i grok ‘bouleversant’

I have a new word. I love new words! I love old words too, especially the ones I’ve been using since my saggy-diaper days (“eat,” “poop,” “clap” — love those). But few things make me happier than stumbling across some hitherto-unfamiliar-to-me linguistic nugget, and this is a good one: “bouleversant,” a French adjective with no direct translation but a whole load of meaning that I’ll get to in a minute. And my brother Randy didn’t even coin this one. Instead, “bouleversant” comes to me from John, an erudite and personable young man I met at the Al Ham Birthday Party, 2014 Edition.

You’ll be wondering what the Al Ham Birthday Party is. Or maybe you won’t be; if I hadn’t gone to Hamilton College I really wouldn’t give a damn about it, but I did go there, and I do have many warm memories of the place, and so I care enough about Alexander Hamilton’s annual Albany-area shindig to attend it every other year or so with my friend Jane. We graduated five years apart.

Jane and I started attending these little fetes about 10 or so years ago, back when we were, let’s see, roughly a decade younger than we are now and thus fell into that cozy alumni mid-range between the really young and really old farts. We were moderate farts. But this year, the pair of us realized that we had in fact become much older farts than most everyone else noshing on crabcakes at the Midtown Tap and Tea Room.

My method of coping was to pigeon-hole John, a history major who aced the Al Ham birthday quiz and, it turned out, hadn’t yet graduated. He was beyond doubt the youngest fart there. We chatted about campus life, and some wacky Hamilton lingo from the 80s (“tool” meant not an A-hole but a hard-grinding, carrel-dwelling denizen of the library), and his love of and facility with French.

Somehow — I don’t remember how, as my fartness is more advanced than it once was — that aforementioned word came up in conversation. John defined it as intensely beautiful, intensely emotional, intensely sad; from what I gather, something classifies as “bouleversant” if it wipes you out, leaving you spent but transformed. He offered “Schindler’s List” as an example of one such film.

I grok this word. I can’t pronounce it, and I’d have a hard time sneaking it past editors (whaddaya mean, I can’t use indefinable words in a foreign language?!), but it captures the paradoxically beautiful whammy of life at its most extreme. How often great art hurts; how often I dissolve into a puddle at the Barber Adagio, and that’s as it should be. There’s no point in listening if I’m not, right?

hello, and swasti astu

Here I am, in the trashbag aisle of the supermarket, when a 60ish guy with a muss of a beard brushes past and mutters it. “How ya doin’.”

I glance over. His left arm is clutching tupperware to his chest like a baby. Hanging from his left arm, a six-pack of coke.

He isn’t even looking at me, so I don’t respond. That would be senseless. That’s not part of his plan. He seriously doesn’t give a shit how I’m doin’.

I push my cart to the dairy case, toss in generic Greek yogurt and half-and-half. Then I push it into a checkout line and pull up to a woman with six-inch hoops hanging from her face. I’m temporarily mesmerized by them, wondering why on earth I don’t wear earrings that big, when she mutters it, too.

“How ya doin’.”

She isn’t looking at me, either. She gives about as much of a shit as the guy in the Hefty aisle. But I do my part.

Fine, I say. How ya doin’.

She still isn’t looking, but she does her part, too.


Well. Phew. Good thing we took care of this hollow but somehow gravely significant ort of social etiquette. But on the walk through the lot back to my car, rolling my yogurts along the tarmac, I wonder why we do it. And I wonder whether it wouldn’t be nice to do away with “How ya doin’s” — and all of its variations, from “How are you” to “What’s shakin'” — unless we actually mean it. Unless we actually want to hear a true response.

It wouldn’t be easy, given the habit-forming business of having mouthed “how are you” about 13 katroollion times since birth, or at any rate since we all started dumbly parroting everything we heard. It also wouldn’t be easy to process the answers we might get: “Thanks, my hemorrhoids flared up this morning, but they’re a little better now” or “Glad you asked! Last night I sucked face with the handsomest guy!” or “Actually, I was just bawling my eyes out in the bathroom; are my cheeks stained?”

Because, seriously, what if we’re not all fine? What if our worlds just came crashing down around our heads in little painful shards? I was discussing this with someone whose world had, in fact, recently imploded, and I was apologizing for the dumbassedly reflexive way I had opened our conversation with “how are you?” Is there anything more trivializing?

So I propose we come up with some viable alternative. I’ve tried “What’s going on?,” but that one feels brassy and belligerent. (Like, what do you think I’ve got goin’ on, man? And you got a problem with it?) “What’s up?” is too cutesy. “What’s happening!” is too late-1970s sitcom with canned yuks and bell bottoms. “How goes it” is a bit too brusque, and not much of an improvement over “how are you.” As for the previously noted “What’s shakin’,” the last time I deployed it on someone, the person looked at me as though I had just opened my mouth and spat out a giraffe.

My father Louis, a passionate amateur linguist, had a phrase he often used when he bumped into people on his daily constitutionals: “Swasti astu.” It means “bless you” or “peace be with you” in Balinese, and I think it’s dandy. I might start using it myself.

Anyone have any better ideas?

so this lady walks up at a traffic light, and. . .

It’s 6:15 on a Saturday morning, and I find myself — for reasons not worth explaining right now — driving east down Madison Avenue in Albany. I’m approaching a green light at the intersection with Ontario when a woman walks up to me, waving.

I slow down. Roll down the window. Assess her quickly. She’s 60, maybe a little older, in a knit cap and ratty parka. She’s weeping.

“Please, ma’am. Please.”

Watch out, I say. It’s a green light. Cars are behind me.

“Please. I’ve been homeless. Please, ma’am.”

OK. OK. Give me a sec. I’ll pull over.

“Please pull over. Please.”

Yes, I say. Yes. I’m pulling over.

And so, nicking through the last second of green, I pull over and grub around in my bag for a bill larger than a one. It is now 6:16, and the coffee I poured down my throat 20 minutes earlier has not kicked in. Continue reading

the tsa ’n me (or you)

It starts with the hand-swipe. You know when that young man with the glasses asks you to reach out, palms up, so he can check for chemicals and you smile and say yes, okay, sure thing, ha ha ha, thanks for keeping us safe? And hold up your palms as directed? There. It starts there.

A few beats later, a small clutch of TSA agents swoops politely but firmly over and explains that they found some shit on your hands. They don’t actually call it “shit,” but that’s what they mean, and that’s what you hear, and immediately you question that innocent floral hand-soap you used that morning, or the face-cream, or that fudge you nibbled in the kitchen in the wee small hours before you left for the airport.

Quickly the swooping agents communicate with other swooping agents, and soon they’re picking through your luggage one sloppily packed undergarment at a time, looking for yet more shit, swiping everything with a plug: your iPhone, your brand-new Acer laptop, your GPS.

Meanwhile, two of your offspring have been herded over from the non-terrorist-threat portion of the airport to sit and observe your hilarious good fun with the TSA. You take three steps forward to converse with the fruit of your loins when a fresh new swooper swoops over, telling you, the shit-swiped mother from Albany, to back off in a manner that suggests the fate of the free world depends upon it. Continue reading