Sunday, June 24, 2007

Changing My Name: A Tale with an Announcement In Lieu of a Moral

Note: Though I tell it in a lazily meandering fashion, as is my wont, there is actually a personal announcement at the end of this tale. While I generally would blame no one for skipping any particular post of mine, I would ask that any readers who know me in personal life to at least skim the end and catch the announcement.

For a long time I intended to change my name when I got married.

This was true from long before I met the woman I would go on to marry. What I intended to change it to was -- generically -- Stephen Othername Frug, where "othername" would be the last name of my spouse. I imagined that my spouse might change her name to either "Othername Frug" or "Frug Othername", whichever she preferred.

I had gotten the idea, I think, from John Lennon -- who never liked his original middle name, Winston, and eventually changed his name to "John Ono Lennon". I think that, legally, he simply added "Ono" rather than replacing Winston (apparently it is, or was, easier to legally add than legally drop a name), so that his name ended up "John Winston Ono Lennon". He was, as I recall from reading a biography of J.O.L. some time ago, unhappy about this, asking his lawyer something to the effect of "What am I paying you all this money for if I'm not getting rid of the 'Winston'?" And, in almost every case, he dropped the Winston, and simply called himself "John Ono Lennon".

I never got straight what Yoko's name was -- Yoko Ono Lennon, or Yoko Lennon Ono, or just still plain old Yoko Ono. I think it was Yoko Ono Lennon (and Wikipedia confirms it), but of course most people still called her Yoko Ono, or just Yoko.

I should explain that it wasn't that I so idealized Lennon that I wanted to copy whatever he did simply because he did it. I did (and do) admire Lennon a great deal -- but not that much. I simply thought it was a good idea, and -- rather unconsciously, I think -- I began to assume that I would do it.

As part of this, I began a fairly conscious policy of not using my given middle name ("Ellison", which was also my father's middle name -- given to him so as to name him after his maternal grandfather, Eli Simon). Nor would I use the initial. I simply went by "Stephen Frug" whenever a full name was called for. (Its not like my name was something common like Robert Wilson or something.) I was fairly consistent about it. My one backsliding was on my college diploma. I have a strong memory of telling the Senior Tutor of my House (who was in charge of these things) that the name I wanted on my diploma was just "Stephen Frug" -- nothing else. And he -- gently, kindly, with (I have not the slightest doubt) my best interests at heart -- badgered me about it, talking about how I might regret it, until, in a moment of weakness, I agreed to use my middle initial on it as well. And the truth is that I regretted it right away, and have done so ever since (whenever I thought of it, which, of course, was not often -- usually when I'm at my father's house and I happen to see it, up on the wall of my childhood room). Years later, when I got another diploma, I made sure not to use the middle initial; and that I've never regretted a second.

But by that time, I had actually married, which gets around to the fact that my intended name change had never happened.

I'm not quite sure why it didn't. But I think that there are two main reasons.

The first is that I overstretched, and that the lesser idea got lost in the shuffle.

You see, I got the idea that I'd change my name to Sara (my then-fiancé)'s name.* My thought was that I would, for my personal life, be Stephen Saperstein, and in my published work -- I wanted then (as I want now, and have always wanted) to write fiction -- retain my "maiden" name. Of course that wasn't the traditional thing to do. But that was part of its appeal. I didn't particularly think of myself as a feminist, not because I didn't agree with feminist goals (I do, very much) but because, first, of the ongoing debate about whether a man can be a feminist at all, and second, because "feminist" is, to my mind, something one earns, rather than something one claims -- and I had done nothing worthy of meriting the appellation, much as I admired those who had. But, still, I thought it would be a good feminist move, and I liked it for that reason.

Well, Sara wanted (for various reasons of her own) to change her name. So we went round and round on it for at least a few months. What finally ended it for me is that someone very, very close to me -- not Sara -- got extremely upset when I finally broached the idea. This, plus Sara's ongoing campaign on the other side, settled the issue. And somewhere in the shuffle, the lesser idea got first downgraded, and finally abandoned.

But all that isn't quite right, actually, since what really clinched the issue was the second big reason, which was the sexist structure of the Massachusetts wedding license. (As it was then. I wonder if -- particularly in light of more recent events -- it's been changed since.) Because I believe I still had every intention of changing my middle name until I saw that rotten form.

The form had a place for "bride's name before marriage", a place for "bride's name after marriage", and a place for "groom's name" -- and that's all. To legally change her name, all Sara had to do was fill in the second of those categories. (Oh, she had to go and get a new driver's license and all that; it was more of a pain than that. But that was implementing the change; doing it was part of the marriage license.) Whereas I had no way -- at all -- to use the form to do the same thing.

Well, we gripped about the rank sexism of it -- which was, it should go without saying, outrageous. But I -- and it would have had to be me -- didn't do anything about it. Sara changed her name to Sara Saperstein Frug; I didn't change mine at all.

And that's where the issue lay, until shortly a number of months ago, when Sara and I had a long conversation about life, the universe and everything -- including our marriage, then nearing its tenth-anniversary mark.

And it occurred to me, out of nowhere, that it wasn't too late.

We talked it over, and Sara seemed to like the idea. Also, I liked the idea. It was something I had long intended to do -- something I had wanted to do. Sure, it was now almost ten years later. But so what? Surely better late then never?**

So... I'm gonna do it.

Now, I'm not sure if I'm going to go change all my legal documents. My understanding is that, as long as there is no intent of deception, one can call oneself whatever one wants. So I can use the name without going through a legal process. Maybe I'll want to change it, legally and formally, in the end. But I'm going to take it one step at a time.

I also don't know if I'm going to always use three names, the way that some people do -- particularly, it seems, wonderful writers (Kim Stanley Robinson, Jorge Luis Borges), politicians (FDR, JFK, LBJ, MLK) and assassins of politicians (John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray). I've been signing internet comments "Stephen Frug" for some time now, and I'm not sure if I'm going to change that. Or maybe I will, and the idea just takes getting used to.

But for formal purposes, I do intend to use it. I have not yet published any fiction -- if I were a religious man, I might call it heshkaka pretis that I failed to do so until this decision -- but I still hope, plan and work toward doing so. And if -- deus volent, when -- I do, I will use my (new) full name. I am also working on a new degree, a Ph.D.; the diploma, when (insh'allah) I get it, will use it too.

And I will use it on this weblog. If you look at the top, you will see that I have put my name -- my new, full name -- up there.

Stephen Saperstein Frug.

It will take some getting used to -- for me, for my family and friends. But then, how often have women changed their names, and had to get used to it? And I'm not even changing my last name -- just my middle name.

It seems little enough.

Sara's and my lives have been entwined for significantly more than a decade now (the more than two years we were dating, the more than a year we were engaged, and the nearly ten-and-a-half years of our marriage). I hope and trust -- imertza hashem -- that it will be as long as we both shall live. I like very much the idea of marking this in my name.

As I have said, I don't know how far I will take this. But I do know a minimum: in any setting where I use three names (that does not raise the possibility of legal fraud), I will use my new full name.

In the old days, I believe, people used to announce such things by sending around announcement cards. But this is the age of the internet; and I hope that anyone who has read this far will consider this the equivalent.

-- Stephen Saperstein Frug ( Stephen Frug)
June, 2007

* If there is a good editorial solution to this particular usage -- inserting a clause between a noun and its possessive -- I don't know what it is. But there really ought to be, since it is a perfectly reasonable sounding thing to do in spoken language.

** Yes, there was a reason that I waited between the conversation and doing it now: it's a long story, and private, and frankly not all that interesting. Maybe I'll tell you some other time.


Jeffrey Klineman said...

"It will take some getting used to -- for me, for my family and friends."

-- not really, but you should probably let us know. That's probably why all the check's I've been sending you keep bouncing....

Dewey said...

Of course men can be feminists! And I think it's adorable that you and Sara now have the same initials.

Anonymous said...

wow. came here from the carnival. i think thats a lovely thing to do, and quite brave, considering the climate we live in.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I originally intended to do the exact same thing-- funnily enough for the EXACT same reasons (huge John and Yoko fans, sexism, etc.). In the end he realized that it would be too big of a hassle to change his name and I realized that I really wanted to keep mine as is, so we have different last names. We're happy with the choice in the end . . . I just think that it's interesting that someone else had the same exact idea, gotten from the same place. I'm glad that you went through with it and didn't let the system get you down! (and yes, they were both Ono Lennon. She still is, to the best of my knowledge).

Heather F. said...

This makes things easier for me, because I believe that I have been addressing envelopes somewhere along the lines of "Stephen and Sara (Saperstein) Frug" which never seemed quite right, so now I can eliminate the parentheses and unclutter my stationery.