Here Lies John Jones by John Jones
On May–, 19–, the day I came into this world, my parents named me John Norman Jones.
On May–, 19–, the day I came into this world, my parents named me John Norman Jones. You might imagine they would have named me several weeks earlier, but they didn’t. In that quieter, less complicated era, it was not common to take fluid out of a woman’s body, much less take 3-D pictures, to determine the sex–I mean, the gender–of the coming bundle of joy. People were content to leave that news for the day of delivery; it gave mothers one pleasant surprise to look forward to during several hours of otherwise unpleasant surprises.
What my parents would have named me if I had had a hoo-hoo instead of a dingle-doo, I don’t know. “Ruth,” “Carol” and “Nancy” had already been taken by the three daughters of the family, and the names were so perfectly chosen, I doubt any fourth name could have been added without disrupting the delicate harmony. Names so Anglo-Saxon and immediately identifiable but not overused. Names so upright, so Christian, and yet, with the exception of Ruth, so unbiblical. How could a pious family who read devotions every night, prayed before meals, and recited the Lord’s Prayer before bedtime let God’s Word suggest only one name of the three? Was it because women’s names such as Zipporah and Damaris would have sounded like minor characters in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”? Perhaps, but this doesn’t explain why the first-born of our siblings, a male, was named not Jeremiah or Mark or Jude, but Ronald.
Whatever the reason, it fell to me to be the new bearer of revelation, and the nurse at the local clinic in our small Utah town typed on my birth certificate the name John Norman Jones. I’ve heard two conflicting explanations for this fiasco–one came from my father, the other from my mother, the two people who really ought to know. Explanation one: my godmother to be, Donna, had known a John Jones, “and he was the nicest guy.” Explanation two: my grandfather was named John, and my father’s middle name was John, so it made sense to have a John for the next generation. But my mom didn’t want me to be saddled with an unusually common name if I didn’t like it. So to counterbalance the John, she gave me the middle name Norman.
Like so many stories moms and dads tell themselves about their children’s future happiness, this one made more sense in my parents’ brain than in the real world. After all, when, having been torn from the comfort of a multi-story suburban house in New Jersey, painted tawny yellow to match the color of sunlight as imagined by a four-year-old, you sit terrified during your first day of kindergarten, wondering who these horrible creatures are sitting around you, and when your name is called out during roll call, beginning a ritual of first-week humiliation to be repeated annually for 13 more years, no one in the room hears the “John Norman Jones.” No one else is privy to the nuances of the thoughts that comforted a mother during what, with the painkillers and the long labor and all, was an inopportune time for her to be making decisions another person would have to live with his whole accursed life. No one else knew that John means “God answers prayer/ God is gracious,” a surprising name for a kid who unexpectedly came along 20 years after the first-born and 9 years after the nearest child: surprising for the sister who lost her long-cemented status as the baby of the family; surprising for the mother who soon thereafter was in the hospital for varicose vein treatment; maybe only sensible for the father who, as much as he loved his daughters, had always hoped for another boy.
No, all anyone else heard was J... J... And at age 4, most kids are not adept at pronouncing “J.” You’d think that in a largely Christian and English-speaking society, where the name of Jesus trips off everyone’s tongue several times every Sunday, the sound J should not have presented too much of a challenge. But somehow, in what must have been a subconscious tribute to the French, I became Zhohn. Like Zsa Zsa Gabor, like Jean-Luc and leisure suits, I was saddled with Zh, neither a J not a G. The sound Z, I could have lived with. I could have joked about how every alphabet ends with me. I could’ve hung out with cool kids like Zeke and felt a special affinity to Xavier Cugat every time Charo did a guest spot on The Love Boat. But it was not to be. Karens were just Karens, Rickys were Rickys, but I was Zhohn. Zhohn Zhones.
When you’re 4, you’re lucky. When you’re 4 and for the first time your mom lets you drink juice from a glass that really is made of glass, you cry when she tells you that you aren’t allowed to carry the glass over the stone tile floor. You cry, because you know at that moment that no one has ever suffered as you have suffered. But at least you know it can’t get worse.
At 4, you don’t know any better. You don’t know that your name, along with John Brown and John Smith, is like Madonna–more a placeholder than something unique to you. You’ve never opened a dictionary and found the illustration for the word “tombstone” reading “Here lies John Jones.” You don’t know you are the stock example, the John and Jane Doe of court dockets, the mathematician’s X. You are Everyman, with all of the responsibility that role requires.
And none of the benefits. After all, people usually remember Tom, Dick and Harry. Folks never call John Smith “John Smooth” or “John Smite.” John Brown never hears “John Braun” or “John Bowman.” Why, then, can people never get my name right? One faculty member who worked with me for years (and who seemed to like me) constantly introduced me as John James. I get John Johnson constantly, even from people who first see my name in print–as if Jones, like Tamaiyrah, was too exotic and novel to get right the first time. In the early 80s, at least I had graduated to well-known names and was often called Jim Jones. Finally, just last year, the inevitable happened, infamy begat kitsch, and for the first time someone called me Jack Jones, a person I don’t mind being named after (now if only I’d been named Rick Dana or Rick Damone).
Perhaps the oddest conversation about my name took place when I was setting up an account with Con Ed, the electrical utility for the NYC metropolitan area. I spent two minutes explaining to the customer service rep how to spell my name. Finally, convincing himself he had it right, he exclaimed with great delight, “Your first and last names are the same!” Leaving me to say, in a teacher-trying-to-encourage-a-child voice I hope never to have to use again, “Why, they are very similar, aren’t they? And yet not quite identical.”
For all my complaints about my name, I will probably never change it. When I was finishing my Ph.D., after what seemed a long sojourn in the wilderness, I considered changing my name to reflect the metamorphosis I believed myself to have undergone. “John” fit me too well, so the change would have to be to my middle name, Norman, a name that unfortunately connoted nothing more than former European glory, a supporting character in a sitcom that hadn’t aged well, and a gorgeous, smart, wonder-filled, Gregory-Peck’s-got-nuthin’-on-him guy for whom I’d carried a torch for years. Civilization lost, love unrequited–themes I was more than willing to part with.
But what to insert in its place? I’d always liked David, and it scanned the same as my previous middle name. I had great karma with Pauls (romantically) and Michaels (as dear friends), which were reasons to have to entertain and decide against both options. The best candidate, and one I will never fully rule out, is Daniel, the Jewish eunuch in the Babylonian government. That intrepid exile refused to eat the king’s rich food or bow down to the foreign idols, preserving his purity while mastering the lore of the Chaldeans and learning to interpret dreams and hidden things. Now that’s a middle name worth having.
I did explore one other option–adding my mother’s maiden name as a middle name. Since maiden names are used in verifying credit card identity, since I’ve already divulged my birthday, and since, with a name like John Jones, I’m perennially at risk for identity theft, I suppose it’s a bad idea to commit the maiden name to print. But trust me, it’s even more uncommon than Norman, and for me connotes the cool side of my family. The Joneses, God bless them, tend toward religious fervor. The other side tends toward brainiac endeavors, love of crossword puzzles, and something like learning for its own sake. Not many –es tend toward my mystical temperament, but then, few Joneses aspire to read Plato simply to get him right.
Ultimately, however, I haven’t changed my name. At least once in every four social events, I meet someone who tells me they know another John Jones, and he is “the nicest guy.” So my godmother was right after all. Or perhaps it’s just a self-fulfilling prophecy, and with a name like John Jones, I was predetermined to head in the direction of Salt of the Earth. At an equal number of social events, someone tells me of their second cousin/ roommate from college/ first-grade teacher whom I resemble like a twin. People stare at me with disbelief that I’m not actually their friend–the stare you see only in identity-switching movies such as “The Parent Trap,” “Twelfth Night,” or “Vertigo.” “He smiles a lot too and is really nice.” I ought to start tracking the names of my doppelgangers to see if there are other names predisposing people to be generically nice.
So I inherit the fate of Everyman. I’m stuck with a name that people forget, but one associated with a person they rather like while he’s around. It fits my face, usually described as a “kindly midwestern uncle” sort of face, which is a nice way of saying it’s nondescript but nonthreatening. This is parallel to the fact that when people insist I resemble a celebrity, they choose wholly incommensurate types–Jeff Daniels, William Hurt, Paul Newman, Steve Martin. My face has become the cipher for indeterminacy. And in the end, this just shows how wise my parents were over a third of a century ago. As we moved around growing up, I was often having to start from scratch with friends and surroundings. Many entertainers got their start in similar circumstances, standing out in the crowd by being the class clown or the brilliant performer. I drifted toward a different solution. Anyone can be a diva and a star, but at the end of the day, when you’ve had 5 whiskeys and need a shoulder to cry on, you need a John Jones, the anonymous fellow. I’ll never have thousands in attendance at my funeral, but as long as illustrated dictionaries survive in print and online, my life, like the lives of my namesake brothers, will be memorialized under T, nestled somewhere between Tol-de-rol and Tomfoolery.