FORUM: Nicknames

I was a soon-to-be third-year graduate student in academic psychology, in the school which was initiated by one of my top-ten heroes, Sir Isaac Newton: his studies of the apparent movement of stars in the sky became the field of vision psychophysiology. I had many brilliant, talented, fun friends in the psychology graduate program of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

One weekend, three of my best buds (Ed, Ray, and Barry) and I were invited to a multi-university, multi-department party.

  • Ed (RIP) was nicknamed “Head” because he was a head taller than everyone, had the most capable all-round head of anyone in our troop, and was usually the head of whatever assembly he attended. He was strongly reminiscent of the character, James Bond.
  • Ray, nicknamed “Rayton,” was an emotionally and cognitively solid Eagle Scout, one of my two fishing buds in the Midwest, and a great all-weather driver/road-trip brother.
  • Barry, nicknamed “Grauton,” was a brilliant trouble-maker from New York City: a champion of funny quips, my fellow punk-rocker and pinball player, we shared many fun and some very non-fun adventures.

I had no nickname, because there wasn’t sufficient opportunity for my friends to formulate one for me—I hadn’t yet “earned” the honor. Head called me “Yarnold,” Rayton and Grauton both called me “Paul.” Change is, however, the nature of the Universe…

A trio of friends, one year more advanced in school than we, co-rented what we considered to be an enormous apartment: three large bedrooms, large kitchen, very large combined dining and living room, two large bathrooms… They decided to hold a party, inviting graduate students from several local universities—University of Illinois (which we attended), Northwestern, DePaul, Loyola, University of Chicago, Northeastern, among others.

Grauton and I arrived at the party together. The party was “bring your own booze,” so we both brought our mutual favorite drink—a fifth of Stolichnaya stored in the refrigerator freezer for a week so as to be properly chilled, and a very long straw.

We met Head and Rayton at the party. We all hung together briefly, near the start of the long hallway, to get a view of all three bedrooms—which were packed with students. We all were taken aback by the large number of people whom we hadn’t yet met.

I told my buds that I was going into the first bedroom to “test the water.” I entered and began to introduce myself to the guests. I would speak to one, and that person would soon exit the room. I systematically tried to meet every person. I emptied the room.

When I was the only person left in the first bedroom, I went into the second bedroom. I repeated my same behavior, and obtained the same result achieved in the first bedroom.

On the way to the third bedroom I stopped to speak with my three friends, who remained in the original location so as to survey my “progress”. I asked if I had body odor, or horrible breath, because: “I may be imagining things, but it seems as though I am chasing people out of rooms.”

Head replied that they (my friends) were making bets on how long it would take for me to empty the third room. I entered room number three.

Soon later, after I completed my social trifecta, my three friends told me that the first dude to exit the third room after “meeting” me rushed right up to them (total strangers to the dude)—with a wild-eyed look and rhetorically asked: “What planet is that guy from?”

I was informed by my three amigos that I had earned myself a nickname—Planet.

Use of this nickname persists today, among my colleagues from graduate school days.

***

Several years later I was hired as an Assistant Research Professor of Medicine in the Department of Medicine, Division of General Internal Medicine (GIM), at Northwestern University Medical School (NUMS). The NUMS campus is located in the “miracle mile” area, downtown Chicago, starting one block south of the Water Tower and going east to Lake Shore Drive.

At that time the newly-created GIM Division was small. The administrative staff consisted of three sisterly, funny, happy young (late twenties) ladies. I came from a large family, and enjoyed having a good time, so our relationship was respectful and pleasant.

The ladies called the physicians “Dr. so-and-so” (insert last name), however they liked to call me “Dr. Y”.

I loved it, in part because my last name begins with the letter Y. Also, because earlier I explained to the ladies that every news story should address five issues: who, what, where, when, and why. Of these, the most elusive—and I often the most important question, is “why.” I told them that it is the answer to the question “why” which I seek in my research. “Why” was abbreviated to “Y.”

In those days I mountain-biked four miles to work, through the park bordering the shore of Lake Michigan, on the way walking my bike through Lincoln Park zoo and saying hello to my favorite animals. I got to my office, changed out of biking clothing, went to the administrative office to say good morning, and to see if I had received any mail or if there was any news.

In the office, all three ladies looked at me in a manner that I’d never seen before—or after. In retrospect, I imagine this was probably akin to cats eyeing a mouse. The main administrator said there was an important message for me, and to see the note in my mailbox. I pulled out the note and asked if I could call from a phone in the admin office. I was told to go ahead, so I called the number. We had push-button phones then—I liked them more than the rotaries.

When the voice on the other end answered, I said: “Good morning, I received an important and urgent message from Dr. Wolff at this number, and I am returning his call.”

The voice on the phone informed me that there was no Dr. Wolff at the number I’d dialed. Incredulous, I replied: “I am an Assistant Research Professor of Medicine at Northwestern Medical School, and my outstanding administrator told me that Dr. Wolff called me from this number, and asked me to call him back as soon as possible.”

The voice on the other end of the line calmly asked me if, perhaps, the fact that today’s date is April 1st (April Fools Day holiday in America) may have something to do with my dilemma.

I calmly thanked her, wished her a nice day, and gently let the phone down.

I looked at the ladies, who tried their hardest to keep a straight face. When we could stand it no longer, our laughter let loose like jets undergoing catapult launch from an aircraft carrier.

***

Three decades later I was an angler in the San Diego fishing fleet. I went on numerous trips, mostly on one of two long-range boats—first the Polaris Supreme, and then the American Anger.

I had the privilege of meeting many anglers. Tough “brotherly” dudes, long-range anglers make good, kidding fun of fellow anglers—highlighting or exaggerating their uniqueness. The anglers struggled for two seasons to develop my nickname. I brought a lot of unique gear, so one season I was named “Gadget,” the next I was called “Gizmo,” but neither nickname stuck.

Eventually I told a few anglers about the nickname I was given in graduate school. Since that time until today, most anglers in the San Diego Fishing Fleet know me as “Planet.”

However, leave it to the mates—who watch everything happening in and around the boat, to optimize my nickname.

On most of the fishing trips that I took on the American Angler,  I would bring a top secret box containing my latest experimental fishing devices—flying fish lures which were actual gliders, electrical devices which emit sounds of a distressed baitfish, lures which leached baitfish scent, and so forth.

Every trip I asked the mates to take my secret box topside to their quarters (they always did this), and to leave the box closed and refrain from examining my inventions (they never did this).

These genius fishermen finally created my new nickname, and an increasing number of anglers, mates, captains, dock workers and shop keepers in the fleet are calling me “Plan-It.”

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet)

Nicknames

Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.

January 13, 2021

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