Monthly Archives: December 2012

Vote-a-Rama

With the failure to get enough votes to pass the Plan B legislation on the Fiscal Cliff, the House went on recess for the Christmas holiday on Thursday.  The Senate, however, stayed until the end of Friday, December 22nd to work on H.R. 1 (House Resolution 1), the legislative vehicle for the emergency supplemental funding to address the damages from Hurricane Sandy.  This bill has a House designation rather than a Senate designation because all funding legislation must originate in the House.  The first ten numbers for bills in each chamber are reserved at the start of any given Congress for the most important legislation, so H.R. 1 indicates that this bill has the highest priority of any bill in the past two years.

On the Senate floor, when no business is occurring and no one is asking to be recognized, the last person to speak ends by saying, “Mister (or Madam) President, I suggest the absence of a quorum.”  The presiding officer follows up by saying, “The Clerk will call the roll.”  The Clerk starts, “Mr. Akaka…” since he is first alphabetically, although the rest of the roll does not get called out loud.  At this point, C-Span goes silent, the screen says, “Quorum Call” two buzzers sound in the Senate Office Buildings, and the clock faces throughout those buildings show two white lights.  This condition can last for a prolonged period, during which it might appear that nothing is happening and there is no business being done.  This past week, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Although I am not involved, I understand that a considerable amount of work goes into brokering an agreement that will bring a bill to the Floor.  On Wednesday, Majority Leader Harry Reid had filed cloture on H.R. 1. I’ll note that there had been no indication of a filibuster threat; filing cloture was intended to expedite the process overall. Since cloture requires 3/5 of the votes, the Republicans must be on board to at least talk about H.R. 1 in general, and that gives them leverage about what amendments might be considered, how many votes will be required to pass each amendment, time for debate, etc.  The cloture vote is taken two days after filing for cloture, so the long quorum calls on Thursday concealed extensive negotiations about how to proceed prior to the actual vote.   Remember that Unanimous Consent can dramatically speed the process, but everyone must agree to it.

On Friday morning, we got word that the cloture vote would be held in the afternoon, indicating that both parties had agreed to move forward.  (If they weren’t all on board, it probably would have been moved up, and we all would have gone home earlier.)  When I saw on C-Span that the vote was starting, I looked at my new fellow Bennet Fellow (she’s not in my program, but we are kindred Fellows), and asked, “Do you want to go watch?”  My latest personal goal has been to learn my way around the Capitol, so I knew I could reliably find the Senate gallery.  My fellow Bennet Fellow was game, so off we went.  Scooting over to the Capitol is one considerable advantage of having an office in the Russell Senate Office Building since we are closest to the action and have the shortest distance to travel.  As Senate staff, we also were allowed to go into the staff gallery rather than the visitors’ gallery, which gave us an outstanding view of the action.

One of the important considerations for our visit to the Senate gallery was that there were actually two back-to-back votes.  The House votes electronically and often by proxy, which I believe involves giving someone else your ID to place your vote.  The Senate still carries out roll call votes, known as the “yeas and nays,” in person.  When doing a single vote, the Senators have a 15 minute window to show up and indicate their votes.  With two back-to-back votes, they stay on the floor until the second vote starts so they don’t have to run back and forth. As a result, there were many more Senators on the Floor than usual.  I spent my time seeing how many Senators I could identify by face.  I’ve got all 17 women sorted out pretty reliably, and I know a fair number of the male Democrats, but I have a lot of work to do before I can recognize everyone.  I enjoyed watching the various conversations and learning who sits where.  It was far more dynamic to watch the process live rather than on the TV.

Now to explain the title of this post.  The cloture vote passed, and by Unanimous Consent, a list of amendments was given to be considered in a specific order, with a specified amount of debate allowed on each one, and with an understanding that any amendment will require 60 votes to pass.  Thus on Thursday, December 27th when the Senate returns from a very short Christmas break, there may be up to 21 votes taken on that single day starting at about 1:00 in the afternoon.  This rapid-fire amendment voting is referred to as a vote-a-rama, and it makes the staff go a little crazy. 

For each and every vote, a Senator’s staff prepares a voting recommendation that includes a quick summary of the issue, the arguments in favor and against, how the amendment might influence the state constituents, how the other Senator from the state and fellow committee members might vote, and anything else that seems relevant, culminating in a YES or NO recommendation.  So every one of those 21 votes requires a significant amount of work on the part of the staff, and the timeline is often very short.  December 27th will be especially challenging since the offices will only have a skeleton staff, so all the voting recommendations needed to be completed in advance.  In our office, the work generally gets shared around and everyone pitches in to help, so I’m sure our Senator will be quite well prepared.

Merry Christmas, everyone, and there will be much more to look forward to in the 113th Congress!  Yes, I could just say, “See you next year,” but where’s the fun in that?

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Work

Nerding Out at the USGS

I was recently treated to a Fellows tradition involving a field trip to the United States Geologic Survey (USGS) facility in Reston, VA.  Since I’m a chemist and not an earth scientist, my father questioned why I was going.  I replied, “It’s a field trip!”  I mentioned this outing to a long time analyst with the Congressional Research Service, who replied that he enjoys watching the annual formation of the Fellows’ Nerd Pack, and I should enjoy nerding out.

The Fellows were treated like visiting dignitaries; we spent time with the USGS Director as well as each of the Associate Directors, who explained the mission areas that they each covered.  The USGS’s role is purely scientific, so unlike the EPA, which is often resented because of its regulatory mission, the USGS is an agency that is much more universally liked. They are also extremely collaborative; about half of their budget comes directly from Congressional appropriation, whereas the other half comes from contract work from other Federal agencies.

Due to various governmental reorganizations, the USGS includes biological sciences along with their earth sciences, which unlike geologic agencies in other countries, allows USGS to approach problems from an unusually interdisciplinary perspective.  I enjoyed our tour of the pollen lab, partly because it’s been months since I saw chemicals and glassware, and partly because of the stories.  Part of the mission in that lab is to do archeology through pollen samples from geologic sediment cores.  I was fascinated that the pollen stands up to immersion in strong acids and strong bases without being damaged, so it is possible to separate the pollen from the surrounding earth.

Pollen archeology is being used extensively in the restoration of the Everglades, which for decades has suffered from extensive water diversions that dry up the wetlands, change the habitat for flora and fauna, and damage both water quality and water availability in Florida.  About seven years ago, Congress authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to work towards restoring the ecosystem to a more healthy state, and historic pollen samples help indicate what mixture of vegetation might reflect target conditions.

Just a few water samples waiting to be tested.  No, this is not the pollen lab, but it was a more interesting picture

Just a few water samples waiting to be tested. No, this is not the pollen lab, but it was a more interesting picture

Prior to this visit, I associated USGS with maps, and indeed the library, which heavily emphasizes those products, was the highlight of the day.  Their classification system is different from the standard Library of Congress system, and was designed specifically to include a geographic reference in the organization.  Thus in one particular spot, all the information about Canada might be collected.  Their shelving is also divided into normal sized volumes, oversize editions, really big atlases, and super-sized folios that are so tall they get stored on their sides.  Then there are the cabinets and cabinets of map cases!

Of their whole collection, 7% of the material can be found nowhere else in the world.  People will come from other countries such as Madagascar or Sumatra, and the visitors are stunned to get to see maps of their homes that are simply not available where they come from.  USGS contractors to the armed forces in WWII provided maps of Pacific islands so that they Navy could plan where to land.  After the earthquake in Haiti, the USGS had the only available geologic maps of the island so that relief workers could reliably know where to drill wells for clean water.

In the rare book room, we were also treated to a preview of a story that will shortly be in NPR’s weekend edition as an interview with Cory Flintoff.  In a collection of books donated to USGS in the 1930’s, they recently found a book from 1922 that contained original photos of the Russian crown jewels.  Also in the collection was a 1925 book with reproductions of the photos; another copy of the 1925 book recently sold at auction for $140,000.  As the librarians were exploring the older book, they started to compare the two volumes, and they discovered that four pictures present in the 1922 book are missing from the 1925 edition, so somewhere in the intervening time, four items vanished from the collection.

One of the highlights for me was seeing the original materials from the exploration of the American West, again in the rare book room.  In addition to the journals of Lewis and Clark, we saw the folios from the expeditions in the 1860’s authorized by Congress to survey the West to understand the geography with an eye toward accessing the mineral resources.  In addition to mapping, exploration parties such as those led by John Wesley Powell drew elevations, or side views of places such as the Grand Canyon, and then photographed the sites in black and white.

Elevation of the Virgin River

Elevation of the Virgin River

Although we were in a library, the USGS has a different attitude toward its materials than other places.  In the Grand Canyon folios, fabric has been fused to the back of each page so that they may be turned easily without damage.  As the librarian explained, they don’t collect information to preserve it, they collect it to be used.  I enthusiastically approved of that attitude.

Elevation of the Grand Canyon

Elevation of the Grand Canyon (This is a DRAWING!)

To get some of the details straight in the library venture, I emailed the librarian who had given us a tour.  I shouldn’t have been surprised that rather than a few short clarifications, he sent me a wealth of information in links.  He wrote:

“Thanks for your note and I was delighted to show you the materials we have in the USGS Library, especially our rare book room. There were actually 4 great surveys conducted prior to the creation of the USGS. You can learn all about them in a USGS Circular that was developed for our 100th Anniversary at:   http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/c1050/surveys.htm

“I showed you the King Atlas from 1876 (see a full description at: http://www.davidrumsey.com/maps1740.html) as well as the Dutton Atlas from 1882 (you can download the entire atlas at: http://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/m2_1882 or individual pages are available at http://www.kaibab.org/kaibab.org/dutton/index.htm).

“We didn’t spend a lot of time with the other two explorers, Mr. Hayden and Mr. Wheeler but we do have all of their published material from their surveys as well.”

The two atlases are huge, but the pictures are glorious.  I highly recommend them when you have a moment.  You can nerd out, too!

2 Comments

Filed under Brain Food, Work

National Symphony Orchestra Holiday Pops

A few years ago, my delightful English Mother-in-Law joined us for the holidays, and I spent some time contemplating what would be typically American Christmas celebrations to share with her.  Inspiration led me to suggest that my Beloved Husband, my Mother-in-Law, and I join my sister to go see the Boston Pops holiday concert.  It was an absolutely wonderful concert, and my Mother-in-Law was enchanted. (My BH and I even spontaneously snuck out to the gift shop during the intermission to augment her Christmas presents with a CD of the Holiday Pops, which was subsequently quite well received.)  The experience also awoke long dormant childhood memories of watching the Boston Pops on TV every Thursday night with my parents, and I suddenly realized that I had actually grown up with the Pops.  I have since been on the look-out to have another Holiday Pops experience and share it with others if possible.

As I scanned the numerous holiday events in Washington, the National Symphony Orchestra Holiday Pops concerts leaped to the top of my priority list.  It might not be Boston, but it was still extremely appealing.  In a parallel to “If you build it, they will come,” I find that my fellow Fellows respond eagerly to, “If you organize it, they will come,” so I was very pleased to be joined by three of my new friends for the evening.

Dressing for the occasion turned out to be a bit of a challenge.  The Senate and the House were not in session on Friday, which meant that we could dress casually, and since we had been in formal business wear all week, that informal option was extremely appealing.  My fellow Fellows and I, all female, shared a conflicting desire to dress up at least somewhat for the concert, but bringing extra clothes was impractical taking mass transit or walking to work.  Resourceful woman that we are, we all solved the problem similarly by pairing skirts or dresses with comfortable footwear.

The horseshoe-shaped galleries in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall did remind me of Boston’s Symphony Hall, and if it was not the golden toned walls I had seen on TV every Thursday night years ago, it was a worthy substitute.  Our seats were in one of the upper galleries, which gave us a bird’s eye view of the whole stage.  I was particularly happy about our seats when they played, “Trepak,” the Russian dance from The Nutrcracker.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had a really good view to watch the percussionist play the tambourine during that piece, but the NSO musician was amazing. I couldn’t even reproduce at slow speed his combinations of striking fingers and knuckles on the tambourine, much less attempt the breakneck tempo of the piece in full flight.

After some consultation with the audience, the conductor established that it was the seventh night of Hanukkah, and he was taking the opportunity to share a bit of his own heritage.  He introduced an arrangement of O Channukah by explaining that he particularly liked the arrangement since it sounded Jewish.  Performed with a clarinet solo, I did find that the familiar piece that I had learned from my teacher in second grade (while my mother and her friend fried latkes for the class) seemed to be crossed with a Jewish wedding dance, and I loved it.

 

Sleigh Ride was an audience participation number.  Instead of one of the instrumentalists doing the crack of the whip during the middle section, the audience was to clap at exactly the right time.  We had a practice session before the piece began, which proceeded with mixed results.  On the first attempt, instinct kicked in and we all did pretty well with only a few stray noises.  On the second try, people started to overthink the song rather than just watching the conductor, and most of the claps were a beat early.  We practiced several more times, and I was thrilled that during the piece, the audience performed flawlessly.

In introducing Brazilian Sleigh Ride, the conductor proudly pointed out that only three acts have had two number one hits in the same year- Elvis, The Beatles, and Percy Faith, who wrote the piece we were about to hear.  The wide variety of percussion and the Latin rhythm amply supplied the Brazilian flair, and although the melody was nothing like the Sleigh Ride that we usually hear during this season, I had no trouble envisioning whooshing merrily across the snow.  Of course, now that I think about it, Brazilian sleigh rides must happen in July, but that did not diminish my enjoyment.

When Maggie and I had been at the White House holiday tour last weekend, there was a choir providing music.  At one point, the group started singing, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” and Maggie pointed out that we had heard the song at the Willard Hotel the previous weekend.  I explained that it’s the traditional song that translates to, “We are done singing for you now, and if you intend to feed us or pay us, now is the time.”  When the vocal quartet at the Pops started in on, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” I smirked and thought, “We’re almost done.”  I have found that it is really not my favorite carol, and when they actually ended on “Silent Night,” I was much happier.

It was another splendid DC holiday outing.  I suspect that January will never be able to compare to the whirlwind of December, but I feel I have done justice to this season in the Capital.

Leave a comment

Filed under Play

A Presidential Day

As I have contemplated the essential components of the Washington Holiday experience, a visit to one of the Presidential homes seemed to be a requirement. Proximity favored Mount Vernon over Monticello, so on Saturday, Maggie and I rented a car and got an early start to Mount Vernon.
In spite of the special Christmas decorations, December is not a major tourist season at Mount Vernon, so unlike in the summer, the upper floors of the main house were available for viewing. Our early start also gave us a jump on the numerous troops of cub scouts and brownies who were out for a visit. It seemed to be a rite of passage to get the troop’s picture taken at Washington’s tomb, but we skipped that part.
The last time I was at Mount Vernon was when I was in fourth grade, and although I had the pride of having visited and some vague memories of the estate, it was a pleasure to visit again when I could appreciate more of the details. For example, although the façade of the house appears to be blocks of stone, it is actually made of beveled boards, which was significantly less expensive to build. The grainy stone texture was achieved by throwing sand on the boards during the painting process. The color of the mansion is currently beige, which matched neither my memories nor most of the pictures and propaganda I’ve seen. A guide explained that they had found a board in the attic that was apparently from the original structure. The assumption had been than it was river sand used in the painting process, which would indeed have been white, but the board demonstrated that it was a different kind of Virginia sand, which would have produced the beige color that we now saw.

Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon

In the late 1780’s, General Washington was inspired one Christmas that his family needed to see what a camel looked like. Since there were no zoos at the time, he paid a man 15 shillings to bring a camel to the estate. (There were no details about exactly why a man from Virginia was in possession of a camel.) Thus it has become a tradition to have a camel at Mount Vernon during the Christmas season. The representative of the species for the past several years has been Aladdin, a young lad of five years who is extremely friendly, but is very fond of filching hats and scarves of unsuspecting visitors. Aladdin’s handler was a chap in Colonial get-up who spoke with a strong Scottish accent. The handler explained that because camels have no upper teeth, they can’t bite, and he allowed Aladdin to munch on his hand to demonstrate. I found Aladdin’s big brown eyes to be irresistible, so I petted him and allowed him to chew my hand a bit as well. It was not painful, however, it was extremely slimy. I don’t regret the experience, but I was happy to find a restroom to clean up before we went too much further.

Aladdin the camel

Aladdin the camel

The main house at Mount Vernon was decorated according to the style of Washington’s time, so the focus was on special meals and some greenery over the doors and mantles rather than trees and wreaths. The Visitor’s Center, however, featured some extremely creative trees, decorated with musical themes or with dolls (available for purchase at the shop.) One of the most unusual themes was the tree decorated with dinner plates, but it actually did work.

Christmas Trees in the Mount Vernon Visitors Center

Christmas Trees in the Mount Vernon Visitors Center

After Mount Vernon, Maggie and I had a bit of time to kill before our later afternoon event. Since we had the rare benefit of a car, I suggested that we try to find the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, which is on a large island in the middle of the Potomac, and is a bit of a hike on foot. Yes, this is a National Parks Passport stamp, which is why the scavenger hunt was merited. I just finished reading, The Big Burn, which in addition to describing a mammoth 1910 forest fire in the West, also detailed the efforts of T. Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot to preserve forests and establish the US Forest Service. It thus felt quite appropriate to see Roosevelt’s statue this past weekend.
Some very creative navigation was required on Maggie’s part to get us back to the rental car drop off. Repeatedly intersections that appeared to be reasonable turns on the map in reality were on different vertical levels. I told her that my top priority was that she keep us out of DuPont circle, and she executed magnificently. We stopped briefly back at our apartments to drop off the bulk of our possessions because our final adventure for the day was a holiday tour at the White House, and any sort of bag was strongly discouraged.
I remain extremely impressed with the White House’s facility at handling crowds. The group holding 4:30 tickets seemed to be at least a hundred strong, but once we passed through security, we never felt crowded or hurried. We were, however, disappointed that we had virtuously left our cameras at home, but at the entrance, there was a sign that we were welcome to take photos. We did reasonably well with our cell phones, so we entered in good spirits.

Christmas at the White House

Christmas at the White House

I had left Mount Vernon feeling that my quest for fancy decorations was unsatisfied, but the White House took care of that feeling. Each room had a different color and design theme for the decorations, and each tree was exquisitely executed. On my own tree, I cherish that each ornament has a story or a memory associated with it, which results in an eclectic mix, but I can also appreciate the tastefully ornate display in a public space.
Just to mention a few of the trees that I enjoyed, in the foyer was a tree with a red, white, and blue theme dedicated to all of our troops. In that room were postcards where we could send a message to the troops and even mail the card in the mail box provided for that purpose. I was also enchanted with the tree in the Green Room, whose glass ornaments were each a tiny hand-blown terrarium.

The China Room

The China Room

The State Dining Room

The State Dining Room

There seems to be a holiday theme in DC of constructing gingerbread houses of famous locations. We had seen the Willard Hotel in gingerbread previously, and the White House was also displayed as a baked confection. The color of the gingerbread was carefully formulated to match the color of the unpainted White House. We were told that when we left via the North Entrance, that there is one window sill that is unpainted, and when we looked, the color of the unpainted building did indeed match the gingerbread White House.

The Gingerbread White House

The Gingerbread White House

One of my favorite parts of the White House tour was the people. It was a very festive and happy crowd, and guests were constantly offering to take pictures for each other. I’ll take that friendly holiday White House crowd over holiday mall shopping any day!

Laura at the White House

Laura at the White House

1 Comment

Filed under Play

The National Christmas Tree

On Wednesday at 2:45 PM, I got an email asking if I wanted two tickets to go see the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, and if I did, I should be ready to leave by 3:45 at the latest.  My theme for this year is to say “yes!” whenever possible, so I was determined to make it work.  Even better, I used every communication method available to contact my fellow Fellow and boon companion, Maggie, who as I expected replied without hesitation, “I’m in!”

We left around 3:30 PM, having been told that the gates would open at 3:00 and we all needed to be in our seats by 4:30 for a 5 PM start time.  The warning that security lines would be long was an understatement, but they moved along at a reasonably good pace.  We were in line probably around 3:50, and we got through security and found seats around an hour later.  We were very fortunate in our tickets since there was a considerable number of ticketsfor  standing room rather than having anywhere to sit.

It was as we waited in the security line that I realized that we were actually going to see the President and the First Family.  I had found it somewhat ironic that during election season, my Beloved Husband, who was on sabbatical at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, had seen the President not once but TWICE on the campaign trail.  It would be a sad state of affairs if I spent a year in DC and didn’t see the President at all, so I have at least partially rectified the situation.

The event was scheduled to last from 5 PM to 6 PM, but there was apparently some kind of delay because I realized that the United States Navy Band Commodores played each of their three Christmas tunes twice before anything started.  Unlike the Capitol tree lighting event two days before, the weather had turned rather cold, so since we had had no chance to dress for the weather, it was a rather chilly wait.  Then again, I did feel I had brought it upon myself since just that morning in my blog post, I had announced that I didn’t mind missing the National tree lighting since it was going to be so cold.  I was justify to myself not winning tickets in the lottery, so I suppose it was karma that I would end up in company with the people I had mocked just hours before.

Eventually the First Family arrived, and it was a pleasant mixture of music and speaking.  Neil Patrick Harris was the host, and he was his usual charming and pleasantly snarky self.  The musical acts were well chosen for the mixed ages of the audience, although I found myself not only evaluating people for their singing talent but also for the apparent warmth of their costumes.  James Taylor, a veteran of all sorts of events, eschewed a tuxedo entirely, in favor of a thick winter jacket and hat, but he certainly looked warm!

The event was put on by the National Park Service, so the Secretary of the Interior spoke a few words.  Secretary Ken Salazar was a Senator from Colorado before being appointed to President Obama’s Cabinet, and I kept thinking of Senator Udall’s Colorado rule from two nights before that for every degree below zero, a speaker should shorten his speech by a minute.  I know it wasn’t really below zero, but it felt like it!  (As a side note, my boss, Senator Michael Bennet, was appointed to be Senator Salazar’s replacement when he took on his new role.  These Colorado people are everywhere!)

I was able to see the President from a distance, as well as on the jumbotron screen, but it was pretty inspiring to see him in person, even as a little dot.  I was also extremely impressed with Mrs. Obama’s part in reading ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas because she has a wonderfully expressive voice.  Speaking of expressive, when the President was about to give his speech, he started off by saying, “Michelle told me I needed to keep it short because she wants more music.”  At that instant, the jumbotron shifted to a view of the First Lady, and we could see her laugh and deny, “I did not say that.”

One new fact to me was that unlike the Capitol tree, which is new every year, the National tree is permanently planted in the Ellipse.  President Obama mentioned that the current specimen is actually the third tree in three years.  The tree that had been standing was either damaged or died, and then its replacement from last year did not take root and thrive after it was planted.  This year’s tree was planted just days before Superstorm Sandy hit Washington, but it survived unbowed and unbroken, which bodes well for the tree and our nation.

Chilly night notwithstanding, it was great fun to be at the event and add it to my holiday Washington experiences.  I understand that the event will be rebroadcast or it seems to be available on the web at http://www.thenationaltree.org/tree-lighting/

Leave a comment

Filed under Play

EPA Smart Growth Achievement Awards

One of the very enjoyable duties I performed this week was to represent Senator Bennet at the reception for the EPA Smart Growth Achievement Award winners.  I have been grateful throughout my life for family and friends who have shown up and supported me for important events in my life, and it was a pleasure to personify my boss’s support for the Denver project that won one of the awards.  I was joined by staffers from Senator Udall’s office as well as staff from the two Colorado Representatives for that area, so it was apparent that our state constituents are well-supported.

The Smart Growth Achievement awards are EPA’s program to recognize communities that use creative policies and strategies to combine economic development, strategic combinations of housing and transportation, and environmental protection in their projects.  There are four categories of awards, but I will focus on the Equitable Development category since I had a chance to learn more about the winning Denver project and the Honorable Mention project from Fort Lauderdale.

Relationships turned out to be absolutely critical for the success of the projects.  The Denver project representative was extremely grateful for the staffs of Senator Bennet, Congresswoman Diana DeGette, and Congressman Cory Gardner who all helped to make the right connections with the right state agency people.  The folks in Denver also recognized that their neighborhood people did not have the time or inclination to come to large evening meetings, so instead, they had many small kitchen meetings, which was an effective method for getting people engaged and to give them input on the shape of the final project.  I can only imagine how much time those individual meetings took, but I sensed that the determination to include the residents was boundless.

Smart growth emphasizes development where people are not required to drive everywhere, so the Denver project has created a space where residents have easy access to mass transit as well as a variety of services such as health care, all without getting into a car.  Environmentally, the project was also allowed to serve as a pilot program for dealing with water.  The buildings represent an unusually large gray water project, in which water from showers and sinks gets recycled to flush toilets, so only about half the water is needed.  Permeable road surfaces and specially designed swaths of land absorb rainwater rather than requiring large pipes to channel the water that usually runs off paved surfaces.

The Fort Lauderdale project also involved relationships with the current residents, and one of the most valuable efforts turned out to be creating a video oral history of the neighborhood to allow the design to incorporate the area’s roots.  In that area of Fort Lauderdale, about half of the high school students drop out, so the project set out to reclaim those students as well as the buildings.  The drop outs who were hired on to the project were given salaries, which kept them out of trouble, and teachers came in twice a day to help the students work on their GED’s.  The students’ work was making all of the kitchen cabinets for the apartment buildings, so the students have earned their GED’s at the rate of about one per month, they have become trade certified, and several have been working on their LEED certifications, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program that is the national standard for green buildings.

I will end with a story told by the man who came to receive the award for the Fort Lauderdale project.  He was asked what happened next.  He shared that after the project ended, he happened to go around the corner from the apartment buildings, and he saw a woman in an adjacent house painting her front door.  He went over to chat with her, and she told him that she hadn’t painted her door in years.  She said, “You made me do this.  The next thing I’m going to do is go out and buy some flowers.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Work

The Capitol Christmas Tree from Colorado

Every year, a Christmas tree selected from one of the country’s National Forests is displayed on the West Lawn of the Capitol.  (That’s the side facing the Washington Monument.)  In contrast to the National Christmas Tree in front of the White House, former Congressman Tip O’Neill named this tree “the People’s Tree.”  This year, the tree came from the White River National Forest in Colorado, so that was especially exciting for me since for the purposes of this year, I am effectively a Coloradan.

Not only did Colorado send the big tree, and not only did the residents make thousands of ornaments for the big tree, but they also sent two smaller trees for the offices of the Colorado Senators.  A Girl Scout troop sent hand-made ornaments for our office tree as well, although there was some disappointment in my sugar-fixated office that there were no Girl Scout cookies as part of the care package.

Transporting the 73-foot tall Engelmann spruce was not a straight-forward endeavor, and the process displayed the pride of Coloradans for supplying the tree.  Former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell took charge of driving the tree, strapped to a Mac truck, on its journey first in an Olympic torch-esque tour of the state and eventually from Meeker, CO where it was cut to Washington, DC. Senator Bennet reported that one of his daughters took a look at the truck when it came through Denver and asked, “Daddy, why can’t you do that?”

As for the main event, I was feeling a bit pleased with myself since I was on staff of one of the hosting offices, and I obviously had the inside scoop on the occasion.  As staff, I was allowed into the VIP area along with our Colorado constituents, so I had an excellent view of everything.  Then I looked up at the Capitol itself, and I saw all the people standing out on the balcony.  How did they get there?  How did they know that would be a wonderful view?  I may have some insider’s information about Washington, but I obviously have a bit yet to learn about working all the angles.

The Air Force Band played carols. (Look at the people on the Capitol balcony!)

The Air Force Band played carols. (Look at the people on the Capitol balcony!)

In Washington, even a tree lighting ceremony is not necessarily simple.  Having planned out every little detail of the event, an additional challenge was added less than an hour before the planned start time.  A pair of roll call votes was called for the Senate, including the vote on the Defense Authorization Act, and since these votes are scheduled to last only 15 minutes, and the ceremony was planned for 30 minutes, it was a bit of a challenge.  In the House, Representatives can hand off their proxies to colleagues, but in the Senate, all voting is done in person.

With exquisite coordination, Senator Michael Bennet arrived at the ceremony on time, and the program was rearranged so that he could speak prior to Senator Mark Udall, the senior Senator from Colorado.  Sen. Bennet said a few quick words, explained that he needed to go vote, introduced his colleague, and dashed off to the Senate floor.  Sen. Udall had waited for the vote to start, cast his vote, and arrived at the ceremony just a little late, but the choreography ensured that Colorado would be well represented.

The tree

The tree

We had a spell of extremely warm weather early this week, and it hit 70 degrees on Tuesday.  Sen. Udall pointed out that in Colorado, there’s a standing rule that for every degree below zero it is outside, you must shorten your speech by a minute.  He threatened to go on and on in honor of the warm weather, but he managed to keep his remarks concise.

In addition to the presence of the entire Congressional delegation from Colorado, the Fellows were also well-represented, evenly divided among Senate and House Fellows.  As staff, we were all allowed into the VIP viewing area, so we got some excellent pictures.

Since I moved to DC only for a year, I tried very hard not to over-pack, and that included leaving Christmas decorations at home.  I think I am enjoying everyone else’s decorations that much more this month, and I feel that as a temporarily transplanted Coloradan and simply as someone living in this country, I am allowed a sense of ownership of the People’s Tree.  As an added bonus, I don’t have to worry about taking it down in January.

The People's Tree

The People’s Tree

1 Comment

Filed under Play, Work