January 21st, 2009

On the inauguration, and joy

Today was a joyous and happy day for most of my friends, for a wide variety of reasons. Most of the people I know respect President Obama and hope that he will bring a new era of pragmatism and rationality to the White House. Even most of the people who did not support Obama put aside their differences (at least for today) and wished him well. Many of us, especially those over 40, were filled with the wonderment of something we never thought we'd see during our lifetimes. One person took it upon himself to be the raincloud of the day, and he did so in grand style, but he was definitely in the minority.

I have a favorite moment from the day, one that I keep coming back to over and over again. It's not Bush flying away in the helicopter, nor the first time I heard the words, "former-President Bush." It's not listening to Obama say, "and non-believers", though that was up there. In fact, it's not directly related to the transfer of power at all. Rather, it was a part of the ceremony leading up to it, although technically it probably happened at the exact moment that Obama became president.

Did you see Itzhak Perlman, Yo Yo Ma, Gabriela Montero, and Anthony McGill perform the John Williams piece just before Obama took the oath? If not, you should. If you did, you should see it again. At the very least, start watching around the 2:20 mark, and pay attention to Yo Yo Ma for about one minute. I've even embedded it in high-quality for you.


I have a bit of a crush on Yo Yo Ma. It's not because he's a brilliant musician, though he is. It's not because I used to be a cello player, though I was. It's not even because one of my favorite recordings ever is his collaboration with Bobby McFerrin, though it's definitely in my top 20. Rather, it's because no matter what he's doing, he always seems to be the happiest person on earth.

Watch that clip again. Every move he makes is filled with joy, and every single note is dripping with exuberance. I'm sure he's freezing his ass off, he's still a little sore from the secret service's extra thorough body cavity search, and he stubbed his toe just before going on stage, but he doesn't care. He's in love with every single moment of what he's doing, and he doesn't care if the whole world knows it.

I've probably replayed that video 20 times today. It's a beautiful piece of music and a beautiful moment, and I just can't help smiling as I watch it.

I listened to that song today while going through my email, and the juxtaposition between Yo Yo Ma and my friend the raincloud was really jarring-- I've been thinking about it for a few hours. On one hand we have someone who seems bitter, cranky, and negative. On the other, someone who radiates the joy of just being alive. It makes me think about the way I live my life, and which one of those people I would rather emulate. I need to spend more time focusing on the positive, and less on the negative.

Even though I unloaded a flamethrower on your ass today, dear raincloud, thank you. You've just helped me become a slightly better person.

Why Scottro is wrong

Yesterday, scottro posted this (in a friends-locked entry, which I'm quoting with permission):
Nothing to see here. Time to go back to living your lives like nothing is changing.

Because nothing is.

Enough with the fabricated hype already. Enough of the silly hope. Those of you who think Obama will do amazing things are fooling yourselves.

Scott's wrong. I firmly believe that, and yet it's taken me a while to be able to articulate why he's wrong.

Obama inspires people. Hope and optimism are powerful things. If he becomes a great president, it won't be because of what he's done so much as what he inspires other people to do. Change is generally incremental, not quantum. It comes not from one large effort, but from a lot of tiny little efforts that add up to something bigger.

"Nothing is changing" is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you firmly believe that, then you won't make an effort to change things. You won't look for solutions, or think about ways to improve the world. Doom and gloom inspire doom and gloom. You won't solve problems that you don't believe can be solved.

If you believe that change is possible, you see the world differently. You think about ways to solve problems, ways to make things better. You make just a little bit of effort to make the world a better place. You probably won't come up with dramatic solutions to complex problems, but maybe you'll help clean up the neighborhood park. Maybe you'll spend a few hours painting the community center. Maybe you'll help someone out just a little bit more than you would otherwise.

Obama's true strength lies in numbers. If one person sits to think about a complex problem he probably won't come up with a solution. Ten people thinking about the problem probably won't solve it. What about a million people? If a million people think about the same problem, one of them will probably come up with an insight that everyone else has overlooked-- and he did it because he thought things could be better. He'll share his insight with others, and they'll be more receptive to his arguments because they too think things can be better.

And now ten people see a way that things can improve, and maybe they do just a little bit to make things better. Maybe they each tell ten people, and those ten people do just a little bit. Eventually you wind up with a million people, each believing that there's a better way and doing just a tiny bit to make it happen.

How did Obama come from behind to win the election? He inspired a tremendous grass-roots effort. Hell, he got jpmassar to go out and campaign, and I'm sure that nobody was more surprised by that than JP. His choice of "Yes we can" as a campaign slogan was brilliant. "We" is a powerful word, and one that defies the laws of mathematics by being bigger than the sum of its parts.

Do I think that Obama is the messiah? No. Does he shit gold bricks and fart rainbows? No. Is he the answer to all our problems? No, of course not. Does he inspire people, make them hopeful? Yes, absolutely. The reason Obama can be a great president is because he helps lots of people to believe that things can be better, and believing is what makes it possible.