Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Thoughts on the Inaugural Redress

It was a heckuva show. Obama, doing his best to keep up with Justice Roberts' botched oath. Michelle, regal, if a tad over dressed in gold (loved the olive gloves). The two impossibly well-behaved little girls in their vibrant violet and orange coats. Dubya, steeling himself for the inaugural redress - the inevitable rejection of everything he's done or didn't do. Cheney in a wheel chair, looking like some long-lost member of the Adams family. The Reverend Purpose-Driven Homophobe pronouncing Sasha and Malia's names like some overzealous NPR reporter gargling with a foreign word. Joe Biden's irrepressibly good-natured chicklet grin. The ancient Tuskegee Airmen, proud to have lived to see the day. Aretha Franklin, in less than full voice, and more than full hat. The incredibly dense and diverse crowd covering every speck of the mall. The Rhymin' Reverend Lowery,whose immortal verse "So the Red man can get ahead, man," can not be topped, which is probably why he didn't include Asian Pacific Islanders in his benediction. The pomp, the pageantry, the parade, the people, the pride! Yes, I did go through a couple of tissues. Then again, I cry at movies, classical music concerts, transcendent Olympic performances and national anthems. Anybody's national anthem. As I sniffled over the inauguration of our Nation's first African American President, I couldn't help asking myself, how much of the euphoria was due to the man and the moment and how much was just plain relief that the insane clown posse has finally vacated the People's House. I think it's about 50/50.

The inaugural address was sober, somewhat generic and low on sound bites for the ages, which may have been what was called for in these anxious times. We heard the anticipated calls for patience, sacrifice and cooperation, and a clear but classy rejection of the Bush administration's more misguided policies.

Here are my personal highlights:

"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expediency's sake." Subtext: No more lying to the nation. No more Gitmo, Abu Graib, water-boarding, extraordinary renditions, and spying on American citizens. Cut to Dubya, parsing the put down with an uncomfortable look on his face.

"We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. "No more stem cell research bans or global warming denials. No more bribery, hookers, booze and cocaine at the Department of the Interior. No more cutting funds to foreign aid organizations that provide poor third world women with birth control. No more willfull ignorance and stupidity, at least not the governmentally sanctioned kind.

"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." Woo hoo! Diplomacy! What a concept! The stick remains an option but the carrot is back on the table.

And finally, "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and nonbelievers." Thank you, President Obama, for acknowledging the existence of atheists and agnostics as people, rather than as some sort of scourge destroying our nation's moral fiber. As evidenced by the 2007 gallop poll displayed below, this milestone of the first African-American President was not so unexpected. But Hell may freeze over before we get our first atheist president. (And of course, as a secular person, I don't believe in Hell, so that's even longer than it sounds). Which is too bad, because a commander in chief who believes this life is all there is just might have second thoughts about starting an unnecessary war. Meanwhile, I just sat patiently through the prayers bookending the inaugural ceremony – the fatuous white Reverend and the cuddly old black one. I'm just grateful Obama was mindful of the fact that he needs the progressive vote in 2012 and acknowledged us secular folk. Besides, if I had any rational reason to believe in the power of prayer, I too would be down on my knees. Obama is going to need all the help he can get.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Crossing the street

Two houses and several lifetimes ago, I lived in Northwest Washington DC, in a nice family neighborhood of brick colonials and giant oak trees. The main drag, upper Connecticut Avenue, is lined with little shops and businesses which people often walk to, provided they can make it across the street alive. Getting across is definitely not for chickens. There are only two lights for a six block shopping area, and the concept of pedestrian right of way is completely foreign to type A DC drivers. A few months before we moved, an elderly lady was struck and killed in the crosswalk. After the accident, city workers equipped each side of the fatal intersection with bright orange safety flags, intended to make pedestrians easier for distracted drivers to notice. You grab a flag, wave it over your head, and step bravely out into the street, hoping the driver bearing down on you isn't colorblind. Sometimes the car stops, and sometimes the driver honks and swerves around you. Occasionally, some belligerent yahoo rolls down the window and chews you out for having the temerity to step off the sidewalk.

It's different here in Berkeley. Pedestrians rule. Even as you step out into the street, oncoming traffic starts slowing down a block away. Cars idle patiently until you're all the way across. At first, this is refreshing, especially when you're in pedestrian mode. But once you get behind the wheel, you realize the courtesy is not reciprocal. Berkeleyites don't walk across the street, they mosey. They stroll languidly arm in arm, talk on the phone, pause in the intersection to pull up their socks. And they jaywalk. Not the run-like-hell-so-you-dodge-the-car technique you see in big cities, which has an element of sport and demonstrates an implicit respect for the driver. This is slow, deliberate, in-your-face jaywalking, striding recklessly in front of an oncoming car, walking, not running, against the light with nary a thought to the ensuing Prius pile up. It's understood that walkers and bicyclists are more evolved beings, their carbon footprints light as angel wings. Better slam on the brakes, petroleum junky. Let the virtuous pass.

Berkeley's driving etiquette, like its foreign policy, is strictly local. My friend's brother, who is from Oakland, gave me fair warning. "Once you leave the Berkeley city limits, don't expect the cars to stop so you can cross the street. They'll mow you down."

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Give me an inch

Forget all that crap about wisdom and serenity and comparisons to fine wine. There are plenty of downsides to being " a certain age" , and not much to be certain about. Anything can go south at any time - your job, your marriage, your friends, your friends' marriages, your home equity, your investments, your face, the fleshier parts of your anatomy and of course, your health.

I recently had a health scare which was causing me some concern and keeping me awake at night. (A good night's sleep. Another thing one can no longer count on in middle age). The day I was scheduled to go see my doctor, I awoke at 4 am. For me, the only thing to do in these cases is to get up and read, write or get some work done, so I rolled out of bed, slipped on my brand new, forest green Christmas mocassins, and shuffled off to my computer.

I had been typing away for about an hour when I was startled by a sudden, loud, unidentifiable sound. Since the window above my desk is covered by a sheet to keep the glare off my computer screen, I had to go outside to determine the source of the noise. Cautiously, I opened the back door and looked around. In the middle of the patio lay a bird, on his back with his legs up in the air, convulsing like an upturned windup toy. He was a west coast robin, with a fuzzy orange belly and a long, pointed beak. I noticed a crack in the window where he'd crashed into it. Having gleaned too much information about my symptoms from the internet, I had worked myself into an acute neurotic state, the kind where suicidal birds take on a sinister meaning. I couldn't help but fear the little kamikaze was some kind of bad omen regarding my pending doctor's appointment.

When it comes to animal control, my husband and I adhere to traditional sex roles: I don't kill living things and I don't dispose of dead ones. (Besides, it's challenging to do these things while you're screaming and hopping on one foot with your eyes squeezed shut). I waited for my knight in shining armor to get up and grab some coffee and then I led him outside to take care of the robin. But there would be no need for a bird funeral: the little guy turned out to be remarkably hard-headed. We caught him just as he was regaining consciousness. He struggled to his feet, shaking his head a few times as if waking from a bad dream before flying off into the garden.

Later, at the doctor's office, I was led into an examining room by a chatty nurse who had recently moved from Lousiana. In between sharing her disgust at the lack of response to hurricane Katrina and describing the positive effects of Southern humidity on curly hair, she proceeded to weigh me, and then insisted on checking my height. It's OK, I said. I'm 5'4. But the nurse was as thorough as she was friendly and she measured me, something which had not been done since I was in my late teens or early twenties. Which is how I learned, to my utter shock and bewilderment, that I am actually 5'5. Apparently, I grew another inch since the last time my father marked my height on the door frame back in, maybe, 1978?

The nurse left a couple of minutes later, and the doctor came in. She listened to my complaints, wrote a prescription and told me I'd live. This reassuring news seemed almost beside the point, as I was now in the throes of of a full-blown height-entity crisis. My whole life, I've been 5'4. A really big petite. A jumbo shrimp. A woman, according to the anthropology section of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, of exactly average height when you factor in supermodels and malnourished North Koreans.

When I got home, I just had to double check. I made my daughter measure me again. Yes, I am proudly, unimistakably 5'5 and the weather up here is fine. All these years I've been statuesque, and I never even knew it. So to hell with the grey hair. Too bad about the back fat. And gobble be damned. At least you can't say I'm getting shorter with age.