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Monday, April 29, 2013

The Right to Invite

A very intriguing post came up on Open Borders last week.  I follow them regularly and comment occasionally because the premise the site is built around, the idea that we should tear down most, if not all the walls, and let people move where they like, is one that we should all take very seriously.
This website is dedicated to making the case for open borders. The term “open borders” is used to describe a world where there is a strong presumption in favor of allowing people to migrate and where this presumption can be overridden or curtailed only under exceptional circumstances. 
To help you reflect the site has gathered together arguments for and against - from the moral and practical standpoints to some of the more theoretical  discussions.

Are Open Borders possible in today's world?  As someone who closely follows the debates around immigration on two continents (North America and Europe) I'd have to say "no".  Way too much fear on the part of both governments and natives.  The idea of control is still the order of the day and the perception is that migration is a leaky faucet that must be first closed tightly with a wrench before it's slowly opened and closed to achieve perfect flows.  What makes many despair  (but gives me a great deal of hope) is that the bureaucracies and politicians who try to manage immigration are really lousy plumbers.  With a mindset that sees chaos (unrestricted illegal immigration) on one side and command and control on the other, states opt for control with the public either cheering them on or complaining bitterly because these measures are never entirely successful.

Nathan Smith recognizes that the world is probably not ready for open borders.  With that in mind he turned his attention toward what he thinks could be achieved.  The post is called Halfway Measures to Open Borders -  concrete proposals that are something short of a perfect world but are incremental and plausible in today's context.  Some are even, I think, already being implemented in some countries.

Take the "right to invite," for example.  Smith rightly points out that specific groups like California farmers in the U.S. already lobby government  for the right to bring guest workers into the country.  Business in France does the same and has even been given its own site, Pour la promotion de l'immigration professionnelle, and government agents available to help them hire migrants.

What if people (not just industry) asked for and got a "right to invite"?  That might be a bridge too far for many but something very close to it already exists in the Canadian Provincial Nominee Program.  This program allows local governments, responding to local requirements, to seek out and invite the migrants they need and want.  As Andrew Griffith points out in the comments section, this system is not perfect but it is a nice compromise and makes perfect sense.  It is almost impossible for a national government to make immigration laws that are a perfect fit for all regions within a country - the needs of cities in France versus those of the countryside or the human capital requirements of states, provinces and city-states in North America.  Making the "right to invite" more local means less bureaucracy, a faster process and a better fit between migrants and the regions that need them.

Another proposal of Smith's is to have more international migration agreements between nations.
For example, what if the US and the EU made an agreement whereby Europeans could migrate to the US and work freely, and Americans could do the same in Europe. I would anticipate large gains on both sides, as Americans would benefit culturally from access to Europe’s treasury of ancient, beautiful cities, while Europeans would benefit economically from access to America’s relatively more prosperous and dynamic economy. 
That would make a lot of sense though I think he underestimates how many Americans are coming to Europe for economic opportunities.  America is indeed relatively prosperous but only for some.  In many cases an American migrant can actually do quite well in the EU.  Even where that is not true the benefit of migrating may be to his or her offspring because public education is better funded and social mobility much higher in EU countries.   Times have indeed changed.  Another idea I've heard is to extend NAFTA to make regional mobility even easier for the citizens of Canada, the US and Mexico.

Such agreements already do exist in the world.  The EU, for example, is one great experiment in open borders with free movement guaranteed (and even encouraged) between the 27 member-states.  Agreements between European countries like Spain and the Ibero-American countries are another.  Quebec has agreements with France and vice versa.  I agree that more agreements would be a good thing and I just have to ask why the U.S. has no such partnerships with other nations.  Correct me if I'm wrong but it appears that my U.S. citizenship does not afford me easy access to any other nation or region which, in a globalized world, makes it much less valuable than an EU passport which would give me access to 27+.

In some way, the most favored Americans (or Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders) in a globalized world are those that are the product of very recent immigration.  Either they continue to hold passports from their home countries or they are the recent direct descendants of those who do and so they can benefit from other countries' jus sanguinis citizenship laws to gain access to multiple job markets.  These days the poor individual with only one citizenship will find it much harder.

Something to think about.  Naturally my views on this are colored by the fact that I am a emigrant/immigrant and have experienced firsthand the immigration policies of other countries.  It would be horribly inconsistent, not to mention intellectually dishonest, of me to do other than support 100%  "the people who move around."  I like Open Border's position which calls for a presumption in favor of allowing people to go where they wish and are welcome.  A great deal of time, energy and money could be saved if people were allowed to sort themselves and choose where they wish to live and to which government they prefer to swear allegiance.  We are far from that but Nathan Smith's proposals would bring us a great deal closer.  Just think of them as "training wheels" for the real thing.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Slow Gardening

Perhaps some of you have heard of the "Slow Food" movement.  This was a reaction to the Fast Food culture that many of us in North America grew up with and that is slowly but surely insinuating itself in other part of the world including Europe.

I can certainly get behind most of their ideas but where we part ways is when I perceive that these folks have entirely lost their sense of humor and are taking themselves way too seriously.  They seem to be confusing Food with Religion and think that taking pleasure in eating is secondary to achieving a state of grace. This glorious smackdown between Anthony Bourdain and Alice Waters is a great example of this:

Gardening is another world where you can find these kinds of (dare I say it?) theological arguments.  To be very clear, I don't garden because it's a pleasurable way of doing penance for the sins of modernity;  I don't compost because I'm trying to "Save the Earth" or because it saves the local garbage company a few bucks;  I certainly don't try to keep my garden free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers because I think that the Green Inquisition will come and arrest me for my sins - on the contrary, when push comes to shove, vive the Roundup!

I use these methods because they work and I garden because it make me happy.  Yep, it's all about the fun.  The pleasure principle in its purest form.  I like having my hands in the earth, I like watching things grow, I like sitting on my back porch and watching the sunlight move over the beds and I get an enormous kick when my neighbors lean over the fence and say how much they too are enjoying the results.

I called this post "Slow Gardening" but I think a better title would be "Gardening without Guilt."  Just for fun, here are a few of the principles I follow.  Please feel free to chastise me if you have another view - I'm a big girl, (I can take it):

Take Your Time:  Some people approach gardening in the same way they approach exercise:  infrequent bursts of energy and then lots of guilt because they just can't keep it up.  Piffle!  Do as much as you can, when you can.  If you feel like digging in the dirt, then go dig.  If you are going through a dry spell and don't want to work in the garden at all, think about hiring a garden service to take care of it until you feel more motivated.  The life of a garden is measured in decades (even centuries), not years.  That unpruned hedge will still be there tomorrow and leaving it until you feel like doing something about it is just fine.

When you do decide to start a project, consider doing it in chunks.  It took me days to prune my forsythias.  The process went something like this:  Remove dead wood, have a cup of coffee, remove more dead wood, have second cup of coffee, start removing canes, go inside and check email,  admire work done so far, have third cup of coffee, start removing more canes....

Make Mistakes:  Yep, it's allowed.  None of us has the power to make anything grow - all we can do is try and provide the right environment so that the plant has a chance.  That bed that sounded like a really good idea, turns out to be not quite the thing.  So what?  If the plant isn't happy where it is, move it somewhere else.  If that bed really looks wrong, correct until it does or buy some lawn seed and turn it back into grass.  99.99999% of garden mistakes are correctable - none of us have the tools (napalm or nuclear weapons) to do our little bit of earth in more or less permanently.   So relax.  It's all fixable.

Mourn and Move On:  Stuff dies.  Even the best gardener with a reputation for having la main verte loses sometimes.  Perhaps it wasn't meant to be.  Above all don't beat yourself up over it.  Dig it up, throw it on the compost heap and find something else for the space.  Best to think it over though because if you try the same plant in the same space, it may not fare any better than the previous one.

Going back to the principle "Take Your Time" - don't be too hasty to pull the plant up.  I mentioned a few weeks ago that I had killed my peonies by transplanting them.  My mom sent me and email and suggested that they might just be sulking and that I should wait a few more weeks.  She was right.  All of them are now up.

And I just looked at the clock and I have 20 minutes to get myself over to Chantiers for Sunday Mass.  So I will end this post with the latest Flophouse garden pictures.  Bon Dimanche, everyone!

Friday, April 26, 2013


"Rather go to bed without dinner than to rise in debt."

Benjamin Franklin

One of the perhaps unintended jewels in Andrew Griffith's book Lymphoma Journey is the list of books he read while he was undergoing treatment.  I finished the book and realized most of my highlights were titles that intrigued me.  So far I've not been disappointed and I just finished one that I really enjoyed called Payback:  Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by the Canadian author, Margaret Atwood.  Atwood is best known for her novels like The Handmaid's Tale.  Great to know that she can also write one hell of an essay.  

Payback is a collection of essays about debt, a subject that most of us know more about than we would like.  Very few of us go to bed without dinner these days but almost all of us get up in the morning in the full knowledge that we have creditors who must be appeased lest we lose everything.

More than just numbers on a balance sheet, every debt is a story.  Few things are more delicious to gossip about and there is always grist for the mill:  the neighbor who borrowed against the equity in house to buy a motorcycle or the student who took about 200,000 USD to buy an education in Fine Arts or finding out that a colleague's accounts are à découvert (overdrawn).  What were they thinking?    

In my wicked youth when I was still living in the U.S. in the mid 1980's I learned a thing or two about debt.  In spite of having worked part-time to pay my tuition and books at university I needed some extra cash to finish up and so I took out a small loan (about 2000 USD).  That would have been fine but at the same time I also responded to solicitations from credit card companies.  After foolishly accepting I found myself with three credit cards, a balance that never seemed to go down (the interest rates were outrageous) and a hefty monthly payment.  To make a long story short, I had to clear those cards before I could leave the country and join my future spouse in France.  That meant that I left the country with literally no money at all to make a new start.  In fact I had a negative balance sheet because I still had that small loan to pay back.  This is why I always laugh myself silly when people imply that I left the U.S. and took my "fortune" with me so I could live it up in Paris.  My life would have been a lot easier if that had been true.  Instead I ended up looking for work as soon as possible and took the first job offered - a secretarial position.  So much for my degree in Political Science.

I think there are many young people out there today who can relate to that story.  Only what I'm hearing is that it's not 2000 USD, it's more like 200,000 USD.  It's not just American students, I know a French family that recently borrowed to send their son to school in Canada.

Still the French cultural code around debt reminds me very much of my grandmother's attitude toward it.  It is a Bad Thing to be avoided at all costs.  It also helps that some of the credit practices in the US are absolutely forbidden here.  When I arrived in the Hexagon I was both surprised and a bit relieved to find out that the credit cards I knew in the U.S. had no equivalent here.  Instead I was given a debit card and the most they would give me is the opportunity to have my purchases debited at the end of the month.  No obscene interest rates and in 20 years I've never had a solicitation by phone or mail offering me a credit card.  Fewer temptations and I saw first hand what happened to people who abused their checking accounts.  One couple I knew had their debit cards and checkbooks taken away from them because they were overdrawn so often.  It was cash, cash, cash and direct debit for a few years until they could prove that they had learned the error of their ways.  I have another friend here on disability and one of the first things they did was to appoint a curateur (agent) to manage her money and other affairs.

To an American this may sound terribly paternalistic but given the roots of the Great Recession and the number of people I know in the U.S. who are in dire straits right now, I'd say that I prefer French methods.  I know that both the laws and the attitude toward debt made a big impression on me and after that brief walk on the financial wild side in my youth, I and my spouse stayed out of debt until just recently when we took out a loan to purchase our house.   

As I said before debt is a story, a morality tale.  Atwood says:  
Therefore, any debt involves a plot line:  how you got into debt, what you did, said and thought while you were in there, and then - depending on whether the ending is to be happy or sad - how you got out of debt, or else how you got further and further into it until you became overwhelmed by it, and sank from view.
I would add to this yet another plot line which is how some people stayed out of debt.  It is a with a great deal of glee that some of us point out that we have been Good and owe nothing to anyone.  That's something worth thinking about.  At the very least there is an enormous amount of false pride there which is always unattractive.  Puffing yourself up at other people's expense is not only cruel but are you really 100% sure that it's true?  Do you really not owe anything at all?  If you look around, you just might find people who disagree with you and say that you do indeed owe something.  A few examples:

National debt:  None of us like to "own" this and the finger-pointing is rampant just about everywhere. It's the idiot politicians, the immigrants, the cheats, the undeserving who are responsible for this state of affairs.  It's somebody's else's problem to be paid for with other people's money.  It's certainly not my fault and so by extension it should not be my responsibility.  A fine example of the argument's over this is Gordon Liddy's line, "A liberal is someone who feels a great debt to his fellow man; a debt he proposes to pay off with your money."  

Opinions vary as to how to manage the national debt and some even say that it's really not that big a problem.  Some even make the very valid point that when a debt gets too big, the creditors are in just as much trouble as the debtors.   Keynes once said,  "If I owe you a pound, I have a problem; but if I owe you a million, the problem is yours."  All that may be true but it's also true that the countries that borrow do so in the name of all those that the country claims (subjects, citizens or residents).  Right now the American national debt is running at about 53,000 USD per person.  The French deficit is not too good either.  Pity the dual citizen who has to worry about both.

One might think that an affair between borrowing and lending nations would have a little less moral judgement and a little more clear reasoning but, alas, that is not the case.  I still remember the Frenchman on the street who, when asked to lend his support to the people of Greece, scowled and shouted, "The Greeks don't pay their taxes!"  Well, sir, looking at the figures for 2012 one could easily make the argument that you, a resident of a very nice arrondissement in Paris, aren't paying enough. 

In any case the money must come from someone, somewhere, if only to pay the interest on the debt. 

Taxation:  Atwood points out that the state and the citizen have very different ideas about taxes.  The citizen (or legal resident) expects something for his or her money.  Even the most conservative person who does not believe in the welfare state, believes that government is there to provide services even if that is only limited to the national defense.  Nobody, Left or Right, hands over their money to the state without expecting some return.  The state does not necessarily see it that way.  Atwood paraphrases Machiavelli, "What leaders or would-be leaders most want and need to do, he says, is to gain, expand and consolidate power.  To do this, they need followers and subjects - in our day, for democracies, read  'party members' and 'taxpayers.'"  

Look no further than the U.S. Embassy in Iraq for a splendid example.  It is reported that it cost three quarters of a billion dollars to build and that was about $150 million over budget.  Here's a video about it:

Impressive but it's hard to see how of what possible use this is to the American people. And yet tax money went to pay for it and will be needed to maintain it.  

The money spent on this is no longer available to maintain existing government services in the homeland or, if your point of view is a bit different, to provide tax relief and reduce the size and scope of government.  Whatever your political stripe the score looks like this:  Citizens (0), Government (1).

Atwood describes the game over taxation in this way:
What the subjects want is to have the services without paying the taxes, and what the rulers want is to have the taxes without rendering the services-these conflicting wants appear to be a constant in human history, ever since there have been food surpluses and social hierarchies, and armies and taxes-so there's always bound to be some grumbling.
I think there is a lot of truth in that statement.  Very few people are against taxes per se - the arguments are over who should pay and how much.  Allison Christians published a very nice paper recently about how to define a "taxpayer."  Even that effort to make people "legible" which is the first step to actually taxing them is not clear.  The criteria can be disputed and can change depending on where you are and to which state you ostensibly hold allegiance.

It is entirely possible for a state to claim someone through citizenship, for example, and then turn around and say that something is owed.  An "Accidental American" (someone who acquired citizenship through jus soli or jus sanguinas but who has not lived in or has almost no ties to the U.S.) is still, from the U.S. standpoint, a debtor, and has a responsibility to clear that debt by regularly filing tax returns and paying up.

Emigrants and Immigrants:  Even those countries that do not require their emigrants to pay taxes still harbor a sense that emigrants owe their home countries something.  This leads to a very perverse game of "Try and Collect" because it's mostly based on emotional or patriotic appeals.  Immigrants are in much the same boat.  What immigrant in the U.S. has not heard at least once that he or should be grateful for all the opportunities American offers?  What immigrant in France has not heard how lucky he or she is to live in a safe country with a fine social welfare system?  Genuflecting here is not necessarily required but it is usually expected on the part of the migrant.  

With both immigrants and emigrants there is a kind of moral accounting going on which is not entirely about money - though a request for money is usually in there somewhere.  "You owe us," say the natives.  

When this doesn't work (and it seldom does), punitive measures are proposed:  exit taxes, diaspora taxes and the like.  It's less about the money and more about the principle of the thing.  Whatever money is obtained, it means much less than the gleeful satisfaction the natives feel as their side of the moral ledger moves into the black.  

The Sick:  The blog, Time to Consider the Lilies, had an interesting post recently about people's reactions to hearing that someone is gravely ill.  After every diagnosis, the questioning begins:  Why didn't you get regular mammograms/pap smears/prostate exams?  Why didn't you stop eating so much/drinking/smoking?   And so on.  Another way to look at what these questions imply (other than to place the blame for the condition firmly on that individual and demonstrating how this would never ever happen to the person asking the questions) is the idea that the stricken person was writing checks her body couldn't cash.  It becomes a moral, not a health issue.  Having placed at least partial blame on the sick, people may feel exonerated from some of the responsibility for caring for them.

Where this breaks down, of course, is when those people themselves become ill or old.  Happens to all of us and we will all get there sooner or later (some sooner than others).  We will all become reliant on others at some point to care for us and when that happens we will experience some of the moral accounting that goes along with it.  Isn't that a cheery thought?

Enough said.  I highly recommend Atwood's book - it's a great read and I think Atwood's essays are a wonderful and very imaginative dive into the world of debt:
It's about debt as a human construct - thus an imaginative construct - and how this construct mirrors and magnifies voracious human desire and ferocious human fear.
In other words, whatever your skill at managing your finances, chances are that from someone's standpoint you (yes, you) are indeed in debt.  

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Le sacrement des malades

Last Sunday's Mass was a special one for me and twelve other members of our parish.  Into the regular service was inserted a special ritual called le sacrament des malades (the sacrament of the sick).

There are seven sacraments in the Catholic Church: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, Confession, Marriage, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick.  I can now say that I've had all of them except for Holy Orders.  But there's still time, right?

Some form of anointing of the sick has been practiced by many religions for thousands of years.  In the Catholic Church it comes from several sources of which one of the most significant is the Epistle of St. James:
Is any one among you sick? Let him bring in the presbyters [priests] of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.
Those of you (especially my family) who have read to this point and may be getting unduly worried, the Sacrament of the sick is not Last Rites which is three sacraments, not just the anointing of the sick but Confession and Communion as well, which are given when a person is actually dying.  

The sacrament of the sick is very much about the living and any Catholic who is facing serious health problems can ask for it.  It is meant to give those who are ill courage and strength in the face of a curveball that life has thrown at them.  In that sense I am definitely a candidate and when I was asked to participate, I accepted immediately.

Like all Catholic rituals, it was really beautiful.  We sat in a row at the very front of the church and I had an American friend from Arizona next to me and some fellow parishioners I know well behind me.

The Liturgie du sacrement de l'onction began with the prière universelle where the congregation prayed as one for all those who suffer and asked for God's intercession.  Then our parish priest, Father Couder, placed his hands on the head of each one of us and prayed.  Once done he took the Holy Oil (which I think is blessed by the bishop) and placed it on our foreheads saying:
Par cette onction sainte, que le Seigneur, en sa grande bonté vous réconforte par la grâce de l'Esprit Saint. Ainsi, vous ayant libéré de tous péchés, qu'il vous sauve et vous relève
 (By this holy anointing may the Lord in His goodness, comfort you by the grace of the Holy Spirit.  So, having been freed from sin, he saves you and relieves you.)
And it ends with a concluding prayer.

It was very moving and beautifully done.  They had a violinist who played Bach during the Mass and he was flawless.  

But my part in it wasn't quite over.  After Communion, Madeleine handed me the microphone and for the very first time in church, I read out loud.  Believe me, I put on my best accent. :-)  This is what I read:

And then Mass was over and my friend and I walked out of the church into the bright sunlight and we stroller over to the King's Kitchen Garden (le potager du roi) to see what was up.  

It was as close to a perfect day as could be.  

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

International Mobility and Health

Benjamin Pelletier has another very good post up on his site Gestion des Risques Interculturels.  It is called La santé des expatriés à l’épreuve des risques interculturels (Expatriates' Health Put At Risk by Intercultural Issues.)  In it Pelletier conducts a fascinating interview with Dr. Franck Scola who is a psychiatrist and a certified intercultural mediator.

Dr. Scola has identified certain behaviours on the part of expatriates that put them and their health at risk.  Very interesting and there were a few I hadn't thought of:
  • un écho affectif majoré par la survenue de la maladie ou de l’accident loin de chez soi, (an emotional state that leads to an illness or accident far from home)
  • des consultations tardives face à des symptômes, soit abusivement imputés au mal du pays, soit explorés sans prise en compte du facteur migratoire, (delay in consulting a medical professional even in the face of symptoms that are often mistakenly attributed to homesickness and often examined without taking into account migration as a factor)
  • un excès de confiance dans des conseils médicaux émanant des réseaux d’expatriés et parfois inutiles, retardant plus ou moins les soins, voire même dangereux car erronés, (too much faith placed in medical advice coming from the expatriate network, which can more or less delay care and can be very dangerous if it is erroneous)
  • une négligence vis-à-vis des attitudes préventives, (negligence in preventive behaviour)
  • une confiance partielle envers les équipes médicales des pays d’accueil, et parfois l’attente d’un séjour dans son pays d’origine pour consulter, espaçant la fréquence du suivi. (Only partial confidence in the medical teams in the host country and often waiting for a trip home in order to consult a medical professional which further delays treatment).
I would add to this list a refusal to acculturate or to do so in a very limited way.  Where a migrant is not comfortable with the local language and may be too embarrassed to ask for help (or may not even know anyone who can) he or she may put off seeing a doctor.  There can also be serious misunderstandings about the doctor/patient relationship and who does what.  A very good example of this is my experience in the U.S. where my gynecologists always sent reminders for annual exams and followed up if I did not respond.  That has not been my experience in France and it does not appear to be a standard service offered to patients.  I had to train myself to mark my own agenda.

The "partial confidence" that expats may feel about the host country medical system is exacerbated by pressure from family and friends in the home country to come back to get it checked out or to be treated.  I knew expats in Japan whose families really wanted them home because they had no idea about Japanese medical care and were simply acting on the feeling that French care would be better or less expensive.  I was personally advised by an American acquaintance to return to the U.S. when I was diagnosed because that person genuinely believed I would get much better care and have a higher chance of survival in the U.S.  It is very difficult to tell people who love you and are worried about you that you prefer to be treated where you are.  And, frankly, if things do not go well there is a high likelihood that these people will question the wisdom of your decision.  All this adds another layer of stress.

I have also encountered a certain suspicion on the part of the natives toward people who are obviously foreigners using national healthcare systems.  When you arrive at a clinic and someone makes a sly comment about Brits or Americans coming over to France for the express purpose of abusing the healthcare system, it tends to set one back on one's heels.  You can get a sense that the person (who is supposed to be there to provide care) resents you and it does not encourage you to avail yourself of their services again anytime soon.

These are not minor problems because what is at stake is health.  Every migration story is different but what they all have in common is a leap into the unknown which means there is risk.  Dr. Scola's observations are dead on and he uses his experience and training to work people to mitigate them.  

I definitely could have used someone like him when I first arrived here in France.  I believe that the only reason I am alive today and able to write this post are my intercultural skills and some very hard work integrating.  When I felt the lump in my breast I called the medical center and got an appointment with my doctor, someone that I have developed a close and trusting relationship with and who knows me and my family.  He ordered a scan, the radiologist detected the cancer and in a few short days I was at the cancer clinic for a biopsy and a consultation for a course of treatment. It went flawlessly - I was taken in hand quickly, efficiently, and compassionately.  Being able to communicate in French with my doctor and my oncologist was a necessary but not sufficient condition for being able to actively participate in my treatment. There were also expectations to manage, a working together framework to develop, and the understanding that not all of our communication was explicit and clearly stated and learning when it was necessary to ask for clarification.  All this stretched my language skills and cultural knowledge to their absolute limit.

If this had happened to me in the first few years of living here or if I had not learned the culture and language sufficiently well to be comfortable and at ease, I believe that I would be dead or dying in a hospice right now.  In the early years I did many if not all the things Dr. Scola identified as risky behaviour. 

Today I feel that  I am a very lucky woman because I was diagnosed after nearly 20 years in this country but I would suggest that you not rely on luck.  Stuff happens and living abroad does not exempt you from life's odd twists.  I do not know how to stress enough that "later" (when you've learned the language or have recovered from the stress of moving) may be too late.  Read Pelletier's post and, if you see yourself in it,  start making some phone calls.  The house can wait and the job can live without you for an afternoon.  Hire a translator or ask someone for help if you're not comfortable doing it by yourself.  Be open to learning about your new environment.  Be a sponge, be "teachable."  This is definitely a situation where a lack of intercultural skills can kill you.  

And remember that if you don't have good health then the exciting job, the house, the thousand and one responsibilities and that long "to do" list become completely irrelevant very quickly. 

Believe me, I know.

(And for another very good article, Mr. Pelletier has a 2011 post on Pratiques interculturelles en milieu hospitalier which I wish I had read before I actually did end up in the hospital...)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Subservient Citizens and Anarchist Calisthenics

I have a deep and abiding admiration for James C. Scott, the author of Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed.  He is a political science professor at Yale in the U.S.   I have not read all of his book yet but those I have read are in my top ten all time best reads.  These are books that make me wish I were still at university and had fellow students to and professors to talk with about his ideas which can't really be captured by any ideological framework.  He has a rather unique perspective and while there is something there for everyone to love or hate, I can guarantee that his works will stir your gray matter in delicious ways.

The full title of the first book of his I ever read is Seeing Like a State:  How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed.  In that book I was introduced the to the idea of "legibility."  States can't properly control/help people or property until they are revealed and identified in some unique way.  Once upon a time this was a much more difficult task than it is today since there weren't things like a census or accurate maps or even surnames (family names).   These things had to be invented.  In 1686, for example, the Marquis de Vauban had to make a pitch to the French King for the implementation of an annual census. "Would it not," he said, "be a great satisfaction to the king to know at every designated moment every year the number of his subjects, in total and by region, with all the resources, wealth and poverty of each place..."

This was certainly to the benefit of the king but what about the people?  Was there any benefit to them?  No.  It simply made it easier for the regime to tax them.

If we fast forward to the present day we can see that the problem of "legibility" still exists.  Emigrants leave a country and become "illegible" (hidden) to the home country.  Depending on where they land they can live in a space where they are governed by one state (one they have chosen) but are effectively not governed by the country they left and whose citizenship they hold.  Today France does not have a completely accurate accounting of her citizens living in other countries and clearly they feel the need to correct this.  French citizens living abroad are encouraged to register and there have been studies to get some idea of who they are, what they are doing and so on.  In exchange the French have offered incentives to their "domestic abroad" to reveal themselves.  They have direct representation in the national parliament, for example.

FATCA and all schemes for the automatic exchange of financial information between countries are another way that states can make their citizens abroad "legible" to the home country. Where it is too onerous to actually count them, and states are dissatisfied with the results of voluntary compliance, this will yield data that makes it much easier to control them from afar.  Just as the Marquis de Vauban tempted the French king, so are modern nation-states intrigued at the idea that they can get the information they want without having to bargain for it or relying on the goodwill of people.  However captivating this idea is to national governments, most citizens living outside their home countries are very suspicious of these effort and rightfully so.  There is no benefit to them whatsoever and once revealed, they will almost certainly become targets for other purposes like taxation or the exertion of sovereignty (forced compliance with home country laws) over their persons living outside the national territory.  That is the root of people's resistance to such schemes.

Yesterday I picked up Scott's latest book,  Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play and I read late into the evening. Like all of Scott's books it's full of interesting ideas but unlike his other works it's more of a conversation where he pulls out his thoughts (he calls them "fragments")  provoked by what he calls the "anarchist squint."

"What I am to show,"  he says, "is that if you put on anarchist glasses and look at the history of popular movements, revolutions, ordinary politics and the state from that angle, certain insights will appear that are obscured from almost any other angle."

The fruit of this is a book of many interesting ideas.  I won't even attempt to cover them all here (and I certainly wouldn't want to deprive you of the pleasure of discovering his works for yourself) but here are one or two I offer to you in the hope that you find them entertaining and perhaps even useful.

Subservient citizens:  People were subjects long before they were citizens.  But unlike subjects, we are not born citizens with all the rights and responsibilities associated with that individual status.  Rather, with every generation citizens must be made and it is a long process.  The message that we receive as we grow up is that we should aspire to be loyal but independent thinkers capable of expressing our wants and desires and translating all this into active responsible participation in the political life of the nation.  What Scott points out, however, is that we are influenced by institutions other than the government:  family, business, banks, school, hospitals or clinics.  We live most of our lives in those institutions,  many of which are not particularly democratic.  Some even bear a horrific resemblance to a  "regime of low-level terror."  They are hierarchical and often authoritarian.  Who has not had the experience of working for a company or a boss where the regimentation and control methods make one feel like a serf - no autonomy, independence or even a chance to express one's views about the work environment.  In some ways we are still "subjects" and we live our lives in institutions that demand servitude, not independent thinking.  Scott asks a very simple question about what this all means for democracy:
The implications of a life lived largely in subservience for the quality of citizenship in a democracy are also ominous.  Is it reasonable to expect someone whose waking life is almost completely lived in subservience and who has acquired the habits of survival and self-preservation in such settings to suddenly become, in a town meeting, a courageous, independent-thinking, risk-taking model of individual sovereignty?  How does one move directly from what is often a dictatorship at work to the practice of democratic citizenship in the civic sphere?
I think he's definitely on to something here.  It takes a very strong personality to overcome the conditioning we get that steers us toward obedience.   However rebellious we think our adolescents are, the truth is that most do show up at school and sit there for hours when they don't particularly enjoy it and can think of many other pleasing ways of spending their time.  We may hate our jobs but we still show up, pander to or avoid the boss we despise and don't leave until we think it's safe.  Most of us obey the laws without thinking about them though it might cross our minds once in a blue moon that a particular law is rather idiotic.   We grumble about local politicians but we rarely stir ourselves to fight against them.  We accept without question that we are citizens of a particular state and the vast majority of us really don't know what that really means or can envision a life without any citizenship at all.  There is an international consensus among nations that everyone must have a citizenship.  In fact most countries refuse to allow a citizen to renounce unless he has another citizenship.  If not, he cannot sever his ties to that state.  The reason for this is ostensibly protection for the citizens involved but one cannot ignore that it also serves states' interests.  A person who is stateless by choice becomes, to a certain extent, "illegible" and something of a wild card since he does not recognize the quasi-permanent sovereignty of any nation over his person.  That is a state of affairs that most governments find unacceptable.

Anarchist Calisthenics:  One antidote for this unconscious obedience of ours is to practice disobedience.  In a short speech he prepared in German, he said this:
One day you will be called to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality.  Everything will depend on it.  You have to be ready.  How are you going to prepare for the day when it really matters?  You have to 'stay in shape' so that when the big day comes you will be ready.  What you need is 'anarchist calisthenics.'  Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it's just jaywalking.  Use your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable.  That way you'll keep trim; and when the big day comes, you'll be ready.
Now many of you having read that quotation are having a strong reaction to it.  I would ask you to check your gut.  What are you feeling?  I know that what I feel is fear.  I might get in all kinds of trouble if I did that.  I could be fined, jailed, or yelled at and embarrassed publicly.  Consider that reaction carefully.  Am I obeying the laws because I think they are right and just and I had a hand in making them through my elected representatives?  Or am I obeying the laws because I'm afraid of what might happen if I break them and I'm caught?  Clearly, it's the latter and if that isn't a cause for fear, I don't know what is.  Because this is not the reaction of a free-thinking, independent, confident citizen (or legal resident).  It's the reaction of a "captive subject" which means that I am already in prison - the prison of my own mind and of my habits of obedience and subservience in the face of authority.

Scott is not asking that we go out and blindly disobey the law.  What he's saying is that we need to question even the very small and innocuous laws so that when something very important comes along that is clearly an injustice or a very bad, poorly written law that we have the right mental muscles to do something about it.

Scott believes that no major reform occurs through the existing system which is not limited to government.  Trade unions, NGO's, non-profit-organizations, special interest groups and the like are usually powerless to do more than make small gains except when people move ahead of them and force drastic change.  Here are two methods Scott talks about that people use that are outside of the official public political process:  public defiance like riots, looting and huge demonstrations that are not really led by anyone but are angry and disorganized voices raised in sufficient numbers to make everyone very nervous;  and secret defiance that he calls "infrapolitics."  Where public defiance is too dangerous and the possibility of retribution too great, anonymous guerilla-like methods can be used: lying, desertion, poaching, sabotage, and flight.  A good example of this is something called the "work to rule."   Almost any system can be shut down or production reduced to a snail's pace if people just apply every single rule (however counter-productive and stupid) to even the smallest and least important of their activities.  This is obedience carried to the point where it becomes an act of resistance.  You want blind obedience?  Fine.  We are going to obey all of the rules and the system is going to crash under the weight.  Scott says:
In many cases these forms of de facto self-help flourish and are sustained by deeply held collective opinions about conscription, unjust wars, and rights to land and nature that cannot safely be ventured openly.  And yet the accumulation of thousands or even millions of such petty acts can have massive effects on warfare, land rights, taxes and property relations.  The large-mesh net political scientists and most historians use to troll for political activity utterly miss the fact that most subordinate classes have historically not had the luxury of open political organization.  This has not prevented them from working microscopically, cooperatively, complicitly and massively at political change from below.
Scott calls these the "weapons of the weak" and he thinks that they can be very effective. "One need not have an actual conspiracy," he says, "to achieve the practical effects of a conspiracy."    Governments have fallen, laws have been revised (or made), and states have been forced by this form of private collective insubordination to concede "spaces of disobedience" where a law exists but a tacit agreement has been made between the people and the authorities to not enforce it or obey it.

Going back to our previous example of emigrants, one can see that there was such an agreement in the past between home countries and their citizens living outside the national territory.  What laws existed concerning taxation and control over their activities were pretty toothless.  So a "zone of disobedience" was ceded by most nation-states and that includes the U.S.  The American citizenship-based taxation regime has existed since the 19th century but it was not enforceable and so a tacit agreement existed between the U.S. government and her citizens abroad which I think I can sum up like this:  We, Americans abroad, leave the country and live elsewhere and we don't ask for anything or make demands of the home country government while we are outside of U.S. territory.  In exchange, the home country government leaves us alone and doesn't make any demands on us other than acquiring and using a U.S. passport to enter the territory."  Most other nation-states did something very similar since it really wasn't practical to try and exert sovereignty over one's absent citizens.

That was the status quo for the past 150+ years.  What is happening today is that the U.S. government, motivated by budget deficits, is trying to take that ceded territory back.  It wants those citizens abroad to be "legible" and they are not willing to rely on incentives, voluntary compliance or to conduct negotiations in order to get that space back.  That is why I call this the "Diaspora Tax War of 2012/2013."

One problem (among many others) for those who would resist this are "habits of obedience."  Some are simply looking for a way to comply.  Many are afraid to protest too loudly or publicly lest their heads be lopped off after they have stuck out their necks.  It is a testimony to how strongly Americans abroad feel about the U.S. government's efforts that we are now seeing people getting braver, shedding their anonymity, and beginning to organize, write letters, lobby and the like.

Last comments.

For those of you who are members of other diasporas (not Americans), I understand that you might feel rather disinterested in the whole business.  I think that is very short-sighted.  Your governments are watching what the U.S. government is doing.  If the Americans succeed in getting that territory back by abrogating this tacit agreement between her diaspora and the home country government, it is very likely that we will see other governments (perhaps yours) trying to do the same thing.  It's worth keeping an eye on.

For Americans abroad may I suggest a close reading of Scott's work. Let's not have any illusions here - we are weak.  Most of us don't have a lot of money and can't buy votes in the U.S.;  we don't have direct representation in Congress and often we can't even get lawmakers to listen or answer our mail; homelanders are not aware of our plight and even when they are, they are not particularly receptive to putting it on the national agenda;  and it's not practical for us to descend on Washington, D.C. to demonstrate in front of Congress or the White House.

But that does not mean that we are without options.  One is to join an organization like ACA, AARO or a FAWCO club.  Another is to read what Scott has to say and contemplate whether or not there is something in his arsenal of "weapons of the weak" that we could use to good effect.

Think about it.  And while you are thinking it over, consider the words of Frank Herbert:  "Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration..."

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Paths to Citizenship: France and the U.S.

The Migration Policy Group has a new report out that will be of interest to anyone who studies immigration/emigration and citizenship issues.  This report by Thomas Huddleston is called Paving the Way for Integration: The Pathways to Citizenship in France and the United States.  The idea is to compare how each country in recent times has managed access to citizenship, legalization programs for undocumented migrants and integration.  It's worth reading especially for Americans since immigration reform is a hot topic right now with the Senate's  Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill (CIR).

Immigration is one of those issues where "contempt before investigation" is the order of the day.  Most of what the American and French public think about immigration is based on perception and bears very little connection to reality.  I've met French citizens from small towns who are convinced that immigrants are running amok in France and destroying the social welfare system even when these folks live in rural areas where they are zero migrants, and their sole source of information about all this is television.  I've also met Americans who are convinced that migrants are storming the gates and committing all kinds of nefarious acts which include going to U.S. universities for free (and I laughed so hard when I heard that).

No one really wants to hear otherwise which brings me to think that the issue is not so much the immigrants as it is a manifestation of native citizens' fears (globalization, budget deficits and the rising cost of a university education in the U.S.) and a kind of reassurance that the country is still a Great Nation and an attractive destination.  Just look at how many people want to come live here, they say.  And there is something to that.  Imagine a world where no one wanted to go to either France or the U.S.  That would be a real kick in the ego, wouldn't it?

The U.S. has around 11 million undocumented migrants out of a total population of around 313 million.  The native birthrate has dropped, the country is growing very slowly and is getting older.  Index Mundi has these statistics:  median age is 37, population growth rate is 0.9%, fertility rate is hovering around replacement and it has a high infant mortality rate compared to other modern nations.  The net migration rate however is a healthy 3.62/1000 but that's still lower than their northern neighbor, Canada, which has a net migration rate of 5.65/1000. (The net migration rate is the difference between the emigrants (people leaving) and immigrants (people arriving).

Of the estimated 11 million unauthorized migrants, Huddleston says that 60% have lived in the U.S. for over 10 years and many have children who are U.S. citizens.  To put that number in perspective that's equivalent to the number of U.S. citizens living outside the U.S. (6 million).  I find it hilarious that homeland Americans think that 6 million Americans abroad is insignificant but 6 million long-term  "illegals" in the U.S. is a really Big Deal.

There are very few paths to legalization in the U.S. and Huddleston says that there hasn't been any major legalization program (amnesty) in 27 years though Congress has voted small targeted programs over the years.  That coupled with more restrictions on legal immigration makes for an untenable situation.  Ferreting out those migrants is expensive and intrusive for everyone.  People don't come with signs on their foreheads or tattoos that say, "I'm legal" or "I'm a citizen."  So to catch undocumented persons, the authorities must make life difficult for the general population.  It's also bad for democracy to have people who can't vote or fully participate in the political life of the country.  And if that isn't enough, may I also point out that if these folks should return to their home countries the U.S. cannot apply their worldwide citizenship-based taxation system to them.  If the U.S. kicks them out or asks them to leave, they are free and clear of the tax and reporting obligations applied to U.S. citizens and Green Card holders who live abroad.  And now that I think about it, that just might be one hell of a reason for a migrant to the U.S. to stay under the radar and NOT accept an amnesty program.  It keeps one's options open if the intention is to make some money or have an adventure and then move on retire in a third or in the home country.  Think about it.

In comparison France has a population of around 65 million.  Again according to Index Mundi it also has an aging population and a low birthrate - in 2011 the fertility rate was hovering around replacement (2.08 births per woman).  Total population growth is estimated at 0.497%. The net migration rate is low compared to the U.S. and really low compared to Canada - only 1.1/1000.  That means that about as many people leave France as enter France.

Huddleston says that France has had much more comprehensive migrant policy as do other EU countries. Legalization programs are part of the French toolkit for managing migration and have been for years.  Sarkozy, the former president was nonetheless very much against amnesty programs and he applied important restrictions on who qualified for legalization.  But programs do exist  - some have been exceptional (time-limited) and others are on-going.  In general when there is a conservative government these programs become more restrictive with tougher criteria for qualifying.  We shall see what the Socialists will do.

What has been the result of these two very different policies.  Huddleston is very clear about what he thinks:
Compared to the United States, the 27 EU countries have a much lower unauthorized population, which ranges from 1.9 to 3.8 million in 2008, based on the low-to-medium quality estimates from the EU’s CLANDESTINO project.These overall estimates represent less than 1% of the total EU population and between 7 and 13% of the foreign population.
Compared to the EU the U.S. has a much higher undocumented migrant population which was nearly 4% in 2011.  And Pew says that the number of undocumented represents a whopping 27% of the total immigrant population in the U.S.  

Prudence.  All of these numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt.  It's not easy to count people who don't want to be found, right?  For an idea of how the official numbers can be questioned, Bruno Aubusson has this article,  Les démographes doutent mais les politiques savent.  

But if we assume that these numbers are roughly correct it makes one wonder why there is so much fuss about it.  Even if we doubled the official EU figure to 2% then that would mean that 98% of the EU population are either citizens or in the country legally.  Ditto for the U.S. with 11 million undocumented out of a population of over 300 million.  Yes, it is something to be managed but it's not nearly as bad as politicians and the general public make it out to be.  The "flood" they see, looks more like a "steady trickle" to me.  And I really have to question whether the time, money, energy, loss of civil liberties and annoyance for the native population and legal immigrants, not to mention the expansion of government, are really justified.  What do all these measures really buy the local population?  An interesting statistic that I would like to see is how much money has to be spent to catch one undocumented migrant.  That would bring a lot of clarity to the situation because it would put a price tag on the hunt.  And since migrants will continue to arrive "irregularly" it is a line on the national budget that will never ever go away.  Unless, of course, the country becomes so unattractive (bad economy, high unemployment rates, violence, and more attractive destinations elsewhere) that the net migration rate goes negative (more people leaving than arriving).   Frankly I would worry a lot more about that because it really would be be a clear sign of the national "déclin" that I hear so many French and Americans worrying about.

Last word.  All these measures meant to punish the undocumented - the resistance to amnesty programs and more restrictive criteria for the paths to legalization and citizenship - have a terrible effect on another issue dear to the hearts of natives:  integration.  I know from my own immigrant experience that where citizenship seems impossible (or very onerous), the desire to integrate dissipates.  Why spend the time and effort to be a part of something when you could be thrown out at any moment or if you think you will never be able to participate fully in the life of that country?  In some ways it can even be an act of resistance - if you won't accept me then I won't accept you and your ways.  And what does that lead to?  A vicious circle where everyone involved is cutting off their noses to spite their faces.

I'll be watching events unfold on both sides of the Atlantic -  the U.S. Congress on one side and the Socialists on the other - in the hope that sanity will prevail.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Flophouse Week in Review

The weather finally cleared up here in Versailles and this past week was glorious.  Too nice to stay indoors and tickle the keyboard so I spent most of it gardening, walking (slowly) around town and receiving visitors.

For me the week begins with Sunday mass at Sainte Elisabeth de Hongrie, a little church in the neighborhood called Chantiers near the train station of the same name.  It's a very modest structure - nothing like the St. Louis Cathedral which is closer to the castle - but I like it because it's small and if you attend mass there regularly you get to know people.  As I said before I had some trepidation about going to French mass but the parishioners were so welcoming that I kept coming back and little by little began to participate more and more in the life of the parish.

Last Sunday when I was there I met a Frenchman who is married to an English-speaking Canadian.  His English was impeccable (a bit like my spouse's) and we exchanged phone numbers after the mass.

I also had some time before the service started to chat with a young woman who is always there before every service selling flowers.  Her name is Samuela.  This time she had bouquets of daffodils (jonquilles) and I bought one for the house.  As we talked I learned that she is from Romania (a fellow immigrant) and a small child at home.  She asked about the little paper daffodil I had on my coat which was from last month's campaign against cancer called Une Jonquille pour Curie (Institut Curie).  When I told her that I was being treated there for breast cancer she handed me a second bouquet for free.  A small act of kindness from someone who has her own difficulties.  It was humbling and it really moved me.  As I thanked her and walked into the church she smiled and said, "Bonne Messe, Madame."

I'm a creature of habit and my weekdays always start the same way:  a yogurt and coffee for breakfast and then I go outside to walk the garden.  Every day there is something new.  The lilies are up and the nasturtiums too.  The forsythias are almost finished blooming.  The tulips are just getting started.  The lettuce looks good so far.

I've been told that I have a green thumb (la main verte) but I don't think it's anything innate.  It's more about keen observation and experience.  As I walk the garden in the morning and afternoon I watch the path of the sun across the beds so I can get a good idea of what parts are sunny and which ones are shade.  When I work the beds I crumble the earth in my hands and feel for the quality of the soil  This is something, by the way, that technically I'm not supposed to be doing.  When I had my surgery they removed the lymph nodes (ganglions) on the right side and I've been warned that I should not be gardening without gloves lest I cut or scrape my hand or arm and get an infection.  But looking at the soil is not enough for me to know what I need to do with it and so I have compromised.  I always wear gloves when pruning, digging, and setting out plants but I remove them when I just can't stand it any more and I'm dying to touch the earth.  Then I go inside and thoroughly wash up.

My gardening methods seem to work and most of what I plant grows well.  Some notable exceptions are the azalea my mother-in-law gave me (it died) and the peonies I brought over from our apartment - of the four I planted only one made it.

Wednesday was a big day because I went in for my PET scan (Positron emission tomography).  Wikipedia has a picture here.  Here's how the test unfolds.  In the morning I'm allowed some coffee and two biscuits (no sugar) and then I can have nothing but water until after the test.  Upon arriving at the clinic the technicians start a saline drip and once they have checked me for diabetes and they are sure I am properly hydrated they inject me with a solution that contains sugar and a radioactive tracer.  Then I had to lie there for an hour in a darkened room - no reading, watching movies or anything that would cause my brain to be active.  Once the hour is up I'm put under the scanner and am asked to lie very very still.  After about 20 minutes, the test is over and they serve me a nice lunch (the bread at the clinic is really good).  And then I walked back to the train station and took the public transportation home.  This test left me kinda shaky and sick but the weather was good and I walked slowly back to the house.  The results will be back early next week.  What is the difference between the PET scan and the tests I had last week?  Well, the former looks for markers in the blood that might indicate that the cancer has returned.  Those came back OK.  The PET scan is to check for cancer in other parts of my body.  Once the cancer in the breast get into the lymph nodes (my case) it can travel more easily to other parts of the body.  That is why I had chemotherapy.  So this test is to check that all is (or isn't) well elsewhere.  Here is what they are looking for - scroll down to see the scan images.

I have mixed feeling about being asked to take another test.  On one hand it is an extra security and if something is wrong, it is best to know right now.  On the other it's a real effort to manage the stress.  Very easy to "live in the wreckage of the future" and imagine all sorts of horrible scenarios as you wait at home for the results.  The best cure for that is to get out in the garden, call friends, chat via email and get out of the house.

Every Friday I go to church and assure a presence from 11:30 to 12:30 at the Adoration of the Eucharist.  It is truly one of the highlights of my week.  From a purely practical standpoint, it gets me out of the house and interacting with people.  I always see people I know and this Friday I got to meet someone I didn't:  Sister Theresa who is part of the local Franciscan community.  Those are the benefits that I'm sure even the most secular will understand.  The other and more important part is that I use that hour to have a conversation with my creator.  What we talk about varies but I always try to begin with the things I'm really grateful for:  breathing, being able to walk and talk and read and write; my family and friends;  my garden and my house;  and the people at the clinic who are helping me.   The list always turns out to be longer than I originally intended and it really helps to put things in perspective and live in the moment.  Right here, right now, I am fine.

Then I turn my thoughts to the people around me and ask for intercession on their behalf.  Best way I know of to combat self-absorption - something that is all too easy to fall into when one is facing illness. This exercise helps me to recall that other people besides me are having a hard time and to focus attention away from the self.

When I leave the church at 12:30 I feel so much better.  It gives me peace, serenity, and courage.  I always light a few candles to Our Lady and I like to think that as they burn they represent my prayers which continue even after I've gone home and fixed myself a cup of coffee.

Friday saw a return of colder weather.  When I got home the younger Frenchling and I watched Friends, ate dinner and I made peanut butter brownies for dessert.  I'm also enjoying a new romance series that I just discovered:  A Neighbor from Hell series by R.L. Mathewson.

I've been a fan of romance novels (littérature sentimentale or, as my mother calls them, "bodice rippers") since I went to convent school.  It was the nuns that turned me on to Harlequin romances.  They loved them and so did I.  Ever since they have been my guilty little secret and I would pick up one from time to time when I wanted a break from the seriousness of the non-fiction I usually read.  I was always afraid that my friends and colleagues would find out about my addiction lest my intellectual and career credential suffered.  Today, to be honest, I am way past being embarrassed by this kind of thing. Anything at this point that makes me happy is a Good Thing.

When I had my surgery and was going through chemotherapy I returned to the world of romance novels with a vengeance and, boy, was I surprised by what I found.  Forget those Harlequins which had "rules" that kept them suitable for the under-17 crowd and Benedictine nuns - the new genres are contemporary erotic "adult" romance, paranormal romance and urban fantasy.  It's not just Fifty Shades of Gray but books like Suzanne Wright's Feral Sins or the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs or the Kate Daniel books by Ilona Andrews.  I adore them and I owe a great debt to the authors because on the days when the chemo hit hard and all I could do was lie on the couch, they kept me happily entertained and focussed on something other than how wretched I felt.  Even now they are perfect when I am so fatigued that I just can't do much else.  Suzanne Wright just published her sequel, to Feral Sins, Wicked Cravings, and I plan to spend part of my weekend devouring that one which is getting excellent reviews.

And that is how the week went here at the Flophouse in Versailles.  Time to hit the garden.  Have a wonderful weekend, everyone.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Some Good News

This past week I had my first tests post-chemo/radiation and I got the results today at my scheduled check-up with my oncologist.  So far, so good.  They didn't find anything that might be cause for alarm.          

They are nevertheless going to run me through a PET scan next week to be sure nothing was missed.

My doctor was grinning and she gave the "go" for an appointment with a plastic surgeon for breast reconstruction.

Next appointment is in 6 months.  If I take Andrew Griffith at his word in his excellent book, Lymphoma Journey, it is a very good sign that the time between check-ups is growing a bit longer (6 months instead of four).

I still have medicine to take, side-effects to manage (the chemo is rough stuff and it takes awhile to bounce back) and, of course, the full scan next week.

But this is a bright spot in a landscape that has been pretty bleak over the past year or so.  I would say that my mood today is "cautiously optimistic."

Time to go walk the garden.

Bon weekend!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

What's Up in the Flophouse Garden

OK, I promised (and my mom reminded me) that I would post pictures of the garden.  I originally wanted to wait for a sunny day before hauling out my camera but those are few and far between these day in Versailles.  Best to just accept and make the best of the light we have.

So here's what's up so far:

The green onions and lettuce are up and looking good.

The raspberries all have green leaves.  Very pretty.  The fence is hideous, however.

The perennial bed in the back is an explosion of color.  Here are peonies, tulips, daffodils and many other things all planted by the former owner.  I have cautiously added in iris, a day lily and some hostas.

I started planting some of the pots I rehabilitated.  This one found a home on a ring set into the wall on the front porch.

The forsythia is magnificent.  The lilac behind it is just getting started.  The white shrub in the front is not my thing at all.  I'm seriously thinking about committing shrub murder....

The great thing about having an overgrown and out of control forsythia is that I have plenty of branches that I can bring inside the house.  The vase is from my favorite garden store in Tokyo.  The picture on the wall is from India and was a gift from my staff in Pune.  The dresser comes from Seattle and was given to me by my mother.

And this is the view of the back garden from my dining room window.  I usually write on the table in this room and when I look up from my keyboard, this is what I see.


I watched this very inspiring Ted Talk this morning as I drank my coffee and there was so much in it that spoke to me.  Many many thanks to Jacques who passed it along.

In it Amanda Palmer, a musician, talks about the Art of Asking.  As she started her music career she supplemented her income as a street performer, a profession many consider to be akin to begging.  When her band took off she made a decision to put all her music on-line for free and to ask her fans to support her work.  They came through.  She preferred this to the time where she was working under a label and her music was sold on the marketplace.  It's about trust, she said.  She freely distributes her music and trusts that her fans will be there to make it possible for her to continue doing what she loves.  A better way, she said, because it creates a connection between her and them.

There are a lot of cultural and psychological barriers to asking people for things.  To some it feels like begging.  Makes you vulnerable especially when you don't have something tangible to offer in return.  I have an elderly  family member here in France who slipped on the train and broke her shoulder.  She got back on the train and when she got home, she went to bed and didn't call a doctor until the following morning.  She was in terrible pain the entire time but that was preferable, she said, to "bothering" someone by asking for help.

Recently I had a phone conversation with a fellow breast cancer patient.  She was having a very hard time and a mutual acquaintance of ours was calling her and offering to help.  She was very divided about accepting.  I don't want to "bother" her, she said, or take up too much of her time.  The person offering help also has cancer and my friend thought it was a bit much to ask her to help her with her problems.

Sometimes when I attend my AA in Paris I share about my recovery and my cancer.  They get to hear a lot about my fears that I will drink again, that I will get bad news from my oncologist and that I will die much sooner than I would like.  I often cry in these meetings.  But as I head home sometimes I say to myself, "Oh Good Lord, that was a really depressing share I gave today" and I feel bad for inflicting it on people who came to be inspired, not depressed.

These kinds of self-doubts come from distorted thinking.  We assume that we know what others are feeling and we make a decision or a judgment for them.  We don't trust them to take care of us if we ask, even if they tell us directly that they want to help.  We don't believe them.   Not entirely.  "She's just trying to be kind" and "she doesn't really mean it." Another part of  it is our ego that says "I don't want to be someone who has to be helped."

When we do this we deprive them and ourselves of a very human connection.  We lack the courage to put ourselves in what feels like a very vulnerable and uncomfortable position.  We assume that those we think about asking for help are lying or untrustworthy or "bothered" by our requests.

A chance to help someone else is not so much an imposition as it is a way for us to say, "I trust you."  In return the people who helps get a real gift - a chance to use their skills, talents or time to make a difference in someone's life.  Takes the person helping out of his or her own head and almost always makes that person feel good.  It's incredibly powerful among us cancer patients because it's a virtuous circle.  We may be really really sick but a half hour spent with someone who is even sicker or depressed or who just needs some comfort can make our day and give us courage to meet our own challenges.  We may be stuck on the couch at home recovering from chemo but we still have purpose, work to do right here, right now.  We can help someone else and that makes all the difference in the world.

After a meeting this week where I talked and cried, a woman came up to me after the meeting, said some words of comfort and then pulled a small slightly tattered card out of her wallet.  "Here," she said, "I want you to have this."  This is what the card says:
Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.  When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation - some fact of my life unacceptable to me and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at that moment.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God's world by mistake;  unless I accept life completely on life's terms, I cannot be happy.  I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.
It made my day.  Even if you don't agree with what the card says (and I do agree with it) the act of giving and getting the card created an incredibly powerful connection between the two of us at that moment.  She is a complete stranger to me (I don't even know her name) and yet she took the time in response to something I offered (my talk) to find something she had that helped her in the past and to pass it along to me.  As Palmer said, it's about putting yourself out there and trusting that someone will catch you before you fall.  Her talk made me realize that one the attitudes I need to change in me is to be even more willing to put myself out there, to share and to ask others for help without feelings of guilt or remorse or doubt, and without treating those who offer help as slightly suspicious until proven otherwise.  That path didn't fail me this week and no reason to think it will fail me in the future.

Enjoy the Ted Talk.