Essay

What’s In a Name?

Plenty of people hate (or at least, dislike) their given names.  It’s understandable.  As you grow and change, the name your parents gave you often stops feeling anything like the person you are, and so you default to a nickname that you feel better represents the person you’ve become.

This is not the case for me. I’ve been Frankie, essentially, since I was born. My mum gave me the nickname, deriving it from the 90s movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino, an adaptation of Terence McNally’s play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.

For all intents and purposes, “Frankie” might as well be my given name.  But it’s not.  Instead, the name on my birth certificate is Francesca Nicole.  Francesca, pronounced (but never spelled as) Fran-ches-ka, is Latin/Italian, meaning “free one.”  Nicole, pronounced how it’s spelled (certainly it’s common enough not to be misspelled), is Greek-based, meaning “victory of the people.”  Both incredibly bold names, especially when considered together.  And I have no problem with Nicole; in fact, I plan to name my son Nicolas, after my maternal grandfather (which is where I get my name).

But I’ve never used–and will never use–Francesca. In fact, no one who really knows me, not even my mother when she’s upset (and you know it’s serious when even your parent won’t call you by that whole name when she’s mad), uses my first, given name.  The only people who do are people from my high school, which frankly only compounds the PTSD from that part of my life.

The reason? I hate my first name. And I promise it’s for a very good reason.

I remember hearing once, at a parenting seminar (I’m not sure why I was attending one of those), that the name you give your child represents the first blessing you want for them, sort of like how the fairies in Sleeping Beauty blessed Aurora with beauty and grace etcetera etcetera.  But if Aurora had Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather, I only had Maleficent: my dad, whose intentions were, if not less-than-pure, horribly misguided.

My dad and I don’t have a great relationship. I’m frank enough (hence, Frankie; good one, Mum) to admit that. While I want to love him, there’s a lot of childhood baggage stemming from his few appearances during my formative years (my parents split up when I was three; the annullment finalized when I was thirteen) that gets in the way. Part of this baggage is something he and I have in common: we say things without thinking. A lot.  It’s why I took to writing, because putting thoughts on a page forces me to go over them.  

Unfortunately, my dad isn’t as literarily inclined as I am (though he does fancy himself a critic, dismissing my fiction as “too verbose” at one point, which it probably is but like you aren’t the same, Dad). Where he does excel, however, is telling tall tales about my childhood. I call them tall because, well, let’s just say there are reasons to consider him an unreliable narrator. My dad’s memories have always been foggy and rose-tinted, at best. Even today, I’m not sure the story of how I got my name is actually true, but if the facts aren’t straight, at least the intention is, and the intention is all that matters in this case.

I’ll jump straight in: my dad named me for another woman.

Before I get accused of defamation, let me clarify: she wasn’t his mistress.  I’m not sure he was capable of having one, to be honest.  (He had girlfriends after he and mum split, but they never stuck around for long.) Instead, this other woman was an officemate, a law firm secretary, to be exact (Dad’s a licensed attorney).  By all accounts, he didn’t know her very well, but he seemed to be very…impressed (for the lack of a better term) by her.  Enough, at least, to take her name and give it to me.

Sounds innocent enough, until you get into the reason for why he was so impressed by this first Francesca.  From his own testimony–which, caveat, he probably won’t remember giving; like I said, his mind’s not completely reliable anymore–this Francesca was “…sweet, charming, very friendly. Not too bright, but everyone liked her.”

Whether or not the actual Francesca wasn’t bright is still in question, since it took my dad years to recognize that he couldn’t pull the wool over his Game of Thrones-watching daughter. What’s important is the fact that he thought she was so, and, by his own admission, this collection of traits was why he decided to give me the name Francesca.

Basically he wanted me to be sweet, charming, attractive, and not too bright.

(As if I needed any more reason to be proud of being an abrasive, antisocial cactus.)

Francesca is a beautiful name, with a beautiful meaning, and on any other girl I’d embrace it. But when it comes to me, that name comes loaded with my dad’s intentions: to have a docile daughter, a people-pleaser, an attractive and non-threatening little lady.  Everything I’m not, and honestly, don’t want to be.

Frankie and who I’ve grown to become have always been a good match.  I’ve tried re-nicknaming myself, for radio and college and a bunch of other things, but no name’s ever stuck quite as much as the one my mother gave me. Her intentions, I know, were better: among other things, the name Frankie sounded like Punky Brewster, a feisty, smart-alec of a kid with enough fighting spirit to survive whatever the world threw at her. Punky, based on the Wikipedia synopses and Youtube clips, was still quite a bit more likeable than I am, but she wasn’t likeable for likeability’s sake.  

No, she was likeable for being unapologetically herself.

Between my dad’s picture of the First Francesca and my mum’s image of Punky Brewster, it’s a no-brainer which one I’d choose.  I choose Frankie, every time, because with it comes my mother’s first blessings: courage, resilience, and the capacity to be unapologetically oneself, even if that self is very weird.  I am not, and refuse to ever be, that docile and pliable, non-threatening Maria Clara stereotype.

The fact is, I’ve always been Frankie, not Francesca. My legal first name is a person none of you–including myself–would recognize. No matter how much I’ve tried to hide it, or change it, or tone it down (well, at least the toning it down helped), I’m Frankie. I’m Frankie. 

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tl;dr, seriously high school/Chinese community people, my name is Frankie Torres.  Stop trying to make Francesca happen; it won’t happen.

~aRT~

Scattered Thoughts of a Sinner in Church (Come As You Are)

When I was a kid, my cousin Charlie introduced me to the comic book character “Spawn,” a man who, from my limited understanding, was “too bad for Heaven, too good(?) for Hell.” Lately, I’ve been feeling that same internal tension: too “Christian” for the world (or so a friend called me, not entirely as a compliment) but too much of a sinner for church, too riddled with doubt and disbelief and anger to fit comfortably into the padded seats of the airconditioned assembly hall. Even the way I talk and act runs counter to the poised prayerfulness and doe-eyed Christianese of the girls in Friday Youth Group, where I stopped attending after my barnacles got too obvious to hide.

I am a Christian sanctified, but far from sanitized, and honestly, I feel that the slight whiff of “worldly” about me marks me, to this church, as imposter, a wolf trying to live under the blood of the Lamb, but my teeth are too big and my claws are still sharp and oh, how I howl.

(Church, could you love me if I wasn’t perfect? Because I’m not. I am so not. Please don’t judge me, but I don’t always feel “on fire” for Jesus. Sometimes I doubt if he hears. Sometimes, my faith is in shambles. Sometimes (a lot; I even have a tracker in my BuJo), I stumble. Sometimes, I don’t pay attention to the sermon. But oh, Church, how I could not live without Christ!  Surely, that is enough?)

I’m a small group leader. I still do not understand why, and my group meets less regularly than I think is ideal, but since my name is on the roster, I get invites to the regular Leaders’ Huddles our church holds. Since my mum is a leader too, I sort-of have to go, regardless of what I feel the state of my soul is at that very moment. Two huddles ago I spent the entire meeting on the verge of tears, calligraphy-ing my frustrations in my sermon notebook: a Christian on the fringes, on the outside looking in.

Today was a good day. Today, I felt my social anxiety and situational depression was at a low enough level that I could function as my Sunday self. I sat through the leader’s huddle, convinced I could fool my church into believing that I was a model leader…and then I was unmasked.

Well, not actually. The pastor–one of my favorite pastors; I want him officiating my wedding–didn’t suddenly summon me to the front to be rebuked. Instead, he preached about Zacchaeus, that familiar story of the wee little man in the sycamore tree. Since this was a leader’s meeting, the insights were about ministering, and one point struck me:

“People, not process.”

I have this habit of building up monsters in my head. Maybe it’s the pessimist in me, but I’m always expecting the worst, waiting for the axe to fall because I am not changing fast enough. Over time and familiarity and, okay, disappointed expectations (Who knew Christian millennials could be just as cliqueish as non-Christian millennials? Duh, Frankie. Christians are people too.), I guess I turned the Church into one of those scary monsters, another self-policing institution in a world full of self-policing institutions. But with three words, that terrifying image shattered, and I was reminded of why I believe. See, as my pastor exhorted us leaders to be sensitive, kind, and compassionate with people who, perhaps, did not fit our preconceived notions of what salvation–what the desire for changed life–should look like, all I could hear was “You are welcome here.”

Zacchaeus was a tax collector. In the Bible, tax collectors are mentioned separately from sinners, are their own brand of outcast. As turncoats who aligned with the colonizers, they were considered social pariahs, and it was not kosher to associate with them.  Here was a person who longed to change, but for whom the door seemed shut.

But then Jesus asked to stay at Zacchaeus’ house, and in that moment the nature of what the church should be was established: a place of open doors, where sinners of all sorts belonged, could find acceptance, could become saints by virtue of accepting one man’s sacrifice.

My two best Christian friends–really, my two best friends–are probably the two people I know who reflect this best. Together, we three form #TeamHumanChristian, and when we get together and talk about the journey of overcoming our sins it is so easy to see God’s grace. Painting on a Sunday face makes sense, but when you come in your Monday blues and Tuesday baggage, your Friday failings and Saturday sins, it becomes so easy to discover “I am not alone.”

Everyone is growing here.  Everyone has a ways to go.

I love meeting Christian sinners, people in the trenches, fighting their flesh; those for whom the words “His grace changes everything.” are not just lyrics but a daily reality. The struggle IS real. It is. And how beautiful is the honesty.

“People, not process.” This is a home for humans, not a factory for churning out cookie-cutter models of holiness. I’d forgotten that home is where you take off the mask, not put it on, but thank God for the reminder: “Who does the Lord receive?” In Luke 15:2, the Pharisees said it so clearly, voices strangled in self-righteous horror: “SINNERS! He eats with sinners!”

The church is His dining room, and I am a sinner. I am a Christian. Those labels were always meant to coexist. Every Christian is a sinner, every saint has a past. The armor of God maybe doesn’t fit just right, still sits uneasy on my shoulders, but it has always come with the reassurance that I will grow into it, should I choose to keep walking.  That everyone else in His church is fighting to grow into it too.

People, not process. Christ met Zacchaeus at the foot of the tree. I smell of the world. I howl like a wolf. Church means come as you are, because this is where God meets you.  This is where hope resides.

“You are welcome here.”

~aRT~

We Are Like Young Volcanoes, or, Fall Out Boy Saved My Rock and Roll

Over a year ago, I published “Patrick Stump Knows What Songs I Sing In The Dark,” a blog openly admitting the absolute terror I felt while “living the dream” that is Stories Told, set to the soundtrack of Fall Out Boy‘s “comeback” album, Save Rock and Roll.  That year, FOB was on my Spotify “Year In Music, and I looped Young Volcanoes endlessly, clinging to the desperate, hard-won optimism in Stump’s voice like a life-raft in a sea I hadn’t yet learned to navigate.

A lot’s happened since then.  For one thing–and ST‘s none to shy about admitting this to international press–the band nearly broke up. We hit a rough patch near the one year mark of the band, a point when I think all of us weren’t satisfied with the sound we had–“prog-rock fusion” we called it, but honestly it was sort of that cliché loud guitar-driven madness you hear everywhere–but were sort of stubborn and trying to stick with it while not being honest about what we really enjoyed (especially me, as I was reluctant to make waves and risk losing my dream).  By that point, I’d sunk into a deep depression, with Stories Told feeling more like a job than a genuine expression of myself artistically.  I started dabbling in side projects, frantically trying to build for myself the same network ST had so I could work up the courage to cut myself loose from the band and go off on my own.

As fate would have it, none of those efforts panned out, and Jian preempted my “resignation speech” by admitting what I’d felt all along–the band had lost its center, and needed to regroup.  So we did. We made the executive decision to ditch nearly all the songs we’d written that year–except for Surprise Me–then took a break over the holidays, intending to start fresh in 2015.  In January, we took on two new members–alternate bassist Yogi, and rhythm guitarist Aned–managed to crack the code of Surprise Me, and resumed operations with a bang by taking on the battle of the bands circuit.  Somewhere in between, we’d managed to find our sound: a mix of mine and Aned’s shared emocore/pop-punk roots with my Broadway/Bareilles vocals (and confessional poetry), wrapped in Jian and Jedd’s slick decade-spanning pop-rock influence.  It’s not a stretch to say we emerged a completely different band from where we started, and while it wasn’t the band any of us had said we wanted, it was the sort of compromise that left everyone feeling extremely excited instead of upset.

Fast forward to now.  We’ve signed with Amplify, released two singles, shot a music video, and have an EP launch scheduled for January 2016.  The trajectory at which we’d managed to go from struggling posers to something resembling an actual band has surprised us all, and no one more than me.

Back then, as the face of a band whose genre I did not even listen to outside of band rehearsals, I was constantly afraid of being unmasked as a farce–a singer for hire made to play the part of frontwoman. I went through the motions, aping the bravado–sometimes outright arrogance–that Jian, Jedd, and Dan seemed to exude as they chugged away at their instruments, but deep inside I felt compelled to hide behind the mic instead of own it. It all felt wrong, and I knew it felt wrong precisely because of Fall Out Boy.

 

To help me with my stage fright, Jian had given me the “assignment” of watching other frontmen take the stage, so I could learn by example.  After running through his list of suggestions, I’d landed on Live in London video of Patrick joyfully sing-howling the opening to “Young Volcanoes,” and stayed there, “like a moth getting trapped in the light by fixation.”

(Sorry, the opportunity was Irresistible.)

(Okay, okay, I’ll stop.)

I couldn’t help it. As I said in my blog last year, they looked so happy.

As I looped the video over and over and over had only one thought: this is exactly how being in the band should feel like.  I wanted to crawl into the screen and jump and and stomp and clap and spin and shout along with the sweaty masses in front of the stage, as Patrick and Pete and Andy and Joe led us through that reckless, beautiful cry of  “We are wild!  We are like young volcanoes!” It didn’t look like a performance–it looked like a party, like a present, like a bunch of people swept up together in a wave of relief and euphoria and joy that “We’ve already won.”

All of that was a far cry from what performances looked looked and felt for me–nervous posturing around a mic stand that always seemed to be in some form of disrepair, microphone cord wound too tightly around a microphone that always felt awkward and heavy in my hand.  What Live in London looked like was a bunch of guys who no longer cared if they looked “right” or “cool”–all that mattered was that they were in this adventure together, a single unit revelling in the experience, the joy of declaring “In poisoned places, we’re antivenom!

Try as I might, though, I could not bring myself to stop caring.  Not then, at least.  But the seed was planted. Every time I doubted myself I turned to it to remind me of what right would feel like: raw giving, without self-consciousness.  We are stupid and young and taking a trust fall into the music.

It took more gigs singing songs I probably had no business doing (and, honestly, should have admitted instead of powering through, too proud and too scared to be honest about my limitations), tons of passive-aggressive SMS/FB message battles, and one dramatic band confrontation that turned out to be our best decision ever before I could take that trust fall, but in the end, we made it out alive.  And part of the reason is because of that song, that feeling that remains burned into my brain as THE GOAL.  I won’t pretend I’m there yet–my band’s pretty close, but I’ve always been a little ways behind them–but together we’re closer.  When I’m standing on that stage I don’t feel like an antelope facing a pride of lions–I know, can physically feel, that I’m part of a unit and we’re in this together.  And that makes me less afraid, more willing to play.  I dance onstage when I want to.  I run around Aned to try to force a reaction out of him.  One time, during a battle of the bands, my wireless mic cut out (which is probably why Jian still favors wired ones), and I didn’t feel panic.  Instead, backed by nods from my bandmates, I marched into the crowd (it was a small venue) and sang at the top of my lungs–recalling every single choir director who’d screamed at me to “PROJECT!”–until someone finally handed me a working microphone.

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I’ve also learned how to bury bodies. The boys don’t exactly know how to feel about that.  (Photo (c) Jemimah Hope)

These were things I would never have managed to do before, if not for the lessons I picked up from that one live recording, a year and eternity ago:  You don’t need to care if they liked you better fat or thin.  You don’t need to worry if you’re cool or not.  Give what you’ve come to give, then let yourself go.  The music, if you’ve learned to trust it, will catch you.  And never forget that you’re in this together.

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Last night, our office had our annual Christmas party.  The theme this year was AMAs, so obviously we were all asked to dress up as musicians and perform.  After looping Carly Rae Jepsen‘s E•MO•TION (a vastly underrated pop album, IMHO) four or five thousand times, I’d resolved to go as the Run Away With Me singer.  But, at the last minute, I changed my mind.  Instead, I nipped out, bought a fedora and some light-brown hairspray-paint, threw on some hipster glasses and a leather jacket, and with my very best chest voice belted out the official national anthem of every millennial raised on the very best pop-punk/emocore: Sugar We’re Going Down.  I hit about a gazillion wrong notes–headbanging while trying to keep all your hair stuffed into your hat on can do that–and possibly looked like I was having an epileptic episode, but I didn’t care. I closed my eyes, pretend it was ST behind me, and let go.  And, for a few glorious minutes, it felt like I was living that Live In London video.

I went to bed thinking of one thing: I can’t wait until the EP launch gig.

~ARoamingTsinay~