When You’ve Got to Own Your Middle Name

Intercom

“Mr. Hersey could you please send Michael Smith to the principal’s office.” These words were spoken in a pinched female voice, disembodied and degraded by the aged speaker box that hung on the concrete wall. I looked at my sophomore peers in English class, they all looked at me, I looked at Mr. Hersey. He walked to the intercom, pulled its trigger and said, “Mr. Smith will be right down.”

I was to meet with Vice Principal Yarrow, a man with a left arm that ended just above the elbow, who was known as a fierce competitive cyclist steering and shifting with his one hand. He always wore short sleeves, and held students’ records under his incomplete left arm – a clamp holding down a folder filled with indiscretions that couldn’t escape the permanent display of a lack of judgement.

“Mr. Smith you know why you’re here don’t you?” said VP Yarrow.

Sweating, recoiling opposite his massive desk, I racked my brain for what I’d done,”Um, no?”

“You’ve missed Ms. Wright’s Spanish class three days in a row.”

“Ms. Wright? Who’s Ms. Wright?”

“Mr. Smith your Spanish IV teacher, please, Ms. Wright!”

“Um, I’m in Spanish II with Ms. Cone.”

An uncomfortable moment of silence followed.

“You are Michael Smith?”

“Yes.”

Unclamping the folder, VP Yarrow took a closer look at the student file, “Michael C. Smith?”

“OOOOhh, noooo. I’m Michael B Smith. The B is for Branson.”

That was probably the first time I’d owned my middle name. A family name from my mother’s side, that her father had, as did her father’s father, and onward. I’d aways felt it was an awkward middle name, too haughty, too nasally, too unlike any other middle name I’d come across in my narrow suburbia experience. My brother got Scott, I got Branson.

But I’ve been owning that middle “B” for sometime as I’ve created (and will continue to create) innumerable usernames for an endless list of internet accounts and services. Having a “common” name is a blessing and burden on the internet, easy to hide, but hardly found. Why?

Starting in 1964, “Michael” became the most popular given name in the US and would remain so until over three decades later “Jacob” would take the title in 1999. Jacob and I have been battling for the number one spot ever since (though he’s owned the crown for most of the 2000s). And “Smith” is the most common surname of the United States – all time.

Yup, that’s my name, “Mike Smith.” I have one of the most common names in the United States. People I meet to this day still ask me, “No really, what’s your real name.”

So as I create accounts, trying usernames – msmith, mbsmith, michaelsmith, michaelbsmith, etc. They’re already gone. And I can’t be “msmith4377” or whatever other username a bot wants me to be.

Last summer I started a blog on the CUNY Academic Commons about my old artworks and had the need for a username for a variety of social media accounts that I wanted to affiliate with it. “NotTrivial” was the username I chose, and its origin is explained in one of the artwork blog posts. I use @nottrivial on Twitter, Flickr, and a few other places now (including the name of this blog for now).

But I’m officially owning my middle name for the second time in my life now, with michaelbransonsmith.net and I’m not sure what that means for “nottrivial.” Maintain it and continue to propagate it? I’ve parked @mbransons on Twitter for now, but rebuild followers and following?

What’s in a (user)name anyway? What do you think?

10 comments

  1. Michael,

    Thanks for writing that. I wonder about this ALL THE TIME. I’m not kidding. I still haven’t decided if it’s better to be easily found or better to blend in, to be anonymous, safely hidden in the ubiquity of your name.

    I have the combination name that no one in the world has. That gives me the first few pages of my own Google search results. No one else has an Italian first name and Scottish-Northern Irish last name, it seems, at least not in that combination.

    It’s also a blessing and a curse. Rarely is my name spelt or pronounced correctly (JULIA, fyi)…Teachers often accused my parents of being hippies and were angry they tried to be clever. They *were* hippies, but my name is just ethnic not a Frank Zappa brainstorm.

    I really enjoyed your NotTrivial post and the story behind that!

    MAKE ART DAMMIT! #ds106 #4life

  2. Cool michael…I recently learned to own my middle name also. Its is a part of my family history. I used to be ashamed of the name because its is hard to pronounce.

    1. A very interesting read. I actually had the exact same thing happen to my wife and I at our closing. The table almost collapsed under the weight of number of pages that contained a seemingly endless list of New York City residents with the name Michael Smith who’d committed a variety of credit busting sins.

      Frank Smith’s meditation reminded my about the Alan Berliner film “The Sweetest Sound” in which he invites twelve other Alan Berliners to dinner. It’s filled with the humor and angst that you would imagine comes with spending a large amount of time thinking about who you are and where you come from.

  3. Hi Michael B-

    I came here just curious about the person posting in ds106, and glad I got down to this story. Guess you could be thankful your first name was not John?

    I love how it is written and your tie to online identity. I find myself curious about Yarrow’s response. I find myself curious about a story where Michael C Smith is in the office and claims Michael B Smith’s identity. Each story unfolds into more possibilities…

    My middle name was one I always wish hidden- “Herman” it always led to snickeriung and Muenster jokes when I was in school. Although it was given to me in honor of a grandfather I never know, I still rarely claim it. Why could my parent’s not have picked “cogdog”?

  4. Thanks Alan.

    The middle name seems to be a family’s way of satisfying obligations doesn’t it? The choice of first name usually involves a long process with parents – how does that sound. Will people turn it into an ugly nickname? (the Richards of this world always fear Dick). But the middle name is familial duty. A name for satisfying a family notion of what ought to be.

    But what’s interesting to me now is that the thoughtful nickname has turned out to be “trendy” and the middle name becomes a rally cry to encourage you to find your “real” identity.

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