Thursday, January 26, 2006

Adventures in Dental Care: French dentists put me at a floss for words

My first trip to the dentist after moving to France was kind of a rude awakening. To protect the dentist's identity, for this column let's just call her "Dr. Dominatrix."

As soon as I arrived in her office, Dr. Dominatrix immediately noticed that I was pregnant (at the time -- not now, thank heavens!) and started telling me all about how she was serving on a committee to give pregnancy-nutrition recommendations. Then, without the slightest encouragement, she launched into a whole elaborate lecture about how pregnant women should not drink skim milk. Her reasoning was essentially that skim milk tastes yucky, so either you won't drink enough or you'll compensate with unhealthy things.

I was listening and nodding with a blank smile on my face, but my tiny brain was saying "Um, I came here to see a dentist. Are you a dentist or what?"

And since I really wasn't in the mood to explain and debate my own equal-and-opposite wacky theory about how pregnant women should drink at least one full liter of skim milk per day, that was strike one in my mind against Dr. Dominatrix.

Then she determined that it was necessary to install some sort of crown-like thing on one of my teeth. Unfortunately, she put it on in such a way that the new piece (and/or the cement to attach it) extended past the relevant tooth and was actually touching the adjacent tooth.

During the follow-up visit, I pointed this problem out and mentioned that I could no longer pass dental floss between the two teeth. Dr. Dominatrix responded with shock and horror:

"Who told you to floss your teeth?!" she asked (in French). She then explained that you should never floss your teeth because flossing can hurt your gums.

She was probably right that it is possible to hurt your gums by flossing if you do it very badly. But it's not like it's rocket science. I like to imagine that if I haven't mastered the basics of flossing safety yet, I could theoretically be trained to do it.

That was strike two against Dr. Dominatrix.

Strike three was more of a general complaint about her bedside manner. I'm not going to say that she seemed indifferent to the possibility that some procedures she performed might cause pain. I think it would be more accurate to say she seemed annoyed by her patient's pain reaction.

The odd thing was that she was a real Americophile, if such a word exists. It should exist, because it's surprisingly common among the French -- contrary to the popular stereotype of French people snootily looking down their noses at Americans. During every single visit she would tell me stories of all of the conferences she'd attended in the U.S. and the latest dental technology she'd learned there. It just kind of amazed me that in all of these conferences she'd never picked up on this exciting American innovation involving the use of dental floss.

After a few years of being treated by Dr. Dominatrix, I finally broke down and decided that I was just going to go to a different dentist. In France you can just do that with no restrictions. Crazy, huh?

I suggested it to my husband as well, but oddly he opted to continue with Dr. Dominatrix. If this means there's something he's not telling me, I'm not sure I really want to know.

For myself I picked a new dentist using the same scientific criterion as I had used to pick my first one, namely proximity to where I live. Since I had moved since choosing my earlier dentist, this algorithm yielded a different result this time.

I am happy to report that I didn't have any problems with my new dentist, whom -- again to protect his identity -- I will call "Dr. Kindly-Gent." I made sure to ask him up front whether he was for or against flossing, and I was relieved to hear that he was in favor of it.

I don't want to give the misimpression here that I'm some sort of flossing fanatic or something. It's just that it was so weird. It would be like if I went to a cardiologist who recommended that I take up smoking and eat more potato chips or something -- I would get this vague sense that there's something not quite right here.

Also, I don't think the typical American necessarily flosses regularly. It's just that if you go six months without flossing between checkups, an American dentist will at least have the decency to lay a major guilt trip on you about it.

Actually it surprised me when I discovered that various French boyfriends seemed unacquainted with the practice of flossing, and even Dr. Kindly-Gent seemed kind of indifferent toward it. It made me wonder why it caught on in the U.S. and not so much in (parts of?) Europe.

I figure it's probably just one of those things, like the fact that it somehow became popular to routinely circumcise all baby boys in the U.S., which I've found they don't do outside of a religious context in Europe. That conclusion didn't stop me from coming up with a theory about it though. Like most of my theories, this one is pure armchair speculation, totally unadulterated by any sort of facts or evidence.

My theory is that flossing first became popular in the U.S. because of the practice of eating corn-on-the-cob. It's tasty stuff, and if you believe that necessity is the mother of invention, you'll agree that it's not too far-fetched to see corn-on-the-cob as naturally spawning the idea of dental floss.

Then -- still according to my entirely made-up theory -- I imagined some clever health professional saying "Hey, this has some health and hygiene benefits."

And who knows? Maybe one day it will catch on in France too.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor January 12, 2006.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

American Cheese Girl

One of the strangest things I've ever been called is the "American cheese girl." I could almost understand if it had been a French person or other foreigner who called me this, but in fact I was called this by a fellow American girl, though perhaps a slightly less cheesy one than me.

When I was at Rutgers, a bunch of the girl grad students used to go out to a restaurant once a week for a ladies' breakfast so that we could discuss politics, economics, and gossip without the boy grad students annoying us. I'm not kidding about the topics here, by the way -- a typical breakfast would start on politics (usually leftist vs. rightist approaches to dealing with poverty), and then move on to a bunch of racy stories about everyone's respective boyfriends and girlfriends.

During breakfast one day -- I don't remember how the subject came up -- we were talking about people who take on a "goth" persona. A lot of you may see goth teenagers as kind of social outcasts. When I was in high school, however, I was more in the Star Trek crowd, which I think by any reasonable standard is a group that is socially cast out a few leagues father than even the goths. So of course I had looked up to the goths as being "cool kids" and I told my breakfast friends that I had always thought it might be interesting to join them.

My friends immediately laughed at this and told me that there's no way I could ever be goth -- I'm just way too cheerful for that. I hadn't really thought of it that way, but it was possible that they were right. Then my one friend said she always pictured me as being more like a drum majorette. I wasn't sure whether to take that as an insult or a compliment, but if nothing else this image really astonished me. I had always assumed people saw me as being "that strange girl who's always wandering around talking to herself instead of talking to other humans." It struck me then that there was some social advantage to being surrounded by other math nerds since comparatively I might come off as friendly, outgoing, and even normal.

Then I made the whole thing worse when the waitress asked me what kind of cheese I wanted on my omlette and I responded "American." Now that I've been living in France for a while, I know that the correct answer for what cheese to order on an omlette is "gruyère," but since this breakfast took place back before I had started learning French, I got the fun of having my even-more- math-nerdly- than-me girlfriends call me the drum majorette American cheese girl.

Still, despite how obviously unqualified I am to be goth, I've always been curious about the whole goth thing, and I kind of wanted to better understand the goth perspective. I figured the best way to start would be to read a vampire novel, and Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire seemed to be the natural choice.

The beginning part of the novel was great, but as the story progressed, I found I couldn't relate to it. Call me old-fashioned, but even using my best suspension of disbelief, I just couldn't find anything remotely romantic or poignant about being a monster that goes out and kills random people every night. I got about halfway through the book and started compulsively checking the end to make sure it was really only 350 pages -- it seemed like about 800.

Then near the end when the author started blatantly eroticizing the murderous blood-sucking -- having the vampires go after a naked woman with "pouty lips," etc. -- there was no way I could escape a sense of absolute revulsion.

For those who -- unlike me -- are okay with the killing people part but not the nudity, you're in luck. It turns out that there's actually an LDS author who has written a popular vampire novel. I learned about this by reading my favorite blog A Motley Vision. (This is the same blog I recently had some amusing interactions with.)

Anyway, the LDS vampire novel author gave the blogger a pretty straight-forward interview. The one thing in it that jumped out at me was when the author said that her publisher had asked her to add some "premarital sex" and she refused to on the grounds that she's opposed to that sort of thing.

Ummmm... Okaaaaaaaaaay...

So let me get this straight. Killing innocent people by sucking out all their blood is fine and dandy just so long as nobody is -- gasp! -- having sex!

Now, I know LDS culture well enough to know that I shouldn't be surprised by this sort of attitude. But seriously, statements like that one make me feel like a visit to Mormondom is a little like being on a Star Trek episode where we're exploring Bizarro World.

Which goes to show that in the great nerdly divide of Trekkie vs. goth, I can't change which side I naturally fall on.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor January 05, 2006.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Grammar Police: Rules are meant to be, like, broken

We have the Académie Française to thank for the fact that the French say "ordinateur" instead of adopting the word "computer" like every other language popularly spoken today (except possibly Klingon and Esperanto -- and I'm not even sure about Esperanto here).

One reason the English language has such a huge vocabulary is that there's nobody to stop those pesky foreign words from coming into common usage -- and English speakers have collected quite a lot of them from all over the globe. In particular, a whole slew of French words were adopted into the English language in the centuries following William the Conqueror's invasion of England in 1066 -- so many that my husband and other French people have joked that French is actually a subset of English.

By contrast, since 1634 the French have had the Académie Française to stop alien vocabulary invaders at the border, notably casting out tons of English words that are slightly modified version of words that originally came from French.

If you're American, you probably see this as a great opportunity to mock and ridicule the French, and rightly so! I'm allowed to poke gentle fun at the French now that I'm practically French myself, and you can too since you're reading my column.

One time I was having a pleasant dinner with a grammar-expert friend of mine, and I made the mistake of saying "He's older than me," which my friend immediately corrected as "He's older than I."

Being ornery by nature, I refused to accept this as a correction. In my universe, "He's older than me" is perfectly acceptable usage. I actually have a whole elaborate theory as to why this type of phrase is OK (and it's more than just "because the other sounds snooty and affected"), but I'd rather not go into detail about it here because I'm trying to avoid frightening people and/or putting them to sleep.

The real reason, however -- which I explained to my friend -- is that unlike French, English is not governed by an academy. Sure there are guidebooks like the Chicago Manual of Style, but I don't have to recognize their authority. Free the pronouns, man!

I live by all sorts of controversial theories of language. For one thing, I disagree with the theory that the use of profanity indicates that the speaker necessarily has a small vocabulary. The latent mathematician in me can't keep from pointing out that actively avoiding profanity technically makes your vocabulary smaller, not bigger. Sure it's easy to over-use naughty words, but if you know how to use them well, you can achieve certain effects that you can't create without them.

An even more controversial theory I subscribe to is that it's not always wrong to throw a bunch of redundant uses of the word "like" into a sentence, as teenagers are so fond of doing. (Or at least they were in my day -- I can't speak for modern teenagers since my knowledge of popular culture tragically ends in about 1989 like the poor sap in this one Onion article.)

My theory is that the redundant "likes" are a way of playing with the rhythm of the language. Of course they can be grating if thrown willy-nilly into every sentence. But one or two small ones every now and then won't do you any harm. Plus a humorist can't help but want to play with every toy in the linguistic toybox, so I can't reject the practice out of hand. After all, a redundant "like" affects the cadence of a sentence, and in humor writing, cadence and timing are everything. (I've been a humorist for, like, months now, so I'm qualified to be giving lessons. Hey, at least I don't have low self-esteem or something!)

I also like to make up words, and every now and then I manage to slip one of them past the copy editors (like "sparklitude", hehe!).

Given my inclination for language mischief, it seems natural that I would one day decide that I'm a humorist, where I get to use things like poetic license (as in "is that a mistake, or is it 'poetic license'?"), and if I accidentally offend somebody I get to say "Dude, lighten up -- it was a joke." (Rest assured, gentle reader, that no humorist would ever abuse these powers.)

Even so, it was a bit of a convoluted path to get there.

At first, I'd planned to be a princess/movie star. But that didn't really pan out. So for a while I was a mathematician, and I segued that into computer programming and mommying. Then I thought it would be fun to be a computer tech book writer. That was a dangerous move though because when I got my programming book published, it went straight to my head, and I decided I should be a serious author. Of course it didn't take much of that before I figured out that this literary fiction stuff is, like, super hard.

So here I am.

I haven't decided yet what I want to be next, but I'm always open to suggestions.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor December 29, 2005

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Merry Noël!: Making it festive in France

The biggest difference I've noticed between a traditional American Christmas and its French counterpart has to do with feasting philosophy. The way I remember it, the American feasting aesthetic calls for a table laden with food. So some of the cook's tricks revolve around the art of getting every single dish ready at the same time in order to maximize the impressiveness of the daunting task of consuming it all as soon as the host says "go!" (or possibly "Amen," depending on your family's particular traditions).

The French ideal, instead of a wide feast, is to have a long feast, in which the copiousness of the meal is demonstrated by having it last forever, with one fancy dish after another brought out for the guests' enjoyment over the space of many hours.

I'm certain this difference in feasting style says something very deep and profound about the difference between the American character and the French character in general -- it obviously must! -- but I can't seem to put my finger on precisely what it is. It's clearly not that one country is full of gluttons who love to stuff themselves and the other isn't. I'm sure it'll come to me one of these days, and rest assured that as soon as that day comes, you'll be able to read C. L. Hanson's Grand Unified Theory of the Difference between Americans and French People right here in this spot.

I might understand the whole thing better if I ever actually got the chance to experience first-hand one of these traditional French all-evening-and-well-into-the-night Christmas dinners. Alas, my husband isn't nearly as big a fan of tradition-for-its-own-sake as I am.

So every year when my husband asks me what I want for Christmas dinner and I reply "dinde aux marrons," he just laughs and tells me that if I wanted the classic, most traditional main course of a French Christmas dinner, I should have married a more traditional Frenchman.

That's not to say that my husband's some sort of Scrooge or Grinch or something. He just doesn't like dinde aux marrons. He loves Christmas, though, just not out of some crazy, sentimental nostalgia like me. He loves Christmas for the same reason any normal, healthy, red-blooded guy likes Christmas: He likes toys and presents!

Actually my husband is a pretty good sport about indulging my insistence on filling our home with a sentimental Christmas. Even though he doesn't like Christmas music all that much, he helped me make the 15 or so CDs I compiled, each with 20 or so favorites taken from my vast collection of Christmas CDs. And this year he even encouraged me to get out my collection of Christmas CDs in early December and start playing them for our little boys. I appreciated that a lot even though on some level I suspect he was mostly just hoping it would get me to stop playing Saturday's Warrior.

The French don't seem to have quite the same elaborate array of Christmas music of all styles and genres that the Americans have. Consequently, department stores and malls in France will often play American Christmas music in the background to get people into the mood for giving during the season to be jolly.

This fact may run contrary to your stereotype of the French as a bunch of snooty people cynically mocking American culture. But in reality, people all over the world want to make money, and French retailers are not at all ashamed or hesitant to borrow tricks of the trade from the country that is the unchallenged world champion in the art of consumerism.

The only problem is that since the French don't have this same rich tradition of Christmas pop, they end up having to play the same songs over and over in order to be sure they're playing things that are familiar enough to bring fond Christmas memories to the minds of consumers. Last year, in the space of a quick shopping excursion in a single mall, I heard five different renditions of "Sleigh Ride," including two of them back-to-back. Now I like "Sleigh Ride" (as you may have already guessed!), but even I found that to be a bit over the top.

This year I went back to that same mall to make a note of which Christmas songs were currently being overplayed just so that I could report it here in this column. (The things I do for you guys! I really hope you appreciate it.)

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately?) that particular mall hadn't yet started its seasonal Christmas purchase hypnosis soundtrack, so I came back with nothing to report.

Then I went to a department store where I recalled in the past having heard a variety of versions of "Jingle Bells," and that store was strangely music-less as well. I started to get worried that maybe the French had finally gotten sick of American Christmas music.

"Could that even be possible?" I wondered to myself.

Then today while picking out some toy airplanes for my boys, I was relieved to hear the familiar strains of Frank Sinatra singing "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," followed immediately by a track of some twangy country singer singing (what else?) "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town."

And all was right again in my traditional French-American Noël.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor December 22, 2005.