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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Global Portable Identities

I just finished a lovely book of essays edited by Susan Ossman called The Places We Share:  Migration, Subjectivity, and Global Mobility. Nicely written and redacted and I recommend it to you.

There was one essay in particular that I noted and went back to.  It's called "A New Take on the Wandering Jew" and it's about Jewish identity as it is experienced in different countries by people who are globally mobile.  As the author of the essay, Shana Cohen, put it, "Acting on my Jewish identity has seemed to provide continuity as I have migrated from place to place."  Wherever she has lived (US, Morocco, England, Egypt and Israel) that identity has served to ground her.  It isn't about integration so much as it is having a kind of worldwide plug adaptor so that wherever a migrant lands there is something that he or she can connect to that is not tied to one country, culture, nationality or citizenship.  It exists separate from all those things.  There are local variations, certainly, but there is something under it all that connects where you came from, where you've lived, where you are right now and where you might go.

Furthermore, it's a something that you feel that you have a right to be a part of based on criteria that is not determined by border guards or states or even to a certain extent, the local culture and community.  You belong.  Period.  And all you have to do is show up and in most cases, they have to honor your claim to belong.  Or at least if they don't they forfeit some important principles in their own rulebook such as their claims to universality.

In my own life the Catholic church functions in exactly this manner.  It is a constant wherever I go.  By virtue of this identity, this membership, I can simply find the local church or cathedral wherever I happen to be and plug in.  Christianity is a universal creed, a world religion that was already global before anyone ever noticed there was this thing called "globalization."  As the essay so ably points out, so is Judaism.  Islam too, for that matter. You can be affiliated to any one of these world religions and find an instantiation of it in just about any country you wish to visit or live in.  If you like (and I do) that provides a thread of cohesion that can mute some of the psychic distress of culture shock and adaptation to new places.

This function of world religions may be completely lost on adherents who do not travel widely or migrate.  In France, for example, I see this very strong identification of Catholicism and French culture and sometimes even claims to a kind of special culturally-based version of Catholicism that is unlike any other in the world.  I was asked once by a family member here if American Catholics baptized their children, too - a question that I found highly amusing.  Yes, there are culturally specific traditions around Catholic rites here but the creed, sacraments and rites are the same and don't fundamentally change between the US and Canada or France and England.  For all that the French have misgivings about mondialisation, a fair number of them are (and have been for generations) members of these global organizations/communities whether we are talking about Christianity, Judaism or any other religion with a global presence.

So far I've talked only about world religions and the question that followed my reading of the essay was:  Are there secular equivalents out there?  Identities, organizations or movements that have the same characteristics:  a universal creed, shared rites and rituals, open membership and a global presence.

And the answer is Yes.  Alcoholics Anonymous.  Believe it or not, AA is worldwide and a recovering alcoholic can find a meeting just about anywhere he or she goes in the world.  I know personally any number of serial migrants and travellers who use AA as their base in every country, region, city, town or village.  I have seen people walking into a meeting with their luggage having just come from the airport.  They find and go to a meeting before they check into the hotel.  It's that important to them.  There are local traditions and different languages depending on the country/culture but the basic principles are always the same and they are universal.  

Now I have heard the argument that AA is a religion.  My experience in France, the US and Canada is that, if there is a religious component to it, it varies according to the place with atheists and agnostics very prevalent in French meetings. A bit different in North America but it depends on the particular meeting.

So I do argue for AA as a secular transnational organization with a global membership and a  portable identity that gives a migrant or a traveller  a place to "plug in" anywhere he or she goes in the world.

Are there others?

You tell me.


Sunday, April 27, 2014

Two Faces of American Emigration/Expatriation

I think it is fair to say that the face of American emigration/expatriation today is Eduardo Saverin.  That is the name that consistently comes up when I talk with homelanders about Americans abroad and our relationship to the U.S. tax system.    This is the face, the poster child if you will,  that supports the narrative that Americans abroad have all fled the US to escape taxes.  That's right, folks, American emigration is all about criminal behaviour unless we can prove otherwise to the satisfaction of our compatriots.

How powerful is this narrative in the homeland?  Powerful enough that two senators tried to get a law passed based on that one highly publicized case.  The bill, called the ex-Patriot act, was introduced in reaction to Saverin's renunciation and had a very clear objective:  it was mean to punish past, present, and future expatriation - to prevent (or at least strongly discourage) Americans from leaving the US for other lands and cutting their ties to the American political community.

The first goal seemed to resonate with the homelanders since they are still talking about how ungrateful Saverin was and how he got away with something. The millions he paid to expatriate (yes, Saverin paid the Exit Tax - the tax on emigration) seems to be either forgotten completely or dismissed as a mere token amount that did not sufficiently compensate the US (and US taxpayers) for the benefits he received as a US citizen.

It was the fact that the Exit Tax and all the other ugly aspects of US emigration policy like the Name and Shame list (1996 Reed Amendment) are not turning out to be a sufficient deterrent that three senators decided to up the ante with a law that would, in addition to the stiff Exit Tax,  banish these expatriates forever from American soil. Senators Robert Casey (D-Pennsylvania), Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) and Charles Schumer (D-New York)  introduced the act in 2012 and in spite of all the headlines it generated, it didn't go anywhere.  That didn't stop them, however, it just slowed them down for a few months.  According to AngloInfo they reintroduced their proposal hidden inside a 2013 immigration bill which just goes to show that these fellows are deadly serious and if they can't get what they want openly, they are perfectly happy to do so by stealth.

With all the anger over emigration and expatriation in the US, why didn't this bill pass?  I don't think it had anything to do with the right to expatriate that is enshrined in international law since the US Congress has never shown that they give two hoots about that.  It was the possible impact on Americans living in the U.S. that I'm pretty sure was the deal-breaker.

Homelanders suffer from a two delusions relevant to our discussion.  One  is that every American is simply a "temporarily embarrassed millionaire."  The other is that Americans living abroad are all living the good life outside the US. "Good life" is a very nebulous concept but if you listen to the homelanders carefully you'll hear them place so many of their personal yearnings and desires into that term and it can be anything from security, opportunity and better health care to personal growth and adventure.  One way to look at it is that it is an expression of all the things that they think they can't find or can't have in the United States.

The vast majority of Americans may never ever leave (many Americans don't even have passports - the esseential document that makes leaving any country possible) but they still dream emigrant dreams.  How else to explain their eagerness to buy books about Americans restoring old stone farmhouses in Provence or life on the beach  "Down Under" or retirement in Belize/Mexico/Thailand any of the other autobiographical adventure tales that do very well back in the States?  And every American who lives vicariously through these stories feels the tug. "That could be me," he or she thinks before coming to his senses and listing all the reasons why it just isn't possible "right now."  But perhaps, once relieved of the "temporary embarrassment" of  limited means, it could happen. In any case, the idea that there might be impediments to leaving the United States (whether that means just taking a trip, settling permanently outside the US or renouncing) just doesn't sit well with Americans.  Is not the "freedom to leave" the very essence of freedom?  If Americans couldn't be mobile (and global) - if they could not become citizens of other countries and choose to attach themselves to other political communities elsewhere -  then they would join the captive citizens and subjects of other states who are, most agree, not free at all.

So how to explain the countervailing desires of homelanders to punish people like Saverin (and the unrelenting characterization of American emigrants as suspected tax evaders) while rejecting anything that would close the door (even partially) on their own right to emigrate or expatriate?

One answer, I believe, can be found if we look at the very different reactions to two well-known expatriations.  On one hand we have Saverin who is still being vilified for leaving the US and renouncing his citizenship.  In fact the anger was so high that Americans lawmakers are still trying to make political hay out of it.  On the other we have another very rich citizen who relocated to  Switzerland and gave up her citizenship, Tina Turner.  Ms. Turner is not as rich as Mr. Saverin but she's still up there with 200 million USD in assets (which meant that she most likely had to pay the Exit Tax).

Her renunciation was widely reported but did not generate anything even close to the outrage that followed the news of Saverins' renunciation.  The usual anti-expat suspects in the US Congress like Reed and Schumer were strangely silent about it and the US media bent over backward to say that Ms. Turner had very good reasons to expatriate (renounce) that had nothing whatsoever to do with the US tax system.  Nor have I seen (though perhaps I wasn't looking in the right places)  homeland Americans calling Tina Turner a traitorous, ungrateful tax dodger and calling for her permanent banishment from the United States.  In a nutshell, Eduardo Saverin was presumed guilty and Tina Turner is presumed innocent.  (Or at least that's the way it looks from where I sit.)


I will give you my take on it and then I would love to hear your thoughts.

I think Americans at home can more easily identify with Tina Turner.  Here is a self-made African-American woman who did not come from great wealth and who succeeded because she is smart, beautiful and talented.  She is admired and liked by millions of Americans who grew up (like me) enjoying her music.  Her migration to Switzerland is portrayed in the media as something that happened by pure chance (an "Accidental migrant") and for a wonderful purely positive reason (romance) -  both of which resonate with Americans dreaming emigrant dreams.   And now she intends to stay permanently and retire in her adopted country with the l'homme de sa vie.  All this explains her decision to the satisfaction of  homeland Americans.

This tale is more than just satisfying,  Tina Turner's migration story is, well, something Americans can actually identify with.  It says that even someone who began life disadvantaged and with modest means can have the American Dream + which consists of succeeding in the US and then  moving abroad to do whatever one fancies out there in the world beyond the borders of the US. (And what is even more interesting is that some Americans suspect these days that the only way they can succeed is by leaving America.)

There is just one problem with Turner's story: it explains her migration but not her renunciation.   Tina Turner could have done all of the above as a dual US/Swiss citizen.  If those are the  reasons Tina Turner emigrated then she could have had every single one of them and stayed a US citizen.  Clearly there were other considerations that caused her to consider cutting her ties to the US - a process that is not simple and is likely to cost her a great deal of money.

Lex parsimoniae - the downside to living abroad and being a dual US/Swiss citizen is that lifelong relationship to the US IRS that all Americans outside the US are subject to that would have affected not only her but her husband as well.  It is simply defies common sense to think that the US tax system didn't have any effect at all on her decision to renounce.

Homeland Americans seem to genuinely believe her (or her lawyers) when they insist that the US tax system wasn't a consideration but they don't find credible Eduardo Saverin when he said of his renunciation:  "The decision was strictly based on my interest of living and working in Singapore."

Two faces of American emigration/expatriation  and dare I say it?  Deux poids, deux mesures.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Deportation: Crime, Punishment and Proportionality

Le droit et la loi, telles sont les deux forces ; de leur accord naît l’ordre, de leur antagonisme naissent les catastrophes. Le droit parle et commande du sommet des vérités, la loi réplique du fond des réalités ; le droit se meut dans le juste, la loi se meut dans le possible ; le droit est divin, la loi est terrestre. Ainsi, la liberté, c’est le droit ; la société, c’est la loi.
Victor Hugo

"It's the law," some like to say and yet that is not the last word.  It can never be the last word because laws are made by "crooked timber" - humanity in all its glorious diversity which is always imperfect.  We are not gods, nor are we animals - we are something in between and in this earthly realm we do terrible things to each other - perfectly legal things that are nonetheless morally dubious.

Deportation is part of the nation-state toolkit.  In another era its close cousin was "exile".  Entire countries were founded, at least in part, because exile was used to punish the undesirable whether they were subjects or citizens.  Today it is very hard to exile a citizen of a democratic nation-state.  International law is clear:  if you are a citizen you have the right to enter and remain in a state of citizenship.  It doesn't always work that way because nation-states can be very clever in finding ways around the pesky problems of citizens and their rights.   Citizens can be made and unmade, for example, as is happening right now in the UK.  Or, citizens living outside the national territory can see their rights eroded by legislation that simply bypasses the issues of citizenship and the rights it confers, and instead creates a class of second-rate citizens who can be discriminated against, prevented from entering the national territory, or even killed outright without due process (US). 

Deportation, however, is a little different.  It is forced exile but it is applied (in theory) only to those who are not citizens.  The criteria for deciding who is deportable and who isn't varies from country to country with some places and regions offering protection against it - usually based on length of residency, family and other ties.  Nonetheless, it is always there as a possibility if you live in a foreign land. 

I think I can safely say that it is one of the worst possible things that could happen to any migrant, especially those of us who have lived a very long time in a country and have businesses, families and all sorts of emotional ties.  Wherever a migrant lives, until he or she can legally apply for citizenship, he lives a precarious existence since the right to abide here or there depends on so many factors that are completely outside of their control. Without the right to vote and where agitation on their part or participation in national political life tends the rile the established citizenry who hold migrants' lives, jobs and families in their hands.  

The power that the native citizens hold over the migrants in their midst is a terrible one and should never be forgotten.  It is, I am coming to believe, very much like the power hereditary aristocracies used to exercise over subjects with the tyrants here being the hereditary citizens of these democracies.

That power becomes crystal clear when migrants come up against a nation's deportation machine.  A couple of weeks ago I read Daniel Kanstroom's Aftermath: Deportation Law and the New American Diaspora and have been thinking about it ever since.   Kanstroom is not a proponent of open borders or "the abolition of the nation-state, or against all immigration enforcement."  He even sees some utility in the deportation process.  What he is against is what he sees as the abuses in the American deportation system.  Reform is his goal and he thinks this would best be accomplished by a return to a "relatively seldom-used and legally nuanced, flexible process..." that he says was the status quo before 1996. 

So what is this system that Kanstroom think can and should be reformed?  If deportation is a legitimate tool  what exactly is his issue with how the United States of America does deportation in the early part of the 21st century?

The deportation system that exists today in the United States is unprecedented, he says, in its scope and application.  Two laws passed in the mid-1990's are responsible for the change:  AEDPA (Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act) and the IIRIRA (Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act).  Kanstroom says:
"Among other features, the 1996 laws (retroactively) expanded many grounds for exclusion and deportation, created mandatory detention for many noncitizens, invented new "fast-track" deportation systems;  eliminated judicial review of certain types of deportation (removal) orders;  discarded some and limited other discretionary "waivers" of deportability; and vastly increased possible state and local law collaboration.  As a direct result of these laws, hundreds of thousands of people have been excluded and deported from the United States who would have been allowed to become legal permanent residents and (probably) naturalized citizens under prior laws."
In other words these laws took a lot of the discretion and common sense out of the process, made people who were convicted in the past of minor crimes committed in their youth suddenly deportable, and took away most of the means they had of pleading their cases. Among the people who have been cast out one doesn't have to look far to find ones that are just plain wrong and where the consequences have been catastrophic for the migrants and their American families:  Families with young children who are US citizens, US military veterans or their spouses, or even those with convictions for non-violent offenses committed as far back as 20 years ago.   Apparently even  "moral turpitude" can be brought into play here.  

Barack Obama once said "we cannot - and should not - deport 12 million people."  Too late - looks like the US already has. Kanstroom says that from 2001 to 2010 there were 2,794,946 forcibly removed and 9,378,880 "returns." "As I write this book," he says, "U.S. federal deportation authorities will incarcerate more than 29,000 noncitizens on any given day..."

With that broad a brush and that many people one can almost guarantee that there will be more than just a few mistakes.   This is the law used as a blind  blunt instrument. But to what purpose?  Kanstroom gives two - the first of which is obvious and the second which is clear to migrants but perhaps is less so to citizens.  

Harsher immigration laws and the new deportation system were designed to appease native citizens' concerns about border control, undocumented people, and terrorism.  Americans (post- Oklahoma City/Twin Towers/911) don't feel safe and they want something done about it.

Has it worked so far?   Are Americans safer because 13 million people have disappeared from the national territory?

Out of sight, out of mind, right?  Not so fast.  One of the best parts of Kanstroom's book is where he talks about the deportees and what has happened to them.  These people didn't simply vanish into thin air once they were forced to leave the US - they had to go somewhere and they did and some of those places are not too far from the US.  Kanstroom makes the excellent point that these 13+ million people represent today another kind of American diaspora - people who have an American identity (years of residence in the US, fluent English and the like) but who are nevertheless permanently out and can't come back because they don't have (or couldn't get) citizenship.  I cannot speak for them but if I extrapolate from my own experience I would not be surprised to find that they have a great and terrible anger against the country that cast them out. 

The other purpose of this deportation system is social control.  A migrant who lives in a country where he believes that he can be deported at any time for the most trivial of offenses (past or present) is living in a state of perpetual fear.  One step out of line and he or she could lose everything.  Interestingly enough, the nature of the US deportations (the irrelevance of military or community service, learning the local language/customs and adherence to national principles) demonstrate that it is rather futile to try to integrate or to serve the nation since none of these things count in one's favor should the authorities decide that one is a candidate for deportation.  Even the acquisition of citizenship becomes problematic if the reason for one's application is purely defensive and not because one has a sincere attachment to the country itself.

Kanstroom's solutions to the obvious injustices of the deportation are to reform it by bringing back discretion - a closer examination of these cases and a weighing all the factors for and against.  Military service, length of residency, and family ties should count, he says, because these are life stories to which attention should be paid." I could not agree more.  If there is to be a reckoning for past or present behaviour then it should be proportional to the crime and there are all to many cases where it clearly isn't.  Kanstroom reports that 2/3 (77%) of the deportees to date were deported for a non-violent crime.  Deportation under those circumstances  defies the principle of proportionality - the punishment simply does not fit the crime.  

European law by the way does require that proportionality and a showing that there was balance between the law and order requirements of the state and the deportees general conduct, length of stay and the nature of the crime.  That does not mean that people are not ever deported.  My host country, France, does so with some regularity.  (Interesting that they use the word expulsion and not déportation.)  

 But I would go one step farther here and say that in most circumstances deportation should simply be prohibited.  There should never be a question about or a proceeding against, for example, someone who was brought to a country as a child.  Same for long-term residents - there should be a point where residency, ties and perhaps integration confer complete protection against deportation/exile.  

Where to draw the line here?  Honestly I don't know.  But just for fun, let's try a little thought experiment.

1.  Think of all the reasons - all the nefarious acts - that you believe justify deportation of immigrants.

2.  Then explain why is it OK to deport a migrant but it is not OK to exile a citizen for the same offenses.

3.  Bonus question:  Would it make a difference if the migrant was in the country legally or illegally?  Why?

Friday, April 25, 2014

Sailing Away

"On life's vast ocean diversely we sail,
Reason the card, but passion is the gale."
Alexander Pope

What do I miss the most about the U.S.? A trick question because when I lived there I didn't travel much in America. The farthest east I ever got was Sandpoint, Idaho (and if you live there or in Spokane and your  last name is Heath then we might be related). The farthest south was a trip to California (Disneyland). And the only foreign country I'd ever visited before I left for France was British Columbia, Canada and that didn't feel all much different from Washington State (we went up there to see family).

Better question is what do I miss about the Pacific Northwest? That is an easy one to answer: the sea. I miss living by the water.  The sound of the seagulls and the smell of salt water in the early hours of the morning. There is nothing quite like it. I also miss being out on the water. The Puget Sound region is a world of watercraft: houseboats, ferries, tugboats, big container ships, and sailboats. Some of my best memories as a young adult are about being out on the Sound in a relative's fishing boat or a friend's sailboat.   The one I remember best was a 26-foot yawl built by Bobby Allen.  Talk about passion - I used to watch him leave the office every day to go and work on it and it took him years to finish.  Her name was the Harriet Spicer and she was beautiful.   

Since I've been in France I've sailed exactly once.   I was working for the Compagnie Générale d'Entreprises Automobiles (CGEA) at the time and they had an annual sailboat race for employees in France and from abroad.  So my colleagues and I from the office in Nanterre went down to Toulon and had a fine time out there on the water in our rented sailboat and way too much wine. We lost but I did get to see one of France's aircraft carriers. 

A few days ago someone on Facebook sent me a link to a website and said, "Have a look at this, Victoria"   The site is called  Skûtsje Zonder Zorg

Meet Edi and Michael from Vancouver, British Columbia.  From 2009 to 2012, they sailed from Vancouver all the way down the coasts,  around Cape Horn and then back up the coasts on the other side.  They blogged about it (and apparently the blog was quite the sensation) and later wrote a book.

They are now in Europe travelling on the rivers and canals in a 105-year old skûtsje called the Zonder Zorg.  Their lasted post is dated April 21 and they are in France right now (Toulouse) going along the Canal du Midi and through the locks and into the city.  It's quite a tale and the photos and commentary on what they see and do as they cruise along are pure pleasure to read.  

The saddest part about it for me is that in twenty years here it has never occured to me to take a boat out on the canals. Sure, I knew it was possible but....   

Somebody give me a good slap to the side of the head.  I was wasting my time grieving over the lost waters of home and then I see  a couple of short-timers  from my part of the world taking advantage of the waters here and having a great time.  

Attitude adjustment accomplished.  

Thursday, April 24, 2014

ACA Event: 21st Century Taxation of Americans Abroad

If you're anywhere near Toronto, Canada next week there is a not-to-be-missed event sponsored by the ACA Global Foundation.

It's called 21st Century Taxation of Americans Abroad: Citizenship-based taxation vs. Residence-based taxation.  It's serious look at the merits and demerits of what Americans abroad refer to as the CBT versus RBT debate.  (Say "CBT" to the average person in the American homeland and they don't know what the hell you're talking about. )

ACA has some good speakers arguing all sides.  I am particularly interested in the words of one gentleman I've been following religiously for a couple of years now:  Phil Hodgen who writes one of the best blogs on these matters.

Alas, I can't be there but I really encourage folks to go if they can.  Here's hoping that the papers (or maybe a video) of the event will be forthcoming so that the information presented gets the widest possible reach.

Americans abroad (about 7 million people) are having to act as their own advocates and many of us are in the position (since the US government is doing such a terrible job at it) of trying to inform other Americans abroad of how the US tax system does, in fact, apply to them.  Not to mention that many of us are presenting our situations, cases and arguments for a more rational (and less onerous) system to our elected representatives in the U.S. and sometimes even to our friends and family back in the U.S. who have a hard time understanding just what the heck we are all agitated about. (Just file, damn it, and stop griping!)

I think it would very useful if we had something that distilled the most important points on all sides of this debate so we could argue our case more effectively and get the maximum number of people pushing for change. A lot of what I have read is really really good but desperately needs executive summaries translated into language that everyone can understand and use when we are put in the position of having to explain the fuss.  I might just do that in future posts.  How I would I explain this CBT versus RBT debate to my Mom in Seattle in under 5 minutes?    Now, that would be a challenge...

Kudos to ACA for organizing this (and providing links to the papers already out by Michael Hirsch, Bernard Schneider and John Richardson) because out of this conference hopefully we will have more ammunition for our arguments as well as a better understanding of the arguments coming from the pro-CBT crowd.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Idleness is the Enemy of the Soul

"Idleness is the enemy of the soul.
Therefore the sisters should be occupied
at certain times in manual labor,
and again at fixed hours in sacred reading.
To that end we think that the times for each may be prescribed as follows.

From Easter until the Calends of October,
when they come out from Prime in the morning
let them labor at whatever is necessary
until about the fourth hour,
and from the fourth hour until about the sixth
let them apply themselves to reading.
After the sixth hour, having left the table,
let them rest on their beds in perfect silence;
or if anyone may perhaps want to read,
let her read to herself
in such a way as not to disturb anyone else."

Regula Benedicti
Chapter 48, On the Daily Manual Labor

For me the perfect life would be some combination of the above.  A mixture of manual labor, reading and contemplation.  Last week was all that and more.

Mike came up to Versailles from Dax and we scraped, sanded and painted every garden wall here at the Flophouse.  Our work accelerated after a quick look at the meteo (weather report) that predicted rain for Versailles later in the week and so we scraped, sanded and painted even faster.  It was an all out effort but we made it.  Here are the before and after pictures:

What I like about this kind of work is that it is perfect for contemplation.  I get a lot of thinking done in the garden - it's as if working the muscles frees the mind.  On my mind was a book I read a couple of weeks ago called Aftermath:  Deportation Law and the New American Diaspora by Daniel Kanstroom.  Your mileage may vary but it made my stomach hurt.  What he describes may be in complete accordance with the law but certainly does not culminate in what I would call justice. Victor Hugo's words sum it up quite beautifully:  "Le droit et la loi, telles sont les deux forces: de leur accord naît l'ordre, de leur antagonisme naissent les catastrophes."

Whatever the intentions (and it should be noted that with this law and policy there is complete continuity between George Bush and Barack Obama) this catastrophe has had terrible consequences for American immigrants and citizens alike. 

Now that I've had time to reflect on it, I will write a longer review of the book and we can discuss. Easy to point out the injustices of any system - harder to come up with solutions, but Kanstroom tries and what he proposes seems sensible.  Of course, it is too little, too late, for about 13 million people...

Saturday we rested (sort of) and went to the garden store, Truffaut.  I had a list of plants I wanted:  creeping thyme, astilbe and another ornamental tree for the front courtyard.   There was the list (and I did find everything on the list) and then there were the deals I just couldn't pass up:  flats of vegetables for the potager and two huge black plastic pots marked down to 10 euros each.  These are perfect for fulfilling a vision I've had for the front courtyard:  a small fountain just under the bedroom window to cut the noise from the street and add some whimsy.  Here's what it looks like so far:

I'm still filling the pot with water - I just turn the hose that direction when I go out to water and let the rain do the rest.  The next step will be to get a small floating solar water jet - something like this, for example.

This morning we are off to visit the King's Kitchen Garden near the castle and I will end this post with this prayer I read silently to myself as I was sitting in the pew at St. Michel on Easter morning waiting for the services to start.  A good one for all exiles everywhere...

Mon Dieu, sur la terre où je m’exile, où sont les chants de ta maison ? Dans le pays qui veut me perdre, où donc est le festin ? Dans les déserts où je m’enfonce, où sont les eaux de mon baptême? Viens me secourir : assoiffe encore mon cœur et ma chair, pour que je me souvienne, dans ma nuit, et que je te cherche, dès l’aube. Alors, de toute mon âme, je m’attacherai à toi, je lèverai les mains et je te bénirai. 
My God, in the land of my exile, where are the songs of your house? In the country that wishes to lose me, where is the feast? In the deserts where I sink every deeper, where are the waters of my baptism? Come to my aid: make thirsty my heart and my flesh so that I remember in my night to seek you in the dawn. And so with all my heart I will bind myself to you, I will raise my hands and bless you.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Prendre le flambeau: A Writing Challenge

It's kind of astonishing that people trust strangers because of words they write on computer screens.

Howard Rheingold

When I started writing the Flophouse I was like the person who puts notes in a bottle and casts them into the sea with the idea that someone, somewhere, might find them dropped upon a beach by the tide, open them, and be amused by the messages or impressed by how far they had to travel.

Today that analogy no longer holds.  The Flophouse exists in its own little virtual space with its 800 or so posts on all manner of topics and the thousands of comments and emails.  It has readers who visit regularly and others who pass by when something pops up that interests them.  I know it's a destination in its own right not only because I have a dashboard that tracks the number of hits by region but because other virtual places have seen fit to put up signposts that say, "This Way to the Flophouse."  

Needless to say, I do the same thing with links to other blogs and articles that I like and believe are of interest.  And when we do that - all that reading and linking and putting up signs that say "Have a look at this..." - my little blog (or your big blog) becomes part of a community (or communities) of bloggers and readers all over the world.  What Howard called a wonderful "intersection between humanity and technology."  

Free of geographical limitations, these are communities where  "we chat and argue, engage in intellectual intercourse, perform acts of commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games and metagames, flirt, create a little high art and a lot of idle talk. We do everything people do when people get together, but we do it with words on computer screens, leaving our bodies behind."

One very human on-line community that I (and the Flophouse) am affiliated with is made of those living with breast cancer.  Not a group I ever aspired to join but one that I'm very happy to have at my fingertips.  When I was going through chemo and could hardly get from my bed to the couch, going to Paris on the train was just as impossible as flying to Seattle.  When your world shrinks that much, on-line may be one of the only ways to expand it.

Sweet serendipity, one of the first blogs I looked at for information (comfort, too) was Marie's Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer.  What makes her blog special?  That signpost thing I was talking about.  Marie reads and then once a week she puts it all together and posts a roundup.  It's pure service and it makes all the difference to me (and to others).  Almost all the BC blogs that I follow today I found through her, and some of her readers found the Flophouse when something I posted here got included.  And that's how community on-line is made - through connecting with and to others.  

How do you say "thank you" to someone whose service made a real difference in your life? Well, one way is to say, "How can I contribute to this community?"  Last week Marie participated in a Writing Challenge where she answered 4 questions from another blogger and then passed the torch to others to do the same.  I volunteered.

So here goes - my taking the torch and running with it:  

1) What am I working on?

Sobriety:  Top of the agenda is and will always be sobriety.  Breast cancer was the second life-threatening condition I've faced so far in this life.  The story of how I got sober is here.  But the story of staying sober is still being written.  Everything I do and hope to do is conditional on my not drinking today.   Nothing I do is more important than this because if I can't stay sober, then everything else will vanish.  

Faith:  Alcohol abuse was one way I faced my fears (not a long-term strategy that I would recommend).  I was able to stop drinking but once the anesthetic wore off here I was with all the emotional baggage accumulated over 48 years of awkward graceless living.  I chose, as the Big Book says, to accept spiritual help and I think this passage from John Waters describes beautifully where I was and where I want to be:
"Previously, I was terrified of a world that I did not trust to support me.  I feared everything, mistrusted everything.  Now I accept, as a matter of fact, that I am a part of reality,  that I can throw myself into the stuff of everyday and be sure it will embrace my surrender.  I cannot think this process into being, I can only do it.  It depends on action based on trust, and feeling based on a state of harmony with the world, which can also be called grace."
Service:  Part of recovery is service and the question, of course, is how and where.  Some of it is through the blog and other writing for another community, Americans abroad.  But every day is a question mark for me because positive advocacy can all too easily turn toward negativity and resentment.  It is a slippery slope of justified anger toward a situation that one feels is unfair, and around which emotions are running high.  However, it is very dangerous for me to go there and when I write those kinds of posts I feel myself inching toward the edge of a cliff that drops off into a dark dark place.  Here is the advice of the Big Book which is, I think, very fitting for me:  "We have found that justified anger ought to be left to those better qualified to handle it."  I can't handle it.  Period.  And when that sort of writing conflicts with sobriety, then it's time to write about something else.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre and 3) Why do I write what I do?

The Flophouse is just one of millions of blogs out there and I'm not sure that it fits into any particular genre or category.   One criticism of the Flophouse that I hear over and over again is its lack of focus on one particular topic.  If the goal is to get hits then the critics are right and I'm not doing myself any favors here.  But if the goal is to connect then I think diversity has a lot to recommend it.  Think of it as a way of instantiating Amin Maalouf's examen d'identité (an examination of identity).  It's the diverse topics (with my take on them) and how those topics and interests connect to other people and communities that makes the Flophouse a distinct place - unique in exactly the same way as every other blog out there. 
Je fouille ma mémoire pour débusquer le plus grand nombre d'éléments de mon identité, je les rassemble, je les aligne, je n'en renie aucun.I search my memory to flush out the maximum number of elements of my identity, I put them together, I align them, and I deny none of them.Chacune de mes appartenances me relie à un grand nombre de personnes; cependant, plus les appartenances que je prends en compte sont nombreuses, plus mon identité s'avère spécifique.Each one of my adherences connects me to a large number of people;  however, the more groups I belong to, the more my identity proves to be specific.Grâce a chacune de mes appartenances, prise séparément, j'ai une certaine parenté avec un grand nombre de mes semblables;  grâce aux memes critères, pris tous ensemble, j'ai mon identité propre, qui ne se confond avec aucune autre.Thanks to all my adherences, taken separately, I have a certain relationship with a large number of people like me;  thanks to the same elements, taken all together, I have my own identity, which can never be confused with any other.
4) How does my writing process work?

I get up, I read, and then I mentally parse the topics that I could write about until I feel the universe give me a little tug.  That one, Madame.  And then I sit down and start tickling the keyboard.  When I'm done I try to remember to run the spellcheck and then I hit the "Publish" button and get up to walk the garden or do the dishes.

The funny thing is that hardest part of writing is not the activity, it's the letting go.  That, in and of itself, makes it an exercise worth doing.  Everything in me that wants  (in spite of all experience to the contrary) to have complete control over what I put out there for others to see, hear or read, is provoked when I write.  Nothing has the potential to bring out all my character faults like this does -  every fear of saying the wrong thing, every misguided desire for perfection, every nightmare of "everyone is going to hate me" is lurking in my subconscious and just needs a twitch to manifest itself in unhealthy obsessive behaviour:  re-reading a post 10 times or checking the hits after I publish to assure myself that I haven't done a poor job of expressing myself.

So the trick here for me is to remember the two works in progress:  sobriety and faith.  I am not perfect and I will make mistakes.  I write a modest little blog that gives me and others pleasure (service).  The universe will steer me toward what to say that day to make a difference to someone, somewhere.  With these things as my foundation I can write what feels right and then I just put it out there and let it go.  

"Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us…"

Pema Chodron

Here is the other blogger who took up Marie's challenge:  Audrey Birt of Edinburgh, Scotland in a post called Words Tempted by a Page.  I loved this paragraph which I think beautifully echoes Howard Rheingold's words in describing what happens in on-line communities:

"BUT I have also felt the power of its connection, felt the realness of the contact that can reach across continents, generations, cultures and help build relationship in such a expected ways. I have learned from people I will never meet in person, I have laughed with them, I have grieved for them. We travel a road together which creates a bond, which especially recognisable when its broken by advanced illness or death. "

And now I would like to pass the torch to someone else.  Is anyone out there game?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Early Spring in Versailles

Weather was outstanding this week and it was much too nice to stay inside and tickle the keyboard.

The cherry, peach, and apple trees are blooming.  The beans, cilantro, and radishes are up.  The raspberries, however, are making a break for it (those little libertarians) - they are trying to spread willy-nilly all over the bed and will have to be disciplined.

The cold frames turned out to be an excellent addition to the potager.  This year I started the lettuce in them and it grew so fast that we now have fresh lettuce for dinner salad.  Today I will move the cold frames around and put out the tomatoes I grew in our dining room.

Daffodils are long gone but they were replaced by some magnificent tulips from Amsterdam.The roses are about to bloom as well.  The ones in the front courtyard are the vision of health and loveliness even without blossoms:  nice strong canes and shiny leaves thus far free from fungal and other infestations.

The peonies in the back yard were a huge surprise and delight.  These were planted by the old owner, Madame B,in the back of the yard in a place that probably got sun once upon a time but is today shaded by a lilac and that big beautiful stone fence.  After consultation with the owner of a local garden ship who warned me that peonies really REALLY don't like to be moved, I moved them anyway much closer to a section of the yard that gets full afternoon sun.  Well, yippity skip, they not only survived the move but for the first time since we moved in they are actually going to bloom.

It was even warm enough for me to get out some of the solar lights and fountains I bought last year to add whimsy to the garden.  I still want a pond, darn it, but negotiations with my domestic associate have broken down and every time I try to raise the topic there is much mumbling about it being Too Much Trouble.

A few projects have come to fruition and others are in progress.

The Trellis:  The one you can see in the picture above was looking rather shabby so I sanded it down and threw a coat of varnish on it.  Much better.  The wisteria I planted under it is finally taking off.  Give it a few years and it will be lovely.

The Front Gate:  I wrote about my feelings on this one here.  We finally decided that we had to replace it since it was falling apart and scattering rust all over the sidewalk.  We asked for bids which came in as high as 6,000 euros (cough, cough).  Uh, no.  We finally found a shop that would do it for us for a decent price and the workmen came and did the install before I left for Washington.  Here are the before and after pictures:

Old gate (1929)

New gate identical to the one installed in 1929
Front Courtyard Posts and Walls:  Now that the gate is up we need a mason to come in and redo the posts (one is cracked) and the cement finish on the low wall inside and out.  We are still getting bids but hopefully it will be done early summer.  We would have liked to replace the ugly chain link fence too (painted red and covered up with a truly hideous blue plastic that I in turn covered up with something a little nicer) but it will have to wait.

Other Garden Walls:  Now this I can do myself.  When we took out the juniper in the back I gained half a meter of garden space but it also exposed an crappy, unfinished, partially painted garden wall. Ugly as hell and the bricks aren't even beautiful so the logical solution is to paint the damn thing. I'm thinking that I'll just slap a coat of red on it and be done with it but if you have other ideas, feel free to say so.

Other projects in the works are a woodshed (arrived last week and needs to be assembled, varnished and the fire wood that is sitting on the front porch stacked in it to dry), the chicken run (still haven't decided if this is a good idea or not), the rotting railings on the front porch (to be replaced and painted) and the holes in the gutters fixed (this one is probably the priority but, hell, this is least sexy of all the projects on the list and surely it can wait until Fall, right?)

Off to the hardware store this weekend where we will once again spend far too much money under the guise of Protecting Our Investment.

Who are we kidding?  Home improvement is fun, if a bit addicting.  We are like coke addicts when we walk into the store and Leroy Merlin is definitely our preferred dealer.  

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Trans-State Politics: American Migrants and the First World War

"The foregoing analysis shows that because of the nature of diasporic entities, their members tend to become deeply involved in the political affairs of host countries and homelands, as well as in regional and international politics."

Gabriel Sheffer
Diaspora Politics:  At Home Abroad

What ever did we do before Google? (We probably worked harder for our knowledge and were the better for it.)

I promise to stop being a curmudgeon now and give credit where it is due.  This document came up this morning in response to one of my Google alerts.  A Message from Americans Abroad to Americans at Home published in December 1916.

World War I was raging in Europe at the time but the United States was still neutral and had yet to take a side.  From what I have read most Americans in the homeland supported Wilson's policy of neutrality and it took time for those attitudes to change.  The United States finally joined the conflict in April of 1917.

This open letter from Americans abroad (in Europe) was an attempt to influence the American government and homeland public opinion about the war.  It lays out an argument against neutrality and appeals to the conscience of Americans using words meant to resonate with Americans.

What I find most interesting about it is the first paragraph where they respond to an unspoken but clearly anticipated argument about their standing as Americans living outside the United States.  Who are we to be writing this to you?

Part of the answer is in the address:  "Fellow-Countrymen".  The use of that term makes it very clear that they may live abroad but they are still American citizens and this conversation is between compatriots and equals.

But perhaps not so equal because they go on to justify themselves:
"It is often said that Americans staying abroad lose their right to counsel those living at home, since foreign residence directly affects their opinions and sympathies." 
Ah, the evil "foreign influence" - the idea that their presence abroad may make them rather suspicious since the homeland can no longer be sure where their true sympathies lie.
"The latter part of the statement is true:  but we should also remember that residence abroad gives many opportunities of observation and that those who follow the course of events close at hand are in a better position to get direct impressions of fact upon which adequate conclusions can be based." 
So they admit that they are influenced by their host countries but they also point out that they are in a much better position to understand what is really going on since they are there on the ground and can see for themselves what is happening.
"While, therefore, not at all concealing our sympathies, we the undersigned Americans at present abroad, venture to present certain considerations on the war to you, our fellow-countrymen.  We speak for hundreds of our fellow-citizens abroad, who share our views."
I just love the "Americans at present abroad" because it's rather coy, isn't it?  The implication here (at least when I read it) is a kind of assurance of the temporary nature of that residence outside the U.S.   And for many of those Americans abroad it probably was true that they were only temporary migrants.  One does have to wonder, though, how many became, as  Dr. Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels calls them, "Accidental Migrants."  We know, for example, that Gertrude Stein arrived in Paris in 1903 and was a very permanent resident of France - she died in that city in 1946. (Nothing "temporary" about 40 years of residence abroad.)

The note concludes by noting the actions of a "sister American republic", Brazil, whose parliament made a motion to condemn neutrality, and strongly suggesting the America should do the same thing:
"We did not take this initiative, but we can follow this example....Let us adopt these words and do our utmost to uphold them - everyone of us who loves his country and believes in the principles of American Independence."
Fascinating. A shot straight to the heart of patriots - one which bases this call to action firmly on American political tradition.

Last word.  Take a good look at those who signed this message - in many cases their professions are noted after their names.  There are architects, doctors, lawyers, exporters, professors, merchants, authors, artists, relief workers and electrical engineers.  Quite a diverse group.

I don't know any more about this document - on whose initiative it was circulated, for example - but I am interested.  If you have more information, please share it.

I've embedded the book at the end of the post.  It's a bit hard to decipher but don't immediately lose heart because there are tools in the reader to zoom it, and you can also get it in PDF format suitable for printing.

Enjoy the read and your Friday, too.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Moving Rivers

A week of the worst jet-lag I've ever experienced.  I came back from Washington, poured myself into my bed and have been taking it easy ever since.  I do not recall it being this bad in my youth but my memory is not what it was.  Yes, I know that I'm not even 50 yet but this body and brain have gone through the cancer wars and I feel it every single day.

I did however make it to church yesterday.  I was there at noon sharp and it did me a world of good. It was exactly what I needed to shake off a week in the States and to put my priorities firmly back in the right order:  faith, family, friends.  Everything else gets what's left of me once those things are taken care of.

 Just a few short years ago the French church was a mystery to me.  The Mass in English was one of the last things I was still holding on to after a couple of decades in the Hexagon.  After I became a lapsed agnostic and returned to the faith of my childhood in the U.S. it was familiar and comforting to head into Paris to the anglophone Catholic church.  Truth be told it was not exactly like going to church in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.  Yes, the language and the ritual were the same but the accents, the community, and some of the customs were different.  Still, it was as close as I was going to get here, a few thousand miles away from where I grew up.  As my father used to say, "Good enough for government work."

For some reason I started thinking about all that as I was sitting/standing/kneeling in the chapel. After all that angst and fear and trepidation - after making such a Big Deal about the whole business of going to Mass in French - here I was as comfortable (and happy) as I could be and not missing one beat, one response, one gesture.

When I went looking for a local francophone church here I think I was expecting a repeat of the original experience when I first moved to France with all the negative emotions that I associated with that.  It was "living in the wreckage of the future" and expecting it to be hard  with a dash of uncertainty:  What if I can't do it?  Yes, I wondered about that. Why, since I was reasonably successful in integrating, did I have so much fear around something as simple as going to a new church?

Because it meant leaving my comfort zone. You can live in a country for a very long time but that doesn't mean that dark and dangerous areas do not exist for you.  A country is cut up into regions and towns and a culture is filled with sub-cultures - worlds within worlds.  Even when we look back with nostalgia to the place we were born and spent our formative years,  at some point (one hopes) the light comes on and we realize that our experience was very limited in so many ways.

For example, how well do I really know the United States, the place where I was born?  The truth is not very well.  I was born and raised in a particular part of the country and if I am honest, places like New York or Texas are complete mysteries to me.  I don't know the people there and what they think or how they live.  I have impressions but those were formed primarily by what I hear on the radio and see on TV.  I am just as ignorant about them as any non-American who has never set foot in the States.  Furthermore, those worlds have moved on since I lived there.

Other countries and cultures are the same.  The Hexagon is not just one world or one culture, it is many.  At some point in the integration process, you get comfortable and have the illusion that you now know all you need to know to survive and thrive.  But inside there is an awareness that there are deeper different waters out there - that you have simply skimmed the surface of all that this particular place and culture has to offer.  But having achieved a sort of stability, you don't want to venture out of your comfort zone.  Who knows what's out there in the wilds of Brittany, at that church in the center of town, or even just next door?  

But life is a moving river of experience and the harder you try to make things stand still, the more it slips through your fingers.  An image I read recently that I really liked was one of trying to take that river and pack it up in a box to Chronopost it to a friend.  The moment you trap the water, it ceases to be a river and becomes still water in a plastic jug.  

If you can think of languages, countries, cultures and sub-cultures as moving rivers it changes everything.  It's not a question of aggressively tackling the unknown and trying to achieve some sort of stability.  In fact that may be the worst strategy of all because the more you wrestle with the river, the more likely you are to drown.   It's more about jumping in feet first and letting the current carry you along.

And that was how I joined a local French church.  I just got up, got dressed, and went to Mass one day.  And to my delight (and surprise) people were very welcoming and kind. For the first few months I was a bit lost.  It wasn't just having to learn the responses in French, it was also about diving into this world within a world which was very different from anything I had experienced previously in my life here.  Their perspective on France, the church and many other topics was one that I only knew through others' opinions and prejudices.   You might not agree with their take on things but, for me, it was well worth getting my feet wet.  I still don't understand everything about this country I live in (and never will but then I don't really understand where I came from either) but I now know more than I knew just a few years ago and I find that some of that understanding seeps into other parts of my life here - the other worlds I belong to.

In retrospect the fears I had seem so ridiculous now but as I contemplate other barely known worlds that exist just at the periphery of my vision, I find the same fear lurking underneath my curiosity whether it is here in France or in the United States or any other place.  Why?

Surely part of it is the possibility of drowning - not all forays into different worlds end well.  But I think there is something else going on here and that is losing our sense of self.  To think of oneself as a cork in a river being swept downstream is a vision few of us like since it engenders feelings of helplessness and loss.  That if we allow life and experience to have their way with us, we will no longer have an answer to the question, "Who are you?"

And the true answer to that is that you and I are not the same person as we were yesterday and we will all be something different tomorrow.  That would be the case even if we never learned another language or never went further than five miles away from the place of our birth. There are rivers one can choose to dive into that can change our lives, but all of us already live in rivers of experience that are constantly moving us along without us even being aware of it.  And all we are at any one moment is the sum of all those experiences.   When we try to stop the stream and hold it in our hands and hearts and heads, it has slipped away and we are already something new. Something other than what we were just a few moments ago.

That means that not only do we live in moving rivers, but that "I" itself is one.

We can respond to this by making our worlds as small as possible in order to keep as much of the change at bay and our sense of control alive for as long as possible.  Or we can kick and scream and grip the bank of the river with our fingernails until we muster up enough courage to swim.

Or we can let go of the illusion that all of this is under our complete control and live in the ever-changing present.  We are less than the gods and more than the beasts and "we suffer from the delusion that the entire universe is held in order by the categories of human thought, fearing that if we do not hold on to them with the utmost tenacity, everything will vanish into chaos." (Alan Watts)