Disclaimer: I know this is unscientific. I don’t believe or accept anything without convincing enough evidence. This is just me thinking out loud, a fun bit of hypothesizing rooted in my curiosity about the bleeding edge of studies into the nature of what we call reality. If you’re taking this too seriously, don’t.
Anyway, in summer 2016, I had a strange experience still lingering with me today.
It was a simple, stupid, routine thing: I was crossing a competely empty street – no vehicles coming from any direction – and I felt my whole body tense up and briefly seize as I reached the other side. I froze and suddenly felt what I imagined my final moments would be like as I’m struck from nowhere by a large, teal-colored semitruck. This vision flashed through my mind in vivid detail, a first-person hallucination where I felt my body crumple so far I didn’t feel anything before oblivion took me in a snap second.
Just as quickly as the feeling rushed through me, it was gone. I startled out of my reverie and kept walking, trying to shake my head clear of what I just experienced.
Basically, I felt as though I just been struck, crushed and killed by a speeding semitruck, even though no such thing actually happened. I was fine. There weren’t even any nearby vehicles to draw this sudden mental flash from.
My brain looped through the incident over and again.
Was it leftover trauma from when I was struck by a car on the UMN campus in 2013? That had hurt, but it was very low speed and my left leg recovered in a year. So it wasn’t super traumatic in the longterm.
Eventually, I started to wildly hypothesize that my vision had actually happened – just not to me. What if it happened to another version of me, one that split off? What if there are multiple parallel realities, and what if the barriers between those realities can actually be quite thin??
It sounds insane. It probably is insane. But it’s not completely without basis.
Theoretical physicists, those incredible and magical thinkers of the scientific world, will often talk about the Many Worlds Interpretation1, or MWI. If you’ve never heard of this before, you may have seen its essence in sci-fi and shows like Rick and Morty or the fantastic Counterpart.
The theory basically postulates that all possibilities play out simulataneously, and that each and every action we take or don’t take splits off infinite parallel realities each representing an alternative action or result.
If this idea holds some kind of truth, there are numerous strange implications3 to ponder. For instance, there may not be a single narrative of your life, but several. We shouldn’t think of ourselves as individuals in the traditional sense, but as a multiplicity within a single entity, one that could ultimately be considered immortal.
Mathematically, proof for MWI seems to hold up.
Experimentally, demonstrating MWI is a vastly tougher thing since it may not be possible within the realm of current science to test it.
But what about anectdotally?
What if phenomena like déjà vu, dreams, clarivoyance and other odd cognitive experiences are some or our multiple personal realities bleeding into one another?
Imagine you’re thinking of approaching someone to introduce yourself. You do it and feel a sudden sensation that you’ve met them before, a strong sense of familiarity that shouldn’t be asscociated with someone certainly you’ve never met before. But what if you had met that person before, just in a different timeline, and there’s some kind of mental resonence leaking between dimensions?
And what if, like the movie Arrival, time doesn’t have to be linear, but our brains evolved to perceive it as such? And what if it also evolved to compartmentalize our perceptions into a kind of tunnel vision? In many ways, the latter is already known to be true
These seem like fringe ideas. But theoretical physics is full similar-sounding ideas these days, much to the consternation of experimental physicists4.
However, other phenemona may explain these sorts of incidents better. A whole slew of cognative biases6 could be to blame for déjà vu and similar brain glitches. The frequency illusion7, for instance explains a lot of strange coincidences.
I’m not sure though which cognative bias explains my brief pseudo-hallucination and similar instances though. And if MWI does hold some truth, to what extent can it/does it affect our daily realities?
Anyway, again, I’m thinking out loud. Maybe I’ll write some fiction about it.
My grandfather died recently, on January 29, 2018, lingering only a handful of months after a fall that bruised his hip.
It’s hard to write or talk about. Most people in my life don’t know. For weeks after, I just kept going, afraid that taking a day or a breath or a moment would make it real. And when it became apparent that I wouldn’t get to attend his funeral service outside of Columbus, OH, I surpressed it all further.
Fortunately, I made a trip to visit him on the edge of the Amish Empire in Fredericksburg, OH. We spent the time we needed and said the things we needed to say. Because of that, my regrets are few – we knew it would the last time we saw one another. Essentially, we had already said goodbye.
Though he was in good physical health for being in his late 80s, and had great mental health for any age, I sensed his time was short. It’s why I took a break from a busy election year to visit him. It’s also why I wasn’t susprised that our frequent phonecalls faded from monthly to every other month to a few times during the year. Everything was getting more difficult for him. Gone was the man who built an entire house on his own in his mid-70s, could walk two miles daily and do 20 pushups per day in his 80s. Time devours us all.
He as a writer, researcher, teacher, musician, soldier, farmer, handyman, mechanic, plus a father, grandfather and great-grandfather several times over. He was a polymath in every sense of the word. Of my siblings, I had the closest relationship with him. He loved to analyze everything, was a voracious reader up until the end and wrote scores of research papers over the course of his life. He was also a peacemaker, always forgave, never quarrelled and listened intently to other points of view.
Usually, age makes someone set in their ways. But my grandfather still managed to surprise me and others with his willingness to change his viewpoint when presented with new information and experiences – a rare thing these days. As an elementary school teacher he was familiar with the cornerstone concepts of the scientific method and tried his best to apply them to his worldview and theology. As a farmer, he was practical and down-to-earth, always able to see life through the eyes of the common man. As a soldier in post-war Europe, he also had a global perspective as well that make of his neighbors in rural America typically lacked.
He was a religious man, something that we certainly didn’t have in common. But he never pushed things on me, and always listened to what I had to say on matters related to his church. In turn, I would listen to him. Our conversations were actual constructive exchanges of ideas.
In many ways, his life and legacy lives on through me. What I choose to do with that burden, time will tell. I’ll try to do what’s best.
The death of my grandfather has also caused me to revisit the death of his daughter – my mother.
My grandfather unfortunately experienced the grief of having to bury his child, something no parent should have to do.
My mom, like my grandfather, taught me a lot before she abruptly died of cancer during my sophormore year of university.
She was a saint who kept a chaotic household together. As the stay-at-home mother of five children in a family living below the poverty line, she was the cornerstone of stability. She was very much her father’s daughter in many ways, and the conduit through which I inherited so many of my grandfather’s traits.
As with everyone, she wasn’t perfect, and she differed from my grandfather in certain key ways.
But my mom was a perfectionist, to the point where she obscured her failures and was somehow taught that there’s no such thing as a lie of omission. It was alright not to say something, even if it directly affected other people’s lives.
For her, dishonesty didn’t ever extend to the unknown. Everyone has their secrets, or may often be bound to keep other people’s secrets. Also, being open about absolutely everything would certainly be detrimental to individuals and society as a whole. But lies of omission can certainly have negative impacts on people’s lives.
My mom didn’t learn this from her father, who let everything hang out. Brutal honesty was the primary brand of honesty in his household. And perhaps that grated on my perfectionist, refined mother who didn’t take personal criticism well.
Maybe she, like me, survived her upbringing based on secrets?
What happened, the trauma that occurred, over and over. This is the trauma you can remember and name.
What you did to protect yourself — the numbing, the relational isolation, the ways you organized your life and behavior to protect yourself from the trauma or any reminder of it.
What didn’t happen — the growth and development that you missed while you were surviving the trauma.
Bob is a generic name for a generic, non-descript guy. Bob is likely to be male, white, older than 35 and we know almost nothing else about him. Selecting him from a crowd is a challenge.
But we’ve known Bob for a long time. He’s been in commercials for nearly every company as an example of an everyman we’re all supposed to identify with or project upon. For the last 20 years Bob has been synonymous with everyone and no one in particular. Bob even became a meme himself in 20092, signaling peak saturation.
But Bob is fading. I’ve been seeing him less and less over the last handful of years. In its place, another familiar name has started to rise.
This phenomenon gradually came to my attention as friends, snickering, would send me article after article at an increasing frequency. “You don’t know me Jeff”3, “why do women keep sleeping with Jeff”4, “Jeff has a lot of nukes”5. There are countless other examples6. Odds are, you’ve seen them too.
Over the months, I’ve come to realize something chilling: Jeff is the new Bob.
I’m not the only one who has noticed, especially among those of us named Jeff. And to be clear, I’m not upset by it at all. I think it’s pretty funny. But it also raised my curiosity as to what could be driving my humble first name to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
We’ve seen this with traditionally female names as well. Just ask the Karens8 and Felicias9 of the world. Though with those two examples, there seem to be points of cultural reference (movies, TV, etc) that started the memification of those names. Emily is another extremely common name that gets used a generic reference too.
In the case of Jeff – and before him, Bob – I haven’t found such an origin story. It seems to have just arisen randomly from the hivemind. This is the name we’re using to drag the everyman until we get bored with it.
I’ve searched for anywhere this phenomenon might be described, why names themselves become memes and what constitutes a generic call-out name? Is it the name’s commoness or popularity?
There are some data to answer that question. It comes from the Social Security Adminstration and U.S. Census Bureau, and snapshots Minnesota as a microcosm, which has proven to be broadly indicitive of national trends. And the stats show Jeffrey has not become a more common name by any means, and in fact has crashed significantly10 in popularity since its peak in the late 1960s.
So it’s not a matter of the name’s popularity. In fact, when looking at Robert, it’s possible that both Jeff and Bob are being picked on because they’re increasingly unpopular names. The number of males born and named Robert each year shows a similar downward rollercoaster trendline that peaked in the 1930s11. Basically, what’s happened to Jeff happened to Bob a generation earlier.
Note: looking up the shortened versions of the names in question (Robert = Bob, Jeffrey = Jeff), doesn’t produce nearly as many datapoints.
So my imperfect, unscientific theorum based on data and personal experience (and not much else), is this: Jeff is the new Bob because it has vague resonance with young adults as the name of someone they could know, but don’t.
Here’s an explanation: both corporate marketing and meme sharing are targeted at and among Millennials, who comprise the coveted 18-to-35-year-old demographic that advertisers spend their waking moments figuring out how to manipulate into spending their money.
There was a time when that age bracket was comprised of Generation X, who were largely born in the late 1960s through the 1970s. Jeff was a super popular name among GenX guys. Mostly every other Jeff I meet is GenX. When working at the University of Minnesota or Minnesota Daily in college, I was pretty unique in the Jeff category. Working at my real-world job, my workplace is now lousy with Jeffs. I’m the only Millennial I’ve encountered whose parents named him Jeffrey. I know there are more, but we’re comparatively rare and becoming rarer. So for Millennials, there are a lot of Jeffs out there – just few-to-none who they personally know. To today’s young adults, it seems like a really common name for someone else. You know, those other people that various things happen to that never actually happen to you.
Among GenX, when they were the golden young adult demographic, Bob would have been that guy, someone among their parents’ or grandparents’ generation whom didn’t usually exist in their immediate friend circle. There were a lot of Bobs, but the hip generation of the moment didn’t hang out with them so much.
This is maybe why Bob, and now Jeff, have become fair game for memification. It’s common enough in general to resonate but not personally specific enough among young adults to be offensive.
What this idea doesn’t answer is why Bob? Why Jeff? Yes, they were common names at one point, but why not other common names? I can’t throw a rock without hitting a Boomer guy named some variation of James. Does it hit too close to home as someone’s dad? Why isn’t Katie or Ashley being picked on?
So my conclusion could be completely wrong, but it’s what I’ve sussed out so far. I’m interested to hear other thoughts for sure, and to see if Olivia and Henry12 someday become the Bobs and Jeffs for the next generation.
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