I sat in the basement Thursday night, the remote control in my lap, fidgeting as I watched the cable news pundits interrupt the speakers at the Democratic National Convention to tell us the same things they had been telling us all week. Even though the contests had been over for weeks, it was as if it was a primary night, with me waiting for Barack Obama’s results to come in.
I’d seen the stock photos of Invesco Field in Denver for the past few weeks. Had heard all the talk, both for and against the idea of Obama using such a massive setting to give his acceptance speech. But it wasn’t until I turned on the TV when I got home and saw all the people milling around the field that I began to get a true sense of the enormity of the space.
I couldn’t sit still. It was nowhere near ten o’clock.
So I pushed the RECORD button. Put on some jeans and my Obama ’08 shirt. Clicked aimlessly on a few internet sites. Sharpened my hedge clippers. Opened a beer. Finally, I went outside with a Perdomo maduro, clipped the end of it, and fired up my triple flame torch.
Odd images from the primary season came back to me as I puffed – the mole at the base of Obama’s left nostril that seemed to grow larger whenever he stared at the camera, the heightened pitch of his voice whenever he came to the “this is the moment, this is the time” part of his stump speech, the strained smile he was always able to muster when congratulating his opponent on a victory – these were some of the many things I had come to know about Barack Obama over the last eight months.
He wouldn’t be pacing right now, I said to myself. He will be practicing the delivery of this speech the way Tiger Woods works on his putting before the final round of a golf tournament, reeling off the phrases of his big speech the way Tiger’s practice putts roll, one after another, straight into the cup.
After that thought, the last half of the cigar is enjoyable. I begin to think of my more politically aware buddies – one in Chattanooga, and one who lives two miles away. My buddy in Chattanooga is the kind of political junkie who is apt to answer his phone “I’m in the stadium! Did you see me? I’m four rows behind the Clintons.” But today he is in Tennessee. There is so much to say, we could talk for hours, but tonight…tonight is for listening. We will catch up later.
My buddy here answered his home phone on the first ring. “Yo, man,” he said, a greeting that was out of character for him. “R. says it must be you calling.” I’d known him since the first day of college, twenty five years ago. We had contemplated going to the Million Man March together. Watched the verdict of the O.J. trial being read together. Become exasperated over the “hanging chads” together. Commiserated over the September 11th tragedies together.
“What are you doing? Eisenhower’s daughter is on now.”
“Finishing a cigar.”
“Maybe I’ll come over later and smoke one with you. After the speech.”
When Barack Obama stepped out onto the stage, you could feel the tension in the air release all the way from Denver. Maybe it was the makeup, maybe it was the sleep he was finally getting, maybe it was the knowledge that he was finally in there – whatever it was, it was making him look like new money. His eyes were different, with a harder edged glint in them, exuding an aggressive confidence that almost matched the feeling I had in my chest.
The rope-a-dope was over.
There was no woodenness, no air of detachment, no non-threatening penitence – this was the genuine article, the electric half of the Obama personality he had been keeping under wraps this last eighteen months.
I felt the same way my father and his friends must have felt when they were watching Muhammad Ali fight – like they were watching themselves.
I became the most active listener in the history of listening for the next 45 minutes, listening with my ears, with my eyes, with the tips of my fingers, with the tips of my toes – if there was an Olympic gold medal for active listening, I would have been a contender.
Transform is not a big enough word for what we all saw last night – “transmogrified” is a more accurate way to describe the metamorphosis from the vague, idealistic version of Barack Obama into a forceful, insistent proponent of his message of change.
My buddy showed up after the speech, a fresh batch of cigars in hand. We clasped each other, the way Obama clasped Biden after the speech, and just looked each other in the eye, the word “unbelievable” written all over our faces.
We sat just outside the basement, watching the Republican response to Barack Obama’s acceptance speech on the big screen through the French doors. “What do you think the Republicans are gonna do now?” he said.
“There’s nothing left,” I said. “Rev. Wright, the flag pin, the muslim thing…you know they’re looking, but what else could there be to find?”
The talk of politics gave way to a moment of personal introspection. “Obama has done all this…he’s done all this, from state senate to D.C. to the White House in four years,” my buddy said. “When you think about, you have to ask yourself – what am I doing?”
My buddy can be considered a success by almost any measure. He has accomplished a lot in his legal career, with a burgeoning practice and a great family. But now, with the advent of this new height that has been reached in our society by a man only four years older than him, who shares his same brown skin, it looks like he is about to raise the bar for himself another couple of notches.
I have been silent as my buddy mused, for I am wrestling with transitioning from one industry to another, a process which causes you to have to think more critically about the choices you’ve made, the mistakes you’ve made, the opportunities you’ve turned away. But I am not despairing, because I have made a commitment to raise my own bar a few notches, to look up, not down, and to more fully embrace the new direction my life is about to take.
I would imagine that similar scenes played out in backyards and patios and decks and driveways and stoops around the country, other brown skinned men from all walks of live who saw a little bit of themselves in the fiery oratory of Barack Obama.
A rising tide, they say, lifts all boats.