Friday, July 25, 2008

Barack Tease

In the beginning, way back in the dark, dim recesses of time (last week), I promised to reveal specifics of what it’s like to grow up with the name Barak. Which would be, one imagines, very much like growing up with the name ... Barack. What small currency I have in the connection, well, I'm about to toss it up on the bar. Will it be enough for a drink at the tap of immortality? No? How about a drink at the tap of Heineken?

Whatever you're pouring, join me now at the Virtual History Dome and, peering through a cloudy crystal of memory and projection, let's observe the young Barack as he takes abuse from his classmates.

Of course, unlike me, the young Barack was smart enough to mitigate the effects of his freaky Semitic name and adopt that horrific "Brady Bunch" nickname previously dismissed in these very pixels: Barry. Fair enough. Barack was an operator from way back, just like every pundit is saying this week.

Superficial similarities aside, I have little to offer in the way of empathetic reflections, because, well, I wasn't fresh off the boat from Indonesia, I wasn't black, I wasn't between religions, and while my white mom was certainly plowing her own furrow in the world, like Mom Obama, and my dad was a foreigner and kind of an extremist in his own way, like Papa Obama, that about sums up the overlaps. I was no lanky black Barry -- I was just a chunky little Jewish Barak with long hair, freckles, glasses, and the weirdest name in the schoolyard. Should I have adopted a simpler name and removed one obstacle to adaptation? Was that the presidential move? I never made those moves. Maybe I liked the name and wasn't looking to blend in.

April Is the Cruelest Child

Kids. Everyone knows kids are cruel. Everyone knows kids who are cruel. Except their own spirited little darlings. Even the most tormented children turn oppressor at the first opportunity. Like fat April, who had perma-cooties and the sharpest tongue in class. Whatever your weakness -- weight, walleyes, wonkiness -- kids will seize it and tease it till something unravels. And if nothing unravels, either you've walloped them but good and established some higher spot in the pecking order, or you've learned to put up with stuff.

Because really, how bad is it to be called "broccoli"? Or more faithfully perhaps, "Barak-aly." It's not so bad. Now, anyway. My parents must have laughed when I first came home full of bitter reproach, accusing them of having set me up from birth for vegetative ridicule. (Nothing like those kiwi loons in yesterday's paper -- they really do deserve anything they get.) But in fact, my aversion to exercise did make me kind of a vegetable. More a turnip than a broccoli, but that kind of leap across the produce aisle lies beyond the schoolyard pale. And humor, even the basest kind, dies in explanation.

Island Sounds

Unlike pop songs. Oh, to hear again some pint-size wag crooning, "I am Barak, I am an island." Seems charming now. That reference might pack less of a punch in Hawaii than in L.A., but if the kid is in fact somewhat cut off from classmates by geography, background, and temperament, the insinuation of total emotional isolation stings. I suspect Barack may have dealt with that one. Though Barry may have dodged it.

But as one ages and enters, for example, 7th grade Music Appreciation class, the teasing develops a veneer of sophistication. As any Gregory knows, the chants and the calendar are a revelation for tiny taunters. The Renaissance lacks hooks for ridicule, and all's well ... till we reach the Baroque Period.

Then all hell breaks loose. Some back-row smartypants sneers "Baroque Obama," for example, and the crowd goes wild. "Hey, Baroque -- where's your sister, Rococo?" and on and on. Even the teacher couldn’t help but laugh. In fact, to this day, the British, those Lords of Wit, generally find my name funny. Let's see how the joke plays at 10 Downing Street next year.


Years pass, and name-based teasing fades away. High school kids have to be pretty backward to tease other kids for their names. (Sorry, Harry Tsomides, for everything you put up with in 12th grade. I hope things got better later.)

Harry's name may yet be an exception, but at a certain point, an eccentric name becomes ... almost an asset. People remember you. You always have something to talk about for three minutes upon meeting someone. And Barak and Barack, for example, lend themselves to friendly wordplay. B-rock. Barack and roll! Barak the house! Barack the vote! I don't encourage this, but I don't mind it. It's just what people do. Nicknaming starts out a control issue and usually turns into something else with age. Except among sports fans and TV commentators. Draw your own conclusions.

Much as I thought my name was an abuse magnet in school, either my memory is gone, or there wasn't really so much to deal with. I guess there was a lot of Ba-cock and Barak-a-doodle-doo and so on, but ... it wasn't Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii (see kiwi loons, above ... or below).

And after a time, having a name like Barak is just like having one blue eye and one green eye ... or an extra finger. Or bright red hair. (I have all these things.) (OK, no, I don't, but it's a funny image.) You get used to it, and you don't talk about it as much. It becomes just another thing you live with.

Unless things change, and the unusual becomes usual. And having a name like Barak becomes like having a name like Barack. Very, very, very much like that.

And then, little by little, having a name like Barak becomes a topic again.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii ... Just Like Sue

In the elementary and middle-school climate, an unusual name is like an electrostatically charged microfiber cloth for teasing and abuse.

Some say it builds character. Johnny Cash, who never had to worry about his name, said as much in "A Boy Named Sue." In the song, Sue looks forward to killing the absentee dad who left him nothing but a ridiculous name. When he finally comes across "the dirty, mangy dog that named me Sue," he attacks him with a chair. They fight to a draw, and the dad says:
"Son, this world is rough
And if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough
And I knew I wouldn't be there to help ya along.
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you'd have to get tough or die
And it's the name that helped to make you strong."

He said: "Now you just fought one hell of a fight
And I know you hate me, and you got the right
To kill me now, and I wouldn't blame you if you do.
But ya ought to thank me, before I die,
For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye
Cause I'm the son-of-a-bitch that named you 'Sue.'"

I got all choked up and I threw down my gun
And I called him my pa, and he called me his son,
And I came away with a different point of view.

Even so, he knows better than to run any child of his through a similar wringer:
And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him
Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name!

But today brings a story about a Wellington, New Zealand girl whose name is so egregiously bad, a court has actually stepped in to rescue her. Of "Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii" (yes, that's the kid's name), Judge Rob Murfitt wrote:
The court is profoundly concerned about the very poor judgment which this child's parents have shown in choosing this name. It makes a fool of the child and sets her up with a social disability and handicap, unnecessarily.

The article provides a short list of names that have been blocked by the New Zealand authorities:
Fish and Chips (You're so cute I could just eat you up! Pass the vinegar.)
Yeah Detroit (Motor City madness)
Keenan Got Lucy (Are those the parent's names? a+b=a+b?)
Sex Fruit (It does have truth on its side, but that's all it has.)

Names permitted in New Zealand have included:
Number 16 Bus Shelter (Scene of the crime?)
Violence (huh? Babies having babies, is all I can say)

Makes Barak seem kind of like Johnny. Even Barack seems OK by comparison. Heck, even Hussein seems innocuous now.

Can a name make you tough? Can a name make you President-tough?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Yielding Swahili

Enough of me for a while. Here's what Barack Obama, my hitherto silent partner in this blog, has said about his name:
My parents shared not only an improbable love, they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or "blessed," believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success.

Leaving aside the substance of his remark (as I always do), that "would" in the second sentence bugs me. But the man is a gifted orator and it's his own history, after all, so who am I to question his grammar? Just a pedant without portfolio, god help us every one. If you can identify the verb tense he's using, please do so in a comment.

'Barack' Is African

OK, so it's an African name after all! I've been telling people I thought it was African, what with Kenya and all, but I ignored the possibility in an earlier post, so this information fills in the blanks. (How could I have been so lazy for four years? Uh ... can I get back to you on that?)

Let us now confirm this information with a visit to the Kamusi Project, aka The Internet Living Swahili Dictionary. There we would learn how an Arabic name became a Swahili moniker:
"Barack" is a non-standard alternate spelling of "Baraka." If you are looking for the answer to the question of the origin of the name Barack Obama, it is a Swahili name that entered the language via historical trade and cultural ties with Arabia."

It entered Swahili tenderly yet irresistibly, like a linguistically engorged merchant. There, bivouacking beneath the palms between cross-Sahara date deliveries, Barack drove his tongue deep into the yielding Swahili.

Some guy named Guru Raj created on July 27, 2004, back when gmail was invitation-only and Barack Obama was just "the young senator from Illinois who was giving the Democratic keynote address on TV." According to the latest New Yorker, which devotes a short item to this tale of email impersonation, Raj "now receives some sixty e-mails a day addressing the Senator, most of them in foreign languages, especially Russian."

That sounds low; my inbox shudders under the weight of several times that number daily, not counting spam, and I'm not running for President. But I'm also not a fictional Hail Mary pass into the ether. Not for most people, anyway.

The New Yorker article on

Monday, July 21, 2008

Selling My Options Short

When my parents decided to give me such an unusual, un-American name, they reasoned that if I really didn't like it, I could always adopt a nickname.

My options:

Barry ... as in Williams? Greg on "The Brady Bunch"? The author of "Growing Up Brady"? Pass, thanks. Worse still, Barry suggests an inability to stomach the name Baruch, which, as previously noted, I can't stomach. So the cure or bandage would be worse than the wound. Not that my name is a wound, but I do get wound-up over it, as this blog's endlessness suggests. Double pass.

Rock ... as in Hudson? As in every pompadoured cartoon pop singer ever seen on "The Flintstones"? Pass.

Rocky ... as in Bullwinkle's airborne little friend? As in the boxing movie? Movies? Pass.

Is it any wonder I stuck with Barak? It may be unusual, but at least it has a rough kind of dignity. A certain uniqueness, exempt from other connotations.

Kiss all that goodbye.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Does Someone Named Barak Still Need a Restaurant Alias?

"Hi, I'd like a table for two at 8:30."

"That should be no problem. Can I have your name?"

"Uh, Fred."

"All right, Fred. That's a table for two at 8:30. See you then!"

That was me. For about 15 years I faked my way into places as someone I wasn't, just to save time. To reduce. To simplify. To abbreviate.

I chose Fred as my restaurant name because it makes me laugh. Unlike Barak, Fred is a funny name, despite the fact that Barak ends with a "k" and Fred lacks comedy-enriching consonants. You, reader, blessed with an easily recognized name, have probably never considered suppressing your identity to reserve a table. But had you been dubbed something as obscure as Adipose or Lubricious or Metonymy, you might well have turned to simpler monosyllabics such as Bob or Tom just to save time on the phone.

(Of course, celebrities conceal their identities at restaurants and hotels all the time. What must Barack Obama be saying to the hostess at CPK these days? Maybe he's still announcing himself as Fred.)

But things are different for me lately. I state my own name with impunity. "Barak," I say. And there's a pause. Followed by one of three responses:

"Uh, like the candidate?"

or ...

"Is that your first name?"

or ...

"Well, THAT's a popular name lately."

Not as popular as Hussein.

Do I care how they spell Barak? Of course not. Let them spell it F-R-E-D ... I'll be OK. The best part is when they want "the last name." Just in case another Barak -- or maybe a Barack! -- calls in. (Of course, if I were to succumb to the temptation to offer his last name as mine, I'd be dismissed as swiftly as if I'd called to ask, "Do you have Prince Edward in a can?" To say nothing of Prince Albert.)

So now I spend as much time talking about my name with passing strangers as I did when that name was a challenging unknown. But now that's it's a known known, such content-free encounters are a little more entertaining. They provide endless opportunities to test people's responses to referred celebrity. Kind of like walking down the street flaunting the point on my head after years of wearing tall hats. All because some star finally revealed the point on her head, so now it's fun to clock all the double-takes.

Someone like Madonna. Or Hester Prynne. Or Barack Obama.

Accessing the Antecedent

Some rumbling in the hinterlands that Barak or Barack has yet to acknowledge the biblical source of my name. (Yes, my name, not Barack Obama's name, which has been discussed in some depth in a previous post.) Now that I have created home the third for this poor transient blog, I will roost solidly upon the Good Book and lay forth unto the nations this egg of wisdom.

Yea, verily did Barak the son of Abinoam first set foot upon the historical stage in the Book of Judges, Chapter 5, verse 1:
Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam on that day, saying, Praise ye the LORD for the avenging of Israel, when the people willingly offered themselves.

Okay. Here is where my ignorance of things biblical rises to the fore and I willingly proclaim: No hermeneutics here. Wright or wrong, I'm leaving the church AND the synagogue and all related texts out of this.

Let me just add that it's lines like this, a few sentences later, that maketh me to set my teeth against the Good Book:
Awake, awake, Deborah: awake, awake, utter a song: arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive, thou son of Abinoam.

Why complicate things? It's the 21st Century; time now for a sleeker prose style. Something like this:
Wake up and sing, Deborah! Get up, Barak, and --

And that's where this little project of Solomonic simplification breaketh down. Because without knowing what something like "lead thy captivity captive" means, what can you say? We could try to parse this dense little quartet of words, but where would that get us? Richer? Thinner? Smarter?


Perhaps my wish to reduce the redundancies in a text so generally well-received is foolish and ill-fated. Reminds me of this unforgettable bit of comic wrong-headedness. And of course for every anti-prolixity policeperson with an itchy mouse-button you'll find 500,000 satisfied Bible customers. Twinkies are popular too.

Where was I? My name. Comes from the Bible. Means lightning. Not the same as the Democratic Presidential candidate's name. And not a day goes by now that someone doesn't have something to say about my name. In the laundry room today, my neighbor Samantha joined the club. (Nice to meet you! Gosh, you have a lot of stuff to wash!)

In the next post, I'll describe how the conversation usually goes. And then it'll be clear why I started this blog. Next up: business-card-sized flyers directing people here. Ten exciting designs, three thrilling flavors! Print them out! Trade 'em with your friends! Collect 'em all.

Differently Spelled, Differently Abled

My mom, the self-professed “ancient progenitor,” had something to say about the rise of a different spelling for my name. I’m paraphrasing, so you don’t get the full warp and woof of her comic voice, but here’s her observation:

All your life, you’ve had this exotic, unpronounceable name. And though you’ve come to accept it and make it your own, it wasn’t easy for you. (Sorry about that.) [Yes, she speaks in parenthetical asides.]

Now, by some crazy twist of fate, your name has become one of the most uttered names in the country, and while this could have simplified your life, he had to go and spell it differently. So you have a new problem. I can just see it — for the next four or even eight years, every time you have to spell your name, people will think you’re joking or delusional or worse. At the very least, you’ll have to say something like, “Barak — no ’see.” And they’ll reply, “Oh, I’m sorry! Can you hear?”

By Enki!

Astute readers of the last post may have noted the arrival of a new face to the scene. That would be Enki. As in “By Enki …!” (see below for details.)

Did I invent Enki? I did not. Enki is a product of the ancient Sumerians, for whom s/he was:
The Sumerian high god of water and intellect, creation, wisdom and medicine who could restore the dead to life. He was the source of all secret and magical knowledge of life and immortality. Enki possessed the secret of me, ‘culture, civilization’, which is the genius of progress in knowledge to lead humanity. He invented civilization for the people and assigned to each his destiny. He created order in the cosmos. He filled the rivers with fish. He invented the plough and the yoke so that farmers could till the earth with oxen. He made the grain grow. He is the father of all plants.

Thanks, Encyclopedia Mythica™!

The Difference Between Barak and Barack

“You mean, like Barack Obama!”

Well, no. ”Barak,” which sounds the same as “Barack,” is Hebrew for lightning. “Baraka” is Arabic for blessed. I recently read that Barack Obama shortened his given name, which was Baracka (I won’t commit to that as verified truth, so don’t quote me). As in Amiri Baraka, né LeRoi Jones.

“Baruch” is Hebrew for blessing. Baruch is also a common Hebrew name which has nothing to do with my name, as far as I know. It is the imperative form of the Hebrew word to bless. The third-person male past form of that verb (he blessed) is “berech” … which is closer to my name in sound but no closer in meaning. Closer still is "barach," which means "he escaped." (Go figure.) (Thanks to my cousin Ilan for setting me straight on this.)

I don’t know how to say “lightning” in Arabic.

So, when people ask if there’s a connection between Barak and Barack, first I bore them with part or all of that explanation (depending on when their eyes glaze over or I fall asleep on my feet), and then I tell them, “No, probably not.”

But is there an etymological connection? I’ve never heard of one. But maybe, back in the molten dawn of language, before meteorology, before monotheism, before the Channel 7 Weather Report, such unexplained phenomena as incomprehensible lightning bolts provoked terror and drove people to speak to their gods. Quaking in fear at a sky full of fire, they’d offer blessings to whatever deity might be listening. As in, “Jesus Christ, that was a big bolt of lightning!” Or, somewhat more prehistorically, “By Enki, if the next sky fire does not kill me I shall sacrifice my youngest daughter at the full moon!” And from that excited ferment sprang two words which eventually went their separate ways. Maybe.

In any case, my name is not the same as Barack Obama’s.

My Name is Barak.

My name is Barak. Not Barack, as so many helpful people suggest these days, but Barak. That’s been my name since long before Barack Obama became a household word. And over the past four years, my name has slowly emerged from a deeply exotic obscurity to become one of the most recognized names in the U.S., if not the world. Later this year, it will probably become the most recognized unusual name ever. More than Gwyneth. Or Haruki.

I grew up correcting mispronunciations, ignoring other mispronunciations, explaining my name’s origins, and enduring a lot of teasing about it. I imagine Barack Obama did as well. Whether the name is Barak or Barack, it’s not John or George.

And so, in a shameless attempt to capitalize on the fluke that has turned my formerly eccentric name into a commonplace, I present a perspective on what it’s like to be named Barak. Or Barack. I have a few things in common with Barack Obama (more on that later), but the one thing I know better than 99.999% of the world is what it’s like to have his name. Because it was and still is my name, even if that sense of unique ownership is a little shaky these days.

I’ll tell you what my name means, what his name means, and if they’re related. And I’ll list all the things kids used to say to tease me about this name, from obvious to historical to pop culture references. Consider this an extremely trivial window on Barack Obama’s life.

We’re All Barack Now

But my own story only goes so far. I’m hoping anyone whose name sounds like mine — Barack, Baraque, Barrack, Brock, other people named Barak — will post his (her?) own stories of growing up with a name that sounds like this and, maybe more interestingly, of what it’s like to be a Barack or Barak in the Obama era. What’s the funniest thing anyone’s said to you lately? The dumbest?

So this is an invitation. On this site you can read about growing up Barak (or Barack). Or better still, some of you can post about it. Leave your story of having a Barack soundalike name in the Comments area below, and I’ll post the best as real posts in the main area of the site.