I have discovered how to become a famous writer. The answer is to immediately stop censoring myself or imposing any kind of purpose or organizational structure on my blogs. Alexis de Tocqueville, famous French observer of 19th century America, wrote Democracy in America, on of the single most comprehensive and unreadable volumes in any language, and he has been avidly quoted by politicians and academics of every ideological strip ever since. A good Tocqueville quote is indispensible, whether you're opining on behalf of Marxism, neoconservatism, or baseball. He has achieved literary immortality. But why?
The purpose of quoting someone else, of course, is to hide your own non-sequiters using the words of someone rendered irrefutable by death, fame, or both. Tocqueville is so eminently quotable simply because 1) He is dead, and 2) he could offer a vaguely educated opinion on virtually every subject, and he expressed them all with the grandiosity of an age when all novel ideas also seemed plausible.
My own plan is equally simple. I shall be Tocquevillianly grandiose, vague, and unfocused. Then (at some point in the passage of time), I plan to die, and whoever of you outlasts me can feel free to quote me.
I don't think I'd ever ridden in a taxi before my eighteenth birthday, but since I moved out of the suburbs, it happens often. This delights me to no end, because I've found cab drivers to be infallibly interesting. I'm on my way to Seattle at the time of this writing, and the cab driver who took Lana, Connie and I to Reagan Airport was a remarkable specimen.
His name was Modesto Bardino Bretas, or so proclaimed the cab driver's license mounted above the dash. It sounded vaguely Mediterranean. He had the American and Israeli flags tucked behind the sun visor on the passenger side, and the cross hanging from his rearview mirror was of the design you see in Ethiopian souvenir stores.
"Where do you want to go?" he said, and the turned on the radio. It was a waltz. By Strauss.
We arrived at the airport - for the second time that day. Our earlier flight had been cancelled, and we whiled away the time by watching a parade of WWII veterans at the airport. They deplaned with wheelchairs and walkers, while a brass band brought in by U.S. Airways played martial music. After that, we took a cab back to the office, and we piled into Connie's German car. She turned on her West African gospel mix, and we drove to a Lebanese restaurant on Pentagon Row in a small square that also boasted Thai food, Mexican, a noodle shop, an Irish pub, and a French creperie. Connie decided, however, between drafting e-mails at the outdoor table, to be pretend we were in Santorini.
Our second effort at leaving Washington was, thankfully, less eventful than the first, unless you count the glorious absurdity of TSA security. On this day, it involved stepping into a machine that blows puffs of air at you (it always makes me giggle), and a nine-year-old girl in a red flowered sun dress being "randomly selected" for additional screening, though that's nothing to my friend's baby, who at birth somehow wound up on the "No Fly List" and endured frisking while still in diapers.
There's a ridiculous profusion of McCain, Clinton, and Obama memorabilia in the airport shops. It's getting old. The general consensus in the capital is that everyone wishes it were over - and we're still nine months away from inauguration day! I was an enthusiastic participant in the Potomac Primaries, but I'm also rather sick of the whole thing. The longer I have to reflect, the more I become convinced that anyone who would volunteer for the nation's highest office must be out of their minds. They'd have to be, to consent to have their faces (looking ever so competent and poised) placed on a sweatshirt in the duty-free shop. And the suspicion, which seems ever more warranted, that I shall have to choose between two slightly nutty candidates with whom I disagree at least half the time in both principle and policy, just takes the zest out of performing my civic duty. Will I vote? Of course, but I'll pray even more.
Safely at our gate, I began to write, since I had long since lost Lana to a biography of Ted Bundy, and Connie to the stoic endurance of a germ-filled public place like an airport, an environment not much loved by her fastidious nature.
I'm partway through a novel by Thornton Wilder. He has a lyrical, almost liturgical prose style that reminds me of the King James Version of the Bible. If I'm overdoing it on the adjectives today, you know why. I've always been a terrible pushabout when it comes to my writing style. I'm a mimic. I seem doomed to channel whomever I've most recently read. I still carry the scars of an ill-advised obsession with Dickens in elementary school. I've often wondered if any of my style is my own. It must be, to some degree, but mostly I think I'm a shameless borrower, and whatever knack I have for language stems from a simple fact: I have a sufficiently indifferent opinion of reality to read three books a week since I my alphabet.
I can hardly imagine a world without books. When I was a child, if asked, "Would you rather be deaf or blind?" (I don't know why children ask each other such morbid hypothetical questions), I always said, "Deaf." Even if I lost my hearing, I would still have my books.
"Story" is the paradigm through which I view my world. I mark off my life into chapters, themes, and motifs. I understand people as heros and foils, though I've had the good fortune to know few enough villains.
Because of that, one of Scripture's most profound statements for me is that God is the author of faith. The one word - author - resolves the sovereignty vs. free will debate for me. An author, you see, has total control over his creation, but at the same time he is not arbitrary. He actions are bound by rules - such as grammar, spelling, chronology, and even the internal consistency of his own plot and characters -- to which he freely submits himself in order to tell a good, clear story. So God, in "writing" our faith, is both fully responsible for the outcome, yet constantly checks himself, enabling us to make choices, so that he does not contradict the laws of love which he both invented and obeys.
For a person who flies as often as I do, I find it terribly exhausting and boring. At least I can be grateful that I am not afraid of flying. Some one my friends are, and I think I would spend half my life in a catatonic state if I partook of their phobia.
I have little use for fear of things I cannot control, and I am frustrated by people who allow fear to dictate their outlook or actions, or even worse, for those who try to instill their fears in me. Of course, I have my own skeletons in the fear closet, enough to render me a hypocrite, but I give myself a good scolding if I find that fear's been at the root of some action of mine. I don't remember always having such strong feeling about fear and its proper place; if anything, it's been a recent development. I think I hit the point in my life where fear stopped being worth it. The things you fear have a way of never happening. It's the things you never bothered to fear that will get at you.
We landed in Charlotte, North Carolina. It's always bemused me that I would have to fly several hundred miles south in order to go north and west, but mere mortals ought not to question such things. Anyway, the bathroom more than made up for it by offering a Listerine dispenser and homegrown roses set out in empty Tropicana orange juice bottle. In some respects, loving the south is a moral imperative.
I always wonder what the inside of other people's minds are like. I wonder if, like my own, they are endless ping-pong games, sometimes well-ordered, but sometimes an erratic, white-noise stream of consciousness that hardly ever abates except in prayer or sleep. When I'm extra tired, it goes on, but often in my second of third language, or a hybrid of the two.
This is a large part of why I write and why I read: to impose a brief silence on my mind. This is also why I lose things and why I forget vital details when I most need to remember them: because I am so enchanted with some digression (of which the above are a sampling of a single day's fare) that I fail to pay attention.
I once tried to describe the interior of my mind to a friend of the family. I tried to tell how I sometimes wish I could just think less.
"Yeah," he said meditatively, "That's why some people take drugs."
Laurie, the fourth member of the banquet squad, managed to get on an earlier flight that we did, but she was sentenced to an eight-hour layover in Dallas. Her in-laws came and bailed her out.
I, for one, would be content to do all my airport time in Charlotte. To add to the numerous perfections of its ladies' restrooms, there are hundreds of white, high-backed rocking chairs just waiting to be sat in. I consider rocking chairs to be the sine qua non of creature comfort. My greatest (easily attainable) goal in life is to live in a house with a wrap-around porch and rocking chairs. In fact, you can keep the house. Just give me the porch and the rocking chairs.
While waiting for our flight to take off, we quizzed Lana about her Bundy biography. Lana is interested in psychology and therefore fascinated by serial killers. She said the Bundy seemed like a really nice, normal, high-achieving guy . . . until he started killing people. The dozens of people he dispatched with were all pretty, young women in the Seattle area. As three pretty, young women, with active imaginations, bound at that moment for downtown Seattle, it was only a small consolation to know Bundy is no longer on the loose.
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