Still Looking for “Wow!”

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – It’s probably a combination of old age and experience that dries up the “Wow!” within us. We’ve seen so much – Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Tetons, Denali, East Village, Paris – and been, during our lives, so often stymied and disappointed that, even playing solitaire, we don’t rejoice until the last card is down. The old Norse, fatalists if ever there were any, shared this point of view: “Call no day good till the sun has set; call no wife good till she has been buried…” And at the moment, and for who knows how long, walking about in masks and keeping a couple of meters between ourselves and other people, it’s easy not to be giddy about life. How long’s it been since you’ve jumped up and clicked your heels together?

So it was that when a good friend recently recommended I read a book she’d just finished and still had some library time, I kind of did an inward “Blech.” Not only do I have a long-ingrained and reflexive negative response to recommended (or assigned) reading; this was bound to be a feel-good potboiler: Michelle Obama’s “Becoming,” an autobiographical account of her life from a small upstairs apartment in South Chicago to her years in the White House. Blech! But it had a sticker on the cover – Bestseller – and I’ve discovered, during the same years that I’ve often found disappointing, that “best-selling” almost always means good reading. So, back in the office, with the overhead fan keeping the hot air moving and Kiki snoozing between my knees, I gave her a try.

(First reaction: carping over her frequent use of “would” to describe what she and her family did – “Dad would take us in the Buick…” I used to get docked for that in English class.)

But she soon charmed me with her description of a feisty little black girl who insisted that a reluctant teacher give her a stand-up do-over of a competitive spelling quiz; her father’s devotion to his often-waxed Buick Electra “Deuce-and-a-Quarter;” her mother’s teaching her to read before she started school; and the early hints of her awareness of the world of white folks.

Her parents clearly put everything they could into their kids’ success, and it showed. Michelle’s brother, Craig, a few years older, went to Princeton, where he starred on the basketball team. A Princeton interviewer, viewing Michelle’s records and interests, suggested Princeton was perhaps not a good fit. The woman had no way of knowing the effect this would have. The candidate pulled out all the stops and called in all the favors she could and, shortly afterward, matriculated at Princeton.

She did well, went to Harvard Law, and expected that after graduating she’d pass the bar, join a law firm, and eventually make partner. But then, not quite by chance – law firms were bastions of white privilege – she was asked to mentor a young black Harvard law student with a weird name whose gifts were obvious, even in a brief interview. In a perfect illustration of the old saw that opposites attract, the laid-back young law student and the tall, neat, tucked-in young attorney shortly became inextricably involved. He’d been elected President of the Harvard Law Review, so their time together was rationed. But after he graduated, they coinhabited her family’s old upstairs apartment (now much better furnished, with the obligatory Saab just outside), argued about the necessity of marriage, and finally wed.

It’s been a truism forever: Any kid who wants to become President, can. Some wags claim that the current chief executive is living proof of that. But Barack, as she calls him, had special gifts for absorbing information, organizing it, and conveying it clearly and powerfully. He could transform a church basement full of young minority mothers with legitimate grievances into an organized group focused on redressing them. Impatient with the plodding pace of state senate, he rose to become a US senator from Illinois, and after a couple of years of watching and chafing, ran for, and won, the Presidency. Michelle reflects upon the fact of having “first” and “black” as part of your description, as well as the motto hanging over any black person who wants to succeed in America: You’ve got to be twice as good to get half as far.

Obama had campaigned on a promise of change. But he was dogged by the same old, same old: rumors that he had been born in Kenya – his birth certificate, when he produced it, was pooh-poohed as “fake” – was a closet Muslim who’d been sworn in on a Koran, and was married to a man. The hate persists. Just today on the internet appeared: “I feel sick about these two Fake Daughters being around these Two Pedofiles [sic] Criminals for 8 years!!! OMG!!! What these Girls watched, seen and heard at Our WHITEHOUSE that Obama and Big Mike were doing!!!! Turns my stomach!!!” The hate just doesn’t seem to go away.

The Newtown massacre occurred on the Obamas’ watch, and during the second term, Dylann Roof, a crazed young white supremacist, shot and killed nine black prayer group members, shouting, “I have to do this, because you rape our women and you’re taking over our country!”

It would be easy – very easy in the current atmosphere – to feel that human nature will never change, and that hate and spite and suspicion will go on as long as we do. But, as Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela both observed, change can take a lifetime, or longer. And I’ll never forget the video of an old man, one among the 200,000 celebrants in Grant Park, Chicago, on the night of Obama’s victory. “I knew this was going to happen someday,” he sobbed, tears running down his lined face, “but I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime.” I think of him often, especially in these increasingly frantic few months before November, when many things we’ve thought permanent, and have counted on, are being dismantled; when my fellow Americans seem to have lost the strength and will and concern for each other that have saved us in the past, and instead are going at each other like elementary schoolyard bullies. Like that old man, I pray to see something – anything, almost – that will give us a reason to go on working in this vineyard: hope for change that will squeeze out of me one more “Wow!” before I have to go.