Archive for the 'Opinion' Category

July 17th, 2020

Not Really OK

There’s a social convention whereby people say, “How are you?” as a dressed-up synonym for hello. It’s not really an inquiry about your well-being, just an empty greeting, and the only allowable answer is “Fine. You?” We all know this.

However, in recent months, quite a few people—friends, colleagues, doctors, my kids’ teachers, and others—have asked a different sort of question. Something along the lines of “So tell me seriously. How are you and your family holding up these days? With, you know, everything that’s going on. Do you need anything? Are you OK?” Words to that effect, anyhow. More elaborate phrasings meant to convey that the inquiry is sincere rather than perfunctory, and that an honest response is welcomed.

So I answer truthfully. And for months, the honest answer has been: Not OK at all. I, and we, are in fact doing quite poorly. Since you asked.

Well, then brows furrow and expressions turn more serious and more detail is sought.

“Do you have…The Thing? Like, are you seriously ill?”

No. So far, at least, no one in my family has had symptoms more serious than the occasional headache or allergy-induced sniffles. As far as I know, we haven’t come in contact with anyone who has The Thing. Physically, we’re fine.

“Oh. Well, did you lose your job? Do you need money?”

Again, no. In terms of money, we’re no worse off than before. We’re not rich, but we’re in no immediate danger of going hungry or losing our home. Financially, we’re fine.

I’ve been through so many variations of those two questions that I now just summarize: No, we’re ambulatory and solvent (for now, anyway). Moving on.

Further questions may involve an inadequate supply of paper products (nope, we have plenty), the lack of social contact (not a problem for us introverts), uncertainty about the future (no worse than usual, I suppose), or worries about extended family (everybody’s safe, thanks). And sure, we’ll make the usual complaints about the incompetent government and systemic racism and the ridiculous state of the world in general, the United States in particular, and especially that specific idiot right over there who’s not wearing a mask. But that’s no different from anyone else and it’s not why we aren’t OK.

So then we have to spell it out.

We have two young kids at home. One is ten years old and sad not to be around his friends and away from school, but he’s coping admirably with everything, and soldiering through the distance learning and the boredom. He’s not at his happiest, but he’s fine. We’re super proud of him.

Our six-year-old, however, is autistic, is non-speaking, has a bunch of developmental and learning disabilities, and has severe problems with emotional regulation, to the point that he is on two different psychiatric meds to reduce the chances of him hurting himself or others, both of which things have occurred quite a few times. He is also not yet potty-trained, and has had significant lifelong sleep problems, despite the interventions of various doctors.

And you know what? That is all OK, even though in some respects it also sucks. We love and accept our son, and we deal with the hard things, because that’s what parents do.

Or at least we were dealing with the hard things.

In the beforetimes, our son was not only in a special-ed classroom at school (with an amazing and caring teacher) but also had a full roster of specialists helping him out with his various areas of need: speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, adaptive physical education, and so on. We also, during some periods of time, had folks coming to our house to work with him, and the (very) occasional babysitter or respite provider for a few hours here and there of grown-up time.

But we’ve had none of that since March. And now that we know schools won’t be open for in-person instruction in the fall, we have no idea when anyone other than the two of us will be able to help care for him in any way. It’s just us, at home, all the time.

Our son requires constant—and I do mean constant—attention, to the point that we have to have negotiations about when one of us can go to the bathroom so we’re sure an adult is within reach at all times. Leave him alone for five minutes and we’re very likely to have a tantrum, broken objects, bruises, and oh I don’t know, how about swallowed cat litter? That sort of thing.

When his school switched to distance learning, teachers started daily Zoom calls and everyone was eager to give us long lists of web-based activities. Unfortunately, our son is unable to use videoconferencing as a means of communication. He can’t speak, he can’t type, and he understands only a fraction of what he hears. And he doesn’t have a conceptual grasp of someone on a screen trying to interact with him. We’ve tried dozens of times, and it just goes nowhere. He also has close to zero tolerance for all the screen-based educational activities, matching games, read-along stories, and other stuff the school district so eagerly pushes.

Where that leaves us is that any education, therapy, or other attention he’s going to get has to come from us, the parents. The best anyone has been able to do is try to coach us on how to be his stand-in teachers.

The thing is, the fact that we’re at home all day, every day, doesn’t mean we don’t have to work. We have jobs—jobs that require actual work to occur many hours a day if we expect to remain solvent—and we can’t do our work while also attending to our child’s every need during his waking hours (which, as I indicated, are far too many and not at ideal times). I’m now dangerously, desperately behind on crucial work projects and slipping further behind every day.

Even before the governor issued statewide guidance about under what circumstances schools may or may not be open, our school district announced that the 2020–2021 school year would begin with distance learning only, further developments TBD depending on what happens with the pandemic. And let me just say: in terms of public health, that is absolutely the right call, and I agree with it.


Not all students are capable of being educated remotely. Our older son is; our younger son is not. So for all the rhetoric that education is non-negotiable, as far as we can tell, neither the state nor the school district has any plan to address the educational and developmental needs of children like ours who absolutely, positively cannot and will not learn by looking at a computer screen and for whom parental instruction is not feasible. His needs are not being met, not by a long shot, and neither are ours.

Thus the irreconcilable facts are:

  • It’s currently impossible (meaning unsafe and/or illegal) for our son to attend school or receive other in-person care appropriate to his needs.
  • Our child’s disabilities make it impossible for him to learn remotely.
  • We, the parents, lack the skills, the time, and the energy to meet his educational needs; and we desperately need to work.

You can see how that puts us in a no-win situation.

And, as a bonus fact, we are emotionally at the ends of our ropes. We have never gone so long without any quiet time alone (separately or jointly), and it’s driving us (especially my wife) positively bonkers. We’re perpetually anxious, grumpy, impatient, and agitated, but not for the same reasons as most people.

When someone asks how I’m doing and I say, “not OK” and then explain all this, the response is usually awkward silence followed by changing the subject. Because what can anyone say? What’s wrong isn’t a problem that can be solved with money or food or time or medicine. I have an intractable problem, with no realistic hope of a solution in the foreseeable future, and that is why I am not OK.

Of course, that’s not entirely true. Someone could solve my problem, and that person is the specific idiot right over there who’s not wearing a mask. Yes, you. You—and everyone else who seemingly care so little about other human beings that you would rather risk destroying lives than suffer the tiniest inconvenience or the barest slight to your image. You could fix this whole thing in a matter of weeks. You could, but the evidence I’ve seen so far suggests that you probably won’t. I may have no recourse but to stop wearing deodorant and washing my clothes. Then I can at least guarantee you’ll stay (much more than) six feet away from me.

I kid, but not really. Like many other people in similar situations, I’m very much not OK, and I’m surrounded by people who seem committed to keeping me that way.

Since you asked.

March 31st, 2013

Interesting Thing of the Day Turns 10!

Hard to believe, but 10 years ago I started a little site called Interesting Thing of the Day. The site has been on autopilot for a long time, and although I previously had grand plans to resurrect it this weekend with a flurry of publicity and bad puns, that hasn’t happened. In any case, to mark the occasion, I wrote an essay pondering the past and present of the site called Thoughts on the 10-year Anniversary of Interesting Thing of the Day.

January 13th, 2010

Having Our Baby in France

When Morgen and I announced that we’re expecting a baby, we were surprised and somewhat baffled at the large number of people who almost immediately asked, “So, are you going to have the baby in France?” That seems like such a silly question that I almost don’t want to dignify it with an answer, but I think that the frequency with which we’ve been asked and the strength of our reactions both say interesting things about what people assume.

Before I go any further, let me be completely clear and unambiguous. Yes, we’re going to have the baby in France!

I’ve been trying to think of a good analogy for how this question sounds to us. It’s almost like asking, “Do you mean to tell me that after everything you went through to get this job, and all the long hours you put in at work, you’re actually going to accept a paycheck from your employer?” That seems so nonsensical that I can’t fathom why anyone would ask, except to make a joke. But clearly the people asking whether we plan to experience childbirth in France aren’t kidding!

On a few occasions, I’ve inquired as to what prompted this question, and at other times I’ve had to make educated guesses. Although I don’t entirely understand this phenomenon yet, I’ve been able to piece together a few common threads.

But I Knew Someone…
A couple of times, people have mentioned to me that they knew (or knew of) a pregnant woman who was living overseas but who came back to North America to have her baby, and apparently this is a frequent enough occurrence that it’s built up some sort of precedent in the collective unconscious. I imagine the thinking goes, “If so-and-so did it, then she must have had a very good reason, and since you’re smart, you probably know what that reason is and will therefore do the same thing.”

Surely some significant percentage of these women had extenuating circumstances. Maybe they were living abroad on a short-term basis anyway, and felt this was a logical reason to curtail their stay. Perhaps they were living in underdeveloped areas with poor medical facilities and were uncomfortable with the associated risks. Or maybe their situation was such that there was an important legal, financial, or logistical reason not to stay put when they gave birth. I can’t say, but since women have successfully given birth in all parts of the world for many millennia, it seems to me that flying to another country for the occasion would be a rare exception, rather than the rule! (Besides, even if we did want to do so for some reason, we couldn’t afford to—but more on that in a moment.)

The Homing Instinct
One reason people ask if we’re staying here to have the baby—and, undoubtedly, the main reason many women return to their country of origin to give birth—is the expectation that a woman will naturally want to be at home, and ideally surrounded by family and friends, when she delivers and in the early months of motherhood. That’s certainly reasonable as far as it goes, but it rubs us the wrong way because it implies that France isn’t our home!

We moved to France in mid-2007, and we’ve lived here ever since. I understand that some people move to another country temporarily or experimentally, leaving what they regard as their “real” homes behind, but we have no home other than our Paris apartment. If we ever were to move back to North America, it wouldn’t be a matter of going home, but instead of finding a new home. Although I don’t categorically rule out the possibility of doing that some day, the fact is that we’re happy here now, and see no compelling need to move anywhere else in the foreseeable future. So, we very much do want to be near home during and after the birth, and that doesn’t require us to go anywhere!

Of course, even though we’ve made lots of good friends here in Paris, it’s true that most of our family members, and older friends, will be inconveniently located on other continents. We’ll miss having them here (as we always do) and very much hope to arrange visits in one direction or the other (hint!) as soon as we can. But those relationships didn’t prevent us from moving here in the first place, and we think of this special event as just another part of our lives that, unfortunately, we can’t share with all of our loved ones.

Other people worry about citizenship. I’m an American; Morgen is Canadian by birth but also has U.S. citizenship. If our child is born abroad, our friends worry, will he or she be able to be an American and/or Canadian citizen? Yes, absolutely. Although laws regarding citizenship vary from one country to the next, the general principle is that a child inherits the parents’ citizenship(s). In some cases, the child also acquires citizenship of the country in which he or she is born, if different. In our particular circumstances, U.S. citizenship for the child will be automatic, and Canadian citizenship more or less a formality. (According to legislation passed recently in Canada, a child born outside the country to a Canadian parent can have Canadian citizenship but can’t pass that citizenship on to his or her own children, unless they’re born inside Canada.)

French citizenship is a bit trickier. Since we’re not French citizens, the child isn’t automatically French, but can obtain citizenship at the parents’ request, if still resident in France, at age 13. (That’s just one path, however; see other options also exist.) So, in theory, our child could eventually have citizenship in three countries. Apart from having to deal with a considerable amount of paperwork, juggling passports, and the irritation of potentially not being able to pass on Canadian citizenship to a future generation, I see nothing to worry about there. (In fact, quite the reverse: if we want our child to have the option of French citizenship, giving birth here is certainly the simplest way to get it! And we do think that’s a tremendous advantage.)

In fact, I can think of only one notable way in which we as expatriate parents may be limiting our child’s future options by giving birth here in France. As things currently stand, one cannot become President of the United States unless born on U.S. soil (even if born to American parents and therefore a U.S. citizen from birth). I’ve always found this rule somewhat baffling, and one occasionally hears talk about a movement to relax it. (For example, when Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California, he tried for some time to build support for changing the rules so that he could one day run for President, but the effort failed to generate much public enthusiasm.) I wish I could say I will feel very sorry about imposing this career limitation on our offspring, but I think other potential occupations are sufficiently numerous and interesting that none of us need lose any sleep over the matter.

Insurance and Healthcare
Yet another reason for asking us this question, and the one that leaves me most puzzled, is the idea that having our baby in France somehow puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to healthcare. Nothing could be further from the truth!

First of all, there’s the minor matter of health insurance. In a nutshell: we have it here, but we don’t have it (and couldn’t, at this point, get it) in the United States. Perhaps that would be immaterial to someone with enough cash to pay for expensive medical procedures out of their own pockets, but that’s not us!

Like most people in France, we’re enrolled in the national health insurance program, l’Assurance Maladie (a part of the country’s social security system); we also have a mutuelle, or third-party “top-up” plan that pays for pretty much anything not covered by the standard insurance (such as a private room at the hospital). None of this is free; a considerable percentage of our income goes to pay for our health coverage. But it’s less expensive, on the whole, than what we paid in the United States for private health insurance. And crucially, the whole notion that one may be denied insurance coverage, or lose existing coverage, due to a preexisting condition or treatment that turned out to be inconveniently expensive, is utterly unknown here. Nor do French people worry that they’ll encounter sudden, massive increases in their insurance rates or bump into an arbitrary cap on benefits.

But back in the States, we’d be up a creek. I have no employer that could enroll us in their corporate insurance program, so we’d have to purchase private insurance. Alas, my wife has a pretty obvious preexisting condition! Even if we somehow managed to get health insurance, it probably wouldn’t cover pregnancy or delivery. And God forbid that there should be any expensive complications; we could be paying off hospital bills until the child goes to college! Perhaps the healthcare reforms being contemplated in the United States will eventually change all this, but our baby can’t wait for the politicians and insurers to come to their senses. (Even in Canada, which has a variety of socialized healthcare, my wife wouldn’t be able to get coverage until she’d reestablished residency, which would mean a three-month wait.)

[Update: @schollem pointed out that some U.S. states, including California, don’t allow insurance companies to treat pregnancy as a preexisting condition. That’s good to know, although Morgen and I have each had the experience (with different insurance companies, both in California) of being turned down for new private policies on the basis of other preexisting conditions that were utterly trivial. Although we managed to appeal those decisions successfully, it makes me think insurance companies are looking for any possible excuse not to provide coverage, and something tells me they’d try extra hard in our case!]

Leaving aside the issue of money, France consistently ranks first in the world (or very close) in healthcare quality. Although I realize everyone has different experiences, we’ve received uniformly helpful, prompt, and competent medical care here. We like our obstetrician and midwife a great deal (they even speak English, a lovely bonus), and our clinic even has a really expensive machine that goes “Bing!” which inspires a great deal of confidence.

(Update) Language Issues
Right after I initially posted this, @cutestmidget brought up a good point:

REALLY interesting post! only 1 thing missing – the reason I ask the question : “do you feel your french is good enough?”

i’m fluent but it’d worry me that things might go wrong & all french wld fly out of my head (& that’s me with a french hubby!)

Our French is passable but nowhere near fluent, and especially sucky under pressure! I can easily imagine that if we felt completely unable to communicate with our healthcare professionals, that alone might make us consider traveling to an English-speaking country to give birth, despite all the other issues. However, we’ve both had various medical procedures done here and managed to get through everything OK even with the language barrier, and since the medical group we’re with has several English-speaking practitioners (two ob/gyns and at least one midwife) we like and trust, this issue doesn’t cause us any undue stress.

But I guess my feeling is that if you choose to live in a foreign country, dealing with the language is just one of those things you sign up for. We’ve had to face other stressful situations in which our lack of fluency made things worse, but if we weren’t willing to put ourselves through that, I don’t think we’d be living here at all.

(I was sorely tempted to give a smart-ass response, such as: “Morgen knows all the French she needs to give birth—the words for ‘push’ and ‘epidural’ and ‘Aaaaaeeeeiiiioooowwww!’—so she should be in good shape!” But that would be completely insensitive and wrong, so I’d never say that…)

The Hexagon of Life
I’d be lying if I said we weren’t the least bit apprehensive. But I think most of our anxiety is of the same sort all future parents feel, and not specific to being in France. What it all comes down to for us is that we live here. Moving here was difficult, and staying here often is, too. But we endure all the hassles, by choice, because we love Paris so much! We expected that the rewards of living here would far outweigh the inconveniences, and we’ve found that to be true. We’re excited about passing on to our child our fondness for all things French, and envious of the many opportunities he or she will be afforded by her multicultural, multilingual upbringing. And there’s no better place than Paris to get celebratory pastries after the blessed event!

August 23rd, 2007

On the meaning of “It’s a nice day”

If you were to ask most Parisians what the weather has been like this summer, they’d say it’s been awful. Not me—I’ve found July and August to be delightful: mostly cool and overcast. It’s raining as I type this, and I concede that the rain has been a bit more frequent than I’d prefer. But on the whole, I’m very happy with the weather. A day without much sun is a nice day in my book; hot, bright, cloudless days are in fact my least favorite of all. So if you tell me it’s a nice day because it’s sunny, and I reply along the lines of “Sure, if you like that sort of thing,” don’t think I’m making a joke.

I’ve said from time to time that I like sunshine well enough, as long as I can enjoy it from the comfort of a cool, shady room. I like the look of sunshine; I just don’t like being out in it. People seem to think this is an extremely odd preference, and when I mentioned this a few weeks ago in my Interesting Thing of the Day article on Paris Plages, one reader worried that I might get so little sunlight that I was in danger of suffering a Vitamin D deficit! I assure you that I’m not a troll or a vampire, and I do spend plenty of time outdoors during the day. However…

  • I don’t like the heat. I was a bit concerned that we might arrive in France in the middle of another heat wave, like the deadly one here a few years ago. Notwithstanding the fact that I often go on vacations to warm places, I just don’t deal well with heat, and I particularly dislike being drenched in sweat. It was a relief to find that summer has been cool here, especially since air conditioning is uncommon in France.

  • I don’t like bright light. Maybe my eyes are overly sensitive to light, I don’t know. But even on a cloudy day I seem to end up squinting a lot, or else wearing sunglasses. It’s a bother.

  • I don’t like getting sunburned. I burn fairly easily, and as I remarked in my Truffles for Breakfast post Sun, sand, Seine, I had a rather severe sunburn when I was in high school, which has made me extra cautious ever since. Applying sunscreen is a pain, especially since my limbs are hairy, and it’s not something I care to do multiple times every day. On the other hand, if I keep covered up with clothing, that just makes me hotter. A better solution, for me, is not to be in the sun in the first place.

  • I like clouds. I’m happy to see blue sky, but equally happy to see big fluffy clouds filling it up. And even a completely overcast sky is perfectly OK.

  • I actually like the nighttime better. I’ve always been a night owl—stay up late, get up late. I’m happy that way. I don’t think I could ever become completely nocturnal; that would just make life way too inconvenient. But I almost always prefer to be out at night rather than during the day.

Rain is another matter. During the first six months or so that I was living in Vancouver (this would have been late 1998, early 1999), it rained at least a little bit almost every single day. I have to say, that was kind of depressing. It’s not that I mind being wet as such, but dealing with the extra apparatus (umbrella, raincoat, whatever) to keep my clothes and belongings dry is an inconvenience. (On the other hand, I’m quite fond of fog—always have been.)

Likewise, cool is great and chilly is fine, but severely cold is unpleasant. I do enjoy spending a week or two every year in the snow, but frostbite isn’t really preferable to sunburn, and once again, I don’t like all the extra layers and gear required to keep oneself warm when it’s extremely cold outside.

Context, however, does make a difference. For example, back in 1993–1994 I was living in Pittsburgh. That winter was especially brutal, and I remember reading at the time that Pittsburgh was the nation’s least sunny city, with an average of only 59 days of sunshine per year. Even for me, that was too much; weather was an important factor in deciding to move from there to San Diego, rather than to Buffalo, which had been the other leading contender. But then, other things about my situation in Pittsburgh were less than satisfactory, and in different circumstances I might have been more content with the weather there. As for San Diego, it was pretty sunny, but at least it wasn’t too hot—and, happily, there was plenty of fog too.

Surely I can’t be the only one who thinks about the weather this way, can I? There must be other people who don’t equate “hot and sunny” with “nice.” Don’t be embarrassed to say so. You’re entitled to your meteorological preferences.

In any case, yes, it’s a nice day here in Paris: gray and chilly, just the way I like it.