“Fools’ names, like fools’ faces, are often seen in public places.”
When I was a very small boy I would stand in my parents’ yard and wave to passing walkers and cyclists and yell, “I’m Joe Gross!” As a result, on days the family was all out in the yard together, people my parents didn’t recognize would greet me as they walked or rode by with a “Hello Joe Gross!” This recollection reminds me of the vastly different level of fear prevalent in parenting today—if you see my very young children standing by the road shouting to passersby, please check the grass to see if my wife or I have stroked out.
The young and self-assured me had recognized that some first and last names seem to adhere naturally. “Joe Gross,” I guess due to brevity and assonance, is how most of my friends have always referred to me, even directly. The young and self-assured me, standing optimistically by traffic, had also not realized the stigma attached to my name.
But recognize it I would. School has a way of offering new understandings.
“Joe’s middle name is ‘is.’”
That chant rang in my ears.
Joe is Gross.
I can’t tell for sure how this affected me. I suppose I developed a thicker skin, although it’s pretty thin as it is. Probably, I developed more empathy than skin. But I remember planning to change my name as soon as I could. I would always notice the cool last names of the lucky. Rockefeller. Greystone. I would sometimes look through the phone book at the lists of names cooler than mine. And I certainly appreciated anyone whose name seemed as lame. Especially famous people. Humphrey fucking Bogart, man. Dick Butkiss!
Names have power. They are deeply tied to identity. When in trouble, we want to protect our “good name.” There is a well-known Judaic tradition of not writing G-d’s full Hebrew name, or even saying it aloud, a tradition continued in English by many Jews. Christians were commanded not to “use the Lord’s name in vain.”
The tradition of avoiding the devil’s name has also enjoyed a lasting purchase.
And even if your name invites teasing, or simply lacks star-power, it is, at least, yours. This is why salespeople who over use first names are so annoying. Their slick, strangers’ mouths cheapen a name somehow. Even worse, the shortening of a first name into a nickname. When someone, the guy selling us a new stove at a big box store for instance, calls my wife “Angie,” he simultaneously proves he does not know her and risks his health.
Maybe Angela and I were destined to find each other. She’s one of the few women in America who could have upgraded their last name with mine. Her maiden name was “Fuchs,” a fine German name like mine that suffers in English. In a display of compassion, her parents decided she would go through school as “Angela Fox,” “fox” being the direct translation of “fuchs.” When considering name options before we married, we opted out of the hyphen.
So she willingly chose “Gross.” A miracle. And now I worry about our kids, our oldest in kindergarten and receiving her first bouts of name teasing. I’m sad to see her understand there’s something laughable about what she is called. But I’ve become proud of it, and I hope she will, too. I’ll teach her the family comebacks, meant to diffuse. My dad always liked to say, “Gross by name, Gross by nature.” We’ll survive just fine with our weird name—we’ll toughen up and own it and learn sensitivity to weakness. We’ll embrace our individuality in a funny little town named Kalamazoo.
Jeffrey Hecker examines the intimacy of names in “Uncle Matty’s Only ‘Nam Story.” His poem balances the disparate imagery of wartime Vietnam and a typical American town, of experience and innocence. Hecker spins a clever web of images that suggests hate and respect’s proximity.
Barbara Westood Diehl’s story, “Certain Words,” presents the reader with a surprising couple on a hilarious trip to Macy’s. The narrator’s refreshingly blunt attitude surfaces in judgment of her partner’s diction and her dislike of the intimate nicknames he uses. “Certain Words” delights in language (sometimes seemingly the exclusive territory of poets) and contradiction. A pleasure.
Our theme finds different purchase in Cezarija Abartis’ beautifully lyric flash piece, “Passengers.” The piece’s title, its name, holds together its associative images and implies that we are all passengers, at once full of hope and nostalgia. The prose in “Passengers” never feels rushed, yet each line pulses with meaning and resonance.
Photo by Waltarrr