Thursday, August 28, 2008

not just knowing it, but feeling it

I was at my folk's house today painting the walls of my old room.  I was attacking a corner of the wall cast in shadow, and I was frustrated not being able to see if I'd covered it.  From the half open door, a stream of sunlight and the broadcast of The Convention were seeping in.

"Awww Shawn Johnson is saying The Pledge Of Allegiance!" My Mom hollered from the other room.
"What? Who?!"  I hollered back.
"The little gymnast!"

Typical of such a moment, I went back to painting and asked myself why that would matter to me. I didn't pay the Olympics any attention, and I hadn't cared about the pledge of allegiance since way before I knew what "indivisible" meant. 

Right then, an image came in my head of my buddies and I at an A's game in 2005, sitting and continuing our conversation while people rose around us and stood quiet for The National Anthem.  When it was finished, a man, probably in his seventies, turned around and scolded us.

"How dare you!" He said, as we looked up at him blankly.
"Don't you have any respect for this country?!" He asked.
"Oh... Sorry."  We muttered half-heartedly.

We knew the song had meaning, but we didn't feel it.

When I was a kid I'd go to maybe twenty games a year with my Dad, and I remember the power of gospel singers delivering The Anthem in the hot sun before packed Sunday afternoon games back when the A's were contenders year after year, and I was too young, and the words and ritual were merely tradition.  

My Dad and I have only made it to one game this year.  It was a cold Monday night and they were playing Kansas City.  I looked out at the players lined up along the first base line with their hats off, and back up at the scattering of fans in the stands while a tired recording of The Anthem's melody echoed around the ballpark.  I stood respectfully, but felt no connection.  

My friend Adam and I managed to get ourselves arrested in a protest in San Francisco the day after we invaded Iraq. The intellectual reasoning behind our involvement was real, but we confessed to one another later as we were walking down The Embarcadero, having been released from the warehouse-dock come holding-cell, that we were drawn to the protest for the experience of it just as much as we were drawn by our disgust. It felt big and important to be protesting, but the war was so far away. I knew I was losing something that day and I needed to do something about it, but I cannot say I felt it.

As the broadcast went on through the afternoon, speech after speech, and as the walls of the room began to fill with fresh paint, I listened to the television through the door, and as I thought about how exciting the last few days have been, I considered my own generation's lack of identity as Americans and how high the stakes really are. 

I considered that going through this together might finally give us something in common to share and be proud of. 

Sometimes my Mom or Dad will express concern for the country to make it to the polls, to actually vote, and I keep telling them, "Maybe you don't see it in your friends, but you aren't seeing what I'm seeing in my friends. This is the first time we've ever been through anything like this! There are four years worth of new voters, and there are four more years worth of kids that regret not voting last time around, and there is a current, and a pulse, and an anxiety in all of us! This is ours! This is our chance to feel an ownership of this country, to have an identity attached to it! This is important and we know it, and everyone wants to feel responsible for it, everyone wants to be a part of it! WE GOT THIS!"

My dad got home and I put down the brush for the day and my parents walked the dog and I played the piano for a while.  When they returned, while Bill Richardson and Al Gore spoke and as the teacher and trucker and pet store owner talked, my Dad praised the entitlement that everyone carried themselves with.  My Mom praised the reclamation of the American Flag for everyone. I pointed out that despite the pressure of talking in front of the whole world, all of the speakers, however experienced, had such conviction their voices. It was surprising, and maybe the genuine need for their words to be said just smothered their stage fright.  

I guess Obama's speech lasted close to an hour.  I had no concept of time.  I felt something I had never quite felt before. It was the same feeling I felt when I woke up on September 11th to the falling towers, but flipped around -- with a positive charge instead of negative.  It was the feeling of actually being there, in a moment that history will recall again and again.  I was feeling it.

We started clapping and cheering right there in the living room.

My Aunt called after the speech.  I picked up the phone.  She was leaving Mile High Stadium, had just watched everything from the nose-bleeds, and while she drove back to her place she told me about the rush of seeing it all in the stadium, of the vulnerability of being in the crowd with the wind blowing and the uncertainty of such an unprecedented event.  She told me that the stadium floors are constructed of metal and of the overwhelming reverberation of thousands of feet stomping in excitement.  She told me about accidentally finding herself behind a group of protesters last night, and scuffing out sidewalk chalk messages that said, "Abortion is Murder" as she passed, and finding unexpected applause from onlookers as she reached the end of the block.  And finally, knowing that I never like to be just like everyone else, she assured me that, "conformity is okay if its for something good."

I left the house to meet up with my buddy Adam.  On my way I stopped at my apartment to change out of my paint-splattered shirt. Outside my window, the warm night was buzzing unusually.  There was a live jazz band playing in a bar across the street and pleasant chatter on the patio in front.  As I waited for him at another bar downtown, I listened as people talked only about the speech, and when he arrived, I said, "It's such a nice night, I wish we could get a drink outside."

"How about this," he said. "Let's get some beers and brown bags at 7-11 and walk to the lake."

We stood out on an old dock, the lights of downtown reflecting in the water before us, and as we talked about the distance from high school, about the countless realizations of growing into adults, I couldn't shut up about how exciting the night had felt. Last year, Adam was all about Obama, and I was wavering.  I thought it was risky.  I wasn't convinced until I was sitting in the back seat of a car in Quito, Ecuador last January when the driver said to me, "It looks like you might have a Black president -- That would show a lot to us."  I was convinced then, clearly seeing what sets him apart as a strength.  It is sort of fortunate, I think, that Bush swung the pendulum so far in the wrong direction that we are able to nominate the right person to swing it back, and that we are at such a significant fork in the road that he can be granted the courage to deliver the speech he gave tonight.

While we walked back along the lake, back towards downtown, I told Adam that before putting out my new song, I had planned to not make a big deal about the election.  I wanted to just let it speak for itself and not say anything more.  I had not written it specifically for this, and I didn't want to get involved in the decision beyond casting my own vote.

"Tonight, though..." I told him, "I don't just know it -- I feel it, and I'm not going to be able to keep my mouth shut."