Monthly Archives: April 2007

On Damascus and a human need for magic?

In the Midwest, we have super-churches. Willow Creek in Chicago has the following question on the splash page of their website:

“How would it be like to live for God with fresh vision and unbridled passion?”

I had been fleshing out this idea even before seeing that, but it’s interesting to me that the word choice involved “passion”. I’m a bit unsure as to the grammatical structure of that sentence, but I include the quote solely on the basis of word choice. More on that in a minute.

Here in the UK, we have the Church of England, affectionately known as “C of E” and a weekly destination for a very small proportion of the total English population. To say that the C of E is quite different from the Midwestern mega-churches is such an understatement that I don’t even know where to begin. It’s increasingly hard for me to see them as two subsets of the same faith.

I had the interesting opportunity to discuss the mechanisms of entry into C of E priesthood with a man of the cloth. The surprise to me in this conversation came in the context of the role of a “Road to Damascus” moment in determining someone’s “calling” to become ordained. Apparently such a moment is identified by some, but not all, of the new prospects. Surprising to me was the idea that such a moment was considered at all indicative of the possible long-term success of the priesthood as a career choice.

This idea immediately brought to mind another “moment of magic” that seems to be valued by most people, the idea of “falling in love”. My views on such things were irretrievably altered by my trips to England prior to moving here, as I became over the course of these trips acquainted with someone from a background that still practices arranged marriage. I was initially shocked and appalled by the idea, but have gradually come to see the merits of such an attitude. In considering the long-term likelihood of success and happiness in a partner relationship, the question in my mind is simple: why do we place value on a “road to Damascus” moment of falling in love as an indicator of the long-term success of a relationship?

Certainly such an idea is propagated within pop culture; the movie “Sleepless in Seattle” with its constant references to “magic” is the example that pops into my head most immediately. However, let me remind you of the dictionary definition:

Magic (noun) the art of producing illusions as entertainment by the use of sleight of hand, deceptive devices, etc.; legerdemain; conjuring: to pull a rabbit out of a hat by magic.

That’s right, the art of producing illusions. Why do we think we need this in our lives? Do we really wish to make critical decisions about our lives, either our career or personal commitments, based on this idea of magic, based on a vision on the road to Damascus? Why do we not take a more considered view of the realities and implications of a serious choice like that of a career or partner? Why do we tend to look down on cultures that still practice arrangements of marriage (although the current trend towards internet dating, especially in the context of the quiz-heavy sorts like eHarmony, is really just this arrangement in modern sheep clothing).

I come now full circle to the interesting quote on the Willow Creek webpage. The quote implies a need for “passion” in our church and spiritual lives as well as in our private ones. I turn again, for lack of better option, to the dictionary:

Passion (noun) any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling, as love or hate.

We have become driven by a need for an emotional high either in church or in love. Is this the best thing? Is a “Road to Damascus” moment really going to sustain someone on the long and hard road ahead, when the realities of life are not glamorous? I think not, but clearly I must be at least somewhat in the minority in my views since this concept is so pervasive. We love the idea of Paul’s conversion being sufficient to not only sustain him in the rest of life but to cause him to become arguably the greatest advocate of the nascent Christian faith. We love the idea of the magic of falling in love as sufficient to sustain a relationship and lead to long-term happiness. But what if it’s not? What if we’re fooling ourselves with this? What if Paul was the exception, and not the rule or model upon which to base our major decisions?

A cash cow is not being milked

I have come across few Englishmen (of either sex) who have even heard of the major cities in the Midwest, and even fewer who have actually been there. Views of America are taken from the perspective of visits to NY-LA with occasional additions of the Orlando-Las Vegas vacation set. It seems obvious to me that if an Englishman can so clearly be distinguished as “northern” and different in both accent and attitude at a distance of 200 miles from London to Leeds, that a Midwesterner is clearly not a New Yorker (800 miles from NY to Chicago) or even more seriously, a Midwesterner is not a west coast-er (2000 miles Chicago to LA). Being lumped into an identity of “American” without any awareness of the diversity behind this appellation is something I find frustrating at times. But even more intriguing is this: just think of the tourism dollars being wasted if a country full of enthusiastic travelers is generally unaware of the beauty, both natural and built, of the “fly-over zone” in the middle of the country. What are the advertizing gurus at the “Mall of America” doing if a country full of shoppers are unaware of its existence while otherwise determined to believe America is mecca for cheap clothing? I realize as I type this, that when traveling in the US, a Midwestern origin nearly always results in a mention of the MoA, and in six months in Britain it has not once been mentioned. Now there’s an economic opportunity being wasted by the usually opportunist American capitalists.

Home is where you…

It is frequently argued that Britain is a small and overcrowded island, and that some of the more–ahem–interesting behaviors characteristic of the English are the direct result of this simple fact.  I discovered last night that there was another strange side effect of this population density.  While standing at my kitchen window, doing dishes in my funny sink with separate hot and cold taps (don’t even get me started on the uselessness of this particular arrangement) I witnessed … how shall I put this delicately … an “amorous exchange” being conducted in the building across the street from me.  I realized that although I had lived in an urban environment for much of the last decade, the very English combination of narrow one-horse streets and high density housing gives me an unobstructed view into several windows in the environs surrounding my own abode.   Seriously, people, draw your curtains.

Great progress on language acclimation

I am so pleased to report that I stopped an Englishman dead in his tracks when I used the phrase “bugger off” correctly in a sentence AND without missing a beat… he stopped the conversation cold to congratulate me.

Using English words instead of American ones is good, but getting the slang right and in context is priceless!

The English Reserve?

I’m somewhat mystified by one particular aspect of the English culture that seems to me a contradiction. There’s this well-developed idea of the “English reserve,” a sort of social malady associated with awkwardness, bumbling, and even apparent coldness in social situations. (The roots and manifestations of this behavior have been analyzed extensively in the excellent book “Watching the English” by Kate Fox; truly a must-read anthropology-lite book for anyone interested in the ways of the natives here.) We think of British humor as smart and understated, with the notable exception of the zany Pythons, and even that has been quite reasonably explained. We think of English dress as very formal. Here’s where the cracks start to show for me. On further consideration, we think of the English menswear as very formal. I recall thinking of women’s hats a bit before I moved here, but I was most certainly not prepared for what I found in terms of women’s daily apparel.

To put it bluntly, I find the young females here dress quite suggestively. Prior to moving to England, I personally associated fish-net stockings with ladies of the night and perhaps Halloween parties, but here they are normal, everyday wear. The amount of cleavage I see on any given day is startling to say the least. The skirts are short and tight. I am American, and thus perhaps tending at times to revert to my puritanical roots, but I find the amount of flesh on display from the average girl on the street frequently causes my jaw to drop. Is this cultural? Or … Am I just getting old?

The only explanation I can come up with for this bizarre juxtaposition of reserve and exhibitionism among the young females is extremely unsatisfactory and not really an explanation so much as part of the problem. I present as evidence the “page 3 girl” phenomenon. When I was in the UK for the first time, many years before I ever dreamed of moving here, I nearly spit coffee all over the table at a coffee shop when, on opening a newspaper left behind on a table, I discovered the page 3 girl. (If you are like I was and don’t know what this is, I suggest this article on the BBC website; even the Wikipedia entry could get a person in hot water if viewed at work.) I’m not terribly interested in a debate on the pros and cons of the page 3 girl or how a feminist should view these things; its mere existence and acceptance in British society is something I find both interesting and surprising.

So back to my original point… if partial nudity is par for the course in a daily newspaper, fishnet stockings suddenly don’t look so “unreserved”.

Update:  Kate Fox writes both on cleavage and the page 3 girls (I finally finished the book this afternoon).  I did not find her remarks on page 3 girls too interesting, she comments that the nudity is somehow “non-sexual” and widely accepted amongst both sexes as harmless (I’m obviously paraphrasing here).  More interestingly, she does claim that the amount of cleavage displayed is a good indicator of class… I maintain that the idea of acceptability of ANY cleavage is a good indicator of Englishness.

Peculiarities of grammar

Everyone seems to know that there are big differences in word choice in America vs. the UK. We Americans tend to have been exposed to enough Bridget Jones (or whomever else is the cultural cross-over dear at the moment) to know about the difference between and elevator and a lift, and the fact that “pants” in the UK means underwear, not trousers (although I do still mess that one up all the time). Most of the time I remember to ask for my coffee for “take-away” instead of “to go”. In any given sentence that I hear here, there is likely at least one word choice issue that makes it clear that I’m “here” and not “there” (aka “home”). There are, however, two peculiarities of British common sentence structure that I simply cannot parse.

Example 1: When I am the next person in line at the bank or the drugstore or wherever, and it comes my turn to be next, the cashier or clerk typically says,

“Can I help?”

Not, “Can I help you?” and certainly not “May I help you?” — just “Can I help?” I can’t figure this one out. I guess it’s a truncation, that the word “you” is implied and that there’s some perfectly good reason to drop it from the actual uttered sentence. Maybe this is just an example of the infamous English sense of economy! But I have to admit, it drives me absolutely crazy.

Example 2: This one requires a bit of background. There is this magazine here called “The Big Issue” and it is sold on the street by vendors “looking to overcome the crises surrounding homelessness”. It’s a lovely idea, although I have never actually bought a copy … but here’s why. I don’t know how general this is, but every street vendor I have ever heard trying to sell the Big Issue to passers-by utters this phrase:

“Big Issue, Big Issue please.”

I’m doing my best with the punctuation there, I’m not 100% sure that I’ve got it right. It’s definitely phrased as a statement, not a question, as you can tell from the fact that the tone is falling and not rising at the end of this utterance. As for the grammatical structure of this sentence, I am absolutely stumped. Why “please”? The word “please” is typically an adverb, but in this sentence there is no verb. “Please” can itself be a verb, “to please” but again it makes no sense when the sentence subject is “Big Issue”. Again, I think this is a case of a truncation, that there are words dropped that—if present—would make this into an actual sentence. I’m not sure what they are, though! Is it “Buy the Big Issue, please”? Or perhaps could it be, “Here’s the Big Issue, if you please.” I don’t know, I really can’t figure this one out. If anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them.

I can say this, although I’m captive and can’t help what the girls in the drug store say when I walk up to the counter with my basket of shampoo and toothpaste, until I hear a grammatical sentence coming from the street vendors I most certainly will NOT break down and buy the Big Issue!!!

Stupid things I miss

I am getting increasingly excited for a visit from my sister next week. This will be my first real visitor from home; I met two friends in Paris over the US Thanksgiving weekend, but that doesn’t really count as having a visitor coming to see me here in my own new country! So it will be fun to have someone to show around and to introduce to all the funny little places I see every day in my funny new life. Even more importantly, I have been sending her a small stream of requests for items that I simply cannot get here. The poor girl will be quite seriously burdened with the accumulated mass of all of these little requests over many months.

The strength of my desire for consumables from home has caught me a little bit by surprise. I was aware of this phenomenon previously; I recall friends in the US ordering favorite foods from expat catalogs. As with everything else, it’s not clear how desperate this situation is until you’re actually in the position of craving something and finding yourself completely unable to buy it or anything that even closely resembles it.

Such powerful cravings are inevitably embarrassing. Why don’t we ever crave broccoli with such desperation? So I confess, and in making this confession promise my sister that this is the last such request before she gets on the plane, that I would live without many of the other things that she is bringing me if I could just get a one pound box of Cheez-It Baked Snack Crackers. Please? See, it really is both desperate and embarrassing.

The land of sandwiches

I am a vegetarian, and unfortunately a little bit of a picky eater as well. England is generally heaven for vegetarians in that there is almost a curry house on every corner, and so in some ways I’m quite happy. It brings back fond memories of sitting in a favorite Indian restaurant in Minneapolis with a good friend, when I had the realization that to the majority of people sitting around me, it was just “food”. I had been waxing poetic about how I could eat Indian food every day, and of course it had not occurred to me until that moment that millions of people in the world actually did. So my life in England is very much about Indian or Indian-style food at least thrice per week and I am quite happy about that. But…

A major problem with English food is the ubiquitous lunch-time sandwich. There is a full aisle devoted to sandwiches at M&S. You can also buy them at the drugstore (Boots). But the fact of the matter is that I hate most sandwiches. This is a major manners problem of the culture shock variety: Every lunch meeting in my new job is accompanied by sandwiches. How is one meant to get through the meeting without eating one’s share of sandwiches and not seeming rude? People do ask why I’m not eating.

The problem for me is that vegetarian sandwiches try too hard. I would be happy with a grilled cheese—plain bread with plain cheese and no adornment. Or un-grilled cheese sandwiches would be good too. However, vegetarian sandwiches here are seldom this plain. The lovely things that I like when they are not on a sandwich, such as fresh mushrooms or cucumbers or tomatoes, inevitably make the bread soggy. I have a legendary picky problem with soggy bread. I therefore find absolutely no joy from vegetarian sandwiches.

It is not as though I had never suffered from a bad veggie sandwich in the US. Many work-related functions came with sandwiches there too. Although there they were normally in the form of “boxed lunches” that had one redeeming factor: potato chips. Or in England, “crisps”. Not a feature at my meeting lunches here in the UK. In the absence of good sandwiches, I have the option to eat fruit (although not normally apples, as would be common in the US) or dessert bars of different chocolate and non-chocolate sorts (but not cookies as would be found in American style boxed lunches). Alas, here there is no savory alternative for nibbling in the absence of a sandwich and a fruit and chocolate lunch is seldom appealing to me.

On the other hand, my favorite feature of English food is the persistence of rocket (arugula) as the leafy green of choice. I simply do not miss iceberg lettuce; romaine was even starting to become boring and my love for Caesar salad (no anchovies, please) had been diminishing in the states. I do not know if I had really tasted rocket before I started traveling to England—I suspect it is one of the “mixed baby greens” so common in salads in America, but on its own it is really potent stuff. The first time I came to the UK, I was having a guilty pleasure dinner in the TGI Friday’s in Leicester Square when I noticed that there was rocket in nearly every dish. Up to that point it had not occurred to me to check for the differences between the UK and US TGI Friday’s menus, but on closer inspection this was an obvious one. Now I find that rocket can be bought in the grocery store in bags just like spinach, and with just a bit of olive oil, lemon juice and shaved parmesan cheese it makes a salad worth writing home about.

So it’s a wash in the end: I dislike sandwiches, but I love curries and rocket. Most of the time I can find something suitable to eat—even when not in a curry house. And I have not yet mentioned the truly brilliant thing about food in England: in both the restaurant menu and the grocery store, a capital “V” (often in green lettering) clearly identifies products as vegetarian. It almost makes up for the sandwich thing.

For the musicians

If I were a Dead Russian Composer, I would be Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Considered the leader of the 19th Century Composer group “The Mighty Handful,” I am indeed the teacher among them. My orchestration skills are superbly colorful, and are explained in my book on the topic, but works like “Scheherezade” explain my mastery better. Who would you be? Take the Dead Russian Composer Personality Test.

Or if that does not amuse you, try the Dead German Composer Personality Test.

No, there is no point to any of this, but it does amuse me.

On coffee and economics

Monday morning. Even when I am not as tired as I am right now, I am a real fan of a good cup of coffee. Although I am young and spent too many years in college, and am thus certifiably poor, I have never really considered my latte expenditures as anything other than a necessity. This week is looking to be no exception, and so I have been pondering the issue of how much more the same iced venti latte costs at UK Starbucks compared with US Starbucks. I have mixed feelings about my regular trips to Starbucks—I know that is a terribly American thing to do and not in line with my desire to acclimate myself to an English existence. However, the charming named-after-a-person coffee house across from my office building does not “do” an iced latte, and the other attempts I have made at even a Euro-chain coffee shop were all immediately discarded because the iced latte was sickeningly sweetened.

Starbucks also has the distinct advantage for a weary laborer, in that there are three sizes (large, bigger and huge) and the venti (“huge”) is about twice the size of any other coffee cup I have seen here. So I will take the guilt and shame that come every time I pass through the door with the big green circle on it, and at least I will be sufficiently caffeinated to make it through another day.

I find the local Brits to be surprisingly preoccupied with money, and more specifically, with how much things cost and how expensive they are. I find this really surprising for a few reasons, the most obvious of which is that in general the prices are not that startling to me. I pay £2.49 (about $5) for a large latte at Starbucks here, which I believe was running me $3.73 in the American Midwest last fall and more like $4.50 on the East Coast. (Note this comparison is getting worse and worse as the dollar has fallen against the pound…) So there is a mark-up there, about 30%, but not doubled—my British colleagues are always saying things cost the same in Dollars and Pounds but I just don’t find that to be true. I don’t have too many comparisons as direct as the coffee one, but I do know that paperback books of the “sex-and-shopping” genre here are £6.99 (about $14) where they were typically $12 in the U.S.

(I note at this stage of my commentary that the Economist has a “Starbucks Tall Latte Index” in addition to their well-developed Big Mac index for documenting purchasing power parity. I am not the first person to make these comparisons and the Starbucks one is actually pretty economically sound as a basis for my argument that follows.)

Another factor makes it difficult for me to compare my own cost of living here vs. the US is the public transport infrastructure of the UK, which I find to be amazing. Although funnily enough, this is another thing that I find the Brits complain about a lot, both in terms of the expense and the reliability (neither of which I have found to be as bad as I would have expected given the amount of commentary I have heard on the subject). I do not have to own a car or pay for car insurance here, at a savings of about $500 a month. That is more than enough to buy me a latte or two, even on a daily basis, as well as a trashy novel to read on the weekend.

In reality, I suspect living here is not very much different than living in New York or Washington D.C. or any other major metropolitan city in the U.S. in terms of overall cost of living. But for the most part, I simply do not recall there being as much chatter about the prices or costs of daily essentials when in the U.S. People that I knew there tended to take the prices as just part of the overall package of living and while cost of living was a consideration in, say, a job offer in the midwest versus one in the Bay Area, that’s about the only time I recall thinking so much about such things. I certainly don’t recall having daily discussions with anyone about how expensive things are. (I absolutely believe that my British colleagues have some misguided views on how much things cost in the US!) I find the incessant money talk to be one of the less charming aspects of my existence here. I wonder if the phenomenon has come out of a sort-of peer pressure to say that everything is so expensive, just because everyone else says so too!

That said, this does present some fodder for amusing stories. When I first arrived here, before my belongings made it over on the big boat, I bought a single plate and mug to hold me over until my own dishes arrived. Each of them was clearly marked on a sticker on the back,

“Marked down! Was £1.49, now £1.45!”

By my calculations that is not even a dime price difference on something less than three bucks in the first place (less than 3% discount in any currency). Am I missing something here? Should I be pleased at the bargain I received?