News in the USA

Following the air disaster in Florida, it’s time for the FAA to start asking the hard questions: Who in their right mind would choose to fly on an airline with a name as tacky as “ValuJet”?

Actually, while in America, we heard of what would have to rate as the silliest air crash ever. I’m sure you all remember it. Little seven year-old Jessica, trying to be the youngest ever to fly across the USA. Is the human race OUT OF OUR MINDS?! A seven year old, barely able to reach the pedals?! Where does it end? My son Isaac has just turned one, should he be the next to try for the record?

Watching the news in the US was amusing. I’m at a safe distance, so it’s probably safe to name names: KNVX, Phoenix. This station has a news service that fulfils just about every cliche of bad news reporting you could think of.

They don’t just have theme music. Nope. They’ve got some DJ announcer and sound effects when their logo comes on.

[deep voice] This is KNVX News, Phoenix. [KNVX logo flies onto screen with a swoop, then four punch sounds as the letters N E W S appear]

And the newsreaders! What attitude! While one would read the story, the other would shake his/her head in disbelief. Then for any story where anybody had screwed up anything, they’d look at each other and make a snide remark, with the tone of voice that normally goes with the words, “how *stupid* can you get?”

It was comforting to see that on other channels, like here in Australia, there were newsreaders who just *read the news*.

The odd thing about most of the free-to-air broadcast news services was that “world” news was mostly from elsewhere in the United States. It wasn’t until the massacre in Tasmania that we saw some news from home. Triffic, had to be that, didn’t it.

Thankfully CNN was much better. Okay, so there was a lot of crap on the cable channels, but there was a lot of good stuff too. The moment the Australian cable carriers bring through VH1 and a channel that gets C-Net, I’ll pounding on their doors to sign up (instead of the other way round).

After some investigation, we found the secondhand Levi’s trade route across the Pacific Ocean. It starts in little corner shops in American cities, and ends, with huge markups, in shops in the parts of the world with extremely gullible people, like here in Australia. Beats me what’s so special about 501s anyway.

But some Australians are fighting back. Let all the Aussies know — someone has invented something called the “Outback Steakhouse”, a chain of restaurants all over the USA. There you can find Australian beers (including Foster’s imported from Toronto!) and all sorts of alleged Australian delicacies with silly ocker names.

I’ve lived in Australia for all of my twenty-five years, and never once before have I heard of the “Bloomin’ Onion”. *I* think it’s just a big Crocodile Dundee cash-in. But let me tell you, they do serve *damn* good food there. So get down there and have a steak. And have a XXXX for me.

(That reminds me. Saw a great Foster’s ad in a bar in Seattle. A truck is struggling over a sandy hilly terrain. The wheels slip… then at last they grip on the ground, and it moves forward, pulling a rope behind it. The caption appears “Australian for Dentist.” Then a Foster’s can appears and it says “Australian for Beer.”)

RAM on

So, Daniel, we heard you just splashed out on more memory for your computer.

Yep, it’s got 24Mb now. More than enough for anybody. At least until next week. Ha, you’re not getting me into one of those Bill Gates quotes…

Why’d you spend the money?

Makes it faster.

When you’re typing up Toxic Custard… in that DOS text editor of yours… does it help you type faster?

Well, no.

Do you think up jokes faster?

Look, it makes it easier when I’m editing the spiffed up Toxic Custard Web page, okay? Putting in all those cool graphics and stuff.

By golly, he’s right folks; check it out now… the Toxic Custard Web page!

And home again

Immersing myself in the local cultureWell, it’s good to be home. After four weeks away, you start to miss the niceties of home – the mess in the spare room, the vomit-coloured carpet, the washers that need replacing.

But our trip to America last month was well worth it. We got to see so many interesting things, and to discover that America is just like Australia – except for the bits that aren’t.

The great thing about going anywhere where you have relatives is that they are almost always hospitable enough to sponge off – at least for accommodation. Usually it’s a consequence of

(a) them feeling guilty about how much you paid in airfares
(b) them being thoroughly nice people.

A lot of the time they insisted on paying the restaurant bills, too. It became sort of a game – who could snatch it off the table quicker. A few almost got ripped to shreds in the process.

Actually, I was a bit alarmed that most of the friends and relatives we met were dentists, lawyers, Amway salesmen and/or Christian fundamentalists, but apart from that they were all really nice.


If there’s one thing that I noticed as different in America, it wasn’t the driving on the other side of the road – it wasn’t the 50 channels but nothing to watch – it wasn’t the laughably quaint gun laws – it was quite definitely the plumbing.

America, as a nation, seems to have decided to eradicate the humble plug. No basin, no bath that I saw had a conventional plug. They all had weird push-button plugs that work with varying degrees of effectiveness. In fact, none of them worked. They all drained water as slowly as an alcoholic with kidney failure.

They have also largely done away with the conventional wash tap. But they haven’t quite decided on what should replace it. Some basins have handle-type taps that turn the same way, others turn different ways for hot and cold, which once left me trying to turn the cold for over a minute when I didn’t remember which way I’d turned it on.

Some taps have a joystick. Others (particularly public toilets) have push buttons with a timer so they run for a few seconds after you let go. Some have really really stupid push buttons which run *only* when you have them pressed down, making it impossible to wash both your hands at once. And if you only had one arm, you’d probably need to bother someone into running the tap for you. Not a good look.

“Hey man, can you reach over and hold this down?”

“Get away from me, you pervert.”

I suppose you’re expecting me to talk about the corolois effect (or however the heck it’s spelt), and how the water goes down the toilet in a particular way in particular hemispheres? Okay. In Phoenix I clearly observed the water going down the toilet ANTI-CLOCKWISE. Now that I’m back in Melbourne, I will just go to the toilet and flush and observe.

…a few minutes later…

Okay, it went down clockwise. Is this always the case? Is it caused by the way the Earth spins? Or is it just a theory designed to keep the kids interested in science? Perhaps we’ll never know.

I must have a quick rant about toilet cubicles. Some, for instance the McDonalds near the south rim of the Grand Canyon, have cubicles with apparently strategically placed gaps in the doorways so anybody and everybody can see what’s going on while you attempt to take care of business! Very off-putting, I’m telling you! I ended up holding it, and taking care of business at the Canyon.

(No, not *into* the Canyon – Oh heck, you know what I mean.)

Seattle, Washington

The first thing you notice about Washington state is the abundance of green. Most of it is green, a contrast from Arizona, which is mostly dust. And whereas Arizona is dusty because it’s dry, Washington is green because it’s wet. Makes perfect sense.

In fact, while in Arizona L’s uncle had told me “Washington’s really nice… if you like green”.

For Australians (and others) reading, it’s probably worth mentioning that Washington state is completely different to Washington, DC. George Washington is obviously a very venerated person in the United States, because about half of everything is named “Washington” somethingorother. There’s cities called Washington, the state called Washington, streets, suburbs, schools, buildings — everything.

We’ve been doing a lot of the touristy-pop-culture things. We’ve eaten at the cafe in Twin Peaks and had a look around Snoqualmie Falls… had our pictures taken in Roslyn, where they filmed Northern Exposure… gone past the motel in An Officer And A Gentleman… seen the same view that Frasier has from his apartment window… had lunch at the restaurant from Sleepless in Seattle… checked out the bloodstains in Kurt Cobain’s garage. Whoops, just kidding…

I’m still getting used to the American money. Having now become accustomed to ATMs which ask me if I want my transaction in English or Spanish, once I get the money in my hand, or heaven forbid try to spend it, I have to check it all very carefully. Australian money is colour coded, for people like me who just can’t be bothered looking for the numbers. US money is all green. No shades, no different sizes no distinguishing features except for the different numbers and the startingly similar different pictures on each.

The other thing that sometimes still throws me is the idea of sales tax, which is added after the total is calculated. So you’re expecting a nice even $1.00, and you actually get $1.08, and have to scrabble around for some extra coins. And tipping. In Australia, nobody expects a tip, and few get one, but over here the waiters and so on seem to expect an extra few dollars. Oh well, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

In the supermarkets here they have all that stuff which when imported into Australia we pay a small fortune for, if we’re foolish enough to decide we want it. You know, Cherry Coke and so on. But today I found an imported jar of Vegemite, normal size (whatever that may be) for no less than US$5.95! Ah – so there is justice in the world! (And shipping costs…)

Phoenix, Arizona

Well! Here we are in America. And in between falling into canyons and getting lost in the malls, I thought I’d rattle off a quick entry.

The flight

AeroplaneThe Pacific Ocean is big. That’s probably why it takes so long to get from Australia to America. Something close to [ARGH] hours stuck in a 747 could potentially be quite miserable, depending on a number of factors.

One of the factors is “those little bastard teenagers called Richard and Oliver who have just discovered reclining seats”. On every aeroplane carrying more than about a hundred people, you will find a Richard and Oliver. If you’re lucky, they won’t be sitting in front of you. We weren’t that lucky.

It gets a little like that bit in the Simpsons where Homer says “bed goes up… bed goes down… bed goes up…” and it can be particularly frustrating when they keep doing it while you’re trying to eat a meal. So we took the logical course of action. We made friends with their parents, who were sitting next to us. It only took a few minutes of idle chatter (introduce the baby, that one that works every time) before “Oliver! Richard! Put those chairs up and leave them there!”

The toilet of a 747 is a wondrous device. It’s quite obvious that the ergonomics and user-friendliness people were away the day they designed the toilet. Otherwise why would the door be made so it *always* looks like it’s engaged? Trust me, if you’re on a 747 and needing a quick lavvy session, even if people are waiting, push on the door anyway. It’s the only way of being sure that there’s someone in there.

Of course, the 747 toilet defines the term “small”. Never have so many conveniences been packed into the one err… convenience. You need to be very careful not to bang your head on the paper dispenser while trying to reach for the paper cups and trying to hold onto anything vaguely handle-shaped during turbulence.

If you manage to take care of your business, stand well clear when you flush. That is one WEIRD flush! A kind of super-powered vacuum slurps everything down the drain. Wouldn’t surprise me if it was directly powered by the plane engines.

The in-flight movie annoyed me. What annoyed me wasn’t so much the fact that it was edited for airline viewing, but the fact that the airline believed that intelligent human beings with an ounce of dignity left would enjoy such crap. Thank you, United Airlines.

Even if you don’t want to watch the movie, you end up watching the movie. You can’t avoid it. It’s up there on the screen. You have to keep looking. I was amazed at my ability to comprehend the plot just by glancing at the screen every few minutes, and without the benefit of the sound.

Chaos on earth

I think I have found the closest thing to chaos that you will ever see on Earth. It’s called LAX. At LAX, thousands of people run around in all directions talking and shouting in hundreds of languages. And then there’s the passengers. After the five mile walk from the terminal to Immigration, we got our luggage off the conveyor belt twirly thing, went through Customs, only to put everything back onto another conveyor belt to go (hopefully) to our destination, Phoenix.

The bus between the international and domestic terminals was a bit like you might imagine a prison ship of the 1700s; a box stuffed with people. By some miracle we managed to get out intact at the correct terminal, with our possessions and a few people who got caught up with the mass rush out of the bus. After we found the gate and somewhere to sit, and could relax, and change the baby’s nappy. (Another one for the list of interesting nappy change locations.)

All in all, a reasonably good journey. Heck, we got there in one piece didn’t we? And with all our luggage; that’s the real miracle. And it gave me a chance to sample an entirely new and unique life experience – that of attempting to eat breakfast in an extremely confined space while watching the Golf Channel.


America is a big place. In fact, the continental United States is about the same size as Australia. Big. We’re only seeing a few bits of it on this holiday.

Arizona is big and flat, except for the bits that aren’t. One of those bits is the Grand Canyon. Let me tell you right now, the Grand Canyon is BIG. Very big. It’s so big that I think they should consider a name change, quite possibly to the Freaking Big Canyon. Capital letters in the name, and perhaps a kind of 3D chiselled look with a quadriphonic fanfare wouldn’t go astray either. In fact, the word “big” may not be adequate. Perhaps humungous would be better.

We’ve also done a bit of horseback riding around the desert. This is a lot of fun, although the disclaimer was a bit scarey. Something about no liability no matter how many broken bones you get when your horse (and a pack of wild jackrabbits) trample you to death.

But the ride itself turned out to be very relaxing. The only downside was all the bits in the nether regions that were sore later, including several bones I didn’t know I had.