The letter from the Social Security Administration sat on the table waiting for me when I got home from school. I ripped it open and inside was my pale blue Social Security card, with my perfect nickname legally emblazoned across the center, in all caps: CHIP POWELL, no middle name, initial, or suffix. I couldn’t believe it! I was legal and legitimate. I carried that little card in my wallet for years, until I realized you don’t really need the card, you just need to know the number. Better to stash it away for safe keeping than carry it around with you.
I began writing Chip Powell on all forms and records from then on out. But because I had been officially Tracy Powell in school, that name followed me to college. I didn’t have many issues with it: professors called you what you wanted (or more typically, at least in my case, didn’t call you anything at all), and fellow students didn’t snicker and tease the way my elementary school friends had done. But when I got my diploma from the University of California at Davis, it said Tracy Powell on it. It seems irrational, I know, because although I am proud to be a college graduate, and got a great education, that piece of paper with the official university and state seals on it was meaningless to me. I know you don’t go framing a bachelor’s degree or anything, but I jammed that piece of paper in a drawer and forgot about it. I couldn’t stand to look at the name on that piece of paper signifying my achievement. Tracy Powell didn’t work his ass off to graduate from UC Davis, Chip Powell did. Don’t you people remember? I don’t even know where the diploma is anymore, and I’m not sure I could prove I’m a college graduate. UC Davis would have a record of Tracy Powell graduating from there in 1995 (yeah, it took me a while), but no record of Chip Powell. If push came to shove, I’m not sure I could prove Chip and Tracy Powell are the same people.
My driver licenses have always said Chip; my home mortgage, insurance, and all official documents say Chip. Amy’s and my marriage certificate and our kids’ birth certificates all say simply Chip Powell. When I got a passport about ten years ago I was nervous. There’s a part in the application where they ask you if you’ve ever gone by any other name. I took a chance and said no. I sent in my paperwork, and a few weeks later I got the passport with my preferred name on it as well. My birth certificate is now the only documentation I have that says Tracy on it, and there is no proof that person is me. There is no court order allowing me to change my name, no marriage or divorce that resulted in a name change, it’s just me being stubborn and unwilling to go by a name I didn’t like. And also, to be fair, too cheap and lazy to get the name changed legally.
I have to say again, I’ve always felt a little guilty about this in respect to my dad, after whom I am named. He knew the sagas I went through around our name. I don’t honestly know if his feelings were truly hurt, or if he thought much about it at all. (He wasn’t so much with the “feelings.”) I do find it ironic that for someone who hated having a nickname himself, Dad saddled me with one. How often I wished my name was something normal like Steven or David or Michael. Or even more contemporary names for kids my age, like Jason or Scott or Eric. So now I’m a 48-year-old man, and I still have a little boy’s name. It’s either a boy’s name or an asshole’s name. I’m not wild about my name, but it’s who I am. I can’t fight it. I can’t change it. (Actually, I suppose I could change it. I swear half the people I knew in my teens and twenties have changed their names. Men, women, first names, last names, both names, and this excludes women changing their last names to their husbands’. But I’m not here to judge. People have reasons for doing things.)
My mom was unfailingly positive. When I was a kid she told me, “People really like your name. When you tell people your name, it makes them happy. They say ‘Chip’ and they always smile.” I don’t know if that’s true or not, but Mom had a way of saying things were true and having them be true. (I only wish she could have talked herself out of having cancer.) It still feels funny, pushing fifty years old, introducing myself to people in the business world. “Chip, like potato chip” is what I’ve been saying lately. They always laugh a little bit, which bears out my mom’s prophecy. But I have to clarify the name. Maybe I don’t enunciate well enough, but if it’s a crowded, halfway-noisy place where I introduce myself, no one ever catches my name. “Jeff?” they say, or “Jim?” Or Chet, Chiff, Jiff, Jet…I’ve heard it all. So that’s why I say “Chip like potato chip.” They understand instantly, and according to my mom, they like me better than someone with a boring name like I wish I had.
When I had kids of my own, I was adamant that A) none would be named Tracy, and B) that they wouldn’t have nicknames of any kind. What was on their birth certificates would be what we called them. Neither exactly happened. My ex and I gave our oldest son one of the top names that people like to nickname: Vincent. Vincent is a great name, we thought, and still do, but it absolutely screams to be shortened to Vince, Vin, or Vinnie, none of which we wanted the boy to be called. The family always called him Vincent, and he always introduced himself as such. The name the teacher called on the first day of school caused no embarrassment, I hope; it was his actual name.
He had a baseball coach when he was about ten years old who called him Vince. I was an assistant coach on the team, and it was the year that I decided that I would never be an assistant coach again. (Henceforth I decided I would be either the head coach or simply an uninvolved parent. It’s too hard to be chief deputy to a complete and total flake.) This coach always called my son Vince. I told him one day, “He goes by Vincent.” The coach was a jovial fellow, and didn’t seem to take me seriously. He replied, “That’s fine, if he tells me he wants to be called Vincent I’ll call him Vincent.” I got it. The message was “I don’t give a shit what Dad says, what does the kid have to say?” Fair enough, although for the many years I coached after that, I wasn’t such an asshole about what I called kids. I told Vincent (whom honestly it didn’t seem to bother) “If you want him to call you Vincent, you have to tell him.” After practice one day I prompted him, after coach said “See ya, Vince!” Vincent kind of yelled to Coach with his back turned “My name is VIN-CENT!” Coach didn’t act like he heard, but he laughed a little, and he always called him Vincent after that. But the man simply had to hear it from the nine-year-old himself. Ugh! This is what I was trying to avoid. If I could go back, I wouldn’t interfere. If a kid wants to be called a certain name, the kid can either express that or talk to his or her parents about the issue. The problem was that I brought all my childhood baggage to this experience and made it MY issue. I see it now; I didn’t see it then. (Well, I kind of saw it.)
The next kid was Henry. No one ever called him Hank, and his name was his name was his name. Amy and I loved the name, still do, and we stand by it. It was a classic that hadn’t made any kind of comeback. I never personally knew – and still don’t know – a Henry my own age. Of course within a few years of Henry being born in 1999 we realized there were a zillion other Henrys from white upper-middle class families toddling around at the same time. He was the only one in his elementary school, but by the time he got to high school with Land Park kids there were lots. At one point there were three Henry’s within about five years of age separated by our back fence where two other houses joined ours. But nicknames were never an issue for Henry.
Finally, with our last kid, we broke both rules A) and B). Josephine Tracy Powell was born in 2001, and she was Josie from the very start. Amy – another name that’s impossible to nickname – convinced me that it would be fine, and it has been. We were both in love with both names: the longer Josephine and the shorter Josie. Although we quickly noticed that some pronounced it “Jo-See” while others said “Jo-Zee.” But we never corrected anyone, and it doesn’t bother Josie. She manages her name just fine all by herself. It’s OK when teachers call her Josephine, but it’s known that she goes by Josie. (I’ve heard her herself say both Jo-See and Jo-Zee at times.) The Tracy in the middle of her name: that was an homage to my dad, who would never have a Tracy O. Powell IV in his line – at least not from me – but a sweet girl with his gender-neutral name in the middle of hers would have to suffice. He loved Josie, and I think he was happy about her middle name. It may have made up for my lifelong battle against the name I inherited from him.
In 2020, the Real ID laws kick in for the state of California, and I’ll have to get a new driver license with the special gold star that proves I’m a “real American” and not some kind of terrorist if I want to board a domestic flight without a passport. I did a little freak out when I read I’d have to bring my birth certificate to the DMV to get my Real ID, but as I read further, it seemed a passport would work just as well. Check! That says Chip, as does the Social Security card I’ll need to provide. At 48 years old I’m finally settled into my name. My dad is gone, and the original Tracy before him is long gone. My sister Tracy/Sissy is still around, but the name is mostly died out in my line, except for my girl, Josephine Tracy. That’s good enough I think.