“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.” — President Barack Obama, Inaugural Address

My day on the National Mall today was likely no different than the rest of the million or so non-ticket holders who braved the cold and the crowds for a snatch of history. I was carried, several times, by the wave and wavelets of humanity, until I was deposited on a patch of meager real estate by a tree to the side of the Washington Monument, where I decided to stay put for the two hours leading up to the Big Event. I felt, more than a few times, like one of those lemmings in Sting’s Chinese Metal Boxes, and wondered, somewhat irritatingly, that if by just being there, I was contributing to what seemed at moments to be leading to a coronation.

But then there were the Good Vibes. Up until now I had never been to a mass political gathering in Washington that wasn’t vitriolic and ready to explode. Today even the police presence, at least where I was, seemed more mellowed. People were saying excuse me and I’m sorry as their bag snagged your coat or they cut in front of you to keep up with a friend in the crush. Just before the outgoing President Bush was announced, a hilarious black woman who had been cracking jokes nonstop paused to say, you know, he’s just going to get booed. It’ll be bad. They shouldn’t even announce his name — as though the anger had become a burden and was no fun anymore. At least today. She booed pretty loud when W came out anyway, but her point was taken.

There were reverent ears during Aretha Franklin and a polite hush for Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, and even patience for Sen. Dianne Feinstein. By the time the Big Oath came, I really felt what I can only describe as mass optimism, a collective embrace of renewal or even redemption (which, as Daniel incisively points out, might have been too close to worship for comfort). But for a moment — it clicked.

But then, The Speech. The pressing crowd so rapt a few moments before, morphed into a river, with a sudden and steady current of supposed devotees of Hope and Change determined to split. Like now. The women behind me began to hiss, not now, the man is talking, stop and listen. I looked up, there was a ribbon of zombies, as though they had been deposited there on the knoll by forces greater then themselves and now were unsure where they were or why they were supposed to be there. Blank faces looking for an exit. Interspersed were mouthy, exercised people towing miserable children, elbowing their way through, their backs to the faithful Jumbotron and the speech, and the man they supposedly worked so hard and camped out so long to see. It were as though an inner secretary was telling them they were released from civic duty after the swearing-in, and anything after wouldn’t be clocked on the timecard anyway.

Perhaps I am being too harsh, but I wondered then about what the new President was saying, about the new era of responsibility, investing personally — and not grudgingly — in the nation’s problems so that we all might benefit from the solutions; approaching this as a patriotic duty, and above all, knowing it won’t come easy. I looked at the annoyed expressions of those absolutely determined to leave, and the dispassionate, incurious stares of those following behind obediently. And I think, are we really up for the task? Do enough of us comprehend or even care for what goes on beyond our own real estate? Maybe instead of placing all of our Hope in one man, we make rising to the occasion a mission, and a priority, because if we don’t, and we continue to become a nation of zombies, we are truly finished.