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August 3, 2009 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Fear and Loathing in the Midwest

Americans do not understand me. Just a couple of days ago I was talking to my new flatmate, who I had just met for the first time. It was a Saturday morning. “Are there any good weekend newspapers in this country?” I asked. She looked at me quizzically and mumbled something. After a second of awkward silence she perked up. “Oh” she exclaimed, brightly. “You mean, are there any Water Pipes around here? Of course, there’s a shop selling them just around the corner down the road. Its very good”. I thanked her, then turned and fled to my room. “Never ask Americans anything”, I reminded myself as I hid in the corner and thought comforting thoughts of home.

This was not a unique occurrence. I’ve been here five weeks, been to seven different states, and yet not one single person has managed to say my name properly. The conversation usually goes like this:

American: So, whats your name?

Me: Jack

American: Well, it’s nice to meet you, Jed

Who knows. Maybe I should just change my name to Archibold.

Apart from not being understood, the American upper mid-west has been a wonderful place to experience, especially since it’s the height of summer. Right now I’m in the quaint tourist town of Durango, which is down at the bottom of the state of Colorado. Despite Durango having the greatest second-hand bookshop known to man, the local populace tend to ignore this and instead spend their time floating down the local river on giant tubes. Of course, this is only their daytime activity; at night they generally tend to go out and get stupendously drunk, presumably because there is nothing else to do in a tourist town on a weeknight. Sometimes, they even combine the two activities. So it goes.

Needless to say, for the casual New Zealand tourist, America is a trip. Often when you go to foreign countries with certain preconceived notions about aspects of their various societies, it turns out you are sorely disappointed. For instance, there is no Fosters in Australia (Yes, I know. Messed up). And, I could be wrong on this, but I’m fairly sure that Khazakstan, well, isn’t quite like it is according to Borat. However, I am here to tell you right now that everything you think about America is, in fact, true. Sports journalists are all like Ray Romano, everyone in the South preaches about Jesus, and everyone in California are pot-smoking tree-hugging hippie liberals. Except, of course, for Arnie. Maybe that’s why he’s such a jackass (just quietly).

Speaking of California, this brings up another aspect of American society that the world sees all too readily, and which is, unfortunately, true as well. Certain aspects of this country (usually Republicans, of course) are mind-blowingly greedy and self-centered. When I first arrived in California, a debate was raging over how to make the state—the third largest economy in the whole world—financially solvent; it was a matter of weeks, they said, before the whole place was going to go broke. Democrats insisted on raising taxes (the top tax rate is all of circa. 17% here) and plugging a loophole that was allowing people to pay their property taxes on historic valuations instead of current ones: this alone, apparently, would have solved the whole problem. Republicans, in their infinite wisdom, were having none of this. Of course, this was big government messing with the little guy, they said. Their theory? To close all the state parks, cut benefits to, among others, alzheimers patients, and sell San Quentin prison. Genius. I wish I were that smart.

Fortunately, most Americans are a cut above this (or at least the 51% or so that voted for Obama, anyway). Since heading off to explore the wonders of this place, most of the people I have encountered have been slightly nuts, very charming, and very interesting.

It all began, more or less, at the Kate Wolfe Music Festival in Northern California, where, after following Woodstock M.C. Wavy Gravy around and stalking Emmylou Harris back to her motorhome, I briefly hung out with a folk musician named Rosalie Sorrels; Sorrels, who was a good friend of Ken Kesey, is also apparently the only musician to have album liner notes written by Hunter S Thompson and Studs Terkel. Indeed. From then on it only got more ‘out there’: hanging out in Sacramento with a staunch Native American named Chief (of course), a brawling Texan ladykiller called John and, my favourite, Giovan, a “black radical hippy love child”, as he put it, with a love for Led Zeppelin and classic Rolling Stones. Or up in Spokane, Washington, staying up till 3am drinking whiskey with a Vietnam war veteran and listening to his classic 60s LP collection (think Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane). One of the records had sound effects of Vietnam-era jet planes racing overhead; he shook his head. “It wasn’t really like that,” the grizzled vet noted, somberly. “You’d never hear them till they were gone”.

I’m not quite sure what over-riding impression I have of this country. I guess it’s a country of many different peoples, viewpoints and perspectives, probably the single most varied country in the Western World, at least, for good or for ill. And it’s not quite sane. And it has very cheap beer. Did I mention that?


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