Thoughts in Motion, Part 1

Now and then, I end up writing mostly fragments and thoughts, numbering them. This happens to me during periods of grief. It also happened to me the past couple of weeks when I was traveling a lot.

I guess it makes sense. At a time of transitions in my life, I can’t write transitions worth a damn. So:

1) “Jet lag is bullshit!”

My husband said this in a loud, authoritative voice at a dinner party a couple of years ago. I wanted to strangle him — since I thought he was wrong, wrong, wrong — but noticed that everyone else was paying attention. Hell, a couple of them were practically taking notes. He is, after all, an expert in certain psychological areas.

“You know, people really take you seriously when you issue one of your inane proclamations,” I told him on the way home. “They’re going to be catatonic with jet lag and thinking they’re only imagining it. Blaming themselves — because of you.”

“You’ve gotta make people think,” he said, getting one of his big grins on his face.

I think about this as I am sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Gdynia, Poland, and the phone is ringing. It rings, it stops, it rings again and again. Why doesn’t the woman behind the desk answer it? What is wrong with her? Doesn’t she know I haven’t slept in 36 hours, have spent the night in a warped approximation of fetal position in steerage class, and may, possibly, lose my mind in the next 10 seconds?

After the 103rd ring of the phone, my sister arrives and I stand up uncertainly. My sister notices the parrot in the corner and the parrot notices her. Then the damned bird squawks just like a ringing phone.

2) When I’m in a place where French, German or Spanish is spoken, I struggle to catch words and phrases and spend a good part of my time berating myself for not keeping up with languages I once had some familiarity with. In a place where you have no grounding whatsoever in the language, though, you have a certain freedom. You overhear lengthy, impassioned conversations and you are free to interpret them as you will.

Instead of focusing on words and their meanings, you listen to the rhythm, to the melody, to the emotions of another language. It’s like watching ocean waves come in on the sand. You understand something about the tide and the underlying forces, even if you never get wet.

3) My sister shows me a beautiful beach on the Baltic. “This is where I was walking with a friend,” she says, “when you called to tell me Daddy had died.”

I watch the water coming in and think of her there. Maybe, like today, it was a pretty day, and she was having a lovely time walking on the shore. A pretty day, a day with a friend, and then her phone rang and it all changed on her. Only the waves stayed the same.

In the absence of caller i.d., no one ever ignores a ringing phone. Unless, of course, it turns out to be a parrot.

4) The point is, you can travel, but the news always catches up with you. My daughter emails me about the monumental Supreme Court decision about health care. I am by myself in my hotel room, ecstatic, but with no one to celebrate with. I end up going on Facebook to repeatedly express my pleasure.

This sense of being alone with portentous news you can’t explain to anyone around you also happened to me 40 years ago in Le Mans, France. I was living there briefly with a French family. One morning, I learned that J. Edgar Hoover had died. I kept trying to explain his importance and the magnitude of his death to my French family — but, of course, they’d never heard of him.

Similarly, this. How do you explain to any European how important the health care decision is? Is there really such thing as a First World country without it?

Forty years later and 40 years older, I have to wonder what I’ve gained besides a little cellulite. My French has gone straight to hell and I still can’t explain my own damned country to the rest of the world. Or, really, even to myself.

(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)

9 comments… add one
  • Cindy A Link

    Loved this, Ruth. Lately, I’ve been thinking of our country as being kind of like the Middle East except that the primary explosive is political. I was lucky to be at work when the Supreme Court decision was announced. We all left our offices and gathered in the hallway in stunned silence, which soon became badly disguised internal glee (so as not to set off any land mines on the other side of the political spectrum). And as much as I respect Dr. Pennebaker, he is wrong about jet lag.

  • Europeans are appalled at the state of our health care, as well they should be. Even WITH this bill we’re still behind.

  • Lynn Link

    Drat. I just lost a whole long rambling post full of accolades you are too tired to read anyway. So I’ll just say thank you for your wit and your humor coming into my email and making my day.

  • Craig Link

    A beautiful post that tells me well what 40 years later has given you

  • You should write your blog notes on the points of a pinwheel. Then when the wind blows, we can all grasp the themes– without risking being overcome with pseudo-jet-lag.

    Any parrot who speaks AT&T risks getting their neck rung!

  • love the bold denouncement of jet lag. I used to think heat stroke and allergies were figments of weaker people’s imagination until I suffered heat stroke on a river in montana. and moved to austin and discovered allergies. still, I like your husband’s theory on jet lag…I think I will let that stick

  • When I first moved to France in 1969, I used to try and explain the USA to everyone. That would be impossible today. It doesn’t even make sense to me. Loved what Jamie said: “You’ve gotta make people think.” That is part of the problem here. People have lost the ability to think for themselves. There was a period in the 1970s and 1980s when cars carried the bumper sticker “They can make me go to school but they can’t make me think.” Now I wonder if that wasn’t an early stealth campaign by the Republicans, to dumb down our nation.

  • Paula Link

    Especially loved the bit about language in this one. Beautiful and apt metaphor.

  • Jet lag is real, explaining America’s convoluted healthcare system to the rest of the world is surreal, what you say about the freedom to listen to a language when you don’t grasp the meaning is so true.

    In a related matter, I remember driving through Italy and before entering a tunnel seeing signs for I know not what. They might have said “toxic fumes ahead” or “traffic backed up for hours” or “enter at your own risk.” Somehow instead of feeling scared I found the whole thing refreshing, throwing caution to the wind and barreling ahead regardless.

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