Thursday, October 28, 2010

Campaign Spending

America goes to the polls next Thursday, 4 November. And although these are only the "mid-term" elections rather than a presidential one, the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group based in Washington, has calculated that the political parties, candidates and so-called "outside groups" will spend an estimated $4bn - I repeat, four billion dollars - on campaigning.

Just thought I'd share that figure with you.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

First Ladies

As you are undoubtedly aware, Michelle Obama is the wife of US President Barack Obama. That makes her the nation's First Lady. Strangely enough, although her husband is the 44th president, she is the 51st First Lady.

"That's obvious," I can hear you say. "Seven presidents had two wives." In fact, only two did: John Tyler and Woodrow Wilson.

Thanks to a wonderful piece of tourist purchasing by Mrs Newbie, we are the proud owners of two place mats featuring the 44 American presidents on one side and their First Ladies on the other. Closer inspection of these by the Newblets in particular has brought us some very interesting enlightenment.

Three First Ladies were the relevant president's daughter. Two more were the head of state's sister, while another two were the commander-in-chief's niece. There were also three daughter-in-law First Ladies (or is that First Lady daughters-in-law?).

One intriguing First Lady was Anna Harrison, the wife of William Henry Harrison, the shortest-serving president, who died of a cold on his 32nd day in office after delivering the longest inaugural address in US history - almost two hours - on a cold and wet day wearing neither an overcoat nor a hat. For some reason left tantalisingly unexplained by our place mats, Mrs Harrison is described as the president's "absent wife". Was she on holiday throughout his short-lived presidency? Had she left him? Were they perhaps separated? Or was she merely away having one of their ten children (though this still doesn't explain why she should be termed "absent" - unless in the sense of "absent-minded about birth control").

But the most interesting - albeit confusing - case involves Andrew Jackson's two First Ladies, neither of whom was his wife. The first, from 1829-1836, was Emily Donelson, Jackson's niece. In 1834, she was joined by Sarah Jackson, the president's daughter-in-law, who remained
the nation's alpha female until 1837.

Three things puzzle me about this case: 
  1. What happened to the unfortunate Ms Donelson, or rather, what did she do to merit being downgraded? 
  2. Why was the First Ladyship shared for the first and indeed only time from 1834 to 1836?
  3. And what was Ms Jackson's actual relationship to the president? To be defined as his daughter-in-law she could either be his son's wife or his wife's daughter from a previous marriage. In either case there would have been a Mrs William Henry Jackson - who would then have been the First Lady herself.

Sadly, neither our place mats nor Wikipedia, the online dictionary of perceived knowledge, has any light to shed on these matters. So I guess Mrs Newbie will have to buy a pack of First Lady playing cards next time she's in that tourist shop.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Given the twin obsession of so many Americans with washing and religion, I'm willing to bet that the expression "Cleanliness is next to godliness" was coined in the New World.

I've already written about tips given for avoiding infection and about what I consider "knee-jerk vaccination" that is conducted here for completely harmless - and indeed beneficial - diseases. Other local oddities include
mandatory vaccination against Hepatitis B (at-risk groups: drug addicts and prostitutes) for all schoolchildren in the US. Add to this the fact that there are hand sanitisers wherever you look as well as anti-bacterial wipes routinely provided for cleaning supermarket trolleys, and you have the makings of a nation paranoid about illness.

Yesterday I came across something that highlights the lengths to which people go to avoid germs. It all started with a seemingly harmless question on Facebook: "What tips do you have to keep you and your kids healthy during flu season?" The responses (which for reasons too complicated to explain must all come from North Americans), are extremely telling from a European, spoonful-of-dirt-a-year perspective:

  • "Wash their hands constantly and before eating with hot soapy water!"
  • "Keep little immune systems healthy and stop the spread of germs with Kleenex® Anti-Viral"
  • "Flu Shots & GermX!"
  • "Making sure my kids and i stick to the '24 hour' rule [i.e. waiting 24 hours after a fever subsides] before going back to school or work. Wish more people did so as to NOT pass their germs!!"
  • "I keep Germ-X next to the tissue box, kids sanitize their hands after blowing their noses."
  • "Just keep the little germ carrier's home and feed them lots of Jewish Penicilin"
  • "Everyone must wash their hands for a minimum of 20 seconds to be effective or singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star all the way through twice"
  • "Hand sanitize or wash your hands as soon as you get off the bus, kiddies"
  • "Washing hands a lot of course. I've added a chewable calcium with vitamin D to my kids morning routine"
  • "Avoid washing your hands in public restrooms and use sanitizer after you leave the restroom instead. Also, don't touch any surface with your hands. I've gotten sick 10 less times a year by doing this"
  • "Kids - and adults - have been known to die from the flu. I chose not to get the shot this year, and I have already suffered through one strain of flu this fall. It isn't fun being sick, and if you are in a weakened state of health it can be deadly. Wake up and smell the mortality."

And my two favourites:

  • "Avoid people if possible. My Gramma has a shot of whiskey if she's been around sick people"
  • "Get ur kids to take a bath as soon as they get home from school, that way they don't spread germs all throughout ur home"

Friday, October 22, 2010


Often enough, to get laws passed through Congress, additional sometimes completely unrelated issues are bundled into white papers simply to get politicians on the other side of the aisle to approve them. These might result in so-called "earmarks" (i.e. pledges to devote funds to particular pet causes, like the Alaskan "bridge to nowhere"). However, the following case involves a particularly cynical addition shoe-horned into the 2001 "No Child Left Behind Act", a law ostensibly designed to reform education for particularly America's underprivileged.

At the start of my children's new school year, I was sent a thick, glossy brochure about the school district. Tucked away right at the very back of this laudable yet mind-numbingly boring collection of waffle, mission statements, and back-patting, I stumbled upon a form that almost made my eyes pop out. The key sentence of this was the following:
"If you do not want the school district to release your child's directory information to military recruiters this year, please complete the bottom portion of this letter and return it to the principal's office at your child's school no later than Friday, SEPTEMBER 10, 2010."
Needless to say, that was three days after I had received the brochure. Needless to say, I had already missed the cut-off date.


But my son needs a pee now!

For those who can't count to 15?!

Local Crime

The Crime Watch section of my local free newspaper, the Beacon, has provided yet more evidence of the perils of living in suburban America:
Pastries Pilfered
A doughnut thief reportedly stole two of the pastries from a vehicle parked in the 7000 block of XXX at around noon Oct. 4. The owner noticed that the vehicle was rummaged through, but the report did not specify whether the vehicle was locked. The doughnuts were valued at $1.
So to bowdlerise the famous recent "bed intruder" Internet meme, y'all need to hide your cookies, hide your candy, and hide your pancakes, cause they’re stealin’ everythin' out here.