I am waiting in a small, fluorescent-lit room with twenty other people. We are all unemployed and doing our best not to let our voices crack with desperation. Palms are sweaty, eye contact is minimal. A couple of go-getters, myself included, are struggling with small talk in an effort to come off as ‘approachable’. Together we’ve problem solved, demonstrated teamwork and answered questions.
Our gathering is the farce known as a group job interview. After the group session, we were called in one by one into a small, windowless office to talk to someone for a brief one-on-one interview. This comes as a relief to me as my last name is towards the top of the alphabet: I’m not worried about someone going ahead of me and making the process a formality for the remaining candidates. The woman who has been our hostess of sorts has been a very pleasant southern woman, who, when my time comes, clears her throat and coos sweetly,
“MISS BALLS PISSNER?”
I’m kicking myself for not having assumed this was going to happen. I stand up and raise my hand weakly. I hear stifled giggles. Yup, I’m that sloppy hermaphrodite with the excellent communication skills. Skills I promised you but apparently failed to deliver when offering you the most basic of information, my name.
In that moment, I had an epiphany. It came to me in that cool, breezy way that realizations tend to.
I am changing my goddamn name.
My last name, Blaus-Plissner, is long and unwieldy, but it’s also unique and a reflection of what I imagine was pretty progressive at the time, a marriage where partners shared names. My mom didn’t give up her lineage, neither did my dad. What a great tribute to equality that clunky, machine gun of a name was!
And because of how unique it is, a lot of my friends seemed resistant to the idea of my change of identity. Arguably the peer pressure leaned far more heavily towards keeping it than changing it. Changing it was my answer, sucking it up and being called Ballsmacking PissNerd once in awhile was everyone else's. Not to mention that by doing comedy, an activity that is sort of founded in building a name for oneself, made the idea of changing it somewhat frustrating. It’s a name that probably shaped who I am, in many ways, forcing me to become patient and able to speak very clearly over the phone, less sensitive to bullying as I endured countless renditions of Pussner, Pilsner, Balls, Blahs, Pissner…
Could my name be holding me back as much as I believe it to be, or am I folding to convenience? Research has suggested that the more difficult your name is to pronounce, the more likely you are to be considered a risk. This may have some correlation to the disturbing and racially charged discovery that having a simple, easy to pronounce and chiefly white name is equivalent to about eight years of work experience.
It may be simpler than that; as creatures that are alive, the path of least resistance is often the best to travel down. When you go to a Thai restaurant, you’re more likely to order something you can pronounce in order to save yourself some embarrassment, even though in your heart of hearts you think you’d prefer Heo Xao Thap Cam. Science supports this bizarre reality; we consider simpler names to be safer and tend to respond to them more positively. I’ve had people avoid saying my name simply because they don’t want to seem stupid by being intimidated by my name.
There are benefits to having a “risky” name, by the way. People with unique last names are also associated with desirable risks such as a perception of being more adventurous or creative. Be that as it may, it’s hard for me to believe people perceive me as the cliff diving type with a name that signs like a flatbed truck.
So why the resistance from people who don’t have to endure mispronunciation, the walkie-talkie diatribe of “P as in PETER, S as in SAM” that I have to say through gritted teeth when asked to spell my name? What business is it of someone else what I decide to sign on the bottom of my receipts?
I couldn’t say for sure, but I think it has something to do with the perception that when one changes her name, she must also be changing her identity. If I change my name, am I a whole new me? Is your friend going to be different, someone you’ll have to get to know all over again? Will I go through bizarre phases as I ‘reinvent’ myself a la some 90s teen movie?
No, that’s stupid, but not an unlikely direction for your brain to reach. Names are charged, sensitive and sacred things. That’s how we conjure people, command their attention, get them to like us. Someone told me that repeating someone’s name four times when you met them will commit it to memory. I haven’t found this to be true, but the small talk you create while you’re working someone’s name in, and the silly feeling you have when doing it both seem to help. Names are how you connect with people, and by rejecting your name, you're seen as rejecting the person that your friends and family care about. I wonder if the people that figured out how to tackle my battleship name have felt some kind of connection by being able to, and more so if they picked it up quickly. It establishes a bond.
I imagine resistance coming from my immediate family, as it’s their name that I’m rejecting. I’ve mulled this over a bit. There's something ironic about the idea of changing your personal name being a selfish act. It may be, but how could it be any less selfish to insist someone keep a name they don't want? Originally when choosing a new name I debated using one or the other. This seemed like picking which parent I’d rather spend time with, which seemed unpleasant. The second tactic involved merging the two names together, but that made me feel like I was turning my heritage into some mutant that would rise out of the ocean and terrorize New York.
Ultimately, it never felt right. Combinations of names felt strange in my mouth and like more of a concession to the difficulty of the letters for others than changing my name altogether does. In some religions, you change your name when joining the church. Marriage involves the taking of another person’s name though less so now, I imagine. The verity of self that is infused in one’s name is undeniable. It’s hard to believe that any word could become a more personal part of one’s identity. My name, however you decide to perceive it, has never been a part of my identity. I’ve manipulated and struggled with it since I was a teenager. Point being, I’ve never had any real sense of identity from the last name Blaus-Plissner other than the idea that it would be really hard to date someone I was related to accidentally.
So, what makes you, what makes up your identity? Is your name the first thing that jumps to your mind? Or do you picture your face, favorite activity or people in your life that are closest to you? All of these are things you’d consider part of your identity, aren’t they? And I suppose that’s my point. My name is a part of my identity only in how I introduce myself and am introduced to others. I am incorporating my identity in that I’m no longer interested in making that introduction a process that involves a history lesson and a spelling bee.
The surname I’m giving myself is MagCalen. It’s still going to be hard for some people to pronounce (Mc-Cay-Lehn if you’re unsure). It’ll still get misspelled, and in a way I think I need that. It’s less likely going to be mispronounced as a beer, a body part or a body function, and that’s something I’m looking forward to. I googled it and didn’t find much. There’s no special meaning attached to it, so far as I can tell. It’s probably some alteration of another name. It’s faintly Gaelic sounding, but I’m not basing that off of much. I chose it because eons ago someone told me that was their middle name, I liked it and for some reason it’s still stuck in my head. I don’t know if that’s creepy or even much of a viable reason to change one’s identity. Regardless, I’ve found the most meaningful changes I’ve done in my life have been executed with little to no reason.
There is some part of me that cringes a bit with the idea of sacrificing my last name, but no more so than any other transition, like a birthday that marks the end of an age. Aside from a few resistant guffaws I don’t see my life changing dramatically by the manipulation of my surname. I have to admit that personally I don’t see it as a big issue. The adaptation might be a little strange for my family, but like so many things in my life it’s simply a decision of personal preference. An interesting blog showed how one writer found that choosing her own name let her be more open and patient to people learning it. It was something to take pride in, because she felt that she truly reclaimed it.
In some ways, changing my name only proves how true I am to myself. Being the youngest of three made me constantly driven to establish myself as an individual. Arguably society is set up that way now, with our interminably gesellschaft celebration of the individual without any particular acknowledgement of the group that supported them or helped propel them where they're going. It's amazing to me the amount of power we assign to words, particularly names. By my own view, I've self-censored part of my identity, I suppose. I don't have a rebuttal for that. Maybe that's what makes the idea so difficult for other people to swallow. Ultimately, I chose a different name because in terms of identity, my name has no meaning, it's my actions that I believe carry my sense of self.
Being named at birth and keeping that name is a tradition. It creates an identity that we can assign to someone, with information about class, ethnicity, social status and gender. It's something we have to celebrate our lineage and represent ourselves. But regardless of your name, you are the same. I believe I can celebrate my lineage, portray information about my identity, and express the kind of person I am without using the name I had at birth. I appreciate that my parents named me what they did; changing it now has less to do with my opinion of their action when I was born and more to do with how now, nearly 26 years later, I have developed a a human being. The religious may change their name upon conversion. In some way, changing my name is a marker of my own kind of conversion. As I get older I've grown more and more sure of what I want and what I need to do, something that seemed impossible a couple of years ago. Changing my name is only a reflection of what I've accomplished.
About A Blog
I'm a Denver Comedian, occasional cartoonist and person of interest to someone, probably. These articles are really too long.