Why My Kids Have the Names They Do

I always hated my name. “Brock.” It sounds like you’re starting to say a vile word and then got punched in the throat. I think it’s that hard vowel sound followed by the rock solid wall of double, redundant consonants that does it. And then there’s the “broccoli” thing. When you’re five-years-old, the last thing you want to be called is a vegetable.

So, when it came to naming my own kids, I had some rules.

1. It must not be a name that can be made fun of easily.

2. The name must be unique but not overly strange.

3. The name must be wonderful.

And then I got married and another rule had to be added:

4. The name must be decided by unanimous vote. 

So, no Apple. No Moon Unit. No Pilot Inspector. But also, no Michael or Hannah or Hailey or Andrew or Megan. If the purpose of a name is to differentiate oneself from others, then what’s the point of a common name? I’ll tell you: it’s to be like everybody else. Not my kids. Not on my watch.

ELORA

I wanted our first daughter, Elora, to be named “Tendra.” My wife, Erin, wouldn’t go for it. No way. She hated it. Tendra is a Spanish word meaning “will have” and ever since I learned the language at 19, I liked the sound of it. Also, I was nuts.

“Elora” (pronounced Uh-laura) I got from Elora Danan, the infant everybody is after in the 1988 fantasy movie Willow. Even though I was only 11-years-old when the movie came out, I remember thinking quite clearly that Elora was a great name for a girl. I never thought Erin would go for it, but she LOVED it.

I loved that it was a name I’d never heard used outside of the movie. The universe, less impressed, put a little girl named “Alora” in Elora’s class this very year. Same pronunciation. Go figure.

CAMI

Cami’s real name is Campbell, after my wife’s maiden name. We thought naming her Campbell was a great way to pay tribute to that side of the family. Plus, it’s very different from Elora. That was our fifth rule: our kids can’t have names that begin or end the same way. We didn’t want our kids to ever be confused. Elora got the “uh” sound. That was all hers.

We knew of a few people with Campbell as a first name, but most of them were male. One TV reporter, Campbell Brown, was female, and that was enough for us to think it a worthy girl name.

Besides, dude, if your name ends in “bell” then you’ve have a girl’s name. That’s a fact.

The problem was that Elora, who was just 2-years-old when Cami was born, couldn’t say “Campbell.” She called her “Camel.” This would not do, so Campbell became Cami. I must say, despite our hard “no nicknames” rule, it works. Cami has special needs and doesn’t grow like other kids do. She’s super, super tiny. Cami is a little pixie name. Fits her perfectly.

VIOLET

Our newest addition, not even one year old, got her name from a dream. Having another kid after Cami was a big decision. We love Cami, but her needs took over our lives and emotional states the day we found out she was different from other kids. Could we risk doing it again? Then Erin had a dream in which she held a beautiful, healthy little baby named Violet.

Rule number 4 was broken. We were going to have another baby, a girl, and her name would be Violet. End of discussion.

It took me a while, but I love the name now. Yes, it’s an old name everybody knows. Most people associate it with Willy Wonka, but that’s okay. It’s a beautiful name and we’ve never told it to someone without them remarking how wonderful it is and how well it suits her.

Names are extremely important to me. I think a lot of our identity comes from the sound and appearance of our names. Brock, as a name, is much more in fashion now (making me appear younger on paper), and yet is still unique enough to make me stand out. What once sounded ugly to me, now sounds strong and powerful. To my mom I would say: Sorry for all the grief I gave you over the years about it. And… thanks!

Hopefully my kids will one day be able to say the same.

What is a Memoir? (And Why I Wrote One)

Whenever I tell people I’ve written a memoir (not something I do with great regularity–it’s usually my wife who does the telling), I often get the question, “What is a Memoir?” I usually begin my response by saying that it’s an autobiography that isn’t an autobiography, but that only confuses them more. So let’s unpack this properly.

A memoir is a person’s written, first person account of their own life, or, more typically, a portion of their life. A memoir’s focus is usually narrow. Maybe it’s a coming-of-age story that focuses on the author’s youth like The Glass Castle or Growing Up Amish. Maybe it’s an account of the Mormon dating scene in New York or the author’s experiences working undercover for the ATF. Or, as in my case, it’s about dealing with the dual tragedies of death and growing up. Memoir usually picks a theme or an certain perspective and sticks to it. It’s not trying to tell the whole story of a life, only one of its more interesting stories.

To really understand what a memoir is, you’ve got look at that root word, “memory.” A memoir doesn’t report the facts. That’s not to say that a memoir is full of lies, but a memoir is not about what happened so much as how it happened. To the author.

A memoir’s only priority is to share the author’s perspective. Nothing else matters. No research required. Only digging deep and pulling out out thoughts and feelings from the deep recesses of the brain.

And because of that… a memoir may not be all true. Think about it: are your memories factually accurate? Of course not. Chances are, your mother and father and brothers and sisters have different takes on some of the great stories of your life. For a memoirist, it is no different. The only thing a memoir can report on accurately is the memory of the author. What actually happened is known only to God and video cameras.

This is why you’ll sometimes hear memoir described as a cross between fiction and non fiction. In fact, even though memoir is filed under non fiction, it’s pretty much sold and written as fiction. Why? Because, like a novel, a good memoir will have a strong and propulsive narrative with an emphasis on character and plot. An autobiography can get away with presenting a life as a series of events and facts and figures. A memoir has to tell a story.

Of course, there are pitfalls to this. The temptation to exaggerate or even fabricate is great for the memoirist. That’s how you get guys like James Frey who fooled a great many people (including Oprah) with his is-it-true-or-is-it-not memoir, A Million Little Pieces. There’s remembering things a certain way and then there’s saying you served 87 days in jail when you did not.

Having now written a memoir myself, I get why this happens. A memoirist has two equally important priorities: tell the truth and tell a good story. They can occasionally butt heads. Only a very skilled and principled writer can navigate the battle successfully.

So why go there? Why write a memoir? Is it vanity? Lack of imagination?

For me, no. I don’t lack for imagination. I actually find fiction to be quite a bit easier than memoir. I wrote my book for two simple reasons: I knew it was a good story and I was compelled to tell it. Before I even knew if I was capable of writing a book, I knew this was something I had to do. And when you get promptings like that, I think you have to follow them. It usually means there’s somebody out there you can reach or help. I see the writing of my story as a sacred responsibility. One I could not ignore.

I imagine many memoirists probably feel the same way.

Book Review – Under and Alone: The True Story of the Undercover Agent Who Infiltrated America’s Most Violent Outlaw Motorcycle Gang

William Queen’s Under and Alone: The True Story of the Undercover Agent Who Infiltrated America’s Most Violent Outlaw Motorcycle Gang knocked me right out. If you’ve never read a memoir before, you could do a lot worse than to start here.

Queen is a former undercover agent with the ATF who had worked many deep cover cases before he joined up with The Mongols–an outlaw biker gang so fierce that even the Hell’s Angels know to fear them. But the two and a half years Queen spent posing as the rough-and-tumble Billy St. John proved to be the most difficult and riskiest case of his career.

The Mongols are known for their predilection towards violence, gun running, murders with witnesses who refuse to talk, and willful misuse and abuse of theirs and other people’s women. They make no pretenses towards respectability like the Hell’s Angels, rather they encourage their reputation as outlaws by brandishing their colors openly and not giving two figs who sees them do their thing. They’re not in it for the profit, they’re in it just to do whatever the #@$% they want.

I should mention that the book is (bullet) ridden with profanity. Usually, I’m fairly well bothered by profanity. But, the way Queen presents it, it’s just part of the texture of the despicable world he inhabited in the name of justice. Queen endured a lot to bring down a sizable chunk of the Mongols organization (which he likens in size and scope to the Mafia), and somehow that made it easier for me to accept the frequently rough language his antagonists use.

The story is remarkable and thrillingly told. Queen knows how to reduce a story down to its bare bones and pace it in such a way that you absolutely cannot wait to see what happens next. As someone who prefers books that don’t get bogged down in detail, I appreciated his spare approach.

I probably wouldn’t have believed the story was true unless the cover told me so. Under and Alone reads like a page turning novel–which is just about the highest compliment I can give a memoir.

Highly recommended.

The Goal Age

Today, I turned 35-years-old. I’m so pleased.

I’ve always wanted to be 35. Always. The earliest I can remember having the thought was when I was thirteen. Become a teenager was a real tragedy for me. I didn’t want to be belligerent, smelly, rebellious, angry, foolish, awkward, etc. That’s what teenagers are like, I reasoned. I was already insecure, afraid and in constant amazement of the complex machine that is adult civilized life. I didn’t want to inch closer to it and go through all of that coming-of-age/first love/college junk. I wanted to skip right to the good stuff. I wanted to be 35.

I think the movie BIG came out around this time.

At 35, I’d have a wife and, possibly, kids. I’d have that figured out and I wouldn’t have to wonder anymore if it was even possible for anyone of the opposite sex to fall in love with me. I’d be done–completely–with school. I’d know what a mortgage is and how to pay it. I’d have a job. Better, I’d know what my job was supposed to be.

I’d know more about God. Maybe I’d even know if he really exists and what he wants me to do in this life.

At thirteen, these were all impossibilities. Giant puzzles I had to put together by myself without the aid of a picture.

35 was the age at which I’d have everything figured out. The Goal Age. Today, I hit it. And all those things my thirteen-year-old self thought he might have accomplished by January 20th, 2012?

Done, every single one. And then some. Thirteen-year-old me would be so jealous.

I hope I never take for granted all that I have and all that I’ve learned. I’m glad I didn’t get to skip those in between years. I think appreciation comes from struggle and hard work. I’m grateful and glad to be 35 in a way thirteen-year-old me never could be.

Can’t wait for 36.

 

The Year We Took a Family Photo with The Incredible Hulk

She took his head clean off.

My wife Erin had given him to me and he sat proudly atop my computer monitor at work, glaring down at me with rage. When I shuffled the wrong way and hit my knee against the desk, he was the one who got hurt as his head swayed to and fro, his chin knocking against his chest and back.

“WHY HULK’S HEAD SO MUCH BIGGER THAN HULK’S BODY?” he asked in protest. “HULK IN CONSTANT FEAR OF TOPPLING OVER. THIS WHY HULK SO MAD!!”

But my daughter Elora loved him. The attraction was immediate and deep. When she came to visit at work, it was the first thing she reached for. Was it the bright green color  of his head and body standing out so spectacularly against my drab cubicle? Or was it his big teeth ready to chomp on her finger at anytime? I don’t know. But she hugged that HULK bobblehead to death. Then she let go and he hit the ground and his head and body parted ways.

I wanted to cry. My love for HULK didn’t run as deep as hers, but it was pretty spectacular. Who among us, at one time or another, wouldn’t want to, in the words of Tony Stark, “turn into a green rage monster?” You could actually teach a lesson to that bugger cutting you off at the light. That dude needs to be thrown a few city blocks and we all know it. HULK knows it. HULK understands our pain.

Elora was barely one year old. I’d wanted a boy and that wasn’t her. Though I got over that desire long before she was born, I wasn’t gonna not jump at the chance to further indoctrinate my baby girl into the ways of the Marvel Superheroes. She loved HULK? Fine with me.

One HULK had passed away, decapitated for the sake of her lust. Could not another HULK rise in his place?

Cue Wal-Mart. The Ang Lee Hulk movie (terrible) had just come out and the toy aisle was littered with HULKs. Big ones, small ones, even ones that were just HULK Hands. That you could punch things with and they’d make a roaring sound. Nothing would have made me happier than if Elora had chosen the HULK Hands. I wanted to play with them.

Instead, she chose a foot-high, plastic HULK doll with about 17 points of articulation and a look on his face that signified either his constipation or hunger to eat us. I was so proud. Our little girl was growing up so fast, recognizing the superiority of fully articulated playmates to the barely moving My Little Pony garbage she was supposed to care about.

From that moment forward and for the next year, there was nowhere Elora went that HULK didn’t go with her. He was her friend, companion, snuggle buddy and teddy bear at night. She carried him around by the arm, the leg, the head, whatever. He was HULK. HULK can handle anything. Even the mountain of abuse only a toddler could throw on him.

When the Fall came and it was time to take our family picture, there was no way HULK wasn’t coming with us. Elora would scream if he weren’t there and my wife and I had grown to love the big guy. He was one of us. Part of the family. Like Elora’s angry little brother.

But HULK doesn’t just stand by while HULK’s family take picture. HULK insist on being in picture with family.

Who were we to argue?

Sorry for the softness. I guess they thought we were in the Robert Redford version of the Great Gatsby.

The people at the photo place gave us some funny looks. We must have seemed completely insane to them, but we wanted to do something a little different. Nothing wrong with that, right? To this day, it’s our favorite family photo. It marks a specific time in our lives and now, 8 years later, the presence of HULK in that picture conjures far more happy memories than seeing myself with 35 extra pounds ever could.

Elora has since moved on from her love affair with HULK, but she is still quite fond of him. Recently, the pair were reunited. Here’s that little girl with him today:

Cute, right?

What about you? Did you have a toy you were particularly attached to as a kid? Admit that it wasn’t as awesome as HULK and please share below!

23 Years Ago Today…

I can’t let this day go by without acknowledging it. 23 years ago today my father was shot twelve times in an armed robbery and my life and the lives of my family were changed forever. And, in my estimation, for the better.

Here’s a couple of videos showing what happened that day.

That’s what it’s all about. That’s why I wrote my book, Raised By a Dead Man. Because of that, and because there’s so much more story to tell. Thanks for remembering with me.