A couple weeks before my first day of high school, I was sitting in the backseat of my parents’ rented SUV on a summer vacation in Colorado reading Robert Penn Warren’s All the Kings Men. It was mandated, a part of my required reading list for freshman English at my new high school, and I stared angrily at the margin, my pen poised in the air, trying — desperately — to jot down something observant.
A question from my reading list guide, What are the book’s major themes? jeered at me. As I scanned the mountainous landscape out the window, this line of inquiry felt hopeless, and I felt dense: I had no idea what the book was about. I groped around for some common themes from other books I’d studied in the past: love? loyalty? independence? Those felt sturdy. But were they in Warren’s book? I had no idea. I felt as if I was forcing my brain to perform gymnastics and that my brain was sassily wagging its finger in my face: “Homey don’t think so.”
A couple months later, a friend of mine observed that the Walker Percy book she was reading was “B grade.” She added: “It’s not nearly as good as his other work.” Oh. I realized that until that moment, I hadn’t held books up to a rubric for quality. I certainly preferred some books to others, finding myself either flying through the pages or stalling, but my blind assumption was that in order to be a published author, you had to be pretty damn good in the first place. I scrambled to form discerning opinions on the subsequent books I read, grasping at straws, finding it impossible to “grade” books in any meaningful way. I worked strenuously to give off the impression of percipience, but inside, I knew the truth: I was a simpleton, spooling vapid and meaningless observations about books I didn’t understand.
Fast-forward to 2018, a full twenty years later. Mr. Magpie and I are sitting on our couch in our New York apartment binge-watching Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee show, a series in which Seinfeld interviews comedic talents while driving flashy cars. Mr. Magpie and I are enamored with this show in part because it affords a more personal view of many of our favorite comedians and actors as they ad lib on topics as disparate as how much tip celebrities should leave (Sarah Jessica Parker) and the experience of racism in apartheid South Africa (Trevor Noah), but principally because we love Jerry Seinfeld, and especially the Jerry Seinfeld on this show. He has opinions — and sometimes surprising ones that do not sit well with his companions, like his shrugging acceptance of the fact that fans have a right to photograph or interrupt him when he’s in public, or that parents are too “soft” nowadays — but he rarely comes off as pontifical or domineering. He seems like a world-wearied, observant, fair-minded guy, one who will call a spade a spade and assert his perspective, but without the kind of browbeating or virtue signaling so prevalent in much public discourse today. Mainly, we admire the fact that when he stakes a claim, he does so calmly, evenly, and with the posture of someone who has given that topic considerable thought.
In one interview, Tracy Morgan asserts something and Jerry Seinfeld flat out disagrees with him, but non-contentiously.
“OK. I was afraid you might say that,” says Morgan, and then he listens, eagerly, to Seinfeld’s point of view, gradually relinquishing his grip on his own.
The show — and especially the Morgan interview — left me musing over my own opinionatedness. You see, the problems of my early high school years have long since faded; nowadays, I have opinions in spades. (This blog is a testament.) Sometimes I think I am overly quick to form an opinion. Am I too critical? Does everything need to be analyzed? Am I too reliant on the decades of life experience behind me to greet a topic with fresh eyes and an open heart? Life has a way of conditioning you, of teaching you lessons that you’d be idiotic to ignore, of giving you a tray of meaningful experiences that you can parade around as proof that you are right about something, when provoked. But then — I am halfway through Factfulness and it has taught me how provincial my own thinking can be. And one of the many treasures (and, occasionally, trials) of writing this blog is uncovering alternative perspectives via comments and emails and even while playing devil’s advocate myself prior to hitting “publish.” (When I am writing something possibly controversial, like this post, which left me biting my nails, I often sit down and imagine reading it as an outsider with a completely different perspective. I then refine the writing and polish the thinking to avoid coming off as obtuse or injurious.) These exchanges force me to interrogate my own opinions in a process that can occasionally leave me feeling simple-minded (how did I write that?!) but always afford me a more nuanced view of a topic. (I loved, as a recent example, the varied and insightful reactions to my post on the dotted lines between work and private life.) Through these interactions, I feel as though I am on the path towards Seinfeld-level comfort with my own opinions in large part because I know they have not been arrived at hastily. I have no qualms about changing my opinions over time; in fact, I think it’s critical that I continue to question myself. But confidence, calm, a kind of studied thoughtfulness when presenting an opinion? That’s what I’m after now.
Where do you fall on this spectrum? Too bashful to assert an opinion? Too quick to stake a claim? Or do you just keep to yourself?
+Writing this post brought to mind a lot of the thinking on the distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow.
+New mamas: Baby Bjorn just released a mini version of its carrier. I don’t know why but this intrigues me — it’s lighter, smaller, and specifically meant for itty bitties. I think I would have liked this more than the Lille Baby I wore, which felt clunky and enormous.
+I’m buying a bunch of these to tackle the final frontier of our apartment’s organization: the dreaded front closet, which is super deep and super tall and currently houses way, way, way too much stuff.
+I got a bunch of questions about the dress I wore in Annapolis a few weeks back — it’s by Faithfull, and the same cut as this style from this season (although this season’s version has some fun pockets!) Incidentally, the last time I wore it, I offended someone (!), and the only way to wear it is by using this and these.
+I am daydreaming about laundering my clothes with the Laundress’s new collab with Le Labo. I stayed in a hotel in San Francisco that had the most exquisite Le Labo toiletries and the scents are incredible.