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Actually, surprisingly, no one has ever filed an official complaint over the Physics and Astronomy Party. Like an experienced rock band, my father and his colleagues know how to put on a show and keep things in order.
But one incident from four years ago deserves mention. After a long and happy night, Dad and company goaded me into dumping a gallon of liquid nitrogen onto a hot barbecue. A violent mushroom cloud of burning ash enveloped me while 20 drunken guests went diving over chairs and tumbling into the doorway for shelter. The insulated vat dropped from my hands and shattered while I fell backward. I bumped my head on the wall, landed on shards of glass, and was temporarily blinded by dust. I might have had grounds for a lawsuit, but even in America a fellow can't sue his parents and still expect a room to stay in.
This year, it had been my levelheaded father's plan to ignite rocket fuel on the back porch as the grand finale, but only one of the required ingredients -- pressurized nitrous oxide purchased from a novelty shop in the Castro -- had been located. "We won't be going to the moon tonight," my father apologized to the half-dozen remaining students, "but this stuff will still burn." He lit up a blowtorch while a student opened an N2O cartridge and filled a large red balloon with the gas. One student forced the nitrous oxide through a length of PVC piping while another ignited the gas on its way out the opposite end. It was true, nobody went to the moon; but the gas flared brilliantly like a miniature space shuttle for several seconds.
"This guy's so rad," a student said quietly to me. "He's such a cool professor."
"I know," I told him. "He's my dad." (Alastair Bland)
I've got a very odd name, one that requires me to explain it a lot, to spell it aloud for someone almost daily, and to ponder what it means all the time. Unlike the boy named Sue of country music fame, I'm not alone. I mean, I am alone, in the sense that no one else I know of is named Hiya, but I grew up with other kids in my situation, kids named Rainbow, and Shandrika, and Coriander. Having long harbored a suspicion that we were, collectively, somehow better than the Johns and Jennies of the world, I was pretty stoked when Uma and Keanu and Moon Unit came along in the 1980s as fabulous affirmations. Now, of course, the name Harmony connotes über-hipness and creativity, but I remember when it meant that you were poor and dirty and might have head lice. I realized the Bay Area must be packed with oddly named people, now adults. I tracked some of them down, to see whether they'd wound up creative or infested.
"They probably didn't want to give me a 'jive' name," figures Orion Letizi, when I ask him what his parents were thinking. Most people, it turns out, either think his name is O'Ryan, or hear him saying, "Uh, Ryan." "Like maybe I've forgotten my own fucking name," he says, eyes wide in disbelief.
We talk about "trauma food" (carob-chip cookies for him, orange juice in Jell-O for me) and trot out long-repressed stories about geodesic domes and such. We mock freely until we practically choke on our organic cocktails. "They were probably trying to invest me with some kind of universe energy BS," Orion says, and we erupt into shrieking laughter again, momentarily unaware of the irony inherent in poking fun at "universe energy" while dining in a vegan restaurant. Despite his conflicted feelings, Letizi insists, "I'm not going to change my name. It's sort of like an attribute of yourself, like your eye color or your ethnicity."
Trismegista Taylor, not a vegan, is tolerant and sweet and looks for the good in people, even the ones who can't understand her name. When she meets someone for the first time, she says, "It's always the interesting people who are actually listening. I have a screening process with my name." And even though she has a quasi-normal nickname -- Tristy -- she often has to spell it out. And there's a twist: "People think it's Christy, and I say, 'No, with a "T."' And they go, 'Yeah, ChrisTEE.'"
Still, Taylor says she loves her name and recounts a pivotal moment in junior high to explain why. Her class had a substitute teacher, and rather than stumble over her name, the teacher recognized that it must have been borrowed from the first known alchemist, Hermes Trismegistus, and said so. "Every eye swiveled to look at me," Taylor remembers clearly, and at that moment, she says, she knew that she was different, and that different was not automatically bad. "That was the beginning, when I knew what alchemy was, and no other 14-year-olds did."
Besides, Taylor says, "There's big mojo in a name."
I know exactly what she means.
The first person who came to mind for a story on the oddly named kids from the left coast was Sugar Magnolia Caballero, sister of Heavenly Spice Edwards. Do the math: These are two sisters named Sugar and Spice. Even among my people, this is extreme.
Sitting down with Caballero, I am immediately struck by the power in her tiny person. Did it come from enduring lecherous types asking if they could "get a lick of that" ever since she was a preteen? "I hate it. It's really irritating," she sighs, but her stories have me howling with laughter inside of a minute.
"The fact that all the hicks hated it made me like it," she says of her high school years in forward-thinking Healdsburg. But the name has had serious ramifications, too; among other things, she theorizes, it's affected her ideas about femininity, using Marilyn Monroe's Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot as an analogue. It's heavy stuff, and she says her father acknowledges he may not have thought matters entirely through when he named her: "I asked my dad, and he said, 'You were just so little and innocent.'"