Dancing With The “Stars”

Having your cultural references surgically removed when you become an expat can be fairly wearing. If ever I watch television with The Special One, I spend most of my time apologizing for not knowing that the guy from CSI: Milwaukee was actually the former star of the hilarious CBS sitcom Three Women & A Toaster back in the 80s. Obviously I retaliate by trying to get her to name every vet in All Creatures Great & Small, but then she snorts with derision and mutters something under her breath about calling her tennis coach.

Anyway, given that my knowledge of D-List American ‘stars’ is marginally worse than my understanding of avant-garde Ukrainian crochet work from 1951-53, watching celebrity-based reality TV shows is about as enticing as a double date dinner with Tiger Woods and his wife. Infact, even just watching the trailers can be confusing for me, as I discovered this weekend when I saw an ad for the new series of Dancing With The Stars (the American, Bruce Forsyth-less adaptation of Strictly Come Dancing).

Don’t get me wrong, some people I know. I mean, there’s probably not a person alive who hasn’t heard of Pamela Anderson, although I’m starting to believe she might be more famous these days for her – erm – live action self-directed short films than for her glory days on Baywatch. Obviously Nicole Scherzinger is a Pussycat Doll, although a) I wouldn’t have been able to pick her out of a police line-up if it hadn’t been for the fact that she dated a British racing driver, and b) making up a silly surname does not automatically guarantee you fame. I also have to confess that in the early 1990s, I had a bit of a thing for Brenda from Beverly Hills 90210, and so the appearance of Shannon Doherty in the show would at least provide me with the opportunity to tell The Special One that I only married her because she too came from Tennessee.

Buzz Aldrin. Yes, that Buzz Aldrin. Even if we put aside the fact that he must be 97 by now (and that zimmer frame is going to be tough to swing around in a show about ballroom dancing), did Buzz really need to do this? I mean, seriously Buzz? I know you’re still upset that that Amrstrong bloke beat you in an arm wrestle for the right to be first on the moon, but is making a fool of yourself on national TV going to take away that pain?

As for the rest of the sorry bunch, I was initially lost for words. This Brit Out Of Water doesn’t give up without a fight though, so I quickly scribbled down their names, and have finally managed to work out what brought them to our TV screens.

Chad Ochocinco
Born and raised in Bad Axe, Michigan, Ochocinco (real name: Bill Perkins) is the inventor of the Sham Wow cleaning cloth. He officially changed his name three years ago, to reflect the number of different uses he claims his miracle cloth can be put to. Chad Eightyfive clearly wasn’t catchy enough for him. Became the subject of a controversy last year when federal consumer experts claimed that they were unable to find more than one use for the Sham Wow, and “even that doesn’t work very well.”

Aiden Turner
One half of the hit country combo, “Turner & Hooch”. Guitarist Turner met former flight attendant Holly Hooch in 1987, on a trip to Denver, marrying her three days later after a whirlwind Makers Mark-inspired romance. The pair began performing on stage together the following year, and are perhaps best known for the 1993 hit “You Caught Me Looking At Your Cupcakes”. The pair split in 2005, after Turner took a flight alone and was given a much-publicized ‘upgrade’ in the cabin’s rear galley by a blonde former colleague of Hooch’s.

Erin Andrews
The former Miss Poughkeepsie was stripped of her title when she was found stealing Chupa Chups from the supply cupboard of her paediatrician’s office. The “Beauty Star Steals Candy From The Babies” headlines forced pageant organizers to strip Andrews of her title, and prompted Andrews into a tearful mea culpa on Larry King. Andrews claimed to have developed a forty-a-day lollipop habit after the death of her beloved dog Francis in 2008.

Evan Lysacek
Star of the hit NBC comedy “Up Against The Wall”, Lysacek has perhaps the most irritating voice in sitcom history – quite an achievement in a field that includes The Nanny, and that woman from Will & Grace. Last year, Lysacek became the public face of Clorox’s multi-purpose cleaning sprays, although rumours abound that he is shortly to be replaced by Daphne from Frasier.

Niecy Nash
Until last year, Nash was the senior Republican senator for Utah, winning a landslide 2005 election running under the slogan “Niecy and Easy”. He narrowly avoided indictment on corruption charges after using public funds to put his son through culinary school, and was swept out of office after more than one million people joined the “Not So Niecy After All” group on Facebook.

Jake Pavelka
The Atlanta Braves catcher, who fought a very public battle with alcoholism. After one particularly heavy drinking session, Pavelka still managed to hit a triple in a key play off game against the Chicago Cubs, but ran the wrong way around the diamond to end up only making first base. Pavelka is now the poster child for Budweiser’s no-alcohol beer “Clear” (slogan: Even Less Tasty Than Bud Light).

Kate Gosselin
One time labour and delivery nurse who – not happy with having already had twins – turned to fertility treatment in her to have more kids, and ended up with sextuplets. Her and her husband – let’s call him “Jon” – then sell their souls to a television network in order to get some cold hard cashvaluable exposure for the struggles of parents with eight kids. Five years later, Kate and Jon split up, and their story was plastered over the cover of entertainment titles for approximately three years.

Yeah, alright, the last one was a bit far-fetched, wasn’t it?

The permanent marker

I’ve never really understood tattoos. I find it hard enough to commit to a month long metrocard, so the thought of being permanently branded with the kind of illustration that most people gave up drawing when they were sixteen fills me with fear and dread. The fact that you pay through the nose for it, it hurts like hell, and you can only get rid of it by having your flesh roasted like a nice piece of pork belly is neither here nor there.

For some reason, however, it appears that my deeply-held opinion is of little interest to the vast majority of Americans. Hard though that is to believe. Federal legislation passed shortly after MC Hammer’s brief flirtation with success demand that anybody wishing to have a hit is required to have at least one strap tattoo in order to be eligible for chart entry. And if you’re in the grip of a midlife crisis, but can’t afford a Ferrari (or the child support payments when your wife finds out about your affair with Mindy, the pneumatic blonde from the local hardware store), a tattoo is the choice du jour. Because, as we all know, tattoos look really great the older you get.

One thing I’ve noticed though is that women have tattoos in vastly greater numbers in New York than they do in London.

I’m not talking about the tiny pictures of hearts, snakes or stars that some women pick to decorate their lower back, shoulder or posterior. These are, after all, the bank charges of the body decoration world – mostly kept hidden until it’s way too late to avoid them. I’m not sure why these people don’t just buy a nice new piece of jewellery instead, thereby avoiding spending an hour in the company of a Hell’s Angel named Barry. But each to their own. I’m sure Barry’s actually a really nice guy who genuinely loves his mummom.

No, I’m talking the full-on murals that probably took a team of seasoned painters and decorators six days working around the clock to pull off. The kind of design that would make Sandra Bullock start sharpening her newly-bought collection of kitchen knives. No piffling stars or hearts here – just increasingly elaborate designs that suggest the work of a troubled youth who had run out of space to doodle and picked on the next available material that came to hand.

Favorite designs that I’ve seen on the ladies of New York include the complicated tattoo necklace (I presume she had alternative skin available for the times that the necklace didn’t accessorise properly with her outfit), and a frankly inexplicable design on the back of both knees. Although nothing really beats the trailing ivy that sloped from one woman’s foot, all the way up her leg. The fact that the shrubbery appeared to emerge from between two toes, implicitly suggesting that the ivy had incubated in some kind of fungal growth, clearly was of no concern to her.

Thankfully, some New York women take a much more practical view of tattoos. Taking the subway home last night, I witnessed a woman whose back of her hand featured three tattooed boxes, each a quarter inch in size. I pondered deeply on the strange simplicity of the design. Could it be some reaffirmation of the power of three, or a symbolic representation of the father, the son and the holy ghost? Or maybe she was simply halfway through the eventual design, with the initials of a loved one soon to appear within the boxes, maybe in an unnecessarily elaborate brush script?

Then ten minutes into the journey, she took out a pen and scribbled ‘pick up dry cleaning’ next to one of the boxes. In New York, it would appear that romances come and go, but checklists are truly forever.

Life’s too short to hate (or is it?)

One of the joys of fatherhood – whether as a stepfather or as a natural parent – is the opportunity to see the world with a fresh pair of eyes. I may well be world-weary even at my age, but even something that has become the norm for you can become truly exciting again when you’re introducing a child to a whole new experience.

As a result, my elder daughter – The Artist Formerly Known As The Youngest – and I found ourselves in a Thai restaurant yesterday evening, getting some much needed food ahead of a trip to Madison Square Gardens to see Alicia Keys perform live in concert.

The interesting thing about spending any amount of time alone with a 12 year old is that the conversation has a weird ebb and flow to it. For a few minutes you might sit in absolute silence as you desperately cast around for topics that might be of interest to you both. Then once you hit paydirt, you suddenly find that you can’t get a word in edgeways for half an hour, as a stream of consciousness is unleashed upon you and anyone within a 60 yard radius. And then silence again.

During one of these conversational ‘tirades’ last night, my daughter brought up the topic of hate, saying that she doesn’t understand why some people say that hate is too strong an emotion. She then proceeded to string together a list that may have included everything from her third grade teacher through to the socio-economic policies of the autocratic regimes of Central Africa. I wasn’t on the hate list, I’m happy to say, although that may simply have been a pragmatic approach on her part, prompted by my decision not to give her the concert ticket ahead of time.

Anyway, if I’d have managed to jam a metaphorical foot into her conversational door in order to squeeze a sentence in, I’d have said that I agree with those people who don’t have any time for hate. But then I realized that there is just one thing that drives me mad to the point of loathing – something that makes me angry whenever I see it, almost to the point where I feel like taking decisive physical action to remedy the situation.

Because, dear reader, violence against books just isn’t acceptable.

I grew up worshipping books – eagerly devouring every last page and twist of everything from the Secret Seven and the Roald Dahl books, to Agatha Christie and even Jeffrey Archer. And so sacred did all books become to me that I couldn’t even bear to break the spine, let alone deface them in any other way. I used to read books with the pages only as far apart as would be allowed by my thumb being wedged in at the bottom. Oh hell, what am I talking about – I still read books that way. No folded corners, no creases in the cover, and I always make sure to pick up the book that’s about six from the front in the bookshop, just so that it’s as flat as possible.

Obsessive-compulsive? Moi?

The Special One, incidentally, has a completely different view. She naively believes that books are there to be enjoyed. If she’s even in the same room as a book, its spine will crack spontaneously, in fear of the numerous pains that she is about to inflict on its pages. I wince in agony as she flattens the book completely with the palm of her hand, or leaves it splayed open while she goes off in search of a late-night snack. Hurt a book, and you are hurting me.

Recently though, I’ve noticed that more and more New Yorkers seem to be writing in their books. Maybe I’m just coming across more students, but it seems that the primary use for a biroballpoint pen these days is to scrawl copious notes (generally in green, I like to think) in otherwise beautiful and pristine books. Underlinings, rambling notes, and even doodles I’ve seen recently – is nothing truly sacrosanct these days? I’m thinking of starting a campaign for a legislative change which would allow any book being used in such a way to be snatched from the holder’s hand by any passing stranger. Watch out New York, the Book Police are in town.

Suffice to say that I managed to put aside my hatred for the course of last night’s concert, and a good time was had by all. The Artist Formerly Known As The Youngest burst into tears when Alicia Keys introduced Beyonce, and shrieked at the top of her voice when Jay-Z came on stage at the end.

She must have learned how to scream from seeing me shortly after her mother has picked up a book, that’s for sure.

A spot of admin

I’ve just realised that I haven’t actually updated my blogroll for about two years, which means it’s as out of control as my bikini line. There are many of you who comment here regularly whose blog isn’t listed, so if you’re missing and you’d like to be included, either leave a comment here or else drop me an email.

And yes, for the easily bored, this is the first blog post of mine that has ever come in at under 100 words. Move along now, nothing to see here.

Top secret dossier: how kids are saving the world

Irrational irritation is something I do well. You may have noticed. After all, there is no reason why the two people managing to take up an entire hallway and preventing anyone from passing should really annoy me. Getting past them might save me three seconds on my journey to wherever I’m going. And to be honest, I’m probably only heading to buy a packet of crispschips in the first place.

I try to pretend to family and friends that I’m as laid back as Hong Kong Phooey’s mild mannered janitor alter-ego. But just beneath the surface is a raging firebrand capable of getting annoyed at the drop of a hat. And, being a parent to two high school kids, let me tell you that there’s plenty of material to keep me in furrowed brows for many a long year to come.

Now obviously, I was a pure angel when I was a kid growing up back in the UK. I said all my please’s and thank you’s, brushed my teeth, helped out around the house, and never once complained when we had to walk fourteen miles to school in the wind and the snow. With no shoes. Or clothes.

My saintliness clearly makes me ideally positioned to comment on the weaknesses of American youth, I’m sure you’ll agree. The fact is that I never wanted to be the kind of person who would be easily irritated with the actions of kids. And indeed, most of the time I try to keep a lid on it. But to my great shame, there used to be certain things that would be guaranteed to drive me to distraction.

Until, that is, I learned that American youngsters are aware of certain laws of the universe that only affect those under 16; where previously I thought that their actions were designed to annoy, I now understand that they are just trying to save themselves, their family and – indeed – the universe, from eternal harm. These include:

1. The nuclear toilet
When the Cold War was at its height, a crack team of maverick US scientists gathered together a few miles outside Pike View, Kentucky, to discuss ways of creating a ‘self destruct’ button for the United States, should it ever be taken over by the Russians. The method they conceived would astonish the world.

Having infiltrated the factories of American Standard, the boffins managed to ensure that each and every toilet installed in US homes was capable of bringing about a nuclear winter of its own under certain conditions. The task force quickly decided that adults couldn’t be trusted with the instructions for detonation, so they instead recruited fifteen year old boys as their agents of destruction.

At its most basic, the plan works something like this. If a fifteen year old boy ever flushes a toilet, then the nuclear toilet device is automatically armed. If the child then fails to pee all over the seat, the weapon will destruct within five minutes. Some of the more modern devices are a little less sensitive, and will allow the agent to pee all over the floor as an alternative safety mechanism.

2. Job creation lighting
One of the less publicized elements of the economic stimulus act that was brought into force over a year ago was the formulation of PABS, or – to give it its full title – Powering America By Squirrels. The bottom simply fell out of squirrel training when the credit crunch hit, and the creation of job opportunities for squirrels and their mentors became a central issue on the campaign trail in some key swing states such as West Virginia and Ohio.

As a result when he came to power, President Obama decreed that large battalions of squirrels should be formed, and that they be trained to operate miniature canoes hooked up to dynamos, which in turn provide power to the national grid.

So successful has the campaign been that some trainers have become fat cats off the earnings, and the United States has an unlikely glut of electricity supply.

All teenagers have been informed of this, in a series of top secret communiques delivered through the public school system. As a result, each of them is intensely aware that every time they turn off a light, a squirrel is shot dead somewhere in Findlay, Ohio. And frankly, none of them want squirrel blood on their delicate workshy hands.

3. Impending hot lava destruction
For years the newspapers have been filled with stories that in thousands of years time, the Earth will crash into the Sun/be hit by a meteor the size of Australia/run out of oxygen and lead us all to breathe through specially adapted face-mounted raccoons. Frankly though, there’s a far greater problem that threatens the human race.

For years, the molten core of the Earth has been consuming the ground above it, sucking millions of years of rock into its shadowy vortex. Where once there were thousands of miles of protective strata, now the sod is like a fragile epidermis on the surface of a molten mass.

Indeed, so perilously thin is the outer layer of our planet now that in some areas of civilization, lava has broken through the ground. Governments around the world are working in unison to resolve the issue, but in the meantime there is understandable concern that if mankind discovers this problem, there will be panic, looting and rioting across the world.

As most of the holes appear confined to domestic bedrooms, children have been recruited by specially created federal agencies to hide the problem from over anxious adults. Under-16s have all been fitted with lava detectors, enabling them to sniff out holes as soon as they occur. These gaps can then be hidden by carefully placing as many of their possessions as possible on the floor over the hole. Most bedrooms appear to have multiple holes, often resulting in all shelves being cleared of items in order that they be hastily put to use on carpets and wooden floors.

Do note that some parents have attempted to insist on the clearance of the covering devices. Owners of such parents have been mandated to implement a ‘tantrum to kill’ policy in order to avert imminent disaster.

Rest assured that the future health of the United States is safe in the hands of this house’s very own agents. To any parents reading this, please try not to get irrationally irritated as I used to. Let’s support all our children in the sterling work they do in support of this fading planet of ours.

Mind the bed bugs don’t bite

I was taught some valuable lessons when I was a kid. Not all of them have necessarily been carried through to adult life, it has to be said; knowing that Tootles the Taxi would go anywhere was important to me as a four year old, but Tootles never seemed to be available when I was wandering the streets of London, inebriated, at three in the morning. He probably wouldn’t have gone south of the river anyway.

Some learnings were certainly more valuable than others. Like “if you put your hand on the side of an oven, you will almost certainly get burnt”. Admittedly I learned that one the hard way. And despite that, I still haven’t learned it particularly well. My hands currently bear four or five cooking-related injuries, including a particularly fine scar from pouring scalding hot oil on the back of my hand in the pursuit of the world’s greatest roast potatoes at Christmas. And I’ve burned my arms on the bars of the oven so many times that I have to mention my culinary clumsiness to strangers whenever I’m wearing a t-shirt, for fear that they will otherwise assume I’m a cutter or a heroin addict.

Brit Out of Water Sr taught me that it’s futile to attempt to stop the blades of a lawn mower with your fingers – a valuable life lesson that I believe we could all benefit from. And my grandmother taught me that even the most mundane thing could be made magical with the aid of a little bit of imagination. Any woman who could manage to transform an underpass in Chester into ‘The Secret Garden’ for her two grandchildren has to be admired.

But most of all, I learned that you should always be watching out for little insects in the middle of the night. After all, every night as she tucked me in, She Who Was Born To Worry would say, “Sleep tight – mind the bed bugs don’t bite.” And then she’d wander down the stairs, leaving me at the mercy of an unseen foe.

As a kid being brought up in Wales, the bed bug had a faint air of mystery about it. I wasn’t entirely sure they existed, and I’d never met anyone who had seen one. For all I knew, they could have been three feet long and neon pink. The only certainty was that one of them could sneak under my duvet when I was dreaming of marrying Agnetha from ABBA, and that it would be partial to sinking its teeth into me for a quick midnight snack. And frankly, the idea scared the living bejeesus out of me.

As I grew older though, I assumed that the bed bug was one of the many nefarious creatures that your parents invent in order to keep your behaviour in check. You know, the bogeyman who lives under the stairs and devours children who don’t eat their peas, or the troll who keeps a list of the naughty children who don’t say their pleases and thank you’s – that kind of thing. As you move through puberty and into adulthood, you slowly realisze that these things don’t exist, and you slowly put aside your fears. Although clearly you still mentally file each of the creatures away in the category marked ‘things to scare your own children with in the future’.

But then I came to New York. And I found out that bed bugs really do exist. Essentially, one of the things that you will never read in any guide book about New York is that everybody – and I mean everybody – lives in fear of bed bugs. Pretty much every subway train carries an advert somewhere along it for infestation treatment services, all featuring huge magnified shots of the evil little blood sucking bastards. You often see all manner of bed bug repellent or protective products on the shelves of homeware stores, and stories on how bed bugs have ruined a person’s life are a regular feature in newspapers and magazines.

Fortunately we haven’t suffered with a bed bug problem, and touch wood we never will. Frankly, the idea of bagging up all my possessions and turning our home into a startlingly accurate recreation of the quarantine scenes towards the end of E.T. fills me with fear and dread. In an environment like New York, though, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the paranoia of it all. With leprosy, the affected had to carry around a bell warning others of their presence; for the bed bug-afflicted, it’s the appearance of an abandoned mattress and bed outside the home that warns all around of the possibility of impending doom.

Usually the embarrassed victim will mark the bed with a lurid “DO NOT TAKE – BED BUGS” or maybe a skull and crossbones alongside a tasteful artist’s impression of a remarkably lovable-looking insect. But all I can think about is the pavementsidewalk looking like the bug equivalent of a rush hour subway platform after a train has been taken out of service because of a faulty fingernail; bugs everywhere, desperately casting around for a passing boot or stroller to give them a ride to a new abode, away from the chemicals and cold city streets.

Fortunately I learned another good lesson when I was a kid – always cross the road if you think you’re walking into trouble. If there’s going to be any biting in my bedroom, it ain’t going to be by an insect, let me tell you.

I’m a lover, not a fighter

When the desire to get into a fight was given out, it’s fair to say that I was probably sitting underneath a table somewhere playing with an Etch-A-Sketch. Given that I never had the punching power of a Ricky Hatton, or the ability to flee from trouble with the pace of Usain Bolt, I used to simply put my head down and hope that nobody would bother battering an awkward looking kid whose biggest interest was collecting football stickers.

That said, though, it’s almost impossible to go 36 years without getting into some sort of fight. Incredibly, I’ve only managed two – and let’s just say that I’ve not shown the kind of talent to worry Manny Pacquiao just yet.

The first one probably came in 1987, in the entrance way to my school. Before school started, kids would throw their bags in a big pile at the side of the hallway, and then head outside to play footballsoccer with a tennis ball, or have a crafty cigarette behind the woodwork studio.

On the day in question, I noticed a kid from the year above me picking up my bag and flinging it across the room. After – erm – politely enquiring as to his purpose (using a succession of choice words from the 1971 edition of The Filthy Sailor’s Dictionary), the two of us squared up to each other.

Now, there are a number of important things to note here. Anti-confrontation though I may be, you have to draw the line somewhere. And for me ‘somewhere’ is just around the point you see your bag (covered in music and football scrawlings) sailing through the air in a perfect high speed arc. That said, I would not have taken matters further with someone a year older than me if it hadn’t been for the fact that he was at least a foot smaller and boasted a body shape that almost certainly made him the original inspiration for the Weebles.

What followed can only be described as ‘handbags at dawn’. Defying the notion that weebles wobble but they don’t fall down, the two of us ended up scrabbling around in the mélange of bags, pulling at each others hair and grappling for holds with all the effectiveness of a partially paralyzed wrestler. Who lost his sight three years ago. Along with a leg.

Finally I managed to hold the kid down with one hand, and pulled my fist back into the air to deliver the coup de grace fist to his irritatingly smarmy face. I took one glance back to admire my fist before it plunged headlong into the sinews and cartilage of my foe’s nose, and shuddered in horror as the face of my Latin teacher filled my vision. Mr Johnson – or “Dickchin” as his student charges so eloquently tagged him – shook his head, separated the two of us, and sent us on our way. I can only assume that he was so piteous of the manner of the fight that he couldn’t quite bring himself to punish us.

My second fight came almost nine years later, after a frankly regrettable evening with one of my longest-standing friends, who now makes his living by offering insightful analysis of the Asian money markets in one of the world’s leading financial newspapers. Back then, he was as easily influenced as me, as became apparent after the two of us headed to the cinema to see the B-movie schlockfest that was “From Dusk Till Dawn.”

For those of you who haven’t seen it (and I’m hoping that there are plenty of you), there’s a scene in the movie where the likes of Juliette Lewis and George Clooney sit around a table at the delightfully named Titty Twister strip club, drinking from a bottle of spiritsliquor. It was probably the one memorable scene from an otherwise forgettable movie, and when my friend and I emerged, we walked straight into the pub next door and ordered double shots of whisky.

Eight double shots and an hour or two later, the two of us found ourselves singing “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” on a snowy Cambridge street, in the general direction of the flatapartment occupied by my friend’s then-girlfriend. To be fair, she’s now his wife and mother of his two children, but from the expletives she issued forth when opening her third floor window, it was touch and go for a moment.

Barely able to focus, let alone walk, I zigzagged my way back towards home. For some reason, despite the fact that it was by now about 1am, I decided that it would be good to take a shortcut through a local shopping precinctmall. Strangely the doors failed to give as I pushed them (the fact that there were no lights on inside should have been a clue to me), and as I turned to walk away, a man sitting on the steps of an adjacent restaurant with his girlfriend laughed and swore at me.

Now, admittedly I shouldn’t have flipped him the v’sbird. But as I walked away I thought no more of him. Until he ran after me, that is. To be honest, I didn’t see his fist until it connected with my jaw. The second time he swung, I remember seeing his clenched hand by his side, but the effects of the whisky meant I didn’t see it again before it connected with my eye. At that point, my French side kicked in, and I legged it. My assailant didn’t bother pursuing me, possibly out of pity, which is fortunate given that I had as much ability to run as the aforementioned one legged wrestler.

Anyway, my point is that – one black eye aside – I’ve never had to bear the scars of battle like some fight-hardened individuals.

Until I became a new father, that is.

One thing that nobody ever tells you when you’re about to become a dad is that your newborn’s nails will grow faster than America’s national debt. Or that cutting them without causing injury is the 18th most difficult thing in the world (easier than getting a camel to peel a pomegranate, but more difficult than getting a New Yorker to say thank you).

Cutting a baby’s nails is like being a trainee bomb disposal specialist. You’ve read the books and seen the videos, but when it comes down to doing it for real, you’re so nervous that you sweat more than Tiger Woods when he’s lost his mobile phone. With each press of the clipper, you’re looking at the baby’s face for any sign that you’ve metaphorically snipped the wrong wire. Because, trust me, when you’ve nicked the skin around a baby’s nail, the resultant nuclear meltdown makes Chernobyl seem like an unfortunate domestic accident with a deep fat fryer.

The upshot of this is that clipping The Little One’s nails is a rarity. As a result, she’s starting to bear a startling resemblance to Edward Scissorhands. And now that she’s discovered reaching and grabbing, she’s single-handedly making me look like someone who’s been twelve rounds with Mike Tyson.

So far I’ve got an inch long scar down my right cheek, a mark on my chin vaguely resembling a knuckle duster, and multiple scratches on my nose. Thankfully her favourite move – inserting one finger into each of my nostrils and pulling as hard as she can – leaves no visible marks.

It’s the emotional scars that last forever though.

The killer in plane view

I have to tell you that I got it all wrong, dear reader. After all these years wishing that I’d become a spy, I’ve finally realiszed that I was aiming at the wrong profession. Because – frankly – if there’s a better job in the world than being an air marshal, I’m yet to hear about it.

Now admittedly my jealousy may in part have been caused by the fact that I have been bumped off my return flight from Los Angeles back to New York this morning by Delta needing to find a seat for an air marshal. But given that I found out about it moments before getting on board the outbound flight reminded me that I could spend the entire journey picking out that flight’s marshal from among the passengers.

For the uninitiated, an air marshal is a federal employee whose job it is to ‘neutralisze’ any terrorist on the plane. And to be honest, it would have been more difficult to pick out Lady Gaga in her full regalia than the ‘incognito’ undercover agent, such was the average age of the 16 people occupying the business class seats. I can only assume that LA was hosting a Golden Girls convention this weekend.

Infact, if it hadn’t been for a swarthy guy sitting across the aisle from me looking like he’d just stepped off the set of CSI Miami, I’d have been forced into the inevitable conclusion that I was the air marshal after all.

Still, sitting in such close proximity at least gave me the chance to observe what the marshal has to do during the course of the flight. And to be fair, from this exclusive log book that the marshal inadvertently left on his seat as he stepped off the plane, you’ll see that the job can’t be easy…

0930 Laugh at the plebs as I wander up to the front of the boarding line. Smirk as a fat man with some kind of McSausage McBiscuit starts audibly complaining about me pushing in. Idly ponder what his chubby little face will look like when I pop a cap in his ass if he steps out of line on the flight.
0942 Wonder if I can get away with a glass of champagne, but decide against it at the last minute. Order vodka and tonic instead.
1001 Attempt to blend in with the rest of the passengers by getting out some reading material. Always good to catch up with the latest news in Paid Assassin’s Monthly.
1029 Why does the guy across the aisle keep looking at me and taking notes?
1059 Order the granola for breakfast. I’d love the French toast, but find that a heavy stomach affects me something rotten when I’m trying to shoot terrorists.
1115 Look around the cabin at the other business passengers. Decide to keep a close eye on the grey haired woman in 2D. Wouldn’t be surprised if that cane she’s holding turned out to be an Uzi.
1201 Start watching Love Happens. Hope the guys back at the base never find out that I’ve seen every film that Jennifer Aniston has ever made. Twice.
1243 This holster is starting to chafe on my shoulder. Think about putting the gun in the overhead locker. No hijacker can get up at the moment anyway, as the captain’s illuminated the seatbelt sign.
1307 Flick through the SkyMall catalogue. Make note to buy video recording sunglasses on my next trip.
1341 Momentarily fall asleep, and almost shoot man in 3B when I’m woken with a jolt by the flight attendant dropping her tray of glasses
1401 Woman in the adjacent seat has decided to tell me all about her trip to visit her son in La Jolla. Attempt to feign interest, while hoping that she notices the six inch knife scar down the side of my face and decides to back off.
1424 Pilot says we’re coming into land. Thirty seven air marshal trips I’ve made now, and not a single opportunity to take down an Arab. On the plus side, my collection of in-flight headsets is looking superb these days,

How I never became a spy

I was always fascinated by the idea of being a spy when I was a kid. I think someone bought me a thick red hardback ‘spy handbook for kids’ for Christmas one year, and I never looked back from there. Each day I’d race home from school and pore over it, testing myself to make sure that I knew everything there was to know about dead letter boxes, codebreaking, and leaving notes for my handler in the classified section of the Daily Telegraph. Put simply, if my country ever called on me to be a real life James Bond, I wanted to be ready.

Of course, I knew that becoming a spy wouldn’t be easy, so I launched a campaign to get myself under the collective proboscii of the British counter-intelligence authorities. Having been accepted at a university well-known as a hunting ground for some of the finest spies (and traitors) that my country ever produced, I figured it was just a matter of time before I was behind enemy lines, sleeping with a Russian temptress desperate to get her duplicitous hands on my rather impressive cyphercipher.

I even took a university course on espionage in the 20th century, taught by one of the topic’s finest minds. And as I listened to Oleg Gordievsky describe how he managed to escape the Soviet Union to defect to the west, I smiled knowingly, as if to give respect to a man like myself who knew what it took to be a spy.

Strangely, the call never came. The closest I got was being interviewed by the ‘Foreign Office’ as a final reference for a friend who had irritatingly been spotted as a potential recruit to the secret services. The day after a grey suited figure came to talk to me, my friend was called to be told that he wasn’t suitable.

Having failed to become a spy, anonymity hasn’t always been my main concern. And that extends to this blog. Sure, I may hide behind this shadowy ‘Brit Out Of Water’ figure, but most regulars know my name, and I’m even Facebook friends with a few of them. I try to keep my work out of the blog, on the basis that – well – I like being one of the few people left in America who still has a job. But other than that, I’m a pretty open book.

Such openness is not without its problems though.

This weekend, it finally struck home with The Artist Formerly Known As The Youngest that I write a blog, and that it was possible that it might occasionally mention her. And like the proverbial dog with a bone, she wasn’t going to let go until she got to the bottom of it.

“So what do you call me on your blog?”

“I don’t really have a name for you since your sister was born. You used to be called The Youngest, but you’re not the youngest any more.”

“So what do you write about me?”

“I don’t really write about you as that wouldn’t be fair to you. But you do come up as part of a story every now and then.”

“So what do you write about me?”

“Like I say, I just refer to you in passing.”

“So what do you write about me?”

“It’s not a blog about you. It’s about my life in America. You are just occasionally mentioned as you’re part of my life in America.”

“So what do you write about me?”

“I mention your mum much more. She’s The Special One. You’re a side character, to keep your life private.”


“Well you can read it for yourself – I’ll give you the address.”

“Why would I want to read your blog?”

Ah, American youth – reassuringly narcissistic, unless it involves doing some work. Let’s hope the US spies of the future are spoonfed the secrets of their targets, and that all hidden messages are contained within Mythbusters.

Maybe I just got out of bed the wrong side this morning?

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of labels, it has to be said. Not the ones that come inside your underwear, although frankly I think I speak for us all when I say that it can be rather annoying when they get caught in your netherlands when you least expect it. But grouping people into one amorphous mass because it’s just kind of easier to say “crazy” rather than “that woman with the collection of frogs perched on her head” just doesn’t really work for me.

I’ve attracted a few labels in my time. The current favourite for the kids (The Little One mercifully excepted, although possibly only because of her inability to form understandable words at this point) is ‘fat’. Seemingly a little harsh, but hopefully nothing that a month of not drinking alcohol won’t sort out. That said, my tag as ‘gadget geek’ is probably well-deserved, although if I continue to purchase with the pace I’ve been keeping up over the last five years, the next label I’ll no doubt be acquiring will be ‘vagrant’ thanks to The Special One kicking me out on the street.

It doesn’t even have to be me that’s being labelled in order for me to get annoyed. A few times over the last three months, one relatively distant acquaintance has consistently referred to The Special One as ‘mommy’ eg How’s mommy? Is mommy sleeping well? What are mommy’s plans for going back to work? It’s all I can do to stop my fingers slamming the keys through the keyboard in fury as I reply. After all:

a) Do you think that using the word ‘mommy’ with me is ever going to induce joy in my soul?
b) You are a grown adult with a good education, do you really have to talk like a five year old?
c) My wife has a sodding name, you know.
d) I’m pretty sure that if she defined herself by anything, The Special One would be likely to use ‘world champion cumberland sausage eater’ rather than ‘mommy’. I appreciate that she’s had three kids and that they’re a hugely important part of her life, but she also peed the bed three times when she was young and she doesn’t expect people to refer to as ‘legendary bedwetter’.

But the label I least like being used to describe me is ‘expat’.

The problem is not so much with being away from my homeland, although that in itself brings its own problems such as missing friends and family. But does the tag that comes with leaving your own country really have to be quite so negative sounding?

a) It defines me by where I used to be, rather than where I am now. I went to Rhyl when I was a kid, so should I have been referring to myself as ‘ex-Rhyl visitor’ for all these years?
b) There’s an implicit assumption that I cannot truly be happy until I am returned from whence I came. I mean, most nights I do look out of the window and watch the rain pour down as I dream wistfully of black pudding, but even I smile sometimes.
c) Is it just me, or does it somehow suggest that I was thrown out of my own country, possibly for my role in the Great Train Robbery?

My biggest problem though is that I’ve seen too many TV shows featuring British expats in Spain. And frankly, I don’t like the idea of being lumped in with some over-tanned tracksuit-wearing former hairdressers from Bermondsey whose idea of having exotic food is having tinned tomatoes with their egg and chips. Call me a snob if you like, but my idea of exploring the world is not ‘drinking halves of mild in Ye Olde Red Lion just outside Torremolinos’.

Essentially, ‘expat’ has become too much of a catch-all for anyone living away from their home country. Reluctantly accepting that the world would fall apart without collective nouns, I think we need a wholly new label rather than attempting to reclaim ‘expat’ as a proud tag for adventurous world citizens.

But what to call people who have no vote, a permanent look of confusion, and who regard ‘wherever in the world we happen to be’ as their true home?

“Disenfranchised befuddled turtles” just isn’t going to cut it, is it?