by John Bloner, Jr.
In the summer of ’94, I spent a week at a folk school in Door County, WI where one morning I sat on a slab of limestone to contemplate a garden of wildflowers, while fellow students walked a sawdust path through the woods to our classroom. One student, an elderly woman named Rose paused in her parade to question me.
“Are you a person?” she asked.
I wasn’t sure if the years had taken its toll on her eyesight or if she was seeking a response to an existential question.
Am I a person?
In a physician’s office or in a court of law, such analysis would yield a unanimous result: Yes, of course. I’m constructed mainly of six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, but I argue there is a yet another element, something more elusive than my favorite sports team ever winning the Super Bowl.
Scientists may rush in at this point to correct me. Identity is not an element, they’d crow and thrust copies of their Doctoral dissertation at me, which would argue that identity is instead your set of values, your position in society, your level of self-esteem, and, to borrow a phrase from Donny and Marie, whether you’re a little bit country or a little bit rock ‘n roll.
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked. If you’re known as X Æ A-Xii or simply as “X,” you’re heir to the fortune of your dad, Elon Musk. My father was a car mechanic who, in the late 1950s, could have named his only son, Elvis, Marlon, or James Dean, but instead chose to make me his sequel: John, Jr.
Psychology Today magazine lists the benefits of being a Junior. You’re less likely to misbehave in society, for one, because of the shame you’d bring to your family. You might even rise to the stature of Martin “I Have a Dream” Luther King or Sammy ”I Gotta be Me!” Davis, Jr. According to a baby-naming website, Juniors “seek balance and harmony in their life and the world at large. They are conscientious and service-oriented, and a champion for the underdog.” Juniors are the good guys.
The writer, Sherman Alexie, Jr., has a different perspective. “I’d always struggled with being named after [my father],” he said. “Adults should be able to choose a new name for themselves.” This would be a name they have earned, rather than one they were assigned at birth when their taste in music is not fully developed.
In the Broadway play turned into the feature film, A Thousand Clowns, a twelve-year old boy lives with his out-of-work uncle, who has allowed him to try out different names for himself until he reaches his next birthday when he’ll have to settle on one of them. The boy christens himself, at different times, with traditional names like Nick and Theodore, but also auditions Big Sam, Lefty, Chevrolet, and, my favorite, Dr. Morris Fishbein. We should all have uncles like this one in our lives. Just as we choose a mate, a home, and which TV shows we watch, shouldn’t we also have a say in our name?
At birth, the Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse was named Into the Wilderness, but his mother called him Curly. He later acquired the name, His Horse Looking, but it wasn’t until he neared adulthood, after taking part in battle with Arapaho warriors, that he took his father’s name, Crazy Horse, and his father, in turn, became known as Worm.
I have had other names beyond my birth moniker. In high school, my best friend called me Junior Barnes, taking it from a minor character in Bill Cosby’s storytelling world, because I was tall and skinny, just like this member of the Cosby kids. In the 1980s, I played the role of Stosh Kowalski, a World War I barnstorming pilot, on cable access TV. The name, Stosh, followed me around for years afterward.
These means of address are more than nicknames; they’re roles, as if the world is my stage. While John, Jr. is shy and prone to depression, Stosh is extroverted and walks bent-kneed and with a loping stride like Groucho Marx, and Junior Barnes is a an artistic cat who loves to frolic. His work is shown on the Instagram account @juniorbarnesart and in the pages of the magazine, Moss Piglet, for which I serve as editor and publisher.
In the words of Walt Whitman, “I contain multitudes.”
I’m more comfortable being Junior Barnes than living under my birth name. I’d realized this when my wife would call me at work from our home and the caller ID would register as John Bloner. “My Dad’s calling me,” I’d silently register. “It can’t be me.” If my name were a mirror, I wouldn’t recognize my reflection.
I experienced (and continue to experience) a disconnect from the person on my Social Security card. If I could meet Rose from our folk school encounter again, I’d say to her, “I am a person, but who am I?”
In 1961, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. published the story, Who Am I This Time?, whose main character, Harry Nash, is a nebbish hardware store clerk, who can only express emotion when he steps onto the stage of the local theater and becomes Abe Lincoln or King Henry VIII. Is the real Harry the person behind the cash register or the explosive Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire?
The authors of one of my favorite books, The Art of Possibility, Benjamin Zander, a classical music conductor and motivational speaker, and Rosamund Stone Zander, a family systems therapist, offer an answer to my questions. “It’s all invented,” they write. “All of life comes to us in narrative form; it’s a story we tell … so we might as well invent a story or framework of meaning that enhances our quality of life and the life of those around us.”
Today’s post was inspired by a Frank Oz directed film, In and Of Itself, available on Hulu. If you’re not a subscriber, I recommend taking advantage of the streaming channel’s free trial in order to view this remarkable program. I became aware of it through Gil Roth’s podcast, Virtual Memories Show. On his January 26, 2020 episode, Gil opened by telling of his transformational weekend, which included watching the HBO series, Painting with John, and the program, In and Of Itself. Gil recommended to his listeners that they arrive at the latter with an open mind by not looking up information about it online in advance of their screening. I followed this advice and invite you to do the same. I’d love to hear your comments afterward.
Thanks for reading, and I invite you to return next week. My blog posts appear every Thursday at 7am CST through the end of June 2021, although there may be bonus posts from time to time from me, Junior Barnes, or Stosh Kowalski.
Featured image by Gerd Altmann @ Pixabay