When I was growing up I had a dog named Lassie. She was a black mutt. We used to have another dog, her brother, who was named Laddie. See Laddie and Lassie. Makes sense now doesn't it?
Every time I would tell someone her name they would give me a look and I would hurriedly explain "…we used to have another dog named Laddie but he ran away."
I always felt like I had to explain.
I knew a kid in second grade named Danny and one day he came to school and told us all that he wanted to have a nickname and he wanted it to be Tunge and he would beat up anyone who called him Danny. So off course we called him Danny all day but by three weeks later I had completely forgotten that his name was Danny and everyone called him Tunge.
My name is John but when I was born my name was Henry. But my parents hated the name Henry so they were going to call me Sonny. See I was the 39th grandchild of my father's father. I had 38 cousins on my dad's side and 1 cousin on my mother's side. Guess which side was Catholic.
So my mother had two conflicting beliefs when it came to my name. On the one hand she felt that history was important. My grandfather and grandmother…actually my Memere and Pepere, had this huge pile of grandkids but NONE had been named after them. My Pepere's name was Henry Stanislaus Sylvain, as far as anyone knew. My Memere called him ari. Which is French Canadian for Henri. My parents decided they had an obligation to name me after my grandfather if I was a boy.
On the other hand, this is my mothers other hand I'm speaking of now, she thought that names were very important. Names give you who you are to a large extent. And my mother and my father both agreed that Henry was a terrible name.
Just for the record I don't think Henry is all that bad a name. My father (his name was Robert) had a sister named Gertrude and a brother named Gilford and they were the nicest of the 7 Sylvain siblings so I don't know why he thought Henry would be so bad.
But the point is that they were determined to name me Henry and they hated the name. So they decided they would call me something else like Junior or Bubba or something. My understanding is that they settled on Sonny.
Now if I went through my life as Sonny Sylvain instead of John Sylvain I would be a different person. How different is the really my point. I mean if I was Sonny Sylvain I wouldn't be me. I would be someone else. I would be Sonny Sylvain, noted Jazz trumpeter or Sonny Sylvain, long haul trucker or Sonny Sylvain, nude photographer.
When I had been Sonny Sylvain for a day or two my parents got a letter telling them that Pepere's real name was John Stanislaus Henry Sylvain. His wife of 35 years had not believed him so he had to pull out his birth certificate. According to my mother my father read the letter and then looked up with hope and joy on his face and said "John…that's a nice name!"
Names are fundamentally important. Adam's first job was to name all the animals. Only after he'd named them did he notice that none of them were really all that good company. Except for the dogs and in special cases the sheep. Scientists say that the invention of spoken language about 15,000 years ago gave Cro-Magnon man access to a powerful new way to look at and shape his world and it gave them a big advantage over the seemingly equally intelligent Neanderthal man. So of course Cro-Magnon proceeded to wipe Neanderthals from the face of the planet.
But our violent tendencies and our racial guilt for this apparent genocide is for another discussion. Or maybe not. Whatever. What is important now is that naming things is fundamental. When we name things we give them an abstract existence apart from themselves and names create meaning apart from the donatation. We live our lives now so far inside the web of meaning and submeaning that names give us we don't even notice it unless we really focus on it. It's like water for fishes. Or air for…us. Have you ever repeated a word until it seemed strange? Like strange.
Strange Strange Strange
Seems strange doesn't it?
How about finger? Finger Finger Everybody altogether. Finger Finger Finger Finger
It starts to sound weird but you can't call it something else unless you are speaking a different language. But at the same time we could all agree to call it something else, maybe tunge. But if you look up Finger in the dictionary you'll see a picture of a finger.
So names are important. The first thing we voted on at Sacred Fools was the name Sacred Fools. Where would we be now if we had chosen The Candy Store or Boogie Man Theater? Would we be here still. Would we all be sitting here watching failed boxer Sonny Sylvain explain how he coulda been a contender?
Which brings me to my son. His name is Yogi. Until he was about 4 days old I would explain his name to everyone I told, just like I used to explain my dog's name. "His name is Robert Yogi Wenk Sylvain but we call him Yogi. See Yogi is a family name. My mother in laws maiden name and his great grandfather's name was Robert Yogi and my father's name is Robert Sylvain and we like the name Yogi but if he hates it he can change it to Robert later on if he wants…."
After a few days I realized that his name was Yogi and no explanation was necessary or possible. Shelley and I had named him and he had grown into his name until there was no difference between the name and him. Like I am John Sylvain and Sonny Sylvain is someone else who is not me. Yogi is Yogi. Yogi Sylvain. It is who he is. It's perfect for him. If you don't like it you can call him Sonny or Tunge or Finger or Robert but his name is Yogi Sylvain and that's who he is. And I can prove it. If you look up www.yogisylvain.com on the internet you'll see a picture of him.
March 25th, 2002