Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Then he told his other grandma that God doesn't exist...

Our six-month stay in the U.S. is over, but we're not quite home yet. On our way back to Switzerland we're spending a few days with my husband's family in Holland. (My husband is French, but his mom is originally from Holland, and she's moved back to Holland to be near her siblings.)

I don't even know how the subject came up. I was reading a book (I know: bad, anti-social me...) when I hear my husband explain, "It's like 'God'." (I'm translating)
Mother-in-Law: Oh, you've talked to him about that?
Nico's dad: It came up during the trip.
MiL: (to Nico) You see, Nico, some people believe that God exists, and some people believe that God doesn't exist.
Nico: OK, well, I'm one of the people who thinks God doesn't exist.
MiL: That's OK, but your grandma believes that God exists.
Nico: OK.

And that was the end of it. As I explained earlier, we haven't really discussed the subject with our kids, but I imagine we will once we get back home. Leo hasn't shown any interest in the question -- too busy building things out of Legos.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The rest of the holiday story...

After all that anticipation -- can you believe it? -- nothing bad happened. Nico and Leo were too busy sledding and playing and opening presents, and everyone got along great!

The worst thing that happened was that (John's partner) Mike got a temporary stomach flu and wasn't well enough to be in the family portrait:

My new niece also missed being in the portrait since she isn't quite out of the hospital yet -- but she's doing great, and her big sister expects to get to meet her soon.

I guess the closest thing to a faux pas was when my brother John remarked on how cool it is that we're increasing our family's diversity by adding a "corridor Mormon" for the first time in generations. (The rest of us are either "mission-field Mormons" or not Mormon at all -- and if you don't know what that means, then read this piece on our family history.) My sister Laurie then explained that her new fiance is from Moscow, Idaho -- which is so far north that it's hardly Idaho at all, it's practically Eugene, Oregon! Good thing we didn't mistake him for a Utah Mormon... ;^)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

More existential musings!

So far we've successfully avoided the topic of whether God exists, but Nico has made a point to explain to his grandparents that Santa Claus does not exist. (My parents know about this blog, BTW, so I assume that they're aware of the situation as well.)

As you may recall from the past three years that Nico believed Santa was real right up until last year. This year's round of Christmas specials, however, kind of finished it off. It wasn't the fact that Rankin-Bass produced two different (contradictory) Santa-origin stories. It was that he liked Santa Claus Is Coming to Town so well that he decided that he, Nico, would grow up to be Santa Claus! He's been intent on this idea for weeks, and -- scientifically-minded as he is -- it has entailed lots of elaborate discussions of the precise logistics of how the whole Santa thing works. This led him to conclude that Santa Claus is not real, but it would be fun to be him. Santa Nico, as it were, named (indirectly) after Saint Nicholas himself.

As for the question of Jesus, we're kind of zeroing in on it. Last night we all went to see a production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Now, before you go jumping to the conclusion that my family is pushing the religious Christmas on us, I'll tell you that my mom presented this as one of the optional family events, and, in fact, my brothers did not attend (mostly because they didn't have any kids of the appropriate ages for the story). I opted in (for myself, my husband, and kids) because it was our Christmas tradition when I was a kid to read that book aloud as a family.

It actually ended up being a good intro to the religious side of Christmas. There's a whole comic scene where the main characters have to explain "The Christmas Story" to the bad kids because the bad kids (shockingly!) have never heard it! My kids also had never heard it, so they got a basic intro in real time.

The only tricky part was trying to keep Nico quiet because he is constantly full of questions! I had to sit next to him and let him whisper questions to me so that he would stop trying to ask questions aloud in full voice. For example, at the end when they were finally performing the pageant within the play:
Nico: So this story is in the Bible?
me: yes.
Nico: The Holy Bible?
me: yes.
Nico: Who are Mary and Joseph?
me: They're characters in the Bible.
Nico: Are they... gods?
me: no.

Then on the way home, we had a brief discussion of why people say Christmas is Jesus's birthday (even though it's not). The conclusion was that they didn't write the date down anywhere, so that's the day that people have chosen to use as a celebration/remembrance date. And I managed to refrain from going into an elaborate discussion of pre-Christian Solstice festivals (though you know how much I love that stuff!) and I also avoided mentioning that there's no evidence that anything at all was written about Jesus during His lifetime, and that the legend of the trek to Bethlehem was likely invented by Jesus' followers and probably never happened even if we assume the Jesus character of the Bible is based on a real person, etc....

Conclusion: So far so good! :D

Monday, December 21, 2009

How do you know you exist?

Both of my kids have had some interesting existential questions this past week! Let's start with 6-year-old Leo:

When cuddling for bed, Leo noticed a strange shadow on the ceiling.

me: Maybe it's a ghost.
Leo: No, it can't be a ghost. Ghosts are invisible, and they don't exist, and light goes through them so they don't cast a shadow.
me: Fair enough.

Again, Leo was telling me about things that exist and don't exist...
me: Do you exist?
Leo: Of course!
me: How do you know you exist?
Leo: What?
me: How do you know you exist?
Leo: Look at me! I'm right here!
me: Fair enough.
Leo: But before you borned me, before I grew in your tummy, I didn't exist.

Then came 8-year-old-Nico's turn:

As soon as my husband discovered that David Attenborough had a new documentary out (Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life), he immediately ordered it. Nico asked who Charles Darwin was, and my husband suggested we watch the movie and find out!

The next morning, Nico wanted to watch the documentary again. During the intro, I repeated "Charles Darwin" (mimicking the English accent), and then Nico did me one better by dramatically saying "Charles Darwin -- the guy who proved that God doesn't exist."

That had me laughing -- the documentary certainly doesn't say that! However, you can kind of see how he might get that out of it. David Attenborough reads part of the creation story from Genesis and explains that for thousands of years most of Europe thought it was an accurate description of how animals came to be. Little by little, the evidence started to pile up (geology, transitional forms, genetics, plate tectonics) showing that the Genesis account is quite wrong. You can't really tell Darwin's story completely without mentioning the reaction by defenders of the faith, but the documentary leaves the conclusion open with respect to the existence of God.

You may recall way back here that we don't really talk about God much with our kids. Since that post, Nico has started to form his own ideas about what God is from different movies. He's an interesting character in Monty Python's "Holy Grail" -- plus Nico has learned that the planets are named after different "gods," but we haven't really discussed it.

Then, in one of the hotels on our road trip to Minnesota (we just arrived today), Nico found The Holy Bible! He was so amazed -- it's the same book that David Attenborough was reading! What a rare find!
me: Actually, Nico, it's not rare at all. They're everywhere. It's the best selling book of the year, every year.
Nico: Why?
me: They're for people who believe in God.

That shocked Nico quite a bit, and he was further shocked when we explained to him that his grandparents -- who we were on our way to visit -- believe in God. Nico immediately insisted that he had to tell them that God doesn't exist! (Yikes! That's just we need for our family Christmas visit...)

So we explained to Nico that it is very important not to tell the other other family members that God doesn't exist because if they want to believe in God, they can just go right ahead and believe in God. And if they want to believe that Christmas is God's birthday (even though it isn't) they can go right ahead and believe that as well. Fortunately Nico agreed that we'd just let them believe what they want.

The whole family is together for Christmas for the first time in nearly a decade -- I expect it will be a lot of fun! Wish me luck, though.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Our First Hanukkah!

Can you believe it? Here I am, thirty-eight years old, and this year is the first year I've ever been invited to a Hanukkah party! Leo totally got into it:

Ready for some dreidel action!

He learned about Hanukkah at school, so he was excited to see the traditions live:

And me too, actually.

I remember as a kid that it was fun to learn Hanukkah songs as well as Christmas songs for the school holiday performance, some thirty years ago. Bizarrely enough, this has become a subject of great controversy in the past few years thanks to Bill O'Reilly. I think it's pretty reasonable to teach about different traditions, however, as long as the school is making a good-faith effort to be inclusive of the different traditions.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A foreign language is best learned in the bedroom

Herr Doktor, seit einem Monat schlafe ich nicht. Eine schlaflose Nacht is für mich ein Qual. Welches Schlafmittel soll ich nehmen?

I always chuckle a little when this dialog comes up in my German lessons. For me, it's self-referential. The lady is asking her doctor what to take for insomnia. I say take some German lessons. Seriously.

Here's why learning a foreign language is the best cure for insomnia:

When you learn a foreign language as an adult, you have to learn the grammar rules. But, you don't become fluent by working out a little grammar algorithm in your head to compose each sentence before you speak. It has to become automatic. And that comes from (rather mindless) drills and memorization. You can train your brain by listening to your recorded dialogs so many times that you can recite them.

Insomnia, for me, is almost always a question of having some idea or problem stuck in my mind that I just can't stop obsessing about. Then, as the hours tick by, the thought that I'll be too tired to work the next day just compounds the problem with further stress and worry.

Language recordings to the rescue! As I focus on the dialogs in the recording, it pushes the other thoughts and obsessions out of my mind. Since I've heard these dialogs already (no surprises!) it's easy for my conscious mind to wander off to dreamland. And best of all, when it doesn't work, there's no compounding stress/worry about having wasted so many precious hours just lying there. No time was wasted at all -- I was improving my German, which I'm supposed to set aside time to do anyway!

I used this trick when learning French, and later Italian. I stopped doing it when my babies were born, though, because I didn't want any danger from the ear-bud cords where my babies and I were sleeping. Now that they're six and eight years old (and have been in their own big-boy beds for a number of years) I have no further excuses. Well, no good ones anyway.

I've only got a handful of lessons left in Allemand Pratique de Base, and if I finish them up by the end of the year, I'll have succeeded in one of my (very modest) goals. With interruptions, this beginner German course has taken me approximately two years. That's not so impressive when you consider that twelve years ago I completed the comparable course "Teach Yourself French" in the space of two weeks.

Of course things were a little different back when I decided to learn French. For one thing, it was Summer, and I had two weeks by myself. I had no kids to take care of. The only task on my agenda was procrastinating my PhD research, so I had 24 hours a day to devote to teaching myself to speak French. (Now, if you're thinking "Chanson, don't you have a Java book that you're procrastinating right now?" -- keep in mind that today, we have more advanced technology for procrastination: the Internet.)

Note that my motivation back then was a little different: there was a certain highly desirable Frenchman I wanted to impress. Motivation is the other reason the bedroom is the best place to learn a new language. Usually it's an annoyance for native speakers to help you practice while you blunder your way through their language. But the magic of romance turns it cute. Plus it makes you want to figure out how to say all sorts of different things to your foreign sweetheart. The trouble with this trick is that -- when successful -- it works only once. Now that I'm happily married to an adorable Frenchman, well, let's just say it limits the possibility of learning German in the same way.

And -- bringing this discussion full circle -- some of you may be noting that sex is also a good cure for insomnia. It is, but it's not as effective as listening to language lessons. Insomnia, language, and romance: three bedroom activities that go great together! ;^)