I Have Been Doing This for Twenty Bleeping Years

So everyone is parsing the importance of the new “curvy” Barbie and her other “normal” friends. But way back in 1997, I wrote an article about just such a possibility. It appeared in its original form in the Women’s Quarterly, a magazine out of D.C., and was reprinted in a large number of newspapers. I found a link to the piece here. (I am not the type who keeps copies of her articles. There are simply too many of them and I am big believer in constant de-cluttering.) I also found a link to a write-up of the piece here, from the Chicago Tribune’s James Warren.

This was nearly twenty f***ing years ago, peeps. God, I have been doing this job a loooooong time. It’s funny  — not funny “ha ha” — because I had a visit in the fall from a family member who routinely takes cheap shots at me about everything — my career, my looks, my intelligence, my private life — and this person asked me if I was “between jobs.” Um, no, I have doing the same job for twenty bleeping years.

The article in question is much harsher than one I would write today, I think. In a sense, I think we soften on some matters as we gain more experience. So in a way I cringe when I read it and yet, it must be taken in the context of the era and in the spirit of satire. (Or not, if you so choose.)

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Many moons ago, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I went to Poland to visit a friend of mine. Her name was Eva (Ewa) and she had been a classmate of mine at the Sorbonne. We always got along well at school. But that all changed in Warsaw, when she asked me what I hoped to see in Poland. Well, I told her, Auschwitz, of course, and also the Warsaw Ghetto.

Her face fell. She informed me that the former Ghetto was now nothing more than a small plaque. Not interesting. Not worth it. She then said I should not go to Auschwitz. Why not, I asked. Because, she said, Poles died there too. By “Poles” she meant Catholics. She did not consider Polish Jews to be Poles. I was stunned. She went on to say that it was wrong to think it was mostly Jews who died in Auschwitz and that it was really all about the suffering of “real Poles” and so on. I was quite young and had never been exposed to this kind of revisionism and trivializing of the suffering of Jews. Now, sadly, it is old hat to me. But back then it was new and I was shocked.

I insisted, though, and I went to Auschwitz without Eva. She was mad. She was beyond mad. After I left Poland and went back to Paris our friendship was pretty much over. Once — when I had returned to Canada — she sent a Christmas card, but that was because she was trying to get information on how to immigrate to Canada. She had married a Lebanese man (another piece of the puzzle!), she wrote, and he spoke French so Canada would be perfect.

I could not help her and that was that. That trip to Poland was a disturbing experience for me. I was so naïve (now that I am less so, I hope I will be able to visit Auschwitz again). I regret that I did not call her out more. All I did was say, “Well, mostly Jews died there” and “I am going to visit, even if you don’t want to go with me.”

All of this has never left my memory (which is freakish) but it came back in even more vivid colours when I recently read these two books. The first is about a particularly odious Polish hate crime against Jews, the second is about the intense envy that feeds so much anti-Semitism.

Today we say “never forget” and “never again.” The problem is that so many who want it to happen again don’t care or will not admit that it happened in the first place.

Update: It occurs to me I should link here to one of my favourite novels, Peter Matthiessen’s In Paradise. It takes place in Auschwitz, though in the 1990s, and among its themes is Polish anti-Semitism.

Burns Night

A poem that says it all.

To a Mouse

On Turning up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785

Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
          Wi’ bickerin brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee
          Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

 

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
          Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
          An’ fellow-mortal!

 

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave
          ’S a sma’ request:
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
          An’ never miss ’t!

 

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
          O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin,
          Baith snell an’ keen!

 

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An’ weary Winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
          Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
          Out thro’ thy cell.

 

That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
          But house or hald,
To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble,
          An’ cranreuch cauld!

 

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
          Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
          For promis’d joy!

 

Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
          On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
          I guess an’ fear!

Mustapha Dupont

Years ago, I lived in France on Boulevard Voltaire, not far from the Bataclan. I never went to the Bataclan because I was never groovy. I did go to see Etienne Daho at Bercy Stadium one time. My apartment was near Place Leon Blum, named after the French politician who, prior to World War II had been the Prime Minister of France and then during the war had been deported (he was Jewish) to Buchenwald and Dachau and Tyrol and then after the war became Prime Minister again. Seriously. Only in France. (I believe his brother died in Auschwitz.)

In 2005, on a trip to Israel, I visited a kibbutz named after Blum – Kfar Blum, it was called. I was with a group of journalists and I shocked them all by knowing who Blum was. I also shocked the lady from the kibbutz who was tasked with taking us around the place — she told me that no one other than French visitors ever knew who Leon Blum was. (I shocked her even more the next morning when I took a whole mess of fish from our breakfast buffet and fed it to Kfar Blum’s many stray cats.)

A few doors down from my apartment on Boulevard Voltaire there was a convenience store run by a Moroccan family. The father had come to France from North Africa but his sons were all born and raised Frenchmen. They were terribly nice and used to help us (my roommates and me) with our bags and suitcases and such when we returned home from trips. I remember that they loved wearing muscle shirts and showing off their good looks. (Why should youth not be so?) They were terribly sweet and I was grateful for their store because, at the time, it was very difficult to find a grocery store open after 7 p.m. in Paris (not the case now). So I had somewhere to go to buy bottles of wine and Lindt bars.

I keep thinking about that time in my life and about Mustapha Dupont, a Gilbert Becaud song from 1984. I moved to France in the late ‘80s and stayed there nearly five years; long a Becaud fan, I enjoyed that song and its idealism regarding French Muslims, an idealism which one could be forgiven for now considering rather quaint. 

Some of the lyrics:

Mustapha Dupont
Il est né entre Constantine
Et Joinville-Le-Pont
Dupont Mustapha
C’est un bon Français
Comme toi et moi

Mohamed Durand
Il a vu le jour entre Fez
Et Clermont-Ferrand
Durand Mohamed Français cent pour cent
De A… à Z…

Abdou Mamadou
Son père est tombé en ’44
En plein mois d’août
Mamadou Abdou il est bien d’chez nous
Comme toi, comme nous

C’est ça la couleur d’ l’ équipe de France
Entre bleu d’outre-mer et d’ Provence
Tu prends un Lillois, Marseillais
Un Rital un peu polonais
C’est rouge orange, jaune, vert, bleu
Indigo, violet

If you don’t speak French, those lyrics talk about three French Muslims who are all ‘bon Francais’ (good Frenchmen), one of whose father died in World War II fighting (one presumes, given the date of the action and the point of the song) for France. The repeated lyric, at the end, is about the colours of “Team France.” Every colour, says Becaud. Team France is red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

I bring this song up because I was at a dinner the other night where someone said that France was basically getting what it deserved – in regards terror attacks — for not having properly integrated Muslims. Um, wtf??? Apart from the victim-blaming of the comment, it simply isn’t true. While there is no question that European countries, in general, are not anywhere as good as we (meaning Canada and the United States) are at integration, the vast majority of French Muslims are just that, integrated and very well so. And while I have no doubt that many French Muslims have had to deal with stupid comments or other forms of ignorance, saying France is getting what it deserves is, well, stupid. As though a natural response to discrimination is to shoot up a restaurant, a magazine, a nightclub, a Kosher supermarket. Further, French Jews experience far more hate-based attacks than any other group (French Jews make up 1% of the population but are the victims of 51% of hate-based attacks in France) and I don’t seem them shooting up innocents.

In short, there is a deeper problem here, a sort of mass pathology, as Paul Berman wrote about so eloquently here.

A couple more useful links here and here, and my own observations when I returned to France in 2014 and 2015, regarding what I viewed as a clear improvement in just how well integrated the French Muslim population had become.

Of course, there are neighbourhoods that are a mess — Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 riots erupted, comes to mind. To some degree this is the result of a “hands-off” approach – a big mistake that comes from cultural relativism, moral equivalency, political correctness…and fear, I imagine. A bad idea by any other name is a bad idea. We in the West have become cowards (I blame Baby Boomers). We are unwilling to protect values that have been centuries in the making, values from which every group could benefit. This is currently playing out in Germany and other parts of Europe. When people won’t integrate or obey the law, there is nothing unreasonable or bigoted about jailing them or deporting them if they are not legal or talking honestly about the problem, rather than trying to hide it for fear of appearing intolerant. Islamism is not Islam and it shouldn’t be difficult to say as much.

I believe such an approach would make life better for those who want to assimilate (and by assimilate, I don’t mean giving up one’s religion or freedom of worship). There is also nothing unreasonable with making sure refugees/immigrants are carefully vetted.

I am an idealist. I see no reason that Becaud’s lyrics can’t reflect reality. And in many ways I think they do.

See here two pictures taken last March, when I was in Paris. The first is a plaque from inside the Grand Mosque of Paris, commemorating Muslim soldiers who died for France in World War II. The second is a plaque honouring a ‘spahi’ – regiments of the French army recruited primarily from the Maghred – who died during the liberation of Paris.

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Growing Middle-Aged Gracefully

I am trying to age gracefully, largely because I do not have the money to do so any other way. But in a fit of depression about the marionette lines developing from my nose down to my chin (think Angela Merkel, who has a lot more on her mind than I do), I decided to have a consultation with a doctor about getting Juvederm injections. The consultation was free and you did not have to commit to anything, so I figured, “information is good.” I had been told by a friend of mine who has used the product that Juvederm, sold by the syringe, can make a huge difference in one’s appearance and that one syringe, at $500, could soften lines (the effects of which had the added benefit of lasting over 18 months).

What follows is a from-memory (obviously, I didn’t tape the conversation) transcription of my meeting with this doctor, who was an attractive Russian lady with a very no-nonsense way about her.

Doctor Russian Lady: Please to be telling me what you wish for.

Me: Well, I am wondering about using a filler, and I just wanted to know what the least amount of it I could use is, I mean, the least amount that would make a difference and that wouldn’t look freakishly unnatural. I don’t have a lot of money, so I was thinking one syringe maybe and…

DRL: (Frowning, staring at me, pulls out pad and pen and writes a bunch of stuff down. Shows me what she has written, with the number $1900 at the bottom.) First I am using Botox on gigantic wrinkles on gigantic forehead, and then three syringes of Juvederm on deep creases on face. You are having uneven creases, so I will to be using more on left side of face than right. Also you are having jowls, which I will help prop up and then you are needing injections on thin lips.

Me: (Feeling suicidal, having been previously unaware of just how hideous I am.) Well, um, first of all, I really don’t want to look unnatural. I don’t want puffy lips. And I mean, yeah, they’re thin, but you know, I mean, er, I make jokes about having lips like Heinrich Himmler, but I really don’t think I do. Do I?

DRL: Lips are not like lips of Heinrich Himmler or any other person from Third Reich. By the way, my grandfather died at Stalingrad fighting German devils.

Me: Wow. Well, bless him. My uncle, too. I mean, not at Stalingrad, but…

DRL: Yes, was hero in Great Patriotic War. But the reason you are needing fuller lips is that you are having gigantic forehead and face does not look balanced. Fuller lips will balance gigantic forehead.

Me: Well, I just don’t want those fish lips you see on ladies.

DRL: I am not to be giving you fish lips. Full lips. Like Angelina Jolie.

Me: Well, hers are kinda fishy. Anyway, she’s Angelina Jolie. That’s different. And I really don’t think my forehead is gigantic.

DRL: Yes, is enormous. You are looking like Tweety Bird.

Me: (Close to tears, trying to form sentences…)

DRL: (Sensing, finally, that I am upset.) No! No! Gigantic forehead is good thing. When I was student at V.I. Lenin Institute of Neurology for the Great Soviet People, we were being taught that big forehead is meaning big brain.

Me: I don’t know about that.

DRL: But you are just needing some balancing with fuller lips.

Me: Yeah, but you know, I really was just concerned about my marionette creases. I’m starting to look like Angela Merkel.

DRL: (Stares in disbelief.) You are looking nothing like Angela Merkel. Angela Merkel is dumpy German lady with bowl cut.

Me: Right. Well, I’m glad I don’t look like that, I guess, but I just was trying to make a little joke, you know.

DRL: Ah. Is humour?

Me: Yeah. I just was trying to give an example of someone with those marionette lines. I mean, I feel bad saying that because she is way more accomplished than I will ever be, and she certainly has a lot on her plate and…

DRL: Yes, yes. So $1900 you are looking fresh and with full lips and not fish lips and with no wrinkles on gigantic, enormous forehead.

Me: Right. Well, that is a bit out of my price range.

DRL: I can give 10% discount.

Me: I need more like an 80% discount.

DRL: Please to be leaving.