Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Naming and Being Named

Call me Jon. Or Jonathan. I try to be uncomplicated about my name, and, as both Jon (or John) and Jonathan are common names, I'm happy to go with whichever name is left available in our particular social setting. If there's someone called Jo(h)n, I'll be Jonathan, which still sounds attractive, though three syllables is a mouthful for lazy, friendly banter.

As a child, I insisted on Jonathan. My mother told me I was named for the biblical Jonathan - David's best friend who willingly gave up the throne that was his birthright to make way for God's anointed - and the name means "gift from God," and my parents considered me a gift. So, it was clear, even in my little ears, that there was depth, love, and meaning to this choice. Besides, it somehow sounded more special. The monosyllable is so common in popular literature and culture, and I was blissfully unaware that my name was part of a naming trend in the 70s and 80s - the fact is, there were always several Jonathans in my classes. (Think how many GenX and Millennial writers share my name)

My family moved to Florida when I was 13, and I was ready to shed my awkward, middle school baggage, and calling myself Jon felt like a clean break. This initiated my present naming situation: to my family, at least the family I grew up with, I was and am Jonathan, to most of my friends, Jon, and at the workplace, a confusing mix of the two. This worked well from school to young single life, but marriage and other circumstances have mixed the two the two names in ways that feel strange. My wife, in her transition from friend to family, still calls me Jon, and I think this is good and right. To my daughter, I am first "Papa," and she knows that I am "Jon," but I'm not sure if she is aware of my full name. My parents and sisters still call me "Jonathan," and whenever they refer to me as Jon, usually whenever they intermix with my friends, it's almost as if they're referring to someone else. Likewise, I knew my sister's husband before their marriage, and to him I was Jon, but now he's adapted to call me "Jonathan," with the same results: it always takes me a couple seconds to realize he's talking about (or even to) me. Identity is relative. I try to be uncomplicated about my name, but I'm not.

I'm satisfied with my name, nonetheless, and the sacrificial love displayed by the biblical Jonathan is a source of aspiration, and my parents probably had this in mind. These reflections about my own name accompanied the deep sense of sadness I felt when my daughter told me she wished she had a different one.

Her name is Joy, and I admit this was a hazardous choice. It's not especially common, which is a blessing for trend-resistant parents and a curse for sensitive children who want to fit in. It's less common here in Germany, and though the word is known and pronounceable here (this was important to us, of course), it's not unchallenging either. The word is overused in flippant speech, cartoons, and advertising, and to boot, her birthday is dangerously close to Christmas. The name is a target for songs and puns, and anyone who knows me well will know that in this regard, her father is a the chief of sinners.

"Joy" was on our shortlist almost five years ago when we arrived at the hospital, but we wanted to get a good look at her before we came to a final decision. She spent the first 24 hours outside the womb nameless, but the decision had been made in my heart from the moment we made eye-contact, and I don't think I could have been convinced otherwise.

Here's why. When it comes to love, I am in a position of privilege. I grew up loving my parents, loving my sisters, loving my friends, and loving God and experience love from each of them. Since then, I've added the love for my wife and the love of her family, and I'm well aware that none of these are a given. I knew I would love my children, but I didn't think it would add much to what I already had. I was wrong. Holding my daughter in my arms added a completely new dimension to my love for which I could have never been prepared. This love multiplied the anxiety that I could lose something so precious. She could be driven away later in life; tragedy could end it sooner. New parents are aware of the horrifying thought of sudden infant death syndrome, and the idea that my child could be robbed of her breath for no apparent reason made, for me, the sound of a snoring baby the most beautiful sound under heaven. Every day, every hour, every second of her existence became a gift of great price, and thankfulness compounded upon thankfulness enriched my life in ways that never would have occurred to me otherwise.

This deep thankfulness for life and for love is called joy. It's something that marketing campaigns and Christmas ornaments can only hint at, but it's something that all of us who get to properly love another human can experience. This reflects an even greater joy, the joy of the Lord, the joy of his unadulterated love, a joy we see through the glass darkly, but which the Bible insists is our strength, dour and self-conscious as I am. It was the only word that could come to my lips on that day as I looked in her dark eyes, doctors and nurses scurrying around me to repair my wife's broken body. A day later we gave her the name Joy, and whatever silliness our culture adds to this word, it has never been inappropriate.

I'm told it's a small administrative hassle, getting your named changed. I can imagine a future so individualistic that we change our names with our fashions, and that no one need, after a few drinks, to grimace and admit that they hate their name - they can just get it removed and replaced and inform their friends via text message. My daughter, sick of puns and Christmas songs, could do this one day. I hope she doesn't. I hope that her dissatisfaction with her name is just the short-lived fancy of a four-year-old and nothing deeper. I hope that she'll understand the meaning of her name, how much joy and love she gave her parents, how it reflects her intrinsic worth, how it reminds us of the joy of the Lord, our strength. There's an old-fashioned comfort here. In these times, where the question, "How can I add value to the organization?" is so much more pressing than, "What is the chief end of man?" the idea that value can be not just achieved but also imparted by those who gave us life is a cry of blessing. In naming, we can participate in this, and in being named, we can remember.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

"Here's to old Adam's crystal ale..."

While researching some toasts for a final English class (hey, I don't judge you for what you teach your students), I came across this delightful rhyme from Oliver Herford:
Here's to old Adam's crystal ale
clear sparkling and divine,
Fair H2O, may you long flow
We drink your health (in wine).
Given that Sunday's a feast day and that tomorrow's St. Patrick's day, well, I thought it'd be appropriates to pass along. But then I realized that your merry evening with friends may not be a wine evening. So, with apologies to Herford, I thought I'd rewrite the toast for the appropriate beverage.

Here's to old Adam's crystal ale
so sparkling, so clear
Fair H2O, may you long flow
We drink your health (in beer)

Here's to old Adam's crystal ale
bubbling clear and frisky 
Fair H2O, may you long flow
We drink your health (in whisky)

Here's to old Adam's crystal ale
from glaciers old you come 
Fair H2O, may you long flow
We drink your health (in rum)

Here's to old Adam's crystal ale
you refresh the large and teeny
Fair H2O, may you long flow
We drink your health (martini)

Don't use all the toasts at once. Oh, and can you do better? Please add your own.  

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Your Children Should Think You're Omniscient For as Long as Possible

I was taking my daughter on a walk about a year ago, when she pointed to a little boy across the street I had never seen before. She asked, "what's his name?"

"I don't know," I replied. Her eyes widened in shock and confusion. Little tears beaded in their corners.

"But... but... you know!" It was on that day that my daughter discovered an unfortunate truth: I am not omniscient. I should have casually said, "oh, his name's Frank," and walked on. Lesson learned.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Parenting and Entangling Love

Part of having a child, a wife, bills, and interesting things to look at is that I don't write as often as I would like. By way of saying, I wanted to respond from my little corner of the web to an interesting online writing kerfluffle about the challenges and joys of parenting, but I'm a little late thanks to the challenges and joys of parenting (I'm writing these words with one of those Disney sing-a-long films running in the background). Here in Germany, a couple of journalists complained that modern demands of parenting and career simply can't work, but shrug and say they might as well try to make it work anyway. Then, Ruth Graham's protest against all the negative, "honest" parent-complaining drew a lot of attention (at least in my social networking sphere), including Rachel Lu's beautiful, thoughtful response. Lu wrote one of those "I-wish-I-had-written-that" essays clarifying my jumble of thoughts and feelings about parenting-angst with a lovely description of joy and love in parenting. The whole thing's worth a slow read, and I wanted to highlight a couple points she makes towards the end:
Finally, I should address the most critical question: Is it worth it? If so, why? Certainly, there are cultural changes that could make the plunge into parenthood less daunting. It would be possible, too, for parents to feel less stressed and more affirmed. Still, child-rearing will always be miserable and magical, for more or less the same reasons. It’s a “happy pig or unhappy Socrates” sort of conundrum. Parenthood makes life harder, but also richer. It’s less pleasant but more meaningful. That’s because love fundamentally changes us as human beings. Like the dissatisfied Socrates, we can look on the unburdened (including our own former selves) with a certain amount of wistful envy, but it isn’t in our nature to want to stuff love back into its Pandora’s box.
She ends with: 

An employer could never get away with drawing up a contract like the one you implicitly have with your kids. So yes, it’s reasonable to be a little bit terrified. It’s no small thing to let another person become the main star of your life. It’s even harder when you realize that one day they’ll just walk right out the door again, leaving you twenty years older but no longer able to sleep in on a Saturday morning.
Still, if the opportunity beckons, you should do it. Because if you don’t, you’ll be the person who chose the happy pig over Socrates. You don’t want to go to your grave knowing that one of your most important life decisions was to run away from love.

These thoughts are seconded by Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. In her interview on Fresh Air, she documents the "no fun" part then gets to the joy, and like Lu, she knows what we all know, that the joy is worth it, even if it can't be numerically verified:
And, you know, the studies don't focus on (the joy) so much. I have to sort of go to philosophy and novels in order to discuss the joy. The problem with these studies is that if you're feeling good about something, you know, you rank it a five. So that moment that I was describing with my baby looking at me and cooing at me - which was, like, just like this transcendent moment in my life - would rate the same if I'm doing everything on a scale of one to five, as, like, a dinner with a friend, if I had a really great time at that dinner. In the same way that, like, you know, on Amazon, you know, a John Grisham novel and, you know, and Charles Dickens like kind of get fives, you know, but they're not necessarily the same experience, you know. 
And also, I can't remember who said this to me - I think it was George Vaillant, a psychiatrist who is kind of a poet-philosopher, too - he pointed out that, like, it's kind of like using a number to describe a taste. You know, how do you do that? So I think that social science misses a lot of the joy.

And, you know, one of the remarkable things about joy is that it is sort of predicated on this idea of being very connected to somebody. I think Christopher Hitchens described, you know, having kids as, you know, your heart running around in somebody else's body. And that feeling is so powerful, it's almost scary, because there's almost, like, an implied sense of loss about it.

It's, like, you love somebody so much, that you are almost automatically afraid of losing them, like, that this connection is so deep, that you can't think of that connection without thinking of that connection being broken. So joy, in some ways, is almost a harder feeling to tolerate than sadness, in some ways, because it's so powerful and makes us so vulnerable. But it's why it is also so profoundly special and what makes parenting, to so many of us, so huge and incomparable.
So, a hearty amen to both from this papa across the pond. Both women (with an assist from Maria Popova) reminded me of C.S. Lewis' famous reflection in The Four Loves: "To love is to be vulnerable. To love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it in tact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it up carefully with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from the dangers and perturbations of love is hell."

Choosing lasting, difficult joy over immediate happiness is an ancient problem, and the fact that children are more of an economic burden than necessity thrusts today's (Western) family into the center of this choice. I've no special insight into this, but I'm encouraged: the fact that we're talking about it means this joy is not dead, and I wonder if paradoxically, we comfortable westerners are taking the joys of entangled love more seriously. This reminded me of something I noticed in that other great love entanglement: marriage. When I first came to Germany, I was told that Germans, consistent with the trends of most of Western Europe, were marrying later than Americans. I assumed that this meant they no longer took marriage seriously, that in a post-religious age they had deconstructed a ritual of religion and state enough to render it meaningless, or at least with much less meaning. Maybe at some point they'll muddle through the ritual and smile for the camera like distracted teenagers in a confirmation class, but more important is a fuzzy concept of love independent of the things our ancients had passed down.

It didn't take long to realize my assumption was wrong, at least among the students, young academics, and young professionals I interacted with. Sure, I'd hear people deconstruct marriage to justify premarital sex, but at the end of the day, marriage was a damn serious thing for most people, particularly for those in relationships. I found those living together didn't see their lifestyles as an alternative to marriage, but they saw marital commitment as something they couldn't lightly go into without a lot of practice and growth together. They were avoiding a complete entanglement, taking tentative steps into the rosebush, keeping the exit available, because they weren't about to make a commitment they didn't think they could keep. From this position, marriage was wonderful but overwhelming. They wanted it as much as the Bible-belt American standing before them, but with a deliberate slowness. I can imagine approaching child-rearing the same way, and it looks like more and more westerners are following in this path. The general seriousness about the topic impressed me, and it still does.

I sympathize. I had always wanted to be married, and yet the act of getting married cost me more courage than I could carry myself. Then our daughter came along, and she flooded our lives with love and joy but also with so many worldly worries that without the help of some god-fearing friends and family members, well, who knows how far we would have sunk. And still, both steps are the steps in my life where I can most clearly look at them and pronounce them good. I say this from a position of privilege - both my wife and I come from great families where martial promises were honored and children were viewed as gifts from the Lord. Not everyone grew up in such luxury, and I can understand how those without it might find the promises of love and joy of children much less believable, and all the "honest" parenting blogs could be a stumbling block for anybody. Entangling yourself in love is more and more a heroic, deeply serious step, the risks are no longer hidden behind smiles, closed doors, and rigorous cultural standards. It's serious stuff, and it's good we're all still talking about it.

Honest talking and writing doesn't hide the mess, the failures, or the heartbreak, but neither does it stay there, and I'm glad Lu and Senior reminded us how to write about the sort of things that don't fit on clever charts or Buzzfeed lists, but fit into philosophy, novels, poetry, and prose. The seriousness with which we're taking the commitments that irreversibly entangle our hearts to others mean that there's a hunger for it. And those of us who are presumptuous enough to tape our thoughts to the Internet should remember that writing about love and joy are worth the effort.

Friday, February 14, 2014

These Sweaters Don't Run

The Wall Street Journal wonders if the new Under Armour suits are responsible for Team USA's disappointing speed skating run in Sochi. My problem with the suit (since you asked) is its lack of patriotic fervor. I mean, the Dutch are cleaning up the event, and they're wearing Netherlands orange spandex you can see from space. Meanwhile, the Stars and Stripes are wearing uniforms that conspicuously lack both. They're black with a silver crotch - neither color's on the flag. I know black's probably back to being the new black, but really, they all look like cyclist ninjas.

Look at the Dutch or the Russian home team - they're wearing their colors with pride at every event! They love their countries, and you see it a ski jump away. Good for them! We're dressing our athletes like America's out of style.

You're already thinking of the exception: Those fantastic, yes fantastic! opening ceremony sweaters. Don't like the sweaters? Well, if you don't like Gramma, apple pie, and Abraham Lincoln, that's your problem. I love the sweaters, and I hope Under Armour is paying attention to those who can do it busy style. (We know from those University of Maryland football unis that they an do patriotic) I think red and white stripes down those long, skater legs would be a start. Some other suggestions:

  • Would it be against the rules for US ski jumpers to wear American flag capes?
  • I guess all the figure skaters look smashing in their own right, but what an Uncle Sam Suit? Or better yet, George and Martha Washington for the doubles. 
  • Can we design skier or bobsled helmets that look like star-spangled cowboy hats?
  • ...and ice skates on cowboy boots. 
Frankly, if you can't enter the sports arena like Apollo Creed in the first Rocky, well, I don't want to root for you. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

To Fall a Tree

I helped fall a tree last Friday. On the hill-garden that separates our house from my in-law's house, there stood two tall, proud pine trees. Now there stands only one. One springtime home for red squirrels and grey hawks. One piece of creation that dwarfed our houses and stretched to heaven as if unconscious it could never complete its journey.

I helped fall it, which really means I didn't do much of the dirty work, but I stood holding jackets with approval. Ok, I did a little more than that. When it comes to handwork, well, I insist I'm available to help, but really, you might regret the decision to have me along. My father-in-law, brave, trusty, and sure of hand with a rope and a chainsaw, did the hard work. I stood with our neighbor and observed. I made sure no neighbors or children stood where pieces of wood might fall. Twice I helped pull the rope to bring down its great trunk in different parts, ensuring that this mighty pine would never stand again.

The first tug was easy. We were in a residential area, so we could simply chop at the bottom and yell "timber"like on the cartoons without crushing a house or damaging the neighbor's flowers. So, my father-in-law took his rope, climbed the tree halfway up, and made some neat cuts into the upper trunk. Then he climbed, leaving the rope where we could pull it off, and we tugged it down. The top half fell with little resistance. The tree then stood there like a headless mannequin - comical and spooky - while my father-in-law made some choice cuts at the bottom of the trunk.

The bottom did not give way easily. The lower branches clung persistently to a neighboring bush, while the trunk simply defied our direction - as if to say, "if I'm going down, I'm taking one of your houses with me!" It took my father-in-law's crankshaft and five people to finally bring it down. Half a mighty tree tottered towards us, finally crashing with a groan a couple meters in front of our feet.

I had mixed feelings. In a small way, I felt like I was on a team of conquerers, one more victory for civilization and survival, like our ancestors finding fire and making shelter and spearing bison. There was relief that the job was done, that we could look uninhibited across our town and see the mountain dotted with ancient castles (one of the perks of living in Germany). Now, there is sunlight and natural warmth for the house, plus any danger this falling tree could pose in a freak storm was eliminated. There were good reasons to bring the tree down, and I'm gratified by the small way I participated, but there's a strange sadness, like longing, now that it's gone.

The tree lies slain; I can see it from my window. It's a sad sight, perhaps because these great life forms live so long, that to see one lying on the ground is a reminder of our own mortality. My affection for this tree, however, is rooted deeper in human history. Trees have always been a source of food, shelter, refuge, and warmth. I'm thankful that I live in Germany, where civilization and nature are never too far from one another, and I can have my runs through wooded area. To go a week without being surrounded by trees is to give a piece of your soul. Trees show up everywhere in Scripture. Trees holding life and forbidden knowledge. Trees planted by water, and trees withering. A cross of wood, holding One who took our place.

I suspect my father-in-law will saw up the tree and use it for firewood. In the not-too-distant future, I'll join my family for Sunday lunch at the in-law's house. It will be a cold day, and I'll be grateful to be sitting close to the hearth, warmed by burning pieces of the tree, which I helped fall. I'll sit on wooden chairs and eat on a wooden table and eat fruit, all from other trees, trees I've never known. This is not to mention the plants and animals that go into my meal. We live on life. Our bodies are fortified, warmed, and sheltered by sacrifice. We already know this of course, eating and drinking life that we may live. In the mundane things of shelter and food, we are reminded of sacrifice. A cross of wood, holding One who took our place.


Monday, January 27, 2014

Viva la Denglisch!

Professor Walter Krämer, his German Language Society, and "the Majority of Germans" are "annoyed" with Denglisch, "the superfluous use of English junk,"which they see as "contempt for their language." Some Denglisch is worse than others, though, according to the professor.
"Our society, which has 35,000 members, is not against foreign words being used in German - even English ones. We have no objection to using fair, interview, trainer, doping, and slang. 
"We do not hate foreign words. Most of our board members speak foreign languages and two of our members probably speak better English than any American. One was a pilot for a US airline."
However,
"We have a problem with words such as event, highlight, shooting star, outfit which are used to glorify the everyday and the banal. This drivel shuts off many Germans, who do not know these English words from their own language.  
"I am often asked for a statement on a certain subject. I tell those who ask that I do not give statements. If they asked me using a German word it would be a different matter. I will give an Aussage."

I hope Professor Krämer and his cohorts has developed a smart phone (or should it be, Klugtelefon?) app that clearly delineates the approved English words from dirty, dirty Denglisch so the next time some German office manager says "livestream," her employees will know whether they must scowl with annoyance or smile with acceptance. Everyone, you'll want to make sure you get your point across, so be sure to practice your scowl. (Ok, now scowl! Yes, that's it!) 

In the meantime, I have started the perfect grassroots organization to fight scowl with scowl: The Society for the Advancement of Denglisch (SAD). 

Yes, now Denglisch has its own society, with the motto: "why confuse yourself with thirty different words when highlight covers it?" Yes, the Society for the Advancement of Denglisch has 35,001 members (just sayin'), from business colleges, marketing departments, and private television stations all over Germany. We always meet at the the McDonald's in the train stations of major metropolitan centers all over Germany. Every week, we hold Denglisch lectures on such topics as "Hollywood's Role in Shaping German Culture," "Improve Your Local Economy with Starbucks," "Why Is It that Everyone Here Loves Cowboy Films?" and, my favorite, "Denglisch: The Only Way to Impress International Elites." 

A major project we SAD-folks are working on is the next official round of German words to Anglicanize. Here's some of the words on the dock:
  1. Kindergarten - I mean sure, we used to even say Kingergarten back in the states, but that was before we came up with PLAYSCHOOL! I mean, how cool of a word is playschool! Soon, German politicians will fret about whether or not there's enough playschoolplätze for everyone age 3 - 6. 
  2. Fußball - the word football is already taken to mean American football, so the only option left is to call Fußball by its proper name: soccer
  3. zurück - do you really need all those syllables and consonants when you can just say back?
  4. Glück - The land of thinkers and poets, huh? Well any armchair thinker or poet knows there's a difference between happiness and luck. Yet they have one word for the both! It's confusing. Replace Glück with luck or happiness, as appropriate. 
  5. der, die, das, den, dem, des - Please replace with the word the. You know the reason. 
We SAD folks are already excited to see the new changes take effect! And we'll keep scowling until know German sentence, no matter where they place their verbs, isn't seasoned with a beautiful Anglicanism.

Oooo, now scowl again. Yes! That's it!