The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

The Golden Compass Father-Son Review

gc

PARTIAL SYNOPSIS (from www.imdb.com)
Lyra Belacqua is an orphan living at Jordan College in the Oxford of an alternate universe. In Lyra’s world every person is accompanied by a daemon, a physical representation of their soul in animal form. Because she is young, Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon can change his shape to appear as any animal he chooses. Adults’ daemons settle into one shape and don’t change.

Lyra overhears a conversation between the master of Jordan College and Fra Pavel, a representative of the powerful and sinister religious body called the Magisterium. They’re discussing an expedition to the far north planned by Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel; he wants to study a mysterious substance called Dust that seems to enter Lyra’s world from parallel universes.

Even before we meet Lyra, boys and girls have been disappearing, snatched off the streets. The children call the kidnappers Gobblers. Lyra and her friend Roger promise one another that if either is caught, the other will come to the rescue. That night, while Lyra is at dinner being introduced to Mrs. Coulter, Roger and another friend, Billy Costa are taken by the Gobblers.

Lyra is taken with her new acquaintance and agrees eagerly when Mrs. Coulter, who is also planning a trip to the far north, proposes that Lyra come along as her assistant. The morning of Lyra’s departure, the master gives her a strange golden instrument called an alethiometer. He tells her that it is capable of telling the truth, but he can’t tell her much about how it works. He admonishes her to keep the alethiometer to herself…

I saw The Golden Compass with my son Connor on opening day after reading the book to him. I promised y’all a dual father-son review at the time, but life intervened. Here it is at last, a few weeks before the DVD release…


THE GOLDEN COMPASS

review by Connor McGowan (12)
connor

I thought the movie was very good, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking, “Why did they skip through that so fast?” and “What happened to that other thing that he took a whole chapter explaining in the book?” After the movie, my dad agreed with me but explained that you can’t fit a book that large and detailed into a two-hour movie and keep it interesting for kids.

I remember thinking the same thing in the first Harry Potter movie. One of my favorite scenes in the book was the potions room in the dungeon, when Hermione solved the task. I was SO MAD when they left that out! But they have to make choices, I guess.

The special effects were just amazing, especially with the snow bears and the daemons. But I didn’t feel the same connection between the daemons and the humans as I did in the book. I wanted my own daemon more than anything.

Overall for me, keeping in mind the limitations of the movie’s director, I liked it enough to see it again. Unfortunately, it did horribly on its opening weekend and there were only a handful of people in the theatre with us.


THE GOLDEN COMPASS

review by Dale McGowan (45)
dale

[NOTE: I’ve reconsidered and rephrased some of these comments in the next post.]

TOP TEN THOUGHTS

10. It’s bloody difficult to make a 2-hour reduction of a book of the scope, depth, and texture of The Golden Compass. That said, they blew it.

9. Despite predictions to the contrary, it is made entirely clear that “the Magisterium” is the church and the Authority is God. The officers look like catholic cardinals, the Magisterium buildings are decorated with saints and icons, Asriel is accused of “heresy,” its opponents are called freethinkers, and Mrs. Coulter refers to the “error of our ancestors” that brought “dust” (sin) into the world. Plenty clear.

8. The human/daemon relationship was made so intensely real in the book that both Connor and I longed for daemons of our own. This was the most remarkable, most brilliant, most emotionally captivating element of the book, yet the movie fails to make daemons anything more than beloved pets.

7. In the book, the witches are thousand-year-old beings, transcendent and wise, with an entirely different perspective on existence, amazing and original seers and sages. In the movie, they fly. That’s about it.

6. I spent the six months prior to the film’s release depressed because I thought chirpy, doe-eyed Dakota Fanning had been cast as Lyra. Turns out it’s Dakota Blue Richards, and she’s PERFECT. Strong, petulant, independent, but also vulnerable and good.

5. The music is absolutely terrible — a combination of overwrought wallpaper (never shuts up) and Mickey Mousing (imitates small visual actions with musical gestures).

4. The bear fight, despite some fine CGI, somehow manages to be a yawner.

3. Sam Elliott is spot-on as Lee Scoresby.

2. Coulter’s monkey is exquisitely creepy and hateworthy.

1. The ending is indescribably, epically, abysmally lame.

Anyone who has not read the book should read it before seeing the movie, then skip the movie. [Fine. That was over-the-top. See the movie.]

LEVITICUS (bookin’ through the bible 10)

[back to ECCLESIASTES and SONG OF SONGS]

smite

Now Moses was very humble—more humble than any other person on earth.
Numbers 12:3
(The traditionally-claimed author of Numbers is, well…Moses)

The wicked man desires the booty of evil men.
Proverbs 12:12

Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, remove the foreskin of your hearts.
Jeremiah 4:4

There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.
Ezekiel 23:20

There are many candidates for funniest verse in the Bible, but for me there’s a clear winner—and it’s found, surprisingly enough, in Leviticus, the least funny book of the Bible:

If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death.
Leviticus 24:17

During the ethics portion of my half-day nonreligious parenting seminar, and in a previous post, I talk about what I call “boiling-pot parenting”—the notion that our children are, at root, boiling pots of depravity, and that our foremost occupation as parents is sitting hard on their lids lest their naturally sinful natures o’erflow.

I quote Christian parenting author Reb Bradley who warns that “all children are born delinquent….Given free reign to their impulsive actions to satisfy each want, every child would grow up a criminal, a killer, a thief, and a rapist.” I mention The Lord of the Flies, a novel that convincingly plays out Bradley’s nightmares.

I then make what I hope is a convincing case that this is all rather silly and thoroughly unsupported by the best research in the social and developmental sciences.

Leviticus (“of the Levites”) is the book of the Bible that most directly reflects the boiling pot mindset. And though it’s tempting to lay the blame at the foot of Leviticus, that would be silly, too. The Bible didn’t create this mindset any more than it created self-delusion, self-contradiction, bigotry and fear. These are far more ancient and basic human frailties of which the Bible is merely a potent reflection, a handy place to go when we need to feel good about our lazy inability to do any better than ignorant Bronze Age goatherds.

Because I’ve come to see Leviticus as a reflection of our fears rather than the inspiration for them, it doesn’t get under my skin anymore. It’s fascinating anthropology. The fear of disorder—the absolute terror that the second law of thermodynamics governs human life as well as the physical world—is at the root of all Abrahamic religion. We’re all hurtling toward a cliff every second of our lives, says the Salvationist, with Sin leaning on the accelerator. That’s why Leviticus, the “morality” chapter in the OT, is not a steering wheel but an emergency brake. Don’t do X, never do Y, watch out for Z. Leviticus boils down to this idea: Follow God’s rules or die.

And such rules! There are rules for the wringing off of pigeon heads, precise instructions for the killing, burning, distribution, cutting, and “heaving” of animal sacrifices, for the all-important “waving” of the entrails, for the girding of men with “curious girdles.” There are rules for allowing fields to lie fallow and for washing pots, cautions against mixing this and that—different grains, different threads, same genders, the sacred and the profane. Don’t touch a menstruating woman. Don’t think an impure thought. And if you do… If you do… (Damn. What should we say?) I’ve got it! An invisible and quite powerful force will smite you.

No, that’s not exactly right, is it. One of the things I find most curious about Leviticus is that God is telling the people to do the smiting. He’s quite busy, granted, but I can’t help thinking it strange. Why bother with intermediaries? How much more efficient it would be if God would simply set things up so the scores of capital crimes in the bible are rewarded with a nice, sudden aortic rupture. Imagine Hitler crumpling on the spot before he quite got the order to invade Poland out of his mouth. Imagine how many children would have been spared if the first child-abusing priest had keeled over, pants around his ankles, as a warning to the others. Imagine all the disobedient children, astrologers, seed-spillers, marriers of their wives’ mothers, every one of them dropped where they stand. Instead, this weird system of intermediaries. I’m sure there’s a reason.

Leviticus is often maligned for its clear and happy endorsement of slavery. But dig deep enough—granted, you’ll need a big, big shovel—and there’s a hint of moral progress here. The Israelite is instructed to treat all Israelite slaves generously: “You must not rule over him ruthlessly,” and he must be released before the periodic “Jubilee year.” A miracle of progressive thinking.

You quickly note the obvious flipside—that non-Israelite slaves are designated as property “for all time” and can be treated however you like—that this is just bigotry compounded by distinguishing between those worthy of mercy (those most like one’s self) and all others. Give me a break. I’m digging for gold under a latrine here.

The book ends with an epic speech by Jehovah in which he promises bad juju if the rules are broken:

If you reject My laws and spurn My rules … I will wreak misery upon you … you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it … I will break your proud glory. I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper. … I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins. I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children … though you eat, you shall not be satisfied … your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin …

And then some stuff about taxes.

Leviticus is an early attempt to impose the order of rules on the perceived chaos of the human condition, to articulate a workable morality. In the absence of systematic evidence, we were feeling our way forward, trying to come up with rules to live by, trying to avoid screwing up—an activity in the midst of which we generally screw up far worse.

And there’s the human comedy for ya.

Far less forgivable to me is the fact that anyone in the 21st century—anyone with access to the knowledge and insight and history these guys didn’t have—still finds a single scrap of Leviticus good for anything beyond cultural anthropology. And the occasion chortle.

UP NEXT
April 3: Deuteronomy

Believers on Deuteronomy
Skeptics on Deuteronomy
Slate blog on Deuteronomy

[forward to DEUTERONOMY]

awakenings!

fawn

Doe! — H. Simpson

Those of you who visit regularly — and hey, thanks for that, by the way — surely noticed a drop in activity at the Meming of Life in recent weeks. I found myself awash in 2 much 2 do: the webinars, the seminars, working on the follow-up book for Parenting Beyond Belief, finishing enormous freelance projects for the clients who feed my children, researching a proposal for a third book, and more. Oh, like parenting. Heh.

I’m emerging from it now, gradually. As a result, the Meming of Life is reawakening, blinking in the bright light of the Internet like a spring fawn. Stick that freakin light, says wee blinking fawn.

What to expect:

    I’ll be back to a regular posting schedule of twice a week, usually Monday and Thursday.

    The serialization of my occasionally humorous death-obsessed secular travel narrative Northing at Midlife is back on track. The current post is the end of chapter three and the Cotswold Way, after which we head into the north of England and the Coast-to-Coast Walk, where I nearly or actually die, I won’t tell you which.

    I’ll put some new links into Ten Wonderfull Things very shortly.

    The next installment of Bookin’ through the Bible will go up later this week. Leviticus, uh…woohoo!

    I’ll also continue the Laughing Matters series, trying ever so hard to remember my original point.

    I’ll share the single weirdest and most thought-provoking statistic I have ever heard.

    I’ll fill y’all in on how the seminar tour is going (pretty darn well, and getting better all the time) and share some of the content, as well as the joys and silliness of life on the road.

    I’ll bring you up-to-date on the next book, which has just been titled–and hey, titled well!

Several recent fun facts indicate that nonreligious parenting continues to grow and flourish around the country:

    1. Parenting Beyond Belief has climbed in Amazon sales again, recently rising to 2400–the top one-tenth of one percent, and even higher than it opened nearly one year ago. It is (at this writing) once again the #1 Parenting Reference on Amazon and #2 in Parenting Education;

    2. Several nonreligious parenting groups and humanist children’s programs have formed in recent months around the country, including Portland OR, Albuquerque NM, Raleigh NC, Palo Alto CA, and New York City;

    3. Each month since last September, this website has logged thousands more visitors than the previous month. Yesterday the PBB site had over 1400 visitors –the most ever in a single day;

    4. I’ve begun to get a steady trickle of unintentionally funny emails from fundamentalists.

So I’m back in the saddle as we head for the one year anniversary on April 9. Happy spring, you secular parents you.

the gregory walsh interview

I’m sitting in the Albuquerque airport Easter morning after a really lovely visit with folks from the Humanist Society of New Mexico. Spoke to the chapter meeting, sold some books, gave the seminar, had a great dinner in the gorgeous home of the chapter president with a painfully beautiful view of the Sandia Mountains.

sandias

As nice as the trip has been, I’m awfully glad I won’t be winding through another airport security line for five weeks.

Several trips back, after speaking at the Center for Inquiry in DC, I sat down for an interview with Gregory Walsh, a filmmaker working on a documentary about religious disbelief in America. Greg did quite a nice job editing me into coherence:

The ‘Out’ Parent: column by Noell Hyman (Agnostic Mom)


The “Out” Parent

guest column by Noell Hyman

outofcloset

This column also appears in the March 19 issue of Humanist Network News.
________________

I walked into my child’s preschool one day right before class was to let out. There was a lobby full of parents and one of them raised her voice above the crowd to say to me, “I noticed your license plate says AGMOM. What does that mean?”

Those of you who have read my articles or blog will recognize it as my blog name, Agnostic Mom. While most of my friends know about this, it wasn’t something I wanted to shout across a crowded room of parents at my child’s preschool. Yet there they all were, staring at me, curious.

I had figured out an evasive strategy for these types of situations. It goes like this. 1) Give a vague, answer, like “Oh, it’s just a blog name I used to use.” 2) Immediately change the subject. For example, “What are the kids doing? I was so worried I’d be late today because I was…”

My strategy, which I only used in the most threatening situations, seemed to work until the principal of my older children’s elementary school took notice of the plates. Thanks to my state’s Open Enrollment policy, my kids attend a progressive public school that is outside of our district. But don’t get the wrong idea. The school is progressive by Mormon-dominated Mesa, Arizona standards, and most of the students are Mormon or active in some other Christian religion.

As I was dropping my kids off at the front of the school one morning, the principal, always happy and enthusiastic, swung the car door open for the kids to get out and asked me, “What does AGMOM mean?”

I gave my usual “blog name” response, but before I could move on to strategy step number two he persisted, “But what does the AG stand for?”

I had one of those moments where the world somehow pauses for you while a page worth of thoughts and images swim through your mind. This is the argument happening in my mind during that moment:

He can easily kick my kids out of this school or not allow them back next year.

Yeah, but he’s progressive and liberal in his philosophies.

Progressive or not, he’s a Mormon and a believer.

But he has filled the school with non-Mormon teachers…he’s got a reputation for openness.

I blurted it out, “It means Agnostic Mom.”

He got a look on his face that suggested a realization he had probed in the wrong place; as if to say, “Sorry for making you answer that. It’s really not my business.”

He waved goodbye, and immediately the librarian stopped me to say hi. “What does your license plate mean?”

I couldn’t believe it. Twice within a minute? But the worst was done. The man with the power to end the type of education that is perfect for my children already knows what it means. Nothing else matters now.

“It means Agnostic Mom,” I said, and flashed the librarian a big smile.

Surprised, he let me go, and life has continued as usual. My children were accepted to return to the school next year and even my preschooler will get to start in August for kindergarten.

While Arizona is conservative, the state leans libertarian. Even most Mormons follow a “Live and Let Live” mentality. Things might have gone differently if we were living in Kansas, a part of the less-tolerant Bible-Belt where I finished high school. But after five years of telling people I’m atheist or agnostic (whichever term I feel like using at the time) I have not lost a friend and neither have my children. They have chosen to be open about not believing in gods, as well.

Once in a while there is even a surprise response. Like the time my daughter replied to a cafeteria discussion of Jesus with, “I don’t believe in Jesus.” Her closest friend, whose mother I befriended more than two years prior, answered, “I don’t either.”

In all those play dates when we swapped ideas on vegetarianism, environmentalism, travel and arts, religion never came into our minds. I had no idea. So when my daughter told me her story, I called and the mother was just as surprised and delighted as I was.

Then last week, my washer repairman asked me what my license plate means and I told him, “Agnostic Mom.”

A smile grew on his face and he practically shouted, “You don’t believe in god?” I laughed, “No.” And suddenly he wouldn’t stop talking, like I was the first person in years he could share his stories with.

I can’t think of a circumstance now where I wouldn’t feel comfortable answering a question about my license plate. Venturing into that territory has been a positive thing for me. Introducing believers to a happy godless person is a positive thing for everyone.
____________________________
noellandaiden

Noell Hyman (pictured with son Aiden) is a stay-at-home mom of three children, living in Mesa, Arizona. The once-blogger for AgnosticMom.com, was a regular columnist for Humanist Network News. She is the author of two articles in Parenting Beyond Belief. She now blogs and podcasts on her favorite subject, which is the visual art of story-telling through scrapbooking. Visit Noell at Agnostic Mom or at Paperclipping.

wondrous strange

The only solid piece of scientific truth about which I feel totally confident is that we are profoundly ignorant about nature… It is this sudden confrontation with the depth and scope of ignorance that represents the most significant contribution of twentieth-century science to the human intellect.
Lewis Thomas

Connor (12) was studying for a science quiz on cells, muttering about eukaryotes and pseudopods and such, like it was the driest of all possible subjects. Life…*yawn*

I was working on a way to liven it up for him when I realized, to my amazement, that I had never shared with him (or with you, as far as I remember) one of my favorite science videos. It’s an award-winning computer animation of the internal workings of a single white blood cell, animated by the good folks at Xvivo:

Connor lit up like a, like a…like a seventh grader who suddenly found his homework interesting.

Well…more interesting, anyway.
_________________________
[N.B. Great book with the same effect: Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher]

EyePlejjaleejins

Yesterday I read through a parenting book called How to Raise an American. The book is full of helpful advice for raising children with an unthinking allegiance to the nation of your choice. This one is pitched at the United States, but the techniques described will work equally well — and have worked equally well — to produce unquestioning loyalty to almost any political entity. Lithuanian, are you? Just change the relevant facts, dates and flags, and this book will help you create a saluting servant of Lithuania, singing the National Hymn with pride:

Lithuania, my homeland, land of heroes!
Let your Sons draw strength from the past.
Let your children follow only the paths of virtue,
working for the good of their native land and for all mankind.

(To foster an even higher degree of rabid Lithumania, leave out the part about ‘all mankind.’ Pfft.)

It goes without saying that the same techniques promoted in this book fostered unthinking allegiance to Germany in the 1930s, China in the 1950s, and probably Genghis Khan in the 1220s, for that matter. These are irrelevant, of course, because we are very, very good and they were all very, very bad.

All the same, I’d prefer my kids forgo unthinking allegiance in favor of thoughtful critical engagement. That way, if our nation ever did do something bad — hypothetically, campers, hypothetically — my kids would be in a position to challenge the bad thing, though all around them salute and sing.

It’s Kohlberg’s sixth and highest level of moral development — to be guided by universal principle, even at a high personal cost, to do what’s right instead of what is popular, patriotic, or otherwise rewarded by those around you.

EyePlejjaleejins

During her after-school snack several weeks ago, Delaney (6) asked, “What does ‘liberty’ mean?”

I realized right away why she would ask about ‘liberty’ and was once again ashamed of myself in comparison to my kids. I don’t think I pondered the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance until I was well into middle school. When I was her age, I’m certain that I thought “EyePlejjaleejins” was one word that meant something like “Hey, look at the flag.” I certainly didn’t know I was promising undying loyalty to something.

“Liberty means freedom,” I said. “I means being free to do what you want as long as you don’t hurt someone else.”

“Oh, okay.” Pause. “What about ‘justice’?”

“Justice means fairness. If there is justice, it means everybody gets treated in a fair way.”

“Oh! So when we say ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ it means ‘everybody should be free and everybody should be fair.'”

“That’s the idea.”

“Hmm,” she said. “I like that.”

I like it too. A fine, fine idea. I also like the idea that the next time Laney said the Pledge, she had a little more knowledge of just what she was pledging her allegiance to.

There’s an email that circulates quite a bit during the times we are asked to stand united against [INSERT IMPLACABLE ENEMY HERE] — the text of a speech by the comedian Red Skelton in which he recounts the words of an early teacher of his. The teacher had supposedly noticed the students going through the rote recitation of the pledge and decided to explain, word for word, what it meant:

It would have been interesting, even instructive, if Skelton had held up a photo of himself and his class saluting the flag, which for the first 50 years was done like so:

bellamy salute

This gesture was replaced with the hand-over-heart, for some reason, in 1942.

Delivered in 1969, Skelton’s piece is a bit saccharine in the old style, of course. And I’ll refrain from answering his rhetorical question at the end, heh. But the idea itself — of wanting kids to understand what they are saying — I’m entirely in favor of that.

Getting kids to understand what the pledge means solves one of the four issues I have with the Pledge of Allegiance. There is the “under God” clause, of course (which the Ninth Circuit court essentially called a constitutional no-brainer before wimping out on procedural grounds) — but that’s the least of my concerns.

Far worse is the fact that it is mandated, either by law, policy, or social pressure. No one of any age should be placed in a situation where a loyalty oath is extracted by force, subtle or otherwise.

Worse than that is something I had never considered before I heard it spelled out by Unitarian Universalist minister (and Parenting Beyond Belief contributor) Kendyl Gibbons several years ago, at the onset of the latest Iraq War, in a brilliant sermon titled “Why I’m Not Saying the Pledge of Allegiance Anymore.” At one point she noted how important integrity is to humanism:

One of the most basic obligations that I learned growing up as a humanist was to guard the integrity of my given word. Who and what I am as a human being is not predicated on the role assigned to me by a supernatural creator; neither am I merely a cog in the pre-ordained workings of some cosmic machine. Rather, I am what I say I am; I am the loyalties I give, the promises I keep, the values I affirm, the covenants by which I undertake to live. To give my loyalties carelessly, to bespeak commitments casually, is to throw away the integrity that defines me, that helps me to live in wholeness and to cherish the unique worth and dignity of myself as a person….We had better mean what we solemnly, publicly say and sign.

And then, the central issue — that the pledge is to a flag, when in fact it should be to principles, to values. One hopes that the flag stands for these things, but it’s too easy for prcinples to slip and slide behind a symbol. A swastika symbolized universal harmony in ancient Buddhist and Hindu iconography, then something quite different in Germany of the 1930s and 40s. Better to pledge allegiance to universal harmony than to the drifting swastika.

The same is true of a flag — any flag. Here’s Kendyl again:

I will not give my allegiance to a flag; it is too flimsy a thing, in good times or in bad; if it is even a symbol for the values I most cherish, that is only because of the sacrifices that others have made in its name. I will not commit the idolatry of mistaking the flag for the nation, or the nation for the ideals. Yet I must find an abiding place for my loyalty, lest it evaporate into the mist of disincarnate values, powerless to give any shape to the real lives that we live in the real world. Therefore my allegiance is to my country as an expression of its ideals.

To the extent that the republic for which our flag stands is faithful to the premises of its founding and to the practices that have evolved over two centuries to safeguard our freedoms and equal justice, it has my loyalty, my devotion, even my pride. But to the extent that it is a finite and imperfect expression of the ideals to which my allegiance is ultimately given, to the extent that it falls into deceit and self-deception, into arrogance and coercion and violence, into self-serving secrecy and double standards of justice, to that extent my loyalty must take the form of protest, and my devotion must be expressed in dissent.

It remains to this day one of the most eloquent and powerful speeches I have ever heard. And it continues to motivate me to raise children who pledge their allegiance conditionally rather than blindly. That will make their eventual allegiances all the more meaningful.

The complete text of Kendyl’s talk is here.

syawedis gnikniht

I’ve recently posted a screed or two about the overscripting of our kids’ time and the tendency to spend too much of it in front of screens. It was pure poetic justice that led me to the exception to the rule: a scripted screen activity that’s an invitation to fantastically creative divergent thinking.

Called The Impossible Quiz, it’s a thinking-outside-of-the-box quiz that “asks” 110 multiple-choice “questions” like the one above. The fact that I have to put both “ask” and “question” in quotes gives you some idea of the lunacy of this thing. By the end — as if you’ll ever reach it — you’ll be forced to think outside of more boxes than you knew you were in.

boggy

Hugely recommended for a certain brand of 12-year-old (e.g., my son, who’s well into his second hour right now) and up.

Play The Impossible Quiz
Play The Impossible Quiz 2

yakety yak

rll

By the time our children are of school age, we take their talk for granted. We have turned all our attention to their reading and writing, not realizing that talk is still the motor that drives their intellectual development.
–from Raising Lifelong Learners by Lucy Calkins

One of my favorite things about dadding this family is the five-way dinner conversation. Becca and I recently realized how rare it is that the five of us are NOT together for dinner — maybe half a dozen times a year, if that. I don’t think having dinner together is the magic bullet so many soc-sci pundits currently make it out to be — more likely a co-variable for some other good things — but it is, without a doubt, the best possible opportunity to talk. And boy do we.

As Lucy Calkins points out in her fabulous, simple, sensible book Raising Lifelong Learners,

Just sitting at the table to share a family dinner in no way guarantees shared conversation. Frequently the rule, unspoken or not, is that adults talk only to each other. Children are expected to carry on their own separate conversation or to just be quiet. It makes all the difference in the world if children and parents expect that conversations will be shared. This means that when I talk with my husband about my work at Teachers College, one of my sons will invariably interrupt with questions. “What do you mean the cost of benefits is going up? What are benefits?”

This happens in our family all the time, but it wasn’t until Calkins drew my attention to it that it registered as something special. Our family conversations are completely integrated, which gives the kids access to topics they’d otherwise never intersect. It surely helps them see themselves as more actively connected to the world around them. Sure, Becca and I have our private conversations, but we either remove ourselves from the throng or just raise a finger at the first question and say, “This is Mom and Dad’s time.” More often, though, they are welcome to listen in, and find themselves privy to many topics that adults might often think would be uninteresting to them.

So I love our dinner talk. You never know where it’ll start or go. One of the five of us will throw a topic in the air like a jump ball and all the rest leap at it. It’s fantastic. I just adore it. I’ve written before about breaking down walls between domains of knowledge for kids — like our family’s “open shelf policy” — and our dinner table is a good example. No separate adult and kid conversations. Everybody’s in, age 6 to 45.

In The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease notes that the average American adult spends 6 hours a week shopping and 30 hours a week (!) watching television, but one-on-one conversation in homes between parents and their school-age kids averages less than ten minutes per parent per day.

Calkins points to oral language as the foundation of all literacy, and conversation in the home as the best possible catalyst for its development. Don’t look to school to develop it — as researcher Gordon Wells learned, kids engage in even less conversation with an adult in a given school day than at home, and what interactions there are tend to be narrow and scripted. Most of the time, teachers (for understandable reasons) are trying to get kids to STOP talking.

Last night it started with reggae. I decided we really need some around the house. Erin asked what it sounds like, and I did a few bars of Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” That led to Bob Marley, then to the Rastafari movement and the whole extremely weird Haile Selassie connection, which, if you don’t know about it, enjoy. Connor mentioned dreadlocks, then asked if Marley was still alive.

“No,” I said. “He died when he was 36.”

“What from?”

“Cancer,” I said, “sort of.” He really died of religion, but why go there.

“How can you sort of die of cancer!”

“Well…” Oh fine. “A cancer developed in his toe. He could have had the toe amputated and been fine. But Rastafarians believe you should never cut a part of your body away, or you give up eternal life. So he refused the surgery, and the cancer spread to his brain and liver and killed him.”

We chewed on that in silence for awhile, then Becca said something about an article she read yesterday about steroids in sports.

“That’s the drug that made that wrestler-guy kill his family, isn’t it?” Connor asked.

“Oh. Chris Benoit,” I said. Turns out it wasn’t actually steroids, though they thought that at first. Severely brain-damaged from years of concussions, Benoit killed his wife and son and hanged himself, not 40 miles from here. Becca explained that his head injuries from wrestling had made his brain stop working right, which made him do this terrible thing.

Now some might reasonably flinch at cancer, amputation, performance-enhancing drugs, murder, and suicide as dinnertime chat for children. It’s just as often puppies and butterflies, I promise. But on this particular night, we wandered into some unusually dark spaces. My kids will ride any conversational wave that comes along, and I think their worldview and points of reference will be all the more rich and diverse for it.

So where were we? Oh yeah — Chris Benoit going crazy and killing his family.

Suddenly, six-year-old Delaney’s eyes widened, and she burst out, “HEY! That’s just like that hero!!”

“What?” I said. “What hero?”

“The hero! In the myth! Hercules! The one who killed his wife and children because the goddess put madness in his mind.”

For ten full seconds I had no idea what she was talking about. Then I remembered: About a month ago, we read a strange episode in the life of Hercules, one I always forget about. Juno, queen of the gods and wife of Jupiter, always hated Hercules, the offspring of one of Jupiter’s affairs. So she placed a temporary madness in the mind of Hercules, during which he killed his family. He was horrified and spent the rest of his life in search of repentance.

I showered her with my amazement. She had made a connection between a Roman myth and current events — not the first time she’s made that sort of link.

I can’t wait to see what’s for supper tonight.