Monthly Archives: May 2012

Don’t get a snakebite in the United States

Those of you who have read this blog from the beginning will know that one of my biggest worries before moving to the United States was finding affordable healthcare for my family who was coming from London, where it is socialized. I wrote several postings about my adventures in healthcare, which threatened to give me a nervous breakdown.

Well, I was right to worry so much about it. Today, on the local San Diego news, I heard about a 23-year-old Norwegian exchange student who was bitten by a baby rattlesnake on his way to his car in a parking lot.

He managed to limp his way to a hospital – he was luckily across the street from Scripps Mercy Hospital in La Jolla – and was treated at the medical facility overnight.

He says his care was top-notch. Good thing, too, because his bill came to … drum roll, please … $143,000. The anti-venom he was injected with twice came to a staggering $128,050. An itemized bill flashed on the television screen with bits highlighted for viewers.

I’m not sure who is setting these ridiculous prices, but there is something obscenely comical about it. How can an injection for a snakebite cost over $100,000?

The poor kid did, thankfully, have insurance. His insurers – who claim they have never seen anything like it – are now in a dispute with Scripps over the billing, which was apparently ‘accurate and appropriate’.

You can read how a Norwegian website in English reported it here.

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My best friend the computer

My brother likes to joke that the computer is my best friend, because it’s often sitting open in front of me. Sadly, I spend a lot of time with my hard-wired best friend (a small Hewlett Packard laptop, owned by my dad).

Since moving to the United States without the English Husband, the computer has enabled me to keep in touch with the friends and relationships I’ve left behind. I honestly don’t know what I’d do without it. Sometimes I wonder if it’s actually keeping me from living in a world of three dimensions. I watch television with it propped open; we share meals together while I skim my emails; and we go for coffee together weekly.

best friend charm

Perhaps I should consider giving this to my computer for its 1-year birthday in August

I return to it several times a day, almost hoping it will have some sort of surprise in store for me – maybe it will find me a job, maybe it will deliver some significant news. When I was drinking the other evening in the company of my computer, I’m afraid I nearly caused its early death when a glass of Californian Syrah dropped all over its sleek black frame. Unlike a human being, it said nothing to me in anger. To my intense happiness, it’s still in the world of the living.

One thing my box-like best friend has undoubtedly allowed me to do is to see my husband almost daily. Skype has most certainly changed long-distance relationships. There was a time, not many years ago, when a long-distance relationship would mean speaking to someone on a crackly phone line and enduring frustrating time delays that would make your conversation stilted and hard to follow. Or there was ordinary mail – romantic but slow. If I relied on mail to sustain my relationship, I think I would have given up by now and started talking to some of my old wedding pictures.

In a funny twist of fate, my mother is also a Skype widow. My dad is working on the east coast while she stays in California, in the family home. They also speak every day on Skype and have been living like this for many years.

According to recent statistics, there are 31 million users of Skype (as of Jan 2012), with the average conversation lasting 27 minutes. The average Skype user spends 100 minutes a month on the technology platform, and it has a 8.1m paying customers. Microsoft acquired Skype for $8.5bn, with Skype’s revenue in 2010 amounting to just over $406m.

I wonder how many of these Skype subscribers have partners living thousands or hundreds of miles away. How many relationships wouldn’t survive the distance if video chatting hadn’t become the norm? It’s impossible to find meaningful statistics on this, but Men’s Health published an article stating that Skype actually improves long-distance relationships. The editors haven’t done a whole lot of research, but they have quoted a professor of communications at Ohio State University to support their eye-catching claim. Prof. Stacie Powers led a study called Computers in Human Behavior that found people get less frustrated discussing emotional topics over webcam.

Her theory is that small time delays actually work in your favor, because participants in a conversation have to pay extra attention to nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and tone of voice instead of being solely focused on the emotionally charged topic.

I know that when you are talking to someone over webcam, it’s extremely easy to cut off the conversation when you don’t like the way its headed. When you are living with someone, the retreat is harder to achieve. In the former case, you just push a button to end the chat; in the latter you need to leave the house or exercise extreme self-restraint. I don’t argue as much with my husband these days, because we simply don’t spend much time in the company of each other.

On the other hand, my best friend and I spend too much time together, and I’ve started to get a bit resentful. Like any friend, I am starting to become a bit annoyed about all the demands it makes on my time. On bad days, I feel like the computer is an anchor around my neck; on good days, I feel like it’s liberating me and making the world smaller. How do you resolve these two conflicting emotions? How do I wean myself off this machine?

I don’t know, but I just wish innovative technology wasn’t so damn addictive. I’ve got a life to live, preferably not through the computer screen.

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Where have all the good guys gone?

Emily Maynard

The Bachelorette is looking for a good guy

I’ve been watching quite a bit of reality TV lately, I’m ashamed to say. I used to watch BBC documentaries regularly; now I content myself with the Bachelorette, a show so shallow it’s the equivalent of a baby’s paddling pool. Yes, I’m hooked.

Here’s a quick synopsis: a young, single mother, already rejected by a supremely arrogant bastard on television, looks for love among a bunch of egotistical, competitive maniacs who would rather make each other look bad than win her heart. It made me wonder where all the good guys are. They’re not on the Bachelorette.

My child has been talking about good guys lately. It started one brilliantly sunny afternoon when a fighter jet from Miramar airforce base streaked across the sky. A friend told her it was the good guys protecting us from the bad guys. Before I know what’s going on, she is repeating good guys and bad guys over and over again, and then giggling. I worry that she might get the wrong idea about the world, which is far more complicated than something so black and white.

I approach the topic hesitantly the next night after pondering it for a while. ‘You know,’ I say to her, while we watch the evening news, ‘the world is not so simple as good and bad. Sometimes it’s a matter of someone’s perspective.’ Her five-year-old eyes give me a blank look. ‘Sometimes someone good can do something bad.’ She still isn’t getting me.

‘Never mind,’ I say.

We talk about it in the car on the way back from school today, and she opens up a bit more. ‘What do you think makes a good guy?’ I ask.

‘Someone who doesn’t push or pull hair. Maybe someone who doesn’t fight.’ She pauses a moment and then continues: ‘Someone who tries to solve problems or tells grown-ups when they can’t.’

It’s not a bad answer. If only more countries would try to solve problems through diplomatic means. A bully comes in many guises.

I decide to press her a bit further. ‘Do you think America is a good guy or a bad guy?’ I wait expectantly for an answer. Since being in the United States, I have often wondered about how her view of where she comes from has changed. Does she see London and the UK any differently? Does she perhaps view the world differently? I know if we lived here permanently, she would undoubtedly have different views on the world than if we stayed in Europe, no matter how much I might try to influence her. It’s only natural.

When she replies to my question about America’s role as a good or bad guy, her answer surprises me. ‘I don’t know. Maybe it’s both.’

Perhaps she doesn’t actually know what to say, and she is hedging her bets. Regardless, I’m glad she doesn’t shout about how America is always the good guy. Things are not that straightforward, and I’d rather she believe that we try to do good things, but sometimes don’t.

I think about the Bachelorette. Perhaps there’s more to the show than meets the eye. Could the show’s producers be teaching us a lesson that could be applied to the wider world? Someone who appears to be a good guy could become a villain overnight and vice versa. Or maybe it’s all about who edits the show and the kind of story they want to promote. It’s like the person who writes the history books. It’s a matter of perspective.

On second thought, the Bachelorette probably doesn’t go that deep.

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Dum Dum Girls

Dee Dee

The lead singer of the Dum Dum girls in trademark tights and black clothing

Wednesday night – I’m standing outside the Belly Up Tavern in wealthy Solana Beach, a coastal town with a thriving community, to the north of San Diego.

There are four of us – all girls, most of us wearing red lipstick and jean jackets – and we’re waiting to hear the Dum Dum girls, a group of four girls who also tend to wear red lipstick and black clothes with fishnets.

Killing time in front of the Belly Up. I am crushed to discover the band comes on late

I don’t know much about the Dum Dum girls. I played a couple of songs on YouTube before the gig tonight, and I heard a selection of songs in the car on the way to the venue. What I do know is that they’re all attractive and have similar-looking haircuts with a heavy fringe. I am here mostly because I am desperate for a night out, particularly one that takes me outside my 5 -mile comfort zone around my mother’s house.

Because I woke up this morning feeling like a 60-year-old who ran a marathon in her sleep (bad night), I am actually hoping this Big Night Out doesn’t drag on past 11ish. But this hope is dashed when we’re told by the person at the ticket booth that the headliners we are here to see won’t be on until about 11pm. I gather this is not unusual for the Belly Up. I’m wondering how I will make it to 11 without collapsing into a heap on the floor with red lipstick smeared down my chin. With beer, of course.

An hour and a half later, my friends and I are standing at the front of the stage. We don’t have to fight our way there – the venue feels half empty and I’m reassured that there are some people who definitely look older than I do. I’ve got to the point in my life where I feel like I’ve got a sign on my forehead telling people that I’m nearly 40 and should be at home sipping a glass of red wine and watching Dancing with the Stars with my mother.

The main act

Before the band comes on, I’m kind of afraid the main act might be hijacked by a couple near the front – they are engaging in the most astonishing PDA (public displays of affection) I have ever seen. I try to stand as far away as possible; the last thing I want to do is inadvertently brush up against them. I’m silently wishing someone will tell them to leave, but it doesn’t happen. So for the remainder of the show I know that they are there, to my right, looking a bit like they are taking part in some sort of tribal dance ritual that includes writhing and hip gyrations.

Just as I think I’m getting queasy, Dee Dee (the lead singer) takes to the stage and distracts me. Her once-dark hair is now platinum blond and she looks tiny and frail but with a strong, clear voice.

I’ve never stood so close to a band before and it lends them some vulnerability. I can see the messy tangle of wires on the floor, the drinks at their feet – bottles of water and what appears to be whiskey – and a small tear in Dee Dee’s black tights.

I’m not sure how to categorize the band. They are a bit melodic, occasionally punky, and remind me of a rockier Mazzy Star. I recognize one of their latest hits, Bedroom Eyes, written during the fog of jet lag.

Dee Dee

The lead singer of the Dum Dum Girls says that she admires Chrissie Hynde

After reading a bio on the band, I learn that Dee Dee writes all, or most, of the songs. She is a talented singer-songwriter who takes her inspiration from very personal and painful memories. Most of the songs on her previous EP, He Gets Me High, were about the tragic death of her mother from cancer. She also unsparingly talks about her separation from her husband, also a singer, because of the constant touring.

The show ends with Coming Down, an epic ballad from the latest album (Only in Dreams) that deals with the grief of death. It’s strange to watch this small girl belt out these incredibly personal lyrics, but it gives the Dum Dum girls some emotional credibility. I feel a bit like a voyeur, though. I wish I knew their songs a bit better and didn’t feel like I was faking it.

For those in the UK, Dee Dee (minus the band) will perform at Hotel Street on Charing Cross Road on June 8. You can watch her for a ridiculous 3 pounds.

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A patriotic performance

American flag

The American flag waves from a pole at my child’s school in San Diego

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America

And to the republic for which it stands

One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all

Every single morning, before the start of school, I would mechanically recite these words at assembly, with my right hand over my heart. Now my daughter is doing the same thing.

For the average American, this tradition would not be unusual. But I have spent the majority of my adult life in another country, and coming back to these patriotic traditions has taken me a little by surprise.

In the UK, public displays of patriotism are rare. Sure, you find the Union Jack waving from buildings of national importance and places like Harrods, where tourists tend to flock. The reality is that few Brits I know are outwardly patriotic. I’m sure they love their country, but they hardly brag about it or take part in stirring renditions of their national anthem.

Most Brits have a pragmatic view of the UK and are more than willing to talk about its shortcomings with humor and common sense. This kind of conversation – at least if I’m involved – would often touch upon the weather, which Brits tolerate like a stroppy child. They don’t like it, but they have no choice but to stoically put up with it until the moody clouds lift.

Generally speaking, being patriotic in the United States is the norm. It’s people like me who are the exception. Yes, I love my country, and always have, but I don’t really like flying flags or being nationalistic. The English Husband might disagree with this perspective.

Is it your land or my land?

Last week, the Chatterbox had a patriotic performance at her elementary school. Her kindergarten class had to learn the words to My Country ‘Tis of Thee and This Land is Your Land. For a couple of weeks, I would hear my daughter occasionally hum a line or sing a few words. I’d ask her about what they were going to sing, and I would get a vague reply. The only thing she ever knows with any certainty is what she has for lunch.

On the appointed day, I dress the Chatterbox in red, white and blue. She looks like she is ready for a barbecue on the Fourth of July. I thought perhaps this kind of patriotism would make me a little uneasy, but it doesn’t. I am incredibly proud of her, and I am also glad she is learning a little about her nationality.

Chatterbox

My little American girl

It’s my worry that I will return to London and she won’t care about where I grew up and what it means to me. Isn’t that the case with any immigrant? Of course, when I ask her what the words to This Land is Your Land mean, she shrugs, ‘I dunno.’ We might as well be talking about advanced calculus. But she does know the president of the United States by name. I’m afraid the same is not true of David Cameron.

Becoming British

All this talk of nationality reminds of when I became a British citizen. I didn’t have to do anything at all. I paid my money, filled out a few forms and showed up to Islington Town Hall for a small ceremony. The mayor of Islington was there and she talked about all the many restaurants in the area. This is what I remember most.

After this rather bizarre speech, someone turned on a ghetto blaster and God Save the Queen blared out. I was then handed a folder telling me what it means to be a British citizen, and a paper weight from the borough of Islington. We were then invited to have tea and sandwiches in an ancient-looking room. It was all very civilized and very British.

When my dad finally became an American citizen a few years ago, he also had to fill out a few forms and pay his money. He also had to study for an exam and had to learn the answers to approximately 50 questions about the United States. The only thing he was ever asked was the address of the White House. I’m ashamed to say I don’t know this, but my dad got it right.

His ceremony for becoming an American citizen wasn’t as personal or quaint as mine. He was ushered into a room with about 200 people and told to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. My dad kept his mouth shut. He was then given a small American flag that still resides on our bookcase. My paper weight is somewhere in London and is also sitting on a bookcase. It’s a curious reminder of how long I have lived outside my own country.

My children will never have to go through what my dad or I have. They will always have dual nationality. Lucky them. I hope one day they appreciate what this means.

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Ghosts in the closet

childhood monster

A monster, as drawn by the Chatterbox (age 5). The young artist says: ‘I am pretending he is a nice monster, but he is scary.’

I’ve been thinking about monsters lately. Perhaps it’s because of the death of Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of Where The Wild Things Are. He famously brought childhood monsters out from under the bed and into the pages of a book. In interviews, Sendak would claim that he never wrote specifically for children. Other people, most likely his publishers, decided who the audience for his books should be. There were critics – they believed his stories contained harsh truths and disturbing images that could scare children.

The monsters in Sendak’s most famous book are actually modeled on his relatives. I know where’s he’s coming from. Some of my uncles could probably have cameos in a horror movie.

Sendak’s recent death coincides with my toddler’s sudden fear of the dark. This fear has come in stages. First, several weeks ago, she started asking for a lamp to be left on at bedtime. Every night, before I went to bed myself, I would sneak into her room and turn off the lamp I’d left on for comfort; I’d then arrange her covers and give her a soft goodnight kiss that she’d never remember.

But then she started waking up in the middle of the night and crying for the light. I’d walk in and find her sitting up, occasionally looking terrified. Other nights she would come to my room and stand next to my bed, calling me until I woke up. Each time I’d have to turn the light back on. At 4am I was in no mood to argue. It’s bad enough that I usually have to sing Baa Baa Black Sheep.

This week it has taken another turn. The Raging Bull, who will turn 3 in July, has started asking me to shut the closet door. I asked her the other day why she needed to have it shut. She pointed a chubby finger at the dark space within and whispered earnestly, ‘There are ghosts in there.’

‘Really,’ I replied in mock disbelief. ‘Do you see them anywhere else?’

‘Over there, in the chair.’ She looked across the room at a huge reclining chair that no one uses and sits neglected in a corner. I must admit, that scared me for just a second. Imagining a ghost in a chair is more unsettling than garden-variety ghosts in the closet.

The thing is, I am pretty damn sure my child doesn’t have a sixth sense, enabling her to see dead people. That would be the plot of a well-known Hollywood blockbuster and not the ordinary fear of a child.

But why the fear and why now? Could it stem from the library book about a monster who turns out to be Dad? The Raging Bull was obsessed with it, and would beseech me to read the ‘ghost book’ every night. Could it be images on television? Could it be the international news, which frankly frightens me? Could it simply be her imagination coming to life?

I don’t know the answers, and she can’t tell me, but my five-year-old went through something similar. She also suddenly needed a night light around the age of 3. She is still scared of the dark, although she is surprisingly logical about ghosts and monsters.

Last night I asked her if she had ever seen a ghost. ‘Nooooo,’ she exclaimed, almost in a humorous tone.

‘What about monsters?’

She replied sensibly: ‘I have been scared, but it’s people that does it.’

I generally like to tell children the truth, so I told her that most monsters and ghosts only live ‘in here’, pointing to my head. ‘I know that,’ she said. ‘They’re in your imagination and in your dreams.’

Her adult reasoning took me by surprise. I didn’t expect such a grown-up answer. ‘Last night I dreamed of Snow White,’ she added. I take it as a good sign that she’s dreaming of Snow White and not goblins.

My almost-three-year-old hasn’t yet developed the logic to deal with fears. But I expect that she and her sister will one day simply grow out of the night light. It’ll probably be about the time they start to push me away and order me to drop them off around the corner from their school.

Oddly, I still like to shut closet doors before I go to sleep. There’s something about having them open that I’ve never liked. I suspect I’m not alone in this. Perhaps there are some childhood fears we never quite grow out of.

Or it could be this: my need to shut the closet has more to do with the disastrous jumble of clothes, bags and shoes that live inside, reminding me about how much money I’ve spent on frivolity. That would give anyone nightmares.

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Commuting is bad for your health and marriage

Mumbai train

London Waterloo at 5.30pm is probably only a tad more civilized than this (pic courtesy of bellevision.com)

Although the kids are usually working themselves into a food-fueled frenzy at about 6.30pm, I managed to overhear this fact on the evening news: people who commute for 45mins or more are 40 percent more likely to divorce, according to a study conducted in Sweden.

It’s not that surprising when you consider how easily commuting can put you into a bad mood. There were days when I would come home seething and sweaty from a disastrous hour-long commute in London. The expert advice? Live closer to work. I am guessing these people have never tried to own more than a closet in central London. You’d need to be on a pretty packet to afford livable space in the city.

The same news program told us that nearly 8 percent of Americans now spend more than an hour commuting each way. The average in the United States is 25mins, and Americans now spend more than 100 hours a year getting to and from work. Maybe my years in London has made me completely out of touch, but this doesn’t actually sound that bad.

New research conducted by the Washington University of Medicine also reveals that those who commute 10 miles or more tend to have bigger waistlines and higher blood pressure, while 33 percent of those with a 90min commute report recurring back and neck problems.

All of these rather depressing statistics seem to be speaking to me personally. The English Husband and I are trying to find somewhere to live in London together as a family. Newsflash: I am returning to London on July 9 after my grand, year-long experiment in the United States. Having spectacularly failed to get a job that would enable our move, I am going to pack up the kids and our growing possessions and head back across the Atlantic. This makes the move sound easy, but it’s not.

One of the biggest things we need to do is to find somewhere to live. It sounds straightforward enough, but we are working with one income at the moment, we have two kids, we want decent storage and we need to be within walking distance of a good school. I’m fairly certain we are a real estate agent’s biggest headache.

The ‘C’ word springs to mind. We either compromise on space or location. It usually comes down to one of the two. We talked about moving further out of London and getting off my beloved tube map. As someone who will not have a car, I cling to the tube map like a child clings to his comfort blanket. But I think I am ready to move further afield and get more for our money. Plus, the schools outside of the inner city tend to be better.

This, however, means embracing a long commute. The Husband drives to work in Maida Vale (northwest London) – an average of 25mins one way from our one-bed flat – and his commute would more than double if we decide to head to the suburbs of south London, where things are more affordable.

And since I now know what this daily grind might do to my marriage, I am wondering if it would just be better to trip over each other in a small and expensive flat, and shelve the idea of a commute for another year. I’d like a study that researches what is more stressful: having not quite enough living space or traveling long distances to work. I want to see the results.

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