In Service to Canada

Our family—my brother, me and our children—recently received Memorial Crosses and Ribbons from the Government of Canada in memory of our father, Gord Penney: “One who died in service to Canada.” It was an unexpected honour because our father and grandfather did not die in battle or as a result of injuries sustained in battle. He died of ALS.

My father was a career military man, and very proud of that fact. He first joined the Air Force when he was 18, but didn’t last very long in that branch. He claimed they made the runways too short for him. He went home to Nova Scotia, recollected his ego, and joined the Army when he was 20. He served 35 years, retiring (as required) at the age of 55 and the rank of CWO (a rank that made the officer cadets my sister and I dated tremble). He would have stayed another 20 years if they’d have let him.

He was a lucky man, and soldier. He served in the Canadian Armed Forces during a time of relative peace, so never was required to fight in battle. He was a peacekeeper in the Congo in the early 1960s, and went through a couple of “incidents” that he played down as little “scuffles”. He almost went to Vietnam in 1971, but because of a paperwork mix-up that deployment was cancelled just days before he was to leave. My sister and I, aged 4 and 6, in our innocence, were disappointed because he had told us he was going to bring us back black silk pyjamas with roses on them. We didn’t even know what silk was—we thought it was like velvet—but that sounded pretty special and we were sorry we weren’t getting those pjs. Years later, when I learned about what happened in Vietnam, I was relieved my father didn’t go there (and embarrassed at my childish selfishness). Dad went away to far-off postings, like Alert in Canada’s North, but never really into danger. He got to travel around the world, and back and forth across Canada (sometimes with us in tow). He got to learn new things and meet great people. He was a pretty lucky guy.

Or so we all thought. In June 2015, he was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, or motor neuron disease). In our preliminary research on this illness, we discovered—surprisingly—that there is a link between military service and ALS. They don’t know what that connection is, but for some reason, a higher percentage of military veterans get this disease than those from the civilian population. What a shock it was to find out that the life Dad had loved so much might have been the cause of the horrible way in which he was going to die.

While my brother and I might have been a little angry about this, Dad never was. With the courage and stoicism that had been trained into him, he faced his limited future with a positive attitude. Well, most of the time—there were moments of grumpiness and lament, and during the car ride to the long-term care home I thought he was going to jump out the window. But for the most part, he accepted the fate dealt to him.

It helped that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs provided so much assistance. As soon as Dad’s diagnosis was confirmed, they stepped up with financial and moral support. They gave him more than he ever would have expected. That was such a help for all of us. End of life health crises are so difficult, financially and emotionally. Finding out what resources are available to you is a full-time job, which is stressful enough, let alone trying to pay for what you need. DVA took a large amount of that stress away from us. I think that gave Dad the most pride of his military career, knowing that the organization to which he had given his adult life, willingly and happily, was going to come through for him when he most needed them. He died in October 2016, only 16 months after his diagnosis, under his own terms and knowing that he wasn’t leaving his family with burdens to shoulder. He would have preferred to live until he was 150, and not have had to die in a way that robbed him so cruelly of his independence and dignity; but leaving with no debts and providing something for his family was an acceptable alternative. He was grateful to the Government of Canada for allowing him that choice.

He never would have imagined that he would be honoured with the Memorial Cross. For a career soldier, this is a monumental tribute, and one that he probably would have felt he didn’t deserve. He didn’t die or get wounded in battle. He wasn’t even really in any battles. Yes, he served his country but he thought he got more out of that than Canada did. And ALS, that was just an unfortunate circumstance in a predominantly lucky life. He never blamed Canada for that. To have known that the country would not only acknowledge responsibility for his illness and support him throughout his struggle, but then pay homage to his memory with a tribute such as the Memorial Cross—that crusty Chief Warrant Officer would have grumpily brushed away some embarrassing tears.

My tears flowed a little more freely when I finally held the crosses and ribbons in my hands. I knew they were coming; I had been contacted by DVA almost a year ago to make arrangements for this. But there is something about the weight of it—both actual (it’s sterling silver, after all) and metaphorical…. I’m proud of my father, and proud of my country, for what they did for each other.

Gord and Jerry Penney (my parents)

We are all touched by illnesses that we or our loved ones suffer, and for many of us there are associations that can offer us support. But we need to support them too, whenever and however we are able. My family has been touched by cancer, heart disease, MS and ALS (to name the most recent), and we have been helped by all of the organizations working to find cures for these illnesses. I have given my money and time to them when I can. I urge everyone to support the ones that are significant to you in whatever way you can. And if you or someone you love is afflicted, reach out for help.

ALS Society of Canada – https://www.als.ca
Canadian Cancer Society – http://www.cancer.ca
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada – http://www.heartandstroke.ca
Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada – https://mssociety.ca

Not long for the language

At the meetings of my local editors group, we have a “Word of the Month”. It gives us a chance to learn a new word or learn more about a word we already know, and have some topical discussion. This month I provided the word. I chose “cisgender”, which means (according to Merriam-Webster online), “of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.”[1] It’s a word that came up recently in an article I was reading with the ESL student I’m tutoring, and it came up a lot in a book I just edited about the opinions of Canadian youth on religion, gender and sexuality. It’s a fairly new word, but one that is perhaps not long for the language.

There has been much discussion, and some controversy, about how we discuss gender. There is debate happening right now about the use of “they/them/their” as a third-person singular pronoun. For editors, the issue with this is that it is grammatically incorrect—for now. That wasn’t always the case, and it may change again soon. For others, the debate is much more critical and is about the limitations of English when it comes to defining identity. “Cisgender” figures in this discussion too.

“Cisgender” is a fairly new word, emerging out of academia in the 1990s to fulfill a need in transgender discourse and study. A term was needed to describe what wasn’t transgender. Someone coined the term using the Latin prefix, “cis”, meaning “on this side of”—the opposite of “trans” which means “on the other side of.” It seemed to do the trick, at the time, an innocuous academic term. But”cisgender” has taken on much heavier meaning in recent years. For some, it has come to imply privilege and perhaps even prejudice. Identifying as “cisgender”, or being identified as such, suggests that perhaps you are not accepting of those who are transgender or don’t want their gender brought into the discussion.[2] My 25-year-old daughter tells me “cisgender” is almost a slur in some instances. So maybe this word won’t last much longer. Maybe it’s on the way out.

The book I recently edited showed the reluctance of young people to define themselves using old terms and phrases. When filling out a questionnaire, they didn’t always want to use the options provided for them when asked to describe aspects of their identities. They didn’t want to tick off just one box, or any box, or they wanted to create their own box(es). They wanted control of their identities, and that meant making the language fit their needs, rather than trying to make do with what was available to them. And they definitely didn’t want to accept the limitations of the common, perhaps old, identities that society dictates.[3]

This was particularly true of gender, and it’s the reason for the push to use “they” as a singular pronoun. People, especially young people, don’t want their gender—and all the judgements, assumptions, restrictions and expectations—identified when someone is talking about them. Refer to someone as “she” or “he”, and a lot is implied in those simple little words. But refer to someone as “they”, and gender is taken out of the discussion. That is what people want—to be seen, talked about, referred to as a person without gender, just as “themselves”.

When “cisgender” and the use of “they” as a singular pronoun came up in the article I was reading with my ESL student, it led to a very interesting discussion. It is hard for someone to learn our language when it is changing as they learn it. But as we talked about this issue, me and this young woman of the same age and opinions as my daughters and the young adults in that book, we both got very excited about the possibilities that change in the language could provide. It could mean a whole new way of looking at ourselves and each other, one that doesn’t have preconceptions or possibly bad intentions.

For me, watching this change happen is very exciting—but then I’m kind of nerdy about this stuff. It used to be that a change in our language would take years, decades. Now, in our “hyper-communicative” age, when ideas are disseminated globally in minutes, language change could be a matter of months or weeks or even days. As we grapple with this issue of identity and how to describe it, someone might come up with the perfect term, the perfect word, that will appeal to many, and it will sweep the planet, and just like that, the language will change. We might even be happy with it, for a while, until the next change is needed. I think that’s a good thing. Our language should keep up with us, not the other way around. But it does mean we have to pay attention to language, understand how and when it changes so that we can continue to use it well. I think that’s a good thing too.

[1] “Cisgender,”Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed 17 March, 2018. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cisgender.

[2] Paula Blank, “Will ‘Cisgender’ Survive?”, The Atlantic, 24 September, 2014. Accessed 17 March, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/09/cisgenders-linguistic-uphill-battle/380342/.

[3] Pamela Dickey Young and Heather Shipley, “Identities Under Construction” [tentative title]. Forthcoming.

Use Your Words

Last spring, I went to Paris—finally. I had been wanting to visit that storied city for many, many years, but circumstances had forced several changes of plan and cancellations. I was starting to think that I wasn’t meant to be in Paris. But I got there! And after waiting so long, I was determined to make the absolute most out of my experience—and that included speaking French.

As a Canadian, I am surrounded by French and am very familiar with the language, but I don’t use it enough to consider myself fluent. I can read, write and understand it, but speaking it is another matter. This isn’t uncommon. Speaking an unfamiliar language can be an intimidating and nerve-wracking experience, especially for someone who tends to be introverted. I have always been worried about how dumb I would sound, or how annoying I would be, struggling to spit out something intelligible in a different language. I know that a lot of people feel that way. And I also know that usually the people you are speaking to are kind, patient, helpful folk who are happy that you are trying to use their language and are more than willing to help you—this is something I tell the ESL students I tutor all the time. I also tell them that the only way to learn a language is to use it, no matter how scary that prospect. So, on this trip, I needed to listen to my own advice.

I arrived in Paris and forced myself to start speaking French right away. As often happens, the people I was talking to took pity on me and answered in English, but I struggled on in French. I knew I had to keep going or it wouldn’t get any easier. So, I checked into the hotel in French, I ordered my first lunch in a bistro in French, I bought my first baguette and other dinner items in French… and eventually, it was almost easy. But I knew I wasn’t going to be there long enough to reach the “instant translation” stage—when you don’t need to think about what you’re going to say; the right words are just there. Or so I thought. My shining moment came when my daughter and I were searching for gloves (because it was so much colder than we had expected it to be), and in a busy, little gift shop, finally getting the proprietor’s attention, I blurted out, “Avez vous les gants?” and scored a pair of wool gloves for my kid. Somewhere in the dark reaches of my brain lingered that French worksheet on clothing from grade 2, and it came surging forward when needed. I felt like a native—a feeling that lasted for about 15 minutes until I tried to order lunch, but still, I was pretty proud of myself.

We can have the same triumphs in our own first languages too. As an editor, I help writers use English to its full extent, in order to  communicate their interesting, beautiful and sometimes complex ideas. This often involves rearranging words and phrases to maximize clarity, or refining punctuation so that a long sentence makes sense from beginning to end (I work with a lot of academics—they can pack quite a bit into one sentence), or suggesting different words to avoid repetition of the same vocabulary. Good writing makes for good reading, good speaking makes for happy listening; and we have so many tools at our disposal in our language, it’s a shame not to use them as much as we can.

I’m a very avid reader, and have collected a large number of words and styles over the years for my own use. I try to utilize them whenever I can. Even in conversation, I edit myself, making sure that my speech is diverse and expressive. This practice has rubbed off on my daughters. They write and converse in the same way, using their language to its full potential. One of them, however, was criticized for this in first-year university; she was told that she shouldn’t use so many “big words”. I found this criticism disappointing. I’m sure there were other comments that could have been made about her work, so why focus on vocabulary, especially when it was used properly? Why discourage a young person from being expressive? Why encourage the use of mundane language? These are questions that can be posed about many forms of communication, from the news to social media to how we talk about our day when we get home. Why settle for using the same words and styles again and again? Why limit ourselves?

We sometimes tell upset children who are yelling or crying to “use your words.” It’s advice we should continue to bide throughout our lives. We know that the only way to achieve fluency in a new language is to use it, every chance we get. But we can also strive for fluency in our first language, using the thousands of words and many different forms that are available to us. This will improve and enhance our communication with each other, whether it be written or verbal. And what we get out of that will be much more exciting than a nice pair of French gloves.

Mobilizing language


I recently saw the movie, The Darkest Hour, about Winston Churchill. At the end, after Churchill has given a speech that brings the parliament to their feet, someone comments that, “He has mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”

That quote (something that was really said about Churchill, although who said it is debated) really made me think about the power of language, words and communication. We remember great words, whether we read them or hear them. Think of the famous speeches that still quicken our hearts: “I have a dream….”; “Fourscore and seven years ago….”; “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” Or those lines from fiction that stay with you forever: “O brave new world, that has such people in it…”; “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….”; “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” When I was young, I was given The Illustrated Treasury of Children’s Literature, and I had memorized most of it by the time I was 10. (I still have this book, by the way.) One of my favourite pieces from it was Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride – “Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere….” I didn’t really know what the poem was about, being a Canadian unexposed to the glories of American history, but I found the whole tale rather thrilling, especially those first two lines. The cadence of them made me feel like I was up there on that galloping horse with Paul – whoever he was. I would read those words and recite them over and over, just because they made me feel so happy, so excited.

I wanted very badly to be a writer myself, to be able to create such vivid imagery with words, and captivate others, hold them in chairs and on blankets under summertime trees with the power of my words. But I’m not a writer, not of that caliber anyway.

However, I do recognize the power of language, and how, if used properly, it enables us to communicate with each other across the planet and over generations.

When I was 4 years old, my family moved to Montreal and I was sent to a nursery school every morning. The teachers and students in the school only spoke French. I don’t know if I was the only English-speaking child there, but I was certainly in the minority. The only language spoken in that room each morning was one I didn’t know. I didn’t come out of there fluent – alas – but I did learn enough French to get by, and I especially remember being fascinated that there were different words for things. A girl was also une fille. Thank-you was also merci. Cookies and milk were also biscuits et lait. I was an eager student of French from then on, always wanting to know new words and new ways to put them together.

In university, I learned another language – Spanish – and was lucky enough to spend a semester in Salamanca, Spain. I was at a language school with other students from all over the world. The only common language we had was the one we were all learning. We had to speak it well or we couldn’t understand each other – even if we were speaking it in a bar at 4am after many cervezas – especially then!

That was when I realized how important precision and cultural understanding is in language. I had always been a stickler for using the right word, the right tense, the right grammar, mostly to make sure I got good marks. And translation exercises took me forever because I spent so much time trying to find the exact, proper word. But in a real-world situation, I saw that using a language correctly mattered so much for understanding and building authentic relationships. Language is the main means by which we communicate with each other, and using it well is vital to mutual comprehension. We can mobilize language, whichever one we are speaking, and send it out – not into battle, but into the world, so we can participate in our global community. We just have to make sure we don’t mess things up by using it incorrectly and creating massive misunderstandings. Mobilizing the language means using it to its full capacity, and that means using it right.

So, I might not be a creative writer, but I am a good language user. I might not inspire people with the wonders of my words, but I can refine other people’s words so they can do the inspiring. And that’s something .

Getting started…

    Working on my first blog post….

I recently saw the movie, The Darkest Hour, about Winston Churchill. At the end, after Churchill has given a speech that brings the parliament to their feet, someone comments that, “He has mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”

That quote really made me think about the power of language, words and communication. More to come…..