AuthorHiggins, Maeve

I've always found it difficult to know what to say and when to say it. I have plenty of knowledge and lots of opinions, but I still hesitate and prevaricate even when--actually, especially when--it's important that I speak up.

In the movie Amelie, the hero is a maddeningly shy French woman. She gets flummoxed by cruelty and retreats when she sees it. She dreams of prompters with smart mouths hiding in doorways who call out ideal retorts to a bully's jibe. Only she can hear these helpful prompts, and when she witnesses the grocer belittling his assistant, she listens for and repeats put-downs, thereby rescuing the grateful assistant, shaming the grocer into silence, and earning the admiration of the gathered crowd.

I dream of the same clarity, the same righteousness, and, on my most egomaniacal days, the same admiration. Not just for small instances, but for big conversations, where words are all we have to explain how we see the world, how it's broken, and how it's fixable.

On my recent flight back to the United States from Ireland, I had the misfortune of being seated in the four-across middle aisle. I commiserated with the man beside me, a sixty-something white American, who was also annoyed at the prospect of a six-hour trip jammed between two strangers. He complained to the stewardess that his job had paid for a window seat for him, and she apologized but said the flight was full. We grumbled together, and it was all good-natured.

Our departure time came and went as we sat on the tarmac at Dublin Airport. The pilot announced there was a delay at immigration and the passengers collectively sighed. Ireland is one of only six countries with "pre-clearance" facilities, meaning U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers conduct the same immigration and customs inspections of international air travelers that would typically be performed upon arrival in the United States.

I told my neighbor that the Customs and Border Protection officer had commented on my hair, expressing a preference for tying it back rather than leaving it loose, as it was in my last photo. "Maybe that's the guy causing a holdup, giving out hair advice," I said. It was an offhand comment--a slight, yes, but more of a joke than a slamming indictment of that officer.

The man bristled. "We're lucky to have those guys, it's far too easy to get into the country," he told me. Reflexively I disagreed. "No, it's not, it's really hard to get into America."

Icy air filled the small...

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