Names are important. They identify us as individuals and as members of a family. To be able to name something is to be afforded great power over that which is named. Even an act as simple as a giving someone a nickname is influential, either for good or for bad. A nickname can be a source of pain, torture and humiliation that is intentionally inflicted upon someone or it can be an invitation into a group, a feeling of belonging and acceptance.
Despite being one of 4 boys named Michael in my class throughout grade school, somehow I never had a nickname bestowed upon me until high school. But even then, none of them really stuck particularly well. I would have a good one for about a year of school and then it would move on to something else.
It all started when my sophomore football coach couldn’t tell me and one of my teammates apart (we both had the last name McKenna). So, due to my blond hair, I became Goldie. (The other McKenna became Thornton, John Wayne’s character in The Quiet Man, since he was apparently quiet.) I thought it was a pretty solid nickname with a good connotation and would not have minded if that one stuck. But it was not meant to be. I was secretly hopeful that ‘Amazing Grace’ was going to stick after hitting a miraculous halftime buzzer beater. But when it turned out that my basketball shooting skills on the whole were not exactly “amazing”, that nickname faded into oblivion rather quickly.
You would think that a moniker such as ‘Keymaster’ would not be met with much joy or appreciation.
But to be honest, I really enjoyed it. It was kind of quirky and was a badge of honor bestowed upon me by my varsity baseball coach. Apparently, I was the person he felt he could trust to go and get his keys out of his desk before practice and unlock the room that had all of our equipment. After a relatively anonymous junior year of football (outside of accidentally nearly breaking the fingers of our star quarterback), some positive recognition was good, no matter the unorthodox form it may have taken. Plus, when it comes to double entendres, it was better than being ‘The Gatekeeper’.
However, my best high school nickname was saved for last. At some point in my reign as Keymaster, multiple people decided that I bore a striking resemblance to someone in a cultural touchstone that was sweeping the mid 90’s. Mentos, The Freshmaker commercials.
A classic, no? To be honest, I was never really sure exactly which person in which commercial people thought I looked like, but everyone thought I was “that guy in the Mentos commercial”. And so, I became Mentos. It didn’t matter that my hair looked nothing like that, nor that I had never consumed a single Mento in my entire life. It would have been nice if people had equated me with the commercials because I was cool under fire, just like the protagonist in the commercials. But, high school is high school and so for the rest of my days, I was known as Mentos.
I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it as much as some of the others that I had. However, the funny thing about nicknames is that if given in the right situation, they can give you a sense of belonging. Someone else cool and popular gave you a nickname, so you became an accepted member of the group. The name was harmless enough, so I certainly wasn’t going to fight against it.
In the end, going to a different college than virtually everyone else from my high school made the likelihood of any of those catching post-graduation slim. But thankfully, college gave me a nickname. A good, solid and slightly absurd nickname that I could carry with me for the rest of my days.
My best friend from back home joined me at Purdue when I was a sophomore and we proceeded to spend a great deal of time together that year. One of the things we would do was play on his computer in his dorm room (not at all nerdy, right?) There were a few different games that we would play, but one of the most common ones was a trivia game with a pop-culture bent and a little bit of an edge called “You Don’t Know Jack”.
While the subject matter, style of questions and the wacky lightning round made the game fun, one of the best parts of the game was that if you did not fill in a name for yourself when the “host” asked you to, the game would randomly generate one for you. Often times they were lame. Occasionally, they were mildly amusing. But it got to the point that we would purposely not fill in a name so that the computer would give us a name. One night, after suffering through countless dumb pseudonyms like “Bunny Slipper” or “Banana Shoe”, we finally hit the mother lode. I was anointed as “Iron Salsa”. And from that point on, I kept that name with me as my go-to ludicrously fake name.
I still have a hard time describing exactly why it resonated with me so much. Part of it is the strange combination of a supremely tough substance like iron with such one that is so soft and mushy like salsa. It was just a strange enough mental image that it worked for me. It is not something that anyone has ever called me, but it was easily my go-to name when I needed a web address for this blog and my Twitter handle. In fact, that would have easily have been the title for my blog if it wasn’t for the fact that Mamihlapinatapei was such a perfect word to sum up what this space is all about. If I ever become President of the United States or for some reason become important enough to warrant a code name, you better believe that it is going to be Iron Salsa.
In the end, a name is just a name. As Shakespeare would say, “A rose by any other name, would smell as sweet.” But life is a lot more fun when you can share an inside joke or two with those around you. Which in the end, is what makes nicknames so great. Now about why a group of my friends call me Mayor….