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Feminism as Seen on TV in the 1970s

I just went down Nostalgia Lane watching theme song introductions from 1970s TV shows that I grew up with, and I was struck by how many tried (with mixed results) to represent feminist ideas of the time in the lyrics and voiceovers of their intros. For example:

Charlie’s Angels (Once upon a time, there were three little girls who went to the police academy). I guess that opening line was supposed to blow our minds. Lady cops? Wowzers! They’re probably reading Lean In on Charlie’s yacht right now.

Wonder Woman (All the world is waiting for you / And the power you possess / In your satin tights / Fighting for your rights / And the old red, white, and blue). Just don’t ask for equal pay with Superman.

Laverne and Shirley (And we’ll do it our way, yes our way, make all our dreams come true / Yes we’ll do it our way, yes our way, make all our dreams come true / For me and you). That final “for me and you” might seem like a throwaway button lyric that simply closes the song, but that was one of the most important lines. This new way of life we’re going to figure out is for us. It’s a call to remake the world—and in making that call, it’s the most relevant to the change still under way.

Alice (Things are great when you stand on your own two feet / And this girl’s here to say: With some luck and love life’s gonna be so sweet). This was the only show that represented the life of working mothers in any way that could be called realistic. The opening shot of the car moving down the highway spoke volumes. Images of mothers with their children in a station wagon heading down an unknown road to find something better were seen in many movies and TV shows in this era. Even The Karate Kid began that way.

As the Internet would have it, I soon found myself watching a video of Family Feud: Love Boat vs. WKRP in Cincinnati, which seemed like a lark, but actually turned out to provide incredible context to all the feminist (and “feminist”) TV tropes I’d just watched.

To begin with, the cast members of these two shows were almost identical, and each show had one female lead fitting the same stereotype: young blonde eye candy. In the final round, two male contestants get asked the same (survey) question: “The age a woman’s figure is best?”

It’s the kind of question you probably wouldn’t hear on a similar show today, but it was completely routine here. The whole gestalt of the scene reminded me what it was like back then—the flippancy of it all. Behold.

Oh, Now I Get It

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After traveling to a place where I struggled to say complex things in another language, I’m listening to public radio interviews in foreign countries with a much greater appreciation for people speaking non-native English about really complex issues. I hear people trying to bridge the gap between the sophistication of what they’re capable of saying in their native tongue, and the more simplified phrasing they know in English.

Since a lot of Americans (like me) don’t do overseas travel, and even fewer need to say anything other than basic travel phrases, I suspect a lot of us don’t have the level of appreciation I’m now appreciating. So, in recognition of being one of the smartest idiots in the room, I’m formally nominating myself for this year’s Foreign Correspondent Derka Der Award. It’s an honor.

No One Can Stop You

I woke up this morning thinking about the origin story of Fellowman (pictured below). I find it both heartening and disheartening how prescient The Adventures of Unemployed Man was.

The proliferation of video cameras is really the only new thing about police brutality and indifference. Remember: No one has the legal right to stop you from recording police in action, and the police cannot ask/demand that you delete the footage from your phone/camera unless they have a warrant.

As this page points out, the system is working as intended, and it’s up to us to overthrow that system. Get to work.

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Unknown Legend

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With a few minutes between flights at the airport in Paris, I hoisted my body out of the chair, put my messenger bag over my shoulder, and made my way toward the gate for my flight back to America. It would be the final leg in my trip back home.

As I stood on one of those flat conveyor belts, I thought how nice it would be to no longer be in transit. Then I realized what an illusion that is. We are always in transit even as we stand still. As a precocious young man reminded me recently, all the cells in our bodies are in constant motion, we just can’t perceive it.

My mother was a charter bus driver, taking people to and from San Francisco and places like Yosemite and Lake Tahoe. She read Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and listened to Neil Young’s Unknown Legend.

Up there, behind the wheel, the landscape moved over her—the same landscapes made different by the changing light of the sun and moon.

On my flight here, I was served a dish she often made for me: cheese blintzes with strawberry jam. Perhaps it was her way of telling me she was proud of me.

Of all the surprises on this trip, the most outrageous was that in all of France, I saw not one Citroen DS5. Yes, I saw a few of the new ones, but I’m talking about the classic, the icon, and the car my father drove for so many years of his life. Their absence is mysterious. Maybe my father didn’t really die, he just moved to France, bought all the DS5s in the country, and opened a classic car rental company in Monaco. I wouldn’t put it past him.

As for me, I can’t wait to get home and hug a certain someone for a long time—our cells moving so fast we can’t perceive it.

Phone Home

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As we drove from Blois to Nantes, Ivan told me that when he was a kid, everyone in the theater had a good laugh when E.T. pointed to space and said, “Telephone Maison!”

I guess the intended poignancy of that line was lost in translation. Or maybe the guy who did the E.T. voice-over in French thought it was a comedy. In any case, I definitely need to telephone maison. Part of it is physical exhaustion, but also, I have been a bit like E.T. here—in ways that have been good and bad.

After being here, I’m now fairly certain I couldn’t take up permanent residence in a country where English isn’t the primary language. Could I do it for a year? Yes. Several years? Maybe. Forever? No way. Language, its nuances, and the pleasure of speaking and listening are just too central to my experience of life.

That said, I have bonded with this place. In some ways it feels like discovering a lost relative or sibling. Actually, I think that’s a really useful metaphor for the relationship between France and America. We’re like siblings with brother and sister aspects. There’s love and tension, waxing and waning depending on our recent history.

At the moment, I think America is like the big brother who’s kinda been a dick lately, and our dickish behavior is lamented and resented by our smaller brother. Now that we’re on roids, we’ve forgotten all the times when we were little and they saved our asses on the playground. Since WWII, we’ve projected an emasculation onto the French. Too often we disregard our shared history because, hey, we’re bigger now, and big bro gets to tell little bro what to do.

Since I’m not a woman, I can’t fully speak to the sisterly aspect of our sibling relationship with France, but I suspect it’s through the feminine that we’ll eventually rebuild and heal the damage we’ve done being arrogant big bros. Hopefully in the future, we’ll be like sisters who are best friends, sharing the things that have real value (instead of male valuations) like good food, jazz, and joie de vivre.

In Paris, I remember standing in the train station, looking up, and seeing this massive painting. A train has arrived at the station, everyone is in the midst of intense emotional reunions, and at the center is a man whose arms are thrown open not for another person, but to his home.

I understood the painting intellectually at the time, but I’m feeling it now. Home. E.T. phone home. E.T. exhausted from symbiotic relationship with Elliott. E.T. need long bath, sleep. E.T. need other E.T.

Blah Blah Blois

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Spokesman for Blois

 

We’re in Blois, a provincial town two hours south of Paris in the Loire Valley. The area is famous primarily for two things.

First, for burning 40 Jewish residents. Their martyrdom inspired a style of poetry and an annual day of remembrance in Europe.

Second, for being the site of a giant castle built by the Medici family, infamous inventors of fractional reserve banking—the very thing that makes our economy one big house of cards, and the means by which banks create money for themselves out of thin air (a gas which must be made liquid by government bailouts now and again).

Today I signed and sold copies of Ultra Chômeur in Blois, and during the process was subjected to several hundred disdainful sneers and stone faces from passersby.

A high concentration of aristocrats often live sheltered and self-reinforcing lives in a provincial or suburban place. A place (apparently) like Blois. We have towns like this in the Bay Area, too. Orinda comes to mind.

One hallmark of aristocracy is a disdain for the poor—often the very people they (or their ancestors) dispossessed to become wealthy. Obviously, as Ultra Chômeur, I’m a symbol of “those people.” How dare I be one of them AND be so bold about it!?

Prior to Blois, we promoted Ultra Chômeur in two places in France. The first was Toulouse and nearby Colomiers, an area that is essentially a massive college town. We had nothing but good exchanges with folks there. The next stop was cosmopolitan Paris, and we had great interactions there, too.

I haven’t had a horrible interaction with anyone in Blois—actually, I’ve had several fantastic interactions with specific individuals, enough to make me doubt whether I should even write what seems like a condemnation of Blois.

That said, I felt it was important to reveal the whole truth of what I’ve seen here, because it gets at the heart of so many things in Les Aventures D’Ultra Chomeur. Remember, Ultra Chômeur starts out as the Ultimatum, an aristocratic “hero” who is at turns aloof and disdainful.

I reminded myself of the millions who struggle financially and face the same kind of emotionally degrading onslaught every day—from their in-laws, or the bank teller, or maybe even their own friends. I imagined myself embodying those millions. When people looked at me disdainfully, I didn’t look away. I met their disdain, but didn’t return it. Instead, I bore witness. There was a quiet power in that, and I think they felt it, too.

The day ended on a good note. I had a great conversation with an intellectual about the levels of satire in the book. He talked about the influence of Dadaism in Europe, so I showed him the page where Master of Degrees explains something really complicated, and the other heroes say they’ll “have to read those panels again later.” He was delighted by this and talked about Magritte, the artist famous for painting an object like a smoking pipe with the words “This is not a pipe” on the painting. Then he added, “The point is that art is created in our minds.”

As our conversation ended, we shook hands and shared a look that said, “We get each other” or as the French say, “D’accord.”

French Toast Comes to France

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Today was the big day. I day I made French Toast for the French! Specifically, Ivan and Marine from Presque Lune, who playfully mocked me with over-enthusiastic anticipation.

Everyone in America should be relieved to know my French Toast came out very well!

Tres bon! Is very good-ah! The French Toast Scandal and Intrigue had reached a delicious climax.

They said it was similar to a dish they’ve had called Pain Perdu—the Lost Toast we’ve heard about. However, Lost Toast is different, because you put sugar in the egg mixture, along with milk, and possibly Grand Marnier, and in some cases you bake it—an internet search revealed several recipes with variations.

That’s one small meal for man, one giant leap for Franco-American relations.

The Amazing Grégoire Courtois

I arrived a bit early at the fantastic graphic novel bookstore Bulles en vrac in Paris. After changing into Ultra Chômeur costume in the basement, I walked up the stairs, and there I met Grégoire Courtois, translator of Les Aventures D’Ultra Chômeur.

I hugged him and gave him the Ulta Chômeur T-shirt I brought for him. We got to talk for all too short a time, but as we went through parts of the book talking and laughing about the translations of different things, I could sense Grégoire was not only a good translator and master of wordplay, but a kindred spirit. The way he laughed at certain things reminded me of myself. It’s the laugh of someone who, for some tragically divine reason, finds humor in how absurdly awful the human condition is. When I was younger and more insecure, and I laughed at life’s absurdities, other people would sometimes call me sick (this was unfortunately before sick was also the equivalent of super cool). Of course, they were usually the sick ones (maybe they were working for villains).

I feel blessed that the universe brought The Amazing Grégoire Courtois and the book together. He saved the day.

To Keep It Around Forever

My expatriate American friend Stephani and her children Seneca and Ukiah took the high-speed train from Stuttgart to Paris just to see me, which was humbling and amazing (like so many things have been on this trip).

It was not only great to see old friends, but I could tell both Stephani and I were happy to speak to another adult—a friend and an American no less—without thinking about it.

At some point, I lamented the news about French Toast (that the French have never even heard of it). Stephani told me that French Toast is a regional dish (meaning it’s only eaten in certain places) and it’s called Lost Toast because typically it’s made with leftover bread (and some people look disdainfully on the American practice of making it with perfectly good fresh bread). When I later mentioned Lost Toast to my hosts, they’d never heard of Lost Toast, either. Thus: I am making French toast for them tomorrow for breakfast!!! I will report back on their mind-blown faces.

I told Stephani that my first impression of Paris was that, in one way, it’s like the Mission (a neighborhood in San Francisco) because it looks a lot better at night when you can’t see all the filth. “Absolutely” she agreed.

Stephani and her family have been living in the pristine cleanliness of Germany for a few years now. They once lived in San Francisco (in the aforementioned Mission) then moved to Portland (a migratory pattern I’ve told artists here about) and from there to Stuttgart.

I told her I occasionally think about leaving America because of the lack of universal healthcare and free quality education. She told me Germany just made school free all the way through university. Her kids have three teachers in every classroom. Health care is universal and basically a non-issue. It’s hard to imagine. It’s hard to imagine that it’s hard to imagine. It’s sad that Americans don’t see themselves as one people.

We went to the Eiffel Tower. Standing under it is an awesome spectacle. The scale of the thing is lost in photographs (even from a modest distance, the structure visually flattens into two dimensions). We took one of the funiculars that travels up one of the four massive legs. Ukiah and I marveled at the fact that it’s hard to find a right angle anywhere in the construction. It’s such a potent and glorious example of the way things were made in another time.

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The tower reminded my of something Gan once said. I was in the town of San Luis Obispo and I saw something that reminded me of the work we were doing on the book: hand-chiseled wooden beams in the roof of the old mission. You could see each chisel mark. I sent him a picture. He replied, “It just goes to show that when you take the time to build something by hand, people want to keep it around forever.”

From the tower you can see all of Paris. The city retains its old beauty in part because there’s a height limit for buildings—within those limits are fabulous structures and a decadent density.

The previous evening I briefly met an American who told me that French companies have to provide a specific set of benefits once they have over 50 employees, and for this reason a lot of them stay at 49. “It prevents growth” he said. I thought that was a beautiful idea.

Seneca wanted to see the river Seine, so I gave her a boost. We pointed at boats, parks, and cathedrals. She said she wanted to go to the merry-go-round below. So we took the funicular down.

I enjoyed the company of my friends for a few more precious hours. We stopped by a chocolatier and ate chocolate covered cherries, and drank coffee and chocolat. Stephani speaks excellent French. I gave her a copy of Les Aventures D’Ultra Chomeur and dedicated it to her and her family. We said our goodbyes at the Gare de Paris-Est (a gorgeous old train station filled with these stunning bullet trains they have in the first world).

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From there, I went underground and took the Metro.

The Paris Metro is a beautiful disaster. A catacomb of confusing tunnels. Stench and ancient disrepair. Signage that seems to have been made with no regard for where it would be placed. But I will give it this: Using tires instead of the usual metal train wheels was a stoke of genius. It’s a much quieter ride than ear-piercing MUNI in San Francisco.

Also, on the Metro I caught a fleeting glimpse of probably the coolest thing I’ve seen in France: an entire underground station made to look like the inside of an old submarine, with copper-covered walls and little round windows. It was another occasion to admire the French dedication to making things beautiful.

There’s No French Toast in France

Yesterday we drove over 7 hours from Toulouse to Paris.

In California, this would be similar to driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but in that journey you pass through several different biomes (desert, alluvial plain, chaparral, coastal mountains, etc).

In central France, for hundreds of miles in every direction as far as the eye can see, is a landscape of vineyards, orchards, tended green pastures amidst forests, and stone villages. It would be like taking the area around St. Helena in the Napa valley, and expanding it to the size of Northern California. It’s not that we don’t have vastness, but the vastness of genteel and gracious agriculture here is stunning.

In the van, one of the things we did to pass the time was whistle different tunes, since music (sans lyrics) is a universal language. It turns out the following songs, in particular, build a solid bridge across the language barrier.

Along the way, I called my family, who told me they were having French toast. When I got off the phone I announced this to Ivan and Marine. I got a blank stare. What is…French toast? They’d never even heard of it! I explained what it is, how we make it, and the fact that it’s on just about every breakfast menu in America. “Uh, yeah, we don’t eat…French toast.” We all laughed—but I knew I had to investigate this further.

Once we got to Paris I quickly realized that postcard Paris (all the stuff you see in travel shows) was in the center, and all around it was a metropolis of residential apartment towers and clogged freeways with graffiti-covered underpasses (all the stuff you don’t see in travel shows). In America, since we keep developing and building a city’s center, this is the opposite layout of an American city. Old Paris is like the center of a galaxy and its gravitas keeps the metropolis around it spinning.

I’m staying in a lovely little apartment in a house with a delightful French family. I’m not sure if I’m spelling their names properly: Françoise, Daniel, their five-year old son Paco, and three other boys who I don’t yet know by name. Last night I met them briefly before crashing hard. This morning I went downstairs, and Françoise made me breakfast.

I casually told Françoise that yesterday my family made French toast. Again, a blank stare of stupefaction. I explained what it was, and how to prepare it, even the powdered sugar bit! Nope. There’s no French toast in France! Unbelievable. I did not see this one coming. I mean, it’s one thing to not eat it, but to have never heard of it?! C’mon! It’s French toast! We fucking named it after you for chrissakes!

There’s a bakery like five steps from here. It opened at 7. At 7:01 Françoise stepped out and brought back a freshly baked croissant, chocolate croissant, and baguette—all warm from the oven. Exquisite. I ate it all. If I had to pick a favorite, I’d say the baguette with butter—it’s the simplicity of the bread combined with the decadence of the butter, and the texture and temperature interplay that makes it such a delight.

Paco came in and practiced his English by saying “Hello! I’m Paco!” and “Good morning!”

Daniel said that Paco woke him up this morning and whispered, “Papa, there’s an American in our house! And he’s just like us.”

Perhaps I should’ve said, “There is one way I’m different from you. I eat French toast.”

Today we’ll be at La Rubriques à Bulles dedicating books.

17h30 à 19h30 (I believe this means 5:30 to 7:30)
La Rubriques à Bulles
larubriqueabulles.fr
110 Bd Richard Lenoir
75011 Paris

A bientôt!

Maybe I Have a Brother

In Toulouse it was cloudy, raining, and too cold to don the Ultra Chômeur costume, so I just put on the mask and opened my shirt to reveal the U on my chest. I teamed-up with Ivan and Marine from Presque Lune and we headed to the bookstore.

We met Jean-Pascal, one of the owners of Terres De Legendes. As we talked, I recognized in Jean-Pascal both the entrepreneurial spirit and the passion of someone devoted to his work. For those of you who don’t remember, George W. Bush once said that the trouble with France is they don’t have a word for entrepreneur (which is the French word for, um, that).

When we sell Ultra Chômeur to people here, one of the main selling points is: It’s a critique of the American financial system. When those words are spoken, people visibly warm to the book. In America, saying those words in a such a matter-of-fact way feels like criticizing Larry Ellison on Lanai.

Recently, comedian Louis C.K. was talking about global capitalism and said (I’m paraphrasing) it’s grown so predatory and grotesque, that the guy who started Wendy’s is a like a hero now. In an age when multinationals extract and destroy all in their path, we look back fondly on businesses that were merely stultifying and ubiquitous! And we look back most fondly on the proprietors of small businesses—people who live to serve the public, with no desire to go public.

Jean-Pascal asked me to dedicate several copies of the book to customers who weren’t there because he knew they’d want a copy. One of his customers, Halim Mahmoudi, arrived. He already had a copy of the book and loved it. Halim is the author of Un Monde Libre. Jean-Pascal handed me a copy and I opened it. In the background were beautiful resort hotels, and in the foreground were the gritty lives of people living there. I told Halim I understood because I grew up in a tourist town. He smiled and turned to Marine and said: Maybe I have a brother.

Since my American ear isn’t good at hearing the nuances of French, I hand people a notepad and ask them to write down the name of the person they want the book dedicated to. Below is a partial list of people the book has been dedicated to here in the Midi-Pyrenees.

Laure
Claire
Floreal
Céline, Jahco & Nino
Bruno
Quentin
Jean-Rene
Marine
Adrien
Sophie & Manu
Sylvain
Thomas
Rimka
Yan
Nicolas
Sébastien
Marjorie
Christophe
Alain
Etienne
Jean-Paul
Jean-Christophe
Phillipe & Maryline
Cedric
Regis
Nathan
Sylvie
Jean
Stephan & Gabin
Julien & Lucie
Alex
Christophe
Patrick
Valentin
Matthieu
Cecile
Vladimir
Antoine
Sarah
André
Jean-Marie
Damien, Zelda & Gaspar
Yoann
Fabrice
Christine
Jean-Pascal

And below these names, I inscribed the following.

NOUS SOMMES TOUS
DES HEROS, ET NOUS
POUVONS CHANGER
LE MONDE—ALORS
AU BOULOT!

Or…

WE ARE ALL
THE HEROES, AND WE
CAN CHANGE
THE WORLD—SO
GET TO WORK!

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Random Observations in France

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On Air France, after the meals and drinks are served, they leave the drink bar out so you can serve yourself. They leave boxes of fudge bars out for people. People mill about and talk when the seat-belt light isn’t flashing. It’s the little things that make life more humane. Or maybe when you’re more humane, it comes across in the little things. (As well as the big things, like paid maternity leave and the best healthcare in the world.)

French electrical outlets are hermaphroditic.

French people are really distinct—in their vibe, their whole affect, and of course their language. One of the differences seems to be an overall lower level of hostility, particularly among men.

Embedded in the French language is a gentility and an elegance that is distinct from English. Some of it is the sound. For example, we both say chauffeur, but the French say it more elegantly (less r). Sometimes French is so elegant it’s comical. We passed a hardware store and I had to laugh at how wonderful the sale items sounded. At other times, the elegance is so incongruous with the content of what’s being said that you kind of wish it wasn’t so damn elegant.

Appreciating the beauty of French, but not fully understanding the language, it becomes easy to imagine that everyone around you is having an amazing conversation about beautiful things. I find it nice to be out in public yet be on vacation from other people’s banal thoughts and/or your negative judgements of other people’s thoughts. I’m already getting the sense that, once you start to understand more, the vacation is kind of over.

I live in a place where those who speak a different language are part of a servant class. Yes, it IS like a sci-fi movie! Sadly, for a lot of white people in California, speaking something other than English is looked down on, even despised. I find it delightful to be in a place where speaking something other than English has an entirely different feeling. In France, not knowing what someone else is saying is not a sign of your superiority. I know that sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous. Ridonkulous even.

Last night I ate a dish made with goat cheese, and that fact was explained to me as if I lived in a cave (and not a cheese-aging cave). I got the impression that if I took some of these French folks to SF/Oakland, they would be shocked to discover how great the food is (including the French food). Being here, I actually have a new appreciation for the foodie’s paradise we live in.

For a Californian, being a snob or a traditionalist about a single regional cuisine seems like a strange way to live. We have a million cuisines interacting with each other all the time and we’re totally open minded about new dishes and combinations—that’s our raison d’etre. At a soirée here, I described one of my favorite French-inspired dishes from the Caribbean restaurant Cha Cha Cha in SF called Chicken Paillard, and in the middle of describing it, my host reacted dismissively: “That’s not French.” Okay. Back to your croissant then (which apparently isn’t French, either, it’s Austrian).

Later, at that same soirée, as my hosts ate duck—the specialty of this region, which prides itself on duck confit and foie gras—I introduced them to an important American phrase: Fuck a duck. They loved it! Fuck a duck!!! I gave them the two classic deliveries. Boiled over frustration—FUCK A DUCK!!! And quiet exasperation—Ah, fuck a duck. The phrase was repeated around the table in laughing contemplation. You’re welcome, France.

On this point about food, I think I’ve experienced a few instances (very rarely) of what some might call French rudeness. In most cases rudeness is of course completely individual with nothing distinctly French about it. Other times, I got the feeling the person really just needed me to respect the French culture, and by extension them. Maybe in French rudeness there is some insecurity that creates an insecurity-superiority vortex? In any case, these instances have been rare. By in large, I find the French people to be very warm indeed.

People are living less in their phones here. They also write more checks. I haven’t seen this many checks written in front of me since like 1995. Vive le cheque!

So far, my favorite French expression is d’accord. It literally means “of accord” or “we are of accord” and also seems to be used like “ah, ok” or “ah, I get it”. They use it very liberally, multiple times in a given conversation. It’s a great phrase, d’accord. I wish we had something like it.

I now understand why a classic education in England and New England includes French. A good chunk of our language comes from Français obviously. In hindsight, it seems like a glaring omission from my own education. My graduation requirements stipulated I take multiple years of the same language (and as a Californian I was steered to Spanish) rather than years of different languages (which is what I would’ve preferred).

Van de Camp’s baked beans are apparently still a thing here. There was a bucket of them in the steam table at the hotel. Oui, it was the coup de grace.

They call drip coffee sock juice. Also, when you cast your gaze across a coffee bar, you discover they apparently don’t have cream or little creamers, instead they have little packaged condensed milks. Kinda gross. Want some condensed milk in your sock juice? Par excellence!

Last night I walked to the elevator and arrived at the same time as another fellow. After a bonjour, I pressed the button and we stood there waiting in silence. I wanted to break the silence, but my inability to speak stopped me. And I thought of all the times, back in America, where I stood in silence with a stranger by choice. Here, being forcibly mute, I realized how much I take being able to speak for granted. Maybe when I get home, I’ll be a little chattier.

So concludes my first three days in France. The Festival BD Colomiers is in the bag. Today we have an Ultra Chômeur book signing in Toulouse—a city known as La Villa Rose because it’s made from a pink stone found in the region. My goal for the day: try cassoulet. Tomorrow we drive to Paris.

Colomiers: Day One

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Had a great first day here yesterday at the Festival BD Colomiers wearing full Ultra Chômeur costume! Really cool group of people here.

At the table, folks who had already read Les Adventures d’Ultra Chômeur came up and were very complimentary and awesome. Several people said it was a book that young people could really relate to (the young are the most effected by chômage here). The irony was that busloads of high school kids from local schools were there, and many of them approached me because they had an assignment to interview an English-speaking author. One of the questions was: Why did you write this book? I answered, “I wanted to tell the truth about the unemployment crisis.”

I signed copies with the phrase, “Bon Courage!” and took many photos arm-in-arm with people (will post some soon).

On several occasions, when people told me their occupations, I showed them the corresponding character in the book, and they got a real kick out of that. A librarian stopped by (who looked like the brother of Jean Luc Picard) and I showed him Librarion from the Good Grief origin story. He liked the image of The Invisible Hand’s Budget Axe laying waste to the school. He said the book would be added to his library immediately.

Day Two begins shortly. Time to get up, go to the elevator, press the 0 floor button (something we don’t have in America), walk to the breakfast room, press the mocha button on the machine, and say the one French word I’ve gotten really good at saying: merci. That reminds me, I  discovered that in Français, it apparently sounds strange to answer merci with your own merci, the way we do in English when someone says “Thank you” and you reply, “Thank YOU.” There’s no second word to emphasize. Maybe I can sort that out today: How to say thank you to a thank you.

Heroes and Villains

The Thumb from The Adventures of Unemployed Man

The Mistral Wind has awakened me at 4 AM here in Toulouse, France, on the eve of the Festival BD Colomiers. In a few short hours I’ll be wearing orange lycra as Ultra Chômeur!

In the world of Ultra Chômeur, everyone is a superhero or villain. So one question that comes up is: Are there REALLY heroes and villains in our economy? The book confronts this question in several scenes (most notably the scene between The Thumb and Spin Doctor in the Hall of Just Us) but allow me to address it here directly.

The short answer is yes, there are economic heroes and villains. But we can’t stop there, obviously. If we want to prevent future people from becoming villains, we need to understand how that happens.

Heroism and villainy exist on a spectrum of action. We make choices that put us somewhere on that spectrum every day. To be called a full-blown hero or villain, you need to consistently choose one direction or the other, ultimately crossing a threshold that puts you solidly on one side. Even then, opportunities to choose a different direction are ever-present.

Our economic system currently makes it all too easy to choose villainous actions and be rewarded. You might be experiencing that right now. Here’s an example of everyday villainy I encountered recently.

I was at a social club in New York, talking with the president of a university and a hedge fund manager. I brought up a subject relevant to both of them: the trend of universities divesting from oil companies. The hedge fund manager dismissed the whole idea of “green investing” by explaining that it was far better (in terms of the End Results) for one to keep investing unethically, and do ethical things outside of investing, like donating to charities (see Hurricane Sandy). The university president was mum, but in this month’s Yale alumni magazine I read an exquisite rationalization from Yale’s president for why the university wouldn’t divest from oil.

So what’s really going on here? How can the hedge fund manager be so glib about his villainy? (Remember, he’s not just looking that other way at his personal stock portfolio, he’s financing other villains.)

The rulebook of our economy, which is written by lawmakers who too often work for villains, allows people (and faceless organizations that have the legal rights of people) to divert wealth to themselves at everyone else’s expense, principally by making it possible to move all the costs of doing business (especially environmental costs) off their own balance sheets. Thus, a small class of people “enrich” themselves while we get left with the bill (see latest oil spill/war/ecological catastrophe for reference).

Earlier I mentioned thresholds. A man is more villainous if he’s consciously aware of the damage and pain his actions are causing, but chooses to continue his actions for his own selfish reasons. To some degree, this applies to all of us when it comes to environmental damage—but your choice to produce more CO2 by driving across town does not have the same consequence as, say, an oil company president choosing to finance the campaigns of lawmakers who regulate (or not) the oil industry. Thus, the impact of your choices is also a factor in where you fall on the hero/villain spectrum.

While a villain’s choices may have greater direct consequences than the average person’s, when taken together, our choices can be more powerful. Over the last few decades there’s been a lot of emphasis on the collective choices we all make as consumers (like choosing eco-friendly products). While this is very important, it’s time we move beyond the idea that we can save the planet by buying the right stuff. After all, we are not merely consumers, we are citizens who actively shape our society in many ways.

We must begin to recognize all the places where we (and others) are choosing villainous actions for temporary gain, and make a different choice, consistently. No matter how great the short-term rewards for villainy seem, we must make it possible to choose a different path for ourselves, and for the next generation. We must also rewrite the rules of our economy so that villainy can no longer offer so many false rewards.

In every epic story of heroes defeating villains (including Ultra Chômeur) the heroes must act TOGETHER in order to win. How will we know when we’ve won? When choosing to be a hero no longer means being part of a “rag tag rebel fleet” and is instead synonymous with true prosperity and sustainable abundance. When the Mistral Wind is a source of free energy (the Mistral Wind asked me to say that).