2009.12.11 Something in a Name

Most of my immediate male relatives are named Steve. There was Stephen A., my grandfather, who begot Stephen B., who begot Stephen R., who begot Stephen R. Jr., who has not begot anybody yet but another Steve cannot be far away. Stephen R. Sr., my brother, is inexplicably not Stephen C. (Chaires having a venerable Florida history on my mother's side), and equally inexplicably it was not his first son Stephen who went to West Point, like himself and his father, but his second son Brian Michael, whose middle name comes from me, just as my own middle name also comes from my father's younger brother David. Thus although I am neither a Steve nor a graduate of West Point, or of one of the other service academies like the husbands of my father's two sisters, I am at least a D.

Uncle Dave and I share more than two thirds of our names. We both married non-Americans, and as I discovered just a couple of years before he died, he was also an Outrageous Conspiracy Theorist. He pointed to the CFR, whereas I tend to talk about Big Brother, which makes me wonder if being little brothers has something to do with being resistant to Official Conspiracy Theory (Al Qaeda, Communists), as well as being attracted to foreign women. The call of the wild?

Speaking of which, I have another piece of evidence that Plautus's old joke, Nomen est omen (used often in German), has some truth in it. I have always been fascinated by the sound of calliopes, even as a kid. It was not until a few years ago, however, when I developed an interest in traditional Irish music, that I discovered why. The sound is strikingly similar to the uillean pipes! It struck me, at least, and sometime after that it dawned on me that my name contains within it, recapitulates so to speak, the entirety of my paternal Irish genealogy, except for the Steves. I am the direct descendant, onomastically, of my oldest known Irish ancestors, my great-great-grandfather Michael and my great-grandfather David (who started the Steves).

They say appreciation of this instrument is an acquired taste, but I can feel it and I know it is the same feeling that calliopes evoked in me long before I had even heard of uillean pipes. Hence I feel justified in saying it, silly as it sounds: the pipes were calling. More than that, I admit, is speculation. It's a pity that Michael left no written record of himself except what can be gleaned from birth certificates and other tidbits, but one thing I know for certain is that he, like me, was an emigrant, an ex-pat. I think it's also safe to assume that he left Ireland, given the year, 1859, for economic reasons, which makes two more things we have in common besides the name.

I don't know what Michael's politics were, but again, given the year of his emigration, I would not be surprised if he was something like what I would call myself, i.e. a rebel patriot. "Patriot" is a nasty word, of course, given the nefarious uses to which it is put, but by that I mean I doubt that Michael left his homeland for any lack of love for his countrymen. It was not hunger per se in my case that made me leave, but something akin to it, namely, a job offer.

I got my Ph.D. in linguistics in 1973, just about the time the bottom fell out of what had been a pretty good job market for such credentials, and being a white male didn't help much either. Then they tried to draft me, and not having the pull of a Bill Clinton (we both lucked out later in the same lottery), I would have gone to Canada if I had not found a shrink who thought the war was crazier than I was. By 1977 I was tired of trying to convince people that I really was interested in that job as a gas station attendant, file clerk, restaurant manager trainee, or publisher's rep (one interviewer was anxious to tell me that since I hadn't been in the military I would have trouble getting up early enough in the morning to do the job), so I left anyway. I became an applied linguist, which is a fancy way of saying language teacher. After a stint in Iran, I landed here in Germany, teaching English to university students.

I have no idea what happened to Michael after he landed in New York with his wife Mary Hartigan and their 12-year-old son David. My grandfather never knew him or his wife, so they must have died young. I know only a little more about his son David, thanks to a short memoir my grandfather penned in 1965, which I treasure -- e.g., that David served in the Union Army, started out in the ice business in Yorkville and later opened a tavern. So I am free to imagine what I like about them.

What I imagine is that Michael loved his native country but hated what had become of it, how it had been terrorized and suppressed by imperialists and their collaborators. In his case these were the English and -- not to forget -- some of his own fellow Irishmen, respectively. In my case I look no farther than my birthplace, Washington D.C., to find the contemporary imperialists and quislings who have turned my hometown into what Noam Chomsky calls the terrorist capital of the world.

Chomsky is from Philadelphia, so maybe he doesn't have the sentimental ties to Washington that compel me to point out, in its defense, that the Pentagon and the CIA are not in Washington but in Virginia, the NSA is in Maryland (Ft. Meade), the School of the Americas is in Georgia (Ft. Benning), Lockheed Martin is in Maryland (Bethesda), Time Warner and Fox News are in New York, and so on. I have lived in all of these places -- as an Army brat -- and have fond memories of all of them. They are part of me, just as Ireland was part of the earlier Michael (Ballyneety in County Tipperary is the only place I know about), and the people we knew and loved there are also part of us, are our countrymen, and nothing will ever change that.

Hence the word "patriot," in the only sense that makes sense. I like to call myself a "Thoreauvian conservative," according to his idea of government, but I could just as well say "patriot" since I aspire to be counted among the "very few" who "serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it" (Civil Disobedience). Why should we let the boneheaded O'Reillys and Hannitys own the word? Neither of these "patriots" ever wore the "uniform of their country," as they would put it, either, a history they share with many other great warriors such as Dick Cheney and (I'm sorry to say, but his grace period is up) Barack Obama. Whether Little Bush wore it or not depends on whether you think the expression applies to an AWOL Texas Air National Guardsman.

There is not much I can do with the ghosts of Michael and David, whose names I carry, and as always the maternal side gets even shorter shrift. Still, there is something. I feel there is something, and that's what matters anyway. You can ask me what it is. I'm working on it.