“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”
— Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
I don’t need to tell you that our world has become as bizarre and inexplicable as anything in the loonier fringes of science fiction. Having just returned to my native California after a very long absence, I feel as if I’ve passed through a time warp to arrive on another planet in a galaxy far, far away, possibly in a parallel universe.
Everything's different now, including my name, which is currently being dragged through the mud. I’ve been called Karen since 1951 and always considered it a serviceable moniker, if not particularly romantic or inspiring. Karen is a Danish form of Katherine that’s said to mean “chaste or pure.” (Possibly my parents were trying to send me a message; if so, it didn’t take.) Yesterday I learned that in American pop culture “Karen” has now become synonymous with pushy, sanctimonious, anti-vaccine, down-with-science, quarantine-is-communism, let-me-speak-to-the-manager middle-aged women — like the Tennessee gal photographed holding a sign reading “Sacrifice the weak, reopen TN .” When Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman proposed reopening the city’s casinos early as a “control group” to measure infection rates, she was called “an idiot,” “an actual monster,” and worst of all, “a Karen’s Karen.”
Yikes! Obviously I'll have to change my name to something less cringeworthy. What’s trending now in California? For females, it's often nature themes such as Luna, Meadow, and Elm; pop culture faves like Khaleesi, Lennon, and Paisley; hippy classics including Freedom, Nirvana, and Karma; and such non-binary names as River, Bear, and Noor (which means “light”). Do any of those sound like me? I don’t think so either.
But these days it isn't easy to define myself, let alone the cultural norms I'm supposed to live by. I miss the simplicity of Spain, which has a single national policy based on medical science. Lawmakers brawl over the details behind closed doors, but eventually they hammer out a plan and speak with a single voice, applying the rules uniformly throughout the country, with clear consequences (substantial fines, even jail time) for those who flout the law. You may not agree with every detail of the plan, but you always know where you stand in Spain. Here in America, it’s like trying find your equilibrium on a Tilt-a-Whirl fairground ride.
For instance, the CDC tells everyone returning from abroad to quarantine at home for two weeks, avoiding shared workspaces, classrooms, and public transportation. So far so good. But does that mean I can or cannot go out for walks? Is it OK to put on protective gear and shop for food? When friends drop by, should I ask them to leave? I can’t find a word online about any of this, and believe me, I’ve looked.
The only thing the CDC made abundantly clear is that I'm supposed to make notes twice daily on the form they gave me at the airport, recording any symptoms (cough, shortness of breath) and my temperature. Fun fact: even our body temperature has a new normal. The old standard of 98.6, established in 1851, has been recalibrated to a range of 97.5 to 97.9. Unfortunately, my readings kept falling short of those benchmarks, hovering around 95.5, then 94.3 and finally plunging to 93 degrees. I began to worry I’d contracted a sort of reverse COVID-19 (91-DIVOC?). Eventually, I realized the thermometer was broken. Whew! I tossed out the useless thing and had Amazon deliver a new one the next day.
And this brings me to one of the other gee-whiz-this-really-is-the-future aspects of my life in California: insanely fast online ordering. Yes, Seville has grocery delivery and Amazon.es, but I rarely use them. Even during the lockdown, Rich and I found it quicker and easier to don protective gear and walk to the market one block over. Now, in perpetual confusion over American self-quarantine protocols, I’m playing it safe for everyone’s sake, staying home and ordering online from the market five blocks away. It’s astonishing. Almost before I hit “send,” I start getting texts: Shopping for you now … Out of that brand of honey, how about this one? ... Our driver is on their way … Minutes later the stuff’s at my back door. I couldn’t get groceries that fast if I sent Rich sprinting out to buy them.
Being homebound, I can’t really comment on how the re-opening is going here, beyond noting that my region’s numbers are very low and state officials are proceeding cautiously and systematically, following the recommendations of qualified health professionals. (I know; what a concept!)
Mostly the priorities make sense; markets, pharmacies, gas stations, drive-in movies, dog groomers. But I was shocked to learn that, inexplicably, beauty parlors are not yet on the list of essential services. In Seville, barber shops and hair salons opened two weeks ago, but in the flurry of activity surrounding our departure, I decided to wait until I was back in the US. Boy, am I regretting that decision. Yesterday I persuaded Rich to trim the seriously shaggy mess at the base of my neck. He did well in this test area and may get the rest of the job soon. True, there aren’t a lot of other candidates right now. Although some of those dog groomers might be able to pep up my style.
Looking well-groomed, or at least not hideously unkempt, is my way of prepping for that glorious day when I come out of quarantine and go back into the world, possibly under a new name. Rainbow McCann? Dharma McCann? Nope and nope. I’ve also crossed Harmoni and Wynter off the list, because after a lifetime of proofreading, I couldn't abide going around with a name that looks like a typo.
“Our names,” said essayist Logan Pearsall Smith, ”are labels printed plainly on the bottled essence of our past.” He’s right. “Karen” is writ large on the story of my life. Why should I give it up, just because it’s been temporarily appropriated as shorthand for a particularly appalling category of crackpot? Confucius says, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” So hey, everybody, call me Karen.
Are you in a place that's relaxing quarantine and re-opening? How's it going? What are you noticing as you venture out into the world? Let me know in the comments below.
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5/28/2020 04:23:30 pm
that was your best effort of all time....note get out among-st them just stay 6 feet apart....take your walk, go to the market, go down by the water. do garden work hv a ball
5/29/2020 01:59:08 am
Thanks for the encouragement, Bradley! We're taking walks early every morning, keeping our distance. Once quarantine is lifted we'll be going to the market and to the nursery for plants; Rich is delighted to be back in his garden.
5/28/2020 04:33:19 pm
What about changing Karen to Carey temporarily, until the Karen's wildly negative connotations persist?
5/29/2020 02:01:58 am
Carey is a good alternative. It's an Irish name meaning "from the fort" — a good, strong, unisex name. I was thinking about going with Bear, but this could be even better. Thanks, Sandra!
5/28/2020 04:47:28 pm
Here in the UK, I identify more with your experience in the US than I do with what you describe of Spain. It is hard to know what you can and can't do, so we're playing it safe and staying home. Other braver souls than me are visiting beaches and parks but that seems very stressful in terms of everyone doing what they can to give everyone else the required space. It doesn't always happen.A friend and I talked yesterday about developing FOGO. We're lucky to have plenty of space and a reasonable sized garden. I cannot imagine what it must have been like in a flat. I have another friend called Karen, also lamenting the misappropriation of her name. Stay safe.
5/29/2020 02:08:21 am
Polly, thanks for introducing me to the term FOGO, which I assume means fear of going out. In Spanish the term is sindrome de cabaña, cabin syndrome, which means the same thing, a new version of agoraphobia. When I was in full quarantine I felt totally relaxed and safe; now I can't tell when to worry and what the rules are. So like you, I am being very cautious and will keep on doing so even when I'm out of the official 14-day quarantine. Better safe than sorry!
5/28/2020 04:57:59 pm
Hi, I know just how you feel. When I was in school, we were reading Shakespeare and there was a line "While greasy Joan doth keel the pot." I was mortified and wanted to change my name, but my mother wouldn't let me.
5/29/2020 02:12:37 am
I've never heard that bit of Shakespeare, Joan; what a horrible tag to get stuck with, especially at a young age. No wonder you wanted to change your name. I kid about changing mine to Rainbow or Harmoni, but the fact is I've decided to stand firm and do what I can to rehabilitate the name. I'll let you know how it works out.
5/28/2020 05:05:07 pm
From a fellow Karen, that whole “Karen” thing is bizarre!
5/29/2020 02:19:18 am
The most astonishing thing is that they focused on the name Karen. According to the charts, the name peaked around 1951, when I got it, and has dropped steadily in popularity. Nowadays it doesn't even appear on most charts because nobody names their kid that anymore. And obviously its popularity will plummet even further now. No doubt your parents and mine thought they were choosing a nice, safe name for us! As you say, Karen, "Ain't that life sometimes?!?!"
Bonnie (aka Mary)
5/28/2020 05:17:20 pm
Definitely a great article, Karen! I live in the East Bay and know exactly what you're talking about... As I don't have a husband or roomie to trim my shaggy do, guess I'll have to find a doggie groomer! Keep up the good work!
5/29/2020 02:20:59 am
Yes, it does help to have someone around to hack away at the hair, whether it's a quarantine companion or a sympathetic dog groomer. I hear the salons are opening up June 1 in some communities, so there may be hope for us soon, Bonnie. Hang in there!
5/28/2020 05:17:59 pm
So glad to hear from you, Karen. Don't worry about the name thing, as it too will pass. I think that Rich did a great job on the haircut. Surely beauty shops will open soon. We live in an area where people are just throwing over the rules and doing what they want, so we are staying home. I get groceries now and then with a mask and appropriate washing up when home. Blessings on you both.
5/29/2020 02:26:49 am
Thanks for your encouraging words, Phyllis. Yes, no doubt this name thing will pass. And I'm glad to hear you're being sensible and staying home; just because people are allowed to do something does not mean that it's a good idea. (Ask anyone with a head-pounding hangover.) After spending months hunkered down to avoid getting sick, I can't see throwing caution to the winds at this point. Smarter to wait a bit and keep out of harm's way.
5/28/2020 05:31:27 pm
I saw that awful "Karen" thing trending and felt sorry for every Karen in the world. I also don't like that "Siri" (a beautiful Indian name) and "Aleksa (my granddaughter's name) have been misappropriated to inanimate objects. Yes, I know you can change the name on the device, but most people don't. Surely the tech geniuses could have come up with names that don't belong to people, especially women.
5/29/2020 02:29:12 am
Yes, it's awful when names get misappropriated. When I was growing up guys were often called Dick and now you can't even say it without a pornographic connotation. Let's hope this Karen nonsense blows over soon!
5/28/2020 06:26:34 pm
I love reading your stories, and given the present circumstances, I'm sure there will be many more to follow.
5/29/2020 02:33:39 am
Yes, I've heard Germany is very precise in its approach, which I find vastly more comforting than the confusion and muddle we're in around here. I'm glad to hear you can teach from home, Maria, rather than risk exposure in a crowded classroom. And a more local vacation is wise. International travel is just too anxiety-producing to be fun at the moment; I plan to wait a while before I do it again.
Jorge del Pino
5/28/2020 07:27:02 pm
Change your name (temporally) to Nerak...!
5/29/2020 02:42:06 am
Brilliant, Jorge. Nerak is not only Karen spelled backward, but it's an actual first name that's popular in Mexico and Russia, and signifies a responsible person. Far more excitingly, it's used in the title of the book: "Cosmic Sex (Planet Nerak, Book 2)" Obviously more research is needed on that!
5/28/2020 08:47:26 pm
karen, you are a comedian at heart. one day you should have a stand up comedy act, i'd come see you! you crack me up whenever i read your blog. keep 'em coming. besos, vida.
5/29/2020 02:42:45 am
Thanks, Vida! Great to know you're enjoying reading this stuff as much as I'm loving writing it!
5/28/2020 09:26:50 pm
Sorry about the Karen thing. For a very brief period a few years ago they were doing that with the name Susan. A couple of my friends thought it was hilarious and would repost memes all the time. I told them to knock it off. Hey! Maybe that’s what stopped it!
5/29/2020 02:49:15 am
I do remember the Susan thing; amazing how silly these things are when you look back on them, although they can be seriously annoying at the time. So far my friends aren't sending me Karen memes, they're sending name suggestions: Harmoni, Rainbow, Nerak, Paisley ... so far, I'm sticking with Karen.
5/28/2020 10:27:40 pm
Hey, Katherine (now THAT sounds regal),
5/29/2020 02:58:49 am
I love the name Katherine, which does sound regal. Unfortunately my sister Kate snagged that one decades ago, so I'm not sure it's available to me now. (I doubt my parents realized they were really the same name!) Anyhow, I'm excited about your plans to go to Spain and hope it all goes smoothly from here. In the meantime, I'm glad to hear you two are being sensible about reducing your risks, upping your chances of staying healthy until August 26 rolls around. Good luck and let me know how it all goes for you!
5/28/2020 11:20:05 pm
Stay at home means stay at home here in New Zealand. Because most people obeyed we are at level two, have had no community transmission, only 22 deaths. Don’t go anywhere, it’s safer. We were only allowed out for short walks in our local area, avoid all people. Lucky your online delivery so quick, took up to 2 weeks here and I had priority status.
5/29/2020 03:01:13 am
Friends in New Zealand have been telling me how impressed they are with the great job your government is doing managing this crisis. You are lucky in having leaders who reacted early and decisively. I'd trade that for fast online ordering any day!
5/29/2020 01:38:53 am
Candice McCann, that's my suggestion. I think it shows a positive attitude. BTW, Rich did a fine job and your rear fringe looks mahvelous. WELCOME BACK!
5/29/2020 03:04:03 am
Thanks, Brian. Great to be back. Hmmmm, do I feel like a Candice? It's a cool name, as long as they don't reduce it to Candy. I'll add it to the short list. Yes, I'll pass your praise onto Rich, he'll be so pleased. Hope you're doing well in these crazy times, my friend!
5/29/2020 07:30:50 am
How about Prudence McCann? I am reading "The Grammarians" by Cathleen Schine, so my choice has been highly influenced by the book, Still, the way you are approaching the pandemic goes with the name.
5/29/2020 04:47:50 pm
Good idea on the name, Pia. Then I could have a theme song, the Beatles' Dear Prudence. I like it!
5/30/2020 02:12:55 pm
"Noor" works for me! I also like Karena as so often pronounced here in Spain.
5/30/2020 03:48:44 pm
Karen, names are always a topic of conversation and laughter in our home. Hey, even writing my first name here, I was given Kardashian as a prompt. I'll never forget my first trip abroad to Colombia as an exchange student, trying to tell someone my name. He thought I was saying "Quien", so we went back and forth, like a "Who's on first?" shtick. Another time I decided, what the hell, I'll say my name using the Spanish pronunciation of the letter i. I was none too happy when the response was, " King? Oh, King Kong!" My husband and I are often distracted while watching the news by some of the unique names we see. Latinos love to create new ones. I once worked with a young woman whose name was Leididiana (that's a take on Lady Diana).
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
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