"I would have liked to have had Canada. Twice, we invaded Canada during my lifetime, and failed on both occasions."
— Clay S. Jenkinson portraying Thomas Jefferson
My core conviction is that the American people are less divided than they seem. That the American people are hungry for something more authentic in the national arena. That people are more reasonable and open-minded than they seem.
Civilized nations enact reasonable laws to prevent create a more perfect union, encourage domestic tranquility, secure the lives and fortune of their citizens, and prevent mayhem.
Drifting down the river in the afternoon, gazing up at the blue blue sky, slipping past golden eagles as if they were sparrows or wrens, examining the famous White Cliffs that Lewis said had the feeling of “scenes of visionary enchantment,” and at times just pulling the paddles into the canoe to feel the gentle but inexorable tug of the continent, this too is paradise on earth.
I thank God that I was alive when it happened. It was surely the greatest human achievement in my lifetime, one of the handful of greatest moments since we crawled out of the sea and found a way to stand upright.
There is no greater freedom than being somewhere in the American West with nowhere you have to be, ambling in search of the perfect platonic campsite, living on little, and just giving yourself to all that astonishing open public land.
"He's a bit of Tea Party guy, he's a bit of libertarian, he's certainly for small government."
— Clay S. Jenkinson
This week's episode is devoted to answering listener questions, and many of the questions are about the current administration. We anticipate and appreciate comments on the issues discussed during this episode. Thanks for listening.
My daughter and I had the opportunity last weekend to see the famous Calgary Stampede. We were here on professional business, had time off, and reckoned that if you're in Calgary during the Stampede, you'd regret it if you didn't see what is billed as "the greatest outdoor show on earth," and is widely recognized as one of the handful of greatest rodeos in North America.
We bought our tickets online, made our way to the stadium using public transport, and zipped through an electronic kiosk with the greatest of ease. The seats were well marked and comfortable, with good sight lines to the big arena. Because it was Canada, everyone behaved with a kind of civility we haven't seen in American life for decades. In the row behind us, a man and his young son had taken the wrong seats (wrong section). When this was politely pointed out to them by the rightful occupants, there was no dispute of any sort. Everyone apologized to everyone else for a while, all around, and then the father and son edged their way through twenty sitting patrons to the aisle without experiencing a single sigh or glare. Oh Canada.
The arena was flawlessly groomed, the shoots freshly painted in white, with red trim, all the signage professional and tasteful, and every reach of the entire facility, from the restrooms to the furthest reaches of the stands, spotlessly clean.
Calgary really knows how to host a show.
The Calgary Stampede is an invitation-only rodeo. That means that only the best riders in North America participate, which makes for breathtaking but rather predictable rides. The overwhelming majority of bareback and saddle bronc riders stayed on their horses, and well more than half of the bull riders held on for the full eight seconds. The lowest percentages we saw were in tie-down roping and steer wrestling. It's fun to watch that level of professional ability, and to speculate on what it takes for a 20-year-old kid to get that good at riding a large dangerous animal bent on throwing him to the ground and maybe stomping on him too. How many times have you been bucked off bulls in small rural arenas before you learn to stay on more than half the time?
The announcers, some of them famous on the rodeo circuit, kept us informed about who was coming off reconstruction knee surgery, who had to sit out last year after three consecutive concussions, and who got "all tore up" in Las Vegas last year when the clown and bullfighters could not distract some legendary bull from his wrath. The winning barrel racer explained that she now wears a helmet after a fall that required five reconstructive facial surgeries. About one out of four bronc riders lurch-limped out of the arena in excruciating pain, not because they were hurt in today's ride, but because they got "stove up" a week ago somewhere else and determined not to let that slow them down. When the announcers cheerfully explain each rider's recent chapter of grave injuries, from dislocated shoulders to groin pulls, it makes you wonder if these are heroes of the Old West or people lacking in the most rudimentary good sense.
Rodeo had its origins in actual ranch life, often during the spring or fall roundup, when the gathered cowboys would take turns during leisure hours trying to ride unbroken horses or show off their roping and tying skills. That's what I like most about rodeo. It develops and showcases skills that were once, and to a certain extent still are, essential in ranch life. From up in the stands, it is easy to take the skill level for granted, especially in an all-star rodeo like the Calgary Stampede where North American champions make everything look so easy. But when you get down to arena level and observe the actual relationships between man or woman and horse more closely, you begin to feel how the strange, powerful, almost mystical connection works. It is a cliché to call a great rodeo rider a "centaur," the half man, half horse figure from Greek mythology, but there is something to it. The horses are magnificent to watch in action, backing gracefully to their marks, responding to the slightest nudge of a knee, stopping on a dime to let the cowboy jump down to tie three legs of a terrified, squalling calf, or leaning almost prone to the ground around a barrel with only a few inches to spare.
The minute you spend time at a rodeo you realize what a remarkable subculture it is. I generalize but this is what you tend to find: seriously Christian, intensely patriotic, grounded in the best rural values of decency, discipline, hard work, neighborliness, and grit. Country music in every boom box and ear bud. Corny but generous announcers who specialize in "western grammar," who tend at some point during the rodeo edge up towards a hint of sexual or racial stereotyping, but who console the losers and remind the winners that just a week ago in Saskatoon they were thrown headlong into the dust.
My daughter and I drove through the rodeo grounds at Bowman, ND, in early June during the state high school rodeo competition. We threaded our puny Honda civic through a sea of fifth wheel horse-campers the size of Rhode Island, pulled by pickups that you have to use a ladder to get in. Each one had a couple of beautiful horses tied up by its side. There were patios and pullouts and giant gas grills and flags of every sort and tiki lights and deck chairs and racks of cowboy boots and hats that made it feel like an outdoor sales event. It is not an exaggeration to say that some of these rodeo families have more invested in their rodeo rigs than I have in my home, and these are just the amateurs, ranch families working to provide their kids with wholesome recreational opportunities and hold up one of America's great traditions.
We loved the Calgary Stampede, but the truth is that three weeks ago we went to a small rural rodeo in the boondocks of North Dakota, ($6 bucks, "no returns"), and had a much better time. The riders fell off well more than half the time. Almost no team managed to rope a calf at both ends successfully. The announcer dreamed of being famous but he's not likely to quit his day job anytime soon. In the uncomfortable bleachers (no luxury boxes, no jumbotron) neighbors chatted in that familiar friendly way and shred out food. There were no urban wannabees in gleaming new cowboy hats and worn-for-the-first-time cowboy boots scouring their official programs trying to figure out the rules.
The Cowboy Prayer chokes me up every time because it is so perfectly corny, so steeped in romance and faith and Americana. The Calgary Stampede is too slick, professional, efficient to be an authentic expression of rural life, the riders are too masterful, and there aren't enough pint-sized kids bouncing around the arena on giant horses. The rodeo queen and princesses at the Calgary Stampede seem to come from central casting, not last year's prom.
What makes rural culture great is its earnest amateurism, real people doing remarkable things with heart and cheerful imperfection. It has to be just a little clunky to be fully life affirming, and fully authentic. That's what makes you smile and believe again.
Sometimes you just have to face disquieting truths. Take Canada for example. There it is just on the other side of the border filled with people more or less just like us, 36 million of them, most of whom speak English. You don't need an interpreter or a power converter to get along in Canada. Of all the countries an American might pass into, Canada provides the most immediate and comfortable fit.
I spent five days there last week consulting on a big film project. Here is my report. I'm sure I'm generalizing.
First, they are politer than we are. Not in some sort of stiff Queen's English sort of way—there is some of that—but in a manner more civil, with a more careful vocabulary, much less of the F-word, more complete sentences, more grammatical. Every transaction I had, with hotel clerks, restaurant personnel, bartenders, shopkeepers, and civil servants was marked by a kind of effortless politeness and respect. There was none of the "yeah, whadya want?" attitude that is now so common in American commerce. During my short stay in Alberta, I never heard a single rude remark. And the good cheer is not that sort of saccharin "Have a good day," or "Enjoy!" we sometimes get in our own cultural exchanges.
Second, the Canadians are healthier than we are. The United States of America, I am sorry to report, tops the scale in the global obesity rate. More than 30% of the American people are obese. That's more than a hundred million seriously fat Americans. Our beleaguered health care system has to lug us back from the brink with stents, bypass surgeries, diabetes regimens, pacemakers, blood pressure medicines, and a whole industry dedicated to trying to keep our digestive systems working in they way they were intended. Go into any American Costco and you will find a 200-foot aisle of floor to ceiling shelves filled with laxatives, fibers, and probiotics. When you survey the hundreds, maybe thousands, of products designed to help move out the massive amounts of processed bad food we keep shoveling in, it just makes you pause to wonder.
Canada's obesity rate is 14%. Half of ours. How can it be that a nearly identical people who live just across an imaginary 3,987-mile line can be twice as lean and just half as fat as we are? Surely Canada is a mirror we ought to gaze into from time to time. And not only are the Canadians less obese than we are, they are fitter and healthier looking too. My colleague and I walked along a beautiful bike and running trail that follows the Bow River through the city of Calgary. It was filled with smiling people of all ages, in casual sportswear that was not vulgar, people that it was a pleasure to gaze at.
Just in case you are wondering, the Canadian health care system spends $5,948 per capita every year, and the U.S. system spends $8,299 per person per year.
Third, them Canadians seem more curious and better educated than we are. Not smarter. I think they read more books and watch less television. My taxi driver this morning gave me a brief and thoughtful description of the state of Canada's relations with her Indian (First Nations) populations. I've had this same conversation in Montana and Wyoming. In our heartland, it tends to settle quickly into the "why can't they just get over it and be like us" argument, laced with sarcasm and contempt. Another taxi driver asked me where I was from, and then offered up a thoughtful and nuanced analysis of America's foreign policy. At customs a few minutes ago the agent, when he heard that I was traveling to Bismarck, asked what I knew about the sinking of the German warship Bismarck (May 1941), then gave me a ten-minute short course. It's as if they are all channeling public television up there.
Once, in New Hampshire, my dawn taxi driver turned around and said, "Wanna know what the most important nine-letter word in the English language is?" "Sure," I said. "D-I-S-C-I-P-L-I-N-E, discipline!" I said, "Ok, but that's ten letters." He said, "Whatevah."
The Canadians are more law abiding than we are. Vile Tories and Loyalists! Twice in four days when I walked from my hotel to the flat where we worked I found myself waiting five minutes at a stoplight (with no traffic either way) because the others on the sidewalk quietly paused for the light to turn. Try that in New York.
And of course the Canadians have much more restrictive gun control laws than we do (by which I mean they actually have some). But that of course is a subject that we are not allowed to talk about in the freest country that ever was. There is very little gun violence in Canada. You are five times more likely to die of gunshot wounds in the U.S. than in Canada.
I've always felt that Canada was America's better self, the same nation without steroids. There are little independent bookstores everywhere, and bread shops, and wine boutiques, and greengrocers, and cheese shops, and the widest possible range of ethnic restaurants. Their newspapers still look like newspapers, not People Magazine on newsprint. There is none of the mean streets honking and gesturing and jockeying for position one experiences in Chicago or New York. Somehow it just feels like a calmer and more generous world.
Don't get me wrong. I love America. I love the pulse and beat and boisterousness and bravado and irreverence of America, but in some ways we seem a much more tribal nation than Canada. We're a vast land of sharply defined identity groups that co-exist uneasily, in each other's face, each pursuing the "main chance." I think that in a land like ours where capitalism has been given such a loose leash, it runs a little amok, and gives a hardness and an edge to life. There is, in my view, a fair amount of cruelty and desperation embedded in our national operating system.
In nations where capitalism is treated not like a god, but like a powerful and at times problematic economic system that must be softened in its effects, in nations where there is widespread agreement that a dignified and ample safety net is the best way to create social security, life seems to be more relaxed and more generous.
Put it another way. Canada seems to have fewer fundamentalists than we do. By fundamentalists I don't just mean severe Christian evangelicals. I mean Second Amendment absolutists, and those who just want us to return to the protocols of the Founding Fathers, those who want us to pull out of the U.N., super-patriots, anti-evolutionists, and those who say "global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the world." It's hard to imagine a Canadian super-patriot, just as it's hard to figure out what Canadian cuisine would be.
It's as if the Canadians take more breaths per minute than we do. They see what a good life they have huddled up at the top of the United States, protected by our massive security umbrella, the beneficiaries of our much more raw and energetic economy, always getting to be the more reasonable cousins of their best friends, those magnificent yahoos south of the border.
I would never want us to stop being America, but I think we would gain by taking some lessons from our genial cousins to the north.