As a kid, I was obsessed with the U.S.A. The perspective I had from growing up close to the border was that it was bigger, brighter, bolder and featured more and better versions of everything I was interested in — from slithery critters to TV, movies, music, concerts (I was so jealous about Woodstock), space exploration, and the dragsters doodled endlessly on my grade-school notebooks. I even had an American flag-motif T-shirt that I treasured until it disintegrated sometime in high school. My fascination was further fuelled in adolescence by a girlfriend who'd moved from Philadelphia to Toronto. A superstar in every sport, she had supermodel looks, partied like she invented it, cursed like a sailor and took crap from no one. She thought nothing about smashing her considerable fist into anybody who mistreated either her or any one of seven similar-minded siblings. Being incapable of any such actions, I was slightly in awe of this approach to taking care of business, which, I was assured, was standard procedure.
Americans, it seemed, didn't mess around. Whatever they chose to say or be, they were 100 per cent prepared to back it, part of the much noted can-do attitude manifest in the country's many successes and the unwavering convictions of everyone from entertainer to preacher, to soldier, to revolutionary, to criminal. No one could out-hippie an American hippie, out-cheeseball an American lounge singer, out-politic an American politician, or out-muscle an American mobster. In America, diversity wasn't some subtle discovery to be made by visitors — it was iridescent, standing up to shimmer and shout from every corner.
And while much of this infatuation would eventually be muted by my own growing national identity (thank you, Pierre Trudeau) and understanding (beginning with the civil-rights struggle, Vietnam War, Kent State, Watergate, Reaganomics, gun culture and the likes of freakish contradictions like Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Falwell), I retained my often grudging admiration for the hard-ass predilections of Yanks — their ability to abandon all grey for the polar positions of black or white. Indeed American athletes I eventually met in the ski world and international ultimate frisbee scene had no attitudinal equals among comparatively milquetoast Canadian peers functioning at the same levels. I'm talking sheer conviction: even Lance Armstrong's dedication to maintaining the illusion of his superiority was an impressive feat.
These days, the Splengarian cycle that churns beneath civilizations and cultures has created an even starker kaleidoscope of distinctions on the American social landscape, featuring yet more extremism and in-your-facedness. It's on display daily in any big American city, as I experienced on a recent conference trip, and it drives home one thing: this place is different.
Chattanooga, Tennessee is a pleasant burg, so my colleagues and I spent a lot of time wandering. On our way to eat one evening we passed an office adorned with 1-800-DIVORCE in large flashing neon, an advert in the door reading "Basic Divorce $395." Further along, past billboard appeals for personal-injury and class-action lawsuits, stood another in extra-large letters facing the interstate: "Do You Have Gonorrhea? Call Us." After dinner, returning to the hotel, we found downtown streets closed for a large motorcycle rally just then winding down. A sea of beer-can litter was being raked up by a small army of volunteers. The helmetless bikers (who'd consumed most of the beer) were revving up their thunderous Harleys and pulling out of town past a small sandwich-board sign paradoxically proclaiming, "So long — drive safely!" As they roared by, a small, shambling group on the corner yelled, "Bless you!" and held signs aloft like "Got Jesus?" and "Ride for God!" One guy was even shouldering a life-sized white crucifix, which his wife and young son helped him lift over obstacles. The three would occasionally stop and pose, smiling earnestly for someone's camera with a "God bless you." Despite the fact that indoctrinating kids incapable of reasoning into such weirdness is de facto child abuse, they seemed blissfully happy to shill their delusions to all and sundry. Giant mascots wandered the crowd. Mere steps away, 200 soldiers in desert combat fatigues and their civilian wives spilled onto the street from a Veteran's Affairs-mandated "Reintegration Workshop." Where was Fellini?
On another corner I spotted someone wearing the same Old Glory T-shirt I once owned flanked by others in red-white-and-blue regalia — an Uncle Sam top hat, shoes, gloves, pants and dresses. They were an odd cross-section of white Southern cliché — good ol' beer-belly boy with trucker hat, scraggly redneck, pinched-face old folks out of a Norman Rockwell painting. I thought it might be a parade or some street theatre. But the signs they shook angrily at passing motorists said otherwise: "No amnesty for aliens," "America for Americans," and "If Obama ran a city it would look like Detroit," each as vacuous and mean-spirited as their twisted and angry faces were threatening. It was, in fact, some Tea-Party types, barking their toxic convictions.
And it made me think this: when Americans were resolute about creating, fixing or getting something done, it was still a beautiful thing. But when fixated on self-interest and tearing down others, it wasn't just weird, but ugly indeed.