Being back in the States is sweet, even if I’m in Chicago, not Portland. For the next few days, I’m breathing pollen-filled, polluted, American air and loving it. The show I’ve been working on in Toronto is on a six-day hiatus. I am giving my son Robert moral support on his finals and logistical support moving into his first apartment. It’s a short walk from the store that is not only (allegedly) the easiest place in Chicago to buy liquor with a fake ID, but also gives you a free tee shirt if you spend $200.
But enough of me weeping silently in a darkened room at the loss of my little boy. Let’s talk about being from away, and about being from far away, and about being a foreigner.
I spent a day in Michigan on the way to Chicago and realized once again how I will always be from away in Portland, even though Portland is my favorite place to live. It has a high proportion of people living there by choice and people doing interesting things. I become more comfortable in Portland all the time, but I will never feel as “at home” in Maine as I felt listening to the cashier at a Mobil station in Troy, Mich. Her accent was nasal – the Michigan accent is not attractive – but she had the cadence I remember from childhood. Her small talk and grammar were bad, but bad in the ways I am used to.
Driving in Maine will never feel the same as it did crossing Michigan on the way to Chicago. Everybody drove the same number of miles over the speed limit, the correct number of miles over the limit. Michiganders know that you don’t slow down, you move over on the freeway at on-ramps, and traffic moves smoothly. Few others drivers realize this, based on my experience in other states. Especially in Massachusetts, where every car should be confiscated for the good of society. Look, the point is that for me, Michigan is home and always will be.
Chicago, a lot closer to Michigan than Maine, makes me feel like I’m from far away. Al Capone ran this place once. I think they are a little proud of that. The natives know immediately that I am not one of them, and they kind of feel sorry for me as a result. When I visit, I keep my head down and stay humble. It is a unique and fast-moving train, and visitors need to get with the program or get gone.
Despite their differences, Maine, Michigan and Chicago are still in the States. They are all Home. Canada is a lovely country, more civilized than the U.S. in many ways. Toronto is a lovely city full of lovely people. I am and always will be a foreigner in Toronto, despite how similar it seems to the U. S. at first blush. That similarity only adds to the surrealism.
Oddly, it was Newt Gingrich who finally brought that foreignness home to me. It may be the only positive contribution he has ever made to my life. I am not attacking this dedicated public servant; I was simply never one of his constituents. Had I been a multinational corporation, or wealthy, or free enough from moral failings to spend time judging other people’s private lives, he would have enhanced my life a great deal. He still taught me a valuable lesson, if inadvertently, when he was proposed as a celebrity guest for the show I am working on.
Gingrich seems like a slam-dunk for a cameo on a show set in a PR firm specializing in damage control. If you want to be President, but you married your high school teacher, divorced her while she was fighting cancer, and were a serial adulterer to wife No. 2 before leaving her for a staffer young enough to be your child, you have some “splainin” to do. And who better to splain than a PR firm? Or so you would think.
The Canadian staff and cast did not merely dislike having Gingrich on the show. They hated it. They hated him. The reaction was a mystery for a long time, until I came up with one of my phony-baloney theories.
In America, Gingrich’s detractors look at him more personally. Sure, they don’t like his politics. But he is also a personal embarrassment, thanks to his public image as a mean-spirited, self-aggrandizing bully with an antiseptic trophy wife and who likes personal attacks when they help his career but hates them when he’s in the hot seat.
The Canadian reaction to Newt seems more visceral and less personal. Gingrich has made a career of opposing social liberalism, regulated industry, and socialized medicine. If he is right, Canada is wrong. His seeming unwillingness to see value in opposing points of view helps also to make him a living symbol of American arrogance.
Gingrich’s checkered personal past doesn’t seem to concern Canadians as much as representing the negation of their country. This surprised me. But then it also surprised me that Toronto’s mayor was accused of smoking crack on camera, that the accuser and the alleged recording disappeared, and that as of this writing, the mayor is still the mayor.
America and Canada. Two families watching each other over an imaginary barrier, both thinking they’ve gone to the zoo.
Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, now lives in Scarborough and is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @mikelangworthy.