Notes from the Perimeter

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Dancing in the New Year

(Please read "Yes We Did" after this one -- I haven't figured out to slip a blog into a sequence!)

A week into the new year and I’m guessing that most people are already hard at work breaking the resolutions they so hopefully made as fireworks burst and champagne bubbled. Not me. This new year feels, well, new: brand new, full of optimism and possibility. I want my resolutions to be, in the latest vernacular, fierce. No whiney diet decrees or wimpy exercise intentions on my list – I’m thinking big this year.

Resolution 1: Remember the true power of giving. Back in the glorious heyday of hippie-dom, one of my San Francisco friends, Siddhartha (actually I think he had grown up as Stanley Figbottom) had a theory about money which he practiced with gusto: in his view, money was energy -- the more one put it out into the world the more one got it returned. It seemed to work for Siddhartha; despite no visible means of support, other than an occasional gig as a “therapist,” he always seemed to get by. He literally would give you his last buck if you needed it and others were equally generous back to him. As you might imagine, I found his to be a most gratifying philosophy.

Granted, those were simpler days. Those practicing that heady form of freedonomics found we eventually had to grow up, stop trusting a wacky spiritual version of the first law of thermodynamics and acquire jobs, credit scores, and debt. Our calculus of finance became computation, not faith. But as I contemplate the fiscal catastrophes that confront us, I believe that Siddhartha was on to something.

Everywhere are admonitions to give. The underlying message: give (money, time, energy) and you will receive (satisfaction, pleasure, a date). However, perhaps there is a more profound reason to give than the urge to do good, the intangible payback, the star by your name on the karmic ledger.
Giving in a context of scarcity is a gesture of courage and defiance. When you don’t have much to give but you give anyway you’re staking a claim in the future, affirming your ability to triumph over the worst of circumstances. To give of what you have, even with only crumbs in the cookie jar, is ultimately an act of personal power. When the world says nay, giving says “yes, I can.” Like Sid.

Resolution 2: Make someone mad every day. Many of us are driven by the need to win the approval of others. We want to be loved or at least liked. We go along to get along. However, taking the easy route, to gain sanction or avoid censure or confrontation, comes with a price, the risk becoming timid: afraid to speak our minds, to challenge authority, to boldly go… anyway. This is our time to stand up, in our daily dealings as well as in on the national scene. I’m not suggesting Rod Blagojevich as a role model, although one has to admit the guy has chutzpah. What I’m challenging myself to do when faced with a choice – to speak up or keep silent, to protest or concede, to defy or to pander – is to do what’s most difficult. It’s bound to make someone mad and maybe that’s a good thing.

Resolution 3: Intend the impossible. I mean to dance with Barack Obama at an Inaugural Ball. There, I’ve said it. Extremely unlikely, of course, but not utterly impossible. I do have an Inauguration ticket and I plan to be at some ball that night. And I’m a wicked good dancer. Mister President-elect, if you see this, I’m asking: just one dance. Half a dance. One twirl around the floor. Your fantastical election was less improbable than my wish for a dance but still…I have the audacity of hope.

Yes, We Did!

January 20, 2009, Washington, DC. I’m cold. I’m wicked cold. It’s freakin’ freezing out here on the Mall where, I hear later, the temperature is in the single digits. That means 25 degrees below freezing. This bears repeating: 25 degrees BELOW freezing. And that’s without the wind, which, with depressing frequency, whips up a merry dance as if Sarah Palin herself were shouting out the weather (hopefully my final Sarah Palin reference).

At five this morning we rose up from our air mattress (a no-cost beneficence from cousins who have lent us their living room floor) and hit the street for our four-plus-mile walk to the Capitol. The sidewalks are already dotted with bundled pedestrians and the crowd grows heavy as we near the I-395 tunnel which has been closed to traffic – it’s our only available route to the Mall. After much herding we arrived at our spot in the Silver standing area. Dawn is history and a weak sun glimmers through the cloud cover. It’s not yet eight and we have hours to go before the ceremonies begin. The space fills in behind us and we hunker down to wait, huddled masses yearning to be warm.

We’re the lucky ones, part of the 250,000 who acquired actual tickets, a process that involved several hours the previous day of standing in line at the Longworth Congressional office building, one of the three – with the Cannon and the Rayburn – where House members are dispensing their tickets. We meet Pam from Greeley, Colorado, who had already gotten tickets from her Senator and is waiting in line to pick up tickets for a friend. (We have been charged to tell Elaine that Pam is an excellent friend who deserves a reward.) Several folks ahead of us are Andre Wooten, the son of Harold Wooten of the venerated Tuskegee Airmen, and his wife. Despite the glacial temperatures and progress, everyone is smiling and chatting, making friends, sharing the moment.

Every now and then a staffer from one of the House members patrols the line, calling out for people waiting for tickets from that particular congressperson. Representative Jim McDermott’s office is especially proactive so we all decide that if we ever have the chance to vote for him we shall. We are getting our tickets from Carol Shea-Porter so we call her office to share the example of Representative McDermott. They consider coming down but by the time we get the call back that they’re ready to meet us outside, tickets in hand, we’re already at the office door. Where it’s warm. The mother of one of Carol’s staff members is helping out for the day so she makes us coffee and we bask in radiant heat for an hour until we begin to thaw. We’re due for a party in Rayburn honoring Barbara Lee of Oakland. We learn a blessed fact: tunnels connect the three office buildings. We don’t have to brave either the lines or the cold to get to the party so we enjoy a reprieve for a few hours of food and fun.

At seven we grab a cab home, only to discover that nearly every street heading into the Capitol area has been closed down. After much backtracking we find an open intersection, finally arriving at our neighborhood more than an hour after we began our four-mile journey. We’ve been in the cab so long the meter has maxed out and the cabbie, from Ethiopia, has concluded that he’ll be celebrating Inauguration day at home. This experience cements our decision to walk so we set the alarm and fall into an excited and expectant sleep.

It’s now 10am on the Mall and I’m colder than I have ever been in my life. This is not an exaggeration – to keep myself from thinking about my feet (which I can no longer feel) or my knees (which seem to be frozen in place) I review my entire life to see if I can recall another time when I was this cold for this long. I even, for a shameful moment, consider giving up but the better angel of my nature reminds me that real adventures are generally uncomfortable in the having. Of course I’m not leaving. At 10:30 the Marine Band begins to play and slowly, grandly, the pageant of our nation unfolds.

The rest has already been reported and viewed: the tears on the faces of elderly African Americans when Obama took the oath; the overwhelming need to hug everyone in the vicinity; the sea of waving flags; the moral heft of Obama’s speech. The greatest moment for me came when I looked at the faces in the crowd – every color, every age, every station – pinched with cold but alight with joy and hope and I realized: This is what it means to be an American.

In the evening we attend the Grits ‘n Granite Ball, co-hosted by South Carolina and New Hampshire. We hook up with our friend Richard Komi, newly minted American from Nigeria who was just elected to the New Hampshire legislature. We schmooze with the King of Togo. Ours is a minor ball, not one of the ten official balls the Obamas are expected to attend. I wished to dance with Obama and yes, we did. This night Barack Obama has three hundred million names on his dance card and he is tripping the light fantastic with every one of us.