WHAT’S IN A NAME?
By Zanzibar Buck-Buck McFate (Hat tip: Dr. Seuss)
I feel Mrs. McCave’s pain. Even more so, I can relate to her twenty-three sons, each of whom bears the name Dave and whose mother, Dr. Seuss tells us, wishes she’d instead called one of them Bodkin Van Horn, one Hoos-Foos, one Snimm, one Hot-Shot, one Sunny Jim, and so on.
I too carry a fairly common name and have run into identity confusion as a result. This wouldn’t be a problem if I weren’t now trying to establish myself as THE Michael Casey, the one and only author of Che’s Afterlife. I now want to be known as the guy with those unique things to say about how human beings habitually build their own distinctive, personal brands to compete in the information economy. Yet a simple Amazon search will quickly diminish the uniqueness of my own brand, confusing it with those of other writers – with Michael Casey the American poet, for example, or Michael Casey the Australian monk and theologian, or Michael Casey the expert on building codes.
Growing up in Perth, Australia, I thought I merely had an all-round regular name, common enough but far from the ubiquity of, say, “John Smith.” When I moved to Indonesia to live among people called Bambang or Wiwit, this naive view was reinforced. But a move to New York in the mid-1990s changed everything.
It began one day when a colleague at AFX News handed me a list of fund managers as prospective interviewees for a story. And there I saw my name! What’s more, someone had misspelled it. I called the number and from then on a friendship and professional relationship grew, such that I ultimately forgave Micheal Casey, then of Federated Investors, for transposing the ‘a’ and the ‘e’ in our name. I also eventually got over the uncomfortable feeling that I was quoting myself whenever I cited him in my stories.
Then, when I jumped to Dow Jones Newswires, I was told I couldn’t have the standard “name.surname” format for my email address. Another Michael Casey at Dow Jones was using it. The techies added my middle initial to my name, but that didn’t entirely avoid confusion, partly because the other M.C. also has my middle name, John. My namesake, an accountant, would from time to time receive emails either praising him or attacking him for stories he’d never written. Meanwhile, I would occasionally receive financial information I wasn’t supposed to see. I once received a check for $7 million!
Then, one day a letter addressed to Michael Casey from American Express arrived on my desk. I opened the envelope, assuming it was regarding my own Amex card, only to realize too late that it wasn’t meant for Michael Casey of Dow Jones on the 6th floor of the Harborside Center but for Michael Casey of a shipping company on the 4th floor. I called its switch and when I was transferred to Michael Casey I was greeted with an Aussie accent. Where was he from? Perth. My hometown!
The accumulation of namesakes didn’t stop when I moved to Argentina in 2003. I started receiving emails from people I’d known in Indonesia, congratulating me on my stories about the Asian tsunami and wondering when I’d moved back to Jakarta. That’s how I learned that another Michael Casey was writing for the Associated Press, the same agency with whom Dow Jones shared an office in Jakarta.
Then, a year ago, a Dublin radio station called to ask for an interview about an article I’d written. Assuming they were referring to an Op-Ed on Cuba I’d written for The Wall Street Journal, I agreed, only to soon discover they had the wrong guy. My caller was looking for the former governor of the Irish Central Bank, who had penned a critique of Wall Street’s faltering banks for The Irish Times.
We are an eclectic bunch, we Michael Casey’s. And we’ve left our mark on the world. One of us is a senior executive at Starbucks. We include an Irish sculptor reputed to be a favorite of Bill and Hilary Clinton as well as a professor at Dartmouth College who composes and teaches music. A Google search on “Michael Casey” will find a magician in North Carolina, a nature photographer in Oregon, a realtor in Connecticut and the owner of an exercise and training equipment company who fell into a rather messy lawsuit with a client. The name belongs to both a well-known fashion designer in New York and an orthopedic surgeon in Knoxville, Tennessee who specializes in sports medicine. It’s borne by one of the world’s leading experts in library science and, at Tarrawarra Abbey in Australia, by a Benedictine monk who lectures on monastic spirituality and is a prolific producer of essays on the subject.
I’m not the only one of us to have picked up on this.
One day, out of the blue, Michael Casey of Winnipeg, Canada, contacted me via Facebook. Intrigued, I befriend him. Immediately, he invited me to join his “Michael Casey’s of the World, World Domination Tour” group. That’s how I came to belong to a 55-strong association of Michael Caseys from far-flung parts of the Irish diaspora – places like Belfast, Melbourne, London, Ottawa and Seoul. The initial flurry of hookups confused the hell out of my other friends, whose news feeds started repeatedly announcing that “Michael Casey and Michael Casey are now friends.” Was it a glitch or had I finally lost my marbles? Perhaps, some mused, I was splitting my personalities, creating different accounts under each and then sharing the mutual affection to artificially boost my self-esteem.
I later discovered that there are various other such Facebook groups — like the one my WSJ colleague Mike Williams belongs to. This phenemenon - that of total strangers discovering and creating international networks of namesakes - is uniquely a function of the Internet age. Only the Net can make us so aware of how widely our names are shared.
This is mostly a good thing, a reminder of how big the world is and how small we are within it. Knowing that there are many, many other Michael Casey’s out there helps keep my inflation-susceptible ego in check.
There is a downside, of course. In sharing my name with a vast virtual community, I am posed with a competitive challenge. As a writer seeking to promote my book, my ideas, myself – in effect, to develop a personal brand – I would clearly be better off with a less common name, one that creates a distinctive, memorable and marketable identity. But I don’t - as I was reminded when I went looking for a domain name and realized early on that Michaelcasey.com was taken long ago. It’s one reason why this blog is called theimagemirror.com.
Still, when I peruse the list of my Facebook “brothers” from the Michael Casey World Domination Tour group, this imagined community gives me a strange sense of empowerment. I see a lot of different faces doing many different things, which simply reinforces the impression of a large, predictably diverse extended family. It’s all in good fun, but sometimes there’s some bonding going on. We close ranks, for example, when outsiders – jealous types, we all agree – post messages on our wall describing our group as “dumb” or worse. We are a tribe, one not so much formed around blood ties but on something that’s potentially as powerful.
After all, the standard answer to the basic self identity question of“Who are you?” is your name. I am Michael Casey. So too are my Facebook friends. Just imagine if we could convert this common belonging into a political or economic force, a new marker of shared identity to replace race, religion, nationalities, football teams and all the other worn-out signifiers of difference and sameness. Then we Michael Casey’s could truly dominate the world.