From A Promised Land

At some basic level, I understood the absurdity of my vision, how wide the gap was between my grand ambitions and anything I was actually doing in my life. I was like a young Walter Mitty; a Don Quixote with no Sancho Panza.

This, too, can be found in my journal entries from that time, a pretty accurate chronicle of all my shortcomings. My preference for navel-gazing over action. A certain reserve, even shyness, tracing perhaps to my Hawaiian and Indonesian upbringing, but also the result of a deep self-consciousness. A sensitivity to rejection or looking stupid. Maybe even a fundamental laziness.

I took it upon myself to purge such softness with a regiment of self-improvement that I've never entirely shed. (Michelle and the girls point out that to this day I can't into a pool or the ocean without feeling compelled to swim laps. "Why don't you just wade?"

What great contest was I preparing for? Whatever it was, I knew I wasn't ready. That uncertainty, that self-doubt, kept me from settling too quickly on easy answers. I got into the habit of questioning my own assumptions, and this, I think, ultimately came in handy, not only because it prevented me from becoming insufferable, but because it inoculated me against the revolutionary formulas embraced by a lot of people on the left at the dawn of the Reagan era.

Life with me promised Michelle something else, those things that she saw she had missed as a child. Adventure. Travel. A breaking of constraints. Just as her roots in Chicago — her big, extended family, her common sense, her desire to be a good mom above all else — promised an anchor that I'd been missing for much of my youth. We didn't just love each other and make each other laugh and share the same basic values — there was symmetry there, the way we complemented each other. We could have each other's back, guard each other's blind spots. We could be a team.

Of course, that was another way of saying we were very different, in experience and in temperament. For Michelle, the road to the good life was narrow and full of hazards. Family was all you could count on, big risks weren't taken lightly, and outward success — a good job, a nice house — never made you feel ambivalent.

But there comes a point in the speech where I find my cadence. The crowd quiets rather than roars. It's the kind of moment I'd come to recognize in subsequent years, on certain magic nights. There's a physical feeling, a current of emotion that passes back and forth between you and the crowd, as if your lives and theirs are suddenly spliced together, like a movie reel, projecting backward and forward in time, and your voice creeps right up to the edge of cracking, because for an instant, you feel them deeply; you can see them whole. You've tapped into some collective spirit, a thing we all know and wish for — a sense of connection that overrides our differences and replaces them with a giant swell of possibility — and alike all things that matter most, you know the moment is fleeting and that soon the spell will be broken.