Thursday, December 31, 2009

Why can't the English learn to speak?

But use proper English you're regarded as a freak.
Why can't the English,
Why can't the English learn to speak?
Frederick Loewe, "My Fair Lady"

Well he's hopeless, isn't he? Might as well ask the cat.
Basil Fawlty on Manuel in the "Fawlty Towers" episode, "Hotel Inspectors"

Circa (sûr'kə)
prep. Abbr. c. or ca
In approximately; about: born circa 1900.

[Latin circā, from circum, around (probably on the model of adverbs like intrā, within), from circus, circle; see circle.]
Circa Definition,

English People Shopping circa 1998
Watching BBC America's "The Hotel Inspector" is always good for a laugh.

The show is in the style of Gordon Ramsey's "Kitchen Nightmares". Ruth Watson is the Hotel Inspector and instead of restaurants, Ms Watson finds English B&B's and hotels that need sprucing up.

According to BBC America's blurb on the show, Ruth Watson is a "renowned hotelier and author".

Nice to know. Certainly she's not renowned for her use of the English language. Or for her taste in clothes if it comes to that.

What's funny about the show? Many things. But I'd like to start with the most annoying (as well as funny) to get it out of the way. Most annoying is Ms Watson's pronunciation of "circa" which she pronounces "kir-ka".

The first time I heard her say it I thought I'd misheard, or that she meant something other. But no - she is, it turns out, quite fond of saying that such or such a decor is "kir-ka 1970". Don't the producers know? Doesn't the BBC care?

English Pastoral circa 1998
I'm so glad that I live in America where English is pronounced correctly ...

I'm also amused by Ruth's fashion sense. Of course she doesn't HAVE to have fashion sense. It isn't compulsory. But when she's criticizing hotel proprietors for "that ghastly pink curtain kir-ka 1970" it WOULD be nice if she was wearing something other than a bright purple business jacket with fluorescent pink trim and shoulder pads, circa 1980.

But it's not just Ruth who amuses. There are THE PROPRIETORS. I have to give Ruth credit for finding some really wacky people. Take Mrs Sparkles of the Children's Hotel in Blackpool for instance. Ruth showed us Mrs Sparkles providing entertainment for her little guests with loopy behaviors such as covering her mouth with masking tape and rolling her eyes around, and having badly home-made hand puppets greet them on arrival. To liven things up, she'd jump out of clothes cabinets, or talk to one of the many life-sized mannequins that towered menacingly over the children's cots.

Dolls and stuffed animals are everywhere in Ruth's finds. From the Grand Hotel in Hastings where the proprietor - a retired civil servant - cluttered the breakfast room with dolls and stuffed animal souvenirs from his foreign postings, to the elegant Ms Sue Keeling's relatively upmarket Tasburgh House outside Bath with a teddy bear in every room.

London circa 1970
At Tasburgh House rooms are named after writers, and when Ruth was there, each room had a rather large teddy bear dressed as the writer in question, sitting on a chair or lounging on the bed.

I felt sorry for Tasburgh's owner, as twice Ruth suggested that if she keeps her writer teddy bears people might get the idea that she's a lunatic. What about Mrs Sparkles I almost yelled out. Illustrating perhaps that English eccentricity is contagious.

Think Fawlty Towers. Think Spike Milligan. Think Prince Charles.

There's something about living in England that makes otherwise normal people turn whacko.

Just look at our Germaine!

Or my friend Maggie (aka Madge). I phoned Maggie today to wish her all the best for 2010. Maggie is my Australian friend who moved to England after some years in America.

"I'm going to go to the Red Sea and lie in it and read a book," she told me, appropos of nothing. I went along with it, not wanting to embarrass her by saying that she was maybe meaning the Dead Sea.

Poor Maggie. I can imagine her sinking slowly as she lies there in the Red Sea, reading "The Bath Chronicle".

Kir-ka 2010.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Do you want a straw with that?

What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?
Lin Yutang
Diet Coke with lemon – didn’t that used to be called Pledge?
Jay Leno

Vanilla Slices from the Tuckshop, New York - aerial view
Today I went to the Lower East Side. To a place called the Tuckshop. My mission was to buy some lamingtons and vanilla slices to take to a Christmas dinner tomorrow.

I'd ordered in advance a few days ago. Yum. I could hardly wait. I was even looking forward to going to the Lower East Side as I haven't been there for yonks.

I like the seediness of the Lower East Side. It seems it will never be gentrified. I thought I'd have a walk around, take some photos, make an afternoon of it.

The Tuckshop is a small shack-like place on First Street near First Avenue. I don't think it actually has a ceiling, just the inside of a corrugated roof. There are a few bar stools and a counter and a couple of tables. I sat at the bar and ordered a pie after I'd collected my order. "Do you have coke?" I asked. The answer was no but there were some "upmarket sodas". I opted for a Cream Soda and the Aussie behind the bar opened the bottle for me and plonked it down next to my pie. "Do you want a straw?" he asked.

Little did I know what this would come to mean. It bode not well, but I was still innocent. "Yes please," I said and settled down to read my book. Country music was playing in the background.

Pie finished, drink drunk, I paid up $91 dollars and set off home. The bags were heavy so I decided to cab it home (I'd taken the subway there) and to forsake my walk.

Once inside the apartment I started to unbag my prizes. What was this??? I didn't remember ordering custard. And what was that square of something strange floating in the yellow stuff? Could it be??? Oh no! Oh yes!

Vanilla Slices from the Tuckshop, New York - side view
I phoned the Tuckshop and described the slices. "Did you go somewhere hot?" the guy at the other end of the line asked. ASIF. It's freezing here. "They are REALLY bad," I went on. You could only eat them with a ..." my mind searched around for a way of consuming them ... "with a straw" I said.

Jason (he probably wasn't Jason but I think of him as a Jason;- I've noticed that bad Australian customer service often involves a Jason) - Jason said, "Well if you are going to be smart ..."

Well I'm no fool. I once would have snapped back. But I have come to learn that this is not the way to treat a young Australian male when he is in the wrong. You risk the phone going clunk.

Remembering how I dealt with my children when they were very young and were about to spit the dummy, I decided to divert his attention away from my "uncalled for" remark.

I asked him how could this have happened. Jason then explained that they didn't use much cornflour and "that's what makes them stand up".

I asked for a refund. He said yes and hung up before I could say anything else.

Not that there was much else to say.

If someone had asked me yesterday, could one "spill a vanilla slice" I'd have said emphatically no.

Just goes to show - we live and learn.

Even when the lesson is one we'd rather forget ...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The English Factor

For those wishing to explore integrating knitting into a spiritual practice, looking elsewhere would be advisable.
Matthew the Raven (Wisconsin) on Zen And The Art Of Knitting: Exploring the Links Between Knitting, Spirituality, and Creativity

Last week lawyers acting for Woods issued a High Court injunction banning British newspapers from publishing any naked photos of the star. But Woods' British lawyers deny any nude snaps exist.
Tom McTague, 18/12/2009

New York Post cover December 12th
You've got to hand it to the Murdoch press. It's always good for a laugh. And if you're feeling down, you only have to glance at a news-stand to get a laugh from the chutzpah of the local tabloid rag. As long as there's a good scandal to be had, Rupert and his boys are there.

They are of course currently having a field day with the Tiger Woods' story. Rivaled only by the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal of last century.

And never let it be said that Rupert's guys let the truth stand in the way of a good story!

I was feeling down this past week. Even the New York Post headlines were not cheering me up. I'd been told by radiology at Beth Israel hospital that I needed an intergalactic biopsy. Or some such horrible thing. So I've been checking the news-stands daily, in need of a laugh.

New York Post cover 1998
Of course, it all started (the Murdoch press, not the biopsy!) in the U.K. But in true colonial fashion, only the worst of British culture has spread to the new world.

What IS it about the English?
New York Post December 3rd

I am convinced that something happens to people once they venture to the British Isles. For example, there's my friend Maggie.

Maggie is from Perth. She spent her childhood and teenage years there and then moved to America where she lived a fairly normal life and was, as far as I could tell, a normal modern woman.

We used to discuss books and stuff.

Then she moved to England. Now don't get me wrong, we are still good friends but - something happened to Maggie.

For starters she moved to an "address". Every where else in the world, people live in places that have a number, a street name and a suburb or town. And so on. But in England for some reason there are houses that don't have numbers (I expect it's regarded as "common") - they have names. Such as "The Nook, West Hampshire Lane, Hamps WXZ21". Or "The Mews, Fern Lane, Hampstead NW3" ... and so on.

My 2009 Christmas present from Maggie
And then they have "states of being" that they advertise, such as being "at home" or "at leisure" which means you are allowed to call on them.

I have a young Australian friend who has spent the last six years in London. Last week he posted on FaceBook - "I will be in Melbourne over Christmas for two weeks and will be granting audiences on a first-come first-serve basis."

You've gotta love 'em!

All sorts of people go weird when moving to the mother country. Just look at our Germaine. In Australia she was spot on, a feminist through and through. A member of the Sydney Push along with Wendy Bacon and Frank Moorhouse. Germaine now lives in Essex, wears frumpy clothes and fancies herself as an expert on women's fashion.

But back to Maggie. I received a lovely present from Maggie this week. I was pleased to see that she has taken up knitting and has been making her own Christmas presents. I HAD been expecting a gift from Harrods, and so was pleasantly surprised to see that Maggie has become DOMESTICATED!!!

Yes, Maggie is definitely "At Home"!

So impressed am I that I feel I must reciprocate. In kind. This is truly a CHALLENGE. Something to aim for - for Christmas 2010.

Yes, I do so want to surprise Maggie next year with a lovely home-made little something.

Suggestions are welcome!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Where have all the children gone?

Out from the sea came a little green Crab
Taking the Sun the morning being very drab
Old rusty cans, pebbles 'bedded in the sand stand and stare
The Tinker and the Crab
From "The Tinker and the Crab", Donovan Leitch

The soul is healed by being with children.
From Dostoevsky, "The Idiot"

Photo Project Two. "Photograph #5: photography of a pet or child. The objective of this picture is to capture the personality of a young child or animal." From the New York Institute of Photography Fundamentals of Digital Photography course.

Which I enrolled in just recently. For fun.

I've glanced through the course notes and assignments. Photograph #5 is the last of a series of photos that are assessed.

I'm stumped. This Is the "New York Institute of Photography" is it not? I realise that people from all over can enroll as it is a distance education thing. But I'm in New York.

Where am I meant to find a child?

I'm trying to push Photograph #5 from my mind. But it keeps creeping in. There's too many thoughts I've been trying to push away lately.

I do see children. They are on buses, in strollers. Occasionally there's even one in the elevator in our apartment block. They are not as common as dogs but they do exist.

I refuse to take a photograph of a New York dog! I have SOME standards.

What about a cat? Are there cats in New York? A person cannot easily keep a cat in Manhattan. They tend to jump out of windows, posing a danger to passers-by, let alone to themselves. Hardly anyone lives on a ground floor here.

What other sort of pet is there? I could go to Chinatown and buy a tortoise or a crab. But they don't have personalities. A fish? Same thing.

It's going to have to be a child.

Though I'm tempted to buy a crab ...

Anywhere else, anywhere other than New York, I'd have no trouble finding a child. I love children. They are my favorite people. But here they are far-away things. They belong to another life. Like vacations in Bali. "Dropping in" on friends. Driving old cars with yellow canary stickers. Smoking in restaurants ...

I HAD thought I could get by in the course by photographing "found objects". I love photographing "found objects". Photographing "found objects" is second only to naming photos, "Untitled".

But Photograph #5 can in no way be of a found object ... I've re-read the assignment description several times. Not a hint of ambiguity.

Perhaps I could put a notice on the apartment lobby notice board. "Wanted - one young child for a photograph." Yes I can just see the offers come flooding in.

Yep, I'm well and truly stumped.

Looks like it's the crab ...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Dog With One Leg

I am strong (strong)
I am invincible (invincible)
From "I am woman", Ray Burton and Helen Reddy 1972

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth
Matthew 5.5 King James Bible

What do we want?
When do we want it?
The "Meek" (according to Eddie Izzard), on hearing that God has decided to change his Last Will and Testament.

Our Models Can Beat Their Models - Levi Ad, NY Subway
"Who would win the race? A rooster with a sore beak or a cat with a broken leg?"

This was the sort of question my son would ask when he was about four years old. "Oh," I might say, "the cat."

But he was not to be deterred. "Who would win, a cat with a broken leg, or a grasshopper with one eye?" And so it went. On and on.

I used to think that these sort of questions were unique to my son (we proud mothers are so biased). Then, on a message board somewhere a year or so ago, a woman posted about her own son who said the same sort of thing. He upped MY son with a, "Who would win,
a dog with one leg or a cat with no face?"

It must be a boy-thing ...

Strong - weak, winning -losing, aggressive-compliant. We are taught from an early age to win, to be strong, to do well.

But does this work out? Lately I've been wondering.

Of course it SEEMS to work in politics and business. But does it work in social relationships? Are the "strong" valued, appreciated, nurtured? I think not.

Australians love the underdog and are wary of people who they perceive as successful. I used to hear this said when I lived in Australia, and thought it a false sort of stereotype. But since leaving OZ, I've come see the truth of such assertions more and more.

My last Letter from New York - Touching Me, Touching You drew quite a few responses. Touching Me, Touching You was about Australian expats feeling a need to "phone home", to keep in touch, and many of us feel that it is left to ourselves to make the effort. In a way it was a cry from the heart.

Being an expat can be lonely at times. We'd like to hear from our back-at-home friends. Yet in many cases it is a one-way street. Phone calls are often not reciprocated - at least not on a one-to-one basis

But after publishing my post, instead of a flurry of calls from Australia, I received either a stony silence or emails complaining about what I'd said - but no details.

And so I thought about it. And this is my "take".

Expats are seen as strong. As survivors. We left and the very fact that we are still away, means that we are strong, invincible, successful. Ergo, we don't need that consoling phone call, that remembering, that affection.

Yeah, I get it now.

We are the dog with one leg.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Touching me, touching you

Hands, touching hands, reaching out
Touching me, touching you
Oh, sweet Caroline
Good times never seem so good
I've been inclined to believe it never would
from Neil Diamond "Sweet Caroline"

Today I realised how far I was from my fellow Australians.

Sure, I've glimmered it before. After all, I've lived in the United States for these past 14 years. But somehow today it hit me.

I like to "touch base" with my Australian friends, and normally do so on the weekends. It's pretty hard to do so in the week, because of the time difference. So I generally phone on a Friday or Saturday evening - Saturday or Sunday morning in Australia.

Though as the weeks/years go by, I've realised it is ME who more and more does the phoning. A one-way street.

Tonight it was crunch time. I'd seen the one-way street. It just took a while to sink in. Tonight it was a highway.

BUT - "It's Christmas. Let's keep in touch," I thought.

And I made my weekend calls. At each number I hesitated before I dialed. After all, I had an inkling that the call may not be welcomed. But I put it down to my own hyper-sensitivity.

Was it that it is because it is coming into what we in New York call "the holidays"? Christmas, Chanaka??? Everyone is busy???? I don't think so. Not in OZ.

I think it is that Australia doesn't forgive the "expat".

And I suppose I understand. We are the ones who "left".

"I'll call you later." "I'm about to go out." "Check the airfares, we would so much like to visit."

Yep. Pretty nice. Pretty encouraging ... Check your own airfares!

But I really do understand. Those who have left, have left.

We are OK for a visit. But are we really there? And are we here?

I guess not.

But THINK. We aren't the Germaine Greers. We aren't the Clive James. We are just ordinary Australians. I know a few of "us".

For some reason, work, relationships, families, took us to the United States, England, Germany, Sweden ...

We miss our fellow Aussies. We aren't betrayers.

I put the phone down.

I understand.

I say, "Good Bye."

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

On Being Bi-lingual

The verb license or grant license means to give permission. The noun license (licence in English, British, Canadian and Indian spelling) refers to that permission as well as to the document memorializing that permission.

You like potato and I like potahto
You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto.
Let's call the whole thing off
From "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" by George and Ira Gershwin and Ira Gershwin

I didn't realise I was bi-lingual; till last week, when I made a faux pas by criticising a certain persona non grata over his spelling of license It was twenty nine years ago today. He's spelled it "licence" and was using it as a noun. Which is in fact correct, if you are Australian or English.

I work in the U.S. and hold both Australian and American citizenship. I was born in Australia and my formal education was there. So I'm fairly used to using American spelling at work, and Australian/English when I email friends and family in OZ.

But last week, I genuinely thought the persona non grata was incorrect in his spelling, of the word even though he's an Australiano-phile Brit. Note - by the very use of a made-up word, I'm sounding American.

So ... what to do when writing on the internet? I vote for American English as it was Americans who invented the internet.

I remember when the commercial internet was in its infancy, and Americans used smilies to indicate when they were joking. There was a feeling in the academic community in Australia at that time, that Americans used smilies because they couldn't express themselves with words.

That urban legend can be put to rest as smilies have become accepted currency world-wide.

A winking smiley is the graphic equivalent of the Australian "Joke Joyce". So in the spirit of international cooperation I should have said - I vote for American English as it was Americans who invented the internet. and Joke, Joyce.

On the Q32 - Manhattan to Queens Bus
On another topic altogether - It's strange, the image that many people outside of New York have of New Yorkers. Tough, smart asses (I'm deliberately mixing my spelling styles), money-hungry, uncompassionate ...

This is not at all true. Well the smart arse thing is, but in Australia we'd call it irreverent, displaying larrikin behaviour - and be proud of it. Or to put it more precisely, one man's smart ass is another man's larrikinism.

Take this bus story, for example. Since the recession I've noticed a new trend on the buses here.

More and more people are getting on the bus and not paying. There's a bus ticket reader thing near the driver where you are meant to swipe your MetroCard or deposit the fare in coins. Public transport is relatively cheap in New York and a few years ago it was extremely rare for people to evade paying.

These days I see at least five fare evaders per week. Their techniques vary. Some just walk confidently past the driver and if called back look surprised and say they forgot. These types pay. Others will use an expired card and when it is rejected say they have no cash. Others will pretend they didn't know that the ticket thingo doesn't take notes and will look helpless and try to insert a dollar bill in the coin opening. And some will say outright that they have no money.

Once the driver would have told such people to pay up or leave. Not so now. They invariably wave them on. "Just go and sit down," they'll say.

Once the other passengers would have spoken up and said how the person should pay, or that they'll give them change in exchange for the dollar note. Now they just put their heads down and pretend to read their Wall Street Journal, or fiddle with their iPod.

A sad sign of the times.

Yes, Australians might be larrikins and New Yorkers smart arses. But there's one thing the men on public transport in both Australia and New York have in common. How they sit.

Why do they sit like that? Does anybody know?

Do they know?

And how does one spell "smilie"?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

It was twenty nine years ago today

And in the end,
The love you take
is equal to the love you make
from "The End" Lennon McCartney

People gather at Strawberry Fields on hearing of the death of George Harrison, November 30th 2001. You can see the Dakota in the background.
In two days it will be the 29th anniversary of John Lennon's untimely death. And last month it was the eighth anniversary of fellow Beatle, George Harrison's.

I would not have remembered if it hadn't been for a rather maudlin article by a Bob Greene (whoever he is when he's at home) titled "A place haunted by Lennon's murder". It's on CNN. You can see it here.

It starts off with, "Maybe if you're a New Yorker, you grow accustomed to the sight". Referring to the Dakota building, which sits directly across the road from Strawberry Fields - Yoko's dedication to Lennon in Central Park.

Greene then goes on to say how spooky the Dakota is, referring to Lennon's shooting outside it, and to the use of its facade in Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby". He waxes maudlin about Lennon's final hours and Yoko's memorial. Enough already yet, I mentally screamed.

John and George Remembered - Strawberry Fields
I pass the Dakota often. My therapist's rooms are nearby. And I don't get spooked. I'm sure Mr. Greene would say it is because I'm a New Yorker, which I would take as a compliment. Therapist? Central Park? Yes she really IS a New Yorker I can hear you thinking. Well, that's what I think whenever I'm down that way. "You know you've made it in New York when ... " sort of thing.

But even when I wasn't a New Yorker I didn't find The Dakota ghostly. It's just a rather New Yorkish looking apartment building for the very rich.

Of course John Lennon was the most talented of the Beatles and his death was untimely, senseless, and a huge loss to the music world.

"The Beatles were FUN!" said my phone confidante Peg last week when we were discussing the music of the Gen-Xs and Gen-Ys. "Life was fun." "My son thinks that Kurt Cobain did more for music than the Beatles," I told her. "Oh no," she groaned. "And he was just a heroin junkie," I added, thinking that I was pretty sure that Lennon was once one too, but what the heck. Poetic license ....

Speaking of poetic license, I'm no longer really sure what it means. A man I once knew emailed me a while back complaining about how I portrayed the Melbourne University scene of the sixties. I emailed back saying of course I had exaggerated, poetic license blah blah. And he replied with a "I realised on reading your 'offending' piece that you were taking poetic licence (sic) but was not prepared to grant it to you ..." Can people deny one poetic license. More to the point, can people who cannot even spell "license" deny it???

But back to John, and I can't help thinking that Lennon at least was spared the horrors of rap, George W, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in that order.

And dear god, at least he missed Bob Dylan making a complete idiot of himself with his Christmas song album.

Rest in Peace John Lennon, one of music's greats.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Things my mother taught me

You put your right hand in,
You put your right hand out,
You put your right hand in
And you shake it all about.
You do the Hokey Pokey
And you turn yourself around,
That's what it's all about
From "The Hokey Pokey", anon

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going
Billy Ocean 1985

Life is not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful
George Bernard Shaw

Our Mother
Every now and then as I go through life in the rat-race of Manhattan, I remember my mum. That is not to say I don't remember her at other times ... but when the tough gets going ...

The first lesson I remember is:

How to get a broken window replaced.

I don't remember who broke the window but I have my suspicions ... I must have been about thirteen. My mother sat me down with a ball of wool and a pair of scissors.

"Let's measure the window," she said. "But Mu-u-u-m!" I howled (as the window-breaker suspect went on his merry way) "the wool stretches." "Be quiet," she said. "Put on your pretty pink dress and go to the hardware store and tell the man we need the glass replaced. Show him the measurements. This long piece of wool is the height of the glass, and this is the width."

And I did. And it was.

There are many other lessons. But for now ...

On Confronting Authority.

"If confronted by authority," she told me, "always smile and act dumb. Never argue. Pretend you don't understand. And if you need to write a letter, use your wrong hand, and a crayon if it is the Taxation Office."

This worked surprisingly well. I remember when I worked at Deakin University. I am a nervous driver, always going so far UNDER the speed limit that I annoy any driver withing 200 meters from me. But on the way to Deakin University is a very steep hill. And every now and then, when the the local government coffers need refilling, a cop hides behind a tree at the lowest point. So eventually I got stopped. And remembered my mum's advice.

"I am so sorry sir," I supplicated. "I will serve my time. Where is the jail and can I phone home?" "Look lady," he started to say, where upon the next stopped motorist interrupted. "Excuse me but I have an appointment I am a busy man!" "Certainly," said the cop. "Excuse me," he said to me. "Please drive on, this man wants to be ticketed." And turned to fine Mr. Impatient as I drove off free.

"Where are your receipts?" the Australian Taxation Office writes to me. Out with the crayon and my right hand (I'm left-handed). "Dear Treasurer, what receipts would you like? The only receipts I know are in the Australian Women's Weekly Cookbook." Case closed.

Why did my mother's lesson come to me tonight? Well, this evening I was getting a lift home from a social function with a friend. At a seven-way intersection he turned a hard left. A New York traffic cop walked towards us and yelled, "Where the f**ing hell do YOU belong?"

"On a tropical island with beautiful girls and coconuts?" he offered.

She waved him on.

Which just goes to show ...