Last week in pictures

Another regular, we hope. The Mysterious Third Sister will be documenting our brilliant innovating posts with photos.
Here's what she gave this week:

"When I'm mad with syphillis..."

Maternal Instinct, anyone?


Marianne's famous Lemon Tart recipe, translated.

Due to popular demand (not in the comments section, I grant you – note to all the non-commenters out there, I wouldn't draw attention to myself if I were you. Let it pass!) we are now offering an English translation of Marianne's lemon tart recipe. We are working on the Japanese translation and it should come any time soon now.

250g flour
125g butter
2 eggs
30g sugar

Translator's note: you'd probably worked that one out. It's the grammes vs ounces thing that bothers you. Or the grammes vs cups if you're American. Well you'll just have to work that one out. Basically you take some flour, some butter a bit of sugar and a couple of eggs and you mix it all up. I'd leave the eggs out if I were you – do you know how much harder it is to make pastry with eggs? It's really hard to spread it afterwards. I think M. is trying to trip you here. Author's note : I am so not. If you don't add the eggs, it won't be as good.

The lemony thing on top.
2 lemons
2 eggs
75 g butter
20 g corn flour
230g sugar
4 tablespoons brown sugar
(TN: the tablespoons aren't American measures. They're just tablespoons.)

1-Take off your rings.
(TN: unless you're baking a cake for a Prince Charming and hoping he'll find the ring and want to marry you).
Mix all the ingredients for the pastry into a ball. Hit the damn thing! Get it before it gets you! Cover it with cling film, or gladwrap depending on which hemisphere you're cooking from, and bang it in the fridge for a while.
(TN: some freedom of interpretation here, but I think I got the general spirit. AN : She did).

2 - Pre-heat the oven at 180C, but you cannot go and have a coffee while it's heating as there is plenty more to do.
(TN: 180C = X F. You work it out. It's also gas mark something, again you work it out. If your oven is like mine and only has on and off settings, it doesn't matter much anyway. Also, if you're not French you may not be wanting to go out and buy a coffee, you may think you have time to nip down the pub for a quick pint, or to the mall for a latte – you don't. And also if you're cooking in the morning the pub might not be open).

3 -Grate the skin of the lemon (mind your fingers: you could hurt yourself badly, and also, it's a lemon tart, not a finger tart), and squeeze the fruit. It's best to use a juicer for that. Or ask someone who didn't just cut their fingers with the grate.
(TN: you can ask your children, they like squeezing lemons. Or even better, ask them to grate the lemon for you, that way you don't hurt your fingers).

4 - Beat the eggs and the sugar until fluffy; add the melted butter, the corn flour, and the lemon juice, and beat them all together. (TN: that should be pretty straightforward!)

5 - Roll out the pastry, and pierce it with a fork.
(TN: Ah, that's where you realise it's just not going to work because it's so damn hard to roll out egg pastry! I would love to know how many a cook has committed suicide because they could not roll out their egg pastry. Or gone out to buy the ready rolled out frozen kind, or a cake from the patisserie – just leave out the eggs I tell you! AN : Do not buy ready rolled pastry. Just do as I say for Christ's sake and ignore the translator!!)

6 - And the cherry on top (no, there is no cherry, it's just figure of speech!): the meringue. Once the tart is cooked, beat 3 egg whites very firmly together and add 50g of very fine sugar, while beating. Cover the tart with it, and draw a pretty picture with a knife, and put it in a very hot oven for 5 minutes. You can have your coffee, now, but drink it IN FRONT of the oven.
(TN: So M. didn't actually say we had to cook the tart did she? I don't think it's a trick, as it would be a bit gooey raw. So I'd bang it in the oven for half hour or so. AN : Oh my! I forgot!! Cook it for 40 minutes!!Or until it smells cooked – which is what it smells like just before it starts smelling burnt. If you've got one of these ovens with a proper seal on the door you might not be able to smell it. In that case, better be scientific about it and ask Marianne how long it takes. Also, the advice re:coffee only works if it's an expresso. You won't have time to drink anything bigger and then it will get cold.)

7 - Leave the tart to cool now ( you can go out for your coffee/ nip down the pub for a quick one / go to the mall and buy a latte) and bang it in the fridge.

So now you know exactly how much work is involved – how good does it look? A bit scary? Or are you the kind of person who thinks very little of beating egg whites and rolling out egg pastry? Let us know!


Mary Wollstonecraft: The Musical

Mary Wollstonecraft: the Musical.

I have this idea. I want to do a musical. It will tell the life of 18th century feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. The set scenes will be from her childhood, protecting her mum from her drunk dad, being all lonely and thinking nobody loves her, wanting books. I hear some high pitched singing of a very melancholy song. Short. Then from her early adulthood, as a governess, a school teacher. A couple of songs: hectoring, enthusiastic, multi-tasking. Then work : a sung summary of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman would work well there, I think. It would start with a dialogue between her and Rousseau, with a puppy eyes beginning and Rousseau being cast out in the end, then Wollstonecraft pitched against a chorus led by Burke, and a grand finish with Wollstonecraft and chorus of women singing a song of hope for the future.
There'll be love stories, of course: her proposing a ménage à trois to her colleague Fuselli, and then the fickle American in Paris. And travelling: scenes from Portugal, Paris in the Revolution (with heads falling and all), melancholy journey through Sweden with a baby and a French maid. Next the suicide songs, when her lover leaves her and she fails to take her life twice. The marriage song, with Godwin, and last the death after childbirth song. Long and drawn out, with much blood and a weeping husband. I think that should make for a varied and fun program, don't you ? Who should I send the proposal too?

And I also want to do a cartoon version of Plato's Protagoras.


Outside my front door.

Each week, our mysterious third sister will be trying to keep up the photo-themes proposed by Sticky Fingers. Here's her first entry.

Outside my front door !

then I wake up...

I love it, though.


The Weekend Charter

Each weekend, you'll be getting a joint double post on a single theme – there and back, as it were. And there'll be extra features: in-flight menu, and in-flight movie, where we share our brilliant recipes and our unique cultural insights.

Once a month our flight will have a correspondence: that's you! We want readers to suggest themes – the sillier the better - and we'll pick one to write about. Not that we don't have plenty of silly ideas of our own, but we like a challenge!

So we're counting on you, in the comments or on facebook or twitter!

This month's Charter brings you Maternal Instinct.


A mother's love is irreplaceable (sigh)

I'm sorry to be harping on about these things in a particularly non-humorous way, but seeing as I'm writing a book on Wollstonecraft I can't very well avoid thinking about it. And if I have to suffer, I don't see why the rest of the world shouldn't. So here we go. The other day in class, we were playing around with one of those utterly senseless thought experiments: you wake in a hospital tied to a man who's in the next bed. You find out he's a world famous violinist suffering from a terrible disease and only you can cure him, by sharing your blood with him for nine months. Do you have an obligation to stay? The students all seemed to think that yes, you should stay, except if you're a woman who's a mother. So I ask whether the father of the children could not equally well take care of them, at which point they go all misty eyed and say that a mother's love is irreplaceable. Of course they can't tell me why.

I tell them I don't think my love for my children is irreplaceable just because I'm their mother and not their father. I don't think that's ever the case in families where the father is as involved in the children's life as the mother. But then again, there aren't that many of those around.

The students' eyes are no longer misty by then, they're becoming harsh, and they start talking about maternal instinct, which I clearly lack.

Well, it's not even clear that human beings have instinct. Used to, but that died out along with being hairy all over and painting in caves. Except for infants. When you hang your baby up on the washing line by its toes and it holds on, that's instinct. (Ok, so maybe my students had a point and I do lack maternal instinct). It's to do with the bit in the middle of the brain getting covered up, I think. Something wierd, physiological and complicated.

Ok, so some people, probably psychologists, would say that I'm taking the word instinct too literally. Nobody is saying that mothers haven't made it passed the prehistoric stage (yeah, you bet that's exactly what they're saying!) Instinct is something more subtle than that, some internalisation of popular wisdom, an ability to respond immediately, in an unreflexive way, appropriate to the situation. Fine, I don't deny I've got that. Many is the time when there's been a situation involving the children and I've responded quickly and unreflexively. Usually, that's when I'm trying to watch something on tv and they break something, or get hungry. You can imagine the kind of instinctual response I'm talking about.

In-flight movie

So I know every one is talking about it on the web, and there's pages and pages of 'lost theories'. But there's a couple of things I feel really need saying. First Sawyer is way hotter when he's on the right side of the law. Secondly, Richard, Ricardus, or Ricardo, whatever his name his, turns out to be a bit of a wimp. What's with all the mysterious non-ageing if he's only Jacob's servant? Does he eat bugs?

Just when I thought streaming couldn't get any better, I came across SKINS, a British show about teenagers in Bristol. It's called Skins because they get naked a lot and they, well, you know, skin up. (That just means rolling your own cigarettes, really). One good thing about it is that the principle actor is the little boy from About a Boy and he's all grown up. Put that together with information you've already got and that is plenty good enough reason to watch the show. Plus it's all gritty and humorous and deals with really issues and stuff, so you don't have to hide when you're watching it, like when you're watching Gossip Girl (oops, sorry I let that out).

That's all for now, as I don't want to let out any real spoilers.

And back...

On Maternal Instinct. Or not.

I love my children. I utterly adore them. Aside from the usual “no”, “shush” or “don’t bite your sister/brother”, I also say “I love you, but I’m not just your mommy, I had a life before you got here and I intend to keep some of it”. When I say this, my kids (6 and almost 3) have that dead fish stare and start asking why, or even better, just shrug and seem to think that it’ll pass and I’ll go back to normal anytime soon.

On the other hand, when their dad tells them to go see me or do something else because he’s busy, they’ll just do it. I was talking about this to someone the other day, and also complaining a little (OK, a lot) saying how I was doing all the children-related work and that I couldn’t understand how I was the only one to hear them scream at night, and here’s the answer I got : “Well, of course, you’re the mother”. I am going to say this once, and once only, so listen up: there is no such thing as maternal instinct. It does not exist. The survival instinct does, yes, that’s true. But maternal, nope. The fact that my kids think I’m all for granted and not their daddy just means that he drew the line way further than I did. Mothers are not more patient, they don’t have Bionic Woman’s hearing abilities, and they don’t need less sleep. They just deal with those things because society makes them. Instinct calls for natural, for action deprived of thought. Does that mean women stop being human beings and turn into animals when they have kids?

I’m not saying there’s no special bond between a mother and a child, I’m saying it is as special as the one he/she has with the dad. Different, sure, but just as special. You see, when people tell me about maternal instinct, a real instinctive reaction comes and urges me to punch them in the teeth. But since I’m not an animal and I can control myself, I don’t hit them. Why should I be any different towards my kids? Wouldn’t maternal instinct be something worrying if it existed?

Last night my little girl decided her bed was lame and ours was cool. She was pretty stubborn and ended up screaming, yelling, crying, waking her brother up who threatened to move to another house to get proper sleep. Now, instinctively, I would probably have told her to go sleep in the hall or kicked her in the arse or yelled like a mad woman. But since I’m a mother, and not an instinctual animal, I just told her endlessly that she had her bed, that it wasn’t lame at all and that I needed my sleep and my space at night. She fell asleep at 2 a.m. and woke up at 6 a.m. and said “I want my bottle now. I think my bed is lame and I want to sleep with you tonight”. Having no maternal instinct obviously does not make me good at this mother thing either, it seems.

In-flight Menu:

Recette de la tarte au citron meringuée : (if you want it in English, please post a comment and I’ll translate it. Also, you could start learning French. Or Japanese, for that matter. But it wouldn’t help you for the lemon pie.)

Pour la pâte :

250g de farine

125g de beurre

2 oeufs

30g de sucre


Pour la garniture :

2 citrons

2 œufs

75g de beurre

20g Maïzena (farine de maïs)

230 g de sucre

4 Cuillérées à soupe de sucre roux

  1. Enlever ses bagues. Pétrir les ingrédients pour la pâte et faire une boule. Attention ne pas y aller de main morte, c’est sportif. Recouvrir d’un film alimentaire et mettre au frigo pendant une heure.

  2. Préchauffer le four à 180°C mais on n’a pas le temps d’aller boire un café en attendant qu’il chauffe, y’a d’autres trucs à faire.

  3. Râper le zeste du citron (attention aux doigts : d’abord parce qu’on peut se faire très mal et ensuite, parce que c’est de la tarte au citron, pas de la tarte aux doigts) et presser les fruits. Là c’est mieux d’avoir une machine. Ou quelqu’un qui ne s’est pas coupé les doigts avec la râpe.

  4. Faire mousser les œufs et le sucre ; Ajouter le beurre fondu, la Maïzena, le jus de citron et bien mélanger au fouet.

  5. Etaler la pâte, piquer le fond et garnir

  6. Cerise sur le gâteau (non, non, y’a pas de cerise, c’est une expression) : la meringue. Une fois que la tarte est cuite, battre très fermement 3 blancs d’œufs puis incorporer toujours en battant 50g de sucre très fin. Recouvrir la tarte, faire un joli dessin au couteau et mettre au four très chaud sous le grill pendant 5 minutes. Se faire un petit café si on veut mais le boire DEVANT.

  7. Laisser refroidir tranquillement (là on peut même sortir le boire, le café) et mettre au frigo.

We wish you a pleasant flight!


When I'm mad from tertiary syphilis

When Nietzsche went mad, after kissing too many horses and contracting syphilis, he wrote to his best friend Overbeck to inform him that he was having all anti-semites abolished. Clearly, they'd been getting on his nerves a while and when the chips were down, he no longer saw the point in holding back.

When I go mad from syphilis, I too will want to settle a few scores. There'll be drivers who don't stop at crossings, people who don't give up their seats to pregnant women or to parents with small children, the boy who smokes in the women's toilet at work, students who don't bring their texts to class, people who butcher Bach on the piano while I'm trying to blog, and I could go on a while. But mostly, first to face the shooting squad, will be all those men who somehow think they're better, more entitled than the rest of the world just because they're men.

Note that just as Nietzsche wasn't ever persecuted by the anti-Semites (not being Jewish and all) I have been particularly lucky in escaping the male chauvinist. I am married to a man who is regularly cited by friends as an example of what a husband ought to be – i.e. one who does exactly half of all housework and childcare, even if you count the little things that always get forgotten in the lists and so that women end up doing. I have a great job doing exactly what I like, and I have yet to feel anything like discrimination in my place of work. I live in a country where people are too polite to tell me to my face what they think I should do or shouldn't do because I'm a foreigner. Also, I'm one of three sisters, who never had a brother to compare themselves to, or be compared to.

I'm lucky.

But a lot of women aren't. Most women were born in countries where even if they have equal rights on paper (and a lot don't) in practice they're always working harder for less. And even in places where supposedly feminism has won, most married women have long given up on their husbands doing their fair share at home – it's just not worth the battle. So when I was reading up on difference feminism this afternoon, women who claim that the law should recognise, rather than negate differences between men and women, I wondered. Would women be better off if they bit the bullet and did most of the childcare but at the same time claimed extra benefits and shorter working hours for it? It would certainly make sense for all those women who prefer not to go back to work full time when they've had a child. They would get recognition as mothers, as people who're working extra hard to repopulate the planet. But then I think of myself, and all those other women who don't really want to take that much time off. I think of the men who'd really quite like to stay home with their kids. Why should it just be a woman's thing and not a parent's thing? I think also of the real consequences of women working shorter hours than men: they'd get less done, so not be promoted and the glass ceiling would come down even lower. Things are bad enough as they are. As I said, I've yet to encounter and discrimination at work, but on the other hand, I'm the only woman in the department – aside from the departmental secretary.

It would be easy to see the world as one big phallocentric edifice – really not that hard. But then, it wouldn't be that much more difficult to see the world as an alien farming space, where martians grow humans to produce carbon dioxide, or compost, with the occasional abduction to regulate breeding. I'm not saying that's not happening, but if it is, what are you going to do about it? If the world truly is as phallocentric as some people say, then there's really no way out. On the other hand, if we believe the world isn't so male that we'd quite like to carve a place in it for ourselves, then we need to work on that! I guess that means a lot of arse kicking, and some hard thinking. It also means a lot of courage from men who'd like to stay at home to look after the kids and clean the house while their partner works outside. And a bit more understanding from the rest of the world.

I'm not sure Nietzsche would have approved...


I called my first boss Cruella. I think it was well deserved, even though she didn’t look one bit like her. She was – and still is, I believe – a fat red-head. Yes, “fat” is a strong word, and yes, for those who know me for real, I know I’m not a size 0 and never will be. But I am all against politically correct vocabulary. She’s fat and ugly. Now, maybe ugly isn’t nice, but fat is neither nice nor mean. Anyway, Cruella liked me instantly. She even had a nickname and I still shudder when I hear it. No one is allowed to call me that anymore, it’s almost like saying Voldemort out loud : you can be in real trouble. Anyway, she started hating me a couple of months after my arrival. She liked me because I did all she asked, and did it pretty well, and pretty fast. She hated me for the same reasons. When she realized I was basically doing her job and she was getting tired of people calling me instead of her, she started the War. Yes, capital “W”. Slowly, but surely, she told stories about me, then she wouldn’t answer when I spoke, and in the end, I wasn’t allowed to go inside her office. I think she basically wanted me dead when I got pregnant with my son while she’d been trying for two years. I left for maternity leave and she called me, a lot, until the day when I yelled at her on the phone. You see, I’m a pretty easy-going person. But I hate hierarchy. I just hate it. I don’t like being told what to do, I like making decisions, moving fast, and working a lot. Only once in my life have I had a proper “boss”, one I valued and respected, and I’m sure he’ll know it’s him if he reads this. So I made a lot of efforts but in the end, I yelled. I told her all the things I’d wanted to say since I’d started working with her. It wasn’t pretty. She stopped calling and when I got back, there was a “teacher’s room” sign on my office door and my stuff were in a garbage bag. I swear it’s true. I still hate hierarchy now, but I’m older and wiser, I don’t yell anymore. I even manage not to tell the truth and lately, I even had a proper behaviour : I let someone yell at me, smiled, and then elaborated an evil plan to get out of there and screw them. It worked like a miracle, but I fear I might turn into some kind of Cruella if I keep on doing this. I think I like myself better when I’m big mouthed and spontaneous. I’m currently negotiating a position in a company and told them right away what kind of person I was, presenting it as a take it or leave it situation. Ballsy, but it might work. If it doesn’t, I guess I’ll have to create my own company and try not become someone’s Cruella. I’ll keep you posted.


On Ada Lovelace Day

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science.

I don't know very much about Temple Grandin's work. Just that she's an animal scientist who tries to understand how animals think, and figure out way of making their lives better. I'm not particularly interested in that aspect of her work, and to be honest, although I'm very enthusiastic about there being more women scientists, I've never wanted to be one of them, or to understand what they were trying to do. Me and science, we go way back. We've been ignoring each other for a good twenty five years now.
But Temple Grandin is also known for her important technological innovation, the squeeze machine. Yeah, that sounds pretty cool, I know. It's probably not what you think it is though. You see, Temple Grandin is autistic, and she has, like many autistic people, hypersensitivity, which means that she sometimes goes into sensory overload, and sometimes requires a certain kind of sensory stimulation. When you're little and autistic, and you're about to have a meltdown, it's hard to communicate what you need. Especially if, as many autistics, you're not so hot with language. Temple Grandin kept looking for ways to put the right pressure on her body so she could calm down. One day, she saw something in a farm. Cows about to be innoculated were pressed in a chute, and seemed to calm down. Temple Grandin talked with her science teacher, and she came up with something similar for humans, a machine made of padded boards that hug the person standing or crouching inside it at a pressure they can regulate. It worked for her, helped her be enough in control of her feelings that she got a Ph.D in animal sciences. It also works for many autistic children and adults who use the machine she designed in autism centres where it's available.
Grandin also says that her autism gives her special insight into animal minds, as animals, like here, tend not to think linguistically. She's using that insight to make sure that farmed animals are treated as well as possible.
She's also a well known spokesperson for autism, someone who's got both the experience and the knowledge to be able to be illuminating. She's the original 'Anthropologist from Mars' who gave Oliver Sachs the idea for the title. She was Dustin Hoffman's consultant for Rainman. For someone who just doesn't 'get' neurotypical human relationships, she gets about a lot.
I've known of her since my son was diagnosed with autism. I haven't read her books yet 'Thinking in Pictures' and 'Animals in Translation', but after posting this I'll go ahead and order them. She's the kind of scientist that can change people's lives.

Temple Grandin's webpage
Finding Ada
Ada Lovelace


Cigarettes and everything else

Reading Marianne's post on chocolate has led me to reflect on my own addictive tendencies. I think it runs in the family. I used to think everyone suffered from the same inability to resist temptation, whether in the form of a cigarette, finishing off a whole tablet of chocolate, a third glass of wine (Ok, a fifth pint...). But then I met my daughter. She's found of chocolate, sweets, ice cream, and everything ten year olds like. She will pester me to let her buy this or that. But then she'll have one, maybe two, and that's it. Sometimes she'll leave the packet lying around and her brother will finish it off (he's more like me), sometimes she'll hide it somewhere and I will find it months later in an advanced stage of decomposition. So she can handle chocolate and I'm not too worried about her taking up smoking or any harmful addiction. I, on the other hand, will get addicted to anything if I look at it for too long. I smoked for years. Then, when I got pregnant the first time, I gave up. Ish. On and off. I finally gave up altogether last year. That is, I started on a path that led to me not having smoked anything at all (not even a cigar) for three months at least. In think that before Christmas, I did allow myself the odd smoke, at parties, when drinking, etc. Then I stopped needing that.
Now I'm familiar enough with the process of giving up that I know that's not going to last. I'll soon come to a time when I want the odd cigarette again. At first it will just be disgusting, and then I'll be careless, have them too often, and before you know it, I'll be back on buying packs. Although it's easy to remember why one gave up, it's just as easy to forget what it that makes us want to start, and why it's never in fact a good idea.
First, I think Allan Carr is all wrong. He says that smoking is not pleasurable. Of course it bloody well is! Who does he think he's trying to convince? Ok, not smoking is also kind of nice. You don't feel sick, you can smell and taste things, and you're not waiting for the next hit all the time. But smoking feels good. And when things aren't going so well in your life, you know that at least you've got that.
So what is there to debunk? Well for me I think it's first this: the coolest people aren't the smokers. I thought this for the longest time. But things must have changed, because increasingly, I find myself hanging out with cool people who don't smoke. In fact, there just doesn't seem to be many smokers around anymore, and I'm in Turkey!
Also, and this is harder for me to admit, smoking doesn't help concentrate. I used to think I needed to smoke in order to write. Well that was true. Now I'll do other things instead, like making tea, checking my email, take a walk in the corridor. But none of these help me concentrate – they're distractions! Now I don't mean they're bad, I don't think I could spend a long stretch writing if I didn't have frequent and regular distractions:I'd go mad, my head would explode! But I honestly used to think smoking helped me concentrate, that I didn't have it in me to stick to the job without cigarettes. Now I understand I was just protecting myself from being too good! And I can do that without ruining my lungs at the same time.
Ok, it's not all good, as now I need to address the internet addiction. And the watching tv series addictions. My husband, who takes after his daughter, is perfectly happy to watch one episode of something per week. I prefer to watch all 5 seasons in a few days. I will stop to grap a piece of bread from the kitchen and sleep a few hours, but that's it. Well, that's how it would be in the fantasy world in which I don't have to go to work or look after the children! But it's a good indication of what I would be like if I didn't have responsibilities to anchor me down. But I do, I have plenty, and my addictions are just harmless distractions. So like Marianne, I don't think I'll be seeking help any time soon.



I love chocolate. Many people do. They may not think about it as much as I do, though. I may think about chocolate as often as men think about sex, which is clearly disturbing. Sometimes I wonder if I need help, if I'm trying to compensate for something, if I don't have some form of chocolate-oriented-bulimia. I wonder if I'll stop eating chocolate one day, I wonder if I'm capable of quitting. I quit smoking 4 months, 6 days and 5 hours ago. It was hard, painful, annoying, but I quit. I didn't get any help, I didn't become the typical ex-smoker who yells at smokers – even though I'm still a tad jealous of the lucky bastards – and I don't really want to smoke any more, knowing that if I do, I'll buy a pack in the next minute. I had been smoking for 16 years, so I can safely say I have strong will power. The mere thought of going on a diet that will forbid chocolate is too much to take. I tried, I even gave chocolate away, but it never worked. I just cannot live without it. I'm even slightly anxious when I travel or when I go visit friends, wondering if there will be chocolate in the hotel/house. I'm that addicted. So sometimes, I wonder if maybe I shouldn't talk about it (to a professional and not blog readers, that is). I wonder what my life would be like without my addiction. I wonder if I'd be thin, maybe even skinny. When I do think of all this, I eat chocolate, and feel better instantly. I think it's just pure magic. Why would I take magic off my life ? Nonsense.


The most horrible mother in the universe

That's what my 6 years old son tells me. He's the smartest kid I've met. OK, one of the smartest anyway. And I'm not the only one to say this, he is unbelievably smart. He's 6 and he's already made up his mind about religion : of course he has, since he's had the past two years to question the existence of God, talk about different religions, read about them, trust in God and finally deciding that there was no way He existed. So yeah, he's smart. I don't care if people think I'm that kind of mother, the kind to think her son is gifted. What I know, is that I'm exhausted. I'm tired because he keeps asking questions, because he started asking « why » when he was 16 months old and has never stopped since. I'm tired because he second-guesses almost every decision I make, I'm tired because other parents look at me and think I'm a bad mother when they see him yelling at me and being hysterical because he didn't get what he wanted or because he thinks this or that is unfair. I'm tired because I don't know what to do, because I keep looking for answers, solutions, tips, and that I feel that I am, indeed, the most horrible mother in the universe. Today was a tough day. Tomorrow will be fine. We'll be just fine. And we'll go see a shrink because there is no way I'm letting him call me the most horrible mother in the universe again. There.

Over the hills and far away...

In correspondence with a colleague (allright, chatting with a friend on facebook), I found myself having to type the word teletubbies. I think I may have spelt it wrong, possibly with two lls. So my every helpful firefox add-on spell checker offered a few suggestions. The second one was 'intellectuals'. When spelt correctly, firefox still doesn't like it, so it suggests: 'telepathies'.
Now am I missing something here? Is there an important secret message conveyed by the post-apocalyptic brain-damaged tv-encrusted monsters? I never got around to read The Secret (always suspected the secret was how to make lots of money selling a pointless book): did it mention the teletubbies?

One other possibility which has occurred to me recently is that the teletubbies may have existed before the 20th Century. I came across some evidence while conducting research for my next book on Mary Wollstonecraft. In a letter to her friend George (Curious George?) she complains that he has gone 'over the hills and far away'. Clearly a reference to the tubs. Now of course, Wollstonecraft could have time travelled to the late 90s, and obtained the relevant knowledge here. But that is clearly not the case. Had she been here we'd have seen a bit more happening in terms of women's rights.

One thing we can deduce from the presence of the teletubbies in the eighteenth century is that they're not tied to the technology (though of course, they do have to have tellies in their bellies). What I mean is that they're probably not fictional. They might even be aliens. But if they are, they've been visitors on earth for a long time. Who among us can really tell what is on Lala or Dipsy's head? It's a sign of some kind, right? Doesn't it look almost like hieroglyphs? Maybe the ancient Egyptians tried to copy them when they came up with things like the ankh sign. Maybe they too weren't watching carefully.

With evidence of teletubbies culture in the mystical circles of ancient egypt, and amongst philosophers of the enlightenment, one cannot help but wonder. Are the teletubbies an ancient alien sect of intellectual telepaths?


Somebody else's uncles.

The Guardian is debating whether it makes sense for a woman to take her husband's name when she marries. The article concludes that 'There lies the justification for the practice: all other things being equal, and the alternative considered, masculists want this more than feminists don't.'
I certainly didn't want to take my husband's name when we married. And he wasn't all that keen on making me take it either.

Most people understood that. When we got married in NYC, we filled in form asking us what names we wanted to take. It was fine to take any name, and I briefly considered suggesting we call ourselves Mr and Mrs Smith. People also understand, mostly, that we've chosen to give my last name to our son. What many people don't understand is that we've given our daughter her father's name. They should have the same name, they say. People will think they're not brother and sister, they say. They will have problems at school. Well not so far. People know they're brother and sister because they look alike, they're together a lot, they look out for each other. Maybe some people who don't know us think we're a reconstituted family, but frankly, who cares? This day and age, I should have thought that would help children fit in, not the reverse!

I've often wondered why I was so insistent in keeping my own name and passing it on. After all, that name doesn't really belong to me, and passing it on is hardly a feminist statement: it's been handed down from father to son for generations. Some great great uncle or distant cousin somewhere sometime had it. My mother doesn't.

One reason we have for hanging on to names generation after generation is that it helps us trace our ancestry, puts us neatly on the lower branches of the family tree. I know very little about the history of my last name. I'm not sure if it's Basque or from the Landes, or just Spanish. A few people from South America have been in touch with me to try and find out something about the origins of their names, thinking maybe we were related. I wasn't that interested. There are very few members of that family alive now, and none have ever spoken about ancestry.

In fact the only member of my family who's ever shown an interest in family history is my mother. She is the oldest daughter of an oldest daughter (bar an illegitimate sibling) and a few years ago she got hold of some papers belonging to her great-grand-mother. Our ancestor, a Josephine Schmitt was paralysed in childhood and recovered in her twenties. As she hadn't been to school she was put out to service in her sister's house. My mother traced her journey from Luxembourg to the East of France and eventually Paris. Then she turned to Josephine's daughter's adventures in the First World War: a lost fiance, and illegitimate child, a job as a washerwoman in Paris, and having to look after a mother who was again paralysed. My mother's grandmother had four daughters, all of whom were young parisian women during the second world war. This is fascinating family history, but not the kind you can do with names.

As an older daughter myself, I get much more a a sense of my history and identity from looking back at the female side of the family. So I don't think I need a name to help me feel part of history. This doesn't mean I don't want to keep my own name: I can't think of any good reason why I should take up a new one. And I can think of plenty of excellent reasons for a woman not to take her husband's name: historically speaking, it stinks of subjection. What I am saying is that caring about one's ancestry is not really a good reason for being desperate to pass on one's name, and I'm sure most men can see that.

That said, I can also understand why some women choose to change their names – it certainly isn't the case that most do just because their husbands want them to, i.e. not a case of feminism caring less than masculism, just a case for personal choice. There could be so many reasons for changing one's name that it's hardly worth trying to find a theory for it.

So given my views on genealogy, why did I insist my son take my name? Just that I didn't want to be the only member of our family to have a different name. As it is, it's fifty-fifty. I can see this wouldn't work so well with an odd number of children, but I don't feel we have to be consistent here, just as I don't think every married woman should retain her own name. Maybe what we should have done is take up the Manhattan Municipal Hall and called ourselves Smith!


The shame! (of being a French philosopher)

I had a nightmare a few nights ago. I was sitting in an old gym room, crossed legged on a rubber mat. 'Please introduce yourself to the group'. - 'My name is Sandrine' - 'Yes?' - 'I'm a philosopher.' - '?' - 'and I'm French'. - 'Please, relax. We're all friends here'. Then I look around and see everyone around me is wearing a white designer shirt, with the two top buttons undone, they're all Bernard Henry Levy! I break into a sweat as I notice I too am wearing a white shirt. I raise my hand to my head to feel for the trademark hair and as I begin to scream I wake up.

So when did 'French philosopher' become a dirty word? Was it just BHL with his cheap designer look? Or Derrida with the improbably titled books (Nietzsche's Spurs??? Postcards???). Or does it go back even further to when Hobbes and Descartes were bickering about rotten apples?

Back when I was teaching a course on the Rationalist, my head of department got my husband, a Brit, to teach the Empiricists. Now the rationalists weren't all French, by any means. Descartes and Malebranche maybe (hardly anyone teaches Malebranche though) – but Leibniz and Spinoza??? On the other hand, all the empiricists were Brits – English (Hobbes, Locke), Scottish (Hume), Irish (Berkeley). So that gives the snotty islanders a very good reason to pretend that the rationalists were French and to take the hundred years war up the ivory tower.

Then there's the whole analytic continental debate. Analytic philosophers are Brits, and Americans. They're sensible, wear cords, tweed, or jeans. They read serious philosophy of the kind that makes sense and that scientists supposedly wouldn't turn their noses up if they were to read any of it. (right). Continental philosophers are French, Italian, or anyone whose English is accented. They read Kant and Heiddeger, maybe Sartre, mix metaphysics and politics, and don't like being understood, especially by scientists (which of course, gives scientists the perfect reason to love them!) Now the funny thing is, that both kinds of philosophy are really German. And except in their most extreme, ridiculous form, they are perfectly compatible with each other. So it looks like the distinction is just one more way for the English and the French to fart at each other across the channel.

But maybe there is yet a distinct species of the French Philosopher. The French philosopher is always male. He wears designer shirts, he smokes. He fancies himself a bit of a journalist and a babe-magnet. His books are best-sellers. He doesn't even need to be French, but can be, say, Romanian. Also, he doesn't read philosophy, and is easily confused by the distinction between real and fictional writers.

Thankfully, as a woman, I can't be a French Philosopher. Saved by sexism.


On not driving

If you can't drive, you're an idiot. If you made the decision not to drive, then you're a double idiot, or you're afraid people will call you an idiot because you failed. Now that I'm a real grown-up with husband and children and cat and goldfish and snails, I can finally say it outloud : I'll be an idiot, then. I am so over people asking me, with wide open eyes as if I'd just said how aliens have just come down to earth « I don't drive ». Then comes the usual « Oh, why's that ? ». Now, the answer I give depends on quite a lot of things, such as do I like this person or not. If not, then I'll just answer « because I'm an idiot » and go talk to someone else. I might add here that I'm a – fake but really well done, thank you hairdresser, Jennifer Anistonly – blonde, with big breasts. So it usually never shocks people to hear I'm an idiot. If I do like the person, then I'll answer the truth « I failed the written test ». Now, here comes the part when parisiens, parisiennes and all French readers will laugh out loud, because, really, only pure idiots fail. However, I like to think of myself as smart. Not kick-arse smart, but smart enough not to fail a written test. Here are a few facts about that test : it's stupid. I hate doing stupid things. You have to punch a whole in a piece of paper when you see the right answer. It's always between a « yes » or a « no », there's never any way you can explain, or, for that matter, think. I have great difficulties not to think. My main objective as a parent is to teach my children to think for themselves. If I manage to do this, then I'll feel I did my job. You're allowed five mistakes, not one more, I made six. I paused during the test, looked at all the 18 year-olds punching and punching, and asked myself why I was doing this. When I was 18, all I wanted was to get out of the suburbs to become a real parisienne. In Paris, you don't need to drive, there's the métro, the bus, and you walk. Cars are everywhere, they're noisy, they smell and they're ugly, except for the pink ones and the cabs. If I drove, I would never get lost in tiny streets, I'd never stop randomly at some café to draw something that caught my eye, I wouldn't be smiled at, I wouldn't have bought those amazing shoes in that marvellous shop today. So, really, I'd rather stay an idiot.

On Driving

I don't drive. Nor does my husband. Nor do, as it happens, a lot of our friends. When our daughter was younger, she asked why we couldn't get a fancy car, like her friends's parents at school. We explained that cars were very bad for the environment, that it was more responsible to take public transport, and healthier to walk. She kind of bought it. It was all lies.
Well not really – cars are bad for the environment, and it is healthier to walk. But that's not the reason we don't drive. When I turned eighteen my father sent me money for driving lessons. I took them, took a test, failed. That happens. So I tried again, taking more lessons in the meantime. And I did not give up until I'd failed three times! In fact, I would have probably tried again had it not been for something my instructor said. By then, as you can imagine, he knew me pretty well. We'd been to each other's house for dinner, met each other's partners, had long talks about many things. So when he asked me if I was on drugs, it was a shock. Afterwards I took stock and asked myself some probing questions: I am able to cycle on a street without causing some kind of accident? Can I walk the length of a pavement without bumping into a tree or a moving person? Do I just close my eyes and run when I have to cross the road? Have I got any sense of direction whatsoever? Do I even know my left from my right? Once I'd answered all these questions, I decided that maybe, I should just stop trying. Maybe the world would be a safer place if I didn't drive.
I don't really know why my husband doesn't drive. But given he's a philosopher like me, it's probably best he doesnt.
Our daughter is a full blown, militant environmentalist now. So some good's come out of it.
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