January 31, 2009


I had lunch at Colette this week with Emma, my lovely friend. We found all sorts of laudable items. Examples.

And perhaps most bewitching: bathroom stalls at Colette.
Dénouement = clean bottoms.

January 30, 2009

My Mom Sings

Standing in my grandma’s kitchen one summer afternoon, with its honey colored cabinets and florid teal wallpaper, I heard her singing a little ditty. It was a familiar ode but it wasn’t a real song. It was a little tune she was making up as she bustled about. “Emdilee – help me, come over here and get these dishes into the sink,” the song went, her voice rising and falling in funny and comical tones. The song was familiar. I had heard my Aunt Sue sing almost the same song to me at her house in Provo, UT while I lived there as a student and would go to her house for Sunday dinner. She had exactly the same singsong tone. But more than anything else, my grandma’s routine summoned up memories of my own mother. My mom had inherited the same propensity to break out in song whenever there was a task to be completed at hand. To her, it seemed that the best way to acquire help was to sing a song dedicated to the potential helper.

My mom would do this all the time. She would employ this method when she was trying to snap the house together for an incoming visitor – “Children, let’s tidy up the house. Julie – vacuuming! Stephen – straightening! Emilie – sweeping!” she’d sing out as if in a musical of her own where there is no speech – just voices in song. We’d usually be amused by the performance, but, regrettably for her sake, unaffected in our desire to pitch in and help out.

She’d use this when threatening to tidy up our stuff for us. “The gummy bag is coming out! Watch out! The gummy bag is coming out!” making use of the lovely garbage bag ploy – the “gummy bag” would guzzle up everything lying about. The lyrics of this song revolved around the threat that we would have to pay a quarter for every item that we might later want to retrieve from the sack.

She would hum little poems to herself while doing her own work. She was rarely silent – music seemed to be caged inside of her and she let it out, humming freely, head tilted while she pounded bread dough on the counter top. She would hum while doing laundry – sorting, folding, placing in kid’s drawers for them. She’d hum while she was vacuuming, the drone of the vacuum drowning out the hum in her mouth – but it was there nonetheless. She would hum while watering the plants on the porch – vessel by vessel filled with water on hot sticky days, the plants parched and waiting on her, her hum reaching them before she did. She would hum in the morning, afternoon and at night. It seemed she was born to hum. We all were. Carried along inside of her womb, our first resonance with sound was probably her humming, like purring from above.

She would even use this approach when she was angry. My mom yelled very rarely, in fact, I am hard pressed to think of an instance. She sang instead. One afternoon, one of us was demanding that my mom’s eyes watch her and only her, someone else was asking for help with a math question on his homework, another was whining that he couldn’t invite a friend over, and little fingers plunking on the piano topped off the pandemonium. Rather than shouting and ordering everyone to head to their rooms, she sang a little ditty to the situation and the little people surrounding her. “Children are very special people” it started, with emphasis on the word “special.” She sang loudly – opera style.

Sometimes she would let other people do the singing for her. One of her best tactics was in the van with everyone piled in, every kid picking at the person next to him and trying his best to shout or talk louder than everyone else. She would simply place her hand on the radio, which was playing classical music or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and turn the little black volume knob up so much it would silence us – the intense music blaring in our ears. We were stunned silent. Finally. Then she would place her fingers back on the dial and turn it in the other direction. We would hear the air escaping from her mouth in a soft sigh of relief.

For the most part, even with so much chaos surrounding her, my mom seemed to carve out her own space where she could breathe and wasn’t deafened or inundated through the songs she would sing. Unwittingly and without any overt exertion to teach us on her part, my mom passed this habit down to all of us. We are all singers. Even those of us who are not inherently gifted in this territory.

As a little boy, Stephen was a real entertainer. From his one hundred cartwheels in a row to his constant little odes to the world around him, he was incessantly giving a show. His most famous self-invented ditty was “Let your fully functions follow you!” None of us knew what he meant, I still don’t, but at 5-years old, he seemed to. When I was last in New York, I asked his roommate how she likes Stephen. She replied, “I’ve never met anyone who sings, hums and whistles so much.”

Andrew, our youngest performer, has followed his lead. His creations in song have recently taken a more somber tone: “Death is coming. Death, death, is coming for you. Death is coming today!” His performance is admirable in its range – he sings this morbid song in the same singsong fashion as my mom, and often with considerable zest.

Rebekah could one day become a Broadway performer – she belts out any song that comes on the radio with perfect recollection of the lyrics and the rise and fall of the melody. Like her personality, she always seems to sing blissful and merry tunes.

Julie’s songs when we were little were precise; she too knew all the words, but would often sing them at me, teaching me the lyrics with her knowing eyes and nodding head. Her songs later were much more free, like her. With an air of abandon, she would sing songs on her guitar with joy about christians and pagans coming together for reconciliation – embodying her spirit.

At one point during his high school career, Paul seemed to narrate his life as a sports broadcaster would – “He makes his way to the sink, pivots on one foot to make the dunk! He’s having a pretty good year.” This was Paul singing – this was Paul’s chant.

Melanie’s version takes a different form – she chants to the tune “Diamonds Are Forever” and replaces the lyrics with “Families Are Forever.” She sings this repetitively to everyone around her – loud, strong and forceful. Her performances also delve into the realm of non-human songs: she sings horse sounds – nickers and neighs in recurring form.

Marc’s singing has always been more independent. He sings confidently, beautifully, while strumming the string of his guitar – songs that he has taught himself autonomously of anyone else. No one else knows these songs.

Even my dad is a singer, probably thanks to my mom’s influence. On Sunday mornings he can be heard singing “For All the Saints,” sitting at the piano, plunking out the melody line himself. Gilbert and Sullivan top his music list and he croons the lyrics of their lighthearted burlesques all over the house.

My singing has always been joyful, relaxed and off-pitch. I also know, because I am always with myself, that it has always been present. Walking to campus or doing the dishes, like my mom, I would find myself humming or singing out loud. Nowadays, I ride my bike in the streets of Paris and sing to all the passersby. My song includes a broad smile and so, even if they are French, they give in and let me have the ephemeral stage. My first year in France was marked by trauma in this department. I stopped singing. Even humming. My life had suddenly become aberrantly quiet; I found myself alone. I only realized I had ever stopped singing when I started again, one year later. It was a quiet sort of hum – rising up from inside of me. Upon hearing it again, I looked around in the street, I opened my mouth and gasped, disbelieving that part of me had gone missing. I started to recognize myself again with the return of my song – my humor, my self-possession, my spirit are all so tied up in it that I found I had been a wilted version of myself without it.

We are all tied up in it. Our song. It is my mom coming out in all of us.

January 29, 2009

Obama Indulgence

Just a bit more, I promise...

I have to share this little tale because I think it is a most definite sign of improving foreign relations. The other night I was headed home. It was pretty late and I got off the train at Gare du Nord - which can be a rather dubious area of Paris. Walking along a narrow side street, I found myself approached from out of the shadows. This figure started to walk with me. Before he could open his mouth with his advance, I stopped in my tracks - he stopped too, and I turned to face him. He looked at me in his big, puffy down jacket, with his sideways hat and gold chain around his neck. I smiled, a big toothy grin, and said "Obama!" I stuck my hand in the air positioned for a high five. His smile matched mine as he gave me a high five worthy of American distinction. It was cool after that. We walked along, talked and laughed for a bit. He was surprised I was American and when I told him I was married and heading home, he told me to have a great night, and headed back in the direction we had come from. Merci Obama.

And...because she is so delightful and says this every time she sees a picture of him, here is Marguerite:


In a very serious tone:
"Is there anything else to glue? Because it is now or never."

January 25, 2009

La Galette des Rois

Every January in France the Boulangerie windows are stuffed full of Galettes des Rois (above: King's Cakes). I experienced the celebration last year for the first time, but it has rolled around again and this year, Nicolas brought us one of the famous cakes and yesterday we played tradition.

It is a holiday that celebrates the gift of the Magi after Christ's birth. They are estimated to have arrived about a week or two after he was born and thus deserve a celebration of their own. Here it is. So, as tradition goes, the cake is cut, the youngest person hides under the table and instructs who should receive the pieces of cake. In one of these pieces, there is a secret and special bean, une fève - it is not an actual bean nowadays; our fève was a tiny toy bus for example. The person who bites into her cake and finds the fève is the queen and gets to choose her king. Marguerite (as was planned) found the fève in the middle of her piece of cake and selected me to be her king. I was honored.

The King, Queen and Starsky

Chloe and Nicolas


Amaury and Nicolas

Here we have a full explanation from Xavier, Frenchman on hand. (As an aside, the most amusing part of this video is the little interaction surrounding "the fève." Classic Xavier. Classic French).

La Bellevilloise

Last night, my sister-in-law Marie, a lovely friend Aurelia and I ventured to La Bellevilloise in the 20th arrondissement. Unbelievable place. I walked in and did not even understand it. Multilayered, mulit-terraced, multi-dimensional. These first photos are of just one of the venues in the whole thing. There is a huge gallery space, a restaurant, terraces out every door, a room for movie projection and a vast club underneath it all. We sat and ate dinner listening to musicians and I said to myself, this place is killer. Check it.

(same space from above)

(one of the terraces)

(gallery space)

And then, like teenagers, we sauntered downstairs and danced until the early morning. Bomb.com. Bravo Paris - hands down, you win this time.

La Bellevilloise - 19,21 rue Boyer, 75020 Paris T. 0146360707

January 24, 2009

À La Bonne Franquette

Last night, I went to a great place called À La Bonne Franquette in the 11th arrondissement with Lauren, Aralena and Blaire for Aralena's birthday. We were lucky because this band was playing and they were fabulous - voices, guitar, cellist, Seydina Insa Wade was like tropical jazz.

January 20, 2009

Aretha, Sing One For Me

The view from my bedroom window the other night.

Our man. Obama. Cheered from here with my fellow expats.

How do I feel? About like this.

THE Johnson Star

"All the news to delight and confuse"

January 19, 2009

Martin Luther King Day

The French don't celebrate it, obviously. But here he is.

Obama hysteria - perhaps the truest effectuation of the day. Civility.

Le Monde featured an interview with Noam Chomsky this week. Listening to Chomsky talk about Obama gives an interesting angle. (Chomsky is, of course, a famous linguist, philosopher, thinker - he appeals to the libertarian socialist in me). He called Obama "the lesser of two evils," "A centrist" in the model of Bill Clinton. Made the important point that Obama's election is simply the western world finally being civilized. And connected this civility to activism in the 60's in America. Credited what happened there. Not just the civil rights movement for blacks, but also the feminist movement and others.

(The interview is in English and is worth a listen - his point about the Bolivian elections is worth a think. He insists that the election of an indigenous member of the Bolivian population after 500 years of suppression is far more revolutionary than the election of Obama in America, but is hardly taken note of and is a good example of modern occidental racism - "The third world is often more civilized than we are." Chomsky is rigorous and will make you think).

Still, with all the hype and the connections made to ML King's legacy, tomorrow is an exalting day for Americans and for many people in the world. 80% of Americans are optimistic about Obama's presidency (which is a full 10 percentage points higher than incoming Bush I or II, Clinton, Reagan, and Carter - NYTimes/CBS News Poll). Impressive.

Peanut Butter

I love peanut butter.

Last summer while back in New York for a bit, I was sitting on the subway riding downtown and I looked up and saw a message from Peanut Farmers of America:

Do we forget about peanut butter when we get old or do we get old when we forget about peanut butter?

I was so pleased. The causal link between aging and peanut butter is right up my alley. I would take it even further. Something about ontology. We are not without peanut butter.

Peanut butter is a funny thing chez nous. Every time someone comes to visit from the US, I ask for only one thing: peanut butter. It is not impossible to find in Paris, but not at all convenient. Every time the delivery is made, Xavier blows air out of his mouth in the I'm French and I'm annoyed fashion.

Howbeit, my devotion to peanut butter has been inextinguishable. I am not alone. In fact, 75% of American households habitually have peanut butter in stock. (And this is in comparison to 0% of French homes or mouths).

So, on behalf of the Peanut Farmers of America, I would like to implore: don't stop eating peanut butter. Ride out the tide of salmonella poisoning. Just because contamination at a Georgia facility has caused an outbreak making lots of people sick and the death of six...well, you know the rest.

March is national peanut month. I intend to celebrate from here.

January 10, 2009

on the phone

julie and stephen, this is where i was.

...with Mlle.

Marguerite and I had a lovely adventure at the Centre Pompidou this afternoon. We ran around and chased each other.

The first exhibit was called (it was created specifically for kids):
by Anne Cleary and Denis Connolly

Then we explored "une petite maison noire et blanche" (a little black and white house) as Marguerite called it, by Jean Dubuffet. "Le Jardin d'Hiver" 1968-1970.

And all the while, Marguerite was breaking the rules, sitting on Pierre Paulin couches and climbing over all the ropes she should not have. I was laughing hysterically, but the museum workers were not as amused as I was.

Corps à corps, bleu, Paris-Sienne 2007 Gérard Fromanger
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