Even More Sex

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


My mother routinely spoke irresponsibly in front of her children, as if we did not understand the language. Many times, in my early years, I overheard her describing a wayward female movie star, sometimes even a neighborhood woman, as “a prisoner of her senses.” She did not say this in a censorious manner but sympathetically, with a tinge of envy perhaps. The repetitiousness of the assertion loosened high expectations in me. In adolescence and even later, I kept looking for such “prisoners.” It took me a long time but, when I recognized one, I married her without hesitation.

I am not sure when my mother tried to provide formal sex education per se. I may have been eight or nine. I declined her instruction, not because I was prudish about the facts but because her pompous language style, derived on that occasion from bodice-buster serials in her weekly newspaper, made me uncomfortable. I would have been more at ease with concrete descriptions of the exchange of body fluids.

On other, more casual instances her wording was often quite vigorous. When the first blue jeans appeared in Paris, I may have been about twelve, or so. My mother declared then and there her opposition to this new type of garment on the ground that they were explicitly designed to emphasize men’s private parts thus inflaming the young women. One of her many off-hand remarks that contributed to make me optimistic about women’s erotic vulnerability and the ease of their conquest. My mother could describe an innocent, practical article of clothing as a kind of more or less gratefully accepted form of public rape. For this talent, I forgave and I forgive much that she did that was truly evil.

Skills and creativity

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


My mother was pretty much a part-time monster but she had big talents and one immense virtue.

She had been trained as a seamstress in a good technical high-school. Sometimes, when my father was working at night, she would hustle the five children through a hasty dinner of coffee with milk, bread, butter, jam and cheese and then, send everybody to his or her room. (She had to do that behind my father’s back because he belonged to the old French school that believes that if you don’t get two five-course, balanced meals a day, you will sicken in a short time.) She would lock herself in the dining room with fabric, her sewing machine, and her big scissors. By morning café au lait time, she would have a new outfit of extreme chic with appropriate gloves and detachable collars. Once, she produced in two nights matching tweed overcoats and golf pants for the three boys. Even little boys could see that the outfits were exquisitely elegant though the pants felt scratchy. No matter, we had to wear them to church and for a part of Sunday afternoon.

As long as she had defenseless offspring at home, my mother never saw a children’s costume event she did not like. She would enter as many of her children as would submit. The last time it happened to me, I was eleven and tall for my age. She dressed me up as a Roman legionnaire, with a cardboard armor ingenuously painted with stove silver coating. It almost killed me, not the armor, the embarrassment. I never wore a costume again until I was twenty-five though I must admit I have retained a certain flair. At least, I was never one of those social cowards who go to a Halloween party in jeans and keep a cowboy hat in their car just in case everyone else is costumed. (You know who you are, spineless scum!)

I was aware early that my mother used her talent to gain face and to pull rank on almost all other neighborhood women. Nevertheless, watching her cut and sew through the glass door exposed me early to the concept of creativity in general, and of visual creativity, in particular. I also picked up the broad notion that creativity not served by solid skills is meaningless. In my fifties, I began to paint, without hesitation although I am quite critical, because I had retained from observing her two forceful ideas: Skills will reveal talent, if any; with practice, skills can only improve.

My mother’s living example of inventiveness was at the antipodes of the narrow, sober petty-bourgeois values my whole environment projected. It belied what she was trying to teach her children every day. She contradicted with her hands what she  preached with her mouth.

French Expatriates and Foreign Francophiles

First, a definition: an expatriate is someone who lives outside the country of his birth on a more or less permanent basis. I am dealing here with French expatriates specifically, a fairly rare breed in relation to the size of the French population, rarer than English and American expatriates, for example.

The French expatriates often land in a particular town of a particular country at a particular time for no particular reason. They may have been heading somewhere else and gotten stuck along the way. They always include wives and former wives of natives who may have divorced them, or died. Coming from different epochs (such as before and after the establishment of French social democracy in the 1980s), they form historical strata. Each stratum remembers a different France, and the strata may entertain disparate and often incompatible visions of the fatherland.

They have developed new habits in the country where they live and, without knowing it, they have drifted far from their culture of origin. Many disseminate patently false notions about the country where they were raised; they do it more or less innocently because myth-making and absence go well together. Their French self is forever a young person, or even a child. Their own children are simply natives of their land of residence with a smattering of the French language and no real curiosity, forever strangers to their parents.

The Francophiles are yet another story. They are people who don’t have the luck to have been born French but who love what they imagine is French culture with a degree of repressed hysteria. No part of the world is free of them. I have bumped into them everywhere I have been; they have victimized me everywhere with their undeserved love. Many but by no means all are also francophone to some extent. Some gain standing in their own mind via their real or imagined mastery of what they have decided is a superior national culture.

They are usually very parochial, doubly so because they are fixated on France and on their own country, to the exclusion of knowledge of any other part of the world. Others are teachers of French who feel professionally obligated to revere that which they teach and, by extension, everything French. Often, they don’t even know the language very well, limited as they are by the cramped discourse of textbooks, without awareness of the vigor, of the colorfulness, and, especially, of the frequent crudeness of the real French language of both literature and everyday life. (“Cul-de-sac,” for example, means “ass of a bag.”)

Once, a long time ago, in Bolivia of all places, I observed that the two groups mixed well. It was at a Bastille Day celebration at the French consulate. The French expats and the Francophiles shared the rudimentary popular imagery of the 1789 French revolution, that beheaded a king for the sake of “public salvation,” and his pretty, frivolous young queen, just in case. (That was after storming a prison-fortress, the Bastille, that was largely undefended.)

Think of reading my book: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. It’s available from Amazon, under my name. I need the bucks. Please!

Our Daily Bread and a Horse’s Ass

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


A little later, the old man harnessed his plow horse to the cart. The women climbed with great caution onto the wooden benches in the back, all three in their Sunday best, including hats, and leather shoes instead of the usual wooden clogs. The old man motioned me to the seat near him, up front. While this seemed the normal place for a boy, I was suspicious because he kept cackling unnaturally and his wife reprimanded him in dialect several times from the back of the cart. Before we had gone a hundred feet, the horse started blowing powerful and odoriferous farts right into my face. It never let off until we reached the church. The old man had deliberately fed him a breakfast of oats to which the beast was unaccustomed. Everyone thought that was a good joke but the old lady was concerned about my big city sensitivities. I just thought it was the old man who was the horse’s ass but his precise planning and his foresight impressed me all the same, not to mention his control over the animal’s gut.

A moral inquiry

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


Note: I was born and reared mostly in Paris but I spent most summers in Brittany. Brittany summers left a deeper mark in me than the Paris school year.

In the Breton architectural fashion, my grandmother’s granite house shared a wall with the houses of two neighbors. On one side was the good looking old guy and his too virtuous old wife. On the other side of my grandmother’s house was a family of fishermen: old Pop, old Mom, grown daughter and grown son. They all lived in a single room that served as kitchen, dining room and bedroom. The parents shared a carved oak armoire-bed, accessible by climbing on a trunk and equipped with a sliding door to provide privacy. The adult children each had their small iron bed, placed at opposite corners of the room, I am pleased to report. There was no bathroom, of course, only an outhouse in the backyard. It was never scooped, never moved. It was surrounded by the most beautifully, healthy cabbage I have ever seen. The fisherman’s children never married. Perhaps they were too afraid of their parents; or, they liked each other too much. (But this is only hearsay.)

At the end of the dirt road, fifty yards away, lived the town ditch-digger and his large brood. The ditch digger’s boys were always hungry. They stole eggs, from wild birds’nests and from hen houses alike. They also picked wheat and toasted it in the fields, which was tolerated. In September, ripe hazelnuts were available for the picking. I don’t know what they did after September and I will never know because my family never stayed beyond that month. But school was back in session then, and there, they got at least one square a day.

Sometimes, we would climb over the priest’s orchard wall to steal his excellent pears. This happened less often than one might think because it presented moral problems: Everyone knew that the priest would not beat you hard if he caught you so, it was kind of unsporting to pick on him. And there was the issue of having to tell him in confession that you had stolen his pears. We discussed whether one would go to Hell for abstaining from confessing that single particular sin. There was no theological consensus.

How I Helped Win World War Two

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


All of a sudden, that road was flooded by a long column of trucks overflowing with big, loud, laughing men in distinctive uniforms. People were shouting greetings and waving flags. It seems that an American soldier jumped off his vehicle, swept me up into his arms and kissed me on both cheeks. That may have been because my mother, who had wanted her second child to be a daughter, processed my long blond hair into Goldilock-style ringlets. That I am straight today is a testimony to the resiliency of genetic programming. My mother always insisted the kissing soldier was black. On the one hand, she may have made up this detail for colorful effect. On the other hand, there were so many trucks the soldiers may have belonged to a transport unit and hence, probably to a black unit in the segregated Army of the day.

It was August 1944. I was two and my family lived in a (nice) city project right on the periphery of Paris, near one of its main access roads. One thing that bothers me about this visual and auditory recollection is that we lived on the east side of Paris. American soldiers should have been arriving from Normandy, in the west. Yet, the memory is clear.

Before the American forces reached Paris, my mother had sewn a makeshift tricolor French flag. The blue came from my father’s old military service flannel sash (a forgotten and now incomprehensible item of clothing). The red came from a Nazi flag my father had stolen from a German general’s car he was supposed to guard. (The Germans were packing up at the time and very nervous. He might have been shot on the spot if he had been caught.) At a loss for white, my mother made the center piece out of one of my diapers. That’s why I have always felt I played a part, although a small one, in the liberation of Paris, a symbolically important phase of WWII.

I was born and conceived during the Nazi Occupation of France when life was tough and entertainment scarce. My father was a Paris cop. His life was not so tough, however, that he did not have the energy to make my mother pregnant one more time before the Liberation, this time with twins. There was little to eat and milk was rationed so, my mother breastfed me for the longest time. I was precocious. At one point, I think I was able to ask for the breast in grammatically perfect French. It must have been embarrassing for her. Or perhaps I made this up on the basis of bits and pieces I picked up while I was growing up, like some of the other early recollections in these truncated memoirs. They stop at age 21 when I moved to the US for good. I made that choice because I think the second part of my life would be less  interesting to an American readership than the first, the preparatory phase, so to speak.

I  described above my first, full, cinematographic memory. From the days before the Liberation, I remember bit and pieces, like still photographs with some sound, glimpses of German uniforms and the vast, beautiful fire of the Paris general mills, a mile away, set by the US Army Air Corps. It’s a little known fact that the Allies bombed the hell out of France right before and during the Normandy landing. The French never complained much; they were different then, and too sick of the German presence to bitch about collateral damage. When the air raid siren sounded, my mother would wrap me up in a blanket and take me down to the basement of our seven-story apartment house. Some tenants were so jaded by then that they did not bother to take shelter. The basement was a crowded but not especially tragic place.

In spite of this dramatic, first, fully formed memory, nothing really important ever happened to me. I have escaped the Chinese curse, of “living in interesting times,” although I did live in fact in quite interesting times. I waltzed through the murderous second half of the twentieth century with hardly a scratch to show for it. All my life, I have been mostly fortunate. The undeserved lucky breaks more than made up for the few unjustified blows fate has dealt me. The luckiest break was my first coming to the US at eighteen, a prelude to immigration three years later. In this country, no one ever oppressed me successfully though a few tried.  Many gave me a push at just the right moment. Mine is a happy story. This makes it worth telling to the largely glum denizens of the twenty-first century.

I live in the sunny, warm climate I longed for as a child, near the sea I always loved, in a small town rich with the small pleasures I have always appreciated: a variety of movies, a good café in an interesting, animated downtown, several bookstores within easy reach, and young people everywhere. My wife is a talented painter whose work I enjoy so much I don’t ever like her to sell it. She has few obligations, and she has not had many for  quite a while. That’s what keeps her beautiful, I think. She is also an immigrant, from the other side of the world from me, yet we see eye-to-eye on most matters. Nevertheless, we each have our own house, feet apart, each gracious in its own way. Although, it’s in the center of town, our tiny plot contains an apple tree, a plum tree, two lemon trees, and a big fig tree. All bear fruits, especially the fig tree, a sort of miracle I never fully grasp, for reasons that will become clear below.

I am a retired university professor and scholar, fairly proud of my scholarship, happy to have been a professor and equally happy to not be one anymore. Most mornings, weather permitting (it permits often, here in California), after the gym and after coffee at Lulu’s, I am forced to decide whether I want to go sailing, or fishing, or just putter about my boat, or start one of my sometimes fairly good postcard paintings, or again, write a micro-story. Sometimes, I just simply spend the whole day reading, for no particular reason and to no particular purpose. I read much history but also almost anything anyone hands me. That would include a fair amount of trash. You guessed it: I am a satisfied lazy man.

The pages below tell the tale of the unlikely beginnings of the journey that brought me to my current state of beatific smugness.

On Cuba’s Fake Stats

On Monday, my piece on the use violence for public health purposes in Cuba (reducing infectious diseases through coercion at the expense of economic growth which in turn increases deaths from preventable diseases related to living standards) assumed that the statistics were correct.

They are not! How much so? A lot! 

As I mentioned on Monday, Cuban doctors face penalties for not meeting their “infant mortality” targets. As a result, they use extreme measures ranging from abortion against the mother’s will to sterilization and isolation.  They also have an incentive to lie…(pretty obvious right?)

How can they lie? By re-categorizing early neonatal (from birth to 7th day) or neonatal deaths (up to 28th day) as late fetal deaths. Early neonatal deaths and late fetal deaths are basically grouped together at “perinatal” deaths since they share the same factors. Normally, health statistics suggest that late fetal deaths and early neonatal deaths should be heavily correlated (the graph below makes everything clearer).  However late fetal deaths do not enter inside the infant mortality rates while the early neonatal deaths do enter that often-cited rate (see graph below).

Death Structures.png

Normally, the ratio of late fetal deaths to early neonatal deaths should be more or less constant across space. In the PERISTAT data (the one that best divides those deaths), most countries have a ratio of late fetal to early neonatal deaths ranging from 1.04 to 3.03. Cuba has a ratio of more than 6. This is pretty much a clear of data manipulation.

In a recent article published in Cuban Studies, Roberto Gonzales makes adjustments to create a range where the ratio would be in line with that of other countries. If it were, the infant mortality of Cuba would be between 7.45 and 11.16 per 1,000 births rather than the 5.79 per 1,000 reported by the regime – as much as 92% higher. As a result, Cuba moves from having an average infant mortality rate in the PERISTAT data to having the worst average infant mortality in that dataset – above that of most European and North American countries.

So not only is my comment from Monday very much valid, the “upside” (for a lack of a better term) I mentioned is largely overblown because doctors and politicians have an incentive to fake the numbers.