Saturday, 29 October 2011

Magic Corn, a real WTF moment

At Broad Street Mall this week I noticed a new stand with the goofily intriguing name Magic Corn. I assumed it meant popcorn, so went in for a closer look at what kind of heavenly kernels might be in the popper.

Oh, it was kernels all right, but nothing as tasty and nostalgia-laced as actual popcorn, which brings to mind childhood memories of enjoying a carton at the movies. You know, back when you really would buy a big box of movie popcorn because people still thought of it as health food rather than a Big-Mac level of fat in a spiffily stripped box.

No siree, this was a big ol' cuppa corn, just piled high and looking icky. I tried to explain it to a disbelieving husband when I got home, upon which he Googled it and muttered in astonishment: "Sonofabitch, it's a cup of corn."

Yes, it really is. I'm assuming it's meant to be a "healthy" option, but A)It appears to be coated in butter and flavorings and B)It's kinda gross. I'd rather take my chances with a carb-filled granola bar. I can't find the calorie count or a description of what exactly is in the flavorings. And even if it were somehow fairly healthy, it's still a nasty snack. It's a cup of corn, dude. A cup of corn.

The flavors of this "healthy, juicy & nutritious" snack include Magic Lemon, Magic Curry, Magic Mexican Chili, Magic Sour Cream and Onion, and several other cringe-worthy varieties. Lemon corn? Sour cream and onion corn? I'm feeling a bit light-headed at the heinousness of it all.

Full disclosure: I'm not big on veggies. I do eat a few, but I have resorted to hiding them in food (a spinach omelet is great; plopping a scoop of spinach on my plate is going to put me off the rest of my meal).

Corn has always seemed the most useless of the lot, all the more so because it seems to pop up in the oddest places over here. Buy a nice sandwich at Boots? Yep, there's usually corn in there. Pop open a can of chicken noodle soup -- oh yeah, there's corn in there. It doesn't even say it on the front label and you can't make it out in the picture. It's just taken for granted you know corn will be in your chicken noodle soup. Because, come on, corn is just implied in a title like "chicken" and "noodle".

Now Magic Popcorn, that I might try. But only if you make it caramel instead of curry.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Stress Test (aka Life in the UK test)

Hubby and I passed the Life in the UK test! Yay! This is the first hurdle in getting settlement, also known as Indefinite Leave to Remain, also known as "Your work permit is expiring. No, you cannot renew it. You have to pay thousands for ILR or hit the road, Yanks."

Now that the test's over, I can reflect a bit. It sucked. The study materials sucked. Most of it was useless information. Which involved lots of numbers and statistics. Which turned out not to be on the test in favor of questions about when the frickin' pubs close. Aw, man!

I made notes, studied them over and over, and took the many official practice tests many times. I know the rules regarding children in jobs, what jobs they can have, what hours they can work on which days. I know the different minimum wages here (which vary by age). I learned the population of each country in the UK, what percentage that population was of the overall population of the UK, and what percentage of it was an ethnic minority. I learned how many of each ethnic minority there was, both in percentages and millions. I learned all that same info on the different religious groups in the UK. I learned about the different legislative bodies in each country, where they meet, what types of laws they can pass, what the members are called and how many seats there are. I learned loads of stuff I'll never need to know.

In light of all that type of information, I didn't pay too much attention to when the frickin' pub closes. And that question was on none of the practice tests. I put 11pm, as that's when it closed years ago when I was a younger lass visiting these parts and actually used to close down pubs. I know that here we have stayed out past midnight on the rare times I've gone out, but I assume rules have changed, and that they changed after this test booklet was made. I have no idea if I was wrong or right as, get this, we weren't told which questions we missed or even how many we missed. Just pass or fail baby, a smack on the ass and out the door you go. In a manner of speaking.

Other BS: There was a question about your landlord raising rent. Again, not something that was on a practice test nor anything I committed to memory as there was loads of other more likely data on which to make notes and study while cursing under my breath.

Then there were the questions I knew inside and out. And the test managed to phrase them in such a way that it was unclear what they wanted. Such as asking if EU nationals can vote in elections. Well, I knew they could vote in all but general elections. But the question didn't ask if they could vote in ALL elections, it just asked if they could vote in elections. I picked that they could -- hubby says that was probably wrong. Other things had similarly unclear wording.

This test cost £50 each to take and of course transportation costs to get there. We had to get to Maidenhead for a test, where it was given at the library. For some reason, despite all info clearly saying you needed to allow one-and-a-half to two hours to take the test and get your results, some people had parked in one-hour spots and had to move before it started. I thought evil thoughts about them if they were going to delay the test. Turns out they didn't as registration took so long.

It took forever to start as everyone had to be registered and do a practice test. Then no results were given out until everyone had finished (there were 24 questions; you could miss six and still pass). Most people were done in 10 minutes or so, but one person needed the full 45, and I imagine that's pretty common. Anyone who isn't up on their English would struggle. And, btw, this lovely mess of non-essential info started as an English proficiency test that many thought people from English speaking countries shouldn't have to take, anyway. Now it's a cash cow that should at least have the decency to have carefully prepared study materials and thoughtfully worded tests, but doesn't.

One interesting thing in it all was the Maidenhead Library. It was beautiful and exuded affluence. Upstairs where we were there was actually a little coffee bar, comfy chairs and bistro tables and a machine that popped out coffee and tea for a low price (50p? Can't recall, but inexpensive).

There was even this art(?) pictured below. I snapped it on a crappy cell cam, but it's some sort of sculpture stuck to a flag. I don't get the meaning of it, though I'm sure there is one. It was just an odd-looking thing.

Anyway, that's that. As long as we don't lose our official letters saying we passed, that is. Because if we do, despite the fact we are in the system and all is linked to our passports, if the letters go missing before we get ILR we have to take the freakin' test again. I'd rather get a root canal. And we'll have to save them even after ILR as the same test is needed for citizenship on down the road.

Next step: Loads of paperwork and big fees for ILR. And, surprise surprise, if the application is rejected for any reason, even some minor omission, you have to reapply and pay thousands all over. I will not rest easy until that's done. Man, I wish I liked alcohol, 'cause the thought of all this makes me want a drink. In theory.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Suck Factor -- office life & too much Crazy

Careerbuilder cranked out a list of 10 Annoying Workplace Habits. It hit the mark of things that make your daily slog irritating, but still came in fairly tame on the workplace suck-o-meter. That office couldn't have been a daily newspaper.

The list captured some of my own co-worker peeves of days gone by: playing music/talking on the phone, stanky food, excessive cigarette breaks (and I do mean excessive -- how about several hours a day?), and gossiping as though Springer's calling any minute for a hot tip.

But I could add a few additional quibbles with co-workers. Such as humming and bopping to your headphones. That bobbing head in my peripheral vision for hours on end made me mentally practice how I'd have to pretend to act sad if you ever got hit by a bus. Which I fervently hoped you would.

Then there's blasting Christian rock on a boom box while others are working, constantly drumming your fingers on your desk, and treating the newsroom to a song. Not just a line of it that got stuck in your head that one time, but singing the whole thing. Thoughtful, no?

Or how about colleagues throwing chairs at (surprisingly tough and bouncy) windows and flinging exacto knives at walls? Life on daily deadline is not conducive to sanity. (I should point out this was in the States, so it's probably a different kind of madness to UK newspapers.)

And I can't forget the co-worker who wore the same sandals every day all summer, sharing a stank-feet waft so foul it immediately gave me a headache. Do you know how gross a smelly foot headache is? Do you?! I'd rather have a poo-flinging monkey in the room. At least that I could dodge, maybe wear a blast helmet and poncho. When your desk is right next to someone with funky BO, there's not much you can do, no way to tell him without inspiring his hatred forever -- and it probably wouldn't fix the problem, anyway. He'd just sprinkle a little powder in the nasty sandals rather than burning the foul things, and my stank-headaches would continue.

Then there's the Snark Queen, full of nasty comments about everyone behind their backs (and right to your face if you were the unlucky wench seated next to her). She's only too happy to brag inappropriately about her husband's penis size and her stint working at Hooters (obviously intended as proof of an attractiveness she mistakenly thinks she still possesses).

But it's not just the co-workers who crap up your day -- it's the public. When first starting out, I worked at a small-town newspaper office designed by someone who either had zero idea of the challenges of a journalist's job or was extremely sadistic. It was designed open plan -- anyone could walk in off the street and not only see the newsroom, but round a corner and walk back to us unencumbered (and uninvited).

That's right, they could accost us any time, deadline or deep concentration be damned, with demands to know when a story would run, why a photo from their family reunion was omitted or what kind of moron could fail to follow up that hot tip on the dancing Chihuahua (which was the kind of story we'd never run even at a small paper -- unless everything else fell through, in which case we'd gladly place a funny hat on the mutt and make it a four-column front-page photo). Most newsrooms are designed with limited access for a reason -- newspapers attract the disgruntled, the unbalanced and the self-promoting like George Clooney attracts the ladies.

The layout screwed us over every day, not least when Crazy came a callin'. I didn't give her that moniker -- she was known as that long before I worked there and probably is to this day. We could hear her loud voice crackling with frantic energy carried back to us from the reception desk as soon as she entered. Our hands would freeze over our keyboards as it hit us: she's off her meds.

I'd call a newsroom meeting (really more a get-out-of-the-line-of-fire meeting) and we'd rush into the conference room, locking the door and closing the blinds on the floor-length glass windows facing the newsroom.

We'd discuss whether the windows were bulletproof. (We hoped they were given the tossed-chair incident wherein a rather severely under-qualified editor had a hissy when he couldn't handle the job yet again and hurled a chair at the surprisingly sturdy windows currently between us and Crazy. The chair bounced back and just missed him, making that story far less awesome than it might've been). However, we also wondered if we could break the outside windows with a chair to make an escape if need be, since they only opened a few inches. Given the aforementioned example, we thought the chances slim.

Crazy never made threats nor seemed violent, but her ability to detect sinister hidden meanings in innocuous articles, mixed with her wild-eyed intensity, put our nerves on edge and freed our imaginations to concoct worst-case scenarios. I once checked the employee restroom for homemade bombs after she'd used it (without asking) because she'd stomped back there purposefully and with an air of frenzied intensity whilst also carrying a giftbag.

Crazy was infamous in the small town. She'd been banned from City Hall and in fact from our own newsroom, but no one on our end had the balls to face her down and make her leave, unlike City Hall which had the Police Department on site.

She was actually a sad case, but there was nothing we could do about it other than try to get our work done without too much incident. Besides, insanity was a normal part of our day, something to take in stride, sidestep or submit to as the case required.

And all of that was just what happened in the office, nevermind what took place once I grabbed my notepad and hit my beats. But there are many stories in the Naked City (or Primly Dressed Small Town, as the case may be), and I'll save the rest for another day.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Pretzel hit and Borg miss

An Auntie Anne's pretzel stand opened in The Oracle over the weekend! Hubby and I long for the taste of a big, hot pretzel from time to time, and it just can't be had around here. Supermarkets don't sell the ones you can make at home, and nowhere else did either. Until now. The excitement's got me all in a twist! (hardy-har-har)

Seriously, there are only a few Auntie Anne's in the UK, and I've not seen anywhere else that sells big ol' soft pretzels. Even when I lived near Anne's in the States, it's the kind of thing where I just bought a pretzel once every two or three years. But the option for a sweet, warm, soft carbohydrate blast was always there if I wanted it, waiting in the background like an old friend you never contact but are glad to know they exist on the earth. And hubby seriously missed buying microwave pretzels, and his cravings were catching.

So we went down and dutifully bought an almond pretzel. Better than I remembered. Seriously, heaven in a sweet, fluffy twist of dough. The prices, however, could've been a bit more pretzel-fan friendly. The basic varieties were £2.30 to £2.50 (or $3.56 to $3.88). Still, I'm sure I'll end up buying them more here than in the States because of the novelty of actually being able to get my hands on one.

I don't really get the "Resistance is Futile!" tagline. Yes, I understand they are saying you can't resist their great pretzels, but that tagline is totally Star Trek Borg terror circa 1988. What the hell it has to do with pretzels, I don't know. The tagline has been used in various funny ways over the years, but this ain't one of them. It just seems like a lame hack. (A Google search tells me that this phrase was also used once in a '70s Dr. Who, and though this is the land of Dalek and Tardis, I don't think it caught on as a catchphrase until it became the mantra of the badass Borg.) Imagine some ad company actually getting paid to come up with that, actually turning it in at a meeting. And the pretzel people actually *liking* it! Where's Don Draper when you need him? He could make buying that pretzel seem like a bit of nostalgic bliss you couldn't live without, and he'd do it without ripping off an outmoded TV franchise. But I'll still buy the pretzels, they kinda sell themselves. Maybe that's why no real effort went into the ad campaign.

Now if companies could just manage a Lean Cuisine pizza in this country, I'd be thrilled. That's the No. 1 food item I miss -- they just don't do many diet pizzas here, and the ones they have are high on price and low on taste (we're talking about $4.50 for some little Weight Watchers oval that's more like a 5-year-old's home "pita pizza" project than the tasty treat that is the Lean Cuisine version, which I used to find on sale for $2 at Safeway). Ah well, can't have it all.