lundi 28 septembre 2009

Méthodes de gestion

In France, in Switzerland, in Poland and in America, everyone seems to be talking about the surprise arrest of Roman Polanski in Zurich, for a crime he committed on US soil 31 years ago. This is one of those issues that will always divide the French and the Americans. It isn't that the French think it was okay for Polanski to drug and then rape a 13-year old girl, so let's not go there.

In the meantime, though, yet another employee of France Télécom committed suicide this morning in Alby-sur-Chéran (Haute Savoie). This brings to 24 the number of employee suicides at FT since February 2008. FT was a state-owned company until it was privatized in 1996. Since 2004, the majority of its shareholders are private, although the French government remains l'actionnaire de référence. This basically means it still has the biggest stake, even though it no longer has a minorité de blocage and, presumably, no role in the company's day-to-day management. Let's hope not, anyway.

France Télécom currently has a workforce of 102,000. It used to be considered une belle situation as far as employment is concerned: you got in because you knew someone and then you stayed in for life, with great benefits all along the way. But since it was privatized and went public (i.e., began trading shares on the Paris Bourse), France Télécom has had to adopt a more disciplined management style. It faces competition from other operators and has had to restructure. The unions have been fighting these restructurings and demanding the adoption of more humaine management methods. Let me repeat it again in case you missed it: the French state is FT's biggest shareholder.

As part of the restructuring effort, people are being forced to change jobs and, in many case, move. For an American, this is no big deal. We get laid off, we move if that's what it takes to find a new job. In France, moving 50 kilometers represents an unthinkable hardship for some people. When I met the people who would become my in-laws (now ex in-laws) for the first time, I remarked that I knew someone who lived in a town not far from theirs. They live in Corrèze, in a small area with five or six other inhabitants. The nearest town is several miles away. The town in question was 25 kilometers from their home. When I showed them on a map where it was, they said "why, that is nowhere near here". The postman who delivered their mail every day had been doing so for at least 20 years. He would often stop in for a drink or two (La Gentiane)and then climb back into his postal van and drive away. This astonished me - that a civil servant would drink on the job and then drive. But my ex in-laws were people he had known all his life. It would have been rude and un-neighborly not to accept. And anyway, there was good gossip to be traded.

I have never been able to figure out if I envy this way of life or not. There is something both poignant and reassuring about having such a firmly fixed sense of place. But this is the 21st century, isn't it? Isn't it time for people to give up their attachment to a particular terroir and way of life and wake up to reality? Reality is jobs being outsourced to Bangalore, India and that is what France Télécom has to compete with. La mondialisation quoi!

But at France Télécom, some are saying hell no. Are they being selfish or just plain irrational, trying to defend their piece of the pie in an uncertain world? Or are they like suicide bombers, willing to die for a larger cause and defending a way of life that is being destroyed par coup de restructurations? I have to admit, to my mind there is something admirable about refusing the way the world is going.

On September 28, at 9:39 am (heure de Paris), employee number 24 jumped off a viaduct and died.

dimanche 27 septembre 2009

Breast sCare USA

Two books written by Diane Winaver, my gynecologist in France

I just had to get this off my chest.
I had my first mammogram at the age of 38, in France. After that, I had one every two years until I moved back to the United States. I have two small cysts, which are not dangerous but which need to be observed over time. Here's how it went in France: I would go and see the same specialist, who I was referred to by my terrific gynecologist. I found her through the wife of an American expat I worked with. Her name was on the US Embassy list. She's at the top of her field in France. I used to see her on television from time to time. She wrote lots of books, including one on how to talk to your teenage daughters about sex and reproduction. More recently, she has written a book on menopause.

The relative discomfort of a mammogram -- it feels like your breasts are being slammed repeatedly into a car door after being compressed beyond blood flow -- is no different in France than in the USA. In France, however, there are many more clichés taken in the course of a routine mammographie, as I recently discovered. And after that car door slams on your breast for the last time, the radiologist comes in and does a manual exam, asking a series of questions as he taps your boobs: How are your breasts? Any changes since the last time? Still doing those monthly self-exams? When was your last period? Etc. Then you sit in a waiting room that features a big aquarium while he looks at your clichés. Finally, he calls you in to tell you what he has seen and when to come back. In my case, it was always the same: come back in two years; everything is fine.

When I moved back to the US in 2006, I found it hard to adjust to the US healthcare system. It was hard to find an inroad. Luckily, my French healthcare coverage was extended for four years after I stopped paying into the system and left the country. That was nice of them. So I continued to see some of my favorite practitioners; it's just that doing so now entailed a trip to Paris. In addition to my gynecologist, I had a fabulous GP, a fabulous opthomologist, a fabulous dentist and a fabulous dermatologist. When I say fabulous, I mean people at the top of their fields in France. These are the people who get interviewed on television or for magazines. I felt truly cared for by these people and saw them once or twice a year for preventive care. It costs little and saves a lot. They always took great care, spent a lot of time, sat down and talked about ways of preventing disease. Most of them lived in my neighborhood. I would walk to their offices. I would see them on the street. My dentist had his office across the hall from my friend Monique's apartment.

I saw my first GP in Seattle in 2007. I like him alot. He's a family practitioner, so he does the routine pap smear and pelvic exam too. He suggested I have a couple of things done: the colonoscopy (done as a matter of routine in the US at age 50), the mammogram... stuff like that. Stupidly, I didn't get the mammogram done. I was too busy; my husband's company changed plans; it was all sort of confusing. The most confusing thing to me was this idea that you can only see certain doctors, depending on your plan. In France, we're all on the same plan and on the same page. If someone refers you to a doctor, you just go, knowing that you will be covered. Guess what? It costs money to offer this kind of trouble-free care. But it's worth it.

I finally decided to get the mammogram done a couple of weeks ago, not realizing that I was screwing up my GP's bookkeeping by waiting two years. Oh, well, a minor problem. When I went in for the mammogram, I immediately found it strange that only two clichés were done of each breast. I also found it strange when the technician told me I would be getting my results in the mail in about ten days. That seemed odd as well. No doctor in sight.

I got a call three days later from the office manager. Don't be alarmed, she said, but you need to come in for more clichés (or images, or whatever they call them here) and for an ultrasound. She then said something about dense tissue, cysts and so on. But I didn't really listen because I was totally freaking out. I had given the technician all my records from France, lovingly preserved in a heavy-duty plastic bag, each set of clichés bound in a thick envelope with the doctor's observations and signatures. An ultrasound?! WTF?!

I then decided that whatever was there, or not there, was there (or not there). Worrying and obsessing would not change anything; they would just fill my head with free-floating anxiety, based on my own ignorance of these matters. So I spent the days before the next set of exams thinking about other things. But I also kicked myself several times for not maintaining the every two years rhythm for those mammograms. I thought about my secretary, Marie Pierre, who was my faithful assistant for many years when I worked for a big corporation (The World Company, as we jokingly called it). She was given HRT when she went through menopause and developed breast cancer. I'll never forget our meeting, when she told me she would be out for awhile getting her breast lopped off. She was so afraid, and wanted to be so brave, and worried about how I would get along without her, and worried that I would do fine with a new assistant and she would lose her job. I cried with her; I reassured her. The fact is, I was toast without her. She was the most organized and loyal woman in the world. But her organization was a secret she must have decided never to share. Long story short, Marie Pierre survived her ordeal, came back to work for awhile, became a grandmother and decided to opt for early retirement when I went freelance. She said she was too old to get used to a new boss.

I also thought about one of my sisters-in-law, who is a breast cancer survivor. And I thought about my neighbor, who recently called me about a suspect mammogram, wanting names of people to see. She had had a lumpectomy four years ago, so she was freaked out. She was also freaked out because that was in another state and she didn't know who to see here. She wanted names. She said she wished she had just had her breasts cut off four years ago. Fortunately, things turned out fine for her. She returned for a second, more detailed mammogram and all is well.

My turn came on Friday. My husband insisted on coming with me. I said it wasn't necessary, but I'm glad he insisted. When we got there, I looked at the admission paper. It said "Complaint: abnormal mammogram". WTF?! Then I remembered my mantra: it is what it is. Relax. The second session consisted of taking all the extra clichés that are taken as a matter of routine in France. The technician told me that the doctor would look at them before doing the ultrasound, but that an ultrasound would probably be necessary as well. I went into the ladies only waiting room and flipped through a couple of Entertainment Weeklies. What a bunch of crap! A few minutes later, a different technician gave me a paper and said I was good to go. I looked at the paper. It said the results of the second mammogram were NORMAL, come back in a year. The technician said the doctor had looked at the dense tissue areas and found them to be perfectly consistent with the two cysts identified many years ago in France. No ultrasound. No doctor either. I never saw her.

Obviously, I felt as if an unacknowledged load had been lifted from my shoulders. I went from thinking I might lose my breasts to vowing that I would never, ever, miss another mammogram or two. Yeah, having your body contorted into uncomfortable positions while your breasts are individually and repeatedly smashed and then slammed into what feels like a car door, while someone tells you not to move and then, just when you could really use a deep intake of air, tells you not to breathe, is pretty uncomfortable. But it sure beats the alternatives!

Neko meets the paparrazi

jeudi 24 septembre 2009

De la pluie et du beau temps

Photo par notre ami et photographe extraordinaire, Steve Shelton, prise de sa maison mardi soir, sans filtrage.

Un mois de septembre largement ensoleillé, avec des températures qui frôlent parfois les 80° F : je ne sais pas si vous qualifieriez ça d’un été indien, mais pour moi cette qualification s’impose. A Seattle, nous vivons cette année un été indien, un vrai.

Pourtant, ce matin ça craignait un peu. Nuages bas, un peu plus de fraîcheur matinale, qui a eu un peu plus de mal à se faire brûler par le soleil. Au fait, le soleil se lève de plus en plus tard chaque matin. Et avec chaque jour qui passe, un peu plus de couleur dans les feuilles, qui tombent de plus en plus. Mais, côté jardin, nous récoltons encore des tomates ! Des toiles d’araignée aussi.

Avec Neko, on a attendu l’arrivée du soleil et du ciel bleu pour sortir aujourd’hui. A 13h, et puisque la rentrée scolaire est chose faite depuis trois semaines, Alki est presque désert. Pas un rat. En revanche, beaucoup de muettes et quelques retraités à vélo. Un drogué sur patins à roulettes, tatoué et mal rasé, téléphone portable à la main et clope au bout des lèvres. Même les promeneurs de chiens ne sont pas au rendez-vous. Où sont-ils ? Que font-ils à cette heure ? Au mois de novembre, il fera mauvais du matin jusqu’au soir. Chaque journée sera composée de sa palette de grisaille – du gris clair au gris foncé – et on aura droit à la pluie et au vent du nord. Mais aujourd’hui, c’est l’été qui refuse de céder la place et qui résiste, qui résiste.

Sweet Gretchen Parlato

One day not too long ago I was driving to my nearest Target and listening to KPLU, Tacoma's NPR affiliate and a station that specializes in jazz. KPLU was playing a recent concert performance by Gretchen Parlato. I listened to her suave voice, which at times sounded more like an instrument, and thought of Camille, my favorite French singer. Camille also does these strange things with her voice, in the great tradition of the African singers. When I heard Gretchen Parlato would be at the Triple Door, I just had to go. For the first time, we went for the dinner credit scheme, which comes with a reserved booth for four.

It turns out that this gets you front-row seating. The only seats closer to the stage are actually at the foot of it, with bar style seating. Those seats were just in front of us, and were occupied by some high school kids who play in the best local high school jazz band. They were enthralled. It was fun to watch them watch. I think they were thrilled to be in such an adult setting (you have to be 17 to get in to the Triple Door).

The subtlety of Gretchen Parlato's performance is something to behold. She sways ever so slightly and hardly opens her mouth as she makes incredibly suave and silky sounds. Those who only like singers who belt out their tunes may be disappointed; she's too cool for that. She's the New Bossa Nova, the Girl From Ipanema singing about the Boy From Ipanema. She's a tiny thing who towers over everything, with well-proportioned, tiny arms and legs. But she has amazingly long fingers, which she uses to play the microphone like an instrument as she sings: sometimes a flute, sometimes a clarinet, sometimes a trombone or sax. She was wearing what looked like a very colorful pillowcase with a black sash around the middle, and very high cream-colored heels. She looked like a six-year old who had gotten into mommy's closet and make-up drawer. There was something very endearing and no-nonsense about her.

She was accompanied by a pianist (Taylor Eigsti, playing a beautiful Steinway grand piano), a drummer/percussionist (the immensely talented Kendrick Scott; I bought his CD too) and bassist Alan Hampton. They were all quietly consommate musicians. Grethchen Parlato's enthusiastic fans include jazz legends Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.

I'm listening to Parlato's latest CD, In a Dream, right now. It features excerpts of her singing at age 2. How sweet is that?

What's Bjork got to do with it?

I just realized who Gretchen reminds me of - Bjork on Gling-Glo, her one-time experiment with pure jazz vocals. She recorded Gling-Glo in 1990, when she was working with her Icelandic college rock band The Sugarcubes. This was before she became a name. She teamed up with the Gudmundar Ingólfssonar Trio on a set of traditional Icelandic jazz tunes. I came across Gling-Glo in 2003, while visiting Iceland. I was in a record store in the unspellable city of Reykjavik when I heard what sounded like Bjork on the sound system. The owner of the shop got all excited when I asked about it, and told me she used to perform at the jazz club right up the street. I could have sworn he also told me that Bjork's father had also been a local jazz performer, but I may have imagined this. Anyway, Gling-Glo is a joyful piece of work, which is why it is hard to believe it's Bjork. She can be a bit gloomy, with wild emotional mood swings. But if you listen to her gloomy and manic bits while in Iceland, they make total sense. Gling-Glo is positively upbeat, though.

mercredi 23 septembre 2009

All I Want for Christmas Is This Book

Described as being not an anthology but a provocation. What's not to like?

From the editors:

The meeting of minds is extraordinary as T. J. Clark writes on Jackson Pollock, Paul Muldoon on Carl Sandburg, Camille Paglia on Tennessee Williams, Sarah Vowell on Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Walter Mosley on hard-boiled detective fiction, Jonathan Lethem on Thomas Edison, Gerald Early on Tarzan, Bharati Mukherjee on The Scarlet Letter, Gish Jen on Catcher in the Rye, and Ishmael Reed on Huckleberry Finn. From Anne Bradstreet and John Winthrop to Philip Roth and Toni Morrison, from Alexander Graham Bell and Stephen Foster to Alcoholics Anonymous, Life, Chuck Berry, Alfred Hitchcock, and Ronald Reagan, this is America singing, celebrating itself, and becoming something altogether different, plural, singular, new.

D - I - V - O - R - C - E

I doubt anyone on this planet missed the JK wedding entrance dance video that made the rounds a couple of months ago. It was only a matter of time, I suppose, before someone had the idea of fast-forwarding six months and imagining the divorce proceedings. Same Chris Brown tune. It's always fun to see lawyers dance.

mercredi 16 septembre 2009

Breaking the mold; meeting your match

I read an article today in the NY Times Generation B series called In Her 50's, Looking for Love.

Not surprisingly, it profiled a 50-something woman who decided to exercise the option of being single again and who, after having done all the things that women generally do post-long term marriage, was slimmed down, looking for love and finding the pickings exceedingly slim.

The remarriage gap for this age group was mentioned, as it inevitably is in articles on this subject. I was reminded of an article I read years and years ago, which debunked the then popular urban myth that a divorced woman over 40 was more likely to be blown up by a terrorist than she was to find a suitable spouse. 50 is the new 40, though, in more ways than one. The more educated a person is, the more likely he or she is to postpone the age of marriage these days. One of my sisters, who is 40 and has been married for less than five years, attended the wedding of a friend on Saturday who, at the age of 42, was getting married for the first time.

Back to the article about terrorism and marriagability. If it were written today, it would be about women over 50. In the original article, a host of women were interviewed and surveyed, and it turned out that the main reason women over 40 didn't remarry was that they simply didn't want to. Finding themselves single and free after years of being mothers and caregivers, they relished their freedom. I remember one woman talking about the joys of having popcorn for dinner and of not having to cook for anyone else.

That article was revealing and insightful because it demonstrated that the reality behind the stereotype (or the general assumption that women don't remarry because they can't find anyone or there is a shortage of men) is far more complex and nuanced.

In the article linked to in the title above, one paragraph caught my eye. It said: “Studies show men tend to marry down — someone slightly younger, less educated, making less money,” Dr. Adler-Baeder said. “Women in their 50s literally don’t have a visible pool of eligible men around them.”

Thinking about anecdotal evidence from my own life, I might as well start with what I have on hand: my husband (second marriage for both of us, though I also have a very long-term partnership on my record) is my age, give or take 13 months. He was held back in kindergarten, so we actually graduated from high school the same year. I am more educated than he is and, income-wise, we are about even. So our case does not confirm the study findings.

I know both single and married 50 somethings who are happy, and both single and married ones who are unhappy. I don't think love can make anyone happy, but it sure can make some folks miserable. Lacan came up with perhaps the most intriguing, funny, sad and true definition of love. Translated, it goes something like this: Love means wanting to give something you don't have to someone who doesn't want it. This is an amazing statement, provided you take the time to understand it.

vendredi 11 septembre 2009

Sincere apologies to The Carnivore

We had a truly memorable meal on Whidbey Island last week (thank you, John and Luda) at The Oystercatcher, a tiny restaurant in Coupeville. Everyone agreed that I hit the jackpot with both the entrée and the plat principal. The funny thing is, they were both vegetarian options. I am not currently a vegetarian, although I was for awhile in another life. But I don't eat a lot of animal protein. It isn't that I don't like it. In fact, a good steak, cooked very rare (cuisson saignante - means bloody or bleeding, if you prefer), is my idea of heaven. As is a perfectly roasted chicken. But, like most heavenly things, a little goes a long way. And I don't feel that no dinner is complete without animal protein.

In fact, what got me off the vegetarian kick was moving to France in 1986. Try being a vegetarian in France. What a sad and lonely existence! Things are changing, as they must and do everywhere, but an exquisite French meal generally involves a lot of animal protein, always of the best quality and perfectly cooked. Who can resist foie gras? Not me. Tête de veau anyone? Shortly after I moved to France, I went to a vegetarian restaurant, the best one in Paris at the time, with my friend Nadine. She is the only French person I have ever met who is a vegetarian. Man, that place was sad. Just triste. No fun on the plate, no fun on the palate, and not a smile on a single face in the dining room. Yes, I know things are changing now that the vegetarian way has many chic adherents. That helps. By the way, the best vegetarian meal I ever had was in a buddhist monestary in China. But that's another story.

Back to our fabulous meal at The Oystercatcher... Luda and John had steamed Penn Cove mussels (entrée) and then scallops (plat principal). Walt had braised Berkshire pork shoulder with heirloom tomatoes and summer squash salad. I had the summer panzanella with peppers, currants, beets, squash, focaccia, and basil, followed by crêpes with turnips, fava beans, cherry tomatoes and other non-meat delights in some kind of mushroom sauce. It was divine. Everyone else realized it from the visuals alone. It was the kind of meal that makes you want to become a vegetarian - a gourmet vegetarian. If you ever get anywhere near Coupeville, eat at The Oystercatcher (which is open Thursday through Sunday - call ahead to reserve). If you click on the title above, you will find yourself transported to the restaurant's website. I should add that all of the desserts are made by Jamie, who is married to Joe, the chef. We had a nice chat with Joe about how to make crêpes, as Luda seemed to think sour cream was required and I found this to be a terrible idea. You need milk and butter. She wouldn't listen to me, so she asked the chef. Anyway, John and Walt wanted dessert and went for the flourless chocolate hazelnut gâteau with salted caramel and toasted hazelnuts and the frozen malt parfait with warm chocolate sauce. And when I say they went for the dessert, I mean that literally. I managed to get one bite of each, but it was tough. I was afraid of being injured by flying silverware or gnashing teeth.

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to be a vegetarian again for three months. I laid down the gauntlet before The Carnivore and he said why not? - admittedly, without great enthusiam. I added that we could shoot for 80% of the time and have meat once a week or so and that he of course could have it any time.

Last night was the first vegetarian meal. I made a bulgur and chickpea salad (the two combine to form a perfect protein), with parsley, mint, green onions, cucumber and corn. The dressing was lemon, cinnamon salt, pepper and olive oil. I also made some swiss chard (braised in olive oil, with garlic, harissa and a bit of lemon juice at the end), one of our favorites. The Carnivore really enjoyed this meal, especially the thick, juicy sirloin steak he barbecued to go with it. Neko was happy; she got a few pieces of nearly raw meat.

As I was looking for bulgur at PCC, I found myself thinking that fall is the time of year when oatmeal starts to sound appetizing. So I bought some, the kind in individually flavored packets. The Carnivore really likes the maple syrup flavor, so I made sure that was part of the medley. Unfortunately, I failed to notice that the box I chose was "wheat and gluten free." We decided to give it a try anyway. It tasted like sawdust mixed with hot water and maple syrup. It was hideously bad. We'll stick with good old quaker oats from now on, and add our own flavoring.

I'm a sucker for our President

I just like the guy, okay. Click on the title for a five-minute video on the mail Obama gets each week. He reads ten pre-selected letters a day, from the approximately 65,000 that are surface mailed to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue each week. It may be propaganda, but behind the propaganda is the comforting idea that the man in charge knows how to read. I believe in l'alternance en politique. And this is a refreshing one.

George W. Bush on 9/11/01, at 9:05 am.

jeudi 10 septembre 2009


The Right Thing (Theodore Roethke)

Let others probe the mystery if they can.
Time-harried prisoners of Shall and Will--
The right thing happens to the happy man.

The bird flies out, the bird flies back again;
The hill becomes the valley, and is still;
Let others delve that mystery if they can.

God bless the roots!--Body and soul are one!
The small become the great, the great the small;
The right thing happens to the happy man.

Child of the dark, he can out leap the sun,
His being single, and that being all:
The right thing happens to the happy man.

Or he sits still, a solid figure when
The self-destructive shake the common wall;
Takes to himself what mystery he can,

And, praising change as the slow night comes on,
Wills what he would, surrendering his will
Till mystery is no more: No more he can.
The right thing happens to the happy man.

Roethke wrote of his poetry: The greenhouse "is my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth." Photo: P. Ganong, January 2004, Le Fagnat, Corrèze, France

Our home away from home

We just spent a relaxing week on Whidbey Island, at the Tree House near Coupeville. You can read about it in the New York Times by clicking on the title. The Tree House was designed and built by Sean Bell, our friend and the architect who designed and built our house in Luna Park.

I love the simplicity, functionality and elegance of Sean's designs. He uses noble and industrial strength materials to build compact and yet spacious dwellings. The Tree House is named for the actual trees that fulfill structural roles inside the house.

We discovered the Admiral's Cove community pool this time around. It was open through Labor Day, so I managed to get three swims in. Since it's an outdoor pool with little chlorine, you can smell the nearby salt water and beach as you swim. The slight autumn chill made the water even more inviting and hard to emerge from.

Biking is easy thanks to the lack of traffic, as long as you stick to the side roads or bike paths (such as the Rhodedendrun Trail). But our favorite excursion on Whidbey Island is the Bluff trail off of Sherman Road. It ultimately descends to a beautiful, isolated beach, but we didn't get that far this time. Neko is a trooper, but our friends get tired. We got far enough to enjoy stunning views, though.

mercredi 2 septembre 2009

Hint of autumn

Photo by Steve Shelton (SShelton Images):

For me, the first crisp apple I bite into at the end of summer signals the start of fall (as opposed to the start of the fall). I did that yesterday. It was a delicious royal gala.

My friend, the very talented photographer Steve Shelton, just sent me this photo. He's been taking nightly photos to track the waning of summer and the waxing of fall. The Visa pour l'image photojournalism festival is taking place right now in Perpignan, France, just as Gamma announces plans to lay off fifteen photojournalists. The disappearance of these professionals in the quest for higher profit margins is very sad. Yes, any idiot with an iPhone can take a photo. But not one like this. Not in a million years.