Last Name First

name/nām/ noun

  1. A word or set of words by which a person, animal, place, or thing is known, addressed, or referred to.

Growing up I was called “Robert.” Part of that is because my mother’s youngest brother was with us very often and he is Bob, or Bobby. But when we moved to Virginia and I entered tenth grade, I reestablished my identity as a Bob while at school. It had no effect on my family who continued to (and continue to) call me Robert, though when referencing me to non-family members, I’m a Bob. Once, a girl in high school I had a crush on called the house and my mother answered. My friend asked to talk to Bob and my mother said, “I’m sorry there is no one here by that name,” and hung up. UGH! Apparently, my friend called the next guy on her list because she never called back. Some months later she admitted, “I called you once to see if you wanted to go out somewhere, but I must have had the wrong number.”

(a note to young readers: if you are trying to figure out why my mother would answer a phone call for me, Google, “Antique phone customs.”)

Now I’m not thrilled when anyone anywhere calls me Robert, though it’s no big deal. Except my family, who when they call me Bob it seems totally wrong, like the Man who Never Was.

Crazy how identity is such a deeply-rooted motivator for our life, yet so often hinges on a name. Quixotic. Kafkaesque. Jeffersonian.

Boblike.

I wish we could still use one name like in Greek times: Plato! Aristotle! Or names associated with location: Francis of Assisi, Lawrence of Arabia.

Bob of Brooklyn.

Even ethnicity in this country is often shrouded by a last name. Kunzinger has all the markings of a deeply German background, and it is true that my great-great grandfather hailed from Lohr en Main, in Bavaria, Germany, where he and three of his brothers left for the United States in the 1850s. But according to the latest update of my DNA, I’m barely 11 percent German, with almost 50 percent going to my Irish roots. So O’Kunzinger is more appropriate but most likely quite offensive to my Galway ancestors. England/Scotland comes in second followed by Italian and French. So, with apologies to Philip Kunzinger of Lohr, my last name is a poor indicator as to my roots.  

At the university, Professor is likely, though at my previous college of employment, “Dude” was not unusual. The professor moniker is a burden, however, since while I think I’m a decent teacher of art and writing and humanities, I’m still apt to think of “Professor” as the scholar in a tweed coat with world-renowned expertise, who is referenced in journals and instead of watching Late Night reads papers in bed. I know these people; I’m not these people, though I play one on Zoom.

Then two new students approached me the other day after class and said, “We Googled you.” They told me that at first they saw some articles and information about where I had worked before, but then said they changed “Robert” to “Bob” and a slew of pages came up with all writing references and links. I told them that “Kunzinger” makes it inevitable that anything about Bob Kunzinger would not be likely to mix with other people, but if I were Bob Smith, they probably never would have found me; I’m nobody, really, except someone with a very uncommon name. Still, they said they ordered books so there’s that.

For a long time when I met someone through my parents, I’d introduce myself as “Robert” so not to contradict what they might have said, and that was usually correct. So now when I hear Robert I think of “young” me, adolescent me, no need to figure it out yet me. When I hear Bob I think of writer me, traveling me. But I also think of restless me, unsettled me, still looking for peace me. Robert goes back so far I can’t help but feel quieted when I hear it—from certain people. It was a good youth, where serenity wasn’t difficult to find during those Robert years.

“Dad” has a category all of its own, though a completely different set of mental wanderings than say “Daddy,” which tends to conjure up twenty-five-year old memories instead of the oysters we had last week.

So what goes on the headstone? Each of them is correct for different reasons, and I think it would cost too much to put them all on there. Perhaps “Dude” is the correct one, which implies just everyman, anyone—no one in particular.

It’s raining today, and the ground is saturated, the marsh exceptionally high, and the river, though still, rising. I come to the water to clear my head of the nonsense and worries, of the anxiety and depressive ways of life, and I am settled by the lack of labels here, the absence of naming things. I know the names of the wildlife here, but they don’t, and that thought brings me great peace; they simply are, and that is enough for them, so it’s enough for me out here.

For a long time I wondered if our names were for us or just for other people to make accounting easier—separate us from the simple “Hey You” confusion. It helps with mail delivery and paychecks, with grades in school and publications you spent a long time working on. For instance, I do not put my name on drafts no one will see but me.

The truth is, I feel more mature when I hear “Bob,” more ambitious and accomplished. And I must admit hearing “Professor” makes me more likely to give a well-thought-out response over someone calling me “Dude.” But names and labels and titles and degrees only serve us to exist with others in a regulated society where fitting in is necessary to maintain a place of our own, both physically and metaphorically. But out here where the river meets the bay, and the winds sometimes bring a chill from the northwest, and the osprey return to chase away the eagles for the season, I often forget who I am to begin with, and what was troubling me. Out here, where I have a complete sense of, well, what..?

Peace, I guess. Serenity, maybe. But “serenity is a long time coming to me, and I don’t believe that I know what it means anymore.”

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