I felt surprisingly proud as I walked past the Bleecker Street Pub in lower Manhattan during the final minutes of the decisive Olympic hockey game. It looked like a nice bar and I would have gone in except it was so crowded I couldn't get through the door. I watched the last ten minutes of overtime through the window from a rainy street. Suddenly Canada scored, and the amazing party I'd been unable to join minutes before collapsed like a punctured beach ball. More than one of the disappointed faces collided with me drunkenly as they streamed out of the bar.
I went on my way, crossing lower Manhattan on foot until I came to Jacques Torres, the chocolate genius of Hudson Street. I was cold and wet, so I deliberated carefully to make the correct choice between his 'classic' or 'wicked' hot chocolates. In a celebratory mood, I went for 'wicked', a strange mix whose odd combination of allspice, cinnamon and different chilis had me seeing Juliet Binoche's lovely face until the aftertastes started swirling around my mouth and creeping down my spine. I swear my scalp began to tingle as memories of countless miserable hockey afternoons at 40 below came back to me.
My parents were stingy and made me use a pair of too-small hand-me-down skates that hurt my feet. It was long before GoreTex and I was always criminally cold in winter. My first impulse when the snow fell was to crank up the furnace and stay inside until spring. I had to be bullied and coerced into winter sports. This was my brother's job. One of the biggest coercions, I remember, was hot chocolate. "Wait 'til it's over," my brother would tell me excitedly at hockey practice, "we'll have hot chocolate."
Sometimes, we'd get into fights on the ice, and once I remember having a bloody nose that froze and then thawed out when I finally got into the warm shack where they served what they called 'chocolate'. It was watery stuff from a packet. Blood from my nose dripped into it making it red brown, salty and slightly metallic. Gross.
That was my childhood experience of Canada. Every year, there were five months of barely endurable suffering punctuated by a disappointing 'reward.' It's true that Canada can be vast and beautiful like an endless hike through Yellowstone, but I hate winter, hockey and small town self-righteousness. It's not my fault. I was born in late November, and as a newborn meeting winter head-on discouraged me from taking an interest in winter sports thereafter. I pretty much stayed cold and unhappy until I left for California in 1980.
California has two seasons; warm green and hot brown. Hard to imagine if you're Canadian, but think shorts and sandals mingled with assortments of stylish blonde and chocolate women on the beach with wine coolers as the sun goes down past Malibu every day. Think Entourage or 12 months of your dock-siders always full of sand. Think abundance and comfort, and Have A Nice Day!
I used to teach citizenship classes to new Americans at Los Angeles Valley College, and the fact that I was an illegal alien at the time seemed unimportant to everyone concerned. 'We need good teachers' the personnel officer said, fudging my paperwork. Life was so easy. Without Rodney King and the LAPD, Sandra and I might still be there. Our first son was born in Cedars-Sinai. He's 20 now. In his dreams, he wears the gold home-jersey as he hands off to Kobe to score another long-distance three-pointer. Ka-Swish!
All this is to say that I am not one of those Canadians whose nationalism is accompanied by knee jerk anti-Americanism. I don't need to hate America to feel Canadian. I've been abroad and know why we're different from other nations. Like most Canadians, I am stunned, overwhelmed and amazed by America, but I no longer feel like an uninvited wet blanket standing outside the big party looking in. I've been to the big party and yes, it is fun. But Vancouver can be fun too. It is its own place, and a good one. Winter is muted here. I don't envy you neighbors any more.
Still, some of my countrymen are not so sophisticated. Maybe you heard about this? A couple of snowbirds took down the American flag over La Quinta, California after the big hockey game. They raised the Maple Leaf -the red and white Canadian flag- over the town as if to say: "Heh, heh, heh. We won. In yer face, eh?" To me this seems like such indescribably stupid behavior that I have to assume these guys were pretty drunk. La Quinta is a retirement community famous for its golf courses, so they probably weren't in great danger of getting shot, but now, of course, they'll have to explain themselves to an American judge. For their sake, I hope he's not a hockey fan.
Meanwhile, let me explain that - like the younger brother who needs to find his own sport to excel at - Canadians still need to excel at hockey. We grip onto it ferociously in order to define ourselves because we're afraid that there's not much else. We're still insecure teenagers trying to one-up a grown-up sibling. Be patient with us. Give the two Canadian idiots in La Quinta community service sentences, and forgive us - this time - for kicking your ass. ;-)