Of all the philosophical hang-ups that can trouble a young person — questions like “How did the universe begin?” or “What does it mean to be a good person?” — the one that troubled me for the longest time was, to put it kindly, solipsistic. The question I often asked myself in quiet moments was this: “Why am I so different from other people?”
This is a hard question to answer, for anybody. As you remember from biology class, all Homo sapiens are about 99.8 percent genetically similar, but it’s that stubborn one fifth of one percent that sets the groundwork for our infinite and ever evolving idiosyncrasies. So close, yet so different.
Here’s an example of how I felt different as a child. After school, I only wanted to play by myself. I would gather ripe Kousa Dogwood berries and pretend I was an Aztec priest and the berries were my sacrificial victims. Placing them on the top of a fence post already slathered with fermenting berry, I would plunge an old trowel into their squishy flesh and dig out their hard orange hearts, before letting their torn bodies tumble to the ground. I knew — no, I was certain — that I wouldn’t share this game with my peers. Not because it was macabre, but because it was mine. It wasn’t so different than what other little boys were playing; everyone else was blowing up army men and making bows and arrows and having acorn fights. But that slight degree of difference, that touch of the arcane and foreign, stamped it as mine.
Barring the possibility that I’m only 99.7 percent similar to other humans, I am forced to look elsewhere. All the usual sources were out: I’m white, cisgender, upper-middle class and straight. For a while I considered that it was due to being a Jew in a somewhat WASPy town. But Concord, Massachusetts was heavy on things like “interfaith dialogue,” and I didn’t feel much closer to Jewish kids anyways. I wasn’t physically remarkable in any way. I was bright, but no prodigy.
Think, Giancarlo, think.
As Jim Croce so memorably sang, “Like the singing bird and the croaking toad, I got a name.” I got a name too. It’s really two names put together — Giovanni was my great-uncle, and Carlo is my father, but the combination is so popular in Italy that if you flick an olive pit across a piazza, chances are it will hit a Giancarlo.
The name may be common in Italy, but in America, I’m the only Giancarlo I’ve ever met in person. Based on this fact, I assumed that I would write this essay about the annoying realities of having an unusual name. The endless butchering by substitute teachers. Constant questions about whether “John” was my first name and “Carlo” my middle. From fourth through eighth grades, I just went by “G,” because I was so fed up. But it would be wrong of me to just concentrate on these annoyances. Not because they’re trivial, but because my name is not so much annoyance to me as it is an asset, one that has shaped who I am today and how I view myself.
When you grow up with an unusual name, you experience, for lack of a better term, a heightened sense of individualism. When you have a name that no one else has, you and your name become connected in such a way as to suggest that you are a person unlike any other.
But my name has a more interesting implication. When you break “Giancarlo” down, it’s really not that unusual, at least in the Indo-European sense. The English equivalent would be John Charles, the Spanish Juan Carlos. So if I felt like an outsider because of my name, it was only as a slight outsider.
I used to hate this asymptotic existence, mostly because it felt passive, bestowed on me at birth. Eventually, I came to actively pursue it. I realized that being a slight outsider made me recognizable, made me distinctive. In a large group of people, I could stand out. I have one group of friends who like sports far more than I do, and literature far less. But in another group, I am suddenly the one who likes sports and parties, not punk rock and anime. In the end, I’m not an outsider — these are my closest and most trusted friends. But I always like to be the one who’s a little “off,” because it means that I have something that I can call my own.
I often wonder how I would have turned out differently had my parents not named me Giancarlo. Luckily, my mother gave me a pretty good idea. When I asked her how I came to be named Giancarlo, she recounted how my older siblings’ names had been accounted for before they were even conceived. My sister would be Sophie, because my maternal Grandfather had requested that she be named after his mother. My brother would be Anthony, because Italian-Americans traditionally name their first sons after the paternal grandfather. There were no restrictions on mine, but my father apparently demanded that I either have a very authentic Hebrew name, like Yitzhak or Yakov, or a very authentic Italian one, like Marco or Massimo. They decided on Giancarlo, because it carried some family history, and they also just liked the sound of it.
Upon hearing this story, I asked that rarely-useful yet ubiquitous question: “What if?” Had I been named Yitzhak, would I never have tried to learn Italian or study in Italy? Would I have committed myself to Judaism instead of semi-abandoning it? Or even if I had been Marco, would I not have felt so different from others?
There’s no benefit in trying to plot out the specifics. But it is useful to recognize what’s in a name.