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.