It turns out that’s the polite way to ask if someone is American without actually saying it. If, for example, you’re a Belgian cab driver and you can’t sort out the various accents in the English language but you want to know if you’re dealing with an American, you just ask if the person is Canadian. Europe may be attempting to become “one country,” but where you and your parents are from is still the hottest topic of conversation that most people can muster.
If you ask Canadians if they are American, they will typically be offended. They don’t want to be confused with those weird people south of the border who wear huge hiking boots or white sneakers and shirts with the name of a university. (Of course, as I sit here in Kingston I am wearing clunky hiking boots and a pink shirt that says BUFFALO across the front.) If you ask Americans if they’re Canadian, they either think you’re a bad guesser or they’re flattered to be confused with those nice, friendly people up north whose tall, handsome cops all have superwhite teeth and ride horses. They will politely correct you and say they’re from St. Louis, or wherever.
Now that I’m back in the United States, I can see what I was missing all this time. I have always read that you have to leave your culture in order to appreciate it, or even to see it. That is what I did these past four years. Europeans view Americans as naïve, which I would say is true. Living in three different countries in Europe and spending a good bit of time in about three others, I slowly figured out that most people from the Old World have something else going for them, which is cynicism. That is, a less-than-subtle bitter haughtiness born of certainty about how bad the world sucks, so you may as well drink your wine by the bottle, smoke a lot of cigarettes, and never quite get to the point.
Americans and Europeans both specialize in being extremely self-absorbed. Members of both cultures shop as if the world depended upon it, and politely step over the homeless. There are fewer homeless in Europe, though.
I find cynicism the more objectionable mental state. Part of why I came back to the States, besides being sensitive to cynicism and cigarette smoke, was because I wanted to be on the front lines to fight side by side with my countrymen when the shit hits the fan for the 2008 elections. I decided I needed a year’s running start to get reestablished, amass a war chest and a modest army, and be ready to go to the mats (as we Sicilians say) when Dick Cheney declares himself president for life.
Nearly every time I say this to an American, they look at me silly. Of course there will be a legitimate election, a pretty green Democrat will win after all the mess we’ve been through in the eight years since Monica Lewinsky and Karl Rove came along, and on the 20th of January, 2009, there will be an inauguration and we will get on with our lives. The new government will get about the business of mopping up the blood in Iraq, the boys will come home, and we will focus on renewable energy.
I see a high probability of something else, something more decadent. You ask how I might know this. Though I often stray from the topic in these essays, I am the same astrologer who writes Chronogram’s horoscopes, and politics is one among my many fetishes. But I am also familiar with that line from the Tao Te Ching about the end being written in the beginning. We began the Cheney/Bush administration with a stolen election and a constitutional crisis, and we will very likely end with one.
Ancient Chinese wisdom aside, I am looking at the chart for Tuesday, November 4, 2008, cast in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, where the polls open and close at midnight, and which is traditionally the first place to report its national election results. I am truly sorry to say that this chart is just depressing. It is not even vaguely interesting, after so much that we have lived through, and in particular how much military families have lived through; it is merely sad. I will pester you with the technicalities of three details.