FROM ELLEN: The well-established trend of authors as public speakers has always had its limits for me. If a person is known for what they write, that's how they should be judged, rather than as they appear on stage. Sometimes I resist meeting a writer I admire, simply because I don't want an unpleasant reaction color my view of his or her work. Which is to say...
The other night in Portland, I heard Terry Tempest Williams speak in a benefit for Literary Arts, keeper of the written-word flame in Oregon. Williams is not only an accomplished writer but also an environmental activist who traces the high rate of cancer in her family to atomic testing in her home state of Utah after World War II. She is a polished presenter and advocate, with a soft-spoken manner that bespeaks all things Gaia. Her talk was built around excerpts from her latest book, "Finding Beauty in a Broken World."
And yet: Was I the only one in the audience who found it hard to believe one of her anecdotes, about a Delta flight attendant who went to the mat to bump Williams' adult adopted son from the exit row because he was black? Williams used the story in part to describe how her father, a passenger sitting in the same exit row, had evolved from a "Marlboro man without the cigarette" who saw the world through a racist's eyes to a man who sobbed over the phone while describing the insult to her son. That young man, it's relevant to know, grew up in Africa and "speaks six languages," but apparently, when asked if he could manage in case of an emergency, couldn't say "yes" in a manner the flight attendant understood. When Williams' father intervened, she demanded that the black man read aloud from the emergency card to prove that he was literate and capable of manning the exit row.
The story may be true. But it sounded too neat and apocryphal to me, not the least because the airlines have enough trouble without inviting lawsuits for racial discrimination. I've sat in the exit row many times, without incident to me or any of the more suspicious characters beside me. Likewise, as touching as it seems to see a grown man cry, a true macho man never weeps. (Ref: Tom Hanks, in "A League of Their Own ": "There's no crying in baseball.")
This is all small potatoes, except for the larger idea that these days world views are increasingly shaped and reinforced within the same narrow framework. The very people who appreciate Williams' sensitive writing and her feminist/environmentalist slant are more receptive than most to the idea that racial insensitivity is alive and well throughout American society. Maybe it is, but so blatant as this? And maybe the story as Williams told it holds an element of truth but had grown with the telling. I left her appearance puzzling less over the world's imperfections than the limits of the spoken word.