Thursday, December 29, 2005

Tradition!: It doesn't matter why we do it, as long as we do it

This year my boys are finally starting to be old enough to get excited about Christmas and to participate in getting ready for it. Little Nico even made a Christmas-tree-shaped calendar like the one at school to count down the days until Christmas. We've had fun so far.

Last year their participation was mostly limited to screaming their heads off when prevented from ingesting fragile glass ornaments. I know, I know, I probably could have saved myself some of the screaming at least if I'd trained them to be a little more obedient. But, you know, 20/20 hindsight...

Fortunately, even with a relatively botched upbringing, kids eventually reach a level of maturity where they can usually be trusted not to injure themselves with ordinary household objects. That's what we're shooting for. We're not quite at the point yet of having a proper Christmas tree or any festive, decorative choking hazards within reach of tiny hands, but we'll get there.

A lot of people ask me why I celebrate Christmas at all, considering that I'm an atheist. The answer is obvious: "Because it's a tradition!" That, and I'm a ridiculously sentimental nostalgia maniac.

The above question is particularly absurd coming from Christians. If you don't see a winter festival of lights as being interesting for its own sake and have to see it in terms of its religious origins, you might notice that Christmas is essentially a pagan holiday with a light coating of Christianity painted on. Now, I'm no more pagan than I am Christian, but if the Christians can take a perfectly good pagan festival and attach their own stories to it, then so can I.

The Christian establishment hasn't always been so gung-ho to embrace its best-loved holiday. Notably, the Puritan pilgrims outlawed the celebration of Christmas. They invented the holiday "Thanksgiving" as a replacement to put a stop to all the partying, fun-having, and other pagan customs traditionally associated with the yuletide season. So if you were wondering why Thanksgiving is such a lame holiday, that's why.

Of course the Catholic church has often taken an attitude of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" with respect to any indigenous customs it fails to suppress in its converts. And now it seems that even Protestants have followed suit and given in to the lure of Christmas, even going so far as to permit the use of mistletoe now that everyone has forgotten that it once had non-Christian religious significance.

That's fine with me. To me, a tradition is a connection with the past and with the future, and it doesn't necessarily need to have any more explanation than that.

One time back when I was a programmer in New Jersey, some of my colleagues -- recent arrivals from India -- were intrigued by the Halloween custom of carving a jack-o'-lantern. I may have answered wrong here, but when they asked me for the symbolism behind it, I told them that I didn't think it had any.

They didn't like that response, so they went to the Internet and found themselves a just-so story about a guy named Jack.

That satisfied them, but personally I couldn't help but feel like such an explanation isn't really necessary. Sure, today it seems pretty odd to carve a face into a pumpkin, of all things. But today any object humanly imaginable -- of any size, shape, color, shininess, sparklitude, and luminosity -- can be manufactured for pennies in China. So you'd have to be pretty crazy to just spontaneously decide to waste your time carving vegetables.

But think back to what it was like for people at the time when the jack-o'-lantern tradition arose. Just because they were peasants with no access to the magic of cheap Chinese manufactured goods didn't mean that they didn't want festive decorations for their holidays.

And think what they had to work with: dirt, vegetables, maybe some rusty tools if they were lucky, and candles. Under the circumstances, carving vegetables into lanterns seems like a perfectly obvious thing to do, hardly requiring any kind of excuse or explanation.

And now it's a tradition.

And so help me, I'm going to follow it.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor December 15, 2005.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Mormon Lit Misfit: Trying to write like one of them when you no longer are

The editor of the LDS literary journal Irreantum is quoted in the latest issue as saying "The animosity I sense in Utah, at least, toward Mormonism, from both within and outside of the culture, is potent."

I know you're going to tell me that I need to cut out the solopsistic paranoia when I tell you this, but my first reaction on reading the above quote was "Uh-oh, I hope she's not talking about me."

To any reasonable person it should be obvious that she can't be talking about me -- I'm not even in Utah. And just because I submitted some not-terribly-faith-promoting stories set in Utah to her magazine doesn't necessarily mean that I've pissed her off.

Any guilt about possibly having pissed her off didn't really set in until I read further and got to the quote where she talked about the difficulties of juggling family responsibilities plus a regular job while trying to do good work on her literary pursuits on the side. That's something I can totally relate to as a programmer-mom-"humorist/novelist." (I put that last one in quotes because that's the one of my titles that's imaginary.)

So as my penance for possibly having annoyed Laraine Wilkins (editor of Irreantum), I'll risk wearing out my welcome with the Utah Valley Monitor's readers by asking you all very nicely to consider a gift subscription to Irreantum for that Mormon-Lit-fan-who-has-everything-(exept-a-subscription-to-Irreantum) on your Christmas list.

I'd get a subscription myself except that (a) I'm barely making ends meet as it is, and (b) it's probably really expensive to get such a subscription with shipping all the way to France included, see (a). So I had to lift the above quotes from the blog A Motley Vision and just hope I can trust the bloggers over there not to have misquoted Laraine Wilkins or anything.

I've seen the magazine Irreantum in real life, even though I don't subscribe. At my parents' house, my mom had a big stack of copies of it on her nightstand. I wanted to read it, but I didn't because I had just had a story re-jayed by the magazine, so I couldn't bring myself to look at it.

I know that was a totally irrational reaction. A rational reaction would be to say, "I should take this opportunity to read the magazine so I might get an idea of what kinds of stories they print in order to have a better chance of sending something appropriate in the future" instead of saying, "Ouch! Painful reminder of rejection! Must look away!"

It was doubly irrational since -- facing reality -- the story I sent in wasn't all that great, and in fact the editor (same editor as quoted above) sent me back a very nice email full of perfectly good suggestions. Of course, I'm just barely rational enough to recognize the difference between rational and irrational behavior -- not quite rational enough to act on this knowledge and actually behave in a rational manner.

My other irrational response to the above rejection was to write another story that was at once 10 times better and 10 times worse -- and then enter the new story in the Sunstone fiction contest. Ten times better in terms of story structure, characters, dialogue, and stuff like that. Ten times worse in terms of content.

The story I entered in the contest is a really good story that would for sure merit at least an honorable mention if the subject matter weren't so questionable. Seriously, that's my honest opinion. Of course I also think my own kids are the cutest kids on the entire planet, so you might take it with a grain of salt.

The trouble is that the story is really racy. The whole thing is "adult themes" plus one bad word. When I sent it in I was saying to myself, "It's Sunstone. Everybody knows those guys are practically apostates anyway. They'll love this."

Then in a more lucid moment (after dropping it in the mail) I thought to myself, "I've got to be off my nut to imagine that any practicing Mormon at all would be anything but offended by this story."

After that I thought to myself, "You know, I'm really making a nuisance of myself here."

Now, I'm not trying to make a nuisance of myself on purpose. Please allow me to explain how I ended up thinking it might be a good idea to send stories to LDS publications.

My mom is a writer (professionally full-time now, freelance when I was a teen), and she always used to say, "Write what you know." I'm pretty sure it was my mom who said that. Well, anyway, some writer said that, and it seems like good advice.

So, digging around in my little brain for entertaining stories to jot down, naturally in a dusty old trunk near the back I found a bunch of great, hilarious material about Mormons.

Some may say that by writing stories about Mormons from an apostate perspective, I'm being one of those people who "can leave the church but can't leave it alone."

I ask, whose childhood am I supposed to write about? I didn't ask to be raised in this religion.

I know some of you who believe in the pre-existence will say that in fact I did ask to be raised in this religion, before I was born and everything. But I know myself pretty well, and I'm sure that if I did ask to be raised Mormon back in the pre-existence, I was just kidding.

Of course even if you grant that it's not evil for me to want to write stories about Mormons, that still doesn't explain how I got it into my head that it was a good idea to send such stories to publications by and for faithful LDS. That is a story in and of itself.

What happened was that I sent a collection of my stories to a novelist friend of mine (the author of The Grasshopper King), and as part of his response, he sent the URL for the blog "A Motley Vision" which leads to resources on the web for LDS authors (which, in fact, led me to Irreantum).

I laughed at my novelist friend's naiveté about how LDS culture works, thinking that I might get help from mainstream Mormon Lit resources. My friend is Jewish, and he was probably foolishly assuming that Mormon lit works like Jewish lit, where merely having Jewish characters and themes is sufficient for a story to be Jewish interest (without necessarily having any spiritual/supernatural content at all).

My impression is that that's not the way it works in LDS society. You see, if (like me!) you write a story in which most of the characters just happen to be Mormons (some more righteous, some less), throw in a bunch of borderline-inappropriate sex jokes, and top it off by accidentally forgetting to mention how inspiring General Conference is, that's not Mormon literature. That's anti-Mormon literature.

Then I thought that maybe I wasn't giving these LDS literature resources enough credit. For all I know, maybe some LDS publications (the ones that aren't directly sponsored by the church, at least) are actually interested in getting a complete narrative portrait of Mormon culture from all different perspectives.

After all, in the blog "A Motley Vision" there's a whole article about "Fiddler Envy," i.e. the fact that the Mormons would like to have an LDS work that is as popular in mainstream society as Fiddler on the Roof. Well, one thing that jumps out about Fiddler on the Roof is that it's just a story about ordinary people who happen to be Jewish -- it doesn't try to demonstrate that Jews are necessarily happier or more enlightened than anyone else. So maybe the Mormon lit community would be open to neutral stories in which the characters happen to be LDS.

Irreantum's editor writes: "Of the handful of texts I think of as foundational for Mormonsim, spiritual autobiography is embedded in the very narrative structures and rhetoric that church members use to understand and articulate their own search for truth and connection to the divine."

I translate that to mean that they like spiritual stuff, particularly the kind that portrays the LDS Church as being true. That's not the perspective I write from, but maybe there's no harm in trying....

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor December 8, 2005.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Horrific Voyage: With two little kids, everywhere is a No-Fly Zone

There's a good reason why one parent alone shouldn't take a multi-leg transatlantic voyage as the sole guardian of two toddlers. The reason is that if all goes perfectly according to plan it's awful, and if anything goes wrong it's a disaster.

The story I'm going to tell you is a true story. I have to apologize in advance for the fact that even though it's on the humor page, it's not very funny, or at least it wasn't at the time. You might get a laugh out of it if you subscribe to the theory that "comedy is tragedy plus distance" and/or if you're a big fan of the type of comedy where somebody steps on the end of a rake and the handle swings up and smacks them in the head. I'll tell you the story, and you can decide.

It all started when we determined that, due to work constraints, my husband couldn't fly out to Minnesota to visit my family with me and our two boys but would be joining us there partway through our visit.

We were supposed to fly Bordeaux-Amsterdam, Amsterdam-Minneapolis. The big suitcase was checked through so that I wouldn't have to deal with it until the very end, going through customs on arriving, which is good because I can't transport both boys, plus the carry-on needed to sustain them for the long trip, and the suitcase all at once.

We got up at 4 a.m. and took the taxi to our morning flight.

We then got on the first flight, and got to the point of going down the runway when they realized there was a mechanical problem with the plane. Flight canceled, everybody out, get your checked baggage and try to change your itinerary.

Fortunately a nice airport employee helped me. Nothing was available for us with a single connection for at least three days. If I had known then what I know now, I would have said "OK, book me on that -- see you in three days." But I accepted a new itinerary with one additional connection: Bordeaux-Paris, Paris-Newark, Newark-Minneapolis, knowing I'd have to take my checked bag through customs by hand and re-check it in Newark.

After four hours waiting with the kids in the Bordeaux airport, I was already stressed before the first leg of the trip.

Bordeaux-Paris went fine -- the kids played in the plane. Making the connection in Paris went OK, too. Nico was such a good boy, he kept up and kept a hold of the stroller as we raced -- me with two backpacks and Leo in the stroller -- to our next flight.

The first seven hours of the eight-hour flight to Newark went OK. Leo had to run around in the aisle a bit, but mostly they were OK and didn't throw any tantrums.

Then the last hour we went into a holding pattern just before arriving because of a storm over New York City. No planes landing or taking off. After 45 minutes of holding, we landed in Boston. As we were landing, Leo threw up all over my leg.

Since a bunch of other planes were in the same boat, we had to wait to refuel and then wait for a turn on the runway. They announced a one-hour wait. We were on the tarmac in Boston for three hours. Three hours!!! After that long flight. And there I was stressed out of my mind wondering what I was going to do about my missed flight on arriving, knowing I would have to fight the crowds of 300 passengers on this flight and who knows how many others -- with my two babies in tow and my giant suitcase -- to try to get booked on something. I didn't have any milk left for Nico and precious little for Leo if they were to wake up and start crying. Terrified, I ask the stewardess to call ahead to Newark to tell them I will need extra assistance with my babies on arriving in Newark.

Then after one hour of flight and we arrived in Newark, both babies asleep. It was 9p.m. -- too late to catch the last flight to Minneapolis...

Everything was a mess at Newark, but fortunately one airport employee had been set aside to help me through customs. This was necessary since both boys were asleep Nico wouldn't wake up to walk. So I carried Leo (who is a big boy) all through customs, etc. pulling my big suitcase and the airport lady took my backpack and pushed Nico in the stroller.

The airline had arranged us a hotel, and new return tickets. We sat on the sidewalk with the other passengers for an hour not knowing when or if the bus was really going to come to take us to the hotel.

Waiting for the bus, Leo cuddled and didn't cry. Nico asked for the picture book my parents had made for him about this voyage we were making. Nico "read" each page about how we would take a taxi to the airport and see the airplanes, etc. It almost brought tears to my eyes to see this sweet boy comforting himself in this ordeal by reading this book about how fun his adventure would be. Of course I was practically in tears already.

Getting on the bus, I looked at my flight tickets for the next day. I should have looked earlier -- they had booked Nico and Leo on a different flight from mine!!!!!

The bus took us to a hotel more than an hour south of the airport (like if you'd been grounded in Salt Lake and they put you up in Provo, or farther). We passed many of my old haunts where I used to go all the time, including passing a few blocks from one of my old apartments. Unfortunately I didn't really know anyone in the area anymore and didn't have the phone numbers of the few I did know....

Arriving in my hotel room, it was 1 a.m. With the time difference for me, that made 30 hours straight of nonstop stress, and probably worse to come. I called my parents collect and begged them to call the airline and fix my tickets for the next day.

Fortunately by 2 a.m. they were able to fix everything and got us booked on an 11 a.m. flight. That didn't give much time for recovery sleep, and I didn't even know how I was getting to the airport the next day, except that Mom had said that the airline had said that something would be arranged at the hotel.

Leo slept right away, but Nico stayed awake for hours crying for milk. I had none to give him and no way to get any. When he finally fell asleep, I was still so stressed and terrified that there was no way was I could sleep, so I took a shower. I really needed it, and it helped my relax a little tiny bit. I packed our things back up and washed their drinking cups for the next day.

I got 1 1/2 hours of sleep before Leo woke me up with a big smile, all playful and ready for the day. I gathered them up and went to breakfast. They didn't want to eat any of the unfamiliar food except that Nico wanted some orange juice. He drank plenty of orange juice, and I filled his cup with more for later.

I asked the man at the desk about the transportation, and he told me that there was a bus arranged for us and that it would leave for the airport in 15 minutes. I wasn't quite done packing in the room, so I begged him not to let the bus leave without me, and I raced back with the boys to finish up. Fortunately I didn't miss it.

When we arrived at the airport, they dropped me off at curbside check-in, and I was able to get rid of my big suitcase. So with Nico up and walking again, we were portable without assistance once again.

When I got to the gate, I found that an earlier flight to Minneapolis had just been canceled. It was a madhouse -- people standing in this hours-long line to fix their flight. I had two hours before my flight at this point, and was terrified out of my wits that my flight would be canceled too.

I was a walking zombie at this point -- I couldn't stand up without getting dizzy. I was only able to watch my kids still because it was an absolute emergency. If our flight was canceled, I had no energy left to handle it in the slightest. I was inches away from having a full-scale nervous breakdown right there. But at least I had confirmed seats and boarding passes, so as long as the flight wasn't canceled, it would be OK.

Once we boarded the plane I felt an immense relief. Before we took off, the pilot fired up the engines for a long time without moving. I began to panic once again -- mechanical failure!!! We would have to get off!!! But no, he told us over the loudspeaker that it was just that they had overfueled and needed to burn some off to get down to take-off weight.

Nico colored quietly for the first hour of the 2 1/2 hour flight, and Leo slept like a baby angel the whole time. Once we were at cruising altitude, I slept too.

A few things added up to a delay of about a half-hour on that flight, and I laughed when the pilot apologized to us for such a trivial delay.

When we landed and found my dad, I was so incredibly relieved, it was beyond words.

The whole thing took 41 hours. It was the most extended period of intense fear and stress I have felt in my entire life, beating out even the qualifying exams in grad school (which at least I was prepared for, unlike this!). I took a long nap and had nightmares that I was still off in some strange city and needed to arrange a new flight to take the boys home.

I will never again fly alone with two toddlers through a city where I haven't arranged in advance someone to meet me in case of emergency.

Our little boys aren't always 100 percent perfectly behaved, but when it came right down to it -- and Mommy really needed them to be good boys -- they were very good boys.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor December 1, 2005.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Programmer Technophobe: Living with technology without loving it

I was one of those long-term holdouts who didn't want to ever get a cell phone. The thing is that I'm not really a phone person, so it already annoyed me to have to answer the phone at home and at the office. I couldn't imagine wanting to take that task with me wherever I go.

Since getting a cell phone, I've learned that the trick -- which most of you probably already know -- is to only give your cell phone number to people you actually want to talk to. That, coupled with my usual strategy of discouraging potential callers by just being really ornery whenever I answer the phone, has made it so that this new modern convenience I've been strapped with hasn't given me too much trouble.

You see, even though I write computer programs for a living, I'm a bit of a technophobe. I will never buy the latest gadget just because it's the coolest newest thing. A new gadget really has to convince me that using it makes my live easier and/or more wonderful than whatever old curmudgeonly thing I was in the habit of using instead.

For example, instead of a portable computer or PDA, I like to bring an old-fashioned paper notebook with me to take notes during meetings. This is mostly because I don't like to take notes during meetings. As far as I'm concerned, it's bad enough I have to sit there and listen to it the first time. A paper and pen is much more convenient for the kind of notes I like to take, which mostly consist of portraits of the other people who are also stuck in the same meeting. Now, when notebook computers get really good at saving drawings -- and add a feature so that they flip immediately from the drawing to something that looks work-related as soon as someone looks over my shoulder -- I'll for sure go out and get one. That's the kind of life-enhancing convenience that a really good gadget would provide in my ideal world.

I also like to use a paper notebook for writing first drafts. Acutally I would prefer to compose at the computer if that were feasible, but the problem is that if I spend too much time on the computer at home, a couple of naughty little boys come around and press the power button and manhandle all of the discs and start dismantling all of the computer hardware as much as they can. With a paper and pen, the worst they can do is decorate the page with trains and scribbles, which only serves to remind me that I'm supposed to be playing trains or blocks with the little guys anyway.

Pencil-and-paper technology is underrated. A pocket-sized spiral notebook is the perfect tool for carrying with me to jot down any snide comments that strike me about France which could be later used in a column. It may sound like I'm being ungrateful here to my new homeland that has been so kind as to welcome me with open arms, but really this activity helps me fit right in. Making cynical remarks about anything and everything is one of the national pastimes here, right up there with workers' strikes and pretending to be able to tell different wines apart by taste.

The only reason I finally broke down and got a cell phone was because I was writing a book on how to write Java programs for cell phones, and I could hardly give reasonable advice on the subject if I'd never tested my programs on the real thing.

In my opinion, it's loads of fun to write a program for a cell phone, but actually getting the program installed on the phone? That's hardware. Sure I could figure out how to do it if I wanted to, but it's just that much easier to let my system administrator do it. Fortunately, I'm on good terms with my home system-and-network administrator. In fact, I'm married to him.

My husband is a huge Linux nerd who loves nothing more than constructing a bunch of computers from parts and networking them together and installing all the latest Linux versions on all of them, plus whatever other fun stuff he can find on slashdot.

All of you who work in the software industry know that the programmer and the sys admin are natural enemies. Putting that on top of the fact that my husband is French and I'm American -- which I don't think I have to tell you is like cats and dogs -- it's a wonder he and I were able to overcome our differences and get together.

Actually, I was thinking of writing a romantic comedy about our courtship. The story would open with me annoying him with my incessant demands for more bandwidth and disk space and him annoying me by keeping lots of stinky French cheeses in the server room. As the story progresses, all of our fiery disputes would be laced with sexual tension which would evolve into heart-warming passion by the end of the movie. You know the standard romantic comedy formula. Anyway, it's a thought in case any of you movie producers out there are short on scripts or something.

So when it came time to write the part of my Java book about how to load your program on your device, I just took my husband's detailed notes on the subject and translated them into my own homey style. (Don't worry, his contribution is detailed in the acknowledgments of the book.)

Normally I would expect that having a Ph.D. in math and a published tech book to my credit would mean that I should at least get to be the smartest person in my own house. But noooooooooo! It's not enough for my husband to have a Ph.D. and leave it lying around or something, he also has to be a professor with lots of papers in journals and research grants and stuff. It's not enough for him to have practically written one of the chapters of my book, he also has to have three thick math books to his own credit that not only did I not help him write, but that I couldn't read and understand in any finite length of time. And I'm pretty tall, but he had to be just a little bit taller. It's like he has some sort of "anything you can do, I can do better" thing going. At least I can console myself with the knowledge that he has never been invited to write a column for a prestigious publication like the Utah Valley Monitor.

It might be fun to one day devote myself to being a full-fledged technophobe rather than just being half-technophobe, half-information-technology-professional. That would be possible if by some miracle I could support myself on writing these silly stories and columns. But for the moment I'm not quitting my day job.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor November 24, 2005.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Bilingual Babies: How do you say 'ga-ga' in French?

I almost didn't get a chance to write a column this week because my son Nicolas took my lucky notebook to draw pictures of trains in it. He finally gave it back Sunday night, though I never did find my lucky pen (also commandeered for train-drawing duties). So I had to write this whole column in green colored pencil, and since a grown-up topic would look ridiculous scrawled in smeary green letters, I have no choice but to tell you about my little boys.

In my first column, I told a bunch of stories about weaning my baby. Actually, that pilot column was written more than three years ago when my oldest was seven months old. Now I have not one, but two rowdy, rough-and-tumble boys, ages 4 and 2. For simplicity, let's call them "Nico" and "Leo." (That's what I normally call them at home, so it saves me having to think up pen names for them.) The happy ending to the weaning story is that they've both been weaned for some time now, thank heavens!

The first thing people always ask me about raising kids in France is whether my husband and I speak to our kids in French or English. The answer is that I speak to them in English, my husband uses both, depending on the circumstances, he and I speak to each other in English, and they get pure French at school and from their babysitter.

The second canonical question is what language the kids speak. The answer is both and neither. That is, both in Nico's case and (almost) neither in Leo's...

Before having kids, I read a whole bunch of books about raising kids in bilingual households, and they all said that typically such kids learn language very late, but that they learn both languages well. Also, everyone knows boys learn language later than girls. So you can imagine how enthusiastiacally we were patting ourselves on the backs as champion brainiac parents when -- despite all that -- Nico was an early talker, saying several words correctly and consistently before he was a year old, and having a big vocabulary of French and English words -- including simple sentences -- at 18 months. Then you can imagine our corresponding surprise when Leo decided it would be more prudent to follow the textbook model of the bilingual child, and is just now starting to say a lot of different words at the age of 2 1/2.

Leo's vocabulary includes words like "airplane," which is his word for all things that fly, such as airplanes, birds, and the dragon in Shrek. He also has his own special use for the phrase "thank you" (i.e., when he sees something he wants, he holds out his little hand and starts yelling "Thank you!" over and over until you give him the desired object). Plus he's learned the French words for "dog" and "cat" ("chien" and "chat"), but since he can't really tell them apart, he just kind of slurs the ending to the word so that it could be either one.

So -- just as it happens with many parents -- our first child taught us all about what kids are like, and then the second one taught us that all that stuff we learned from the first one wasn't really so much info about kids in general, but rather was only relevant to that one kid. I think it was a famous mathematician who once said, "I used to have three theories about child-rearing and no kids; now I have three kids and no theories about child-rearing." I'm kind of like that myself, except that I have only two kids, and I hate to think I was ever presumptuous enough to imagine I had a theory of child-rearing other than "Love 'em lots, and good luck!"

So when they're watching their favorite show (The Wiggles), we have Nico on the one hand who at 4 can read and write the word "Wiggles," and Leo, who has just learned to say "Wiggles" -- in fact pronounces it "Gigo," but he says it often enough that we know what he's talking about. Here I really ought to launch into a few paragraphs making fun of the Wiggles, but I can't bring myself to do it -- it would just be too easy. I assume many of you Utah Valley folks have small kids, so you know what I'm talking about. Just think of your favorite joke at the Wiggles' expense and imagine you read it here.

Now please don't take the above stories as an indication that we're treating the two differently from each other and/or playing favorites. Each one is going at his own pace, and they'll both turn out just fine. Each one is different, and it's not as if one has problems and the other doesn't.

Actually, we ended up having a few parent-teacher conferences at Nico's nursery school last year regarding the fact that little Nico seemed to be off in his own dreamworld instead of being interested in socializing with the other kids. I'm in favor of any sort of special attention his teachers and his daddy think he needs, but on some level I have a hard time seeing this as a very serious problem since all of my own kindergarten teacher's comments -- which my mother saved -- contain exactly the same remark, and I turned out more or less OK, in my opinion, anyway. In fact, now Nico has already found himself a good friend at school, and he's only 4. I'm pretty sure I didn't make any friends until I was at least 6 or 7, so as far as I'm concerned, he's socially precocious.

Now you're probably thinking that, in the interest of full disclosure, before reproducing with my husband I should have warned him about my early childhood development. In my defense, I have to tell you that he and I have been married for five years and we knew each other for five years before that (not to mention that we obviously met in the pre-existence and everything), so if he's just figuring out just now that I have a slightly different definition of "normal" than your average normal person, then he hasn't been paying very close attention.

As well as Nico's social development is going, it turns out that Leo is even more socially precocious than Nico. Just the other day, Leo and I were at a department store and he tossed his stuffed kitty off the escalator. His daddy told him that that wasn't a very clever thing to do, but the result was that two pretty girls rushed to bring him the kitty and took the opportunity to tell him how cute he is. So even if he's a little behind on language, at least he's right on track with respect to those social skills that are so important for a handsome young Frenchman.

So you see that our two little bilingual babies are on their way.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor November 17, 2005.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Cultural Mormon: Who are these apostates coming down, coming down?

Now, this may not be obvious to many readers, but in fact I'm making a serious effort to tailor this column to my Utah Valley audience in hopes of offending as few people as possible.

People who know my writing from other venues may know that I like to talk about sex. All the time. And when I was invited to write a column for this new publication and sent in a few sample columns, the editorial board gently hinted that I might want to tone that down a bit, so as to avoid offending the good people of Utah Valley.

I'm perfectly happy to go along with this constraint to the best of my ability, since really I'm a nice person -- generally respectful to others -- and I'm not the sort of person who gets her jollies from offending and upsetting people.

Note that I'm doing this for my apostate readers (if I have any) as much as for my LDS readers (if I have any). This may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes the apostates are even more offended by the sex talk than the Mormons. This is because I'm promoting the negative stereotype that people who leave the church are mostly depraved perverts.

So for the sake of my apostate friends, I feel compelled to tell you all that I do not necessarily represent the typical apostate. Many apostates are just as somber out of the church as they ever were in it. And I personally know plenty of apostates who are not at all sex maniacs nor hard-core partiers. Too bad for them, really, but to each his own.

On an earlier column I got some negative feedback regarding the fact that I consider the Book of Mormon to be a work of fiction. To be honest, I appreciate this sort of feedback because it helps me understand the point of view of this publication's readers. Normally, I would suppose that when I say I'm an apostate, it would go without saying that I don't believe the Book of Mormon to be a real history, in the same way that when I meet someone who is LDS, I assume they believe the Book of Mormon to be nonfiction. Hence for either side, stating one's opinion (respectively testimony) shouldn't be terribly surprising. But it's been some time since I've lived in Utah Valley, and I've forgotten a few things, so it's good to have a reminder of how things work.

Actually, I think it's pretty cool if there really are any faithful Mormons reading my column. In my fantasy universe, I think this means that I'm "sparking a dialogue" to help current and former LDS understand each other's perspective. In reality, it's probably more like "Ha ha! Look at that silly apostate!," but even in that case at least I'm providing some sort of public service.

Mormonism was a huge part of my life all through my childhood and adolescence, right up until I graduated from BYU in 1992. Growing up, our family wasn't one of those half-assed borderline LDS families that the ward is always trying to reactivate. We were one of those pillar-of-the-ward, attend-every-Sunday, lots-o'-callings, don't-even-think-of-skimping-on-the-tithes-and-offerings families that the church loves so much.

Yet, now that I no longer believe in the mythology, faithful Mormons and apostates agree that any further interest I show in LDS culture or history is a sign of some sort of mental disorder. Maybe it is.

Maybe it's crazy of me to think LDS culture is interesting on its own, and not just for its heavenly rewards.

When I was back in Minnesota this past summer visiting my parents, I was irresistably drawn to this one bookshelf of my mom's where she keeps a collection of LDS-interest teen romance novels. They were actually kind of amusing, and I ended up keeping something of a mini-blog of reviews of them. The classic Jack Weyland stuff was still basically the most entertaining fare, but it's important to take it in small doses since it's kind of repetitive.

Also I love Saturday's Warrior. (Not the video, but rather the original cast recording.) This is another point where apostate and faithful LDS alike join in mocking me, but I can't help it -- for some reason I think it's fabulous. Maybe my brain is broken. It drives my husband completely up the wall. He's an ordinary French guy raised in a Catholic home with no contact with Mormonism, so he doesn't understand the draw of Saturday's Warrior. He thinks it's intolerable, so I can only listen to it when he isn't around. Sometimes if my two apostate brothers are visiting he lets us listen to it all together.

Did you catch that last line?

Yep, three apostates (in a family of five kids) that was once a pillar-of-the-ward family. Sorry to shock -- all I can say is let this be a lesson to all you LDS parents who think it's OK to be a little bit of an "intellectual" or dabble in "feminism." Also, too many stints as Gospel Doctrine teacher for both parents can be a little dangerous.

OK, by now I've probably messed up on my goal not to offend everyone, so I'd better stop here....

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor November 10, 2005.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Le Metro !: No longer car-dependent, I'm now part of the French underground

I moved to France so I could be closer to my only true love: Le Metro! Please don't tell my husband -- he still thinks it's because of him.

Now I've recently heard that some have proposed linking Utah Valley with Salt Lake via commuter rail (see this site). All I can say is that that's pretty cool that the option of a traffic-free commute might become available.

When I was attending BYU, I already found the bus service between the two to be pretty convenient, at least for weekend visits, though perhaps not for a daily commute.

The only time I had a problem with the SLC/Utah Valley bus was one evening when I decided to take the last bus up to Salt Lake to surprise my friend, and I didn't think about the fact that I would arrive after the SLC buses were done running for the night. I ended up having to walk 20 blocks to my friend's house in the snow! Uphill both ways, of course. You kids today have no idea of the hardships we had to endure back in the days before everyone on the freaking planet got a cell phone.

Anyway, back to the Paris Metro, and how I fell in love with it.

I know a lot of you have plenty of good reasons to prefer the convenience of going everywhere by car. But for myself, I've found that a combination of walking and public transportation perfectly fits with all of my wacky eccentricities.

First of all, I can't stand exercising for its own sake -- it bores me to tears. I once went a good 10 months of faithfully doing a 90-minute workout three times a week because I had a car commute to a sedentary programming job -- and believe me, I was crying on my Stairmaster the whole time.

On the other hand, I love a pleasant, brisk half-hour walk across town twice a day (my current commute to work). I'm not sure why, but it's practically my favorite part of my whole day.

Second of all, I have a terrible sense of direction, so every time I drive somewhere I've never been before, it's a real bother for me to try to interpret the map in real time while I'm also trying not to crash into pedestrians or other cars. And when I'm driving along a route I know well enough to follow without a map, it's a bother for me to pay attention to not hitting things when I'd rather be thinking about something more interesting (I'm not telling you what).

Then, once I get to wherever I'm going, I have to find a parking place. Then I have to park. Then I have to figure out if I have enough change for parking. Then -- worst of all -- when I'm done with whatever it was I had driven to, I have to remember where I left my car.

And don't get me started on keeping track of whether my insurance and registration are up-to-date and the oil is changed and all that nonsense!

I know that none of these tasks is a big deal individually, but they add up to a big pain in the butt for an absent-minded person like myself.

Of course, up until my early 20s, I had always lived in either the suburbs or in some other suburban-like developed area, so I assumed that there was no other way to live.

Then one day I was invited to a month-long math workshop in Paris.

I discovered that I could just keep walking in any direction and pass nothing but block after block packed full of interesting places to go. Then if I got bored of my immediate neighborhood, all I had to do was go into any subway station and take the Metro to more fascinating destinations than I had ever imagined. And the cool thing is that I could never get lost, because the subway network is so amazingly simple and easy to understand that even a directionally challenged person like me just can't mess it up! It's effectively impossible to get lost in Paris because wherever you are, you can always find a subway station, and from there a quick, convenient ride back to where you're staying.

It was like a miracle. I was immediately in love. I started to see my car back home less as a source of autonomy and more as a two-ton weight around my neck.

Now I don't currently live in Paris, but we have a great tramway system here where I live, plus -- like many people in France -- I end up going to Paris a few times a year for various reasons, and then I get to visit my true love.

They say Paris is one of the top tourist destinations in the world, possibly number one. I've been in plenty of conversations with various French people about why that is. They never believe me when I tell them it's because of the Metro. To most French people, the Metro is some ordinary, banal thing that they take for granted. But what else could it be? The Eiffel Tower? Yeah, it's cool, but I'm not going to buy a $1,000 plane ticket to go see it.

Laugh if you will, but I know. It's le Metro.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor November 03, 2005.

The Mating Game: A primatologist looks at the mathematical community

Are you like me? Do you love reading those books by Jane Goodall and Frans De Waal where they observe a community of great apes and describe all of their social interactions in graphic detail?

If so, you're in luck! Because I have observed a primate society myself (in their natural habitat!), and today I am going to share my observations with you!!!

Alpha males

Many people do not realize that the mathematical community has alpha males. Outsiders often think that mathematicians are all more or less equally dorky and socially maladjusted. To outsiders, perhaps they are! But not within their own society.

Everyone within the community knows who the most brilliant world-famous researchers are. Outwardly everyone generally treats everyone else in a friendly and egalitarian manner, from the genius Fields Medalist down to the lowliest first-year grad student. Yet the rest of the community will defer to the top dogs in subtle ways merely by virtue of the esteem and awe their brilliance inspires.

(Note: There are also females in this category, but they are more rare and hence less well-understood by the primatologist.)

Establishing dominance

The principal manner of establishing dominance is by proving an important theorem and publishing it. It is particularly highly regarded to solve a famous problem, prove a long-standing conjecture, or win a prize such as a Fields Medal. However, dominance is also often established and expressed at lectures in seminars or conferences.

Dominance is established in a lecture by asking the speaker lots of relevant and insightful questions. Math research lectures are notoriously deep and complex even for good mathematicians! If you ask relevant and insightful questions about the lecture, it shows that you are following it well enough in real time to be one step ahead of the lecturer. This will impress everyone in the audience.

Asking questions throughout the lecture is also a means of demonstrating your importance. An alpha-male world-famous researcher will sometimes sit in the front row and talk to the speaker as if the lecture were a personal conversation between himself and the speaker, despite an entire lecture hall full of less important people. I've even seen one guy put his feet up on the podium while chatting with the speaker!

Only people who are very confident of their top-dog status would dare (and be permitted) to do this.


Mathematicians love to gossip! They particularly love to gossip about famous mathematicians. At almost any dinner or party for mathematicians, once they're done discussing the technical precisions of this or that theory, they start gossiping.

The main purpose of this appears to be an excuse for name-dropping -- i.e., you wouldn't know a bunch of random details about so-and-so's personal life unless you know him personally, and perhaps you are brilliant enough yourself to be doing a research project with him. In the mathematical community, if otherwise serious and reserved grown men are spreading a bunch of questionable stories about you behind your back, then you know you've really made it!

Male sexuality

A top researcher who is world-famous in his field will have plenty of opportunity for sex with female grad students and post-docs. How the researcher responds to these opportunities is a question of temperament. Like many humans, some will choose to be monogamous anyway. Others take up these opportunities. Some researchers who are famous for their mathematical results also have a reputation for sexual conquests. Hard to believe, but there exist humans who -- to the untrained eye -- look like ordinary boring professors, but in their own society are alpha-male casanovas!!

Outside of the top echelons, however, sexual opportunities within the community drop off rapidly for males because of the scarcity of females. Mid-tier (respected but not awe-inspiring) males often succeed in attracting another mathematician as a mate. Below that level, males are typically obligated to look outside the community for mates. This is less desirable because it requires engaging in non-math-related social activities.

Juvenile males (undergraduate and younger) are often sequestered in a math and science curriculum where they have limited access to females. Many of them have no sexual opportunities at all.

Female sexuality

Because the supply/demand ratio is in their favor, female mathematicians have their pick of mates at every level. One common result of this is a complete gender-role reversal of the typical human mating strategies.

In ordinary human society, the female is commonly more interested in establishing a monogamous relationship while the male is more interested in having sex with multiple partners. This is often reversed in the mathematical community because the males have so few sexual opportunities that they logically attempt to hold onto those opportunities that arise, whereas the females have so much opportunity that they are hesitant to commit too quickly.

Some females deliberately seek out the most famous researchers just for the status that comes from seducing someone who is held in such esteem by the community.


A mathematician is a shy and often misunderstood creature. Yet careful observation shows him to have similar social habits to those of other primates.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor October 27, 2005.

The Mishies and Me: Cultural Mormon nostalgia

The local LDS mission is aware of my existence, and they appear to have classified me in the category of "mostly harmless," which is just the way I like it.

The fact that I go out of my way to chat with the missionaries whenever I see them baffles my fellow apostates, most of whom can't stop complaining about how the church found them again despite 20 years of "inactivity" and/or keeps refusing to honor their "do not contact" request. Personally, I don't understand what the problem is since I can easily think of 10 or 20 things off the top of my head that I could do to offend or upset the mishies to the point where they would call up the mission president and have him draw a big black X over my house on the mission map if I wanted him to. But since I don't want him to do that, I'm studiously avoiding doing those 10 or 20 bad things.

Why do I like to chat with the mishies anyway?

Everyone knows that apostates like me are supposed to hate the church and everything about it with a fiery passion! The crazy thing though is that even though I think the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction, for some reason I don't hate the church or its members. Even though they may not be too thrilled about it, in some ways they'll always be my people.

I live in France. I've chosen to live here, this is where I want to live, and in fact I've gone native to the point where I've practically become a French person myself. Still, when I see a pair of LDS missionaries walking down the street, I see something familiar from back home in the old country. And I know that I share a common background with them that we don't share with anyone else walking down that same street.

Those of you who live in Utah are constantly reminded of Mormonism

So a subtle distinction like whether a given person believes it's real or not seems like a big deal to you. But here in France, Mormonism is so freakishly rare that it makes sense that all of us "cultural Mormons" should stick together.

Also, I have to admit that I find the whole mission thing kind of intriguing. I would never be brave enough to go around wearing a badge like that myself, and there's no way in heaven or Earth I could do that thing of staying in the presence of an assigned companion constantly twenty-four-seven (I'm way too ornery and disagreeable for that).

Seeing these young guys reminds me of when I was a young student learning to speak French and visiting France for the first time. Learning a new language and culture is an extremely fun and valuable experience, and it's one of the cool aspects of Mormonism that they systematically send out their young adults to live in another part of the country or another part of the world.

The last pair I talked to happened to both be from the same high school as each other. They took pains to explain to me that that was not typical -- which of course I already knew -- but I couldn't help but find it kind of impressive that some random community in Utah would set aside the resources to make it a priority to send its youngsters all over the world like that. Certainly my old high school back in Minnesota didn't do that.

Then the mishies themselves complete the effect

All of the LDS missionaries I've talked to here in France have consistently been bright, confident and charming, with interesting things to say about their impressions of France. This surprised me at first since I've been a bad Mormon and then an ex-Mormon for my whole life, so you can imagine that I had some negative stereotypes in my mind of what mishies are like. On the other hand, I've heard rumors that the church intentionally sends the smart ones to Europe, so I may be getting a skewed sample.

But as long as the church keeps sending them, I'll probably keep chatting with them.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor October 13, 2005.

'There's a place in France...'

Looking up from the Java code on my screen, I gaze out the window at the river and at the long row of stately white stone buildings on the other side, with the cathedral spires just beyond them. I look at the bridge standing on its brick arches with the tramway train speeding across it. Being a programmer in France is a lot like being a programmer in the U.S., except for the view.

There are other differences as well. For one thing, U.S. companies seem to like to put the programmers into individual cubicles, Dilbert-style. French companies are more partial to tossing all of the programmers into one big hall where everyone can see and talk to everyone else continuously. As you can imagine, this has advantages and disadvantages for getting your program written. It's easier to quickly ask a colleague about a point you don't follow in the code, yet it's harder to concentrate on your own code without getting distracted. It's also harder to surf the Internet for hours on end without people noticing. So here in France you get a similar but slightly different set of challenges.

Another difference is the morning round of greetings. The way I remember it in the U.S. companies I worked for, people would say "good morning" the first time they happened to see each other for the day, but that was about it. Both of the French companies I've worked for have had this custom that when you arrive in the morning you go around and individually greet all of the people who work in your area. Or if you're really friendly and/or ambitious, you go around and greet everyone in the whole programming hall.

Here the greeting is a big production. It's more than just "Bonjour!" or "Salut!" When two women meet, they greet with a kiss. I'm not making this up -- this is how random colleagues greet each other every morning!! It's not a "French kiss" of course -- sorry to disappoint! -- it's just one of those air-kisses on both cheeks.

When a man and a woman greet each other, they do the kiss-kiss thing as well. Now just try to guess what two male colleagues do when they greet each other in the morning!

Give up? They shake hands! See? Even here in enlightened France the guys have this "I'm-not-gay-not-that-there's-anything-wrong-with-that" thing going just like their American counterparts!

Now if you're a typical programmer (i.e. not getting any action outside of the great virtual realm of cyberspace), you may be thinking that this is a really sweet deal (unless you're a gay guy, of course). After all, you're bound to have at least a few attractive colleagues, and they have to kiss you every day!! Air kisses at least are better than nothing, right?

Well this, my friend, is one of the many good reasons for moving to France. Of course it's a bit of a two-edged sword since no matter how repulsive you are, there's bound to be someone more repulsive, and you have to air kiss them too. So you need to take that into consideration as you're weighing the pros and cons of submitting your transfer request to your boss.

Another amusing difference is in this same vein: naughty pics!!

On the wall within view of my desk is a calendar of almost-naked ladies. Last year it was a swimsuit calendar and at my previous job in France it was a lingerie calendar. Such a thing is so perfectly ordinary here that I really have to stretch my brain to remember that in the U.S., posting such a thing in a workplace would be shocking! Shocking!!! And almost certainly illegal.

Now I'm a feminist, and I've spent a lot of time wondering precisely how this sort of thing would create a "hostile work environment" for women as people say the feminists claim. I'm not joking or being facetious when I say that. Even before leaving the U.S., for years I'd spent a lot of time trying to figure out why such a thing should be offensive to women in order to decide whether I should be offended by it.

My conclusion is that erotica -- even in a workplace -- is not a priori offensive to women, and that I am not offended by it.

The only serious explanation for why some feminists don't like it is for the simple reason that loads of people -- no matter what their ideology from secular leftist to religious fundamentalist and everywhere in between -- are made uncomfortable by reminders about sex. Period. That seems weird to people like me who love sex unconditionally, but the reality is that feeling embarrassed about sex is very common. And people of every stripe tend to try to explain their negative feelings through some sort of religious or political rationalization.

Now I imagine I've offended a gaggle of people by writing that, and I can picture them in my mind's eye jumping all over themselves to tell me that erotic pics in a workplace will certainly encourage sexism and sexual harassment. However, I can tell you from first-hand experience that they do not.

In reality universe we have X amount of code that needs to get written, and X number of bugs that need to be debugged, and X amount of work that requires our full attention. Also in reality universe, a bunch of programmers sitting around writing code are going to spend X amount of time fantasizing about their colleagues (or their spouses, or celebrities, or random people they met on the Internet), and this X is affected little (if at all) by a gentle reminder to think about sex posted on the wall. I haven't noticed it to have any affect on the various engineers' professionalism or respect for their colleagues' technical expertise, regardless of gender.

True there aren't many female programmers, so you might easily get the idea that there is some sexism going on. Yet at least I can report that the few women are treated like anyone else. Indeed, one female colleague just got a big promotion, and don't even imagine for a second it was in exchange for "favors" (wink-wink-nudge-nudge). It would be more accurate to say that it was for intimidating everyone. :lol:

On the other hand, I have to admit that all of the nudity all the time can get a little tiresome. I know you're probably shocked to hear me say that! But there's just so much boobage going on here in France! I pass several topless sculptures on my way to work each day and countless ads for all manner of things being sold by half-naked people (of either gender, but mostly female). One time when a new sculpture was installed in a nearby park that had a female figure that didn't have obvious exposed breasts, I caught myself admiring its originality!

I think I might feel differently about all the boobage if I were a guy. Perhaps I'd be aroused by it rather than simply finding it vaguely amusing. On the other hand I might not. Hard to say. Of course all of my elaborate musings about what it would be like to be a guy could fill up a whole other column, so I guess I'll stop here.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor October 6, 2005.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Life in France

Time capsule: written May 5, 2002.

Today I'd like to tell you a few things about what it's like to live in France.

The most disappointing thing about moving to France:

It's not original. Americans are always going to France, and with good reason. France has the perfect mixture of all the lazy joie-de-vivre that you love in a southern European country with all the civilization that you've grown dependent on as a citizen of the First World. Plus, it's just exotic enough to be non-threatening while giving you an endless stream of Tarantinoesque "It's the little things" moments to tell your friends at home about.

The problem, of course, is that countless other people have already had these same moments, and have beaten you to the punch of writing witty things about them. The inevitable reaction is to emphatically protest, "Yes, but it was so much more amusing when it happened to ME." Too bad. It's been done.

That's why I'm adding a second theme to this essay: babies.

You've heard about France, and you've heard about babies, but have you heard about babies in France? Together in the same essay? If so, you can probably skip reading the rest of this. Unless you're really bored.

Everybody hates a know-it-all-parent.

That's why my husband and I have no friends. Unfortunately, our in-depth studies of parenting handbooks, coupled with our seven months of intensive parenting experience, have granted us infinite wisdom on the subject of child-rearing. For example, another couple we know was explaining that the only baby food they were feeding their six-month-old baby was a big vat of apple-pear sauce that they prepared in weekly increments, and which they fed to their baby directly from the main vat (without first spooning it into a separate bowl or anything!).

Now you may not know this if you're not a know-it-all parent, but in fact you're not supposed to do that. Fortunately, we were able to muster up enough willpower to restrain ourselves from telling them that they're not supposed to do that. This is mostly because we didn't want to get trapped in a discussion involving other people's wacky parenting theories. (Also because the guy was nice enough to help us schlep some heavy baby furniture up four flights of stairs.) After all, if we start telling them not to do this or that, then we run the risk that they might point out that you're not supposed to drink any wine at all (not even one glass occasionally with dinner) if you're breast-feeding your baby. Strangely enough, this couple is really negative about wine, despite not being adherents of any peculiar religious group (as far as we can tell). My question is, if they don't like wine, then why do they bother living in France at all? Maybe it's because they were born here.

It's the guilt, stupid.

One thing you learn as a parent is that the human capacity to feel guilty is infinite. You can devote 25 hours a day, eight days a week, to your precious darling (plus your job), you can give up everything you enjoy doing (down to simple things, like sleeping), and still feel guilty. For example, my baby is seven months old, and I would like to finish the process of weaning him. The current popular wisdom is that it is good to breast-feed your baby for a full year. Yet, after 16 months of good behavior, I would selfishly like to have a glass of wine with dinner whenever I want to. Or two. Or three, if I'm feeling crazy. Or maybe even take an aspirin when I have a headache. After all, I don't want to turn into one of those martyr-mothers.

Are we really supposed to be feeding him so many baby-yogurts?

The weaning process is proceeding apace, due to strong motivation on the part of the mother (who was sincerely happy to do it for the first five or six months -- the time to get all the pregnancy fat off the thighs and into the baby -- but is now saying enough already). Baby, of course, is not so keen on the whole weaning thing, and, while unable to thwart it completely, he has found some clever ways to make it inconvenient. First of all he refuses to take a bottle at all under any circumstances. Not a show-stopper: Mommy and Daddy can always resort to the more labor-intensive technique of feeding him formula from a cup. The second problem is that he's really not so big on formula, even from a cup. I mentioned this to the pediatrician during his last check-up, and she said that at his age he is only supposed to have one semi-solid meal per day, and the rest is supposed to be formula or breast milk.

This is where the guilt comes in (see the paragraph above). I agreed to this, but immediately upon arriving at home, I consulted my vast library of baby-care manuals and found the second opinion I wanted, namely "seven months old? Feed him whatever the hell you want." Baby-care manuals can be very helpful sometimes, especially if you have enough of them to get the whole opinion spectrum. And besides, those other people fed their baby nothing but semi-rancid apple sauce at this age, and he's still alive.

Plus the guilt is partially defrayed by a miraculous substance known as baby-yogurt. The pediatrician mentioned that if I really can't get him to drink enough formula, there exists special yogurt for babies that is made with baby formula instead of regular milk, and that was all I needed to hear. This wonderfood has saved us because our baby absolutely adores it. He could eat it all day. And we know that it's OK to use it to replace the formula he won't drink because there's a helpful info-graphic on the package that tells us so. It's a cute little box labeled "tableau d'équivalence" which contains a little glyph representing a baby-yogurt, then an equals sign, then another glyph representing a baby bottle. So it's okay.

The main problem with this strategy is that I'm not sure what we're going to do during our three-week vacation in the U.S. It's not clear that baby-yogurt exists in the U.S. Raising my first baby while living in a foreign country has given me the surreal experience of knowing exactly how the French take care of babies but having only the vaguest idea of how it's done back in the old country. So as far as finding a replacement for baby-yogurt is concerned, we're opting for the time-honored planning method known as "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it." Or, more precisely, my parents will be crossing that bridge.

The gift we're not giving him.

Another nugget of wisdom that I would like to share with you is that parents cannot give their children everything. Here is a good example. One the one hand, my husband and I speak to each other in English at home, yet from the kids at school our little boy will hear nothing but French. Thus, if all goes according to plan, he will be perfectly bilingual and speak both languages without an accent. Many people have pointed out what a wonderful advantage this will be for him.

But is it really? Consider this: Back in France, my sweetie was just another nerdy math guy who couldn't get a date. But upon arriving in the U.S. with that outrageous French accent, he was irresistible! Ditto for how cute I was during my first trip to Paris trying to communicate with the natives in their mysterious tongue. But when my little boy is old enough to want to pick up chicks during his vacations in the U.S., he'll have to go way out of his way to mention to them that he's French. He'll probably even have to show them his passport so they won't think it's just a line. How lame is that? If he follows in his dad's footsteps and becomes a nerdy math guy, he'll be at a major disadvantage because his cruel parents have denied him the fabulous accent that should be his birthright as a Frenchman. Poor thing, he'll undoubtedly have to go to some entirely different country to pick up chicks.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor September 29, 2005.

Explanations and apologies

This blog will be an archive of my writings for the column "Letters from a Broad" in the Utah Valley Monitor.

The title of the column was chosen by my friend Peter Walters, who is the head honcho of the Utah Valley Monitor. The idea is for the column to written by women who have some connection with Utah Valley and are now living abroad. So far I'm the only person that has written for this column.