Monthly Archives: November 2013

Entering dangerous territory…

It’s generally quite a good idea to avoid the subjects of guns, religion and politics when in conversation with a Texan, if you’re not a Texan yourself that is. However, my good friend Susie – who is actually from Louisiana but she’s been in Houston long enough to have become quite Texan – owns four guns so I have been unable to stop myself from talking about guns with her. I mean, why four?

Susie lives on her own in a nice house inside the loop (that’s much nearer downtown than us) and not in a gated community. Houston has little ‘zoning’ – so you get a mash of housing, shops, doctors, dentists, schools, industrial buildings all mixed together.  One minute you’re in quite a posh area, two blocks along and it can be very different.  So anyone could turn up at your front door, right? A single gal needs to protect herself, especially a gal who’s grown up with guns in the house and who has never questioned her right to own one.  For most Americans who own a handgun, and Susie is no exception, it’s about personal safety rather than being macho, homicidal, suicidal, in a gang or even for hunting. [I’m talking ownership not usage – most gun deaths in the US are from suicide, and then are gang-related or in areas of high poverty and social deprivation.]  This is rather astonishing when there is conclusive evidence that nations – and the individual people who live in them – become less safe as gun ownership rises.  But gun-owning Americans seem constitutionally unable to digest the facts.

I have only weakly raised this with Susie as I want to stay being friends with her, she’s so nice.  And after all, this is the state in which, after every horrific mass shooting, the public debate turns, within one day, to whether or not teachers should be armed.  I have heard on a live radio phone-in an apparently sane man (at least, he was freely living in the community) accuse another who was publicly against the very free and easy gun laws of Texas of having “the blood of dead children” on his hands for previously stymying any discussion about the need for armed security in the classroom.  I have had sensible and normal conversations with Americans who don’t own a gun and who are exasperated by the power of the NRA lobby and the mentality of many of their compatriots, but they haven’t been Texan (or from Louisiana) and they’ve started the conversation, not me.

So, with Susie, our gun chats have been quite superficial but she did make us howl with laughter when she told us a story about when she nearly used her gun in self-defence.  It was halloween and had been noisy out in the streets, what with all the trick or treating. Late into the night, she’s in bed when she hears a crash and then what sounds like her vacuum cleaner being switched on. Of her four guns, she keeps one loaded in a special holster under her bed, so this is what she reaches for. She says she stood in her bedroom in the dark for what felt like ages, blood thumping in her ears, arms outstretched Cagney and Lacey style with gun pointing at the door. Saying nothing. Hoover still going. Absolutely terrified. Eventually, she manages to shout “Get out, I’ve got a loaded gun and I’m ready to shoot!”. She doesn’t really feel ready to shoot at all. Nothing happens. She can’t tell if anyone’s still there, all she can hear is the hum of the hoover.  So she grapples with her phone, rings a friend, garbles the situation.  “OMG!” shouts her pal, “that’s TOTALLY what they do, put on the vacuum cleaner so you can’t hear what they’re doing, DIAL 911 NOW and keep your gun pointed at the door.” Susie dials 911, then waits some more. She’s still in the dark, still completely freaked out, still hearing nothing except that droning. After a while, she can’t stand it, her dogs are quiet, she doesn’t understand why they aren’t barking (have they been shot???), so she heads to her bathroom window and starts climbing out, loaded gun in hand. The window only opens half way so she’s quite contorted at the point when a cop pops up and urges her to put her gun down. “Ma’am please put your weapon down! It’s not safe to climb out of a window in that manner with a loaded weapon!”  “There’s someone in my house, they’ve shot my dogs, they’ve put the vacuum cleaner on, please help me!” she jabbers. “Please put the gun down and come to the door and let us in, we’ve been round your property and there’s no sign of a break-in, we believe you’re completely safe. Please put your gun down, ma’am.”  Well, long story short, she’s persuaded to go to the front door to let the police in, and on the way through the house realises that her fat dog has knocked a hairdryer onto the wooden floor, which has switched itself on and is blowing and noisily vibrating away while the dog has gone back to sleep unperturbed. Of course she is immediately and massively embarrassed. She gets to the door, peers round, explains what’s happened, apologises, thanks them profusely.

What colour would you like yours?And the officer says, “Well ma’am, no need to thank us, we’re here to serve you and keep you safe. Now would you like me to come in and check round for any more threatening appliances?”

But she still hasn’t told me why she needs four guns, or whether any of them are pink, and I’m not sure I’ll ever get round to asking.

Is it just me? (i)

Today when we woke up, the dawning light was yellow and threatening, like the air was  being lit by a huge sodium lamp or something. Prelude to downpour.  And indeed, pour down it did. This is not unusual for Houston, it’s frequently stormy, year round, and when it rains it’s rarely in a drizzly way. Which is one thing I didn’t really expect before we moved here. I imagined it to be quite arid and cactussy so was quite taken aback by how green it appeared as we flew in. Ignorance on my part, obviously, and a proper google about the climate could’ve educated me meteorologically, but this morning, as it bucketed down and I ran in what were, frankly, very British, conditions, still a little surprisingly to me even after more than a year, I started thinking about all the other things which have been unexpected about life in Houston that were perhaps not so google-able.  Now the worldly-wise amongst you may not be amazed or even mildly nonplussed by any of these things, but this is genuinely gob-smacking stuff I just wasn’t aware of:

  • People cycle, run and walk (the daring ones) on any old side of the road. So you can be driving along a major highway with a cyclist heading towards you at the edge of your lane.
  • Everyone knows that what we call the pavement in the UK is called the sidewalk in America (and there aren’t many of those in Houston), but what we would call the road or roadway, here is called the pavement! And buoy is pronounced boo-ey and pecan (state tree and state nut of Texas no less) becomes p’carn and herb and humble have silent aitches. Who knew?
  • Every single American person that I have met goes to church. Yes, Texas is in the bible belt, but nevertheless the role that churches play within the fabric of mainstream (Southern?) American life was a revelation to me. “Do you have a church home in Houston?” is a regular question when you meet someone new.  Sympathy is the best description I have for the usual reaction to my answering “no”.  The two biggest churches in the whole of the US are in Houston;  the top slot goes to Lakewood Church which ministers from what used to be the Houston Rockets’ stadium and whose average weekly attendance is  43,500. I repeat, 43,500. And that’s in a city with more than its fair share of mahousive churches.
  • Texas has no state laws regarding maternity leave so Texans get the basic federal deal which is 12 weeks for employees who have been with the company for at least a year, where the company has 50 or more employees within a 75 mile radius (and for all public employees like teachers). There is no obligatory maternity leave for anyone who works for a small business! There is no requirement for any maternity leave to be paid leave! In America! My jaw still drops every time I contemplate this.
  • Following sport – football (American), baseball and basketball primarily but by no means exclusively (swimming, soccer and track also come to mind) – at all levels – national, state, college, high school – is a mandatory activity for the whole family. It simply isn’t the same back home. Ok, football (soccer) is a national obsession, it’s usual for generations of the same family to be dyed-in-the-wool followers of the same team, and die-hard fans are die-hard fans season after season after season however crap the team is. But it’s just as normal to hate football or any other sport and/or for families to have no interest. Really not so here.
  • I can’t drive with an open container of alcohol in the car – fair enough if I’m at the wheel, but no passenger of mine can have one either. But I can totally text and drive, as well as stash a loaded hand gun in the dash. And while we’re on the subject, my adult teens, H and F, can’t drink alcohol at all but they can own a gun and carry it hidden about their person. Oh and we can all ride a motorbike without a helmet too. Questionable priorities or what?
  • People drive with dogs on their laps and with their feet out of the window.
  • Prisoners do community service – picking up litter, cleaning up parks etc – in comedy striped pyjamas “serving their debt to society” as the inevitable nearby sign so kindly announces. They don’t actually chop the hands off thieves here too but it did make me wonder the first time I saw this. Then again, I shouldn’t have been surprised because this is Texas which still has the death penalty and uses it against more people, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of its prisoners, than any other state. Sorry, I’m digressing, I already knew that before I came to live here.
  • There are people in my neighbourhood who have a sign in their garden which shows a picture of a gun and says “we don’t dial 911″. Note, it’s a gated community.  
  • Biscuit isn’t like a gingernut or jaffa cake or anything, it’s a dry, savoury, scone type thing. And gravy isn’t a delicious meaty jus. No! It’s a thick, creamy-coloured floury sauce which goes with said biscuit.

I’m sure I’m just scratching the surface with the stuff that’s sprung to mind as I write, and I’m equally sure that if a Texan moved to my part of Derbyshire they’d have a few rum observations to make too, so maybe this will turn out to be the first of an infrequent series on the subject. In the meantime, it’s not just me is it, is there anything staggeringly off the planet about where you find yourself? I might write about it again if there is…

 

Often quite cross… but not today!

I often feel quite cross about aspects of my life out here. (As an aside, Mr N was once asked in a game we were playing in the pub with friends how he would describe me in one sentence and he said, and I quote exactly, “often quite cross”! I know!) Exactly what I feel quite cross about here varies, but let’s throw it into three catch-all categories of i. frustrations with bureaucracy, ii. not knowing quite where we’ll be this time next year, and iii. feelings of superfluity regarding my current role in life. I am certain that trailing spouses the world over go through similar vexations, albeit over differing red tapes and spousal job situations, and with distinct personal temperaments and ambitions and ages of children. I will, no doubt, return to these another time. But today I’m feeling wholly positive so you’re in for an unadulterated upbeat blog!

My merry mood is down to two nights out in the last week which, between them, have reminded me about some things that are bloody great about a) living in Texas and b) being an ex-pat, and that c) frankly, I need to count my blessings and stop bleating.

The two events were bunco and a progressive dinner. Bunco’s a dice game, wholly American I believe, at least it is now, and seems to be played more in the southern states than elsewhere.  According to Wikipedia it originated in England but I’d never heard of it before moving here, and no-one I know had either, so maybe it left our shores with the Pilgrim Fathers and, like them, never went back.  More amusingly, it’s apparently also commonly referred to as ‘the housewife’s drinking game’. That’s more like it!  You play with a regular bunco group once a month, need at least 12 people, three tables and three sets of dice, and $5 dollars to get you your game.  There’s absolutely no skill whatsoever, but nevertheless it leaves you feeling smug when you win. There’s quite a high chance of being a winner even as you lose heavily – there are dollar prizes for many things including the most losses. And if you don’t end the night in the money, there’s always next time just a few short weeks away.

diceBut in reality, it’s not about winning (or losing), it’s about being sociable. The people in the group take turns to host, and serve hot food before the get-go and snacks on every table. Everyone brings wine.

The nature of the game means you move from table to table, changing partners and opponents with every round. Our bunco group, like most, is 100% female, but there is a couples’ night now and again, though the blokes concentrate hard on the dice throwing – it’s skill-less as I said but nevertheless fast and furious – and are a bit less chatty; so while it works with couples I’m not sure it would with men only.  It feels so American to me, all that one-pot-supper stuff, and pretzels on the side, and its strict adherence to rules, and its smoothly efficient running, and with Connies and Carries and Celestes of all ages amongst us, and its enforced (but real) neighbourliness. You just can’t play it and not be sociable. It’s brilliantly simple like all the best ideas. And last week’s didn’t end till gone midnight, unheard of before! Best. Bunco. Ever. As someone said in a follow-up email.

So that was bunco this month. Then came the progressive dinner. Now its modern origins may also be American, I don’t know, but I suspect its popularity is particularly rife amongst ex-pat communities world-wide and it certainly worked splendidly in ours. Give or take a few charmed areas, Houston is not an easy city to get around without a car,  so when an evening involving 64 locals gets organised which means that you can walk or cycle everywhere (ooh yes, and in short sleeves in November), and meet up with friends, vague acquaintances and complete strangers, it doesn’t take much to see why it was so eagerly anticipated.  Some people hosted starters in their houses, others hosted mains. Everyone ate each course at a different house and with different guests, and we all gathered together at the beginning of the evening for cocktails (and to find out exactly who else was involved) and ended back up together at the end for desserts. No-one knew who they would be eating and drinking with along the way.   In our case we feasted with fellow English (southerners, mind), Scots, Canadians, Dutch, Belgians and Irish folk, and I would guess the total nationality count was probably heading for 20.

starter menu

Mr N and I wondered afterwards if it would work back home, and concluded it could – we’re from a walkable Derbyshire town with enough friends of friends of friends to ensure a good turnout. But it wouldn’t be so global, and it’s precisely because we’re ex-pats living where we do that this one turned out such a sparklingly, uniquely, cosmopolitan affair.

Progressive is not an adjective that springs to mind about Texas, but progressive it was on Saturday night, at least in our bit of it.  So thanks to that and a demon dice game, I’ve counted my blessings and, for now at least, stopped bleating.

Behind the smiles

This last week I’ve read two blogs which caught my eye because they were observing differences in Texan/US vs English/UK culture, albeit from different perspectives. One was by Judith Hackitt who is the Chair of the Health & Safety Executive [HSE] in the UK (past life, if you’re wondering why I was reading it), and one was by someone called Dawn Rutherford Marchant which appeared on Facebook.  They both made interesting reading, but, at least I thought, missed something fundamental.

The former talked about her visit to Texas [http://www.hse.gov.uk/news/judith-risk-assessment/letter-from-america081113.htm] and the latter about moving to England from the US [http://www.businessinsider.com/us-expats-in-england-2013-10].  Judith on Texas more or less reaffirmed the stereotypes, but with little insight. Firstly the size of stuff –  “found it really is true that everything is bigger – the buildings, the cars, the restaurant portions…”. She’s right, but I think she ought to have mentioned the roads in this context, which are massive – wide, harshly concreted, noisy, multi-laned, and just so extremely high, looping up and down and around each other like Spaghetti Junctions* on growth hormones. Texas makes a statement out of its big city roads and decorates them with the Lone Star to prove it, and it’s every man and woman for themselves when you’re driving on them. So I’m surprised that Judith made no mention.

Then she moved seamlessly on to the famous American service culture –  “we experienced outstanding customer service – people who want to help, who are pleasant and polite. A real contrast with many of the appalling examples of customer service here in the UK…”  And I found myself bristling a little bit. There is a stark contrast between the Texan you meet behind the counter working hard to win your business, and the Texan behind the wheel owning the road. But they could be the very same person, and that’s an interesting dichotomy.

It is very true that the service you get in shops and restaurants here is usually exemplary. Staff will fall over themselves to greet you, offer help and keep checking that everything’s ok. Your waiter or waitress will introduce themselves by name, and run through all the menu specials, emphasising their particular favourites. But there is a flip side. Often, these places are over-staffed so there are almost as many ‘associates’ as customers which can make you feel a little bombarded. It’s normal to fend off three or four different members of staff in a ten minute browsing session round the liquor store, for example.  Mr N and I weave a complex route in one specific branch of Specs avoiding the very avid and in your face “Richard”.  And, just sometimes, there is something a little too off-pat about the waiter’s delivery and you’re reminded that these people need the tips/sales commission to make up their low wages and it’s a dog eat dog world behind their perfect, straight, shiny white American smiles.

Now don’t get me wrong,  the best servers genuinely do make you feel welcome and help you make good choices, and when it’s right, it’s immeasurably better than your average UK food or retail experience, and leaves behind a real and pleasing afterglow.  But in the US, if you’re eating out, or in a myriad of other situations (at the hairdresser, in a taxi, in a bar, on a guided tour, and more) you’ve gotta tip no matter how good or bad the service. Back home, at least if it’s bad you can demonstrate your displeasure.  And you can take your time over a meal, too, however poorly attended to. One thing at which these consummate customer carers are truly masterful is moving you swiftly through your dining experience to make room for the next sitting… Bit like their mastery of the ‘swoop and swerve’ from lane to lane as they forge along the freeways.

So on to Dawn Rutherford Marchant’s piece on England. She makes lots of compelling observations, but I disagree with her when it comes to the laundry.  Yes,  American washers and dryers are bigger (not just a Texan thing for once, it’s US-wide) and she’s right, it’s still common to hang your washing on the line to dry back home which, I agree, is an anachronism in a country renowned for its rain. But you don’t have to do it, you can get dryers there y’know Dawn, they’re just a bit smaller and front-loading.  No, what’s odd, to me, is that no-one hangs the washing out  here and,  in fact,  you’re actually not allowed to in many suburbs! Here! Where it’s hot, windy and frequently not raining and your clothes would dry in a jiffy on a line!  (Lowers the tone don’t you know.)

She writes also about lack of space (there) and the wastefulness of the culture (here) – and I think these things are connected. We don’t much use dryers in the UK because we don’t always have the space and even when we do we think they’re uneconomical and not very environmentally friendly. (Not me, I’m afraid though – in a household with three kids and two full-time jobbers and lots of stinking sports gear constantly being washed and with an aversion to ironing [- that was then, see my first blog to learn all about my Stateside change of heart in this pressing matter -]  I swallowed my green principles some years ago, put away the pegs and tumble-dried EVERYTHING to within its life. Sorry.)

But living in the US, it gets easier and easier to be wasteful, to drive ever shorter distances, to do the laundry without restraint, to eat out more, and chuck out more, to turn down the a/c or up the heating without blinking or thinking about it. Because stuff is cheap and easily available and plentiful, but time is not (all the school sports and activities and lack of holidays and paid days off work, maybe? Hmm, to be discussed another time…).

Of course, we should all take personal responsibility, but there’s an extravagance and demand for cheapness in the very fabric of American life that doesn’t sit easily with that philosophy. And, I think what I’m saying is, there’s something fundamental about that which both blogs missed in their observations of the differences, and which has struck me gradually, but nevertheless now it has struck it has done so quite forcibly, since I came to live here.

*The UK’s biggest and busiest motorway intersection which I used to find impressive and imposing but now realise is neither of these things.

The boring bits might just be the best, if only I could remember them all…

 

lollipops in the parkF, our middle child, turned 18 today.

This makes me and Mr N the mum and dad of not just three kids, but of two adults too. It’s enough to set you on a nostalgic train of thought…

If you’re reading this as a parent, or maybe aunty (or uncle? any blokes out there?), or even a grandparent – do you ever think about all the ‘last times’ with the weenies that have come and gone your way, disregarded?  I don’t mean the things you can pin a date to, like cheering at sports day or watching the nativity play, I mean the mundane, everyday stuff that simply goes on and on happening when you’re  in charge of small children. I’m doing it now, trying to remember, and it’s making me feel kind of ‘awwww’.

There would’ve been a point when I pushed one of them on the swings for the last time, right before they finally got the legs-out-lean-back/legs-in-lean-forward motion. But I never knew it was the last time. If I had, I’d have rejoiced, I’m sure (I can, vaguely, still remember the tedium of trips to the park and swing-pushing and roundabout-spinning and slide-catching, often in the cold and the drizzle with just myself for adult company, desperate to get them out of the house but counting out the time I can fill); but for now indulge me, I’m picturing it in a blue-skied, carefree, breezy, hazy, fun- and friend-filled wash, my arms outstretched from that ultimate shove, hovering, way back when.

There was, certainly, a last middle of the night that one of them clambered into our bed, turned sideways, stretched all limbs out, fell fast asleep and wriggled and poked us till the morning. Oh, if only I’d known it, I’d have been glad to stay awake and breathe in all the delicious, warm, cuddly, sleepy, toddlery-ness. But then? No; frankly we were probably relieved the next night and the next and the next until it became normal to sleep undisturbed and we forgot to think about it.

As an aside, there are, in fact, two humdrum ‘lasts’ that I do remember. The first was when I came to the realisation, all of a sudden one (probably rainy) day that I’d had enough of buttoning up coats and pulling down hats and shoving fingers into gloves and feet into socks and buckling up shoes, and for a reason that now escapes me, the socks were the bête noir, the straw that broke the camel’s back, the ENOUGH point; I declared that they all had to put their own socks on thereafter, and so they did, unmatched or otherwise.  The second was the terminal outing for the youngest in the hand-me-down McClaren buggy  which buckled with R still in it after some uproarious downhill racing. He was very small, but from then on, he had to walk.

But for the most part, these subtle yet momentous moments in our lives slip by unseen. When was the last time ever that I choo-chooed a spoonful of food into their little mouths? Or tickled a tummy? Or Mr N threw them up in the air? Or I washed their hair? Or we turned the pages of our favourite read ‘The Little Boat’ (“We are invincible, my boat and me!”)? Or chanted about “Hairy McClary from Donaldson’s Dairy, and Hercules Morse as big as a horse, and Schnitzel von Krum with the very low tum” (oh it’s all still there)?  Sigh. They just stopped and we didn’t notice. Yet these are the strands that weave into memories and become lives, our and theirs.  There would have been fanfares and photos and framings and ceremonial laying down of books and plastic spoons and all sorts, if only we’d known that was it, all these instants.

But we didn’t and then they’re not little children any more, they’re grown-ups.