Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Into the Woods

For someone whose career is focused on natural resource protection, I rarely actually get out into those natural resources to enjoy the beauty and peace that inspired me to take this route in the first place. This past weekend I traveled a couple thousands miles to get back to my outdoor loving roots and to spending some quality time with the whole family, a feat even rarer than my chances to be outdoors.

After flying into the capital of the Inland Empire, Spokane, Wash., I helped the pack up the truck, camper, and accompanying vehicles with all possible provisions for a 3-day expedition into the wilderness with four kids and four adults. We headed east past Coeur d'Alene until reaching Kingston, ID, where we turned North along the Coeur d'Alene river. This is where cell phone signal ended and I started to remember what it was like to be completely without multiple digital leashes. Our destination was somewhere in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, along a glacial creek at a campsite where we ended up being the only inhabitants.

The whole family spent a couple of days battling the bugs, eating camping food, and enjoying the frigid rivers and streams. Nothing like the great outdoors to get the whole family to agree on something - that the great outdoors can be a lot of work!


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Earth Shaking

The last time I was in a real earthquake was over ten years ago, with a smattering of Central American rumbles in between. So yesterday, sitting at my desk typing away at some VERY important email, the last thing I expected to experience was a decent sized earthquake. The general sense in my hallway, as people stood in their doorways looking at each other, was complete bewilderment. I mean, we knew that it was an earthquake, but that just wasn't possible here in middle of the eastern seaboard. After the shaking stopped, there was not an announcement about what to do, so most of us returned to our desks until instructed otherwise. My coworkers crowded around my computer to witness the wonder that is twitter (a new fangled concept to most of them) as the tweets rolled in from as far away as Boston confirming that indeed, we had experienced an earthquake.

Ten minutes later, a crackly voice came over the ancient PA system, telling us to evacuate the building. It seems that that agency that houses the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS to most of you) should be able to get information to its employees more quickly than the time it takes to update all of my social media and send a few emails, but alas, not so.  That being said, the USGS twitter feed was updated much more quickly.

I grabbed my purse, anticipating that our nearly 100-year old building might take awhile to deem safe, and headed outside. The parks of Foggy Bottom were already packed with excited feds from all of the neighboring offices. The Office of Personel Management, the General Services Administration, the Federal Reserve, and the State Department all mingled with the Department of the Interior as we soaked up some sun and checked our blackberries, updating each other on the tidbits of news that were flashing across our respective digital leashes. About 20 mins passed before people started moving back inside and the Interior folks were told to grab their things, get out of the building, and go home.  Seriously? An absolutely perfect 80-degree, no humidity day in DC and the fates have granted us the afternoon off?

The Feds of Foggy Bottom gladly take a break outside while awaiting word on the safety of our buildings. 

It was too good to be true and this good fortune deserved a drink.  And I was not the only one thinking along these lines. I headed to the closest bar and met up with my partner in crime, where we enjoyed a refreshing beverage alongside a few hundred other suits, all enjoying the perfect summer version of a snow day. Word was that the metro and buses were a mess, so what was the point of trying, right?

Today my building is still closed for inspection, so I'm doing my best to work from home while preparing for a few days of vacation.  The unexpected seismic event was fortunately mild, and so a most welcome break from the everyday.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Tourist town, home

If I haven't mentioned it yet, I will admit it now that I have an unhealthy fascination with Segways. I've never been on one, but if I ever get fired from my day job (seems unlikely, but heh, these are strange times), I think being a Segway tour guide wouldn't be a bad life. Just yesterday I was totally impressed with one young man who was discussing the history of the Blair House, on a Segway, with no hands, while rolling backwards. I've definitely gotten used to living in a tourist centered town, one that sometimes feels less like a city than a cultural showcase for the U.S.A. as well as a symbolic punching bag for all the talking heads out there. Only in the past couple of years has it started to bother me that when the news reporters refer to the "problems in Washington," they are not talking about the local school systems, the poverty rate, or the fact that residents of this fine district do not have a voting representative in Congress. Nope, we are symbol for the dysfunction of all of the elected representatives that come from "actual" states.

But, D.C. is a city, a small one actually, that begins to feel more like a village the longer you live here. There are inside jokes, very good local restaurants, and even a decent coffee shop or two. And with a city chock full of overeducated young people, you also have a ton of technologically savy, socially networked Feds, staffers, lawyers, and lobbyists who share in common the place they call home. Which, after a certain amount of time, seems to grant district residents the right to a little self-mocking.  For example, the two maps below show a certain local perspective on D.C.

See this:

or this:

Neighborhoods Map

I'd venture to guess that the creators of either of map live in C-Spanistan (Capitol Hill) or Laptoptopia (Dupont Circle). As for me? Depending on the map, I either live at the intersection of Pandas and Oye Maje or on the southwestern edge of the The Liquorridor. I'm not going to say that either of these visualizations are right or wrong, but they demonstrate that D.C. has a lot of local flavor beyond "people who watch C-span."


Friday, August 12, 2011

Why not learn Russian? (почему бы не изучать русский язык?)

It's been over two years since I handed in my thesis for what is distressingly called a "terminal degree." A Masters in Public Administration (MPA) is the end of the line...that is unless you want a Ph.D in Public Policy (the major differences, I know not). So for 24+ months I have joyfully enjoyed the lack of any formal education, instead immersing myself in learning the ins and outs of becoming a good a bureaucrat. Things like:
  • Who to CC on an email and when. 
  • Who not to CC on an email and when. 
  • The risks and lack of respect when using BCC on an email.
  • And the politically advantageous uses for email forwarding. 
Now that I've mastered the art of strategic email communication (and if you don't believe that this is an art, there are plenty of political email flubs available on the internet for your amusement), I thought I should move on to something a little more challenging. So I racked my brain for the most challenging thing I could possible think of, and I came up with, of course, learning Russian! Because why not add another half-baked set of language skills to my repertoire. 

(Left & Above: the Moscow Subway, a work of art) 

Currently my ability to communicate in anything other than English involves: 1) high-school Spanish that gets me pretty far when in Spain or Costa Rica after 3+ glasses of tempranillo (un mas vino tinto por favor!); 2) a college minor in Norwegian that at one point allowed me to read Harry Potter and converse about UN conventions and immigration policy in norsk, but now is at about the same level as my Spanish (det er mange finne gutter her og jeg vil ha mer øl!); and 3) a Belizean mix of kriol and two different mayan languages, which depending on the context would allow me to curse out someone on the bus who just grabbed me inappropriately (madda ras bwoi!) or ask for more tortillas (mane se wa?). I also know how say the equivalent of "cheers" in almost any place that I've traveled or had exposure to (skål, prost, chin chin, salud, sante, egészségedre). As a maybe wanna be diplomat, I've found that the word or phrase that you say while clinking glasses is often the most useful. 

But with Russian, I'm hoping to move beyond the level of novelty and actually communicate, which at some point in my life would require being in Russia for a period of time. And after spending a week there last fall, that would pose absolutely no problem with me. There were so many surprising, wonderful, and strange things in Moscow and I have been fascinated by the country ever since (hence my choice of banner for this blog). Getting back there may be a ways down the road, so for now I'm loading up on Pimsleur podcasts and have enrolled in a weekly class beginning in September. Should be an interesting adventure! до свидания!

(Below Left: The Russian White House (Parliament) and St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

speed networking

The view from my pedestal

You know you've turned a corner in your life when all of a sudden you are the one that is handing out your business card, not in search of a job, but as the one who may be able to help others with their quest for employment. Now let's be clear, I do not have any power at all to hire others. I am still the lowest on the totem pole in my office, even after 2+ years at my desk. I barely get to tell interns what to do. But every so often I'm called upon by various affinity groups to serve as an "expert" or "mentor." It sometimes feels odd, to be that almighty advice giver, but I always enjoy the experience. I definitely learned a lot from others in my own job search as I went from one psuedo-paid volunteer experience to another, so giving as good as I got is only fair.

Tonight, at one of these events, I was humbled by the many, many post-graduate school, internationally experienced, multi-lingual idealists who were looking for any clue as to how to land a job, any job, in this shining white marble city. I wish I had better news, that it was a just a matter of knowing the right person and being in the right place at the right time, but even that fail safe route to your dream job seems way too optimistic. Times are tough and way too many overeducated, hard working young people are slinging lattes or whiskey shots, just waiting for their shot to become an under appreciated Federal bureaucrat. Usually I come out of these events bolstered by the energy of those still looking for their dream job, but today I feel hopeless. The stock market didn't help this dark mood, confirming that there was really no point of putting on a happy face and telling others, most of them my age, that there they had a chance. That instead of mustering up some creative job searching ideas I should have told them to go back to whatever country they just finished up Peace Corps service in and take up a life as an expat, because this country is clearly telling all of us that hope is in short supply, and finding a job...well, forget about it.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Being an adult

In about two months I will be 30 - a big step towards feeling like an actual adult. That's right, a step towards. I feel like I've come a long way since the rickety house that me and my closest Norwegian loving friends first moved into nine years ago (wow - typing that made me feel old) and I'm actually totally fine with turning 30. My 20s are and continue to be absolutely fabulous, and fully expect my 30s to be even better.  However, I got a lot of help along the road to adulthood, and when I came across this list on Apartment Therapy (a highly addictive design, decorating, random stuff blog), I just had to share:

30 things to know about adulthood: 

1. Read the instructions.
2. Youtube has videos for things you need to know.
3. Make sure everything has its place.
4. Keep your car clean.
5. Keep the instructions.
6. Keep good records and a filing system.
7. Clean your house before you go on vacation.
8. If you live alone your trash will smell. Use smaller cans/bags.
9. Deep clean your refrigerator at least every 3 months.
10. Look at your house as if you were a visitor.
11. Use company as motivation to clean.
12. You don't need that many kitchen gadgets.
13. The less you have the less you have to put away.
14. Don't spend more than you make.
15. Learn to repair things yourself.
16. Don't be afraid to call a professional.
17. Your credit is forever. Don't screw it up.
18. Stick to basic cleaning supplies.
19. Document any serial number on items you'd want back if stolen.
20. Take care of your stuff and it will last.
21. Save money every month, even if it's just $5.
22. Don't start activity B until you've cleaned up after A.
23. Entertain often and find great friends.
24. Nothing improves in storage.
25. True friends don't care if your house is messy. Invite them anyway.
26. Invest in a decent shredder.
27. Keep stuff off the floor.
28. Once in a lifetime deals usually aren't.
29. Keep track of your immunization records.
30. Stuff will always work out. Don't stress.

I definitely have to agree with numbers 2, 7, 23, and 30. For example, from youtube I learned how to polish the antique brass mortar and pistal that came over from India. And having traveled my fair share these past years, I can attest to returning to a clean apartment (the suitcase full of dirty laundry is usually enough). As for entertaining, I really can't imagine what I would do without my close friends, who are always willing to try some new recipe that I've been wanting to try.  And finally, the last one is often repeated to me (and by me to myself). Things will absolutely work out, even if I don't know what that will look like in the end. 


Thursday, August 4, 2011

International public service?

It's not that I don't enjoy my current city and job (it case you couldn't tell, I really do), but I'm always thinking about my next steps in work and life - I just can't help but be excited for that next turn of the road. And while I certainly enjoy, and have made a habit of, serving the U.S. government in one way or another, one thing that pops into my head occasionally as a potential dream career stop is the United Nations. The UN is a massive, sprawling, unwieldy organization and I've interacted with it's various branches enough to know there would be ups and downs as a UN employee. But none of that stops me from imagining what it feel like to work for an organization that is beyond the whims of any one government. But is the UN a form of public service?

I have to believe yes. What got me into this whole public service kick was a desire to have a career that created something that was not centered on making a profit or seeking fame. In economic terms, we call these intangibles public goods. Clean air, open spaces, safe drinking water, and humanitarian assistance when a hurricane strikes. These things are not meant to be profitable and should never be. And I am so very very fortunate to have found a career path that on a good day fulfills this desire. But what about those public goods that stretch beyond borders? When I was working at State Department, I got to do a lot of work on the treaty that addressed the hole in the ozone layer, the Montreal Protocol. This treaty performed a function that was beyond any one country, and now all the citizens of the world benefit from it. The UN Environment Program provided the venue and the support for establishing the treaty and for making sure that countries continue to keep it relevant, even as the treaty now turns towards taking on climate change. Being a part of that as a career could be very interesting.

The view of U.N. meeting from the "U" section

I don't think I will actively pursue being an international Diplomat quite yet, we'll see how the whole foreign service thing goes first, but it's always fun imagining what might happen down the road.


Monday, August 1, 2011

On the Hill

There are three branches of government - the executive, the judicial, and the legislative. This is something that you already knew unless you managed to sleep through all of elementary school civics. You have probably also heard that two out of three of these branches do not always get along (if this sentence were published on twitter, this is where I would insert the hashtag #understatement).  However, the living, breathing fact of these three bodies meant almost zero to me until I came to D.C. and now plays a major role in how I go about my work (and play).

As a dutiful civil servant of the executive branch, it is my job to show up, write documents, work with other agencies, and try to move ideas and policies forward that serve the mission of my department and the administration. Politics come into play, but no matter what party is residing in that fancy house over on Pennsylvania or has the most seats up on Capitol Hill, I get to do pretty much the same work.  Being able to do this is, of course, contingent on being paid, and this is where the legislative branch comes into play. I'm not going to get into the deal that was just reached on debt ceiling, mostly because my expertise is not in complex fiscal policy and I feel like all news establishments have those events fully covered. But, I will say that it has been harder than usual to focus on actual work here in the Capitol. Occasionally though, some other business continues to take place.

Last week I attended a Senate Commerce sub-committee meeting that had nothing to do with the debt, but instead focused on economic development in the Arctic. I suspect the hearing was nothing more than an interesting distraction for all three Senators in attendance, but it's always nice to see some government in action. While the outcomes of committee hearings are usually predetermined, I recommend visitors look up the schedule of hearings when coming to D.C., since these sessions offer a form of political theatre that is free and accessible to the public, complete with celebrity witnesses and questions from elected officials that range from ridiculously uniformed partisan grandstanding to surprisingly insightful demonstration of knowledge of an issue. Nothing is likely to come out of the hearing, but at least I know that sometimes representatives from both sides of aisle can sit at the same table and listen to experts from the executive branch, industry, and non-profit organizations in a polite and dignified manner. As we've seen, politics between the branches can be messy, but I just wanted to share that sometimes they also have manners.