Sasha, left, and Malia Obama take a photo of themselves on a cellphone during… (Joe Klamar, AFP / Getty Images )
I'm just back from Washington, after a weeklong trip to cover the inaugural festivities.
And by cover, I mean walking for miles in bone-chilling cold and waiting for hours with hundreds of thousands of strangers to watch the proceedings on giant video screens.
Inauguration morning may have looked good on TV. The pomp, the crowds, the soaring rhetoric, the patriotic songs.
In real life, it involved rising before dawn to navigate barricaded streets with confused crowds given faulty directions by clueless volunteers and out-of-town police. I wound up so far back in the National Mall crowd I could barely hear or see.
I had barely defrosted from the Inaugural Parade — a two-hour wait for a 10-second glimpse of the commander-in-chief — when it was time to set out for the Inaugural Ball.
That too was not what you might think.
Barricades and checkpoints made it a three-mile walk from my hotel — in heels, at 26 degrees — to the Convention Center. There was no orchestra, no gourmet food, no carpet or chandeliers. Just a concrete cavern where 30,000 people in fancy clothes munched on pretzels and corn nuts, and waited in long lines for tickets to buy $10 mixed drinks.
If you timed it right and were situated to see over the crowd and sea of cellphone cameras, you might have been able to catch the First Couple's dance on the fuzzy ballroom Jumbotron.
But at least I knew enough to prepare better this time around.
Four years ago, I braved the cold in a strapless dress, open-toed shoes and a shawl that covered my shoulders. I nearly froze waiting in line with the mink-coated ladies for cabs that ran out before my turn came.
This time, I wore a big coat, suede boots and a knit cap so warm that I didn't mind that it made a mess of my hair.
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by this year's proletariat style. There was a fairy-tale dimension to the celebration last time. But nothing is as magical the second time around.
Four years ago, there were almost 2 million people celebrating Barack Obama's inauguration on the National Mall.
This time, the crowd was less than half that size. Beyoncé seemed to get the biggest applause. The president hadn't even finished his speech before folks began streaming out.
Last time, there were dozens of "official" balls, with lavish buffets and photo stands where guests could pose for keepsakes in front of the presidential seal. The crowd was heavy with big names, big donors and politicos. It had the feel of a grown-up senior prom.
By comparison, Monday night's bash made a mockery of the whole ball concept. Call it a reception, maybe. Or an open house. It had the vibe — with a DJ blaring Michael Jackson songs — of a high-spirited stadium concert.
But the crowd didn't seem to mind.
I met an old black woman in a wheelchair, who shared her memories of the March on Washington from 50 years ago. And a multi-generational family from Ecuador, mom trying to keep tabs on her restless son while translating our chat for grandma.
When the music was good, I made my way through throngs of gay revelers celebrating on the dance floor. A lesbian couple drew me into their group, and a giddy young woman in froufrou pink planted a kiss on my cheek.
I could analyze the inaugural events for signs of how time has passed and how things have changed.
But the moment that struck and stays with me is simple and devoid of political import:
I'm shivering with the crowd on the National Mall, peering at the jumbo screen. We've dutifully applauded the procession of politicians and dignitaries.
Then Malia and Sasha appear, click-clacking down the Capitol stairs, eyes on their feet so they don't trip. Cheers rise and I hear scattered calls:
"The girls!" from the elderly women next to me. "The girls!" from the flag-waving troupe of pre-teens aiming cellphones at the jumbo screen.
The girls. It's what I've always called my daughters — and still do, though the youngest of the three is now 22. It's a phrase that freezes them in place, binds sisters into a unit.
The Obama daughters are clearly outgrowing the shorthand.
Sasha is no longer the little kid who clings to Daddy when she's tired; she's a wisecracking 11-year-old with a budding sense of style. And Malia has finessed the awkward passage into adolescence, fashion-model pretty at 14, with her mother's presence and her father's smile.
We're watching them grow up in the White House; and for all the trappings of privilege, they seem so ordinary, so natural, so unimpressed with it all.
The girls found the week's festivities, at times, as boring as I did. They diddled with their cellphones, made faces into their cameras. Malia texted. Sasha yawned.
They could have been my daughters, or yours. We've embraced them as ours. They connect us to this president in a way that can't be measured by politics or experienced at a ball.
The learning curve of a president is not much different, in some ways, from the learning curve of a father. Teenagers can be as intractable as John Boehner or Mitch McConnell.
Obama lamented to reporters this month that his daughters aren't so keen anymore about having him around. I felt a twinge of sympathy; there are limits to his power.