I have always loved wearing hats. I used to wear a cowboy hat that I imagined projected something like this: “Look here, pardner, I know I’m just playing because this is Queens and not the Wild West, but isn’t it fun?” I wore a beret in France and a baseball cap at the Mets games to help me feel as though I belonged. And once I wore a big-brimmed, slouchy hat to an interview for a glamor job, and I got hired. The hat spoke up and said things about me that were true but I felt unable to say.
Amazing, how the things we put on, like hats or hair color, or hair, or a new pair of boots, can seem to change not only how we see ourselves and how we imagine the world sees us, but also how we are? Despite the likelihood that all the special qualities that hat seems to promise were there all the time, it feels like magic.
Once, when I was writing for a local paper, I decided to “try on” a new persona, as if it were a new hat. I wanted to write under another name and use another voice so I could be someone who was both me and not me. I wondered if, under “cover” of the other name I could be someone more outspoken than I usually am, more daring, reaching further for funny ideas and great sentences and profound insights. I wondered if, by changing my name, I could exceed my usual, everyday writing self.
The name I invented was a reversal of my first two initials, and, for a last name, I used Kagan, a name my father’s famiy came from Russia with, two generations ago.
For two years, I “tried on” all sorts of topics as A. B. Kagan. I wrote things about aging and living, things I found funny and not-funny…exactly as I always had. I reached for funny ideas and profound insights, and was able to grasp them about as often as I always had. In fact, nothing changed. I did not feel freer as A.B. Kagan, and I did not write any differently or better. People who knew me knew it was me. “Why’d you change your name?” someone asked and I did not have a good answer. One’s essential self is one’s essential self.
Still, the issue of identity is more complicated than that. If you are who you are – and isn’t this the stated goal for living comfortably in your own skin? – why fuss over the presentation of yourself in every day life? Why dress up for the party, or manage to wedge humble brags* into conversations even at the supermarket checkout line? And why feel as though you owe someone consistency in your political opinions? Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” (another humble brag?)
With the experiment behind me, I returned to my old name and re-introduced myself to my readers. (But I won’t rule out using A.B. Kagan again, in case I ever write a novel about a stripper named Sparkle Plenty and don’t want people to know she is one of the multitude of me.)
When I thought about doing a blog, VINEGAR MOTHER was the right hat for the occasion — not under cover, but intent on uncovering the full range of my thought and feelings. There are multitudes to come. This New Year one of my resolutions is to find them and share them with you.
*Humble Brag – When you tell someone you speak three languages and it is such a burden to remember to whom you are speaking.