The American Landscape and Canada
I have often stated that I want- at this point- in my life beautiful. San Diego is that. However, arriving in LA for an event, I am confronted with everything I dislike about America. The buildings resemble 14th Century Gothic churches that eventually collapsed because of the competitive desire of the builders to touch the sky,pushing them higher and higher. Hotels here not content to be solo versions of rest and repose combine as the JW Marriott and Ritzcarlton have done here: the second a looming appendage to the first. The Weston sprawls for an entire block. Even restaurants are overly encroaching octopi, presiding over almost entire blocks.
The resurrection of Downtown LA reminds me that in spite of the line of overly heaped bundle buggies toppled here and there that the U.S. desires to be the biggest, and most imposing, stretching upwards to the stars and sideways wide to encompass numerous freeways and acreage. How appropriately had Betsy Ross envisioned their flag in 1776 to have created the symbol that flutters in the breeze!
As a girl in the 60’s who came to LA to visit her cool cousins, I had no sense of America’s expansionism- even though our history classes focused on the Monroe Doctrine or the Manifest Destiny or the Purchase of Louisiana. My cousins’ friends asked if I drove a dogsled to school and if l occupied a teepee. I merely giggled and guffawed at their lack of knowledge of Canadian history. I devoured my first big Mac in California and luxuriated in being away from home, alone, for the first time. I sped through traffic on the back of a motorcycle en route to beaches named Hermosa, lazing all day in the scorching sun. I was driven about in cars, even rising before my aunt and uncle, to trudge up some hill to watch the sun glisten through the smog.
Back then I cared little for politics ( although I still maintain that the play in politics is about power only using the issues as excuses for self-aggrandizement, cynic I may be ). If I was considered an oddity as a homegrown product of Canada as a visitor to the US back then, so be it. It played smally into my hedonistic teenage romp. Only later, did I realize that love for Canada is in deed bred in the bone. Much much later, when I noted that turning on a tap in a faraway place yielded beautiful drinkable water did I pause to consider that Canada was truly spectacular in many ways. And its vistas humbling.
Just last weeks at a Blue Jay game, I watched as a family struggled to contain a large man in a wheel chair. It was obvious that he was impaired, likely from a debilitating disease that had robbed him from not just standing unaided, but even keeping his head from bobbing this way and that, his glasses attached by a thick elastic to the back of his head. When our National Anthem played, he immediately leapt from his seat, terrifying his family that in his attempt to “stand on guard for thee” he might just topple over the glass barrier. How deeply does our passion for our country reach- and even when we cannot control our limbs, that we somehow jump to attention to demonstrate our feeling for this country.
Canada is my home. I applauded John Chretien’s refusal to align itself with the US, demanding real proof that were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq . We stood alone. Our health care system demonized by US is still a thing of beauty, equalizing both rich and poor. We like to pride ourselves on being different from the Americans, that we hold different values. Sadly, however and over the ages, we too have looked the other way, on issues of immigration our statesmen touting none is too many or some such nonsense to crises of real life and death matters, opening and closing borders, separating serious practical concerns from theoretical ones. And in terms of our environment, while 181 of 193 countries in the United Nations recognize their citizens’ right to a healthy environment, we have not enshrined it in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, even pulling out of the Kyoto Accord, demurring that the price of enforcing it would bankrupt us.
Yet, we accepted same sex marriages, allowed women and their doctors to determine necessary abortions, promoted cannabis for the very ill, and are working towards operationalizing euthanasia. I reflect that no country is perfect and we ride on a tide of politicians who drive our boat into uncharted or fearful waters.
Yet here back in LA, it is the display of these ridiculously high and monstrously wide buildings that flash silver and reflect the sun right into my eyes that gives me cause for complaint. At the same time, I love the new Disney concert hall designed by our own Canadian Frank Gehry with its unbelievable shapes and curve. Just today I read that his fascination of the curvilinear was likely engendered by the fish kept alive by his grandmother for their Sabbath dinner. In Toronto.
I laud the Getty museum with its staggering art collection as a tribute to the good of some Americans. Yet I am uncomfortable with the showiness, the lack of humility and the bravado of the Towers of Babel that symbolize the presence, the riches of a country where at the bases of these edifices homeless people sleep in their dank hoodies curled like the tendrils of ferns. In my head is the ignorance of a Donald Trump insulting, bold, brash and so embarrassing allowed to compete for the highest position in the land. And the right to bear guns, well, that is an unbearable story.
It all confuses me: the display of power, who grabs more, who displays better?.
Later as we anticipated the event for which we had come to LA, I admired the dashing hubub of people in tuxes and black lace. We were beginning to worry we would not arrive on time at the Biltmore, lusciously tiled and gilted as the first home to the Oscars. My husband suggested we call Uber and before we knew it, a grey car burst through the entwined mess of traffic permanently stalled in the driveway of the Marriott. The driver who was cordial and accommodating managed to detangle his car and we were off for the short blocks that separated us from the celebration.
Chatting about the rise of Uber, our driver, a dark and handsome young man explained he worked for Uber only part time because he was studying to improve his speech which was very good I, a former English teacher, thought. Carefully and haltingly he responded to our questions, revealing he had no family in LA, that he had come from Syria only on year ago. Reluctant when we continued to question, he said only his flight from his home could be a book: he had swam from Turkey to Greece and the United Nations had allowed him to stay.
Always wanting to accept and believe, but sure there is a story behind the tantalizing tidbit, we respected his privacy and did not press. He was grateful to be in the country, hoping once his English had improved to follow his dream- of all things- into marketing. This revelation drew me back to a night at the Saigon hotel at the Rooftop Bar overlooking Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture where I considered the irony of a disastrous war fought for values that were in not in sync with the economy or desires of people.
I’m not sure of how to think about Syria. I want it black and white and people allowed to live and thrive in democracies so their lives are about good choices. I pondered how this Uber driver had afforded his car which he proudly proclaimed he owned. I wondered if he would meet some sympathetic beautiful Valley girl who would support his American Dream.
My thoughts on America are always tied to the Gatsby story and the image of the green light bouncing off the water. As well I carry with me Philip Roth’s American Pastoral with scenes of rotten decay that twisted the dream. Yet here in the flesh was not just a dreamer but a young man who through dint of determination was wrestling a new future for himself, fulfilling the dream.
Of course I cannot say to what lengths he had gone : had he bribed? lied? Or merely kissed his parents goodbye as they urged him to leave in the dead of the night? My imagination emboldened by my knowledge of the Holocaust and the fiction of heroic movies set my mind racing. Yet in the front seat, neat and quiet spoken was a person who like Tennyson’s Ulysses had striven…not to fail.
Almost a year later, the newspapers present us with the child washed ashore, an unsuccessful attempt for him and his family to achieve a safe harbor, his dreams dashed, and Canada at a pivotal point .