The Superbowl… in food

Everything that I ever posted is now, more or less, a hazy memory. Such has been my neglect of the blog. But I don’t think I ever posted about the Superbowl, despite our friend J’s earnest efforts to explain American football to us back in 2011.

This year we stayed at home Sunday night and concentrated on the TV ads, the singing of the National Anthem (Alicia Keyes at her showiest), and Beyonce ripping off her clothes among fireworks in the halftime spectacle. I didn’t even pretend to follow the game, leaving the room every time the camera focussed on the field.

Then I discovered that there is a totally different, arguably revolting, but inspiringly creative way to enjoy the Superbowl: making your own stadium tableau out of snacks. I did realise that snacking while watching the Superbowl was something of a big deal after every shop I went into for the past couple of weeks had jumbo packs of chilli, tortilla chips, you name it. But I had never heard of this tradition before, so here, dear reader, I present you with a selection of links for your delectation and edification.

Here’s the one that launched me on my voyage of discovery, from Time Out Chicago:


Here’s one from 2011, with the Green Bay Packers’ name piped in sour cream on a ground of cheese dip:



One retch-inducingly featuring footballers made out of hot dogs and helmets made out of cheese:


And finally, one from TV chef Mario Batali which, in this context, looks restrained, tasteful and even healthy:



Posted in food, Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

Why kiss a baby when you can show them crying?, or: election season US style

I wanted to fill this blog post with video clips of the deluge of negative political TV ads I’ve been watching for the last two months, some of which are intentionally funny, some of which are unintentionally so, and some of which are just distastefully manipulative. But I can’t find them anywhere online – it’s as if they never happened.

On the eve of election day there are finally some positive ads with reasons – policy, character, whatever – that you might cast a vote in someone’s favour. But for months all we’ve had are slurs. Illinois is far from being a swing state in the Presidential race (see this nice New York Times graphic to get a sense of the swing states and the solidly Democrat and Republican ones), so most of the effort is being expended on the Congress race.

What you got, for weeks, was a series of one-minute or thirty-second smears followed, at the end of the ad, by two seconds where a soft-lit image of the sponsoring candidate appeared, saying ‘I’m XX, and I approve this message.’ Or sometimes it’s one of these mysterious PACs like the ‘Now or Never PAC’ or the ‘Freedom Works PAC’.

The flood of negativity seems to have four main streams flowing through it. Tactic one, which surely has the depressing effect of dragging down everyone’s respect for politicians, is to claim that your opponent is self-interested, power-hungry, and enriching him or herself at the taxpayer’s expense. Judy Biggert (Rep) wants pay rises for herself and higher taxes for the middle classes, claims Bill Foster (Dem). Bill Foster is ‘out for himself’, claims Judy Biggert, and wants to pay no taxes himself.

Another tactic, popular in moderate Illinois, is to argue that the Republicans who seem reasonable (such as Bob Dold, who’s pretty moderate) are actually Tea Partiers. A current ad has whistling tea kettles popping up in incongruous settings – the park, a bench, the Lake Michigan shore – to make the point that the Tea Party is out of place here. To do it credit, it’s a) quite funny and b) bothers to include a second half that tells you what the Democrats would do instead – principally, it seems, go around tidying up the tea kettles.

This general approach is also applied to the abortion issue: there’s a crude but effective ad where a clip of Joe Walsh (Rep) saying that there should be no exception to a ban on abortion is replayed a few times and labelled ‘too extreme without exception’. But other ads ramp up the emotion, with women being told that in the worst moment of their lives, if they’re raped, Republicans will accuse them of lying. There was even one full of children crying in a Republican future where services for families were cut.

Finally, you can simply make out that your opponent is downright nasty and mean. This can produce ad and counter-ad. Tammy Duckworth (Dem) accuses her opponent Joe Walsh of skipping out on child support to go on holiday around Europe. Walsh’s son has now released a video telling her to stop attacking their family; but at the same time their campaign is trying to smear Duckworth as corrupt.

I think my favourite, though, is the anti-Bill Foster ad which plays out like A Christmas Carol. Bill Foster, it says, once sacked some people at Christmas. Worse: he outsourced work to China! (The fact that China has the temerity to grow its economy as large as America’s is seen as an act of pure evil over here.) But no, no, actually even worse: he let some Illinois jobs go to… Wisconsin!

And there you have it. Crying kids, Christmas, kettles on the beach. Choose wisely.

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Adventures with a baby 3: Halloween

What do a pirate, a monkey, a giraffe, a ladybird, a peacock, Micky and Minnie Mouse and a lobster have in common?

That’s right. They are not remotely scary.

Here is how two innocent Brits managed to misunderstand American Halloween conventions and terrify a room full of babies and toddlers:

Baby A looked pretty terrifying, I think you’ll agree, even before she threw toy eggshells around like so many corpses and started brandishing a warlike tambourine. Before we knew it she had reduced three children to tears. Or, as I should say, taking on the mantra of ‘blame the parents not the child’, we had reduced three children to tears by applying green face paint, dyeing a babygro and socks a fetching shade of green, attaching goblin ears to a hairband and fashioning a jerkin from a bin liner. The effect is, I’m sure you’ll agree, intensely amateur. And here again we failed: looking around it was clear that you are supposed to buy a costume. Unless you can achieve something a little more impressive with your own sewing (or in our case, mainly stapling) skills.

I should say, in mitigation of a room full of American babies, that there was a spider, and a very scary one-eyed blue monster. There was also a Harry Potter. But clearly the main point is not to be scary – it is to dress up, and to dress up for days on end.

This party was held on Sunday. I assumed this was because Halloween falls on a Wednesday this year and a weekend party allowed everyone to switch their celebrations to the weekend. But NO. It just allows for the costume opportunities to proliferate. We should be dressing baby A up again today to just – hang out. Or to go to Halloween storytime at the library; or the Fairy Tale Trail at the Woman’s Center of Evanston, which is advertised as both ‘non-frightening’ and an opportunity to get more wear out of your costume. The talk at baby groups for weeks has been of nothing but Halloween outfits (hot baby trends 2012: lions and Superman), how to get a good photograph of your child in costume, and whether matching mother and baby outfits are too much. How could they be?

In other news, the houses are just as splendidly decorated as they were two years ago when I last posted. There is a terrifying place up the street with glowing skulls and a blood spattered butcher skeleton hanging in the doorway, but I forgot to photograph it after dark. So the winner this year must be a house on Noyes Street with more inflatables than I could count, including this Dracula in a coffin, with a motion sensor that makes it open when you pass by.

And finally, I must share this gem of American insanity. Dentists are buying back Halloween candy that children have acquired while out trick or treating – to send to the troops overseas.

Posted in babies, Chicago | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments


Look at the picture above. We have a street corner in suburban Evanston. There are three trees along one side of the road, some bushes, a bit of grass, a drinking fountain, two benches and a boulder with some kind of plaque affixed.

Would you say this amounted to a park?

Well, there is no need to ponder this any further, because if you look even more closely – no, let me help you, here is another image –

…there is a helpful sign on which you may make out the words ‘Harper Garden Park’. You are now in no doubt as to the status of this greenish corner.

Over-signage is an American affliction, it seems to me, and one that sits ill with the vague, muddy, well-I’m-not-sure shiftiness of the British worldview.

You can have signs that tell you what to do: for many months I found the ubiquitous ‘pay to park’ sign amusing for reasons that even I couldn’t entirely articulate. (Something to do with it looking like an advertisement of a thrilling opportunity for consumer spending.) Still, it brightened my day.

And some injunctions are quite a bit stranger (if sound):

But the ones I like best are the simply descriptive. The endless naming of every half acre of green space…

The inadvertent display of the national oil enthusiasm in the guise of a warning…

And the alarm caused by any deviation from the grid system.


(Thanks to my mother-in-law whose visit last year gave me the idea for this post.)

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The expat visit home

We are not long back from another visit home to the motherland, and I’m starting to realise that the expat home visit has its own peculiar rules and conventions.

First, there’s the question of whom you visit. Family is inevitably first on the list, but then: which family? In which order? And for how long? How many people are you obliged to see if you are only making it over once a year? And if you miss someone out, are you sending out the message that you don’t care if you never see them again?

There’s a Platonic ideal visit out there that goes as follows. You see everyone you care about. You take things at a leisurely pace. You don’t stay long enough with anyone to feel that a) you’re treating them like a hotel or b) your homicide conviction is imminent. I am starting to realise that I cannot manage more than 24 hours in the company of my father before I swear NEVER EVER to stay with him again, and yet a year later I find myself claiming that I can’t wait to do it.

So anyway, once our various parents, siblings, cousins and aunts have been ticked off, there is barely any time to see our scattered friends. We used to resort to the hold-court-in-a-pub model, where you just invite everyone you know for an afternoon or evening and be damned if they don’t all get along or the time or venue doesn’t suit them. But it always feels rude, and with a baby (and, often, their babies) it’s much less practical.

Then there should be the opportunity to do all the things we miss. Eat sausages and custard: tick. Replenish the Ribena and hobnob supplies: tick. Go shopping for baby clothes in British baby shops: tick. Read the Guardian in paper form. Have a cream tea. Drink proper beer and cider in proper pubs. Baa at some sheep. Watch the Great British Bake Off. We made it to the seaside and a medieval church, briefly. I had plans to shop for clothes for myself and go to Tate Britain, but they fell victim to baby exhaustion.

But the funniest thing was our last Sunday, when baby A was surrounded by four adoring adults (in addition to her parents) all lining up to push her at the swings, give her rides on their shoulders, show her the ducks and admire her stumbling near-walking. The intensity of cramming so much affection into such a short time was palpable. It was raining, and we were the only people in the playground.

Posted in babies, Things I miss about Britain | 2 Comments

‘Doctor, doctor…

… do you think baby A’s stork’s beaks marks will fade?’

‘I can’t say: I never make rash promises.’

Now that we know we’re in Chicago for another year, I finally got round to two things: taking baby A for her delayed 9-month check-up, and clearing the backlog of New Yorker magazines that have been building up and plaguing my conscience (notwithstanding my previously recorded reservations about the magazine).

So there is an article that I heartily recommend in the 13th August issue, about how doctors could learn from The Cheesecake Factory. Sounds horrifying, especially since my only previous experience of The Cheesecake Factory is going to one with my mum and managing, between us, to misunderstand everything about the occasion, as if we had never eaten outside our own home before. But anyway, the article is fascinating.

One of the things it talks about is (I am paraphrasing somewhat) the way that doctors in America have almost totally unfettered autonomy about how they treat their patients, leading to a bewildering variety of practices. The example it gives is about the author’s mother’s knee replacement, and how in his hospital the nine specialists all had a different preferred brand of knee replacement joint, with wildly varying costs. Moreover you can’t easily get any information about these doctors’ varying practices, or statistics about their success rates – but nevertheless you are somehow supposed to choose a doctor and then be guided by their idiosyncratic advice unless and until you leave them for another individual doctor whom you know nothing about.

Coming from the NHS this is a bizarre experience. A slightly sneery woman in the Benefits division at Northwestern recommended general doctors for M and me when we moved over here. Except they weren’t GPs – they were specialists in internal medicine, whatever the hell that meant. I have never actually been to see this doctor because I don’t understand what she does, but because of our insurance plan’s restrictions, I had to choose a gynaecologist in the same group. I chose one on the basis of her office location. Then when I had to choose a doctor for baby A, I chose her on the basis of her office location, the fact that I can access A’s medical records online, and the recommendation of my ob-gyn (look, look, I used the American term!).

I know what you’re thinking: this is not a very well informed approach to medical care. Right. But what is? If you read the American What To Expect: the First Year, there’s an entire chapter on How to Choose Your Child’s Doctor. This includes: make sure they’re certified by the American Academy of Pediatrics (everyone is); look for ‘wallpaper with bright colors’ in the waiting room; go to the waiting room and ask patients how long they typically have to wait (as if).

What I now realise is that it’s actually moderately important to choose a doctor whose philosophy is in keeping with your own. So: I was lucky to end up with an ob-gyn (did it again!) who didn’t believe in inductions and was keen to keep me mobile and active in labour. But when I was choosing, I didn’t know the right questions to ask. Similarly, baby A’s doctor (whom we like very much) issues instructions about solid food that are quite at odds with British NHS guidelines. They leave me thinking: nice to hear your opinion – but what is the consensus here? Why would I be guided by one individual doctor on the rights and wrongs of starting weaning before 6 months, egg white, milk, wheat, berries, mango… when every doctor has her own approach, and they can’t all be either right or wrong? Basically: I want a nice NHS leaflet that everyone has signed up to, that is consensused-to-the-max, and I want a whole bevy of NHS staff who know what the leaflet says.

Because the other funny thing here is that you only ever see your paediatrician. Whereas in Britain there would be the hospital doctor, the GP, the midwife, the health visitor and then, I guess, some kind of clinic to go to – here it’s just the one doctor and her gatekeepers. This gives the doctor a borderline divine status. When you go for a visit you don’t go into the doctor’s office – that would be like approaching the holy of holies. Instead you go to a tiny examination room, undress, and sit around while a nurse takes your blood pressure and weighs you (me) or measures your head and length and weighs you (A). Then you wait in there for up to half an hour until the doctor finds time to swoop in, hug you, chat, prescribe as necessary, and swoop out leaving the nurse to do the vaccinations and anything else too messy. The paediatrician leaves us with a print-out that contains anything from three to ten sentences of advice, sometimes helpful, sometimes clear, sometimes neither, like the Bible, I suppose. ‘Your baby may wake more often at night towards 9 months. The best thing is to briefly reassure her and for you all to go back to sleep.’ ‘Wait on table foods for the time being.’ (Table foods?)

An actual audience is quite a privilege. I realised this one time when I called about seeing my ob-gyn and was told she had no appointments for a month. I practically burst into tears and then realised that I was making a strategic error. I did not need an appointment. I needed a phone consultation, which I promptly got, and which involved my doctor prescribing me two quite serious drugs without seeing me, and phoning the prescription through to my local pharmacy. I was delighted, but it all seemed very informal. (As do the paper prescriptions, which look like glorified post-it notes.)

Still. I doubt I will ever be on hugging terms with two doctors at once when we move back to Britain, so I must enjoy it while I can.

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Jobs, jobs, jobs

Think this blog has been a bit quiet of late? Wondering how time consuming it can really be to look after one single baby who spends 14 hours a day asleep and most of the rest of the time busying herself with repeatedly standing up and sitting down?

Here is your explanation for my blog neglect. I have been applying for academic jobs in practically every free moment I’ve had since February. The tally for this academic year just ending is:

Jobs applied for: 8

Interviews: 3

Job offers: 0

In British academic circles, the American job search process is regarded as onerous. In American academic circles, the British process is regarded as chaotic and barbaric. On reflection I think everyone is right, and applying for jobs on both sides of the Atlantic (as we are theoretically committed to doing this coming year) gets you the worst of both worlds.

American academic jobhunting follows a strict annual cycle.  One day in mid-September, the professional organisation for your field – in my case, the MLA, or Modern Languages Assocation – publishes The Job List. The website crashes. Panic fills the land. And about twenty or forty jobs in more and less appealing locations and departments, which you are more or less well suited to, are advertised, with closing dates in November. They generally demand a CV, cover letter, often a statement of teaching philosophy, sometimes a writing sample, and about three letters of recommendation upfront. They tend to want transcripts of your college grades, which is close to impossible to achieve if you were educated outside North America.

Many bottles of internet ink have been spilt considering the appropriate composition of the covering letter and teaching philosophy, and you can find lots of advice at to read in early December as you agonise over why you haven’t heard back from any of the colleges you applied to. But here’s the nice thing about the American approach: it’s all done in one go. OK, you may have to tweak your teaching philosophy for each job, and of course you have to rewrite your covering letter each time. But there are efficiencies of time  and energy in doing it all in one fell swoop, and if you need advice from your referees you can approach them just once.

The next step is the Convention interview. This is timed to ruin everyone’s Christmas holiday, interviewee and interviewer alike: MLA is at Boston this year, which I’m sure will be pretty in the early January snow. It is fairly common practice not to invite people to interview until the week before Christmas, just to give impoverished candidates horrible dilemmas about whether and when to buy a plane ticket as prices gradually climb. The Convention interview is a sift: they’ll see 10 or 20 candidates and decide which 3 or 4 to invite to a proper, campus interview. In other words, you may well have shelled out on your plane fare without having any real chance of getting the job.

So far I’ve never had a Convention interview. I’ve read horror stories about how they’re held in bedrooms, or in curtained cubicles like you’d find in a hospital ward, and how you might have ten in a day, so I don’t especially feel I’m missing out. Instead I’ve made it to one sift interview, which was conducted by phone. This is supposed to be the modern, humane alternative to making you buy a suit and a plane ticket. And it was cheap. But it was also pretty nasty, involving six interviewers and lasting about half an hour. The only question I now remember was: ‘Being from Britain, what do you think about class?’

If you make it through to the next stage, the campus interview is a deluxe affair, which normally takes place some time between January and March. M had one at Northwestern. It involved a teaching demonstration where he was observed teaching the second half of an eminent professor’s own class, a presentation of his research, with Q and A, a series of individual interviews with a range of people, a dinner out, a drink with graduate students and three nights in a nice hotel. Time, money and attention are lavished on you.

After all this you hear nothing for days or weeks, and then: a job offer. Maybe. Or silence. It is considered profoundly unprofessional to ask for or be offered any feedback about why you didn’t get the job, even though you may have spent several days in the company of these people, prepared some teaching, wrote a research paper, and familiarised yourself with the institution enough to ask intelligent questions on your endless round of small talk and interview situations.

Then you negotiate (from a position of ignorance and fear) a salary and working conditions, including equipment, teaching load, research expenses, adjunct teaching for your spouse… and you still have anything from three to six months to organise your move.  And that is how it’s done over here.

In Britain, things are different. There is no Convention. There is no job list. There are no statements of teaching philosophy and there are no dinners. There is no negotiation. But what there is is a lot of eyeballing other candidates.

British jobs tend not to be advertised until the spring. From around March to June they appear at random on, each with idiosyncratic application procedures, mostly with idiotic online forms that take hours to complete with such information as your GCSE results, last five employers and elaborate declarations of your ethnic and disability status, and a closing date a couple of weeks after the advertisement. Sometimes they demand that you come up with a course outline. Sometimes they want a statement of your current research interests; sometimes your future research plans; sometimes a 7,000 word published writing sample; sometimes a 10,000 word unpublished one. You never know what’s coming next and whether, if offered a job in March, you might have done better to hold out until July because something more appealing might be coming up. (Thankfully my lack of interview success has spared me this problem.)

If they decide to invite you for interview, they may give you less than a week’s notice. Less than a week to: book a flight; organise childcare and/or reschedule your teaching; get up to speed with the Department’s syllabus and research culture; write a talk about your research and/or teaching to the specifications they have just revealed; draft (in one recent case) four lecture course outlines; get over your jetlag; buy the extra outfit you suddenly realise you need because their interview process is going to run over two days…

You arrive. All the other candidates are being interviewed at the same time. You read lists of incoming guests upside down and peer around at breakfast trying to work out who your rivals are. If you know one of the other candidates (and you probably do) you can share information while awkwardly wishing one another good luck. Worst case scenario (this happened to me this year): the Department invites you to a drinks reception where the guests are the five candidates and three interviewers, and you all have to make pleasant conversation with one another while attempting to make a good first impression on your prospective employers and resisting the temptation to actually drink anything. It is reminiscent of the opening night of Big Brother. Second worst case scenario, and far more common: they plonk you all in the same waiting room so you have to spend the whole day sussing each other out and constantly recalculating your chance of getting the job. In this scenario one other candidate is generally either mad, evil or mysteriously absent, and your interview success depends on keeping your cool and, probably, leaving the waiting room and holing up in a coffee shop.

The usual thing with British job interviews is that you give a presentation in the morning, have a panel interview in the afternoon (after an awkward buffet lunch with panel and candidates), and then disappear to assurances from the chair of the panel that he will be phoning you very soon to let you know their decision. He then doesn’t phone you for several days. Then he sends you a sheepish email telling you that you will have deduced from the fact that he hasn’t phoned that you haven’t got the job, leaving you to feel rather stupid for not having given up hope two hours after you left the building.

If you get the job, you will probably have to move house, prepare your teaching and start work within the month.

And if you don’t, you go home, throw all the notes you made about existing syllabuses, potential new syllabuses, your research, the Department’s research, your potential colleagues’ research, impact strategies and fantasy house prices in the bin, pay the babysitter, reunite with your confused baby, get over your jetlag and remember that you haven’t written a blog post in weeks.

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