Thursday, August 26, 1999


I've always felt that if a superhero is allowed to do something, I should be allowed to do it too.

Now that I'm 29 years old, some people think I should have put comic books behind me, along with my childhood skateboard and a love of children's books like Lois Lowry's "The Giver" and C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia."

Well, the truth is that I read "The Giver" as recently as two years ago; I still think Narnia is a fun place to visit, though not as appealing as J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth; and the I only got rid of my blue skateboard because the back right wheel always got stuck anyway.

Who wouldn't get swept up into Mark Waid's coming-of-age story "The Return of Barry Allen," in which Wally West, the Flash, grows out of the shadow of his predecessor? Who could ever forget the psychological problems of Alan Moore's heroes in "Watchmen?" And who wouldn't want a ponytail like Superman had in the mid-1990s?

Back in the 1950s, Superman fought for Truth, Justice and the American Way, all with capital letters and a huge gut, and that meant he had his hair cut short. But after his resurrection around 1992, the man from Krypton came back with long hair. As a means of concealing his secret identity from his arch-enemies, he wore it as a ponytail as Clark Kent.

Ponytails make a statement about their wearers. On a large hairy man who rides a motorcycle and has the word "Ma" tattooed on his bicep, a ponytail says, "Call me a sissy and I'll break every bone in your body."
A ponytail on the head of a business executive, on the other hand, says, "Don't even think of calling me a sissy or I'll get my Dad to fire you. He's chairman of the board, you know."

In the case of Clark Kent, the ponytail clearly said, "OK, so I have rippling muscles, disappear whenever there's a crisis and just before Superman appears; and maybe I do survive the most incredible accidents, but I'm obviously just a dweeby investigative journalist."

Who wouldn't want a ponytail like that? Heck, forget the ponytail. Just give me super hearing like Superman's, and I'll start getting better stories than Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's Pulitizer-winning coverage of Watergate.

It can be hard to grow a decent ponytail, even without the benefit of Superman's invulnerable hair. (I have an old issue of Action Comics in which Lois breaks a pair of scissors on Clark's mop.) For the past two years, I've been engaged in an on-again/off-again struggle for a tail that gets regularly thwarted just before the moment of triumph.

For me, I have to admit that the appeal in ponytails lies in their "hippiness" and the noncomformist approach they help to project. I don't like to be like everyone else, and one of the ways I can express that is through my hair length.

Ponytails on men have become somewhat acceptable socially, but they still convey more than a hint of that nonconformist image. So I've long wanted to grow a ponytail, perhaps for the same reason I've grown a beard.

Back in 1998, I was off to a good start. After nearly eight months without a trip to the barber's, it was getting long enough that even the mayor of Montgomery Township remarked that it was starting to become a decent ponytail.

As luck would have it, that was in May, and Natasha and I had set our wedding date for June 13. If my hair had been another inch or two longer, I could have tied it all back and kept it. But it wasn't, and the progress of eight months was undone by a single trip to the barber's.

The committeewomen, who had hated the tail from day one, cheered. Natasha was indifferent. I was crushed, but I resolved to try again.

Slowly my hair got longer, and inch by painstaking inch, it reached first my collar and then beyond. In front, my hair grew longer and longer, making it hard for me to see when it fell down my face. There was no doubt in my mind. I was going to make it.

Less than a month before my hair would have been long enough to tie the front hairs back into a tail, the managing editor position for the Hillsborough Beacon and The Manville News opened. It meant a raise, more control over a newspaper than I had as a mere reporter, a chauffeured limo and a personal trainer, all at company expense.

Well, I made up the bit about the limo and trainer, but this is a position of some local importance. I tied my hair back one final time, and made the fateful trip to the barber one cold morning.
Snip snip.

That was six months ago, but I've given up. My hair was getting long again, so this week I made a trip down to the Hillsborough Barber Shop, paid my $14 and got it whacked off again.

I just wish I'd get X-ray vision to compensate.

Thursday, August 19, 1999

baby names redux

About a month ago, I asked readers to send me their suggestions for baby names. The response was, shall we say, memorable.

My wife and I are expecting our first around the end of October -- right around the time, I might add, that the United Nations expects the world population to reach 6 billion.

Never let it be said that I don't have any readers. I have received more than 100 suggestions for baby names, and I assure you Natasha and I gave each one the individual attention it deserved.

As expected, several people suggested their own names for the baby. Kimberly may be "a lovely name," as noted by Kimberly Brooks; and Minx may be "the best name ever," as stated by free-lancer Minx McCloud; but neither of those names is what I really wanted.

Surprisingly, only one reader submitted a name that was a play on the baby's last name. That reader was Lynn Winters Mineo, and in an e-mail, she asked me, "How about Olivia Anne Learn? Her nickname would be Liv Anne Learn."

Ba-boom-cha. I won't ask Ms. Mineo what names she picked for her own children, but you can rest assured my heart goes out to them.

That was it for the common names. Among the more unusual names suggested were Latrine and Garage Door, again suggested by Minx McCloud.

"These names are good because they are nongender-specific," she wrote.

Thankfully, Minx doesn't have any children, so we don't have to worry about how she might have warped her own progeny with sobriquets like Encephalitis McCloud and Cholera McCloud.

Several people suggested themes. John Harris, in addition to suggesting names from the recent -- i.e., later than 1970 -- Star Trek TV shows, suggested a few guidelines based on the "Dragonriders of Pern" fantasy novels by Anne McCaffrey.

"Use variations of more traditional names, varying the spelling or pronunciation, or inserting an apostrophe in unconventional places," he said. That would present suggest like B'Lair, or Jahn.

Another theme was suggested by Sam Clover:

"The novelist Nicholson Baker, author of 'Room Temperature,' called his baby girl in that novel 'the bug,'" he wrote. "You could follow suit on the insect theme with 'beetle' or 'butterfly.'"

My big fear with having a daughter named Butterfly Learn is that some demented entomologist will try to collect her, or if we go with Cockroach Learn, that someone will step on her. But Musca Domestica Learn does have a certain appeal, and the first two names even end in A, which makes it an automatic girl's name.

Andrew Yoder suggests the following:

"A good masculine name would be Atilla the Learn. For that matter, you could always try for Feminine Learn or Estrogina Learn and Masculine Learn or Testosterone Learn."

Other names on his list include: Bar Bell Learn, Southern Belle Learn; geographical names like Newark Learn, Easton Learn, and Egg Harbor Learn; and cartoon names like Shaggy, Velma, Bugs, Daffy, Goggles, Ricochet and (of course) Bullwinkle Learn.

The scary thing is, I know this guy, and he does have children.

A few people suggested Star Wars-type names, ranging from Ewok Learn to Jar Jar Binks Learn. My favorite suggestion along these lines came, again, from Sam Clover, who suggested a combination of letters and numbers, a la R2D2 and C3PO.

All things considered, the single most impressive list of names came from someone identified only as Ted. (Well, I have his e-mail address too, but it really would be rude to print that here.) Ted included a list of fonts that he took from Microsoft Word 97, complete with what these names would suggest about the baby.

A partial list: Arial, if the child appears to be overtly attentive; Bookman, a studious child; Braggadocio, a boisterous, overconfident child; Colonna, a fibrous child; Lucinda, a clairvoyant child; and Webdings, a scatterbrained Internet-ensconced child.

And of course, Helvetica. "Don't know what kind of child would have a name like Helvetica, but what a great name!" Ted writes. "Perhaps her middle name could be '12.'"

I'd like to thank everyone who suggested names for us; at this point, I think Natasha and I are stocked up on names for at least 50 more children, and neither one of us is anxious to have that large a family.

There was one final contributor worth noting. Michelle Graham, an old friend of Natasha's, sent me a list of unusual words from the dictionary, and also included this note:

"When I was in elementary school, I wanted to have fraternal twins (a boy and a girl) and name them Oreo and Orea. Hmmm ... maybe you shouldn't ask me for advice in the area of nomenclature."

Thursday, August 12, 1999

the heartbreak of psoriasis

Something about a medical condition brings out the nascent expert in everyone. It doesn't matter if you have the hiccups or acute appendicitis; once people see you have a problem, they're all over you with advice.

This is not my back. But it could be.
I know this because I have psoriasis, a stress-related condition that produces dry skin flakes that rain from my scalp and arms like the dandruff from hell. The flakes themselves leave behind unsightly raw patches of skin, which attract questions and sometimes concern over what happened to me.

I prefer the questions to come from children, who assume I have some sort of "booboos." No adult would ever believe me that an airplane hit my head, or that my wife rubs my arms with sandpaper every night to leave them all rough and crusty.

One boy at church to whom I've told the latter story several times recently wised up to my fallaciousness. He wants to know what my wife really does to me.

Adults usually assume I have poison ivy. Now I'm aware people can get poison ivy in unusual places, particularly when they're out in the woods without toilet paper, but don't you think it would be a little odd to rub poison ivy all over your scalp, back, arms and legs?

I'll admit I do some weird things, but having a poison ivy fetish just isn't one of them.

To my knowledge, the only real cure for psoriasis is ultraviolet light; everything else -- like coal tar, topical steroids or whatever else -- simply makes the affected skin more sensitive to that light. But that doesn't stop all sorts of other remedies from hitting me on all sides.

"Yessir, I once had psoriasis, but then I found by rubbing a quart of 10W30 motor oil into it and wrapping it in a fresh boneless chicken breast every day, I was able to clear it right up," said one fellow. "If you like, I can get a chicken poultice for you right now."

Um ... no thanks.

"There must be some sort of antibiotics they can give you," another person said.

Not really. Antibiotics fight infections, not genetic conditions, and I don't want someone rewriting my DNA. That's too "Gattaca." Unless they give me some sort of superpowers. If they help me grow a nice rack of antlers, or give me the superhuman ability to read road maps, gene splicing would be okay.

"Maybe they could irradiate your skin to get rid of the psoriasis," another person once suggested.

Psoriasis is bad enough; I don't want skin cancer too.

"Skin grafts."


Despite the homegrown quacks, there are some people with legitimate success stories I want to look into, usually involving one topical cream or another. Phil Murphy, a fellow missionary I knew in Haiti, had something that worked just fine for his wife.

"Lonnie used to have psoriasis like you," Phil said. "But it all cleared up when she gave birth to Michelle."

That would be really handy in another two months if I were the one pregnant, but since my wife is carrying the baby, somehow I doubt it will help me much at all. If anything, the increased responsibility will just make my psoriasis flare up even more.

My experiences with psoriasis go back 12 years, when I was an exchange student in Rotorua, New Zealand. The first patch I ever grew was located on my lower back and was about the size of a silver dollar. It finally cleared up when I was in college, but not before my scalp had erupted in it.

Since college, work-related stress has caused the psoriasis to flare up again and again. It's all over my scalp, where it's mostly covered by my hair, except on the top of my forehead and behind my ears.

I have other spots the size of small pancakes on my arms and legs, a particularly large one Natasha refers to as "the goose egg" and enough smaller ones on my arms, legs, sides, back and stomach that I look like a living connect-the-dots puzzle.

Once or twice we've tried looking for shapes like people often do with clouds.

"Does that look like a camel to you?"

"No, it looks more like Mount Rushmore. See? Here's Washington's head, and Lincoln's ..."

In biblical times, people with psoriasis were considered lepers and consigned to leper colonies, where they would spend their lives as social outcasts, and eventually get the real thing. Today, that's true only of a little less than one person in three.

My wife is a traditionalist, however, and wants me to ring a bell as I walk about, and shout "Leper outcast unclean," the treatment the Bible prescribes for lepers in Leviticus 13.

In the end, I'm told it will all become moot. Psoriasis fades away with age, so by the time I'm 80, I'll just have to worry about liver spots instead.