October 27, 2005

Naming Rights

How the author learned to share his name and become the best Michael Gerber he can be.

Michael S. Gerber

When it came to names for their children, my parents were no Frank Zappa or Gwyneth Paltrow. Which was fitting. My parents are smart, caring, talented people, but I have yet to hear them described as creative, or outside-the-box. My Dad used to paint, but he was also an engineer. I get the feeling that his artistic process made the average paint-by-numbers aficionado look like an opium-crazed surrealist. He likes to do construction projects around the house, too, and on a recent trip home my brother showed me a piece of paper with diagrams and algebraic equations. "Check out the plans for the new addition to the basement that Dad's building," he said. I looked more closely; my parents had just built the house, and I had couldn't fathom that they already had plans to expand. But the calculations looked complicated—years have passed since I last used a letter while doing math, but there it was, an "x" in the numerator. I studied my father's enigmatic scrawlings a few more seconds before I realized it they had nothing to do with another room for the house, and everything to do with cooking a Thanksgiving turkey he had just pulled from oven.

Michael S. Gerber
The author.
So it comes as no surprise that my parents were solidly in the mainstream of the country's new parents (and the Bible) when choosing names for us. My brother, born in 1973, would tell you that David was one of the most common names chosen by American parents that year. And in 1979, the year I popped out, Michael topped the charts. I went to a small private school, and there were three of us on my soccer team. In my chemistry class of 16 students, I had to choose whether to go by "Mike," "Michael," or my last name, because the teacher needed ways to tell us apart. Ten years later, on my ultimate Frisbee team, the situation was the same—there simply are too many Michaels.

But I never came across many people with my last name, so it became an easy nickname. In college, as many people called me "Gerber" as "Mike" or "Michael." I thought I was free from confusion until an intramural soccer game during my sophomore year. People on the sideline kept yelling at me, but it didn't seem to make sense. They told me to get the ball when it clearly wasn't anywhere near me. Which is when I realized that my opponent—my team's archrival—had a Gerber, as well. Fortunately, his name wasn't Michael. But, he informed me, his father's was.

That was my closest encounter with another Michael Gerber until the following year, when I returned to my dorm room and checked my answering machine. I don't remember the exact message, or the name of the person who left it, but it went something like this:

Hi Michael, this is Bob [not his real name], an editor with Talk magazine. I know you're busy with that piece for Esquire, but we were hoping you could write that one for us that we talked about earlier. Give me a call and we'll talk about it.

Michael Gerber
Courtesy Michael Gerber
The erstwhile Talk writer.
"Funny," I thought, "I don't remember agreeing to write a piece for Esquire." In fact, I was busy on several other writing projects, like three term papers, as well as editing a campus magazine. The blinking light on my answering machine tempted me. I'd never been paid to write anything; perhaps this was my big break. I eventually called the editor's secretary and explained that they probably had the wrong Michael Gerber. Maybe they wanted the one who had graduated nine years earlier and became a professional humor writer. At first, I regretted the decision. But Talk folded soon after—perhaps because editors couldn't find their authors' phone numbers—and I still don't know if the other Michael Gerber ever wrote the story, or if they even found him to assign it.

A few weeks into my post-college life as a "professional" journalist, I decided my name needed to be a little more specific. I had found that there were more than two Michael Gerbers in the writing world—a third one had sold thousands of self-help business books and had his own talk radio show. I added an initial to my byline. Then I discovered that the websites and were taken, so I had to settle for That's when I decided I had had enough. I emailed my first nemesis, Michael Gerber, humor-writer extraordinaire, published in The New Yorker (my mom once sent me one of his pieces, with a mock congratulatory note), best-selling author of the parody Barry Trotter.

He seemed like a nice guy. We emailed a little. I read his website. I'm not sure what I expected—perhaps some sort of instant friendship ("Another Mike Gerber?!? I will take you under my wing and make sure you become a successful author like myself. After all, we have the same name!"). Or at least a thank you, or an apology ("I'm sorry I stole your name, went to your college, and became a writer. Thanks for using your middle initial. Michael S., I really appreciate it.").

I didn't even get a free autographed copy of his book.

Michael Gerber
The business guru.
But at least Michael Gerber didn't steal my website. That ignominy apparently belongs to Go to and you'll find ads for the Barry Trotter series and books by another Michael Gerber, this one the author of several business books that propose to make the reader rich (although I'm guessing they've done more for the author). This Michael E. Gerber, creator of the "E-Myth" series, even has his own nationally syndicated radio show. So if—I mean, when—I write several bestsellers, they'll have to compete on Amazon with a few parodies of some children's books and dozens of self-help books for people who want to make quick money.

I was beginning to wonder if every one of my namesakes had also chosen the writing profession when a friend of mine sent me an email about a Democrat running for the state assembly in suburban Philadelphia. My friend was working for a progessive political group, and she wanted to know if I would like a campaign sign saying "Vote for Michael Gerber." I immediately searched for his website. Knowing that was already taken (humor writer) and was as well, I checked, and there it was. He was challenging an incumbent Republican, but Mike Gerber was doing well. On Election Day, I found some solace amid the otherwise overwhelming Republican success — Mike Gerber had won a seat in Harrisburg.

Recently, I called to congratulate him. Rep. Michael F. Gerber told me that he had almost attended Yale, but in the end decided to play football at Penn instead. Probably a good decision, since it turns out that before my time in New Haven, the Yale athletics department had employed a strength and conditioning coach named Michael Gerber (who now has a gym in Syracuse—Mike Gerber Sport and Strength). The humor writer used to get his phone calls by mistake. Michael F. Gerber, the youngest of three children, grew up with those oh-so-clever nicknames, like "Gerber Baby." He also ran into confusion during his campaign; when some supporters came across, which belongs to Michael A. Gerber (aforementioned humor writer), they thought the blog full of liberal rants and humorous musings belonged to the Pennsylvanian.

Michael Gerber
The state rep.
"A friend of mine said, 'Dude, you gotta take down your blog,' " Rep. Gerber told me.

Turns out that since the election, Gerber (Pa.) let his ownership of lapse. Someone else snatched it up and won't respond to his inquiries. It's probably another Michael Gerber out there, plotting ways to add to the confusion. The humor writer insists it's not him.

"I'm really pulling for him," the humorist told me when I reached him in Santa Monica, talking about the politician and original owner of "I'm never going to support any political candidate who doesn't have my name."

Gerber (Calif.) received at least one email from a constituent of Gerber (Pa.), and like I had done years earlier for him, he kindly informed the supporter that he had the wrong MG. Unfortunately, the California Gerber still has to struggle to escape the shadow of the E-Myth author. No matter how popular Gerber's parodies become, they still fight for top billing on booksellers' web sites.

"That E-Myth guy—he and I duel it out on all the time," he said. And on Barnes & Noble's website, Michael E. Gerber is (incorrectly) listed as the author of the first Barry Trotter book, not Michael A. Gerber (who just goes by Michael Gerber—confused yet?).

After talking to some of the other Michael Gerbers out there, I can't be as bitter that they stole my name and, in some cases, my preferred URL. Michael A. Gerber and Michael F. Gerber both seemed like good guys. Perhaps the writer and I will someday write a book together—we can argue for hours over whose name gets listed first on the cover. And Michael F. Gerber has a promising political future ahead of him. Perhaps I can be his spokesman, although that might cause some confusion. Sometimes I think that we'll make a great national ticket someday—I could be his running mate. Gerber-Gerber has a nice ring to it. Then, finally, the other Michael Gerbers will get phone calls meant for me.

Michael S. Gerber is a freelance journalist and ultimate-frisbee champion based in Bethesda, Maryland. Learn more at

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Article by Michael S. Gerber

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