I was misunderstood growing up and have often been misunderstood since, but then so is everyone else. People are busy, and you can't expect them to drop everything and try to understand you. If you want to be understood, practice kindness and mercy. Kindness is seldom mistaken for anything else. Small kindnesses reverberate a long time in people's hearts.
A woman checking IDs at the airport saw me coming the other day and said, "Good morning, sunshine." She didn't know me from Adam. She glanced at my driver's license and said, "Have a good flight, darling." This was in the South, of course - in Austin, Texas, to be exact. Northern women would no sooner address a strange man as Sunshine than they would ask if you wanted to see their underwear. But that woman's Sunshine shone on me for the rest of the day, and a week later I still remember it. Like I remember old waitresses in diners who addressed everyone as Love. "Care for more coffee, love?" Yes, dear. And you left a quarter tip instead of a dime. Fifteen cents for a little endearment.
On the flight from Austin, I sat next to a black woman my age from Alabama who was in a chatty mood. I said, "You've seen a lot of history in Alabama." She said, "And it isn't over yet." We got to talking about Dr. King and his family, and she blurted out, "I just cannot forgive those children of his for never giving their mother a grandbaby. Four healthy children. I don't know their sexual orientation, but you would think that one of them could've produced one baby for Mrs. King to hold. She died without ever getting those babies to hold in her arms. Do you have grandbabies?" I said I have two. "I've got two," she said, "and every time I look at them, that's me. They're the continuation of me." She patted my hand. "I am going to pray for your grandchildren. Tell me their names." So I did. When the plane pulled up to the gate in Chicago, she touched my knee and said, "It was good talking with you, darling."
Up here in the north, a man wouldn't touch a stranger on the knee or address her as Darling, lest he be reported to the Attitude Police, but once in Nashville, a lady said to me, "Sweeten up to me now," meaning "give me a squeeze," so I did, of course. She smelled of lavender and talcum and lemons. Everyone craves a little sweetening now and then, but in Minnesota we don't squeeze easily or address each other as "darling."
I went to a big dinner of diehard liberals in Texas and was darlinged left and right and sweetied and even occasionally precioused, but if you were among Democrats in Minnesota, you might think you were at a meeting of Mormon actuaries. We offer a cold handshake and a thin smile and that's all you get from us. We are wary of the big grin and the shoulder squeeze, the trademarks of the con man, and we resist being drawn into friendly banter with strangers for fear we'll end up with a truckload of aluminum siding or a set of encyclopedias.
We're burdened by the need to be cool. When I was in college, I read Kafka and Camus and tried to write like them, in flat non-American English, as if written under the influence of a migraine, until it slowly dawned on me that I was missing the basic experiences that had formed them. Enduring high school is not the same as growing up Jewish in Prague or fighting in the French Resistance. I had no solid basis for being cool in that existential motorcycle James Dean absurdist chain-smoking hero sort of way, so I gave up being cool, and settled for being pleasant. And now I see teenagers locked up in iPods, looking sour and sleepy and hostile, and I hate to see them reliving that part of my life.
If we can't talk to strangers, if there is no public life in America, then it's no wonder politics is so out of whack. And yet in the South, which has produced the most regressive politicians this side of the Sudan, who are proud of bad government and lousy wars, in which a disproportionate number of young Southern men die, you keep running into the friendliest people on earth. Explain that to me, sunshine. Sweeten up here and tell me why these good people keep electing those dreadful idiots.