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So what is a newyorksubalien...

I’m a New York subalien. Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly legal – it’s just my loving other half, official alien that he is, comes with a so-called “supermodel” visa that apparently denotes him as one possessing extraordinary abilities (falling asleep within 5 minutes of sitting down in front of the TV, remembering only 2 of the 3 items on a mental shopping list and not knowing where the dishwasher tablets live after 2 years in our apartment are just some of his many talents).

The same visa leaves me extraordinarily unable to possess that most American of entities - a “social” i.e. a Social Security Number. Calling it a “social” makes it sound like the password to some party-filled, fun-packed lifestyle. That’s not far wrong as without these all-important 9 numbers, you pretty much can’t have a lifestyle at all - no bank account, no credit card, not even a driver’s license.

So what does a subalien do? Well, like over sub life forms waiting for evolution to give them a leg up on the ladder of existence, I have plenty of time to observe and these, dear reader, are my observations…..

Friday, April 20, 2012

Preparing for Prom - the biggest High School test of all

“I’m going in!” said the girl in front, grim determination written all over her face and armed for battle with the necessary weapons – backless, feathery, sequined-studded and meringue-shaped. Yes, we were Prom dress shopping and it was not pretty. Or rather it was pretty, if pretty in pink is your thing.

The scene was outside the dressing-room of a Fifth Avenue department store on a floor dedicated to a world I would best describe as “Dancing with the Stars” meets “Dallas” meets “Gossip Girl”. Women mainly of a certain age (we all obviously had 17/18 year daughters so you can do the Maths) were standing around in our sensible shoes, jeans and black sweaters while very certain young-aged women in flip-flops, cut-off jeans and white T-shirts were clutching arm-loads of dresses, each the opposite of each other – long, short, puff-balled, sleek, mono-chromed and multi-coloured.

In Prom Dress World, trying is trying. When faced with thousands of strips of material (and sometimes it is indeed just strips) there is no other option but to hit the dressing-rooms. All around me I could hear Prom-Mums whispering the same mantra – “Just try it on to see how it looks”. Result – huge queues outside the changing-booths and some very disgruntled Prom-Mini-Mums. Because they want Prom-minis, not the floor-length fuchsia organza creation their Mum is insisting they put on.

Not that a shorter dress means a smaller price tag. According to a recent telephone survey carried out by Visa, families with teens are expected to spend an average of $1,078 this year on Prom, up from $807 in 2011. A Visa official described it as “social-arms-race” spending and I’m not arguing with them. Tickets, dresses (where less usually costs more), make-up and hair appointments, limousine rental (dance poles or smoke machines optional), flowers, after-prom parties and photos all add up.

What the survey also discovered was that spending varied dramatically based on family income. Families earning less than $20,000 will spend an average of $1,200 while those earning between $20,000 and $29,000 will fork out an average of $2,635. At the other end of the scale, those earning over $75,000 will only (if you can say that) spend around $742.

You would be excused if you thought the whole experience sounds like a dry run for a much-hoped-for-one-day-in-the-future wedding. Many of the shops that specialize in Prom dresses are indeed bridal salons. And apparently you should buy Prom dresses one size up from your usual as they run at least one size smaller “like bridal gowns”. This also means inevitably any dress you choose needs to be altered for a perfect fit so ideally we should have started our hunt for THE dress several months ago.

Perhaps this accounted for the many frazzled and panicked looks on local aliens’ faces this weekend. Or perhaps it was because we kept on seeing the same panicked faces time and time again. In keeping with the grand old European tradition (the word “prom” originates from the French “promenade” when guests marched at the start of a ball or formal event), it seems there is also a set “Grand Tour” of prom shops, Europe being downsized to a 25-block square in Midtown.

The obvious worry is that if we are all going to the same shops and (not intending to buy a one-off-the-shoulder designer gown) are looking at the same racks of the same multiple dresses, how do you avoid the ultimate Prom disaster – being a Prom Twin as opposed to the Prom Queen. This is where social media comes into its own. Apparently Mini-Mum’s class of 2012 is posting details of frocks so there is no fracas on the big night.

I say “frocks” plural as for many, the actual formal is just the formal start to the celebrations. Organised after-prom parties such as sunrise cruises are understandably big business. But they have an extra dimension here given the minimum drinking age is 21 and Prom-goers are generally in the 17-19 year range. Hence the latest addition to my Subalien dictionary, the term “No ID event”. Initially I mistakenly interpreted this as “No questions asked” but quickly realized I was heading down the wrong track when I read the tagline “Unlimited juice and soda all night”. But I have to admit it does sound cooler than “Teen Night Event”.

Many Prom-goers prefer the private party option and stories abound of chartered buses (dance poles or smoke machines again optional) picking up crowds of kids after the main school event and whisking them away for a weekend of festivities at someone’s house in the Hamptons. Hence the need for more than one frock (we would hope). I hope they also have the foresight to organise transport back at the end or it could be a very long "promenade" home. 

For those of you interested, our own personal Grand Tour proved educational but shopping-bag free. Given Prom is such a cultural milestone in our current planetary home, we have jokingly suggested Mini-Mum go dressed in an Irish potato sack to represent her national heritage. As Male Mini-me sweetly said, she would still look beautiful. If not "Prom(enade) Queen", at least "Pommes (de Terre) Queen". 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Hail the new "sense-ible" New York taxi - smell less, see more, it's even quieter tooting its own horn!

If Planet New York’s streets and avenues are the arteries and veins of some never-sleeping beast, its blood is not red but yellow – little yellow globules that hurtle madly around, causing many a heart-stopping moment but likewise saving the lives of ever-late aliens who need to get from A to B five minutes ago.

The classic New York cab has a distinctive aroma, a variation of “eau de Manhattan” I call “eau de Man/Eating”. The black floor is perfect for rendering invisible wallets, mobile phones and leather gloves and it never ceases to amaze me how there is often more space in the boot – sorry, trunk – than for the passengers.

But all this is set to change. This week Mayor Bloomberg rolled out the new New York cab, scheduled to hit the streets from the end of next year and set to totally replace the Ford Crown Victoria, the iconic design that looks like cars I used to draw when I was 5 years old.

The pluses of the new cab on paper would appear to be many – special passenger seats that “help neutralize interior odors” (not sure if this stretches to the driver’s seat as well), more leg room, chargers, USB ports and a sunroof to allow passengers to admire the skyscrapers as opposed to the fender-benders. There is also floor lighting so you’ll only need to buy the one pair of gloves each winter and, my personal favourite, a “low-annoyance horn”. I searched in vain to find an online recording of said horn but only succeeded in making myself mildly-annoyed at my failure to do so. I imagine it will appear as a highly-annoying app soon anyway.

On the outside, it is still yellow, in fact an even brighter yellow than its current counterpart. Shape-wise though, I have to admit, it looks more like the kind of car I used to draw when I was 3 years old (except that it does have 4 wheels) – definitely not “Back to the Future”, more Postman Pat.

For all its increased comfort inside, I suspect that it might take a while for the 600,000 odd daily taxi-riders to warm to the new design. Learning how to hail a cab, even how to give your address in the right way (always an intersection, number of street first, then avenue) is a rite of passage to living in this city. Take, for example, the Masters of the Universe who, in the morning, stride purposefully out of their townhouses and in the evening, out of their offices. They walk two steps to the kerb, raise arm commandingly with crisp newspaper in hand and stand there for, oh, two seconds. Like magic, a cab appears. In one fluid movement, Master of Universe opens door, lowers himself smoothly into seat, slams door and is off, oozing power and manlihood.

Now imagine the same scenario with a slow, sliding, mini-van type door and an entrance that requires you to bend in head-first rather than drop down head-last, putting you at risk of a socks-reveal that would seriously dint your sex appeal. Less Master of the Universe, more Mister Bean.

I hasten to add that the Superalien morning ritual goes a little differently. The master of my universe dons his "manny-hood" - a fetching yellow bike jacket (interestingly similar in hue to the new cabs), brazenly flashes socks or rather one of them as he dons bicycle clip, slams apartment door, lowers himself onto bizarre-shaped bike seat and then is off, oozing, well, pedal power. Energy-efficient, good exercise and a source of much affectionate teasing on the part of his office colleagues. 

Fear not - you still have plenty of time to hail an old-fashioned, door-opening-out-into-cyclists (hopefully not Superalien), saggy-bottomed seat, uber-odourous, suspension-free cab. With 13,000 yellow blood globules currently hurtling around, a complete blood transfusion is expected to take until 2018. 

And I'm confident that one thing will not change - New York taxi drivers. The life stories I have heard over the past 4 years have convinced me that if cabs are New York's lifeblood, Big Apple's cabbies are its DNA - even if that sometimes means Destination Not Assured!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Birthday Ode to a planetary institution: the Oreo-iginal dunkin' biscuit

Today, March 6, 2012, is a momentous day in the history of Planet America as it marks a big “Double O” anniversary. And in more ways than one, as today is the 100th birthday of the quintessential American cookie, the often imitated but never quite replicated true Double O, the Oreo cookie, born right here in New York.

Before we landed here, the concept of “milk and cookies” is something I associated with life in the movies and our current home. And of all the cookies on offer, nothing quite personified American living as the Oreo. American friends in Paris would lament their absence from local supermarket shelves and bring back suitcases of the distinctively dark discs from home visits. We tried them but, as with the love affair our Australian friends had with their sacred Vegemite, we just did not get it.

Three years in and it’s happened. Male Mini-me, rapidly sprouting into Male Mum-minizer, is heeding his doctor’s advice to eat us out of house and home and the “milk and cookies” ritual is a daily ceremony in our household. Although I have to admit his allegiances are still with Hobnobs or Chocolate Digestives. But we still have a packet of Oreos handy in the house for the local alienettes and I consider it a privilege to have seen the “twist, lick, dunk” ritual performed by a true expert. Several tips if you are trying it out yourself -

  *  Make sure your Oreos are at room temperature for a successful twist and split. Broken Oreos do NOT taste the same. In fact they taste like ore (as in ore - o. Sorry.)
 * Don’t lick all the creamy filling off as apparently, for a true dunk, you need to put the two halves back together. And too much licking means no sticking.
  * Choose your milk glass wisely. Big clue, the cookie should be able to fit into it. Don’t laugh, not that obvious if you’re an Irish-subalien-first-time-dunker.

While there is only one, true Oreo, this does not mean there are not different kinds of Oreos - Mini Oreos, Golden Oreos, Double Stuf (really, that’s how it’s spelt), Triple Double Chocolate, ones with original creme fillings or those with mint, peanut butter or chocolate in the middle. The list gets longer if you include overseas offerings – in Argentina there are banana and dolce de leche creme options, in China strawberry fillings and a less sweet wafer variation which appeals more to the local market.

The sweet factor is not an issue here - back in the 1980s, there was a “Big Stuf Oreo” which, as you probably guessed, was a pretty big cookie. But coming in at 316 calories a piece, it was eventually sent to cookie heaven in 1991. Even the amazing deep-fried oreo cookies sold here at street markets and fairs are estimated to have only around 100 calories each – and believe me, you are usually not tempted to have a second.

In honour of today’s birthday, there is a “special edition” birthday cake version on sale at the moment with sprinkles in the filling. Ever ready to celebrate any occasion, I am off to seek them out so I can crush them and sprinkle on vanilla ice cream – my guilty Oreo secret. And while savouring my variation of “milk and cookies”, I will offer up my Birthday Ode to the Oreo.

Oh, Oreo, we did not know
That to your hometown we would go,
We weren’t sure, we thought we’d risk it,
But we’re glad we did ‘cos it takes the biscuit!  

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leaping with joy at an extra 24 hours on a new planet

As you start to get older and greener of the subalien tooth, you appreciate so much more any extra hours bestowed upon you. Little joys such as the clock going back in the winter or “gaining” up to an extra day when you fly west from our current planet.  But in both these instances there is always eventually the need to head in the other direction and I’m the first to feel (totally irrationally) shortchanged by ye gods when time goes against me.

So today – February 29th  or Leap Day - is a win/win situation for me. A whole “extra” day with no looming reversal of the clock to cast a shadow over my joy. It also makes me think back to previous February 29ths and how they represent our own interplanetary “leaps”. Our most recent two were in Paris but even that length of time was insufficient for me to learn how to even say “Leap Year” in French. I’ve just had to look it up and it is apparently “l’année bissextile”. Now I know it is all to do with Latin and “bis” and “sextus” but honestly, who is going to look at that word and not see something else. Especially given this is the nation that produced the marvellous term “cinq à sept” for post-work afternoon liaisons, niftily timetabling the hours between 5pm and 7pm for lovers’ rendezvous but still leaving time to be home for dinner. Please note, in French-speaking Canada, “cinq à sept” has a slightly different meaning – it is indeed a “happy hour” but of the bar variety. Just so you know.

I now have in my own mind how the nation of love may choose to spend its extra 24 hours. In Ireland, where we were in 2000, the thought process is still the same although the focus is more on managing to achieve the “sept à cinq” time slot. For according to lrish legend, on this day alone, young lassies in the Emerald Isle were allowed by St Patrick to propose to their young men; those not agreeable had to pay a forfeit which in olden times was a dress but in my youth had been reduced to a kiss. We explained the custom to Male Mini-me this weekend just in case - he was very disgruntled and expressed a desire to be living in olden times.

And then there was Brazil in 1996. I have to confess I also had to look up Leap Year in Portuguese, only to discover it was “ano bissexto” – think there is a pattern forming here? I also have to confess that I don’t actually remember that one as we were probably all recovering from the exertions of Carnival the week earlier.

So I have been looking forward to seeing how our current planetary hosts make use of their extra day. I was a little disappointed that with the local love of the greeting card, I have seen none wishing the recipient a “Happy Leap Day”. But there are “Happy Leap Year Birthday” cards, including one that reads “Happy Birthday for real this year”. Some locals are preparing to take advantage of the additional recreational time to have a special “cinq à sept” although of the French Canadian variety involving beverages not beds. And elsewhere on the planet, that great alien playground, Disneyland, is staying open for the first time for 24 hours straight from 6am this morning (is that a “six à six"?).

And if you didn’t feel the need before to celebrate these extra 24 hours, then the media yesterday made sure you might want to start appreciating them. Many ran a story that NASA scientists have identified an asteroid that currently has a 1 in 625 chance of crashing into Earth, possibly on 5th February 2040. Fear not, reassuringly, were it to hit, mankind is expected to live through it. Even more reassuringly, NASA officials separately also said they expect the odds of an impact to go way down in the coming years. But heavens above, let’s take this opportunity to make the most of today’s Leap Day – there may only be 6 more left! 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Surviving two cultural revolutions with hands and head intact

The past two weeks have seen me go through a cultural evolution – a subalien I still may be but at least I now know how to clap on cue, cheer on command and, at the other end of the scale, survive three hours of Shakespeare with my head still intact (unlike most of the characters).

My evolution centred around two revolutions. The first was the name of the lunchtime chat show looking recently for members of the public to fill its seats at one of its tapings. This being a brand new “transformational” show (and, as I have since learnt, one which replaced a much-loved soap opera) it is, somewhat understandably, working hard to find suitably responsive and adequately enthusiastic audience members.

It is also probably not helped by the fact that, having sat through an entire morning of on-off whooping, cheering and applauding (I did not think hands could hurt so much), I would have to describe it as what I call a “once in a lifetime” event. So much so that I felt it would spoil the memories to watch the one-hour show when it was actually broadcast.

Let’s just say I didn't want to face up to reality and accept that others now know the secrets I gleaned from the show. Such as how a bowl of macadamia nuts has more calories than a platter of vegetables. Or that the dark brown/black combination I have always worn was in fact a fashion faux-pas but now apparently is “in”. I know it is – in my wardrobe and has been for years.  

For those of you vaguely interested, the key is while chocolate is good (but no macadamia nuts thrown in, of course), tan and khaki are both big no-nos. If you’re confused about the khaki, here this means beige and not dark green – something I wish I'd known when buying Mini-Mum's first school uniform. 

No danger of any of those colours appearing in the audience. We had all been given instructions to wear bright colours and it was heart-warming to see so many members of the audience applying this request to their facial colour palate as well as their wardrobe. And that they continued to apply them so many times during the taping. 

Perhaps their ever-appearing gold compacts served a secondary purpose in that they attracted the TV cameras as bright objects attract magpies. By the way, “in” colours for TV production crew - most definitely black and white.  Anyway, I have it from reliable sources that those of us more shrinking violets (not exactly a bright colour, I know, but at least it wasn’t black), did not make it onto the big screen. What can I say – heart-broken, gutted, deeply relieved.

If that was a girly, local planetary cultural experience, you couldn’t get "butcher" (in more ways than one) than our most recent one. The Revolution might not have quite fulfilled my New Year’s Resolution No 2 but I think few would question our cultural credentials after seeing Kevin Spacey in Richard III this weekend. Now there's a man who knows about overthrowing existing leaders (we're talking the king here).

Our theatrical outing was supposed to have been a family event. But as in the play, where men and women fell by the wayside one by one, so in the run-up to the big day, our party of four was first reduced to three and then two. My two, I hasten to add, in contrast to Richard's relatives, did live to tell the tale, despite dropping out because of the length of the telling of the theatrical version.

To give Superalien his due (and in the spirit of  New Year's Resolution No 10), I did not see him dropping "out" once during the performance - something I could not have denied him, should I have forced him to watch The Revolution.

To be fair, there were similarities between the two shows. Both had the same “audience-in-seat-time” and both focused on resolving problems and changing lifestyles. Although in the case of Richard, the main "presenter" was predominantly interested in sorting out his own problems and lifestyle changes he “suggested” tended to be rather permanent.
And both involved the audience coming to its feet at the end and applauding wildly – I’ll let you guess which one evoked the spontaneous reaction.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Feeling a bit of a donkey about local planetary politics

I’ve tried to ignore it for long enough but it’s time to face up to the elephant in the room – as well as the donkey.

It’s Election Year in Planet America and while we've already experienced the country going to the polls shortly after we first landed, with the usual complications moving involves, I was more concerned then about the state of our heads than our head of state.
This time around we have no excuse – and frankly we don’t need any as it’s impossible not to get caught up in the coverage of the race to the White House. Who wouldn’t be interested in a race that pits an elephant against a donkey? Who wouldn’t be interested in a political party that picks an elephant or a donkey as their symbol? So hence my first bit of cultural research – what was the story behind the pachyderm and the pack-ass?

Most of us would associate a donkey with (let’s just call a chad a chad) stubbornness and even stupidity and apparently, we’re not far wrong as to the original use. The Democratic Donkey evolved after opponents of Democrat Andrew Jackson called him a jackass in his 1828 presidential campaign. He in turn decided to adopt the image as meaning strong-willed in his election posters. Political cartoonist Thomas Nast then jumped on the donkey-pulled bandwagon and used the animal to represent the party, hence its existence today as the unofficial but accepted Democratic emblem.

Over to the Republicans who have the elephant as their official symbol. Nast is also accredited with this one after depicting a donkey hidden in a lion’s skin scaring away all the animals in the zoo. One of these was an elephant labeled “the Republican vote”. And that was all it took. That and a good memory.

Today’s Democrats apparently view their donkey as humble, hard-working and courageous while Republicans, far from seeing the elephant as slow and bumbling, believe it represents dignity and strength. Hope my subalien evolution turns out as well!

Another previous hurdle in my own race for local political wisdom was the constant use in political commentaries of the term GOP. I now know that this stands for the Republican nickname, the Grand Old Party. But 55% of Americans didn't when asked in a sample poll last August. Even more amazingly, only 51% of the Republicans polled got it right.

To confuse you even further, GOP was originally used to describe the Democrats before the Republican Party even existed. They would appear to have (stubbornly?) resisted any other acronym since so headline writers are forced to reduce them to Dems where necessary. Although (contrary to what many paleontologists say), apparently DINOs still exist (Democrats In Name Only). In the interests of fairness, I should of course add there are many humourous “alternative” versions of GOP, my current favourites being “Greedy One Percent” and “Grumpy Old Patriots”.

Then there’s the colour issue  - and I’m not talking about the “of color” issue here. In most other democracies, any party on the political left would usually be associated with the colour red and those parties more right-wing or conservative would see their leaders bedecked with blue ties (or skirts in the case of the UK’s Mrs Thatcher). Here, with the national flag a very convenient red, white and blue, and a clear political case of left versus right, an interplanetary visitor could be excused for assuming the same rules would apply.

Wrong – in fact it’s exactly the opposite. Red states are those where local aliens generally vote for a Republican president, blue for a Democratic one. It’s not always been that way. With the advent of colour television, networks all adopted their own system, some apparently alternating every four years between blue and red for the incumbent President’s party. This led to one famous comment by an anchorman when (Republican) Ronald Reagan won his 44-state landslide in 1980 that his electoral map looked like "a suburban swimming pool". Other commentators called it “Lake Reagan”.

It was only in 2000 that the accepted red/blue Republican/Democrat divide set in. This was the famous “chad” election when the viewing public were subjected to the electoral map for days after going to the polls thanks to the close contest between George W (did you know it stands for Walker?) Bush and Al Gore. Given the political shenanigans were confusing enough, it helped that at least all the TV stations were on the same page - or screen - as far as the political colours were concerned.

There is one other suggestion that the evolution of the colours is because donkeys can have a reddish coat and elephants a blue-ish hue but I'll not wait for the count to come in on that one....

Creative Commons License by Caroline Eagles is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.