Monthly Archives: October 2012

White House Gardens

On Friday afternoon, the word went out through the Fellows’ network that the White House gardens were open for tours on Friday and Saturday AND if you flashed your Federal ID on Friday afternoon, you could jump to the front of the line.  How cool was that?

The Residence

I wasn’t able to go until Saturday morning, and I personally believe that the priority treatment was all about passing through security.  If you show proof that you go in and out of security all day, as you do in most Federal buildings, then you can be trusted not to slow up the line.  Yes, I’ve become a security snob.

Not knowing if the free tickets would be limited and would be gone early, Maggie, who is my neighbor, my fellow Fellow, and a kindred adventurer, was willing to get up early to be part of the first tour.  It turned out that the groups of people allowed in were quite large, but the grounds are extensive enough that it wasn’t too packed while we were there.

Laura in the White House gardens

The first garden at the White House was started by John Adams, who unfortunately was promptly defeated by Thomas Jefferson and therefore never got to enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of his labors.  The famed landscape architect, Fredrick Law Olmstead, whose projects include Central Park in New York City, the Fenway (the park, not the baseball field!) in Boston, and the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, helped Franklin D. Roosevelt with the grand design of the South Lawn. Once I knew that, I could see Olmstead’s influence in the space that looks like it sprang from nature, even though not just the trees but also some of the contours of the land were carefully planned and executed by humans.

The South Lawn

Olmstead’s design has been further embellished by two formal gardens- the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden between the Residence and the East Wing, and the Rose Garden between the Residence and the West Wing.  The tour also featured a number of photographs of Presidents or First Couples planting commemorative trees, which have additionally shaped the landscape.  The First Families’ recreational tastes are also expressed in the garden.  The basketball court and the swimming pool were masked by trees, but the putting green and the playground for Sasha and Malia Obama were both prominently located.

The Jacqueline Kennedy Garden

The Rose Garden and Colonnade

The putting green

The playground

Once Maggie and I passed through security, we were aware of subtle signs that we were getting closer to sensitive areas.  As we started the tour, the official personnel wore badges indicating that they were volunteers or interns.  By the time we were at the White House, it was Secret Service personnel who were making sure that the tourists did not get too close.  The guard at the playground was quite friendly in his own security-conscious way.  In pointing out one statue at the edge of the trees, he referred to it as “the Secret Service Reindeer.”  When one lady in the crowd asked if it had a camera inside, he deadpanned, “I’m sorry, Ma’am, I can’t answer that.  It’s classified.”

I also loved the jazz band that was playing for us.  Somehow the formality of the uniforms and the informality of jazz made a great contrast.

A military jazz band- who’d have thought?

Having stood on the grounds, I finally understand the layout and relationships among the structures.  I had learned on the Segway tour that the White House has a North entrance and a South entrance so no one has to go through the “back” door.  The center section, which is what we think of as the White House, is the Residence.  The Oval Office is nearby in a low building that is the West Wing, and only a small part of the oval shape is visible from outside.  My friendly guard explained that it is not possible to get from the Oval Office to the Residence without going outside, so the President’s usual path is outside down the colonnade, which is often captured in movies or by cameramen walking VERY slowly backwards as a reporter interviews the President.

The West Wing and the Oval Office

First Lady, Michelle Obama, following the example of Pat Nixon, was the force behind giving the public an opportunity to visit the White House grounds.  With the help of local students, Mrs. Obama also created a kitchen garden on the grounds, which was the first vegetable garden since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden during World War II.  The garden was not only beautifully planted, it was also producing a considerable harvest, which is used in meals for the First Family and for official events.  The remainder is donated to a local soup kitchen.  The raised beds are each fitted with rails on the sides so cold frames can be installed on top to allow the garden to produce throughout the winter as well.  It took me a moment to remember that although that isn’t practical in Connecticut, I’m much further south now.  I was particularly fascinated by two of the beds that were producing gorgeous heritage beans. These were the Jefferson beds, and the seeds and starter plants were brought in from Monticello.

The Kitchen Garden

One of the Jefferson beds. Check out the purple beans!

One other interesting piece of trivia I picked up on the Segway tour was that whoever was President when the National mall was being constructed was a big fan of Thomas Jefferson.  Although the Washington Monument was intended to be in the exact center of the mall, foundation issues with the swampy land forced it to be shifted slightly more toward the Capitol.  Thus the Jefferson Memorial is visible from the White House, and the standing statue of Jefferson can keep his eye on the sitting President.

The Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial (which is NOT as close as it looks!)



Filed under Play

The Blessings of Competent Women

Today I reaped the benefits of two fantastically competent women.

The gift of time from a competent woman is a true blessing.  These women never lack for work that needs to be done, so when one of these women makes time to spend with me to smooth my path, I feel extremely fortunate.

The first woman got me over the hurdle of my first day in a new office.  In addition to filling out the standard paperwork, she took time to explain a bit about how the office works.  Because she also explained the personal styles of some of the players, I have a better understanding of what kind of interaction and information each person needs to be kept happy.  As I think about it, I’m aware of a similar interaction in the past among my research students.  When a new student arrived, one of the veteran students would sit down and explain, “Here’s what you need to know about working with Dr. Pence.”  Those stories always made me smile, and now I was on the receiving end.

Going over the emergency procedures was also fascinating.  So many times, those procedures seem to just be to check a box, but in my current location, the procedures have an immediacy and a relevance that is new.  When the building needs to be evacuated, it needs to be done as swiftly as possible, and each office has a primary and secondary designated location outside to gather and count heads.  I’ve certainly been guilty of dragging my feet during a fire alarm in the past, but the philosophy here is that no matter what, seconds count.  Considering the earthquake that rocked the East Coast and caused significant damage to a number of buildings in DC within the past year, those emergency procedures are not just a drill.  There were almost no procedures in place on 9/11, but since then, they have been developed and refined regularly.  I realized that as I was given specific examples of when each procedure was used, it reminded me strongly of the safety training that we do for chemistry laboratories.  Every procedure has been built because of a specific incident that was either experienced or averted because of our actions.

The second competent woman helped me get settled at the University of Hartford when I joined the faculty so many years ago.  She has been triaging my mail in my absence so I won’t return to a year’s work of catalog solicitations or junk mail.  She sent me just a few items for my attention along with a surprise inside.  Some time ago in my Department, the shared subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education evolved into a game as each one of us would gleefully dump issues we had finished into someone else’s office to clutter up that person’s desk.  Sometimes this process would even be accompanied by a suitable soundtrack such as the Mission Impossible theme.  I had figured that going away for a year was the ultimate way to win the game, but I discovered that was not the case.  My care package from this wonderfully competent woman included a Chronicle that I now have no way to shill off on some unsuspecting colleague.  I think perhaps the advanced level of competent must be classified as devious.

As a side note, for those of you who are wondering about the advice about working for me delivered by my research students, I’m told that it includes

1)  Be on time.

2)  For Heaven’s sake, spell check your work.

3) If you screw up, you need to go confess immediately.  If you confess, Dr. Pence will not be too unhappy.  If you try to hide your mistake and she finds out, she’s going to be severely ticked off.

Yes, my students know me well.

Leave a comment

Filed under Work

And the Winner is…

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO)

Finding the right Congressional office for the rest of my fellowship year at times seemed more like speed dating than anything else.  My shortest interview was 20 minutes (that one didn’t work out), and a standard interview was about 30 minutes, but that was usually sufficient to get a pretty good read on whether or not there was enough interest on both sides for a second “date.”

Anyone who has done the dating scene knows that being introduced through friends is a particularly helpful way of making connections.  Like the rest of my fellow Fellows, I began my search by using the list of Congressional offices who had expressed an interest in hosting Fellows for the year, but there were also times when I needed to make contacts outside of that list.  It turns out that in DC in general, and on Capitol Hill in particular, there exists an extensive network of past Fellows, sometimes referred to as the Fellows mafia.  Many past Fellows make particularly adept mentors, and the dozen Congressional Fellows from last year that I met as part of Orientation turned out to be a resource more precious than platinum throughout placement.  (Platinum is more valuable than gold, remember? It’s also important to give all those elements a workout.)  Past fellows used their own networks to help me make contacts in new offices, offered advice on how often to email an office without being a pest, shared the skinny on the dynamics in particular offices, and buoyed my spirits when I was discouraged.  One Fellow stopped as we passed each other between the Metro and the Senate office buildings, learned that he could help by making a particular connection, and he followed up before I even had a chance to remind him.  One of the best emails I received was from a Fellow who had already talked with me several times who asked, “How else can I help?”

One lesson that I learned through placement is that Representatives and Senators pay a lot of attention to their constituents.  For example, even though my own Newington, CT Congressman wasn’t looking for a Fellow and Sen. Blumenthal (D-CT) was looking for a Fellow with a different portfolio of expertise, both offices were happy to meet with me for a chat.  A number of my fellow Fellows had either quick offers or an inside track with offices from their home states.  Some offices won’t even consider hiring staff from outside their districts or states to ensure that when a constituent calls up, he or she hears a familiar accent from someone who can pronounce the local towns.

Toward the end of the third week of the placement process, I confess that I was starting to feel like an ugly stepsister who didn’t get invited to dance.  I was meeting some wonderful people and making excellent connections, but since every interview required preparation and planning as well as a lot of energy, it was pretty exhausting.  I started to doubt the assurances I received that I would indeed find the right office for me, but at some point, the flood gates opened, and I collected five different offers; two in sequential emails!  Suddenly, I was no longer an ugly stepsister, but I had become Cinderella!  I just had to choose whether I wanted the glass slipper, the slingback with the kitten heel, the hiking boot, the flip flop, or the tennis shoe.  It came down to two different offers, one on the House side and one on the Senate side.  I think I could have been happy in either place and done good work in either place, but ultimately, I chose the hiking boot- Sen. Michael Bennet from Colorado.  I’ll get to work on energy, environment and natural resources management in this office, and it seems like a very good group.

Final statistics of my Placement Process

51 business cards collected

26 interviews with 21 different offices

6 Office buildings visited (all three Senate and all three House)

3 weeks and 2 days of interviewing

5 offers

1 time getting lost in Rayburn House Office building

Finding the right office… priceless

1 Comment

Filed under Work

Blue Holes and Dark Matter

The National Geographic Society has organized a series of talks entitled, “The Big Idea” that each pairs a Nobel Laureate with a National Geographic Explorer of the Year to learn about each topic area and then explore common ground.  One of my fellow Fellows organized an outing to yesterday’s “Blue Holes and Dark Energy” event.

Kenny Broad is the explorer who investigates blue holes- water-filled caves carved out of limestone that exist at the interface of fresh water and salt water.  Because of the extremely slow rate of diffusion- an oxygen molecule takes eight years to go from the surface of the water down a foot- the debris in the caves stalagmites can be used in parallel with ice and core samples to investigate historical conditions on Earth.  The vast halocline, the transition zone between the lower salt water and the upper fresh water, is also an analog for ancient oceans and allows Dr. Broad to explore the origins of life.

The blue holes also allow for the exploration of the link between inland freshwater and oceanic saltwater.  Tires and a swing set dumped inland may appear in a cave a quarter mile out to sea.  As Florida is discovering vividly, a positive pressure of freshwater is vital to prevent saltwater incursions into the water supply, and as more freshwater is pumped and used, that balance becomes increasingly more precarious.

Last year’s Nobel Prize in Physics went to Adam Reiss, who discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, which is largely attributed to dark energy.  He did an outstanding job of simplifying the ideas behind how we determine the distance to an object without actually going to that object.  Ships at sea used lighthouses; the brighter the light, the closer you are as long as visibility is good.  For those times when visibility is poor, fog horns can also provide an estimate of distance.  Surveyors use parallax and geometry.  All humans innately scale against a standard-sized object so that we know that the apparent size difference between a goose nearby and a goose far away is due to the increased distance.  Astronomers use variations on each of these methods to estimate the distance from Earth to the stars.

Dr. Reiss’s lighthouses or astronomical “standard candles” are supernovae viewed by the Hubble space telescope.  After establishing that the expansion of the universe was accelerating, he went on to point out that all of the known matter in stars, planets, gases, etc, amounts to a mere 4.5% of the matter in the universe.  Of the remainder, 23% is dark matter, and 73% is dark energy, about which we know very little at this point due to the limitations of our technology and mathematical theories.

Once each man presented an overview of his work, they sat down with a moderator and had an excellent discussion of where they had common ground.

They were first asked about how they reacted to an “ah ha!” moment.  In spite of the difference in their fields, they found their responses to be very similar.  The first reaction to a great discovery is, “Is this a mistake?”  Were the calculations correct?  Was the specimen identified correctly?  Is this observation an anomaly, which is to be discounted, or is it representative of a phenomenon?  The second step involves a lot of waiting.  In astronomy, the result must be verified by other groups and other methods, so a lighthouse distance result must be validated by someone using a fog horn or parallax method.  In cave diving, the specimen must be sent out, identified, classified, and checked against other databases to establish if it is a newly identified life form.

I was particularly intrigued by the relationship these two scientists have to time.  In cave diving, the team is trying to learn about how life evolved thousands or tens of thousands of years ago, but they are constrained by the amount of air in their tanks so that time on a dive ticks away relentlessly.  In astronomy, they examine light that has taken billions of years to arrive on Earth, but since the Hubble telescope receives ten years’ worth of proposals for every year of available time, experiments using the Hubble telescoped are choreographed down to the last second.

Both men agreed that good scientists don’t accept what they see at surface value; they want to explore further.  Apparently this habit of questioning everything is contagious.  Dr. Broad, the cave diver, explained that he will announce to his five- and nine-year-old children that it is time for bed, to which they respond, “Based on what theory?”

Finding common ground

Leave a comment

Filed under Brain Food

National Parks Passports

Some fourteen years ago, I began a love affair with our country’s national parks, historic places, and monuments.  A few years after I had started hiking a number of the western parks with my friend, Joyce, my sister, Heather, discovered the National Parks passports, and she encouraged me to get one.  I figured it was too late, but after I spent an additional year exploring parks without this souvenir, I finally took the plunge and bought a passport.

A national parks passport is a small notebook which lists and maps the national parks and leaves space for validation stamps, which may be obtained at the visitor’s centers of most parks.  Because the date on the stamp gets changed daily, it is a way of keeping track not only of which parks I’ve visited, but also when I was there.  My Beloved Husband refers to the practice of visiting parks as “stamp collecting,” and there are certainly numerous destinations I’ve visited with Heather, Joyce, or both based solely on the statement, “It’s a stamp.”

My National Parks Passport

Within the passport, the country is divided into geographic regions, each identified by a different color.  Most of the parks in each region make sure that the ink for their stamp pads matches the color of the region, so in the Northeast, the stamps are brown, in the Southeast, the stamps are purple, etc.

The different regions

Washington DC gets a region all its own, and it represents the highest stamp density of the entire country.  A four mile hike in Acadia National Park in Maine merits only a single stamp, whereas a four mile hike of the National Mall can net upwards of ten stamps or more.  Thus Washington DC is the mother-lode of stamps for a passport, and on Heather’s recent visit, we set out to embellish her passport to the max.

For some locations in Washington, such as Ford’s Theater, the stamp is easily located in the bookstore, but for an outdoor location such as the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, the World War II Memorial, or the Korean War Memorial, where are the stamps?  On a trip to DC nearly ten years ago, I discovered that one of the treasure troves of stamps exists in the bookstore of the Lincoln Memorial.  I went to get the single stamp for that location and was handed a box with eight separate stamps.  Eight!  I felt I had won the lottery!  Apparently the Washington Monument visitor’s center is another stamp bonanza, and even at the Old Post Office tower, there is a second stamp for the Pennsylvania Ave National Memorial.

Two pages from my well-visited National Capital Region section

Heather was bemoaning that she had no stamps in the mid-Atlantic region, and she was a little taken aback that I had so many of the light blue stamps, collected from spending a considerable amount of time in Virginia over the years.  In a moment of inspiration, I realized that if we went to the Lee Mansion in Arlington National Cemetery, that was actually in Virginia, so a visit there over the weekend got Heather a stamp in that region, so her light blue section is no longer so bare.

My three newest Mid-Atlantic region stamps

Stamp collecting is probably my favorite souvenir experience, and I highly recommend getting a National Parks Passport no matter how many parks you might have missed.  They are usually around the cash register in visitor’s center, and for about $8, they provide a wonderful record of my travels and suggest future destinations. One of my goals for the year is to try to get every stamp in the National Capital region- if I can just find where they are all hidden!


P.S.  I just looked up that Capitol is the building and Capital is the city.  How crazy, I looked it up!


Filed under Play

The National Mall via Segway

My sister, Heather, visited me this past weekend, and since she hasn’t been to DC since the sixth grade safety patrol trip, the National Mall seemed like a logical tourist destination.  Heather also has a personal list of experiences that she would like to have, somewhat like a bucket list.  Riding on a Segway scooter was on the list, so I suggested that we combine these two goals and go on a Segway tour of the National Mall.

Saturday morning was beautiful with a blue sky and not too hot, so it was perfect for our adventure.  At City Segway Tours, the large group was separated into groups of about 8, and Heather and I were paired up with a group of six who were all related to each other.  The other group included a mother who was 77, and although she had some reservations about the whole Segway idea, she was a real trooper.  Our fantastic guide, Stephanie, was extremely supportive and without any apparent effort, was always in exactly the right place to lend the woman a hand getting on, off, or parking her scooter.

We started with about 10-15 minutes of instructions on how to operate the Segways, and we got to practice a little bit before we went out on the tour.  Segways work by a pressure platform under your feet, so shifting weight to your toes makes you go forward, and shifting onto your heels makes you slow down or go in reverse.  The handle is used strictly for steering, and there was a small bag so we didn’t have to carry our baggage on our shoulders.  The first time each one of us stepped onto a Segway, we were very unsteady for a moment or two, but it probably only took about five minutes to get the feel of how it worked.  We each wore bicycle helmets for safety, but happily, no one actually needed them.

Because the streets around most of the monuments and Federal buildings are closed to vehicle traffic and with the large open space of the Mall, Washington is a wonderful place to ride a Segway.  We were usually on the sidewalks or in a bike lane and only had to navigate the streets for a few short stretches.  I especially liked the wide street on the north side of the White House.  There was plenty of space for us to take Stephanie’s suggestion of testing out the speed of our scooters and opening them up to their full 10 mph maximum speed.

Heather and Laura on Segways in front of the Lincoln Memorial

Stephanie learned all our names at the start of the tour, and since she established that most of the group hadn’t spent much time in DC, she suggested that we do a shorter loop around the Mall and have a little time to explore the memorials rather than doing the extra two mile loop down to the Capitol.  So we went behind the White House and then had stops at the Washington Monument, the World War II Memorial, the Martin Luther King Memorial, the FDR Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial.  We also had a stop at the DC War Memorial, which is actually the World War I memorial, but at the time it was built, it was thought to be the only world war that would happen.  That was a small circular memorial off the beaten track which was especially fun to circumnavigate on a Segway.

Oddly, the biggest challenge on a Segway is that we spent nearly three hours effectively standing on our feet, which is tougher than walking in many ways.  Having a chance to hop off and flex our feet was a big help.

Overall, the Segway tour was big fun, and I would recommend it to anyone.  Stephanie had an undergraduate degree in history and gave a particularly good tour as well with interesting stories and details.  It didn’t give lots of time to visit the monuments, but as a stylish way of getting around the mall and especially as a transportation mode sure to evoke admiration and envy from the tourists, it can’t be beat.


Filed under Play

Presidential Debate-DC Style

Although the election this year is causing a greater than average amount of chaos in the Congressional Fellows placement process, it is absolutely amazing to watch this process from a ringside seat in Washington DC.

I have already been paying closer attention to the national elections than ever in the past, and that is true of my fellow Fellows as well.  To avoid needing to change offices in January, it’s best not to work for someone in jeopardy of losing his or her seat.  It’s OK to work with someone who has a comfortable lead, though, so we all regularly consult the polls of the Senate races on  The House is a rules-driven body that functions because of strong procedures.  Since those procedures are established by the majority party, the minority party has significantly less influence, so every House race is important, and it’s a bit more challenging to find information on those races.  The Senate races are also important since the majority has certain privileges involved in shaping committees, but the Senate is considered to be a group of equals, so being a minority member is less restricting

Pre-debate preparation proceeded with all the deliberation of planning a Super Bowl party.  Where will we watch the event?  Who has cable and a big screen TV?  Do I want to be with fans who will cheer for my team?

My own preparation for watching the debate took me to a wine store.  I asked for advice on a nice bottle of Chardonnay, and the wine manager asked, “What are you having with this?”  I replied, “A Presidential debate.”  Without turning a hair, the manager selected a bottle in my price range and announced, “This one goes down very smoothly and should be just right.”

I arrived at the debate party only about five minutes early since I had neglected to allow my normal 10 minute buffer for my inevitable disorientation and bad choice of direction when I emerge from a Metro station.  It doesn’t seem to matter how much I look over the google map in advance or how long I ponder my choice when I arrive, I always start walking away from my destination.  I suppose I need to simply accept this will always be the case, and if I actually make a correct choice, I’ll have cause to celebrate!

This particular party was one where no one knew anyone else, and as often happens at those parties, it was a rousing success.  I was enchanted that we were each handed Debate Buzzword Bingo cards to mark up while the candidates talked.  I’m including a photo of my own winning card.  It did get a bit distracting at times when my fellow party-goers would triumphantly call out, “Obamacare” or “Democrats” at random times, but I felt the outbursts really enhanced the quality of the experience.

My winning buzzword bingo card

It was a hoot to spend the debate with a group of fledgling policy wonks who could knowledgeably announce that a certain study had been discredited and even that the people who published the study don’t believe it anymore.  I’m not sure if the next two debates will be quite as exciting, but this one was great fun.

As for the Chardonnay, it did indeed go down smoothly.  That part wasn’t debatable.


Filed under Play