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To Be Loved By a Toddler

Tonight I came home after a typically sleepy Monday, weary from battling the other commuters back and forth and still surprised that the weekend had ended. I was a little down and completely intended on staying that way. I even had a whole evening planned around it: a cup of tea, some repeats on TV, a little reading and a straight face all the way until my head hit the pillow.

But Veronika had her own ideas. She started by getting really excited when I got home, yelling "Mama" at me from the window (both parents are Mama now, I don't know why) and then lunging into my arms when I reached the top of the stairs. It's hard not to like that. Then before dinner she kept yelling "Na naaa," which is her call for us to sing Elmo's theme song. She kept a low profile through dinner but as soon as it was over, she got me to chase her around the house and jump out to surprise her, screaming and giggling every time she was caught. Then after proudly sitting on the potty (more on potty training), I changed her into pajamas and got her ready for bed. We read Goodnight Moon and she waited with breathless anticipation for me to turn each page and squirmed with glee when I whispered "hush!" (for the old lady that does so in the book, for non-scholars). After a cup of milk, she hugged me while I bounced her through a few burps and then laid her head on my shoulder and tucked her hands between our chests to prepare for sleep. I asked her for a kiss, she gladly obliged and then I put her down in her crib, where she snuggled up with Tigger and Piggy.

So here I am now, positively aglow from such a nice night with my daughter, even though I was trying really hard to frown my way through it. This is what the love of a toddler can do. It can also go the other way, but who remembers that?

January 31, 2005 | Comments (1)

So Young

When I was growing up, I was successful in quite a few things at an early age and got used to being an overachiever. "He's so smart/talented/whatever," they would say, "and so young!" I relished the praise and became addicted to the success. This opportunity was made possible, at least in part, by being raised in a small and relatively sheltered town in the Midwest, where I did not often have to reconcile the fact that I was not the best at something. If there were people out there that were better than me at something, they only existed in theory because I never had to meet them. Naturally with every year that passed, the world that I was aware of became bigger and I became a little smaller in it, painfully slipping from the 99.9th percentile to perhaps the 95th and on down from there. Every once in a while, like tonight on the eve of my 25th birthday, I catch myself slipping into that old competitive mindset and wonder if I let myself fall too easily from the top. Maybe I wasn't just the best in small-town Wisconsin, maybe I could've been among the best in the country? I'm not talking about an annus mirabilis here, but who knows, a better school, a more ambitious career path... did I let myself down?

Obviously these are fleeting thoughts. All it takes is one look into Veronika's big blue eyes for me to realize the following things, usually in this order:

  1. Everything is not up to me.
  2. Everything is not about me.
  3. The success that I'm artificially pining for would only serve to satisfy my own ego, there is no greater good behind it.
  4. The things that happen outside the résumé of one's life are infinitely more important than anything you could put on paper.
  5. Everything is exactly as it should be and I wouldn't know how to ask for more.

I don't know exactly where I'm going with this or how to wrap it up neatly. I guess I've learned that the way you lead your life is more important than the things you can get done while alive and how that compares to everyone around you. Simple, I know. If I can spend every year like the past year--living my faith, pursuing knowledge of the unknown, supporting my family and suffocating them with love--I don't see how it could be considered anything but a success, perhaps even in the 99th percentile.

January 25, 2005 | Comments (1)

New Year, New York

I kicked off 2005 with a great New Year's weekend spent mostly in New York City. On the first evening of the year, we visited the New York Metropolitan Opera to see their production of Kát'a Kabanová. I am relatively new to opera but even I could appreciate the wondrous performance of soprano Karita Mattila, the stark yet effective production, and the lyrical beauty of Janácek's score. The next day, after dropping a fellow operagoer off at JFK, I drove into Manhattan to meet a couple of old friends in Chinatown to have dinner and catch up.

I had such a good time that weekend that I got to thinking--why not spend a whole lot more time in New York City? It's an incredible place and so close and accessible from here. So that's my goal for this year, to take advantage of our proximity to the city and explore all that it has to offer. I have so much enthusiasm for this city, you cannot even imagine, more than I had for Chicago (with the possible exception of the Jazz Showcase) in six years of leaving nearby. It's such a captivating place, so diverse and endlessly interesting yet much more approachable than I could have imagined. Plus there's just something about listening to Art Blakey's "Moanin'" while driving up the West Side Highway at night (ignore the fact that most of the members of that group were from Philadelphia).

To combine my two most recent ambitions of spending more time in New York and running (I ran five miles in subfreezing weather today!), I am joining the New York Road Runners, an organization that promotes running in the city by sponsoring races throughout the year. I will use any excuse to get into the city, even if it's only driving in for a morning run in Central Park. Plus if I complete nine of their races this year, I automatically qualify for the 2006 NYC Marathon. Don't count me out.

January 16, 2005 | Comments (1)

The Bilingual Family

After a few false starts with the Graham Greene, I put it aside for a moment to finally read The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents, a wonderful gift that had been on my shelf for a year. Veronika is simply progressing too quickly for me to have ignored it any longer. To quote a mediocre movie, her mind is like a sponge right now and there is not a moment to waste.

For Dinka and me, the decision to try to raise our children bilingually was an easy one for many reasons, the most important of which is that we would like them to be able to talk to their German-speaking cousins, without relying on the lame "English is universal" excuse. Besides, if my dreams of owning a vineyard ever come true, they'll need it. This book did a good job of presenting the research that's been done and providing several case studies of different ways that families have succeeded. This is what I learned from the book: children can adapt easily to many situations and languages but the degree to which the languages are learned and retained depends on the parents, namely in their attitude toward bilingualism and the consistency with which the languages are presented. After reading this and discussing our strategy with Dinka, I am more confident than ever that we can make it work. We have the determination and the right attitude, plus our situation is such that regularly using both languages should be possible. Dinka spends the most time with Veronika so German will be the language she hears most. Her German will also be helped by books, movies and conversing with her family in Austria, on the phone and on long, European-style vacations. Frankly I'm not worried about her English development because it will be everywhere around her but in book terms, it will come from me, my family, her friends and the "outside world."

My main responsibility in all of this is to learn German at a pace that allows me to always understand what is being said at home. If I can't do this on my own, I will employ the aid of a local university to help my progress. At first I considered speaking only German to her and I was doing so for a while without feeling too limited. After reading the book, I realized that for consistency's sake, it's probably better to have one parent speak each language so she associates one with each of us. In the week since I started unleashing my impressive knowledge of English on Veronika, my decision has been confirmed by our improved interaction, which I attribute to 1) my confidence in speaking my first language, and 2) her ever-increasing ability to pick up and incorporate everything that she hears. For instance, she said "cheese" last weekend (On Wisconsin!) and she especially enjoyed and imitated my hiking chant of "Down, down, down...blue trail's going down" (adapted from The Cable Guy scene at Medieval Times), but that's also because I'm such a cool and hilarious father.

So this is our strategy. Dinka teaches her proper German and I am my normal, goofy self in English. There is no way this can go wrong.

January 08, 2005 | Comments (2)