April 7, 2005

The Underwear Imperative

How Joel became Jeff, and back again.

Joel Grabois

"Joe-elle? What the Hell kind of name is Joe-elle?" Those words, uttered in the squeaky drawl of a preadolescent Southern boy, set everything in motion. I was only seven years old, but from that day on, the mispronunciation of my name flicked rudely at my ear. That little wiseacre, Jeff Dunning, was the catalyst of my self-contempt. He was more athletic, more handsome, more popular. He was a local boy with a long family lineage in our town, a good-old-boy in training. He had expensive clothes and a freshly cut mullet, shaping his dirty-blonde hair into a wave on top and long curls down the back.

Maybe he was right. What was a "Joel" doing in a small town in Floribama? Floribama, the Redneck Riviera. My parents—my mom from Southern California and my dad from Los Angeles via New Jersey and the Bronx—met at a liberal college in Northern California. Their college was a "hippie school" surrounded by Redwood forests where they still have legal medical marijuana use. Joel was a nice name, for California. But we weren't in California anymore. My French last name, Grabois (pronounced Grab-wah), probably didn't help.

Jeff Grabois, Oct. 2004

Three weeks after I was born, a Reaganomics tax cut stripped public funds, ruining any chance of my parents getting teaching jobs in California. Their national search yielded a gig for my father teaching psychology at Chattahoochee Community College in the panhandle of Florida, where he taught about Swiss-born psychologist Jean Piaget, pronounced Gene Pig-it, to fresh-faced, God-fearing kids. My folks tried to fit in and made some good friends there but, after a decade, their differences with the surroundings and their fear that I or my brother would soon be putting six-inch lifts on a monster pickup truck (gun rack, six-pack, and a truckbed full of football buddies included) signaled that it was time to move on.

A New Me

The move was my chance for a name change—a chance to make a new me. What did I know? I was only 10 at the time. My parents were always supportive and nontraditional. They agreed to give the name change a shot. In retrospect, they must have been humoring me as payment for moving me away from my friends. When I entered school in Key West, Florida, in the fourth grade, I went through with it and introduced myself as Jeff.

How did I get from Joel to Jeff? It's a nugget of history lost like a brief synaptic charge dancing across the brain. As best I can reconstruct what happened: 10 was the age that we all drew logos out of our initials, filling notebook pages with different varieties of jAg, JAG, jag, JaG, JAG. I was lucky enough to have "cool" initials like JAG and didn't want to trade that and hours of difficult logo stenciling for a non J-name. Jeff Dunning was a confident kid. "Jeff" seemed to work for him. It had similarities to Joel, like one syllable and four letters. I didn't feel like using Andrew, my middle name: I would certainly get stuck with "Andy." When my name change comes up now, my dad gleefully tells a "story" about how I chose Jeff because my initials were already written in my underwear.

It took some adjustment in my new town. There were some missteps, like times when I didn't react to my own name. Once, a new friend was yelling down the hall as we left school. I didn't respond or look back and he chased me down, eventually yelling, "Jeff," in close proximity and grabbing my arm. I played it off well, I think. My new classmates must have thought I was slow, deaf in one ear, or both. One day, my teacher read off my legal name at roll call and my classmates discovered my secret. By then, though, I was Jeff, and that's all there was to it.

Ironically, the name Joel would have been widely accepted in Key West. We lived 90 miles from Cuba, after all. Many of my classmates were Cuban and wouldn't have thought twice about the validity of the name Joel. It would have still been pronounced by many as Joe-elle, but more like Jo-el, trading the excess syllables and lilting sway of a Southerner's accent for the light staccato of a Cuban's. I even remember a couple other Joels in school during those years. One such Joel was a Jo-el, a tall brown-skinned Cuban kid, who was soft-spoken and charismatic. At the southernmost point of the continental United States, there were no "Southerners" to degrade him and inject superfluous syllables into his name.

The Jeff trend caught on in my family and eventually spread to all of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. There were slipups, but "JoelJeff" eventually faded out, and even Jeffery, Geoff (pronounced Jee-off for effect), Jefferson, and (from one teacher) Jeffery-effery-effery were used. The change was complete. This continued through high school.

I would scowl when the teachers would slip every year and read my legal name on the roll. I needed diligent strategic moves to inform yearbook staff, band administrators, choir parents, and attendance workers about the name disparity. "It's Jeff. It's my nickname. I don't like Joel." How was Jeff a nickname for Joel, they would ask. "I made it up."

A New City

I was Jeff throughout college too, though more of my close friends there knew the story of the name switch than did my high-school buddies. Then I finished college and moved to New York City for work. Something shifted.

That inextricable thing that The City has—the constant camaraderie and absolute silent loneliness, the speed and noise, control and complete loss of control—took my breath and gave me the benefit of knowing when I had caught it.

All my life I've been running away from that name. That's why I wouldn't tell anybody. But I've been thinking about it. All this time I'm trying not to be me. I'm afraid to face who I was. But I'm Cosmo, I'm Cosmo Kramer, and that's who I'm going to be. From now on I'm Cosmo. [Seinfeld]

I'm not Jeff. I never have been Jeff.

I never really became Jeff. But I'm not Joel, either. Tearing myself away from "Joel" when I was 10 separated me from some part of myself and I stopped identifying with the name. With the switch, I left part of those 10 years behind in Marianna, Florida.

If I had a chance to regain my identity and truly have a name, the only way was to switch back (to Joel). Unfortunately, in the confusion of switching jobs in New York, I missed the convenient opportunity to introduce myself as "Joel" to my new co-workers. It would have been convenient—like the first day of school—but some part of me also worried about losing the professional momentum and recognition that I accrued with my diligent Jeff time.

Now I'm two-and-a-half years into that second job and the urge to reclaim my birth name has only gotten stronger. A lot has transpired since moving here in March 2001. The melting pot, at full boil, has shaken me up, salted me, and congealed me. I've simmered and I am Joel. I've reached a new stage in my life. The part of me that worried how others see me is gone.

In the grand scheme of things, this is nothing, anyway. I am nothing and a name doesn't matter. I am another ant crawling around on the hill searching for something. I'm content searching, and the night's droplets steaming off from the morning sun is reason enough to live. I'm back to basics, back to the real me. External life is complicated enough, so internal life should be peaceful, grateful, and expansive. And Joel is a better stage name anyway.

The Campaign

I started by assembling a list of 250 friends and relatives. On January 22, I sent this email with the subject "Name Change—Contact Update":

Hello everyone,

I'm writing to announce that I'll be using my legal name, Joel, from this point on. Surprised, astonished? Basically, I came up with Jeff when I was 10 and it caught on. I've been wanting to change it for a while and have decided that now is as good a time as any.

Please update my email address to __________.

If you have friends in the New York City area I would love to add email addresses to my band's list for show invitations.


Joel Grabois

Thus, the Joel experiment began. Responses: "Wha? I'm surprised. I never even knew your real name. OK, we'll see how it goes." "You gotta be kidding me. Well, tough luck, you'll always be Jeff to me." "Good for you, man. Hope it's not a quarter-life identity crisis."

Joel Grabois, March 2005

An ex called and left a voicemail on my cellphone after the email went out. She's an "artist" with a paralyzing, enchanting voice and a penchant for the dramatic. "Hello, JOEL. joel. Omigod, I mean, I can't believe you. Who is this Joel and what happened to Jeff? Do you think Joel is going to get more pussy? Was Jeff not cool enough? That is just tripping me out! Who was Jeff, anyway? You know, I might be attracted to this Joel... just kidding. Well, Joel, I guess I'll talk to you later."

I decided that my colleagues wouldn't readily incorporate the change and omitted their names from the email. I doubt it would be taken seriously and then there's the issue of changing email, voicemail, nameplate, business cards and on and on. I can imagine the 200 jovial, accommodating phone calls as I relay the story to every vendor with a moment to flip to me in their overstuffed rolodexes. In the rat race, it pays to stay aerodynamic and name drag could be just as dangerous as wind drag, worn tire tread or an ailing piston. Joel can start my next job, when the only necessary explanation will be why I interviewed as Jeff.

Work and personal life interact the most at a rock show where my band plays. At a recent show at Arlene's Grocery in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, we were burning time while tuning the guitars, and the lead singer introduced me as Joel. Colleagues attending the show were confused and questioned me about it. "It's my stage name," I said.

As more and more people began calling me Joel, the psychological disparity between work and life increased. I occasionally slip—almost saying Joel on work calls and almost saying Jeff on personal calls. It's likely at this point that "J-Jeff" and "J-Joel" will become my nicknames and I'll develop a stutter as a side effect. My parents accidentally call me jeffJoel, my brother is calling me Jo-Jo, and one friend is mounting a campaign to nickname me JJ. It hasn't been a walk in the park. Some friends, even people who haven't known me for that long, are resistant to the change. It isn't intentional, I hope. Some people just have a harder time making the shift.

Then there are the "JOEL" people. "Hi, JOEL. How are you doing, JOEL? Want a beer, JOEL? What kind do you like, JOEL?" And that's ONE conversation with ONE person. I mean, thanks, but, come on.

After two months, my internal monologue while typing work emails ends with "Thanks. Joel" as I type Jeff.

I maintain my name campaign, continually responding to emails sent to my old address from my new address, gently reminding friends that I don't check the old address (an eight year-old account plagued by constant spam). I have begun borrowing friends' cellphones and changing my name in them. I try to keep a good sense of humor about it.

Overall, the campaign has been mostly successful. Of all name usage outside of work, about 60% is pure Joel, 25% is Jeff with Joel corrections, and 15% is uncorrected Jeff usage. Of the 60% Joel usage, approximately 40% has some Jeff mention or story relayed.

The whole process will be complete when I don't think about it or hear about it every day and Joel starts to sound normal to me. I look forward to the time that something in a conversation will trigger the memory of the initial name change, or the change back, and I'll tell the story as a distant, funny anecdote. That'll be the day.

I'm planning a nameday celebration coinciding with my 33rd birthday and you're all invited. At 33, I will have been Joel for as many years as Jeff. The field will be equally matched, and Joel will finally be moving in as the majority partner. By 33, I should be settling down and planning to have kids. We'll probably move to a new, smaller town, a nice place to raise kids, like where I was brought up. I'll meet a whole new community, have a new job and a new set of friends.

Come to think of it, I could change again. If the tally is even between Jeff and Joel, why not switch to something totally new? Why not live the next 16-and-a-half years as someone a little more colorful?

May 25, 2011

Hello everyone,

I'm writing to announce that I'll be legally changing my name from Joel to __________ from this point on. Surprised, astonished? Basically, I was born Joel, came up with Jeff when I was 10 and it caught on. I was Jeff until I was 26 and Joel again until now. My wife and I are going to be moving from the city shortly and I want to enter my new life with a little more color and creativity.

Please submit your ideas for my new name and feel free to stray from the norm. Some ideas so far: Generous Grabois, Yes Grabois, Iam Grabois.

I am also writing to announce that my dear wife is pregnant with our first child. We are also searching far and wide for our new son's name. Please feel free to submit your ideas for this as well and just consider the name as a template, his first name (so to speak), just a birth name, a suggestion for his identity. The rest is up to him.

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- Reflections
- posted on Apr 08, 05

Joelf! Joelf!

- Reflections
- posted on Apr 08, 05

Hey Joel,
As I don't see you often, I am still not used to the name, but c'est la vive. I really enjoyed your article, and it really gives me some insight into your mind. Well, I'll keep in contact (of course) and try to get my parents to let me go to one of your shows ::glares at folks:: See Ya
Your Cuz

- Reflections
- posted on Apr 08, 05

Hi Joel!
Great article.
Love you, Regina

- Reflections
- posted on Apr 11, 05

My only gripe with this whole "Joel" thing is that I used to call you "Jeff-y" in a cutesy voice when I wanted something and you know, "Joel-y" just doesn't have the same ring to it. *Shrug* Oh well. Guess I'll just have to come up with a different manipulation. =)

Love ya!


- Reflections
- posted on Apr 16, 05

Jeffie, oh I mean Joellie! Will that be okay to call you Joellie? Until I see you in person again, it just won't be the same!

Marilyn haah

- Reflections
- posted on Apr 20, 05

good article. to me, you'll always be, "hey, what's our drummer's name again?"

- Reflections
- posted on Sep 10, 09
Joe Black

Also known as your Uncle Joe, Liz's Dad. Sorry I did not see this years ago!

- Reflections
- posted on Apr 23, 10
Latilda Henninger (formerly Jenkins)

Hi,'s a voice from your knew my son Adam Capshaw the last few years you were in the Panhandle. I was a spectator of the renaming process...your journey back is quite interesting....I look forward to further development. Warmly, Latilda

Article by Joel Grabois

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