“There are only 40 people in the world, and five of them are hamburgers.” — Captain Beefheart
As I scan back through the span of days that mysterious forces have granted me the luck to have, I find proof that although I am cooked a little rare, I may be a hamburger. When I allow myself the question “how am I not like everybody else?” I submit that it’s getting really hard to feel unique. And here’s why:
1. There is a lot in a name. Or not. I started life as a “Jennifer,” since my hapless parents grabbed that out of the zeitgeist in Oberlin spring of 1967. Was fast-tracked into statistical anonymity in the 1970s when my name became the most overused in the country. In the 1980s, I had the great fortune of being in high school when the Tommy Tutone song “867-5309” played incessantly on top 40, a song that refuses to die to this day, and which was chanted mockingly at me just yesterday by a full grown man. Some of our demographic bulge turned themselves into “Jennas,” others “Jen.” To be addressed as “Jennifer” reminded me of my grandparents. So I picked “Jennie” with the “ie” since I found that “Jenny” is defined in many dictionaries as a “female pack mule.” Why it never occurred to me to bail myself out by using my middle name “Zarr” instead, I do not know. Who could be called a hamburger with a name like that? You can’t rush for a sorority with a name like Zarr, but you can certainly be an art student or a bass player in a math rock band.
2. Hetero-normative. After a haphazard turn with bisexuality, I settled into a codified gender role with a husband, and built my life around monogamy, despite full knowledge of Simone de Beauvoir’s caveat that marriage “almost always destroys woman.” It is my belief there is very little that is “normal” about the marriage relationship, which makes me an outlier of the hetero world, at least philosophically; But not enough of an outlier to act. As the literature of adultery reminds us, it is all too common to have a humdrum marriage. It takes a unique couple and a surplus of imagination to keep the love alive.
3. Tattoos: Two. Ear piercings: Five. No further comment necessary.
4. Garden Variety Drunk: As a problem drinker, I was what is called in the recovery world as “garden variety.” Once when I talked about giving up on demon alcohol, a friend said he really wished I wouldn’t because he would miss the “funny things” I said. In a blackout most of the time, I can’t confirm, but I do know from the aftermath that I was also unpredictable and destructive. On a mild night, I was that inebriated dancer prone to making casualties of houseplants and other people’s cats. On bad nights, I smashed things: A mirror, for no apparent reason, my face into concrete, and eventually, a car into a cement wall. From smashing the glass, I’m very sure I got the attenuated seven years of bad luck, non-sequentially maybe. Whatever. The fun had to stop.
5. You Look Like Someone I Know: Years and years ago, a boy I was hanging out with introduced me to a friend who felt sure I looked like someone she knew. Not meaning to be unkind, this boy said, “Yeah, she looks like a lot of people.” I call to mind the relative or the friend. And everything clenches when I hear the words, “You know whom you look like?” Oftentimes it’s Patty Duke. I will grant you, the gays think Patty Duke is fab for her over-the-top bombast as Neely O’Hara in “Valley of the Dolls.” Plus, she came out as having bipolar disorder, and that takes gonads; the stigma of clinical and chronic unhappiness can cost both job and reputation.
So, those are five things about me that tend toward run-of-the-mill. What I hold close as unique is the struggle I have with existential loneliness. I imagine it’s brought about by carrying the albatross of my father’s suicide when I was a freshman in high school.
As friends get older, the more people I know who have a suicide in their lives. And in a larger, more rankling context: In the last 45 years, suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide, and is now among the three leading causes of death among those aged 15-44 (male and female).
The untangled knot of suicide is never a topic for everyday discussion: (“Nice weather today.” “I know it’s sunny, but I still feel a bit like brewing up some hemlock tea.”) No, it typically festers underground in the recesses of our psyches where pain is hidden. But when an icon goes out this way, the dilemma gets pushed from the down low of our private lives and out into the spotlight.
Aaron Swartz’s death in January was one such instance. Author of the “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” and other screeds, Swartz represented Internet freedom and the hope that the juggernaut of a massive power structure was on the cusp of a shift toward recognition of humanity.
Swartz blogged about both big and banal ideas for most of his life (including an essay titled “How to Save the World, Part I.”) In one of his posts he wrote, “I feel my existence is an imposition on the planet…” Swartz, seeing how things work in the world, found them wanting, and—most problematic — saw his place in them to be an “imposition.” By hanging himself, Swartz cut the Gordian knot of his existence.
Cutting the knot is a non-starter for me. I aim to exist in the liminal center of that knot, hoping to find ease in the bondage; I want to hold conflicting ideas in my mind at once, that life sucks, while also a gift; This dialectic, I suspect, is what most people learn to handle before they are out of short pants. But for me, it’s a slower process.
So maybe I am not just a hamburger. My uniqueness is cast out of a will to outlast the very frigging long shadow of suicide. As I celebrate making it to 46, I am coming out of the dark woods of worrying that I won’t make it to 50 just because my dad didn’t. Happy birthday to me. I’m still here. A toast to my frailties and my strengths. And to my perseverance, because that does count.
“Enlightenment is not imagining figures of light but making the darkness conscious.” —Carl Gustav Jung