Bringing up baby

When my mother in law decides it’s time to let us know her opinion, I try to restrain myself. Her latest op-ed began with the time-honored incipit, “Feel free to ignore me, but…” She then swiftly descended into a tirade about how we’re damaging our daughter by speaking to her in two languages.

I replied, “So you think it’s better if we wait 10 years, then pay for expensive private lessons with an English tutor? What planet are you living on?” I might have expected some opprobrium of the traditionalist variety (“What do you mean you’re raising her without any religion?”), but I hadn’t anticipated this kind of nitpicking. Since when is a learning second language considered hazardous to cognitive development?

I didn’t grow up bilingual. My parents spoke three languages between them, but I was raised speaking — and understanding — only American English. There was a half-hearted attempt to offer some Italian, but it mostly boiled down to the kind of language one uses in conjunction with a stubbed toe. I got pretty good at the bad words, at the expense of all the rest.

In my twenties I began to bemoan my status as a monolingual American. I’d taken four years of Spanish in high school, but had just gotten by with a C average. I wondered what had happened to that other language I’d almost learned, and which was closer to home — Italian. I might still learn it, I thought.

So I found an Italian language school a few blocks from my Manhattan apartment, dropped the cash and began studying. Immediately I decided to memorize the first canto of the Divina Commedia — in Italian. Without really knowing what I was saying, I recited the first 20 or so lines before my class one evening. “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita…” The teacher — a bold Florentine beauty — listened, stunned. (Now that I understand the words, however, I can no longer recall the verses.)

After a year or so I stopped going to classes. I desperately needed to save money. My then-girlfriend and I were breaking up after a quarrelsome four-year relationship, and I was set on living alone (for the first and last time in my life). Not long after, I left for Italy; my Italian has improved dramatically ever since.

I’ve now taken four years of Hebrew, and studied Yiddish independently. I speak neither language well, but I do have a general grasp of both, which is more than I’d have thought possible a decade ago.

When my wife and I decided we were ready to have a child, we had varying opinions on all aspects of child-rearing — all, that is, except the desire to raise our daughter as bilingual. And that’s a point on which we won’t cede ground to anyone: not family, friends or the public opinion that governs so much parental decision-making in Italy.

It’s taken some discipline, but I’ve gotten in the habit of speaking to our daughter Melissa primarily in English. When we’re alone, that’s all she hears from me. And, after three weeks in the United States, she’s begun approximating the English names for preferred objects: duck is “duh”; water is “wawa”; cantaloupe is “catabu.” She’s now added “nonno” and “nonna” to her repertoire, in perfectly pronounced Italian. That’s bilingualism in action.

I remain perplexed by my mother-in-law’s cavalier attitude. When I asked her to explain her resistance, she went on about confusing messages. “It’s like one of you is saying ‘yes’ and the other ‘no.'” When I asked her about the sources of this insight they turned out to be predictably nonexistent.

Maybe she should meet some of the people we know who were raised bilingually, and who are raising bilingual kids. When I sent out my feelers on Facebook, I got a bunch of very enthusiastic responses — not one of which expressed the least bit of concern that we were “confusing” Melissa.

One friend even told me about her son, who was born deaf. Her Italian doctors — who had cured her son’s deafness through an implant — instructed my friend to speak only Italian to her son, saying two languages would only confuse him. She’s convinced the advice was a needless setback. Now her son is learning English, slowly but surely, with the help of his younger brother.

On a different note, another friend observed that her daughter not only started speaking later than other kids her age, but understands less. She attributes this to her bilingualism. I’ve heard from others along similar lines.

A quick Google search yielded a treasury of articles with a recurring theme: “People used to think bilingual children were slow/confused/challenged, but new research shows…” Basically, it seems to show that some children are slower than others in certain things, but likely not for reasons related to their bi- or multilingualism.

That sounds like good news to me.

From The American

Postcard from Ectoville

Spooked out

In June we made our first trip to the United States with our baby daughter. After a trying week at the beach, we settled into a rented cottage immersed in the lush green of Hanover County, Virginia. Cows grazed next door. A family of chickens wandered over the grass to visit us each morning. In the evening, an industrious spider materialized on the porch, spinning its web anew, only to vanish by dawn.

By the standards of small town Virginia, we immediately became local celebrities. (My sister compared us to Jennifer Aniston, who is reportedly dating a man whose mother lives nearby.) A buzz built up around us: “The Italians are here!” We brought them real Parmigiano cheese (compare with “parmesan”), olive oil from Umbria (compare with “Goya”) and taralli laced with fennel (incomparable). We didn’t want to disappoint anyone.

The pinnacle was Ashland’s July 4th parade. My brother-in-law was named honorary parade marshal, giving him and his family had the right to ride in a horse-drawn carriage with the mayor — an exciting prospect for my 10-year-old niece.

The whole town — except the misanthropes, if there are any — gathers yearly along Main St. to watch inventively named “brigades” march from one end of the township to the other. We saw the Lawn Chair Brigade composed of people doing a kind of Full Monty routine with, well, lawn chairs. There was also a Latin brigade, whose members mouthed the Roman greeting “Salve” and sported white togas. A man pedaled an old-time penny-farthing and an eccentric doctor marched on stilts. Then there was the patriotic dog contest…

The next day, my sister gave me a copy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Look,” she said, “you’re in the paper!” And there I was, looking on as the antique Big Wheel rolled along, part of the annual crowd. It’ll make a nice clipping for the family archive.

But it was a meeting at the barbecue the night before that most struck me. Over a plate of South Carolina peach cobbler, in an enormous, white antebellum home, I met a woman who introduced herself to me as a “ghost-buster.” I soon learned that she had cleansed the place where we were now standing of ectoplasm. It was a perfect setting for the conversation that followed.

I kindly probed as to just what is was that she did. Given the choice between a rational, materialistic explanation and a paranormal one, she told me, one should always choose the latter. “Why close oneself to the possibilities?” she said.

As I patiently listened to tales of angels and spirits I began wondering if there was anything she didn’t believe in. I proposed unicorns. Maybe they were making the strange puttering noises that came from the attic. She dismissed the thought. Given her credulity, I wondered how she could shut out unicorns.

It was a weird conversation, hung with dusty spider webs, creaky staircases and relics of haunted house lore. She even spoke of a mysterious “third” dimension (spooky!). But when she knocked on a wooden bookcase we’d both been leaning on and announced, “This isn’t real,” I decided that further inquiry was pointless. Where do you go from there?

To save any embarrassment, I came clean. I told her I was skeptical, that I didn’t believe in angels, demons or the paranormal in general. I told her there was not a shred of evidence for any of the things she’d described. As she’d been frank with me, I’d return the favor. We parted amiably, returning to our respective beer coolers.

I love visiting Ashland. It’s like some long lost town in an America that probably never existed except on celluloid and the covers of the Saturday Evening Post. An overwhelming feeling of innocence, of childhood, creeps up on me.

Now that I have a daughter I’m coming to better appreciate innocence. Think about it: here is a human being with almost no sense of danger. She trusts people. She’ll put anything into her mouth. We, her parents, must keep watch over her lest she tumble down a flight of stairs or swallow a tack. I’ll be happy when Melissa is a jaded cynic, though; innocence is dangerous. It isn’t meant to last.

This observation illustrates the way I look at Ashland. Every time I visit, I wonder if it will still be the same. When will it morph into just another Richmond suburb? When will it shed that special cocoon of simplicity that so fascinates me, and which Ashlanders work to protect?

The moment we move into town, no doubt.

Published in The American

Unsinkable skepducks

Innocuous bath toys or intro to critical thinking?

I was inspired by Neil de Grasse Tyson to look at my daughter’s bath toys with new eyes. In one of his essays in Death By Black Hole – “On Density”, I believe – he writes eloquently about how a cupful of the planet Saturn would actually float in a tub of bathwater. That’s because it’s less dense than water. Since you can’t go out and get a cupful of Saturn, Tyson playfully suggested we introduce rubber Saturn toys in place of yellow duckies in our children’s baths. It would be a good way to promote science early on. I loved the idea.

But where to find such a toy? I was thinking such thoughts when my wife came home with a bag full of little yellow rubber duckies for the bath. “We needed some bath toys,” she said. Well, I thought, why not transform the omnipresent yellow duckie into an educational bath toy (keep in mind our daughter is eight months old)? And since it’s already the symbol par excellence of quackery, why not riff on that? Presto! The skepducks were hatched.

I never forget James Randi’s phrase for the resilience of credulity and pseudoscience, “unsinkable rubber ducks.” I’m making a commitment to my daughter to raise her to think for herself and question received ideas. There’s no better time to start.

“Daddy, What’s a Ramone?”

We’re moving, and each time I move I end up reflecting on all the moving I’ve done over the course of my life. I’ve tallied up a total of 22 separate abodes in 36 years. I count as an “abode” any place I’ve lived for at least a month with no more permanent address to call home. To be clear, I’ve included places my father lived after our parents’ divorce, really just a succession of cheap apartments in which I was guaranteed a bed. A third of my “abodes” were in New York City, where I racked up a frightening four in one solar year.

Throughout it all I’ve managed to hang on to a few things — mostly books and records — thanks both to my mother’s basement and her goodwill. Now those things are in jeopardy; she’s moving to a small apartment and my ad hoc collection will have to find another home. The alternative is the dump.

Since I bought most of this stuff used, it would be perfectly natural to bid it all adieu in a similar fashion. I could sell the records and donate the books to a local library, in the spirit of the Greek adage panta rei (“everything flows”). What matters most to me is that they find owners who appreciate them. I know this sounds weird for a bunch of plastic and paper — and it’s purely sentimental — but it matters to me.

My collection isn’t worth much even by the standards of an armchair collector. Sure, I have a few choice albums: an original mono version of Blonde on Blonde, an unpeeled Velvet Underground and Nico, a vinyl copy of Metal Machine Music. It’s nothing any Dylan or Lou Reed fan wouldn’t have, and the records themselves aren’t in excellent shape. As for the books, I shipped a lot of them to Italy on my last visit. But what to do about my four-volume calfskin-bound set of Montaigne’s “Essays”? Throw it in my carry-on bag on my next trip? That’s a tough one.

“Forget about them,” my mother said. “Be glad you have your health. You have a family now. Stop obsessing.”

I know she’s right, but I can’t help obsessing. I’ve read the Stoic philosophers, but I’m not able to entirely repudiate material things. “Don’t preach,” I told her. It didn’t come out well, and I regretted having said it.

What she meant was this: “You’ve done perfectly well without these things for eight years. You’ve made a life for yourself in another country. Let them go. You’ll be happy when you don’t have to worry about them anymore.”

I’m not really attached to things in general; in fact, I don’t own much of anything worth keeping. Once you subtract my ballooning personal library, there’s not much left except furniture and underwear. So I think I should be permitted an occasional excess.

Happily, we’re moving to a place with more space than I’ve ever had in any previous arrangement, so there will actually be room for my things. It would cost an arm and a leg to ship them all here, and that’s a nagging detail, but wouldn’t it be worth it in order to restore the harmony of my collection?

That’s the meat hook beneath my skin right now. Should I heed the noble, philosophical angel on my left shoulder and separate past from future? Or should I listen to the neurotic bibliophile devil on my right shoulder and follow my impulses? The deadline is only a few weeks away and I can’t decide what to do.

Like all parents I entertain a fantasy of sharing my passions with my children. I want our daughter to grow up in a home swarming with books, records and cultural artifacts. Now that personal libraries tend evermore toward the electronic (hypothetically I could stuff every book I own into one wafer-thin Kindle) this seems particularly urgent. I dream of the day when Melissa pulls my copy of, say, “American Yiddish Poetry” off the bookshelf and I get to explain it to her.

Not long ago a columnist in The Guardian wrote ecstatically of getting rid of his “dead tree books.” I was mildly shocked reading what appeared to be a manifesto urging all decent people to toss out their weighty stockpiles in favor of a pared down selection of truly essential volumes. The author was positively gleeful, embracing the changing times. By contrast I am a melancholy, deeply torn 20th Century Man.

Which isn’t to say I’m not going to get an e-book reader someday. The problem is simply which one. Because, despite my 20th-centuriness, I recognize a Catch-22 when I’m in one. It’s simply impractical to keep accumulating books unless I develop a system of filtration. The records are a different matter. I would be happy with just a few of the really meaningful ones, and the bulk on CD or iTunes or whatever nascent technology is in store for us. I’ll miss the cover art, the skipping needle, and actually listening to sides of an album. But I’ll still be able to broadcast music through the house, prompting my daughter’s curiosity.

“Daddy,” I can hear her saying, “what’s a Ramone?”

From The American