It only takes a tiny effort to break any of the doors here off their hinges. Franz Kafka, The Trial

IMG_0127It is an odd and curious thing to change your name. My preference, despite the evidence, for simplicity, helped sway the day years ago in a NYC courthouse. At the time, applying for a marriage license, I thought it was simply easier for everyone to have the same name. I had wanted to preserve my “maiden” name, but just in the form of a middle name. However, that idea was dismissed in an act of precedent-setting offended certitude. It took me many years to get used to the new name, and in truth there was some mourning involved. Years later, when I left, in an act of offended irony I was told to give it back.

It is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.’ ‘A melancholy conclusion,’ said K. ‘It turns lying into a universal principle.’

After going back and forth on the issue and letting the most obvious day to make the change pass, I was unexpectedly consumed with conviction on the subject. The other morning, I was back in a court house.

What I find most interesting about The Trial, (speaking of the exquisite pain of bureaucratic Kafka-esque hell) is the fact that it was unfinished. Kafka hadn’t wanted it to be published unfinished, in fact he asked that his papers be burnt posthumously. I didn’t know that as I read it, a few years back, only after when I read the forward. But all during the book, the story felt uncombed. And yet, it somehow fits. It’s like you could never perfect the inanity because that’s part of it.

I downloaded, filled out, and left on the kitchen table, all of the required forms. It wasn’t until that moment of feeling naked as I put my belt back on in front of an audience of security guards at the metal detector, that I suddenly saw the forms in my head, innocently lying on the table. Sigh. I refilled out the forms in the hall and waited, reading a book as I leaned up against the beige scratched wall. One of my forms was a fee waiver because, with complete disregard for my nerves, the thing cost some hundred and a lot of dollars to achieve. But I would take it on the chin, file the form and hope for it to be waived – if I had to pay, that would be my punishment for being so stupid for not doing it before. Finally, oh sweet Jesus , finally I was called in to go through the forms, hold up my right hand, show my ID, so that I could then be released to the clerk’s office on the second floor.

A very nice woman in pink informed me that I hadn’t need to fill out any of the forms I had filled out. Twice. I only needed this one, and there is no fee, she told me as she handed me the new form. Suspicious, but with practiced expertise, I filled it out – except for the sign and print your name part- which name? I got up and waited a VERY long time for another woman to apply moisturizer to her arms and assiduously remove flakes of skin from her wrist. Finally she sauntered over. I asked her which name to write. She rudely cut me off and told me if I needed help filling out the form I would have to go back down to the first floor. Oh no, I told her right back, I just spent an hour down there and that nice lady in pink told me it was all for nothing. I furtively took the forms back and signed them. But I was too late, she was back to her desk applying lipstick. I closed my eyes for a moment of repose, successfully preventing an all out institutionally induced meltdown.  Perhaps impressed by my calm, a peppy woman advanced to the window and, seemingly out of pity, asked me if I needed help. I do.

She pulled my file, had the clerk notarized it, all of five minutes later- plus a few days for a judge to approve me – done. Jessica Ryan.


12 responses to “X

  1. have you ever read Nathalie Sarraute’s little book “Tropisms”? I found it powerful on this very area – acknowledgment / identity / naming – what these might imply…and how Kafka expresses it. Fine post, thanks.

  2. Interesting… trying to decide on a name is a surprisingly difficult thing. You have to bring the whole world around to the idea you have of yourself.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. May I be the first to wish you a Happy Father’s Day!!! I’m so proud of you!

  4. I had this very conversation just last Monday. The names we give ourselves and our children are extremely important. There not just words. They’re meant to have significant meaning. Yes, I’ve allowed many to simple call me “Al (never met Paul Simon but I still like that song)” but I have always preferred and sometimes insisted on Allan. Mum didn’t take lightly the naming of her children. She had very specific reasons for them (I won’t go into those here). I am very proud of my names.

    Before getting married, my better half expressed her desire to be rid of her maiden name. It was imperative to her to be recognized as someone’s wife by having their surname. My surname; the one I have from an absentee father. I had never considered that as being so important. I advised her that her family name should be regarded as important to preserve if she’s proud of her family; which she is, and that she should consider hyphenating her name. She liked the idea, and that’s what we did when we got married.

    Yeah, I know that there are still some men out there who insist that their wives take on their last names. Who cares?

    My way of thinking is very much a result of family dynamics and experiences. I just mentioned one aspect with regards to my father, another is that after my mother divorced him (when I was 5), she legally changed back to her maiden name. She says it doesn’t make sense to have his name. She’s not his wife anymore. She doesn’t have to have to have it anymore. Someone else is welcome to it.

    Under such circumstances, it can be quite liberating to shed a name that you don’t feel belongs to you. Related to what Bill Chance said, it’s about empowerment, about you becoming the architect of your own identity.

    It was a practice of members of the Nation of Islam to release the western surnames that members were likely born with and temporarily accept the algebraic variable “X” before receiving a Muslim name; hence Malcom Little became Malcom X, and then El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. It was very rewarding for them.

    After record producers and music promotion companies pushed a certain extremely talented, eclectic and popular musician and singer in way that he didn’t care for – including his identity, he rejected their power and influence, reverted back to being an independent but business-smarter artist and changed his full name to Sananda Maitreya from his birth name of Terence Trent Howard. Yes, we used to know him by his stage name “Terence Trent D’Arby”. He has found unprecedented success by reinventing himself so significantly. He wrote a song about this metamorphosis that has only appeared on the soundtrack of Robert DeNiro’s and Wesley Snipe’s film “The Fan”. It’s called “Letting Go”.

    You’ve done a great think Jessica Ryan. More power to you.

    • Thank you Allan. I appreciate your thoughtful remarks. It is an enormous thing that many people do not even have to consider. That you have, says a lot about the kind of person you are. It may be a technical point, but we do, even inadvertently wrap ourselves up in the label of our identity. The gestalt factor is not to be underestimated.
      Your encouragement is a lovely thing. Thank you.

  5. Congratulations. Ah, the joys of officialdom. I used to work in a job centre, and never ceased to be amazed at how many mistakes were made in filling out simple forms. People struggled with getting their names in the right spaces, which seemed so obvious. I do the same. My brain turns to jelly when I have to fill out any form.

  6. Name changes are straight forward in UK. USA seem to make such simple things hard with a full court hearing.

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