Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Name is your four letter word.

About nine months ago or so, our son surprised us by asking us to spell his name for him.  We did.  He repeated it once or twice and then fell silent in thought.  The next day, he asked us to spell the name of his best friend.  This repeated for a few of his friends for the next week.  After that, he would spell the names of his friends for us.  The first words he could spell were those of names.  He still associates letters as being parts of names.

A month or so ago, he told me what my first name was.  And he was right.  My name was no longer just "Daddy".  He still calls me Daddy... but I have another name in addition to that one.  This past weekend, he was asking his grandparents what their name was.  He later told me that "Daddy's daddy was Grandpa."  He knew my father's name - but he still calls him Grandpa.

This weekend I was also trying to teach him what his middle and last names were.  He wasn't going for it.  Instead he informed me that his middle name was the same as his friend's first name - that he learned months ago.  His last name was the first name of a different friend.  He knows what my last name is - but he insists that he has a different last name.

I had to pause at this information.  Particularly as I received my third letter from the anonymous Google Profile Support informing me that the name I provided them for Google+ wasn't my name.  Here was my son telling me that he knew his name - and I didn't... and I was trying to tell Google the same thing.  Of course the situations are different... but the parallels struck me as I began to draft my response to Google in an attempt to get my name back and be allowed onto Google+.  It made me ponder my names - those I was given and those I adopted myself.

It made me wonder why this issue affects me so deeply.  When I think about it too hard, it is ridiculous.  There are bigger issues in this world than my name.  There are causes I am part of and that I believe in that have real and lasting impact in the world.  In the grand scheme of things - is my name so important?  I don't know... but I do know that Google telling me that my name is not mine... affects me on a very deep and personal level.  There is nothing quite as personal as the name that we wear.

I am actually quite fond of my given names.  I've always enjoyed them for their uniqueness, yet not strangeness.  Each of them can be part of a conversation.  Each of them tell a story.

My first name is not uncommon, it was the 113th most popular male name for the year I was born according to the Social Security Administration, but most people spell it differently.  I used to take great amusement in people guessing how to spell my name... and me being able to correct them.

My last name is German in origin, and a slightly different spelling of it is actually the name of various municipalities in Germany.  Somewhere I have a cold-war era map of the region, and as I write this, I can bring up Google Maps and look at an aerial photo.  And while most people like to spell my last name with a different leading vowel, there are quite a few people who spell it the way I do.  Have you ever done a Google search for your own name?  I did it on mine once, and discovered that there was another one of me.  Exact same spelling.  Similar careers, although some very different paths.  It was eerie to see this name I was very familiar with... but wasn't me.

I have always used my middle initial, and rarely my name, in official documents.  I still sign documents using my middle initial.  Occasionally, people would ask me what it stood for, and I would challenge them to guess.  For a name that is so popular (it was the most popular name with that initial the year I was born), nearly everyone can't guess it within 10 attempts.  Most give up before they get to 20.

This weekend, my parents asked me how my battle with Google was going.  I said that they were still telling me that I could not use "Prisoner" as part of my name, despite the evidence I provided to them that it was the name I commonly used among friends, family, and co-workers.  She asked if a note from her, stating that "Prisoner" was my middle name, would help.  It struck me as both amusing and highly supportive.

I have used "Prisoner" for over half my life, now.  It is a name that has many meanings and resonates with me in many ways.  Nearly half a lifetime ago, I wrote this in my profile: "There are databases around the world who have collected information about me and attached it to my name.  For now, think of me as Prisoner instead."  That is even more true today than it was then.  And the name continued to re-invent itself.  These days, I can melodramatically picture the name locked away by Google, considered too dangerous for others to see.

But it is me.  It is as much my name as the names my parents gave me.  It has become more than a pseudonym or a nickname.  It has shaped me, and I have shaped it.  Perhaps this is why it hurts so much when Google tells me to get a real name - this is my real name.  It is as much a part of me as the picture in my profile.  It is not just how people search for me - it is how people see me.

As this whole fiasco wears on, I have spoken to many friends about their names... the names of their parents... the names of their children.  Names make fascinating stories.  I hope to share some in future posts.  In the musical version of Les Misérables, the protagonist poses the question "Who am I?"  Is he the convict who has been on the run, a number tattooed on his chest as his name?  Is he the owner of a factory and mayor of the town?  Is the prisoner in the dock who bears a resemblance to him the one who will suffer for his crimes?  He is who he is, as he identifies himself before the court with his name: "I'm Jean Valjean!"

As my son declares his name to me - I am proud that he is who he is, as well.

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