Tag Archives | humor

Some thoughts about language learning


1. It’s difficult.

Learning a new language has a certain romantic appeal – like, for example, living abroad. But the dreaminess disappears quickly.

I have dedicated a part of every day for the last eight months to language learning (and have committed over 1200 German words to memory), and today at the hair salon I could not say, “longer on top, shorter on the sides.” My stylist simply smiled and then gave me the haircut she thought I needed.

2. Immersion is probably the way to go.

Before leaving the U.S. I asked a brother in law who teaches German literature at a state university for his opinion about the best way to learn German, and he said, “Take a 2-3 week immersion class, and you’ll be speaking passable German by the time you’re finished.” (He was actually thinking, “You wouldn’t get a passing grade from me, but you would know how to get a haircut.”)

My once-per-week language class, supplemented by an online course, the car radio, and a daily German-language newspaper (the tabloid most Swiss do not admit to reading), are not enough. I have clearly chosen the longer, more difficult route.

3. The locals do not help.

There are really two issues here. One is that as soon as my American identity becomes clear – usually in the first three seconds after meeting someone – the Swiss person I’m talking to will switch immediately to flawless English. And so ends my opportunity to practice.

The other issue is that the Swiss really prefer to speak Swiss German, not the more widely known German language I am learning. I have listened to conversations on the train, expecting to understand a little of what is being said, only to realize that the conversation is not actually in German. This other dialect is the tribal tongue of the Swiss, and it’s one way to maintain an identity distinct from the Germans to the north who – how do I put this? – are not held in high regard.

4. In spite of #3, the Swiss really like it that I am trying to learn.

Maybe it gives them pleasure to see an American struggle. I’m sure that’s part of it. But mostly I think they value the attempt I am making to integrate within Swiss culture. Members of my church regularly tell me – in English – how glad they are that I am learning the language.

5. Spiritually speaking, language learning is an exercise in humility.

And I thought I was humble enough before I started.

(Photo: I’ve never had so many options for walking the dog.)

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I don’t go to church much anymore


I don’t go to church much anymore, and haven’t attended regularly since 1980, when I stopped being a church member altogether.

I have mostly good memories of going to church, but for most of my adult life I have worked on Sundays.

So, occasionally – on vacation, for example – I’ll wake up on Sunday and think about going to church. But going to church sure seems a lot harder than it used to be.

For one thing, going to church means getting up and getting out of the house on a day off. I had thought about hiking one of western Michigan’s many scenic trails this morning with my brand-new hiking boots, which I’m really excited about, but instead I showered and got dressed.

Next, there was deciding what to wear.

Really, what do people wear to church these days? I haven’t gone to church in such a long time that I haven’t had to think about the question. In the end I opted for shorts, but almost immediately felt uncomfortable, even though most of the other men, as it turned out, were also wearing shorts.

My mom and dad used to say that I should dress for church the way I would dress to go to the White House and meet the President. In older adulthood, apparently, I have a hard time not following that direction.

Singing was also much harder than I expected. I love to sing, but I should point out that loving to sing is different from singing well. It would be more accurate to write that I love to sing when no one, except maybe God and my granddaughter, can hear me.

I knew the first hymn – “Be Thou My Vision” – and started singing it enthusiastically, as though for God’s and my granddaughter’s enjoyment, only to discover that no one around me was singing. Not a single person. For a couple of stanzas I tried to create some musical excitement around me, but finally gave up when a couple of people turned around to find out what the croaking toad behind them looked like.

And then there was the message.

Now, I know a little about the degree of difficulty involved in preaching, so I was willing to give a lot of bonus points for sincerity and effort and conviction. But not even a lot of sincerity and effort and conviction can make listening bearable for 25 minutes.

I thought about leaving during the last hymn, but noticed that a large group near me was already doing that. Maybe they were late for their brunch reservations. Instead, I decided – heroically – to stay all the way through the Benediction.

Will I be going to church next Sunday? I think so. I have a whole new level of respect for those who do it.

(Photo: That’s the inside of a church in Lucerne, Switzerland.)

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Should there be a “mercy rule” in football?

the two popes (I posted this first to my Facebook page and started such a good conversation that I decided to post it here as well. The photo shows the two popes deep in prayer about, I’m sure, the upcoming match on Sunday night, and Francis looks a lot more confident than Benedict.)

I watched it, and I enjoyed it. I admit it.

I hurried home last night from – ironically – a meeting at church and turned on the television just in time to see Germany score its second goal in the World Cup semi-final match with Brazil.

I didn’t intend to watch more, because it was late and I had to get up early, but then I saw the Germans score another goal. And then another. And another. And soon the match was out of reach.

But still I couldn’t look away.

Was that a grown man weeping on the sidelines? Yes! Obviously I would have to stay up and watch the entire second half too. I wanted to see more weeping Brazilians.

Which raises the question: Should there be a ‘mercy rule’ in football?

When my daughters played the sport years ago, I seem to remember something called a ‘mercy rule.’ If the other team had a 10-goal lead, or whatever, the game was over. Or maybe they just stopped keeping score. In any case, there was this rule, which grew out of a sense of decency and fair play and sportsmanship.

I once broke my arm in a high school football game (the other kind of football) and ran off the field, thinking I was done for the day and possibly for the season. But my coach, apparently not seeing the odd way my wrist was dangling off the end of my arm, sent me back on the field. When I failed to make a tackle on the very next play, he took me out – not because of my badly broken arm, but because of my ineffectiveness on the previous play.

So, the lessons I learned playing sports didn’t have much to do with team work and the value of practice and so on. The lessons I learned had much more to do with winning – winning as impressively as possible and even winning at any cost.

There’s a shadow side to sports, and I felt it last night.

I watched not because the game was so good – it wasn’t – but because it was so awful that I couldn’t look away.

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A little cross-cultural stereotyping

Swiss cultural stereotypes

You would think that cultural stereotyping would be a problem for a multi-cultural church. And you would be wrong.

The truth is, we kind of like doing it. And we do it a lot.

I’ve been wondering why a church that is as racially and ethnically diverse as any in the world does so well at being the church, and I don’t yet have anything like a definitive answer, but I am a little intrigued by how many assumptions we make about each other and how much fun it (usually) is.

Just to give a definition to what I’m talking about, stereotyping occurs when we make generalizations about groups or classes of people: Fire fighters, for example, are courageous. Everyone knows that. Blonds, on the other hand, are less intelligent than the rest of the population. Everyone seems to know that too. Italians, meanwhile, are loud. Or great lovers, if you ask them.

Fun, right? And mostly it is, until the generalization begins to feel uncomfortable. My blog post soon after my arrival about how the Swiss are überpünktlich (over punctual) might have been a bit too soon. They are, but maybe I should have waited a while before commenting about it.

How American of me.

I’ve never been so self-conscious about being American, and mostly I’m self-conscious because I fit the stereotype of Americans so well. I’m very friendly and outgoing when I meet someone new, for example, which tends to make the Swiss feel cautious and suspicious. I know now that they see me as superficial and disingenuous, although secretly they would like to be more like me.

And then there’s my Dutch connection. My grandparents were born in the Netherlands and immigrated to the U.S. at least a hundred years ago. I have Dutch features and a Dutch name, I look like someone from a Frans Hals (or Adriaen Brouwer) painting, even though I am a thoroughly assimilated U.S. citizen.

Still, I see myself in the Dutch. I am tall and sturdy (I was taught to say “big boned”). I love tulips and that cheese with an unpronounceable name (never say “goo-dah” to the Dutch). I own a pair of wooden shoes, and like most Dutch I own an impressive bicycle (designed, I’m sure, by leading scientists and made of space-age materials) that never leaves the shed.

And I haven’t even gotten to the Chinese, Koreans, Indians, South Africans, Germans, British, Swiss, and a host of others – how others see them, and (more scary) how they see me.

We do this regularly and often, this game of stereotyping, and mostly I think it’s harmless fun. We seem to learn about each other by making jokes and teasing each other. We seem to know, at least I hope we do, that it’s all in good fun, that there are many exceptions to the “rules,” and that most generalizations are also exaggerations.

And then there are times when I think maybe we have gone too far, that we have had a laugh at the expense of another, that our humor has become hurtful. But those times seem few and far between.

Mostly – I would say miraculously – we get along.

(Photo: We might call that a cultural stereotype, but a positive one. )


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Preacher as scout

swiss flag in fog

Is it ever okay to sound less than confident when preaching?

I ask not because I’ve been feeling confused lately about what I believe. I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that.

I ask because of a joke I told that started me thinking.

Here’s what happened: I gave a presentation this week before a group of pastors and worship leaders titled “Top 5 Reasons Multi-Cultural Churches Flourish.” At the beginning, in an unscripted, ad-lib sort of way, I said, “I’m still new to my congregation in Zurich, so these are my initial observations, always subject to revision. But because I’m a preacher, I’m going to say them with full conviction anyway.”

I was surprised by the amount of laughter the joke received, but later (as I often do) I started to wonder about it. Were they laughing because everyone knows how confident preachers sound about whatever they happen to be saying? I suppose the joke works only if it’s heard that way, but the enthusiastic response, I have to say, was unnerving to me.

People must notice how cocksure we preachers can be, and they must wonder how that’s possible, not just with the big things, but with the little ones too.

If preachers were occasionally hesitant or unsure about something, wouldn’t it be okay if they said so, acknowledged with honesty and humility that they were still sorting it out, still trying to understand with greater clarity?

I’m pretty sure I would not want a preacher who aired her doubts and misgivings about Christian faith in the Sunday message. I have something different in mind here.

Some years ago I read that a preacher is like a scout who has been called and trained to go ahead and peer into the fog, reporting back what she has seen and heard. Such a preacher presents herself to the congregation as a fellow traveler, but one who has a special responsibility to look ahead, to figure things out.

I have always liked that image. It invites the hearers to join the journey and be part of the conversation. The downside, I suppose, is that a hesitant scout doesn’t inspire much confidence. “This is what I think right now, but you never know what might happen tomorrow.”

I might look for a new scout.

Just so you know: I don’t spend much time re-thinking the historic creeds and doctrines of the church. God created the heavens and the earth? Not a problem for me. But I do wonder sometimes about a few of his creatures. What was he thinking?

Is it okay to say that?

(Maybe you’ve notice a little tweaking to the home page. Doug’s Blog has been added to the CC Blogs Community, and I’m proud to be listed. Several friends are already there. Click on the icon and take a look. And then there’s the revamped Doug’s Books page. I didn’t expect to sell a lot of my books through the blog, but I did expect to let people know what I’ve written. The re-design helps. Thanks to Chris at the Blog Designers!)

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An update on language learning

learn german!

So, yes, life in Switzerland. An update.

A couple of younger women who live in the flat – I mean, apartment – below ours just asked if they could take our dog, Sammi, for a run or jog tonight. Through hand signals and making gestures on the wall, they indicated they would have the dog back in an hour. Nine o’clock, they said emphatically.

I’m reasonably certain that’s what they communicated. It took a while to establish that much.

So, I just handed them the leash and felt like a parent letting a child go on a date. It was hard to know what was happening because my German was better than their English. And trust me that that’s a frightening situation.

The women seemed nice. But then so did the boys who dated my daughters. I trusted them about as much.

I introduced myself as “Douglas,” because “Doug” for some reason always produces puzzled looks. But in response to “Douglas,” the younger one said, “Oh, Michael Douglas.”

And I thought, “Okay, isn’t he like 70 years old or something? Do I really look that old to you?” Not wanting to know the answer to that question, I returned our attention to the dog.

And I said with an excited look, “Wir gehen nach Berlin…eine Woche.”  Which, roughly translated, means “We’re going to Berlin … for a week!” I was hoping they would express interest in taking the dog while we were away, and – oh my! – they seemed to understand and said, “Ja!” The younger one said something about having “flexible hours,” but she could have meant something else entirely. I’m not sure.

You can’t imagine how good it feels to make a connection like this, to speak to other people in an utterly alien tongue, and to have someone say, “Ja,” as though that person understands completely, even when it’s not clear that she does.

I’m making progress. Even my language teacher agrees. She teaches six year olds during the day, and tonight she said to me – in English, of course – “You’re really doing well,” thinking maybe that I couldn’t handle that complicated sentence in German.

I felt prouder than I have since first grade, when Mrs. Myer told me that I had mostly mastered the first chapter of “Dick and Jane.”

(Update: Sammi was returned at 9:40. Mmmm. Is mostly tight-lipped about what happened while she was out. Am not sure these two women can be trusted. Will talk to her further – in English – about exactly what happened.)

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What a country!

Rob's garage

I stopped at Rob’s Garage today – it’s a short walk from where I live – to ask about having my winter tires swapped out for my summer tires.

And yes, of course, in case you were wondering, it’s the law.

From what I’ve been told, it’s best not to be caught in the winter with summer tires. On the other hand, no one cares if you use your winter tires in the summer, though they may think you’re nutty, which must happen often with all of the expats who are driving around.

From the outside, Rob’s Garage looks like most garages you might see in the U.S. – well, in the nicer neighborhoods – but you can’t disguise the fact that this is a car repair business.

I had walked the dog by Rob’s Garage many times already, but I had never stopped. And so, with April coming to an end, I thought it was time to introduce myself to Rob (or someone inside) and acquaint him with my new vehicle – the “slightly older” Volvo station wagon, with the color of a deep thigh bruise, that I mentioned in an earlier post.

By the way, I hold my breath whenever I blog about Swiss culture, because I worry that I may offend someone. A couple of people didn’t like my “in the land of cheese, there is no cheddar” comment, for example.

But this story is too good not to tell, and it tells the story about this new culture about as well as any.

Inside I stood at the counter and asked about scheduling an appointment (in my worst German and Rob’s equally atrocious English), and to the left of Rob as we were chatting I spotted an enormous wine chiller. I mean, it was huge. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and – get this – it was filled with very expensive-looking bottles of wine.

For customers, I wondered?

And next to the wine chiller was an espresso machine which I’m pretty sure I could not afford – not in this life or the next.  I made my tire appointment for early in the morning next week and plan to have a cup of Rob’s famous espresso, but I’m thinking that my next appointment (with that car you just know there will be another) should be late in the day.

And I imagine Rob calling out, “Pfarrer (that’s “pastor” around here), help yourself to a bottle! The Pinot Noir is nice! The cork screw is next to the espresso machine!”

And I’ll be thinking, “What a country!”

(Photo: I don’t see the wine chiller next to the counter. Maybe it’s a recent addition. Whenever it was added, it won over my business on the first visit.)

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Der Blog ist groß!

der die das blog

That headline is nonsense, of course, but I sure am having fun in German classes.

I was sitting in the train yesterday listening to the conversation taking place in the seats behind me (in German), and I realized that I actually knew what they were talking about – some juicy gossip. Which produced great joy in me – große Freude! – that I could actually understand, but then I realized that I was listening in on something I shouldn’t have heard, which prompted a little guilt.

And of course, being helplessly human, the guilt was followed by some brilliant rationalization – “they shouldn’t have been talking so loud if they didn’t want me to hear!”

Isn’t it great to be alive? Joy, guilt, rationalization all in the space of about 10 seconds!

But back to the blog, which is getting grosser and grosser. Readership in March averaged close to 200 unique views per day, meaning that I am closing in on a readership of 6,000 per month. I’m very pleased that this little venture has continued to do so well, and thanks for your support. (Subscribing, by the way, is as easy as entering your email address in the space provided on the right side of the page. New posts will show up in your inbox within seconds of being posted.)

According to Google Analytics, the greatest (grossest?) increase in readers, not surprisingly, has come from Switzerland. Here’s how the 20 top cities break down:

1) Zurich

2) Fort Lauderdale, FL

3) Ann Arbor, MI

4) Wheaton, IL

5) Meilen, CH (where I now live!)

6) Chicago, IL

7) Stafa, CH (just a couple of train stops away)

8) Grand Rapids, MI

9) Hialeah, FL

10) Basel, CH

11) Geneva, CH

12) Plantation, FL

13) Dubendorf, CH

14) Davie, FL

15) New York City

16) Glen Ellyn, IL

17) Pompano Beach, FL

18) Hollywood, FL

19) Dallas, TX

20) Frauenfeld, CH

I hope this finds all of you well in the days leading up to Easter.  (Below is a front view of the French Reformed Church where you are invited to join the congregation of the International Protestant Church of Zurich in worship on Sundays at 11:30.)

front of French church


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Top 10 differences between Switzerland and the U.S.

Swiss army knife

  1. Everything is closer together. Well, not trees and bushes, but people and buildings and even countries. Susan and I went grocery shopping (and had lunch) in Germany on Monday. We could as easily have gone to Lichtenstein, but will save that destination for another time.
  2. Speaking of groceries, there isn’t nearly as much variety in the stores. I’m wondering where the other 73 brands of toothpaste are. The Swiss appear to have cornered the high end of the market on just about everything and are perfectly content to offer only those items.
  3. A car isn’t absolutely necessary. But then that didn’t stop us from buying one – in fact, the biggest one we could find. (I may post pictures of the Volvo station wagon in all of her glory later. It’s a beauty. The color looks like a serious leg bruise on about the third or fourth day. But it runs.)
  4. The view from the window: having lived in places like Illinois, Michigan, and Florida, I’m not used to seeing snow-covered mountains in the distance. But there they are – in every direction.
  5. Languages. Having moved most recently from south Florida and having heard Spanish, Portuguese, Creole, and more on a daily basis, I wasn’t expecting to hear an even bigger variety of languages spoken here. Switzerland has four official languages, not including the one that most Swiss seem to speak fluently – English. But I hear even more on the train each day.
  6. The Swiss are punctual – in fact, überpünktlich, but then I’ve blogged about that previously. Fortunately I’ve always been a bit obsessive about that myself. I feel as though I’ve come home.
  7. In a land of cheese, there is no cheddar. True.
  8. Chocolate. I once served a church downwind of Hershey, Pennsylvania, so I know all about chocolate, but in Switzerland chocolate is a national treasure – along with cheese, watches, fondue, army knives, and skiing.
  9. There are 8 million police in Switzerland. Every single citizen has been deputized to enforce Swiss law. No infraction – no matter how minor – escapes the searching eyes of the Swiss. A dog walked improperly? A car parked on the line? A noise between the hours of 12:00 and 14:00? All will receive disapproving words from local law enforcement.
  10. Oh, and no yard work on Sunday in Switzerland. We don’t have a yard and are actually glad about this one.
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10 things spiritually healthy people do every day

feet in tennis shoes with park in the background

Reactions to that headline will most likely fall into one of two categories:

1. Wow, just the thing I needed to read today! (And why doesn’t my pastor offer such helpful, practical messages?)

2. Doug’s Blog has just hit a new low. (I would cancel my subscription to let him know how I feel, but I don’t subscribe.)

Sorry to disappoint, but my post today will not be about the ’10 things spiritually healthy people do every day.’ (Spiritually healthy people probably don’t participate in silly surveys, so we may never know how they spend their days.)

My concern is really about obnoxious headlines. Here are a few more I read this morning alone…

  • 16 alarming airline secrets you’ll wish you never heard (most of them aren’t alarming or secret)
  • 10 shocking photos that will change the way you think about consumption and waste
  • 4 myths about heart disease busted
  • 5 ways to stop being too busy
  • Kim Kardashian breaks out the bikini (somehow I resisted the temptation to click on that headline)
  • 5 habits that make you lose hair
  • 17 ways to prank your family and friends (it’s April Fools Day today, and I’m hoping my younger daughter doesn’t read this one)

The purpose of a headline today is not to let you know what the article is about, but to increase the likelihood that you’ll click on the article and read it. I’m finding that headlines for my blog posts are a critically important factor in how many visits posts receive. I never write a blog post headline without thinking about ‘search engine optimization.’

I’m feeling the same pressure with my sermon titles.

A church member in my last church showed me an advertisement from a nearby church, with thousands in attendance each weekend. The pastor was preaching a new sermon series on what Jesus would say to famous people – for example, ‘What Jesus would say to LeBron James,’ ‘What Jesus would say to Lance Armstrong,’ ‘What would Jesus say to Barack Obama?’ and so on. (Personally, I wonder what Jesus would say to Kim Kardashian.)

So, for next Sunday I’m thinking that the current sermon title ‘Jesus and Lazarus’ has got to go. Frankly, I’m embarrassed about it. No one is going to show up to hear a message with a title like that. Instead, I’m giving serious thought to ‘5 proven ways to get Jesus to come to your house,’ ‘Jesus’ shocking response to the news that his best friend died,’ or ‘What made Jesus weep – it’s not what you think!’

I’m new to this, so am open to your suggestions.

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