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28 Jan 2000 00:00
I am snowed-in in the United States, and although it is initially quite exciting, the novelty begins to fade as the implications begin to sink in.
It means that we are not going to be able to catch our flight back to Johannesburg on time.
Airports are closing down along the eastern seaboard, planes diverted, delayed or cancelled.
This in turn could have a knock-on effect in other areas.
We’ve been away from South Africa for two weeks, travelling ahead of the marching time zones into the New World.
It’s surprising how rapidly you feel cut off from the day-to-day realities of “home” by this mere fact of time zone differences. Once you are in the US, there is only a narrow band of time in which it is realistically possible to send a message across the oceans by telephone.
By the time you get up at 7am here, it is already 2pm down there, and by the time you’ve had breakfast, washed the baby and got your brain into gear to say what you want to say, the people out in Africa have long since left the office and are preparing for bed.
By which time you are so attuned to the American rhythm of waffles, coffee and much talk about nothing in particular that you find it hard to remember what it was you wanted to communicate, anyway, and decide to let it roll over into the following day’s vague agenda instead. It had been a remarkably mild American winter when we arrived.
The daffodils were pushing up into the mild daylight, and the cherry blossoms were standing out pink as spring on the naked trees. The American squirrels, so urbanised now that they scarcely pay any attention to winter anyway, were ambling around the sunny suburban roads with particularly cocky expressions on their little faces.
And then suddenly old Jack Frost decided it was time for No More Mr Nice Guy, and the heavens released their torrents of lashing snow. And that is when reality began to intrude.
In the US, the only way to begin to deal with reality is to switch on the television. It is too cold to go out anyway. Much more fun to watch the news clips of Americans scraping stoically at the ever-thickening blanket of snow from the safety of your well-heated apartment.
American daytime TV is hypnotic. It is completely inane and bad for your health, yet brilliantly compulsive at the same time—like bagels and Budweiser. In fact, lying on the sofa in front of the television of a mid-week morning, eating bagels and lox and drinking iced beer, is probably precisely what has given middle-America its particularly bulging profile, a badge of pride that transcends historical issues of race, class and gender.
American daytime television is what the US is really all about. The alarming weather conditions, harrowing stories about college students incinerated in a New Jersey dormitory blaze, the Iowa primaries (who gives a damn?) and the dilemma of two Cuban grandmothers who have come to try and secure the return of their six-year-old grandson, the tug-of-war celebrity infant Elian Gonzalez, are all delivered in a seamless flow of cheery confidence by a multicultural, all-American team of broadcast professionals who all sound pretty much the same.
Their rapportage is pasted into a very slick montage of commercials that are the real reason why we are giving our attention to the little screen. The American snake-oil salesperson is doing everything in its power to hook us, and we are being voluntarily hooked.
And just in case we have any hesitation about handing over our money, new ways of making it easy for us to surrender are being invented every day. Credit card and Internet sales are now the most lethally effective of these methods.
The US has always prided itself on being a
classless society, but it is on daytime TV that this boast is really proven to be true. Former duchess of York Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson and former Oval Office “intern” Monica Lewinsky are fronting rival weight- loss programmes on rival channels—proving that you don’t need to be attached to a prince or a president to make an ongoing impact in the public eye.
You just need to have been a little overweight at one time or another, and to have become detached from such an individual in a scandalous way within living memory. Thereafter you are automatically good television.
I think I tried to do some work on the computer. When I looked up again, there was a talk show with a packed and lively audience raging on about the subject of teenage sex.
Thirteen-year-old girls in miniskirts were having yelling matches with their mothers about the numbers of men they were sleeping with, and whether the mothers were just objecting because they were not as successful with men as their daughters. All of them were appearing voluntarily together on this show.
I found myself wondering why none of these people, audience and participants alike, were going to work. Or, for that matter, to school.
I had to shake myself out of this seductive stupor. I switched off the TV, threw on some clothes and ran out into the snow. The violent cold gave me an instant headache, but I kept going.
At least I felt that I was doing something. The most important thing seemed to be to keep on moving, and never to look back in the direction of that television set.
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