What We Call Ourselves (Part 2)
I sit down in the chair at the hair salon and Stacy, my stylist, says to me, "I have to tell you something. My name's not really Stacy." She's completely deadpan about this. I ask her if she's in the witness protection program and suggest that she not reveal her true identity. I don't want to end up at the bottom of a river somewhere. She glosses over my joke and says, "My name's not really Stacy. It's Jody."
Turns out that when Jody started working at the salon, there was already a Joni working there. And the receptionists couldn't distinguish who clients were asking for over the phone. So Jody, being the newbie, was forced to choose a new name. Thus, Stacy was born.
About a year after I started going to Stacy, Joni quit. And Stacy became Jody once more. But here's the thing: She was totally a Stacy. Even now, I sometimes have trouble remembering her real name. To me, Jody is the essence of Stacy.
What's in a name? I disagree with Shakespeare. I'm not so sure roses would still smell as sweet by any other name. Words in general, and names in particular, mean a lot to me. Just a small change in spelling affects how I perceive a word, even if the pronunciation doesn't change. For me, the words "gray" and "grey" are completely separate colors and ideas. (Grey is always much nicer, by the way.) Start mucking about with the pronunciation and my world turns topsy-turvy. An American to-may-to and a British to-mah-to might as well be completely different vegetables. (Okay, different fruits.)
What we call ourselves shapes us. Our names meld with us, becoming part of the fabric of our being. They also give us shape, acting as a sort of architecture on which other people can hang their understanding of us. Names become nearly inseparable from who we are. But what do you do if you don't feel like your name fits?
I had a friend in college named Katherine, but she went by Kat. After she graduated, she decided that Kat didn't really suit her and started calling herself Kate. That was fine for her new, post-college friends, but the rest of us had trouble letting go of Kat. I still have a hard time adding that extra "e" and remembering to make the long vowel sound in the middle. To me, Kat(e) will always be Kat, even though I honor her wish to be called Kate.
My failed attempt to rebrand myself from Jenn to Jenna wasn't the first name makeover I'd attempted. When I was much younger and people called me Jenny, I decided on "Jennie-with-an-i-e" instead of "Jenny-with-a-y." I chose that spelling, of course, because it seemed so much more sophisticated than "Jenny-with-a-y." But really, how sophisticated can the name Jenny get? It's young and cutesy. Perky, even. It's also the term for a female donkey. So essentially Jenny is an ass. It's also a type of bird, a jenny wren, which is rather sweet. (As is the Paul McCartney song of the same name.) And also? Jenny is the name of the world's oldest gorilla in captivity. It turns out that Jenny is really quite diverse.
Nowadays, the only people who still call me Jennie are a few family members and one friend from college. (She's Jessie and I'm Jennie. I think we should be characters in series of children's books about solving mysterious crimes.) The year I lived in England, people automatically shortened my name to Jenny. I'd say, "Hello, I'm Jennifer." And they'd say, "Hallo, Jenny!" I let it slide due to the accent. (That accent will let you get away with a lot. Just try it. Tell off the next person you see using a British accent and see what happens. They'll probably ask you out for fish 'n chips. Or spit on you. Proceed at your own risk.)
I never really liked my name until I discovered that it derives from Guinevere, which was Gwenhwyfar in the original Welsh. Still, I hated how commonplace Jennifer was. (This belies deep-seated insecurities, I'm sure.) When I grew out of my Jennie phase, I needed something more mature. This essentially meant that I needed something with as few syllables but as many letters as possible. And so Jennie became Jenn. I loved that second "n". I cherished it like it was my lifeline to individuality. It showed the world that although I had the most common name for girls my age, I had put some serious thought into my nickname. It gave me an edge. A certain je ne sais quoi. That's a heavy burden, even for such a stout little letter.
I still go by Jenn to almost everyone who ends up knowing me in person for longer than a month. But here's the thing: I think I might actually be a Jenna. I squashed that urge 14 years ago, but it's been floating around in the back of my consciousness ever since.
Would it be weird to start calling myself by a new name at the age of 32? Could my friends ever add that final vowel with any real level of comfort? Or would they forever be saying "Jenn" and then tacking a hasty "a"' on the end so it sounds like "Jenn...a"? In my professional and online worlds, I introduce myself as Jennifer. But when people actually call me Jennifer, it feels a bit foreign. In essence, I guess I could end up with four names: Jenn to most of my existing friends and family members; Jennie to a select few; Jennifer to business contacts; and Jenna to anyone I meet from here on out.
I'm not ready to make any changes just yet. Names get into our being. They're part of the story we tell to ourselves and about ourselves. I don't know if I can cast aside Jenn or Jennifer for Jenna. Plus, my husband is the only person who calls me Jenna. Do I want to offer up that name to just anyone, or keep it as a sort of sweet secret between us?
What do you call yourself?