My US paradox: why are the shops so nice but the politics so nasty?

It's the American way to look good in politics by putting other candidates down.

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This notebook comes to you from Chicago, a ridiculously lovely city, full of pride in industry and progress.

It’s also full of shops where you pay sales tax but get discounts, so everything ends up costing almost exactly what it says on the sales ticket, except you now have a purse full of tiny coins, and a mild curvature of the spine.

I came to speak about the meaning of life for 13 minutes at Chicago Ideas Week, which is easily the best gig I’ve ever been booked to do. It was a whole heap of fun, even if you don’t count the fact that when I was a comedian, I used to play a room above a pub to eight people, in Chertsey. Last week, I played the 2,200-seater Oriental Theater, and that (sorry, Chertsey) was better. Also in the old days, Deepak Chopra didn’t open the show.

I like America, mainly because every shop assistant is nicer to you than your relatives would be if you were at home in the UK. I like how positive everyone is: ask a yes/no question from a stage in Britain, and you get a yes/no answer. Ask the same question here, and you get a round of applause. It’s like a whole extra level of yes.

There are only a few things which vex me. The first is how every ad break on TV is full of commercials for medicines which may or may not cure a minor disease I have never heard of. The side-effects, without exception, seem to include a stroke, cancer and death. Health insurers do not make good television.  

The second vexing phenomenon is new to me, because I’ve never been here in the run-up to an election before. The political campaigning is relentless, and every bit of it is negative. I have always sighed on hearing the phrase, “There now follows a party political broadcast” after a curtailed news bulletin. But tiresome though they are, they do usually try to tell you something they believe to be positive about themselves. 

After five days of watching ceaseless accusations of insider dealing, sending jobs to China and (worst of all, it seems) building new offices in Wisconsin, everyone now seems terrible to me, even the candidates whose politics I share. I haven’t heard a single person claim to have done something well. Everyone just slags everyone else off. I’m beginning to see how voter turnout might be low next month.

Can the bottle. Restore the can

I am finicky about drinks. I don’t like hot drinks at all, so the delights of the pumpkin spiced latte have passed me by. I do, however, like Diet Coke (I know it is evil. Don’t write in.) I especially like it from a can, because the aluminium tastes so nice. I can’t defend this, it is simply true. But cans are increasingly hard to find, since the plastic bottle achieved total market domination.

I have long suspected that at least part of the obesity crisis is caused by the endless increase of sweet drinks in our lives. A can holds 330 millilitres. But a bottle holds at least half a litre, and in the US, they are 600ml at least. If you’re not drinking diet versions, that’s almost doubling the calories along with the volume. And that’s before all those lattes with their strange-smelling syrups.

So surely it’s time to relaunch the humble can, and use the saved calories on food, or booze, or something else nice instead.

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