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Posted by Tim on Feb 6, 2009
The Inauguration of Barack Obama

Cast of Characters

  • Me (Tim the hedgehog)
  • Jessica the hedgehog
  • Rachel (aka "MoonUnitPolka" around these parts)
  • The Jonatron (aka Rachel's rockstar boyfriend)
  • 1.8 million or so extras


Scene 1 – 5:30am at Rachel

Jessica and I are sleeping peacefully on the world's most marvelously comfy fold-out couch when we are gently awakened by Rachel. We'd all agreed last night that this was when we should wake up, but that was only three hours ago, and I automatically begin to form convincing arguments as to why a touch more sleep would be a good idea. Before I get a chance, though, Rachel says that she's just had a text message from the Washington Post stating that there are already "huge crowds" at the Mall.

Cue adrenaline rush. No more sleep is required. It's go time.

We all set about putting on layer after layer of clothing. It's not cold out in any record-setting sense of the word, but we're still planning on standing around outside for ten or so hours, and it is January, after all. Eggo waffles are prepared. It is a glorious morning.

Jon shoots off ahead of us, so he can swing by his place and then meet up with us. The poor boy has spent the past few days working consecutive 12-hour shifts with just a few hours of sleep in between, and I'm having a great deal of difficulty understanding how he's going to stay on his feet for this. But he is mighty.

We emerge out into the darkness of early-morning DC shortly thereafter. It's a 5-mile walk to the Mall, but there's always the outside chance we could grab a bus along the way. As we emerge onto 14th Street, we discover that we're part of a greater pilgrimage. The streets are full of people, exuberantly jolly if also admittedly sleepy people, with more emerging from every sidestreet to join in the procession. All of us walking in the same direction, with the same purpose.

Jon joins us just as we rather improbably manage to get onto a bus.


Scene 2 – 7:00am at the corner of 14th Street and K Street

The bus takes us as far as it can, and then we all pile out en masse at the corner of 14th and K. There are checkpoints every few blocks allowing access to the parade route, but we don't want the parade route. Together with a few thousand friends, we start walking towards 18th Street, and south from there towards the Mall.

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Hanging a right at the world's largest collection of porta-potties, we make our way across the grounds of the Washington Monument. It's half past seven now, and the sun is just starting to rise. There's an anticipation roiling inside me that I cannot possibly describe. Everything feels possible.

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We step out onto the Mall proper, and start working our way through the crowd, looking for a good spot. Inauguration won't be for another four and a half hours, but the place is already pretty packed. There are Jumbotrons every couple of blocks along the Mall, and Jessica immediately renames them "Obamatrons" to the great amusement of The Jonatron. The four of us are all kinds of giggly and silly, stirred on by a heady cocktail of sleep deprivation and hope.

It's at about this point that Jon has the First Great Idea of the Day (there will be three of these, for those of you keeping score). He's noticed that the crowds tend to be at their thickest just before the Jumbotrons, and then rather thin just beyond them. Everyone seems to be hanging back to see the screen just in front of them, or else making their way closer to the next one. This means that there are these little "voids" just past each Jumbotron.

Jon's idea is to stake our claim in one of these voids. We find a perfect location, in the exact midpoint of the Mall. Directly in front of us is the Capitol building:

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And directly behind us is the Washington Monument:

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Here's a bird's eye view of our location:

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Note that, unbeknowest to us, we are surrounded by news vans. More on this later...


Scene 3 – 8:30am in the center of the National Mall

Among the reasons that Jessica and I so wanted to attend the inauguration was to be able to soak up the feel of the crowd, the general atmosphere of it all. And it's just incredible. The crowd is so enthusiastically upbeat, everyone feels so united in common purpose, that you really do start to feel like you're in the company of friends.

Millions of friends.

The things that normally accompany any sizable crowd – the shoving, the flashes of hostility, the infectious selfishness of the mob mentality – these things are conspicuously absent. Everyone is smiling, forging little temporary friendships with those around them, trading inspiring anecdotes and brimming with hope for the future. At one point, in what must be a first-time event ever in the history of our galaxy, several hundred strangers come together to perform the electric slide to the accompanyment of Pink Houses (Ain't That America) blaring over the PA. First a couple of people start, presumably to keep warm as much as anything else. Then a few more join them, then more, and soon a giant crowd is all dancing as one, bringing John Mellencamp and Ric Silver together at last. Now that's unity, baby.

Groups of people, some of whom have been staking out spots since the wee hours of the morning, are asleep on the frozen grass, huddling together for warmth:

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There are flags everywhere. We each bought a cute little one one our way in, for a buck a pop, but here on the grounds the Boy Scouts are wandering around giving away much larger ones for free. It feels so ridiculously exhilarating to see everyone around us waving the American flag.

I've never been one for "hating" my country or anything. I'm a first-generation American, and I love and respect the nation my parents worked so hard to come to. But since 2002 at least, I've had precisely no desire to wave an American flag around and cheer. In fact, fair or not, I've just been a little scared of those who did. The chant "USA! USA" is more frightening to me than patriotic.

So I hope you understand that I mean no disrespect when I say that this moment, in the middle of this wonderful crowd, something extraordinary happens. I'm waving the American flag. I'm feeling unabashedly patriotic. And it feels so good. It feeds into this pervasive electricity around us, this feeling that we're all part of something larger than ourselves right now. The emotions of the crowd wash over me like waves: the bursting pride, the excitement, the anticipation. And yes, the hope.

'

I know this all might sound silly, and I don't care. I want to remember how this feels. There's no drug that can compare to this feeling. There just can't be.

With so many flags around, people have been dropping them from time to time. Whenever we encounter a flag on the ground, Jon immediately rushes to its rescue, dusting it off and adding it to our collection. We're each responsible for several of them at this point.

It's right about now that Rachel has the Second Great Idea of the Day. She carefully inserts a couple of the smaller flags into her knit hat, like antennae. Jessica quickly does the same. The two of them look just ridiculously adorable:

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Inspired by Rachel's take on patriotic fashion, I stick a couple of the larger flags down the back of my coat, so they stick out like wings:

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(Throughout the rest of the day, and with embarrassing regularity, I'll accidentally whack the others (especially Jon) with these flags. Sorry, guys! Also, later on one of my flags will come off of its stick due to some overenthusiastic waving, and I'll stick it into the brim of my hat. Good times.)

It's once we're all decked out in the national colors that the first of the photographers takes notice of us. His name is Matt Rourke, and he's a really nice guy who snaps a couple of quick shots of us before we even know what's happening, and then comes over to get our names. One of his photos, destined to show up all over the place (30 or so newspaper galleries so far) is one of my favorite photos of the two of us ever:

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Soon, a thoroughly amusing number of photographers are stopping by to snap a few shots of us. We make nice with all of them, telling them how old we are and where we're from (Rachel and Jon keep getting surprised reactions – it seems the DC residents are only the tiniest of minorities in this mammoth crowd). Jon even scores some beef jerky from one:

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And if we're getting an inordinate amount of press attention, that's nothing compared to the lovely ladies standing next to us (whom we only know as "our friends"), who are positively being swarmed with cameras at times. Our friends are taken with Jessica in particular, who occasionally wanders away from us to hang out with them, social butterfly that she is.

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(Obviously, the above photo is from a quiet moment in between all the swarming.)

Anyway, I'd like to just pause for a moment and point out how cute my fiancée is:

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Scene 4 – 11:00am in the center of the National Mall

It feels like the air around us is crackling with electricity. It's time.

People are going crazy. We're whistling, woo-ing, waving our flags, and generally making what my mother would call "a joyful noise." The sight of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of flags waving before and behind us is one of my most treasured memories. I can close my eyes and recall it perfectly, recall the feeling of warmth and brotherhood and inspiration it evoked in me.

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When they announce the arrival of the former presidents, it's a study in contrasts. For Carter and Clinton, it's nothing short of pandemonium. George H.W. Bush gets a smattering of respectful applause from the openly partisan mob. And when George W Bush comes out, there's silence. (Yes, I know you saw people booing on the Daily Show coverage, but from where we were, the silence was deafening.)

And then the Obama family emerges, and it's just a scene I can't even begin to describe.

Ok, here's the thing. I am fully aware that the man is not the messiah or anything. And frankly, I think most everyone in this crowd is aware of that too. Yeah, sure, there are always going to be blind followers and hero-worshipers and dittoheads and whatnot. But for most of us, it's two things that we're celebrating in Obama.

The first is the laundry list of issues in which he stands in stark contrast to his predecessor. Issues that mean the world to us, things like torture and habeas corpus and diplomacy and the politics of fear. He's going to make mistakes, maybe huge ones. Maybe he'll completely screw the pooch on this thing. But for now, we're optimistic. We have hope, and hope has no business becoming a dirty word no matter how many times you hear it.

The other thing we're celebrating in Obama is all that he represents in the greater scheme of American history.

My brother-in-law Marcus and my sister Kate are currently expecting their fourth boy, who will be named Thomas in honor of the first freed slave in Marcus's family tree. Thomas will grow up in a world where it's always been possible for him to grow up to be president, where there's always been someone who looked a little like him in the White House. I treasure that, how big a difference that little change will make to his world. I'm excited to see what Thomas's world has to offer us next.

And, in any event, sometimes it's fun to just let go for a day and have yourself a party. Tomorrow I'll ask pointed questions about FISA and whatnot. For today, I'm giving in to the Hope.


Scene 5 – noon in the center of the National Mall

After Joe Biden is sworn in as Vice President, before Barack Obama (more or less) takes his own oath, there's this musical piece by John Williams. It's performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Izhak Perlman, pianist Gabriella Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill.

(Yes, I know it wasn't actually live. Don't rob me of my joy.)

It's just amazing. The music is so heartbreakingly beautiful that, worn down for so long by the intoxicating emotion of the crowds, I begin to tear up. I lean forward and kiss Jessica on her forehead. At that moment, we both simultaneously become aware how many photographers are taking our picture.

Lots of 'em.

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Anyway, that's why there are so many photos of me crying all over the place. I blame Yo-Yo Ma.

And then there's the oath, and the noise of the crowd is incredible. Everyone is crying now, people are screaming and stomping and collapsing into one another's arms. And that level of emotion carries through into the inaugural address.

Sometimes, by the way, you don't notice how much you needed something until it's there.

"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus," he says. And after the briefest of pauses, he adds "...and non-believers."

Non-believers. Holy cow. The President of the United States is admitting I exist. I start crying again.


Scene 6 – 12:45pm all around the National Mall

After his address is over, and after the tears are wiped away, the poetry begins. And two million people look at our watches and say to ourselves that we'd better be heading home.

Easier said than done:

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As we're trying to slowly make our way out, the poem concludes, and the closing prayer begins. And as Rev. Joseph Lowery, proclaimed by Jon Stewart as the "most adorable civil rights leader ever" begins to pray, something happens. Slowly, one person at a time, we all start listening. Even this non-believer. It was just beautiful. And as he quoted from Lift Every Voice and Sing (the "black national anthem"), tears began to flow all around us again.

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After he's done, the inauguration concludes with the national anthem. And standing there, wearing several American flags and holding a couple more, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of voices, the four of us sing our little hearts out.

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And after that, it's time to go.

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Epilogue

It was no easy task getting out of there, but the crowd remained as jovial and high-spirited as before, so it wasn't in any way unpleasant. And we were all too stuck in "afterglow" mode to care, anyway.

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Eventually, we all approached the Washington Monument...

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Ok, time for a group photo!

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Hmmm. Jon looks rather concerned there. It might be because I look just demented. And Rachel and Jessica are entirely absent. Let's try again...

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Well, Jon certainly seems happier there, and we've found Jessica, but Rachel's still MIA. Hey, wait...

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Oh, wait, she is there. But she's growing out of my head or something. I'm a little scared of this photo, actually. Let's try another...

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Ah, there we go!

On our way out, as we walked past the Washington Monument, we stopped to have a look to the north.

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And with that, all two million of us went our separate ways.

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The four of us, meanwhile, headed off to partake of the Third Great Idea of the Day: some spectacular Thai food.

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Rachel and Jon – you guys are awesome. We couldn't have had better dates for this dance. Experiencing this together, in the company of friends, made it so much more meaningful to me. Thank you both for everything.

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Philsie
March 15, 2009 at 7:21pm
Very nice…

Man the new site is awesome

Swany
March 16, 2009 at 12:32pm
I love this post and the new site! Philsie is right it is awesome.
Emerald Flame
March 17, 2009 at 11:39am
Wow the new site totally kicks ass. I miss you two like crazy! You have to come back and hang out with me and Charlie again someday. 8 o )

Oh and can I say I LOVE the cute hedgehog pictures! You know how much of a sucker I am for cute things…

MoonUnitPolka
March 17, 2009 at 11:49am
Aw. It WAS a very good day, wasn't it?
Missy&Derick
March 25, 2009 at 2:27pm
Tim! I want you to know that your beard is the kind of beard that will make Derick jealous when I show it to him later on!

Thank you for sharing this experience (and the pictures) with all of us :)

Tim the hedgehog
April 1, 2009 at 4:46pm

Tim! I want you to know that your beard is the kind of beard that will make Derick jealous when I show it to him later on!

Heh. That's funny, because I can't at all picture Derick without a beard that puts mine to shame. :)


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