Monday, July 29, 2013

What Do You Do For A Living? Reasons To Fear Office Parties And Doctor's Offices

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Whatever job I don't have, at least I wasn't chauffeur to a turkey

I guess beginning today I can officially put “writer.”  If I say it, it must be true?

At what point does a woman who loves to put words on paper shift from being a language hobbyist to someone whose occupation is “writer”?  I’m still trying to figure that out.  Trying on the word for size.

This week begins my MFA program in Creative Nonfiction at Ashland University.  Two school years and three summer residencies of writing writing writing.  And more writing.  I’m pretty sure at the end of it all I would have earned the title of “writer.”  But if a writer writes in the woods and nobody publishes her, is she really a writer?

What to call myself has been a point of distress of many years.  I spent two decades teaching college students.  I had a title and a desk and a place to go to at 8:00 a.m. every Monday.  On this strength of these circumstances I could request free books from publishers on the pretext that I might teach them in some future class.  I had an unending supply of pens.  I had a paycheck.  I had something to say on our annual income tax forms.

After I stopped teaching to care for those in the family who needed my attention more than college freshmen I suddenly found myself Nobody.  Time after time I would hit that dreadful line on some doctor’s registration form, or income tax form, or someone would ask at a party “What do you do?” and I’d stumble.  What did I do?

As a female raised at the height of feminist struggles, it grated to think of putting down “housewife.”  Even my mom had gone to an office every day since I was in grade school.  She may have been one of a pool of secretaries – imposed upon, ignored, underpaid and over worked, without whom the school could not operate – but at least she could tell people, “I’m a secretary.”
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My aunt was one, too.  Only she worked for a High-Powered Executive in a major corporation in my hometown.  According to the rules, secretaries were allowed to earn only so much.  Their salary was capped and there they would stay until they retired.  However, the HPE for whom she worked thought she was worth more than that.  So to get her justly deserved raises, he would give her new titles every couple of years.  He understood, being a HPE, that a title had weight.

But I had no title.  No weight in the world.  I had nothing to say when people asked the inevitable get-acquainted question.  I couldn’t bear to say “I’m a housewife” because I knew that’s not really who I was inside.  Yet I had nothing out there to mark the passing of my day or week.  No schedules kept.  No meetings to make with other people who wore suits and had schedules.  No promotions or raises or people to give external validation.  Plenty of work to keep me busy, but no job.

A few years ago when this little thought of trying to be a writer bubbled up, I started putting “self-employed” on those forms.  It wasn’t exactly like I had a job and made a salary and contributed significantly to any line on our income tax form.  It wasn’t a phrase that committed me to any particular profession.  But I was writing.  If a writer writes in the woods and nobody publishes her, is she a writer?

Writer and social media guru for writers Kristen Lamb recently told her own story about claiming the title “writer.” She takes us through all of the “failures” she experienced which just happened to look like “success” to everyone else.  By her definition, a failure is a direction that doesn’t fulfill your specific destiny.  To find her success she had to say no to everything else and just write. “I had to let go of amateur thinking,” she said, “and take my job seriously, even if no one could walk into a bookstore and buy my book (yet).”  She bravely called herself a writer before anyone else did.

As of today I’m in a writing program surrounded by other people putting words to paper until someday somebody out there might call them writers.  But whether or not somebody out there says that to me anytime soon, I’m officially claiming the title.

To be continued . . . .
Clearly he's not concerned at the moment with what labels he might carry
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Do you have a label or title that you love or hate?  Are you searching for a new one?  What one word would you most like to put on the “occupation” line of any form – circus bareback rider, astrophysicist, professional chocolate tester? What do you think when you think success?  Share who you are in the comments box.

Monday, July 8, 2013

7 Tips For Looking Like the Average French Woman

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When talking French fashion, it’s usually all about what’s on the Paris runways or Hollywood red carpets.  There are plenty of blogs, magazines, and style television programs to make most of us feel like abject fashion failures.  After spending enough time in Dijon (“The Midwest of France!” should be its official motto) I’ve realized it’s not that hard to be that French woman you meet on the street, as opposed to that one on the runway or in Paris.

If you thought you might like to try on a bit of French style without dieting down to size 00 or strutting through the supermarket in 4-inch stilettos, have no fear.  Just pick a couple of these tips (#5 is the most difficult) and soon you’ll be showing that certain je ne sais quoi.  Your friends will start to wonder if you have a secret second home on the Continent.

1) Comfortable doesn’t have to be dull

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The unofficial motto of Dijon is “A Pied”  (“on foot”) because it’s citizens walk everywhere, except when they take the bus or tram.  However, that doesn’t mean the women clomp around in Nikes all day.  I firmly believe that these women have feet of steel from all that walking because none of their shoes show the slightest bit of arch support.  Ouch.

2) Black is the best color

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except when it isn’t

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Black may be the go-to color in Paris or the other larger cities, but around here variations of taupe work all year round (or gray in winter).  It seems to be the favorite of women past their twenties.  Like black, everything can go with it but it’s not as depressing.  Or you can just go wild with color and pretend you’re strolling along the Mediterranean.

3) The right accessories are essential

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4) There’s never an inappropriate place to wear a wedding dress

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Most weddings in town are held on Saturday.  The official marriage takes place at the city hall, then all the couples disperse throughout the city for church ceremonies.  It can be a wonderfully festive day, what with brides filling the streets as they walk to the marriage court and bells pealing all afternoon and into the evening after the church weddings.

5) Eat this for lunch

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Not this 

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6) You don’t need high-tech moisture-wicking fabric and expensive footwear before you get up and move your body.  Or a gym membership.  You can even ride your bike in a flowing skirt.

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Sunday afternoon is the day for promenades.  Everyone gets out and walks somewhere.  Or rides their bike.  It’s a family thing.  And it doesn’t require changing clothes or heavy sweating.
7) Start the training young.

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What’s your favorite bit of style advice?  Or what’s your worst experience from being a slave to fashion?  Tell us in the comments box.
And I’d like to direct everyone’s attention over to a special post written by one of my favorite bloggers.  Start on Annette Gendler’s blog to see photos of her grandparents’ home in the Czech Republic before World War II, then click over to her essay in the Wall Street Journal to get the full story.  It’s a touching memory of a place she had never been until long after her grandparents were gone.  Well worth your time.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Emergency -- Restrain Your French Snuffbox Now!

Paint could never improve this scene

“souche enduite sur cour (la face de la souche, situé à l’aplomb du pignon, est en bon état et n’est donc pas concernée par les travaux”

“suppression de tabatière
depose du chassis existant”

“Suite à chute d’enduit chez le voisin côté rue Berlier il est aussi nécessaire de procéder au travaux de réfection du pignon et des cheminées situées à l’aplomb et ce afin d’éviter de nouvelles chutes d’enduit qui pourraient se reveler dangereuses ou occasionner de dégâts aux biens situés en dessous (verrière) – 11 000€

Nobody ever told me it would cost so much to learn French.  And I still don’t understand a thing.

Soon after Brad and I arrived in town one of our neighbors encountered us on the stairs and started waving her arms and spewing out French with such urgency that it sounded like the apocalypse was coming.  She slapped her hand, hard, several times on the wall of the apartment building and said, in English, “see – not falling down.”  She repeated often “tres cher, tres cher,” then asked in broken English if we were going to be at the meeting.

Meeting?  What meeting?  We hadn’t even had time to stock our refrigerator and put sheets on our bed.

Lucky us.  We arrived in town just in time for a condo association meeting, otherwise known as Assemblée Generale.  Oh, yeah.  The fun doesn’t end once you buy that dream apartment in France.  Apparently while we were on the plane heading to France, a folder of documents an inch thick was taking its own trip across the ocean in the opposite direction with all the questions of order for the meeting.  So we went to the syndic, or property managers, to get a copy and prepare ourselves.

And so that’s one reason why I’ve not been keeping you up to date with life here.  I’ve been translating descriptions of renovations requested, both d’urgence and idéal.  I’ve been trying to understand vocabulary I never got in a single French class, like what exactly is a souche?  It’s either a stump or a person of “pure French origin” – neither of which I see standing in my courtyard, but at least it was pas concernée.  Whew!

It took awhile to discover that we didn’t have an urgent need for suppression of a snuffbox on the roof, but rather needed to do something about a skylight.  But that matter was reserved for a vote at a later time, so I have a few more months to figure out why it’s a threat and needs to restrained.

There's more than one way to brighten an old window

French language flew at the meeting.  My brain held on by its fingernails, but with French people talking over French people and debate happening up front and in the chairs all around me it took every degree of focus not to collapse into a language meltdown.  Brad understood about every third word, which was two or three times better than me.

Votes for action are divided according to how many square meters you own in the building.  That means that we wield tremendous power, the second highest of all property owners.  Which can be fun if you want to throw your weight around and bend the world to your will.  Not so great if you don’t know the issues, don’t understand the language, and every vote “yes” will cost you more money than your neighbors.  So we were stuck between the American mindset of fixing things now so they don’t become a bigger problem/expense later and wanting to be good neighbors with these people we hadn’t met (except for the one who we knew was very much against all renovations).

Since we also vote in order of our power (theoretically), Brad made a request to vote last.  If he could understand where the majority stood, that’s where we were going, too, for our first meeting.  Not as easy as it seems, however, since questions were thrown up for votes before we even could figure out that the debate was over.  The meeting leader would then say “Et monsieur?” -- leaving Brad to quickly calculate which way everyone had voted.

My one contribution, aside from – well, nothing much – was to insist we vote oui to fund repairs to a pipe that seemed to be causing problems in a downstairs neighbor’s space.  The cost was small compared to goodwill we could build.

So after all of this, pignon is still a mystery to me.  We received dark, grainy photocopies of a picture of the chimney taken from the ground, so I still don’t know where the gear is that is so essential to keep part of the roof or chimney from falling off and creating chaos on the sidewalk below.  However, that’s in the category of d’urgence and it costs 11 000€, about 2 000€ of that covered by us.  The facture, or bill, will show up in our American mailbox later.

And so this mid-life love affair comes with a cost.  The American side of me wants to call a work day where we all roll up our sleeves, rent some tall ladders and a power washer, and get to work painting the ironwork with anti-rust paint, cleaning the walls, and scraping/repainting the wood window frames and historic shutters.  I’ve already pulled a few weeds in the courtyard and plan to do some more before I leave.  But I’m not sure that’s the French way (especially since no one suggested it).

So it’s back home to learn the language of marquise, echafaudage, protection sur chantier (a big one since we’re in an historic district), and maybe – just maybe – souche.  When they all vote oui at least I’ll know what it’s for.  And maybe, eventually, I’ll have enough language skills to be brave enough to vote whatever way I think is best.

Are you a do-it-yourselfer?  Tell us in the comments box any home renovation stories you have -- at home or abroad.  Or language stories from when you were in over your head.

Roses improve everything

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