Of the innumerable decisions we make for/about our children, perhaps none is as consequential, or perhaps as inconsequential, as the name we give them when they’re born.
My father, a would-be comedian as is the station of all fathers, thought he would have a little fun with the nurse when I was born. This poor woman, walking into the buzzsaw of my dad’s sometimes-amazing, sometimes-amazingly-bad sense of humor, was only trying to figure out what name I would have. My mom was still unconscious from the C-Section, so at that moment, my dad wielded unprecedented, unilateral, unchecked power in the very first moment of his parenting. Because he was the only person who could tell this story with any authenticity after the fact, the precise naming convention varied by his telling, but it usually included the names “Rufus,” “Guido,” and “Moon Unit.”* The nurse, in her wisdom, purportedly looked appalled before regaining her composure and announcing her intention to return when my mother had resumed higher brain functions. I ended up as “Phillip,” though my dad called me “Rufus” as a nickname until the day he died.
So, per Shakespeare, names are irrelevant. Roses smell like roses, even if we call them Red Thorny Things or Poop Nuggets or Dennis, or at least I think I remember that from English class. Of course, Shakespeare was really aiming for essence, that form that we recognize despite variations both minute and monstrous. Plato hit on it more squarely when describing his Realm of Forms, from which we can extract fuzzy concepts and yet identify them in all their earthly manifestations. If one observes a chair, no matter its number of legs, the shape of its seat or back, the presence of arms, padding, upholstery, materials, or style, one can still identify it as a chair.**
If this is true, then what’s wrong with raising a Moon Unit?
There are lots of factors, here in the Realm of Not-Raising-A-Pariah. My wife’s family famously failed the infamous “playground test” when naming their twin girls. For the uninitiated, the “playground test” involves coming up with all of the permutations and rhymes of a name that could be used for the purposes of taunting by other kids on a playground. It’s a sophisticated tool that parents have used for, like, forty years. Prior to that, the sheer number of Ralphs, Flos, and Dicks that swung across the monkey bars implies that this tool was not available at that time. Anyway, my wife, the winner of the playground test between her and her sister, is Jen. No real problems there, plus she was one of about a gagillion girls named “Jennifer” in the early 80s, so she had numbers on her side. Her sister, Victoria, could have had some issues. As it is, the name has no obvious shortcomings, but when coming in short as “Vicky,” one can easily apply “Icky,” “Sticky,” and perhaps “Picky” as well. That none of the kids she knew pursued those options either speaks highly of their maturity, or poorly of their intelligence.
Some other names, playground test aside, come loaded with their own baggage. For example, outside of Latino communities, you don’t see a lot of dudes called “Jesus.” On the playgrounds of Berlin, the number of Adolfs is probably pretty darn low. We read through a couple of baby name books when trying to come up with names for our first-born. What stood out to me is that this particular issue was one that the book’s authors had obviously spent real time massaging. The entry for “Donald” mentioned that references to the famous Duck were inevitable. Similarly, while “Ronald” could harken to US President Ronald Reagan, that legacy might be eclipsed by the arguably more-famous Ronald McDonald. Voluntarily yoking your child to a life-long burden of being compared to his namesake ought to be punishable. George Foreman, Sr. has carried this to ludicrous extremes by naming each of his five sons “George Foreman.” Seriously.
This is all a prelude to the story of how our first-born, Joshua, was very nearly called “Diesel.”
That Joshua did not enter the world with the half-nickname, half-namename “Diesel” is still somewhat mysterious to me. Jen proposed the idea first, believe it or not. The suggestion came as we were several weeks into an impasse during which we discovered that neither of us liked the names the other liked. I interpreted her suggestion as a frustration-induced, passive-aggressive shot. In fact, she was somewhat sincere, thinking it would be both a bad-ass name (which it is), and an homage to my father, a truck driver of many years. In retrospect, I regret this quite a bit. This misunderstanding on my part persisted for months as I continued to push for a more, well, traditional name. As Jen pointed out, Diesel passes the playground test on a couple of levels. Not only are there no obvious faults, but nobody beats up a Diesel, either. As I retorted, by that logic, any child of ours could not possibly be called Diesel because our diminutive Hobbit children would almost certainly be beaten to greasy spots on the Hop Scotch court.
We settled on “Joshua” partly because we liked the name, but mostly because it sounded good with the middle name we’d chosen, “Robert.” That one wasn’t in question as we wanted to honor Jen’s father, who bears the same name. Still, there are few days that go by when I don’t wonder if our sweet, alphabet-obsessed, polygon-sorting child wouldn’t already be ice-road trucking or working on an oil rig if we’d gone with Jen’s suggestion.
Sadly, my dad died before his namesake came into the world. Now, my dad had been named George Stanley [LAST NAME REDACTED]. Inexplicably, he found his middle name to be superior to his first, so to the world, he was “Stanley,” or sometimes “Stan,” and rarely, “Stan the Man” (mostly on the church bowling and softball teams***). Given my dad’s preference, we really had no choice but to call our second child Stanley, but we just couldn’t do it. It’s one of those names that was pretty common sixty years ago, but really isn’t used any more. So, our second son is Jack Stanley.
Now, we both liked “Jack” from the get-go. Ironically, this was not true with Jack, merely with his name. (Don’t worry, that changed soon enough.) There are so many great Jacks in history, in literature, and in popular culture, that we just couldn’t help ourselves. Because of how many Jacks there are, the baggage is kind of irrelevant because it’d be impossible to compare him to any one at any moment — Kennedy, Klugman, Benny, Parr, Gleason, Sprat, Flash, In-The-Box, Skellington, Bauer, Bristow, and The Ripper, and those are just the ones that come to mind. Jack was easy. Plus, it sounds pretty solid with “Stanley.”**** Presidential, even.
The thing is, when your kid is born, the name is both the most meaningless thing in the world (as you count fingers and toes*****), and the most meaningful. Except for life itself, it’s the very first gift you give your child. It’s the one he’ll use the most, the one that will stay with him all his life, and the one that will forever mark his place in the pantheon of Common Men. We’d all like to think our children will grow up to be Important; that even if we ourselves are insignificant, that we will live on through the significance of our children. Though we permanently pin to them our aspirations, the very first thing we do for them is equip them with the watchword of individualism, the freedom to be their own people, and thus to break free of what we want for them and of them. In the individuality we grant them, we offer them limitless potential, a tabula rasa for their future, as new a start as life ever has. All our playground tests, baggage considerations, and family tributes are just so much window dressing. All parents want their kids to have humanity’s greatest prize — that of being unique.
Except for George Foreman. He’s pretty much a Dick.
*My dad was clinically tone-deaf. He was also a fan of Frank Zappa. These things connect.
**Ikea has worked diligently for many years to find counter-examples.
***My dad was politely but firmly asked to quit the softball team after sliding spikes-first into first base. Stan the Man, apparently, played to win.
****I’ve been all over the map with when I’ve used quotation marks around names and when I haven’t. Just so you know, it’s because I’m too lazy to look up when I should and when I shouldn’t, so I’m just flipping a coin each time. If a pattern emerges, blame statistics.
*****What exactly you will do if this count comes up odd, I have no clue. Didn’t stop me from doing it with both boys, though.