To say that people often ask me about my name is an understatement. It is extremely rare that I meet anyone who doesn’t ask me about my name. So here are a bunch of true stories about my name, just in case you are curious. Go on, you know you are.
The most common question is also the most tedious. “Is that your real name?” The short answer is “Yes” and so that’s what you get if this is your only question. But even that is not strictly true. In fact, my legal name is Su Wild River (without the hyphen), which is the name I took on at 16,when computers were mythological beasts and the internet not even a dream.
My favourite part about the question of my “real” name is its resemblance to the Monty Python skit where a man uses his cat licence to justify getting a fish licence. When he produces the licence, it’s criticised because it’s “a dog licence, with the word ‘dog’ crossed out and ‘cat’ written in in crayon”. That’s what my birth certificate looks like. There’s a stamp in the margin saying “for Section 1a, read “Su Wild River”. It seems like a beautiful way to wreck a perfectly good form and I love it.
A slightly better question is “Did you change that by Deed Poll?” which shows some prior knowledge of name changing shenanigans. No, I didn’t change it by Deed Poll, but by Instrument. Deed Poll is the expensive option, where a lawyer stands up in court and announces the name change, since a name change must be publicly declared. Deed Poll is expensive because you have to pay the lawyer and the court. You bypass both of these expenses by making the announcement using the Instrument of a classified ad in the local newspaper. Then you just need to pay the relatively small cost of the ad, which you take in and show to the good folk at Births Deaths and Marriages.
You need some patience in dealing with BDM, because none of the desk staff know about changing names. So they keep insisting that it’s not allowed, and you have to ask to see their boss, and then their boss, and then their boss, until finally, someone very senior comes in an says “of course. Just use this form under the counter here”. When I did it, my very senior person loved my name and signature so much, that when a once-in-a-decade brand new 1,000 page, leather bound register of births, deaths and marriages started up a week after I came to get the magical form, he decided that I was to be the first entry in the sparkly new book. Not knowing this, I took my time getting the paperwork together and it was four weeks later that I came back in with my Instrument. The junior desk clerk immediately called this boss of bosses, who arrived white-faced and grateful. There were already about 50 names below mine in the book, and he had been terrified that it was all a lark, and I would leave him with an incomplete, and quite crazy first entry to explain to even more senior bosses.
I added the hyphen so that my name would match my first URL, (www.wild-river.com.au), having learned that spaces confuse computers. By then, all the databases were having trouble deciding if I was really called “Su River Wild” or “River Su Wild” or “Su WildRiver” or even “Su Wildriver” which is the worst of the lot, because that surname phonetically reads “Wild Driver” and people don’t get in cars with me. Once in Western Queensland I hired the only rental car for a 500km radius, and laughed when I saw they had me down as Wildriver. “It’s OK”, I said, “I’m really a river, not a danger behind the wheel”, and they laughed back nervously, then gave me a detailed lesson in finding the brakes in an automatic car.
I received an original, great question during a recent trip to the white water mecca of Tasmania. The manager of a climbing gym asked “do you even own a kayak?” Thankfully, the answer was “yes, I own five kayaks”, as otherwise he would have been outraged by my false pretences.
In fact, my name was partly responsible for my very many wonderful and terrifying white water trips. On Open Day at my first week studying Environmental Science at Griffith University, I joined the Griffith Uni Bushwalking Society (GRUBS), which owned and used a bunch of kayaks. The president took one look at my name and said “we have to get you kayaking”, and so it started. I loved my first trip so much that when everyone else was waiting their turn to use the good boats on a particular “play wave”, I found a beaten up, leaking and unwanted vessel so that nothing would stop me from repeatedly going in, and then washing out for yet another swim. I was hooked.
Before learning to kayak, I’d struggled with my name. My first problem became apparent in my first days with my new name, when I realised that a mild speech impediment meant I couldn’t pronounce it properly. I have trouble with “R” sometimes, and when I said my new name aloud it sounded something like “WurlWoower” – especially on the phone. It took about a decade for me to learn to say my name so that people could understand it. Then there was the trouble of being quite an undeveloped person with a very iconic identifier. This was most apparent in university classes, mostly because of the perfect match between my name and environmental degree. I was always a high achiever, and I struggled to be invisible in crowds so I wouldn’t stand out any more than I had to. Imagine my horror then, when a new lecturer walked into my class of 200 people and said “Hello, this is Agricultural Ecosystems and where is Su Wild-River?”
When people can’t work out what to ask about my name, I tell them that the best question is “how did you become Su Wild-River”, which is also a kayaking story. Once, after several years of paddling every flooded creek, stormwater drain and giant wave I could get my paddle into, I had the opportunity to tackle the Gwydir River in North Western New South Wales. The Gwydir is one of the toughest in Australia, featuring two grade six rapids (certain death…. We portaged those), many grade fives (I walked around those too), heaps of grade fours (which I paddled some of) and a bunch of grade threes and below (all of which I shot, and several of which I swam). I had approached this trip with much fear, and a very real feeling that I may not survive. One of my clearest ever memories is of pulling up on a steep rocky beach after 12 hours of joy and terror thinking “I’m alive. And I AM Su Wild-River. And I’ll ALWAYS BE Su Wild-River”. My name and I were finally a match.
It’s been an interesting journey to have a name that matches my profession. Although in the first decade of my professional life I worked mostly on ‘brown’ environmental issues of pollution prevention and risk management. I would joke that I should really have been called “Su Stormwater-Drain” or “Su Sludge-Puddle” or even “Su Sewerage-Treatment-Plant”. I never really gelled with the brown issues until a particular brown consultant (strangely actually called “Brown”) said that I could never work with industry with a name like that. The challenge was on, and in fact, industrial workers loved it. I’d write to them saying I was coming around to do a site inspection, and when I arrived, they were fully primed, expecting me to “ride up bareback on a bronco with feathers in my hair”. Having expected something interesting, they were willing to take me as I really was – an earnest young woman respectfully asking good questions.
I once told a colleague from this era of my life that I felt my name had given me an advantage as an environmental scientist. He disagreed and made a touching argument that anyone could have a great name, but it was me that had made the name great. Thanks DougY.
Why I changed my name is another question with a bit of value. The thing is, as a woman, your name means very little, and from birth there’s the possibility of it changing to the name of a different family if you happen to get married and take on your husband’s. I changed my name so that it would really be my own. I’m about to get married, and I offered my name to my spouse, who has seriously considered it (it’s pretty cool after all). But no, we’ll keep our own. Even my children don’t have my name. They are simply “Wild”, since I was worried that I might pass on my speech impediment, and give them a name they couldn’t say. No need for this caution as it turns out, as Wild-River rolls of their tongues easily. I tell them they can decide what sort of Wild Thing they want to be when they “come of age” (whatever that means), but for now, they just love when tickets usually list them as “Wild Child”.
The only time that my name really confused me was during anthropology classes, where we learned all sorts of difficult rules and associations of naming conventions. My constant question was “why didn’t they just change their names?” to which the answer was “you can’t change your name”, and then a double-take by the lecturer when he saw who had asked. Can’t you? I followed in my mother’s footsteps since she changed hers when I was 15. And have been an inspiration many others’ name changes. So obviously you can change your name if you want to. I don’t understand why some people live their lives with terrible, embarrassing or insulting names. If you have one, have you considered ditching it and starting again?
What would you change your name to and why? How you grow into your new name, and how would the change change you?