Thursday, December 10, 2009

Nothing Rhymes with Carrot

"What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

Or it would smell like that other thing it was named.

I understand what Shakespeare was trying to say, that names do not define our reality, that a rose would still have its olfactory appeal even if it were called a crapadenia or a poopanthemum. But would the poets muse and would we still feel compelled to stop and smell them when life begins to move too fast? What if the carrot had been discovered before the orange? Would their fates have changed? Did the naming committee say, "This is undoubtedly an orange," and then stumble upon a carrot and say, "Oh shit." Certainly the world existed long before language, and prior to verbal communication I imagine there was just an understanding between prehistoric people about the way things were. A nod, a smile, or a look of shear terror was probably enough. Then along came language, and while perception was once a straight line to reality, there was suddenly a detour - words, lots and lots of words. Like some Aboriginal tribes, people began to sing their world into existence, and although Shakespeare claims it changes nothing at all, I believe it changes everything.

This is never more evident than the way we sing our children into existence. What's in a name? Well, I would wager that at least twenty-five percent of our self-esteem, forty percent of our success in life, and about ninety percent of the premeditated trauma known as junior high school. Take it from a hippie child who was named by his parents' Tibetan guru, which wouldn't have been so bad if we'd stayed in the remote hill station of Darjeeling, but in America the name Kunsang Dorje did not win me a lot of popularity contests. Even in an alternative community like Bolinas with kids named Ivory and Shelter or Strawberry and Cream, I was the one they ridiculed. "Koon Hound - you dirty, Indian hippie," they would chant, and although I was too young and too devastated to quip about Shelter's giant ears or Cream's lactose intolerance, I was not too young to start looking for a new name, because by this one I did not smell as sweet.

When I was six years old I attended camp at The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas sangha in Ukiah. I remember three things from that summer. I remember waking up at six and dragging my sleeping bag into a dark room where we were told to meditate. Ridiculous! I remember a girl named Ariana who threatened to say, "I love Kunsang" in a game of telephone to which I responded with, "If you do, I'll kill you." And I remember an eight year-old boy named Isaac who was unequivocally the coolest, funniest, nicest kid I'd ever met. I decided then and there if I were to ever change my name, which I was already considering, it would be Isaac. Isaac means "laughter," and in my six year-old brain it meant "popularity" while Kunsang means "all good" or "weirdo loser." It was a no-brainer. Two years later I was back in India with my mom, and when I woke up on my eighth birthday I said, "Mom, I'm tired of being Kunsang. I'm going to be Isaac now." It's impossible to know how my life would have turned out, but I'm guessing it wouldn't have smelled this sweet.

Carrie's name, on the other hand, emerged from a less remarkable tale of her parents combining their names (Carol and Barry), so she was equally invested in finding a name for our daughter that was unique but not weird, easy to say but not bland and meaningless. Initially, she was convinced by a dream that we were going to have a boy - a boy named Julian. Long before she was pregnant, we had started short lists of names, names for boys and girls, and names that ultimately had to pass the Noah Litmus Test. In a previous life, before he became my friend, Noah was one of the kids who would have, without discrimination, teased every single kid in Bolinas and Darjeeling. When we came up with names, he would help me project it into the future to see how it would pan out during middle school. When we came up with Sebastian, Dorian, and Ezra, he quickly rattled off, "Sebastard," "Whore-ian" and "Gayzra." Not bad for a five second reaction time.

Fortunately, two things happened - we had a girl and we eventually ignored Noah's opinion, realizing there wasn't a name out there that would survive his residual adolescence. After the twenty week sonogram, we turned our attention exclusively to girls' names. In the past we'd contemplated Dahlia, Karuna, and Shanti, and more recently names like Naomi and Ari made the list, but Carrie and I weren't mutually sold on any of them. One morning Carrie said, "What do you think of the name Amari?" to which I responed, "You mean like the center for the Phoenix Suns? I think it's a great name - for a giant, black man." Slightly annoyed she said, "Nobody knows who that is," and although I knew that the entire state of Arizona and any committed fantasy basketball player would disagree with her, I also knew that she was six months pregnant and didn't need to hear about pesky, little things like facts. I told her I would think about it, hoping that the first few games of the upcoming basketball season would tell me if there were any lingering effects of Amare Stoudemire's knee surgery and if our daughter would forever live in the name shadow of this future Hall of Famer.

Carrie persisted, sharing the Hindi, African, and Hebrew roots, telling me that Amari could be shortened to Ari, Ama, or Mari, the last of which was similar to my mother's name, which felt like a thoughtful tribute to her passing. I was sold on the sentiment, and although my last resistance was an offered compromise of Amira, Carrie said, "That doesn't sound as open." I had no idea what she meant, which is a great way to win an argument with me, and I folded. The truth was I'd grown to love the name Amari. In Hindi it means "eternal" or "immortal;" in a Japanese dialect it means "truth;" and in African it is a unisex name that means "strong" or "builder." When I shared the name with my sister, she told me that she had once explored African names and was stunned by how specific the meanings could be. One name she found meant "my father's in prison." That's a conversation starter...or stopper. Later on we learned that Amari is also a resort in Thailand, a region in Greece, and an Italian restaurant in Massachusetts. This lady is going to be international.

So we had a name, and time would tell how it influenced her life. We began telling people, which we'd considered not doing after people's responses to Naomi and Ari. Almost everyone liked it saying things like, "Wow. That's beautiful," or "Nice. I like it," or "You mean like the basketball player?" That last one was Noah - and my friend Bodhi - but they, with their children named Reya Gold, Hero Freedom, and Poet knew that they best not throw stones in their glass houses.

And that, my friends, is how Amari came to be. She may not always smell great, but in those moments I imagine Shakespeare was right - that by any other name she would smell just as un-sweet.

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