273.0: Oh, so that’s how it is.
I have made a reputation for myself and not in the awesomely promiscuous way. Yesterday at church a guest speaker was about to start giving his sermon when he began gravely: “But first, I want to ask an important question.”
His eyes locked with mine.
“Joe, what’s the score?” he said, now grinning.
The audience laughed but I responded with the quickness of a sleeper agent remotely activated.
“Cardinals are up 2-zip at the top of the second,” I mournfully announced, shaking my head.
“Forget the sermon. Let’s all just go home.”
The guest speaker’s sermon was actually really great. He was talking about Paul, the dude in the Bible who wrote all those letters to all those churches and basically shaped the New Testament and modern Christianity. But as you may or may not remember, Paul used to be Saul who persecuted Christians. He was on his way to do some persecutin’ when lightning flashed from the sky. In the blindness that ensued, he actually saw Jesus, and from there Saul changed his mind and thousands of years of history…
The guest speaker later opened up his sermon for discussion. (This is a Thing we do. I’ve never seen it happen at most churches, where a sermon is someone speaking and then you either nod your head a lot or preferably take it at face-value by saying out loud, “Amen.”) He asked us if there was anyone who had suddenly appeared in our lives and changed it forever.
The image that struck me had the severity and quickness of Paul’s encounter with Jesus’ holy meteorological phenomenon. The image was less nostalgia and more revelation. I raised my hand and began to speak of Miss Greene.
“She was my English teacher in my junior year of high school,” I explained. “She wore frumpy dresses and sometimes talked about when she burned her panties and bra at Kent State.”
(This elicited some laughter from the congregation but I like to think that it was more because of my mention of the words “panties” and “bra” than it was against the act of protest.)
“I grew up in a very conservative family,” I went on. “Unlike what’s popular today, we weren’t political about it. It was just a way of life: women don’t get abortions, you go to Mass every Sunday, and marriage is between a man and a woman. The few times that we did get political were just dinnertime conversations, you know what I mean? My dad would be reading the newspaper and then he’d see something about Bill Clinton and talk about how we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. I might have kept thinking that way about the world if it hadn’t been for Miss Greene. She assigned us books like The Handmaid’s Tale and Madame Bovary, which are still my favorite books today. She taught me about feminism, equal rights, social justice, blah blah blah…”
At that point, I was trying not to monopolize the discussion time. But my pastor, known for her sense of humor, chimed in: “Blah blah blah. No big deal.”
I wonder how Miss Greene is doing these days. She was still young enough back then that I would be certain she is still around, maybe even still teaching, though I don’t have the courage to randomly send an e-mail to my old high school. “Hi, I was wondering if Miss Greene still taught there.” Who does that?
Later over dinner — another Thing we do: have dinner after service — a Sir came up to me. Sir has a name but I won’t mention it here; actually, the pseudonym that I want to really give him is One of the Guys, because that’s the kind of sense of humor he has. He’s like the older brother I never had in that he is always teasing me. I don’t know what I did to deserve this. It just happened and stuck. Sir is married to a great Lady who does not tease me. Sir does this entirely out of his own sense of humor. As light retaliation, I am assigning him a very generic pseudonym.
“What’s up, man?” Sir said.
I was in the dinner line when he draped his thick arm over me. By the way, Sir has one hell of a handshake. Every time we meet I always feel like my arm is going to fall off. To be fair, I do have the handshake of a pussy. I’ve been trying to work on that.
“The usual,” I remarked, waving my empty compostable plate at the pot of taco soup that was being attacked by everyone in line ahead of me.
“You know,” Sir began with a chuckle, “back there at the sermon… nevermind.”
I narrowed my eyes already recognizing the telling expression on that thickly bearded Hagar the Horrible face of his.
“What?” I asked, warily.
“Well, the person who changed your life,” said Sir, who shamelessly wouldn’t abate his rising tide of laughter. “I thought you were gonna say Tim Lincecum.”
In The Golden Girls, when one character delivers a particularly scathing line of comedy, the recipient often stares back in stony disgust while the other character continues to crack herself up and the audience goes wild. Sadly, I was not allowed the dignity of being a sitcom to punctuate this moment. It was real life and Sir was making fun of me for my Tim Lincecum fandom.
“That was a serious sermon, Sir,” I deadpanned, visualizing Dorothy Zbornak. “I wanted to give a serious answer.”
Then I slapped his arm with the plate, which was a useless tool because he has the arm of someone who has thrown a lot of footballs in his life.
In the time that it took for his laughter to die down and for me to finally get to the taco soup, I started thinking about names. For some time, in the last few years, I have come to develop this certain belief about the sanctity of names. Linc, I’m sorry if I sullied the good name of your real-life counterpart by attaching it to all of those never-to-be-sents. He didn’t ask for it to happen and I took advantage of his role as a public figure to attach my hopes and dreams to his likeness.
The world of work — and here, I am not singling out any particular job that I’ve had — is filled with correspondence that will always have some name or names attached to them. I have many times witnessed colleagues who would rather attach their names to expressions of power rather than more constructive modes of task completion, goal achievement, and general diplomacy. When I am writing an e-mail or leaving a note, I am not trying to be a star, but I also don’t want the private response to be, Oh, that guy.
In my own life, my name is attached to such a wide variety of things and a lot of that stuff I am not proud of. I can only regard those things helplessly and think, That’s not me, yet there’s my name, bold as daylight. I do not want to change my name, but I look back on my choices and regret the ones that have made my own so unremarkable, at best, and at worst, a synonymous feeling of unspeakable failure.