What's In a Name?

by Eve Kushner <ekushner@pacbell.net>

I've been trying to invent an alias for myself, but I never realized how tough it is. Almost any name should improve on my own. Kush rhymes with tush, and Kushner clunks. It seems ethnic but unappealingly so, as if from a country no one cares to visit. The name Eve led to childhood taunts like "Where's Adam?" (right next door, unfortunately) and "Leave, Eve!" It's a palindrome, for God's sake. No wonder I've felt transparent at times!

A pen name should let me create a fresh identity, much as a snazzy outfit should present a new-and-improved self to the world. More important, I can write truthfully under an alias without embarrassing the people in my life.

I can't choose just any name, though. It should be meaningful, melodious, and possibly clever. It must sing out my personality and shout out my worldview (whatever those might be).

I know a Native American who replaced his Irish surname with Running Wolf. Definitely poetic. Hmm. Do I want such a neon name? I'm more inclined to pick something inconspicuous and mainstream, a name that lets me pass as Protestant. But someday I might write about being Jewish. I could use a name like Stone; it sounds Jewish enough, yet that isn't the first thing you notice. Am I a Stone? I can certainly be obdurate. And Stone relates to nature, which seems fitting, as I walk so much in Tilden Park. Maybe a different nature word. Kate Moss, Kate Wolf, Eve Creek. No.

Not such an easy feat, representing a complicated personality in two words. It challenges me as much as any other search for identity. Who am I? How do others see me? How do I want others to see me? If I hang out a new shingle will I seem a little different?

I began a similar inquiry when my husband and I looked for a house. I figured the building should match the way we are in the world. But what way is that? Are we like a darling brownshingled cottage retreating under redwoods? A Tudor emanating charm and grandeur? A sensible boxy structure resting on level ground?

As I immersed myself in the process such thoughts fell away. I focused instead on structural soundness and practical layouts. I fixated on broken tiles and ugly wallpaper. Insides mattered most.

We finally bought a chalk-white Mediterranean with a terrific interior. Only when escrow ended did the outside start to bother me. Rising steeply, the building presents a blank facade, like a wide, pale face without eyebrows. There's no foliage in front (except some ugly geraniums), so it seems especially stark. When I sent pictures to friends, I wrote, "It's kind of funny-looking right now." What I meant was, "Don't think it's actually us."

But maybe it is. With severe, ungraceful lines, the house looks much as I did before my first nose job. Like me, it's a work in progress.

So the house doesn't present a perfect image to the world. I have flaws, too. Maybe I don't need a perfect alias after all-just one that fits.

Poring over baby name books, I find conventional names like Jennifer, which don't seem right. Fashionable ones like Amber don't suit me either. I search phone books for surnames and try out a few.

I finally settle on Maya Harvell. Maya sounds literary and intriguingly ethnic. I've never hated anyone with that name. Harvell? I like where the accent falls. And the names don't clash. I enter an essay contest as Maya Harvell and await the results. Immediately Harvell begins to grate on me. So dull and inelegant. I meant to use it forever, but I abhor it already. When I don't win, I dump the name with great relief and begin my search again.

Now I have a new pseudonym. (I can't reveal it, as that would defeat the purpose.) The alias blends my grandmother's name with my passion for nature. Beyond that it reflects little of who I am, and perhaps that's good. Just as babies must learn to carry off patrician mouthfuls like Alexandra and Nathaniel, I can grow into my alias. It might fit the person I have yet to become.


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