Wednesday, October 25, 2006

From The American Flag to the Purple Heart

I walked into the post office this morning to buy 10 stamps. The stamp machine at my P.O. in Richmond, though it was working this time, only sells the books of stamps with the American flag on them, and I didn't want those. I asked the postal clerk guy for 10 stamps with "...anything but the American flag on them." I've done this plenty of times at the P.O. and nobody's batted an eyelash. In retrospect, I guess I should ask for stamps with "...something pretty, like flowers or animals." I'm a girl, that's to be expected.

Anyway, I asked for stamps with anything but the flag, and the guy said "Why?" He's a middle-aged filipino man, and I know that immigrants have a particular sort of patriotism going. I didn't feel like getting into a political conversation at 8:45 in the morning, so I just said "I don't want to put it on my mail." Plus I didn't expect the question. How should I explain my feelings about it to a complete stranger who's undoubtedly seen more suffering, poverty, and war than I have?

He smiled and launched into a story about - I think - how he doesn't understand immigrants who come over here and say "I hate the American flag." I felt defensive, so I blurted out "I don't hate it.." but he wasn't listening, he was still in his story. When he took out 10 purple heart stamps and handed them to me, I just paid, thanked him, and left.

It's true, I don't hate the flag. And I don't love it, either. I'm ambivalent about the flag. It's not bad, aesthetically, as flags go. It's got good balance, a simple, effective design, and a bold use of color. But to me, it doesn't represent what it represents to the people who so vigorously wave it at fourth of july picnics. The last thing the American flag represents to me is democracy, freedom, and truth. In fact, that is, literally, the last thing it represents to me. To me, rightly or wrongly, it represents jingoism, narcissism, consumerism, and ignorance. At best, it represents the concept of "We can do better."

So now, here I am, with 10 purple heart stamps, when what I really wanted were stamps that had no militaristic overtones at all. Flowers or jazz singers, or quilts, or American landscapes, or heck, even motorcycles! Is that irony? I don't know anymore, but maybe it's a good lesson for me. Maybe it's the universe laughing gently at me for thinking so highly of myself that what stamps I put on my bills is important. How silly! Or maybe it's yet another lesson in asking for what I want, or for standing up for my beliefs. Now I'll think about this lesson when I pay my next 10 bills, because I sure as heck am not putting purple heart stamps on my personal mail.

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