Category Archives: expatica

Fred and The Big Burg

When my mom visited recently, she brought me a copy of Fred Thompson‘s new book Teaching the Pig to Dance: A memoir of growing up and second chances.  Fred Thompson grew up in Lawrenceburg and this is memoir of his growing up, but as much about the town viewed through his eyes as it is about him.  And it’s the same place I come from.   Sort of.  I only went to high school there, but my mother grew up there, as did my brother and many, many of my family live there.  So I guess it’s my hometown.   Anyway, if I ever made good, it’s the town that would claim me. Feel free to bury me there if you like, but not before time.

British readers probably wouldn’t know he was a senator from Tennessee or remember that he had an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2008.  His campaign for the Republican nomination was hotly anticipated, but his declaration in Lawrenceburg’s public square in 2007 was the high point of the campaign.  It all kinda went down hill from there.   Some people might remember him from his role on Law and Order where he played the gruff Southern DA.  But it’s fair to say that he’s doesn’t figure big in British cultural consciousness.

Fred before a packed house

Fred on the Square in Lawrenceburg

But he’s a big deal in Lawrenceburg, we haven’t had a politician from the Burg that famous since Davy Crockett packed in his congressional career by unwisely feuding with Andrew Jackson and went off to Texas.  (His statue still adorns the Square).   And, of course, he’s a big deal elsewhere, too.  He was part of Watergate, he’s a successful character actor, he’s played a big role in Tennessee politics particularly in the shift from being traditionally Democratic to what’s now called a Red State.

But the book isn’t about any of those things, really.  It’s about growing up in Lawrenceburg.  A small town in the rural South.  The buckle of the Bible Belt.  Reviews on Amazon say that he’s captured the story of growing up in the small town rural south.  And I’m sure Lawrenceburg is like a lot of small towns.  But I didn’t grow up in any of those towns.  I didn’t learn to drive and graduate from high school or get married in those other towns.  It was Lawrenceburg, so this book has a close, personal feel to me.  I recognise the road names. I recognised many of the people.  He lived for a while on Caperton Avenue.  I was on the next street over.  An identically laid out wide avenue with a central strip adorned with dogwoods and well kept medium sized houses.  But it wasn’t just geographical coincidences.  Only through reading this did I realise just how closely our lives have touched, even if we’ve never met.  Obviously,  I knew that before given that my grandfather dated his former mother-in-law after they both found themselves widowed.   But reading the book made me appreciate more just how much lives are intertwined in a small town.  Through blood and marriage and circles of friends and shared experience and proximity.  But there were two areas of intersection with my family that I hadn’t known about and which I found fascinating.

Schism

Fred Thompson spends a good chapter of his book on Ol Time Religion and the lessons he learned at his home church, the First Street Church of Christ.

At the end of the well-kept avenue where I lived with my granddad, less than a hundred yards from my grandfather’s front door that, being small town Southerners we never used, stands the First Street Church of Christ.  My grandparents were Church of Christ.  Every Sunday morning, every Sunday evening, every Wednesday evening for Bible study and every other time the church doors opened my grandparents climbed into their Ford or Mercury and drove about a mile down the road to the Pulaski Street Church of Christ.   On the way to Pulaski Street, you might pass three or four churches that could have cut down on the commuting. Some of them had a distance in theological teachings that far outstretched the physical nearness.  But First Street was a Church of Christ and its quasi-industrial squared off brick structure was more aesthetically intriguing to me than the sloping brown front of Pulaski Street.  I wanted to know why we didn’t go to church there and asked my grandfather.  My granddad was indulgent and usually not short of a full explanation, but he told me in a tone the brooked no further questioning.  “Honey, we just don’t.”

Fred Thompson’s outlined the schism which was the reason behind the terseness.   From Fred’s perspective, the preacher at the center of it all had served enough time (Church of Christ preachers serve at the pleasure of the Elders and Deacons and traditionally not much more than itinerant) and was a little high handed when it was suggested that he’d served enough time.  And apparently there was a lot of ugliness.  My grandparents left that ever-so-convenient First Street and follow that preacher to the congregation at Pulaski Street.

Fred describes the schism thusly:

Soon our little congregation, having been purified though diminished in size, was back to normal.  Some of our friends in the more ‘sophisticated’ Catholic and Presbyterian churches, with whom we carried on constant good-natured, if serious, arguments over doctrine, referred to our congregation, after our split, as the poorer of the two congregations.  One of their more clever blasphemers was heard to say, “Their church is so poor that their members have to bring their own snakes on Sunday.”

That preacher was the man who shared a platform with me when I delivered my grandfather’s eulogy even though he’d long since moved on from Pulaski Street.  He buried my grandmother and he buried both of my cousins’ other grandparents, too (I couldn’t help but think that they must dread to see him coming.)   Delivering a eulogy and arranging the order of service at a funeral is an unpleasant task, but even through my grief I found him a pleasure to work with.   I remember sitting on my grandfather’s back porch on a warm May evening telling him on the phone that my mother had told me to keep my eulogy to seven minutes.  He told me “Well, there’s too long and there’s not long enough.  I’d give it a little more time.”   And he was right and it gave me the confidence to say what I had to say and not worry too much about time limits during a point in my life when I didn’t speak in public as much as I do now.   And it was good.

Union busting

While Fred was in law school, he came back to Lawrenceburg to clerk for his wife’s uncle during the most tumultuous summer that Lawrenceburg had ever seen. That year union organizers came to town.  The primary target was the biggest factory in town, but they thought they’d sweep up some of the smaller manufacturers while they were there, including Fred Thompson’s in-laws who owned a small factory making church furniture.  Unions and Southerners of primarily Scots-Irish decent don’t mix well. It’s my understanding that most of the workers voted against unionizing, but that the union men didn’t take no for an answer.  And then there was trouble. Big trouble.  Violence and blockades.

My grandfather was at the centre of that.  He served on the city council and was acting mayor at the time.  He played a part in organising a group of volunteers who bore arms and kept order in the town.   It was fascinating to read about that time from Thompson’s perspective.  Not one which differed much from my grandfather’s.  Thompson helped prepare the case brought by his in-laws, and my grandfather, too was involved a law suit but was defended by the company’s lawyers.   The judgment on my grandfather declared that he was enjoined “not to violate anyone’s civil rights, so long as he was not provoked.”

I captured my grandfather’s story of that summer in an oral history (here on Scribd  – starting on page 82)

A good read

And the book is really funny.  It captures that fantastic, classic Tennessee boy humor.  Dry.  A humor that waits. Funniest men on the planet, but you never know when it’ll hit you.  A Tennessee man says nothing for a long time, and then the funniest damn thing you’ve ever heard will come out deadpan, with barely a twinkle in his eye.  A quip that gives with one hand and takes with the other and leaves you thinking “Where the hell did that come from?”  Not that Fred has that sense of humor, not really.  He’s too much of a cut-up and a comic to dole out a joke meanly but with devastating effect.  But he captured it brilliantly, it’s like a ‘best of’ collection of cutting wit.

If you like politician’s memoirs, this book might be a bit of a disappointment in that there are few insights from the circles of power.  But if you just like a good tale, it’s an excellent read and does provide insight to the politician that Fred Thompson became.  And if you’re from Lawrenceburg, you really must read it.

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A Piece of Internet History

How does a gal from small town in Tennessee end up living in London and working with local government in England? It’s all down to Usenet, of course. And now it’s shutting down.

DURHAM, NC — This week marks the end of an era for one of the earliest pieces of Internet history, which got its start at Duke more than 30 years ago.

On May 20, Duke will shut down its Usenet server, which provides access to a worldwide electronic discussion network of newsgroups started in 1979 by two Duke graduate students, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis.

Life’s a funny old thing…You make one tiny decision and forever after you follow a different path in life. For me, joining Usenet discussions was one of those little divergences with a butterfly effect.

I met my husband, when he was a graduate student at Sheffield and I was a grad student at the University of Tennessee via a Usenet forum and Unix email. A quirk of the system meant a response to the forum was sent to my personal email. Online etiquette was touchy then…everyone was sensitive to flaming. I sent him a strongly worded email. We entered correspondence. We met up in person in Wales a few months later.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Secrecy, surveillance and slime in the ice machine

Disclaimer: although I do work on some of these issues – this is a personal post, on my personal blog and done in my own time and does not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.

In a hotel in central Doncaster five or six years ago, I was sharing a meal with a colleague. He had an environmental health background, you know, restaurant inspections and the like. We were discussing that I’d just seen restaurant hygiene ratings online for Lawrenceburg, my hometown. (I’d link to them, but time passes and it’s not as easy as it used to be to find them. But you can still look up scores under any zip code) He didn’t think that was such a good idea. It put the restaurants’ business in jeopardy for what a snapshot inspection. People might not understand what the scores meant. He was pretty much appalled by the regular feature on Houston local television from Marvin Zindler (of Best Little Whore House in Texas investigative journalism fame) where he focused on local eateries that had failed health inspections with detailed accounts of dead flies and rat droppings and he reported with particular glee on slime in the ice machine. Here’s his last every restaurant report, the whole thing is good, but the money shot begins at 1 minute 28 seconds.

So essentially, we were eating a meal and we had no way of knowing whether they had consistent violations or a spic and span kitchen. Personally, I want to know whether there’s slime in ice machine. He’s not a bad guy, I really like him. But essentially he was part of culture of bureaucracy which meant that he didn’t trust the rest of us to understand what environmental health officers do. But he expected us to trust that restaurant inspections were going well and keeping us safe.

Time has moved on there, too. There’s now a scores on the door programme in the UK.

I was reminded of this today when I saw Heather Brooke speaking at the RSA about her book The Silent State: secrets, surveillance and the myth of British democracy. She was the muckraking campaigner who did much to expose the parliamentary expenses scandal. In her talk today she focused on the rise of data base government. And I stress that while she’s not opposed to the government collecting data, obviously data and information are critical to effective governance and service delivery, she is opposed to the ceaseless gathering of personal data on all of us, to which we often have no access, no right of correction and which can be passed from agency to agency. She blames the faceless and unaccountable bureaucrats for this data pack-rattery and I think she blames as well much of the British public who complacently allow this to happen.

I’m in a bit of an odd position in that I am one of those faceless British bureaucrats and I’m an American citizen with a healthy distrust of government (or paranoia, you be the judge).  When I expressed my doubts about the national child data base (ContactPoint) – colleagues could not believe that I didn’t want my child on it – though in fact, I don’t have a choice about this. I don’t really know who has access to it or what information it will hold, despite having read the fact sheet. I don’t even know if my son yet has a record (it hasn’t been fully implemented yet). In the fact sheet, I’m told I can ask to see the record, but I’m not given any information about who I’d ask to get it.

It’s not that I think someone will misuse the information about my son, there‘s a certain safety in numbers, I guess, I mean why would my son’s data in particular be misused. But someone could do it. It’s not that I don’t think that most people who work in the UK public sector aren’t fantastically dedicated or at least perfectly OK. But there are just so gosh darned many of us, that some of us have got to be bad/lazy/corrupt. And some of them have access to information about you and me.

Another point she covered is that all this data may not actually be solving the problems. I’m a technocrat of the first order, so naturally I think that more data is better. But I also know that even perfect data won’t help you if you don’t make the right decisions with it. What’s rarely been mentioned in the light of Baby Peter case or Victoria Climbie is that although some information wasn’t shared, often it was.  Part of the problem was simply professionals making the wrong decision or using poor judgment or apparently not being bothered enough or too overworked to follow up. It’s easier to say that we need more information than to look at the culture of decision making.

Things are getting better

Heather Brooke was a bit dismissive to Matthew Taylor’s (head of the RSA and event chair and former Number 10 policy chief) suggestion that the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act was a step in the right direction. I do think that it’s important if imperfect. I think the open data movement is even more important, putting non-personal data owned by the government in the hands of anyone. (data.gov and data.gov.uk) Of course, that’s all non-personal data. But it is a big step toward greater transparency and accountability.

But at the same time that the government is getting on the bandwagon of open and linked data, the government is using linked data principles (essentially standards which help you to link a data point in one set to a corresponding data point in another set – e.g. information about my health and my employment) to make it even easier to share both personal and non-personal data between agencies. Some of that’s good, it’s more efficient, it could avoid information mismatching and help agencies get on the same page.  But some of that may be a bit worrying. As it gets easier for you to connect up information about government, you can bet that it’s going to be even easier for government to connect up information about you.

Chocolate blind spots

The British are awfully fond of their own chocolate.  And why shouldn’t they be?  It’s made to their own tastes and preferences.   But they’re wickedly derisive of American chocolate…or as it’s often phrased “your so-called chocolate”.

Bill likes British chocolate

As Cadbury’s the British chocolatier for the masses faces a hostile takeover by Kraft or a possible friendly-ish merger from Hersheys the American chocolatier for the masses, chocolate is a hot topic in the news.  Yesterday’s PM news on BBC’s Radio 4 featured a blind taste test with an expert chocolatolgist to decide which was better, Cadbury or Hershey.     The chocolate dude admitted that a blind taste test was pointless, given that he knew which was which.   And then he went on to slate the Hershey bar for texture, taste and a dubious set of ingredients.  And oddly he criticised it as well for the rampant sweetness of the Hersheys (which is the same criticism I have of Cadbury’s chocolate – at least with Hersheys I can taste some cocoa).

I grew up on Hershey Bars.  I like them.   I prefer them.  Given a plain Hersheys or a plain Cadbury’s Dairy Milk – I’ll take the Hershey’s every time.  A Hershey’s kiss – chocolate perfection*.  The pleasure of unwrapping, the cute little paper flag, the perfect not-too-melty-but-not-too-solid plop of choc on the tongue.

I don’t want to diss British chocolate – it’s alright.  But I just want to make a defense for American chocolate.  It’s yummy.  It doesn’t deserve the criticism it receives this side of the pond.  And it may just be the thing that saves the integrity of British chocolate.

________

* Well, it was until my palate was educated with really good chocolate, boutique confections from the Continent – and occasionally from the UK.

The hand turkey hits Great Britain

This morning when I dropped Bill off at nursery the kids were all busy making Christmas trees out of green construction paper and red tissue and glue and glitter.

“Christmas already?” I said.  “I’m not ready for that.”

“You don’t do Christmas until really late?” Bill’s nursery teacher said.

“No, I wait til after Thanksgiving , we’d be making turkeys out of construction paper for our decorations now.”

“Oh really?” said the nursery teacher. “How do you do that?”

So I tried to describe the hand turkey and how you’d draw around your hand and then make feathers out of the finger and add a beak onto your thumb. You know – something a little like this:

Hand turkey drawn on whiteboard by The Eggplant on Flickr

She was excited, the kids were gonna give it a go.  So she asked me to describe the whole process and she took notes and everything (honestly, she actually wrote it down). And I thought I had explained it well enough…I mean it’s a pretty straightforward concept.

And when I came back in the afternoon she told me that she’d told the kids all about Thanksgiving and that the reasons they were all making turkeys is because Billy (as they call him) is American and in America on Thanksgiving they have dinner. (Note to self: bring a print out of a kid’s Thanksgiving story)

And I saw a whole row of these things hanging by clothespins from a line stretched across the day care room:

Hand turkey re-imagined in Britain

Look, don’t get me wrong –  I think it’s incredibly sweet that they took the time and effort to help celebrate our (my?) cultural heritage.  And I have to look inward on this one, too and wonder if perhaps my explanation went a bit awry.  I can see now, looking back how my description might have somehow, with the best of intentions,  morphed into this feathery mit from the depth.  And if you’d never seen a hand turkey before, maybe this is a reasonable interpretation of one as described by someone who’s seen and made so many that it seems obvious. (An interesting reflection on the ease of cultural misinterpretation).

But can you imagine that thing as the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving decorations?  It’s as if the rabbit guy from Donnie Darko was leading craft hour with the kids.  And where did they get those feathers from? They look suspiciously like pigeon feathers.  Did they send the toddlers out with breadcrumbs  into the local park to lure, capture and pluck?

Tomorrow, apparently they’re making Indian headdresses.

I can’t wait.

Why I don’t love the NHS

It’s been interesting to see the rabid foaming of the mouths on both sides of the Atlantic in the wake of the healthcare debate in the US. The anti-reformists in the US are all saying that it’s going to end up like the NHS if Obama gets his way. In contrast over here, there’s been a massive “We love the NHS” campaign on newspapers and social networking sites with a usual kind of sneering anti-American bias.  Even the Prime Minister and Stephen Hawing have got in on the act*

So who’s right? Well, I spent quite a while combing through OECD tables on health care quality comparitive indicators in the hopes of finding a juicy graph or maybe a killer statistical table and my conclusion is that whatever the basis of the argument is, it isn’t fact.   If you want to compare the US and UK on 5 year survival rates for cancer it very much depends on the cancer, but they often aren’t too far apart.  What are your chances of surving a heart attack 30 days after hospitalisation – you’re better off in the UK, which I found pretty surprising (though I already knew that on many indicators the UK comes off better).

The really interesting thing though is that while often UK and US figures were close – a couple points off one way or the other, they were often not as good than other rich countries.   So, that’s my first point – both sides are saying that their health care is the envy of the rest of the world – but that will only be the rest of the world without the ability to read a statistic table.  Looks like there are some much better health outcomes to be found in Australia, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, France, Germany…and so on.

I will say this about the US vs UK thing – the US pays vastly more for outcomes which are often not better than those in the UK.

Let’s leave fact aside

Since no one seems to want to argue on the basis of fact, I’m going to leave the numbers aside.  This is a battle of emotion and personal anecdotes, so I’ll give you some.

I don’t love the NHS.  The NHS let me down.  It’s let me down on a number of occasions.  I had an appalling birth experience and I was left in pain for over a year and a half after my son was born.  The pain was in fact unrelated (ovarian cyst – although it probably was complicated by the caesarian), but because complications from my caesarian were dealt with so badly no one identified that I had developed the cyst and put it down to poor recovery.   It took quite a fight to eventually get the surgery which means I’m not in pain every time I brush against a counter or my handbag touches my side.

The hospital maternity ward I laboured for two days in was dismal and dingy, half the staff were uncaring and barely competent – the other half (I saw several shifts while I was there!) ranged from ok to good.  The approach was interventionist and unsupportive of a natural labour, no one asked or understood my situation well enough to support the natural birth I wanted (though this almost certainly would have happened in the US, too)  However, the anesthitist for my C-section was fabulous.

The ward I stayed on for two days after my son’s birth was a nightmare.  It was the worst experience of my life.  It made the labour ward look like a resort on the Riviera.  It was hot, noisy, cramped, and none too clean.   A nurse swore and yelled at me for refusing to take morphine.  I caught a post-operative infection, which I then struggled to get treatment for as each service thought I was the others’ responsibility.  I then struggled for over a year to get the hopsital to address my concerns.

I’ve visited the local emergency room on a few occasions.  They were pretty good when my husband was delusional from food poisoning.   When I got glass in my eye, I had to talk an unsupervised student doctor through washing out my eye.  That was after I removed the bloody bandages from the sink over which she sluiced my eye (the student doctor was afraid to touch them).   Still, she got the glass out and I didn’t catch anything nasty.  The time I sprained my ankle (different hospital) when I got caught in the doors of an Underground train, I got turfed out minutes before the national target time effectively without treatment and with no crutches – I couldn’t walk.  That was after I witnessed a single  (very good) nurse in my area being run ragged while a bunch junior doctors stood around doing nothing.

On the other hand, I’d certainly like to dispel some myths about the NHS.  I can change my doctor, I can opt to go private – and even private treatment in the UK costs less than in the US, I can even buy private insurance.   When I had a lump in my breast, my only complaint about that experience is that they were probably crazily over cautious even after it was fairly well established that it was a benign cyst.  I saw the same practitioners every time, they were pleasant and explained things well.  Oh, and I’ve never had to pay anything (except a flat rate for prescription drugs) at the point of delivery.  Yes, I do pay handsomely through my taxes, but it costs me less than a typical employee contribution and co-payments in the US.

Why I don’t love the US Healthcare system

Doctors offices and hospitals in the US are a lot nicer than they are in the UK.  And everyone but dental hygenists seems to have a more pleasant demeanor, but this may be more about US service culture than anything else.  There’s more emphasis on making you comfortable in the US, which is something that’s quite good when you’re not feeling so hot.  I’ve had fewer experiences of US health care, but the ones I’ve had were nicer. Mostly. When I was insured.

When I wasn’t insured, it wasn’t so good.  I paid exhorbitant rates for shoddy care at walk-in clinics.  I was chased by a debt collection agency for a bill I had in fact paid (it was the doctor’s office administrative error).  When I got out of University and was no longer covered, I lived in fear that my financial future would be wiped out if I got into an accident.

I know people who were forced to accept worse pay and condititions just because they had to hang on to their insurance because a spouse had cancer.  Others face pressure and worry of medical bills.  My mother knows people who probably died due to lack of care after TennCare (state funded health care in my home state of Tennessee) collapsed.

Don’t put your love in institutions

Any time, whether it be in the US or the UK, you think you’ve got the best thing since sliced bread or you persist in telling yourself so until you believe it – your doomed to complacency and quality less than you deserve.  There are some excellent features of both systems, but there are also some serious flaws.  It just isn’t right that so many people in the US have little access to adequate health care or that people barely in the ranks of the middle class are just one medical disaster away from a bankruptcy.

The love-cult of the NHS has allowed staff to become unaccountable and uncaring – underperformance just isn’t addressed, it’s always excused by lack of resources (which may sometimes be the case, but not always).   The love-cult of the US health care system has allowed insurance companies to become the “death panels” in deniers of service while raking in profits – all while not actually delivering a much better (and often worse) service in terms of actual medical outcomes.

____

* I find it rather ironic that people like Stephen Hawking are saying that they wouldn’t be here if not for the NHS as part of their argument.  If he’d been a professor at Harvard, rather than at Cambridge – I’m quite sure he would have had absolutely excellent health care.

Here’s another expat American blogging about the healthcare debate.

The ‘birthers’ are hurting my boy

It’s no secret that I’ve regularly voted Democrat throughout my electoral life, but I’m also no Obama partisan.  I never succumbed to the Obama-mania and I’ve regularly been critical of his positions.

But this ‘birther’ nonsense – the idea that Barack Obama is not a US citizen, natural born or otherwise, because he was born in Kenya and not Hawaii is just ludicrous.   The BBC has done a reasonable Q&A of the issues, although it doesn’t seem to cover the various permutations, e.g. the forged Kenyan birth certificate, or the idea that his US citizenship was surrendered when (if) he was adopted by his Indonesian step-father.

The birth notice in the Hawaiian newspaper is kinda enough proof for me.  I can’t imagine anyone having sufficient foresight to print a false notice in the local rag of a birth in Honolulu just to ensure presidential aspirations of an infant son.  And if that weren’t enough, the State of Hawaii swears up and down that he really was born within their territory. I reckon Barack Obama really was born in the Aloha State.

But I’m not entirely sure it matters one way or the other.  The constitution does not require that the President be born within the territory of the United States, but rather that he or she is a “natural born” citizen.   My son was born in London, but as (suitably qualified) American citizen I could pass on my citizenship to him.   He gets an American passport – and a supplementary certificate  recording the birth of an American abroad which shows him to be a “natural born citizen”.  The explanatory notes along with the certificate say that the question of whether he can be president has never been tested by judicial ruling (as it had never arisen), but there was every indication that he could, one day, be President.  No matter where Obama was born, there’s no question that his mother was a US citizen.  I don’t know what the rules were back in 1961, but if they are the same now as they were then – Obama is a natural born American citizen.

All this birther hoopla threatens to muddy my boy’s rights and those of every American expat child.  I fear that there will be a rush to pass stupid legislation which will confuse my boy’s constitutional position.   And, all for nothing.  Obama really was born in Hawaii.

Looking presidential?

Looking presidential?