Thursday, July 28, 2011


People in the UK may complain about the "nanny state", yet this mumbled dissension is typically British in its muted amateurism. Not so in the US, where the fight for much-vaunted "freedoms" and "liberty" can be and often is taken into every corner of life.

Americans - or rather, a proportion of said people - are obsessed with their freedoms and the supposed, alleged or feared restriction thereof by "Big Government".

Americans have resisted taxation ever since the Boston Tea Party, when disgruntled New Worlders were so incensed by the fact that they were "taxed without representation" (i.e. supported the British crown financially, but couldn't vote - a situation in which, by a quirk of fate, I too find myself, albeit in my case I pay the IRS) that they threw some leaves off a ship. Scary, eh? The current "Tea Party" is simply an extension of this, a movement who claim they have been Taxed Enough Already - hence TEA - and assert the "freedom" to pay less, thus scuppering any attempts to balance the US budget and rein in the national debt.

Another "freedom" vehemently and vociferously defended is the so-called "right to bear arms" based on the rather ambiguous Second Amendment of the Constitution, which reads:
"A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed"
Gun-lobbyists like the National Rifle Association believe this permits people to own even assault rifles. As a result, 40-50% of Americans have one or more guns, although only 11% use them for hunting. In all, there are about 190 million guns in circulation spread between a total population of about 310 million.

One of the dafter "liberties" currently under dispute
is the argument against the recently implemented healthcare reforms, which demand that everyone must have healthcare coverage. At last count, as many as 15% of Americans - 46 million people - were without health insurance. But now (wealthy) people are demanding the "right" to opt out, claiming mandatory coverage constitutes an infringement of their liberties. Although the case is still going through the courts, it's possible the nay-sayers could yet scupper what was a bold attempt to give more people access to medical treatment.

Finally, I want to mention a "freedom" that is being argued over here in Michigan: the right not to wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle. At present, all bikers have to wear a helmet. But "freedom-loving people" now want to repeal the 40-year-old legislation on the spurious grounds that, because there is no such law in neighbouring states, Michigan could lose valuable tourism revenues if bikers chose to vacation elsewhere.

"Helmets don't prevent accidents," says the president of the American Bikers Aiming Toward Education Michigan, echoing the NRA's "Guns don't kill, people do" mantra.
Seatbelts don't prevent accidents either, but nobody's suggesting we scrap them too - or are they?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Air Conditioning

Air conditioning is another of those American inventions that was a great idea originally, but - like driving and ice in drinks - has been taken to the logical extreme and is thus no longer so great.

If you live in a country in which it can be unbearably hot or unbearably humid and occasionally both, managing the ambient temperature is a shrewd move.
It can, for instance, be wonderfully refreshing to go into a cool house when it's baking outside, and when we visited New York last year during a heatwave (the timing was purely coincidental and unintentional), just passing by an open shop doorway gave us renewed energy to pursue our exploration of this fabulous city.

Unfortunately, as mentioned in my preamble, you can get too much of a good thing - quite apart from the extra electricity this consumes (don't get me started on that one). Duly accustomed to such conditioning of their air, retailers, companies, restaurateurs and even private individuals routinely turn the temperature in their shops, offices, eating establishments and homes so low that it is positively unpleasant.

On a recent holiday (sorry: vacation), whenever we entered a hotel room, our first move after dropping our luggage would invariably be to sprint across to the air conditioning unit and switch it off, praying we wouldn't turn into an ice statue along the way.

For similar reasons, Mrs Newbie always has to take a jumper or jacket to work, where the temperature is typically 17°C, though often lower. The same is true in cinemas, concert halls, bars, hospitals, indeed any space that is enclosed.

Perhaps this explains why so many Americans have developed a thermally insulating layer of blubber. There's no other way to survive a trip to the mall without donning full Antarctic all-weather gear.

Fight For Your Rights

As I discovered this morning thanks to that tremendous invention, the Internet, the source of a wondrous array of facts, half-truths and the merely fanciful (not necessarily in that order of magnitude), America is one of only 14 countries worldwide in which it is illegal to buy and consume alcohol under the age of 21. Whatever the pros and cons of this, the law is the law, and deserves to be upheld.

Without revealing too much about myself, it is fair to say that I am in my mid-40s, and although I like to think I don't look my age, I have had independent confirmation from several third parties – Mrs Newbie included – that I could not pass for 20.

I have therefore been irked (yes, irked, no less) for some considerable time that I am required to prove my age whenever I shop at my local Kroger supermarket. A sticker by the cash register, which some similarly senescent person has clearly tried to peel off in their annoyance, declares "If you are under 40, we must ask for ID". Cashiers even have to enter your date of birth in their till in order to authorise any attempted purchases of alcohol.

Time after time, I resolved to resist this blatant overcautiousness on Kroger's part, and time after time I meekly pulled out my driver's licence, only to kick myself afterwards (metaphorically, I hasten to add) for my repeated temerity.

So annoyed was I by this flagrant injustice that I hatched a cunning plan: on a day when my children had wound me up to near breaking point and Mrs Newbie had failed to see my side of the story, I would charge into Kroger, grab some beer and defend my Congress-given right. I would make a fuss, demand to see the manager and win elderly people across America back the prerogative to go into a store armed only with some crumpled dollar bills and declare, "I wish to procure sundry libations" (or whatever the local equivalent thereof may be).

Although all is well in the house of Newbie and the Newblets have for the most part been their darling selves, I resolved this week that the time had finally come. So together with the kids (brought along for defensive purposes only), I drove over to Kroger, picked up a six-pack of Mike's Hard Lemonade, filled up a shopping cart with suitable alibi groceries to cast aside angrily should my demands remain unmet, and headed for the meanest-looking cashier in the store.

Trembling with anticipation and pumped with adrenaline, I thought, "This is my date with Destiny. Today is the day that will change America. Henceforth, baby boomers throughout this great nation will no longer live in fear, but be able to purchase alcoholic beverages unchallenged once more".

With my heart thumping in my throat, I unpacked my cart, brazenly placing the Mike's at the very front, and looked the cashier straight in the eye.

"Do you have a Kroger card?" he asked. And that was it.

A new sticker by the till read: "If you are under 27, please be prepared to show your ID".



Less than a week after writing this - on the first day in living memory when, through a chain of coincidences, I did not have my driver's licence on me - I was "carded " at Kroger in spite of the new sticker, which I pointed to (to no avail). Duly summoned, the store manager said, "I'm sure that'll be OK." And it was.