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Growing Up Toby

Toby Muller, a past contributor to Life & Style, writes for film and television

I’ll never forget my first--and last--time. She was a sassy redhead with mischievous eyes. I’d seen her in Art History, but didn’t imagine for a moment she knew who I was. So I was surprised and not a little excited to hear her calling my name as I left the library one brisk autumn night. I turned slowly, playing it cool, and there I saw her--saw her looking right past me, trying to get the attention of another Toby. * Another Toby? In theory, I knew others were out there. But this Toby was neither a pet (the name is quite popular among the meeker dog breeds) nor a woman (while Toby/Tobi switch-hits, it bats predominantly from the women’s side of the plate).

The likelihood of my crossing paths with another male human Toby seemed on the order of a Clippers World Championship. But here, finally, was a kindred spirit who had grown up like me, suffering the slings and arrows of a namist society.

Yes, you read me right. Because, like being 6-foot-10 and having to duck through doorways, the curse of dysappellatia colors one’s whole existence. It is the sore thumb that never heals. Perennial Top Five targets of schoolyard bullies, the ill-named live in dread of introductions, with the inevitable looks of confusion and then pity they elicit from every Tom, Dick and Holly we meet.

Even here, in my adopted Southland home--a purported sanctuary for outcasts, misfits and free spirits--our plight is sorry indeed. While members of every other group stand up to be counted, “Hermione in Hollywood” and “Alistaire from Alhambra” sit mutely by, reluctant to brave the anything-but-anonymous forum of talk radio. We are the sullen minority--alienated but un-united, early casualties in revisions to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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So--Dave, Nancy, Mike--spare me your patronizing comments about how “neat” it would be to have a “distinctive” name. Maybe now, in the afterglow of our current baby-naming Golden Age--where diversity is celebrated and every playground teems with Baileys and Logans and Skylers--maybe now it’s OK. But for those of us arriving in the Eisenhower years, uncommon meant un-American. Communist possibly . . . or Martian. I was Toby in a Tommy world.

From early childhood, I sensed I was different. I knew somehow that Toby Washington could never have been the father of our country. (Its little brother, maybe. Its hamster, perhaps.) Nor today would anyone swoon over Toby Cruise or rise from their seats when Toby Piazza stepped to the plate.

There was a senator a while back and a mediocre pro athlete or two. But where are the role models for the young boy who dreams of rock stardom, a pro wrestling belt or a ride in a spaceship?

Literature offers little refuge from the anti-Toby bent of our culture. Just look at Shakespeare’s “twice-accurs’d” Sir Toby Belch. Or the pathetic “old fusspot” Toby from the Thomas the Tank Engine series. And let’s not forget Toby Tyler, who ran off to the circus, knowing full well that Slovenian acrobats and hideous freaks were less likely to ridicule such a preciously alliterative moniker. (Back in the ‘70s, “Roots” made the name briefly more recognizable, but namologists have failed to document any significant “Toby Boom” as a result.)

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I was nearly spared this ignominy. I was destined to be born a Henry (like Aaron, Fonda, Clay, Ford, Kissinger, British Kings I-VIII et al.) until family infighting caused a change in plans. Henry was out, but not to worry; these were parents who’d called their first two sons William and Robert.

I have two theories on what happened next. The first involves my brothers as the control group in some heinous experiment. The other involves a bar bet.

So there it is on the birth certificate. No “Tobias” to run to, no middle name to hide behind. Toby Muller. Unusual without being ethnic.

I suppose I could change it. This is, after all, the assumed-name capital of the world. But hasn’t Prince really poisoned that well for the rest of us? Not to mention the trauma of telling my parents. It’s not like a bad wedding gift, you know.

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“What happened to that name we gave you?”

“The kids were playing with it and it broke, so I’m Gregg now.”

Heck, I’ve made it this far--getting by on a nickname through 39 years of nicklife-- I might as well finish out my days as a Toby, with all its attendant rights and privileges. And I don’t just mean the big psyche-warping things, but the annoying everyday things.

Being unusual, the unusual name confounds a spelling-challenged nation. (Why “Tobbi” is a common guess is unclear, though I suspect the Phonics Game is somehow to blame.) Being unusual, the unusual name is, ironically, harder, not easier, to remember. People are certain they heard it wrong--it couldn’t have been Tobbi--it must have been Tony or Todd. This may be more a reflection of self-doubt, but that’s their own damn problem. At least they don’t have a stupid name.

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OK, it’s not a stupid name--it’s a cute name. It sounds like a snack. You think I’m overstating the case? Just substitute Toby for your first name, gentlemen, and feel the testosterone draining from your bloodstream. All right, enough whining. This wasn’t intended to be a lament so much as a cautionary tale for expectant parents.

As I said, nobody welcomed the naming revolution more than me. And when it came our turn, my wife Anne (as in the phrase “which Anne?”) and I gave a good deal of thought to our own kids’ names. After all, they’re L.A. kids. One day they’ll be doing tapas at a Wolfgang Puck Jr. restaurant with Dweezil and Moon Unit, Rumer and Scout. We can’t send them out into the fast lane with names like Glenn and Barbara.

Two long stories short, we settled on Ruby (after Jack Ruby) and Wilson (a family name--not one of our family names, God knows, but like Chase, Morgan and Spencer, one implying nobility and privilege rather than hostility and dysfunction).

They’re ‘90s names to be sure: uncommon, but not unheard of; distinctive, but not stigmatizing. Mostly, though, they typify what really underlies today’s “Appellation Spring"--a quest for creativity. Naming in the ‘90s has been raised to an art form. Not raised very far, mind you, not to a high art--something like those shops that let you glaze your own ceramics.

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In this mechanized world, here’s a chance to add a personal touch to the tabula rasa they towel off and hand you at the hospital. (And for those who don’t trust their creative instincts or are too busy to pore over the myriad books on the subject for a fee, a Beverly Hills service will provide you with a customized list of baby names from which to choose. Like I said, it’s getting out of hand.)

But just because the rules for baby names have been thrown out with the bath water, I’m here to tell you the enterprise is still fraught with peril. Don’t think you can’t go wrong, because you can--and in a big and damaging way. Remember Adam and Eve? They had first crack at this thing, and without limitations, precedents or rich aunts to please, they chose Cain. The boy, you’ll remember, went on to murder his better-named brother in a pique of jealousy.

Also, keep in mind that when creativity replaces tradition in naming kids, the specter of chaos looms. With Tyler in training pants, how long before Van Buren’s bris? If Prudence, why not Whimsy? If Dakota, then Delaware. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. How long before the concessionaires at Disneyland are embroidering Vlect or kristin@smith.com onto felt Mickey Mouse ears?

I see this juggernaut gaining steam, and I feel for the unborn as they slumber fitfully in their amniotic marinade--unwitting pawns in a game of parental one-upmanship. How do you keep up with the Joneses, after all, when they’ve just named their daughter Antigone?

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So heed me, parents, for I know. If your kid’s height were up to you, you wouldn’t base your selection on originality. A name is just as permanent. Long after you’ve retired to the 14th fairway, your child will have to answer to that name and spell it for airline ticketing agents. So if you’ve named them Chrysanthemum or Zarathustra, there’s a distinct possibility that they’ll really wish you hadn’t and/or run away to the circus.


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