On 16th September, 2010, the BBC World Service reported that 44 million American live in poverty, the highest number since the 1960s. “Poverty” is apparently a family of four living on less than $22,000 a year. Obviously, this can’t be compared to a country where poverty means whether you are going to be able to afford your next meal, otherwise is wouldn’t be a real barometer to test the apparent growth in wealth.
But it does sicken me that this is a country of want. Or is it called opportunity. I get the two mixed up sometimes. If you want something, apparently you must have it. There is very little mindset to save, or go without. Especially when it comes to your children, who are very often put on a pedestal.
In these times of relative austerity (and I’m embarrassed to use that term given the experiences of our grandparents during wartime rationing and postwar reconstruction), I would think it polite to just rein the extravagances in a little. You never know when that proverbial rain cloud will burst.
Hallowe’en is a good example. Children expect piles and piles of chocolate. Adults do not disappoint. No matter that it is bad for them, and encouraging expectation is never a pleasing characteristic. Most houses have mountains of sweet, sticky, chewy delights, and given that you should have grown out of Trick or Treating (can’t say I saw any tricking) by the age of 11, there are a lot of hyperactive toddlers running around.
We were invited by friends to join the Trick or Treating in their neighbourhood, and I must say, despite my reservations, we had a really lovely evening. In England, negativity always seems to prevail, and the reverse can be said about our trans-Atlantic brothers. This is true even to the extent that an American friend will tell you about an up and coming event that will be “awesome”, but only three people show up, and there is more atmosphere in a funeral parlour. I’m being unkind, but you get the gist. In England, teenagers roam the streets, before, during and after the 31st October, pelting houses with eggs because the tradition of Trick or Treating has given them jurisdiction.
In the States, the event is conducted with a little more class. The fun is that little children get to dress up and everyone pulls together in a community-spirited event, meeting on street corners and front lawns to coo at the pint-sized monkeys (Madeleine’s costume), tigers (Tilda’s), witches and ladybirds. It doesn’t even matter what the children wear as long as everyone joins in the spirit.
I still can’t stand the thought of children begging from door to door, but that isn’t how it is seen. If you don’t want to take part, you leave your porch light off. And the time for Trick or Treating is restricted to a few short hours during daylight, as dictated by the local council. How civilised. Goodness know what would become of you if you knocked on a door on the wrong day. It’s unheard of. American’s like their rules, and generally people like to stick to them.
One American tradition that is not conducted with such class is election campaigning. Campaigning seems to go on for months and months. We received so many recorded messages from candidates and their supporters that we don’t even answer the home phone any more. We can’t even vote, so it is a particularly ridiculous and pointless exercise.
The messages I particularly object to, whether by phone or TV, are anti-campaigning. For example: “You shouldn’t vote for X because he is known to be linked to gang crime and your children will have no future.” For all the praise I can heap on this country for its positive attitude, I can heap as much scorn for the nasty, factless tripe that is aired. This may be a country of free speech but I would have thought that as a country of litigious intent, there would be some attempt to stem the slander and libel. Or maybe it is all true. I’m afraid the only change in behaviour it has stirred in me, is to turn the TV off and close my ears.
So the weather is now turning a little chilly. Looking at the UK temperatures it seems to be about the same at the moment, around 0-5C. However, the wind chill has to be factored in. It’s only the end of November and I’m already having to build up my courage every time I go out. It’s mainly the hassle factor. You don’t want to wear your coats in the car (Mam’s voice in my head from childhood days: “Take your coat off so you’ll feel the benefit when you go out.”), and you can’t do the children’s seatbelt up with them on anyway as they are too bulky. But then when you park and you need to get coats on it starts to feel like a military operation. It’s all an experience of course, and as people start to put up some pretty spectacular light displays, it’s also very pretty. Do you know there are companies dedicated to putting lights up and down each year? There’s a house down the road that looks like the gingerbread house. The festivities start at Thanksgiving and finish at the end of January.
I wasn’t really sure what Thanksgiving was going to be about really. Obviously, traditionally it was for the founding fathers to give thanks to Native Americans for providing shelter and food (before they then shoved them off their land and into reserves). Today, for most people it is still about food. Platefuls and platefuls of beige food; turkey, sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top (just wrong), chicken noodles, bread, stuffing with a colourful dollop of cranberry sauce (well, you need some sort of fruit or vegetable), all followed by a huge piece of pumpkin pie and mountains of gelatinous desserts welded together with high fructose corn syrup.
For the most part, people get two days holiday and given there is very little holiday time here (some companies force employees to accrue holiday from day one), this is a very important family time.
We were lucky enough to be invited to a friend’s house in Carmel, Indiana. Day one we spent at her aunt’s house, where 20 guests enjoyed a turkey dinner. Day two we spent at the host’s house, where 35 guests enjoyed a turkey dinner. Each time, before dinner, we all gathered together, grace was said, and people were invited to share what they were giving thanks for. It was nice to see families joining together like this, even if we’re not religious. Then after the meal people would get out their guitars and start a sing song. I think what it mainly highlighted to me, is that we are very formal in the UK. I can’t imagine having 35 guests for dinner on such as casual basis, but everyone brought a dish, we used paper plates so there was little washing up, and the point was really about sharing time in the same place.
Now on to Christmas.