The Name Thing (Why am I known as Zale Dalen)

I thought I had covered this in an ancient post, but if so I can’t find it. Today my friend Paul Stallion in Winnipeg wrote to say: “Tell me again (I’m pretty sure I’ve been told before), where did the genesis of your name come from?” So here’s the story:

I was christened David James Scott – David after my father, David Henry Scott, and James after my grandfather on my mother’s side, Lieutenant Commander James Lauden Bromfield, RN. All good and honourable names. In those days it was traditional to name babies to honour their living relatives.

I went through school and into university with the name David James Scott. Then I met my first wife, Rena Bishop. She told me that she had been christened Gwyneth Bishop, but her parents had become Kabalarians when she was twelve and had changed her name to Rena. Here’s a link to the Kabalarian website, which of course paints a flattering picture of their cult. I always found it interesting that they claim to be based on the Kabbalah, “an esoteric method, discipline, and school of thought in Jewish mysticism” which claims to predate religion, though the cult was founded in 1930. In any event, the present day Kabalarians believe a complicated system of numerology which posits that a person has a life path, determined by their date of birth, and some kind of mystical resonance with the numbers derived from their name. Each letter in a person’s name is given a number from 1 to 9, but starting over after the letter ‘i’ with 1 again, so that the letter ‘j’ would be counted as 1 and the letter ‘k’ would be counted as 2. Taken in total, but not exceeding 9, these number give a person’s name a numerical value which somehow resonates with a number derived from their birth date. They don’t care now the name is pronounced. It’s only the letters and the final number that counts. If this sounds like improbable nonsense to you, then you agree with me. Utter bollocks.

It’s not just a person’s birth date and name that matter to a Kabalarian. Every other number in their life matters – their street address, their license plate, the number assigned to the current year. It’s all considered and calculated. Life can get quite complicated. An 8 birth path going into a 9 year can be scary for them.

At any rate, I didn’t hear much about the Kabalarians after I met Rena. We dated, lived together, got engaged, and finally married in 1971. She didn’t talk much about the “Kabalarian philosophy”, other than the occasional mention that we were in such and such a year, or our address added up to such and such a number (which might mean that it would be prone to electrical problems or water damage). Rena was, and still is, a brilliant woman, the kind of person who studies university level physics for fun. I’m sure she recognized how silly the beliefs of her parents were, or at least would appear to skeptics like me.

Then, in 1972 or 1973, Rena’s father died. He had been the person in her life who told her how the world was glued together, and his death left a huge hole. She started taking courses at the Vancouver Kabalarian center, and spending money on their lessons. Soon she was deep down the cult rabbit hole. I remember one occasion when she went in to buy a license plate for our car. She didn’t like the number on the plate that was offered, so she asked for the next plate in line. That was refused. So she paid for the plate, walked out the door, dropped it in the nearest garbage can, then return to say that she had lost her license plate and paid again.

At this time I was having my own issues with my father, David Henry Scott. For several years, I identified as a hippie. With the rationalizing arrogance of youth, I felt that, given that society made it next to impossible to get around without my car, I should be allowed to park wherever I wanted. So I had a large parking ticket debt, so large that the police showed up to arrest David Scott for failure to pay. They could never find me, but they found my father fast enough. He wasn’t pleased.

Then he was bragging to his business associates that the family farm was free and clear. One of them checked and told him there was a lien on the property, a lien because of non-payment of his student loan. Of course, it wasn’t his student loan. It was mine. My father was furious. Such were the unintended consequences of giving me his name.

Rena came to me after one of her Kabalarian classes and told me that I would never be rich and famous with a name like David Scott. It just didn’t match my birth path. I needed to change my name.

I had two other reasons to consider changing my name. One, of course, was that my father was not happy with having the same name as he had given me. But the other was based on my belief that we are a combination of three things. We are what other people tell us we are; we are what we tell ourselves we are; and finally, we are what we actually are which is a combination in various proportions of all three determinants. All three of these elements that define us are unknowable. We are not fully aware of what other people are telling us we are, except for the broad strokes. There are so many assumptions people make and express about us that are invisible to our conscious mind. We are also not completely aware of what we are telling ourselves we are. Habits of thought maintained since childhood go unexamined, which is why psychiatrists and therapists can make a living. And we are not fully aware of what we actually are, which is a combination of all three of these factors. Nevertheless, I felt that, possibly, the best way to create a more positive, outgoing, adventurous, and enjoyable personality might be to change the label that I put on that personality, the label that I put on myself, my identity. I would rather be self created than created by the agendas of others, or even of reality. I didn’t expect to become totally self created, but I felt sure I could change the balance. So why not give it a go? (Zale Dalen – where the Dunning-Kruger Effect meets the Imposter Syndrome)

Rena presented me with a list, provided by the Kabalarians, with many rather ordinary names but often strangely spelled, like ‘Jon’, but also including stranger names, among them the name ‘Zale’. I felt that the name expressed something of my personality – distinctly different, slightly odd, unique and possibly intriguing -so David James Scott became became Zale Ralston Dalen. Rena Scott became Laara Dalen.

I hoped that my father would see this as an effort to repair the damage he’d done by giving me his name, but of course he didn’t. It took him years to process what he saw as disowning the family. The rest of the relatives were initially resistant to the name change, but with constant correction finally accepted it. I settled in to being Zale Ralston Dalen, and went about establishing a movie career.

Did this experiment in becoming self creative work as I hoped? Hard to say. Having a strange name came with its own problems, like people calling me Dale, or Zane. My first national publicity appeared in TV Guide when my name was listed as Dale Zalen. I heard from somebody putting my name forward as a director that one of the executives who would give final approval asked, “Can he speak English?” My name also gave me what I unintentionally asked for – a feeling of being cut off from my history and heritage. These problems seemed to fade as I became better known, but the feeling of being adrift came back with a vengeance when my father died.

My father died in 1986. By then we were on very good terms. I had spent weekends interviewing him and transcribing the tapes, which became an oral history of his very adventurous early life. I had long since paid off my student loans. The styles of the hippie movement had become either mainstream or comical. Everybody and his dog had an earring. A tattoo no longer indicated a complete social deviant. I had certificates from the New York Film Festival, The London Film Festival, Sidney Australia and Thesolonika. Such a degree of international acclaim had healed the wounds from my teen years, and my father actually cried when he saw my certificate from the Moscow Film Festival, “For peace and friendship among nations.” He didn’t understand that they would give that to anybody who denigrated capitalism.

Fast forward to the turn of the century. Laara and I had separated and were on our way to a divorce. My children were adults and didn’t need me any more. I’d gone bankrupt. I was about to run away to China to recover from the crash and burn that was my life. My name, Zale Dalen, had no heritage to it. Worse, it was slightly embarrassing. People who knew could recognize it as a Kabalarian name, and I wanted no truck with nor endorsement of that particular brand of nonsense.

So, despite having been Zale for more years than I was David, I went to China as David James Scott. That’s the name I was using when I met my present wife, Ruth Anderson. It didn’t hurt that the name David Scott had real value in China, where I was being hired because I am a white man and a native speaker.

I fully expected to keep my birth name for the rest of my life. But then, on returning to Canada, I Googled ‘David James Scott’ and found, or rather, failed to find, my name buried in thousands of results. Goggle ‘Zale Dalen’ and I’m at the top of the returns. That’s a hard brand to give up.

So now I have a slightly schizoid existence as both David Scott, to people who met me while I was in China, and Zale Dalen, to those who knew me before I left and after I returned. Actually, I’m even known to some as Da Dawei (Chinese for Big David), my Chinese name. That’s what Ruth calls me when she wants to catch my attention in a crowd. Apparently the percussive sound cuts through the noise and gets my attention.

As an aside, I felt that adopting a Chinese name was only fair and courteous, given that most Chinese take an English name as soon as they start to study our language. This has resulted in some very strange names, like Space Fish, Falcon, Chicken, and our Chinese best friend, Panda. If I’d known a single word of Chinese when I arrived in China I would have chosen Gao Dawei (Tall David) because Gao is a common Chinese family name while Da is not. No matter. Being Big David struck me as funny, like a gangster name, Mr. Big, and apparently strikes many Chinese the same way.

And that’s the broad strokes of a very long, detailed, and complicated story. I’ve tried to cut it to the bone, the salient points, but it really brings up many questions – why did I go bankrupt after quite a successful career, first as a movie technician and then as a director. Why did I become, as I recently posted, “Almost Famous”, and why did that all go away. But that’s nothing to do with the name thing.

Thanks for asking, Paul.

2 thoughts on “The Name Thing (Why am I known as Zale Dalen)

  1. I’ll never tire of this story.
    Greetings sent with love from Auckland, from one whom you knew in Bloor Street as Jane McLernon, but who has been Rose Hepozden for damn near three decades now. X

    • And I will never tire of my memories of you, Jane. Most particularly, sitting through “My Dinner with Andre” with you while all atingle with anticipation of the evening to come. So wonderful to hear from you again. Send me a Zoom link sometime and let’s say hello to each other. zaledalen(at symbol)gmail.com

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