There is something liberating in the process of leaving home for college or any other exotic, far off locale, especially if you are going to a remote enough location that nobody will know you at all. This gives you the chance to reinvent yourself, to come up with a new persona, a new set of friends and hobbies, and a new secret identity if you are into that type of thing. Cut your hair or grow dreadlocks, get a dye job from some forgotten corner of the color spectrum, grow a bad mustache or a Grizzly Adams beard. The potentials are endless. And apart from changes of habit and appearance, sometimes coming up with a new name for yourself can provide just the kind of perspective change you need. It is kind of crazy how a different name can cause people to react to you differently and see you in an entirely new light.
I have always gone by many names, and most not by my choosing. Jeffrey was what my mom called me when I had engaged in questionable decision making, and if I was really in trouble she would just use my full name like one long profanity, JeffreyDuaneHager!
When I was in elementary school I went by plain old Jeff, but my nickname became Slacks, garnered by the advertising campaign of the Haggar Slacks brand of pantalones. Since there were about 10 other Jeffs at my school I didn’t mind the name Slacks. Most of us spelled it conventionally with the J-E-F-F, though a couple spelled it with a G, and one even spelled it with a whole bunch of unneeded letters – J-E-O-H-F-F. I liked to spell mine without the extra F, just to simplify the whole process, shorten the shortened version if you will, but stopped when one of my teachers started marking my name as misspelled because I forgot an F. Meanwhile the guy who spelled it Jeohff was not chastised. Talk about confusing.
In middle school and high school I got the nicknames of Hagar the Horrible after the viking comic strip, and also Sammy due to my last name and similar haircut to Sammy Hagar – the red rocker. In college I actually started calling him my uncle Sammy, and more than a few people believed this little fiction. I made up stories of drinking tequila with uncle Sammy in Cabo, parties on the tour bus, clingy groupies, and tried to give off the general air of being a rock star through imaginary genetics.
After I graduated college I spent a few years traveling around and playing Ultimate Frisbee with an Open Division team from San Fran called Double Happiness, and everyone knew me simply as Hagar, like I was some sort of Brazilian soccer star. Many people who were not my teammates didn’t even know I had a first name, and to this day many of my old ultimate accomplices think my last name is spelled with an -ar rather than an -er, and have a look of confusion if they ever figure out the truth. When they find me on Facebook they wonder if I have misspelled or changed my last name for some reason.
During my years working in restaurants the Spanish speaking cooks used to call me Jefe, because obviously I was in charge. I think this was probably because they had so much trouble pronouncing the English J sound. I remember one cook named Javier that used to call me Yefferson with a Y. Now of course my teacher nickname is Mister Hager. Whenever a student asks my first name I tell them it is Mister. They smile and I don’t. I tell them my parents had played a horrible joke on me for naming me that. If they read my ID card and try to tell me my name is Jeffrey, I quickly correct them and let them know my first name is indeed Mister. I tell them my mail is addressed to Mr. Mister Hager.
The thing all of these monikers have in common is that I didn’t choose them myself. They were all given to me by others. So at some point I decided it was time to find a new name for myself, and decided to go by my middle name of Duane rather than Jeff. Even though they are both rather uninspired, people are much more perplexed by the name Duane than the name Jeff. When I introduce myself as Duane almost everyone asks Duane? as if they may have heard it wrong. Not Dave, Wayne, or Dane? Duane? Really?
My problem is that I decided to change my name when everybody already knew me as Jeff, so only the people I have met recently call me Duane, and much confusion ensues if someone who knows me as Jeff and someone who knows me as Duane happen to meet. So how long have you known Jeff? Who is Jeff? You mean Duane? Suddenly it feels like I have been caught in some sort of lie, my secret life revealed. I guess the real reason I tell people my name is Duane is to feel like I’m pretending to be somebody else for a moment, using a pseudonym that is not actually a pseudonym because it is actually me after all. He is me and I am him. We are one in the same.
When I started to submit my short stories and various other amalgamations of words for publication back in the 20th century I decided on the pen name of J.D. Hager. It’s not that I want to be known as J.D. As already discussed you can call me Duane, or Mister, or Slacks, or anything you want really. The reason I like having initials as my pen name is due to the fact that someone just reading the name won’t immediately identify me as a male or a female, because knowing someone’s gender will immediately cause someone to peg you into some sort of category even if it is unintentional. I want my words to stand alone without my white maleness to cast a shadow or doubt upon their worth. As a writer I guess that’s all we can hope for–for our words to be taken at face value without any extra baggage attached. Also it is a sort of homage to some of my favorite authors, such as T.C. Boyle, F.X. Toole, E.A. Proulx, and of course J.D. Salinger. I just like the mystery of initials, because they can stand for anything.
My pen name is J.D. Hager, but you can call me Duane.
Written for the DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Names