Child's Play

This weekend the NYT Magazine ran a piece about the Obama marriage that quoted Obama on the significance of his election. When Michelle Obama asked him during the primary season what would distinguish his Presidency from that of other Democratic candidates Obama replied,

“When I take that oath of office, there will be kids all over this country who don’t really think that all paths are open to them, who will believe they can be anything they want to be,” Barack replied.  “And I think the world will look at America a little differently.”

Certainly, Obama’s Nobel Prize, controversial or not, has proven the latter part of his statement to be true.   I don’t think we’ve even begun to register in this country the profound shift in international attitudes and climates that will result from this Presidency.

But I was especially gratified to read the first part, because before I read this statement I wrote in an essay:

During the Primaries, I knew that whether we elected Clinton or Obama, either would signal a new order, one which concretized academic theorizing about diversity and identity politics.  In one historic ballot, many more children would be able to look at the person inhabiting the highest office in our country and say the President Looks Like Me.  And for them it really would mean that anything was possible.

So, when my daughter professed her single-minded Clinton love, I understood exactly what having a woman President would mean to the rest of her childhood (and probably the rest of her life).  If Clinton were to become President, not only could Ella play softball, or football, or run a Fortune 500 company or innovate a new technology, but Being President would become a Viable Career Option.  A Clinton Presidency would be, for my daughter, a revolutionary fact.  Perhaps not quite so revolutionary as getting the vote, but certainly it would signal a seachange in the national female psyche.  It would be a vision, a game changer, something akin to Phillipe Petit’s dance in the air.

And in the wake of the Clinton run and Obama’s victory, it has proven true that my privileged, middle-class white children do see politics differently and more importantly than they did before.  Mostly, since the election, we’ve had a long, quiet spell & a busy summer (no posts here you may have noticed).

But last week, Finley announced, “When I grow up I want to work for the President. I want to work for Obama.” Ella pointed out,  of course, that this would not be possible, but that he could work for a different President, a career which he roundly embraced.  Ella, too, announced that she shares this ambition, and this weekend, they set up a White House in the back yard, and played President. This didn’t involve much of all except imagining that they inhabited that space.

And that imagination, for both my boy and my girl, can be the beginning. It’s the beginning of being involved, of believing that democracy matters, of understanding a wide range of public service.

But most of all, it’s the beginning of possibility.

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President Obama: The Slow Blog

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I realized a few days ago that it’s a little hard for me to believe that there is an Administration in the White House in which I actually believe.  I’ve been cynical and negative for so long that reversing that frame of mind takes conscious effort.

Ella expected decisive action, as did other kids. At the end of  Presdent Obama’s first full day in office, she asked, “Did he end the war?” To which I had to respond, no, it takes a long time to end a war, you can’t do it  in one day.

But while I have no doubt that decisive action will be made on this and other fronts,  I also have trouble believing that This Has All Come To Pass.

And then I wonder:  Is this the political equivalent of shock? Or post-traumatic stress syndrome?

When I hear President (!) Obama speak, I still have trouble believing his Presidency is real.  When I hear about the things he’s done right away, like signing Executive Orders to close Guantanamo, and CIA interrogation centers, and open up FOIA, and make service and citizenship a priority, and restore funding to international family planning groups, or his commitment to education, science and technology, or signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act 2009 I’m inspired with possibility just as I was during the campaign season.

Of course things are a mess right now. But they would be darker if I didn’t believe that President (!) Obama will address the domestic and international problems with intelligence and plans for action, and if I didn’t believe the Administration will continue to rally all of us to do the hard work we need to do to get back on track.  As a friend of mine recently posted on my FaceBook page:

We (Dems) have the President, but the remaining Republicans in congress continue to make it very difficult to move on and change the agenda. We must all continue to support Obama, in his effort to turn the country around..

So, day by day, I’ll keep pinching myself, and finding ways to be involved, and one day soon, I’ll take Obama’s Presidency (!) to be as natural and obvious as Ella already assumes it to be. And that’s one of the beautiful things, isn’t it? That our kids will grow up knowing not much besides President (!) Obama.  This, I think, is how the new order should be for the next generation.

For our Party, we framed our Shephard Fairley print and placed it over our mantle. Now, over a week later, it’s still above our fireplace, and we don’t really have any intention of taking it down.  Kory & I joke that we’re going to be like one of those families in the 1960s who kept a picture of JFK hanging in the living room, right next to the Pope.  There won’t be a picture of Pope Benedict in this house, but now I think our kids just might grow up wondering what the heck was with us, their silly Gen X parents, keeping that picture of Obama up, year after year after year.

And maybe we’ll say it was to remind us of something that we had forgotten for a long time, and wanted never to forget again.

In the Nation's Service

I got word a few days ago that my classmate from Princeton, Chris Lu, has been named Executive Director of Obama’s transition team.

I didn’t know Chris directly, although we were in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School together for about 30 seconds, until I decided to leave that prestigious program to major in English (largely because I figured out very quickly I didn’t want to be in politics). You can tell me if that was my smartest career move.

But I think it was clear to anyone on campus at the time that Chris Lu had a gift.  He was really smart, gracious, poised.  Princeton’s motto is “In the Nation’s Service” and Chris Lu has done that for very many years.  And I admit there’s something awesome and inspiring to know that a classmate is at center of this historical moment.  Ella, my 6-year-old, was duly impressed when I told her about Chris Lu, and in a strange way, the fact made the Obama administration more familiar to her, too–as if working in the White House is job, held by people like your parents.  Okay, much smarter & much more accomplished.  But you get the general idea.  It seems not such an impossible, distant achievement, divorced from the realm of everyday experience.

So, the question for this blog, and I think for all of us raising young children now, is: How do you raise civic-minded children?  Of course, they all won’t grow up to be Hilary or the Obamas or Martin Luther King or Chris Lu.  But I’d guess there are things we can all do to connect them to their world more forcefully and more responsibly, so that civic values are simply part of how they see the world.  So that they can feel as if democracy and their government will matter to them.

I’d wager that one way to start is by letting them build block signs.

Another is to show them that laws & democracy are interesting and vital & important to them. We might begin to teach them, in age appropriate ways, that they have a voice & can make a difference.  That change is possible in large ways as well as small.

So in honor of Chris Lu, who worked with Obama first as his legislative director, I offer a humble, age-appropriate beginning for school-age kids, from that a venerable cultural phenomenon of my childhood:


Let me know what you’re talking about in your house.

American Girls for Obama

On election night, I  got this email from my friend on the east coast whose 6-year-old daughter, Margot, constructed an excellent block sign, all by herself:

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My daughter Ella, also 6, promptly copied it:

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Margot, Ella, and Kirsten were very happy with the returns.

Shiny, Happy People

It’s not everyday that a friend from abroad congratulates you on your country’s Presidential election, but that’s exactly what happened when my very good friend, Claire, emailed from Dublin last week:

“Congrats also on the election – what a relief, all around the world, I think. Even my mum was delighted – it was the first thing we talked about on the morning of the 5th.”

And another friend reported a similar reaction from her travels down under, testifying quite literally to the fact that whole world was watching.

My children’s enthusiasm on that excellent night, while we watched the returns eating take-out from our favorite Mexican restaurant, resulted in the kind of exuberance one usually sees at a Dan Zanes concert. Finn jumped up and down on the couch shouting, “Go OBAMA! GO OBAMA!” & punching his fist in the air. Ella, always the counterpoint, chimed in with a few well-placed, “Down, McCain!” It was loud and crazy and perfectly appropriate to the momentous, anxiety-filled occasion of the night.

I don’t think I knew what the electoral college was until I was in high school, but there I was, explaining the peculiarities of the system to Ella (who now has the number 260 engrained in her psyche), for whom watching the returns was a decent little math lesson.

Certainly, the joy has been tempered by a number of things, which I’ll write about soon, but for now I note the significance that our own personal exuberance has a collective–even international-aspect.  It’s connected us once more to our government but also to the much larger world.

Which is the whole point.