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?

term of the day: “shit magnet”

SHIT MAGNET (noun) ˈshit ˈmag-nət. One who attracts shit, any kind of shit, be it death, woe, romantic break-ups, legal tangles, financial or medical catastrophe, accidentally lighting your hair on fire or other grave misfortune, especially any that results in the production and propulsion of large amounts of snot. Synonyms: punching bag; hopeless wreck; gnasher of teeth. Origin: Randy.

Yes, this is Randy’s term. He gets the credit. He reminded me of it in his response to my post about getting swiped and subsequently swooped-upon by the TSA, and I’ve been meaning to give it a full airing. In case you’re wondering who Randy is, and you should be, he’s a kind, funny man, and he’s my brother, and he’s been that way for a couple of decades now. My brother, that is. Not kind and funny; he’s been that way since birth, at least I assume so, because I didn’t actually cross paths with him until I was, like, 14, and he was, like, 13. His dad was headmaster of Wykeham Rise, that itsy-bitsy arts school where my mom taught music.

Randy and I met one afternoon when he was out in the  Wykeham parking lot, kicking the soccer ball around, and he said Hey, and I said Hey, and he said Do you play soccer, and I said Guess so, and he kicked the ball to me and I kicked it back and the freaking thing slammed straight into the Latin teacher’s car so hard that it made a dent in the door. Thank heavens it popped straight back, although the Latin teacher, a diminutive Hungarian eccentric we called Doc, was the worst and most oblivious driver of all time and probably wouldn’t have noticed a dent in his car the size of, you know, the car.

So began my friendship with Randy, who went on to utter phrases of startling pithiness and discernment well beyond Do you play soccer. I will probably quote him again sometime. Several years back he coined the phrase above, hypothesizing that some people exert a fecal attraction more powerfully than others.

My own sense is that everyone’s a shit magnet of one sort or another; it’s just that not everyone talks about it. Seriously: do you know anyone who hasn’t been dealt some monumentally awful hand at some point? Maybe several points? Even that jerk who cut me off in traffic the other day, prompting spasms in my middle finger, is likely carrying around his own sack of pain. And if he isn’t, he will someday. The shit flies in all directions, just not at the same time. 

We take our turns as shit magnets, I believe. I’ve had mine. Randy’s had his. Someone else is next. Tell me, then, that this isn’t the most fitting synonym of all: human being.