A Name So Odd It Could’ve Been Made Up

My oldest sister was named Cecilie.

That is not a typo. It is not Cecile, or Cecilia. It is Cecilie (pronounced similar to Cicely Tyson‘s name, but with a short “e” on the first syllable).

My other sister, Jennifer, and my brother, Peter, and I have extremely common names. But Cecilie’s name was as uncommon as ours was common. It was in the polar opposite direction from our names. It was as if my parents began naming their children with a heavy dose of uniqueness, and then changed strategies when number two arrived. With child three and four, they went the straight Biblical route.

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Cecilie and me, about nine months before she died.

I feel that Cecilie didn’t like her name much. As the years went by, she seemed more and more tired of the spelling corrections and the pronunciation corrections. My mother once mentioned that she had offered my sister the opportunity to change her name, but she declined. Perhaps my sister was too invested in it by then. I don’t know what name she would have preferred. She never told me.

In fact, no one in my family ever talks about why Cecilie had such a painfully unique name. It is like a taboo subject. We talk more about why my uncle is gay than we do my own sister’s given name.

Maybe I’m the only one who finds it odd that we have two classic Biblical names, one name that was the single most popular name for newborn American girls every single year from 1970 to 1984, and then we have Cecilie, a name so odd that it could have been made up, like Dweezil.

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Names carry a lot of weight. People name children after themselves, sometimes to the third or fourth generation. They name children after their parents or grandparents. Some people make sure everyone in the family has the same initials. Family (last) names can influence who you are and how people perceive you. Kennedy, Bush, or Schwarzenegger, for instance.

So to question one’s own parents about why a name was chosen over another seems to flirt with one’s own existence. For instance, my father was the third in his family to bear his name, and many thought that his first-born son–that’s me–would also carry the name. Instead, I was given a completely new name.

I have some issues with my name, but to ask why I wasn’t named after my father would make me appear ungrateful. After all, I am healthy and independent. It’s what’s inside that counts, right?

In addition, I find it hard to imagine myself not being Matthew at this point. Would my life have been different if I had another name? Would Cecilie’s have been?

My sister’s life was not an easy one. She had an undiagnosed mash-up of Tourette syndrome, possibly some minor brain damage, and something from the Autism spectrum. She had scoliosis beginning when she was a pre-teen. And she died in 2009 from ovarian cancer a few months before her 48th birthday.

So maybe her name was the least of her problems. But I still wonder.

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It Is Hard to Be Kind to Your Parents

It is hard to be kind to your own parents.

Wait…I know that sounds harsh, especially on Fathers’ Day, so let me unpack that a bit.

I think there may be a reason that the Bible tells us–in fact it commands us–to honor our fathers and mothers. Think about it. Why would the ancient Hebrews need God to come down out of Heaven and tell them to honor their fathers and mothers? Is it perhaps because it is not an easy thing to do?

Kindness has been defined by some as empathy and respect for another person.

Me and my dad, 1974.

Me and my dad, 1974.

Empathy is the ability to really be inside another person, as much as that is possible. You can do it with siblings and peers. Can you really empathize with your parents?

Parents, by definition, are of an older generation. They are shaped by social and economic forces that did not shape you. They try to pass their “values” down to you, but out of context, those values can be quaint to the point of being meaningless.

Also, parents change over time just like anyone else. Their parenting styles evolve, their belief systems evolve. No matter how much we’d like them to remain the same person we knew as children, they are not, and neither are you.

My mother used to say that each child in a family is raised by a slightly–or sometimes wildly–different person. That would mean that my view of my father and mother is different from that of my brother and two sisters. And it is. My brother, who is younger, is much angrier at my folks than I am, for good reasons. Some writers publish childhood memoirs, only to hear from brothers and sisters that they didn’t remember it that way at all.

Parents also have privileges or struggles that we often don’t have. This can make us sad or angry at them. It can make it very hard to be kind. So how, exactly, are we to empathize?

As for respect, that is also complicated. Respect is something that must be earned from another person. To demand respect because of your position, age, wealth, or any other reason, results in bullying and hypocrisy.

Am I saying that parents must earn our respect? Yes, I am in a way. We cut them a lot of slack, because they are our parents. But ultimately, they have to earn that or risk losing everything that a family is supposed to stand for.

So, it is hard to be kind to one’s own parents. We do it anyway, because we are expected to–by our society, by our culture, by God. But let’s not reduce it to greeting-card sentimentality and phony familial relationships.

Let’s be honest about how hard it can be, and then forgive ourselves for not always being very kind.

We’ve Stopped Fighting, My Transgender Son and I

We’ve stopped fighting, my teen-aged transgender son and I.

Sure, we still go at each other over the stupid little things in life, like who gets the bathroom first, or not cleaning up in the kitchen. But it feels like the transgender thing is a done deal. It is no longer the silent animosity that poisons our personal atmospheres. He needs my support, doubly so since things will never be simple for him.

It was time to end the war.

I don’t know what it was, exactly, that tipped the balance. Since my child came out four years ago, I’ve been reading and listening and learning what I could about transgender. But a few things recently seemed to strip away for me the distractions and get right to the heart of it.

And it was as if a switch had been flipped, like I had crested the ridge of a mountain and could now see clearly the view from that height. This is not to say that the rest of the journey will be perfect. Only that this milestone is behind me now. Behind us.

He may not have seen it quite yet. Or maybe he senses a subtle shift in my approach, my tone. I know that he thinks I should’ve accepted all this years ago.

But I didn’t accept it at first. I was heartbroken, and grieved instead for my beautiful daughter who now does not exist. My now son shares her memories, but he also carries with him those years of anxiety, self-doubt, and self-hatred. And the uncertainty about whether I supported him and loved him.

We are lucky to have avoided the suicide that plagues so many families of trans kids. I hate to consider how close we may have come.

What do all parents try to teach their children? To believe in themselves and to not waste effort trying to be someone they are not. I couldn’t convey that message to my own child if I continued to oppose who he sees himself as being. For him to believe, I have to believe too. Without that, I look like a hypocrite.

Today we have an appointment with a surgeon who will remove my child’s breast tissue. This was something I was very conflicted about, but now, by taking this step, I am moving beyond just passive acceptance. I am putting my support and commitment into action.

Stay At Home

As much as I like the idea of becoming an unconventionally employed, stay-at-home dad, I get to wondering what impression I would be giving to my kids.

“What does your dad do?” they would be asked.

“He does a lot of gardening, and laundry,” they would say. “Sometimes he plays his guitar.”

“No, I mean, for a living,” the questioner would say.

“????”

We’re told that work is a thing you do, not a place you go – a common saying of telecommuters and the tech industry. Right?Trust me.

But part of being a parent is being a model for your kids to learn from, for better or for worse. They get their impressions of being an adult based on what they see the grownups in their life doing. If I took on the role of primary householder, what model does that present, especially to my son? Would it show the benefits of an unconventional life or demonstrate that dad is a slacker?

A lot hinges on semantics: what do we mean by “do”?  When people say “what do you do?” they really mean “what activity do you perform for which you make money.”  For some people, the answer to that question is obvious and clear: “I’m a doctor” or “I’m a lawyer.”

For many others, however, what they “do” and what they want to be doing are very different, and answering the question can be much more complicated. “I serve coffee, but I’m really a musician,” for instance. Or the job has no recognizable label: “I key summaries of government activity into a database so that others can search and retrieve the information based on topic or stage of government action.”  It does not roll of the tongue easily, or have the same cachet as “I’m a reporter.”

My kids are already at a disadvantage because they don’t really know what I do.  I leave for work every weekday and come home in the evening, presumably having done something valuable in that time. It is hard for me to explain it to them because what I do is very academic and very derivative, and it takes place out of their view and field of experience (more on that another time).

Back during my involuntary hiatus in employment, I was telling a neighbor about how my job search was not going well.  I had hoped to use the situation to find an ideal new job but was close to settling for any job offer that came across my desk. “As long as it’s not soul-sucking,” was his advice.  And he is right, of course, but sometimes you have a trade away your soul because you’ve been left with no choice.  Forget about gaining phenomenal guitar-playing prowess. These days it is enough just to keep the roof over your head.

In this age of declining prospects for employment for the next generations, I see two alternatives.  One is that we continue with the current model for education and career and hope to God that it is not your kid that ends up on unemployment.  That requires a lot of blind faith and wishful thinking.

The other is that we redefine the concepts of employment, career, and what people “do”.  If we did that, we must infuse these concepts with personal passion and social goals.  We must be more liberal about labels and pigeonholes, and what is deemed “okay” for one’s life pursuit. If a kid wants to be a “rock and roll education reform administrator” instead of “lawyer”, we should not just think it is fine; we should encourage that choice and support it unreservedly.

I think I’m too stuck in the old industrial model of dad-commutes-to-work, dad-brings-home-the-bacon for there to be any hope for me.  But I hope my kids can find not a career in the conventional sense but a life’s work. And if that means staying at home, let it be so.