The Ol’ Switcharoo
November 6, 2008, 5:51 PM
Filed under: Adolescence, Soul-Searching, Word Origins

I remember learning about etymology my senior year of high school.  It was one of the main focuses of a short but hellish regimen during my AP English course, complete with a little red book called “Word Power.”  Every week we’d have a test on new set of words, what they meant, and whether they were Greek or Latin or any other demographic that was bold enough to create language.  I’ve retained almost none of the information, with the exception of “misogynist,” which is, ultimately, a woman hater.  “Word Power” gave me no power like the title suggests, just a mounting feeling of anxiety, trying to remember what the difference between the suffixes “phone” and “phony” was.

There’s a lot in a word, yes, but in a name?  In a name there is life, lives even.  A name is like your definition.  I’ve often thought of the first date where the guy leans over the terrycloth table and says to me, “So…tell me all about yourself.”  I simply respond, “C.J.”, and he nods knowingly, having me all figured out.  Think about it: when you’re discussing a friend and you say their name, it isn’t just a noun.  It’s a verb, a preposition, and, most importantly, an adjective.

It’s borderline creepy to think that about a year ago this time my own definition was completely different.  In September 2007, I was lying on my futon eating bread and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!, distraught over my recent break up with Dave, my ex-boyfriend who I dated for a year and lived with.  I had become lackadaisical and sloth-like because of my depression, and needed to do something severe to put my life back on track.  Post break-up, I moved into an attic in the Riverwest area for $300 a month.  It was all I could afford, and the only option I had with the increased pressure to leave my current living situation.  I remember discussing it with my mom, two weeks after I had moved in.

“Your place is on Meinecke, right?  Meinecke and what?”

Having only lived there for two weeks myself, I wasn’t too sure.  So I told her I couldn’t remember.

“Well, did you know that a Jimmy John’s driver was shot and killed in that area?  On Fratney?”  I looked up to see that I was walking down Meinecke and Fratney.  I picked up my pace.  “The guys had nothing against him, they just wanted his money…$25 dollars, they shot that man for gas money.  Can you believe it?  Of course, this was a few months ago, I think, but still, you ought to be careful.”

I didn’t sleep too well that night.  I hated how everything had went from Cinderella post-Royal Ball to Cinderalla pre-Royal Ball, all in a week or so.  Last Wednesday,  I was living with my prince in a freshly painted apartment with a cute, yet terribly smelly rabbit named Izzy.  Now?  I was surviving in a storage room that had no heat but approximately five thousand unnamed spiders.  At least I could pass the time by naming them, but since I took to killing bugs rather than christening them, that was starting to look more like a miniature bloodbath as opposed to an afternoon activity.

As I was lying there, attempting to make sense of the static on the T.V., I began to think about my own etymology.  What did I mean to others?  What did I mean to myself?  And if I didn’t like the answers, what would I do to change it?  I turned the volume on the T.V. to find out that the hazy static was actually Dr. Phil discussing a “large” age gap in a relationship, saying in his matter-of-fact Southern drawl, “It’s just fundamentally wrong!”  The crowd affirmed that it was with an uproar of applause, but I, the viewer, snorted.  Dr. Phil, to me at least, is fundamentally boring, so I opted for brief daydreaming rather than listening.

During elementary school, I never had a nickname, but that was due partially to the fact that I was invisible.  I was invisible, of course, until I did something that drew unwanted attention to myself, such as using a pink gel pen or mugging a kid on the playground for a holographic Charizard card.  When these outrageous events happened, I was briefly acknowledged, scorned, and hung out to dry, leaving the other children to wait for the time I would strike again.  Middle school I was finally noticed, but not as me, as someone else, which for all intensive purposes is an improvement.  A random student had called out to me, but it wasn’t my name; it wasn’t even close.  “Hey…Emerson!”  She had confused me with another of my peers who I shared a science class with.  I wasn’t upset or confused at the mix-up.  If anything, I was relieved that, even though people still didn’t see ME, I wasn’t completely transparent.

I began to collect a small group of friends, most of who probably felt like outcasts themselves.  After my Emerson nickname lost it’s luster, my friends were elated to find that when I’m embarrassed or shy (which was a good 95% of the time those days), my ears turn red.  The more I’m embarrased, the more red they become: colors range from a hushed rose to crimson.  The clever nickname I received because of this was Elmo, which, looking back, doesn’t make much sense.  I mean, I hadn’t watched Sesame Street since I could count to ten all by myself, but I don’t remember Elmo’s ears getting red when he was nervous or embarrassed.  I don’t even remember Elmo having ears.

Regardless, the name stuck for a good two years, but was sometimes replaced by a cleverly synthesized “Elmoson,” the juggernaut that haunted me for my entire 8th grade life.  The worst part was that I responded to it.  If you shouted the name down the hall, I’d come running like a whipped lap dog, and I hated myself for it, for Elmoson was not me.  It was just a compilation of another student and a shaggy red Muppet. 

By the time I became a high-school student, the once tight group that called me Elmoson had somewhat evaporated, and I was back at square one.  The invisibility in elementary school was tolerable, but high school was all about being seen, and on a good day I was almost as opaque as a Martha Stewart Living sheer window curtain.  To add insult to injury, the teachers barely knew my name, and made only a slight effort to learn it, leaving me, once again, alone and undefined.

When I came out my sophomore year, I had a new nickname that, while fitting, was a little unsettling.  I was now “The Gay Kid.”  The only out student at my high school, I was either ridiculed or put under a microscope like some sort of extraterrestrial organism:

“So…like, how do you decide which one’s the man?”

Easy, he’s the one who pays for things.  Next?

“How did your parents take it?”

Well, seeing as my mother used to get up at 6 AM with me to watch My Little Pony, I can’t imagine this shook her to her core.

On and on the questions went, and I’d answer them, excited to share my “new personality” with anyone who was interested.  But I can’t help but wonder how they’d feel if I asked them the same questions.  I suppose that’s the unexposed perk of normalcy: none of the really important questions pertain to you, because we already know exactly what you are.

Coming up on junior year, I had ditched the “Grandfather’s Closet-chic” look and gone more mainstream.  I started to shop at all the stores that encouraged teen sex appeal and just made you want to surf: Abercrombie and Fitch, American Eagle, Hollister.  Oddly enough, I bought those clothes to feel like I belonged, but in the end, I didn’t even belong in the clothes.  I was, and I hate to say it, but I have to…it’s like ripping off a bandaid, a grade-A poseur.  It was a point where I still didn’t know my definition, and I was hoping that through the mirage of popularity, it would come to me one night in a dream.

Senior year, I figured, was my time to shine.  I wanted to finish my high school career with dignity, go out with a bang, and hopefully bring my grades up.  I’d argue that I achieved two of the goals with diligent mediocrity, the third goal, finishing with dignity, blew completely apart the minute I started my first long term relationship.  I met Dave because I was a terrible math student, and he had explained that he was an engineer at UWM, and was very good at math.  I knew he was gay, but in all honesty, I hadn’t expected much when we decided to meet at Starbucks for a tutoring session.  I spent the majority of the hour and half poo-pooing algebra and praising my acting skills to the point of revulsion.  Dave seemed to be slightly bothered by my unwillingness to learn, so half-way through, he gave up and talked instead.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

The reason this relationship caused such an enormous miscarriage on the dignity front was because Dave was older than me.  Much older.  At the time, I was a cheeky 17 year old, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, just waiting to create my own personal future.  Dave was 32 (to be fair, he told me he was 28 until about three months into our relationship), a college student and someone who was looking to for the finality of a monogomous relationship, something I found I could only provide for so long.

As it goes, high school kids are absolutely brutal and have almost no consideration for other people’s feelings.  This isn’t bitterness speaking, it’s scientific fact.  I was the same way, so I don’t know how I was surprised when I was given the cold shoulder by the leviathan that was the student body.  I had gone from hero to zero in four months flat.  I traded in my Abercrombie apparel for mismatched t-shirts and sweatpants, moving from “Fake Prep-chic” to “Overworked Babysitter-chic.”  I did still have friends, but it was nothing compared to the popularity I’d been given during my junior year.  I was losing my visibility, and I was losing it at an alarming rate.

After high school, I moved with Dave to the East Side.  It wasn’t really my choice, but I went with it, thinking the change would do me some good.  It strained our relationship, mostly because I wasn’t having any fun being stuck in the apartment all day with nothing to do but paint the walls or blow dust around the kitchen floor.  It wasn’t all bad though, and there were many days where we were very happy, sickeningly happy even.  Some nights, I would lie awake and think to myself, “This is where I belong.  This is who I am.”

About three months later, there I was…lying on the couch, ignoring Dr. Phil’s all-too-familiar view on my past relationship, and jamming my knife back into the tub of margarine.  I was Elmo, I was Elmoson, I was the Gay Kid, I was the Kid Who’s Dating An Old Guy.  And now I was Chris.  Chris in the attic with the split top wheat and the barely working T.V.  ‘This can’t be it for me,’ I thought, ‘I deserve another shot.’  But how to get there?  What to do first?  To re-invent myself would be a daunting task, to say the least, but it was, at this point, necessary.  I wanted to be seen, to be heard, to be bold and forward and intelligent and sexy and everything I imagined I was.  All of these things I would finally be.  But…how?

I thought back to Word Power.  I remembered the etymology, the origin of a word…misogynist, even.  And then it hit me.  I would change my meaning my definition by changing my name.  Not a drastic change, but a simple one.  Something that exuded confidence, youth, and happiness.  Something that embodied my hopes and gave me the strength to move forward as a new individual in a new life.  The answer was simple.  So the following week, I decided to test it.

As I walked down Oakland Avenue, I wasn’t nervous at all.  I was excited, not only to see what could be my new place, but also to begin again.  I walked up the cement stairs to the door and rang the doorbell.  When one of the girls answered the door, she introduced herself, “Hi, I’m Brittney.  You must be…?”

I smiled.  In one clarifying breath, I released my past into the autumn air, and declared myself, “C.J.  I’m C.J.”

And just like that, I walked through the door, and into my new life as the person that I was struggling so hard to be, all these years.