Saturday, June 18, 2011

Speeding In Priuses

Lucia and I were driving recently, and one of us, I forget who, make a joke about the pathetic reputation of Priuses. Not that they're bad cars. I love my Prius. But my Prius is a lot like my produce bags (ugh, plastic) and vegan cookbooks (ugh, animal cruelty and factory farming). Careful. Earnest. Practical. Well-meaning. Geeky. Eco-lefty. A stereotype even before I added the Amnesty International and Obama bumper stickers. Good. Not cool.

Slow.

But then I told Lucia the story about Al Gore's son, who was stopped a few years ago while speeding in a Prius. Nobody should laugh at a story about speeding -- especially when there are drugs involved, and especially if you are careful, earnest, practical, and well-meaning. And a mother. Even eco-friendliness enters into the mandate to suppress giggles: Do you know how much gas speeding wastes?

But when a story's funny, it's funny, and there's not much your earnest, careful little heart can do about it. First, wouldn't you know that the Prophet of Global Warming's son would drive a Prius? Funnier still, who knew you could speed in a Prius?

You can, of course. Sometimes when you don't want to.

And now this story goes in an entirely different direction, because it's about a conversation, and any conversation worth having will veer off in unexpected directions.

I asked Lucia if she knew who Al Gore was. God knows, she's a lot smarter than the average kid her age, but the last time Gore held office, she was in kindergarten, so you never know. Even smart kids have gaps. (Even smart adults have gaps.)

"Ran for president?" she said, with an obvious question mark squiggling at the end of the sentence.

"Or ran for vice-president?"

"Or was vice-president?"

"Obsessive ecology guy?"

Except for the last point, that's probably what I would have said when I was her age if someone had asked me who Thomas E. Dewey was. At least she was right on all counts, if a bit sketchy. We both could have added "Loser in an unusual and surprising election," but didn't.

I think history begins to make sense when some of the names of people you've heard your parents talk about begin to have some concrete facts, and more importantly, some stories attached to them. At least that's the way it worked for me. As a teenager, I needed to understand who Roosevelt, and Lindbergh, and Truman, and Dewey, and Father Coughlin, and Stalin, and Joe McCarthy, and the Rosenbergs were -- all the people who colored the worldview of people who came of age in the few decades before I was born -- in order to grow up. Fortunately, I had a mother who wanted to explain. Like most people, I never would have learned much history if I'd depended on school to pour it into my brain.

We're all such tiny parts of human existence. It seems a waste to inhabit only the bit of it that your life's experience encompasses. I would have hated to miss out on history.

That was a detour. Writing, like conversations, does not stay on a straight path, no matter how many middle school English teachers try to convince you otherwise. You use a map only if you're not interested in discovering new places.

Back to Al Gore. Geeky, eco-lefty that I am, I had to add that he didn't just run for president. He was elected president. He just didn't get to become president. It was not one of our finer moments as a democracy.

"Yeah, I never understood that," Lucia said. "What exactly happened in Florida?"

Oh, my darling, you have no idea what a hard question that is to answer.

Just the simple facts of the case are as complicated as the plots on The Prisoner. Even looking back at it, eleven years later, it's hard to figure out what's real and what isn't, who is on who's side, and who's number one, or is there even a number one? Remember The Prisoner episode where Number 6 runs in an election to be Number 2, which turns out not to be any kind of election at all? That was simple in comparison.

But trying to sort out facts, when facts are in dispute, isn't the only problem. There are a lot of extraneous issues involved. What's a vote? When does a vote count, and when doesn't it? Does everybody get to vote? How do you stop people from voting without anyone noticing, and how does that effect an election? None of those things directly address the issue of who won and who lost that election, but they tell us a lot about how our government, and our election system, works, and how it fails. And maybe it tells us that the failure isn't an accident. But while the questions aren't directly relevant, they're actually much more interesting than the cold facts of the case, and they're all things you need to understand if you're going to be a functioning adult citizen of this country.

One of the things we learned from the election of 2000 is that we have a lot of non-functioning citizens in this country. And it's not always they're fault.

And finally, there is the fact that even though almost eleven years have passed, I doubt many people can think about what happened then without huge emotions welling up. There's nothing wrong with emotion, of course, but anger can get in the way when you're trying to think about something clearly, honestly, and fairly. Then again, you ought to be angry about injustice.

It's a paradox. You need a certain intellectual detachment to understand injustice, but intellectual detachment in the face of injustice is inhuman.

It's like this: Your brain is a nice, steady, reliable Prius that tries to follow a straight path to a familiar place at a reasonable speed, and suddenly it's whizzing down the freeway and all sorts of bits and pieces of stuff you barely recognize are flying past you, and you don't know what to do. You don't even know what's flying past you.

A long time ago, when I was teaching writing, I realized most people face one of two difficulties. The first is having nothing to say. That happens when a teacher tells you to write a page on the most interesting thing that's happened in your life, and suddenly you feel that nothing interesting has ever happened in your life. Or you think the things that interest you wouldn't interest anyone else. Or lots of interesting things have happened, but you don't want to tell anyone about them.

Or you need two pages on the fall of Rome and you don't give a damn about the fall of Rome.

So the page stays blank.

The other problem -- the one you're going to encounter more often if you keep writing -- is having too much to say. Thoughts race and whiz by, and you're pretty sure they connect in some way, but you're not sure how. In order to figure that out, you start writing....

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