Holding Two Opposing Thoughts in My Head: It’s Self-Evident, Y’all

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, in “The Crack-Up,” an essay published in Esquire magazine in 1936

I was raised by an American patriot (my daddy), a man pledged to give his life for this country for the twenty-three years he was on active duty with the United States Air Force. He raised us all to show respect for the flag, and I do. I do. I can even tear up, as he always did.

And yet, as an American, I also support the right of the football players who’ve chosen to kneel rather than stand during the national anthem, as a protest for the many things they see wrong in our society. I see those wrongs too.

I can hold these two opposing thoughts in my head—my love and respect for the country of my birth while I note that not everything is perfect here, that there are deep wrongs we need to right. But there is a certain ilk of people in this country who cannot (actually, will not) do that, hold the conflicting thoughts. They condemn this peaceful protest.

I wonder what they would think if they read this book? By historian/professor Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America shows us an America most people don’t want to believe exists. And I’m not talking about the connotation you may get when you read the title. No, I’m talking about our revered Founding Fathers. This book made me think differently about them.

The Founding Fathers. You know: Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and others. Those guys to whom this ilk—the folks who can’t stand it when a football player quietly takes a knee during the national anthem—rush to ascribe all sorts of signs and wonders. I did, too, honestly, until I read this well-researched book. The thing is, those guys were really just very privileged white English assholes who brought their class superiority with them when they left England. They talked a good game—all men (though not women) created equal, being endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights indeed—but they really didn’t walk the walk. Those blessings of liberty were really only intended for, you know, white men of the monied class.

And yet, and yet. That Constitution. And that Declaration of Independence. They’re things of beauty. We’ve been clinging to them for 240 years. So there’s two opposing thoughts for you, yes? I can hold them both in my head. I can love and respect the dream manifest in the words We hold these truths to be self-evidentself-evident, y’all!—and hate the fact that the writers of those words brought both black and white* slaves to this land to do (ahem) the hard work. The work that well-bred, well-off white men shouldn’t have to do, they thought.

These are perilous times we live in, friends. Hate speech—particularly toward people of color—abounds. My husband and I were just having this discussion at breakfast. “You can change your accent and your address,” he said, “but you can’t change the color of your skin.” I look around at my fellow Americans and I’m appalled and ashamed by their behavior, not by the behavior of the peaceful protesters. I’m shocked that some Americans presume to judge others for a quiet, peaceful protest, something granted to all citizens of this country. Peaceful protest. Free speech too.

Two opposing thoughts.

As humans, we’re capable of that.

In the 5 September 2016 issue of Time magazine, there was a ten-question interview with legal scholar/professor Akhil Amar of Yale University. His ethnic heritage is Indian, his parents having immigrated to the United States from India before he was born. The last question in the interview was this one:

Q: When you emptied your pockets so we could take your picture, you pulled out three copies of the Constitution. One wasn’t enough?

A: People died for these words, so we should have the words literally close to our hearts. You should have more than one copy because if someone asks you a question about the Constitution, I think it’s wonderful and democratic if you can give them a copy and you can read it together.

This made me tear up when I read it.

This is patriotism, y’all. Loudly demanding that someone stand during the national anthem because your small-minded idea of what America is can’t survive without a faked-up show of respect,** because you are incapable of holding two opposing thoughts in your tiny little head is not patriotism.

* They were referred to as “trash people”—because the wealthy landowners literally intended to work them to death, then throw them away like trash. Nice.

** How many times in years past have you tuned in a televised football game and watched as the camera panned down the line of athletes waiting to play? There was a time in my life when I spent every Sunday during football season doing this. I remember: some sang, some put hands over hearts, some did neither of those things, some swayed, lifted legs, bounced (staying loose), or grimaced (already in their game faces), some might have even been finishing off a quick exchange of words with the guy next to them, trying to be discreet. Think about it. You’ve seen it, don’t deny it. So tell me again why you’re so outraged now?

Wanderlust in Flames: Alaska Railroad

I had lunch with a friend of mine a few weeks ago. We don’t see each other that often—busy, right?—but we keep up on Facebook and in that lunch discovered our friendship is alive and well. The things that drew us together still do.

Including travel adventures.

panoramas

I’d seen some photos of a railroad trip to Alaska she’d made with her husband and her son, and I grilled her about it. It’s country I’d like to see, and most people I know who’ve seen it have done so from a cruise ship. Nothing wrong with that, but I have a little vertigo problem.

(Vertigo is caused—trust me, I’ve had all the tests—by sensitivity in eyes, ears, or legs, and while I have all three, it’s the leg sensitivity that knocks me over: standing in an old wooden building on the floor directly above the physical plant, for example, when the heating unit kicks on; or on an upper floor of any metal building, say the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville; or elevators, oh boy, elevators are troublesome for me. I’m highly sensitive to vibration that most of you can’t feel at all. So I’ve concluded that an ocean-going vessel is probably not a good fit for me.)

Thus the idea of a train was very appealing.

A couple weeks later, a large envelope arrived. Inside there was a large, four-color magazine from the Alaska Railroad, and a Post-It Note message: “Jamie, I hope you can go to AK some time.”

Needless to say, she’s inflamed my wanderlust again. Just look at this website! Yes, I want to see Alaska! Bears and eagles and Denali National Park, yes!

alaska-copy-2

Summer? Or winter? We’ll see!

In the News: The Joy of Flying?

I used to enjoy flying. I love airplanes. I love watching them fly. They remind me of my father, who was, as we’ve discussed, an air force pilot (and a special man altogether). He used to drive us out to the butt-end of the runway, when we were kids, and we’d park and watch the B-52s and KC-135s take off right over our heads.

KC-135s on the flightline, from Wikipedia.

KC-135s on the flightline, from Wikipedia.

Honestly, I have a thing for airplanes.

But I no longer love flying in them, for precisely the reasons cited in this article (which comes as no surprise to me).

Seats were 18 inches wide before airline deregulation in the 1970s and have since been whittled to 16 and a half inches, he said, while seat pitch used to be 35 inches and has decreased to about 31 inches.

Ugh. I have flown across the country all twisted up, trying desperately not to inflict myself on the passenger next to me, but unable to keep from touching. I am a chubby middle-aged woman; it can’t be helped.

Here’s hoping they’ll regulate a better seat situation soon.

Wanderlust Bites!

In my real life (as opposed to my travel daydream life) I edit books for a living, and I recently edited a wonderful book about a family who spent the better part of a year traveling around the world. (With young children! And it’s not science fiction!)

It inflamed my wanderlust. My wanderlust is off the scale right now.

The stories in the pages of the manuscript made me want to go places I have never, ever had any real desire to see. (China? No. Whiny music. Too much fish in the food. And, you know, evil empire. Someplace in Africa? No. Too hot. Special medical requirements. And I like my creature comforts. But the author made these locales sound appealing, interesting, desirable.)

Just look at this! There are a lot of places/things I’d like to see someday … (Photo from Wikipedia. Baobab trees.)

Just look at this! There are a lot of places/things I’d like to see someday … (Photo from Wikipedia. Baobab trees.)

The travelogue about the young family really moved me.

And this one too: An American couple who lived (separately) in Amsterdam, met, married, and had their child there, return after a stretch of years for a visit to a place they’ve loved well. They spend their vacation living along one of the canals in a home owned by friends. Which is the best way, really, to experience what a place is really like. A hotel can be very sterile, but a private home or apartment drops you right into the life of the place. This New York Times article is a lovely commentary on Amsterdam, and it makes me want to go.

Now, dagnabbit. I’m ready.

Then just this morning a good friend sent me a tweet. “What was the name of that book (from, like, two years ago) set during the war? You loved it.”

Now, I’m good, but I read a lot of books. “Ummm,” I tweet back. “What war?”

“Balkans, orphan girl, hospital, doctor woman—”

“Oh, of course!” The tweets are flying fast now. “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra.” I loved that book. Loved it.

Turns out my friend had just spent two “magical” days “in DC in an Airbnb Georgetown flat hosted by the warmest, most interesting woman who lived through the Balkan war. If you and G ever get to DC, stay here! She is now an interpreter and expert in war-conflict resolution.” I read the comments in the link—the owner of the flat gets rave reviews.

Why the Marra? My friend wanted to “imagine her world.” Clearly this Airbnb host made quite an impression. And clearly this is a bedroom I need to sleep in, yes? I’m already wondering how soon we can start planning a visit to our nation’s capital. (We have a couple trips, short ones, already planned. Watch this space.)

In the meantime, I am trying to discern what it all means, the convocation of the manuscript, the article, the message from my friend, all in the space of a couple days. Since, you know, I can’t just quit work and take off every time I get bitten by the wanderlust bug!

Can You Hear the Corn?

cornfield-background

My strongest memory of our garden is not how it smelled, or even looked, but how it sounded. It might strike you as fantastic, but you really can hear plants growing in the Midwest. At its peak, sweet corn grows a whole inch every single day and as the layers of husk shift slightly to accommodate this expansion, you can hear it as a low continuous rustle if you stand inside the rows of a cornfield on a perfectly still August day.

—Hope Jahren, from Lab Girl (Alfred A. Knopf 2016)