Monday, 30 July 2012

Watching the London Olympics in the USA: Part Two

I'm very used to commercials on US television. I have seen TV shows cut down to fit more commercials in. This is most visible when commercial US providers struggle with ad-free offerings from the BBC. I've seen whole interviews cut from episodes of Top Gear. I've even seen commercials cut down to fit in more commercials: There's one about a sagging couch screened occasionally and I've never actually seen the end of it so I don't even know what it's advertising.

Television is an industry and a public service. Sometimes these elements are combined (see the UK's Channel 4), sometimes they are separated (compare the UK's BBC, the USA's PBS and every commercial channel out there). On NBC, commercials during the London Olympic Ceremony were expected, and even okay, even if they did disrupt the flow of the performance.

NBC defended its editing of the ceremony before it was broadcast, on tape delay, with commercials and NBC commentary. In and of itself, these things are probably okay, even if they did disrupt the flow of the performance.  Even if it's an out-dated approach to global event media, and even if NBC was live-Tweeting the very ceremony it wasn't broadcasting anywhere live (yes, really).

The commentary during the performance has already been much maligned, and truthfully I tried to ignore it as I enjoyed the performance. "The only commentary should be understated and sarcastic" I said, recalling UK efforts in Eurovision commentary. For Mark's American parents, who are more used to the NBC commentators on every day news, it was a source of irritation. "Shut up Matt, shut up Vieira" they cried at frequent intervals, especially as the commentators spoke over the venue's own announcer. I didn't know at the time that #shutupmattlauer was trending on Twitter.

But the next day, when I read criticisms that the performance felt disjointed and incoherent, I got the feeling that this was not due to the ceremony itself, but rather the way it was broadcast. And that's disappointing. Of course I felt very protective of the British ceremony, but broadcasting should enhance, not take away, from an experience. When #nbcfail was also trending on Twitter, it became apparent that the online community did not think the broadcast was enhancing much at all.

--- Here are the six ways NBC blew their Olympic coverage, and the six most cringeworthy moments of their broadcast.

As a Brit it is hard not to be personally offended by NBC's decision to remove the touching Abide with Me element of the ceremony. Moreso because the UK commentary recalled the 7/7 London bombings, which happened the day after the announcement that London would be venue for the 2012 Olympics. But the section was supposed to be more than that; it was a poignant memorial for "those who are absent". The London 2012 Ceremony Guide states:
Spectators have been invited to present images of loved ones who couldn’t be with us tonight. In a moving moment, those who are absent from us are digitally present.
Terrorism in any guise is deplorable, and this element allowed for a beautiful moment of reflection for all nations during the celebration, as NBC's Bob Costas had already planned to do in his commentary, for the 1972 incident. Deadspin has covered the missing memorial, stating that it's a "mystery" why the section was cut. NBC defended its decision post facto, saying their edit was for US audiences.

But I've been following the #nbcfail comments and commentary. US audiences are not happy, and not just this oversensitive displaced Brit. Audiences who pay for cable TV, who want to watch live online and on TV, and in any multimedia way that suits them best: They aren't happy and they want more. They want prime time repeats and round-ups after the event, sure, but they also want unedited footage at the point of action (of both ceremony and sports). And if that's not what these audiences are getting they're all too happy to publicly declare that they'll use any means possible (legal or otherwise) to get the multimedia product they desire.

Good business would suggest that NBC should please its audience and give viewers what they want. NBC says it carried out market research that said people preferred prime time round-ups. Business focus groups are rarely as broad or wide as the opportunity to gauge public opinion that Twitter provides. Focus groups for example are expensive. They are comprised of what, up to twenty paid contributors, many of whom make a career of going to focus groups? Twitter is spontaneous, open, free, and offers up to 500m opinions. I've noticed that the trending theme is no longer #nbcfail but #NBC, and that NBC accounts are more frequently retweeting positive comments. I'm not sure what these mean, but it suggests an acknowledgement by NBC of the online ruckus. Maybe they are worried after all.

I hear the BBC coverage is fantastic, I know the Guardian's Olympics website is brilliant.  But the BBC is publicly funded by the UK taxpayer, and the Guardian is struggling with its digital income models (I know because I went to their Open Weekend event and talked it out with them). As summed up by Jeff Jarvis, maybe the BBC "superserves" its audiences because they pay the bill. NBC serves advertisers because they pay the bill. Jarvis says he doesn't buy that argument.

The key thing, though, is that NBC hasn't failed. They've got the exclusive contract to show the games, and they've got the ratings (and apparently Business Insider is happy too). And maybe the model for profiting from multimedia sports coverage just hasn't quite been refined. Maybe sticking with an old familiar model is safest and most profitable (even if it garners complaints, as the NBC model did in 2010 as well).

NBC has the contract for the Olympics until 2020 I believe, so until then I'll stop being an offended Brit, and continue to be a fascinated media scholar.

So, just for fun, to cast the cat amongst the pigeons, it'd be interesting to imagine what Google, the company which traditional broadcasters fear, would do with the rights to such an event. I can only imagine that'd be a multimedia spectacle with an innovative income generation business model.…What do you think?

If you'd like to read other expats' opinions of the NBC spectacle, I recommend Expat Mum, and LOTS. Both have excellent blogs generally, and both have also covered this strange experience of watching the homeland's shining moment from another country's perspective.

Watching the London Olympics in the USA: Part One

All eyes are on the motherland right now, and it all kicked off on Friday with pomp, circumstance, poignancy and some gratifying Britishness. How did it look from the eyes of a displaced Brit, an Anglophiladelphian chap, and his all-American parents?

We sat with our fish n' chips and HP sauce, and engrossed ourselves in the television spectacle. It started at the murky Thames Estuary, tracing the river's journey to the heart of the UK's capital and raising to an aerial shot of the city center. Without missing a beat I exclaimed "doof, doof, doofdoofdoof doof doof" just moments before the TV soundtrack blared:

DOOF, DOOF, DOOFDOOFDOOF DOOF DOOF…  Mark and I cheered loudly and I knew I was in for an excellent evening.

Mark's bemused parents asked what had just happened, and I explained to them that the aerial image of London reminded me of the soap opera Eastenders, and that the ceremony had even included the hook from the theme tune. Nothing could have made me giddier. I was rapt.

Danny Boyle is my favorite director. He's versatile and exciting and daring. Trainspotting, for one, is a staple in the genre of British underdog movies. I knew he'd pull off an amazing ceremony, and not just because his depiction of the British countryside was bang on - although the hill did look just like the one by my parents' house in Scotland:

Just an excuse to include some photos from home
The ceremony captured an essence of Britain: Industry, Healthcare, and Literature (and raves). It was also a celebration of the British people, those who worked the land, those who treat the sick, those who fall in love, dance, sing, make art, go to work, fight for the British isles, and those who construct Olympic stadiums, and volunteer in them; not just those who perform professional sport in those stadiums. As British journalist/blogger Mary Hamilton wrote, it was for everyone.

The spectacle was also a showcase of British popular culture. It was supremely gratifying for us to catch the snippets of things I grew up with and that Mark fell in love with - it was Mark who pointed out the scene from Coronation St. I pointed out elements from that ubiquitous movie genre, the British underdog movie, and we all debated the music. We cheered familiar icons: the Queen (of course) and Bond, Churchill,  Poppinses defeating Voldemort. Mark's parents were in stitches at Mr Bean. Cue Chariots of Fire, and I said "that's St.Andrews". It didn't sink in until they saw the skyline and the chapel where Mark and I said our marriage vows, and they gasped with excitement. They had been there; they had an ownership of the ceremony.

The ceremony did have something for everyone. Some folks were bemused by certain cultural references, or missed them entirely. This is a fair criticism as it was jam-packed with private jokes, but there were plenty of elements that most could relate to. It was a rare case of Brits being prideful and characteristically self-deprecating, at the same time, while acknowledging bittersweet elements of the country's long history. There was poignancy, and even a moment where the Queen looked a little verklimpt (or just stoic, it was hard to tell). That's my home country all right, on show for all to see.

It wasn't until the next morning that I learned of the missing poignancy. Why were my British friends and family talking about Windrush and 7/7? We watched the beautiful missing scene, stunned at our lack of recognition, and at Emeli Sandé's performance of Abide with Me.

(to be continued)

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Friday, 27 July 2012

Tally Ho-lympics

I'm very much looking forward to Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony today! Husband and I are hoping to create a "Great British Pub Platter" - mini fish and chips, bangers and mash, and pies. All washed down with warm flat beer (not the homebrew, which is still not ready yet).

I'm going to be heading back to Old Blighty in a couple of weeks as my mum and I will be attending some of the events.

If you're in the USA and also heading across the pond, this guide may just come in handy.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Rustic Weekend: A noble experiment

In the USA alcohol was banned from 1920 - 1933. The prohibition is sometimes referred to as "the noble experiment". Mark wanted to try a noble experiment of his own: Homebrew.
I thought we could drink it after he'd put it in bottles, but apparently we have to wait several more weeks. In the mean time we have to visit the state owned liquor stores for our tipples.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Easterly 5, decreasing 4 later (we're talking about the weather)

What do Brits love more than anything?

More than bacon sandwiches with brown sauce.

More than being offered a hot milky cup of tea during a crisis.

More than Terry Wogan, trains that run on time or winning the Ashes (that's a cricket reference, for all my US readers).

It's talking about the weather.

Brits love talking about the weather so much that they'll watch multiple weather reports to see which one is the best, they'll strike up conversations at the bus-stop or at the check-out to analyze the latest forecast, and I'll hazard a guess that some British friendships are almost entirely based on fleeting weather-themed interactions.

In the spookily accurate study of English behavior, Watching the English, anthropologist Kate Fox devotes her first chapter solely to the British love for weathertalk. She even covers Americans' bewilderment at this fascination, which is heightened by their perception that the UK "has no weather". I've experienced this bewilderment first-hand plenty of times; Kate Fox even acknowledges the misplaced offense that us Brits feel when someone does our weather down.

Mark's learned not to insult our weather now as it has a tendency to fight back. A few days before we got married he and his family almost died with the New Zealand All-Blacks. Hurricane-like winds caused their flight over to be re-routed twice and it had to make three attempts at landing. Mark said he screamed like a girl, but he also said that the large rugby players did the same. And then there was the time when his flight to see me was re-routed due to snow, and that other time with the wind. Yes, Mark learned his lesson alright.

Fox puts this obsession with the weather down to a specifically English brand of social awkwardness, where weather becomes our go-to smalltalk. I never really realized how true this is until I moved here. I use weathertalk constantly now when meeting or speaking to new people. It's actually brilliantly useful.

New Person: Hey, welcome to America. How are you finding it so far?

Me: Hot. And what's that big yellow thing in the sky? I never saw that when I lived in Scotland.

New Person: (laughter). Yes, you need to be careful, you're so fair-skinned!

Me: Oh, this is actually me with a tan! You should have seen me before, I was practically reflective.

New Person: (more laughter).

Then we can have jovial conversation about my problems understanding temperature in Fahrenheit, talk about how last month was the wettest June in Scotland since the 1910s, talk about how much I'm going to struggle with the humidity come August, feel glad I don't live in the deep south…and I could go on…

So far, I love it. Pennsylvania is especially great because it gets four seasons, unlike Scotland where it rains for six months, followed by six months of rain. This week the temperature's about 100F, we've had fabulous rolling thunderstorms, and the sunshine is wonderfully uplifting. I can bask in the morning warmth for breakfast, pop back into the cool breeze of inside, and step out for bitesize chunks of sunshine and vitamin D throughout the day.

But Mark hates it. He hates summer. He's longing for fall/autumn. He doesn't understand that a Brit's idea of a summer vacation involves anywhere that guarantees sun, sea and sand, and at least eight hours of horizontal roasting on a sun-lounger by the pool. Brits get their summer sunshine in one large accelerated dose to boost them through the dull short days from October - March. That's not an issue here. Sun is readily available. Even 100% chance of rain doesn't actually mean it's going to rain. The grass is scorched And Mark is fed up.

So when it reaches 100F, Mark and family make a bee-line for a large, dark, refrigerated room…

The movie theater. Where it's so cold you need layers.
When we went to see Brave my hair decided to play along.
There's just one little thing about this weather: Heat and humidity plays havoc with my hair! Luckily I have some great secret weapons that I'll share soon; I just hope that they work for the August onslaught.

PS, when I wrote this, we were experiencing a light thunder and lightning storm. It was a bit more severe in NY.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Not a walk in the park

I've been asked a few times about what has the most surprising thing about moving to the USA.

Believe it or not, it's the culture shock.

I think there's an assumption that US and UK culture is very similar, especially between people of similar races/heritages. Mark has an anglo-saxon heritage; his ancestors were English/Scottish and Irish. But quite often we find that we are just not speaking the same language. It can be shocking and confusing for both of us, and little things crop up all the time when we least expect them.

One time during our stint as a transatlantic couple I had to sign off Skype because I had to go and make tea. Two hours later Mark was annoyed that I hadn't returned, thinking that making tea should only take five minutes. I was referring to "tea" the evening meal, not "tea" the hot drink, and it took at long while for me to convince him that the word is interchangeable!

So despite the number of times I have been to the US, and the cumulative amount of time I have spent here, it has been incredibly hard to adjust. One of the hardest things is not knowing how "settled in" I should be by now, and it's even harder to accept that there are no rules on this. Not having my SSC or driving permit has meant that I've been entirely dependent on my husband in many ways, and at first I allowed that to knock my confidence.

Immigration, and especially family immigration, is not just about bureaucracy and paperwork. Visajourney has been useful for me, once again, to realize that the whole cultural process takes a long time, and longer than you'd imagine.  I read one thread, where a stranger summed it up bluntly but accurately:
They give up everything to be here. Their jobs, family, the land they know and understand, their life style, I mean really it's darn near everything. Then they get here and what do they find? They don't know how to get around, they don't know where they are, they can't work, when they can they're starting off below where they were before. Their comfort foods are all gone. Their friends are too far away. Everyone is a stranger, even you as their spouse suddenly is different because now you're living together and they see all sides of you. They are totally dependent on one person, and yes, it's easy for them resent that.
So this has been the most surprising thing so far. I know it seems daft that I'm surprised that emigration/immigration isn't easy. But I'm getting there; I've a routine now which involves going to the gym three times a week, and spending time cooking with Mark, and constantly applying for work and volunteer opportunities.

The great, great news is that I now have my Green Card, my new Social card and my driving permit! If you've never seen a Green Card before, check it out, it's very cool. I've got teeny tiny pictures of all the US Presidents and all the state flags crammed onto a plastic green (yes!) card, along with all my personal info.

It hasn't all been apple pie and walks in the park since I got here… although that's certainly been a part of it.

Mark's apple pie. It was delicious.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Rustic Weekend: a Pumpkin-Peek

Mark's favorite time of year is October. It's his birthday month, for a start, plus it's halloween and pumpkin harvesting season. He's got his own pumpkin plant on the go, and there are a few buds fruiting. Here's how the biggest one has grown over the past few weekends. I'll be sure to keep you updated.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Still here!

Every morning when I get up and head downstairs, I'm greeted by the most excited pooch in the world. 
You're still here!
Bulldogs can't wag their tales, so she shakes her butt and runs around in circles, as if to say "OMG, you're still here!" 

I try to remind her that I ain't going anywhere, but every night she forgets and every morning we have this overexcited reunion. As I said before, it took a while for Mark and I to realize that I'm not on holiday. For the first few days one of us would say "if we have time, can we do such-and-such?" before remembering that we have all the time in the world to do activities together. It was a funny and pleasant realization.
Mark's family's secret cookie recipe. I'm afraid I cannot divulge.
But I can divulge the summer sausage roll recipe.
Now, I'm glad to say, it just feels like normal. I don't wake up and run around in circles shouting "OMG, I'm still here!" anymore - even if the dog does.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

anti-social security

On my first full day in the States, we picked up this from the DMV:

I read it over the weekend, and then we popped back down to the DMV (Mark drove, obviously) and I presented my documents to the brow-beaten employee. As I'd literally just arrived and had little in the way of proof of residence, I also presented my husband and two proofs of his residence. Honestly, it was on the list of acceptable documents: spouse and two proofs of address.

The poor DMV employee, sitting in a fluoro-lit windowless building on a heady summer's day, sighed. He knew my case was not going to be straightforward. It should have been. I passed the theory test with full marks - so much easier than the UK equivalent and none of that hazard perception nonsense either. The employee checked out my visa, passport, spouse, his driving license, and his two proofs of address: All A-OK. The problem, however, was my social security card.

Social security numbers, invented by FDR in 1935 as part of his New Deal, are akin to UK National Insurance numbers (Bonus Fact: UK National Insurance was invented in 1911). The point, originally, was to provide welfare/insurance/benefits/pension to citizens suffering from poverty as a result of the Great Depression (1929, but you knew that).

FDR also allowed for SSNs to be used as 'governmental identifiers' of individuals, although this didn't become widespread until later in the 20th century. You can read all about this here if you're that interested.

The DMV requires presentation of a valid SSC as proof of identity. I actually have a valid SSC, but the problem is that it's in my maiden name. Even presentation of my passport, marriage certificate, spouse, his driving license and two proofs of his address wasn't going to be enough to get my PA driving permit. And we thought we'd gotten good at bureaucracy!

We boldly drove (well Mark did) across the county to the Social Security Administration. Another windowless building, where George Takei advertizes managing your benefits on a giant TV screen on a loop. Hilarious the first time, unsettling after a while. An employee helped me fill out an application for an updated card, but warned me it'd take a month to arrive. It only took 10 days to get my original card back in 2006, so I thought this was an exaggeration. It's not.

So I'm stuck in rural America without wheels.

Jack Kerouac wrote "On the Road" and not "On the Sidewalk"
The USA is designed for cars. In the 1950s shops even built parking lots over sidewalks/footpaths as inter-state highways cemented (sorry) the car as the leading form of US transport. The drive-thru boomed, not only in fast food, but also in coffee, banking, and postal services. I had hoped to hit the USA running, jumping and driving so I could start to build my new life here the moment I arrived. To be honest, this paper delay took the wind out of my sails a bit.

I do understand why I'm waiting. Identification fraud is a real concern. Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas found out he was an illegal immigrant when he went to the DMV to get his permit; it all rested on his SSC. There's also a slightly hilarious case where one poor secretary had her SSN wrongfully used by 40,000 other people. Meanwhile, Mark's happy to drive me to the local YMCA where I can run and jump for free, but the driving is a no-no until I get my new card and I can once again prove I'm me.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Rustic Weekend: Fireflies

Midsummer means several fun things in this part of the world. It means high temperatures, humidity, air conditioning, July 4th, BBQs, summer camps, free open air concerts, and ice cream. 

It also means fireflies. Mark and his family call them lightning bugs, fitting because midsummer also means tremendous thunder and lightning storms. 

Every evening for a couple of weeks there's a wonderful light show in the fading twilight heat. The bugs appear and disappear like those shooting stars that you can only see from the corners of your eyes. I tried to capture them one evening…
…I think that's the best I'm gonna do, I'm afraid, so you'll just have to imagine their splendor instead.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Go 4th part 2

After all the stars, stripes, vintage cars, candy and community members paraded along the street, we walked to the car (walking being a rare treat in this rural sprawl, even if it was nearing 100F) and headed to Valley Forge.

Valley Forge is a famous winter encampment of the US military during the Revolutionary war against the British. Now it's a huge park and visitor center. It seemed appropriate to go on July 4th, and I reckoned it'd be a great opportunity to brush up on my US history. I have a lot of brushing up to do. I only recently learned that New York was named after the Duke of York and not the city itself, that Virginia was named after Queen Elizabeth I, and Louisiana after the French King (the 14th one). Maryland was named after King Charles I's Catholic wife (and it was also a Catholic safe haven). I do find it slightly ironic that these names stuck even after the US declared independence, but I like that they did.

Valley Forge was great. Their "second annual July 4th picnic" was in full swing when we arrived. This involved BBQ food, kids' games, colonial outfits, toy guns and of course, stars and stripes. We watched Jefferson read out the declaration and we were even offered the chance to sign our independence.

I approached the 'independence' stall with a little trepidation. I felt a little (a lot) like an imposter, but I thought it would be a fun thing to sign my independence from the UK. The past couple of weeks have felt a lot like I'm on holiday in the US, but I'm not. I'm permanent now!

The friendly girl at the stall struck up a conversation with me and I was happy to oblige until she said "uh, where are you from?"

Uh oh. Busted. Oops. Enemy in the ranks.

"Shh, I'm actually British!" I whispered.

"Haha, I thought so, I won't tell!" She laughed.

 I added "I just got my Green Card though, so it's aaall fine!" I signed my name, and she joked that it was 'official' now.

It was too darn hot to stay much longer, so we bowed out, and drove back home. I had baked a cake from the Mary Berry Baking Bible I'd been given for Christmas. It was, to emulate the irony of the names of the founding States, a chocolate Victoria Sponge. I thought it seemed apt.

Mark and I cut the cake with the knife we'd been given for our wedding cake, and that Mark had actually forgotten to bring to the wedding. Cheesy, yes, but to be fair we didn't get to spend our first anniversary together, and this is a reminder to make and cut (and eat, I hope) more cakes together.

We ate chicken grilled outside on the family BBQ. No rain, no food poisoning, just your every day US BBQ, not the drenched British renditions I'm used to. Then we settled down to watch the shows on TV. If you're from the Old World (like me) and you've never seen July 4th television before, it bears a resemblance to the Eurovision Song Contest, but as if nobody involved knew it was Eurovision, and with added American patriotism and bravado. And the really great thing is that it's on more than one channel. Oh yes. I think this is something that Eurovision should definitely adopt. We could flick from NY to Capitol Hill to Philly, catch a patriotic revue by a girl from the hit show Smash, watch some smooth jazz, experience the legend that is John Williams, enjoy a bit of bluegrass, and listen to more than one rendition of America the Beautiful if we wanted.

At one point I did start singing along with a familiar tune coming from the Military walking bands. After being reprimanded for my blatant inappropriateness, I discovered it wasn't supposed to be the UK national anthem God Save the Queen, but actually the patriotic US ditty My Country 'Tis of Thee. It's the same tune guys, so forgive a simple Brit's fanfare faux pas?

After all that we watched a few hundred thousand dollars' worth of fireworks blow up all over the country, including some around our neighborhood that sounded way too loud to be legal. We missed the San Diego firework fiasco until the next morning - at any rate I thought it bore a strikingly suspicious resemblance to the Oban November 5th fiasco last year.

But now, holiday is definitely over. Time to get used to living here for real…

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Go 4th part 1

Several years ago when Mark and I were both living in Glasgow, we decided to have a small BBQ for July 4th. Most of our friends were working on their Postgrad dissertations at the time, as were we, so a bit of light, patriotic, distraction from our studies was very welcome.

We bought a cheap BBQ from a local shop where Mark also inquired "do you have any fireworks?"

"No mate, it's the wrong time of year."

Mark was stunned. It was July 4th, how could it be the wrong time of year for fireworks? I had to remind him: "We're in the UK. US Independence - not celebrated so much. We only use fireworks to celebrate the time a guy tried to blow up our Parliament, not the time we lost to you guys. It's not really our finest moment in history."

We went to a local bottle shop and Mark cleaned them out of Sam Adams. We cooked meat outside my apartment. As per the rules of British barbecuing, it rained. We had trouble keeping the BBQ alight and everyone congregated in the kitchen, except a few guys who decided it was a man's job to play with meat and flames. The burgers and sausages were served according to traditional British BBQ cuisine: black and crunchy on the outside and disconcertingly pink in the middle.

I thought it was great, everything turned out as expected and nobody died of food poisoning. Mark learned a lot about the rules (or unwitting traditions) of British al fresco dining.

This year it was my turn to see a real July 4th in real America. Our local parade was just the ticket. It was already reaching 90F (32C) by 10am, but we took a spot by the roadside and enjoyed being part of the local community. Nowhere in the world does patriotism like the USA. And nowhere in the USA does patriotism like the rural sprawl.