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A Wondeful Life

By Aaron Raz Link


A riddle:

Something belongs to you alone
that you give away when you meet someone,
over and over and over again.

I didn’t change my name until I was almost thirty. Like sex, like your face, like the small patch of skin at the base of the neck where people like to be tattooed, a name marks the space where private meets public. Your most personal possessions are the ones you only see in mirrors-- “Hi, I’m Aaron, who are you?” That’s why I didn’t like the idea of changing my name; I clung to the fantasy that I could see myself just fine without a mirror, thank you.

For instance: there isn’t any reason why the combination of sounds making up the name "Sarah" should mean woman, rather than man, or human being. The sounds could mean rock in Icelandic, for all I knew. So, was I a rock? Symbols (names, faces, sex, diagrams in books of organs--womb, vas deferens, triple burner--you’ve never seen) aren’t real. My name didn’t mean woman, because I’m not a woman; if other people thought it did, well, other people thought I was a woman, for God’s sake. People were idiots. They watched Gillette ads and were deeply moved by the major emotional value of shaving. Their systems of classification included Jimmy Stewart movies, Norman Rockwell paintings, and Precious Moments figurines.

When I changed my name, the first person I told was my cousin, the clown. The second person I told was my barber.

“What happened to Sarah?” my barber said.

My barber’s name was Jim. He was an old queer out of San Diego. I didn’t know what to tell him. All my plans had involved never telling anything important to anyone.

“Sarah’s gone,” I said after a while.

“Gone? Gone where?”

What I always want to say is “She was never here at all.”

I said to Jim, “I don’t know. ‘Sarah’ is just gone.”

When friends finally told him what I meant, Jim shaved me gently, flipping off the extra lather with an expert limp-wrist gesture, touching up my sideburns, laughing in delight, telling me to keep it clean-cut and never, ever grow a goatee.

 

What I finally changed was the public domain. It’s other people’s world you’re messing with. They might care. You have to request their cooperation. Ask for help with mirrors. You’ll notice that you look quite different in different lights. In certain lights, in fact, you’ll look exactly like an idiot.


In the state where I live, people who want to change their legal names have to post a notice in the county courthouse for two weeks. You have to tell everyone the name they used to call you, and the name you want them to call you now. From that information, any random person in town can recognize you. You want them to recognize you. I want you to recognize me. So much for detachment; the whole world will know who in the hell you think you are. Of course, if you want other people to recognize you, you might want to give them a clue who you think you are. You can’t blame them for not knowing if you don’t bother to tell them. It took me the better part of thirty years to figure this out.

In certain lights, in fact, you’ll look exactly like an idiot.

The bulletin board in the county courthouse was covered with names. I had no idea so many people changed their names. When I held up my official notarized form, it was an impressive declaration of individuality, or freakishness, or something. Pinned up with a hundred others, it was anonymous. From a distance, they look a lot like ballots.


Results of unscientific bulletin-board survey of people who change their names. The categories are:


1) Young African-American men: Thomas James to TeJay, Washington to Muhammad.

2) Divorced women: retrieval of maiden name.

3) Transsexuals: Dennis to Denise, Tracy (female) to Tracy (male), $15 extra for listing change of gender.

4) Miscellaneous others: change to last name of adopted family, official New Age new name, change to avoid former perpetrators or victims, change because former name was just too stupid. John Smith to Hafiz StarCrystal Chi’en Lung, Hafiz StarCrystal Chi’en Lung to Jane Smith.

5) New Category, exhausted Muslim men, heads down: Mufad (Bosnian) to Marty, Abdulreza (Iranian) to Al, Muhammad (American) to Washington.

 

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Courthouse basement, window two.


Aaron Raz Link is a writer, performer, teacher, and curator. A Nebraska native, he grew up to become an historian and philosopher of science, working as a scientific educator with organizations including the University of Wisconsin Zoological Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, the San Diego Wild Animal Park, the Oregon Zoo, and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. After the sex change, drag queens sent him to clown school, making him a graduate of the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre.


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* excerpted from What Becomes You, University of Nebraska Press