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Tuesday, February 22, 2005


In the mornings, after I stumble into the shower, Aviva usually comes and sits in a kid-sized chair in the bathroom and I tell her a story through the shower curtain. A long, hot shower in the morning is my most environmentally extravagant luxury -- I brush my teeth and shave in there -- so it's often a long story (though rarely long enough for Aviva, who protests, "but that wasn't a LONG story!")

The stories are usually about Aviva and Elisa, and their adventures, often featuring Noah and Elisa's brother Leander, or Aviva's cousin Seraphina, or Aviva's six children, or the Moon Mole, or characters from the PBS Arthur series, or from Blaui Wunderland.

(Elisa, in case you're just coming in, is my daughter Aviva's best buddy. It was amazing to see them reconnect on our recent trip back to Switzerland. I mean, they're almost- and just-turned-four respectively, they haven't seen each other in a year... and as soon as we got there they went off into Elisa's room and giggled hysterically together for about four hours. Played, talked, tickled and screamed, negotitated all their conflicts themselves, and basically ignored us. Aviva doesn't play with anyone else quite like that. Here they are two years ago).

Recently, the stories have recounted many adventures involving Cereina, Aviva's most headstrong and energetic daughter, and Cereina's best friend Sophie, daughter-doll of Elisa. Sophie is addicted to, and allergic to, Twizzlers ® -- if she eats them, she will sneeze -- and Cereina is committed to use any means necessary to stop her friend from indulging. (Since both are 5th Dan black belts in the kind of karate that lets you leap tens of meters in the air, crash through walls unharmed, leap from balloons onto motorcycles, etc., this often involves long chase scenes. Often they are interrupted in their sparring over the Twizzlers® to have to join forces and rescue siblings in danger, etc.)

Aviva usually contributes quite a bit to the direction of the story, choosing what age everyone is at the time of the story, where the story takes place, the theme, and what should generally happen, correcting certain factual details of life in Oberwil, deciding what course of action Aviva would take in a given circumstance, throwing me random curveballs ("but then a lion came!") and so forth. But she usually insists that I be the one to tell the story. At most, she will be willing to tell a story first in trade, but her stories have usually been like: "Noah went into the street and died and then Aviva saved him and they went home. The End."

This morning, however, Aviva told me a very, very long story.

Some highlights:

  • Elisa was allergic to everything, except people. She called Aviva to help her make pasta that she could eat. She could only eat pasta made of wheat. Aviva was seventeen and knew how to make this pasta

  • A lion and a monster came. The lion ate Aviva and the monster ate Elisa. The lion then got sick. Elisa went to visit (and console?) Aviva in the lion's stomach. The lion's mother gave him people-medicine to make him feel better. Aviva and Elisa escaped the lion: Elisa by crawling out of his mouth, Aviva out his butt.

  • The lion was four, and the monster was a hundred. After Aviva and Elisa's escape, the monster went into the lion's stomach, and the lion got even sicker. He had to go to the hospital for a hundred days.

  • Aviva went into electricity -- first her head, then her whole body. She died and made a new Aviva. The new Aviva's name was Seventeen And A Hundred and she was seventeen and a hundred. (Later the original Aviva was restored, by an unclear process... this particular plotline reminds me of Silver Age Marvel Comics, acutally).

  • Elisa fell in a hole. Aviva jumped into the hole to save her. Then they danced in the hole and had a party, until they were a hundred years old. They went home and their parents said "where were you?" and made them back into thirty. (On questioning, Aviva allowed as how the hole was probably a magic hole).

There was lots more, too.

Posted by benrosen at February 22, 2005 10:42 AM | Up to blog

Aviva's going to grow up to be either a mathematician or a kabbalist. (Or both.)

Posted by: David Moles at February 22, 2005 04:11 PM

(Or a demographer -- if it's only age numbers that she's so fascinated with.)

Posted by: David Moles at February 22, 2005 04:15 PM

Age numbers are central, but it's pretty clear she's using them as a lattice to build, piece by piece, by induction, an entire model of arithmetic.

My theory is that she was initially too young, cognitively in the Piaget sense, to learn arithmetic deductively the way an older kid would (essentially "between any two numbers there exists a fixed interval; adding the interval to the smaller yields the larger; subtracting it from the larger yields the smaller; the intervals can be derived recursively from counting and smaller additions and subtractions").

Instead, Aviva has built up a neural net of arithmetic, narratively, by telling lots of stories of the form "when I am eight and Noah is five and Marie is seven and Goa is six and Daddy is thirty-nine and..."

The neural net initially had lots of funny holes, and didn't expand easily to varying contexts (e.g. she knew how old 3 years older than 16 was, but not necessarily how heavy three pounds heavier than 16lbs was), but now it has grown to where it more or less encompasses a dense set of single-digit addition and subtraction operations on any double-digit number...

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 22, 2005 05:43 PM

Interesting. I think I learned addition and subtraction from Lego, but then my younger sister wasn't born till I was nearly six.

Posted by: David Moles at February 23, 2005 01:03 PM
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