Monthly Archives: February 2009

The art of flushonomics

The problem with the credit crunch is that it either takes away your ability to savour the finer things in the life, or makes you feel guilty about enjoying them when you are savouring them. Whether the object of your affection is a rich and decadent chocolate cake or a sleek and sophisticated flat screen TV, it seems that even the vaguest suggestion of pleasure has to be consigned to the scrapheap these days for fear of what the neighbours will say.

Actually, while we’re on the subject, can I just complain about the phrase ‘credit crunch’? Rarely can one meaningless phrase have been repeated on so many occasions in such a short period of time. Indeed, I put you all on notice that if I hear that saying one more time, I may have to stick your liquidity crisis where the sun don’t shine.

Anyway, as I was saying, ostentation is out, and poverty is the new black. Or pink. Or whatever colour it is that’s apparently ‘in’ these days. We are quite literally in a race to the bottom, with people finding new ways to out-poor each other. In Manhattan, that means only having six eggs for breakfast – I know, the inhumane cruelty of this financial downturn.

But wherever you look, shops are having sales, restaurants are offering bargain menus, and people are taking more public transport than ever before. If this need to be seen to scrimp and save gets any worse, you can almost see city bosses considering a name change to Nearly New York.

There is one area, however, that New Yorkers – and indeed Americans in general – do not need to save any further. An item that has already been value-engineered down to the minimum possible level, and which would be rendered (even more) useless for its purpose by any further cost savings.

Because, to be honest, toilet paper in this country is – and please do excuse the pun – really crap. I had no idea that paper could be created as thin as toilet roll seems to be in this country – I probably used thicker tracing paper at school. It almost makes me nostalgic for the days of that scratchy shiny toilet paper that your grandmother used to put in outside loos; it may have removed six layers of skin every time you used it, but at least you didn’t get any embarrassing tear-related incidents on a regular basis.

It is easier to thread a super-sized McDonalds consumer through the eye of a needle than to find double-ply toilet roll in your local store. And rather than acting as a saving device, I’m convinced that American loo roll effectively costs you more, given that you have to fold it over at least thirteen times before you can create some kind of barrier that might give your hand a fighting chance of coming out unscathed.

I’m writing to the UN anyway. They’ve been looking for better ways of identifying how countries are developing, and I can see no better benchmark than the average thickness of a state’s toilet paper. You can have all the healthy water and trade surpluses you like, but if you can’t relieve yourself without fear of the consequences, you’re still in the third world as far as I’m concerned.

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Incredibly, it seems that I’ve reached my 300th post. How fitting that it was about a load of s**t. If you haven’t already – do add A Brit Out Of Water to your RSS feeds, follow me on Twitter, or just send me an email to say hello. If you read regularly and want to be added to the blogroll at the side, then drop me a line – the email address is in the (otherwise non-existent) ‘about section’.

But most of all, thank you for reading and (particularly) for commenting over the last eighteen months or so – it’s more appreciated than I can ever begin to tell you. Or more indeed than I ever would tell you. After all, I am British. You don’t expect me to express emotion, do you?

There’s honour among thieves

As a great philosopher once wrote, “we had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun.” Well to be honest, it was the Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel, but he sounds like a philosopher so that’s close enough for me. My suspicion – based admittedly on one trip to Antwerp nearly ten years ago – is that the Belgians know precious little about the sun, but being a Brit I’m probably in no position to argue.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, seasons. Seasons are one of those long-abandoned concepts that used to mean something, but have now been consigned to the dustbintrashcan of life, like Spangles, Cremola Foam and John Leslie. Or, if you’re an American, maybe Marathon bars, Shelley Long and ‘the respect of the rest of the world’. Although thankfully at least one of those appears to be making a long overdue comeback.

In terms of food though, seasons sadly seem to have vanished. As a kid, I used to eagerly look forward to the first strawberries of the year, or to the coming of tiny little Jersey Royal potatoes that tasted directly of the earth that they had come so recently from (thinking about it, it have been that taste principle that prevented me from ever eating the rhubarb that grew over the septic tank in the garden of my Little Chef Cousins). Everything had a time of year, and there was nothing you could do but await its arrival with the legendary patience of an 11 year old.

These days, there’s nothing you can’t find all year round, from tomatoes to asparagus. And to be honest, the world is probably a worse place because of it. The Special One and I are trying to do our own little bit to right the world back on its axis by trying to be locavores who only eat things grown within a certain distance of your home. Given that we live in New York and eat the occasional banana, tomato and avocado, we’ve pegged local as roughly “within 3000 miles” for the purpose of our experiment. After all, we’d have no friends left if we only cooked butternut squash and beetroot for five months of every year.

With California having ruined the concept of the plant world’s season, the United States has co-opted the word ‘season’ for many other things that Brits never seem to use. In Britain, the only non-climate related use of the word season is essentially a reference to the eleven and a half month cycle in which footballsoccer is played. In America, you’re never short of seasons, from the collective noun for a series of TV shows to the period of time when the Oscars, Golden Globes and Grammys take place (‘awards season’, obviously). Although in sports, it’s less about the season and all about the post-season (if you’re a Liverpool fan reading this, the post-season is the point during the year at which you look back and realise you haven’t won the league again).

Walking into the subway the other day, I noticed an LCD sign urging me to keep my jewellery safe. Having quickly taken off all my bling and stashed it in my bag, I read on. Apparently this time of year is “chain snatching season” and people need to be more aware of the risk of having your necklace snatched from around your neck while travelling on the subway system.

Criminals are clearly so much more civilised in America. To provide the best possible service to victims everywhere, they have obviously created a season system in which particular consumer products are targeted at specific times of the year. You always know where you are that way. It’s my guess that chain snatching season ends in a few weeks, to be replaced by the umbrella grabbing season. And by the time the sun is out, we’ll all be able to sit back and bask in the joy of plain old honest-to-goodness purse stealing season.

I can only hope that criminals who don’t stick to the season system are thrown out of the Thieves Union. After all, nobody wants their iPod targeted when portable music device nicking season has just finished, and the briefcase purloining season has just begun, do they?

How to know everything there is to know

One thing that makes a New Yorker stand out from the crowd is their absolute stubborn refusal to accept that they could ever be wrong. You could be an undisputed world expert in a particularly obscure field of quantum physics, and yet you would still find a New York street cleaner who’d be more than happy to pick a quarrel with you regarding your chosen specialism. And don’t even think about chancing your arm in an argument with a New Yorker over a topic they think they might know something about. Like coffee, swearing, or honking your car horn when it’s least necessary.

The necessary adjunct is that if you’re never going to be wrong, then you need to know everything. Luckily New Yorkers aren’t shy in proclaiming their knowledge of anything and indeed everything. Google is good, but if you really need to get an answer, then you need a New Yorker. You may not get the right answer, but you’ll get it with a hell of a lot of conviction.

I’m lucky that – in the shape of The Special One (who has been resident in New York for around 20 years) – I live with the world’s leading expert on absolutely everything. It’s like living with a living breathing encyclopedia, albeit one that occasionally makes the kind of claims that make Wikipedia look like the font of all knowledge. There is literally nothing that she doesn’t know the answer to, whether it’s the identity of the 1946 FA Cup winners or the colour of the pants I’m wearing right now. And woe betide you if you dare even timidly question her belief that it was a) the Birmingham Raiders and b) neon pink.

Just occasionally though, it would be great if a New Yorker could put their hand up in the air and say “you know, maybe I am not the all-seeing one.”

On Saturday, I went to a local dry cleaners to pick up some clothes that had languished there for about five weeks; what can I say, I always like to test out their policy on how long they keep clothes. Anyway, as I walked in, a clearly frantic young woman was stood at the counter with a white silk Armani top laid out on the counter. The owner, a Chinese man who from previous experience has good but limited English, stood patiently as the woman pointed out some stains that had accidentally found their way onto the top.

Now, there are two things to say about these stains. Firstly, from where I was standing (which was pretty close), I couldn’t see even one. Secondly, there was not a single place on the blouse that she did not indicate had a stain on it. The owner looked on in disbelief as she urged him to place a ‘stain’ sticker on around forty seven different positions. According to her, the top was less ‘blouse’ and more ‘all over stain carrier’.

Having indicated all the stains, the desperate woman asked if there was any chance that the dry cleaning was going to make the stains any worse. Given that the entire top was apparently stained, I don’t know whether she thought that the dry cleaner was going to pour a gallon of crude oil on top of it, but that seems to be the only way that he could have made it worse.

Once the woman had finally accepted that the owner had at least seen all the stains, she then asked whether he thought that they would all come out. The owner insisted that they would.

“But why do you think they’ll come out?” she bleated.

“Because it’s the dry cleaning. All the stains will come out,” he insisted.

“But what makes you say that?”

“They’ll come out, I really think.”

“But what makes you think that they’ll come out?”

“The dry cleaning process will just get the stains out.”

“But what makes you say that?”

The woman turned to me, smiled awkwardly, and gave me the conspiratorial look that says something along the lines of “this guy just isn’t really getting what I’m saying, is he?”

Finally my indignation at her became too much, and I snapped “it’s because he’s the expert at dry cleaning, and you’re not.”

The woman turned back to the man, took her ticket, and stomped out. To be fair, she slammed the door like a complete expert.

A very male kind of illness

I’m rarely very ill. In more than fifteen years of working, I’ve probably had no more than twenty days off sick. That’s not to say that I don’t get sick at all – it’s just that I’m likely to drag myself into work despite various aches and pains, in some kind of martyr-ish attempt to prove that I’m either Superman, or a leading contender for the two luncheon vouchers (or subscription to Anglers Monthly) on offer for the employee of the month.

Of course in reality I’m no superhero. To be around me when I’m not feeling very well is to truly know sorrow. Not my sorrow, I hasten to add – just the aching sense of misery brought on by watching the melodramatic whining of somebody who is old enough to know better. The reason I’m not ill very often is that mankind (and more to the point these days, The Special One) wouldn’t tolerate the inhuman moaning that I can muster in response to, say, a paper cut.

The strange thing is that when I feel vaguely ill, it’s almost as if I step out of my own body. Not in a ‘moving closer to the light’ kind of way, although by the groans of perceived pain coming from me, you could easily be confused into believing that I might be on the verge of death. Instead, I’m just able to hear myself complaining about my latest malady and inwardly wonder why I’m making such a fuss about nothing.

The last few days I’ve been genuinely ill, with my body performing all manner of emergency evacuation procedures in an attempt to get rid of toxins brought on by a stomach flu. The bathroom has been my near permanent home, and I was virtually nil by mouth for 36 hours. I felt pretty bad, I have to admit. But I’m sure the consistency and voraciousness of my vocalised pain was such that alarmed passers-by would have been convinced that I was having my wedding tackle sliced at with Samurai swords every five minutes.

I’ve come to the realisation that it’s not the pain that upsets me though. Instead it’s just the fact that I – and most American residents, to be fair – only get to take five days off sick per year before they cease to be paid for their time away from the office.

Don’t get me wrong, I have never once taken off five sick days in any year of my career. I could probably be given five days for every two years and still not use them up. But it’s the principle. In Britain, I always had the comfort of knowing that I could be off for four days in a row at any point without even needing a doctor’s note to explain my absence. Find yourself struck down with a four day illness in the US, and you’re suddenly taking every preventative treatment known to man in an attempt to ensure that you can afford to pay your rent.

I’m thinking about fighting for some kind of constitutional amendment enshrining the inalienable right to sickness. If the powers-that-be don’t agree, I’ll threaten to step up my moaning every time I get even slightly ill. That’ll get them on the back foot, I promise you.

Reasons why America is great (part 5 of a series)

You know me as a sophisticated Brit about town, so it may shock you to learn that I didn’t live in a (permanent) home that had a purpose built shower until I was in my 30s. Sure, there were the grim shower blocks at university, or the occasional “shower attached to the tapsfaucet” that would suddenly fall apart at the slightest wrong touch as you grappled for your soap-on-a-rope. But on the whole, my formative years were all spent in the bath. Well, the moments when I was washing myself, at least. I tried turning up for a job interview in a small tin bath once, but needless to say, they weren’t impressed.

I’ve always loved a bath, I have to admit. Whether playing as a kid among the suds provided by Mr Matey (that’s the bubble bath,  I hasten to add, not the nickname for that dodgy bloke who you might see hanging around the school fieldyard at hometime), or just soaking after a rare bout of exercise, the bath has been an ultimate source of comfort and joy.

Of course, it’s also been a right pain in the arseass. I once lived in Southfields in South-West London, in a basement apartment that was described by estate agents as a spacious garden flat. What they failed to mention was that it was actually the coldest space in London, with no real need for a fridge other than as a means to warm up. With no shower, my morning ritual in the winter started with a frantic run from my bed to turn the gas fire on, before hurtling back to the bed to get back under the covers to melt the icicles that were now hanging from my extremities. A few minutes later, I’d sprint to the bathroom, and desperately turn on the hot water tap in the bath, before urging my by-now-calcified toes to propel me back to my bed for another brief respite from the Arctic conditions. Finally, if my hands were not already blocks of ice, I’d summon up all my courage, run back to the bathroom, and sit sobbing uncontrollably in the bath for a few minutes as I attempted to wash my hair before the water froze solid around me.

Not the most relaxing start to a day, I have to admit.

Since leaving that flatapartment, I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a bath again. The thing is that despite more than thirty years of bathing, once I switched to the shower it became practically impossible to go back. I mean, who’s going to willingly switch from the get-in get-out nature of the shower to the “swimming in your own dirt” style of the bath? Yes yes, I know that you can put sweet smelling salts and rose petals in a bath and luxuriate in it with a glass of wine. But it may have escaped your notice that I am a man, and even being in the same room as some lavender is enough reason to be chucked out of the men’s union. No, I’m a shower man through and through these days, and no amount of products from Lush or Kiehl’s will change me.

It was only upon moving to the United States though that it dawned upon me that I had actually never previously had a proper shower at all. Because when it comes down to it, showers in the UK are less shower, and more damp squib.

Oh sure, British showers will do everything as advertised – get you clean, and rinse all the soap off you. But it’s essentially a dull trickle of water that you move around in an attempt to get wet. There are exceptions, of course, but if you want power in your shower, you have to come to America.

Only the American shower will almost knock you off your feet with its sheer ferocity, pinning you up against the wall of the bathroom and threatening to drive a hole deep into your heart within a matter of minutes. US showers are like the skin’s equivalent of sand-blasting, stripping off extraneous layers of skin, and leaving you looking shiny and new underneath. Or red and blotchy if you got a little bit too close, obviously.

Power showers in Britain will get shampoo out of your hair in ten minutes. Power showers in the US will get the hair out of your head in ten seconds. Power showers in Britain will wake you up gently. Power showers in the US will come into your room, drag you kicking and screaming out of your bed, slam you against the doors of the shower, and insult your grandmother.

Keep your baths, I’ve got my shower and I’m sticking to it. I may not have much skin left, but it’s got to be better than developing wrinkles

Baby you can park my car

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Americans are obsessed with their cars. Having recently flown cross-country to Los Angeles, it’s not hard to see why. Popping next door for a cup of sugar must be a whole different kettle of fish when your closest neighbour lives thirty miles away. Of course, abject fear of walking doesn’t help either. After all, most LA residents think that legs were made for making sure that your torso doesn’t drag on the floor.

When you admit in public that you haven’t driven for fourteen years, you get the kind of look reserved for hired cat assassins. And that’s just from The Special One, I can tell you. People who don’t know me attempt to get words out of their mouths but eventually just give up and walkdrive off.

The problem is that I was never the world’s greatest driver in the first place. As I’ve said before, I spectacularly failed my driving test first time out. What I neglected to mention was that even the second time I took it, I was lucky to get away with a pass. After all, a three foot skid on your emergency stop is never designed to impress the examiners.

Anyway, I’ve come to terms with being a social leper now. And to be fair, New York is probably the one city in the States where you can definitely get away without a car. It’s clearly disappointing that I’m excluded from the merry-go-round fun when everybody has to move their cars at certain points in the week to allow the roads to be cleaned (and to avoid getting fined in the process). But it’s a disappointment I’m prepared to endure for the sake of my own sanity, and for the security of drivers and pedestrians across the city.

Outside New York, dealing with drivers is a vital task for businesses that rely on a high turnover of customers, but which don’t have access to huge on-site car parksparking lots. In high traffic areas, certain places know that their patrons won’t bother turning up if they find it impossible to park. So they make the problem disappear by offering to park the car for them – for a small fee, of course.

Valet parking is an essential part of restaurant life, and most swanky hotels offer the service too. In Los Angeles, it seems that every second place offers you the chance to put your keys into the hands of somebody you’ve never met and watch them drive off with your pride and joy. In New York they call that process a mugging.

That said, the further away from Manhattan you get, the more likely you are to find valet parking an option. Here in Bay Ridge, plenty of restaurants will happily park your car for you, and I’ve even seen the option at babywear shops.

It’s all about competitive advantage I guess. And maybe with the current recession, we’ll see even more businesses begin to offer to park your car, if only to make their service stand out from the crowd. Infact, I think that process has already begun. Last night on my walk home, I saw a man step out of his car and hand his keys over to a smartly dressed young man who immediately took his place and drove the car around the corner to join another thirty or so crammed into a small space at the side of the premises. But what was the place, I wondered as I looked for a sign? A new restaurant, or a bed and breakfast inn maybe?

No, it was the local funeral parlour, welcoming friends and family to a viewing.

Next it’ll be drive-thru weddings, mark my words.

The big breakfast. Or lunch.

I’ve never really got the point of brunch, to be honest. For a start, I’m no fan of breakfast, despite the impassioned pleas of around three quarters of the people I’ve ever met who insist that it’s the most important meal of the day and I might die at the age of 54 if I don’t start eating it immediately. The idea of getting up and stuffing my face full of processed grain products or ill-disguised cake with syrup doesn’t fill me with joy, and it’s generally about 10am before I remember that I should probably at least have a cup of tea or coffee.

Long-term readers will rightly point out that I love a bacon buttysandwich, but given that I would eat bacon every hour of the day if given half a chance (and a spare heart), I think we can simply regard it as the exception that proves the rule.

The corollary to my dislike of breakfast though is that by the middle of the day I’m starving, and duly lunch is probably my favourite meal of the day. Whether it’s sandwiches at my desk, or a lazy weekend meal with friends, I love taking stock of the day so far over some good food. Especially if it involves bacon, obviously.

To me therefore, brunch is a meal that looks like breakfast, contains far too many eggs for its own good, and robs me of the opportunity to have lunch. It is literally the worst of both worlds. Admittedly the bloody mary or the bucks fizzmimosa can occasionally take my mind off my internal anguish, but it’s still a meal I could do without.

The exception is ‘the hotel brunch’ – a weird and extravagantly (some would say obnoxiously) lavish buffet-based meal on a Sunday that can draw people from miles around if it gains a good reputation. The one essential rule about the hotel brunch is that it is legally required to include every single foodstuff ever grown or invented. A guest finding any category of food missing is entitled to eat free of charge in the hotel for the next year, and can take home as many tiny bottles of hotel shampoo and body wash as they can fit into their oversized pockets.

At a Los Angeles brunch yesterday, I could take my choice from the usual breakfast choices of (made to order) eggs and omelettes, breakfast meats, eight different cheeses, sushi, dumplings, roast lamb, roast beef, ham, fruits, chocolate desserts pizza, chicken nuggetstenders, sliced vegetables, pork buns, waffles, ham and cheese sandwiches, peach crumblecrisp, stir fried chicken with cashew nuts, numerous breads, and many other things that I couldn’t quite see because of the dozens of people surrounding the tables as chefs prepped, sliced, cooked and served.

I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never eaten eel sushi and stilton on the same plate, and certainly not at 11 in the morning, but somehow it seemed to work. I was so mesmerised that I walked out without my coat and only remembered about it this morning as I was en route to the airport.

It’s no exaggeration to say that a few thousand people could have eaten from all the food on display, which was being constantly replenished. As it was, there were probably around 400 people in attendance, and hopefully they found some good homeless shelter for the rest of it. I’m not sure whether ‘potstickers with sweet chili sauce’ is necessarily the food of choice for the down-and-out, but then again I’m not sure that the Beverly Hills authorities don’t chase the homeless out of the area with pitchforks each morning, so maybe it’s not an issue…

Will humankind ever learn?

I’ve always been a little bit superstitious, for some reason. To be fair, I’d like to think that I’m just easily suggestible, and that the people around me have lured me into their shadowy lair of hocus pocus claptrap done in the name of good luck. Nevertheless, my lack of backbone leads to me doing all manner of silly things in an attempt to ensure that good fortune shines on me.

When I was a kid, my grandmother always insisted that I say ‘white rabbits’ on the first day of the month, if I was to have good luck for the next four weeks. If ‘white rabbits’ wasn’t the first thing I said that day, then a quick chant of ‘white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits’ was apparently a manual override of the bad luck that would ensue. Good fortune’s version of being given lines at school, I guess.

Whenever I go to Manchester to see eleven men in red kick a football around, The Best Man always insists that we walk up the furthest staircase of four to our Old Trafford seats, for fear that United will lose if we don’t stick with tradition. I have seen them win, lose and draw when following this policy, yet despite knowing that it doesn’t work, I still stick to it even if The Best Man isn’t with me.

And I always put my left sock on before my right one, after meeting a wise old man in India who insisted that I would have a long and prosperous life if I maintained this early morning devotion. OK, that’s a lie – I’ve never even been to India, let alone developed a sock donning habit – but I reckon I’d be susceptible if anybody came up with even a half-compelling story about why I should do it.

The strange thing is, I don’t believe in much of the made-up nonsensestuff that many people avidly follow. I don’t read my horoscopes, I don’t think that tarot cards or tea leaves are a harbinger to my future, and I’m certainly not a church-goer. Hell, I don’t even believe in the stupid superstitions I have, but I still do them just in case my life turns to one giant pile of mush if for some reason I stop.

On this basis, I think I have discovered the root of America’s current economic woes. As every British child knows, it is absolutely imperative that all evidence of Christmas decorations be removed from your house by the evening of the 5th of January (or Twelfth Night, as it is more commonly known). I know it’s linked to Candlemas or Epiphany or some other such blah blah blah, but all I know is that if there’s a single trace of tinsel hanging up after the 5th, then a plague descends on your house, and all your worldly possessions turn into celery. Or beetroot. Definitely one or the other.

It’s a rule we stuck to rigidly when I was a kid, and my life has been pretty damn good so far. Indeed, such has my commitment been to the Twelfth Night principle, that in the last years of living alone, I didn’t even put decorations up for fear that I would somehow forget the 5th and I’d come home to find that my TV had been transformed into a root vegetable.

Here in the US, they don’t care. We’re now in early February, and most nights as I walk home I see a Christmas tree or two sitting forlornly in the gutter having finally had its two month stay in some household or other brutally terminated. Is it any wonder that the economy has gone to hell in a handcart given this slovenly approach to the fundamental traditions that make this world tick?

They can talk about subprime mortgages until they’re blue in the face, but herein lies the root of the financial crisis. If you walk past the old offices of Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual or Bear Stearns, I bet you’ll see a Christmas tree in their lobby. Sure, its lights may be blinking merrily, but that’s just the tree sending a message to the other trees around it.

“Sit tight lads,” it’s saying. “Seems like they’ve forgotten the Twelfth Night rule. We’ll be running this place before you know it.”

Public displays of affection

I can’t help but love the story of the British government flying the Union Jack the wrong way up at the signing of a trade agreement with China. It’s the kind of Basil Fawlty-esque commitment to getting things ever so slightly wrong that marks the UK out from the rest of the world.

Actually, it’s perhaps not surprising that nobody’s quite sure which way the flag should go, given that the last few years have seen the flag’s importance to the nation diminish slightly. With dubious right wing factions effectively purloining the Union Jack for their anti-immigration and – let’s face it – racist views, flying a British flag has become less and less common.

In contrast, if ‘loving flags’ was an Olympic sport, the United States would be the undisputed gold medallist every single time. If there’s a city block in New York that doesn’t have a single Stars & Stripes on it, I am yet to see it. From bumper stickers to billboard sized enormoflags, America loves to wave its charms in the air (and wave ’em like it just don’t care, I hasten to add).

But for some people, it seems, the Stars & Stripes just isn’t a great enough commitment to the holy principle of flag flying. Certain folk have obviously decided that they’re not truly making use of their fundamental right to pin their colours to the mast if they’re only flying the American flag.

At least, that’s the only explanation I can think of for the fact that walking around my neighbourhood last night, I saw at least five banners on poles outside homes, proudly proclaiming “Happy Valentines Day”.

Now, last time I looked, St Valentines Day was a private thing between two people who love each other. Sure, you might make some grand public gesture (although the sight of one person proposing to another on a giant screen at a sports game is enough to cause me involuntary wretching), but essentially February 14th is a reminder to tell your nearest and dearest that you love them rather than giving your postmanmailman, pizza delivery person and general passers-by a virtual smooch. Obviously, you haven’t seen the guy who lives opposite us, but rest assured that the last thing I want him doing is getting the wrong idea.

Clearly Hallmark et al have tired of creating new holidays, and have decided to expand into flag creation. Next thing you know, people will be unfurling ‘Have a great funeral!’ flags, or ‘Happy Administrative Professional Day’ banners outside their homes.

Rumours that a special bong-shaped flag is being worked on for Michael Phelps’ London 2012 campaign could not be confirmed at time of going to press.

And next on the agenda…

I have a new obsession. Some people get caught up with endless musing on Heidi Klum or Brad Pitt. Others take to hobbies from skateboarding to knitting like ducks to water, and spend many an hour boring friends on their latest jump or – erm – stitch. And some become couch potatoes, frantically racing home from the office in order to tune into the latest crime scene or cop show (I could just save you the bother – the culprit’s always the nice friend who you saw briefly in the third scene).

But none of those are for me. After all, I’m all about the TV box sets these days, and it’d probably take me four years to knit a scarf that went around Action ManGI Joe’s neck. Instead, I’ve discovered community meetings.

As far as I’m concerned, there are two types of meeting. There’s the community gathering around to take decisive action for the improvement of all, and those meetings and collectives can can be pretty inspiring. Indeed, I’m (relatively) active in one such group, to bring a food coop to the part of Brooklyn in which I live.

In terms of real entertainment value though, you have to go to the events where the people who don’t otherwise get to talk much in life get let off their leash. These gatherings generally have a vague theme, whether it’s security in the neighbourhood or environmental concerns. But essentially they turn into an ill-disguised competition in which the participants attempt to make the most tangential leap between the topic at hand, and the subject that they want to talk about. In other words, if you go to some kind of forum on improving public transport, you will almost certainly end up listening to a 30 minute diatribe on how the penne arrabbiata at the local Italian has gone downhill since Giuseppe left. To be fair, he left on a bus, but that’s hardly the point.

Then there’s the person who is prepared to stick to the topic, but wants to dissect the most trivial point in enough depth to write a thesis. The effectiveness of the subway system is an important topic to most New Yorkers; whether the word “Metro Card” appears in blue or green on your weekly pass, not so much.

And don’t forget the person who speaks with incredible authority but actually doesn’t know a single thing that he or she is talking about. I can listen to those people for hours, as they make outlandish claims after outlandish claim, as if they’ve taken a bet to see who can make the most ridiculous suggestion in a public setting. As a result, I’m now well-versed in concealing my laughter/anger/astonishment* (*delete as appropriate) behind literature collected at the door, as if I’m paying particularly close attention or taking notes.

It’s an obsession I need to get under control before it gets out of hand. If I’m not careful, I’ll find myself infiltrating young Republican gatherings, just to hear their views on climate change. And no amount of paper infront of my mouth will save me then.

Perhaps it’s time to take up knitting after all?