My daughter, Greta, was 2 years old when she died — or rather, when she was killed. A piece of masonry fell eight stories from an improperly maintained building and struck her in the head while she sat on a bench on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her grandmother. No single agent set it on its path: It wasn’t knocked off scaffolding by the poorly placed heel of a construction worker, or fumbled from careless hands. Negligence, coupled with a series of bureaucratic failures, led it to simply sigh loose, a piece of impersonal calamity sent to rearrange the structure and meaning of our universe. [...]
Seven weeks ago, our second child was born; a son, Greta’s younger brother. They would have been exactly three and a half years apart. With his birth, I have become a father to a living child and a spirit — one child on this side of the curtain, and another whispering from beneath it. The confusion is constant, and in my moments of strength I succumb to it. I had a child die, and I chose to become a father again. There can be no greater definition of stupidity or bravery; insanity or clarity; hubris or grace.
Sometimes it feels as if I’m not merely translating people’s stories into English, but helping people preserve their own lives, turning them into internationally comprehendible keepsakes.
For every two books of pure fiction that I translate, there is a third that is not exactly a memoir, not exactly a biography, but a novelization, an imagining, of true events that occurred in an author’s family. These are usually authors in their sixties or seventies writing about their parents’ lives or their own childhood memories. They have a deep pool of family lore and anecdotes to draw from, have performed extensive personal and historical research, and have utilized their own powers of imagination to fill in the missing details.
The first day I arrived in Paris for my semester abroad I smiled at all the helpful strangers: the passport agent, the taxi driver, the random person I asked for directions. No one smiled back but I must have been too excited to notice. Then I smiled at the guy at the cash register who sold me some bubble gum and he muttered something. It took a minute to absorb his words, although he was speaking in mocking, accented English: “Stupid American.”
I had largely forgotten that slap in the face until I read Ruth Whippman’s new book, “America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.” For us natives, reading this book can be an unnerving experience. Whippman, who is a transplanted British writer, moved to California when her husband got a job here. She spent much of her time settling in her family, but all the while she was watching us — how we read, eat, work, medicate, exercise and pray. And what she noticed the most was how the same subject comes up all the time: happiness.