2007June23Saturday When the French Get Sick

Approximate Reading Time: 19 minutes

If true to form, I would have entitled this essay, “Getting Sick in France.” But this would not cover the subject in hand. Indeed, I would suppose (and I can only suppose, because nothing dire has ever befallen me or my wife while in France—I can say this, that is, certain common ailments, a cold, nausea, headache, vomiting, etc. are pretty much suffered as they are in the U.S. of A.; it sucks for a while and you get over it—and also, as per usual, pre-existing conditions are not covered) that to be consistent with the point of view I have always tried to engage in my essays on life in France I should wait until I get sufficiently ill that it requires a visit to a French hospital or physician’s office.

However, I boldly have decided not to do so. The subject is on my mind, the keyboard is at hand, the usual is occurring around me: bright sun, French blue skies, gentle breezes, the shade of centuries-old trees, birds twirping, bees buzzing, pigeons cooing, swallows swooping and whistling (but only at sunset), and flies omnipresent. The only other subject that interests me at the moment, speaking of flies, is the possibility of directing my analytic gaze at the possible differential behavior of the French fly (I mean la mouche Française, the winged variety, as opposed to the zippered or buttoned variety).

I can make short work of the latter. Like the zippered or buttoned variety, French flies that fly are pretty much the same as anywhere else, so let me take care of this now.

[The essay that might have been:]

“French Flies“ [I hate to give up the linguistic possibilities of that title, the ambiguity, the potentialities for ironic usage, the hipness, but life sucks sometimes]

French flies, the winged variety, unlike the buttoned and zippered variety, are pretty much the same as anywhere else, but particularly the United States. They’re everywhere. They’re a nuisance. They suck.

[The End]

Some of you will be astute enough to have noticed a slight modification in the essay above, kind of mortised into the essay proper (by the way, the mortise is a record for me: one paragraph consisting of four sentences, three of which had three words or less comprising them… the chances I let go by), from the prefatory remarks enclosed within the actual essay.

First I said flies (flying variety) here in France are like the zippered and buttoned variety, that is, not very much different. Then when referring to the zippered and buttoned variety (notice the steady heightening of titillation as I mention zippered and buttoned flies—there I did it again—not once, but four times so far) I said they were unlike anywhere else. Well, this isn’t quite true. I don’t know, not having studied, say, the Italian or Spanish types of flies (z & b types), but I would guess maybe in the other ”Latin“ countries of Europe, there may be similarities or even utter identity. Notice how I included France in this varietal geographic taxonomy of the continent of Europe and its currently constituted union of member nations, called “Latin?” This is something that Anglo-Saxon countries do (Britain, Ireland, not to mention the Scandinavians, maybe even the Teutons do as well, and the Slavs—I don’t read that press). They do this purposely, I’m sure, especially Americans (which still consider themselves, and therefore act, officially, like Anglo-Saxons—blue-eyed devils…) because of the sub-text that, being Latin, they are hot-blooded, and this explains their otherwise irrational unwillingness to go along with our hare-brained schemes geopolitically and economically speaking, because their heads are always, well, in their flies (the buttoned and zippered etc.).


The buttoned and zippered closures on men’s trousers are likely to be different than American men prefer, real American men I’m talking about (wink wink nudge nudge—oh wait that’s British…leer leer) in that they are shorter in length. Not because of any difference in endowment requiring less tailoring in this dimension (much as real American men would like to think so), but because these Latins will wear a nice pair of slacks with a shorter rise. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, ask a tailor, a woman, or a salesman at Barney’s. Otherwise let me suggest, you may, just possibly, be out of your depth reading this essay, or any essay, in this place, at this time, or any time. I expect people to keep up. Sometimes the fur flies thick and fast. The flies fly, but they are generally not thick, but of sufficient density in numbers, and not fast, being, in fact, kind of torpid, as it is summer, and it is the south of France and everyone is torpid. Even those seemingly anxiety-ridden always flitting American flies would be torpid down here. Let me put it this way, and then put finis to this unpleasant subject. While sitting here, just writing (I write, it’s not “just typing”) I’ve killed eight flies in the course of the production of one-and-a-half essays. And that’s by simply swatting with my hand, or with a copy of the 2007 edition of the French version of the Guide Gantié, a hefty, dense volume, printed on coated stock—it’s a brick.

Hence, no real essay on flies, wordy or wordly. French or otherwise. I will say, because it’s fun, that the French for fly, as in the closure of a man’s trousers to allow the facilitation of nature taking its course, is braguette (naturally, it’s feminine—it’s just the way; in France the counterintuitive is the intuitive). It’s not a hard word to remember. Just remember what’s inside the braguette and remember baguette, also feminine, naturally, and the English homonymic cognate “brag.” Simple. Funny. Let’s move along here.

Back to the matter at hand.

I have the same scientific qualifications as any self-styled intellectual in Cambridge, the educational hub of the United States, North America, mayhap the world (there is the problem of the Indians and the Chinese, not to mention the Japanese, and there have always been Jews and Israelis — but for the time being we wily Cantabrigians still have them bollixed and bamboozled so they think the same thing is true of Cambridge, and hence they are disproportionately represented among the student bodies of Harvard and MIT, the world’s GREATEST UNIVERSITIES). To wit, I’ve read three-and-a-half chapters of The Selfish Gene, I’ve watched that DVD of Hawking’s A Brief History of Time twice (OK, one-and-a-half times; but I do refer casually to “Hawking” in conversation), I’ve riffled through and looked at the index of Guns, Germs, and Steel. I pretend to have an opinion about that guy Pinker jumping ship from Harvard to MIT, or was it the other way around. What the hell? What’s the difference? I affect a blasé, if not cynical mien and attitude on subjects clearly of deep intellectual import.

Therefore I can make observations on my own of people’s behavior, engage in conversation with neighbors and friends here in France, in two languages (which is one-and-a-half more languages on average than most Americans, your average Americans, can lay claim to mastery of—strictly speaking, and truthfully, I haven’t mastered French, but French people do think I’m Belgian when I speak, and that counts for something towards that virtual Master’s degree in a foreign language). As always I have collected anecdotal evidence, buttressed by reading the local French press, and that impeccable and unquestionable authority on life in Europe, the World, and beyond, the ”International Herald Tribune,“ which is kind of a distillation of the New York Times, a fact that, if anything, concentrates one’s sense of its veracity, and almost, but not quite, justifies their charging two euros and 20 cents an issue for a 28-page (on average) flimsy paper.

Therefore you can trust, as you have for a couple of years now, the basic truthiness, if not truth, of what I have to say here.

Here’s how the French behave when they’re sick.

They go to the doctor’s office. In fact, many of them each go to several doctor’s offices, even for the same illness. Some of them, possibly saving up for the opportunity, or, to exercise a certain efficiency, not to mention the national trait of extreme frugality with regard to consumables, e.g., to save fuel, wait to have an odd assortment of symptoms, which, even to the ignorant, seem to be unrelated and thus possibly a signifier of multiple individual illnesses. They then go to several doctors, parceling out the symptoms, or sharing them all with each consulting physician.

I don’t think I am necessarily describing the behavior of the majority of French, but clearly a significant minority. I say this because this behavior accounts in part for the virtual bankruptcy of the social service system devoted to preserving the national health. People—some people OK?—simply like to get the assurance of attentive care, and an accurate diagnosis, and proper treatment—well, really who knows the ultimate or primary cause of this behavior?—and because it’s free, they go for it. Big time.

Did you notice the “free” in the last sentence? Americans are sensitive to the issue of health care costs, because health care is expensive, and growing more so. And it’s in our face, on the news, every time we see a doctor, receive a hospital bill, fill a prescription, etc.

The sensitivity of the French, no less palpable and apparent, and no less justified, is really attuned more to the high rate of taxes, as a result of the wide scope, depth, and breadth of the social safety net, which absolutely positively covers health care, but myriad other things we pay through the nose for, right out of our wallets. They merely get taxed to their eye teeth for same, all at once, as it were, So, if as a result of paying all those taxes, some service is offered on a completely and unquestionably free basis, you’re damn well going to take advantage of it. You don’t have to be as smart as a blue state American to understand that proposition. Indeed, not even red state Americans are so dumb they’d refuse the opportunities such an arrangement presents to any participating individual.

But in ways we cannot begin to imagine as possible, health care in France is free. Gratis. Not a plugged nickel. Gornisht, nada, and zip. If you’re a French citizen you show up at the showroom, excuse me, the clinic or cabinet (office) of a physician of your choice. show your identification, and you are examined and diagnosed and treated. No muss, no fuss, and not a red cent changes hands. Ever.

It used to be in France, before the socialists truly engaged the French consciousness and had an apparently ineffable effect on modes of social awareness, modes of governance and, most important, the core structure of the French system of taxation—say, at least 70 years ago, before paid holidays (what the hell, before any holidays), or mandated limits on the length of the work week, not to mention the work day—the entire French medical consciousness, among practitioners and the public alike, centered on the condition of the largest single organ in the human body. The liver.

Yes, there was Pasteur, and that whole bacteria thing. The French are a lot of things, but they’re not stupid, and they’re not unscientific. They didn’t need Napoleon to stop going to church. Virtually everyone is Catholic, but for decades something like only about 8% of the population actually attends church services on a regular basis. They’re essentially scientific minded (remember Madame Curie and Mr. Curie… Jacques Cousteau? eh? I’ll say no more). Hence they did take a very scientific “approach” to this whole matter of the liver. Or so it seemed to them. Even had they gone to church, I believe there is not a single reference to the liver in the entirety of the liturgy of the mass, but you’ll have to check with a theologian on this one.

In practice, any ailment more or less was perceived as “une crise de foie,” literally a “crisis,” but more idiomatically a “malfunction” or “breakdown,” of the liver. Something like having trouble with the starter of your car—or maybe the whole engine, as that’s a better analogy, given the engine is generally the largest organ, uh, mechanism in the auto.

Une crise de foie was (and, in dark smoky bar/tabacs and cafés still is) a broad and encompassing diagnostic term. It could be a small crise or a big one. Never to be taken lightly, it can manifest itself in all sorts of ways, with palpitations, or light-headedness, with pains in the chest, or in the joints, in the back, the stomach, or the head. I could go on and on. The literature on this, if there were a literature on this, would be as rich and comprehensive of every conceivable human symptom of disorder of the body as “The Yellow Emperor’s Book,” which was the chief tract on Chinese medicine for over two millennia and which is a heavy volume, filled with many words filling many pages.

Une crise de foie was (and, see conditions above, often still is) treated with specifics, by way of remedy, and usually prescribed and administered in a manner very reminiscent of the manner in which what is now called homeopathic medicine offers ways of remedying the sick. In truth, the chief specific recommended, sometimes large doses, sometimes small, of that little bit of the “poison,” if you will, that somehow, through the mysterious processes of inscrutable nature, had fallen into an imbalance, which manifested itself in the specific sort of breakdown of the liver in question, was, one way or another, alcohol. A cynic might say this all boils down to “a little bit of the hair of the dog what bit ya’,” but this would be unfair, and would defy the innate scientific basis for such remedial strategies—at least the theory of them is scientific in appearance. Further, as we all know, if you boil down alcohol, no matter what form it takes, the good bits, the efficacious component, is lost in the clouds of steam above the boiler.

So you are advised to take it straight. Many crises are best ministered to with red wine, which I believe was (and, blah blah blah, still is) the most frequently prescribed remedy. However, take care, as there are nuances here. As many nuances as there are varieties of grape, and types of red wine, and vintages, and levels of maturity and degrees of baumé, or brix (look it up, I warned you, I expect people to keep up and there’s no waiting here, temporizing while you find references to these esoteric matters). Sometimes you want a Bordeaux, sometimes a Beaujolais, sometimes it’s a crise so deep and alarming, nothing but a Burgundy will do. Then there are the considerations of which varietals to emphasize: your Mourvedres, your Syrahs, your Pinots, your Merlots, etc. etc. etc. And you thought wine was simply a matter for connoisseurs and oenophiles.

Some crises de foie are so severe that specific remedies are suggested for ingestion not only by the patient, but the attending, um, physician, the relatives standing around looking mournful, friends, attending experts, perhaps the negociant and even the vintner himself. Some are of such grave concern that the only remedy will be not even the wine itself (too weak), but a distillation of it, usually some form of eau de vie (you didn’t think they call it “water of life” for purely metaphoric reasons, did you?) and could depend on the region in France in which you found yourself and your malfunctioning liver. It could be a marc, a cognac, an armagnac, a Calvados, poire William, and so forth.

It may not surprise you to learn, as part of this inquiry into the health system of France, and the ways in which the good citizens of this still great country, adhere to them, that many believers in this particular pharmacopoeia advise that, in addition to providing a cure to various forms of crises de foie (or almost any other organ), one may ensure good health and will prevent such crises from ever occurring by the regular ingestion, while in a healthy state, of various of these specifics. One must pay careful attention that one varies the form of the specific, though copious amounts of wine in the course of a full day seems to be generally accepted as permissible, to be followed, at the end of the day (though there are adherents, especially in rural communities, who believe that a bit at the start of the day instead, or perhaps even better at both ends of the day) by a swallow or two of the water of life will guarantee that one’s life will be lengthened immeasurably.

Nowadays, with the flexibility that the stresses and demands that modern life places on your typical Frenchman, you find a sort of amalgam of the old ways and the new to their liking: regular ingestion of the classic preventatives to crises de foie, and willing, if not enthusiastic, participation in the free health care system.

I have had occasion many times in my essays based on observation of French life in the hinterlands and the great cities of this land to remark on the prudence and good sense of its citizens, and it would be unfair if I were not to say that most French people are generally prudent in their participation to access to health care. Nevertheless, as I alluded to above, the health care system in France is not itself very healthy, not from a fiscal perspective. In fact, it is in a condition that economists refer to as “deep shit.” I barely understand the science of economics myself, so I will not comment. However it is clear that one kind of crisis is evident and unrelieved, and the French government has no liver, so to speak, so the crisis will not be solved by sending a case of Médoc (literal or figurative) to the Assemblée Nationale, even if the right-wing party of the new president did manage to hold a majority there in the recent elections.

President Sarkozy has many ideas on how to solve this aspect, as well as many others that exist, of the overall fiscal crisis the country is slowly suffering. Most of these require the administration of another specific, namely money. Being as how there is no more money in the exchequer to apply to the problem of the absence of funds in the health care system, this money will come from the pockets of those most affected, the beneficiaries of the liberal health care system: the people themselves, it is expected, will pony up modest sums (preposterously small, if not ridiculous sums, if I may editorialize a bit, with my native United States citizen with an up-to-date passport’s sensibility in full play) when they pay a visit to the doctor.

One proposal would have the citizen pay a mere euro, a single euro, a lonely and individual bi-metal coin of that denomination, as, what we call in the U.S., a “co-payment” to help defray the cost of providing the state-of-the-art care the French receive otherwise for free at this present time. A euro coin is used in supermarket parking lots to provide temporary use of a shopping cart (the euro is returned when your shopping visit is done). A euro buys in your typical French bakery, at least in the hinterlands, 1.18 baguettes. It buys 5/6 of a cup of espresso (and the accompanying right to sit as long as you please sipping it, not to mention the glass of water you’re entitled to ask for by law in any café throughout the land). A total of a single euro acquits you of the social obligation to leave a token pourboire (a friendly tip for the waiter, more token than emolument, but still meaningful to the French) with each visit to the café, let us say three, maybe four times—in 20 or 30 cent increments. A euro will buy you 94% of a liter (94 cubic centimeters, you MIT grads) of diesel fuel (most of the cars these days are turbo-diesels, not least of the reasons being that the fuel is cheapest for these types of engines—kind of vin ordinaire for treatment or prevention of crises de foie), and a liter of diesel will get you about 12 kilometers down the highway, which is the distance to Aups from my house in Fox, that is, the shortest route to the cabinet of a doctor; there is a bar-tabac a lot closer, maybe one-eighth of a liter’s worth of fuel away, and the drinks are cheaper.

In short, a euro is nothing (it looms larger than that, of course, when we have to pay our mortgage each month on our little hacienda here in the ancient hills of Provence—but this isn’t about us). Yet the outcry at such an outrageous idea—to pay a single euro out of one’s pocket for a single doctor’s visit, that is, for every single doctor’s visit to pay a euro—is not dissimilar to the reaction to the rape of the Sabine women (among the Sabines of course—the average Frenchman doesn’t give a fig about this outrage, and, I daresay, even fewer Americans). The act would be looked upon not so very differently, that is, that a visit intended to seek salutary attention from a medical professional would be accompanied by a violation to one’s pocketbook (the second largest organ in the body, one might say, in jest of course).

There is a similar idea being floated that each citizen pay an annual, single franchise of ten euros (I’ll spare you the homely, if immediately poignant and down-to-earth examples of what ten euros would buy—I hope you get the idea; if not, I’ve lost you anyway…). That is, they would pay a "deductible" (which is what franchise means in this context) of ten euros for a surgery let us say, a hospital stay… Outrage and violation are too mild to describe the expressive distress this idea evokes.

Now that I’ve introduced the idea of a hospital stay, let me offer this information.

Rather than suggest that the sorry financial state of the French health care system (which, incidentally, the World Health Organization, which rates health care systems nation by nation throughout the globe on an annual basis, rates as the best in the world, and have done for a few years running; in other words, the French health care system is not only at the leading edge of losing money, but is doing so by providing exemplary care) lies entirely at the feet of its exploitative greatest beneficiaries, the French citizenry, let me tell you how the doctors behave.

As it’s all free anyway, and state-controlled, single-payer, and a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse, the doctors, being even smarter on average than the average French citizen, who often feels free to use and abuse the system with impunity, with the system taking no steps to stem the tide, never mind control it, or even simply take revenge, assuming the state were capable of an emotional response, the doctors, as I say, provide not only great care, but do it in spades. If your condition calls for a hospital stay, say for a procedure and tests (or one or the other), it calls, or may as well, for a stay of several days just as well as it does for what would be an adequate, but shorter, period. In the United States, I’ll remind you, standard practice says that even for many major surgeries, what’s adequate is a one-day stay. Hack it off, and send you home.

Not here in France.

True story: while we’ve been here this visit, our dear dear friend, whom I’ll call Regine, was diagnosed, during a routine annual test, with a case of a serious common disease that, in her case, was caught early and was not at an advanced stage. Nevertheless, it called for surgery, and the feeling was, sooner better than later, and she was scheduled for a visit to the hospital in a nearby coastal city (about an hour and fifteen minutes away) for a procedure and whatever might ensue. Fortunately, the size of the lesion that was removed was as small as suspected, and there will be follow-on additional therapy, but not much more.

However, Regine is languishing in the hospital, under the supervision of the medical staff, being tested and monitored, though she feels fine, feels “great” in fact (it was reported to me that on the day after the procedure she was planning to demonstrate some gymnastic routines she does regularly as part of her personal regimen to “prove” to the doctor that she was ready to go home—that was Friday, the procedure having been done mid-day Thursday—but she will be staying until Sunday; doctor’s orders). I have had major surgery, as has Linda, several times, and in three out of four instances we were sent home from the hospitals, listed among the top 20 in the United States, the day after we went under the knife. Our bills, in the United States, had we had to pay them in their entirety, amounted to five figures for the one day of intensive, world-class, care for those 24+ hours.

I am sure Regine’s care was no less superlative, and the costs, in proportion, no smaller. But whereas for-profit insurers, negotiating the convoluted financial arrangements that ultimately defray the cost of care in the U.S., try to ensure that costs are minimized or at least contained, there is no such oversight or safety valve in the French system. Or at least no effective one. What is at risk for France, where the care is impeccable and universal, without regard to ability to pay or severity of need, is that it is in great danger of rupture—thereby threatening the ability to maintain not only the level of care, but the very ability to deliver it to the populace that falls sick altogether.

The reasons are various, no doubt, and include the two broad matters I’ve tried to illustrate: the unchecked exploitation of the system by a sufficient portion of the population to make such behavior untenable, and the relatively unmanaged (and perhaps somewhat understandable) propensity of the professional health care providers to utilize the system to its maximum capacity, irrespective of the resources to maintain its operation at this level.

There is another factor, among the many I speculate exist, and that is illustrated by a conversation I had with Regine’s husband, whom I’ll call Bertrand. Clearly deeply concerned with this threat to Regine’s health, not to mention the long-term risk of shortening her life, however small (though greater than if she did not have the disease in the first place), Bertrand demonstrated an uncharacteristic response to the circumstances. In fact, very bright, resourceful, and innovative in many respects, and generally well-enlightened in so many facets of modern life that anyone living in a first-world country must stay abreast of, Bertrand betrayed a bewilderment and ignorance of medical facts, not only about Regine’s case, her disease, the procedure to be performed, and the staging of the necessary therapies to ensue, but, I had the vague sense, ignorant about the whole business of staying healthy in general. This both fascinated me, in the abstract, and concerned me, as his friend. I provided some tutorials in very basic terms, about matters I have the feeling, but no proof, that Regine’s doctor must also have provided, and in Bertrand’s presence.

I don’t know enough to say it’s typical, even of people in our own country, that is, to say that Bertrand’s reaction is typical, or that it’s typical to evince a general lack of knowledge that I think people of a certain age should begin to acquire, as they enter their middle years, and look forward beyond them, so they can anticipate what their role will be in terms of participating in their own medical treatment. And that, of course, requires a certain level of understanding and insight that it never occurred to me until now was actually a function of the way in which the whole society deals with these things.

It is possible, and, finally, to put all joking aside, that the virtues of universal free health care, such as the French do provide, getting high marks for performance and very low marks for management of the operational facets of the whole machine, are offset by the troublesome side effects, or artifacts, of providing a benefit that many of us feel should be available to all without question in a way that allows people to take it completely for granted. If ignorance is the result, and the wages of ignorance—ignorance of the consequences of abuse, ignorance of the simple economic formulation that there is no such thing as a free lunch, ignorance of the difference between being exploited for low wages and exploiting the system by refusal to pay a pittance to preserve an invaluable benefit, ignorance on the part of the practitioners of their responsibilities to be stewards of the system, as well as providers of the system, and ignorance of how our own bodies work, and what doctors must do to them to keep them healthy—is destruction of the system from the inside out, well there is only one sensible response. And that is, indeed, to lay it all at the lobes, as it were, of that incredible organ, the liver. And as a result to keep that organ as happy as can be, never mind the effects on our state of mind, by putting our lips around the neck of whatever bottle we can put a hand on that contains the vital essence of the fruit of the vine in whatever form it presents itself to our mouths.

rssrssby feather

2007June22Friday Wordliness vs. Truthiness

Approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes

The comic genius, Stephen Colbert, has famously crafted a new definition for the word "truthiness." Insisting his word was in fact an altogether different one than that which one can find in that still arcane reference, The Oxford English Dictionary, he found occasion, when criticized, to drive home the emphasis he wished to place on his "truthiness."€

"You don’t look up truthiness in a book,"€ he pointed out, "you look it up in your gut."€ And therein lies what’s wrong with America today, he claims, that is, the way we cling to a reliance on mere facts, instead of looking to our hearts for the essential truths of what is right.

What has this to do with me? Well, first, let me say, there is no pretense to being in his league, and certainly not a comic genius. I have my moments, I will admit. I think I can say this safely as others, with no reason to rub me the right way with hope of some benefit, have said as much, at such moments. Their sensibilities and perceptions coinciding with mine, I do swell with pride at those occasional instances when, intending to provoke a laugh, I did precisely that.

I have my own patent way of doing this. In person it’s easier, because "zingers"€ issuing spontaneously from my mouth have a way of doing exactly that, and with great brevity and compactness (the soul of the comedic moment), and the matter is closed.

In writing, it’s another story. No one knows, even those who should know don’t, where this comedic impulse comes from. In his column/blog for the NYTimes, Dick Cavett, on the subject quotes Woody Allen who, Cavett says, "has pronounced it to be a mystifying gift, not susceptible to rational explanation." [http://cavett.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/05/23/a-life-in-rim-shots/ this is the URL for Cavett’s blog, which I highly commend to you, not just for this one entry in May, but for following with regularity; he has yet to write a dud]. Would that I either had such a talent for sure, or that I had had the heart or the guts, or the mere overwhelming need to prove I had it and to do what so many comic geniuses have done. That is, would that I had put my ego on the line, and the prospect of starving at risk and sought the unavoidable test of delivering that most evanescent of human products: humor to order, against a deadline.

When I do write, whether it’s humorous or not, and if so, whether it’s intentional or not, there is one quality of which you can be assured, and that is, to emulate in a lame way the inspired neologistic impulse of Colbert (who allegedly invented "truthiness"€ with its peculiar meaning to him, just moments before he started filming his first episode of his own show), the "wordliness" of what I have to say.

I am not just wordy, which can have a perfectly neutral meaning (now archaic, according to those lexical sources Colbert scorns) of being made up of words (what then? algebraic symbols?), and more usually and certainly as chronically applied to me, a negative one meaning using more words than are necessary. I will say this, first asking my usual question in response, one that I think is perfectly logical to me, and that is, "according to whom?"

Popular opinion holds no water, not from my well. It’s popular opinion that gave us George Bush as President. It’s popular opinion that gave us… but enough said, just by saying the magic word "Bush."€ The duck will not give you 75 bucks at the end of the show, incidentally, if you do say "Bush."€ Though the proper response to hearing the word is to duck. The response to "Cheney" should be to run for cover, preferably to an undisclosed location.

I have been hearing for too long that I use too many words, that I don’t get to the point, etc. etc. Frankly I don’t care. Consider this as one possible explanation for my otherwise generally irritating verbal behavior. My "point" is to use a lot of words. Not merely for the sake of using a lot of words, which seems like a grand inefficiency, if not a sign of an obsessive, possibly masturbatory tendency whose only gratification is purely self-reflexive. I know this not to be true, because under certain conditions, indeed, my what I’m calling "wordliness" has elicited expressions of gratitude, at the very least, and unsolicited expressions—€”clearly meant to bolster my sense of well-being and self-worth—€”of congratulation, adulation or approbation, sometimes some combination of all three.

Here is the usual scenario that produces the latter response.

I have at least one other reputation, apparently despite my greater more invidious reputation for using too many words (an expression that always makes me think of the famous observation by the Emperor Joseph II of Austro-Hungary of a new composition by Mozart that the piece was fine, but that there were "too many notes," a moment immortalized in its portrayal in the movie "Amadeus.")

I have a reputation for being a ready, and often expert, resource for information on a variety of subjects, including those that are the context for what we call a "considered purchase,"€ that is of high-ticket items, usually of comfort, based on high technology, or more generally constituting a category I will call "œhigh gadgetry," from computer scanners to high-end mp3 devices.

I will readily admit, I am the type of fellow, call him a geek, or something less severe, more polite, who, casually asked the time, might just respond with an abstract on the history of clock making or, if in a philosophical mood, I will share my thoughts on cosmology. However, I will eventually report the time, very often with significant accuracy (which is important to me, it’s the same impulse as that for using the "œmot juste," but expressed in horological terms).

But most people, being assured of my knowledgeable reputation on a subject, contact me for a useful response, and not because they want to provoke or trigger a perfectly predictable torrent of digressive, discursive, allusive prose, filled with multi-syllabic words and phrases, dense with dependent clauses, parenthetical asides and the use of every weapon in the armamentarium of typographic devices used to set off phrases and clauses not entirely germane to the matter at hand, and, in strictly ordinary (and crushingly boring) terms specifically to the point—€”like a laser to the moon. This is not even to mention my proclivity, if not my preferred inclination, to use my two favorite items of punctuation, the ellipsis (but for purely dramatic or rhetorical effect… as opposed to represent material previously present and now redacted from the narrative) and the semicolon; the latter, of course, is completely out of favor with, not the word police, but the style police, who are a far more dangerous menace than the clods who simply think certain words should be avoided for their explosive potentiality when placed in proximity to hypersensitive humans who should learn to grow up and suck it up if someone uses pejorative epithets instead of some approved effete euphemism. The style police would constrain the breadth of reach any artist should be free to strive for, because their own limitations leave them filled with grief at having reached their expressive limits, significantly short of merit, never mind genius.

Anyway, say you’ve got a question about digital cameras. Why, fire off an email to Howard, you’re told. He’ll have the right answer. He’ll have a good recommendation. He can point you in the right direction.

I get the email and being generous to a fault, with that most valuable of ineffably elusive of resources, that is, my time, I will write, as well as I can, as comprehensive, yet concise and specific of answers, tailored to the circumstance of my interlocutor: constraints of budget, or technological expertise, or tolerance for certain technical or historical details, which I, or some other more scientifically minded individual might find not only relevant to a general understanding, but pertinent to the business of picking out a product, and only one product, for a single purchase, and some time in the next two or three days (as opposed to the months or years one might want to spend in contemplation of the aforementioned cosmological aspects of the question).

Or say a more personal inquiry appears in my in-box. It may involve a matter concerning the choice of an institution of higher learning of a friend’s child recently come of age, and having received their bac (as they call it here in France, for baccalaureate; more prosaically their high school diploma in the ‘€˜States), or it may involve a matter of the heart, or it may involve a delicate, if not fraught issue between the writer and a mutual friend, or it may be an entirely self-referential personal matter, requiring the resolution of a significant "life"€ decision they find themselves on the threshold of having to make. It may be simply a recommendation as to where to eat with out-of-town guests who suffer a specifically defined set of constraints in their dietary preferences and allowances.

I write back, with the same spirit of generosity of not only time, but camaraderie, neighborliness, a touch of samaritanism, and the sheer pleasure I wish to share that comes from cementing the bonds of friendship through human kindness and consideration. And indeed, referring to this last quality, the thanks I get in response—usually a very brief response, thank God, if truth be known; I don’t want to read some verbose expostulation or flowery ornate ejaculation of appreciation… what am I? made out of free time?—makes an allusion to my "thoughtful" reply. And this adverting to this peculiarly rare quality these days always carries with it a tone, sometimes an outright allusion, though nothing so direct as to be probative, that always allows me to infer that the recipient of my email not only did not expect such a voluminous and authoritative, if not canonical, answer, but in fact, experienced a not unpleasant surprise in being the recipient of such consideration.

"Thoughtful," the word, has, I think, as its closest concise meaning, "considerate."€ One who is thoughtful does, indeed, think. But as well they do so not only in the manner of considering the subject or the topic, but they do so in the spirit of considering the needs of the party on whose behalf they are exerting themselves. If you are considerate of others it’s because you are thinking about them as more than another mere living creature.

It is under such conditions that I never hear the sneering critique that I have used "too many words."€ Or, "Gee, can’t you get to the point?"€ What happens to all this impatience when the presumed beneficiary of my extensive expressive output is not selfish old me, who may be merely capitulating to some selfish and perhaps greedy need to just go on and on and on, and in public, simply because I like the look of my own writing (as if, in perusing it myself, I were not reading it, as I might expect any reader to do—what a silly thought—€”but merely looking at the words… kind of similar to the famous observation of the work of Kerouac, I believe by Truman Capote, that "that’s not writing, it’s typing"€), but the beneficiary is the recipient, who initiated this torrent of an embarrassingly rich load of useful information and knowledge, if not wisdom?

I admit I like reading my writing. As the great rabbi of old (Hillel, is it?) would say, if not me, who? The recipients of my efforts at knowledgeable help never apologize for needing it, or expect to be insulted for asking.

Why am I not "too wordy,"€ in fact, when the beneficiary is, without question, little old you?

Finally, and again, not to make smart self-serving, if not sly, presumptuous, and insinuating comparisons between myself and a recognized high standard that bear no proof in the matter of truth, or even of truthiness—how many of us feel about "The New Yorker"€ that it has an endless list of contents, from one issue to the next. And in viewing the week’s latest issue we find ourselves saying, well, I couldn’t possibly be interested in that subject, only to discover that these essays, or profiles, or features—€”call them what you will—€”that do go on interminably or so it seems, and in purely quantitative terms, also have the quality of drawing us in and keeping us through to the end, strictly because of the quality (in the sense of bearing and sustaining a high standard) of the writing?

That’s my aim. Length is not the question or the problem, but the mere dimension. I’ll call it not wordiness, in all its ugly, mean, and ill-intentioned injuriousness, and so often and blithely thrust my way. I’ll call it wordliness, which always has the same intent, the same neighborly, human and humane intent I have in serving some circumscribed personal and private need, often of a complete stranger that a friend has pointed in my direction.

It does me good, if no one else. Does that mean it’s doing you bad?

I don’t think so. As I say so many times, if it’s that bad, don’t read it. No one yet has had the guts to say, like an imperious ignoramus, anything other than "Too many words Dinin."€ If it’s shit, say so. I can take it. If it’s true, I’ll try never to do it again that way or that badly.

And that’s the truth.


[If you’ve reached this far, you’re a true believer in wordliness, and you should subscribe, so you’ll get reminders by email automatically, whenever I post a new essay. The subscription link is in the sidebar to the left, scroll down, to just below the list of "Categories," and just above the "Technorati Fave" button, which is above the Google search window… Thanks.]

rssrssby feather

Subscribe today to Per Diem…

Approximate Reading Time: < 1 minute

To quote my friend and neighbor Martha, "Ain’t technology grand?"

I have added a spiffy link to the sidebar on the left-hand side of this page. Scroll down carefully. It’s there. Honest. It’s all in type, so it may be a little hard to see: it appears right after the end of the handy list of Categories…

If you click on this link, which says something like "Subscribe to Per Diem Updates by Email" (in fact, that’s exactly what it says—just another indication of my irrepressible modesty, if not of my manifest anxiety about being wrong), you will be taken to a page on the Feedburner.com site.

This asks for your email address. They will then send a confirmation email with a link in it, and once you click on that, you will be "subscribed."

Then you never again have to read another falsely timorous, excruciatingly self-conscious, and embarrassingly unfunny reminder from me that there is a new essay on the blog (doesn’t the use of "essay" and "blog" with mutual reference to one another constitute an irresolvable internal inconsistency not unrelated to oxymoron?).

You can unsubcribe any time. It’s very easy to do, I’m told—just 39 steps and two forms to fill out.

Really not.

Just another thoughtful service from moi.

rssrssby feather

French Photos (heh-heh)

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

I am besieged (there must be two, maybe three of you) by requests for photos while we’re here in France. It ain’t easy. I don’t shoot a lot, for one thing, and for two I’m a persnickety, meticulous, if not obsessive worker. So usually no photo appears [snap] just like that.

But this was easy. I shot a few shots just outside my door. No muss, no fuss.

These images are all, as the French say, "nature," which is not to say they’re something other than natural—I mean they’re photos of flowers for God’s sake—but they are unadulterated: unedited and unchanged, more or less direct from the memory card of my camera. This also means I am disinclined to respond to critiques from the photo-geeks and other geeks out there. These are not optimal photographically speaking… not ready for prime time. But they’re more than good enough.

You have to go to the bertha Web site to see the mini-portfolio:


I made it easy, on the home page, click on the link (the photo or the words) with the picture of the flower.

What you’ll see are common hollyhocks, which abound in the village in every imaginable hue, from deep purple (almost black) to white. The three specimens here are what, as I say, are 15 feet from our door. The other shots are of what we call oleander (which are even closer to the door, in huge pots), and what the French call (and I prefer) laurier rose. Either way, for you botanical and Latin freaks, that’s Nerium oleander. The hollyhocks are Alcea rosea. In the background of one of the oleander shots you can even see the white slatted bench made famous in my by now world-renowned obsequies for the former owner of our little house, M. Jean-Michel Braunstein < http://perdiem.bertha.com/2007/06/2007june13wedne.html >.

That’s it. No more for today. No. No questions. Please.

rssrssby feather

The Cats of Provence: Any Space is Refuge, All Space is Dominion

Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes


Villecroze, le vieux village, June 2007

Nominally, the animal for which France is best known is not the coq, the cock or rooster that is the symbol for the country. It is the dog, for which the French have a legendary abiding affection, one that transcends even that most dog-loving of countries, the United States. In the U.S., we lavishly treat our pets with an unrivaled level of fiscal imprudence. We spend money on our dogs like there’s no future. We ostentatiously display our love for our animals for all the world to see and, presumably, envy for its manifestation of our national traits of grandiosity, generosity, and publicity.

I wish to take nothing away from Americans’ love of dogs. Most dog owners are serious and sincere lovers of their animals, and they treat them accordingly to the best of their ability.

However, we have nothing on the French for their sense of inclusion, and their undemonstrative (it is unconscious, the absolute opposite of ostentatious, not to mention vulgar, that is, the depths to which some Americans stoop to provide proof of their affection) willingness to make dogs part of every aspect of their lives. In America we tolerate barriers, especially in public, to the presence of dogs where humans gather, especially for purposes of nourishing themselves, imbibing, gathering socially, bathing or any number of quotidian activities that, within the constipated American sensibility are somehow vaguely private in nature, and, being private, their violation is tantamount to spreading a disease intentionally. Hence, we treat dogs like terrorists and exclude them from the most public of places.

The most familiar example is dining. In Cambridge, dogs are even excluded from sitting with their humans when they are seated outside, at tables and chairs that occupy space that is otherwise used as a public walkway.

In France, famously, the dog is welcome wherever his human is welcome (though there is a sinister and growing countervailing sentiment at work in France and certain establishments are beginning to exclude canine guests). The one disgusting and increasingly uncontrolled consequence of the casual acceptance of dogs in the lives of the French is the universal presence of dog shit wherever you go that has paved byways. It’s a sign of the ubiquity and the otherwise unparalleled acceptance of dogs as equals. You travel the roads in rural France, and hardly out of sight are men stopped at the side of the road, relieving themselves. I suggest the nonplussed (at worst) response to dogs relieving themselves, without constraint or self-consciousness (on the part of their humans, naturally — a dog’s gotta’ do what a dog’s gotta’ do, unless they’ve been trained to do it some other way: dogs are pretty much trained about the same way the men are) is the final proof of the fundamental identity of dog and human in the French sensibility. Dogs are merely a furrier, four-footed kind of human here in La Belle France.

Hence my thesis. The real king of the roost of the animal kingdom, at least here in rural France, is the cat. Cats rule. Every village, every town, every city throughout the great southern plains and the massifs that penetrate them is overrun by felines. Cats are everywhere, untamed and untrammeled. There are two, perhaps three, types of cats in the taxonomy of the domestic feline Français.

The house cat, that most pampered of beasts, who lives with its human, and stays indoors when not allowed gingerly out to lounge for a bit in the confines of the town square, take in a little sun, warm its interior organs is readily identified. It redefines clinical obesity. It is capable of no more than a waddle so fat is this creature with overindulgence. It disports itself in aloof regal splendor, magnified by its own bulk. Its importance is increased by its sheer physical mass, like some U.S. Senators. It disdains contact, and, as the quintessence of all cat behavior displays the greatest amount of sheer ignorance of the human presence. Its human, who supplies that overabundance of provender, is tolerated.

The other two types are almost indistinguishable. If the domestic household fat cat is somebody’s, very much so and exclusively, there is usually a bevy of beasts of somewhat a less definitive status, slightly tame, slightly domesticated, and clearly very much tolerant of the human presence (as they know whereof is the source of their dried bits of baguette, of their smidgens of table scrapings, of their anonymous small piles of kibble, which appear and reappear mysteriously in various spots in every neighborhood). These are, like that poor creature, one of the characters in "West Side Story," and the only female member of the gang of Jets, known as "Anybody’s." It is likely, though I am only speculating, that one of the more favorable of this breed, usually a matter of temperament or a comely appearance, that from time to time, one of these essentially unclaimed beasts becomes a house cat, trades up as it were, exchanging a far ranging freedom for the security of an assured supply of excessive grub at all hours of the day and night, only having to tolerate immoderate displays of affection from their adoptive human, who no doubt will actually expect to make frequent and, hard as it is to say, affectionate physical contact.

I used to be cat-tolerant, at worst ambivalent, allowing myself the delusion that these "pets" were actually capable of interacting in a way that engaged at some primal level the sharing of sympathetic feeling and attraction, if not an actual mammalian emotional interdependency. I am over that now. I do not delude myself that cats are capable of anything more than looking at me, sometimes with a gaze one can be persuaded by oneself is a gaze of gentle tolerance, if not the mildest of affection, but is actually the look of a predator pondering the ease or difficulty of converting a particularly large specimen of prey into meat.

The cats that are "anybody’s" are sustained by the community. The community consists of a certain number of permanent residents who see a superfluity of small, seemingly harmless creatures, covered with fur and so with the potentiality of being the recipients of loving caresses and hence being the willing receptacles for excess amounts of expressions of human kindness (dogs are not sufficient in this regard, especially as they are, as I say, essentially a four-legged form of human that actually seeks our company, no different than another companion, of the hominid two-legged variety, and we all know how fickle and unsatisfying and unpredictable those relationships can be). So deluded these members of the community make regular, if not frequent, and continual contributions to the kitty larder, that is, the paving stones and asphalt streets, the steps and walls and alleyways of the village. Scraps and crumbs, bits and pieces, manufactured feed and leftovers appear mysteriously, and without end, in the same places.

The cats have it made. Furthermore it would seem that all that is expected of them is that they reproduce. Which they do of course. And their prolificacy is prodigious (if I may use a redundancy to describe the legendary proportions of this animal’s ability to reproduce far beyond the biblical injunction regarding fruitfulness). Just as there is an endless supply of food, from unidentifiable sources, there is an endless supply of cats to consume it. This means that at any time, there is a vast population of adults, adolescents, and kittens that abound. They work in shifts. Some lounge on cars, on terraces, tabletops, chairs, chaise longues, benches, tops of stone walls, on steps, in archways, doorways, and on window sills. There are flower pots, flower boxes, gutters, drains… In short they are everywhere, sunning themselves, scampering, playing and pawing one another. These latter activities are the speciality of the kittens who seem to know they elicit the most heartfelt response to their seeming helplessness and diminutive stature.

But one should never mistake this temporary appearance for anything more than their part in the larger strategy of keeping the food chain open and full.

The cats, from kittens to doddering elders, are of every hue and variety (I refuse, despite the insistence of zoological experts, to differentiate one "breed" from another, purely on the basis of some insignificant superficial characteristics of coloring and abundance or lack thereof of fur, its thickness and length also notwithstanding). There are calicos, and money cats, there are tabbies of every possible variation of hue, there are brindled cats, palominos, pintos, all black, and all white, and all of every color in between. In short there’s a design choice for every possible taste. Again, an unscrupulous, if not brilliant strategy, to ensure that every susceptible human will respond favorably to one of these creatures, and leave out FOOD. Which is always commonly consumed, as it is impossible to single out your favorite for exclusive feeding rights, unless you have become so susceptible as to take the rash step of bringing one of these creatures into your home so you can treat it like a favorite duck or goose whose liver needs fattening to grotesque proportions.

Finally, there are what I suspect are the only real workers, and the only really worthwhile members of the species within this taxonomy. I speak of the essentially semi-feral cats, who are, admirably, so disdainful of humans, and sufficiently honest about it, that they avoid us altogether. They are visible, if at all, at best, as skulking shadows, running in an instant the opposite way if they suspect from your regard or your posture, or your sudden change in direction as you move, that you may show the slightest interest in lessening the distance between yourself and them.

Presumably these latter subsist on the meager leavings of their more duplicitous and narcissistic cousins, and as well by hunting for their natural prey, which, as we are, after all, in the country, is lying out there in abundance. They needn’t worry about the competition from their semi-civilized brethren, and not ever at all in the least from their fully domesticated relatives who, even if the instinct bestirred them, their sheer bulk would prevent them physically from taking the proper steps, never mind a proper pounce, so as to be able to catch the odd field mouse, or chipmunk, or baby rabbit, or whatever other disgusting forms of wild rodentia they feed upon.

So there it is. The Provençal cat. Ubiquitous, unavoidable, and hence the true animal of France.

Continue reading

rssrssby feather

2007June17Sunday 8:36 AM The Boys in the Band are in AARP

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

There is a story running in the NYTimes today, entitled “The Boys in the Band are in AARP,” about how middle-aged band members, reaching back to their younger years, and still playing in their suburban garages the same raucous music that stereotypically drove their parents crazy have now entered the age of retirement. To allude to another stereotype, I must suppose that the sub-text, the ironic sub-text, is that they are supposed to be grabbing shuffle boards, or perhaps tennis rackets, not their “axes.”

The story is here on the Times site: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/17/fashion/17dadbands.html?em&ex=1182225600&en=d6146faca9a61581&ei=5087%0A [may require registration to be read]

I guess if we had all taken up Mozart on period instruments in our teens, we’d all now be playing chamber music in the garage, and that would still be newsworthy, but not ironic… So the irony is the news, not the revivalism. What’s wrong with people continuing to play the music they played their entire lives? Why is it news? There was a story also about "tattoo regret" in the Times today. Maybe it would be news if former rockers had gone from the Monkees to Mendelssohn on period instruments.

Not that it would have made any difference to me. All of my parents’ entreaties to take up an instrument, meaning anything from the violin to the clarinet (I did toy with the idea of the oboe—I don’t know why the oboe, but there it is, though the Mozart oboe concerto is one great piece of music) had a resounding response from me, of “NO!” Most of my friends, from the age of ten on, had among their daily dose of chores music practice, and their weekly lessons. Some of them became quite proficient. Most not, and I never hear music played but rarely by my peers, I mean what has always been called classical music. There are no jazz players, alas, but one, and only a distant acquaintance, who is a famous blues and jazz pianist whom I met through another friend, and they knew one another, anomalously, because they all lived in the suburbs (now there’s a story, “Bebop Cats have moved to Belmont”).

When I was growing up, the only music to be taken seriously was classical music, and its study was as de rigeur as soccer team play now is in the affluent suburbs of most American cities, Boston included. Jazz was played by blacks, period, who smoked something called “reefer” that made you “high,” and it was all kind of arcane and forbidden, but not in a bad way so much as it was a mystery both not to be fathomed or explored.

The nature of musical preoccupations and the playing of it, even on a voluntary basis, with enthusiasm, began to change when I entered college in the early 60s, when rock ‘n roll began to enter the mainstream with the full effect on popular culture of the wild popularity of the Beatles, and the instantly legendary stories of their start in lower-class British “skifflle bands.” It was the music almost anyone could afford to play, and anyone could learn, it was so simple, at least at the start. And for boys, there was the cachet of being in a band, and more importantly the apparent allure to women (or girls, should I say, as we were all still gawky children, fondling and groping one another experimentally even as so many boys groped and fondled their instruments in the struggle to become proficient to the point of having something called “chops”).

For me, there was still no attraction, if anything greater repulsion, to the idea of learning to play even a guitar, with the aim of plunking away at folk or rock favorites. Perhaps if the prospect of playing Scarlatti keyboard sonatas with some grace and feeling were as easy as I was told it was to learn, say, the three basic universal chords of blues, I would have rushed out with the same avidity as my friends, and bought, well what? A used Steinway baby grand? They cost a great deal more than a Harmony Stratotone, and my budget didn’t allow that, not without a severe crimp in my vinyl record spending ability. And it was a lot easier to listen to records of great musicians, and took up a lot less timedoing so than trying to attain the same proficiency, less time than it would have taken first to begin and then to dedicate myself to learning, which I knew would have required years. Also I knew, that it was almost a hopeless case for anyone more than 10 years old, even those with the magical qualities called “prodigy,” to begin to learn with the expectation of being able to play anything seriously once you were well past that age. Some do it, but they do indeed have prodigious talent, and the attainment of their skills has taken what seems to me to be super-human concentration and dedication.

Of course, most of the people I knew, and the hordes I didn’t know, but only knew of, had neither the chops nor the zeal, nor the dedication to take their show on the road and try to make in the world of professional music, for even rock and blues and folk were serious and professional once making a living at it figured into one’s intentions. Indeed I have met far more classical musicians who took that road, meeting them later in their lives. Such individuals would not have been visible in my youth, being sequestered for hours of practice and further segregated into schools or among faculties far outside the ken of ordinary youths like myself.

One did hear about those garage bands however. And it never stopped. It has fallen out that, among my male friends today, at least, there are a number of former rock musicians—not professionals mind you, but many amateurs, and even a few who, in their past, reached a crossroads and chose the more mundane path of electrical engineering, let us say, than donning a motorcycle jacket, and greasing their hair (either with pomade or by the simple expedient of never washing it and never cutting it), and playing those immortal few chords on their six- or 12-string "axes" every night at “gigs,” fending off the “chicks“ (or it was the drums, or the bass, whatever, there was an enduring quality to the sense of kinship with the music and their instruments). Now that we are all thinking about the prospect becoming old and tattered, paltry things not so very long from now, it is not surprising to see stories, especially not surprising to see ironic ones, about how the music goes on.

Nevertheless, it is not such an unusual thing that people would cling to their music. Yet I wonder, aside from what I said, that is, it’s obvious that the playing into one’s seniority is not the news—classical musicians are notable for playing continually until they keel over, into their 80s and 90s; Vladimir Horowitz, the legendary Russian pianist, who played and lived into his 80s, said the playing kept him young—why it’s news. In fact it’s common.

From the headline to this story, the allusion to ”The Boys in the Band,“ I was sure the narrative, and the point, would be about closet gays, now in late middle age, being mainstream, utterly out of the closet. The play and movie with that name dates from the same garage band era, the late 60s and early 70s, that the news story about greying amateur garage musicians still rocking on alludes to. But it is not the story, of course, but should have been. Now that would have been news.

In my youth, everyone admitted to a love of rock, and, those who could, would broadcast their involvement with the playing of it. But no one admitted to being gay. That was a true forbidden zone. It’s not news that something so ordinary and quotidian — playing music, however raggedly or with finesse — has remained so for an entire generation. It is news, however, when the verboten has become so mainstream as no longer to be noticeable. The phenomenon itself, the transformation of the extraordinary and the banished to the ordinary, if not the mundane, gives eternal hope to the prospect that what is always so hard to accept today for the mainstream will become not only acceptable, but alluring.

This Times story reaches back not quite far enough, for the true bad boy days of rockers goes back to the 50s, when the few musicians who played the evil music called rock ‘n roll, the ones who originated the greaser image and the clothing emulated by those poor British boys who made such dress common and desirable, were themselves in their 20s and even 30s way back then (when we were merely children, or none even born yet, as some AARP members can attest), which means they are well into their dotage — not into their garages — if they are not already dead. And the death of old people, who used to do things that were outrageous in their day, but are commonplace now, especially among middle class respectable people with bulging waist lines and dust bunnies on their Stratocasters, isn’t front page. Not to me. It’s not even back of the book.

rssrssby feather

2007June15 Friday E Pluribus Insania—No Mas No Mas

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

The basic centuries-old Provençal stone farmhouse, with terra-cotta tiled roof, shutters, and surrounded by a wheat field in which also stands a lone tree of classic proportions of such beauty it drives Elaine Scarry to write a sequel to her essay is called, in the indigenous language, a mas. The “s” is not pronounced. Just as silent is a Provençal realtor if you ask him to show you one. “There are no more” my realtor told me it’s almost six years ago, when I showed up to go house-hunting.

The proverbial song for which you could buy such a treasure for pennies on the dollar, back in the 60s, or the 70s was it, is the song without words in the 21st century. They’ve all been snapped up and rebuilt and rebuilt and expanded, tricked out, and swimming pooled, and the prices are through the roof. Yet what always sells every American, Brit, Swede or what have you on trying to realize that romance instantly triggered in every Western soul whose body sets foot on the deep russet soil of deep Provence is the mas, the ancient home of man and beast living off that great red earth, and taking in the beauty that surrounds at every degree of the compass.

We first tasted the heady wine of French provincial life in a mas. It is a three bedroom beauty, or a nondescript typical entity, depending on your point of view, that was owned by a sister Cantabrigian I encountered only by the serendipity of the concentration of like sensibilities in the city that’s the home of the world’s most opinionated zip code, and the happy coincidence of my seeking something a little different for my first vacation in mythical Provence, and her willingness to rent to any vetted American with 500 bucks to pay her rent for a week in what proved to be paradise.

Joanne’s farmhouse is down on what I now refer to familiarly as the plain (as we are up another 150 or 160 meters or so in the village atop the hill that overlooks not only all the mas below, but every other grange (barn), chateau (not “castle,” but simply a very large house with many rooms and usually owned by a very rich man as traditional lineal descent of ownership is through the male), every bergerie (sheep barn), cabanon (cottage) and every sort of any kind of appartenance (outbuilding) visible from our commanding height for about three or four miles around). There are not only the aforementioned bedrooms, but one bathroom, with a huge tub next to a window through which a friendly neighborhood goat would often stick its head while you were washing your altogether, and a toilet, but no sink—on the ground level, you washed your face and hands in the sink in the kitchen, with the produce and dishes. A water closet and wash basins were randomly distributed in the upper floor, reachable by two separate, yet equal stairways. Neither stairway provided access to the other part of the floor. The stairway from the salon, or living room, curved to the right and left you at the door to a bedroom which had a separate toilette including water closet and hand sink. The other stairway, which faced the entry door, curved to the left, and left you in a hall off which were disposed two bedrooms—the master bedroom, because it was largest, with the largest bed in the house, and with a large armoire, but no amenities by which one could perform one’s ablutions, and next to it, a small bedroom with two very tiny beds accompanied in one corner by a triangular hand sink set into the walls where they met.

Off this latter hallway was another doorway, locked, about which we received no instruction in the lengthy typewritten sheaf of papers that told us a variety of things about life in “Le Cleou,” which is how I learned early on that even the most humble of dwellings had a name, and which included what to do with the poubelle (trash—trudge up the hill with it and about ten yards down the road to a town dumpster with a lid, made of puke-green thick-walled polyethylene: the standard issue throughout Provence and all France. On trash collection day, these get lifted by a hydraulic device on a garbage truck that makes the rounds). We found a key that fit the lock and turned it, and found a rustic, unfinished attic, smelling sweetly yet vaguely of hay, of which there was little evidence, and which contained a rude wooden stairway, roughly but sturdily fashioned, and fairly recently, leading to a door in what seemed to be a gable, and which offered the lure of the possibility of a view, from the roof, of the wheat field and abandoned stone piggery below the facade of the house. On the door was a sign that said not to open it, so of course we did, and found a little terrasse (a platform or deck, tiled with terra cotta) and a breathtaking view not only of the wheat field in front of it, but another to the right of the house and on to the fields and hills beyond.

We bothered ourselves not at all with the mystery of interdicting the use to guests of this little secret taste of the purview of masters of the land (probably something as prosaic and sad as an insurance constraint). We bothered ourselves every chance we got that visit and every visit thereafter for several years, by ourselves, and with friends who had the daring and the wanderlust sufficient to join us in what we thought of a poor man’s paradise—it was not, after all, a chateau—to share a glass of Provençal rosé—the wonderful secret, among so many secrets, of imbibers in the south of France, the land of wonderful reds and whites—and watch the sunset.

Also clearly evident from this attic was a part of the house that clearly was meant to be sequestered. From the locked confines of the large loft that gave out onto the deck we could see there was another locked chamber, only the upper portion of which we could see: essentially a view of the joists of the ceiling of a room below. Clearly proper access to this room, hitherto unnoticed and unsuspected, was from the ground. In our haste to enter the house through the front door, we had sashayed with our bags and baggage right past a decrepit pair of barn doors, dark with age, and with no sign of an invitation to be opened. We opened them, and discovered the source of that deep sweet smell of mown wheat or straw. Sheafs of it, scattered in odd places on the packed earth floor, for who knows how long. There was a capacious loft within this space, quite deceptively small from outside of it. Rusting odd bits of metal, of some previous indecipherable utility, hung on the walls. Garage? Storage for equipment?

I later researched the architecture of such buildings and discovered that, in fact, it may likely have been put to both uses and more. However, originally, there was a singular intent to this room. It was the home of the animals, the sheep and goats in this part of France, that belonged to the farmer who had built the mas originally, and plowed that field below, which Joanne owned, but prudently rented out each year to a neighboring farmer to plant in wheat for his own uses. No doubt it kept his donkey or horse, for the plowing, as well.

The mas, in short, was a duplex, home to man and his beasts, living close by, and sharing one another’s warmth and company. The farmer was spared the exertions of creating extra buildings to house his few animals, and their proximity ensured an economy of many dimensions, of additional effort to milk the beasts, of extra fuel and extra storage to keep them warm and keep them fed. And, though this must have been some ingrained knowledge, the lesson that we are all meant to be one, not only with the earth, but with our fellow creatures, even the dumb beasts, who give of themselves for our sustenance, and sometimes give even of their lives for our hunger for flesh. And we do not idly eat a beast we have fed, and milked, and led to pasture, and embraced for warmth. We do not idly live in intimacy with other warm-blooded creatures without learning something about the need to live a certain way with all creatures, if not most of all our fellow men.

We would no doubt call it an experiment in living today. But it was necessity in the day. And we would not do it at all in the great American cities in which we cluster and call civilization, because civilization circumscribes our lives in ways we no longer think about. And harboring a sheep in one’s house would require the sundering of dozens, if not hundreds of ordinances, all created for the public good, and our own safety.

Next time, I will speak of the way we live today, both in that great American city, huddled as close to one another as the peasant was to his goats and chickens and sheep in a time not so long ago, as well as among the descendants of those peasants, who still farm the land, and milk the sheep and the goats, and savor the rich heady golden eggs of those chickens that still cluck among my neighbors gardens in the plain down below.

rssrssby feather

2007June14Thursday E Pluribus Insania, An Introduction

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

In France, I live in a 14th century (mostly) stone house, a maison de village, in a tiny village with a sufficiently intact air about it that it was used, with little to hide, as the setting for many scenes in a French movie shot here last summer. The movie was based on two books by the beloved master French novelist, Marcel Pagnol, largely autobiographical as was so much of his work, and more or less taking place over one hundred years ago when he was a boy growing up in Provence.

Our house has many faults, including an elusive irreparable dampness (a fault of centuries-old meter thick walls of rock and rubble and other elements of masonry through several ages of the art). It has had several other defects needing repair. Nevertheless, it is, in all respects, relatively no trouble at all, and a place of readily assumed contentment and pleasure. The little house has no doubt grown (in height, and perhaps breadth, sunk into the street, and been added to, haphazardly, if pragmatically, through the centuries, and through the administration of these regions by many ducal and county and monarchical administrations prior to the present epoch of a succession of five republics.

It has been renovated and revived, most recently since the middle of the 20th century. But it is basically sturdy and well-constructed. Its faults in workmanship are no hardship to correct.

In the United States, I live in a condominium apartment, in a very small complex with eight other owners. Our condominium was originally three buildings — brownstones of a block of brownstones built by one developer in approximately 1890 — to house three families, each in a separate dwelling. Time, and the vagaries of the self-serving mischief of typical city dwelling owners of property close to a world-famous university, with an eye to fortune and little regard to the law, have converted our three buildings into two, now housing, in the aggregate, nine separate apartments and as many households. Among the several alterations made to the buildings in their first 39 years, all quite illegally we understand from the Cambridge Historical Commission, was the addition of first wooden porches that were later converted with a skin of brick to permanent additions to the rear of the three—now two—buildings.

It was insane to impose these changes, especially in defiance (if not sheer willful ignorance) of what few codes and regulations were in force at the time, and particularly through the use of the inferior materials and shoddy designs and bad workmanship that were implemented to accomplish the creation of these enlarged tenements. For such did the elegant three-story townhouse become after these violent transformations.

It all reminds me of the difference [you think I’m weird from my other utterances—hold on to your metaphorical hats] between what appeared as one of the first expressions or mottoes of our young nation and that of another country, with whom we had and have close ties. I mean, in the first instance, the statement on the Great Seal of the United States, “E Pluribus Unum,” in continuous service as an official phrase of our notional essence since the end of the eighteenth century. Its usual meaning, more or less directly from the Latin, is taken to mean, “From the many, one,” which is to say we are a single nation comprised of many people. That is the least antagonistic way I can think of providing some explication of the phrase. I will have other interpretations to apply by and by.

At about the same time, in France, an equally (by now) famous phrase became the standard, the watch cry, and the motto of this great nation. I am speaking, of course, of the triumphant formulation of three nominatives of significant import and meaning, then, and continuing so today: namely “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” Three nouns that even the most doltish and ill-schooled U.S. college attendees can translate and recognize, given the easy cognate relationship with their English equivalents. Liberty. Equality. Fraternity. It appears everywhere in France, and almost universally in one most unusual place, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

In the U.S. we buttress a whole phalanx of mottoes and sayings, perhaps starting with E Pluribus etc. and ending with that ringing phrase that appears on the preponderance of our coinage, much of our other currency, and wherever we can stick it on governmental buildings, especially courthouses and the chambers therein, and that is, “In God We Trust.”
Now, the curious place that the French rallying cry, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity appears almost universally, is above the doors of churches, especially those of the Napoleonic era. At that time, the doughty Corsican emperor had whatever might have been graven above the entries of the mostly Catholic places of worship struck out—obliterated. Further, his regime simply seized these edifices for the state—to ensure that the citizenry understood that there was now only one power on earth to rule their lives, and its central figure no longer resided in Rome, but in Paris. And above each doorway, he ordered that the new order—those three familiar words—be painted for all to be reminded that in his realm all were equal and free and consanguineous, if only in some metaphorical sense.

Also, he wanted, of course, of his citizens that the kingdom, or more accurately the empire, they should quiver with excitement to revere was not the kingdom to come, but the greatest kingdom on earth, that of the beautiful (La Belle) France, and that the ruling principles were no longer of spirit, but of pure abstraction, and they applied to all who submitted to the designation "French," before all other identities they believed themselves to embody. And this was a distinction not merely for an elect who took the spirit of one who had died some two thousand years before into their hearts so as to qualify their election and make it holy.
Not quite a state religion, but, as it was for us in the fledgling United States, some attention was being paid to the bad results of the mix of church and state. Of this proposition, and several others suggested by this mere handful of words I’ve cited — the words that separate our sense of ourselves from the sense the French have of themselves, and the consequences on our daily lives—even into our homes, our houses and apartments and all our dwellings, I will take up the discussion tomorrow. At the moment, it’s late evening in France, and I’m going to bed.

rssrssby feather

2007June13Wednesday — In Pace Requiescat — Jean-Michel Braunstein

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes


We bought our house from the wife and daughter of the man named Jean-Michel Braunstein. Indeed, the easiest way to identify where we are located to locals is to say “chez Braunstein.” No shame in this. It’s like saying the Longfellow House on Brattle Street in Cambridge, or that so-and-so up the street bought the William James house, or, diagonally across the way from it, the e.e. cummings house. Don’t ask me who the current proprietors’ names are. I have no idea.

In short, Braunstein stuck by way of appellation and identity. Maybe by the time we have lived here as long as they did, at least some 30 years, and with the same infrequency of residence — the Braunstein famille came here mainly on weekends, with some regularity, but that still only adds up to a maximum of 104 days a year, more or less, and we are already achieving that, I think, even with our ragged and unpredictable schedule of visits — the locals will know this venerable pile of rocks as chez Dinin-Kennedy. We’d prefer “L’Antidote,” the name we gave it when we bought it (and the specially commissioned terra-cotta emaillé plaque we ordered still sits in a drawer, for lack of incredibly thin masonry screws that will be needed to mount it because the artisan made very tiny holes for them when he fired it in the kiln), but we’ll settle for the more familiar and likely nominal, as opposed to notional, designation.

In any event, however the house is known now or will be, the no doubt estimable Jean-Michel Braunstein, like Longfellow, James, and cummings, must now be counted among the deceased. We just learned this from our neighbors a day or so ago. In fact, the fatality occurred only days ago itself, apparently as Braunstein, exiting his house in Marseille, entered the street and was struck by a motorcyclist. That suddenly, and that final.

Unfortunately we live in a time, with activities at all levels and modes of social organization, under circumstances both personal and universal, that hardly another memento mori is needed. Nor would any greater notice be taken, save that, as always in these cases, when it strikes so close to home (in the several senses of that expression in this particular case), it has a greater shock.

I never really knew Monsieur Braunstein, except by hearsay. In fact, I met him only once, a chance encounter, as he happened to be here in their weekend house, sitting on the bench that sits itself just in front of the facade, inches to the left of the only window on our street level that faces the place in front of us. The bench is in the shade of the Napoleonic-era elm that looms above everything at this end of the village. We were somewhere in the midst of the complex legal process prelude to changing hands on the property.

Apparently, the bench was a favorite, or at least a regular, roost of his. He smoked cigars. This was a fact that, to me, immediately raised the promise that he was more likely than not a regular and reasonable fellow and a civilized gentleman, susceptible to logic, and innately of good will. Who knows?

For one thing, most likely, as with all cigar-smoking men who are married, he discovered the common antipathy of women for cigars, their smoke, their aroma (though usually a stronger designation of the impact on the olfactory system is used, often a term in the vernacular), and, as a consequence, for the smoker himself, however much and in however many other ways he might endear himself to his spouse. And he found, simultaneously, that if he chose to smoke, he should engage himself immediately in self-banishment to the out of doors.

In keeping with the tricks that memory plays on us, and not knowing in advance what would prove to be the singularity of our greeting that day (we were introduced by the realtor — one of Braunstein’s myriad friends among the locals), I did not pay very much attention. And in my mind at that time, and for eternity, as I have no reason to alter my recollections henceforth, he rose, cigar in his left hand, bearded, and shuffled over to where we stood. We were introduced one to the other, and we shook hands, and mumbled indecipherable words in French in tones of amity.

That was it.

I met his wife and daughter, the legal proprietors, in the lawyer’s office when all present signed various deeds and notarized documents and the large skeleton key to the front door was handed over to us. The wife was a well-endowed shortish, well-dressed bourgeoise of a certain age. I always thought of Braunstein as much older than myself, perhaps, because, even on the day we met in the bucolic shaded and very rural confines of the village courtyard under the elms and the chestnut trees, he was wearing a white dress shirt and tie, though he was shod in soft shoes of some kind, perhaps slippers, and dress trousers, suitable for work. In fact, he was probably about my age or not very much older. He was still working, as an avocat, a specialist in certain general applications of the law, and intellectual property law, in Marseille, when he was so violently struck down as to lose his life.

His wife, and the much jazzier appearing daughter, though giving off the same air of hauteur and the custom of habits of those who enjoy great comfort with frequent familiarity, were not attractive people. Comely enough, but this is not what I meant.

I don’t recall the precise sources of the gossip we received, but the reputation of the wife suffered by it in our ken. All in all, it seemed she was a shrill, loud-voiced termagant. And Braunstein often sat on that bench. Even more often, apparently, he would repair for an approximately 90-second amble down the hill, through the parking lot to the break in the shrubs and other flora of the grove of trees along the hillside just behind the town cemetery below. In this location is situated the “jardin” or garden as is the designation given in rural France to any bit of land that is not actually serving to support a dwelling on its surface. This jardin consisting of approximately half-an-acre, and entirely detached from our house, as the required walk for access attests, was part of the deal.

The jardin consists of protected land in these rural precincts, meaning that nothing can be built on it, or even in it, and it cannot be farmed, though plantings may be made, and we could maintain a potager or “kitchen garden” for the cultivation of fruits, vegetables, and herbs and such for our own use. On this bit of land, our very own tiny handle on French countryside, sits a picnic table of a sort familiar to picnickers in any park in America, a sort of one-piece set of rough joinery that combines benches that face one another across a table, and which requires a half-climbing, half-crouching operation to engage oneself in its confines. There is also a stone barbecue, on which sat a grill when we acquired the property, a bit of metal-work that has since disappeared. Emerging from the stoney facade of the barbecue, at a height of about 2/3 of a meter, is a spigot, meant for water. Emerging from the opposite side of the rocks supporting this device is a length of industrial rubber hose that disappears quickly into the ground, though it can easily be traced across the road that leads to the parking lot, and into the property across the way from our jardin. Apparently Braunstein had an arrangement with the owner of the opposite property whereby for some token or a nominal annual fee, water was fed through this hose as the spontaneous need might arise to extinguish the occasional barbecue embers once cooking was done. We have never used the barbecue in 5 1/2 years. Shortly after we acquired the property in February 2002, the water that emerged from the spigot when it was turned for a period of a day or two, was promptly turned off, and it has never run since.

The only other man-made item of note in the jardin is a very typical structure for this region (and others in France). It is designated a cabanon.It is constructed entirely of stone, except for wooden framed windows of glass on two sides, a wooden door for entry, with a lock, and a terra-cotta roof of common interlocking roofing tiles. It is a quite sturdy little structure, equipped with no utility services, neither water, nor electricity, nor gas.

The cabanon was built at some time in the past, though most likely during the tenure of the Braunsteins, and entirely illegally, given the interdiction on building any new structure of any size on practically any part of the surrounding countryside for many kilometers in all directions. The  cabanon measures, let us say, approximately three meters by three meters, and is tall enough to allow a man to stand inside of it.

Braunstein used it to store a variety of gardening tools as well as other associated implements. These he used, I understand, with some regularity, following that famous dictum of Pangloss to his protegé that one must cultivate one’s garden. Indeed, Braunstein most often could be found, I am told — when not in the confines of his wife’s snug little cottage (now ours), or sitting on his bench in the place — in his jardin, a long-handled tool of agriculture, a rake, or a hoe, or a spade, in his hands, vigorously working the ground, muttering to himself, a cigar tucked into the corner of his mouth, blowing puffs of smoke as he spoke  sotto voce and at length to himself. This happened often, after a short period of time had passed from a bout of loud female remonstrances that could be clearly heard issuing from the interior of chez Braunstein.

And this is how I see Monsieur Braunstein in heaven, if there is a heaven, cultivating the celestial furrows, cigar alight, and muttering unto eternity.

My image of him is tempered further and refined by my earliest musings on this mystery man, musings that lasted only a brief while after we had bought his wife’s wonderful little house in the country that affords us so much happiness and pleasure. We quickly faced the tasks of feathering this new nest, which was left bereft not only of every stick of furnishings, but, as is the French style when leaving a house, stripped of every fixture in every room. The only thing left (we are sure because of the inconvenience and expense of removing them, though French law seems to dictate that appliances that are fixed to the floor or walls cannot be removed) was a giant, expensive, cast iron stove of the venerable marque of Godin, still in business today — an excellent stove. It has been a long time that I have thought about Monsieur Braunstein at all, never mind to muse idly on his history, real or imagined.

There are at least two legendary Braunsteins I know of, and I doubt there is a connection, though one never knows, and I now probably never shall.

The company that makes the famous zig-zag cigarette papers (so named because of the zig-zagged pattern formed by the interleaving of each sheet of flimsy wrapping used to roll a cigarette of tobacco or what have you) was started by the Braunstein Fréres of Paris in the 19th century. Their famous logo, of a Zouave, a fierce French soldier of a type originating in North Africa, features the colorful costume and the wonderful flowing facial hair of these stout warriors — and one source of that image I have in my head of Braunstein with a healthy and enviable beard.

The other Braunstein was also bearded, though with a more delicate, if not effete, though distinctive, tonsorial trim to it. That Braunstein, which was his family birth name, was better known ultimately to the world as Léon Trotsky, his nom de révolution. It is too much to expect, let alone to ask, that there is any connection with one or the other of these possible sets of forebears. In fact I reel at the possibility that Braunstein, my Braunstein, was not only somehow connected with the famous rolling papers, but, in his bones, was a rabble-rousing, trouble-making yid as well.

If so, or if not, may he rest in peace cultivating that garden of his.

rssrssby feather

What the French Do Have, Pt.1

Approximate Reading Time: < 1 minute
  • fraises des bois
  • about fifteeen varieties of cherries
  • stone fruit you don’t have to go to California for
  • threee to five bakeries in any town of 2500 people
  • Guilt-free foie gras (I should say Charlie Trotter-free foie gras, that little worm)
  • Mediterranean rascasse
  • the silver dollar sized crabs called favouille
  • Olive oil mills in every other town in Provence that crush French olives and give you the best olive oil bar none — better than Spanish, Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern, wherever
  • Brebis of any variety
  • Goat cheese they made yesterday from goats that forage freely
  • baguettes that crunch, but have a an indescribable crumb and then go stale in four hours and cost less than 90 (euro) cents
  • Croissants made with 84+ butter and French wheat flour
  • Onglet sold in chain supermarkets
  • Thirty kinds of saucisson at marché
  • Twenty kinds of olives cured by hand
  • Citron confit sold by the piece
  • Tarte au citron
  • Pine-nut crescents
  • Sacristans
  • Calissons
  • Fruits confits
  • poivrons grillés a la Nicoise
  • socca
  • pissaladiere
  • L’estocaficada
  • Stockfish
  • Fleurs de courgettes beignets
  • tourte de blette
  • soupe de poissons
  • the only true bouillabaisse
  • rouille
  • truffes
  • salty caramel
  • fleur de sel
  • Cavaillon melons
  • Tomme de Savoie
  • Reblochon de Savoie
rssrssby feather