By nature and background, I’m not an easy traveler. The family Ellen and I grew up in only traveled once a year, usually driving to see relatives in Oklahoma (although one year we did make it to New Mexico). As soon as we got past the city limits, Mother began to worry she’d left the iron on. Miles would pass and she’d continue to fret. We always ended up turning around, where we invariably found the iron safely turned off back at home. I learned my lesson from this: I never use an iron, even f I’m not going anywhere. My clothes may be wrinkled, but at least they match my face.
Anyway, since I’m using a small laptop I’m unfamiliar with and because travel is so fragmenting, here are some random thoughts about my trip to Boston.
For years, I was a nervous wreck when I flew. Always glanced around at the other passengers, lamenting the fact they were the group I would die with and I really didn’t know them that well. Did I really want to die with them? No, not particularly. Years of flying and premonitions of doom (and not only doom — doom with ignominious behavior. I wouldn’t meet death silently and stoically; I’d be whimpering and wailing and losing control of my bodily functions, I felt sure, as the plane plummeted downward). After a while, I finally realized I was a real bust in the premonitions business. Around the time I was diagnosed with cancer about 12 years ago, my fear of flying kind of evaporated. Maybe neuroticism simply fades as you get older, becoming less and less interesting (so does self-absorption). Life has its compensations.
Forget all the security measures and long lines making you miserable when you fly. I become very passive when I travel, which I prefer to call “entering a zen state of higher enlightenment.” I enountered only two problems with my zen state on this trip: 1) being forced to take off my shoes in the security line (it’s hard to maintain any dignity when you’re forcibly barefoot) and 2) when I entered into a true zen state I call sleep, the guy next to me on the plane came crashing over me because he had to go to the bathroom.
But, more than anything, I recommend traveling with good books. On my flight yesterday, I was accompanied by George Saunders’ book of essays, The Braindead Megaphone. In it, Saunders writes about everything from the current state of the media (nonstop harangues that leave no time for intelligent, soft-spoken discourse) to Dubai to Kurt Vonnegut to guarding the U.S.-Mexican border. What I particularly enjoy about Saunders — aside from his wonderful humor — is his insistence on covering all sides of intricate stories, documenting his own waxing and waning emotions as he tries to understand enormously complex issues like immigration. It’s not that simple, he says again and again, as he zigzags over rough, unknowable terrain. In fact, he’s as different as you can imagine from the omnipresent talk show hosts and guests who already know what they think, are convinced of their own rectitude and try to bludgeon the rest of the world into agreement by screaming slogans.
What I like, too, is that Saunders expects more of us — all of us. How can we come up with glib, absolute answers when the issues are so complex and life-transforming. We can’t — or we shouldn’t, anyway. He wants more from himself and from all his readers, demanding that we all keep an openness to others’ lives, desires and points of view, that we travel with an eye toward learning as much as we can about other worlds. How wonderful to hear that — that call for openness of minds and bigger hearts.
At the Boston Airport, I hopped into a cab with a driver from Sierra Leone. Within minutes, we were screaming at each other like old friends. “You can’t be a liberal if you’re from Texas,” he told me. “Northeastern Republicans are more liberal than Southern Democrats. Teddy Kennedy couldn’t run for the Senate from Texas. He’d never get elected.”
I tried to convince him that, yes, we did have some liberals in Texas. Why, I’d just seen a few the night before and they seemed to be pretty hale and hearty, if a bit drunk. But the gun laws! he objected. Anybody elected in Texas had to support handguns!
I tried to explain how anybody elected in Texas had to haul around a rifle and pretend to enjoy shooting animals. But that was just posturing. You didn’t have to bag animals (or fellow hunters) to get elected. It was just for show.
“George W. Bush!” he crowed insistently. “Couldn’t have been elected from another state!”
Well, yes, but Bush was really a Yankee, educated at Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School, I pointed out. It’s not an argument I really believe, but I like to throw it in whenever possible when speaking with New Englanders. These days, when you’re from Texas, you need every advantage you can get.
But we agreed heartily on the war. Just think, we chorused, just think what we could have done with those billions of dollars and those thousands of lives squandered in Iraq. Just think what a better world we could have made.
I lurched out of the taxi and into my hotel, happy to have made a new friend. The driver had lived here 10 years and was astonishingly well-informed about this country and its politics. And what did I know about Sierra Leone? Its beaches, he had told me early in the trip, are hauntingly beautiful and untouched by tourism.
(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)