-of-the-earth land of the Joads and the plow that broke the plains and of Gary Cooper and mom and apple pie and bedrock values. In my case, it stems from growing up in an urban, Catholic, working-class environment where dread of clownishness was instilled at birth. In the neighborhoods I grew up in, people could get pummeled senseless if they dared waltz around with a name like Aloysius. Imagine what would happen if they showed up with a name like Willow.

But that America, the one where preening foppishness was frowned on, disappeared decades ago. And with it disappeared chivalry and class. This, after all, is a country where strapping young men take up two seats on the subway while pregnant women and the elderly cling to the overhead straps for dear life. This is a country where parents wear T-shirts bearing scatological messages when they show up for meet-the-teacher night. This is a country where millions enthusiastically tooled around in SUVs for more than a decade, fully aware that these oversized and unmanageable vehicles posed a direct threat to other drivers' lives.

Those of us who cling to an idea of America rooted in tradition would like to believe that this is still a country where a funeral home is a place to shed tears, not a venue where amateur stand-ups get to try out new material. But that country has vanished as well. Instead, we live in a nation where every funeral home is a cabaret, where no service ever ends without a few words from some dimwit eulogist about the dearly deceased's golf swing or his ability to roll a doobie while piloting a motorcycle across a sheet of ice and listening to "Black Dog." This is a country where no funeral service is complete without an inappropriately vulgar anecdote or a mawkish rendition of "My Way." No wonder Sinatra ended up hating that song.

A few years ago, I attended the great Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha's farewell concert at Avery Fisher Hall. She played Debussy and Albeniz. As the first half of the concert ended and the octogenarian performer inched toward the footlights, a bozo in cutoffs and a Yankees cap marched down the aisle and offered her his cap. Nothing in his demeanor suggested any awareness that he was a first-class slob, the anti-Albeniz; he actually seemed quite pleased with himself, like a Visigoth who remembered to pack the tablecloth for the picnic.

It was at this moment that I first began to suspect that the mythical America of yore was receding into history. Henceforth, a country known for its class and polish would be a country where people wore baseball caps to the concert hall. It would be a country where the president of the United States would gleefully have sex with an intern. And it would be a country where a woman with children named Track, Piper, Willow, Bristol and Trig could be a heartbeat away from the highest office in the land.

Looking on the bright side, at least she didn't name any of her kids Depot, Face-off or Barbecue. At least she didn't name them Velcro, Sherlock, Ivanhoe or Chamomile. At least she didn't name any of her kids Thor.

We could turn this thing around yet.

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