Friday, July 31, 2009

Crime News

It may be time to move to a safer area.

Perhaps the global financial crisis is to blame. Perhaps it's high unemployment. Either way, crime has clearly shot up in our neck of Suburbia, as the following frankly disturbing report from our local newspaper, the Beacon, clearly shows:
Flag taken
A U.S. flag and flagpole were reportedly torn down early in the morning on July 15 from a home in the 5000 block of Wright Way West. Police said the flagpole was originally attached to the house, and the homeowner heard noises late at night. The value of the flag and pole was estimated at $20.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


All barns in the United States appear to be an identical shade of brick-red.

I wonder why that is.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Novi, pronounced to rhyme with Popeye, lies a few miles south of us and is famous for a vast mall - Twelve Oaks - that we are particularly fond of*. This mall is surrounded by a sprawling, treeless car park and a nameless ring-road which is an endless source of amusement for our kids because it prompts our sat-nav to inform us that we are "driving on road".

In my Old-World naïveté, I had always assumed that Novi got its name because it was the newest in the area, or something of that ilk. The truth is far more interesting.

Novi allegedly used to be the sixth stop on the Detroit-Chicago railway line, in other words, station number six: "No. VI". Over time, just like Charing Cross in London ("Croix de la Chère Reine"), the name became bowdlerised to its present form, presumably by people who didn't understand Roman numerals.

But the fun doesn't end there.

Although it only has a population of 57,000, Novi is officially a city, though confusingly enough it is part of Novi Township. The city of Novi was incorporated in 1969 following a vote by the inhabitants of the village of Novi (incorporated 1958).

I think I shall vote to reclassify our house a cathedral.


* Its fame comes from being big and popular, not the fact that we are fond of it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Never Home Alone

It's little wonder that Kevin's cinematic parents were worried: they faced a serious fine or even several years in jail for their forgetfullness. That's because it is illegal in America to leave children up to the age of about 11 alone in the house. In fact, you're not even allowed to leave them unattended in your car while you go into a shop.

As a result, you rarely hear many stories about kids dying of heatstroke in car parks or babies left for hours outside restaurants.

It's high time such legislation was introduced in Europe.

American Girl Dolls

Move over Barbie: there's a new, more anatomically correct* kid on the block - at least on the middle-class** one.

American Girl dolls are the latest attempt to win pre-pubescent girls' hearts and separate their parents from their disposable income. A very successful attempt too, it appears, for some 16 million American Girl dolls have been sold in the 20-odd years since the company was founded.

They don't come cheap either: a standard Just Like You doll with the same hair colour, eye colour and skin tone as your daughter plus a (non-working) mobile phone for their "mini-me" costs a stately $110 (plus tax). And for a trifling $60 more, girls can get matching clothes for themselves and their plastic alter egos.

But that's just the beginning.

We visited the American Girl shop in Chicago, a sprawling multi-level store selling not only the classic American Girl dolls but also so-called "historical" figures like Felicity in her tea lesson (sic!) gown, Josefina in her fiesta dress, and Kaya in her "dance dress of today" (?). Step upstairs and you can even throw a party for your doll(s) and/or those of your friends, or take her to the Doll Hospital to re-fasten the limbs your brother's Action Man ruthlessly amputated.

But the crème-de-la-crème for me was the hairdresser's salon, where you could get your doll's hair done in the style of your choosing or the style-of-the-week, all for $20-25.


* It has been calculated that a life-size Barbie would have a 39-18-33 figure and be 7'6" tall.
** Technically this should be "upper middle-class" since everyone in America considers themselves middle class and no-one working class.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Nearly every day, my children come home from school with stickers attached to their work proclaiming it to be "awesome", "brilliant" or some other adjective usuallly accompanied by an exclamation mark when written down. And every Friday, their teachers send e-mails to the parents saying that their class had worked amazingly and learnt and achieved so much that week.

On top of this, the kids keep bringing home small presents or sweets for having completed the week's tasks or getting a certain number of "very goods". On one occasion, my daughter took part in a sponsored money-raising activity and was thanked for her participation with a plastic water bottle and a skipping rope (if she'd raised more, she could even have received an iPod)!

At first, such apparently over-the-top encouragement seemed somewhat misplaced, exaggerated, even embarassing, to me given that Europeans are schooled in self-analysis, realism, moderation and understatement - not to mention German Angst, Weltschmerz and similarly negative attitudes to performance and life itself.

One year into my stay in the New World, I now believe that I better understand the complex consequences of this:

Children who are constantly praised and told (whether justifiably or not) that they have performed excellently tend to grow up with very high self-esteem/self-confidence and the feeling that they can indeed achieve anything. Sure, this can lead to over-confidence and what we would in England term big-headedness, but it also means that Americans approach problems more positively and with more energy than their self-critical, navel-gazing European counterparts.

The sweets and presents are another aspect of this behavioural training. After all, America is a meritocracy. Whereas in Europe we are encouraged to do good things for the sake of it, Americans are taught to believe - bribed, cynics would say - that appropriate behaviour will be rewarded. And not with a mere feeling of having done good, as a European might expect, but an actual, physical reward.

Although I still cling to the Old-World Christian notion that people should feel morally obliged to do the things expected of them rather than having a carrot dangled in front of their noses, I do see that Americans are far more successful in business, science and industry than Europeans. Praise and rewards in childhood undoubtedly play a role in this.

I've also started praising my children's achievements more.

One Light or Two?

A very strange thing happened to me today.

I had just pulled over to the side of the road in a shopping centre car park when a woman in her thirties or forties - clearly a driver judging by the keys in her hand - came up to me from behind the car and notified me that one of my rear lights wasn't working.

"One of the brake lights?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said.
"Which side?" I asked, pressing on the brake pedal.
"Not those: one of the middle ones," she said.

So I got out of the car to see what she meant.

"That one," she said, pointing to my left indicator light. "You see it's not blinking?"
"That's because I'm indicating right," I replied a little perplexed.
"But shouldn't they both be blinking?" she asked.
"No. Is this what you mean?" I said, getting back into my car and switching the hazard warning lights on.
"Yes! Now they're both working again!" she cried.
"If only one light is on, it's the left or right indicator," I explained.
"I never knew it could do that," she replied, walking away towards her car, clearly amazed at the revelation.