May 09, 2005

The Richard Cohen Dilemma

I’m not this guy – he’s a columnist for the Washington Post. But we used to share a BOOKS IN PRINT entry, my books growing out of his books’ torso, or perhaps vice versa. For all I know, we may share it still – I haven’t looked in many years.

I’m not this guy – he’s a CBS journalist and producer, he’s married to Meredith Viera, and he’s a genuinely courageous man. He’s the author of a bestselling memoir, BLINDSIDED, about his long fight with multiple sclerosis.

And thank God I’m not this guy – (scroll down) -- he’s a Manhattan real estate developer who was apparently responsible for evicting a pair of red-tailed hawks from their nest atop his co-op apartment building at 927 Fifth Avenue, where he lives with his wife Paula Zahn. (Do Richard Cohens have an innate tendency to marry TV anchorwomen? If so, the gene has not been expressed in me. I marry professors.)

Nor am I this guy – a fine journalist who has written about tough Jews in various milieus: criminal gangs, anti–Nazi resistance, the music industry. Alas, I don’t write journalism.

The Washington Post Richard Cohen once wrote a column about the perils of being called Richard Cohen – well, he had to write something, he had a deadline to meet. It was about the same topic this Austin post is about. I don’t know whether he was aware of me or not. For an American Jewish male of the baby boom generation, being called Richard Cohen was like being called James Jones. Not quite like being called John Smith – our equivalent names for that might have been David Shapiro or Paul Schwartz – but close enough.

A couple of years ago I received a mass mailing about a successful class–action lawsuit that was bringing additional royalties to writers who had been short–changed on reprints of scholarly articles. I got the Richard Cohen form letter. It was pages and pages long – there must have been 200 different Richard Cohens on it. (If anything, that’s an underestimate.) Richard A. Cohens, Richard B. Cohens, even Richard L. Cohens. But I was not on the list. I don’t write scholarly articles.

What do you do with a name that makes you anonymous? Well, I used to think that I was going to be the Richard Cohen who really mattered, as James Jones was the James Jones who rfeally mattered. So I defiantly kept it as is. But that didn’t work out.

A better way might have been to change my name into something else entirely, but I’m too stuck in my identity to do that. Unfortunately, I’m not one of these Zimmermans who can create a whole new self as soon as he hits manhood and never look back. (Not until he writes his memoirs, at least.) Nor did I want it to seem that I was ashamed of my Jewishness. I thought of taking my mother’s maiden name, which is distinctive and short and appealing (sort of like my mother, come to think of it), but I didn’t want to hurt my father’s feelings. Perhaps my fate is to be always stuck in the family romance of the central Bronx circa the 1950s.

What put me straight was the computer revolution. If you do a search for Richard Cohen, I’ll be a needle in that haystack. When I started this blog I needed a way for people to find it. So I did the simple and obvious thing: I added my middle name, which I’ve been ignoring all my life though I have nothing against it. If you do a search for Richard Lawrence Cohen, I’ll be on top. So I became distinctive not by fleeing from myself but by becoming more completely my lifelong self than I have been before.

Now I just hope I've linked all the Richard Cohens to the right URLs...

UPDATE: A reader has forwarded me a birth announcement for a baby boy born at 7:10 am today whose FIRST name is Cohen. This is the first time I have ever heard this ancient name used as a given name, and though I don't know the family, I had to email them to find out more. It turns out that both parents are mostly Irish, and that they both love the name Cowan. But they were worried that a boy named Cowan might be called Cow for short -- not a pleasant prospect. So they tried out different spellings and came up with Cohen.

Blessings upon you, young Cohen, my lad, and may your name bring you thousands of years' worth of honor.