How Ginger got her name

Penning this story, my first thought for a title was: “When I learned I’d lost and would never win again – ever.” But that is too long. Let me tell you how Ginny became Ginger. When our daughter began school in Pasadena, CA, her first teacher, the villain in this story, would change our world forever.

All parents agonize over naming their children. Although the technology was available, we chose not to take advantage of it, and were unaware of the gender of our soon-to-be-born baby. This meant we’d come up with a list of boy and girl names for our pending new arrival. I can’t recall them all now, but after weeks of discussion, it was down to just a few for each. For girls, although we wanted to wait until we saw him/her to be sure, we’d talked about carrying on family tradition, naming her Virginia Ruth – Virginia after Maggie’s grandmother and Ruth, after my mother. I especially liked this idea because like Maggie’s legal name, Margaret, which can be shortened to Meg, Peg, Maggie, Marge, Margie, etc., Virginia would also allow a variety of nicknames. I was particularly fond of the potential of calling her “Ginny,” as one of my favorite high school classmates had been named Ginny. Everyone loved her. She was in the choir, theatre and worked on the school yearbook. Outgoing and full of energy, I thought Ginny a great nickname.

But first she had to be born and we needed to determine her gender. Maggie’s obstetrician had a long-standing routine of telling each of his patients the gender of the child they were carrying on their very first visit to his office. Now, at this first encounter with him, at around week 4 or 5, the pregnancy is only just being confirmed. Any talk of gender at this point would be considered no more than a wild-ass guess as sex isn’t determined until the first ultrasound, between 18 and 21 weeks, and even then they sometimes get it wrong. But here he was, at week 4, confidently telling Maggie she was going to have a boy. As he picked up her chart he said, “Now, I’m correct 100% of the time, and to prove it, I’m going to write down my prediction in your chart, on this visit date. I’m saying you are going to have a boy baby,” and he wrote in her chart.

Chuk Batko decorated the nursery wall with a painting

Maggie and I got into the child prep big-time. We took prenatal childbirth classes, every Tuesday for several weeks, with other expectant parents. I learned how to be a good coach and we both learned what to expect and how not to be freaked out in the delivery room. We acquired a crib, baby clothes and supplies to care for an infant. Our friend Chuk Batko painted the walls of a small bedroom with a truly awesome kid mural.

Right after dinner on March 13, 1984, Maggie said she was beginning to feel odd and rightfully predicted this might be the night. At around 10:00 pm, as we were starting to get ready for bed, her water broke. We didn’t panic. We were ready even though it was two weeks before her due date. We got to the hospital just before midnight. I’ll not describe the 12 hour labor process, but I’m sure Maggie remembers every minute of it. The important thing was our daughter was born around 1 PM on March 14. And we knew immediately we would call her Virginia.

Before jumping to how her name changed, you must allow me to recount Maggie’s triumphant first post-delivery visit to her obstetrician. She couldn’t wait to tell him he’d been wrong in his gender prediction, perhaps for the first time ever. How sweet! She was quick to bring up his erroneous prediction. He scratched his head and said, “No, no, that doesn’t sound right. I’m sure I said you would have a girl.” When Maggie protested, he said, “Hold on, no need to argue, I think I wrote it down. Let’s check your chart,” and he flipped back a few pages and there, written clearly and indisputably was: Sex = Girl. “I told you, I’m right 100% of the time,” he said. Maggie left his office a bit perplexed.

As she was paying her bill, the woman at the counter asked her what she was shaking her head about. Maggie explained what had just happened. The office manager said, “Oh, he pulled that on you, too?” Maggie looked at her quizzically and she said, “When he predicts the sex of the baby, he always writes down the opposite of what he says. If he guesses correctly, no one ever asks to see the chart. But if he guesses wrong, and the chart is checked, it always proves he’s right, because he records the opposite of what he says.” They both had a good laugh.

The school in Pasadena where Ginny began first grade was only a few miles from our home. But it was an old school, in a neighborhood largely occupied by retired people. The school district had not staffed it with their best and most dedicated teachers. In visits to the classroom, Maggie found the teacher playing cartoon videos to the kids as she napped at her desk in the rear of the room. Complaints from Maggie and other mothers to the principal had not endeared her to the teacher and sometimes, she took it out on Ginny.

Several times Ginny had come home from school complaining when her teacher was angry at her, she would call her Jennifer Larsen. “Get back to your desk and sit down right now Jennifer,” the teacher would yell at her. “Mom,” Ginny complained, “She thinks my full name is Jennifer and I’m Jenny for short. But my name is Virginia and everyone calls me Ginny. How can I stop her from calling me Jennifer?” Always attentive and pragmatic, Maggie explained just like Margaret, Virginia has all sorts of good nicknames. Besides Ginny, she could be Virgie, Gina, Ginger, Geena or Gigi among others. She didn’t get far past “Ginger,” when Ginny said, “Wait, my nickname could be Ginger?” Maggie said, “Yes,” and Ginny beamed. She’d been watching Gilligan’s Island on TV and Ginger clearly was her favorite on the show. “Okay,” she said, “From now on, I want everyone to call me Ginger.”

The next several weeks went by with her politely and patiently correcting people who called her Ginny, telling them her name was now Ginger. One night in bed Maggie mentioned to me our daughter had noticed I was still calling her Ginny, and had asked her mother what to do about it. I explained to Maggie I liked the nickname Ginny. I wasn’t one to ever be confused and call her Jennifer. And besides, it was okay if everyone else called her Ginger and I still called her Ginny. I said, “Lots of Dads have a pet name for their daughter not shared with everyone else. It’s like a special dad-daughter thing, sort of nice, don’t you think?” Maggie said, “Maybe, but I think you’re just not trying.” I shrugged it off.

A week or two later, I was relaxing after work. In my “decompress” time, I would sit down in my easy chair with a cocktail and the newspaper. I’d only been there for a few minutes when Ginny pushed herself under the newspaper, between my legs, and wiggled her way into my lap. She stuck her legs over one of my arms and leaned her shoulders against my other arm as I did my best to ignore her. She just lay in this position, looking up at me, not saying a thing. Finally, I looked down into her face and said, “Y…e…s?” She composed herself slightly and then very clearly uttered two short sentences: “Daddy, by now, everyone else is calling me Ginger, but not you. Dad, I really prefer Ginger.” And she just looked at me with those steady, unblinking eyes. What could I do or say? My mind went totally blank. I just stared at her for a long time and then I said, “OK, I’ll try.” She gave me a big grin, a little squeeze and said, “Thanks, Dad,” and hustled off my lap and was gone.

I sat stunned. Of course, she had won. I never even got to trudge out any of my arguments for continuing to call her Ginny. And perhaps more importantly, for the first time, something else dawned on me. It was her determination and persistence. Maybe even stubbornness? She was just six years old and I had to marvel at her understanding and ability to adapt her tactics to get what she wanted – especially from me.

Years later, when she was a teenager, one night half-way through dinner she announced, “I’ve decided I’m a vegetarian; I am not eating meat anymore.” After Ginger left the table, Maggie wondered out loud, “How long do you think this phase will last?” I said, “Oh, oh, I’ve got some bad news. I’ve heard that voice before. She’s not going to change her mind – you better get out the vegetarian cookbook.” She turned 36 years old this year. She’s still a vegetarian and everyone calls her Ginger.

 

Tragedy and Comedy: Oh, So very close

laughing, crying masks
In high school, my daughter Ginger was cast in a theatrical presentation of the Sound of Music. She threw herself into the two roles she played, greatly enjoying all the rehearsals and tasks associated with getting the production ready for an audience. After opening night, she had issues with her performance and came to me, asking what she should do. Finally, a problem with which this father of a teenage daughter might actually be able to help! Because you see, I understood her problem and also knew how to fix it. The same thing had happened to me.

When I was a senior at Mayo High School in Rochester, MN, I was cast as Tom Wingfeld in the Tennessee Williams play, The Glass Menagerie. Tom is a crucial character in the play, acting as both narrator and protagonist. It is one of the most iconic stage roles ever written. A good many famous actors have given it a go, including Kirk Douglas, Sam Waterston, John Malkovich, Christian Slater, and Joe Mantello. While my performance was never in the same league as a professional actor, I like to think they may have wrestled with one of the same issues I had with the part.

The play is heartbreaking and any actor worth his salt should have the audience in tears in his final soliloquy. In these final lines, Tom’s character says farewell to his mother and sister, saying he’s left home and will never return and asks his sister, Laura, to blow out the candles. Here is Tennessee Williams, writing these remarkable words and lines that will catapult him from obscurity to fame.  Rehearsals went well, the actors all knew their lines and the production crew, headed by assistant director Pati Knappe, was ready. Into dress rehearsal, we went. After weeks of closed rehearsals, here was our chance to perform in front of an audience for the first time. Our Director, Dwain Johnson, cautioned us to work with the audience, pause when they reacted, or laughed. I heard him but didn’t absorb the message.

It began in the middle of the first act. People were laughing at some of my lines. I was furious. This play was not a comedy, it was serious and tragic. I began pushing my lines forward when I felt them starting to laugh, to keep them quiet. During intermission, Mr. Johnson got us together for a brief pep talk. To me, he said, “Steve, you’ve got to understand, comedy and tragedy are very close together. If you want them to cry during your final soliloquy, you need them to laugh with you first.” I wasn’t sure what he was saying but knew he understood more about it than I, so I took his advice and began working with the audience, allowing them to laugh and even enjoying it when they did. My soliloquy went fine.

Our two live performances were on Friday and Saturday nights. Before opening night, Director Johnson gave us a pep talk and in it, elaborated on our experiences in dress rehearsal. He explained, no doubt for my benefit, that when looking at the expansive line of human emotions, most people see one end anchored by hilarious laughter and the other end in tragic weeping. “But it’s not like that at all,” Johnson explained. “The fact is that when you look at this vast range of emotions, laughing and weeping are together at one end of the spectrum, and indifference is what is at the other end. So, if you want to get the audience to cry, get them to laugh first. Moving them from laughter to tears is a short distance, and it’s easy.” I remembered what he said for those two performances and for the rest of my life. So, when my daughter asked me how to fix her stage problem, I knew what to tell her.

Maria, Baroness Elsa Schräder and Captain von Trapp

Ginger’s problem was a bit different. In the Sound of Music, Ginger played Baroness Elsa Schräder, the fiancé to Captain von Trapp. The Baroness, after being introduced to the children, begins to see how much von Trapp’s children are attached to Maria and suspects the Captain may harbor feelings for Maria as well. She deviously maneuvers to get Maria out of the way and finally orders Maria back to the convent. Ginger confessed to me, “Dad, I can really feel the audience when I’m doing this and they don’t like me at all – so I’m trying to do my lines right but I’m also trying to be nice at the same time, and it’s just not working. See, the audience doesn’t know it yet, but in the next act, I make everything okay because I tell Maria that the Captain really loves her, and then I leave.”

Oh, what a perfect set up! Not just by the playwright, but perfect for this particular dad/daughter moment. I explained to her the comedy-tragedy line but painted it in love vs. hate terms. I explained that love and hate were very close together, with indifference at the other end. And, if she sincerely wanted the audience to love her in the second act, she needed them to really, really hate her in the first. The solution to her problem wasn’t to try to get the audience to take it easy on her in the first act, it was to throw herself into the part and get the audience to completely despise her. The degree the audience would come to love her in the second act was in direct proportion to how much they hated her in the first.

Just like I trusted Mr. Johnson, it seemed Ginger trusted me. She nodded and said, “I’ll try that.” At the performance that evening, I watched in awe as Ginger threw herself into making the audience dislike her. And boy, did she nail it. Near the end of the first act, when Ginger’s Baroness Elsa character banishes Maria back to the convent, I heard the woman seated next to me involuntarily hiss in hatred toward the stage. The distaste the audience was feeling toward this character was palpable. I was thrilled.

When intermission was over, the second act commenced, and the scene came where Baroness Schräder bowed out with dignity and caring, telling Maria that Captain von Trapp truly loved her.  I didn’t have to look over at the seat next to me to know. Yes, the woman was in tears!

But Ginger’s part in the production wasn’t over. After her final scene as the Baroness, she went backstage, got out of the wig and fancy dress the Baroness wore, because she had another part to play. She donned a costume and funny wig with large pigtails sticking out both sides of her head, taking on the role of the woman who would refuse to leave the festival stage after her act was finished, generating gales of laughter and round after round of ovations, giving the von Trapp family time to slip away. This character generated tons of laughs, no doubt a relief for Ginger.

But the best part for me was at the end of the play. When the curtain call came up, Ginger first took applause for her role as the festival performer, an audience pleaser even though it was a non-speaking part. But the real fun came when she removed the silly pigtail wig and revealed herself to be the actress that had also played Baroness Elsa Schräder.  As her father, I am thoroughly biased and non-objective, but I swear to you, the amount of applause for her went through the roof!

Epilogue: When people think of theatre, the two-faced mask is one of the oldest and best-known symbols illustrating comedy and tragedy, happiness, and sadness.  The symbol dates back to Greek mythology and has represented creative arts for decades. But to me, I always see it as those two very similar emotions, so very close together, and so far away from indifference.