$100: The filing fee for change-of-name documents in Poweshiek County, Iowa, in 2003.
$9.97: The cost of bond paper at Wal-Mart, the only place in my tiny hometown where I could purchase it. The State’s website had specified a certain weight of paper, and I wanted to make sure I had all my ducks in a row. I printed the forms in triplicate directly from the website—still a novel convenience at the time. I carefully filled them out using a very nice pen. I used Wite-Out to correct my mistakes.
In the blank field labeled PREVIOUS NAME, I wrote JOHN PAUL MOHAN in meticulous block letters. In the field for NEW NAME, I wrote JAKE MOHAN. No middle name.
In the REASON field, I fibbed and wrote, “Lifelong family nickname.”
I left them on the kitchen table one night in mid-April, perhaps intentionally, and when my mother saw them and asked what they were all about, I felt the next phase of my plan beginning. “I told you I was going to do this,” I said.
“When did you tell me that?” my mother asked.
“The night Dad died.”
66.9 miles: The distance along Interstate 80 from Iowa City, where I was living at the time, to my hometown. A stretch I’ve driven hundreds if not thousands of times. On the night of April 5, 2003, my then-girlfriend was behind the wheel and I was in the passenger seat, because one of the last things my mother had told me during The Worst Phone Call Imaginable was not to try and drive myself in my condition. This meant I had nothing to concentrate on but the unlit road ahead, the big empty Iowa sky beyond, and the interior contours of pure shock.
About an hour later, my girlfriend and I were sitting at the kitchen table. My brother would arrive from college the next day. My mother was eerily calm, having gotten familiar with the those interior contours a couple of hours before I had, when my father collapsed suddenly at the dinner table, his heart shutting down with gruesome efficiency. Within seconds he was unconscious, within another half-hour he was dead.
Of course my mother doesn’t remember the conversation we had then; I barely do. I know that I said something about how Dad had always called me Jake. I know she said something about how I could always change my name to Jake. There’s got to be more to it than that; she wouldn’t just casually suggest changing my name a full quarter-century into my lifetime. But somehow I came away from that night—and the whole terrible week of funeral and wake and family visits and grief-laden affairs-ordering—dead-set on changing my name to Jake.
Within days, I had bought the paper, printed off the forms, filled them out. I began introducing myself to strangers in bars as Jake, much to the confusion and alarm of my friends, who were already, understandably, worried about me. I’m fine. Call me Jake.
October 16, 1978: The day that Karol Józef Wojtyła’s papacy as Pope John Paul II began. I was two years old at the time, and my Catholic mother rejoiced at the news.
I was actually named after my uncle John Paul, who’s more commonly known as John, or Johnny. I was born before any popes came along to usurp my name: John Paul I served a mere month in 1978 before his death. I would peevishly rattle off this papal arcana to the classmates and teachers who dared make jabs about my name, which only made me seem like more of a dweeb. I envied my peers with more conventional names like Mark and Sarah: still perfectly respectable, Biblical names, but also normal. They didn’t feel the internal grimace every time a gym teacher (always gym teachers and athletic coaches) called me John, which somehow sounded even weirder than John Paul. Mark and Sarah didn’t have to wrap their heads around the idea that my middle name was also part of my first name, but not hyphenated, that my dad’s name was John, and so was mine, except it wasn’t. That I was named after my father, but not a Jr. My parents were unintentionally causing their young son to grapple with post-structuralist semiotics years before his college professors would.
At an unspecified moment sometime in the late 1970s, for reasons unremembered by my mother, my father started calling me Jake. Nicknames were extremely common in the small Pennsylvania coal-mining town where he grew up: Seemingly none of his friends or family were known by their given names. I was an adult before I learned that his sister Molly’s real name was Mary; her husband’s name was Paul but she sometimes called him Jake—perhaps that’s what inspired my father’s nickname for me. I never did learn the real name of his childhood best friend, Yogi. My dad was known as Jack, which is a common alternative to John; but friends also called him Shad because he was apparently so skinny he barely cast a shadow. All of these names suggest a bygone conviviality, the kind of rosy post-war, pre-lapsarian, working-class accord the country supposedly enjoyed for a few precious moments somewhere in the middle of the century, if at all.
My father brought this blue-collar naming tradition with him to his new life as a college professor in the midwest. Nearly all of his colleagues and their children used the names they were given, and maybe that seemed uninspired to him, a waste of creativity. Maybe that’s the spirit it which he started calling me Jake. Or maybe it was just easier and quicker to say than John Paul. He could save my full, four-syllable name for instances when, like many other parents, he wanted to communicate the high temperature of the water I’d just found myself.
I had never been thrilled with my full name. In high school I started going by JP, which presented its own problems: In my mind, it conferred a jauntiness and masculinity that I couldn’t sustain, or a gravitas reserved for bestselling novelists and modernist poets. Soon after I graduated from college, my name again began to rankle. I was tired of being asked what my initials stood for, of not having something more substantial for a first name. John Paul, meanwhile, was too substantial; it didn’t roll off the tongue. I’d have to repeat myself in a noisy bar when I introduced myself as John Paul and someone didn’t understand me, or thought Paul was my last name. Jake was a simple, declarative, elegant solution my father had provided me years ago.
But changing my name this far into adulthood (because twenty-six is soooo far into adulthood) seemed too much like a stunt, too affected and pretentious. Then, my father died, and all bets were off: I didn’t have to worry about making waves amongst my family and friends when there was a tsunami of grief and change bearing down on us. I piggybacked on the surreal shock of sudden loss with my own life-altering announcement: Call me Jake.
20.6 miles: The distance from my hometown to the county courthouse, where I dutifully filed my name-change documents a couple weeks after my dad died. I had more time on my hands than I knew what to do with, since I was underemployed even before my family’s Sudden Life Event, and my one existing boss had told me to take as much time as I needed—a kindness he probably came to regret. Maybe the name-change project was a way to give myself purpose, a reason to get out of my parents’—or mother’s, now—house and drive along small winding Iowa highway on a weekday morning.
The helpful middle-aged women stationed at the courthouse’s front desk duly filed my forms, no doubt impressed with the bond paper. The State would contact me within 30 days to arrange a court date where I would plead my case for the name change.
About three weeks later I got a letter from the State saying that I had to re-submit the forms on the proper paper. The helpful women at the courthouse were not so helpful after all; they had made photocopies of my precious bond-papered documents and submitted those to the State, rendering my application null and void. I cursed the maddening machinations of Bureaucracy and flew into a disproportionate rage. Of course, I wasn’t just angry about bureaucratic machinations, such as they were. I was angry at myself for undertaking an enterprise that suddenly seemed both grandiose and trivial. I was angry at what exhausting work grief was turning out to be: alternately absurd and horrifyingly mundane, the day-in and day-out business of being in mourning was often so boring, a bone-wracking, migraine-inducing slog that none of the books and grief counselors and websites my mother and I were consulting had bothered to warn us about. I was angry at my parents, for giving me a stupid, non-normal, non-Mark-and-Sarah name, and in doing so, forcing me to someday change it, as if my Jake campaign were my inevitable birthright. Call me Jake. My dad always did.
My mother, witnessing my meltdown, tentatively suggested that perhaps this setback was for the best. She had read somewhere, or perhaps a friend had told her, that a person isn’t supposed to make any drastic life changes for at least a year after suffering a loss; we are not in our right minds, and we may come to regret those actions. Tattoos, marriages, divorces, relocation—best give it a year, wait and see.
Besides, she said, her lawyer had told her that all one needs to do to change one’s name is start going by that name: Just introduce myself as Jake, he said—it doesn’t matter what my driver’s license says.
I took the second piece of advice and called myself Jake without worrying what my license said, which was an effective rebuke to the first piece, about making sudden changes during a period of mourning. Fuck that. Call me Jake.
Steven Paul Smith: The name on the autopsy of a very talented singer-songwriter who either did or didn’t stab himself to death six months after I started introducing myself as Jake. My mother’s lawyer had a point: People change their names all the time, especially famous and successful (and sometimes very troubled) people, especially in arts and entertainment, where anything is possible and reinvention is the norm. I am not a famous, successful artist like Natalie Hershlag, Elizabeth Stamatina Fey, or Jean-Louis Kerouac, but I had just as much right as a self-aggrandizing American to remake myself in any form I chose. We are blessed, in this land of freedom and opportunity, to enact our god-given right to promethean reinvention, be it name or gender, career or residence.
I put the legal paperwork on hold but continued telling my friends and family to call me Jake. I sent an email to my entire address book informing everyone of my decision and politely requesting that they call me Jake (today it would probably be a Facebook announcement). When I told my brother, he responded with suspicion and alarm, finally sighing, “Okay. But don’t expect me to stop calling you John Paul anytime soon.”
His resistance was understandable, and I made an addendum to my announcement assuring my oldest and closest friends that they had been grandfathered into the John Paul regime, and could continue calling me Jake. My already strange name-change project was starting to feel increasingly precious, self-aggrandizing. I was not Natalie Portman, Tina Fey, or (thank god) Jack Kerouac. I was a 26-year-old schmuck whose dad had just dropped dead, and was now alarming his friends and family with bizarre onomastic reinvention.
30 minutes: The time it took me to run back to an airport ticket counter and request a new boarding pass reflecting my actual, legal name, after I tried to get through security with a boarding pass that said Jake and an ID that said John.
6 seconds: The time it took a bank teller to inform me that I couldn’t get checks that said Jake when my legal name was John.
2 days: The time it took my first post-name-change employer to issue a new ID badge that read Jake, to replace the first one that read John.
These and other similar inconveniences demonstrated that my mother’s lawyer wasn’t entirely correct: Calling myself Jake wasn’t the same as being Jake.
3 years, 4 months, and 3 days: The length of time I was legally named John but called myself Jake, before my name change finally, legally, reached completion, on August 8, 2006.
$322: The filing fee for a legal name change in Hennepin County, Minnesota, where I have resided since 2005. This amount is, of course, substantially more than the $100 I tried to pay the State of Iowa, but the overall process was much smoother. I rode my bike to the courthouse in downtown Minneapolis, filed the forms, paid the fee, and a few weeks later attended a hearing, accompanied by my girlfriend and a grad-school classmate, since at least two witnesses were required to attest that I was mentally sound and wasn’t attempting to defraud a state whose most famous cultural export has transitioned through about seven different pseudonyms, including a glyph and the name Alexander Nevermind.
A few weeks after that I received an official certificate reflecting my name change, and a few weeks after that I received my new driver’s license.
A Few Weeks: The amount of time it takes to accomplish pretty much every step of gradually transforming from one legal name to the other, including the process of applying for and receiving a new driver’s license, credit card, checking account, passport, and student ID. Each step requires a very official letter and a very official certificate mailed to an address I had to search through tons of fine print to find on the websites of Citibank, Wells Fargo, the Department of Homeland Security, and my graduate school. There are probably institutions out there I have completely forgotten about where I am still known, seven years later, as John Paul.
John Paul: The shorthand label I use for the first twenty-six years of my life, which corresponds handily with that period during which I had a father. When I remember something from my past, I mentally classify it as pre-Jake or post-Jake, with- or without-Dad. Not everyone has made the transition with me: I have very old childhood friends who still call me John Paul. My mothers’ oldest friends, and some of her siblings, still call me John Paul. My brother long ago made his peace with my new name and calls me Jake without stumbling.
It was never my intention to draw so much additional attention to myself; remember that my whole problem with having a weird name was that it kept me from fitting in, from assimilating into a sea of Marks and Sarahs. I am so not a non-conformist. I am so self-conscious, so narcissistically anxious about blending in, that I will go out of my way to avoid visiting the same grocery store twice in one day lest the cashiers think I’m some kind of two-shopping-trips-a-day weirdo. So I suppose it’s ironic that adopting a name that would allow me to assimilate caused me, at first, to wreak such cognitive havoc on those around me.
Do I ever regret turning my back on John Paul? No. There are times when I wish I could spare my mother’s friends back home the confusion when she reintroduces me as Jake, or the cognitive dissonance my wife experiences when we run into one of my college classmates who calls me JP. But Jake has felt comfortable and correct for a long time, even longer than the past ten years it’s been my preferred name. And it’s not so weird, after all, this business of shifting identities: I’ve known at least a dozen people who’ve tried on different names, transitioning with surprising ease between nicknames and married names and stage names. Maybe it’s just another side effect of our modern condition, a climate of social-network avatars and screen names whose lack of fixity bleeds over into physical space: She’s Sam now, not Samantha, or He’s going by his middle name now, or His dad died and now he wants us to call him Jake. Okay; that last one is still a little weird.
Jake: My first name.