My own two cents on the US budget

Transformer Glory

Disclaimer: firstly, I am not sure whether it’s two cents or ten cents. If it’s actually ten cents I was not attempting to be fiscally conservative, represent fiscal conservatives or in any way lobby for interest groups on the Hill or in the dales.

The US is in the throws of deep party debate on its national budget. The fact that when seen from out of space, the US will soon have the words ‘Product of China’ emblazoned across it, is good enough reason for animated discourse. However, I urge you to take a closer look. The infrastructure is dangling by thread, and something needs to be done or someone is in for a shock.

When I first moved to the US and saw the electricity poles, cables and transformers amassing in back alleys and along side-walks I was amazed. I had not seen anything like it since I was a 19 year old backpacking in Africa. On my first night I had ventured out from the Nairobi compound to take a quick shot of a telegraph pole writhing in cables. I thought it very artsy and the photo is now buried in an attic somewhere. To discover the same poles in the US, the land of milk and honey, of the American Dream and of everything we have come to associate with progress was completely unexpected. I am not alone. The owner of a local DIY store in the French Alps told me of his trip to the States. He had been to visit Ground Zero but the thing that he really remembered were ‘les trasformers!’ dangling at every corner.

Arboreal Gallows – DC Border

It is not as though one can argue with him either. One might, were the electrical grid simply eccentric but otherwise perfectly functional. As it is, it permanently on the brink of collapse. During the last snow storm, the flakes fluttered down while children made snowmen beneath transformers that popped and sparked like fire crackers. Our house was fortunate not to lose power this time but much of our neighbourhood had to decamp to the local ‘Embassy Suites’ hotel for a massive sleep-over, passing toothpaste and solace down its carpeted corridors. Other families opened their doors and took in frozen, damp friends for the 72 hours that it took to fix.

This happens all the time, summer, winter, autumn or spring. Typically a branch falls on a cable or wind rustles through a transformer from an injudicious angle. When we lost power for 47 hrs during a heat wave, I commented to a neighbour that all the wires should be buried. She was quick to remind me that the neighbourhood dates back to the 30s. I did not have the heart to say that in the town where I grew up, which dates back to 900AD, everything is interred as it is in almost any major European city. If it were just the electrical grid, it would not be so bad, but it is also the water pipes. The pipes beneath our aptly named River Rd, break repeatedly submerging the four lane artery into DC. Not far away, near the Embassy Suites an entire sidewalk and intersection exploded several months ago in what looked like a shell attack.

I can’t help thinking that an unquestioning assumption that the ‘US has it all’ is a useful sedative fed from on high and perpetuated through the media*. If the Americans were French they would take to the streets, amassing in hairy indignation, continuously demanding better even once they had got it. That is where we need the spark, not above the heads of children and snowmen.

Limbs Not the Root of the Problem

As it is the local electricity company (Potomac Electric Power Company) has come under fierce attack. In response teams and teams of trucks have been dispatched to prune offending branches. They have been out there for weeks on full parade, very much like labourers who suddenly shovel furiously when a foreman appears. In the case of longer term relationships, PEPCO has been unable to extricate the tree from the loving embrace of its cables and has left dismembered limbs suspended for all to see. This unfortunate arboreal gallows is to be viewed on the DC border. To be fair DC is known for its lack of funding but Kenwood is one of the most affluent neighbourhoods of Maryland. It is famous for its cherry blossom and whilst its byways thronged of late with admiring visitors, a cable swung suspended at waist level, with a bright orange sticker saying “Not PEPCO’s”.

Caution: It is Not a PEPCO Line

I can only compare the situation to a faltering computer. You patch it up and patch it up and put off the moment of big investment in a new one. It dies utterly and totally, legs in rigor mortis waving at the ceiling like a dead beetle. You berate your stupidity for not having recognized the signs and for having been too… cheap.

If taxing the over 250K income bracket means avoiding the sight of the US writhing on its back before finally kicking the bucket – I say go for it.

In deference to my Republican friends I suggest we launch with a battle cry on the fat pussy cat corporations first.

*This phenomenon which is not unique to the US, is a characteristic of ‘Soft Despotism’ – as coined by Tocqueville. Having just watched half of Revolutionary Road, I fear another post is welling on the subject.

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Duck Breast with Hoisin and Orange

I am a touch hesitant about posting this recipe because the eating of duck appears to be a fairly eccentric activity in Bethesda. One friend labeled me as ‘so European’ when I ordered it. This was a fairly accurate observation but none-the-less it made me uncomfortably aware of my strangeness. That said, I am posting it here because it is very delicious.  I think I first conjured it up in Amsterdam as a quick way to get a Peking Duck fix, without waving a hair dryer at the thing for several days.  The orange was an afterthought.

It is also incredibly simple and quick to make and thanks to a son who shackles himself to my leg whilst I cook, I recently rediscovered it.  I now intend to establish it as “Menu number one”.  I have a friend in London who gave a supper for me. Her brother-in-law arrived, peered into a pot and said “Aha.. Menu Number One”. I asked what he meant. Apparently Menu Number One is known in the family to reliably consist of: home-made ham, baked potatoes, asparagus and salad. I asked what Menu Number Two was, but so far no one has seen any reason to stray that far. Her Menu Number One was served on Limoges plates, sadly mine reclines on Ikea 365+.

For 2 people: 1 duck breast, 2 tbs Hoisin, 1 orange

– Score the fat of the duck breast diagonally at roughly 1″ intervals

– Salt and pepper the meat side

– Heat a heavy pan to a good medium heat

– Place the duck breast in the pan, fat side down

– The fat will begin to render and then brown and start to crisp

–  Once this has happened and you have about ½ the original duck fat on the breast, turn it over and start to cook it on the meat side for 3-4 mins – not too long or it will be overcooked.

– Remove the duck from the pan. Check if it is cooked to your liking. If it is still a bit too rare for you, don’t worry it will carry on cooking plus you can toss it into the sauce for 30 seconds at the end.

– Get about 1 ½ – 2 tbsp of Hoisin sauce and stir it into the fat juices, until they begin to meld and sizzle together

– Add the zest of half an orange

– Add about half a glass of orange juice from the orange , stir for about a minute and remove from the heat. The more sauce the better… so don’t let it evaporate.

-Slice the duck thinly and either return it to the pan for a final toss or put it on a serving dish and pour the sauce over it. 

D’Artignan Duck breast is sold at Superfresh. Superfresh is a wierd place. Not only do you discover people crossing the DC border to surrepticiously top up their wine supplies before a snow storm and inevitable power cut,  but you also find wild boar and bison. Superfresh deserves more credit than it gets – they had truffle oil before Whole Foods had cottoned on to it. Their latest addition is the Italian butter from Parma called “Delitia”. Find it stashed away in their cheese section

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Chocolate chips

Ghirardelli Chocolate Chips

It is 10.07. What possessed me to ask Rosalind to hide the chocolate chips from me? Ghirardelli chocolate chips, not Hershey’s, I should be clear. I have thought of waking her and shaking her recumbent body until it divulges their hiding place.

Not quite up to this, I have conducted a rigorous search of the basement. Basements represent child’s domain in the US. I have found tennis balls, cobwebs, a lost doll’s bed. I have been through a box of exorbitantly priced chipmunks – also known as Calico Critters. I have searched the Lego  (Duplo and senior variants) and a tub of princess Play Mobil. Not under the sofa, although a lot of other stuff was. Not in the doll’s house and not in the mini-picnic hamper inside the miniature kitchen cupboard – which was such a perfect hiding place that I felt slightly annoyed with her for not sharing my hiding finesse.

Not under the spare bed, above which a large image of Audrey Hepburn surveyed me demurely from the less basement-like surroundings of Tiffany’s.  Superior she may be but if I had reached breakfast I would not be on this sugar crazed mission anyhow.

I am not going to go out to buy some. I am not going to attack the Principe bag (Chic Florentine department store) of Halloween candy. The bag is the only thing that makes the stuff palatable.  And yes we still have it (the candy as well as the bag). Last year the ants found it faster than the children. They were marching on saccharine stomachs. It took duct tape to keep them out.

I am going to give up and add a new section to this blog which is edible. I want to be clear though, whilst I may be obsessing about chocolate, this will not be a foodie blog. There are all too many of those out there and even without them the Food Network is enough to give one indigestion. The New York Times just had an article in their food section commenting on how female cooks on the Network all have deep cleavages, whilst male cooks dress in chef’s white and wield cleavers.

The division of the sexes.

If there is anyone out there who can cope with more than 5 minutes of Giada de Laurentiis please let me know. Barbie goes cooking and adopts wierd name. I had to renounce the Food Network, which meant forsaking nearly every other US channel, for fear of it driving me insane. With no entertainment – I guess that is why I now write a blob.

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Little Green Men

Little Green Man

When I moved to DC, my daughter was two and a half. I only had the one child and was still busy not wanting her to get run over and therefore mid the laborious process of instilling road sense into a small fever-footed toddler.

Even if I had not still been attempting to be a good mother, as Europeans we all hear about US jay walking laws and I fully expected to be arrested at any point. I had been slapped by a bus driver for retrieving my change and discovered one needed to summons a member of staff to unlock the Johnson’s baby shampoo cabinet. I had seen a grown band boy scouts in their 60’s obediently waiting to cross a sleepy side road in Georgetown. As far as I was concerned anything could happen and probably would.

It was therefore, to my considerable embarrassment that I discovered that in the US the signal announcing that it is safe for a pedestrian to cross is not a little green man, but a little white man. I am in a city that is predominantly black. Am I really supposed to tell my daughter to wait for the ‘little white man’? I might be imagining it but I feel the eyes of African American bystanders boring into me. I try “wait for the little flashing man”. This sounds even worse. My uncle has long made me sensitive to the attire, or lack of it, of the personages who appear on traffic signs. The men in ‘Men at Work’ signs – if you check them closely – are actually naked, except for a pair of rubber boots.

Little White Man

Now that I have my third child, although the desire to stop him getting run over has dwindled, I occasionally find myself asking him to look for the little white man and I still find it uncomfortable. We wait for the Demonic Hand which burns an impression into one’s forehead to sizzle out and then the politically incorrect little flasher comes on and it’s safe to go. It is all very disturbing and far from the sense and order of the little red man and the little green man whose colour logic is reassuring similar to that of other road signals.

Now as it happens, my tenderness towards our green emblem of pedestrian safety is enmeshed with a strange incident that occurred to me in London in 1997. I was waiting for our little green man to light up so that I could cross the Embankment, a busy highway in the heart of London, when a real little green man popped up next to me. He was very small and clad from head to toe in green overalls with a green cap. He was also very congenial and hummed and rocked on his toes beside me. We stood waiting in this manner, side by side for his counterpart to appear. Then unexpectedly he leant close to me and in a hushed whisper said “The Grand National – put your money on Camelot Knight”. A happy lunatic I thought. At which point the green man on the far side of the intersection shone forth his blessing and I was free to go. “Watch for the little green man’ chimed my companion impishly, as I began to cross the intersection. When I got to the central reservation I looked back. My friend was not following me and had disappeared. I could not see him anywhere on an empty street lined with enormous office buildings. It was really peculiar.

Click for the 1997 Grand National

I picked up a paper, sure enough there was Camelot Knight without a chance in hell of winning and an odds of 100-1. I have often put money on the Grand National and even won but this seemed too far fetched. I turned out to be very wrong. Camelot Knight, who was completely irrelevant even up until the last fence suddenly swept ahead to come in third after Lord Gyllene and Sunny Bay. Had I placed a bet ‘either way’ I could have won quite nicely. Think of the fun of it, a fortune made from a tip given by a vanishing green man.

I tend to think he was my Leprechaun and that I missed his pot of gold thanks to a lack of faith which I will regret to my dying day. What he was doing in the financial district of London I cannot imagine, although pots of gold and financial centres do, now I think of it, tie in quite nicely. Given the years of monetary meddling and recent economic turmoil it is possible that there are teams of Leprechauns out there wreaking financial havoc. Who else would come up with the term ‘hedge fund’?

This could explain all the hijinks on Wall Street. After all, the US offers fertile terrain for migrant Leprechauns; in fact it is a positive Leprechaun hothouse. On St Patrick’s day they don’t just wear a shamrock, they dye the Hudson river green. It is not just the pubs that seethe with brilliant green garments that make your eyes water, but the streets. If you can’t handle that green you opt for ‘moss’. Your Best Jewish Friend is discovered buying soda bread and Trader Joe’s shelves are loaded with corned beef and bangers. You may not celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa but you celebrate St Paddy’s or you are out on your pointed ear.

Needless to say tales of Leprechauns abound. Even in our sleepy DC neighbourhood, strange footprints were found by the school trout tanks and the nursery school milk poured green to unsuspecting toddlers.

So given this verdant furore, this national outpouring of love for little green men, surely it makes sense… to paint the little white men… green?

Who better to enlist than a workforce of these small, green and presumably illegal aliens. They must be kicking their heals 364 days a year, why not provide them with some pots of paint and gainful employment?

Note, the rigorous use of a capital letter in referring to the ‘Little people’. This is a mark of deference. My paternal grandfather claimed to have been trapped in a field in Ireland all night after speaking disprespectfully of the ‘little people’. It was not until morning that he found the gate…

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Consequences of school fundraising – a fishy tale

Trout diems numbered

Update on our elementary school fundraiser, the Winter Social: I regret to report that not only have all the trout died in their new trout tank but that Ms Pickle who heads Community of Caring is having her job axed by 50%. No fish and limited pickle is the equivalent of a Dutch national disaster. The local sentiment at Westbrook Elementary has not been dissimilar.

The Elmo Boards (glorified digital white boards) which we proudly managed to raise funds for at our recent school auction – appear to have absorbed the school budget by requiring a dedicated technical guru.

The moral of the tale – school fundraising should be undertaken with caution, given elevated risk of destabilising fragile academic eco-systems. The Elmo Board has, like so many species introduced to redress an imbalance, killed off the original flora and fauna.

As so often is the case, there is nothing so dangerous as good intentions.

As of now, Inkquillibrium will be the home of ‘Jottings’ as well as the regular ‘Scrolls’ you have found on this blog. The ‘Scrolls’ are taking 12 times as long to deliver as Alexander (3rd child), admittedly he was nearly born in a Trader Joes, but still.

I hope that the ‘Jottings’ will allow me to comment and entertain on the many every day events that consume our lives – without dispensing with nights of sleep (the other similarity between blogging and child-birth).





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What do the Wonderbra and the US Capitol have in common?

They are both just a little too pert.

After six years here, the fact that I had failed to be moved by the US Capitol, niggled at me.  My logic countered: “It stands there resplendent in white, the backdrop of innumerable news reels, draped in every classical detail you can imagine and is the seat of untold power” but instead of feeling its grandiosity, I failed to be swayed. The Pentagon swayed me. I nearly swerved off the road, transfixed, when I realized I was driving alongside its monstrous hulk and even more monstrously sized parking lots (car parks just is not a term that works in this case).

Section of the dome

Then during a recent tour of the Capitol  (the clockwork mouse was otherwise engaged setting up seating for the State of the Union address) I think I may have stumbled on the problem. It is the dome, that most contentious of architectural features. The Sienese and  Florentines are still at each other’s throats over their respective efforts. It is not that the dome is not what it pretends to be, that the fine marble exterior is actually just a multitude of sheets of metal – although that the seat of US government should be surmounted by a deception is interesting in itself – but that the dome is just a little too pert.

The associations of pert along with the suggestive form of a dome soon stirred up an old saying that the perfect breast should fit inside a champagne glass. I enjoyed mentioning this to my 18 yr old brother-in-law who attempted not to splutter into his beer/Gatorade. I was quick to reassure him that I meant the old fashioned champagne glass and not the flute – although I don’t think this was the cause of his confusion.


I now believe there is a similar unwritten rule for domes. A dome rather like a jelly/jello should typically give the impression of having eased itself into place, sinking into its moorings upon the edifice it crowns. The dome on the US capitol has made no such concession and is, instead, being tweaked heavenwards by the nipple with an image of George Washington mid-apotheosis, suspended somewhere beneath like Romulus or Remus.

St Peters

Jefferson at Monticello, in strict adherence to Palladio, allowed his dome to set every bit like a jelly/jello. In fact his dome appears to mimic the breast/champagne glass rule so closely that, for those who prefer breast to thigh, it might be said that he has gone a little too far in his seemliness. For breast lovers, the dome of St Peters would make for a more voluptuous encounter.

Interestingly there seems to be a chronological progression to bigger and bustier and St Paul’s, I am afraid to say, already smacks suspiciously of an implant but nothing goes as far as the US Capitol. For the modesty of the city, I am thankful that Madonna had yet to appear in one of her more racy armatures or Washington might be saddled with something even more distracting.

As a legal alien (resident or otherwise) and as one who wishes to stay that way – I realise I should hold my tongue on a subject of such national sensitivity. So it was a relief to discover that Charles Bulfinch, author of the very first dome in the US (Massachusetts Statehouse), also had an issue with the matter.

Original dome

Bulfinch was selected as the architect for the first Capitol dome; however his plans were altered by the Monroe administration which showed a marked preference for white meat in an edifice and demanded that the dome be pumped up. Bulfinch was dismayed to find he was supervising the ascent of an edifice with the proportions of a Perdue chicken* and later in life went on to chronicle the conflict that lead to the loftier-than-decent dome. Had he not himself ‘apotheosed’, he could now attest that even his bastardized dome was a model of decorum by comparison with the modern-day version.

The full Eva Herzigova effect was only achieved later when the Capitol, having doubled in length to accommodate the members of the new States, chose to commission a new dome that actually tripled in size. For a good forty years it stood bashfully aloft, bursting at the seams, until it was eventually agreed that the visual display was really too much. In 1904 the smothered portico heaved a sigh of relief as the entire East front of the Capitol was extended to accomodate its buxom counterpart.

Latrobe’s corncob capitals

However, building around a dome to accommodate its hovering mass, whilst constrained by the lines of the original building is always going to be tricky to pull off. Who to blame? The British are culpable for having burnt the early Capitol, then the French and the Germans all had a hand in the giant melting pot of politics and decisions.  Had it been left solely to the Americans, without the inspiration of Europe’s dusty domes they might have come up with something as fantastic as the columns of the very first Capitol building.  Now almost completely subsumed by all the later additions, these columns are topped by corncobs as opposed to the now vulgar and overworked Grecian acanthus leaf.  Nothing could be more self-assured, understated and original.


*Perdue is one of the US’s biggest ‘manufacturers’ of chickens. The company has succeeded in developing birds with such an oversized breast that they can only take a few paces before collapsing or breaking a leg. Now were they to have a metal armature things might be different, indeed it is possibly precisely the metal armature that allowed the Capitol dome to outsize its antecedents and not collapse in a flurry of feathers. See the documentary: Food Inc.

If you would like to comment, feel brave and click on the comment link below, rather than e-mailing modestly behind the scenes. Be overt, stand aloft.

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Excuse me, or not.

Trader Joe’s Bag

I was in my beloved Trader Joe’s.

Trader Joe’s offers one of the happiest shopping experiences to be found in the USA. Music, such as Soul Kitchen offers a pleasing background vibe. A brass Captain’s bell is struck for customer service, there is a First Mate and the store is adorned in a Hawaiian garland theme. Amongst the shelves a peluche chimp, named Beth, hides for bored children to find and as part of its irreverant stance it sources food from all over the globe while cutting out the middle man. All this means you are not fleeced as you are at Whole Foods, known with bitter affection as Whole Pay Check/Cheque nor are you reminded that you are the smallest cog in the mechanics of consumerism as you are in Giant, where humans are being replaced by automated check-outs, that would, were they human, be fired for their inefficiency.

In Trader Joes, all the staff has a quirk of one type or another. They wear ridiculous hats, have giant tattoos of Bob Marley lavishly sprawled down both arms or they have pink hair and are vegetarian but don’t eat vegetables and are conversational on the subject. In our local Bethesda store, in addition to the above fanfare of characters there is a growing team of Senegalese who conduct a full-bodied dialogue in French above the customer’s heads as they pile your fare onto the wooden counters and then un-pile it into some of the chicest shopping bags to be found. There is no conveyer belt.

Sadly the karma of my latest trip was marred. My shopping trolley was happily stocked with a Tarte Alsace (I can testify that the Alsace has nothing as tempting to offer after a painful walking holiday eating dried fava beans from the fields in order to make it to the next abandoned, bombed-out village, presided over by an insane dog – what is it about French dogs?), a chunk of faintly whiffy Delice de Bourgogne, several Quattro Formaggi Pizzas (by Trader Giotto) and some marinated Mahi Mahi.

I was somewhere between the organic lettuce and retrieving a package of loo roll decorated with Victorian ladies showing their ankles to moustached gentlemen, when I was arrested by a grumpy man. “Did no one ever teach you to say Excuse me?” I was taken aback and offered a genuine apology. One of Trader Joe’s idiosyncrasies is that it is tight, or intimate, for a better word.  One is forever squeezing in between people to get to one’s attempted destination. I have been doing this for years in the usual British fashion which requires one to wince, make it evident that one is somehow squeezing one’s frame into pipe cleaner-like format and then offering a half smile of apology at the circumstances.

It now dawns on me that I have been offending people left right and centre –which pretty much covers the political spectrum. As I stood watching my purchases being piled and un-piled at the wooden counter I realised that I have never actually said “Excuse me.” I have generally observed that when people say “Excuse me” it is said with a righteousness and indignation that defies the supposed intention of the words. “Excuse me” typically means, “Get the hell out of my way”. It is rarely courteous or polite. In fact I think it is very hard to make it sound polite.

“Excuse me”, unless one conjures up the phantom of a preliminary “Would you?” falls into the imperative. It demands that the other person excuse one whether they like it or not. “Not only am I going to trample through your personal body space but I am going to demand that you acquiesce and approve.” If anything, it adds insult to injury.

So to my offended shopper I must say “No, my mother did not teach me to say “Excuse me”. I was raised with the sense that both “Pardon me” and “Excuse me” were pretty much not done, with the former being somewhere near the boiling point of vulgarity and the latter in the lower degrees of discourtesy. I was taught the appropriate way to go about all this was to stay mute or possibly to offer something along the lines of “I’m so sorry…” and tail off enigmatically into the pipe-cleaner impression. One was not to stipulate what one was sorry about – it was just a generally sorry ness about the state of things, one’s involvement in them and the forced involvement of the other party.

The suggestion being that there is no solution and that life is a mine-field to be trodden with caution. The problem is that whilst this form of self-effacement holds wide appeal to one’s fellow shoppers when beheld on the silver screen and abused by Colin Firth and Hugh Grant, it tends to get you weird looks in CVS.

As a legal alien, I’m in a fix. My voice cracks with embarrassment at the thought of saying ‘Excuse me” and I fear that if I start up the “sorry” rigmarole again I will find myself back at square one in the alien land where Johnson’s baby shampoo is kept under lock and key.

Perhaps the time has come for something out of the box. A Trader Ming-like oriental flourish, a full bodied bow that brushes the floor to sweep all indignation aside.

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