The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Keeping Some Distance

by J.A. McDougall

Apparently an American National Park is no place for subtleties. Wildlife warnings at Yellowstone are hammered everywhere from highway signs to memos in washroom stalls. The Feeding and Molestation of Animals is Prohibited / All Wildlife is Dangerous / Each Year Tourists are Gored by Buffalo. We witnessed the same intensity during a stay in Yosemite a few years ago: photos of black bears tearing cars apart to get to food coolers adorned the bulletin boards.

In spite of these warnings, the American tourist persists. At the first sign of bison, his minivan veers to the roadside, ignoring the viewing lots carved at regular intervals. He brings his family deep into the grassy feeding grounds of elk and mule deer to capture the most intimate detail, video camera swinging from his arm. He has selected Yellowstone as a vacation spot and refuses to go home disappointed. Blinders on, he demonstrates very little curiosity in affairs that do not contribute to his goal, such as the ranger’s restrictions or the ordinary Canadian sharing his vista.

I’ve accepted this single-mindedness, knowing full well that this trait has yielded much success for our neighbors, both individually and internationally. I’ve given up trying to share dull Canadian details with Americans I meet when traveling, content to listen to their stories, but like the bubble blowing baby sister in a group of teenage girls, annoying the group with her mere presence; I’ll never shake the unwelcome feeling that overcomes me every time I visit the states.

Last Tuesday, the kids and I followed the boardwalks through Yellowstone’s hydrothermal grounds marveling at sporadically occurring pools as they whirled streaks of rust colored algae. Minutes before Old Faithful was due, we squeezed back into seats my husband had saved. He was chatting with the woman on the bench behind him. I turned to say hello and was greeted with, “Out where you live…what percentage of the people are conservative?”

I answered before giving the question any thought, tickled to find an American interested in my beloved country. “We live in a very conservative part of the country,” I said.

My husband added more than enough detail. “110%, but we’re Liberals.”

Then she said, “Canadians don’t like George Bush, I hear. Didn’t any Canadians die in the World Trade Centre?”

I softened my voice. “Uh, yes. Canadians died that day. There were victims from all over the world.” I turned to check on the geyser. Fingers of steam had begun escaping the cone.

“You like the Clintons, I suppose,” she said.

From the corner of my eye I watched the man sitting beside me, I sensed he too was waiting for an answer. Suddenly the bleachers seemed overcrowded. “Oh no,” I chuckled and attempted a joke “Canadians don’t like him any better. We’re able to criticize any American leader.”

She smiled. “Clinton wanted to bring your socialized medical care here, but is it true that in Canada you wait and wait and then you might not get the doctor you want anyways?”

I looked down. “Our health care system certainly has its problems but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s expensive to offer every citizen unlimited access to medicine. I don’t think the United States can simply import our programs to resolve challenges that face a population ten times the size of ours.”

It’s uncharacteristic of me to minimize a political debate, to retreat in this way, but I felt increasingly vulnerable sitting before the great American geyser with my family under a hot sun. I felt even smaller than I do when my heritage is openly disregarded. I sensed the passion this woman held for the values her country represents and continued to moderate my approach.

“People don’t usually ask about our politics,” I fished.

She grinned. “Well, I listen to a lot of talk radio. I was surprised to hear that Canadians oppose the war.” I felt she meant dared to opposed it.

How could I explain that from the outside looking in, the reasons supporting the American’s offensive strategy aren’t so easily accepted? How could I put it to her that many Canadians understand criticisms of the North American culture of indulgence? And how could I possibly tell her that a Canadian’s first instinct is rarely retaliation; that for us tolerance is a virtue rather than a concession.

Had I enough time to show her the other side of the issue? Did she even want to see it? She’d more likely brush my arguments off and lump them in with the Michael Moore retorts she’s no doubt heard before. Plus, it didn’t seem like appropriate conversation for the 4th of July.

“Do you have relatives fighting?” I asked.

“Two nephews,” she said, with some pride. “One just came back.”

“How old are they?”

“Twenty and twenty-one. They volunteered.” She looked at me directly. “It’s an experience.”

The power of Old Faithful’s eruption shocked me, misted my face. All that violence existing underground, out of sight, yet close to the surface while just beyond the crowd, tranquil evergreens standing by, dotting crumbly white terrain.

“I saw a program once about a girl – from Ontario, I think – she had a baby before she was eighteen and the child was taken away.”

I shrugged, shook my head.

“People shouldn’t have babies if they can’t take care of them.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “but they still do.” Irresponsible behavior continues with or without rules and regulation.

On our way back to the campground, we were delayed twice by barely shouldered vehicles and their rubbernecked passengers. Having grown up less than an hour’s drive from Banff National Park, I suppose I take these wildlife sightings for granted.

Early the next morning, my oldest daughter discovered a lone bison grazing among mauve and yellow wildflowers, four feet from our trailer door. She closed the door gently and climbed back up to bed to wake her siblings. Together they unzipped the screened windows and quietly enjoyed the wildlife from their front row seat.


Blogger Patricia said...

Anna, good are brilliant and lovely and I want to come over there and hug you and kiss you all over, you are so wonderful and pure and lovely and I am so inspired by you...please let's meet...and tricia and all of us...even
okay..xoxoxox really, I'm serious..xoxoxo

this is so great..xoxoxo

Tue Jul 11, 05:04:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Talking with talkradio fans makes me anxious. I feel the weight of invective underneath the simplest question. Indeed it's like a geyser ready to blow. Brilliant piece.

Tue Jul 11, 08:02:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

Thanks for this, Anna. I'm glad for people like you.

Tue Jul 11, 09:22:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger craig said...

OH this is so true, and so so Canadian. I squirm with the tension of this story - you handled it much better than I would have. I think I would have pulled the hockey sweater over the head move and started swinging.
How's that for liberal moves - wham!

(I'm such a pacifist).

Tue Jul 11, 10:06:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger kim said...

Wow! Hmmm...reminds me of the time a couple fellas from Texas were fighting on a beach in Mexico, and cussin' up a storm, anyway, a British couple behind me said something about Americans, "I'm American," I told them, "they're Texans."

Tue Jul 11, 10:44:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

You guys are great, thanks for all the comments! I started to get cranky right after food from our trailer was confiscated at the border...beef weiners, eggs, and New Zealand apples (who knew?)

Tue Jul 11, 11:58:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Wow. This is beautifully executed, Anna. What a lovely interweaving of themes. What a perfect balance of tension and revelation. I've had these sorts of conversations, too, and the restraint you showed in both the conversation and the recollection of it is impressive.

Tue Jul 11, 01:30:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

You have a knack for this stuff. What a wonderful piece.

Tue Jul 11, 08:55:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Sharon Hurlbut said...

Anna, what a fabulous piece this is! I may be an American, but I was cringing right along with you. There's no doubt we have a certain inability to see ourselves and I'm always grateful for different perspectives on Americans, which seem to regularly reveal that we are a group of loud, large, and crass individuals (as compared with other national identities).

Your patience and forebearing are remarkable, and your observations are wonderfully insightful. I enjoyed this very much!

Wed Jul 12, 01:46:00 am GMT-4  

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