Wednesday, December 16, 2009

American History

On a recent trip to Washington, DC, we visited the American History Museum, an institution dedicated to the cultural, technological and national development of the United States.

Apart from a one-room exhibition based on a collection of "worn-bys" - primarily Judy Garland's sparkly red slippers from 'The Wizard of Oz' and gloves that once belonged to Mohammed Ali, Babe Ruth and Michael Jackson - and a slightly larger exhibition focussing on the American flag, the entire museum is given over to an exploration of the following:
  • The American War of Independence
  • The First World War
  • The Second World War
  • The Korean War
  • The Vietnam War.

Even the exhibition on the Star-Spangled Banner ("The Flag That Inspired the Nation Anthem") is ostensibly a celebration of successful American resistance of the British bombardment of Fort Henry in 1812.

As we wandered through the museum, an awful realisation dawned on us: by the curators' own accounts, the history of the United States is hardly more a series of conflicts. Is it therefore any wonder then that Americans are so combative, and that winning (wars, sport, business) is valued more highly than taking part?

To use an American expression I recently derided*, this segues me perfectly to a radio report I heard the other evening featuring an interview with an American soldier in Afghanistan who said he had been trained in "one shot, one kill", but was now frustrated because he had to engage with Afghan civilians instead. He said he felt more like a peacekeeper than a soldier, and had been spending more time working out in the gym to compensate.

From a European perspective, that's a horrific thought. Here, however, it doesn't seem to ruffle any feathers.


* See Tim, I managed to get it in earlier than expected!

Cookie Recipe


1 bag of pretzels (ideally circular ones)
1 packet of Rolos
1 bag of M&Ms


Place one Rolo on each pretzel and top it with an M&M. Arrange cookies on a baking tray and cook in a medium oven for 4-5 minutes or until the caramel from the Rolos melts into the pretzels. Allow to cool before eating.


The Rolos can be replaced by bite-size Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Supersize Them

My wife recently found another reason why so many Americans drive around in huge cars. Going out to lunch with three of her colleagues, she offered to take everyone in her car rather than everyone going separately.

At this point in the proceedings I should point out that my wife has a midsize sedan (see below), not a small car by any stretch of the imagination.

Theoretically it has room for five people, though the central rear set is about half the size of a normal one, so there are really only two seats in the back - but there's definitely plenty of space in the rear for two.

Background explanation over, back to the story ...

When they reached the car, my wife found that there was no way that any two of her large American colleagues could squeeze themselves into the back of the car. In fact, none of them could even get in the front passenger seat.

Big people, ergo big cars.

When you've spent some time in America, you tend to forget just how many people are overweight - and to what extent, a fact that is reflected in clothing sizes. In Europe, my wife and I would tend to choose medium-sized clothes. Here, we have to look for a size S - and we've even bought sweatshirts intended for children. Our six-year-old wore shorts labelled as being for a two-year-old this summer.

Another example: Today I went to get some new jeans. I needed a pair with a 30-inch waist and a 32-inch leg ("30/32"). Unfortunately for me, they started at 32/32 or 32/30 and went on to 34/30, 36/30, 38/30 and 40/30.

Whatever the reasons for the problem with overweight (and I won't get into them now), it's a trend that appears to be accelerating. According to a study by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation published in the summer, adult obesity (>30% overweight) rates have increased in nearly half (23) of the US states in the space of 12 months - yet fallen in none. As a result, there is now only one state (Colorado) in which the obesity rate is less than 20%.

Put another way, in 49 of the 50 states, more than one adult in five is obese.

More disturbingly, child obesity levels are also on the rise in the US, and the rate is at or above 30% in 30 states. Mississippians top the youth fatty league, with a frightening 44.4% of 10-17-year-olds obese. At the other end of the scale - though still far, far too high - are Minnesota and Utah, with "just " 23.1% overweight or obese children.

Mixed Religions

Overheard conversation in the sports' centre changing room:

Man 1: When's your son's Bar Mitzvah?
Man 2: He just had it. Cost me a fortune. And I've got my daughter's in four years' time.
Man 1: I know. My older son had his Bar Mitzvah in the summer. The other will have his next year.
Man 2: Gotta go. Happy Christmas!
Man 1: Happy Christmas ... er... Happy Hanukkah.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Pillsbury Sugar Cookies

The first time I saw these biscuits, I was amazed that someone could get such an intricate pattern inside their cookies. Then I found out that they're sold that way. 

Although these oven-ready cookies are clearly not the same as making, cutting out and decorating your own biscuits, they are a quick, easy and inexpensive alternative, and one that looks pretty to boot. The only downside to Pillsbury Xmas Sugar Cookies (albeit not a major one) is that they don't taste as good as proper homemade biscuits.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Daily Show

The Daily Show is a pure delight.

Broadcast on Comedy Channel at 11pm EST Mondays to Thursdays and repeated the following lunchtime, the half-hour programme is hosted by the exceedingly witty and knowledgeable Jon Stewart, a kind of funnier version of Jeremy Paxman.

Complete episodes and individual segments are available online (though maybe only accessible in the US).

The Daily Show is a hilarious satirical programme that excels at analysing and lampooning current news and in particular media reporting thereof. It is especially good at using media footage to reveal how personalities/politicians say or do one thing one day and then the exactly the opposite the next.

Recent "scoops" involved its outing of the fact that Fox News used footage from a demonstration in September to suggest a health care-reform protest in November was better attended than it actually was, and the revelation that popular radical right-wing radio and TV host Glenn Beck was urging people to put money in gold when he is actually the spokesman for Goldline.

Helping Stewart mock the news in inimitable fashion are his team: Wyatt Cenac, "senior black correspondent" Larry Wilmore, Aasif Mandvi, Samantha Bee and Britain's own John Oliver, who ably assist him in taking aspects of recent news to absurd extremes.

Ironically, given that The Daily Show is aired on the Comedy Channel and makes no attempt to be a proper news show (as topical as its reports and cynical barbs may be), Jon Stewart was voted "America's Most Trusted Newscaster Since Walter Cronkite" in a poll carried out by Time magazine.

Eat your heart out, CNN.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Cellphone Drivers

It sometimes seems like every third car you see here in the States is driven by someone with their head firmly anchored to their left shoulder. What may sound like a terrible pandemic disease (and some would say it is precisely that) is actually a penchant for talking on the phone while at the wheel.

Blame the 800+ minutes of talk-time you get on your mobile (AE: cell) phone subscriptions, blame the nation's obsession with cars. Whatever the cause, it's staggering how many drivers you see using a phone without a hands-free kit.

And why shouldn't they? Most US states even permit you to consult, type and send text messages when you're supposed to be avoiding other fast-moving, petrol-filled metal boxes.

Incidentally, in case you're wondering what the other two-thirds of drivers are doing: they're holding their cell phone in their hand.


US place definitions baffle me.

I mean, take the above example. The latest census figures show Mackinaw City in northern Michigan has 859 year-round inhabitants. Not surprisingly, it doesn't have a cathedral either, yet it can still call itself a city.

How? Incorporation is how. And what is incorporation in these parts? Basically, it involves holding a referendum on whether you want to be a town, city, etc. (i.e. agreeing amongst yourselves) and then going cap-in-hand to the local state legislature and saying a somewhat more legal variation on "Please Mother may I?" whereupon, with a wave of the hand and some mumbled words, the legislators throw a charter your way and you're a city. Da-daa!

So that's cities sorted out. What else is there? Well, there are villages and towns and - to make it even more complicated - townships.

We, for instance, live in a township (population 65,000). Don't ask me what it means. I cannot tell you, nor explain the difference between a township and a town apart from the fact that our senior official is not a mayor but a supervisor.

This is how Wikipedia explains it (and if you understand the mumbo-jumbo, you're a better person than I am):
"A civil township is a widely-used yet loose term applied to varying entities of local government, with and without municipal status. Though all townships are generally given names and may be abbreviated "Twp.," their function differs greatly from state to state. While cities, towns, boroughs, or villages are common terms for municipalities; townships, counties, and parishes are sometimes not considered to be municipalities. In many states, counties and townships are organized and operate under the authority of state statutes. In contrast, municipal corporations are often chartered entities with a degree of home rule. However, there are some exceptions. Most notably, in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, townships are a class of incorporation with fixed boundaries and equal standing to a village, town, borough or city, analogous to a New England town or towns in New York."
So far so nebulous. Want to hear more?

Villages can be several times larger than cities (the biggest village in New York state has 55,000 inhabitants) and consist of one of more townships (Mackinaw City contains two).

Meanwhile, as I've written about in the past, Novi Township contains the city of Novi, which was incorporated in 1969 by the citizens of the village of Novi, which was itself only created as recently as 1958.

Oh, and did I mention that villages can also be incorporated from townships?

So to sum things up, a village is geographically smaller than a town, township or city, but can be larger and/or contain each. A growing village can become a township - or vice versa. And any conglomeration can be a city.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Odd Words

Over the past nine months or so, I have been keeping a list of words that sound painful or awkward to speakers of British English, yet appear to be used quite unthinkingly here in the States. Some clearly fall into the for-noun-read-verb category, while others appear to be invented to simplify sentence structure. See what you think:
  1. Demolitionable (i.e. ready or fit for demolition)
  2. Flavorful/healthful (and countless other variations ending "-ful")
  3. Winningest/losingest (i.e. the most/least successful)
  4. Impacting: "This crisis is impacting our economy"
  5. Critiquing (i.e. exercising criticism)
  6. Segue (v): "That segues me perfectly"
  7. Normalcy (i.e. normality)
  8. Crater (v)
  9. Grow (active v): "Do you want to grow your workforce?"
  10. Irregardless: A very confusing one, this, because it sounds like a double-negative, but is actually intended to mean "regardless"
  11. Pre-owned (i.e. used). Very popular with car dealers because it suggests the car they are selling you had a previous owner but wasn't driven
  12. Friend (v): "I'm so glad he friended me on Facebook"
  13. RSVP (v): "Admission is free, but please RSVP us"
  14. Suicider (i.e. someone who kills themself, typically with a bomb)
  15. Trend (v)
  16. Co-author (v)
  17. Fun up (v) (i.e. to increase one's fun)
  18. Funner upper (someone who funs up)

House of Fun

I have just stumbled upon an odd new American euphemism. Having already been acquainted with the dubious concepts of restrooms in which you cannot rest, bathrooms ill-equipped for bathing, pants that you wear over your pants and pee-pees that boys pee with, my discovery of the week is the "novelty store".

Over here in the States, what you or I would call a sex shop is umschrieben not merely using the more discreet term "adult", as one might expect, but by the bland expression "novelty store".* 

That may be fine for the puritanically afflicted members of society, but like so many other euphemisms ends up making a simple concept somewhat ambiguous. Taken at face value, for instance, it would suggest that sex is a novelty in the US, although given that Americans haven't all died out by now, I expect that this is untrue.

What's more - and more amusingly (at least to purile minds like mine) - adopting the term "novelty" puts sex shops in the same Yellow Pages category as magic shops, Hallmark gift-card outlets, musical instrument and joke shops. And this in turn paves the way for plenty of opportunities for eye-popping experiences for  grandmothers seeking birthday cards and children out to buy whoopie cushions.**


* This also reminds me of the time when, at the impressionable age of 19, I noticed a "private shop" with white-painted windows by Brighton railway station. For months thereafter, I wondered whether this was some sort of exclusive shopping club only open to members - until someone explained that it was a sex shop.
** I had one such experience in Berlin when I went into a video rental store in a middle-class area of town hoping to pick up a nice film for the evening. Seeing how naively I was seeking membership, the owner though it was only fair to inform me he only had porn on offer.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Of all the things I expected to be unavailable in this country, tissues are certainly not one of them.

No, let me qualify that statement: You can buy tissues here (even though they call them "Kleenexes"). What you cannot get are so-called man-size tissues, i.e. ones that don't fall apart the first time you blow your nose into them.

For a country full of hunters, outdoorsmen, athletes and other "real men", that is extremely remarkable. Do men simply not blow their noses? Or do they blow them into the air or - heaven forbid - onto their sleeve?

At any rate, since I do none of the above, the lack of strong tissues is a real problem for those like myself who eschew cloth handkerchiefs but like nothing better than to honk vigorously into a paper tissue and then carry it in their trouser pockets for repeated further use.

Whereas this may be possible with a suitably puff-resistant tissue, it proves a complete disaster with indigenous brands, which turn to shreds with even the slightest plosive nasal exhalation and either pepper your clothing with fine white paper dust or, if you haven't shaved that morning, stick in your stubble like a grey mustache.

Now I'm not asking for Andrex puppy-strength tissues (I'm only emptying my nose, after all), just something that I can use more than once without it disintegrating into a diaphanous spider's web with more holes than mucus-trapping surface.

Unfortunately, after 15 months trying out more-or-less every brand on the market, I have now resigned myself to using plan B: kitchen roll.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


(Bet it's cab sav flavour)

(You wouldn't think they'd need them anymore)

Not a certificate you want to receive

(I was hoping to find an Alan Alda Bank too or maybe even an Eddie Murphy Bank until I discovered Chevy Chase is also a place)

Odd Products

Duh: 19 + 30% = 25

Even their bread contains meat!

For very lonely people?

(It's a Halloween costume!)

For the farmer in your family

(Yes, it really is a sandwich spread)

Much better than the fake plastic stuff

Odd Cheese

(So is the process pasteurised or the copy editor illiterate?)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Down the Drain

I've mentioned before that I think Americans squander their resources. Last week I came across a particularly extreme manifestation of this:

During a visit to the "restroom" at the airport, I was amazed that the toilet seemed to flush for ever. On closer - though not too close - inspection of the bowl, I discovered that rather than being the usual 1GPF (1 gallon per flush = 3.78 litres) model or its more profligate cousin, the 1.6GPF variety, this toilet used a staggering three-and-a-half gallons of drinking water each time it was flushed. That's a jaw-dropping 13.25 litres!

What are they trying to flush away? Entire planes?