There is a practice, peculiar to the British (so I learned from This American Life), that has each new Prime Minister hand-scribe a letter to the captains of nuclear submarines—and only to the captains of these nuclear submarines—that tells the captains what to do in the event of a nuclear strike. This letter is placed on the submarines in a locked box within another locked box and will only be pulled out of the box-within-a-box in the case of one of the following two scenarios: when the homeland is destroyed by nuclear warfare, or when a Prime Minister leaves office. In the latter instance, the letter-within-the-box is destroyed, sight unseen, and a new letter takes its place. In the former, a directive is given to the captain regarding his or her forthcoming actions—regarding whether or not he or she will be asked to launch nuclear missiles.
What makes this letter-scribing practice so intriguing is that the pure existence of said letter allows an uneasy dichotomy to settle into place. As Ira Glass’ guest explains, You don’t want your enemy to know that you’re not going to launch those missiles, but you don’t want to think for yourself that you are. So [the letter] lets you believe both things. It allows two truths to exist at once.
Canned or frozen peas? I throw out the question to my husband as we drive in the car.
“Frozen peas. Canned peas are gross.”
No, they aren’t.
Mine was a canned pea family. I spurned frozen peas into adulthood—I’d like to think as an act of allegiance to my family, to my memories—until I was no longer able to deny my husband his right to buy them.
“There can be two co-existing truths, Jackie.”
He is making fun of me (he knows I am trying to write about this), but by saying this he is allowing my memories to be counted as valid. We can sit side-by-side, moving as one within this vehicle; within the mold we’ve cast ourselves in, together; and we can be incongruous. Canned, and frozen.
But perhaps we are cheating, because we are using two bodies to hold these conflicting truths.
The baby within me is many things: she is who she is, her current self and all of the inevitabilities compelled by that baseline self; she is who I dream she might be; and she is a mixture of both of these things. She is my fantasy of how I will hold her after she is born. And she is herself, and also a mashed up version of herself and me, my imagination.
Now I am the assembler, enamored with the idea of mosaic, enamored with the possibility of pulling together disparate bits of information to see what they can do when they lurk together.
Assembled, coexisting, lurking, collected, interacting, colliding. How many truths are here? Where is Mr. Kopecky now, my dry-humored Algebra II teacher, when I need an equation?
This will amount to guess-and-check.
In the waiting room of the Toyota dealership, temporarily trapped while my car receives a recall-compelled part replacement, I read Will Grayson, Will Grayson. (It will end up not being my favorite book by John Green, but I will weep at the end; I will weep remembering that I wept; the truth of that weeping remains.)
Will Grayson (one of them) and Jane discuss Schrödinger’s cat.
Jane: “So, according to the theory that electrons are in all-possible-positions until they are measured, the cat is both alive and dead until we open the box and find out if it is alive or dead. He [Schrödinger] was not endorsing cat-killing or anything. He was just saying that it seemed a little improbable that a cat could be simultaneously alive and dead.”
WG (thinking): But it doesn’t seem that improbable to me. It seems to me that all the things we keep in sealed boxes are both alive and dead until we open the box, that the unobserved is both there and not. Maybe that’s why I can’t stop thinking about the other Will Grayson’s huge eyes in Frenchy’s: because he had just rendered the dead-and-alive cat dead. I realize that’s why I never put myself in a situation where I really need Tiny, and why I followed the rules instead of kissing Jane when she was available: I chose the closed box.
Because I believe it, I write
I am one variation on the theme of aging. The parent variation. The scariest variation. Or so fear tells me. Soon I’ll disappear behind the events of my son’s life. His birthday will overshadow mine—we’re only ten calendar days apart. When he begins school, his academic events will supplant any of mine going on at the same time. His will be more relevant. His will be more special. His will be new. He will play sports, or perhaps an instrument. He will have successes, or failures—it doesn’t matter which, only that they happen. And I will recede; the details of my life story will remain Reader’s Digest super-condensed. Five hundred words, no verbal splurges, no unnecessary digressions.
I write this in 2008, in my first creative nonfiction writing class in grad school, as the Oddnivore—still just “my son” at this point—turns four, then five, then six months old. It is my first memoir; I call it “Paradigm Shift” and scrawl that
I am living an endless day; light and dark alternate but other forces govern my actions. O—, my five-month-old son, is the moon.
I’m the tide.
When we workshop “Paradigm Shift”, my classmates challenge the notion that I might recede, claiming that I “don’t appear to be that type of person.” I shrug. I scrawl a note on my draft. I plan to ignore the assessment.
I continue the memoir; I perpetuate the incongruous.
This is my letter to the submarine captain. Please destroy it when I leave office.