replacing a dim bulb
Tuesday, January 20 2009
Today at noon, Barack Hussein Obama would be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States of America. Gretchen knew of a party in Chelsea (Manhattan) amongst some of her animal rightsy friends and she wanted to go, so I decided to tag along. Making the trip super-easy was the fact that we'd be carpooling with our friends Chris and Kirsty, one of at least two photogenic vegan Buddhist couples residing in Woodstock. They picked us up at the park and ride at Kingston's traffic circle. For most of the drive we listened to the CNN channel on Sirius satellite radio. Not much was happening except for reminders of how unprecedented the day would be.
Our destination was a loft apartment in the unglamorous part of Chelsea (about a block from where I used to work during the few months I worked in Manhattan). The apartment's window view was of a brick Art Decco masterpiece, which, though spectacular, was only a notch less grim than a view into an air-conditioner-encrusted airshaft. Inside, though, the apartment was a stunner. It was a large, mostly unbroken space pierced by a single column which someone at some point had veneered in broken white Italian tile.
These being animal rights people, the brunch was vegan. At the heart of the spread was a bowl of bagels, slices of tomatoes, and plain vegan cream cheese. But (in keeping with far WASPier traditions than practiced by either Gretchen or me) it really wasn't about the food. There were, for example, no sliced red onions or herbal spreads, nor, for that matter, lettuce. The chief emphasis was on champagne. Indeed, such was the emphasis on champagne that no one had thought to, say, brew up a pot of coffee, a normal part of protocol when hosting a pre-noon gathering. The host hailed from England and the hostess from Indiana, so perhaps this can be excused.
About a dozen people showed up and has noon approached we found our way to the couches and other suitable seating surfaces. One of these was the hearth of a working fireplace that had a genuine wood-fueled fire burning in it. I wouldn't want to have to scrounge firewood in Chelsea if only for the difficulty of bringing it up the elevator; though if I did have a working fireplace in Manhattan I suspect I'd be burning a lot of cardboard and broken furniture.
Eventually things started happening on the massive flatscreen television. George Bush senior was walking with a cane and looking like death warmed-over, though Jimmy Carter still had a little bounce in his step, the kind of bounce that comes from living to see the evil forces that defeated you being placed on the junkheap of history. As for Dick Cheney, what with his pacemaker, peroxide breath, and now with his wheelchair, he was yet another step along his way to cyborg. And then there was President George W. Bush, smugly in his bubble until the end. I couldn't hear the crowd booing him over the din of people booing him in the room with me.
Booing continued as the conservative gay-sex-obsessed evangelical pastor Rick Warren took to the podium to give his dreary invocation.
Aretha Franklin made the most of her fading voice and sparkly-bowed hat during her performance of "My Country 'Tis of Thee," but that didn't really move me. What did was what followed. Unexpected, I started tearing up during the performance by Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, et al (the audio of which, it turned out later, was pre-recorded). That piece, "Air and Simple Gifts" is based on Aaron Copland's sampling of "Simple Gifts" in "Appalachian Spring" (copyright be damned). It was so wrenchingly, unexpectedly beautiful and somber that, on some emotional level I felt like the country was waking up from a terrible nightmare. By the end I couldn't wipe the tears from my cheeks fast enough and it felt like my whole face must be glistening.
As for Obama's inauguration speech, it seemed to lack the passion of his earlier speeches and didn't especially grab me, though it was great (and somewhat unexpected) to hear him skewer the sinister tendencies of the dim bulb he is replacing. Next was a poem read by Elizabeth Alexander and it squeezed out a few more tears. And, despite its goofy parts, I enjoyed the benediction so deliciously voiced by the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery.
It wasn't long before things took a turn for the dull as Obama's heavily-armed motorcade proceeded slowly down Pennsylvania Avenue past throngs of cheering spectators. (I'd like to find a place for an inappropriate joke about this being somehow "OJ style," but I'll leave that one for Limbaugh.) It was 25 degrees down in Washington, but people had stood for hours anyway.
Since not much was happening during Obama's slow commute to his new home, CNN periodically ran advertisements, though not nearly as many as usual. These were serious high-production Super-Bowl-grade ads, mostly for Pepsi (the manufacturer of a brand of carbonated sugar water), which seemed to be trying to stitch itself to Obama's coattails. They even manipulated their red, white, and blue logo to look more like Obama's familiar tricolor "O." Amusingly, many of the ads also had a distinctly classic-period-Soviet social-realist look, a style that seems to be experiencing a massive rebound. Perhaps this is because its simplified palette lends itself to advertising. And people may have nostalgia for the simple non-invasive threats of the Cold War, threats that, existential though they might have seemed at the time, still allowed us to board planes without ever taking off our shoes.
Meanwhile I'd drunk a lot of champagne and was feeling unusually lethargic for an early afternoon. Mercifully, though, eventually someone sensed a real need in the apartment and made a run to a nearby Starbucks and brought back coffee. (There had been an mindblowing social-realist-by-way-of-Sgt.-Pepper Starbucks ad earlier.)
Somehow Chris managed to get us out of Manhattan and headed back north in the height of rush hour. We did have to stop somewhere in Midtown first so he could drop off a sample of a new kind of vegan cheese with one of his business contacts, but other than that there were no unpleasant delays.
Obama gives his inaugural speech.
The little man in my head claps.
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