Alexander McCall Smith’s notebook: America vs my diet

Plus: Changing manners in baseball caps and grammar

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

The trouble with going on an American book tour is that I know it’s going to play havoc with my diet. People on diets can very quickly become diet bores, but I am unrepentant: I know the calorie content of most things and, for instance, how long it takes to burn off a croissant. Not that I eat croissants any more, of course. (We dieters can be tremendously smug.) America is a challenge, though, because all their food is injected with corn syrup. In Denver I was once served an omelette that had been dusted, in cold sobriety, with icing sugar. But it’s not just icing sugar that is a problem: the intrusive strawberry is a difficult issue too. Any breakfast, it seems, must include a strawberry or two, placed alongside the eggs. Strawberries have their place, but I think it is part of living in a free society that one should be able to decline to eat them with eggs and bacon. For some years I battled unsuccessfully to be served eggs without strawberries, and it is only recently that I learned the way to do this. What you say is, ‘Hold the strawberries.’ That means ‘No strawberries’. That works. You can also say ‘Hold the ice’ if you want a drink served without a very large amount of ice. It helps to insert an exclamation mark, as in ‘Hold the ice!’ The waiter then says, ‘You want me to hold the ice?’ and you cry, ‘Yes, hold the ice!’ That brings results.

We tend not to take much notice of signs, but when you actually read them carefully and consider their wording there is a strange poetry about them. Kenneth Koch, a New York poet, wrote an extraordinary poem called ‘One Train May Hide Another’ after he read those words of warning on a level-crossing sign in East Africa. In New York on this trip I saw a sign in a deli that had the same haunting, poetic quality: No foods from another place are permitted here. So only bagels and hot dogs and other New York fare. And then, while being driven through the wastes of Los Angeles on the way to Santa Barbara, suddenly I noticed a very strange sign: College of Hypnotherapy: Next Exit. There is something quintessentially California about that… or Californian. Purists used to censure those who used the adjective ‘Californian’, pointing out that Californian is a noun used for a resident of California. So there are many references to ‘California wine’ rather than ‘Californian wine’. Which is fine, but then, as non-prescriptivists love to point out, language changes. Nowadays people use Californian as a general adjective: any linguistic battle must surely be over. At what point, though, will the accusative case disappear in such contexts as ‘He invited my wife and me’. The use of the nominative case in statements like that is now so common that the correct form (being, for a moment, prescriptive) — the accusative — is beginning to sound incorrect to the ear. This, I think, is one of those instances where a big change can actually be witnessed in a lifetime. It’s rather like the wearing of baseball caps backwards. Backwards, then, is the new forwards, and I suspect we are almost at the point where the back of the cap becomes the standard front. That, of course, poses a problem: how will young men be able now deliberately to make themselves look stupid?

The tour takes me to Boston. We visit bookshops in the country outside the city — perfect New England towns with names like Concord and Wellesley. There is a well-known women’s college in Wellesley. It has exquisite brick buildings set amongst the trees — the real groves of academe. It must be a fine place to pursue an education rather than men. But what if one is a transgender man who wants to share the experience? This is an issue that is now disturbing the tranquillity of the few remaining women-only colleges in the United States. Some are prepared to admit such men, provided they identify themselves on the application form as female. The position of women students who identify themselves as male is more difficult and they seem to be less welcome in these institutions. They could try men-only colleges, but they barely exist any more. Gender equality — a laudable goal — has its little complications.

There is still freedom of speech in the US. We have allowed it to be curtailed in all sorts of ways, but over there people can still speak their minds. A watchful constitution gives people strong protection against losing one’s job or being otherwise punished for one’s thoughts or views. And people there still tell you what they think — sometimes a bit too frankly. In Atlanta one of the readers in the signing queue draws me aside. ‘Don’t worry,’ she says, handing me the book to sign, ‘I think you’ll do far better posthumously.’ It was well meant. Southern charm.

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  • Nominative, accusative, or even dative; methinks it is a muddle.

    • dizzygothica

      Nominative = subject, accusative = object, dative is indirect object (where say “Stella gave an orange to David” Stella is the nominative case, the orange is accusative & David is dative)

  • Soccertaxi

    The people who live in the “wastes of Los Angeles” might object to this description of their home. When I lived in Los Feliz in the nineties, I often lamented the decay of the beautiful old neighborhoods and even the more practical old working class neighborhoods surrounding Los Angeles. However, there is an aliveness of the entire area that I loved and it made it a magical time for me.

  • dizzygothica

    Love this piece – Commonsense, perception and a nice little bit of acid!

  • derek_gunn

    I think the reason wearing a cap backwards is not seen as silly is because baseball catchers and photographers do it out of necessity. Also a lot of care is taken to appear care-free.

    • Moe Blotz

      Wearing a cap with the visor to the side or rear is considered kewl among the hip-hop crowd who do not play baseball or wish to access an aperture. Among the old phart crowd, of which I am a card carrying member, the practice of wearing a sun visor where it will not serve its purpose looks silly. The late Ed Bradley wore a soft cap in that manner when doing a hit piece on fox hunting for 60 Minutes and he really looked silly. The kewl cap of choice now looks like an inverted sauce pan and is worn low, almost touching the wearer’s ears as if it were 1/8 size too large.

  • Uncle Brian

    If “you and I” is replacing “you and me” in all contexts, with “than” it’s the other way round. I don’t think I’ve ever once said “than I” or “than he”.

    • dizzygothica

      Whether or not you have ever said something has no relevance to its correctness or otherwise

  • Swanky

    Oh for chrissake. You can have whatever you want in America and that means LOW-CARB if you want. Try the Chick-Fil-A or anywhere you like and just don’t eat the bun. Or order the salad! Man, some people need to be told everything.

    I’ve noticed on the Speccie –and the Telegraph, come to that — can the Guardian be far behind? — that Brits b*tch and moan about Americans all the doo-dah day long. As if we were responsible for YOUR problems. Well, we are not! It’s YOUR Leftism and YOUR statism and YOUR addiction to tax-and-spend that has made your country a right royal mess. Don’t try to pin that on us.

    And another thing. Baseball caps, front-facing or backwards, are an abomination. But so is George Galloway and Red Ed Miliband. You have far worse problems than gear that the Well Dressed Man Wouldn’t Be Caught Dead Wearing.

    • tttt

      This is something called ‘humour’.

      Its funny. As an American you might want to learn about something called ‘sarcasm’.

      Or get a ‘sense of humour’.

      Might help.

      • Swanky

        I don’t find anti-Americanism the least bit funny, whatever form it comes in. I always stick up for my country: it’s why I’m here.

        • The Red Bladder

          Had you had the good sense to remain a British colony none of this need have happened.

          • tttt

            You silly, silly, humourless man.

            Comedy is not anti-American. If you can’t take a joke, then don’t read British magazines, stick to the New York Times or some other droll publication.

            You’re not sticking up for your country, you’re making yourself look childish and petulant; and your country look pompous and thin skinned.

            America is a wonderful place full of funny and self-deprecating people – in direct contrast to its rather misguided ‘defender’.

  • Alexbensky

    It was supposed to be funny and actually was, sort of. I got that.

    I don’t think the fad for wearing baseball caps backward has anything to do with the fact that baseball catchers used to wear them that way. None do anymore, anyway. They all wear helmets of some sort.

    As to baseball caps being dumb, I don’t know. I’m more comfortable in warm, sunny weather with a hat and a baseball cap, with a visor, is a good one to have. Wearing one in a formal occasion is something else.

    Those of you over there, regarding baseball caps, should be advised that you will, I am told, see many people wearing navy blue caps with an interlocked white “NY.” These are the caps of the New York Yankees, about whom the only question that need be asked is whether the Yankees are a metaphor for evil, or the embodiment of evil. Get those people something else.

    If you want to walk about wearing an American baseball cap, the one you want is the navy blue with an Olde English “D,,” the cap of the Detroit Tigers.

  • Skyeward

    Baseball caps really aren’t worn backwards much here. Nor is it very difficult to order whatever food you want, however you’d like it done. And I’m afraid our first amendment rights are increasingly under attack unless you are speaking of corporations. But cute essay.

  • kidmugsy

    “A watchful constitution gives people strong protection against losing one’s job”: blethers, man. (i) The facts are agin you, and (ii) so is the Constitution.

  • Tad_Porter

    In the US nobody would dream of using ‘Californian’ to describe a wine; it’s just a convention that the names of states are (almost) never modified when used as adjectives. Moreover, how would one modify the names of states such as ‘Michigan’, ‘Wisconsin’, or ‘Maryland’ in a way that doesn’t sound ridiculously contrived? I do understand that British speakers have a tendency to add a final ‘n’ with certain state names (California, Texas, etc) and that’s perfectly fine. But to declare “the linguistic battle over” where this practice is concerned (and to insist that standard American usage is somehow out of place in America) is just plain preposterous.