Sunday, December 28, 2008

Who is Gracie?

She looked up at me with dark watery eyes that often lost focus and wandered. It was the first time I met Gracie and from that moment I have been wondering who she is. I have also been wondering who I am. What is it like to be a father? I keep forgetting that there are no ready-made scripts for the new roles that life hands us. I just assumed that my dad already knew how to be a dad from the beginning. But that’s not the way it works. Life is a confused, complex tapestry. The task isn’t just to carry out an assignment but to figure out what the assignment is, what it means—in short, to figure out who you are and what you must do. Life is a Bildungsroman. And now part of my task was to help this little squirming shivering girl find her way. For thirty-one years I had been like her eyes – occasionally focused but mostly drifting. And now I had to play the part of a shepherd, a leader who knows how to navigate through selfishness, confusion, temptation, and self-doubt and emerge as a mature, virtuous person. What had I gotten myself into?

If I was to be up to the task, I needed to know who she is. But in so many ways she is not-yet. When asking who she is, I am asking what it is like to be her. What are her likes and dislikes, her ambitions, her fears. But so much of that was yet to be decided. It would depend on her experiences. And I am responsible in many ways for the kinds of experiences she is going to have. I am in the business of shaping another human soul even though my own soul is in need of its own discipline. Yet in making her, I find that I am also molding myself – forming myself into someone with a wider arc of sentiments and a more resolute sense of purpose.

But as I was holding Gracie, I knew that she was not a blank slate. She had in place the structures, the powers, and the capacities that form the mystery of human nature – the collective story that makes us all equal and places us in the order of being somewhere between beast and angel. From that first exhausted and exhilarated embrace there was a human being there. But not just a generic human being (whatever that might be). She was a unique, individual person making movements of her own doing, squiggling her arms around in an off-beat jive and scrunching her face into strange contortions.

But what was she thinking? Was she thinking anything? I wanted to know what she was like. Well, that meant: what was it like to be her? What was that interiority like, that first-person experiential standpoint that we call thought or consciousness? I experience only my own consciousness, so that’s all I had to work with in terms of material for trying to piece together what she was like. The problem was that when I think about my own thinking, it is so thoroughly mediated by language. Gracie had a mind built for language. She was primed to go through processes in which she would pick out the phonemes specific to the language spoken by her mom and dad, identify individual words, speak those words, and then string them together in new and creative ways. But she could not yet do this. If my thoughts occur in language and Gracie does not yet have language, then does she have thoughts? Does language express thoughts that were already there, or does it give us thoughts…does it make us into thinking beings?

It is a philosophical question, but it is also an empirical one. According to an excellent book by Charles Fernyhough (The Baby in the Mirror), development psychologists are making some headway on this question. Recent studies are suggesting that infants have several basic building blocks of thought in place. Infants can reason about objects, actions, and spatial relations. Complex cognition involves combining these basic “core knowledge systems” together. It is not totally hard-wired, though, as experience plays a major role in how these systems will interact and develop. According to these studies, language is the highway that connects these basic blocks together. So, there is pre-linguistic thought, but it if we could experience it, it would be something more compartmentalized, choppy, and rudimentary. There was something it was like to be that little newborn in my arms. But I am not sure I could quite fathom it.

Innate “core knowledge systems” sounds a lot like “nature” takes precedence over “nurture.” But another insight from developmental psychology is that human thought develops to a large degree out of social processes. We learn to think by first doing it together. This happens when infants and toddlers struggle together with their parents to solve a puzzle. Then we see them talking out loud to themselves as this social thought makes a transitional move toward interiority until finally we do all of our thinking quietly in our heads. Or, not all of our thinking exactly…adults still talk to themselves out loud when facing a particularly tough challenge. So, Gracie has the structures in place, but she will need my help to get them warmed up and to figure out how they work. I just hope that this basic process of enculturation comes naturally!

Gracie is now nearly eleven months old and just recently we have seen something new bubbling up to the surface. She is constantly pointing to the things around her (especially the glowing Christmas tree) and proclaiming “Bah!” If we ask her where the Christmas tree is, she will turn and point to it and say “Bah!” It seems she has become infected with that human urge to name things – to cut nature at its joints and give each part an ephemeral token of sound that can stand in for the thing itself. The word will help the thing live in memory. It will transform and improve on the thing in imagination. This must be revolutionizing her consciousness, even though she remains that same girl riddled with joy, dispensing spontaneous laughter and eager smiles. Could there be a core personality that will ride out this typhoon of language that is just now beginning to swell on the horizon? I find myself hoping so. She has such a melodious soul, a sing-songy existence that is rooted in a basic enjoyment, a deep satisfaction with the rush of sensations that constitutes life.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

sinterklaas 2008

the big man out here in holland isn't santa claus (or the kerstman as he's known to the dutch), but sinterklaas.

sinterklaas arrives by boat from spain a few weeks before his feast day, which is 5 december. his arrival is always greeted by a parade and parties, a festival known across the country as intocht. during his time in holland, you can go to visit sinterklaas at his "house", and ask him for the many gifts that you'd like to receive while he's in town. children are allowed to set their shoes out by the fireplace (similar to our tradition in the USA of hanging stockings for santa), and in the weeks prior to 5 december, sinterklaas will come to your home now and then and bring you a little cadeautje, or gift. and on 5 december, families across the netherlands gather together to give little presents to each other, read little made-up poems that they wrote about each other, and eat sweet treats like amandelstof (pastry bread with almond paste in the center) or pepernoten (little spiced cookies, like gingersnaps but slightly different).

this being our last year in holland, and because we have a baby who is totally amazing and wonderful, we decided we had better get our butts over to see sinterklaas at his house, which was quite conveniently located right next door. his house here is the little rectory house which is attached to our beautiful cathedral. we really had no excuse not to go!

we stood in line for about an hour, and were kept entertained by the numerous zwartepieten who were there, dancing, handing out balloons and cookies, and playing with the children. there was also a very kind woman, about our age, who was from the area and liked to give us all sorts of advice about where to go shopping or what to expect at the market now that it is the holiday season. she was sweet.

sinterklaas' house is actually the same room where gracie's creche is on sunday mornings, when we go to church. it was neat to see how they had transformed it into a cozy little house, complete with a bed, a living room area, and of course a computer and a ledger so he can keep track of who has been naughty and who has been nice over the year.

once it was gracie's turn, we handed her over to sint himself, and he quietly studied her and let her examine his beard, which was the most mysterious and interesting thing that she has ever seen in her whole life. (gracie, by the way, seems to be fascinated by facial hair. both of her grandpas have hair on their faces, and she loves to play with that!) she didn't cry at all, and was very brave while she sat on his lap and we told sint what a good girl she has been the whole year.

before we left, zwartepiet gave gracie a little gift to take home, and when we got back we set her present by her shoes (which are wooden clogs that we just bought at the gardening store down the street. naturally!). she opened her gift the next morning and found the clogs to be more interesting than the present itself. :-)

a few weeks later, we were in leiden. adam's parents were just here for a nice visit, and we spent a few days travelling through leiden and maastricht before we came back here to hengelo to enjoy the rest of their vacation. bob had mentioned more than once how intruiged he was by this sinterklaas character, and he was hoping that he would have a chance to meet him while he was here. since bob and rae were arriving on 5 december, it was the perfect day to go introduce them to sint. and really, our last chance to do so: by 6 december all the stores are decked out for christmas (like the day after thanksgiving for us in the states -- there's no messing around!), and sinterklaas will have left for spain again already.

i got online before they came out, and discovered that sinterklaas has another house in leiden. of course. because he needs to see all the children of holland before he leaves for the year, so it makes perfect sense that he'd have a house in hengelo AND in leiden! we checked into our hotel, grabbed our coats, and headed out to find the house of sint. we didn't have to look very hard for it, because there was even an advertisement for it on the main street in leiden!

sint's house in leiden is much different than the one here. whereas you stand in line to see sinterklaas in hengelo, in leiden his whole house is one big activity center. it was so much fun! sinterklaas himself greeted us at the door and welcomed us inside, while zwartepieten were running around and playing with the children. there were all sorts of crafts and games set up inside, and if you completed an activity at each station you could get a sticker to put on your little passport that they gave you at the door; complete every activity, and present your stamped passport to piet, and you can get a diploma which makes you an honorary zwartepiet! how fun!

i sure hope we can continue this tradition when we move home to the states. it's a very cozy and fun holiday that the dutch have, and one that i have enjoyed every year that we've been here!


we recently upgraded our internet speed, so that's why i'm all of a sudden able to upload all these videos onto youtube. here's a bunch more of our little doodlebug!

11-15-2008: gracie is chasing her daddy as he holds the camera. the squeaking sound in the background is of the jewelry store downstairs opening their security gate at the beginning of the business day.

11-20-2008: gracie opening a present from sinterklaas. the day before, we had gone to visit sinterklaas at his house here in town. and before we left, zwartepiet gave gracie a little cadeautje. we came home and put her gift by her shoes, which were sitting by the fireplace (like our tradition of hanging the stockings), and the next morning she got to open it up!

11-20-2008: gracie is learning how to walk by pushing our chair across the smooth floors we have in the living room. joan baez is playing in the background. we sure have nice days out here!

11-21-2008: gracie is pooping at breakfast. are we terrible parents for posting it here? she's just so darn cute!

11-22-2008: the poopshiver! we finally caught it on tape! now you all know what i'm talking about when i say that she does this little shiver after she poos! it's so funny!

11-25-2008: adam is working out and gracie is exercising with him. what a very social girl she is!

11-28-2008: gracie and daddy are dancing. gracie likes to sing when she dances with her dad, too. poor adam, he had to leave for a job interview in the USA this very night, and didn't come home until nearly a week later. what a sweet way for gracie to send him off!

Saturday, December 13, 2008


i hope you have a nice cup of tea and are sitting comfortably! here's the latest installment of gracie videos! it's amazing to watch these in order and see how quickly she has gotten so big!

9-15-2008: gracie learning how to crawl. she doesn't quite know how to go forward quite yet, but she's definitely scooching!

9-21-2008: here she is finally up on her hands and knees. it's only a matter of time now before she's off and running!

10-2-2008: okay she's TOTALLY crawling now. but only when she feels like it. so i came in from making dinner in the kitchen and put down something on the floor to entice her to come closer. unfortunately, it was a glass of wine -- i'm a terrible mother! (i just thought that if it was something that she hasn't really seen before, she might be curious and come closer. but it didn't work, which is probably all the better cuz i don't want her drinking alcohol quite yet!)

10-7-2008 here's a video of gracie jumping in her johnny jump-up in the morning. she loves her johnny jump-up! i really should have used it more with her cuz whenever she was in it, she always had a good time. but now she's too big and heavy, so i can't use it anymore. sad! maybe for the next baby, whenever that might be...

10-7-2008: later the same morning: the weather was very mild this autumn, and i was able to have the door open to the garden on nicer mornings like the one in this video. this was about the time when gracie was just learning how to pull herself up onto ledges, etc., and so for a long time her favorite activity was to stand at the door and pick the flowers growing in the cracks by the doorway. she's such a sweet girl!

10-10-2008: gracie is seriously SCREAMlaughing at her daddy! she gets all goofy after dinner, and here she's practically hyperventilating with laughter! listen to how FRANTIC she is! HAAHAAAAHA! i bet you can't watch this video without laughing too! (my cheeks hurt from smiling so much!)

10-18-2008: playing in the window with daddy. here she is doing her "cowgirl" when she's bouncing up and down on her knees!

10-18-2008: gracie helping with the dishes! she LOOOOVES to unload the dishwasher, even if all the dishes are still dirty. she's such a good helper!

10-26-2008: another first! -- it's her first day clapping her hands! SOOOO FUN!!! (i think she's cheering for barack obama, cuz we're watching meet the press and colin powell was endorsing mr. obama for president! yay!)

10-28-2008: gracie knows how to climb up the stairs now. she's so big! this is the first day that she learned how to do it! we were at an aquarium in scheveningen, near the hague.

10-31-2008 gracie is a little grumpy after dinner. normally she's really goofy and playful, but tonight she's just a little sleepy and not really into it.

10-31-2008: gracie has naked butt time before she goes to bed. it's like her favorite time of day EVER! look how she keeps looking behind the mirror for the other baby, and how she has to stop to clap her hands -- but she'll only do it once because she's just too busy moving about to stop to clap!

11-1-2008: in the tubbers singing a song with mama

11-5-2008: when gracie was busy chasing her daddy across the living room. i love how even though she's crawling, she still manages to find a way to STOMP!

11-8-2008: there is a carousel that is usually at the market on saturdays. if gracie is a good girl (which she IS like, ALL the time), then we like to take her for a spin on it before we come home.

11-13-2008: this is one of my favorite videos! gracie learned to climb the stairs and now it's her favorite thing to do. i love her "i'm so proud of me" laugh that she does several times during this video. she also learned to say "hidad" when she's excited, and she says this a couple of times too! the one thing i DON'T like about this video is that she's constantly grinding her teeth -- aargh!

12-2-2008: gracie likes to share! she's feeding me her apples and broccoli from lunch. what a sweetheart!