Thursday, May 28, 2009

Blinding Realities

With the fate of Chrysler and General Motors still in the balance, it now appears that auto workers risk losing more than their jobs.

As I heard on NPR yesterday and has been reported extensively elsewhere, discussions between GM management and the UAW union ended in agreement that the union would take control of 20% of the company's stock in exchange for certain concessions, some of them positively draconian, like robbing former employees of their sight!

To quote from The Tennessean, for example:
"Under the plan, retirees stand to lose their vision and dental benefits as of July 1, and would also see an increase in co-pays for prescription drugs."
Medication and teeth aside, why is no-one outraged at this brutal desensitisation of pensioners? As NPR notes:
"Mary Miller, who worked for GM for more than 30 years, says it will be hard to do without her vision and dental coverage."
Or is it simply a case of "If thine ex-employee's eye offends thee, pluck it out"?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Over Their Heads?

My wife found the following five-day workshop (price: $155) advertised in the "Camps for Boys & Girls Ages 4-6" section of a community education leaflet:
Little Girl Power & Little Boy Power
Kids will learn about personal power & how attitude and beliefs about themselves affect how they handle friendships, peer relationships & opportunities/problems in life. Kids will look at their inner-self & the outer-self they present to the world to see if it fits with who they want to be.
Apart from wondering how many 4-6-year-olds really know what they want to be (apart from the usual vague fireman, spaceman or teacher notions), I have trouble imagining even my bright six-year-old contemplating his "inner-self". I therefore suspect that this is a tinsy bit too adult for the intended target audience.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Past & Present

My six-year-old came home from school today with a home-made booklet entitled "Families Past and Present". Of particular note given certain food- and transport-related ideosyncrasies of American culture are the following two pages:

(Only mad dogs and "early people" walk!)

(We don't eat meat: we go to McDonalds!)

Friday, May 15, 2009


The recent outbreak of (as it turns out largely harmless) swine flu has made me think about another American oddity: sausages.

Sausages are made of pork, right? They may contain a majority of other ingredients, including - though not limited to - gristle, bone, blood, salt and lashings of E250 and are therefore generally speaking the nutritional equivalent of TV's contribution to physical fitness. But for the most part it would be fair to say they are pork-based, agreed?

Not in my back yard.

Unless I have moved unbeknownst into a strictly Hasidic state or all the pork sausage-selling shops hide behind strategically placed flagpoles whenever I pass by, none of the supermarkets round here - from my suspiciously Amish-influenced local store to Meijer, Kroger and even Costco - sell pork sausages. They are all made of beef or even chicken.

Take the common-or-garden frankfurter, for example. As the German version of Wikipedia clearly states, this should consist of pure pork. In the States, by contrast, where frankfurters - or as they are known here, "franks" - are used for that other paragon of haute cuisine, the hot dog, they are produced from (and here I quote from the English Wikipedia entry for frankfurters) mechanically recovered meat or meat slurry. Sounds tasty, doesn't it? And in case you, like me, are wondering what meat slurry actually is, it's "a liquefied meat product ... not designed for general consumption". The most common type of meat slurry comes from poultry.

So to bowdlerise a famous American ad slogan from a couple of years back: where's the pork?

Friday, May 8, 2009


No, YOU clear off!

Extra custard for school dinners every day! Yippee!

Odd Products

Made from real, golden-dipt Hush Puppies!

Warum, warum, warum ...?

Which part of Switzerland is Wisconsin in?
Must be the fancy part.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Credit Scores

You could be mistaken for believing life revolves around credit scores here in the States. In many ways it does, and I believe the present financial meltdown may never have happened if banks had paid more attention to credit scores when handing out subprime mortgages. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Everyone in the US has what is known as a "credit history" reflected in a score from 0 (the worst) to 900 (perfect), though anything over about 700 is considered good. Your credit score is supposed to measure your creditworthiness. Whenever you buy something using a credit card (an American obsession, and one I am beginning to understand given the twin problems of VAT-less pricetags and universally green banknotes), it affects your credit score. Whenever you take out a loan or mortgage, it affects your credit score. More importantly, banks and other organisations check your credit score whenever you apply for a credit card or a loan/mortgage. Low score? I'm sorry!

Strangely enough though, if I've understood this correctly, your credit score increases when you take out a loan, and decreases every time someone merely checks your score and turns you down for credit because it's too low (a great vicious circle, if ever I saw one).

More importantly to New World newbies like myself, when you first come to the States you have no US credit history and therefore automatically start with a credit score of "0" even if you've been using credit cards - including the US-owned Visa or American Express brands - for decades. This means that you are considered non-creditworthy, and can kiss goodbye to the idea of applying for a credit card or even leasing a car until you've built up credit history and a good credit score, which usually takes several years.

But here's the rub: how are you supposed to build up a credit score if you can't do any of the things - use credit cards, buy houses, lease cars, etc. - that increase your score? Now I know where Joseph Heller, the son of Russian immigrants, got the idea for his book Catch-22.

Box Tops

Box Tops For Education and the Campbell's Labels for Education programme are two great ways for families to earn their children's schools hundreds if not thousands of dollars to spend on whatever they like.

So far, Box Tops alone has raised $250 million for schools.

All you do is cut out the relevant labels on everything from cereal packets to soups, kitchen roll to nappies, and hand them over to the school, which then cashes them in. The programme bills the relevant manufacturer and sends the school a cheque. Given that each label is worth 10 cents, the money quickly piles up.

You can also earn Box Top credits for your school by shopping on the Internet at sites like, and at some shops - e.g. Kroger - you can even register your store card online and automatically get the Box Top credited to your nominated school every time you shop. That way, the school is paid twice for each label!

Knowing how cash-strapped schools in Britain are, wouldn't this be a great thing to introduce rather than relying on grants from the insane lottery, which only encourages people to gamble?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Avoiding Infection

Americans are obsessed with cleanliness, being safe and personal space. Shopping trolley handles are sanitised, towels are used only once, children are routinely encouraged to "make good choices", and hugging is the greatest sign of affection you can get from the locals (why else did you think the "high five" was so popular?). Even children are forbidden from kissing each other at school.

Not surprisingly therefore, the Swine Flu* outbreak has raised fears of physical contact and infection to near-panic levels. Although it appears that the virus is no more dangerous than the common cold**, the fact that it is now officially approaching pandemic level*** has seen entire school districts closed willy-nilly, and children who have visited Mexico being barred from attending school for 7-10 days.

Most bizarre and yet quintessentially American among the kneejerk reactions I have come across thus far is an article entitled "Don't Gimme Five!" that appeared today on the NPR Web site. Apart from passing on the nigh-impossible advice of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention that people "maintain a 3 to 6-foot distance" from one another (though not the CDC's recommendation that people wear facemasks and use respirators in crowded areas), the article lists in text and large images what you should and should not do at the present time.

Handshakes, kissing and hugging are definitely out. So too is the young person's greeting of choice: the hand- or fist-bump. In their place are odd, contrived greetings like the wave, the foot smack (i.e. footsie), the curtsy and the forearm-to-forearm bump favoured by TV "warrior princess" Xena.

Don't forget your ruler!

But my hands-down favourite for the title of Daftest Quasi-Greeting Of All Time has got to be the self-hug.

Whatever will they think of next?

* Following a complaint from the pork industry that the name "Swine Flu" could cause a downturn in sales, the illness has officially been renamed "novel influenza A (H1N1)", though one plucky Reuters correspondent has suggested several more witty names, including "Bacon's Revenge" and "The Flu Formerly Known as Swine Flu".
** The only two deaths in the US so far have been of a 22-month infant and a person who already had chronic underlying health problems.
*** Even Phase 6, the highest level on the WHO's influenza infection scale, merely indicates that there is widespread human infection and says nothing about how deadly a flu virus is.