Thursday, October 05, 2006

Gravity-induced customs and the long flight of birds

For much of my life I held a sort of half-baked belief that America was different from the other nations of our planet, not merely in its governmental structure, laws, religious beliefs or purple mountain majesties but in semi-mythical qualities bordering on divine providence. Not unlike that of a majority of Americans, and most Midwesterners, if you believe the polls. In part this was simple homespun xenophobia, a haughtiness based more on unenlightenment than knowledge or experience. When one knows nothing else, superiority is relative. The British once felt the same about Rule Britannia, exemplified notably by a chauvinistic attitude toward the “mud” races of the world, garnished with overtones of the absolute transcendency of the white man. Back then, of course, the sun never set on Great Britain, and now that it does so on a daily basis attitudes have been forcibly subjected to revision.

Looking back in my diaries I find an entry in 1976 where I questioned how I had become such a “flag-waving redneck.” Strangely, there was no explanation for what triggered the comment. When several months later a bill came from the IRS for $400, a princely sum we could scarcely afford, my hoo-rah status of the U.S. came to a crashing halt.

This is not to say I’m unpatriotic, though such opprobrium has certainly been directed at those of the liberal bent. It’s worth noting that those bandying such ill-conceived malapropisms often stray perilously close to becoming mere caricatures rather than rational human beings. Let us all, red and blue, right and left, strive for moderation, temperance and sobriety.

While I’m still trying out my newfangled approaches to the modern world and attempting to adopt a more cosmopolitan orientation—difficult at best with the ascendancy of militant Islam and the either-or negativity of today’s politics—I was caught embarrassingly flat-footed last week when one of Lori’s cousins from Australia brought over his fiancée. Through various conversational threads I discovered that such heavenly staples as Cool Whip and pumpkin pie never grace the shelves of the Down Under markets. At first shocked, then aghast, I asked how they could possibly find culinary bliss, and then, in a mindless lapse harking back to my earlier mindset, I sputtered that it was “un-American.” To which they replied: Indeed.

Oops. This launched an intensive comparison about our two nations, not the least of which involved the various foodstuffs that define our cultures. Having recently visited her first Wal-Mart Superstore (or is a Mega-Brobdingnagian-Store?), Karen, Laurence’s fiancée, was agoggle over the vast quantities of items lining the aisles. “There’s nothing like that at home,” she said. Of particular interest were the innumerable choices for the same product. Implicit in her statement was a veiled question about how Americans are able to choose with so many similar items vying for their attention. Had we carried this thread to its conclusion—which we did not—my answer would have been easy: brand name tastes good, generic like sawdust.

It was the topic of dessert that most horrified me. Besides not having Cool Whip or pumpkin pie—nor Thanksgiving for that matter, and don’t get me started on green chiles—an Australian birthday favorite is angel food cake with peanut butter topping. I was silently gagging when Karen mentioned another popular food, one so ingrained in every Aussie that it has become iconic: Vegemite. It’s a dark brown spread derived from yeast extract, and for this trip she’d brought enough to last the trip. In squeeze tubes. When she said this we were halfway to Frankfort to eat at Grandpa Red’s, one of the finest eateries in Marshall County. The idea made my stomach flop.

“That’s the problem of living on the bottom of the world,” I said. “All the blood drains to your head and you can’t think clearly. That’s why you have Vegemite and we have Cool Whip.”

As if funny brown substances squeezing from a tube like rancid Cheez-Whiz isn’t bad enough, Australia also favors roundabouts. Roundabouts, for those rural denizens unfamiliar to the latest trend in traffic control to hit these shores—surely an oxymoron in this instance—are diabolic replacements for four-way stops at intersections. When Laurence mentioned the number of these he passes on the way to work, I blanched.

“I hope whoever invented those dies and goes to the lowest bowels of Hell,” I grimaced.

“That was my grandfather,” Karen said.

For a few moments there was utter silence in the car. I choked out, “Did he like hot weather?”

Lori was looking at me as if I had morphed into some strange insect. I mentally vowed to keep my Big Fat Mouth shut more often. After a while, Karen admitted that she made that up.

“You’re going to have your hands full with that girl,” I told Laurence.

Supper was, as always, delightful, an American repast devoid of brown goo. By the time we left the restaurant the sun had disappeared behind a cloud bank. Light was fading. The streets of Frankfort were deserted.

Lori commented on the architecture, and as we stared up at the tall limestone buildings studded with black metal stars a flock of chimney swifts wove through the air, chittering and calling in their thin reedy voices.

I explained how they were named for their favorite roost, and how most of our swifts had departed for South America three weeks earlier than usual. These had probably come down from the north.

The four of us stood there in the middle of an empty street, our eyes lifted to the skies. Dark clouds shot with streaming veins of silver formed a backdrop for the birds as they dipped and swirled and rose into the beckoning night. For us, gravity-bound, residents like the swifts of both hemispheres, the unfettered birds on their long migration seemed the most amazing thing of all.

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