“Everybody in Asheville takes a new name”, Spuds Anderthal said the other day. “It’s an Asheville thing, like the kayaks on top of the SUV’s and the belly-button rings. For example, you”, he said, leaning in towards the lovely young woman who had recently moved into our boarding house, “were not born being called ‘Princess Kamanawanalaia’, right?”
“Yes, I was”, she said, sweetly. “My parents named me after the Polynesian goddess of fertility. I think it’s really me, and when I decide to settle down, I’ll have fabulous babies and give them all Polynesian names.”
“OK, so she’s an exception”, he said, dismissing her, clearly disgusted. Spuds hates to be wrong. “Hippie parents – I’m almost glad my parents were so straight. But you, Mr. Majo”, he then said with a little more edge, looking straight at me. “You still go half the time by ‘John Madden’ – what’s up with that? What did you do, change your name on the bus to Asheville?”
Well, no, actually, I was given this name by a spiritual teacher. I didn’t even bother to say all this to Spuds, who was in no mood to appreciate spiritual subtleties. A few weeks before moving to Asheville, when I did, in fact, feel a tremendous need for a new identity, my computer crashed and I no longer needed a regular dial-up Internet service provider. So, preparing for a reduced income in Asheville, I went to Yahoo for one of these free e-mail accounts that you can access at the library and stuff. The spiritual adept Yahoo did not like any of my submissions for an e-mail handle, including email@example.com, which used to be my Yahoo address years ago. Finally it came back with its own recommendation, the first two letters of my last and then first name – “Majo”. I liked it, and it has stuck.
Kind of. When I’m feeling “up”, creative, enthusiastic, and/or like a working class hero, it’s easy to say, “People call me Majo”. Even when I first got here and it was mostly a lie, I would think of the couple friends in Chicago who loved the Caribbean sound of it and had actually started to use it with me.
Remember Shane’s first words in the book and movie? “Call me Shane.” We read that book in high school, and Shane was such a cool, mysterious cowboy dude. I just knew, as I was leaving Chicago, that in Asheville – where I wanted to start over and stay kind of mysterious – I would just kind of give people a little tip of my head and say, “Call me Majo.” Cool.
When I’m feeling down, though, not like such a hero at all – more like a washed-up, fat bald guy from the Midwest – “Majo” has a hard time getting over my teeth. In fact, I can’t even picture using it. “Who are you?” I think to myself. “You’re not some cool Afro-Caribbean dude, you’re this corny, neurotic loser from Chicago, who doesn’t even belong here with all these cool, beautiful, fit young mountain-bikers.” So then I almost always introduce myself as John, even though I mostly feel defeated as I do so.
Sometimes it feels kind of energizing and empowering (God, I remember when I didn’t hate that word) to rant, inside myself, out loud, or even out loud with other people around to hear it, “Why should I go through life being called some name that my parents gave me when they didn’t even know me yet, when they had no idea who I was going to turn out to be? I never met my paternal grandfather John – hell, no one in my dad’s family has ever even said anything about him. I wonder if they really didn’t like him, but sacrificed me to his memory to appease their guilt. I have to share this name with zillions of other Johns, hundreds of John Maddens – one of them way more famous than I will ever be – and millions of bathrooms and legions of porta-potties in all parts of the country and maybe world. My old name is stupid and boring and humiliating and I don’t need to keep it!”
And I don’t, except when I just can’t seem to let go of it. Or when it really kind of works for me, like when I’m applying for straight jobs in straight companies. When I was interviewing to be a server at Cracker Barrel (because Spuds and Harry from the rooming house work there), that restaurant manager did not hear nothin’ about no Majo. I did not have my Majo workin’ that day.
When I’m in my cool poet self, I kind of dig it that I am voluntarily relinquishing some of my white male privilege by using a black-sounding name – not as conspicuously black-sounding as Ice-T or anything, but still not normal white. In fact, it’s interesting that the people who seem to have the most trouble with my new name are pretty consistently white men, my own age (58) or older.
It’s almost like I’m breaking the rules of the club, like they are thinking and actually wanting to say, “What are you doing, John? You have a perfectly fine Anglo name with lots of history behind it. You’re not black. You’re a normal white man like we all are – or like we are and like everybody should aspire to be. We are the benchmark. Don’t go cheapening the rich history of appropriate and necessary white male dominance by calling yourself some asinine name that does not come out of your heritage.”
In truth, even when I’m too low energy to initiate as a Majo, I still get a real kick out of someone else calling me this name. I do feel like something new is happening, like I am speaking to and being spoken to as some different part of me – a part that always has popped out from time to time, but which I now want to give more breathing room.
So, call me Majo. Except when you call me John, which most of the time – for now, anyway – is fine, too.