Monday, January 31, 2005

What’s in a name?

After a long search for a church home, complete with twists of fate and improbable developments, I finally placed membership at Skillman Church of Christ. Last Sunday (which by my calendar was yesterday, but it seems like a week ago), I was introduced to the congregation as a new member.

During the class hour, the entire congregation (that attends class, anyway) gathered in the sanctuary for a presentation of the 2005 budget. The presentation was very interesting and I’ll soon be writing a separate blog article about it.

After the presentation we broke to get ready for worship. As I waited for the worship service to begin, I noticed that my name was listed in the church bulletin. Well, sort of my name.

Appearing under the heading “Family News” was the following paragraph:

“We welcome two new members to our family: Kelly Hire, who moved here from Murfreesboro, TN last year and is already an active member of the Friends Class. She is employed at ABCO. And Rick Stevens who is a professor of Journalism at SMU. Steve recently moved to Dallas from Austin where he attended the University Ave. Church of Christ.”

When I read this, I chuckled to myself. One of the drawback to having three first names (John Richard Stevens) is that people invariably get mixed up about what to call you when they’ve encountered you for the first time. I cannot count the times I’ve introduced myself as “Rick Stevens” only to have someone call me "Steve." However, this was the first time I had seen this error in print.

During the greeting portion of worship, a woman walked up to me and said “Hi Steve!” I was suddenly caught, tempted to nod and return the greeting. However, surmising that when she found out my name is Rick several months from now after having called me Steve all along it would dramatically increase her embarrassment (this has actually happened to me a few times), I corrected her on the spot. I explained that the bulletin was wrong, that it was a common mistake, etc. She laughed and took it well.

The truth is, I have gone by many names in my life. While my first name is John, I have never used it. My father’s first name is also John and I’ve suppose we’ve never wanted to be confused for one another. After going through several variations of my middle name growing up, I settled for “Rick” among my friends, and this is what people called me.

However, I covered football and basketball games for the Corsicana Daily Sun while I was in high school, and I decided from the first day that my byline would be “Richard Stevens.” It simply sounded more professional. Then the first day I had to pick up a paycheck, I decided to sign my name “Richard Stevens” to avoid arousing suspicion from the woman behind the counter, and I decided I liked it. I have horrible handwriting, but the extra letters somehow gave me enough room to make my signature look more presentable.

Soon, I was signing my checks as “Richard Stevens,” and when I went to college, that is how my name appeared whenever my byline was published. But everyone called me Rick, though there was occasional confusion.

Finally, in 1999, I decided to stop mooching off the university Web servers I was using and go ahead and register my own domain. I was a web developer at the time and needed a .com URL. I ran WHOIS commands on all the derivatives of my name, but they were all taken. Apparently there are a lot of “Rick Stevens” and “Richard Stevens” out there. One of us is a European furniture distributor. One of us a computer scientist.

Finally, I ran a WHOIS for “jrichardstevens.com”and found it vacant. I went ahead and registered it and have used the name for my academic work ever since.

I still use several names. It comes in handy when I sort mail. If I get a letter addressed to “Rick Stevens,” then it’s definitely form someone I know personally. If I get a letter addressed to “J. Richard Stevens,” then I know the contents are related to my academic life. If I receive a letter addressed to “Richard Stevens,” it usually relates to my professional or student life. If I get a letter addressed to “John Richard Stevens,” it’s usually some kind of automated government form. And if I get a letter addressed to John Stevens, it’s usually from a telemarketer.

These distinctions also help me screen my phone calls. I consider my multiple identities as privacy filters, letting me get a preview of which “me” is needed.

So, you can see why someone getting my name wrong doesn’t really offend me. I have several names that correspond to several identities, so I’m used to being called different things.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Bigger. Better. Spongier.

Well, considering I have mentioned the Spongebob controversy in both my MTS blog and my Faith in Faith blog, I suppose I should make a few comments here as well.

As of this writing, I am rather appalled with James Dobson and the Focus on the Family group. I have always respected Dobson and his group for working with families and people and helping them find Biblical solutions to their emotional strife. But whenever this group takes political stands, I cringe.

But the latest rant against Spongebob (which has been ratcheting up each day in the conservative blogs and talk radio) is beyond my threshold of ridiculousness. The actual controversy is not about the television show, though as more voices weigh in, th show and the characters are receiving quite a bit of attention.

I have seen dozens of Spongebob episodes. I understand why some members of the homosexual community latch onto Patrick as a symbol of acceptance of their worldview, but they do so by adding their text to the character, not drawing on the "gayness" of way he's portrayed in the cartoons. Patrick is a starfish, which means he has no gender or sexuality in the first place.

I see the failure to recognize that the homosexual textuality many people are concerned about as external to the text itself is a fundamental blow to American democracy. Removing texts that others reinterpret is a dangerous path to take. I mean, these same communities reinterpret Archie comics into homosexual texts. Should we next ban Archie from schools?

Potentially banning Spongebob from the classroom is not the end of free expression, but it's just a symbol to me of everything that's wrong with the way the political right approaches American life. These groups mounted political assaults on Disney (the company and specific titles and characters), the Smurfs, several comic books (including Superman specifically), Jar-Jar Binks, Barney, Winnie the Pooh, Harry Potter and now SpongeBob. And let's not forget how many times the Simpsons have come under fire.

If these texts do indeed contain subversive texts (the Simpsons certainly does, which is where the show crafts its humor), then I say so be it. Let people think about complex issues and try to grapple with why different people believe different things. Sanitizing our public world only makes us illiterate and unable to be hospitable to those who are different from us.

I think James Dobson is a good man. And that goes for many people in his circle. But I think stands like these undermine our democracy and restrict one of the very freedoms we founded this nation upon: free speech and expression.