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What’s in a Name? Letters!

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

The other day one of my editors (who goes by a hyphenated last name) asked me what name I’m going by these days. “Do you use Welsh or Avery-Welsh on your byline? We should put out an entire issue of a magazine written only by people with hyphenated last names,” he joked, referring to another editor of ours who hyphenated his name last year.

I don’t know anymore what my name is, or care for that matter. I guess Welsh is fine for now,” I said.

But should I care, I wondered? His question and my question got me thinking about a chat I had a few weeks ago on a walk through the woods with a friend. He asked me–hypothetically–if one day I re-married, would I change my name?

I didn’t need a moment to think. “No, why would I?”

He countered, “But why would you want to keep the name Welsh, your ex-husband’s name?” which is a name I chose to adopt initially in my early twenties because I thought it would be “fun” and then kept after our split for practical reasons.

I hadn’t thought about the fact that it might be rude to refuse a new guy’s name in favor of my ex’s. All I knew was that I didn’t want to lose my business name or the name I’ve been published under for eight years, or have a last name different from my child. Plus, how would anyone know to “Follow Me” on Twitter, for chrissakes! The truth is, even though I don’t buy into—have never bought into—patriarchal naming customs (both patronymic and matronymic systems have inherent complications), I really don’t care all that much what my name is, aside from my aforementioned concerns. As William Shakespeare’s Juliet put it, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

But would it, really? I thought about why names are so meaningful to some. Why are they so heavy with pith, remembrance, and identity? My dog’s middle name is Lead-Guitar and he doesn’t even play, after all. Not to mention, I answer to the name John when my grandmother calls for me (her brain, hobbled by a stroke years ago, often defers to her late husband’s name).

I dug out and dusted off some genealogy books compiled by them. Grandpa had taught history, and throughout my childhood, family tree entries peeled off the pages like ghosts, their names swirling in my head—John D. Rockefeller, Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I, and Shirley Temple, to name a few—and I wondered if at some basic level I had let these names and their connotations imbue my identity.

For example, if the entries in our family tree and in Wikipedia are correct, my great-great-great grandfather, Miles Avery Rockefeller, was the uncle of the “richest man in history,” oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller. As a child I had hated Miles Avery for later disavowing his Rockefeller lineage, “an unusual family of entrepreneurs, capitalists, philanthropists, and statesmen,” thereby (as I surmised), robbing me of my fortune. Yet even in my painfully middle-class state, I still relished in that name that was hidden away in me like a recessive gene. It was a delicious thought.

Then I grew up and they invented Google. And in one search a more sordid secret was uncovered—that Miles was a bigamist who ran off with his housekeeper Ella Brussee, deserting his wife Eliza. Scandalous. As my father tells it, my great uncle “Chuck,” Charles Brussee Avery, their grandchild, hated the name Brussee because some teased him by pronouncing it brassier.

It’s funny, the nature of names. How, like the people they label, one can’t be all good or all bad. Names can burn like scarlet letters or sail us through admissions committees. Love affairs, deceit, and nobility of character. A name is but a handful of snapshots. If you’re lucky like Martha Stewart, the outtakes are forgotten.

The “other Boleyn girl” Mary, aunt of Queen Elizabeth I and sister of Queen Anne (whose head was of course lopped off after accusations of adultery, incest, and treason), is another of my great-great somethings who make ancestor-hunting so terrifyingly colorful. Mary Boleyn, ancestor of Miles Avery’s daughter Lucy, was allegedly not only sleeping with King Henry VIII but also took France’s King Francis I as a lover. Naughty.

I stopped my search when I found a name that I would have no qualms adopting. Darwin. There it was. My great-great Mary Boleyn’s relative. This is a name I thought I could get aligned with. A humble genius who made beautiful breakthroughs in my favorite science. A person with a conscience. “If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin,” he said. Yes, I had found a name that meant something to me.

Or so I thought, until I stumbled upon another of his sentiments that I just can’t get behind: “I have tried lately to read Shakespeare,” Charles Darwin said, “and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.” Blasphemous.

Juliet’s musings move me and make sense to me. Like Montague or Capulet, our names are simultaneously empty and pregnant with consequence. If I am someday asked to take someone’s name, perhaps I will emulate Juliet and stand on my back balcony gesturing dramatically down into the driveway at my true love: “What’s Welsh?” I’ll say. “It is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a woman.”

But I’m not a poet. I’m not a scientist, a queen, a mistress, or millionaire. I’m a writer, and unlike some of my ancestors, my worldly desires are simple and few: a hot bath, a cold beer, a good man, and a crossword puzzle (all at once, if you don’t mind).

So I’ve decided, What’s in a name? Letters. What’s scribbled on my mailbox can wash away in the rain, but the contents of my mind and heart will never. They don’t need names, nor does the “he” in this post. He knows who he is. Like some of his other qualities, his embracing of a tradition that I call passé is at once head-shakingly silly and can’t-live-without-it endearing. It’s a quality I count on, because I need his embracing too. He knows by now I’ll never stop being that dork who’s careening down the highway in the night accidentally listening to Five for Fighting on Delilah. If he’s willing to live with those names, then I’ll happily live with his.

I’ll be there in five minutes with the Isthmus. Want to draw the bath?

Happy Birthday to the “Blob”

Monday, December 17th, 2007

It’s inevitable: new technology catches up with you no matter how old school you try to remain.

Until recently, I swore I’d never show my face on Facebook. Seo was the last name of an up-and-coming activist named Danny, blackberry was my favorite Kool-Aid flavor, and CSS … wasn’t that a TV show about crime in Miami? Email was instant enough for me. In the good old days I had IM-less relationships where we held hands, looked into each other’s eyes, and even (gasp) called one another. Just last year, a successful internet entrepreneur I worked for thought LOL stood for “lots of luck,” and I played Scrabble on a board.

Yet tonight I tutored a student from Korea learning English using a NYT article about Facebook.com. This Saturday’s lesson: create a profile for her, complete with an arm’s-length pic of herself looking thoughtful. She’ll be throwing sheep in no time. (And maybe, since she’s younger, she can help me figure out what that’s about.)

And then I helped my daughter create a “blob” on WordPress. She had overheard me on the phone with a friend (and gifted writer) about her new blog, and suddenly she had to make a “blob” too. (My answer, of course: “You already have one. It’s called your room — go clean it up.”) Hers became one of the 120,000 new blogs created today, the 10th anniversary of the coining of the term “weblog.”

It is ironic to me that I helped two younger people — one of them from the most wired nation in the world — still learning how to write and speak in English utilize technology that will very soon pass me by me at break-bandwidth speed, leaving them to teach me.

In the mean time, Facebook just announced they’re teaming up with Match.com for a Little Black Book dating application . . . wish me LOL on finding someone who doesn’t know what that means either.


This Post is rated PG-13

Friday, November 30th, 2007

Last week when my mother was visiting (and giving me her monthly “if you just rinsed off your dishes right after eating…” lecture) we rented Premonition (with Sandra Bullock). The eerie concept of premonitions has been haunting me since. I think I had one a few months ago when I arrived at the office feeling suddenly very troubled, almost shaking with some unknown worry. I went into the bathroom and cried, but I had no idea why. I felt as though something bad was going to happen, and I phoned my best friend Bob about it.

Days passed with no explanation. About two weeks later Bob was mowing the lawn at his Manitowoc campground and was attacked by bees. He experienced major swelling in his throat and began to feel faint. He made his way indoors, and finding it hard to stand up, he dialed 911. While on the phone, he collapsed, smashing his head on the way down. Blood spurted on the linoleum, the table, and the walls. EMS arrived to find him blue, his eyes rolled back into his head, just in time to save his life.

I never connected the events until I began searching for my own premonitions after the movie. I’m not one to believe in things that don’t have a scientific explanation, but who doesn’t think it would be cool to have super powers?

I had a dream last night that my very pregnant friend had a baby (could it have been because her husband IM’ed me that she had gone into labor?), but the newborn was able to not only smile and laugh but sit up in bed, crawl, even do a bit of walking, and most impressive of all – ask me in a complete sentence with no grammatical errors to put her in her swing. In the dream, no one but me thought these things were out of the ordinary, and I grew exasperated trying to make them see how she was not at all normal – she was very, very special. Now, I’d like to think my premonition means Isabel will be extraordinarily gifted (knowing her parents, ocupop principal Michael Nieling and wife Sara, this wouldn’t be at all surprising). Will my premonition come true? Stay tuned to find out. I got a text message at 5 this morning announcing her birth. I’ll call later, and if the baby gets on the phone and talks to me, well, then, I think I’ll quit my day job and become a fortune teller.

The most fascinating thing about the movie Premonition was that Sandra Bullock experienced seven days of the week out of order. One day her husband was dead. The next day, he was eating Cheerios and reading the paper before work. The next, his decapitated head rolled out of his coffin. Thursday, they made love. It was weird, and I had to watch the special features to figure out what was going on.

Some weeks I feel the same–of course not to that degree, but sometimes it seems like my days don’t flow logically. One day, tons of leads come in and it looks as though I’ll have to turn down work. The next, I’ll spend my day willing emails to pop up in my inbox. I guess that’s the curse of working for yourself rather than at a 9 to 5 job with a predictable amount of money coming in on a regular basis. I’ve spoken to some people in related fields who have given up on the solo gig. Going it alone can be scary, sure, and it takes a certain kind of personality (insane) to remain unfazed by the fact that some days there’s no more coffee, no more toilet paper, and no more money.

I went to High Tech Happy Hour last night at Novation Campus (not for the free beer and food), and from what I saw there, I’m not alone. I met so many creative, brave, smart people who hung out their shingle because they believed in themselves. They believe that what they can produce alone is superior to what might be produced elsewhere. Take, for example, Bliss* Video Productions’ Kristin*, who I recently profiled in EventDV magazine. Her bluntly stated goal when she left her steady job at a video production company to launch her own business: to create a wedding video “that actually doesn’t suck.” This, I believe, is a testament to the integrity of people who go into business for themselves. They don’t do it because it’s profitable (of course, that would be nice, and in Kristin*’s case, that came true), or because it’s going to advance their career. They do it because of an instinctual drive to do whatever it takes to be the best (setting your own hours and being able to work in your PJs has nothing to do with it, I swear). Another example is my neighbor Penelope Trunk, who after digging herself out of the debris on 9/11, instinctively traded her Wall St.-based business development job for a home-based one as a writer and mother in Madison. It’s my hope that we will recognize this integrity and sensitivity to life’s nuances in one another and support sole proprietorships, freelancers, and small, local businesses. This way we all win.

On a related note, if anyone’s looking for a palm reading or dream interpretation, I charge $25/hour.

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