Merchants in Houston - Chapter 8

Dear All

Hands up everyone who is sick of hearing about Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" - they sure love their euphemisms over here. If you don't know what on earth I'm on about then count yourselves lucky although I believe this tawdry incident did get some international coverage. It actually happened nearly a month ago now on February 1st during the half time entertainment MTV saw fit to provide for the 38th Superbowl (which actually took place in Reliant Stadium here in Houston). We were lucky enough to be invited to a neighbour's house to share the event with their family and friends which certainly heightened our enjoyment, if not our understanding, of this momentous event in the US sporting calendar. I particularly appreciated the commentary provided by Patrick, a very charming autistic 19 year old who, like Raymond Babbit in "Rain Man" enjoyed an amazing affinity with facts and figures and took particular pleasure in pointing out similarities between this year's event and those of the previous decade - "It's déjà vu - all over again!" At half time I was engaged in an intimate moment with Gizmo, the Bichon Frise belonging to our hostess. For the non-canine aficionados amongst you (my education in this area is being extended by leaps and bounds) a Bichon is a small white curly coated creature (think miniature poodle crossed with a lamb) with appealing eyes and a dirty face. Not perhaps my premier choice of furry companion but in the words of the song (and with profuse apologies to Stephen Stills and my darling William) " If you can't be with the one you love, Honey..." And so it was that I missed the actual moment when, during the finale of their totally indifferent duet, Justin Trousersnake ripped a square of material from Ms Jackson's bodice thus exposing her 38 year old breast to an audience of millions of outraged Americans. The intense disapproval voiced in our neighbours' living room was apparently echoed the length and breadth of North America and I only mention the age of the breast because it has featured in every subsequent news report and talk show discussion until that particular portion of Ms Jackson's anatomy seemed to take on a life of its own. Jackson made an apology on national TV the next day, Timberlake waited until his appearance at the Grammy's: both claimed it to be "an unfortunate accident" although, as their wardrobe department had already admitted that the offending rectangle of material was fixed with "velcro snaps", it seemed a pretty conclusively pre-planned event to even the most gullible of observers with the apparent exception of viewers in Washington DC. Questions were asked at the highest level. As David Letterman (to whom I am slowly warming) commented on the Late Show, "Congress refused to debate Iraq, they couldn't be persuaded to look into Enron but, boy, just try and stop them from looking into Janet Jackson's bra!"

Preceding the Jackson/Timberlake debacle by some 15 minutes was another incident which also provoked universal condemnation , this time involving Kid Rock, another invention the entertainment industry could well do without, and this I did happen to see. He bounded on stage wearing a poncho made of the Stars and Stripes in which he had cut a hole to fit over his head. Disrespect of The Flag - black mark number 1. Worse was to follow. As he warmed up, Kid pulled the flag/poncho over his head, passed it suggestively between his legs a couple of times and tossed it into the crowd. Sharp intake of breath all round; Patrick gazed studiously at the carpet and the phone began to ring. It was our neighbour's mother voicing her very genuine distress. American patriotism is an awesome thing. I say this in all sincerity; I find it truly moving although I know many other Brits (my elder daughters included) who are distinctly uncomfortable with the sentiment. I know that any history book will tell of the extreme horror which can so easily transpire when patriotism tips over the edge into nationalism. I don't condone the apparent desire of the US to dominate world politics; I certainly haven't become an apologist for George W (and I haven't come across very many Houstonians who fit into that category either) but I can't help feeling we Brits could learn something here. Respect for the flag, the constitution, the country - whatever you like to call it - seems to transcend all the usual barriers of religion, race, class (which does exist in America) and those immigrants who have made it here, whether legally or otherwise, seem genuinely appreciative of the opportunities on offer. I saw on the internet today that David Blunkett and Prince Charles had presided over the first citizenship-conferring ceremonies in the UK which have, of course been taking place over here for decades, if not longer. I also read that the National Anthem would not necessarily be played at all future ceremonies, presumably in case it causes "offence". If we indigenous Brits don't have the conviction to respect our heritage, how can we expect it of these artificially created citizens? Approximately one third of the houses in Memorial Northwest fly the Stars and Stripes, more often than not in the company of the flag of the Lone Star State. Many of these houses will be the homes of Chinese, Asian and Afro-Americans. As a non-American, albeit an authorised alien and one enjoying the "special relationship" to boot ("Gee, I jus' lurv your accent. Where y'all from - Australia?") I don't feel in the least threatened or offended by this. If anything I find it reassuring but then I'm just a middle aged reactionary. Of course I also have to come to terms with the possibility/probability (at least according to Michael Moore, writer and director of the much acclaimed documentary film "Bowling for Columbine") that in some of these homes a loaded firearm may be concealed or even left lying about for children to find. Although urged to do so by various daughters and friends, I had not seen "Bowling for Columbine" before coming to the States so a few weeks ago I decided to rectify the situation and rented it on DVD. At the risk of sounding complacent, I didn't find out anything about US gun culture that I hadn't already read or heard about. Moore certainly raised a lot of questions but I'm not sure if he answered any and it seemed to me that his thinking was muddled in places. Although poverty, racism, parental neglect and disaffection are powerful factors, accessibility must surely be key, especially where underage gun crime is concerned. Imagine if dear old Wilko's (where I believe at present you can't buy so much as a razor blade under the age of 16) were suddenly to stock guns and ammunition - would we handle the situation any better than America? As an investigative film I'm not sure I would have awarded "Bowling for Columbine" quite so many plaudits but nevertheless it was deeply thought provoking and posed at least one question which I keep coming back too, usually in the still watches of the night. At what point in America's development would/could it have been possible to rescind the universal right to bear arms (for the protection of self, family and property)? Obviously, despite a crash course in American history courtesy of various publications from the Half Price Book Shop, I 'm not qualified to answer this question. Certainly it is now far too late. The gap between the "Haves" and "Have Nots" is greater than ever. We have been shocked by the number of middle aged men, often amputees, claiming to be either war vets or diabetics or both, who seem to find it necessary to beg at major road intersections. Surviving without medical insurance is extremely tough. Even with company sponsored protection, it is costing me $50 per month for prescription drugs and $20 per consultation. Life in America is full of contradictions but never less than interesting. Sorry folks, next month's bulletin will return to your favourite topics of shopping and eating out - promise!

Of course I don't spend all my time lying in bed pondering Life's Big Questions or even watching Judging Amy. We have been out and about and a couple of weeks ago were lucky enough to catch a performance of "Singin' in the Rain" at our local Klein High School (misnomer of the century - there are over 3,500 students on roll, more than twice the number at the very large UK comprehensive were I was librarian) For a school-based entertainment it was amazing - incredibly professional in every respect and performed with the infectious and endearing enthusiasm peculiar to Americans. We arrived in good time, so in a revival of the anarchic spirit which so nearly secured me a dishonourable discharge from the Girl Guides, I amused myself by pointing out to my nearest and dearest some of the less usual Germanic surnames in the programme. Sad sniggerer that I am, I was thrilled to see that we were to be entertained by Jenny Hoofnagel, Chelsea Klingsporn and Duke Grotstein! At this point I must just share with you an entry in this month's Memorial Northwest Newsletter, Welcome New Neighbours section (in which we once had a totally un-noteworthy mention):

Gloystein Mike and Harvey

Moved from Houston. Mike is Sales Manager for Puffer-Sweiven and Harvey is a Certified Medical Dosimetrist.

Answers on a postcard please!

Anyway back to Memorial Northwest where we find ourselves increasingly at home. This part of North Harris County was settled by German immigrants in the middle of the 19th century. Most carried on a few hundred miles further west to found Fredriksburg, home of the Schlitterbahn and the NW Texas Oompah Band but for some reason Herren Klein, Strack, Theiss, Wunderlich and Steubner decided to drop anchor in the middle of what was then nothing but an enormous pine forest. Perhaps it was familial pressure - I can just hear those little voices piping up for the thousandth time from the back of the covered wagons, "Vati, wann kommen wir eigentlich an?!" It's a long way from Bavaria or wherever, who could blame them if they capitulated and once the trees were felled, homesteads established and pastures ploughed with true Germanic efficiency they turned their attention to matters civic and built roads, schools, churches, a post office and this being Houston after all, shops and restaurants. I have still to persuade anyone to accompany me to the Strack Family Diner on Steubner but I'm told the "Brats" (sausages, not kids) are well worth the visit. Our address may be the embarrassingly Hyacinth Bucketish "Royal Crest Court" but it does lead directly off the once very important Theiss Mail Route or Theez Mile Rowt as the locals insist on having it.

I also finally got round to seeing the film "Calendar Girls" in the company of my Royal Crest neighbour. It made me just a little bit homesick and on the way home my compnaion had two questions for me:

1) Did I know how to make a Victoria Sponge and if so, would I let her sample it some time? No problem!

2) Had I ever seen the Queen, you know, in a coach like in a parade or something?

You may be wondering here if you missed an appearance or reference to our Sovereign in the aforementioned film. I don't think so. What you have to understand is that discussion of anything British over here inevitably leads to only one thing, or person(age). And I'm afraid I had to disappoint. Racking my brains to see if I could claim a sighting of Tony Blair or some other lesser Royal, all I could come up with was that once, many years ago, in Scotland, a fellow holiday maker claimed to see a marked resemblance between the Duke of Edinburgh and my Dad. This slightly exaggerated notion met with a more gracious reception than those of you who knew my paterfamilias, self-proclaimed enemy of the Upper Classes, in particular those members who ever counted a coal mine amongst their assets, might expect and indeed, if I remember correctly, led to a certain amount of posturing (in gold button trimmed navy blue blazer and grey flannels) on the miniature golf circuit, thus affording my mother some rare, and no doubt much needed, moments of amusement.. Now there was a lady who would have had issues with "Calendar Girls". I don't know which aspect of the story line Mum would have found more problematic; the public baring of her own not inconsiderable assets, however worthy the cause, or the idea of buying a Victoria Sponge from M& S or anywhere else for that matter. If she could see me now....

Before I clog up your in boxes any further, I'll just quickly add that Brian is safely returned from a 14 day round trip to East Timor via Middletown, Amsterdam, Bali, Hong Kong and L A - an experience he is not anxious to repeat in the near future. Two daughters went to California but only one has returned - no prizes for guessing which one decided that life as a wage slave in Bethnal Green was no contest against the delights of San Francisco. The girls and I went Downtown late at night (I'm getting quite brave in my trusty Mountaineer) to investigate a new Open Mic venue where Daughter No 3 left them clamouring for more and I successfully resisted the advances of a semi-sub operator from New Zealand with no help at all from Daughter Number 2 who found the spectacle of her mother being chatted up by a bloke 6 inches and several years her inferior literally too amusing for words.

Love and best wishes,

Angela Finkelgruber Merchant

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