The Naming of Things*
For Chris Carlsson, and in memory of “Processed World” magazine.
I have found the place where making romantic sentences full of pathos and bravado has become factory work. On a plain of paved streets in Sunnyvale, past rows of ticky-tack Spanish-tiled roofs, in a cove of office-warehouses, holding herds of cubicles, there is a production line of typing, where heart-pounding humans —kinetically and incessantly— animate keyboards in order to weld words into the dialogues of fantasy video games.
For a contractual month, I worked as an “English-Spanish Localization Consultant”, translating the tales and insults of warring races from English-to-Spanish. By my typing fingers, an arrogant Necromancer who once in English belittled an enemy as an “Impudent insect!” now cried“¡Insecto insolente!” His bloated claim of “I am immortal! You will never defeat me!” would soon after his defeat, now be followed by an incredulous wail of “¡Imposible, imposible!”
It was my job to christen a world of exquisite landscapes: emerald hills, crystal skies, perilously plunging cliffs, and cruel underwater worlds. Once named, the beings of this magic world would embark on Quests that promised to imbue them with greater wisdom, skill or power. Lives would be imperiled to obtain magical objects, gain access to a wise one, aid a person in distress, or cut down malignancies. Alliances would be made, tribes created, territory claimed, resources protected, and legendary lives fabricated.
Day by day, I sorted through a magical archive of things – Paralizing Elven Arrow, Piercing Dimensional Beam, Celestial Metal Thunderclap, Murmuring Cloud Palace, Savage Kindling Dunes – searching in my mind for their names in Spanish. The video game I translated was, however, an English translation of text originally in Chinese. From time to time, I would arrive at an expression that required consultation with an expert polyglot interpreter: the Google Translator. I would cut and paste the original Chinese characters into the Google Translator. As I suspected and confirmed from the original Chinese, the Putrid Vanguard Ghost would never have cowered to say “I die in your eyes gracing eternal”, but instead had menaced: “I will grace your dying eyes with my eternal beauty!” Often an element of poetry would be lost from the Chinese to English translation. In this realization, I made it my mission to return to the author’s original intention and plow down lackluster denominations without mercy. A warrior skill boringly called Krava Maga in English was rescued back into el Filo Vengador de los Nueve Palacios (the Avenging Blade of the Nine Palaces). A simple Tackling Sweep would be renamed La Hurracarana in Spanish, a skill any self-respecting Mexican professional wrestler would identify while acrobatically bouncing off of ring cords. I now felt imbued with the power to name an entire mythical world for thousands of Spanish-speakers: primarily, male children, ages 9 to 30. In naming this world, I pronounced myself Genesis!
My contract named me otherwise. On page one I was defined as the “Consultant”. This was an intended disambiguation from that other archaic word: “employee”. A consultant maintains an “independent relationship” to the hiring company, while an employee has labor rights. As a “Consultant” I was contractually obliged to work nine hours a day, but was paid only eight, because as a “Consultant” I covered my lunch hour at my own expense.
The word “Consultant” gives the impression that a person is independent enough to own and control one’s own business, ignoring the implicit lack of power in taking a full-time job at $15 dollars an hour to translate video game dialogues. Fifteen dollars an hour is the amount that at the time the Day Laborer Program on Cesar Chavez Street recommended paying an undocumented immigrant worker for an hour of labor. Keeping in mind that the literary quality of video game dialogues emulate porn scripts, albeit with the differing objective of fucking the other party over versus fucking with them, as soon as possible, I agree that my work translating video games should not be compensated more than the manual labor of women and men who have crossed the Sonoran desert on heroic journeys. Yet, I was still surprised to learn that the phrase “independent consultant” had become synonymous to “day-laborer”. I began to properly call myself a “poor-fessional”.
In the early days of working in Sunnyvale, a surveillance camera was installed, aiming point blank into the cubicle work area that I shared with my fellow Consultants: an Argentine kindergarten teacher and musician; a Mexican mathematician; and a Puerto Rican post-colonial literature major. The place was mostly quiet as a church, with every worker pressing keys under the isolation of headphones. The objective was to crank out all punctuation and nuance by the video game release deadline.
On the second day I was there, I reached out and touched the woman next to me to ask her a question. She politely declined the interaction by asking that all questions be sent to her through “Yahoo! Instant Messenger”. In a surreal moment of digital vacuity, I typed my question into the box, and then looked at her, as she giggled delightedly next to me, staring into her screen, typing-up an answer that blushed with emoticons. We resumed work on the production line.
This was indeed factory work, but without the noise of grinding factory machines to entrance me through four straight hours of typing -break- and four more hours after lunch. I started pumping pop-dance music into my eardrums: Oontz-oontz-oontz. It had a chain gang rhythm; a meditative pagan drum pattern:
Rah rah ah-ah-ah!
Ro mah ro-mah-mah
Want your bad romance
I learned this particular doping trick from the two-year start-up veterans around me, with brains encased in earphones. The gourmet espresso machine in the kitchen was our other work drug.
In the surrounding cubicle blocks, there were natives from China, Latin America, Russia, Korea, and the USA, who rarely cross-mingled, except in mandatory team building exercises, and otherwise for managing a fantasy world of Aeolic, Mutant, Psychic, and Terra races aiming to kill one another. I pop-pumped through the day in alien isolation:
I want your love and I want your revenge
You and me could write a bad romance
Rah rah ah-ah-ah!
Ro mah ro-mah-mah
During my daily lunch hour, I took to scouting my surroundings alone. I found that there are no sidewalks in the industrial parks of Sunnyvale; only artificially watered grassy strips that separate buildings from the street. The lushness and the whimsy of the world I christened inside the office, contrasted painfully with the bland surrender of my immediate environment.
My venture through drab parking lots was finally rewarded, when I came upon a cemented channel carrying the remains of the San Tomas Aquino Creek. I stood in the white noon heat upon the bicycle lane lining the creek to watch a stealthy Snowy Egret among the swaying reeds. It stood at the edge of the shadow cast by an overhead bridge. The bridge carried several hundred tons a minute of speeding vehicles on Highway 101. From the shore where I stood, staring across the impenetrable vehicular onslaught on buildings on the opposite shore, I read the names of the industrial titans of Sunnyvale: CISCO, McAfee, Intel.
They are the latest manifestation of industry to colonize this valley. Upstream from where I stood, the Santa Clara Mission was founded in 1777, and by 1823 vast herds of cattle grazed on the rich valley land. The Missions were the first to wreak ecological warfare on the California landscape using cows as weapons, and non-native grass seeds as ammunition, and of course, by breaking the ancient traditions of land management when the indigenous inhabitants of the region were bound to Mission work. Toxic tallow and hide businesses later boomed on the riverside.
This Spanish colonial ranchero lifestyle continued after the wars of Mexican independence, until the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe that settled the Mexican-American War. Despite protections in this treaty, the Mexican hacendados of California, or Californios, were almost immediately evicted from their lands by a global immigration of 49er gold-diggers, and impoverished American squatters. Loopholes in the law, ethnic epithets and war propaganda were used to justify the taking of land from Mexican-Americans.
Any Native-American people who had survived the first wave of colonization were effectively extinguished by the second invasion. The unbridled mayhem in the video games we translated is in this sense a poor imitation of the barbarism of centuries of colonial conquest.
Downstream, the San Tomas Aquino Creek flows into the Guadalupe River. One of the tributaries of the Guadalupe carries water from the site of the Almadén Quicksilver Mines into the San Francisco Bay. Those are the old cinnabar mines of the 19th century Gold Rush era that extracted mercury. To date, the Guadalupe continues to deposit mercury laced currents into the San Francisco Bay. Industry on the Guadalupe Watershed destroyed the once abundant populations of Steelhead Rainbow Trout, Coho Salmon, Riffle Sculpin, Threespine Stickleback, and Golden California beavers, among other exquisitely named creatures.
20th century American settlers continued the agricultural traditions of the top-soil rich valley, but the settlers innovated by digging wells into the underground water reservoir to turn the Santa Clara Valley into an unparalleled agricultural basin. Orange, lemon, almond, walnut, peach, pear, cherry, and prune orchards combed the land. The fragrance from these trees in blossom was an unimaginable pleasure. Indeed, this region was lovingly called the “Valley of Heart’s Delights”, and also the “Garden of the World”, long before it was ever known as “Silicon Valley”.
Riding my bicycle from the train station to my job, there were two fleeting weeks in the summer in which clouds of Jasmine flower fragrance suffused the street in a ghostly memory of what the valley must have been.
The post-World War II migration of G.I.’s began the erosion of the farming culture with outcroppings of hamburger stands, shops, and housing tracts financed by G.I. loans. Rising property taxes began making the farmer’s life unsustainable, and by the mid-1950’s a different industrial complex eroded the orchards: In 1955, a Ford assembly line opened in Milpitas; in 1956, Lockheed set-up in Sunnyvale, and in 1957 IBM opened offices near New Almaden; that original gold-digger town named after the infamous Almaden mines. In 1968, the last fruit farm closed.
Standing alongside the San Tomas Aquino Creek, I became aware that the video game I translated tapped into a commonly held nostalgia for a world of mind-blowing interactions with nature. If only we still communed with superbly beautiful beasts on a daily basis… If only we still were warriors or healers with the power to harness natural or spirit elements… If only we could embark on quests to find awesome things like Whispering Orchids, instead of rolling into $15 an hour jobs.
Works of art by ancient humans often reveal a profound awareness of the sacred place of other beings in the world. A few months earlier, I had watched Werner Herzog’s film – “The Cave of Dreams”. Viewing through my 3D glasses, I experienced the sole public access to a collection of sophisticated drawings of horses, cave bears, lions, bison, mammoths, rhinoceroses and an earth goddess dated 30,000 years old. These cave paintings like other shamanistic cultures reveal homo sapiens as soulful observers of their natural world. Humans had a self-awareness of being on a continuum with the animal world, often depicting themselves with hybrid bodies, part-human, part-animal, part-elemental. I am certain that this humble conscience comes from a time in which humans were outnumbered by predators. The loss of that ancient human cognizance is unquantifiable.
Yet, I feel there is an undeniable global pining to re-experience ourselves as humans immersed in a non-human natural world. I find proof of this in the return to the airport best-seller stands of Jean M. Auel’s 1980’s pentalogy saga of the blazing hot cavewoman Ayla. Raised by Neanderthals, Ayla seeks to reintegrate with her own kind, but not before overcoming a multiplicity of obstacles in which she applies brilliant human ingenuity, and an acute understanding of the natural world cultivated by hanging out with Homo neanderthalensis.
The weekend before I concluded my job as a mercenary writer for the video game company, I bicycled with my husband to meet David Schooley at the base of one of the canyons of San Bruno Mountain. San Bruno Mountain holds a unique natural ecological reserve surrounded by the City. It is the one hill in San Francisco not overwhelmed by Victorian or contemporary ticky-tack housing, and it has one of the few remaining original California grasslands. A five decade defender of the mountain, David explains that the mountain was saved from development by trash. The wetland at the foot of San Bruno was a San Francisco dump for half a century, and the waft of stench floating up the mountain was the greatest disincentive to real estate investment.
As we walked through the canyon, this old wise man named the living world around me: Farewell-to-Spring, Lizard Tails, Buckeye Blossoms, Poison Oak in bloom, Yerbabuena, Yerba Santa, Manroot Cucumber, and Sword Ferns. We were eluded in our quest by all three of the endangered butterflies of this land: the Mission Blue, the San Bruno Elfin, and the Callippe Silverspot. But, further ahead, we found Pretty-Ever-Lasting, Sticky Monkey Flowers, Hummingbird Sage, Stinging Nettles, Manzanita, and Blue Blossom Chaparral. We continued up through the Dwarf Oaks a thousand years old to reach the shellmounds that mark the sacred burial grounds of ancient native inhabitants. Lost to us are the names by which the native people of the Bay Area called themselves. The word Ohlone is used today as a synonym for Bay Area Indians, but Linda Conrad explains that it is a “foreign sound transformed into a written word in a foreign language [Spanish]”: Alchones, Oljon, Ohlone, Ol-hones, O’lo’no’wit, Olhonean are all etymological variations of this word which are to be found in written documents from 1831 to 1978. This word – Ohlone – is a construct of colonialism that thinly threads back to an indigenous past. (Reference: Lisa Conrad, “A Map the Size of the Land” in Rebecca Solnit’s “Infinite City: An Atlas of San Francisco”)
Walking down a canyon, at the head of a hidden spring, we rest and David tells us the story of the hermits who used to live in these canyons. For years, he took school children on field trips to meet these Hermits. A school teacher fell in love with one of them, and eventually convinced him to follow her back into society as her companion. The hermit makes me think of Ishi, North America’s last known “wild” man.
In 1911, a starving middle-aged indigenous man entered Oroville, California. He was from the lost Yahi tribe of the southern Yana, who used to live in the foothills of Mount Lassen. The wild man was taken by Professor Thomas Albot Waterman to the Museum of Anthropology of San Francisco University, where he became a subject of study of his new professor friends. It was there that Professor Alfred Louis Kroeber named him Ishi (meaning man in Yana). Until then, the man had no given name because there had not been enough Yahi to perform a naming ceremony for him. Theodora Kroeber, wife of Alfred Kroeber, also an anthropologist at the university, wrote that Ishi got along best with Dr. Saxton Pope, an expert in modern bow hunting. When Ishi died four years and seven months later of tuberculosis, Pope said of him “He knew nature, which is always true”.
Professors Kroeber had a daughter, who later in life, went by the name of Ursula K. Le Guin. In Le Guin’s 1968 fantasy novel “The Wizard of Earthsea”, an apprentice Mage learns to wield magic by enunciating the true name of things. On San Bruno Mountain, I watched the Redtailed Hawk floating above us, and wondered about the honesty of the name by which I knew it. When we reached the top of the ridge, I looked down upon a landfilled valley of warehouses, feeling the loss of a wetland inlet of the San Francisco Bay. Later that week, I would name a digital female warrior – Lessingia – after an endangered yellow flower endemic to California that wages a war for survival on San Bruno Mountain, and named a female healer, Yerbabuena, for the robust medicinal mint plant that gave the port of San Francisco its first Spanish name.
Towards the end of our walk, we stopped to taste the fruit of a holly-leafed California cherry tree, the Islay. Islay is said to be an original native name. I attempt to know the texture of this word, Islay, through the flavor of its fruit. A river buried under a freeway on the far north side of San Bruno Mountain carries the same name.
During my month of employment, every day I rode my bicycle to the station at 4th and King, and boarded a one-and-a-half hour train to my end station in Sunnyvale. On my last day of work, on my last train commute home, I meditated on the old railway line. The image of the water-splashing egret accompanies me, superimposed through the landscapes of the passing and past Missions: Santa Clara, San Antonio, San Mateo, San Carlos, San Bruno, San Francisco… Approaching the edge of the city, the train rolls past the remaining water of the Brisbane Lagoon and the garbage landfill which stench saved San Bruno Mountain from development. It is now a Super Fund site. A pair of Black Tailed Jackrabbits wait next to the recovering brush to cross the tracks. Soon after, the fog flanks San Bruno Mountain creating a sacred gate. This curtain of mist must be passed to reach San Francisco, a city which columnist Herb Caen in 1949 anointed “Baghdad-by-the-Bay”, for the historical Chinese and other seemingly exotic multicultural migrations to this Pacific port.
San Francisco is closer to Seoul, South Korea, than it is to Berlin, Germany; and its historical connection to the Pacific coast on the Americas is as thick as its connection to coasts across the Pacific. Peruvian, Ecuadorian, and Chilean miners were among the first 49ers to arrive to San Francisco. It was by directed manual labor that the port and railways were built, and the rolling hills flattened or conquered. Today, Asian and Latin American professionals, alongside Western settlers arrive to work in the tech industry, while their co-national day laborers provide lowly paid services in this Pacific destination. Silicon Valley is booming, and it is as if nothing had ever changed in the history of settlement, new riche, and cheap labor in this port.
I exit the train with my bicycle at 4th and King in San Francisco, and pedal home. The railroad, port boom, and water-lot real estate grab of the mid-19th century “reclaimed” the water that once swamped my bicycle lane. In the wake of my wheels, I see ghost Bay Harbor porpoises, spirits of Great Blue Herons, and the souls of King Salmon that once inhabited the vanquished Mission Bay. The tangible transformation of the landscape was the result of paid work of a past immigrant population, and I am haunted by the knowledge that I do more to reproduce the dynamics of the century as it has been than to change them.
My workday that morning started when I left home at 8am and ended when I arrived home at 9pm, thirteen hours later. I did not have an eight-hour work day. In 1934, the West Coast Longshoremen’s Strike led to a General Strike about five kilometers away from my home, and by 1937 the Fair Labor Standards Act fixed in law the eight-hour work day for industries representing twenty percent of the U.S. work force. In U.S. history, since 1877, labor strikes have arisen periodically- in fact almost every ten years- to gain or protect the eight-hour work day. Different to that of ancestral cave dwellers, our lives are not aimed at surviving in a world of different species, but simply surviving the economic hierarchies created by our own.
The expanding population of people hired temporarily as independent contractors during the so called Great Recession facilitates the erosion of labor rights. But at this juncture in history, as a paid hand, I want more than rights that make our systems of subordination to each other more tolerable. I want my work to reverse the precariousness of human and non-human life, and in that sentiment, I know that I am not alone.
Months later, on a cold blue December dawn, I would answer the call of the General Assembly of Occupy Oakland for a General Strike and blockage of the port in protest. I most remember dancing in the picket line with the Glitter Bloq (a tribe of queer radicals) to the tune of Michael Jackson songs, while industrial cranes posing as Star Wars AT-AT Imperial Walkers peered at us over stacks of containers. Our Quest was called “Shut It Down!” (¡Plantón en el Puerto!). But, it was not a game, and it is not over.
I conversed with the “independent truckers” who lined up to carry cargo and lost their wages because of our port shut down. They are the most precarious of the port workers, who until then remained unacknowledged by most of us. I too lost “independent” contractor wages that day from failing to show up to another video game job, and instead choosing to dance next to static cops posturing in Storm Trooper riot gear.
My job as a video game translator may seem innocuous. I’ll even admit that while I won’t miss the hours, I’ll miss riding the train. And, while I won’t miss the lower lumbar-breaking hours at the computer, I enjoyed working the jouissance of language to translate hilarious demonic expressions and mystical names. Still I know my work will encourage the isolation and disembodiment from the physical plane of some very young humans reporting for early drone soldier training. But now, I am again unemployed, and as such, probably doing less harm than good in the world. I am free to wander the streets of the Mission District and make friendships with adventure-laden migrant day laborers, vigilant gang members, and chatty Catholic ladies, who at times seem as removed from my personal identity as a cave bear. I am free to walk up Bernal Heights – that old Spanish cattle grazing ground – and read posted notices of an occasional wild coyote sighting. For short awhile, I am free to write unprocessed words; free to name things as they really are.
*This essay was originally written in 2011. For awhile it was under contract for publication with Orion Magazine. It got lost in the cue and publication never happened. I finally self-published on my website in 2016. Yay! Thanks!