I Can

I did not learn to drive until I was nineteen. My mother tried to teach me on our old Chevy Chevette when I was sixteen, but I couldn’t figure out the clutch. I found the experience of stalling out so humiliating that I gave up. Three years later I was sick of riding a bike everywhere, and I signed up for lessons from AAA. That was when I met Gabe.

Gabe was a 62 year-old ex-marine with a crew cut and a barrel chest. When I climbed into the AAA Student Driver Car I could smell the early 1950s on him. As we began our lesson, he explained to me that a good car was like a good woman: if you let go of the wheel you should be able to trust it to go straight. When I had to slow for two black kids on bikes crossing against a light, he explained, “It’s not they’re fault. They’re just black.”

At nineteen, I was not prepared to call a 62 year-old ex-marine on his racism or antiquated notions of women’s independence. Plus he was an immensely patient guy. He had me driving comfortably in a couple lessons. As long as we avoided certain subjects, we could spend a pleasant hour together. An hour, however, is a long time to spend avoiding subjects, and during lesson three he asked, “So what would you like to do with yourself, Bill?”

I glanced at my companion. I suspected he held the arts in much the same regard as working women and black kids on bikes. Still, he might as well know the truth.

“Actually, Gabe, I’d like to be a writer.”

“Well, that’s great.”

I was humbled by his reply. But Gabe wasn’t done.

“You see, you’re an American, Bill. And in every American there’s an A, and an M, and an E, and an R . . .”

For the record, Gabe spoke slowly, and so I had sufficient time to wonder, “Is he actually going to spell it all the way out for me?”

“. . . and an I, and a C, and an A, and an N. And do you know what that means, Bill?”

I told him I did not know what this meant.

“It means that at the end of every American, there’s an ‘I CAN.’”

I was sorry for all the mean things I’d thought about Gabe. I’m a sucker for optimism, no matter how it’s packaged. Plus, it’s good to remember that if you’re quiet long enough people will eventually tell you who they really are.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Be The World

There has been a recent kerfuffle in the publishing world. Jodi Picoult accused the Literary Establishment of a bias toward white males after the New York Times gave Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel a glowing review not once but twice, while Picoult’s latest received no review.

I understand the impulse behind these complaints. Everyone in the world wants to be treated fairly; everyone in the world wants to be taken as seriously as the person to their left and right. I am not going to comment on whether the Literary Establishment, whoever they may be, hold any bias, nor whether Picoult was right or wrong in crying foul.

But the dust up did get me thinking about my own house. Oh, how tempted I have been throughout my life to believe that I would be happy if only other people would behave differently. My problem is that I still do not know how to make someone think something other than what they want to think. I can suggest, I can cry, I can scream, I can even write a weekly column, and indeed someone’s thinking might shift one direction or another as a result, but I still do not know how to consistently and definitively change someone’s mind. Infuriatingly, everyone, including me, remains free to think what they want.

Thus, I am left, as always, with myself. And what do I do? Clean house, remembering that most annoying truism of the human psyche: that which you dislike in others is that which you wish to change in yourself. If it is stubbornness I see in others, then I know I being stubborn. If it is impatience, then I am being impatient. Amazingly, after I have thoroughly cleaned house, I am no longer bothered by or even aware of the stubbornness or impatience.

Keep silent? No, no. Speak up and out and often. But remember Ghandi’s words: Be the change you want to see. He didn’t say speak the change you want to see, he said be it, and to do this, you must clean house. I do not believe that is possible to bring more peace to the world unless you are at peace, nor bring fairness if you cling to your unfairness. Once you are that which you wish to see in the world – once you are unbiased, once you are at peace – you have found the world you are seeking, and with a little luck, a little compassion, and a little voice, others might choose to follow you there.

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