Friday, January 21, 2005

Inaugurals and New Beginnings

Twelve years ago, I carted into work the tiny black and white TV that my beloved Jule and I had bought six years earlier in our first months of marriage (We still have it in our bedroom to this day, perhaps partly a nod to marital nostalgia, but the damn thing also still works, so it functions as our family's third boob tube). I propped it up on a desk, futzed with it to try to get some modicum of a clear signal, and spent the rest of the day with one eye trained on a fresh new beginning for the country.

Clinton's inaugural festivities felt like the start of something special way back in January '93. I was a tad too young to experience or remember JFK's briskly invigorating festivities in 1961 (a toddler, to be more specific), but for my generation the parallels to JFK's symbolically ushering in a new era were only too obvious. The young and handsome Rhodes Scholar from Arkansas was a reasonable enough echo of the Harvard Man with lilting tongue from Boston. And the poetess Maya Angelou would serve as a fitting stand-in for JFK's favorite wordsmith, Robert Frost, only updated for a hipper era. To these two guys, words mattered. They moved hearts and changed history.

I mulled on that spectacle all day, and then for the rest of the week. And then I decided to do something about it. Clinton's fresh start, and how it made me feel reconnected with civic matters and with the future and with the vital core of what it means to be a thinking person and a citizen (and also how it made me miss my days as a rookie writer in D.C., with offices not 500 feet from the White House), convinced me that if I didn't act then and there, I'd wake up 30 minutes later and find myself 64 years old, stuck in a velvet coffin job, with a fat retirement account and a nice big house. But also with an empty spirit, with a soul torturing itself for not having risked anything to be a better, more self-actualized person. Which of course would mean the death of any real writing life.

And so, as I have related the story before in this space, I walked into my boss's office and gave my six-month notice (I know, that may be the longest quitting notice in the history of the American workplace. But I was a chicken, and besides I loved my work, and wanted to save more money. And mostly, I wanted to give my poor wife a cushion for the proper grieving period over the news which I knew she'd hate).

Yesterday we witnessed another presidential inaugural, of course. And I don't need to belabor how very different this one seemed to most Americans of intelligence, heart and conscience. Watching a preening, arrogant, dangerously ignorant group take hold again of the reins of government is a deeply disturbing event for those with any measure of moral seriousness. It's not anger exactly, not precisely outrage or deep concern or even an inability to yet come to grips with how stupid, heartless and cruel tens of millions of your fellow countrymen can be, if they're not simply as misguided as small children (perhaps more worrisome still). It’s all of that and so much more.

But then god has a way of interceding and handing you a timely lesson, if only you’ll listen.

After at least a year of unsuccessfully trying to schedule a meal with the budding poet Don Iannone (he has his eagerly anticipated first book of poetry out in just a few weeks), on short notice he suggested lunch. I quickly accepted, since our growing friendship has until now been based only on seconds-long social hellos, reading and especially email correspondence. So there we sat, enjoying the food and the conversation, with George W. droning on behind us and neither of us paying the slightest bit of attention. Instead, I got the delicious treat of beginning to get to actually know a deeply kindred heart, and learning more about that unique combination of life ingredients of pain, hurt and loss (but also of business success, happy family legacy and a positive attitude) that have been baked together and wondrously transformed into a refreshing river of inspiring words. And as I walked out of lunch and drove away, something suddenly occurred to me. Maybe it’s the age at which I find myself, or maybe it's more driven by this unique moment in our history (or maybe some of each). But that crucial inspiration, courage and agenda-setting that I once depended on the larger public sphere to provide is better provided closer to where one lives, works, plays and dreams--and on a more individual level. Presidential oratory is nice in all its macro ability to set agendas and inspire us to dream of what might yet be, at least when it proceeds from a good and righteous presidential heart. But even at its best, it’s surely no replacement for the life-changing, soul-stirring micro effects of those special folks you experience closer at hand, those whom we can love, honor, admire and learn from up close and in the flesh. Today, I’m so thankful for that timely lesson that I’m even in a mood to permanently forgive poor, clueless George and his crew for all that they’re not and can never be. Somehow, all that doesn't seem to matter quite so much as it once did...


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