newyorksubalien has evolved. New city, new life, new blog

newyorksubalien has evolved. New city, new life, new blog.

Yes, I’m still socially-insecure and still deemed too primitive a life form for a bank account. I still can’t say ‘water’ correctly and voice-recognition software still doesn’t understand my number 8.

Meanwhile Superalien is still as super (at least in my eyes), Male Mini-Me is taller than all of us and Mini-Mum has returned to the home of the Mini, only popping back from London to sleep, be fed and help balance out testosterone levels.

But in my new home of Chicago, I can at least lay claim to my own subgroup. I’m now Chi-rish as in Chicago Irish. Apparently the hyphen is important so as not to be confused with Chinese Irish or the town in Armenia. But I’m trusting my readers not to be churlish and to forgive these, my (hyphen-less) Chirish chatters…..

Friday, February 28, 2014

Polar bares and river rabbits

On pain of boring everyone rigid about how frigid it still is here in Chirish-land, the Arctic conditions are at least allowing one upcoming event to live up to its name.

The Polar Plunge is held annually in Chicago to raise funds for the city’s Special Olympics. As the name suggests, it involves a plunge (or a paddle) in the wintry waters of Lake Michigan. Usual attire is a swimsuit and little else, giving a new meaning to polar bare. Last year, the water temperature was a balmy 32 degrees Fahrenheit which is basically freezing in Centigrade. This year, the concern is that it will be frozen – literally.

As of the middle of February, some 88% of the Great Lakes were covered with ice, the highest percentage since the mid-1990s. We had a few days last week when temperatures nudged into the positive column and everything started melting. That was fun. It was a bit like a sunny day in Northern Ireland in the summer. People started wearing shorts and tried to use their BBQs. Except the tops were still frozen over.

But just like summer in Northern Ireland (as in “What did you do last summer?” “Oh, I went to the hairdresser that day”), our “spring” was short-lived and we’re back to Defcon 1 duvet coats and Dangerous Temperature alerts.

Interest in this Sunday’s Polar Plunge is heating up however due to the participation of Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel and comedian Jimmy Fallon. Emanuel was the first on board after promising to take part if Chicago schoolchildren read more than 2 million books in the Summer Learning Challenge.

Fallon, who just took over the Tonight Show this month from Jay Leno, was then lured into signing up after Emanuel promised he would appear on Fallon’s show if he took the plunge. Fallon is now calling himself “Swimmy Fallon” and says he will be wearing a suit and tie. Apparently Emanuel is asking for a recount of the two million books, just in case.

The forecast for Sunday is suitably polar – temperatures of around minus 10 degrees Celsius and snow showers.  But the temperature in the lake is currently around minus 1 so it will actually be warmer in the water.

And at least Swimmy and co won’t have to worry about the giant attacking fish that people have been emailing me about recently. 

That stems from a report Chicago is looking at how to prevent Asian carp overrunning the Great Lakes. The carp, introduced to the southern US in the 1970s to keep catfish ponds clean, are now in public waterways such as the Mississippi river. 

Thanks to their impressive rate of reproduction, they have become known as river rabbits which is doubly appropriate as they can also jump. But not quite a bunny hop, rather up to three metres into the air. And into nearby fishermen. According to the Environment Protection Agency, there have been reports of injuries ranging from black eyes to concussion. And the fishermen didn't look too good either!

The good news is that scientists have only discovered river rabbit DNA and no actual carp in the Great Lakes and in reality current numbers are thought to be very few, if any. So the only things leaping out of Lake Michigan this coming Sunday should be the very cold and very brave Polar Plungers. Woolly hats off to them all. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Gum, Goofy and the Golden Arches – the Chicago connection

Wrigley’s chewing gum, Walt Disney and McDonald's – three things I’ve always regarded as all-American. What I’ve never realized until recently is they are also all-Chicagoan.

The gum I hit upon soon after our arrival, a big clue being the fact the name Wrigley kept cropping up around our new hometown. As in Wrigley Building on Michigan Avenue, Wrigley Field, home to the Chicago Cubs baseball team, and the Wrigley Mansion, home to well, I’m not sure whom but a very nice one at any rate, on Lincoln Park.

What I soon after discovered is that Mr Wrigley was not originally Mr Gum. His first loves were scouring soap and baking powder. But obviously there was much competition amongst purveyors of baking powder back in the 1890s so Wrigley started giving away sticks of the sticky stuff as an added stick. And it stuck.

Not only did Wrigley introduce us to Doublemint, but also to the idea of a double day of rest at the end of the week. For he was one of the first employers to give his factory workers both Saturday and Sunday off. Wrigley, the company, is still looking out for us even today. A visit to saw me clicking in the intriguing “Benefits of Chewing” link. There I discovered how chewing sugar-free gum for 20 minutes after food and drinks has been proven to help protect your teeth.

Better still, chew instead of chow. And then you save the calories but, thanks to Wrigley, you can still savour the flavor. Especially if you choose any of the Extra Dessert Delights options such as Key Lime Pie, Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream and Strawberry Shortcake.

I’m waiting to see if they take it a step further and develop a hamburger variety. But that might be encroaching on the territory of a certain Chicagoan corporate neighbour that also boasts a downtown landmark building. Except that instead of the Wrigley Building’s ornate, soaring clock tower, this one has 60-ft golden arches. And seating for 300. And a two-lane drive–through.

I only discovered recently that McDonald’s has its corporate headquarters in the Chicagoan suburb of Oak Brook. But I should have been tipped off by the city's Thanksgiving Parade. Until now this American tradition has been indelibly linked in my mind with the word “Macy’s”. But whereas in the Big Apple, the parade was thanks to the owners of the big shop, in the Big Onion, it’s all down to the makers of the Big Mac.

McDonald's Corp's Chicago base is because the company's founder, Ray Kroc, was born in Oak Brook. Again news to me but apparently the man who had the vision to plant those Golden Arches across America and beyond did not own the chain’s first burger bar in California (that was in fact owned by the McDonald brothers). Kroc, a milkshake machine salesman, visited the restaurant, saw the patty potential and entered into business with the McDonald brothers, eventually buying out the exclusive rights to the McDonald’s name. I suppose even he didn’t think McKroc’s sounded the same.

Reading about Kroc led me to discover my third, somewhat surprising, Chicago connection. When he was 15, Kroc lied about his age and joined the Red Cross during the First World War. At a training camp in Connecticut, he came across another Chicagoan who had done the same. In his autobiography, Kroc noted this young chap never came out on the town with the rest of the volunteers when they had time off. Instead he would stay in the camp drawing. His name? Walt Disney.

Disney’s Chicagoan heritage may not be known to many but the city is taking steps to correct this. Last year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared December 5 – Disney’s birth date in 1901 – to be Walt Disney Day. The same day, the new owners of the Disney family home where Walt was born announced their plans to restore the house to its original state and eventually open a small private museum. 

The house was built by Walt's carpenter father Elias in 1893 while he was working on the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Many believe that Elias’ stories about the World Fair (which saw the creation of the Ferris wheel) helped inspire Walt Disney's own Magic Kingdom in later life.

Come to think of it, modern day Chicago still has much that resembles Disneyland. A Main Street, a big lake, castles and towers like the Wrigley Building, rides like the Ferris Wheel on Navy Pier - and, of course, McDonald's!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

POST FROM THE PAST: Seeing red as Planet Big Apple prepares for "V-Day"

From the archives of, a Valentine's Day remembered....

As you can imagine, they don’t do things in halves over in Planet Big Apple – and that certainly applies to Valentine’s Day which no one could say is celebrated over here in a “half-hearted” fashion (sorry).

As soon as they cleared the all-embracing holiday decorations out of the shops, the shelves in our local drug store filled up with little red boxes of candy, enormous rose-carrying, all-embracing stuffed gorillas (I have no idea why – I obviously haven’t evolved enough) and red hearts or variations thereof appeared in every shop window. Even my local shoe-repair store has popped some red heart-covered wellies in the window for sale - or would that mean you want to give her the boot.

And I know that as soon as the candles are blown out and the last champagne, truffle and mungo bean-flavoured chocolate is eaten, everything will go green for St Patrick’s Day. Actually I’ve seen one liquor store that has decided to skip the Valentine’s Day stage altogether and has gone straight to the St Paddy’s Day paraphernalia. Obviously more money in Irish whiskey sales than bottles of cheap pink sparkling wine. Or in the hope that singles will buy Irish whiskey to drink with their mates on St Valentine’s Day – they could call it St Palentine’s Day.

The advanced concept that there’s no reason why St Valentine’s Day should just be enjoyed by lovers is certainly one that has already reached our new home planet. We’re back to that all-embracing, all-inclusive thing again. So of course you should send Valentine’s Day cards to your friends, your work colleagues, your teachers and other members of your family. Walk into a card shop at this time of the year and good luck on finding a birthday card. Rather the walls are full of such permutations as “From grandchildren to grandparents”,  “ From woman to woman”, “From your dog”,  “From tenant to super” (OK, I made the last one up).

There’s the “From wife with religious message” card which seems to me an interesting combination and my favourite - “Celebrating our first holiday together”. No expectations there. Hope there’s an enormous rose-carrying, all-embracing stuffed gorilla waiting for the sender of that one.

What I particularly love is when the most un-Valentiney products get given the V-Day treatment (yes, they even call it V-Day here). I’m not talking about the obvious special discounts ahead of the big day although who could resist the Valentine’s Day nursing uniform and scrubs sale with their heartbeat and Tweety Valentine prints.  No, it’s offers like the “Happy Valentine’s Day” laser removal special for him and her with the great slogan “The couple that lasers together, stays together”.  Now there’s a gift that should go along with the “Celebrating our first holiday together” card.

On the other end of the experience scale, we’re once again feeling our alien genes. This being the first year Male Mini-me is in an American school, I am currently having to go through the same discreet negotiations with my girlfriends as when I was trying to find out about holiday gifts to doormen. Along with the individual, sender-specific cards on display in the stores, there are also multi-packs of 15 cards for schoolkids to send out to their classmates.  However given that Male Mini-me has reached the dizzy heights of Middle School, Mini-Mum (a very definite High-Schooler) has pronounced it uncool to go down the card route. I suppose the fact that the cards were all Disney princesses and SpongeBob should have given me a clue.

Her suggested compromise is to produce Valentine’s Day chocolate rice krispie buns – ie in heart-covered cases and with red sprinkles. These have always been a successful contribution to any class, even in Paris where Male Mini-me's classmates used to ask him for the recipe. I wrote it down for him – it started off “First, find a mother who can’t bake”.  Note for all other Mamasubas out there – the same buns in shamrock cases and green sprinkles make great St Patrick’s Day buns – or turf cakes as I call them. 

And what about my own Valentine’s Day? Well, it will be hard to beat last year – our first with snow on the ground and in an apartment with a little back garden.  As it was Sunday, I was lying in bed with my coffee and champagne, truffle and mungo bean-flavoured chocolates when Male Mini-me called me to look outside. There they were, the two men in my life, grinning away – and a great big heart drawn in the snow with red paint. 

They'll always be my valientines.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Dibbing, dabbing and nabbing - a Chicago winter continued

You’d have thought there wouldn’t much use for beach chairs in the snowy wilderness that currently is Chirish-land but you’d be wrong.

Walk along any residential street and you’ll see vacant fold-up plastic pews in bright green and orange, just waiting for their owners to return. This is the Chicago winter tradition of “dibs” – reserving your street parking spot on the basis that that hour you spent shovelling it clear entitles you to leave for an unlimited number of hours without anyone else taking it.

It doesn’t have to be beach chairs - upturned wheelie bins, kids’ outdoor sit-on toys (because they won’t be using them for at least another 2 months), there’s even a photo somewhere of a statue of Jesus saving the day – or at least the spot.

Calling ‘dibs’ is not legal. Chicago streets are public property but authorities usually turn a blind eye to dibbing after heavy snowfalls when it can take some time for side streets to be cleared.  But woe betide the brave soul who ignores dibs etiquette and nabs the spot. Reported “punishments” for offenders range from burial by snow (the car that is, not the driver) to the more extreme slashing of car tyres.

This winter already is in the top ten snowiest since records began in the 1880s so I can understand the frustration of the dibbers and the nabbers. Getting a car dug out is no mean feat when you have to contend with the walls of snow cleared from the sidewalk on one side and the bank of snow pushed to one side by the snow plows on the other.

So far we’ve had just under 62 inches of the white stuff this winter  – that’s over 1.5 metres to us aliens. And with temperatures well below freezing (today is the 20th  below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, that’s minus 18 Celsius in alien-speak), all that deep, deep snow isn’t going anywhere just yet.

But signs spring is around the corner are emerging on the snow-plowed streets. For in Chicago, the gradual approach of spring is heralded by the gradual loss of car springs - and burst tyres and bashed wheel rims, all thanks to the arrival of the pothole.

It's a bit like a Whack-a-Mole game except that you're swapping critters for craters. Some 625,000 potholes were filled in last year but we're off to a flying start in 2014, with 100,000 dabbed in already thanks to hard-working crews who are out 7 days a week. You can even plot their progress like some video game thanks to the special pot hole tracker website launched by the city showing their latest 7-day "score". 

I tried to find the website and was distracted by which markets “only the ripest and freshest crumbling asphalt from around Chicagoland”. With Valentine’s Day coming up, I was sorely tempted by the bags of PotholePourri or the chance to name a pothole after my loved one thanks to the International Pothole Registry.

So long as he doesn't interpret it as meaning our marriage has hit a bump in the road!