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What’s in a Name?

Friday, April 24th, 2009

After a few years moving in and out of various towns, religious cults, faddish diets, etc., my parents finally sat me down and apologized for the weird name they gave me. “We were out of our minds!” they admitted. “We didn’t know what we were thinking!” To make up for it, they said, I could change my name to anything I wanted. Anything at all. Something familiar, normal, American, easy-to-spell, perhaps? It was totally up to me. What democracy! What fun! I scanned the possibilities: Benjamin, Jason, Derek, Chad. Endlessly delightful, perfectly ordinary candidates! I was given a week to decide, and a Webster’s dictionary. I scavenged for something conventional, conservative, and concise: Calvin, Colin, Jeremy, Kenneth. I was drawn to the monosyllables of Bob, Rob, Don, John, Dirk, Chad, and Chuck. Oh! To be summoned with one simple, single-syllable sound of the English language. Dave! Matt! Mike! Pat! Pete! Paul! No more spitballs behind the ears and getting my lights punched out behind the dugouts. No more dizzying taunts and esoteric rhyme schemes at recess. No more pokes in the ribs and jokes in the locker room. I was going to be just like Carl and Scott and Steve and Rick and Gordon and Aaron and all those other handy-dandy factory pre-made key-chain-name-tag-button-shot-glass-sticker-greeting-card names you find at gas stations!

But after a week of fitful sleep, dreamscapes and nightmares of lists and catalogs, the constant fretful consideration of nomenclature, etymologies, ancestries, astrologies, and the like, I came up with absolute zilch! Nothing sounded quite right. Nothing sounded personal. Nothing looked me right in the eye and said, “Hey you with the buck teeth and the feathered hair and the stitches in your lip and the corduroys tight-rolled in your tube socks, here I am, first name, middle name, last name, I’m all yours!” Nothing! What a cosmic tragedy! What a waste of fate! My parents were baffled: how could their mouthy, precocious, spiteful youngest child pass up such an opportunity? I shrugged my shoulders and resigned myself to the same silly foreign name, a sequence of odd letters stitched together like a crazy quilt, easily misspelled, misread, mispronounced, teased and squeezed and tickled and jabbed at during recess, along with Nataki the black girl (my first kiss), Opie the foster kid (who died in a car crash), and Kiki the Japanese boy (who didn’t even speak English but we played marbles during recess and communicated with our own form of sign language).

My parents were confused, but also a bit relieved. They later told me they didn’t really have the money (evidently, name changes, like personalized license plates, come at a cost). A few weeks later, our dog got hit by a snowplow and I forgot all about the problem of names.

Until college, when I learned to play the guitar, and, as an exercise, started writing songs (very poorly executed) in the same way that Henry Ford produced the automobile: assembly-line-style. I wrote songs for the days of the week (poor Monday!). Songs for the planets (poor Pluto!). Songs for the Apostles (poor Judas!). And, finally, when all else failed, I started a series of songs for names. Ode to Sarah (in 6/8). Clara’s Irish Jig. The ballad of Benjamin, the bearded one (in rounds). The jumpy Jason number, the waltz for Walter, Susan’s smooth jazz. Each piece was a rhetorical, philosophical, musical rumination on all the possible names I had entertained years before when my parents had given me the one chance to change my own. Oh fates! I sang these songs in the privacy of my dorm room, behind closed doors, pillows and cushions stuffed in the air vents so no one would hear. And then I almost failed Latin class, my grades plummeted, my social life dissolved into ping pong tournaments in the residence halls, and, gradually, my interest in music (or anything divine, creative, fruitful, enriching) completely waned. I turned to beer. And cigarettes. And TV sitcoms. And candy bars. Oh well! A perfectly good youth wasted on junk food!

That is, until a few months ago, when I came across some of the old name songs, stuffed onto tape cassettes, 4-track recorders, forgotten boxes, forgotten shelves, forgotten hard drives. It was like finding an old diary, or a high school yearbook, senior picture with lens flare and pockmarks, slightly cute and embarrassing. What was I thinking? The song for Mary was seventeen minutes long, with ten key changes. The song for Chris was also called Song for Cross-Eyes. My older self, glancing back over simple chords and hazardous poetry, likes to think I’m older, wiser, more mature, more eloquent, more artful, more poignant, more contemporary. But that’s unfair. The concept has changed but the approach has always been the same: to become so completely entrenched in something that it becomes a great big clumsy mummy outfit wrapped around all arms and legs: a metaphysical form of suffocation. Sure, back then, I was young, naïve, unenlightened, untraveled, virtuous, good-natured, and always on time. But the world of youth was where I tried on new ideas, new outfits, new names, and new rhyme schemes—-a world where the banjo was my journal, where Sofia Coppola was my imaginary confidant, and where singing out of tune was perfectly OK!

“Sofia’s Song”
Sofia’s Song