Thursday, April 12, 2012

On naming my daughter

"What's in a name?" muses Juliet in soliloquy. "It is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part." The egg-head semioticians of my college theory classes would agree. A name, as with any word, is merely our way of referencing something that we never fully comprehend, that has no "essence" that we can ever quite articulate. It's the definition game, the adult version of the game your five-year-old cousin plays with the one-word query "why?" One academic makes an argument and his insufferable opponent asks him to define his terms. And then the bastard asks him to define the terms that were used to define the terms. And again, and again, in a never-ending chain. *I'm so glad I'm done with college.* And at the same time, I can't quite look away from the abyss that education opened up beneath my feet. What's in a name?

This is an essay about naming my daughter (who is two now), but I'll start first with a story that began twenty-one years ago, in my mother's hospital birthing room.

For most of his infancy, my youngest brother was referred to only as "the baby." When he emerged from my mother's womb, when he smiled for the first time, and when he took his first step, he was "the baby." Not "William," not little "Joey," and not even "Junior." The thing is, he did have a legal name for all of those months:

But nobody used it. As her maternity stay at the hospital neared its end, my mother fell under mounting pressure from both my father and the insistent crowd of sterile-gowned hospital staff to dot the "i" on her fourth and final act of procreation with the permanence of ink on paper. At a certain point, my father left the room and signed the birth certificate. My mother has always claimed that he tried to pull a fast one; my mild-mannered father just shrugs and says, "I don't remember it that way." Perhaps it is those you least expect. The actual sequence of events that took place two decades ago matters less than the fact that my mother never intended to use the name on my brother's official papers. An unwanted name became no name at all. To my mother, her new baby was no "Jordan." And whatever my father's intentions, he, like the rest of us, ended up using my mother's place-filling name: "the baby."

At a family reunion a little before my brother was a year old, my father suggested a name to use for the little ankle-biter (he grew teeth early) to differentiate him from all the other two-foot tall people running around (my dad was one of thirteen siblings, so it'd probably be more than you might first assume). Luckily for my old man, it was a name my mother liked, and she jumped on it, thus rendering my brother:

"Jordan" remained his given name, but my youngest brother would be known simply as

to his family and friends. Every time Skylar was registered at a new school, my mother battled "Jordan Call" because it remained on a paper with this official seal:

Today, my mother explains that she never considered it that big of a deal, and never once doubted that her "Skylar Call" would win a skeptical administrator to her side; after all, Skylar was her child, and no piece of paper and no bureaucratic process was going to trump her motherly rights.

That is, until it came time for Skylar to get a learner's permit to drive a vehicle. The government, apparently, doesn't look fondly on secret aliases. And at fifteen, Skylar was required by law to approve a change in his mothballed official name. I recall the names he'd toyed with since he was a kid: Skylar "Choo Choo" Call gave way to Skylar "Phoenix" Call, which gave way to Skylar "Apollo" Call, names he describes as sounding "super powerful and individual," or "that just felt really good." Of the name he ultimately chose, Liam, he says that it "fit perfectly and for some reason I feel like it related to my origin through the ancestors." To my knowledge, none of our ancestors were named Liam, nor do I think my brother did any actual research in choosing his name. He's the kind of kid who mostly just goes with his gut, and I guess I shouldn't really fault him for that. He feels what he feels.

I've got to ask myself, though, whether my "it just feels right" brother was the same "Skylar" at five that he was at ten, at twelve, or at fifteen. Or was his choice of "Phoenix" well-suited, if briefly, to a creature that would be reborn again and again as something essentially different? In the end, he kept my parents' initial designation. I guess he decided that, deep down, he really was a "Skylar." But not just a "Skylar"; he also added a name of his own. After a trip to the probate court, my youngest brother officially became

You may enjoy the wording of the name-change document. I do. I like to imagine a fat king or a sword-brandishing knight making the declaration, or perhaps, at the very end, Captain Picard gesturing and saying "make it so."

Skylar Liam Call, a designation that both retained and lost a name handed down by my father, that officialized a name adopted by my mother, and that, perhaps most significant of all, added a name chosen by the kid himself! My father, having learned his lesson 15 years earlier, kept his meddling hands out of the whole process. Perhaps he was glad that "Dweasel" and "Cabbage" didn't end up in the running, both names that I recall my mother toying with prior to the birth of this last, name-challenged child. I'm sure glad that no one thought that I might be a "Cabbage" deep down inside. Would I have gotten used to it? Would people see me and say, "he just seems like a 'Cabbage,' doesn't he?"

When I think of naming my daughter, I can't help thinking about the way that names are given to kids, but that kids themselves rarely have a choice about something that they'll carry with them for the rest of their lives. Should all kids who are coming of age wrestle with the existential crisis of whether a name fits them? Should the modern-day vision quest involve searching one's soul to find the true nugget of self amidst all of the things that are forced upon us? If I wasn't a "Neal," who would I be? And would my wife leave me if I suddenly changed my name to "Hawkeye?" And if my name was Hawkeye, would I have to start learning to fight with a tomahawk? It all gets pretty convoluted if you think about it too hard . . . and so for a long time, I didn't.
Things I've said to my wife
When my wife and I were expecting our first child, we would sort of haphazardly flip through name books. You know . . . Amberly, Ambrosia, Amelie, Americus, Anemone (as I'm thinking about it now, Anemone has a really nice lyricism to it. Oh no! Maybe I made the wrong choice!). Well, I was haphazard. I came to learn that Lindsay was taking notes, and would reference them periodically in later months.

"So," Lindsay would say as we were brushing our teeth, "do you still like the name Sophie?" I'd look at her blankly until she stabbed her finger at the word on a notebook page dated two months prior. "No, not really," I'd say, sort of perplexed at what must have been going through my head on August 13. "I mean, it's okay. I guess."

I can't really account for the name Sophie. It's a nice enough name, I suppose, but I have no real attachment to it. I try to think through people I have known with that name. There's Sophie B. Hawkins, the bisexual singer-songwriter best known for the song "As I Lay Me Down," which played as a sort of innocent love song on the radio when I was a pre-teen, and which I still sort of sheepishly enjoy. Her more complete discography, which I also sheepishly enjoy, takes on more adult themes.

There's also Sophie Marceau, a gorgeous French actress whom I first encountered during an illicit viewing of Braveheart when I was thirteen. And who appeared in a stupid movie with David Spade in 1999 that you've never heard of, called Lost and Found. Which had Neil Diamond in it, playing himself. Whose name is almost my name, but with an "i" instead of an "a." Which never stopped my former roommate, Tyler, from shouting out, "You bet your BALLS I'm Neil Diamond!" every time I entered a room.

As I click through the wonderfully endless layers of Wikipedia articles (ah, hyperlinks, like bright blue Easter eggs hidden amidst dull, gray surroundings), I see that Sophie is the protagonist of The BFG by Roald Dahl (I read all of his books!). And Sophie Hatter is central to Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle (I love Miyazaki!). And Sophie Zawistowska is the title character of William Styron's depressing novel Sophie's Choice (I saw that book on my mom's kitchen table when I was ten!).

I don't know what I may have said in an earlier off-hand comment (or an impassioned one followed by amnesia?) that made my wife write it down, but "Sophie" no longer felt right. Lindsay's belly got bigger with every month, and this sort of thing happened, over and over again, with names like Edith, and Olivia, and Emma.

I made a tentative effort to at least make some subtractions. Certainly we couldn't choose "Allison" or "Crystal," both names of old high-school girlfriends, or "Laura," my halfway college girlfriend before I met my wife. I mean, they were good people . . . but they were people I broke up with. I don't ever want to break up with my little girl.

For a long time I was either too busy or too oblivious to really contemplate the miracle that Addison would be, and in fact, already was. And frankly, I hadn’t thought very carefully about the power of names. To me, Lindsay’s bump didn't yet seem a real baby, and it was hard for me to imagine just how real our red-faced, squalling baby girl would be in just a few short months. We had the ultrasound, of course, but in that she mostly looked like a well-proportioned, round-headed alien.

A pretty alien. But still an alien. Lindsay was much more attuned to the little creature in her tummy . . . she kicked, she turned, she gave Lindsay indigestion and horrible rashes, and she kept Lindsay company during night, after long night, as Lindsay lay sleepless and hurting in bed. I still feel guilty that I wasn’t awake more during Lindsay’s hard hours, to help alleviate her pains; but I know also that Addison and her mom grew close in those nights, and that Addison was a healing presence, one to combat the sometimes despairing darkness. I think back on it now and I see a microcosm of the battle between light and darkness in the trial of Lindsay's experience; I see Christ suffering in Gethsemane, and the saving grace of God at the end.

For Lindsay, "grace" was already a concept that described an era in her life. For several years she was bed-ridden with little hope for recovery, her only solace reruns of Seinfeld and baseball. To look to baseball for solace, it must have been a dark time. Indeed, it was a time when she contemplated all manner of dark things, including suicide. But it was a time that passed, as Lindsay explains it, with help from a power that was beyond her. Lindsay has since completed her Bachelor's and Master's degrees, held a 50+ hour-per-week job at a non-profit in Washington, D.C., married me, and, not least of all, grown a little miracle who is the center of our lives.

Finally, about a month and a half before Addison was born, the accumulation of my negligence spilled over the edge, and Lindsay told me, in no uncertain terms, to get in the game. She needed my help. How, she asked, do we name a creature that existed before coming to us and would continue to exist after we die? How do we give her a name that captures something about her, and not just a name that says something about the parents? Not easy questions. But I finally put on my big-boy pants and really tried to get serious about names.
 Lindsay's tentative first choice, "Grace," was a no-go for me, despite my respect for the concept. The thing is, when I was seven, I knew a girl named "Sarah Grace," and she was a huge brat. The fly in the ointment of an otherwise wonderful name. I just couldn't separate the two in my head.
Trying to be helpful
So, English major that I was, out came the Oxford English Dictionary so that I could offer a suitably-themed replacement. There's something about the comprehensiveness of the OED that just feels like coming home for an obsessive researcher like myself. The second edition of the OED, published in 1989, contained twenty volumes. The online version need not be so constrained; it is constantly updated and by the time the third edition comes out around 2037 -- yes, it's actually projected that the update will take 25 more years to complete! -- the dictionary will have spent $55 million on research and formatting, and will have doubled in size. If you want a comprehensive history and discussion of the evolving meaning of a word in the English language, this is the place to go. And if you're playing the "define your terms" game, it could be the guide book.

I started by following a string of articles, from “grace” to “salvation,” from “salvation” to “salve," and from “salve” to “salvia.” Salvia is Latin for “to heal,” and is also another name for the plant “sage,” which has been used medicinally for thousands of years as a treatment for nearly every ailment known to man. I compiled a 40-page document tracing the etymology of each of these words back as far as history records them, and submitted them, with a suggestion for a middle name, for approval from my wife.

I gave this stack of pages to Lindsay, and she said something like “you’ve got to be kidding me.” She also banned me from any further use of the OED until I'd finished my research papers for the semester. Which meant that I had to get sneaky regarding research into a first name, and which also meant that some (possibly all) of my papers were completed during the last few minutes before they were due, and involved a breathless, sweaty sprint across campus to slide them beneath a professor's door. 

Perhaps because we identified with Ralph Waldo Emerson, or perhaps because we wanted to give our daughter gender anxiety, Lindsay and I both felt partial to masculine sounding names ending in -son. Addison ended up catching my eye, and I found that Thomas Addison was a British doctor (a healer!) and that Joseph Addison was a prominent essayist (I like writing too!). There was something appealing about "child (son) of Adam," a biblical allusion to the first man through the name of our first daughter. Yay firsts! I passed this final stack of name research to my wife, and after reaming me for procrastination, she kissed me and cried. Our little girl became “Addison Sage Call.” Our salve, our healer, our light in the dark. As a medieval proverb puts it:

Naming Addison was like offering her a mission -- that, should she choose to accept it, she might make the world, and our lives, a better place. My process for naming her was the best I could do to articulate my love for her, my hopes for her, and my desire to protect her with a reminder of what she is capable of. It was the best gift I could think to give her. You might also say that by naming my daughter, I outlined an agreement between myself and God . . . that God has given me the opportunity to raise a child in order that I become a better person, and that if I can rise to the challenge, then she can be an agent of healing and grace for me, just as her name promises. You might say that even as I raise her, I'll be raised by my daughter.

In the end, I think, a name is all about choice. However much I may try to "own" my daughter by naming her what I want her to be, no name comes with its own unassailable definition. Rather, your name can be defined by what you make of it, whether you're a "Stalin" or a "Jesus." And "what you make of it" is a never-ending process, the same endless search for meaning that causes theorists and philosophers to tremble with uncertainty. Our little girl has an "Addison Sage Call" springboard to start from, and maybe she'll feel it fits her like a glove. Maybe she'll take that name and define it in ways that we never imagined. Or maybe when she turns 15 and wants her own driving permit, she'll inform us that there's something else inside of her that is waiting for a name. Either way, I'm excited to watch her on her journey, and I hope she won't hold it against me if I always imagine her as the most beautiful flower in our garden