Tuesday, August 25, 2009

So THAT'S Why We're all so Confused....

My gmail just gave me a quote of the day from Horace Walpool that said: "Life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel."

This may explain why those of us who do both have all gone absolutely insane. Do I laugh or cry? Do I laugh or cry? Do I....oh wait, now it doesn't matter, because my head is going to explode.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Taipei 101, Revisited

*A view down the street from my hotel. 7-11's are virtually ubiquitous here. You can even pay your cell phone and utility bills at your friendly neighborhood convenience store.

Well, I've gone and transplanted myself again. I arrived in Taipei at 5:30 am local time after a thirteen-hour flight on a cramped and sleepless red-eye; when I got here, it was already 85 degrees outside.

It's 4:15 pm, and I have never wanted anything so badly as I want to go to sleep right now, an urge I have to fight with everything I've got in me because an afternoon nap now would mean an extra day of jetlag later. My hamstrings are spasming from prolonged immobilization in a stiff airplane seat. My stomach is disoriented and angered by the sudden change in my eating schedule. And my heart is sore and bleeding from the beating it took when it was wrenched away from the place it was silly enough to fancy a home.

But with all of the upheaval and homesickness there comes - in brief, soothing moments - the peace that accompanies the familiar. The cinder block-hardness of the hotel bed, the haphazard collection of lackluster architecture, the cacophonous tones of the Chinese language echoing everywhere around me like the emotional ringing of an atonal bell. All things that in another time and place would have twisted my homesickness inside my gut until I felt nauseous, now somehow ironically mitigating it until it softens instead to a mere quiet ache.

It strikes me that in the midst of my struggles over the past couple of years I seem to have lost my ability to look exclusively forward, to dream, to lust after life the way I used to. Now these things seem far too troublesomely like attributes of the naive and the luxuries of people who have nothing else around to sap at their emotional energy. I feel weird and uncomfortably displaced, emotions that I've never before felt while traveling and which make me wonder if I've become too rigid, too trepidatious, too willing to sacrifice life for security. All the things I've always promised myself I would never, ever be. And I wonder how I came to this.

I feel with this trip as though someone has picked me up and knocked me hard against a curb, cracking open a fossilized shell to expose a soft and too long neglected underbelly. I would prefer to complete my statuary transformation, but some small, barely audible voice in the back of my head is calling me forward with the promise of potential. Of redemption, maybe. Of a way to be better.

And so....here we go. Onward to the next adventure.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Missing Fingers

The first time I went to Beijing, our professor Yomi introduced us to the blossoming underground of modern art in China by taking us to a guard house perched atop one of the few remaining segments of the old city wall, which had been taken over by a number of socially inclined artists and transformed into an exhibition space. For all its apparent informality, for all its dark corners and dank shadows, I marveled at the way the ancient cave of a building had been transformed into a museum of social criticism, a shrine to free speech and self-expression that stuck out like a wart from the glittering skyline of a city in the midst of self-congratulatory pre-Olympics modernization. A wart which, I remember thinking with some irony, if someone could find a way to pop it, would ooze the slick and very dangerously colorful pus of creativity and independent thought until it rotted rainbows into the shiny fa├žade of comfortable apathy that stretched out around it.

Yomi had arranged a speaker for us at the gallery, an artist named Sheng Qi. Sheng Qi stood patiently in front of us, white and American and jaded as we were, and spoke humbly and unaffectedly about the art scene in China, about its influence and its ramifications and its significance. About his memories of a childhood in a society where it was illegal to paint or write or sing anything that wasn’t a form of propaganda for the Communist Party. About how, even after twenty years in an “open” society, modern artists in China still had to carve their galleries out of abandoned munitions factories and the rotting remains of old courtyard houses. About being at Tian’anmen square and watching as his own government turned on him and his friends, in retaliation for nothing more than a desire to speak their minds.

I was absolutely starstruck. And this was before I’d seen his work.

After the Tian’anmen incident the government went after Sheng Qi, putting a warrant out for his arrest for his part in the uprising. He was forced to flee China. But before he left, Sheng Qi cut off his left little finger and planted it in a flower pot.

“So a part of me,” he explained as he raised his maimed hand to show us, “would always be here.” These days Sheng Qi makes much of his living off of pictures of his hand sans pinky, his palm cradling nostalgic-looking photographs.

I was touched then on a level of passionate youthful angst. I was standing in the presence of a real revolutionary. Not a middle-class white boy who’d been mad enough at his white-collar upbringing to grow a pink mohawk, not a dreadlocked vegan peacenick protesting wars she would never be asked to fight, but a real human being who’d been asked to stand up for something he believed in. And had done it. And had risked his life – really and truly risked his life - in the process. All I wanted was to be like him.

As I grow older, though, Sheng Qi’s work takes on a new kind of meaning for me. As I learn, as I travel, as I am forced to move forward through the sometime discomfort of a life left deliberately unpadded by complacence, I see less in Sheng Qi’s missing finger of politics and heroism and more of the bittersweetness that comes necessarily from living a life that is complete and worthwhile. Of the sacrifices one is inevitably forced to make in the pursuit of something greater. Of the pieces one must shed of himself before he can become whole.

It strikes me that every time I have arrived somewhere new and then left again, every time I have made a friend and then had to say goodbye, every time I have made the effort to move forward instead of standing still, I have cut off a finger and planted it in a flower pot. I’m haunted by the phantom itches in the amputated digits: nostalgic memories of the lights in a city, a sudden whiff of an old friend’s perfume, a familiar song on a random playlist, and the fullness of my still half-lived life presses heavy on my chest. I am not as brave as Sheng Qi or his ilk, and I will not pretend to be. But every now and again I still feel as if there are pieces of me scattered everywhere, sprouting miniature unheeded flowers in neglected scraps of pottery.

And so I’m standing here again with my hatchet raised over my mangled stump of a hand, preparing to go somewhere else. Again. To once again move forward, to say goodbye, to leave cherished pieces of my soul behind like the rejected branches left behind on the ground after a pruning. One wonders whether all this docking will ultimately serve its purpose of making room for newer, stronger things to grow. Or if, in the end, I’ll just be left having to play the piano with my toes.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

In Memoriam

I’ve been having a lot of trouble writing lately.

It isn’t writer’s block. It’s something more sinister, more oppressive, more suffocating. It’s a loss of myself in a world of corporate greed and social expectations and a system that tells me who to be and how to think and what to buy. It’s a fading away of everything I believe in against a backdrop of the cynicism and resignation that inevitably haunts adulthood. Growing up. That coming of age that is supposed to be the culmination of all the years we spent in our youth looking for ways to make ourselves whole, only to find that none of it took.

I’m tired. I spend all day pushing buttons I am told to push, saying things that I am told to say, subsisting because I am told that it’s the best one can expect from life. I come home at night spent and drained and another day older.


I am too tired to write. And even if I could, what would I say? Where would it come from? There is nothing left, because life is as cold and empty and worthless as I am.

And, what if it isn’t good enough?

And, what if it is?

And, look at me. Poor, miserable me, bent in two under this burden of needing to write even though I’m too frightened to do it. Of feeling that I could do something great, if only I had the courage to speak up. But I don’t. And so I push buttons and I recite scripts of inanity and I subsist. Wasted.

But this week, something happened. Somewhere far away, someone rigged an election. In a place I will never see, people took to the streets. People rioted. People gave their lives. All for their right to be heard.

People died for their right to speak up.

And here I sit in my safe, warm little bubble, feeling sorry for myself. Huddled under some asinine and illogical fear, held captive by the idiotic worry that I might not be good enough, that I might not inspire, that I might not rise to the heights of literary immortality even as people all over the world spill blood for a chance at the pen that I hold motionless in my hand. I watch my television, mesmerized, as people I will never meet in a place that I will never go, people who will never experience the comfort or the education or the security or the freedom that I have, proudly display a bravery that I will never achieve. And I am so, so ashamed.

It’s been five years almost to the day since the first time I set foot in Tian’anmen Square. I remember standing in awe, barely able to breathe, knowing that I was in a place where people had given their lives for something bigger than themselves. For freedom. Something so basic, so fundamental, and yet so easily denied. I remember thinking, in my youthful naivete, that I would never take my own for granted. And yet here I am, in the greatest of ironies, denying myself the freedom so many people are fighting for. Simply because I am afraid.

This cannot continue.

In Tehran, in Beijing, in the countless other places where people have sacrificed everything simply to be heard, to be granted the chance to stand up in a sea of the apathetic walking dead and claim the right to live by virtue of their own voices, the courage of those who have chosen to stand up for their right to speak makes it impossible for me to waste my own.

I will stand up for my friends who are denied the right to love, simply because they are different. I will speak out for those who don’t have enough to eat, a bed to sleep in, clothes to wear. Proper healthcare. An education. I will bare my soul until there is nothing left of it, until it bleeds out as though I myself were among those who sacrificed everything for the right to stand up and be heard.

I’ll be melodramatic and passionate and angry and alive if I damn well want to. Fuck the system. Screw pushing the buttons and reciting the words and going through the motions. I will write, and I will breathe, and I will cherish my freedom with every word and every breath.

I will not be afraid. I will not be wasted.

Silence is no longer an option.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

About A Life

It’s almost midnight and I have work tomorrow and I’m exhausted, but I can’t sleep. I’ve self-medicated again, the end knot of a string of attempts at self-anesthetizing competing with one another for degree of numbness. Each time pushing it a little farther, taking a little more, and each time wondering if this will be the time that I’ve pushed it beyond where it can go, and wondering – sometimes even hoping – that this will be the last time I have to do this.

My heart is pounding in my chest. I can’t even remember everything I took. They were all legal, all prescribed, all considered necessary for the advancement of my very tenuous mental well-being. But I am beginning to believe that while all of them have some effect in solidarity, in tandem they can turn what at first seemed a blissful anesthetic into the simultaneously frightening and freeing premonition that I might never feel anything again. If I close them tonight, will my eyes open again in the morning?

My hands shake and my toes tingle and the only way I can keep my head from flopping backward is to lean it onto one shoulder or another in an artifically pensive and thoughtful pose. And I think as I sit here, what if I don’t wake up, and then I worry that the thought isn’t as troublesome as I think it should be.

Every day I wake up, groggy and disinterested with my day. Every day I shower and brush my teeth and do my best to manage the anarchistic army of hair which sits foxholed firmly but uncooperatively on my scalp. And every day, just as I’m about to walk out the door - just as I’m about to perform my daily routine of selling out, of deliberately abandoning all I believe in and forcing my square self into a round hole – just before I do all that, like a fool I take one last glance in the mirror.

I am fading.

Every day I disappear a little bit more. In the mirror there are only shadows of me, layers of painted cellophane that are removed one after another after another, until I have become as translucent and as meaningful as saran wrap.

Soon there will be nothing of me left. This makes me a little sad. I was one of the lucky ones who are able to find a few small things to like about themselves. Not grand conquests or historical heroism, but just little things like the way my right eye twinkled when I laughed or the way my hands felt smooth on a keyboard. Now I never laugh, and the layers which kept me writing were among the first to be peeled away.

So I guess it’s natural, then, that I feel a little nostalgic, a little curious. If I were to die tonight, what is it I would miss?

There was a time when my life was so full. When the entire world sang to me, every city a calling siren, every mountain a beckoning nymph. The song has never stopped. But while it used to be sweet and tender and overflowing with the promise of adventure, its pitch has changed to an octave which is apparently audible only to myself and the dogs living one floor down. It grates on my spine like the scream of a dying cat and makes me want to gouge my eyes out with my own thumbs.

“I’m stuck!” I call to them. “I’m too old now to come when you call, and the walls around me are too high to climb! Call someone else!” And when they don’t stop, I can only curl up and rock in the fetal position, sobbing in silent, futile whispers, “Please, please call someone else.”

But oh, that call. What a life I have lived.

I have watched poor children at a coffee plantation fight to have their pictures taken with a polaroid, because it’s the first they’ve ever seen of either a camera or of their own images smiling back at them.

I’ve been there as a large load of second-hand sneakers were delivered to a Nicaraguan orphanage, after which the children, who have never in their lives had enough to eat, sat down next to us and shared their lunch.

I have wandered the streets of the Bund in Shanghai at sunset, watching as the lights across the river flash in every imaginable color, the bright intensity of a city which knows itself, which fits into its own skin, in a way I never have.

I have been to the Ming Tombs with a little Chinese girl who didn’t know me, but held my hand the whole time anyway.

I have ridden a camel on the Great Wall.

I have ridden on the back of the scooter of my friend Roy who, recognizing my constant searching for peace in the midst of the incessant siren’s call in my head, drove me far, far into the mountains above Taipei to a painted temple where his mother used to take him when he was young. And in that place, I have listened to that friend, that friend of undying devotion and love, say, “Here you can rest.”

I have gotten stuck climbing trees in tropical mountains after dark

I have wandered the streets of San Francisco and Seattle and Portland and Reno Shanghai and Beijing, all of them after dark, just to see how it feels when a city sleeps.

I have eaten boa constrictor and armadillo.

I have known love. Real love. The kind which is so fragile that when it hits the oxygenated atmosphere of the real world it retreats and evaporates as quickly as it came, and all you are left with is whatever you could grasp at as it pulled back past you into nothingness.

I will never see any of these things again. Seeing is a verb which necessarily requires an agent, and cellophane wrap cannot, by definition, see. There is no more of me. I am assimilated. I am every day the same. I am the television is my savior and beer, wine, and cocktails my holy trinity. I am save me, save me from the pain of this distortionism I have to perform every day, dislocating this moral and that standard and this most special part of who I am in order to fit into a box of conformity marked “This End Up” but which always seems to get tossed into the truck upside down anyway.

There is no happy ending here, no moral to be taken away, none of my typical reminders that life’s lemonade can truly be sweet when pressed the right way. There is only disillusionment, and the disgusting and gut-punching realization that I’m neither special nor capable nor destined to do anything, great or otherwise, with my life.

There is nothing but me. And soon there will be no more of that either.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Why I Love Seattle (or) Who Let the Goats Out?

Yesterday afternoon, while driving near my home in downtown Seattle, we passed a hilly patch of grass on the side of the road that slanted downward beneath the overpass onto the freeway. On a normal day it's a particularly unspectacular parcel of land, and one that we pass not infrequently, but yesterday it took on new personality with the presence of a group of squatters.

Namely, a herd of goats.

A herd of goats, and a sign that said "Goats for Rent."

I find this curious for two reasons. The first - and I should think the more obvious - is that someone must have gone to a bizarrely large amount of trouble to get an entire herd of goats under an overpass, onto a patch of land which has no gate, in the middle of downtown Seattle. The second is that, no matter how hard I rack my brain, I simply cannot conceive of a reason that any Emerald-city condo-dweller would have for needing to rent a goat. Stranger still is the idea that said condo-dweller, having found himself in need of a stubborn and hairy four-legged lawnmower, would think to look for said creature under the freeway. Did someone really think of this as a viable business enterprise?

Love, Actually

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”

-Matthew 25:41-45

“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

-1 Corinthians 13:8-13

I remember the year I was in sixth grade, coming to school the day after Bill Clinton was elected. I remember sitting on the steps to the portable classroom behind the swing set, hugging my knees to my chest, watching as my teacher approached, tears streaming down her cheeks.

“She’s crying,” someone next to me whispered.

Someone else said, “Are you okay?”

And she answered, simply – and I’ll never forget this – “We won.”

I didn’t understand any of this at the time. I’d been raised in a staunchly conservative home in a staunchly conservative part of the state, and the election the night before had cast a pall of gloom over our entire house that had persisted through the night. It hadn’t even really occurred to me, I don’t think, that there were actually people out there who had voted for a Democratic candidate. Not just now, but ever. These were theoretical agents of evil that existed, in my mind, somewhere in the realm of the monsters under my bed. Frightening, yes, and absolutely life-threatening, but invisible nonetheless. Now one of these aliens was standing before me, disguised as what had only the day before been an icon of knowledge and authority, and not only was she tangible, she was crying for joy. I was absolutely baffled.

Fast forward to 2008.

In 2008, I developed a severe health problem that drained me as much financially as it did emotionally; even with two separate insurance plans, I’m so deeply in debt that at one point I actually considered dropping out of graduate school. In 2008, the price of food in the United States became so high that for the first time I had to choose between fresh vegetables and paying my electricity bill, the price of gasoline was so high that my law student boyfriend could barely afford to commute the five miles each way to school in his beat-up Honda, and it was impossible to walk down any residential street in Seattle without seeing at least one real estate sign every two or three blocks. In 2008, even my friends who had good jobs engineering for Boeing or programming for Microsoft went to work every day fearing that it might be for the last time. In 2008, schools failed, factories failed, hearts failed. And we live in one of the more economically secure parts of the country.

In 2008, the US unemployment rate rose to almost 6%. This does not count the heads of families of four or five who were reduced to working at Burger King for minimum wage to make ends meet.

In 2008, the number of my brothers and sisters killed in a pointless, political war grew to total over 4,000.

In 2008, the number of Iraqi civilians killed as a direct result of the US invasion grew to total over one million. Which would matter, if anyone cared.

If a non-American child is hit by a stray bullet, does he still make a sound?

And still we bicker. We draw our proverbial lines in the sand and stand obstinately behind them, our ignorance and insecurity proving such threats to our egos that we are rendered utterly incapacitated. The food is at our sides, the hungry at our feet, but in the blind confinement of our need to be right we find ourselves unable to move in order to feed them. All good intentions are lost in our stubbornness. All potential for compassion is consumed by the void of our refusal to open our eyes for fear of what we might see. Before us, people are denied educations, denied rights, denied freedom, denied the very things the fight for which swells our chests with pride and patriotism when we call ourselves Americans. People are, quite literally, dying in front of our eyes. We could save them, but we won’t. Our drive to love others is nowhere near as strong as our fear of change.

So much of the status quo is built around the Christian “right”. (The potential ironically self-satisfied double-meaning of which phrase does not, incidentally, go unnoticed by this writer). But very often I wonder, should Jesus actually see fit to return to earth on a cloud of glory tomorrow morning, if he wouldn’t be just slightly startled by our current state of affairs. Try as I might, I can find nothing in the direct teachings of Jesus having to do with gay marriage or abortion. These petty, ambiguous issues we might be justified in arguing over only if every other evil in the world were already banished. These things we use to distract ourselves so we don’t have to think about the poor and the hungry and the sick, because doing so might require us to make more than the superficial sacrifice of a once-a-week visit to the guilt-assuaging congregation down the street.

What I do find, however, are almost nonstop admonitions to practice love and compassion. There are no caveats on the mandate that we turn the other cheek; this was not worded as merely a suggestion, nor is it a verse easily taken out of context for the benefit of pacifist rhetoric. We are not asked to turn our cheeks except when we are afraid, or when we are threatened, or when we think a potential enemy might be harboring nuclear weapons. We are asked instead to stand up for our beliefs by example, through love and through peace. Not the korny, acid-trip kind, but the love and peace borne of a true compassion for our fellow man, the practice of which is the only thing preventing us from becoming the very thing we stand against.

Jesus was a revolutionary. He spent his life fighting the status quo, the blind, frightened self-interest of a religious system, one with so many soap boxes beneath its feet that it had risen to an elevation from which the suffering of the humanity below it looked like the suffering of ants viewed from an airplane. Jesus dined with prostitutes and thieves. He touched lepers with neither fear nor loathing. He preached self-examination before judgment of others. Yet we studiously ignore these attributes of the man we simultaneously hold up as our ultimate ideal, because to acknowledge them would be an uncomfortable challenge to our own self-righteousness.

“My people,” I can picture him saying, “My precious people that I created with my own two hands, my precious people for whom I sacrificed my life, are paving the streets with their blood. They are sick and they are hungry, but you can’t be bothered to turn off your televisions. And you who I’ve blessed with everything I could possibly bestow on a human being, fully expecting you to extend this generosity to your fellow men in kind! You idiots are fighting over this?”

We have turned his Father’s house into a den of thieves.

We have a chance, now, to be better. Will we take it? Will we set aside the utopian ideals in which everyone sees things our way – six million utopias for six million people – even just for a moment, and look into the eyes of our sick and our poor and our hungry, not with fear, but with a resolve buoyed by a compassion free from conditions or judgments or prejudice? Are we brave enough to love our brothers? Such a love will require the courage to stand alone in the face of doubt, in the face of ridicule, in the face of a world in which compassion is a subversive and threatening concept. Are we ready?

Tonight, my life comes full circle. I understand why my teacher was crying all those years ago, because I find myself weeping. Shedding tears in the midst of daring to hope, because –maybe naively - I believe that we can be strong again. That we can once again find our capacity for compassion in the midst of a world of hatred. I believe that we can overcome the fear that tethers us and extend our hands, weak and atrophied though they may be, to those in need around us. That if we can admit our weaknesses, we can be strong in one another. That united we stand, divided we find ourselves in the midst of a hell we have created through our own blindness. And I believe we’re better than that.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


On the night of the Fourth of July we went to an outlook in a residential neighborhood on Queen Anne Hill to watch the fireworks. The city of Seattle is a light show in and of itself at night. Unlike a lot of other places I’ve been, it never really fades to black in the absence of the sunlight. Instead the rolling hills go to different hues of blue, deep shades of navy and sapphire and cobalt freckled with playful fireflies of light. They strike me as so unconscious of themselves, these pinpricks of iridescence; they wink at each other from behind the heavy brocade drapes of expensive mansions with the same innocent jocularity that they do the cheap plastic blinds of dilapidated basement apartments, and, in my overworked imagination, they laugh jovially at our inability to see past the difference between the two.

Every year, before colors begin exploding in space, a military helicopter with a giant American flag pinned to its belly makes a couple of strategic revolutions around the sky above Lake Union, a giant spotlight illuminating it from a barge below. The idea, one supposes, is the invocation of pride, a swelling of patriotic emotion, an overwhelming gratitude at having been born free.

This year, though, it was different. My first reaction wasn’t pride, it wasn’t patriotism, it was anger. And then it was anger that I had a reason to be angry. For some reason the Fourth of July is always a bit of an emotional holiday for me: standing underneath falling shards of glittering gunpowder for a half an hour always instantly takes me back to when I was a kid, to playing in the park with my brother and sister, singing silly songs about Henry the Eighth (I am I am!) and John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt while the giant blue and red explosions – much simpler then than they are now – cast long irregular shadows over the town.

As I grow older, I remember too how I was told as a child how lucky I was to be born an American. People here can be whatever they want, I was told. We can make a difference. We can change things if they need to be changed. And this is all because we’re free.

And I remember my grandfather last summer, talking to my best friend Lindsey as he sat rocking in his favorite chair, the naval tattoo on his arm faded from exposure to the years, saying, “I’ve always been a real flag-waver when it comes to our country.” And I remember feeling terribly proud.

And so as that arrogant helicopter strutting around with that arrogant flag strapped to its arrogant underside, I couldn’t help but feel betrayed. Lost. We don’t even try to be whatever we want (who has the money to pay for an education?). We’re skeptical of our ability to make a difference, and scared of what might happen if we do, so we don’t even try. And freedom? We’ve entered an age where criticism of our government is unpatriotic, and criticism of each other is mandatory. American community has become American isolation. American philanthropists have become American Enrons. The American dream has become the American trying-to-get-by. American hope has become American fear.

How dare they? I thought. The rich and powerful have taken what was once envisioned as a government for and by the people and used it to suffocate those it was meant to empower. How dare they ignore our poor? How dare they take the money meant to educate our children and put it toward a meaningless war? How dare they make political games out of the suffering of those in other countries? In our own? How dare they make me doubt my desire to create new life, at times even to live my own? How dare they turn their backs on the flat-wavers of this country, the grandfathers and fathers and mothers and aunts and uncles who have fought bravely, unquestioningly, nobly, and now find themselves – sometimes quite literally – without a leg to stand on?

And worst of all, how dare they rob us of our hope?

How do you impeach a government for the theft of optimism?

I stood there for a moment, seething. Disoriented. Wondering if this was even the same country in which I’d grown up, because really I recognize very little of it.

It wasn’t until I’d been standing there brooding in my self-righteousness for a few minutes that I realized that someone in the small crowd around us had been humming the national anthem softly as the flag passed. Someone else to my right was nodding – almost imperceptibly, but he was doing it – his eyes moist with tears. The closer the flag got, the more static the air around us became, until that great square of fabric hovered right in front of us. In the crowd of a hundred people, not one of us spoke. Even the drunk guy sitting in a lawn chair two rows up was momentarily dumbstruck.

What I realized standing there that night is this: we are not dead. Anesthetized, maybe, but not dead. Sometimes it’s easy to feel like we are; we watch the daily chaos on the news, the horror in Africa, the rising gas prices, the idiots in congress, the soaring prices of food, people losing their homes. And we feel lost because we can’t do anything about it. Not just for ourselves, but for others. We can’t help and we can’t make it better. So we go in one end of our day and out the other like zombies, numbed by our ineffectiveness, manipulated by our apathy. We look out on the world and all we see is gray. Gray, gray, gray.

But I think it’s also easy to forget how lucky we really are in spite of everything. My generation has only ever seen explosions in the sky in celebration of our freedom, never because we were fighting in pursuit of it. We have only ever had to associate the burning smell of gunpowder and charred meat with the lingering after-effects of a giant nationwide party. There are many, many people on earth who have far more sinister associations with such sensations.

I think, really, that deep down we know this. And I strongly believe that there is still something in us that dares to hope. However small, it is still there. And it will, I believe, transcend scandal and stupidity and greed and global warming. There is still a spark in each of us, a tiny grain of everything irrepressible about the human spirit, that clings to optimism, to the potential for good. But we have to make an effort to seek it out, and it’s going to take work. Barack Obama can offer us all the change he wants, but until we’re willing to work for it in our own lives, all the promises and all the blame of all the politicians and gurus and spiritual leaders in all the world can never hand it to us.

In America, the government is still the people, even if it is by a narrow margin. What I wonder is whether we will ever trust the government, no matter how brilliant, as long as we remain unable to trust ourselves.