Sunday, January 25, 2009

My mother the enabler

I visited my parents on Friday. They used to have a spare room for me to stay in, but have since got rid of the bed in there because my mother "needs more space to dry clothes" so I was advised I'd need to stay in a hotel. There's a new one opened near where they live called The Fallen Angel which my parents both separately told me I should stay in (they wanted to see what it was like inside and must have decided that a multi-pronged attack would work best). All the rooms are themed. My fella (who likes Dr Who) chose the sci-fi room - it had giant pictures of Daleks and Cybermen on the walls, the entrace to the bathroom looked like a Tardis, and there were some retro 60s chairs and an outdoor hot-tub. When we checked in, the receptionist said "You're in the sci-if room. Do you like Dr Who?" I said "Not exceptionally, but he does," and gestured at my fella. She nodded understandingly.

My parents enjoyed poking around the room anyway (we couldn't get my mother out of that egg chair), and it will give them something to tell everyone they bump into for the next two weeks about. We had to schedule them coming to the hotel separately as their dog has panic attacks if she is left in the house alone. If they do ever have to go out together, there is a complicated ritual that must be enacted. The nest of tables which my mother recently acquired, needs to be placed on the sofas - so the dog doesn't try and climb on them. Also, my mother tells the dog "Go in you're basket, we're just going out for a short while." And then she puts the radio on (it wasn't explained why she did this) and the washing machine on - "because that will let the dog know that we're coming back soon." Does that make sense? My mother sometimes does have odd beliefs - she has claimed that moonlight can hurt your eyes, she carries a compass around with her as she always needs to know where north is, and when we were growing up she believed that if you ate fish and chocolate within an hour of each other, then you would die (when I was about 13 I had the sobering realisation that my parents might not always be right e.g. on some things they were utterly mad, so I demonstrated this by eating a big bar of chocolate just after some fishfingers - when I didn't drop down dead an hour later the bizarre spell was lifted forever).

My parents both like sweet foods. When they dine out together they sometimes skip the main course and go straight to the dessert instead. When I was growing up, my mother would often make a Christmas cake in October (claiming that it would "taste better if it was give more time to stand". Inevitably, my parents wouldn't be able to resist the siren call of the Christmas cake calling them from under a bowl in the kitchen, and it would normally be broken into by early November. One year, this happened several times, so I think we had four Christmas cakes that year - and all before December.

My fella says that my mother is an enabler, in that, even if you don't want to have something sweet she'll work on you until you do: "Would you like a kitkat? One won't hurt you. No? Well maybe you'll want one later on. I'll just put it here next to you in case you do." Perhaps contrary to medical opinion, she claims that chocolate is "good for you" (although presumably only if you've allowed the fish supper to settle).

More crazy Moms here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

When politeness is an evolutionary deadend

This article claims that British men died on the Titanic because they were too polite and gentlemanly, whereas those pushy individualistic Americans forced their way onto lifeboats and survived. It's notable that it's on the BBC website (I wonder what Americans would make of it?)

As someone who was raised on a diet of Enid Blyton and later Jane Austen, I sometimes think my manners are from the age of the Titanic (I often find myself at the back of queues - especially when there is a mad scramble for something).

I am regularly suprised (or disappointed) by bad British behaviour - especially the kind of "anything goes, it's alright we're just having a laugh" sort of comments made by people like Chris Moyles. This story about a mob of people in Derbyshire who shouted "get on with it" to a suicadal teenage on a roof-top, and filmed him on their mobile phones (he jumped and died), is a worrying case of a kind of callous attitude that seems to have become more popular over the last decade. Maybe it's all the damp dark weather but we are overwhelmingly a nation of cynical puddleglums whose sense of humour is often muddy black. I sometimes feel that I share nothing in common with many of the people who live in the UK - and that if someone was to invent a time machine, I'd gladly hop inside it and go back to the start of the century (which was hideously prejudiced but at least people had impeccable manners).

I suppose we can reconcile ourselves to the fact that in the equivalent of a modern day Titanic disaster, British men would no longer wait at the back of the boat with a cigar, but would propel their considerably overweight frames to the front of the queue, knocking women and children out of the way, and then record people drowning on their mobile phones, which would then get onto Youtube, annotated with comments like "omg! nice 1! wot a fuckin laff!"

But I never feel more Edwardian than when I visit America (where cynicism is not a particularly major trait - but earnestly felt and extreme emotions of any kind are never far away. The experience begins the minute you step off the plane and arrive at customs and immigration (or "Homeland Security"). The people who check over your passport are possibly the most humourless, robotic, paranoid and curt people in the world, making the experience of getting into America (as a foreigner) something of an ordeal (especially if you are not used to been treated like a potential terrorist or someone who they suspect is an illegal immigrant). I hope for the sake of their loved ones it is simply their training and they can drop it when they get home - it would be very disconcerting to have your father or partner bark orders at you and treat you like scum.

You are eyed suspiciously while the questions you are asked often appear arbitrary and are not even followed up properly. Last month I was asked for my weight and height (which were entered into a computer), although my fella was not asked these things (instead he was given the third degree about a Syrian stamp in his passport - he had been on a very boring trip to look at castles there rather than trying to procure a dirty bomb). I was asked why I visited America in February. I wasn't expecting the question and because of the atmosphere of fear and stress that Homeland Security is at great pains to create, my brain blanked - I couldn't remember and was unable to give a coherent answer, instead I started babbling and apologising. I practically ended up screaming "Don't do it to me, Do it to Julia!" (That's a little Orwellian humour for you.) Having satisfied themselves that I could be easily "broken" they didn't pursue the matter any further. On another occasion I was led off into a small room with two-way mirrors, left for ages and then asked "Have you ever been in prison?" When I said "no", they let me go without any more questions, apologies for keeping me waiting ages or explanations. Another time I was hauled off to the side because my luggage wasn't big enough(!) Even when Homeland Security attempts to be courteous, it comes off badly - these are the only people who can make "Welcome to America" into a threat.

I would hope that as part of President (no-longer-elect) Obama's policy of extending a hand of friendship to the world, he would maybe get Homeland Security people to smile and treat tourists (who are after all there to spend money - which in a recession, they should be encouraging) as human beings.

Second, President Obama might want to do something about the way people go on in shops. There is a kind of pseudo-politness in many shops (especially ones like Gap and Banana Republic) whereby people are paid to "stroke" you. At the start, this involves a "greeter" saying hi to you as you enter. It isn't real though. At my most recent visit to Banana Republic three different employees said exactly the same thing to me: "I love the colour of that shirt you've chosen!" When it becomes robotic and repetitive, it's clear that they've been told to say it and if you chose any colour they'd say the same thing. Guess what - it doesn't help to create customer loyalty or make me feel like I have a special relationship with the shop - it feels patronising and annoying - I am less likely to "come again". The single thing which would make a difference is actually getting people to perform the task of ringing up your purchases and putting them in a bag more quickly and efficiently. While there is all this false "I love your colour choices", some of them seem to drag their heels rather on purpose when you've actually made the decision to buy something and they have you at the checkout.

In British shops, the reverse is generally the case. Assistants avoid you and often look upset, worried or insulted if you ask them a question. But conversely, they ring through your purchases as quickly as possible (perhaps to avoid prolonging the interaction any more than necessary). I think I will holiday in Denmark next time (where they have apparently rejected selfish capitalism altogether and are a lot happier for it).

Monday, January 19, 2009

I have to be quick - I think the maid is drinking again

When I was a child I read an anthology of science fiction stories from a book published in 1980 called Constellations. Almost all of the stories were really good and I can recall a lot of them now - there was one about a futuristic holiday agency who runs tours to the Crucifixon of Jesus (Let's Go to Golgotha), another one about a little boy with Godlike powers and the frightened adults who live with him (It's a Good Life), another set on a hideously over-populated Earth (Billenium), and another about windows that can record images and then play them back a year later (Light of Other Days). The story which spooked me the most though was one called The Store of The Worlds, written by Robert Sheckley. It's about a man who goes into a shop which sells some sort of drug or device which lets you live for a year in your ideal world (although in reality only a few moments pass in the real world). The catch is that the process takes 10 years from your life.

(Don't read on if you don't want to know what happens).

So the guy isn't sure about whether to do it or not and he goes away to think about it - as the story progresses he's getting on with his life, there are all sorts of things going on - his wife thinks the maid might be drinking again, the children get measles or something, there's a financial crisis on Wall Street, his boat needs a new coat of paint and he keeps getting distracted and still can't make his mind up about having the process done. Then, he wakes up - and it turns out that he's just experienced a perfect year - for him it was just an ordinary American 1950s life, with a wife and family and job. The real world he lives in has been wrecked by nuclear war and everyone is dying, starving and diseased. As he makes his way over the ruined buildings to his home, he can't wait to amass enough potatoes to pay to have the process again.

This story has come to mind a lot lately as I've been playing a game called Fallout 3 - which is set in the Washington DC area about 100 years after a nuclear war. In this alternate universe, society hasn't culturally progressed from the 1950s, although scientific development happened much faster, and once all the oil ran out the countries of the world decided to blow each other up. You've spent the first 18 years of your life in a massive underground Fallout shelter, but at the start of the game you're forced to leave - and have to get used to the realities of post-nuclear society - mutants, ghouls, giant radioactive ants, a lack of law and order - with sadistic raiders capturing people, radiation sickness and people living in shanty towns made out of corrugated iron.

In the game you spend a lot of time climbing over rubble - and although it's depressing wandering around vast areas of wasteland which is rather too lovingly depicted (abandoned children's playgrounds and many recognisable areas), the game has a stark beauty to it. It's also massive - both in terms of the amount of space in it - you could just wander for days, and in terms of the "story". There are various quests to go on - and each one has multiple routes - you can become the Hero of the Wastelands, or you can sell children into slavery, blow up cities and generally be a villain. The game even contains a part where you have to go into a virtual simulation of what the world was like before the nuclear war - I don't know if the game's creators read The Store of The Worlds - but it's an interesting nod to the short story.

The game will take hours or more likely days to complete. It's not suprising that people are eschewing DVDs in favour of games - they allow the player to construct their own narrative and tend to be much more involving - my fella laughs at me because I've literally jumped when I've been lost in the subway network and something nasty has come round the corner. And they can be as involving as you want - if you want to just go around and shoot things, then that's fine. If you want to try and complete quests you can, or you can try to develop a unique character for yourself, or just explore and admire the scenery. Perhaps what's most ironic about the game though - is that people would choose to spend hours at a time playing in this horrible alternative reality. Sheckley died in 2005, but I wonder if he would have found it amusing that people are choosing to live in the exact opposite of what he envisaged in his short story - we are paying to experience life after nuclear war rather than the perfect and mundane world of reality.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Missing You Already

"The true history of my administration will be written 50 years from now, and you and I will not be around to see it." George W. Bush.

Maybe that's the case - but here's a little preview of what will be said: "George W Bush -... stole election... war on terror... evil-doers... axis of evil... WMD... stem cell research... Guantanamo... extraordinary rendition... waterboarding... Bush doctrine... crumbling infrastructure... religious fundamentalism... rising national debt... Americans without health insurance... unemployment... hurricane Katrina... lowest ever approval rating... subprime mortgage crisis... Kyoto Protocol... shoe throwing... George Bush - America's Worst Ever President... by a long chalk."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

My Satnav has a split personality

We were getting sick of the reassuring yet boring voice that came with our TomTom, so my fella downloaded a new one over Christmas (recession not hitting us then - for once we're glad to be public sector).

Our new Satnav is Kim Catrall (Samantha from Sex in the City). My fella has a love-hate relationship with her.

We gave Samantha her first outing on the way to Manchester airport last week. Hilariously, she doesn't just give directions, she gives evaluations. So when we went onto the motorway she said "Take the motorway - Oh! You want to take things a bit faster do you?" And when we had reached our destination she said "You have reached your destination. Oh! Is there room in that back seat for two? Or three?" How naughty. Yet after we'd heard these delicious utterances twice, they became a bit stale.

Kim/Samantha was very much with us when we were in New York though. There was an advert playing almost continuously for some rent controlled apartments in less-fashionable Brooklyn, suggestively called Flatbush Gardens. We imagined the fun that Samantha would have with the name: "Oh honey, my bush has been fucked flat!!" And we decided that in the next Sex in the City film, the girls would all experience the full onslaught of the recession - Carrie's Big would jump out of their Central Park penthouse, having engaged in some dodgy short selling, and Carrie would be fired from the newspaper she writes for "We're cutting down on the non-essentials dear - and frankly, your column is just silly fluff that hardly anyone reads anyway..." The other girls would all find that their fortunes would be hit hard... Samantha's PR firm would go into liquidation because in a recession PR ceases to exist. So as a result, they would all have to move to a rent controlled apartment in Flatbush Gardens. Charlotte would discover a vicious side and become a drug overlord, Miranda would be reduced to masturbating old men through a hole in a wall for food, Samantha would become an agoraphobic old cat lady, and Carrie's little mind would just explode and she'd be in mass denial - walking around the streets of New York in a bin bag, thinking that she's still a fabulous, sexy newspaper columnist... If only...

Speaking of bizarre storylines - Doll Soup episode 2 is online.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Just back from New York

I caught the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC a few times last week - she's the rising star of political analysis in America - with a PhD in political science (she doesn't own a tv but she loves to debate), she's studied AIDS and prison reform. She's fast-talking, sassy, smart, a self-proclaimed "butch dyke" and liberal - kind of the opposite of Fox News's horrendous Bill O'Reilly - except where Bill tends to shout over his guests and has no sense of humour, Rachel charms everyone with a smile and a joke. Here's her explanation of the Wall Street crisis:

She's doing very good things for MSNBC's ratings - she's just what America needs.

What America needs a bit less of though is Mo'Nique (and that's not a disparaging comment on her weight). Mo'Nique is one of the many celebrities who rarely register outside of the US. She's done a bit of everything - comedy, acting, reality tv hosting. Every time I visit America, Mo'nique is in the news with some bizarre story. A couple of years ago it was about a bizarre "air rage" incident on United Airlines. Mo'Niqe was holed up in first class while her entourage were in Economy. One of her assistants went into first class to get a hair dryer from a locker and a flight attendent apparently said "Tell your people that the next time they have an attitude, they are being thrown off ... Since 9/11, we don't play around." Mo'Nique wasn't having this and in the ensuing fraccas, she was esorted off the plane. Her take on it: "I felt like I was being treated like an animal. This happens to black people all the time, and they don't have a voice. It was humiliating."

Sadly, there were no air rage incidents to report this time, but I did catch Mo'Nique on some chat show were she was claiming that her recent weight loss was down to the fact that someone who she'd never even met had cast a weight loss spell on her. Via a DVD. The show reported all of this uncritically... Mo'Nique was walking rather stiffly - as if she'd perhaps had quite a bit of surgery and was wearing one of those corsets to hold everything in place afterwards...

Now that Mo'Nique is starting to lose weight (by whatever means - supernatural or otherwise), I wonder what she will be able to talk about in her comedy routines. Here's her rather coarse take on "skinny bitches":

Rachel Maddow and Mo'Nique - two faces of the two faces of America.