On “President”

This is a post about President. Not about any particular individual occupying a particular presidential office, but about President, the idea and aspiration. The thing you once thought you might be one day (at least if you were lucky enough to ever be told you should dream so big–or at least before you learned you shouldn’t).

The first presidential election I remember was Bush v Gore 2000. I got a Kids Voting ballot with pictures of all the candidates, and awarded each of my empty votes to whichever guy I thought had the better headshot. Sometimes it was hard because they kind of looked the same. For the record, I voted for Gore. (In retrospect, I stand by my decision but not my reasons.)

I asked my mom if girls were allowed to be presidents. I learned that they were, but none of them had yet. Like many ambitious little girls first hearing this news, I was less concerned with why this was the case than I was with beating out any other ambitious girls to the “first” spot. (In retrospect, I realize that being the first anything is terribly overrated if you’re the only.)

The people counting the votes needed extra time, my parents informed me, as they watched the news with anticipation. I thought that made sense, because counting that high must be really hard. I later heard that that the guy who got the most votes didn’t get to be president. I thought that might kind of be nice for him, because now he could brag about winning without having to be in charge of everyone. (In retrospect, he sure did.)

Being president sounded like a lot of pressure–people always seemed angry at presidents–so I thought I might aim for vice president instead. I checked that no girls had been vice president either, so I could still be first at something. Thinking realistically, I decided that I would start my career being vice president of small countries, then incrementally work my way up to bigger ones. (In retrospect, that plan could have used some refinement.)

At my neighbor’s birthday party that week, his know-it-all older brother offered a piece of candy to whoever could answer the question “Who was the first president?” He proceeded to inform that me and the three other people who blurted out “George Washington” that we were wrong–George was the first president of the US, but not the world. He didn’t know the name of the actual first president, but insisted that it was someone else. (In retrospect, maybe he didn’t know it all.)

(Today I Googled “first president in the world. The ambiguous definition of “president” across languages and systems of government leaves no clear answer. Possibly Filippo Antonio Pasquale di Paoli, President of the Corsican Republic in 1755. His republic didn’t work out, but at least he was first at something.)

My mom told me that I couldn’t be president of Lebanon because I wasn’t the right religion. I wasn’t quite sure what religion I was, but “Deputy Speaker of Parliament” sounded less cool, so I immediately became a firm opponent of sectarianism. (In retrospect, I had a point, but Deputy Speakers of Parliament can also be cool.)

The next election season, I learned about write-in candidates. I asked my parents if they would vote for me, and was kind of offended that they said no. Unfortunately, they had other plans for positions like “mayor” and “senator,” but eventually agreed to write me in for soil commissioner. (In retrospect, I apologize for trivializing the soil commissioner race. Soil commissioners are as important as presidents.)

(What kind of person would want to be a president anyway?)

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The Case Against Dreams

Since graduation, people have increasingly been asking me what my dream jobs, dream companies, and dreams for the future are. Which is leading me to realize that I no longer have any. And I say that in the most optimistic way possible.

Dreams are made of ideas alone, floating in a weightless world with no bodies to bump up against them and shake them off course. So they go in straight lines, mostly just up.

But try to follow a dream in a world of matter, and things get far more twisted. You’ll hit walls and laws and ceilings, and have to recalculate your route to dodge, climb, or break them. When your ideas spill onto the scene and cause reactions, they’ll fizzle and change colors and explode, until you can barely recognize what you started with. You’ll collect dirt and leave a trail of elaborate curlicues as you spin your way into places you never planned to see.

And at some point, you’re likely to find that you and the dream have left each other’s sights. You might scan your surroundings, looking for another nearby dream to start your next game of obstacle-tag. It’s a game that can keep you moving for a lifetime, if that’s your thing.

Lately though, I’ve become more inclined to let those naked ideas float by as I turn my sights downward for inspiration, following the landscape of reality itself.

People say that dreams are about imagination, but when I listen to most of their dreams, the scope of possibilities is far more square and narrow than anything reality could devise. In those dreams, you know that the good guys win, and the girl marries the boy and stays that way, and success comes in windfalls and stays that way, and matter is different from energy and stays that way, and everything happens for a reason.

Some people get so caught up in those limited dream-worlds that their imaginations shrink to that scope. And with imaginations so narrow, they can’t envision the full range of reality, even as it stands right in front of them.

If you want your brain to buzz with things you never dreamed possible, try really exploring reality. Run your fingers into the crevices you used to step over, and trace the wrinkled pathways all the way out to the fringes. Look close at the frayed and jagged edges. (Truth be told, it’s all rather broken and messed-up, but so are most things worth spending time with. So are most things I love.) Now stand on the edges, and look at it from far away.

Once, I dreamed I could just spread my arms and fly. So I started running and jumping and falling and building to try and get up there. Until I was just running and jumping and falling and building to get somewhereSo far, that has been remarkably more interesting.

just say no

Okay, this is a bit extreme.