June 2012


My favorite memory of Star Trek may well be the “Darmok” episode featuring Captain Picard of the starship Enterprise trying to communicate with an alien called Dathon who talked only in metaphors or similes or sayings of one sort or another.

I can’t even remember the details — just that Jean-Luc had to decipher verbal images that made no literal sense, and eventually did so, thus forging contact with a hitherto unintelligible entity.

In doing so, the good captain illustrated one of the delights of language. A native speaker can talk in riddles that make perfect sense to a native listener and, at the same time, might leave many a new student of the language mystified and perplexed.

For a native speaker though, it may not even matter that a saying or a word has been botched. We know what is meant, whether it’s a malapropism or a misquotation. In fact, such mistakes make our exchanges that much more colorful — especially the vocal kind.

One example that deserves a place in linguistic history emanates from an Arizona judge who, embroiled in career setbacks some years ago, announced to the media that he had a bitter pill to carry. Of course, his plight was generally understood — just as surely as it would have been had he complained of a heavy load to swallow.

Just to show that such pronouncements are not confined to the more rough and ready Western  states, I was recently in conversation with a lady in Boston, Massachusetts, who — sympathizing with an exasperating medical situation — agreed that there were too many cooks in the pot.

There certainly are times when placing a few cooks in a simmering cauldron might be a very appealing idea. A few celebrity chefs spring to mind.

But of course there was no need to dwell on this interpretation of her chosen image. We both knew exactly what she meant, and revision was not required. As she might have said, we had found ourselves between a rock and the deep blue sea. A hard place to be, as only the devil knows.

My thanks to editor Nicholas Litchefield of online literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle for including my story Tourist Attractions in the 2012 anthology, Far-flung and Foreign. To find this transporting volume online, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Far-flung-Foreign-Nicholas-Litchfield/dp/0982536534/ref=la_B007ZRUXMG_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1338827460&sr=1-1

It is an extraordinary thing to have your life suddenly turned upside down.

In our case it happened with a phone call. One evening my significant other came into my home office and said: “I got the result of the CAT scan. I have cancer. I have mesothelioma.”

In that moment, everything changed. Our plans for the future. Our priorities in the present. Perhaps even our perspective on our 30 years together.

Suddenly nothing mattered more than dealing with this prognosis. This word I could hardly pronounce, that I was not even aware of a few days previously, began to envelop our world. In an unsettling parallel to her medical condition, the very name and notion of mesothelioma invaded daily routine.

Telling friends and relatives was distressing in itself. Bank balances? Credit card debts? Vacation time? Work projects? Forget it. All of it now rendered insignificant. Everything focused on deciding on the best course for treatment.

And when that resulted in a decision to opt for surgery at the International Mesothelioma Program in Boston, then there was a string of logistics to consider. Flights. Accommodation. Housesitter. What to pack. Preparations for surgery. The vagaries of insurance coverage.

My wife is a planner by instinct. She’s the one who, for years, would go to sleep each night scheming about bathroom remodeling and such. Me? I’d just hit the sack and lights out. Now I suspect we both have “mesothelioma” in our minds as we drift off, like it or not.

So we wait during “the phony war” between prognosis and surgery, going over things to do, diverting our thoughts and conversations whenever we can towards non-medical topics.

And, obedient to doctor’s advice, we take a walk every day – something our dogs and I have been trying to get my wife to do for years without much success. In fairness, she’s racked up the miles at work. Still, who’d have thought it would have taken this to get her out on the road?

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