Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Loving Language in a Time of Commerce (or Happy National Grammar Day)

Once, when I taught upper-intermediate English to a design team at a major German auto company, one of my students showed me a grammar mistake in an email from an American colleague. This group of students was advanced enough for me to run a pretty tight ship, grammar-wise, so he was a bit amused that his native-speaker colleague would make the sort of grammar faux pas I would always pounce on during class.

Of course, the grammar mistake wasn't all that important. It didn't inhibit communication in anyway; the colleagues could continue business as normal. In commerce, it's clear communication that counts. I even read, in a Business English textbook of all places, that poorly-written emails are a sign of someone moving up the corporate ladder. Well-written emails reveal someone with too much time on their hands, but non-capitalized words clumsily spat out on a smart phone - that's a person with places to be.

Still, I loved unpacking little grammar secrets and the purposes of "why-we-do-this-when-in-German-you-do-that" mutual detective games in my English classes. It was great fun. But at the end of the day, I know that the need for international business is not elegance but to just do enough to overcome Babel, even if it ain't always pretty.  (I consider "ain't" a pretty part of the English language, but that could be a byproduct of my Appalachian)

This is thrilling, of course. There's communication! People who once may have never understood each other understand each other now! This also part of the dual nature of being an ESL teacher. I love language, especially written prose, but I also love it when people use language as is, discovering different channels and springs of communication along the way in our eternal effort to be understood.

This is partly why I blog, because my own electronic scribble creations are an outlet for me. There's a danger, though. I so wish I could be a real grammar snob and publicly rage against those native-English writers who fail to achieve every literal jot and tittle. For me, a fun way to spend the afternoon is a comma discussion by way of a memoir on the website for America's best source for all things prose. But a blog is a bad way to brag, especially about grammar. I bet, in fact, that as soon as I upload this, regardless of rereads by my wife and me, some grammar mistake will pop out like a pimple on my website, and a real grammar snob, if he had even bothered to read that far, would have to bite his fist to stop screaming. My writing goes on in fits and starts, a patch here, a paragraph here, an idea that occurred to me when I should have been thinking about something else, months of busyness when ideas collect like pollen waiting for the Spring, and some ideas are even remembered. Little time for editing, for prying my big-picture brain into a detail-oriented mentality. So I hit publish, hoping that the "you'res" aren't "yours" or that I didn't confuse "affect" and "effect," all the while wondering if I should mail Bill Gates a thank-you-note for blessing the world with spell check. Then, if I catch a mistake post-publish, I put on a hair-shirt and whip my own back 39 times. Ok, I don't do that, and I know the world doesn't care, but I can tell you that vanity-reading your own stuff isn't good for the soul.

Then, there's foreign languages. Over half of my MBA courses are in English (yippee!), but most of them are taught by non-native speakers, so the lectures are peppered with grammar mistakes which, as an English language trainer, I can analyse, explain, and suggest improvements. But I say nothing, not only to keep my professors' good graces, and not only because their mistakes rarely inhibit communication, but also because, often enough, it's my turn to speak German, and, and C1 fluent that I am, there's no way this side of heaven that I am going to get every detail of this language right. I'll never remember every gender of every non-gendered object, I'll continue to mix up their backwards numbers, and I insist that the differenced in pronunciation between o and ö is zero, null, nil, nada, and nothing. I am in deep need of grammar grace - at the university, at my church, in my family, and in any future employment.

Good writing with good grammar is beautiful. I can recognize it in German, even if I'll never produce it myself, and I can strive for it, however imperfectly, in English. The letter of the law, in language as in elsewhere, shows purpose, making communication effective, elegant, and enjoyable. But in our world of international commerce, international friendships, and international families, we get to communicate with each other, even if we'll never be maestros, and our strivings are beautiful in and of themselves. What should we do otherwise? In language, as with anything else in life, the best way forward is to love both the law and the person who will never perfectly fulfil it. We need to be full of grace and truth, and for this, we have an example.

Meanwhile, should you catch me in grammatical error, your welcome to point it out.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Germany vs. the USA - the Maternity Ward Edition

The main difference is the screaming. There's more of it in Germany.

Let me explain. My first daughter was born back in the good ol' US of A, while the second was born here in Deutschland, so I've gotten a front row seat to the birthing philosophies and practices of both medical systems.

In the United States, we pay good money for medical services, and for that reason, these medical services should be as painless as possible. This is, of course, the purpose of medical services, to painlessly prop up our bodies, regardless of condition, so that we can fulfil our purpose by getting back to work as soon as possible. Americans agree with classical economists with this purpose, that all things work together for the good of those who love profit and work hard according to its service. For this reason, Americans put great trust in profitable technologies to solve all our problems. Take, for instance, genetically modified food. Americans understand, and have seen irrefutable scientific evidence, that the only way to feed the ever-growing world population is to invest heavily in genetically modified foods, because what's natural has no way of keeping up with our industrial ways. This philosophy is also applied to birth. My German wife wanted to have a natural birth (we'll contrast the key German philosophy later), which was a novelty for all the midwives in the hospital. ("midwives" themselves were a novelty - what will those hipsters think of next?) Sure, the midwives were trained in the advantages of doing things naturally, but to actually have a woman in a hospital in America who wanted to be natural (and wasn't forced due to a speedy labor in the taxi cab) was exciting! Now, our daughter would be born on New Year's Day, and the hospital was full, perhaps because a number of families wanted their children to be the first born in the New Year (we didn't win that competition). But, there wasn't the kind of screaming you see in the movies. All the other moms sat placidly in their beds with needles in their spines, awaiting the child emerge with minimal resistance. From the silence, you'd think they were all waiting in those transport capsules from Alien. The screams from our end of the maternity ward must have been disconcerting.

Of course, for all our technology, no one noticed that our daughter was "sunny-side-up", i.E. facing the wrong way, until she was almost out. Moreover, and this is serious, a huge hole in America's healthcare system is postpartum care for mothers. Sure, we have all the appropriate vaccines and follow-up visits for the baby, good on-sight training and support groups for those who have trouble breast feeding... But rebuilding the woman's body through support and exercise is foreign to our system, yet it's such a boon to a woman's health, family, and happiness. Postpartum exercises is nothing but yoga for the yuppies who can afford it. Changing this seems like a pro-woman, pro-family, pro-life kind of policy we could all agree on.

Superior mother-care aside, Germany still has its own quirks. In Germany, medical service is almost an embarrassing necessity, sort of a sell-out. We have friends who send their daughter in our local "forest" kindergarten, where the little tikes forage around in the freezing rain and all the crafts involve tying sticks and leaves together with twine, and this is much more natural and therefore better than doing anything in a building. I'm surprised that they don't have forest hospitals, where patients lay on piles of leaves and surgery is performed with sharpened sticks, because it's natürlich. The word natürlich has a deeper, richer meaning than the English word "natural." It harkens back to a nobler time where we weren't so reliant on tablets and mobiles and shots and clothes, and people weren't so obsessed with bourgeois notions like pain avoidance or morality rates. Natürlich is better. Take, for instance, genetically modified food. Germans understand, and have seen irrefutable scientific evidence, that the only way to feed the ever-growing world population is to stop any and all investment in genetically modified food and go back to doing food the natürliche way that has fed mankind through the ages. Nonetheless, Germans, like everyone else, want to live and be comfortable, so they begrudgingly accept medical technology to keep us alive and warm and comfortable (gemütlich, which is almost as an important natürlich over here - if you have a product that can manage to be gemütlich and natürlich, believe me, it'll sell well here - but many things in Germany seem to be a struggle between Natürlichkeit and Gemütlichkeit). As having a baby is a natural process, however, Natürlichkeit trumps Gemütlichkeit, as we could tell during our hospital visit when the midwives (standard-issue over here) bragged about their hospital's low rate of epidurals. They went on to cite statistics about the horrifyingly high rate of epidurals by those snaggle-tooth, hill-billy American women who, for some backwards reason (probably involving fast food and a general lack of discipine), are reluctant to embrace the immense, natürlich, pain Mother Nature has ordained for them. Hence the screams. When we were waiting for my wife's labor pains to get going (no drugs, of course, only the help of the cocktail, which was sehr natürlich), we heard the mom ahead of us screaming like she was going through an exorcism. Oh, but in Germany, my wife got a hot tub to sit in during the process, so I guess there was a little Gemütlichkeit after all.

After the birth, however, the advantages of Natürlichkeit are clear. Our basic insurance covered standard midwife visits and, as I write this, my wife is at her postpartum gymnastics class, rebuilding and restrengthening her body with peer and professional support. Both systems, of course, helped bring a beautiful little girl each into the world and so for them, through all the quirks, I give thanks.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Notes on the Second - VII. Horrible, Horrible Thoughts

In the background of our hospital stay, you can think of parenting as a sequence of horrible thoughts. We all have horrible thoughts about the things we care about, like the way my fellow students and I are having exam-time nightmares about impossible questions and train delays. Parents' horrible thoughts are not here for a season, though; they stay background like the colors of your walls. We have (and I think I can speak of "we" here) horrible thoughts, because horrible things happen to people, and when these things happen to babies, to any children, then this new, common, transcendent, and entangling love that I've described elsewhere is ripped out of the chests of parents and communities, irreplaceable.

In my own experience, baby's complete dependence and vulnerability make the horrible thoughts so pressing, because in many cases, I'm the one responsible. What if I slip and fall down the stairs while I'm holding her? What if I nod off on the couch and she slides off my lap? What if she's not swaddled properly and she pulls the blanket over her head? What if the bedroom temperature isn't precisely 18 degrees Celsius, which we read somewhere is the least dangerous temperature for babies to sleep in? What if I touch her after eating peanut butter only to discover an acute peanut allergy? What if I left the coffee machine on because I was in a hurry not to be late for an exam and the house burns down with the three most important people in my life inside it?

Such questions circle my brain like dancing devils, and though anxiety is health-reducing bit devilment, I've surprisingly found these horrible, horrible thoughts to work towards something else entirely. A horrible thought ambushes me when I'm minding my own business, and then I cringe and I say, "Oh, God," not as a swear, but as a prayer. My child is at the mercy of everything from my own powers of concentration to diseases in nature still unrecorded, and so I plead to God for mercy. The babies under my roof have increased my prayers in frequency and intensity, the entangling love for them entangling our very beings into his sovereignty. This is not a get-out-of-trouble card, and I'm under no illusions that these things can't or won't happen to us. Nor is this an excuse for fatalism, and our prayers have the opposite effect, promoting a careful and engaging sort of love between parent and child. Rather, this is a sober kind of hope, not always comforting but always providing a an unanswerable form of joy, that neither death nor life can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

A few days ago, I was walking home, lost in thoughts about my university exams when I was almost killed. I was crossing the street, legally, when a car made a hasty and illegal turn. Had I not been awakened and jumped out of the way, I would have been hit. The car screeched to a halt a good thirty feet to late then pulled over. The driver didn't get out, but I can assume she was as shocked as I was. This experience is not uncommon - it happened to my wife back in the U.S. But it served as a reminder that however adult and in control we are, our situation is precarious.

This precariousness makes love all the more costly, and this is acted out in family and community as we do things to make each other happy, better, and alive. Drinks with friends, jokes among my co-students, an episode of Dr. Who while feeling my wife's warmth against my thigh, playing Frozen with my daughter - all of these things shine through the precariousness like the sun on a summer morning. It deepens the joy of holding my own baby daughter, ten pounds of helpless, human warmth, in my arms. Horrible thoughts are drowned out by the knowledge that this moment with the Second is an unmatchable gift.

This is the seventh and final chapter of a longer post about getting to know our second child. You can read the post in its entirety here

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Notes on the Second - VI. The First

When the first came, our new family was an insulated little bubble of three people, one of them new. Sure, we had enormous help from family and friends - especially the heroic grandmothers and fabulous meals from our D.C. church friends. But while they were constantly coming in and out of our little bubble, our little family strengthened like a three-fold cord.

Now, the first is five years old, and because of her, if our bubble isn't porous, it doesn't exist. She's blossomed into the richness of life that five years has to offer, the delights of learning and play and discovering things like characters and stories and science. Then, there are the challenges of discipline, disease, and the normal, everyday hassle of getting her ready for kindergarten.

Her new little sister has been thrust upon all of these things, and there's a strange paradox here. On one hand, she's old enough to be aware of what's going on, to know how to behave around her (gentle! quiet!), while avoiding the jealousies of younger older siblings. On the other hand, she's too young to really adjust her own life and habits for the change. She needs help and attention every morning, she needs and wants to play with her parents, she has moods, gets sick, gets excited, and, for the first time in her life, has become a picky eater. This of course, damages the sense of "mama-and-papa-against-the-world" was there for the first week of the First's life, and the Papa's supporting role is something like....


Then, sickness entered the picture. The First came home from kindergarten (that oversized petri dish) with a nasty fever and a stiff neck. It got worse, and on Sunday, we took her to the hospital. By the grace of God, our own paediatrician was on hospital duty there, and the stiff neck signalled meningitis to him. The next day, my oldest daughter and I checked into the hospital, where we would stay for the next few days. My wife and youngest daughter stayed at home, still learning to feed and drink. It was a sad, sad situation - separation, hospital food, nightmares darkening our thoughts. There was, though, a warmth strengthening my bones at the time, and I think it was the knowledge that by simply being there I was where I ought to be and what I ought to be, and this confidence is foreign to me. A father and husband, present, within fear and sickness and suffering, standing against the effects of the Fall like a palm tree in a thunderstorm.

I wasn't alone of course - friendly and competent medical staff, my in-laws were heroes, and my wife was able to visit the hospital, and when we brought home a nasty intestinal disease from the hospital, everyone suffered but the baby, protected beautifully by my wife's milk. The antibiotics worked their magic on my oldest daughter, and we still don't know if it was actually meningitis, even though several doctors worked like Dr. House throughout the week to find out. Now, we're healthy, even if rumours of other diseases here in our neighbourhood tempt us to barricade our house 'til spring, and when we actually stop to think about it (and stopping to think is challenging when you have small kids), we're deeply thankful. My mother-in-law is convinced that our prayers helped my older daughter as much as the antibiotics. One doesn't exclude the other, and we did indeed pray.

There's another thought that helps, one that my wife brought home from the midwife that led her birthing classes. Whatever new amount of stress a little baby brings to her older sister, we've given them both an incredible gift. The love of a sister (or a brother) is not something you can easily replicate. And of course, every little girl's favorite film right now is about sisterly love, and from my daughter's Elsa dress to the way she kisses her little sister (gentle! quiet!), we get some nice reminders. As the midwife said, the sibling relationship is often the longest relationship someone can have.

This is the sixth chapter of a longer post about getting to know our second child. You can read the post in its entirety here

Friday, February 13, 2015

Notes on the Second - V. Chunk

Five years ago, after the first was born, I chunked up. A lot of dads do. If you don't believe me, go to Facebook and look at pictures of your new-father friends. Then watch from the day of birth until about three months as the papa's cheeks swell, love handles pour over the side of his skinny jeans, and all his shirts start to develop little mouths between the buttons as if screaming for help. The new mom shrinks, the new baby grows, the new dad expands. I never got really fat, but it's enough chunk for me to get a little queasy-cringy every time someone breaks out the photo album. Moving to Germany and regular exercise, among other thing, has kept me reasonably fit sense, and I want to keep it that way. This time around I'm determined to avoid the chunk.

Papa-chunking is hard to avoid though, and there are two reasons. One is a new kind of tiredness; the other is a vague sense of karma. First the tiredness. During stressful seasons at work or study, I'm tired, but I need exercise. There comes a point when my brain can't take it anymore until I put my running shoes on and burn five kilometers like I'm Lola. New baby tiredness is different. It comes from staying up late with a baby intent on exercising her new lungs just to give'em a spin. When she's finally swaddled and asleep, I'm exhausted. Keep in mind, I've done very little physical activity except catch her every time she does those scary little newborn trust falls from my chest. Additionally, I've paced around and sang to her and watched terrible early-morning television that I'd have been better off not knowing about in the first placed. After she's finally quiet, swaddled, and sleeping, I'm not ready to hit the running trail, the weight machine, the basketball court, or however else we men keep our college boy figures. I'm ready to pass out on the hallway floor or ready to eat, and this is where the vague sense of karma comes in.

The vague sense of karma is the big reason for papa-chunking. After all, holding and comforting a tiny little human being for three and a quarter hours while she cries her little heart out is a GOOD. EFFEN. DEED. And because it's a good deed, I deserve seven cookies, three pieces of that good cheese we were saving for New Years, four spoonfuls of peanut butter (plus a couple of illicit swipes with the index finger), a hunk of that good peppery salami, a Magnum bar, and a bottle of beer to wash it all down. And my vague sense of karma tells me that if there is any sense of sovereign justice in the world, this three-and-a-half minute snack will have zero effect on my waste line.

So this time round, I haven't shunned the jogging trail, even though part of me wishes I could stay on our couch until my funeral. And, even though it's the Christmas season, I like to think I've held the binge-eating in check. Stay away, papa-chunk. You're not welcome here.

(At this point, the blogger takes a break to throw away the wrappers from the three chocolate Santas Clauses he took to write this post)

This is the fifth chapter of a longer post about getting to know our second child. You can read the post in its entirety here

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Notes on the Second - IV. She's So Friendly

Part of the purpose of this post is to "treasure these things in our hearts", which sleeplessness, stress, and an unfortunate bout of disease have made difficult this week.* The sleeplessness, at least, serves a purpose. The times when I am awake with her are little treasures in and of themselves, the first father-daughter moments where I have her all to myself. Whenever I first look into her wakeful eyes, the first word that comes to mind is "friendly." I never thought an infant could have any sort of friendly disposition, but she does. It's as if she says, "I'm content to let you be who you are, and I want to get to know that part of you better." The sentiment reveals itself not only in the way she looks up at me, but also in the way she coos and grunts when she's hungry. She cries a lot as a colicky little thing, but crying for her seems to be a last resort. She's a friendly person who would rather communicate through less intrusive means. I'll play the little baby games; I stick my tongue out, and she mimics me. I experiment with different voices to see how she reacts. I show her different patterns. And of course, I sing.

Babies aren't carry ons or blocks of wood. They're little people with little personalities, and it's the privilege of a parent to treasure these things so early.

This is the fourth chapter of a longer post about getting to know our second child. You can read the post in its entirety here

*This sentence was written in mid-December. Chapter 6 has the details.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Notes on the Second - III. Woman

Awe is the appropriate response a thoughtful man has to the woman he married. Awe usually requires a certain thoughtfulness. Being thoughtful means using your thoughts to poke through the stress and distractions and day-to-day muddle that makes everything too urgent for awe. When we can't do this, events come along to bring it out. My sense of awe, neglected like I neglect this blog, focused and compounded upon itself while watching my wife give birth. Most dads would agree with me here.

The cocktail worked so quickly that we had no time for drugs or anything else. The birth was going to be all natural, with the help from a midwife, a doctor, and a hot tub. It's hard for a man not to feel so unessential to the process, even as I brought her water and gave her a shoulder to lean on. We walked back and forth, we tried different positions and "labor massages," and in the end, pretty much anything we planned didn't really work, other than to say: "full steam ahead!" The midwife was a hero, making a little moan every time my wife yelled in agony, which apparently helped, and spoke words of comfort through the torturous fear between labor pains.

The screams came from every part of her body and soul. They contained fear, pain, determination, and love, somehow shameless and proud at the same time. In labor, there's a sense of irrational urgency, and yet a wise, determined patience. In all of these paradoxes, the culmination of the 9-month process of giving life, the woman in labor is more animal, more angel, and more human than a man could ever be.

During the final pushes, she grabbed my shoulder as the doctor and midwife directed traffic. "Grabbed" - no. She crushed my shoulder between her fingers. It hurt for a week, though that'll elicit no sympathy from a birthing woman.

At the end of it all, my daughter emerged from my wife. They let me cut the cord, and they sat her on my wife's broken body for her first meal. There were tears and greetings and pictures and weighings. We had a new person to get to know, but my wife was nine months ahead of me.

This is the third chapter of a longer post about getting to know our second child. You can read the post in its entirety here