Wednesday, October 29, 2008

War of the White Goods

I am living in the land of the great unwashed. Why? Because household appliances in America do not clean properly. Indeed I'm thinking of starting a campaign to have washing machines and dish washers renamed "rinsing machines" and "dish rinsers" since whatever programme you choose, your clothes and plates come out only marginally less dirty than when they went in. 

We first thought it had to do with our cleaning products. So we bought others. But that changed nothing. So we assumed it was because our machines were old, and replaced them with brand-new ones. Same difference.

After lots of head-scratching and in-depth research, we can now conclusively say there there is not one underlying cause, but three:

  1. You can't get the kind of detergents you buy in Europe (the only Ariel you find round here is a mermaid). American supermarkets only stock domestically machinufactured products with fancy names like Hey Presto! (as in "Watch your money disappear down the drain") that seem intrinsically incapable of removing dirt;
  2. You can't get the kind of brands of white goods that you get in Europe (the only Whirpool you find round here is in your bathtub); and most crucial of all
  3. American dishwashers are made differently. (a) They have not one water inlet, but two; one for hot water, the other for cold; and (b) They do not have an internal heating system. So whereas in Europe your machine takes cold mains water and heats it up to the required temperature, its American counterpart just takes some cold water, mixes it with some hot, and attempts to wash using the resultant lukewarm brew. If your hot water isn't very, the machine fills up with the wrong ratio or the cold water pressure is far higher than that of the in-house hot water system (we fall into the "all of the above" category), you end up wearing freshly-washed dirty clothes and eating off plates with inbuilt flavourings on them.

Which reminds me, I've got some clothes to hand (re-)wash and dishes to (re-)clean. 'Scuse me.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Educational Insanity (contd.)

The plot thickens.

The woman who assessed my son's language skills and decided that he needs ESL tuition refers to him as "Tom" (including the inverted commas) and says she plans to begin "servicing" him this week.

So who's the one who needs help with their English?

Monday, October 27, 2008


As the four of us we were having our dinner tonight, there was a very loud and menacing knock at the door. Once we had landed on our seats again and recovered our senses, I went to the front door, only to see someone jumping into a car and racing off. On the doorstep at my feet lay an orange, plastic, pumpkin-shaped bag with a piece of paper sticking out of it.

We had received our very first boogram.

A boogram is a mysterious note, usually in the form of a poem, left anonymously by your friends or neighbours in the run-up to Hallowe'en and accompanied by gifts or sweets for the household's children as well as a large sign that shows that you've been hit. The latter you are intended to hang on your front door - a bit like a cross indicating there's Black Death in the house - to prevent yourself being boo'd again.

Boograms are a bit like a nice version of the chain letter because the poem/note instructs you to send boograms to and thereby bestow gifts upon two other neighbours. Apparently, in some instances all the houses in the street end up with a boo sign on their doors, and it gets pretty difficult finding someone to "ambush" in this way. You are therefore encouraged to be proactive and get in there early.

Having put the kids to bed, my wife rushed out to a supermarket and bought two boogram sets (of course they had everything in stock; from boo paper to boo bags, boo signs and boo candy), while I hastily penned two personalised boograms for our intended victims. Unfortunately, it turned out that the house of one of our target families already sported the "boo off" sign, so we quickly had to adapt their poem for a Plan B alternative. I then hopped on my bike and cycled over to the first family (whose house we had never visited).

The lack of street lighting and a moonless night helped conceal my presence, but it also hid the house number and letterbox so completely that I spent a frustrating 10 minutes going up and down the road, sneaking up paths and approaching front doors in an increasingly desparate search for the number, using the faint illumination of my iPhone display as a rather pathetic torch. I even tried pinpointing the house with my in-phone sat-nav, to no avail. I finally chose what I hoped was the right address, deposited my poem and bag, gave a menacing rat-a-tat-tat on the bug screen and fled.

I still don't know if I got the right house. And because the boogrammer is supposed to keep his identity secret, I'll never be able to ask them whether they got my goody-bag. But it was hugely exciting in a Just William, postman's knock kind of way.

Tomorrow we go off with the kids to deliver our other boogram. Let's hope we find the house this time.

Celebrity Come Dancing

What if, instead of all the campaigning, commercials and speeches, Obama and McCain went head-to-head on the dancefloor?

Get 'Em While They're Young

Barnes & Noble has slipped even further down in my estimation. In its children's section, right next to the reading area and within easy reach of inquisitive kids' hands, our nearest Barnes & Noble prominently displays the following blatantly political made-for-children's books:
(Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope)
(My Dad, John McCain)
(Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight)

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against political literature. People should be free to buy whatever they want to read about. What I don't like is when political propaganda is fed undiluted to impressionable minds that cannot differentiate between reality and convenient fiction (i.e. "spin").
I was amused, however, to discover that the book "The Rise of Barack Obama" is now 50% off:

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Toblerone Tiny

My wife has managed to find possibly the only thing that isn't bigger in the States. Ironically, as if to underline the "fact" that everything - from countries to cars - is smaller in the Old World, it's a European product.

Tiny Toblerone is a packet of what would in Europe be termed "bite-size" Toblerones, each barely an inch long, into which one must assume Swiss dwarves have managed to cram no fewer than three of the famous interlinked triangles. It tastes just like the real thing, but even if you wolf down the three triangles at once, it really is no more than an amuse-gueule that has you reaching for the next and the next and the next - or wishing you had a giant, good ol' American Hershey bar instead.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Yet More Signs

Warning: posh people crossing

We have ALL the letters in the alphabet!
(Available in black only)

Bradley cries into drainpipes
[At least I think that's what it means]

Watch out, Goldilocks: they're coming back!


Our town (technically it's a "township") celebrates its 175th anniversary this year.

That's pretty old given the relative brevity of American history. But to put it into perspective, there's a shed at the bottom of my sister-in-law's garden in France that's date-stamped 1824.

Half Empty

Am I the only one who thinks that the words "plummet", "tumble", "freefall", "nosedive" and "slumped" - not to mention "billion" and even "trillion" - are being used far too often at the moment?

I know that the economy isn't doing too well (though now that petrol prices have come down it's mainly shareholders that are suffering), but what happened to terms like "confidence", "upbeat", "rally" and "improving"?

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Listening to the radio today, I heard a Michigan college (i.e. university) proudly announce that it had had no alcohol-related deaths among its students since 1999.

To my ears, that's not good news, but an exception-proves-the-rule indictment of American alcohol laws, which forbid people from drinking alcohol under the age of 21 (who says Prohibition ended in 1933?).

Given that most Americans only drink light beer, which contains about 2% alcohol, it beats me why they don't lower the legal drinking age to, say, 18.


The next time you take a domestic flight across the US, make sure you check the seat-back pocket in front of you. With any luck, it will contain the latest issue of SkyMall magazine.

If, like me, you like gadgets, you'll love SkyMall. It's a 200-page catalogue of "out-of-the-box" inventions that you won't find in any shop - and for good reason. Page after page is packed with everything from the sublime (the BeerTender cooler and tap) to the ridiculous (the Original Sleep Sound Generator, which "produces a gentle whooshing noise that blocks intermittent or continuous annoying sounds so you can relax and fall asleep"), the practical (outdoor furniture covers) to the nonsensical (the Reveo Marivac food tumbler; basically a salad spinner that "marinates meat in just 10 minutes"), the clever (a six-device charger) to the plain daft (the marshmallow gun, which "shoots sweet, edible miniature marshmallows over 30'. It even has an LED sight!").

What better way to while away a few hours on a boring flight - or get some ideas for your Christmas wish list.

By the way, before you shake your head in disbelief at my boys-and-their-toys attitude, consider this: some people actually put SkyMall on their wedding list!


It isn't very often that TV commercials have me laughing out loud. The following - for Snuggies, essentially a blanket with sleeves - had me thinking I was watching Saturday Night Live rather than Thursday lunchtime CNN:

Having seen the commercial, it's amazing to think that this is actually a genuine product someone has spent a lot of time, energy and presumably money developing. But I'm not alone in seeing the funny (haha and peculiar) side of this product. A cursory glance at the Internet reveals a veritable cacophony of protest, humour and general disbelief at this almost banal invention.

I know that winter is approaching and I always have cold feet, but a Snuggie will not be on my Xmas list. It would just make me look like a mad monk and frighten off the frolicking animals outside.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Letterbox + Postbox = Mailbox

The other week my neighbour asked me if she could borrow my box. Since they don't play cricket around here, I knew she wasn't after my groin protector. But what then?

As it turns out, she wanted to put some letters in my mailbox. You see, one of the really clever things about (suburban) letterboxes is that they double up as postboxes. In other words, they aren't simply receptacles for incoming letters, but also temporary repositories for letters that you wish to send off. You simply put your stamped letters in the mailbox, lift the little flag on the side (my favourite bit) and the mailman picks them up when he next comes past.

Hey presto, another reason not to walk anywhere!

Another interesting aspect of this procedure is what we in Britain would call the post van. Over here, posties - who are referred to in the US as "postal workers" - drive around in dinky square little contraptions called Grumman Long Life Vehicles.

But get this: because it would be too much to expect United States Postal Service employees to get out of their cars and walk to their clients' mailboxes, LLVs are right-hand drive so that mailmen can merely slide open the door, reach out, pop the letters into your box in passing, so to speak, and thus - extrapolating from the name - assure themselves a longer life.

I know that America consumes a quarter of the world's energy, but perhaps the men and women of the USPS could get away with a little bit of physical exertion now and again.

Having said that, I do believe it's a well thought-out system, and the kids love checking the mailbox when they come home from school.


"Missing: White female cat, approx. 10 yrs. old, gold eyes. She has long hair, but it's trimmed. Her name is Ally. She doesn't have a collar/tag because she's an indoor cat, but she's micro-chipped."

Apart from wondering why this person kept a cat locked inside the house despite living in a low-traffic suburban neighbourhood, I'm intrigued by the details provided to would-be finders: "She has long hair, but it's trimmed". Unless the owner is expecting the cat to be lost for months, it doesn't matter that its fur can be long. She could just as well say that it ate Whiskas the day it went missing. IT DOESN'T MATTER!

Moreover, how does the information that the cat has an implanted microchip have any bearing unless it happens to be found by a vet with a portable chip-reader?

Best of all, unless we were to cut off one of its legs and count the rings, how could we confirm that any white female cats with gold eyes that we find are actually 10 years old and therefore likely to be the errant Ally?

Personally, I think this cat saw an opportunity to finally liberate itself from its overpossessive human lunch-provider. And good luck to it. I intend to ignore all oversized tailless white squirrels that wander through my garden (sorry: yard) in future.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Flora and Fauna

I've already mentioned that chipmunks, a rabbit and a groundhog, black and grey squirrels gaily frolic in my garden to distract me from my work.

Thanks to the encyclopedic knowledge of my neighbours, I'm now proud to be able to extend this list with the addition of the following: cardinals (red birds) and blue jays (blue birds).

Now all I need to find out is the name of those strange wasp-like creatures I saw in the summer and the spider that gave me a finger-throbbing nip.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Regional Pride

Did you know that plants are aware of their heritage? The following is proof that the trees around here are so proud of their geographic roots that they even grow their leaves in the shape of the state of Michigan:

Local News

Local newspapers around the world are always a wonderful source of journalistic barrel bottom-scraping and typographical randomness. Around here they carry such glorious names as The Beacon and The Eccentric. I simply have to quote the following article from my local rag verbatim because it's such a hilarious case of desperately trying to squeeze two columns out of a complete non-story:

    Two days later, police responded to an address on West Maple Road west of Orchard Lake Road. The police report is not entirely clear, and Police Lt. Carl Fuhs did not know exactly what kind of business it was, but a cleaning woman and another employee at the site got into some kind of disagreement during a discussion about voting. According to the story police gathered, the cleaning woman was getting upset and the other woman attempted to go away.
    However, the cleaning woman, who is black, later confronted the other employee and accused the other employee, who is white, of not liking Obama because he is black, according to police.
    The other employee, a 37-year-old Howell woman, tried to calm down the cleaning woman, a 55-year-old Detroit woman, and called her boss, police said. The cleaning woman reportedly pulled the woman's hair, grabbed the phone from the woman's hand and threw it. Fuhs said police did not know if the hair-pull happened intentionally or incidentally as the cleaning woman went for the phone.
    A 50-year-old Farmington Hills man entered the room and tried to calm down the cleaning woman, who reportedly ranted at him before leaving. Police found her in the area, Fuhs said, and the owners arrived.
    "The woman even told the owners, 'You either fire her right now or I'm prosecuting,'" Fuhs said.
    The owners, Fuhs said, thanked the cleaning woman for her years of service and fired her. No prosecution will occur.

Healthy Coke

Hands up all those of you who think Coke (or Pepsi, for that matter) is good for you.

Well, you're all wrong.
Apparently, it's extremely healthy.

The can in front of me boasts that Coke is "very low in sodium" and "not a significant source of fat, salt, fat, trans fats, cholesterol or fiber". It even has a helpful table that reads:

Amount per serving (% daily value):
Total fat 0g (0%)
Sodium 50mg (2%)
Protein 0g.

What it doesn't say is that a can of Coke contains either the equivalent of 10-21 cubes of sugar (depending on your source) or a sweetener proven to cause cancer, leucaemia and lymphomas, has an average pH of about 1 AND makes you burp a lot.

I wonder why not.

Educational Insanity

Following an assessment of his speaking and listening proficiency, my five-year-old son - French-English bilingual since birth - has been enrolled by his American elementary school in their ESL (English as a Second Language) programme.

All irony and hair-pulling on my side apart, I wonder whether this is because he calls "freedom fries" chips, is baffled by the Pledge of Allegiance, or simply because the tester couldn't understand his accent (it probably sounded too New Zealand).

I hate to say this, but this does seem like yet another example of the country with the world's highest spending on education producing some of the least well-educated people.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Indian Summer

I guess all the Indians must have flown south, because after nearly a week with temperatures up around 24-28°C, it looks like it's now all downhill from here.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Election, Schmelection

As the BBC site reports today, the presidential election campaign entered a new phase this week.

The Democrats have launched a campaign, entitled "The Great Schlep", to encourage young Jews from around the United States to travel to Florida and other "swing states" (i.e. those in which neither presidential candidate is more-or-less secured victory) to nudge their grandparents into backing Obama in November's election.

This being America, a whole lot of hard-donated election money is being thrown at the project. And apart from the usual t-shirts, badges, and what-not, there's even a special site with its own rallying video (very funny it is too):

More Signs

Thursday, October 9, 2008

I Cannot Tell a Lie

Most Americans know the story about the young George Washington chopping down one of his father's cherry trees and then admirably confessing to his sins with the words, "I cannot tell a lie".

Even though the famous story is passed on from one generation to the next, dutifully taught in schools and diligently reprinted in books, it is a complete and utter lie, one of a number of morally high-minded and yet entirely fictitious anecdotes written by a parson called Mason Locke Weems in his 'History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington', presumably in an attempt to lionise Washington's life and work.

Somehow this reminds me of the largely fabricated biography of another man written by four chaps long after his death and since considered the Gospel truth. But for the life of Jesus I can't remember his name.


We've finally bought a car. And of course it's the obligatory sports utility vehicle (SUV), i.e. a vehicle originally designed to transport heavy tools converted into a vehicle that can transport heavy people, though in our case it's more a school run-mobile masquerading as a truck so that we're the same height off the road as everyone else.

If you've ever bought a car in the States, you'll know what an administrative headache it is, because you can't buy or lease a car unless you have a US "driver's license", which means retaking a written and driving test (unless you have a German licence, which you merely swap for an American one). Only you can't apply for a driving licence without a Social Security number, and you can't apply for a Social Security number until you've been in the States for at least ten days. From start to finish, the whole preparatory process can easily take six weeks. Oh, and did I mention that you can't take possession of your car until you provide proof of insurance for that vehicle?

The other problem with car-buying in the US is that the brands are completely alien to most Europeans, so you spend weeks finding out what the difference is between a Chrysler, Saturn, Buick, Acura, Ford, Chevrolet, Isuzu, Mercury, Lincoln, GMC, Infiniti, Dodge, Jeep, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Hummer, Cadillac, Lexus and all the other weird and wonderful makes of car that they have over here and seemingly nowhere else. Even if you go for a Japanese or German brand, you'll find that the models are completely different here, where they're mainly larger, less fuel-efficient, uglier and with far fewer safety features (think air bags, crumple zones and their ilk) than in Europe. And the bumpers - oh, the bumpers! - are merely moulded plastic that you can push in with your fingers. (Protection? Who needs that junk? Just buy another!).

Anyway, having got all the paperwork together, chosen a brand and model, and more-or-less negotiated the price with the dealer (everything is negotiable in the US, and if the rumour is true, the only ones who don't haggle are the Germans), I said I'd think about it and consult my wife, joking that she might object to something silly like the colour. When I got home and proudly announced that I'd finally found us a car, my wife's only question was, "What colour is it?"

This story does have a happy ending, because my wife has almost completely recovered from the shock of owning a white car. She even told her female colleagues at work about it last week - their response was, "What colour is it?" - though she was thrown when her (male) boss asked what make of car it was.

"I don't know," she replied. "I only know it's a white one."

Monday, October 6, 2008

More Signs

Any other time, go ahead and trespass all you like.

Sunbathing Frenchmen nearby?

[Comment deleted: wife not happy]

Would you buy a house from these people?

Kosher Dill Crisps

I've just come across the weirdest thing ever: Kosher dill crisps.

Call me an ignorant goy (you'd probably be right), but doesn't Kosher have something to do with ritual slaughter? And if so, how do you ritually slaughter a garden herb?


We travelled from the base of the thumb to the tip of the little finger this weekend.

If this means nothing to you, you clearly haven't been introduced to Michigandan geography. You see, the state of Michigan (or at least the lower peninsula, the only part anyone ever talks about) is conveniently shaped like a glove. So whenever Michiganders want to explain where somewhere is, they simply hold up their right hand, palm forward, and point to the relative position.

Having traversed the state from east to west and back again (a distance of about 700 miles) in the space of 48 hours, I could now claim to know Michigan like the back of my hand. But that would be incorrect, of course: I only know the front.

Knitted iPhone

I don't know whether to believe this story or whether it's just an elaborate hoax. I'll let you make up your own mind.

According to a report on the Web site iPhone Savior, a foundation has given 400 inner-city Detroit children knitted iPhones so that they can "experience what it would be like to receive brand new technology, especially when it's the hottest new mobile device on the planet". As if to add insult to injury, these knitted fakes were placed in authentic Apple packaging so that the 9-year-olds thought they'd be getting the real thing - with predictable results, as the head of the foundation noted: "I expected more excitement and cheering from the kids, but it was still great to see those tears of joy when the hand-knit iPhones were finally removed from their boxes." (Tears of bitter disappointment, more like).

The foundation chief goes on to say, "Sometimes almost getting an iPhone is better than getting none at all." Wanna bet? Knitted iPhones may be more comfortable to sleep on, but I bet they can't tell you something really useful, like what part of the house you're in.

US Senate Bean Soup

When I saw this on the supermarket shelf, I simply had to buy it. After all, I have no idea what the US Senate tastes like (though it's probably bitterer than the Swiss).

Disappointingly, the back label has disabused me of the belief that US Senate Bean Soup is actually made of old men or indeed an old building. Apparently, the recipe was developed around the turn of the century for serving in the US Senate Dining Room. 

But it does explain why there's so much hot air in the Senate.


In a restaurant this weekend, I was asked whether we all had the same accent. No, I said, my wife came from France. The self-acclaimed expert who couldn't hear the difference between a French and a British accent then wondered if he could guess my accent.

"Are you from New Zealand?"
"No, Britain."
"Ah, I see! Well, I was close. Those two accents are pretty similar, aren't they? But you're from Big Isle, right?"

President Me

I guess all the campaign talk, reporting and election speeches have started to affect me.

Last night I dreamt that the President of the United States (my psyche wasn't clear about whether or not it was the current incumbent) had died suddenly. But that's not all. By some bizarre chain of circumstances reminiscent of the prologue to King Ralph, I was the next in line to the presidency, just weeks after arriving in the US. As I woke up, we were making preparations to move into the White House.

Given my new-found status, I'd like a bit more respect from now on. And remember to address your e-mails to "Mr President".

Friday, October 3, 2008

Shooting Simulation

A local school carried out a shooting simulation this week. According to the article in the newspaper, 

"Six months of planning and a federal grant went into the simulation, starting with the gunman's alarming behavior to administrators and escalating to him firing shots and wounding students at the high school"

The following picture appeared alongside the article:

Two things strike me about the simulation.

Firstly, it's sad that school shootings have increased to such an extent that people need to prepare for such an eventuality (rather than wondering if lax gun laws and the alleged right to bear arms might contribute to this).

Secondly, it's interesting to note the "costume" they've put the gunman in: he's wearing explosives. As far as I am aware, no previous school shooter - usually disgruntled former pupils - has ever come armed with more than guns. What we have here is the blending of two primal American fears: shooters and suicide bombers. Apart from the fact that I very much doubt that Al Quaeda would target schools, I can't quite imagine that would-be bombers would waste their time arguing with school authorities first, as the article seems to suggest.

In case you are wondering how the story ends, the shooter was cleanly shot dead before he could blow up himself and his 25 hostages - just like in all the best Hollywood movies.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


With temperatures plunging almost as quickly as stock prices (it was down to 5°C last night), we reluctantly had to switch over from air-conditioning to heating today.

It looks like we're in for a long and energy-intensive winter.