Socrates: Then a name is an instrument?
i. A Tale of Three Langs
When I was fourteen, I decided that if I ever had a son, I wanted to name him Benjamin Lang. I wanted him to share my middle name, and I chose the name Benjamin because it had belonged to my grandfather on my father’s side, a man I never knew. Both of my father’s parents had died before I was born. The only picture I’d ever seen of them was a grainy black-and-white shot of a Ma-and-Pa-Kettle-looking couple standing in front of a crumbling old house. I don’t recall the photograph completely, but in my memory, I see an old car behind them, maybe a truck. Perhaps a Packard. Perhaps an old Ford.
The photograph was scarred. There was a small rip on my grandfather’s chin. For a long time, I thought it was a cigarette hanging from his lip. But when I ran my fingers over the picture, I could feel the tear.
My father kept that photograph by his bed. It was the only real evidence that he even had parents. He wasn’t a storyteller. He told me some things, of course, mainly about how he got in trouble. Once, he said that he flushed a cherry bomb down a toilet at a business school he’d attended in Miami when he was in his twenties. Another time, he told me that he’d put a stray cat into a friend’s unlocked truck and poked it with a mop handle until it was half-mad with rage. When his buddy opened the door to get in after work, the cat attacked him.
I found the story horrific. I was a fat kid, bullied as school. The prank reminded me of the kind of thing my tormentors might have done, but I laughed because I craved his approval. I wanted him to talk to me, to tell me stories about his coming of age, to make me a compatriot in the misadventures of his youth. He was quiet, and I didn’t know him well. I didn’t meet his side of the family until I was ten, and only then because his brother died. I still don’t know much about my grandfather, Benjamin, who was referred to as “Daddy Ben” by all of my father’s remaining family.
I like the name Benjamin. I love the Biblical resonance of it, how it seems both ancient and contemporary. Benjamin can be shortened to Ben, a name that fits a child, a young man, or an old man. The name connotes wisdom, as well, being the namesake of the Jedi master Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi. But that last part occurred to me later. When I decided to name my son Benjamin, I was thinking of my grandfather, a man who existed to me only as a name .
I should note that at age fourteen, I wasn’t close to becoming a father. I wasn’t sexually active. I didn’t have a girlfriend. But back then, I somehow knew that one day, I would have a son. I wanted to have a better relationship with him than I had with my dad, and I wanted him to know his roots and understand his family better than I did. When my father died the year I turned fifteen, I didn’t realize that my son’s knowledge of him would be similar to my knowledge of my own grandfather: handed-down stories filtered through a man who barely knew his father.
ii. Jeff, Not Lang
My father’s name was Clarence Lang Newberry. No one called him Clarence. Once, when I was a child, I asked him why he went by Lang and not Clarence.
“My cousin named me,” he said. “I think she made Lang up.”
“So you like that name?”
“Hell, no. But I don’t like Clarence, either. I got shitted on both ends.” He looked down at me. “Why do you think we called you Jeff? I wouldn’t wish Lang on anyone.”
When I was a boy, my best friend, Vince, my brother, Joe, and I made an art of playing war. We didn’t call it war, however. We called it guns , as in, “Hey, you want to come over and play guns this afternoon?”
We were children of the 1980s, weaned on Rambo and The A-Team. We were proud of our fathers’ service in the military. My dad had been in the Air Force. Vince’s dad had served in the Army. We wanted to be like them. We had Dollar Store toy machine guns and huge imaginations.
We loved anything about martial arts. We watched ninja movies and purchased ninja magazines and had long conversations about ninja skills, ninja magic, and ninja training. We were three North Florida kids choking on a mythology drawn from fantasy and science fiction novels, tabletop RPGs, and video games.
When we played guns, we invented new identities for ourselves. My friend, Vince, became “Jake,” a rugged Vietnam vet who was a crack shot with an AK-47. He was an ace pilot who’d flown F-14s in hundreds of sorties over the skies of Southeast Asia, and he was trained extensively in explosives and ordinance. And he was, somehow, a ninja.
My brother, Joe, became General Joseph Lee, a master tactician who’d served in both Korea and Vietnam. He had the mind of Hannibal and the guts of Patton. An expert in small arms, he was a master of field artillery, having commanded tank battalions all over the globe throughout the Cold War. And he was a ninja.
Me? My character was a mixture of Han Solo, John McClane and Indiana Jones. He was a screw-up, an undercover cop with military training who’d fought drug wars in South America after being drummed out of the service in the early 1970s. He had no respect for authority. He drank too much. He had a girl in every port and was wanted by foreign governments. He was ex-CIA and ex-FBI, a warrior too valuable to imprison and too dangerous to cut loose. He was a sniper, a crack shot with a pistol, an EOD technician, and expert with explosives. And yes, he was a ninja, too.
His name? Jeff Newberry.
iv. Professor Newberry
I was twenty-three when I taught my first college-level course. Because many of my students were close to my age, I struggled with what they were supposed to call me. As a first-generation college student, I didn’t learn that “Dr.” meant that a person held a Ph.D. until I was well into my B.A. I thought that high school teachers were called “Mr.” or “Mrs.” and that college professors were called “Dr.” Even in my master’s program, I didn’t fully grasp what “Professor” meant. So I put “Professor Newberry” on my syllabus for a section of freshman writing I was assigned to teach. I had no idea that “instructor” meant something totally different from “professor.” I didn’t realize that I’d promoted myself. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be called “Mr. Newberry.” That name felt too much like a character in a TV show, some poor schlub all the high school kids make fun of during lunch. I imagined conversations:
“Are you going to Mr. Newberry’s class?”
“Hell, no. That fat ass can stuff his literature where the sun doesn’t shine.”
My real students turned out to be much more gracious than the boogeymen I’d dreamed up. They called me “Professor Newberry” without hesitation. The title gave me some confidence in the classroom, something I lacked. Instead of the inept “Mr. Newberry,” I got to start my college teaching career as “Professor Newberry,” a young, hip academic who knew his subject and knew how to communicate with his students.
Still I struggled. I didn’t know how to be a teacher. I spent a lot of time trying on different personas, ranging from a strict disciplinarian to a laid-back anything-goes professor. I didn’t know what students should call me. Professor? Mr.? Teach? Jeff?
Now, over a decade into my academic career, I look back on those first few years teaching and see a young man uncomfortable with more than a title. I see a young man struggling with his identity. I see a young man trying to figure out his name.
v. The Love Song of J. Lang Newberry
When I fell in love with writing, I was fifteen years old, a teenager mourning the death of his father. I was a sensitive, overweight kid who never found his place in the top-down social structure that is American high school. I needed assurance that I had a life beyond my small town and a place somewhere in the great big world. I wanted a writer’s name, one that would guarantee literary greatness. “Jeff Newberry” didn’t sound like a writer’s name. I’d heard of the Newbery/Caldecott award for children’s literature, but I didn’t want to be a writer of children’s books. I wanted to write the great American novel .
Maybe because our names are similar, I identified early on with Ray Bradbury, whose books I checked out from the school library each week. My earliest attempts at writing were short stories inspired by of The Martian Chronicles, The October Country, and The Illustrated Man. My ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Lowery, let me turn in these stories in lieu of the essays my peers were writing. I signed my work Jeff Bradbury, a pen name I’d been toying with. But taking “Jeff Bradbury” as my pen name seemed too easy. At night, I spent long hours with my journal—a three-ring binder filled with notebook paper—making lists of possible noms de plume: Brad Berry, Jack Paradise, Erich Zahn .
In Mrs. Lowery’s class, we read a story by M.E. Kerr and learned that M.E. Kerr was the pen name of Margaret Meaker, who’d taken the name “M.E. Kerr.” I toyed with “J.E. Frey.” I liked that “Frey” called to mind “Freyr,” a Norse god I was familiar with because I read tons of fantasy novels, many of which plundered world mythology and religion. But “J.E. Frey” didn’t hold my attention for long. The “J” reminded me too much of my own name. I wanted to get as far away from “Jeff” as possible.
Years later, in graduate school, I landed my first publication in a small poetry journal. I had my name listed as “Jeffrey Lang Newberry.” It looked great in the table of contents and the contributor’s notes. “Jeffrey Lang Newberry” suggested literary greatness, a British writer who called America “the Colonies” and insisted on a 3:30 tea time every afternoon. I pictured a chubby T.S. Eliot with a droll smirk and round glasses perched on the edge of his nose. I considered shortening my byline to “J. Lang Newberry,” but that opening syllable, all alone, made me think of a lawyer. I wasn’t a lawyer. I was a writer: “Jeffrey Lang Newberry,” destined for literary lauds and accolades.
However, as I continued to place short stories in poems in little magazines, I started listing my name as “Jeffrey Newbery” and later as simply “Jeff Newberry.” Something about “Jeffrey Lang Newberry” rang false. No one called me “Jeffrey.” I didn’t know who “Jeffrey Lang Newberry” was. But looking in the mirror each morning, I knew exactly who “Jeff” was. I still know him well.
vi. Ben, Not Jeff
Ben’s learning to write his letters in kindergarten. He brings home oversized pieces of lined white paper with his wobbly signature at the top. I study his handwriting, wondering if it will mutate into something similar to my own: a blocky, neat print I adopted not long after my father died. Before his death, I wrote in cursive. The essays I wrote, the quizzes and tests I took: all were packed with my scratchy, messy script. You couldn’t tell the J from the F.
Though he worked as a butcher, my father had once been a cartoonist . He spent a lot of time doodling, drawing caricatures of politicians or athletes or actors. Sometimes, he drew pictures of me, a fat-lipped, fat-cheeked kid who could look past the unflattering portrait because his father was taking the time to sketch him. In his cartoons, my father filled speech balloons with neat, blocked lettering, similar to Arial font. Every written document he produced bore this handwriting. Even his signature was neat, the only scripted letters the stylized “L” of “Lang” and “N” in “Newberry.” I copied his style when I signed my name.
Looking at the way my son writes his name, with the lopsided “B” and sharp “N,” I wonder if one day, he’ll look at my handwriting and try to imitate it. I wonder if he’ll copy the way I write my name. I still mimic the neat “L” and “N” from my father’s signature, but the rest of my name is a mess, an illegible scrawl that looks like an afterthought, not a deliberate rendering of my name. I hope that Ben doesn’t try to write like me. I hope he finds his own way to sign his name.
vii. What’s in a Name (besides the name)?
The name Jeffrey is a form of Geoffrey, like Geoffrey Chaucer, a writer I fell in love with in eleventh grade British literature. I’d never heard anything like the odd music of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. In high school, some of my friends started calling me “Gee-offrey,” a play on that alternate spelling. This was the closest I ever came to a nickname. Most people knew me then and know me now as Jeff.
My name comes from three archaic German names, meaning distinct, traveler, and peaceful promise or peaceful gift. Other sources say the name means God’s peace. I’d like to read something into all of these words and phrases, perhaps find some connection between the romantic mystique of distinct traveler and myself. But doing so would be dishonest. My name is not its origins. My name is mine. I’ve lived it. I’ve shaped it. I’ve given it a meaning you won’t find in books or websites about names or genealogy.
Some sources say that Clarence means bright or clear. Other sources say that the name refers to the Clare River in England and means “one who lives near the river Clare.”
Lang is a shortened form of Langston, which means “town of the giant, “the tall man,” or “a tall one.”
My father’s name means none of those things to me.
Benjamin means “son of my right hand.” That origin recalls the Old Testament, giving my son’s name a weighty portentousness. It makes him sound strong, as though he emerged from the muscles and sinews of my own arm. Benjamin is a prophet’s name. It’s a name as regal as Noah or Moses or Jesse. But like me, my son will have to shape his name. He will have to find its meaning.
 My father never spoke of his own father. Once, he told me that his dad was a mean son of a bitch. Another time, he told me that his dad was one of the greatest men who ever lived. I think he believed both.  We never really fought wars, not even imaginary ones. Most of our fantasies involved black ops: secret missions that the government had to deny. Our fake identities sometimes had fake identities so that we wouldn’t be discovered by fake bad guys.  Plus, that Newberry was missing an “R.”  Others included Jack Snow, J. L. Berry, Rick Knight, R.J.J. Barry, and Wynter Nightshade. I had a thing for literature, fantasy role playing games, and tackiness.  He drew two semi-regular features: Island Bandits was bout two hobo-looking survivors living on an island that was just big enough for them and a single coconut tree. Lang’s Thang was a single-panel political cartoon that ran in our local paper. By the time he died at age 50, he’d given up cartooning nearly completely.