Friday, July 29, 2011

Two years

C&O Canal in Georgetown
My transition from life in Washington State to my life in Washington D.C. took place over a few crazy weeks of weddings, packing, and several cross-country flights roughly two years ago. I don't really have an anniversary date, though I started work on August 2nd, which I only know because this is now the date that determines all sorts of fun things like promotions and retirement eligibility.

Two years is about the amount of time that I spend anywhere before I start to get restless. In truth, it is the upper limit. Since graduating high school and heading off to college, my longest period of residence was those 4 years of undergrad. Though it can hardly be called settled since I was constantly changing dorms, houses, jobs, and taking off for short-term study abroad trips or impromptu Thanksgivings spent in foreign countries. The odd thing is that my most stable address over the past 12 years has been my tin-roofed shack in Blue Creek, Belize, where I happily spent a solid 24 months in a single 12' x 18' room.


So far my two years here in DC have involved 3 different addresses, with my current abode offering plenty of promise as a great place to settle down for a few years. That is, if I can manage to stay in one city/country for that amount of time. So even as a I start to get restless and plot my next grand adventure, I will remain grateful to have landed here in D.C., where friends, work, and home are all extremely inspiring. So the question is, where will I be in two more years??

...and now. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

We are all Norwegians

"Ja, Vi Elsker dette Landet"
The Norwegian Ambassador and his wife on May 17, 2011 at the Embassy.
(I was honored to be invited as a guest and friend of the Norwegian community here in D.C. )

Last Friday the world turned its eyes to Norway as it experienced truly its most tragic day. I followed the events, from the first curious "what was that noise?" posted on an Oslo friend's facebook page to the real time twitter accounts that scooped the mainstream international press by what seemed like hours. My heart broke as the news unfolded.

Being brought up in the American-Scandinavian traditions of the Lutheran Church, Norway had always existed in a very Garrison Keillor "homeland" sort of way. But I really came to know Norway during my freshman year of college. The luck of dorm assignments landed me on a floor with half a dozen Norwegian guys who had traveled traveled from their rural town in Norway to a very special little school in the exotic local of Tacoma, WA. My best friends and I bonded over our attempts to befriend/impress these foreigners, and in the process made great friends and discovered a country that was more than lutefisk and Ole and Lena jokes. We started by learning the language, which led to discovering the culture, which then opened up a perspective on the world that was totally different from anything I had studied or experienced prior. I learned about Norway's role brokering international peace agreements, their leadership in addressing global environmental issues, and their foresight in using their wealth of oil and gas for the future good of their people.

My interest in international affairs and protection of the environment was inspired by studying Norway, and after a decade of travel, work, and life, my current job allows me to continue to be inspired by Norway's progressive and amazingly broad perspective. So it was from this deeply personal, if not always rational, connection to the small and far-away land of my great-grandparents that I experienced last Friday's events. While horror and grief pervaded reaction across the globe, what struck me was the consistently loving and non-judgmental thoughts that were coming from my Norwegian friends. Many conclusions were drawn on many sides by the media, but I saw again and again messages urging everyone around the world not to place blame on one group/religion. Emphasizing that this was a tragedy and we should be doing nothing but supporting one another. And they were so right. It was a humble reminder of basic humanity, since I, being a product of my environment, had also ventured into blaming mode. An article in the New York Times today captured this sentiment much better than I ever could.

The President of my alma matter (and someone I personally look up to), Dr. Loren Anderson, delivered moving remarks at a service in Seattle this past weekend. He reminded us that, "we are all Norwegians tonight because we are resolved to stand our ground and to stand it together, to help one another live through our grief and anguish, to reflect and learn from our experience, and through it all to move forward once again, and to do so with a more nuanced and even deeper sense of hope and possibility about the future." So true and so important. So I am Norwegian, not just last Friday, but always, because I value the history of my family, the home of friends, and the values of a country that seeks to forgive and love first.

Note: This is my second post in a row where I've stolen the title, but I figured that the source of inspiration in this case in particular wouldn't mind.

Monday, July 25, 2011

"Separating The Value of Public Service From The Politics"

The root of why I decided to take up writing (publicly) again was my belief in the value of public service, that maybe, just maybe, I might have some insights worthy of sharing from my day to day slog as a Federal employee. While surely not as exciting or as inspirational as some of my more memorable writings as a Peace Corps volunteer (such as this one or this one), life in the hallowed halls of government is equally as important. 

Not a whole lot happening in Washington, D.C. right now

But, it's a tough time to be a in any sort of public service right now, not just in Washington, but across the country. Recognizing this, a major personality in the Federal hierarchy recently published a commentary that perfectly captures the upside of why I am here in D.C., while expressing many of the same frustrations I feel in my day to day work. Admiral Thad Allen, former Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard and leader of the federal response to both Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill, wrote this essay through the Partnership for Public Service In it, Admiral Allen makes the important point that, "In the current political climate and discourse over the national debt, we have done a poor job of distinguishing between the need for fiscal responsibility and the value of public service, which is enduring."

I agree with Admiral Allen, and having met him in person, I know that he does not spend his words or his time  lightly. He quotes the ultimate service oriented idol, President John F. Kennedy, as saying, "The success of this government, and thus the success of our nation, depends in the last analysis upon the quality of our career services."  It is in crafting those "last analysis" that I find my passion and my purpose. When I am working to balance protection of sensitive Arctic environments alongside economic interests or when I was working in support of international efforts on the ozone layer, the politics of Capitol Hill are/were not even a concern. But, Capitol Hill ultimate holds the power to make the work I do possible, by holding the rule book and the check book.

So now, a difficult discussion is taking place between Congressional leaders on both sides aisle and the White House about debt, spending, and tax policy ideology. Meanwhile, Federal employees continue to show up for work and commit the same level of energy that they do everyday (unless of course you work for the FAA, in which case the fight in Congress is directly affecting your ability to do your job right now). Rather than being pointed to as the problem in Washington, it would be very nice if our leaders recognized the hard work and dedication of its public servants.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Summer in the District

In terms of beautiful weather, scenery, and long days of sunshine, I would be crazy to choose summer in D.C. over the Pacific Northwest. Nothing tops a perfectly mild day wandering around Seattle or a weekend spent on the lakes of Northern Idaho with the family. But D.C. has a whole unique culture that comes along with the sweltering days that I am just now beginning to fully appreciate. Here are a few of my favorite D.C. summer things.

Yes, it's gorgeous, but D.C. has some stuff to offer too

The dress code. Most people would find the fact that DC residents insist on wearing suits and jackets when the heat index reaches 112 (as it did today) crazy. I find it endearing, cute even. I was walking to a meeting across town and passed the back gates to the White House, where visitors to the West Wing come and go, and there were was nothing but suits and ties. Me, I was carrying my jacket in a breezy sleeveless dress and felt bad for those guys, but there was something insanely admirable in maintaining formalities in the face of oppressing heat.

Interns. I (sometimes) wish that it had occurred to me to spend a summer in DC filing papers, making copies, or doing whatever else it is that DC interns do. They get to experience the ins and outs of this town without any of the responsibilities that come with an actual salary.  There are plenty of other older working folks like me who are fascinated by/secretly jealous of the interns, devoting blogs and twitter feeds to all the silly things that they do in and out of the office. Most would never admit it, but come fall when the interns return to their ivy covered dorms we all are a little sad to lose our youthful office mates and sources of interesting gossip.

Food trucks. Due to some mundane change in D.C. regulations and the rise of twitter, the last year has seen a marked increase in the number of food trucks. Though these mobile establishments can be enjoyed year round, the quest for all things hip and the brief escape from A/C create prime food truck conditions. Each day, legions of desk-bound feds dutifully check the live online map in hopes that their favorite truck will be visiting their quadrant of the District that day. Several trucks have taken to livening up our dreary lives with festive picnic blankets, music, and costume-clad servers. I realize that many cities, such as Portland or NYC, have their own cadre of food trucks, but I can assure all that no group of people appreciate a good korean taco or jerk chicken empanada than the Federal workforce, who were previously confined to bland cafeteria buffets and subway.

Jazz in the garden. There are many, many fine outdoor events in D.C., and plenty are probably more cultured or more scenic than Jazz in the National Sculpture Garden, but this stalwart of outdoor social events is one of personal favorites just for pure scene. Every Friday the sculpture garden on the National Mall opens its gates to thousands of downtown workers, offering spendy pitchers of sangria and Heinekken along with live jazz music. By 6pm, every square foot of grass and dirt is filled with suits and skirts. Shoes are kicked off, smuggled bottles of wine are opened, and cheese, crackers, and hummus are spread out on blankets.  It doesn't matter how long or stressful the week has been, jazz has a way of resetting everything and starting a weekend off right.

So it's not hanging out in mountains and or on the Sound, but the residents and workers of the District embrace summer in their own, uniquely suited up way.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Last 17 months in 5 paragraphs or less

The last 17 months have truly been the most amazing of my life, so I really can't figure out why I haven't taken the time to write about them. Granted, writing a blog, with an audience of potentially zero, doesn't provide much external motivation, but I still love to write. And what is 20 more minutes of typing at the end of day full of typing? So what have I been up to since January/February of 2010? Well, a lot of traveling, learning, and generally just having a blast.

In March of 2010 I began what would be an extended assignment at the State Department in the Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science. I became well versed in international agreements related to air pollution, chemicals, and hazardous waste. In particular I geeked out (I mean worked) on the Montreal Protocol - the universally ratified agreement that is doing a pretty good job of getting rid of that scary hole in the ozone layer. From March to November I practiced being an enviro diplomat, traveling to Stockholm, Geneva, Moscow, and Bangkok. I loved every minute of it, but all good things come to an end, and so in December I returned to my home base of the Department of the Interior.

Back at Interior, I was offered the opportunity to take over coordination of our Arctic portfolio, which sounded like a great use of my latent Norwegian skills, and so I jumped at it. Since then I have been becoming the one stop shop for all things in the U.S. Arctic, which got me a trip to Copenhagen this past spring and has allowed me to flex my policy muscles in a very fun way. While it would be better if I could somehow stop the Arctic from melting, I've enjoyed being in the middle of conversations on how we can do better as a U.S. government in our role in the Arctic.

On the non-work side of things, I've gotten out in the world a bit as well. In March I fulfilled a long-held wish to visit Spain and in May I had a fabulous time watching a friend get married in Costa Rica. I've almost burned through my frequent flyer miles, but am starting to hatch some plans on what my next steps might be to get me up in the air and out in the world. Here in DC I've been spending lots of time exploring the city on my vespa, being outside, and tasting new beers. Oh, and I recently got a cat.

My two-year plus period as a Presidential Management Fellow comes to an end this fall and I will be moving into a more permanent status as a regular federal employee. That is, unless something changes. While I love working in DC on issues that I care about, my wanderlust led me to take the foreign service exam last month. I passed the written part and am now waiting to hear if I will be invited to take the oral exam this fall or winter. In any case, it has been an exciting year+, with plenty of things to look forward to down the road. Stay tuned.