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Names

I've been thinking about names.
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Every month, I write and shoot a short documentary based on a single word. The One Word for this month is NAMES.

I highly recommend you watch this month’s word, but you can also read it below.


I have a story to tell about the building over there, beyond this washed-out parking lot, cradled by the blue sky and the heat and the rumbles of Pearson Airport. I’m almost ready, but not yet. Not until I explain how I ended up here.

So I start this One Word by rewinding to the door I opened at the end of Home.

I’m on a cliff edge with the lake spilling off the faint rim of the world. I wasn’t sure where to go from here. I was lost in that expanse, the churning of the water, the chill of the wind. With no way forward, I turned around and the first word I thought of was a name.

My wife’s name.

“Hi I'm Stacy. I’m Taegan's wife.”

Names of places, names of people, names of products - names flood my existence. I often forget how profound and ubiquitous a job it is being a name.

They can appear inconsequential, just a few short syllables stamped in the corner, and moments later, it can tower over me and elicit awe. Some people use their name to advertise a service and spend small fortunes to attach abbreviations to the front or the back, like an addition to a home.

There may be nothing more important than choosing a name. My wife and I spent months thinking of names for our daughter before we decided on Atlas.

“When I was pregnant with her,” Stace said, “and you mentioned Atlas for a girl's name, it was like something else decided, not me, and knowing how stubborn she is, she was immediately like ‘that's my name.’

“Then I started seeing Atlas everywhere. I realized actually there was an atmospheric song years ago that I just loved. I listened to it all the time. It wasn't until I was pregnant, and I was going through putting a soundtrack together for when I was going to give birth that the song was called Atlas Song. So I think it was always been there. I think it was always supposed to be her name.

“I know that for some people it's a polarizing name. They're like ‘it's a masculine name’ or ‘there's no really good nicknames for that name.’ But that’s why I kind of like it. The name is strong which is what I would wish for her to be: strong.”

No matter how well I know a person, I can’t help but think of their name when I interact with them, even someone I know as well as my wife.

Her name is Stacy, but she often goes by Stace. One letter separates the two names, and yet, to her, they are opposites.

“Do people take me less seriously because my name ends with an E sound? That's why I actually started to adopt Stace. Because it just kind of felt more like me and that made me more comfortable in my name. Now as I get older, I'm starting to just be okay with Stacy, and I've started again reintroducing myself as Stacy.”

Interviewing my wife for One Word made me realize it’s no small thing, asking someone to be on camera, knowing hundreds of people that will see it. By agreeing to the interview, my subject trusts me to respect their image and uphold their name.

Humans are given their first name and they inherit a last name. But, like all things, that can change, too. When we married, my wife, for example, accepted my last name, MacLean.

“MacLean is a nice name, I suppose,” she said. “It wasn't a very hard decision for me to make but there are times I miss Schmidt. It was a part of my identity and a connection to my family, but I wanted the same name as my kids.

“I wanted to be traditional in that way of giving them just one name. Tradition to me isn't always a bad thing. It has a time and a place. Tradition, lineage, history — they’re important. It's not like they're not going to know my maiden name.”

During our interview, we saw a few wedding photographers pressing moments of time into their lenses. A bride’s maid recital, at one point, interrupted our conversation.

Most words come and go; they’re a currency I spend to bring my thoughts into existence. My name, however, is the exception. I cannot escape my name.

Like my wife, I have two names. Taegan and, my nickname, Tug.

“We met online,” said Stace, “and at the end of our conversation, you signed off, ‘Taegan.’ I was more intrigued by you, because that was what I would know is a feminine name. I've only known females named Tegan.

“So I thought your name was pronounced Tegan. I pronounced it wrong on our first date. I was immediately a little embarrassed, but you definitely seems like you get that all the time.”

Stace has never called me Tug, but she has feelings about it.

“It felt like the name Tug was under lock and key,” she said. “I never felt like I should use it. The idea of calling you Tug was always in the shadows. I kept thinking: Do I know him well enough for that? It never felt natural.”

My given names push and pull, move me forward and drag me back. Everyone has an image in their mind when they hear a name. It's a challenge to see the person beyond the name. Thinking of them in this way, names remind me, most of all, of cars.

It’s my name, sure, but there’s no certainty I’m the one behind the wheel.

As a child, my family called me by my nickname: Tug. Taegan was reserved for serious moments, such as doctor’s visits and government identification cards.

My dad named me Tug, which was a moniker pilfered from Tug McGraw, the professional baseball relief pitcher and father of Tim McGraw, the country music singer.

My grandfather named me Taegan. The name dates back to the verdant, lyrical Gaelic, and it means poet, or little poet. He discovered the name in an old book. But it was also gaining some popularity in the 1980s because of a Doctor Who character.

The two names spawned two personalities or versions of myself that, to this day, I swap between.

Tug is funny and lighthearted; he loves watching movies and making up balderdash and playing video games. He’s selfish, awkward, goofy, but he’s got a big heart and a loud laugh.

Taegan is a poet, a serious writer and deep thinker that craves to be alone. He writes at his grandfather’s desk in an office festooned with William Blake prints. His name is equivalent to deep cleavage; it turns heads, cocks necks, and commands attention.

For example,

, an author I chat with online, said that, if he had my name, he’d be famous by now.

Growing up, I preferred Tug. Taegan was a heavy burden. It was also hard to spell: the “ae” and “ea” confused most everyone, including me, and burdened me with mild dyslexia for vowel combinations.

In my teens, I felt like the name was in control — I was just along for the ride — and as I cruised along in the passenger seat, I often thought: Was I me from the start, or did the name beget the person?

This is Mike, my best friend. We met in grade 10 math class. I was still hanging on to Tug when I met Mike because Dad was two years away from his cancer diagnosis. I hadn’t yet put it aside.

I asked Mike about the name Tug, and he remembered hearing it, but it never occurred to him to call me by the nickname.

“I was in my kitchen preparing some food, and I was just thinking about how our families have different names for us.

“Where I heard that name is because early on you invited me up to the farm, and I heard your family call Tug. I didn't know — I thought they were calling a dog. I had no idea who they were trying to talk to! You had all these animals, right? It sounds like tugboat.

“But, you know, having that context, and I think we all do across cultures, where at home you just your parents will call you something else. So I didn't feel comfortable calling you by that name. That name was owned by the family.”

We met up on Father’s Day to go for a drive, tap into those old spirits, and just spend some time together.

So much of our relationship was this: Mike driving a car too fast, chatting about the sort of things that get tossed around on the road, random and meaningful both careening through the windshield.

I asked him about his son’s name, Asher, and why he chose it.

“I'm sure a lot of people give you parenting advice,” said Mike. “We got a lot of parenting advice. But the only one I've held on to is: they'll tell you who they are.

“You can offer them things, but they'll become who they are. I think about that a lot. With how I grew up, there are a lot of things my parents aren't that I am. One of them is being a reader. I read a lot, and they're just not like that.

“So, when it came to Asher, we just we wanted to meet him. We wanted to see who he was. One thing we noticed off the bat is he's just really happy. That's one of the meanings of the name.”

People can share names. For example, Mike’s name was sort of my name, too. In my twenties, I’d tell the barista at Starbucks or the server reserving my table at Kelsey’s that my name was Mike.

I didn’t want to get into the pronunciation, the tedious back and forth, the embarrassment of a butchered spelling. A stranger’s version of Taegan reminded me that I hardly knew the person behind the name, either.

I mentioned that in some situations, we shared a name, and he laughed.

We drove by our high school, Robert F. Hall, another name we share. Since we went here, we’ve grown in spirit and vitality.

Mike survived cancer, a feat I have never been able to adequately explain how proud I am, how courageous he was. And yes, since I left this place, my dad passed away and I set aside the nickname Tug.

To shake off the memories, Mike stepped on the gas. I held on, like the old days, as he careened into the foothills, a place he always felt most himself, and at speeds that, for a few moments, would outpace my grief.

Names can be given. Names can be shared. Names can be transformed.

In one of my life’s unforeseen twists, I live in Mike’s hometown, Bolton. Although I’m behind the wheel, I frequent his dad’s favourite grocery store, Garden Foods, and drive some of his favourite roads.

While the name on the welcome sign reads Bolton, it will always mean Mikal. My relationship with him transformed this sleepy little town. It’s special to me.

30 minutes north of Mike’s hometown is a farm my mom stays at in the summers. Atlas loves the barn and the horses. She’s yoked my mom to this place, so when she says Nana, she means grandma and horses.

One weekend, after visiting the barn, I showed Atlas my box of win photos. It’s my way of showing her that her grandpa was a racehorse trainer.

I read her names and we chuckle at the absurdity. Danish Pastry. Once a Sailor. Time for Becca. Each horse photo captures a moment of joy in a long, tumultuous career. When she and I look closely, we can spot my mom, my brother, Tug, and dad.

Stace fears Atlas will get the horse bug. My wife has been around my family long enough to understand how pervasive an itch, how unforgiving a passion. But, my love, I need you to know that these horses with silly, irrational monikers, the animals that fascinate Atlas, that my mom loves — a name lives among them: my father, Atlas’ grandfather, David Lionel MacLean, who went by Dave.

I can show Atlas old VHS footage or the urn I’ve recently brought home; I can talk about him while holding a win photo; but I cannot drop my daughter off to visit Grandpa Dave.

The names of the people I love may seem weightless, a few brief, recognizable sounds, but they are the heaviest, most profound things I carry. Death is helpless against a well-loved name spoken aloud.

It’s time I tell Atlas the story of her grandpa. There is a place that means Dave, a place south of Bolton, one that I haven’t dared to visit since I went by the name Tug.

I want my daughter to know that, when I say this word, I am talking about a place, yes, but I am also telling the story of Dave: a name I am ready to give, share, and transform.

Next month, we’re going to Woodbine.

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Authors
Taegan MacLean