Ask ev'ry person if he's heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if he has not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
And tell it strong and clear if he has not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
I was born into the age of Camelot.
My family lived in little red ranch house on a quiet street in a small town where my dad drove a shiny car, my mother hung her pillbox hat, and Princess, our Poodle roamed the neighborhood unfettered by neither fence nor leash.
I know these things only through photo albums and family lore because when I was less than three months old an assassin's bullet would end Camelot. My only understanding of what it had truly meant to people comes from the threadbare recollections of countless TV documentaries, movies and magazine articles in which everybody invariably says they can remember exactly where they were when they heard the news.
I also have no memories of when they killed Martin Luther King, Jr. or Bobby Kennedy. I suppose they figured five-year-olds have enough problems without finding out that some of world has no use for other people's hope.
I was raised in the time of Vietnam. I remember asking what those numbers were on the TV news flashing in front of the battle footage, and being told that's how many soldiers had died in the war that day.
I grew up in the era of Watergate and Patty Hearst and Helter Skelter. In 1976, in honor of the bicentennial, Massachusetts let regular people paint the fire hydrants in any way they wanted. Some became spacemen, some were happy faces, and many found themselves proudly red white and blue. My sister took me to the voting booth that year when she voted for Jimmy Carter. A tiny glimmer of a Camelot that never panned out.
In high school we called our new president 'Ronald RayGun' and waited for Russia to lob the big one. I didn't actually believe President RayGun would go through with his promise to put a woman on the Supreme Court - but he did.
In senior year I walked with my friend Pete to the Middleboro Post Office on the day he had to register for the draft. I couldn't imagine Pete, who I'd known almost my whole life, having to go to war - let alone becoming one of those numbers on the TV screen - and offered to hide him in the trunk and drive him over the border to Canada if he needed me to. He laughed. And I was walking home from Pete's house when his sister shouted to me that someone had shot the president. I can still remember exactly where I was.
A year later, strolling through Boston's City Hall Plaza, a man at a desk way out in the middle of that brick-covered wasteland called over and asked if I was registered to vote. Um, no. Would I like to be? Yeah. But is it hard? Turns out it was easy.
The first person I ever voted for was a black man. That's not the reason I voted for him, but I thought it was pretty cool anyway. Like I wasn't just voting for someone - I was making a difference - showing the old white guys they couldn't get my vote just because they were old white guys. Most of my friends, who weren't registered, came out with me to the polls and we celebrated because I had the keys to the world. I was an American and I could vote. The TV news was there collecting interviews, but I didn't stop to chat. I just wanted to exercise my vote. It was an exciting moment - even though my candidate was defeated in the end.
The first time I could vote for president I voted for Mondale - but I was really voting for Geraldine Ferrarro. I was certain any president who would make a woman his running mate wouldn't think twice about nominating more of them to the Supreme court. Yet, despite wearing a Mondale/Ferraro T-shirt and my hopes on my sleeve, the pair were defeated so soundly that no Presidential candidate considered running with a woman again for a long, long time.
Meanwhile, President RayGun pulled through. He cut a dashing figure, strong and fearless and larger than life, unnerving the Russians and the rest of the world, marketing his own brand of Camelot to some, while others watched our cities fill with homeless - the veterans, the working poor and the mentally ill. Sandra Day O'Connor held her own in the boys club even as Reagan added more boys - and oddly turned out not as conservative as a she was supposed to be.
And, while waiting for a brighter economy to trickle down to me I worked three jobs and barely made the rent. I had exactly $10.00 left to spend on groceries for me and the cat at the end of each week.
Elsewhere greed, apparently, was good. Hair was big and shoulders were padded. But I was too busy to notice. On TV the Berlin wall tumbled, the 'Mother of all Battles' proved short and successful, and President Bush saw his popularity soar. But in night school my economics professor made a bet with the class that Bush wouldn't see re-election. "It's the economy, stupid..." he said with a smile. "You'll see." Impossible. No one believed it for a moment - but he won that bet. And I never forgot that.
I liked Bush, but in the end I voted for Bill Clinton and was inspired enough to sit, on a work night, through an endless Fleetwood Mac victory speech intended to launch another American age of Camelot. It didn't, quite, but I was hopeful. Then, when he appointed the second woman to the Supreme Court, and I was ecstatic. Just three more to go, Bill.
By baby steps my life improved. My children were born, I built a house. Seinfeld made us laugh during breaks from the grindstone. Big hair and puffy shoulders became artifacts of the past, while partisan fighting put hope on hold.
Princess Diana died. John-John followed. Camelot faded. It seemed no one wanted to 'Think about Tomorrow' when they could salivate over a good sex scandal. I remember a press secretary, barraged by reporters seeking answers about a blue dress, asked sarcastically if anyone would like to ask a question about children's health care. No one did. So much for Camelot.
On a clear September morning, while my 2 year old played with his blocks in the living room I watched the world change forever from my sofa. My world become hypervigilent, fearful, impatient, angry. The new administration took us to one war and then another. They didn't flash the number of war dead over battle footage on the TV screen any more. Maybe they should, I thought.
In 2004 I watched a man with the unlikely name Barak Obama speak at the Democratic convention. It was the closest thing to Camelot I'd ever really felt. I stood and cheered and hoped for the future even though the two party system had put two more white guys on the ballot again. Strangely enough, they didn't seem that old anymore.
Our nation settled into a rhythm of debt and war, while our global reputation soured, greed came home to roost and Sandra Day O'Connor retired from the Supreme Court. The second President Bush filled both her empty seat and Rehnquist's, with men. Even Sandra did not seem amused. One step forward, two steps back.
In the meantime I wondered if young men still had to go to the post office to register for the draft. I wondered if my son would have to. Or my daughter.
In 2006 I found myself with the choice of voting for either a black person or a woman for Governor - I choice I'd waited a lifetime to even seem possible. Which was only made more frustrating by uninspiring choices. Politics as usual. Empty air. Empty promises. My son came with me into the voting booth. "Who're you voting for mom?" he wanted to know. I replied, "Mommy's voting her conscience today, honey" and colored in the circle next to neither of their names.
Then came the casino. An education to say the least in political maneuvers and motivations and in greed and good intentions. Yet never before had I felt so personally capable of making the world a better place. Instead of watching it play out on the TV screen, this time I threw myself into it. A year into the fight I noticed a woman on the subway wearing an Obama button. I envied her to feel so inspired to wear that button. I just felt cynical. I didn't believe in Camelot anymore. I believed in hard work and good hearts.
This week I walked into the voting booth and picked up the sharpie without the slightest idea of who I was voting for. I'm living Martin Luther King's dream of being able to judge a man not on the color of his skin, but on the content of his character. But what if I'm not crazy about either character?
Obama had ceased inspiring me with his economic plan and his choice of a running mate. His friendship with Deval Patrick didn't help. As for his pastor - when I was 12 I was attending mass with my mother when the Priest began making disparaging comments about Jewish people - and I never went back. Tell me why can a 12 year old distinguish between dogma and bigotry but a middle aged Presidential candidate cannot.
Years ago McCain had inspired me with his war record, self sacrifice and reputation for going against the grain - but kept losing me with his last minute reputation for flipping. During the campaign I found his words encouraging, as well as his faith in a working mother of five as his running mate. But his health plan and voting record left me cold.
Everyone left me cold. Where was my Camelot? Where was my inspiration and hope? I scanned the other names on the ballot. Dave Flynn and Marc Pacheco running unopposed again. Again. Is it any wonder we find ourselves being lead on the South Shore by a cadre of dinosaurs who think gambling is our economic salvation?
And what of my dream that someday we will judge a woman not by the color of her pantsuit but by the content of her character? How long is it going to take for that dream to come true? Judging by this past election and the current make-up of the Supreme Court, I'd advise you not to hold your breath.
Perhaps I should take my friend Carl's advice and use the write-in spot. Who was it he suggested? Moe Howard? Nuck Nuck Nuck.
For a few moments the sharpie hovered above Ralph Nader and the Independents - until I realized I had no idea of how they stood on predatory gambling.
And so, as I stood there searching the ballot for hope, the strangest thing happened. My eyes started filling up with tears. And I realized how far had I come from that young girl who couldn't wait to vote in her first election - to the one who stood here now looking for a reason to color in the little circle. Cynical couldn't describe it. Cynical and disgusted, maybe.
Maybe if it hadn't been for all those McCain/Palin Obama/Biden bumper stickers and buttons and signs. I wish I could get worked up over someone. I wish I could be like Oprah and put all that faith in one person. But I can't.
And it's not like I would have wanted to put all faith in Hilary or Sarah either. I guess I just wanted see someone like Sandra Day O'Connor on that ballot - would that be so hard? Someone smart and wise and moderate, and a bit of a maverick in her own quiet way. I mean, can't either party get Sandra Day O'Connor on the phone and get her ready for 2012??
So, I stood there in the booth thinking about writing Sandra Day O'Connor's name in when my thoughts turned, as they often do, to my kids. We'd followed the campaign and talked about the candidates together. I remembered that my kids had both voted in their school elections for Obama. (Well, okay, my son was going to but didn't because at the last minute someone spread a rumor that Obama was going to make Summer Vacation only a week long - which I told him wasn't true.)
And so, in the end, I gave Camelot to my kids. I hope they enjoy it. I hope they remember it and it inspires them their whole lives.
I wasn't using it anyway.
When I got home they asked me how I voted, and cheered. When they came downstairs the next morning and heard the news they clapped and smiled and said it was a great day. It was a great and emotional day for many people and I was trully happy for them.
As I poured my morning coffee the reporter on TV was interviewing a black man who was saying that, yesterday, he couldn't look his son in the eye and tell him honestly that he could be anything he wanted to be. But today was different, he said. Today he could look him in the eye and tell him truthfully that in America, you can do anything. You can be anything.
I stirred some milk into my mug and wondered, "But tomorrow, what will you tell your daughter?"