August 2010

The Name


Having a unique handle is one thing—sharing it with the world is a whole other story

baxter holmesAlex Hoerner

I am The Name. A Los Angeles Times editor told me so. Walked up armed with a big smile—and a swarm of colleagues—and called me out: “You’re The Name?”

“So I’ve heard,” I responded, face in full blush, to the chorus of laughing coworkers. The title was bestowed behind my back. When it happened I’ve no idea, but the handle—or variations thereof—has shadowed me since entering the newspaper business eight years ago.

I’ve done my best to brush the remarks—positive and otherwise—aside. A tough one to shake is a comment left by “hector” on a Times blog post of mine last fall about a man getting crushed by a truck: “Forget the article, Baxter Holmes is one of the coolest names for a reporter I’ve heard in a long time! Sounds like something Stan Lee would have come up with.”

But what’s in a name, as the Bard so succinctly queried some five centuries ago? More than you might think. Evan Dwin, a lawyer from Santa Monica, taught me that last August, when he emailed the following through Facebook:

“Baxter, my wife are I are about to have a baby,” his message began. “The due date is August 23. We are going to wait until the big day to find out whether it is a boy or a girl. If it is a boy, we really like the name Baxter. We looked at thousands of boy names before we saw one we liked. We think Baxter is quite a find.”

He said though he couldn’t find much in the way of research, he had seen my byline in the Times and wanted to know both how I got my name and what it’s like to live with it.

“You should know we have not disclosed this name to any of our friends or family and do not intend to until we use it. It is top secret. Thus, you are in a very special club that includes only me, my wife and a sportswriter neither of us has ever met.”

Touching. And it stirred my curiosity, because I hadn’t any idea how my name came to be. It was time to find out. Mom provided the background. When waddling around with me in her belly, she saw “Baxter” autographed on the cast of a friend of a friend’s broken arm. It was just what she was looking for, something distinct and distinguished. “I knew the minute I said it in my mind,” she says. “I loved the way it sounded.”

Intrinsically, though, it was also important how it looked on paper, since Mom is an avid calligrapher who has written sewing and design books.

People told her it was a big name, something I’d have to grow into—which is funny, because I’m often told now it’s a byline I have to live up to.

And what did it feel like? Hmmm, what’s it like to be named any name? Names are identifiers, but since they shadow our lives, we never give them much thought, just like we never think about how we walk or what we sound like breathing. I grew up in a small town in rural Oklahoma, where everyone knew everyone. Baxter was just what I was—nothing special.

So when asked to describe the essence of “Baxter,” I thought, When someone shouts it in a crowd, it’s my attention they’re trying for. I gave this scant research to Evan, but I wondered why he and the missus were investigating this so thoroughly. Then I learned it’s hip these days. Parents-to-be are slogging through baby-name books, downloading software and even hiring branding consultants to find strong, rhythmic, unique names that carry positive connotations, predispositions for success and marketability.

This, of course, damns family and religious baby-naming traditions, but so it goes.

Still curious, I researched “Baxter.” It means “baker” in Old English, and according to Social Security Administration data, it hasn’t broken into the top 1,000 boy names since 1927, when it ranked 962nd.

As for its branding potential, I contacted Today Translations, a London-based company often hired to help in the baby-naming process. “Our conclusion,” CEO Jurga Zilinskiene wrote me, “is that if you want your child to grow up to be, say, the CEO of a multinational or a global entertainment star, then the name ‘Baxter’ would be a fairly good choice...”

Doubtful, that. But Baxter is a good name for dogs in Anchorman and cats in Meow Mix commercials—and for newspaper reporters, I guess.

After I responded to Evan, I waited as his wife’s due date passed without a word. Then in early September, a message:

“Bax, on August 25, my wife delivered a beautiful baby girl. Her name is Ellie Gabriella Dwin. Thanks for offering to share your name with us, but it looks like you are still the only Baxter in Los Angeles.”

Baxter is a good name for dogs in Anchorman and cats in Meow Mix commercials—and for newspaper reporters, I guess.

First thought: Dammit. Almost-Baxter’s chromosomes wound up XX instead of XY. This was Evan’s fault, genetically speaking. I’ve never met any others with my first name, though I’m sure they exist. L.A. is a big place. Still, I was happy. The Dwins had their first child, and I had new friends. I even liked how in Evan’s first message he called me Baxter, and in his second, he went with Bax.

We met for lunch in April at a Santa Monica diner: me; Evan, a man about my height and build (five-eight, 150 pounds) with dark hair; Leah, just as tall, slender, dark hair, warm smile; and almost-Baxter, er, Ellie.

Nearly eight months by then, Ellie—with dark hair, a purple shirt and matching pajama pants—wiggled in a car seat in the booth between her parents. The Dwins and I chatted for an hour, as Ellie ate spooned avocado and giggled, unaware of our connection. But her bluer-than-blue eyes met mine many times.

Normally when I see babies, I see the mountain of time and money they cost (not to mention the whole changing-diapers thing). But Ellie’s adorable/wonderful/blissful smile melted that away. Cuteness heals all.

I learned that all their moniker research had come down to Baxter and Ellie. Leah liked Ellie partly because as a girl she had a stuffed elephant called that. But, Evan added, they’re thinking of having another. Good call. Ellie needs a brother—a Baxter.

That is how names should come about. They should spring from serendipity and inspiration. You’re naming a person, not imagining a brand—or even a catchy newspaper byline.

BAXTER HOLMES, when he isn’t fielding snarky comments, writes about sports for the L.A. Times.