When in French…

wheninfrenchLauren Collins’ memoir, When in French: Love in a Second Language is a stunning read. Treats await the reader on almost every page – whether it’s her flawless prose, her rendering of complex linguistic concepts and anecdotes, the honest and relatable portrayal of her relationship with her French husband Olivier, or my favourite, her sly and understated sense of humour with a knack for finding the irony in even the most ordinary situations.

It would be easy to not like Collins – as an American who grew up in an upper middle-class family, she attended Princeton then got her foot in the door at The New Yorker, working her way up to a coveted and prestigious writing position that sent her on interesting assignments all over the world. Then, on a whim, she decides to become their London correspondent, easily gets herself a work visa and after only three weeks in her adopted home, meets the French man who will become her husband. They marry and eventually live in Geneva followed by Paris. It sounds like a fairytale. What makes her likeable, and her memoir relatable, however, is her brutal honesty: when she moves to Geneva, she makes it her mission to learn French, which, it turns out, is not so easy. She finds the city and the people conservative and backwards. Her and Olivier argue and face the usual relationship problems as she tries to pressure him into marriage. She refers to her in-laws as ‘Les Fockers.’ She is self-deprecating and often portrays herself as awkward, annoying and clumsy. She’s also gutsy and is not afraid to go there.

As she fumbles with the French language, we are on her side. Not only is her prose revealing and entertaining, but it is also educational. No need to ever again read a boring journal or newspaper article about the theories of Chomsky. Collins is quite the armchair anthropologist and has done a stellar job of including a range of linguistic theories that are so intricately and subtly woven into the narrative that you barely even notice you’re lapping up Linguistics 101.

I eagerly wanted to share some of her most outstanding nuggets and zingers here, but I think it best you do yourself a faveur and read this formidable book in its entirety. Here’s a little sneak-peak of what’s in store:

Schnapsidee – the way a German would describe a plan he’d hatched under the influence of alcohol. Pilkunnussija – Finnish for “comma fucker,” a grammar pedant. In Mundari [a language spoken by some ethnic groups in India and neighboring countries] ribuy-tibuy refers to the sight, sound, and motion of a fat person’s buttocks. Jayus, in Indonesian, denotes a joke told so poorly that people can’t help but laugh. Knullrufs is Swedish for postsex hair. Gumusservi means moonlight shining on the water in Turkish. Culaccino is the Italian word for the mark left on a table by a cold glass. Words like these are marvelous. We make lists of them, compile them into treasuries, trade them over any dinner table at which holders of more than one passport have convened. (The German, armed with Kummerspeck – “grief bacon” will always win the day.)’

Uncharted territory

bwsailingAs we move through life, two things are said to be certain: taxes and death. Of course, everyone must die and any rational person will realize, at the very least, they will lose someone they love and/or are related to. We know that our grandparents and parents will one day pass away, we just don’t know when. Those of us who are particularly unlucky may lose a sibling, a partner, a friend, or the worst kind of loss, a child.

I have been lucky so far – having never actually attended a funeral due to being overseas despite having lost three of my four grandparents, a good friend and three other friends from my university days who passed away (from murder, two car crashes and one mystery). These stung less because I wasn’t in touch with them and hadn’t been for years.

I wasn’t sure how to feel when my mother recently relayed the news that a childhood and family friend had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and been given two months to live. This came just weeks after an old colleague and flatmate died tragically on the roads at Easter. At first I was in denial, thinking my mother had her facts wrong and that with treatment, his outcome would be better – if he couldn’t be cured, surely the doctors could extend his life by at least a year or more? But no.

I haven’t seen this friend for many years and barely even thought about him. But now my childhood memories come flooding back – we shared baths, games, holidays, Christmases together. He has just entered his 30’s, is married, and has a young son. I glimpsed his Facebook timeline to see that he had posted a photo of himself and his son sharing some moments on a lake, with a caption about how precious life is. I cried twice over that photo.

I thought about his kind mother who just recently lost her husband after unsuccessful heart surgery. His sister, who was once my closest friend in the world moved back from overseas to be with him in his last months. Their lives will forever be turned upside down.

I told a good friend about the situation and how it had made me feel very sad. She then asked a profound question: “What would you do if you had two months to live?” While this horrific situation is not about me, I did start thinking and realized that I would want to visit all the places I had never been. To spend time with loved ones. To definitely not be in my current situation. But at the same time, I have to be grateful that I am alive and healthy and am lucky to be in my current situation.

Having absorbed the information and come to terms with my friend’s fate, the next challenge is to consider how to reach out. What do you say to someone who you haven’t had any contact with for two decades and who only has weeks to live? I don’t have the luxury of time to sit around thinking about it too much. But in the meantime, I think we could all agree upon this message: fuck cancer.

The mysteries of love

harris woffordA few months ago I posted about the news story of a young man and a much older man in New Zealand having a seemingly unconventional relationship (a huge age gap). Recently one day as I was doing my routine perusal of the New York Times, one headline caught my eye, Finding Love Again, This Time With a Man. While you’re more than capable of reading the article yourself, let me just give you the highlights mixed with my always insightful and illuminating commentary.

Former United States Democrat Harris Wofford was happily married to his wife, Clare, for 48 years. They had three children together. Clare tragically died from cancer close to both of of their seventieth birthdays. Wofford assumed that he would not experience such love again and settled into a fulfilling but lonely life.

Cut to five years later and he’s swimming at a Florida beach. Two men recognised him and came over and struck up a conversation with him. One of the men unexpectedly caught his eye. “As we talked, I was struck by Matthew’s inquisitive and thoughtful manner and his charm. I knew he was somebody I would enjoy getting to know. We were decades apart in age with far different professional interests, yet we clicked,” he wrote.

By “decades apart” Wofford means fifty years. So his partner Matthew was 25 when they met. The couple began as friends and slowly, through sharing many things together, including traveling abroad, the pair fell in love. Now, at 90 and 40, the couple have decided to get married.

Of course Wofford has political intentions in writing this article. He seeks to redefine love and promote same-sex marriage. As he writes, “Too often, our society seeks to label people by pinning them on the wall — straight, gay or in between. I don’t categorize myself based on the gender of those I love. I had a half-century of marriage with a wonderful woman, and now am lucky for a second time to have found happiness.”

He goes on to quote Robert Frost:

And yet for all this help of head and brain

How happily instinctive we remain,

Our best guide upward further to the light,

Passionate preference such as love at sight.

This highlights the importance of instinct and listening to one’s heart, especially in matters of love. So what else can we learn from this relationship? That it’s never two late? That love comes when we least expect it? That love is mysterious? That we get second chances? That people should be more open-minded? That external, biological things such as age, physical appearance, status etc. matter less than we think? The importance of sharing a friendship? This whole thing brings to mind something actress Maria Bello wrote – a heterosexual woman who fell in love with her best friend, also a woman: “Whatever, love is love.”

Reclaiming the c-word

buddhacwordIt was the early 2ooos. I was a young, earnest student reading Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem. I took Gender 101. Sometimes I wore a beret and sat in cafes alone drinking black coffee or cheap red wine that tasted like vinegar and scrawled in my diary. I worked part-time in a rather cool bar. I was making connections between the personal and political and my feminist conscience was taking root.

It’s fair to say that I was quite naive and innocent (still am! gah!) and involved in a one-way street on-again-off-again relationship in which I was the very cute doormat. So I started to see that guys weren’t always nice and were actually sometimes kind of ruthless. Manipulative, pathetic, ridiculous lying dogs. But I’ll hold off telling you how I really feel.

So I was working as a waitress at this cocktail bar and this new girl started. We got along well and divulged all our deepest, darkest boy-related horror stories – the ritualistic bonding of females. Then somewhat coincidentally, we both started dating two guys who worked with us. They basically screwed us over at the same time and we were upset and heartbroken in only ways that silly 20 year old girls can be. The details are hazy now but we joined forces and created SPC which stood for ‘Strong Powerful Cunt’ in an effort to reclaim the c-word. It meant that we were stronger than this petty bullshit and could override our relationship dramas. I even held a potluck dinner at my house for women only in the spirit of SPC. See, we don’t need no man. SPC eventually died out after being reprized for an event on a ship in the name of peace and empowerment, but that is another story.

Cut to a decade later and I’m chatting with my male friend who is well-educated in such things as philosophy and ethics. The conversation turns to language and we agree that the c-word is the worst word in the English language and should never be used under any circumstances. I did not tell him about SPC. And so, I buried the word in the back of my lexicon closet and may have only fetched it out once or twice in the context of stubbing my toe or checking my bank balance.

Cut to a few years after that conversation. I’m sitting in a beautiful Balinese restaurant with opulent marble floors where there is a live band and salsa dancing. I’m waiting for some guy to ask me to dance, but alas, that is never going to happen because we’re in Ubud where the ratio of women to men is 45:1. But, I spy to my right another white woman, perhaps around the same age with ridiculous cheekbones circa Hollywood 1940. I almost see a smoky haze emanating from her. I overhear that she’s an anthropologist. I’m giddy and inch my way over. We start to chat and were still talking when the band has long gone and the waiters are practically kicking us out.

Over the next week, we become inseparable, like long-lost BFFs. We engage in the ritualistic bonding of females and vomit out our worst heartbreaks, show each other our life scars. Hailing from Norway, the peculiar thing about my new BFF and perhaps the thing I like most about her is her perfect cut-glass Oxbridge accent which was acquired, funnily enough, while she was living in Bali doing fieldwork. The second best thing about her is the way she spits out bad British words like a sailor. Before I know it, I too am saying ‘shag’ and ‘wanker’ in every sentence. And then we start to say the c-word with abandon in all different contexts. It feels very cathartic to say this taboo word in relation to all manner of things that really get my goat. There is power in this word and joy at transgressing by using it.

Then there comes the reality check – back in Seoul I drop it in the middle of a conversation with a group of female friends that I don’t know that well. It goes down like cold sick. Oops. So, context is everything. Next time I trawl it out, it will be in the presence of my new BFF. She gets it. And god, it just feels so good and deliciously politically incorrect to throw the c-word at someone that has wronged you. May the c-word prosper (in the correct context of course).

When Breath Becomes Air

dr paulDr. Paul Kalanithi is a brilliant young neurosurgeon in the midst of his residency when he is faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis. When Breath Becomes Air is his memoir, his exploration and examination of what makes life worth living. And indeed, this harrowing yet exquisite account of his life and musings as he shuffles ever closer to his inevitable death is well worth reading.

Educated Americans love nothing more than a doctor who can write and Dr. Kalanithi is one of those rare souls who excelled both in the operating room and on the page. In the first part of his story, we learn about his upbringing and his genius – he has a master’s degree in English literature and one in philosophy and considered being a writer before opting to take the more difficult path of becoming a surgeon. In his own words, “The call to protect life – and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul – was obvious in its sacredness.”

It was not a decision taken lightly and he throws himself into his training with eyes wide open. As he writes, “The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.”

What is remarkable is that Dr. Kalanithi continues his residency while undergoing harrowing treatments for his cancer. The grueling training required to succeed in one of America’s most prestigious hospitals (Stanford) would be impossible for most high functioning, healthy individuals. Paul has unfathomable grit and tenacity and keeps inching towards his goal even as his body deteriorates and betrays him.

This book is not for the faint-hearted. Tears rolled down my cheeks at many moments, especially as he enters his final days at the tender age of 37, just months after his baby daughter is born.

Dr. Kalanithi passed away before finishing his manuscript (oh and he was also writing this book in addition to everything else) and the last part is pieced together by his wife, Lucy who is also a doctor. In the epilogue she writes, “Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult – sometimes almost impossible – they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love.”

Indeed, one of the most heartfelt aspects of the book is how Dr. Kalanithi navigates the uncertainty of his predicament and how he must recontextualize his life and the way he must now improvise given so much uncertainty. As Janet Maslin writes of the book in the New York Times: “There is so much here that lingers, and not just about matters of life and death: One of the most poignant things about Dr. Kalanithi’s story is that he had postponed learning how to live while pursuing his career in neurosurgery. By the time he was ready to enjoy a life outside the operating room, what he needed to learn was how to die.”

The tragedy of this story is of a brilliant man who is unfairly and senselessly taken far too soon (although is there any other way?), leaving behind a grieving wife and eight month old daughter. The beauty of the story lies in Dr. Kalanithi’s ability to express in words his experience, to take charge of his own narrative even as he has so little control and power in the face of his own death. I, along with millions of others, am eternally grateful to have been able to bear witness to his life and death through his writing.