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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.

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
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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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