On the evening of March 17 of this year, listening to All Things Considered as I began my long drive home, I felt fat tears welling up in my eyes and coursing freely down my cheeks. As part of her series entitled “Stuck in the Middle: Work, Health, and Happiness at Midlife,” Barbara Bradley Hagerty was talking about Mike Adsit, who had recently undergone a stem-cell transplant after recurrent non-Hodgkin lymphoma (http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=469822644). I became especially attentive since my husband had recently celebrated the first anniversary of his own transplant for the same condition. But the tears were all about me, and they were tears of joy.
Hagerty narrated the progress of her relationship with Adsit, who had taken up competitive cycling in his late fifties as he recovered from his initial cancer treatment and planned to continue despite his newly debilitated condition. Hagerty herself began training with him. As a result, she strongly encouraged those in their middle years and beyond to add “punctuation” to their lives by doing something new and uncomfortable, something with goals and challenges and deadlines and setbacks–and successes:
Add punctuation to your life. Young adulthood offers plenty of milestones: graduating from college, starting a career, getting married, having your first child. But Catharine Utzschneider, a professor at the Boston College Sports Leadership Center who trains elite middle-aged athletes, says midlife is like “a book without any structure, without sentences, periods, commas, paragraphs, chapters, with no punctuation. Goals force us to think deliberately.” She was so right, as I found when Mike Adsit, a four-time cancer survivor and competitive cyclist, challenged me to compete in the Senior Games (for people 50 and older) in 2015. Suddenly I had little goals every day — a faster training session, or a 50-mile ride — and the prospect of these little victories launched me out of bed each morning. Even if you don’t win — I came in seventh in the race — you win. (http://www.npr.org/2016/03/17/469822644/8-ways-you-can-survive-and-thrive-in-midlife)
Even before she mentioned learning to play an instrument or to speak a new language, I knew that French was my punctuation. Quite by serendipity, I had begun taking a beginning French class in the fall semester and continued with French 2 in the spring. I had previously had one five-week summer class in 1975 and two sessions of “French for Reading” during graduate school in 1990. But last fall, my husband had persuaded his daughter to take French for her language in high school, and he was going to join her vicariously in a class at the community college where he takes classes in cybersecurity. Three’s company, n’est-ce pas? I signed up right away (faculty members can take one class free per semester).
I devoured my homework, chewed right through the tests, even began a little «parlons français» group of fellow students who met every Friday. I renewed my interest in French cinema and began dragging from the attic books in French. The intellectual exercise was a refreshing break from the challenges of teaching and the avalanches of compositions to grade. I once again got very good at reading, and I spent grueling hours poring over the paragraph-long compositions we had to write weekly. It felt good. Whom am I kidding? It felt exhilarating!
I also cross-pollinated my English classes with the things I was learning in French. I shared with them my methods for studying and doing homework, and I exuded enthusiasm about going to class every day and learning how to communicate in a new way. In one first-semester composition class, I was trying to convince the students that they need to pay attention to every single word they write. I told them that I do so in my own writing, making sure that I have chosen precisely the words I need to convey exactly what I mean–and in a pleasing and powerful way–but I was pretty sure their eyes were glazed over halfway through my peroration.
So I began telling them about the composition I had written the previous night for my French practice test. The assignment was just about as exciting as it gets: Write about the household chores you did as a child and the ones you do now as an adult. I planned and wrote a draft. Then I realized possibilities for parallelism and even a little humor and spent an extensive amount of time revising and editing and proofreading my work. And here’s what I came up with (still not perfect French, I realize):
Dans la maison de mes parents, de l’âge de dix ans, j’aidais quelquefois ma mère avec les tâches ménagères. Je mettais la table et faisais la vaisselle de temps en temps, et je rangeais ma chambre et faisais mon lit tous les jours. Quand j’avais seize ans, ma mère a commencé à travailler pour la journal hebdomadaire de notre ville, et j’ai commencé à faire d’autres tâches; je faisais le dîner pour la famille de lundi à vendredi. Où était ma sœur cadette? Je ne sais pas; je sais seulement qu’elle ne faisait pas de tâches ménagères!
Maintenant, dans ma propre maison, a l’âge de soixante-trois ans, je fais le dîner, fais la vaisselle, fais le lit et fais la lessive; je balaie les planchers, nettoie la salle de bains et change la litière du chats. Où est mon mari? Je ne sais pas. Il sort la poubelle le lundi.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!
Taking my composition students through this process of writing such a small and insignificant assignment, I believe I made some converts to the excruciating but rewarding habit of making every word tell, as Strunk and White advise.
Even though my French class is over, I continue my passion for learning the language and plan to continue with French 3 when it is offered. I was excited to learn this summer that I have a “henchman born of a Frenchman” in my online class and another young man who plans to join the French Foreign Legion in my face-to-face section. I am reading «Le petit prince» with a former classmate, I am chortling my way through «Le petit Nicolas» on my own, and I continue to belt out «Je ne regrette rien» on my way to school and get infected with that pernicious ear worm «Savez-vous planter les choux?» on a regular basis.
A bit of French punctuation has done me good, indeed.