Lucky and happy

Sep 11th 2006

I don't usually post on Mondays, but this morning I feel like talking about my daughter's middle name.

Five years ago today I was home in my New York apartment, 8 1/2 months pregnant. I had left my job at the World Trade Center and was planning some time off with the new baby. A friend called, and her first words seemed strange: "Oh, thank God you're home." It turned out that a plane had hit the tower where we had both worked. Soon I came to realize that it had been a very big plane. And not an accident. And that it hit the Northeast corner of the building around the 96th floor, which is to say my old office. And that there was more to come.

My husband stepped out of a downtown subway station that morning to see the towers burning above him. He walked the eight miles home with his laptop slung across his back, hearing the news in snippets of radio and conversation along the streets. When he got home our 18-month-old daughter patted his hair and bits of building scattered to the ground.

Those are the kinds of images I have of that day, because I refused to turn on the television--I didn't want to watch my coworkers dying. I also didn't want to go into labor. Throughout the day I alternated between instant messages with colleagues trying to sort out who was accounted for, and lying flat on my back willing away stress contractions. No dice. By that evening I was dialing and redialing the phone, hoping to get a call through the overloaded circuits to my obstetrician.

The drive to the hospital, more than five miles down and across Manhattan, took only a few minutes. My husband and I were spooked by the dark, empty streets, so unlike New York. We could go blocks at a time without seeing another soul moving; a cluster of Army vehicles was parked along Park Avenue. When we finally got to the hospital it was cordoned off behind a police barrier. We approached a pair of police officers, a man and woman, who were standing guard. I explained that I had come to the hospital to give birth. The man, who was quite young, looked panicky and said that nobody could come through. The woman said, "come on, look at her, let her through!" She smiled, patted my belly and ushered me past the barricades. She looked relieved to be thinking about babies instead of bodies--the city medical examiner's office was next door.

The hospital was in some tumult. Computer systems had been knocked out by the downtown power failure and new shifts of workers couldn't get into the city to come to work. When I managed to get a labor and delivery room, I had to ask the nurses and doctors garthered around a tv screen in the room to please turn off the images of burning buildings. My OB soon showed up, grateful to have something useful to do. He had been down at an emergency medical center set up to help the wounded, but it turned out there were precious few was all or nothing.

As the hour inched later we started rooting for the baby to wait until after midnight. Even then, we could tell that September 11 would be a tough day for birthday celebrations. She kindly complied and was born in the wee hours of the 12th. But it was still a week or two earlier than we'd expected, and we hadn't yet settled on a middle name.

Friends and relatives all independently suggested the name Hope. What could be more fitting for a child born into such a time? We declined. Under those circumstances, hope seemed to imply its opposite, despair. We didn't want our daughter to carry the tragedy of the day in her name. So we settled on Felice, meaning lucky and happy. Let her be a symbol of all the good in life.

The name suited. We got the first glimpse of it from the police officer and the obstetrician who were so glad to have a birth to think about. My father-in-law teaches at West Point; when he told his class that morning about his new granddaughter, the cadets stood and cheered. The next day we walked out of the hospital into a scene of wrenching sadness. The sidewalks were packed with people, many wearing particle masks against the still-dusty air. Many also clutched photographs--they had come to the medical examiner's office to see if the body of a loved one had been found. Even these strangers stopped to smile gratefully at our newborn baby. Everybody was glad for a glimpse of happiness.

I've been fortunate enough to be in the baby-naming business ever since. It's a wonderful business to be in: every name is a celebration of life.

Name detective: 1890s

Sep 8th 2006

Baby naming may seem like a narrow topic, but it branches in all directions. You never know where the names will lead you. I might start my morning with a modest bit of name data and before you know it I'm studying the Academy Awards, or German mythology, or the 1896 presidential election. When it comes to names, nothing is irrelevant.

A lot of the information alleys I wander down end up trivial, so I just toss the new facts onto the data pile cluttering the back of my mind. Other alleys open onto whole subject areas and help me understand my world a little better. If you've been reading here a while, you'll probably guess that I like both kinds.

Here are three name patterns that led me deep into the 1890s last night. Try your hand at the name detective biz and see where they lead you....

Everybody's talking about it

Aug 31st 2006

I hear from a lot of parents-to-be as they agonize over baby name choices, and I do my best to help. Not surprisingly, certain names come up again and again in my inbox. But they're not the most popular names. If you love popular names like Emma and Josh you're usually spared from sleepless, nameless nights. Everybody knows how to spell and pronounce those names. Nobody worries that they're too strange or too androgynous. And just about everybody, even the grandparents, approves of your choice. At the opposite extreme, if you love names like Evergreen or Jaxxon you don't care what anybody else thinks -- Baby Name Wizards included.

Somewhere in the middle are the names that parents are drawn to but nervous about. That's where I come in. My inbox, and blog comments here, are full of questions about names that hardly rate a blip on the popularity charts. For now, something is holding parents back...but someday soon the balance could tip and these names may start to soar.

So I figured I'd tell you about these tension-creating names. But then it occurred to me that the parents would all hate me. You're afraid that I'm about to give away your special, secret name, right? To keep it fair, I'm going to limit this discussion to names that have come up repeatedly in the public web discussion. If it turns out that your personal dilemma is listed below, you're not alone.

The names everybody's talking about, but nobody's using -- so far:


#1. Jasper
I hear this name so often, I can scarcely believe it's not among the top 500 boys' names. This is a love-it-or-hate-it problem, and often divides down gender lines. Mom puts it on the short list and Dad immediately scratches it off. I like the name myself, so I'll consult my husband for his opinion....

Sure enough, Mr. Wattenberg groaned at Jasper. "Isn't that some kind of rock?" said he.

#2. Emmett
If Jasper is love-it-or-hate-it, Emmett is like-it-don't-love-it. This name seems to make the short list of scores of parents, but it's such a mild-mannered choice that nothing about it leaps out to carry it to the top. That could actually be a positive characteristic in the long run, though...a non-trendy name that wears well.


#1. Helena
This one's oh-so-close, but the big question is pronunciation. Most parents I hear from want to pronounce it hel-AIN-a, and that's the most standard pronunciation in the Eastern half of the U.S. and in Britain. The closer you get to Helena, Montana, though, the more often you'll hear HEL-in-a. And several towns called St. Helena (notably one in California's Napa Valley) tilt the local pronunciation toward hel-EEN-a. I'm going to go on the record as saying it doesn't matter. It's a lovely, classic name and it's ok if people don't pronounce it your way the first time. As long as you don't make a fuss about it, chances are your daughter won't either.

#2. Jemima
This one's not-so-close, and the big reason is pancakes. In England, where the image of a kerchiefed, mammy-type Aunt Jemima isn't so strong, this name is more common. And when Americans can get the pancake image out of their minds, they usually find the name itself charming. The current Aunt Jemima logo -- a well-coiffed woman in pearls -- dates to 1989. Another decade or two of distance from the kerchief could bring this name back in the U.S.

#3. Scarlett
Actress Scarlett Johansson has single-handedly wrested this this name from the iron grip of Scarlett O'Hara. It used to be that the name was considered clearly "too much." Now parents are asking, "hmm, do you think it's too much?" And soon it could be "just right." In England it's already there.

#4. Susannah
A completely familiar, completely classic name that NOBODY uses. Yeah, yeah, there's "Oh, Susannah," but that's a pretty innocuous association. A bigger problem may be that the nicknames Sue and Susie sound dated. Zanna is a more exotic alternative, but don't rush past just might grow on you if you give it a chance.

#5. Harper
Oops, sorry, you didn't want me to mention that one, did you? You see, the big thing holding Harper back is...nothing. Androgynous surnames for girls are hot, and Harper is one that even traditionalists can live with. Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, gives the name a unique pedigree. So the name comes up a lot, always followed by demands to "shhhh! don't give it away!"