Tuesday, January 30, 2007

check this out

I ran across this clip this morning. Reggie Watts: Out of Control. Go watch and listen and be amazed.

Their own words... "You will see, you will see!"

Slow blogging lately. I've managed to bury myself in papers that need correcting. I'm sitting on a pile of essays written by my secondes...the common title - My teenage life. From time to time I think I'll post portions of some of these essays to give you a sense of how some French teens see their own lives. I'll title such posts "Their own words..."
These essays are the end result of a series of short readings of essays on the selfsame theme by American students posted on a State Department website, EJournal . The american essays tended to reflect the centrality of high school to local community life and the importance of extra curricular activites such as sports, music and work experience to the typical American teen. As a pre-writing activity I had the kids do a fairly detailed breakdown of the different ways they spend their time in a typical week and then rank their activities according to various criteria such as: total hours spent, personal interest, long range value (future benefits). Then I asked them to imagine what they would do if they had more time. Lastly, these essays were written in class during a one hour period without access to dictionaries.
A word to readers, remember, these kids are writing in their second or third language. I'd advise you to put aside your red ink pens, and whatever school marmish tendencies you possess and simply try to listen to what these kids are trying to say...the typical self absorbtion of teenagers (alternately endearingly optimistic and other times laden with anxieties) is on full display here and in many ways it is indistinguishable from that of american teens. Having said that, it is very interesting to sift out the cultural and circumstantial differences that are manifestly present in my French kids essays.
For reasons that should be obvious, I'm not using anyone's real names. Enjoy....

the first essay excerpt comes from Sylvain...

...When I am not at school, and when I don't practice any club activity, I spend most of my time playing video games or watching television. Sometimes I see my friends or my girlfriend. But since I went here from Paris, I think time goes slowly. It is boring. When I lived in Paris, I could go out very often with my friends. Here there is practically nothing to do. Somebody told me when I arrived at Andernos, something like, "If you don't have a computer, you are dead! ...Unfortunately he wasn't wrong! But staying on a chair and spending hours playing computer doesn't excite me more than anything else. So when it's boring now, I cook!
It is so boring that I am nearly impatient going at school (not exactly but nearly!). I like the high school because it is different than college. Here we are more free, more responsible too. At the college we were "children". We didn't have enough freedom. for me high school is more cool even though it is more serious because we are preparing our future.
While I am speaking about future, I am going to talk about my activities. There is some comparison with the second paragraph, you will see why soon... I love sport. I practice kickboxing and badminton. For me, it is a passion, also it is an ability to evacuate all the pressure of the school. But my true passion is certainly the theater, and I would like to be a comedian! I aready hear you saying, "Haha, very funny." If I make you laugh now, this is not bad... But later, it will be better than that, you will see, you will see...

Friday, January 26, 2007

Neige in Lege day 2

The sun came up blood red this morning. Against my better judgement, I pulled over and attempted to get a shot of it.
Another day of no school buses and therefore just a fraction of my students.

Todays emergency lesson: take the following four words:
Using only those words compose an English version of the following French passage:
"Ce qui existe, existe. Ce qui n'existe pas, n'existe pas. Est-ce que c'est ca? C'est ca."

alternative lesson using same material:
punctuate the following passage so that it makes sense. The words are already in their proper order. (clue: there are four sentences total including one question)

that that is is that that is not is not is that it it is

acknowledgment: this idea comes from the film "Charlie" starring Cliff Robertson

Patrique, the custdodian who was sweeping snow with a broom yesterday, today had to close the entrance to the school media center. I saw him kicking at the ice on the sidewalk with his boots today...

He suggested that I take a look at the beach so ...

on the way home I visited the bassin at Andernos. The mercury continues to hover at or near freezing...

the snow is barely melting.

Nobody can remember anything like it, ever.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Neige in Lege!

The kids are still sick. They haven't been to school all week, and will likely not make it back there until next Monday. One of the consequences of this is that I'm sleeping in the guest room while the our room has become sick bay for the rest of the family.
Last night, Beth was reading in bed to the kids. Outside it was raining cats and dogs. Then at a certain point Tess lifted her head and said, "It stopped." Sure enough the rain had stopped. We thought nothing more of it until this morning. I was in the shower when I was hailed by excited voices. I was surprised because everyone is usually still in bed by the time I leave for work, but I hustled out of the shower...Here's the reason for all the excitement.
As you can see it's still dark out ... the kids, germs and all, were energized by the sight of snow, perhaps it reminded them of home? They were dresse and outside quicker than you could say bonhomme de neige and they set right to work on making one, a snowman that is.

My heart skipped a beat as I thought to myself, snow day? (translation: no school?). My second thought was, silly man, you're not in Kansas anymore. I thought about calling one of my colleagues but then I decided to show my true grit, get in the car and brave the road conditions. My biggest fear was sharing the snowy roads with the French equivalent of Portland drivers. The radio was full of reports about how Bordeaux was paralyzed, no trains, no buses, no tram, no school buses (not the same thing as no school as I would soon find out). Indeed the highway had rutted snow on it and while it wasn't anything I hadn't seen a thousand times before, there wasn't a whole lot of margin for foolishness.

When I got to the lycee at a quarter to eight I saw the head custodian, Patrique, sweeping snow from in front of the entrance to the administration office (priorities) with a broom. I went over to him and gave him a hard time about the broom, telling we had shovels and even snowblowers in America. He laughed good naturedly.
There were only four teachers in the salle des profs. I asked them if school would be closed. They all shrugged. One of them said something to the effect, today we're just functionaries drawing our pay. They told me that the buses might not run but for school to close it had to be a real emergency. C'est la garderie alors... keeping kids warm and safe and probably little more than that. The tests I had scheduled for today would have to wait. I had two kids first period (Terminale). We talked about life, what their plans for next year were...tranquil. Next class (Seconde) I had eight. We played pendu (hangman) in English. Ditto the next period (also Secondes) where we had six. My next class (Premiere) nobody showed up. I sat in the room and corrected papers...tranquil.
In between classes I caught a glimpse of the same kind of energy I had left at home - kids making and throwing snowballs... it was funny, the proviseur and the surveillants were frowning full time but you could tell that their efforts to put down the snowball fights were massively undermined by one simple fact known to one and all ... this may never happen again. And so the snowballs flew... you had to keep your head about you. One group of secondes invited me to participate in a giant snowball building effort but I opted to go home for lunch instead.
According to everyone I talked to it has been many many years since snow fell here, and even longer since it stuck around for the whole day. I came home at 1:30 for lunch. The drive was beautiful, I could have been in Oregon or New England. Brilliant sunlight, blue skies, snow lined branches glinting, the world stylized in white and black.

The big worry here is that the temperature is falling and we'll be stuck with icy roads right around rush hour when the whole world comes home from Bordeaux.

This is fun...we'll no doubt remember this snowfall for a long time even though it'll probably be gone before the weekend.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Bonne continuation...holding on to the thread

Friday we grabbed the kids at noon. Notice Colm resplendent as the le petit roi ... his class celebrated the fete du roi, epiphany sunday... a religious holiday non?... all is forgiven if you bring a galette to class. We loaded princess Tess and his Majesty and split for La Rochelle.
We drove north along the coast to Point de Grave where we caught the ferry. Beth fixed a tailgate lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. On the ferry Colm drew many smiles from mothers and grandmothers who saw his crown and greeted him, "Bonjour Monsieur le Roi!"
Colm, like all true monarchs was blissfully oblivious of their fawning overtures. What he most wanted to do was practice walking like a drunken sailor as the boated swayed back and forth... the boat's movements put me in mind of a campfire group hug rendition of kumbaya...then it began to make me feel nauseous, not exactly mutually exclusive associations.
My sea legs are so pathetic...had I lived in the days of the great sea migrations, I'm sure I would have wasted away to nothing, if by some miracle I hadn't simply fainted and fallen overboard beforehand.
We landed at Royan and then drove on to Rochefort and finally the old port city of La Rochelle. It is picturesque, of course. We don't take as many pictures of this sort as we used to ... picturesque becomes a bit commonplace here in the Old World.
The port is guarded by three towers. The old arched door to the city now leads to a pedestrian zone predictably charming and catering to shoppers and gourmands. It is said that one can eat out every night of the year in La Rochelle and not visit the same restaurant twice. Another boast I'll simply have to take on faith.

But the attraction here for us...the aquarium. We got a hotel about a five minute walk from there and we ate dinner out of our cooler.
The aquarium did not disappoint. It is almost but not quite on a par with the one in Newport which simply means that is it is quite good in its own right thank you very much. Colm and Tess had free reign to wander and stick their noses right up close to myriad varieties of fish. They loved it and they want to go back. We had the place largely to ourselves, another bonus for travelling in January.

We got home Saturday evening and unfortunately by Sunday morning both Beth and Colm were sick. Tess and I took care of them... Tess really responded to the call to care for her mother and brother. It's sweet to see the bonds of sisterly affection displace those more quotidian displays of rivalry and one-ups-manship that seem to entangle the two of them. Sunday morning, Tess reminded us not to make too much noise so that Colm could get his rest.

Colm was a little whipped puppy all day. He simply curled up and sniffled, occasionally grabbing a kleenex to blow his nose, His eyes sunk deep into his head, his forehead got very warm (fever of 102). All he wanted was to be read to, so I sped "read" to him in English from a French version of Zoro, (he and Tess have adopted Z as their new favorite letter, they make it with the proper Zoro sound effects). After Zoro, I found myself trapped on the couch under a feverish lumpy boy, Beth was trying to get a nap, Tess was silently turning pages in her room, the only thing I could reach with my free hand was... Harry Potter.
Confession: I have not read any of the Harry Potter books. (I am pausing for the gasps to subside) I can only say that I've not been bitten by the Potter bug and that the movies have done nothing to arouse my interest. Last summer while watching the kids at Riverside Park I made the casual acquaintance of another father there to whom, in the course of conversation, I offhandedly disclosed that I had not read a single one of the Potter books. He looked at me first with incredulity and then with an expression akin to alarm. "And you're an English teacher?" he said.

And so I read about the "boy who lived" to my own ailing boy. Beth's eyes tear up almost instantly at the mere mention of this phrase so pregnant is it for her with not only the entire painful Potter family history but also with her own (our own, I might say) twin intimations of inexpressible delight and inevitable mortality. Beth is a human tuning fork, she registers keenly and exquisitely the perturbations of life. Becoming a mother has only amplified this capacity.
The decision to become a parent (it can't always be a choice but it needs to be a decision) is so invested with hope; even if it is unexpressed, it is there, nonetheless, implicit. And hope is a garment we wear until it is threadbare, we then seek to mend it, hoping to pass it (if nothing else) on to our children so that they will not be unprotected from the elemental forces of life. Long after we cease to hope for ouselves, we hope for our children and by extension, for others.
Many of the French we've met this year upon learning of our exchange have used a particular phrase when taking their leave. They say to us, "Bonne continuation." I like it. It puts me in mind of the thread of life that runs both forward and backward through time, perhaps even tangled and folded and knotted, but always unbroken...that is the hope anyway...bonne continuation, may it continue unbroken, passed on from hand to hand, so that we can find our way...our way back to each other, back home, even as we inch onward.

The joy that seems transcendent but which we fear is merely transitory are for me most keenly voiced in the poetry of writers like Yeats, Auden, and Dylan Thomas and Wordsworth. Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a novel that fingers the same tightly wound heart strings. When I hear or remember certain lines like Roethke's "who stops being a bird yet still beats his wings against the immense immeasurable emptiness of things" or Thomas "time would take me up the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand in the moon that is always rising" I feel an ache. There is nothing for it sometimes but to surrender to that ache and let it resonate in the air, a song, sad and sweet, tearful perhaps but a song nonetheless. The thing is only a part of what happens to us when we are ambushed by a book or a song or a film has to do with the intrinsic artistic qualities of the work in question. The other part is of course us - our disposition, which is to say, our particular point of vulnerability. When we are ready to laugh or cry we don't need much in the way of prodding, we need only to be touched where we can feel it... so it is "the boy who lived" finds its mark.

Everyday just about, quietly, surreptitiously, I watch my daughter and my son as they play, alone and together. It's funny how I favor the word "play" to some form of the verb "to be". They seem endlessly committed (though not consciously) to a series of provisional role playing games, as if they already understand that a single lifetime is barely enough time to, by trial and error, sort out what will feel right and what just won't play at all. I am reminded that I too was once like they are now, and that one day they will "be" as I "am". But that kind of reasoning is merely syllogistic; it brings me nowhere; I feel no illumination. I am closer to them than to anyone else on earth and yet the chasm separating us sometimes seems infinitely wide. As wide as the one which prevents me from really remembering who I used to be. Who are you Tess? Who are you Colm? I find myself wondering with equal parts awe and amusement. I think I'll let William Stafford have the final word and rescue this meandering post, if that's possible.

A Story That Could Be True

If you were exchanged in the cradle and
your real mother died
without ever telling the story
then no on knows your name,
and somewhere in the world
your father is lost and needs you
but you are far away.

He can never find
how true you are, how ready.
When the great wind comes
and the robberies of the rain
you stand in the corner shivering.
The people who go by-
you wonder at their calm.

They miss the whisper that runs
any day in your mind,
"Who are you really, wanderer?"-
and the answer you have to give
no matter how dark and cold
the world around you is:
"Maybe I'm a king."

-William Stafford

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Local color...L'ESTEY Malin

There is a quirky, locally produced and irregularly published magazine called L'ESTEY Malin. It is loaded to the gills with local merchant's ads, some of them documents in their own right, all of them a window into the local culture.
In addition to the ads, there are several items some serious, some decidedly not, that strive to provide locals and out of towners alike with a sense of local color. It usually features, for example, a page dedicated to words whose origins reside in the bassin area and would be more or less unintelligible to other French people. As you might expect, the ethos (if I can use such a word in this context) of this publication is that of the fishing village.
Beth picked up the latest issue at Tess's dance class...they are not sold or even distributed in a systematic way. The first thing I noticed when looking at page one is that L'ESTEY Malin is now on the internet. You can have a look if you're curious... I've supplied a rundown of the "highlights" of this feature just below the web address: (do I need to remind people that it will be in French?...consider yourselves reminded.)

Page 1 - Interview with Santa
3 - Origins of christmas traditions
8 - recipe: brioche
9 - interesting graphic on biodegradability of various forms of garbage found on the beach/
high and low tide timetables
10 - wine tasting vocabulary
13 - recipe: Galette des 'Rois
15 - map of bassin circa drawn in 1774 (three page spread)
19 - recipe: buche de noel
26 - explanation (with diagrams/graphics) of how the tides are affected by the moon
29 - various practical knots used by local fishermen
recipe: stuffed mushrooms

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

habits of mind...a la francaise

This morning while driving to work I caught this brief exchange...(the general subject was the EU)
"With respect to the law. Do you think that enough work has been done?"
"As you know, in France quite a lot of law is being made all time."
"Yes, but not necessarliy enforced."
Then in the salle des profs I saw on the table a union advertisement with a banner headline, "Profession en colere" (Angry Teachers). There is a photo of teachers protesting in the streets, banners unfurled. In the foreground is a resolute young woman in a teeshirt on which is emblazoned the following text. "J'ai rate mon BAC parce que ma prof de francais etait prof de maths!" (I failed my baccalaureate exams because my French teacher was really a Math teacher.) In smaller print you can also see "18 hours of class = 44 hours of work. More than full time!" I sympathize with the sentiment even if the math appears a little fuzzy to me. It's a call to arms for all teachers to march through the streets of Paris on Jan. 20.
It's a far cry from the labor relations I'm familiar with back home. There everybody knows everybody else... it's more personal, which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes a difficult thing. Every so often "big guns" are brought into the mix but these outsiders while they represent backing and resources from larger interest groups are still there to do the bidding of the local parties involved, the local union or the school board. I wonder how my colleagues would feel about moving in the direction of a statewide bargaining unit if they had a chance to sample the dynamic that prevails here. I suppose it's a bit easier to get fired up and become activist if your adversary is a larger, faceless entity, but it also seems to me that something is lost in trading one scale for another. Acting locally (even when thinking locally) requires taking into account a human factor that is not abstract but very real and present. People tend to go slow in that kind of environment, the very definition of a conservative temperament, but part of the reason they go slow is because they are loathe to put in jeapordy what they perceive as the well being of their own community.
But that is not France. Here the scale is national. Federal government, nationwide unions.
Pinned to one of the walls is an article examing the phenomenon of "bivalence", that is to say, teachers who are certified to teach two different disciplines. The article, which is far more dispassionate in its tone and its analysis than the union publication discloses that while the rest of Europe makes ample use of bivalence and polyvalence (Germany routinely certifies teachers in a speciality and a complimentary discipline) France has only recently entertained the idea with any seriousness. Last year only 33 such teachers were certified in the entire country.
The reason apparently is the gridlock caused by the longstanding distrust between the major players, namely, the syndicats (unions) and the government. Specialization is a jealously guarded hallmark of teacher formation in France. Even closely related disciplines are separately certified here. The union poster rails against bivalence, asseting that it threatens the primary motivation cited by young teachers as their reason for entering the profession, namely the opportunity to study and then to teach a discipline that is one's personal and lifelong passion. Diversifying a teacher's teaching assignment, so the argument goes, encourages mediocrity and a banalisation of the subject matter.
A cartoon next to the article on the wall pokes fun at this mentality. It shows two teachers talking. The first one says, "I remember the old days when there were history/geography teachers." The second one shrugs and says, "I wouldn't know. I'm a geography teacher."
Hamed, the syndicalist, comes in the room while I'm looking at this so I ask him his opinion. Actually, he says, this issue is not a major one for him. He understands that there are reasons to promote bivalence. He then cites one which I hadn't thought of...the desire to ease the transition to college (middle school) from elementary school by reducing the number of different teachers each student has to deal with.
Is it likely to happen? I ask him. He shrugs doubtfully. He doesn't trust the people on the other side of the political fence who are pushing the proposal. Even if the idea has merit he doesn't doubt that their motives are disingenuous...in short, the proposal might be a kind of Trojan horse, or the camel's nose under the tent...let this in and there might be no stopping them. The really hidden agenda that many teachers wonder about is that the government wants to change teacher working conditions to those more like those in the United States...which is to say, longer contact hours, longer hours on campus, more responsibilities, and proportionally anyway, less pay for all their trouble. I say, to Hamed, "One might get the impression that you distrust the right (political types are typically identified as either left or right here)."
He laughs. "You might say that."
He mentions the newly annointed presidential candidate from the right, Nicolas Sarkozy. Hamed is adamant that the right will dismantle everything he holds near and dear. Regarding Sarkozy he says, "He loves to use the word work (travailler). He says to the French, 'If you want more, you have to work more, work harder.' He wants to reduce taxes for the rich and lengthen the work week. But you know, the fact is that history shows that productivity goes up as work hours go down. It is because the workers are allowed to share in the productivity and the benefits it brings."
I am impressed by the reach of that last syllogism and I am incapapble of ascertaining it's validity right then and there so I simply nod...not that Hamed would take it amiss if I were to dissent;quite the contrary, it would only energize him. I don't always agree with Hamed's positions but I like him a lot. He is a soldier in the trench warfare that is French politics. As the photo in the poster attests, solidarity is a cardinal virtue in this kind of cultural context. This is not to say that everyone in France lines up on the left or the right ... in fact, many people I talk to are tired of the polarization and seem to yearn for more pragmatic approaches.
I find myself wondering if in a culture that prizes solidarity within political factions, ideas do not simply rise and fall based on their merits; rather, their prospects depend, for good or ill, on their politcal patronage. It's one thing to assent to the merits of a certain proposal; it's quite another to allow agreement with it to be construed as support for its politcal partisans who are your sworn rivals.
I suppose that politics in America is also susceptible to this sort of thing, though I wonder if it isn't a little easier to for American political types to crossover from one side of the aisle to the other on individual issues.
To change subjects just a little...
It probably comes as to no surprise to readers that in France things are closely regulated.
A timely example of this is the post Christmas sales which are called soldes. If you are a retailer here you are not allowed to launch your sales until the officially designated date, this year Jan 10. There are numerous regulations in place which affect how much of your inventory you can put on sale and how much of a discount you're allowed to offer. You are not allowed, for example, to sell goods at a loss. Records must be kept to document the cost of goods and the selling prices. Usage of promotional gimmicks like liquidation or going out of business sales must be approved in advance to certify their veracity. Finally, the duration of the soldes is strictly limited to six weeks. What I have just described represents only my superficial understanding of what is, I am certain, a very complex set of regulations and language that only a lawyer could love. Apparently there is a difference between promotions and sales but don't ask me (not yet anyway) to tell what it is. The beginning of the soldes comes with great fanfare and media coverage. It is not unlike the day after Thanksgiving phenomenon in the U.S. Consumers arrive early and in great numbers at commercial centers all over the country. Beth braved the crowds with her friend Christelle and came back with all kinds of great deals...mostly clothes for the kids...Christine now refers to Beth affectionately as her copine de soldes (sales sister).
I asked Hamed about the soldes and gently needled him about whether the French consumer needed protection from merchants who might spring sales and discounts on them unexpectedly during the year. He took it in good humor and said that the idea was to prevent retailers from selling items below cost. I was still in a mood to play, so I said, "So, in France there is no right to commit commercial suicide? I can't decide to sell my goods for a loss?" He didn't miss a beat and came back with, "It's not suicide; it's murder." He went on to cite the practices of giant retailers who undercut competitors and drive them out of the market only to hike prices after the competition is gone. He looked at me with a sly smile, and I knew he was thinking of Walmart. Then he said with a perfectly straight face, "We regulate the soldes to protect competition." It was an effortless display of the kind of mental gymnastics and argumentation that is practically a national past time here in France.
I'm tempted to generalize...probably something I should resist but hey only eight people are reading it anyway (including my mother of course). How about this? French habits of mind as allegorical figures: Ideology officiates the marriage of Logic to Paradox, their offspring being the twins Skepticism and Irony.
Late in the evening I decide check out the tv...my expectations are appropriately low...tv is bad everywhere in the world, I imagine. Nevertheless, I manage to become intrigued by a couple of shows. One of them is a variation on an extremely common format here, the talk show. This particular show's theme is "old songs revived and revisited". The guests are all either performers, songwriters or "experts". There are almost a dozen guests representing everything from classical to hiphop. One guy takes a Jacque Brel tune and uses it as a point of departure into a "soft" poetic hip hop meditation accompanied by piano. Another performer spins a variation of Cher's popular song "Bang, Bang"...it's surreal really to see popular culture remixed and re-presented to an audience that may or may not be familiar with the "original" anticedent material. The music isn't all that interesting to me but I am struck by the programming...two full hours devoted to a discussion of a particular topic. The French attachment to this idea of a soiree en conversation seems to me to be something that Americans lack patience for. I wonder how many French viewers sit and watch the entire thing....
The other show that interests me is a special report on the government policy of using automated radar and cameras to deter speeding on France's roads and highways. In 2002 Chirac announced a get tough policy, referring the death toll on the highways as a national embarassment and a form of violence that would no longer be tolerated. Since then, French drivers have been surveilled remotely to an unprecedented degree. The death toll has plummeted. The number of people driving without licences and/or insurance has skyrocketed. The documentary reveals an interesting fact about the cost of enforcing the new laws. Each time a driver is cited in person (that is to say with a policeman and a ticket) when all the processing and administrative costs are calculated it costs the taxpayers something like 40 euros. (don't quote me on the figure) On the other hand when speeding tickets are issued automatically using radar and linked technologies and notification by mail, the net result is each ticket nets the government positive euros...in other words, it's a revenue stream... the prospects for French drivers seem positively Orwellian.
As always, repressive measures always inspire individual acts of resistance. One driver revealed a very slick strategy for evading the system. It takes advantage of the as yet imperfect merging of laws between member countries of the EU. He holds driving permits for both Spain and France. When he is France, if he is stopped, he produces his permit from Spain. The French system does not talk to the system in Spain so he loses no points for his infraction. When he is in Spain uses his French permit for the same reason. In this way he can rack up speeding tickets without fear of losing points and ulitmately losing his permit. The more laws and regulations, the more confusion, the easier for him to slip through the loopholes.


washing my sins away

I'm not used to white boards. Back home I have an enormous blackboard that extends from the floor to the ceiling and covers an entire wall. I love to fill it up, and I take advantage of the space to leave certain things up there for days even weeks. My students also take advantage of the space to practice various forms of graffitti and art, always within the bounds of good taste of course. Here I alternate between white boards and chalk boards depending on the room I'm in. Also, I have to bring my own markers with me... yet another personal challenge since I am in the habit of leaving them behind when I leave (funny how they're never there when I return the following week).
So you can imagine my pleasant surprise when I entered B110 and found in the tray a black marker. I proceeded to conduct class and fill up the board with sundry vocab words and sample sentences. Toward the end of the class I needed more room so took the eraser and swept it over my scribblings... nothing happened, and then a gasp went up from the room, mostly girls who really now how to gasp. Just to make sure I wasn't hallucinating I tried again. My words were still there, like Poe's raven.
I stared at the marker in my hand... read the label "permanent marker". A little voice in my head said, "Stupid!" But my mouth said, "Why would somebody leave a marker like this on the tray?" The students smiled at me as if to say, do you really have to ask such a question? I turned back to the board and redoubled my efforts, pressing hard against the board. I managed to smear black ink across the once pristine surface. Each motion I made triggered another round of oohh la la's from the girls. Finally my arm grew weary. Time was running out on the period. Soon I would have to leave to teach another class in a different room... and one of my colleagues would be coming in here...that thought appalled me. They would know it was my writing... I have the worst handwriting in the country plus the contents were all in English. The entire board stood as a monument to the incompetent American. I felt completely at a loss. The bell was due to ring in three or four minutes.
And then Theo, one of the most committed chatterboxes in the room, seemed to perceive an opportunity. He stood up and offered to leave the room and find something to clean the board. I nodded yes and he was gone in a flash. I was struck by his alacrity, not even the prospect of cutting into his free time between classes seemed to outweigh the opportunity to go out there on some kind of mission.
Amazingly he was back before the bell rang with a rag and a bottle of some kind of cleaner. I tried it and the ink came off, all my sins washed away. The girls oohed and ahhed some more. The bell rang but several of them hung around to see the job finished. I handed the stuff back to Theo who smiled and said, "Ca merite une bonne note." I smiled back. There is no grade good enough for what you did. I said to him. He shrugged and said, "See you later alligator."
"See ya soon racoon."
I left the room for my next class...it was midway into the period when I remembered that I had left the permanent black marker on the tray of the white board... I made a mental note to go and get it, and then promptly forgot it.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Lifting the lamp beside the golden door

We've taken up some readings in our textbook on immigration in my 1res (junior) classe. It’s an interesting topic because it invites a range of perspectives, French and American, contemporary and historical among others. Also, there is no shortage of Englis language political cartoons available on the subject, especially the “wall” going up on the Mexican border.

People here are intrigued and a bit mystified by this concept. Their most immediate historical association with a wall is of course the Berlin Wall which is not, I presume, the one intended by American policymakers. It also true that Europeans are no strangers to the subject of regulating borders and controlling immigration, but it’s just that America has for so long enjoyed such iconic status as a land of immigrants. Remember the inscription on the Statue Liberty (I don’t have it memorized word perfect but this is pretty close, I think):

Give me you tired, your poor,

your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

the wretched refuse from your teeming shore.

give me your homeless, tempest-tost,

I lift the lamp beside the golden door.

This expresse an image of America that Americans have long basked in and to varying degrees tried to embody, but there's always been a big difference between poetry and government policy.

I’ve found some interesting potical cartoons from 19th century American papers raising alarms about the floodtide of Irish immigrants (the other group most often depicted is the Chinese) threatening American jobs and cultural values, both civic and religious. In these cartoons the Irish are depicted as bomb-toting, knife wielding, drunken savages who worship at strange altars. hmmm….sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it?

We established some basic terms, illegal and legal immigrants, documents, papers, refugees. We listed the standard reasons given for immigration….escape from poverty, hunger, and/or danger. The hope of a better life.

I alluded to my own family tree and the fact that a few generations back, my own family claimed immigrant origin from Ireland…perhaps even illegal immigrants at that. When I asked my students who among them could also claim immigrant family ties, several hands went up, somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of the class.

I drew a map of the border region dividing Mexico and the U.S. I talked to them about the proximity but also the difficulty of the crossing, arid desert country, blistering heat, not to mention the risks surrounding the huan traffic in illegal immigrants. It was interesting then to focus back on France. The students identified North Africa as the source of most immigration to France. We again looked at the map. I asked students to contrast the type of journey facing an immigrant heading to France. First you must cross the Mediterranean Sea, said one student. Is that difficult? I asked. Another boy pointed to the Straits of Gilbraltor. It’s very short, he said. Then what? I asked. At this point, the responses dried up. Obviously there remained at least an entire country, Spain, to traverse before crossing into France. I found myself wondering if that journey wasn’t somewhat analogous to the one that still lies ahead of Hispanics headed further north to places like Denver or Chicago. (These are questions I intend to put to colleagues like Hamed when I get the chance.)

So, I asked them, why come to France? The first answer I got was, because France is wealthy. I asked about language, did the French language play a role? Several heads nodded yes. We looked once again at Mexico. What language is spoken here? I asked them, do you think language is a draw here or is it an obstacle to those coming to the U.S.? The textbook we're reading offers up some charts on Hispanics in the U.S. It also recounts in brief the story of Proposition 227 in California where voters decided to dismantle a bilingual educational system offered to non-native English speaking children. The article states the Latino parents voted with the majority on this issue. Their logic?...English is the language of advancement.

I ask my students if bilingual programs exist here. No, they say. Here you must be educated in French. Does everyone coming here speak French, I ask? Shoulders shrug but that's about it. French is the language of advancement.

I would add to this that the analogy is somewhat asymmetrical in that France and Europe have long since been committed to bilingualism, both institutionally and culturally, but that commitment has diluted their focus on mastering their own language. Indeed one could argue that such mastery is part and parcel of the wider commitment to bilingualism.

The more I think about this the more I am convinced that language study is of enormous importance to our students (American students), even more so in today's world. It is a window into other languages and cultures but, equally important, it is an invaluable line of inquiry that leads one inevitably back into important discoveries about his native tongue.

There is no doubt that English is the lingua franca of the world...a recent editorial in Le Monde even went so far as to suggest that English be designated the official language of the EU as a practical means of unifying and regulating its institutional foundations. On the continent English ranks first (45%), German second (aound 20%), and French third among languages spoken by Europeans. But having said all that, it strikes me as naive and shortsighted to essentially equip our students with the bare minimum of linguistic skills. Why hasn't the phenomenon of the shrinking globe which is such an animating principle in the market place not penetrated he same degree the educational market place of ideas? It strikes me as the worst sort of head-in-the-sand kind of thinking by those of us who are responsible for deciding what our kids need to study in order to be able to participate fully in today's world and in order to fully realize their own personal dreams. Language is fundamental.


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Booming Bassin

Anyone who's been following this blog already knows that we live in a beautiful area, especially if you like sandy beaches, a moderate climate, quaint fishing villages, forested dunes and of course, seafood.
Neither Beth nor I had actually ever heard of the bassin d'Arcachon before learning of our exchange assignment...but among the French it is a poorly kept secret. Practically every oyster eaten in France can trace its origins to the bassin, and the beaches here are every bit as pleasant as those on the Riveria. Indeed, for many French this is a dream place, not just to visit but to live in.
In summer the migration here is intense. The roads and the bike paths and the campgrounds are clogged with daytrippers from Bordeaux and tourists from all corners of France and beyond. When the high season ends and the tide of people ebbs, the bassin regains a certain tranquility and small town feel.
But the trademark signs of high powered development are impossible not to notice. Construction goes on apace. New lotissements are going up in every town along the bassin. Retirees, telecommuters from Paris, and traditional commuters from Bordeaux are buying lots and building new homes. And as they go up, the tress come down.
After our arrival here, as we learned the ropes of driving around, we quickly grew fond of a certain pasture at the exit point from the highway into Lege. Two white horses grazed contentedly against a backdrop of woods. We'd see those horses and know that we were almost home.

Last week, the horses were still there but the trees weren't.
Instead there were logs piled up in orderly fashion along the road.

Everything had been cut down to make room for new homes.
Another couple hundred meters or so down the road, quite close to our house in fact there is this little wooded area, a remaining vestige of what was here before the boom. Neighbors tell us that it will be gone soon too. For anyone who has lived here for two or three decades or more, the changes must be unsettling.

Our neighbor Yannick, who is only 29, tells of how he passed his entire childhood wandering the woods that used to extend in every direction from his house across the street from us. And for Gerard and Cecile who built this house themselves about ten years ago, the once pristine forest view out their kitchen window now give out on to someone's backyard. The character of this place is changing as people come looking for a little piece of heaven.

The new houses and lotissements go up quickly, in six months or so. The wooded areas hover around the edges offering an illusion of sorts. At first the lotissements are pretty bare. Eventually there will be shrubs and lawns surrounding pools in the yards and even some trees will be replanted along some of the streets and in some of the yards. The birth pains of development are not terribly pretty however.

Outside of town one comes pretty quickly to public forests...really they are tree plantations. There's really no such thing as old growth timber in this area. Trees are harvested with mobile saws mounted on bigwheeled tractors (made in Canada). It pulls up to a tree, a boom folds out, it grabs the tree by the trunk, saws it off at almost ground level, delimbs, and sections it on the spot. The logs are stored neatly and eventually taken to paper mill in nearby Biganos. It's almost like shaving, it goes quickly.

These trees are considered "old" which is why they've been harvested. The sign on the roadside by this particular cut is a curious form of furry, smiley-faced propaganda that urges everyone to appreciate the enormous and collective human effort required to maintain what it characterizes as the two primary human interventions against the encroachment of the ocean sands, namely, the dunes and the "forest". In an ironic turn of phrase, it characterizes the environment here as "hostile" to their survival.
In fact, the forest here is a human intervention (see my earlier post Touched by human hands 9/24/06), but it is interesting to see how the forest is now employed as a symbol of both nature and human ingenuity.

It goes on to explain that in order to "protect and nourish" the next generation of trees, the old ones must be cut down. There is a cycle being invoked here, not the life cycle of nature; rather, the crop cycle of agriculture. Just a few meters down the road there is another sign that reads Respectons la nature! It's pretty interesting to see forests invoked both as symbols of nature and of human ingenuity at the same time.

Beth pointed out to me that the growth rings on these logs tell a story. Apparently 30 years is "old" here for a pine tree. Looking at the growth rings you can see that the first 16 years display rapid growth contrasted with the last 16 which are far more densely packed. I'm assuming that there is a cost/benefit ratio at work here in terms of calculating the optimum life expectancy of these trees.

Once the trees are cut down, replanting takes place, the machines move to the next plot and so the cycle goes...


The kids and I went through the looking glass the other day just for kicks...

it was quite a trip...

"It's a snail!" said Colm.
"Not so fast, " whispered the fancy fish. "His name is Escar."

"What makes Escar go?"said Tess.
"Exactly." said the fish.
"It's a snail," huffed Colm.
"Look at Escar go!"
"Where's he going?"
The fancy fish laughed and just before he disappeared, he said, "Go ask Alice."

Getting back to other side was tricky but fortunately I had a very cool gps device with me... notice it in my hand,

very handy for these kinds of situations but not easy to use.

Back sain et sauf

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A good beginning

There is a baseline level of civility and mindfulness that is quite something to experience here. Coming back from Christmas break on Jan 8, I had to a certain extent already put New Years behind me. When entered the la salle des profs I found myself greeted warmly and individually by nearly everyone that came through the door. Each one wished me a happy new year and best wishes, shook my hand or exchanged kisses on the cheek. I found myself recovering a buoyant sense of holiday even as I prepared to trudge off to my first class.

As I reflect on this I think that what I witnessed was really business as usual for the French. They do as a matter of common practice take the time to pause, look you in the eye, take your hand and say good day to you. Fly-by greetings, while they do happen, are not very common. And this extends to students as well. At the beginning of the period I am greeted again and again by students coming through the door and at the end of the period the great majority of them take pains to saw goodbye to me, one at a time, as they leave. I don’t mean to make too big a thing out of this but it is distinctly different at home.

I shared with some of my students the observation that French people spend a long time à la table. I described the Christmas meal we had with our neighbors. The students all smiled indulgently at me. It was evident that they were comfortable, even proud, of this practice. I asked them, what do you do for two or three hours at the table?...They laughed, one girl said that her family spent more like five hours at the table on Christmas. No one scoffed or acted surprised. One or two kids did offer the opinion that three hours was plenty …I thought to myself, if three hours represents the impatient end of the spectrum what a contrast is that to American table traditions.


Monday, January 08, 2007

The thing itself

About twenty years ago I was walking down the street with Erin, my little girl, when she stopped abruptly, released my hand and squatted down in front of the grill of a parked car facing the nearby curb. She stared at the license plate and began to call out the letters and numbers...NLM9382, I was about to congratulate her when I realized she wasn't finished. With utter seriousness of purpose, she said, kuh, aw, errr...car! I only grasped the logic at work in her mind when I realized that on Sesame Street (and in certain books as well) she had gotten used to seeing the names of objects displayed in boxes just above or below the thing itself....what other purpose could there be for a license plate than to identify the object to which it was attached? What I found particularly endearing, as a father and an English teacher, was her intuition, however imperfectly informed, that the proper way to attack the "word" on the license plate was to sound it out phonetically. Erin, it should be noted, is now a fully grown and highly skilled reader.
As I was carrying Colm to the car this afternoon, he hollered at me to look at the word on our car. Fortunately, I had the werewithal to realize that he meant letter, not word and I saw a large uppercase A on a sticker on the back windshield. Is that your word? he asked me. No, that's not one of mine. Is that a E? No, not quite, it's an A. Do I have an A? he asked. Tess responded brusquely, No, you don't have an A. I have an E. You have the letter O in Colm, I said, casting an imploring look at Tess to cut the poor lad some slack.
Oh, he said.
I thought to myself, don't get discouraged, keep trying Colm. Every discovery Colm makes or tries to make seems to occur under the glare of Tess' penetrating eyes. Consequently, he doesn't get the opportunity to engage in the kind of freewheeling speculation that was Tess' perrogative when she was his age and which she now accepts as a kind of birthright.
Trying not to be the overanxious parent, I've noticed that Colm doesn't have his letters down the way Tess did at his age. Even making such an observation seems to implicate me in the overanxious category, I fear. But most of my thinking about this derives from the observation that Colm has really skipped the whole one-on-one alphabet learning stage that Tess had enjoyed with us but which in Colm's case, owing to birth order, been truncated and largely subordinated to Tess' ever pressing and prevailing agenda. Colm sits by her side and stares at the same pages as she does, but he splits his focus between the page and her. He is as much engaged in the art of reading his sister as he is in the act of reading books.

Letters and sounds have been the rage in our house for about a week now. A few days ago, I made some flashcards sets (one of vowels, the other of family names and friends' names) and we played some letter indentification games, mostly memory card games like concentration. This was triggered by a couple of things, a recent phone conversation with a friend about kindergarten and first grade expectations and then an even more recent family foray into the world of card playing.
The kids have latched onto playing Fish and War and Concentration. It is particularly amusing to hear Tess cry out, C'est la guerre! and then watch the suspense build as she and Colm lay down three cards before seeing who will then be able to say, Gagnez!
In the spirit of sportsmanship I've taught both of them to say, tres bien!, whenever the other plays a winning hand...it's a very cute custom that is more honored at the beginning of the game before the desire to possess more cards has really overtaken them...then you're more likely to hear one of them say in an ever so slightly whiny voice something like, I wanted that card or I need more cards...
And then tonight at the dinner table Tess began sounding out words and then spelling them. She began with fork, and then did cup, dog, cat. Beth and I could barely contain ourselves. Colm, not one to be left out of the fun and with the native genius that only a little brother could know how to use properly, proposed grasshopper.
Tess attempted it, made some good starts, but then foundered. She would close her eyes tight, as if she were entering her own private viewing space and then try to conjure the letters. Colm seemed satisfied with the stumped silence. I decided to help her by getting a card and writing down the letters. I wrote down the same words she had spelled minutes earlier, cup, fork, cat, dog, and asked her to read them. She took each word, letter by letter, sound by sound...it was a legitimate display of decoding. Then I wrote the word, pen, and laid my pen down next to the card and watched. She sounded out the sounds, p, e, n, then she said, pen. Good, we said to her. Then she stared for a moment and said, pen. She was looking at the pen almost as if she'd never seen one before. It struck me as a kind of Helen Keller moment in miniature. The letters, the sounds, the word, the utterance, the thing itself.

A bit later, I wrote, grasshopper. Together we sounded it out and then she looked at me and said, that's a long one.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

franglais gives me the cockroach

An earlier post entitled "fighting the cafards" provided a friendly reader with a chance to clarify for me a linguistic point... it involves my usage of the french equivalent for the "blues" (the state of mind, not the genre of music) which is "le cafard". If you look at the title of the post in question you can see that I pluralized the noun (the way it happens to be pluralized in English, hence the hazards of franglais)...incorrectly and also with the unintended effect of alarming my exchange partner who imagined that her house was being overrun by cockroaches. This must be some sort of slang term since I can't find it in the Petit Robert dictionary...anyhow, a correct (and plausible) sentence that might illustrate the issue here would be - cockroaches give me the blues - les cafards me donnent le cafard.
and yes this will be on the final,

Saturday, January 06, 2007

boggling for French

This post is dedicated to Kevin in Medical Springs ...
You know the word game, Boggle. Well here's a way to play and pick up some French vocabulary in the process. Below are the letters you can play with:


Below in italics are the French equivalents (not necessarily exactly in the same form) for English words of three letters or more which can be found in the pattern above (according to the standard Boggle rules). You can operated in any order you wish...find the English words first and then match them with their French counterparts, or look up the French words and then try to find their English equivalents in the Boggle field. Personally I recommend the former approach.

saigner, fourrure, chat, dentelle, lacer, pore, s'ennuyer, refaire, parler, grand, glace, toxico, lit, tringle, monter(past participle), rouge, mentir, mener, robe, couper(en tranche), de'

Serious Boggle player, like Kevin, don't need to be told that there are more (many more) English words to be found than there are French equivalents listed...I've used this once in my
English classes here...the kids enjoy it but on an entirely different level, of course.
p.s. if you like this one I can provide more in the future...let me know.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Casse-noisette...the Opera House

I forget to blog about one of our Christmas highlights... a family outing on the day after Christmas to the Grand Theatre in Bordeaux to see a matinee production of Casse-Noisette (Nutcracker).

The program was a one hour version of the regular version which had playing in Bordeaux for a couple of weeks. Perfect for kids.

We had to get there early since seating was first come first come first serve. Getting in line in France is something like getting in line in Mexico, mostly people are nice but there are enough passive agressive types trying to insinuate themselves into a better position that it can make for a long snails paced duels of feet shuffling, impassive stonewalling, and imperceptible (almost) elbow flaring as everyone angles toward the usher taking tickets.

We did pretty well in terms of getting position but we realized after we got inside that we didn't really know what constituted a great seat in this place. As a result, we fiddled around while the natives cherry picked. We got good seats in the lower balcony...had we been in the front row of our compartment they would have been great seats.

It was a pure delight. Tess sat on my lap and peppered me with questions...we had prepped the kids on the drive to Bordeaux, giving them the storyline, the characters. Tess was in lala land. The production itself was whimsical, there was a very entertaining camel and a dragon that flew in over the stage, pausing to glare at the audience with flaming red eyes. Everything about the production seemed top drawer, even the curtain calls which were highly entertaining in their own right...they gave ample illustration to meaning of diva.

She got to wear her brand new velvet princesse dress and I'm sure she imagined that she had entered the realm of Angelina Ballerina when the lights went off.

A few seconds after the dancers appeared onstage, both Colm and Tess made reference to the revealing nature of the men's costumes... is that his butt? is that his ....? is he naked? but that quickly passed and they became interested in other aspects of the production.

This was their first theatrical experience of this order of magnitude...needless to say it made quite an impression on Tess who cried at the end because she didn't want it to stop.

Colm on the other hand snoozed the last fifteen minutes.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

pays basque

(click on images for larger view)

We had discussed going to Portugal or Spain but the closer we got to the break the further away those places seemed...so we decided to explore our backyard. In retrospect, we made a great choice. Three hours by car from our house.
We had lived for so long (3 months) on flat land that Beth and I were a little giddy to see some relief in the form of hills and then, in the distance, mountains.

We drove south to St. Jean Pied de Port in the foothills of the Pyrennes mountains in southern France....pays basque. In nearby Osses we rented this little house for four nights. Renting places like this is a much more economical alternative to staying in hotels. Also, we cook our own meals here and save on food costs too.

During our stay, I kept track of the weather reports and was pleased to discover that we were in the warmest spot in Western Europe (I checked the weather reports)...temps in the upper 50's and low 60's. An added bonus: since this is low season in pays basque, we had the place to ourselves more or less.

The first thing you notice in a car is the appearance of Basque language on signs. Because they're bilingual there's twice as much to read. When you have a French road map and you're looking for St. Jean Pied de Port for example, you either train your eyes to find the French, usually the top line, or you learn the Basque name, usually on the line below in an elaborate script/font...or both.
It reminded me a bit of my visit to Wales years ago where I remember seeing road signs in the Welsh language, long proper names bristeling with consonants. Another similarity - signs of discontent, in both Wales and here I saw countless road signs where the "official" language had been effaced by spray paint, leaving only the local variant legible to those passing by. The basque separatist movement ETA has adherents here and on the Spanish side. Indeed, the newspapers carried accounts of a car bombing in Madrid had been credited to ETA.
Another political issue that got some play by the local graffitti artists is the proposed freeway project that seeks to bisect pays basque and join more directly northeast and southwest corners of the region. The locals call it the coulour a camions, the truch corridor, and while we were here about four thousand people, many of them farmers driving their tractors occupied the city center on Dec 30 to rally against the proposed highway project. It's hard to imagine how a region where your as likely to find sheep and bicyclists in the road as you are automobiles is not going to lose something distinctive and valuable if the truck corridor does indeed come to pass. Getting from point A to point B around here is almost never a straight line proposition and unless you're a crow there's little to gained from thinking in those terms.
Everyone we talk to here is friendly and quick to smile. When I tell people here that there are quite a few people in our part of the US with basque origins, they always smile and tell me they have relations somewhere in the western US. They seem very aware of how they have projected themselves into the world...one guy laughed and said to me how those sheep herders had wandered pretty far around the world...in the next breath he points out with obvious pride how Basque people have projected themselves into all strata of modern life. Geographically speaking basque country is not very large, and in addition it's economy has embraced tourism to such an extent that the entire place seems poised to pose for outsiders to snap its picture, but the geography also enforces a sense of a world apart. You don't have to drive or walk very far to find yourself ensconsed in a pastoral dream. Back in the world of popular culture, Basque television carries matches of pelote (handball) and jai lai. Every little village has an outdoor handball wall in its center.
We explored the region by car and on foot, keeping to secondary roads which lead up and down the many valleys and ravines quilted with pastures. Sheep and cattle abound here. One of our our favorite car games was calling out sheep(mouton) /cow (vache) alerts left and right, and also noting if they had spots (tache) or horns (corne). Tess loves this sort of thing, she thrives on the combination of repitition and improvisation.
"moutons/vaches a droite/ gauche!
Il y en a beacoup. Ils sont partout.
Ou sont-ils? Je ne les ai pas vu.
Ils sont derriere nous.
Les vaches, ils ont des taches?
Les moutons, ils ont des cornes?
Colm, his reticence to verbalize French notwithstanding, has found himself obliged to take it up more and more as a means of playing with his sister. On our first day in pays basque he even corrected Tess about left and right.
"That's not a gauche, that's a droite."
She disputed his claim but Colm persisted...he was right too.
Some of the barren hillscapes are a bit reminescent of northeast Oregon. There are trout streams here that have that mountain fresh look to them...boulders, clear water, stone beds.

The forests by contrast are a mix of deciduous and coniferous. One of our walks took us through deep layers of leaves newly deposited on the ground. I'm curious to know a bit more about the history of the forests here, I suspect that a very long time ago there may have been more extensive forested lands...a couple of people I asked about it could only say that there hadn't been forests there in recent history.

Pyrennes ponies, most of them wearing bell collars wander freely about in the upper reaches of these hills...I saw some signs asking people not to feed them.

Here's another interesting bit of signage. We went a few kilometers up a very narrow road. Just when we wondered whether we had fallen prey to an elaborate practical joke, we saw this sign.

The advantages to having a car include the ability to follow up on things like this. We eventually found the local producteur de fromage de brebis...sheep cheese....dry and sharp. I like it quite a bit.
On our walks we see a grand total of maybe ten people, and only five of them close enough to say hello....it's not like this in the summer. The evidence of an intense tourist trade is everywhere...bed and breakfasts, hotels, campings but for us this whole thing is a bit surreal...it's the end of the year and we're in our shirtsleeves in the Pyrennes with the whole place to ourselves...
Our days here are leisurely, late breakfast, out of the house at around eleven. Drive into some ridiculously charming valley, park, and walk for a couple of hours...carry Colm on my shoulders for the last half hour or so. Picnic lunch outside. Drive somewhere else, shorter walk.

Back to our house for card games -the kids have learned Go Fish and War - and maybe a little tv. One night we watched a documentary about lions. The film presented a pretty unsentimental look at their lives as hunters. Once again, Beth and I wondered if we had wandered lazily into a parenting mistake. It was pretty obvious that some cute little wildebeast calf was destined to become dinner for a pack (tribe?) of lions.
Tess sized the whole situation up instantly, cutting straight to the chase, "Are they going to eat it?" Once she had that piece of the puzzle in place, she seemed okay with the killing part. Later that night she even enjoyed pretending to be a lionesse by grabbing my legs and biting my kneecap...lesson for youngsters, don't dawdle at the edge of the herd.
Tess is generally fascinated by the subject of mortality these days. There is a church right across the street from our house. It is surrounded by the graves of ancient parishoners. Tess wants to know their names. She also declares that she intends to be buried as well. I start to point out to her that there are alternatives but a bemused look from Beth causes me to reconsider and wait for another time.
We put Tess and Colm to bed for the last time in 2006 in a little house in Pays Basque in the hamlet of Osses. I lie down next to Colm on the lower bunk. Tess and Beth occupy the pull-out bed on the floor...the top bunk is empty, not suited to a family of sleepwalkers such as us.
I tell them a story about a boy and a girl who lived on opposite sides of a ridge, one had cows, the other had sheep. They lead their animals up the ridge to pasture together. One day the boy loses a sheep. He and the girl search for it by walking along the ridge line. They can't see it so they descend into the thickets of trees where at lenghth they hear its cries. At the end of the story the boy and girls stand atop the ridge, their homes in view at the base of each slope. They promise to see each other again the next day and they go home to a warm fire, dinner and dreams of green pastures..
.stories like these usually put me sleep even as I tell them but both kids are still awake so Beth and I take turns singing songs, folk songs, lullabies, standards, pop tunes...we go on for a long time. Colm, who at bedtime appeared to be the least likely to fall asleep, falls asleep first.
Tess is silent but awake. She has a hold of each of us. I listen to Beth sing, I am surprised by the variety of songs she has committed to heart. I love being surprised by that. For myself, after the first familiar songs, I'm never quite sure what I'll remember next, but always there is something, when it's time. Songs about all sorts of things but all of them are different expressions of the same longing... the longing that makes us open our mouths and cry, that empties our hearts and then makes us breathe in more deeply than we ever imagined we could. Back and forth, we sing...finally, Tess too falls asleep.
Beth and I go to the kitchen, pour some Bailey's and resume our card game. These moments, their passing, each of them is a life into itself, and each one, therefore, represents a passing, and so we are perpetually swinging between love and grief. It is one of the things that binds the two of us - we tend to register happiness simultaneously with despair...
On the thirtieth, Beth and I began a game of gin rummy - the first one to 2007 or the one with the most points by 2007 wins. I commenced to enjoy a string of good card luck such as I have never known before. By the time it is 11:45 pm on the thirty-first I feel a bit like Rosencrantz in Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead whose string of flipped coins coming up heads has become commonplace to him and profoundly disquieting to his companion. There is time for one last hand so I propose that the point values be multiplied by a factor of ten...no point in revealing the precise score is there? Beth accepts warily. Then she proceeds to go out after only two or three plays. Game, set, match. I am dethroned, my memories of my lucky run already dissipating.
We go out on the balcony with a glass of wine and a cigarette. I had come out here right after sunset to snap a photo of the moon on New Year's Eve. It had seemed to me to be an evocative image of time passing and time past...I would have preferred that the clock read twelve but neither the clock, nor the steeple, nor the arcing moon would consent to such an arrangement. So I took what was offered me at the moment. Six hours later the church tower obliges us by ringing...down the street we hear some laughter, this is a sleepy burg though...not much in the way of revels here.

There is nothing like New Year's Eve to cause one to meditate on the arc of life. The thing about getting older is that the trajectory of one's life appears increasingly arc-like. I look up and locate the moon...it appears to have slungshot itself around the steeple and is sailing off in an entirely new direction.