The languages we speak

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The late poet Derek Walcott wrote: “To change your language you must change your life”. I’ve thought about this statement many times over the years, and usually find that the inverse is also true – truer even: “To change your life you must change your language”. And we speak many different languages, literal and figurative, to fit our lives.

Literal language

There are the obvious ways in which this is true. For example, in the life of a migrant, you only become integrated to a limited extent without changing your language, but you can make inroads with the literal changing and adopting of another language. The more immersive it is, the more it shapes your life (so these statements work in conjunction with each other: language changes life, life changes language).

I spoke at some length with a friend about whether a language inherently contains a power structure. We were discussing that the US and UK have buckled under the weight of crumbling infrastructure and insufficient provision for managing natural disasters/bad weather. He shared that a friend in Massachusetts boasted about how her new generator switched on automatically five times that winter, leading him to ask (once again), “What is it about Americans that makes them twist the shortcomings of the place they live into things to brag about?” I always go back to the same answer: they don’t know any better. Many everyday things (for me or for him) sound futuristic to people in America (and to some extent, the UK). “Empires”, if we could call America one, crack and crumble from within. My friend wondered if the English language contains a built-in predilection for “shitty societies”. I did not agree with this statement but thought a bit about the built-in attitude of English. He posited that something in the language creates fear and anger in its speakers that is masked by arrogance.

I admit that although I have analyzed the language – and language in general – from many points of view, I had never taken it on from this angle. I have, though, thought about the imperialism and spread of language, which then gives native speakers a sense of entitlement. He posed the question: “How else to explain why both London and NYC are crappy in similar ways?” I figured it is not so much something within the language itself so much as in its ubiquity and power. (Both places driven and developed by the original British imperialist way of thinking, the dominance of English, even among large populations of immigrants who end up united by this one powerful lingua franca, contributes.) Within the language itself, though, is it a magnet for the best or most useful elements of other languages? Has it not only overtaken other languages but plundered them for its own needs? Does the dominance of English come from how and where its imperialism ended up (North America, India, other parts of Asia, Australia), in places where dominance also meant colonization and the “conquering” people staying put and taking power – as opposed to “resource grabs” like those in Africa, where French colonialism was alive and well? Could it be the result of English having such a vast and even superfluous vocabulary.. another way of dominating just by sheer volume of words? (And we can’t even say there is one “English” – its spread and ubiquity have created all kinds of variations.)

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but the questions are fascinating.

The language of self-help and personal identity

Then there are increasingly less obvious languages. For example, the language of self-help: you are told to frame yourself and your issues in a new way. The frame changes perception and eventually the language used to describe that perception. That is, you are what you think. You are the language you use. This came to mind most recently when I was listening to a young colleague who is often cuttingly direct in the language she uses, and I wonder how she would respond to softer, more diplomatic language. I also note that she notices keenly when others are as direct as she is. Would she be as effective in her role if she were softer? No. But if I were as direct and abrupt as she is, it would not suit me or work for me. Each of us, thus, forms our own (kind of) language – by which we are identified and through which we craft our own identities.

The language of failure?

Similarly, in pop-self-help and some broader psychological discussion, “failure” isn’t used when something might just be a setback. Here I think of alcoholics… do we really want to say that because someone had 90 days of sobriety and then fell off the wagon that those 90 days are a loss, a waste or a step back to square one – and their attempts a “failure”? Does the language we apply imply judgment and set the groundwork or pace for the next “slip”? That is, for an alcoholic each day sober is a success, and even if they build toward longer periods of sobriety, is their success (or failure) measured cumulatively? Maybe AA or other people measure this way. But for the person dealing with it, the language needs to be more forgiving or less judgmental.

Language of experience

Maybe certain experiences we live through do not change the literal language – the words you use – but change the whole approach, so your set of sociolinguistic approaches and cues becomes different. Maybe experiences forge within you a different person, with different eyes, who can no longer speak the same language, with the same tone you once used before the experience. This is applicable in many cases, but I think in particular about consolation, grief and the expectation of it.

How little I understood when I recently read Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in their Eyes how prescient two takeaway quotes would be:

“…perhaps the man’s fate, a life destroyed by tragedy and grief, provided me with a chance to reflect on my own worst fears. I’ve often caught myself feeling a certain guilty joy at the disasters of others, as if the fact that horrible things happened to other people meant that my own life would be exempt from such tragedies, as if I’d get a kind of safe-conduct based on some obtuse law of probability…” – The Secret in their Eyes, Eduardo Sacheri

“I believed I understood that the reason we’re sometimes moved by another’s grief has to do with our atavistic fear that this grief may get transferred to us, too.” – The Secret in their Eyes, Eduardo Sacheri

These thoughts stuck with me after reading the book, which I was reading as I consoled someone through and after the death of his mother. While being supportive and compassionate to him, I turned to someone else for my own kind of consolation, and discussed at length the particular kind of grief that punctuates the loss of one’s mother. He only realized then, as if becoming prepared for grief, how very devastating his own loss would eventually be when his mother passes away. It seems especially cruel and unusual that he didn’t have to wait long to be confronted by the potential for this grief: his mother suffered a fairly catastrophic setback only a couple of weeks later, which has not resulted in her death – but has opened the floodgates and made him see that his entire approach, logically, was flawed, that he could not control or know what the loss would mean or do to him. Sacheri’s points on how we are moved by another’s grief – because it is so close to what we ourselves may soon experience – was applicable.

And yet, language cannot contain this kind of grief, the fear (or confusion) it creates and the mirror it holds up to us and how we live and feel.

Language is equally inadequate for consolation. But in such cases, it’s less a spoken language and more a listening language: giving the time, patience and love to listen.

He “…went on to assure us there’s no Devil, no Satan, no Hell. There is—(maybe)—Heaven but it isn’t anywhere far away or anything special. And we demanded to know, why isn’t Heaven anything special? (You always hear of Heaven being so special.) And Daddy said, because Heaven is just two things: human love, and human patience. And all love is, is patience. Taking time. Focusing, and taking time. That’s love. This was disappointing to us! This was not anything we wanted to hear. We were too young to have a clue how special human love and human patience were, how rare and fleeting…” –A Book of American Martyrs, Joyce Carol Oates

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

 

Memoirs & McKagan

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In between the more grueling books I’m juggling, I make room spontaneously for “spot choices” – something that I am reminded of in the spur of the moment, something I would not necessarily seek out eagerly (Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality and the Struggle for Oral Health in America, anyone?) but which might be interesting in some way. This is, as I have mentioned before, how I come to read most contemporary autobiographical memoirs. They share some background information about admired (or not) musicians or celebrities, but don’t usually set my brain ablaze. Sure, from the thoughtful writing of Carrie Brownstein and Kim Gordon, both seemingly effortlessly cool public figures, I glimpsed that seemingly universal truth that no matter how cool, aloof, nonchalant and in control we seem on the surface, there’s an insecure, wants-to-be-liked person underneath.

Even the memoirs of “regular” people (which, of course, all of these books underline: we all are regular people), such as the pleasant-enough Shrill by Lindy West and the charmingly self-deprecating All Over the Place by effusively expressive Geraldine DeRuiter (and I am dead serious here: if you don’t already read Geraldine’s Everywhereist blog, do. Also follow her on Twitter; one of my favorite Twitter feeds), forge this kind of ‘we’re all in the soup’ of humanity by sharing their everyday experiences. (Or maybe now that I look at this as a pattern, I read all of these because there is the Seattle connection to all of them but Kim Gordon.)

That said, these kinds of books are rarely ever deeply challenging, will be fast and easy to read. They may make us smile, laugh, nod in agreement and approval or even get angry or feel sympathy for the writer. These are very human books. It was in this way, in one of these palate cleansing frames of mind, that I came to read Duff McKagan’s How to Be a Man.

I don’t know how Duff McKagan ever ended up being someone on my radar, bookwise or otherwise. Somehow since junior high school in the Seattle area, he, despite my not being the Guns ‘n’ Roses ‘type’ (whatever that is), stuck out (probably being a local boy and all helped that visibility). Later, I think I was impressed by the fact that he went back to college after the heyday of GnR and worked on finding his sobriety and ways to maintain it. At another point in my life, I would not have picked up this book; in fact even if I had, I don’t think I would have taken anything away from it. But this time, having had the experiences of the last decade, I approached it differently.

But this is what I will say about it: Despite the fact that it struck me as slightly disorganized (some parts more organized than others), slightly random (although some parts were considerably slicker than others, which made me think the editing was choppy), neither of these things made the book bad. It in fact inspired the feeling and sense of sitting and listening to the guy reel off stories and opinions about his life and his experiences. Maybe that was what he was going for – the relatable (well, in tone, perhaps, not in all the activities – although let’s be clear, as Duff most certainly is – all Seattleites DO live with the ticking-clock on summer, and the damn deck/lawn/painting/housework can only be done in rain-soaked Seattle in that limited window) and conversational.

The book was entertaining and perfectly served the need I had at this exact moment:

*It flowed quickly, even if, as I stated, the editing didn’t make the content flow all the time.

*I liked the random lists of stuff, particularly the diverse variety of recommended albums and books. I would probably add more must-hear albums/artists (today I am overly influenced by the songwriting genius of Neil Finn/Crowded House and the longevity and wild creativity of Robyn Hitchcock). I would also add many books, but who wouldn’t? There are too many books in the world to be able to do justice to a must-read list, which McKagan himself acknowledges, describing his propensity for populating his personal library both in digital and paper formats:

“But a bookstore is the ultimate way to immerse yourself in what’s new. You can browse, and you can ask around, something you can’t do as well in the cocoon of e-commerce. It can be the littlest hint or clue that sends people looking for a book and thrusts their life briefly in new directions. It can be gossip you hear in line for an espresso or a movie you see on espionage. The direction of your reading can very well influence your life for a while.” –How to Be a Man

Clearly he gets what most passionate readers get:

“This is every reader’s catch-22: the more you read, the more you realize you haven’t read; the more you yearn to read more, the more you understand that you have, in fact, read nothing. There is no way to finish, and perhaps that shouldn’t be the goal. The novelist Umberto Eco famously kept what the writer Nassim Taleb called an “anti-library,” a vast collection of books he had not read, believing that one’s personal trove should contain as much of what you don’t know as possible.” –My Life with Bob, Pamela Paul

*On addiction and sobriety, he didn’t have anything new to say that I haven’t heard or read from recovering addicts or specialists in this field. But it’s nevertheless key to see some of the resounding themes: resentment and regret; again, some of this same lack of self-esteem and assurance that the other memoirists listed above have expressed, e.g. learning to like and trust oneself; that, as cliche as it sounds, it’s a one-day-at-a-time process. And sometimes the things that pull you through are unexpected and maybe even the smallest things that then go on to have ripple effects. In his case it was his ‘latching onto’ Jim Rome’s radio show, and when he appeared on the show as a guest, this prompted other listeners to take steps to regain control of their own lives. This too could sound cliche, but the kinship of addicts, and the power of these small sparks to inspire, is the same kind of things I have seen in trying to understand and connect with recovering alcoholics in my own life:

“This life is crazy. It’s the little things that can be absolute game changers.” –How to Be a Man

*Seahawks, Seattle sports and the constant, indefatigable cheering for the (hometown) underdog. Need I say more?

*Seattle. Yes, Seattle. (Do I sound all homesick? I swear I’m not! I left so long ago for a reason!) That place that suddenly became visible in the 1990s, from which its veil was slightly lifted with the mania that surrounded Twin Peaks during its first go-around (even though this was not technically Seattle, you’d still have to go to Seattle to get to the real-world equivalent of Twin Peaks). It is hard to believe now that Seattle was ever this unheard-of place that McKagan describes.

But true story: in junior high, I had a pen pal in California (this was 1989) who phoned me once and asked not only what time it was in Seattle (says more about his ignorance of time zones and geography than Seattle’s invisibility). He seemed surprised to learn that I had ever heard of Depeche Mode and even that I had a phone. If I recall, it was the same year that Time magazine covered the insular nature of Washington state and its ire at “rich Californians” showing up to scoop up all the land. Hmm. (I did go back to see if I could find that issue of Time, and it was, as a side note, interesting to see the cover stories – Donald Trump on the cover in Jan 1989, taunting readers that we would all be “green with envy” about his wealth – or a headline: “The New USSR?” – or Kevin Costner, just releasing Field of Dreams, or Pete Rose, just being tossed for life from baseball. Oh, hilariously, there was a cover featuring the Rolling Stones, including a headline about “aging rockers”… and we thought they were aged then?)

Back to the point. Seattle was on no one’s radar. Not in any appreciable way, at least. Not until Nirvana came along:

“I used to brag to anyone who would listen that these guys were from “my town” and that soon the rest of the world would realize that people didn’t live in tepees in Seattle!” –How to Be a Man

While McKagan framed the singular Seattle “way” within the lens of sports (and a bit in music), it is on the whole accurate about the city’s attitude and evolution.

It is a place of some stoicism, insularity and a bit of an outsider’s “fuck ’em” attitude. Claire Dederer posits in her own sort of memoir, Love & Trouble:

“Seattle is not a big city for crying. Seattle, in fact, is famously emotionally stoppered. There are many theories as to why this is the case; some say it’s because of our dominant genetic and cultural heritages: Norwegian and Japanese. Whatever the reason, Seattle is a place where you are not supposed to emote. You are supposed to endure. In Seattle, where rain and traffic are two snakes twining, choking the body of the city, forbearance is an art. We don’t cry, we just put on more Gore-Tex or maybe use the driving time of our commute to listen to a self-improvement book on tape. Though “driving” is a strong word for what happens when you get into a car in Seattle. And yet suddenly there were these crying hot spots.”

“When you visit other cities, get asked about Seattle. The people you meet want to move there. No one used to move to Seattle except aeronautical engineers and, like, rabid fishing enthusiasts. No one used to know where Seattle even was. They thought maybe it was in Oregon.”

And this obscurity from which Seattle was lifted has made it a too-hot, too-desirable place, in which most mere mortals cannot afford to live.

So… bottom line, I don’t know if I would recommend that anyone read McKagan’s book. I will, though, be giving a copy to one person who will be able to relate, and I think in that way it will help him. And perhaps that is the most one can hope for: reaching one person, especially when they need to hear your particular message, one day at a time.

I hold no truck with your burning my goat

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Friday, I do believe, may have been a/the sobriety anniversary for someone I know/knew. At least that’s what my memory started telling me on Thursday – or actually Wednesday – while walking in central Oslo passing some of the things I had seen with him the last time I wandered through the city center. All those hi-fi stores – I will never understand how they all stay in business. And there was even a semi-sung rendition of “Just Like Christmas” by Low. Strange how far away all of that, and even winter itself, feels. Things that happen in the permanently dusky, fictive period that is December/holidays/early new year are like that: they happened but take on an almost invented quality later when looking back.

Yes, these spring days in cold but sunny Oslo: This time it was a work dinner (at a restaurant that seemed to serve little, other than ceviche). I winced my way through the whole day, hobbling through a good 28 waking hours by the end of it, despite feeling a kind of searing pain surging wildly in much of my body. I, however, was more annoyed at the complaints I voiced and the visible indications of pain I showed than with the pain itself. (Back pain, which has been on and off for weeks, had abated but came roaring onto the scene again after an ill-advised long drive coupled with other stuff.)

This drummed up different thoughts, none of which were linked.

For example, I wondered how one comes to realize s/he is an alcoholic in a country and culture that is technically full of them? Where is the line?

As David Sedaris writes: “Turn down a drink in the United States, and people get the message without your having to explain. ‘Oh,’ they say, ashamed of themselves for presuming otherwise. ‘Right. I should probably… quit too.’ In Europe, though, you’re not an alcoholic unless you’re living half-naked on the street, drinking antifreeze from a cast-off shoe. Anything shy of this is just ‘fun-loving’ or ‘rascally’. Cover your glass in France or Germany — even worse, in England — and in the voice of someone who has been personally affronted, your host will ask why you’re not drinking.” (from When You Are Engulfed in Flames)

I thought of a colleague who kept using the word “pivot” but pronounced it “PIE-vot”. The kind of guy who suffers from a kind of Napoleon complex, driven by a must-boast, one-up, must-be-right, I-was-there(-first) syndrome – but luckily only at first (he has to mark his territory when you meet him) because eventually this gives way to a smart, sarcastic personality that is also warm, competent and insightful. I recalled one of his humbler moments, “I fucked up. And from the fuck-ups of our lives, we learn a lot. Immense amounts.” Or another colleague (although that implies there is something collegial or cooperative about our working together) who said, “Let’s not rewrite the wheel.” What?

I remembered also all those times people said things to me that smacked of other motives than what they thought they were transparently offering, betraying true intentions that lurked just beneath the surface. Much like a child who draws attention to his transgression before there is ever any suspicion aroused. The, “Oh, I might have this Mexican woman move in as my new roommate. But she’s not my type or anything; I am not attracted to her.” Hmm. Did anyone say you were? But you just showed your hand, friend. Or, “Nothing happened. I just got her phone number because she has the right look for my photography.” Um, okay. All the things that illuminate without lights.

But then, just as quickly, the mind shifts to asking what the difference is between ceviche and poke. Or to figuring out if I can finish reading all 13 books I have going right now before the end of April. Or to how expressions get muddled – the aforementioned “rewrite the wheel” or, my favorite flubs from Mr Firewall (of which there are many), who at least can laugh at himself first and longest, saying “burns my goat” instead of “gets my goat” and “tans my hide”.

Many thoughts but nothing too coherent – that’s how it goes in the delirium of too little sleep. Often it comes back to Pessoa:

“All that was lost, all that should have been sought, all that was obtained and fulfilled by mistake, all that we loved and lost and then, after losing it and loving it for having lost it, realized we never loved; all that we believed we were thinking when we were feeling; all the memories we took for emotions” –Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Photo by Medena Rosa

Eight weeks

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How different eight little weeks, and the speed with which they pass, can feel depending on the place you find yourself in life.

For a man struggling every day, every minute, with sobriety, eight weeks is an eternity – but almost an unbelievable one (to the degree that he has been fearful to even count or keep track consciously). And each little milestone (being able to claim two months!) feels like a major triumph, but also comes with a possible downside. Like all lifelong ‘afflictions’, it’s forever. It’s something he lives with that must be maintained and nurtured with great care and consideration. He may be sober but never free of the label, the disease, the temptation.

Eight weeks feels like a very long time: each of the days passing not hour by hour but minute by minute. Each day packed with AA meetings, work and gym-going (or whatever fills those minutes) and the slowing evening more difficult, staring at the clock while the minutes pass until the stores that sell alcohol finally close. (All these themes appear at length in David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest, which I’ve been slogging my way through for days; the addiction parts are by far the most interesting.) It’s a safety net, knowing he can’t get anything if he suddenly fell into despair. Eight weeks, eight days, eight hours, eight minutes. Everything broken down to the smallest parts, anything to make the time go faster.

Meanwhile, for a newly pregnant woman, if she is even 100% sure she is pregnant at eight weeks, time is almost accelerated. At eight weeks, she has barely accepted the reality but is in a race with time if she, for example, intends to terminate the pregnancy. Many places have a 12-week cutoff point (at which point she could still terminate but needs special permission from her doctor or a panel of doctors), and while one would imagine that the four weeks in between eight and twelve weeks is a whole month, it’s never quite that simple.

She has a massive, life-changing decision to make. She may be in denial. She may even attempt to schedule an appointment to terminate, but even that can take time. Again it depends on where in the world she is. (It could be that depending on the stage of the pregnancy, the abortion will cost more; in the US many states don’t have abortion facilities at all, making the whole ordeal that much more challenging.) Eight weeks into a pregnancy, it’s already so well underway – like two months have already slipped away sneakily, almost without her conscious knowledge. And she wishes for anything that could make the time go slower.

I Just Can’t

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No, I just can’t. I am not a therapist. I can’t listen and reassure any longer. Anxiety and OCD may be real things, but I can’t live with someone whose life is completely driven by both. It’s exhausting, it’s repetitive, it’s just too much. Add to the mix that crippling anxiety and OCD drive a sufferer to blind alcoholism. And whether gripped by anxiety or drunkenness, there is a part of either OCD extreme that feels to the observer like an outrageous offshoot of narcissism.

The anxious, sober OCD is fueled by the fear that X-thought (a relatively innocent thought or action) is somehow going to land you in trouble, send you to jail, destroy your life… so you better drink those fears away even though it’s when you’re drunk that you commit more of these questionable/putting-yourself-in-peril actions. The impression feels narcissistic because it’s hard to watch as you contort these meaningless non-events into things that might ruin your life – as if anyone gives a shit or has time to give a second thought to the non-events you’ve hyperinflated in your mind.

The drunk OCD is fueled by a hypersexuality that cannot be quelled, and the bravado brought on by more and more drink makes you more reckless. You turn hateful, critical and cruel – when you are the perfect picture of a mess, you think this is the perfect time to call everyone else out for their supposed imperfections. The impression here is one of a narcissist because you are the only one who matters in this self-hating equation.

Sobriety returns – always at a terrible and painful cost – to you and everyone around you. And the cycle begins again. And again.

I just can’t.