Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Old Scout

So I'm a fan of Garrison Keillor's for a number of reasons. One being that he has me laughing through tears more often than a Lutheran should. Here is his take on the big day. Sometimes we have to rely on the actual writers of this world to comment properly.

He also wrote a sonnet:


Two-thousand nine, the 20th of January,
I was there at the Capitol in the freezing cold
With two million others, feeling very
Warm and hopeful as the big drums rolled
And the man said the oath, so help me God,
And cannons boomed and all of us --- O God --- we cried
We cried, old, young, men, women, as we applaud-
Ed, we wept, America, for you justified
At last as a nation of by God true ideals,
Our true beginnings, to which we now return--
Created equal, justice under law --- one feels
That even in the cold, these fires burn.
And then the man and his wife walking down the street \
And the country moves to a strong and silent beat.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I should go back.

How we got to Washington wasn't earth shattering. The day after the election we bought the tickets through Travelocity without much forethought. There were a couple of times during the campaign when one of us uttered, "Wouldn't it be great if..." or "Can you imagine being..." and the sentence would be spoken under a whisper and the hearer wouldn't dare answer in fear of jinxing the moment or the work we had ahead of us. That's how we roll around the Spencerhouse. Superstitions abound - especially during elections. Especially during this election. Things were going so well, too well, but because we'd been inside, and were surrounded by other geeked up politicos, it was hard to tell what was really happening out there in the "real" America. I think a lot of us thought that there was still lots of room for us to lose this, for any number of reasons. Looking back it seems silly since Barack won with such a large margin, but at the time, our reservations were real.

Joe and I wanted to be more involved in the campaign. As Barack won more and more primaries and caucuses, it became clear that this was our moment to cling onto some coattails and hold on for dear life. But, at the time things got heated in MN, our youngest was 5 months old and our oldest 3 going on ridiculous. How much time could we really dedicate? Our payoff came when Joe was asked to run a phone bank out of Obama Headquarters for the last 4 days of the campaign - Saturday through election day. He agreed with a stipulation that we would do it together and that we could bring our kids. Yes, and yes. I'm not sure how many people were annoyed by the young ins on the floor while they dialed for democrats, but no one complained to us. Emerson took real ownership in the whole thing by realizing the best way he could help out was by doing visibility. He was obsessed; the honking, the waving, he was hooked. Harriet just smiled at the callers a lot, and, hopefully, added some levity.

Halfway though election day, I dropped the kids off with my parents for the night. We'd been through enough election days to know that things got heavy in the final hours. We wanted to be fully present for the task at hand and not worry who needed to eat next or how to deflect the next melt down, and, from what we know, election nights go late - very late, and we didn't want to bow out early. I said to many at the time, "I just want to be in the room." We'd been in the room for the losses of 2000, 2002, 2004. I was home with a sick Emerson for Amy Klobuchar's Senate win in 2006, but Joe was there. I know what it's like to be in that room when we lose. The silence is deafening. Awkwardness abounds and no one knows what to say. After I dropped the kids off, and was listening to MPR, I felt my heart open just a crack, to let in the thought that we just might win this thing, and I needed to be in that room.

So I bought the plane tickets without much thought. They were cheap, plentiful, the event was a good 2 1/2 months away, we have friends who live in D.C., we'd figure out the details later.

The mall.

We arrived on the mall at 6:00 AM and it was clear that everyone had gotten the memo. Arrive early, stake out your place, and, if you’re a ticket holder, find your gate. If the Metro stop seemed somewhat orderly due to the nature of walking up a stair case in a single file line, the mall was pandemonium. Thousands of people swarmed this way and that. The pace was much faster than the station. There were enough spaces to run. Hundreds of buses were unloading on the side streets. Few people had knowledge on what streets were closed or open. It was obvious that everyone was trying to navigate their direction parallel to the mall, but in certain areas, you couldn’t walk on the mall OR parallel to the mall. We were left scrambling, tripping and falling over each other in a maze of blocked off side streets for that desired gate, grassy spot, and view. The added element of darkness gave the whole scene an eerily scary feeling. Almost like those scenes in the Titanic where everyone was making their way to the lifeboats. There weren’t enough for everyone (to quote Kate Winslet "Not enough by half"), people were desperately trying to stay together, and each person thought they knew the better way. I saw people trampling shrubs and landscaping in front of buildings that lined the mall. Every once in a while someone would go down, ultimately because we weren’t looking down, just pushing on the body in front of us. Mothers were carrying babies shrouded in blankets; again there were wheel chairs, walkers, elders with canes and most notable at this point, busloads of individuals wearing matching clothing. Stick together. No matter what.-don’t lose your party. Did I mention that it was dark? And cold?

Part of our challenge was the Blue gate was pretty close to the Capitol. Most people were trying to make their way toward the back of the mall, away from the Capitol because that’s where the open, un-ticketed space was. We were going against the grain. By the time we found the Blue Gate the line was well formed. Under the banner, a big mass of people had clumped together and from that, a line snaked across the street and down the block. We joined the line about 100 feet from the mass. It seemed like a relief. Whew. We're here. we made it to the spot. Now, we wait. People continued to pour passed us. “What color line is this?” “Which way to the silver/orange/purple?” At some point we determined it was 6:50. I was looking down and when I looked up, I saw the faintest hint of the sun rising. “Hey, the sun’s coming up. It’s a new day.” Those standing around us marked the start of this day. It was 1.20.09. Bush’s last day. Obama’s first. We all hailed the marker, and the lump returned to my throat.

Views from our place in line - the image on the right was taken by some friends from Minnesota who's starting point at the Blue Gate was closer than ours. Notice the variations of hats. Note the fancy straw hat immediately infront of us in contrast with the facemasked bundle next to her. Click on the images for larger views.

The camera.

I should say right now that our camera was not working on all cylinders for the 3 days we were in D.C. We discovered this the day before as we were happily snapping everything that moved as we navigated from Union Station to the Hart Senate office to pick up our tickets. Ten shots in, the low battery light went on and I became one of those annoying wives, and I hate admitting that because I try so hard NOT to be one, but I said something to the effect of, "I told you to charge the battery last night." It was uncalled for, I was annoyed, but it was the phrase that fit the moment.

The result was, not so many pics from the day before. You can bet that the camera battery was secure in it's charging spot when we clicked off the light that night. I'm sure I pulled another Bob Newhart moment, when I slightly inquired a few more times if the battery was actually in it's rightful charging spot. Each time was the affirmative and yes, I checked myself. I am totally capable of that.

The next morning as we were inching closer to L'Enfant plaza, the same damn low battery light was flashing again and the truth was known. The battery did NOT take a charge. In fact we were back at the same battery level as we were the night before when we both checked and double checked (okay triple checked) that the thing was plugged in. It said it was taking a charge. When the alarm went off the charging light was green which means that you're good to go. I sort of like it when inanimate objects give me the thumbs up.

What's a Spencer to do? Well, if you're married to one Joe Spencer, you have inherent knowledge that batteries get cold and freeze. What one needs to do is warm it up and it shall work for a few shots before shutting down and begging not to be used again out of doors. Go ahead, roll your eyes, I did too. But how does one warm a battery up when you're committed to standing outside for at least the next, oh, 6-7 hours? Yep - you put it in your pants. I know. I know! Go ahead and laugh. I would have too, if I wouldn't have been thinking of all of the human interest shots that I was missing, like the guy holding his hat on a stick while talking on the phone.

But here's the worked!

We are also relying on the awesome people we shared intimate space with for 7 hours. We took pictures of them, they took pictures of us, and we exchanged email addresses via frozen fingers and ink pens. The pictures are still coming in. Please be patient.

L'Enfant Plaza Metro Station

(Left: L'Enfant Station in a more empty and peaceful time.)
As our train pulled into L’Enfant Plaza station the weight of the day descended. People lined the platform on each side of the train so that it was hard to disembark. Hoards of people, mobs of people were streaming every which way to get above ground. The escalators had been turned off, I suppose, to prevent anyone from falling or going against the grain, but not having them working presented its own problems. Those in wheel chairs, families with strollers were abandoning the elevator option and employing volunteers to carry family members up the stairs. Again, I can’t stress the good nature of all of these folks, in the face of real diversity at this point. We were underground. It was clear that it was going to take some time getting out. But we all had our eyes on the prize so we grabbed a hold of that stroller and heave ho’ed.

(Here's some Metro station art. Pepsi mooching off a good idea.)
For some reason we were diverted from the most direct exit out, to a round about, track change direction, up and over route that gave us full view of the struggles so many faced later in the day. News reports would define L'Enfant station as all layers of hell. I know that soon we'll see "I Survived L'Enfant station" t-shirts. All of the Metro lines diverge at this station, and as stated before, this was one of the stops on or closest to the mall. I'm sure many had in their plans, "Oh, we'll get off at L'Enfant and we'll be golden". So simple, so easy.
Getting out was not in anyway easy. There were wide open spaces where people could fan out and try to get ahead, but we were all funneled into bottlenecks that left one grasping at the coat of anyone in your party for fear of getting separated. I know at some point, I heard a collective gasp come from the crowd on another track. Did someone fall? Get sick? Then a calm female voice announced, “Ladies and gentleman, The Red Line is now closed at such and such station due to train malfunction. Please be patient.” Fifteen seconds later the same voiced announced, “Ladies and gentleman – the blue Line is now closed at such and such station due to passenger illness.” Joe and I looked at each other in wonderment. We were getting above ground just in time.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The train ride.

The train quickly filled as we passed Reagan National Airport, Crystal City, the Pentagon. A family with two children boarded, a son and daughter, I’d guess about 8 and 10 years old. They were poised, relaxed, comfortably and smartly dressed. Our destination was the now infamous L’Enfant station, one of the nearest Metro stops to the mall. We’d used it the night before and because it was almost to the Washington Monument, we thought it a good place for us to get off. It was going to be a hike to get to our designated Blue Gate, but we were up for the challenge and felt as long as we were on foot, we were a little bit more in charge of our destiny. At this point, it was standing room only on our train. It filled quickly and there was no shortage of personalities and eccentricities. A young girl was explaining wildly what was going on to an elderly gentleman in front of us. I wasn’t sure if they knew each other or not, but he seemed to not know what was going on that day and she was hell bent on decoding everything for him. There was a very serious man with equally serious recording equipment. He had a camera, a heavy looking backpack, and a female sidekick to boot. She carried one of those ominous looking microphones that hangs off a stick and sports fur. Not just casually recording the events. A documentary perhaps, but he wasn’t asking any of us on the train any questions. Kind of bizarre. My mind wandered to conservative public access TV shows and conspiracy theories. Do we really have to worry about that shit today? I moved on.

There were a few African-American women in their sixties riding together next to us. It was clear they wore their warmest clothes for this occasion. They probably hadn’t donned these clothes in years, but had them in their possession for an occasion such as this. At some point they stood in the aisle, anticipating their stop. The train was making frequent stops in the tunnels, the announcer informed us, because other trains were slow in leaving the stations. The first clue of gridlock at 6:00 AM!! At some point the train lurched alive, sending one of the women backward into the arms of a much younger gentleman and he miraculously caught her. The jovial nature of the crowd had us all asking if she was all right, she was apologizing profusely, the young man was making sure she was all right, and all were nervously reassuring her that we all make that mistake at some point. The commotion died down pretty quickly, but some ice had been broken. We heard her apologize once more and he said, “No, no don’t worry about it. I hope I didn’t squeeze you too tight.” This blue down coat covered, stocking cap wearing woman responded, “You didn’t squeeze hard enough,” and gave a wink that sent all into stitches.

It begins.

The alarm went off at 5:15, but I’m not sure I slept at all between 1 AM and 5:00. I knew I had dreams about the man that would be president in mere hours. I had my ear plugs in to deafen the roar from surrounding sinuses. It was actual relief when the beep beep filled the room. I don’t know if Joe and I ever hopped out of bed so fast, even when one of the kids awoke in the middle of the night, okay there was that one time when Harriet threw up, but I digress.

We laid our clothes out the night before (very un-Spencerlike) and layers went on, boots were laced and we were out of the house and heading to the train station by 5:30. As we silently walked, I thought, this is going to be a piece of cake. It was quiet in the sleepy town of Alexandria. We could see a couple of trains go by and they didn’t look choked with people. Perhaps the hysteria was all for naught. We entered the 7-11 for coffee and a doughnut. There was a lot of talk before hand about hoarding provisions, bringing water, snacks, toilet paper, but we were suspicious – Joe grabbed 2 granola bars from Scott and Jen’s house, we opted for the small coffee (a move celebrated 8 hours later when we were next to relieve ourselves) and two doughnuts - chocolate for Joe and an old fashioned for me. Five girls entered at the same time we did. They seemed to be college aged and we all exchanged greetings. One was from Iowa originally; one lived just around the corner. It was the first of many encounters that didn’t begin with “Are you going to…?” We all just knew. It was palpable.

We checked our watches on the platform. It was 5:45 AM. It was clear that the only people on a train platform, on this day, at this hour were headed just one place. The air felt warm with anticipation. When the yellow line train arrived we easily found seats (Scott schooled us on taking the more direct Yellow line to the National Mall rather than the roundabout Blue line. It would prove to be a slam dunk move) and breathed a sigh of relief to be on the train. No matter what, we were on our way. A couple of tears were shed as we looked out the darkened window as the capitol shone far off in the distance.

Not for the Faint of Heart

Hello friends and family. As you all know, Joe and I attended the inauguration of our new president, Barack Obama last week. Through Facebook and text messaging we tried to include you in our experience, carry you with us, let you know where we were, if we were in and what we could see. Spotty cell phone and blackberry service and frozen digits prevented us from reaching all of you, so I thought I'd capture our recollections through a blog.

As I started to write, I realized that I was jotting this down as much for me and my family as it was to tell all the amazing things that we saw to those who couldn't be there. In the future, I think I'll be glad for it. So, it's long and it's not finished yet and from the looks of this blog layout, it doesn't look like I'll be able to enter it chronologically. I thought I'd better start posting some of my thoughts before the event started to fade from our collective conscious.

I titled it "Not for the Faint of Heart" for obvious reasons.

It was cold; true, we came from -20 below zero, and the first couple of days felt balmy. I even went to Bruegger's Bagels without my coat on, but after 6 hours of standing in virtually one place, moving forward at the speed of 2 feet per half an hour, the blood freezes in the lower extremites.

It was crowded; Joe and I can handle crowds. We've been to large public events, Lollapalooza, the State Fair, Grand Old Day. We've travelled to Europe where the europeans don't so much stand in line as they tend to move together en masse. I think the single file line was invented in the U.S. It's so civilized. But we were not prepared for what 2 million people looked and felt like. Before the event people warned of long lines and hours of waiting. Okay, not so much with the lines - it was more like the glut of humanity massing together, moving in swarms for the spot that could get them that much closer to the action. It was brutal.

The wait; I mentioned the hours of waiting. We were coming off a pretty intense holiday season and hadn't been away from our kids for a while. This was like a vacation for us. Come on, I was going have my husband's attention for hours on end without someone needing a diaper change, a refill on water, a "mama watch me", a request for the assembly of 10,000 little pieces of a game that would be played with for 4 minutes, and the demand for the explanation of why the baby cries in the car. We would not get bored. But the night before, some good friends suggested that we would never make it to the mall if we left Alexandria at 7:00 AM as planned. So, we awoke at 5:00 AM and headed off into the darkness to board our train at 5:45 AM. Later, when it was all over, we stepped off the yellow train line and checked our watches, it was 5:45 PM - a twelve hour adventure.

But to tell the truth, no one's hearts were faint that day. They were filled with hope, pride, excitement, and brimming with thousands of stories of what brought them there. Fuses were not short, smiles were in abundance, songs seem to burst from the crowds with little provoking, laughter, humor, and genuine huddle together-ness abound. Our hearts were full to capacity, waiting for the moment we could let them burst open as our country embraced the true words of our founding fathers and a dream was realized.