Monthly Archives: January 2013

Lessons from Science and Diplomacy

During Fellows Orientation, I learned a little about the importance of science in diplomacy.  The one application that I know is that often science and technology exchange is the leverage that can be used to bring about progress in other areas.  Wanting to learn more about how science and diplomacy can mix, I took the opportunity to go to roundtable event about careers in that area.  The two presenters had both been AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) Fellows in the past, one in the State Department and the other in USAID, so they were particularly knowledgeable about our own experiences.  Their comments were entertaining and helpful in many different situations, so I thought I’d share.

Both men are working on water issues, but from two different perspectives.  The first is working at MCC, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which was created by Congress in 2004 as an independent foreign aid entity.  MCC works with the most promising developing countries on the most promising projects.  To qualify, a country must be above average on a number of key indicators in the general areas of Ruling Justly, Encouraging Economic Freedom, and Investing in People.  Often countries that are on the borderline for qualification will make considerable efforts to improve their performance so that they will be eligible for MCC projects.  The second presenter is currently working at the State Department, having done his fellowship at USAID, and he works with a lot of inter-country water agreements.

One of the first comments that struck me was a statement similar to what I’ve often said in the past.  In the presenter’s words, “Schedule, quality, and cost.  You fix two and the other one floats.”  Essentially you can optimize two out of three of those variables, but you can’t optimize all three.  In synthesis, there are two “quality” factors and the cost usually gets left out so you can only optimize two out of three of yield, purity, and time.  I find it a very useful lesson for the perfectionists in the crowd.  Yes, sometimes I need to remind myself.

The two presenters, both of whom have done considerable international work, had very different perspectives on learning languages.  One felt that by having at least rudimentary language skills, a diplomat has much more flexibility in assignments.  I always think about Spanish as one of the key languages, but he pointed out that French is important in many African countries.  He also has some Arabic and enough Portuguese that he can read reports written in that language to get a sense of whether or not they say what they are supposed to.  The second man prefers to learn very little language so that he doesn’t accidentally create a misunderstanding.  He does, however, pay close attention to the body language of people with whom he meets.  On the occasion when a translation did not match his sense of the attitudes of the other people in the meeting, he turned to the translator and said, “That’s not what they said,” meaning that the translation certainly wasn’t what they meant.

When asked what experiences they had found valuable preparations for their current jobs, one man mentioned two key parts of his past.  He said that as a past juvenile delinquent, he understood the criminal mind, and having played ice hockey for 15 years, he has a high tolerance for pain and learned not to back down from a fight.  With that said, he then suggested that perhaps he wasn’t an ideal role model for the folks in the room.  We were amused.

I was fascinated by one man’s comments about writing.  One of the questions came from a State Department Fellow in the audience, who expressed frustration that by the time a memo reaches the top levels, it has been edited so many times that it has lost all of its excitement.  In response, the man suggested that there should be a cadence and flow to writing. There is a rhythm to the words so that a reader does not have to stop or go back.  By understanding that flow, the writing does not get in the way of the substance, and it is less likely to be edited.  He then smirked and suggested that yes, it sounded like he was commenting on the Zen of memo writing.

I hadn’t really thought about the time frame it takes to make good policy, but that was another useful lesson.  One fellow expressed frustration that she had written a memo about adopting a new policy in the first three months of her fellowship and it hadn’t gone anywhere.  The speakers made two observations.  The first is that it probably takes about 10 years to build a new issue unless there is ground work in place.  Given my brief experience in Congress, I would agree with that idea.  The second observation is that in a town that is filled with memos, that preparing and creating a constituency is vital to making progress for your issue.

Prior to the session, one of the presenters asked the people with whom he worked to share the most useful advice he had given them over the years.  I found a number of these to be applicable far beyond diplomacy, so I wrote them down to share:

1)       Don’t let knowing what you need to know get in the way of doing what you need to do.  Scientists in particular are accustomed to learning absolutely everything they can about a problem before making a decision.  Sadly, in government, this is often a luxury that is not possible if the action is to be timely.  So don’t study a problem to death before you act.

2)      Be first.  Be Best.  That’s where the wins are, but most of them come from being first.

3)      In writing: If you see an adjective, kill it. (-Mark Twain)  You need to be direct and concise.

4)      Say what you mean and say it lean.  Far too many people beat around the bush or go on for pages.  If it’s not on the first page in the first couple of sentences, it won’t get read.

5)      It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.  That is particularly important in diplomacy that you need to be attentive to your audience.  If your message isn’t getting through, then you aren’t doing your job.

6)      Regarding career expectations: Nothing is worse than finding out that you are good at something you didn’t want to be good at.  The former juvenile delinquent is appalled that he’s actually very good at making a bureaucracy work for him, but he accepts that it is so.

7)      You are not Secretary Clinton.  Don’t kill yourself with insanely high standards.  You can work and strive all you want, but without certain lucky breaks or being in the right place at the right time, you are not going to rise to that level no matter how smart and talented you are.  Find a place where you are happy and can perform well.

8)      Everything follows the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  He didn’t actually explain this one to a group of science nerds and no one asked him about it, but the idea is that the universe is constantly moving toward the maximum state of disorder and chaos.

9)      Don’t just take advantage of opportunities, create opportunities.  (I think I’ve done that quite well this year, myself!)

10)  Be nice.  We work in a small world.  The two men mentioned that they met 10 years ago and have been in and out of each other’s professional lives multiple times since then.  You never know who you are going to need later.

11)  Have a vision.  That vision allows you to shape the world around you and allows you to take advantage of opportunities.  (I’ve never felt strong on this one.)

12)  Know what you look like.  Know how you sound.  These two comments are all about the impressions that you make on people.  The presenter mentioned that at one point after making a presentation, the only comment he got from someone was that he, the presenter, had said, “Um” a total of 43 times.  He no longer says, “Um.”

13)  You don’t know anything.  (-Game of Thrones)  The key is to pull together the right people who *do* have the background to help make a sound policy decision.  That’s what makes you look good.

14)   Results matter…except when they don’t.  Relationships are also important.

15)  Know who you work for and what success is in their eyes.  As a corollary, the other man added that your supervisor may not know exactly what success looks like, in which case you must educate them.

16)  Fail strategically.  You probably aren’t going to be able to do everything or to do it perfectly.  Make sure you choose which pieces are going to be failures, and make sure they aren’t the important stuff.

The second presenter added the following:

17)  Don’t always count on people articulating what they want.

18)  Be the kind of person who people want on their team.

19)  Be willing to work with junior staff.  It helps them grow, and it helps build future strategic alliances.

20)  If you are enthusiastic, it is contagious

One that I’ll pull out specifically is the intriguing idea that it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t need to take credit.  Get other people to do the work for you.  If you do one project, then that’s just one project.  If you convince people that the projects are a good idea and give them ownership, then you’ll get a hundred projects instead.  The other speaker suggested that there is a balance between taking credit for your own work and allowing others to have ownership, and I agree with that as well.

Lastly:  Being famous and changing the world are not the same thing.

 

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Credentials

I supposed you might consider them the trappings of power, but I have been fascinated by the tools of the trade as a Senate Fellow that provide me with access and privilege.

The all-powerful ID

The all-powerful ID

First is the ID badge that identifies me as a Senate staffer. That badge gives me access to every “Authorized Personnel Only” door in the Capitol with the exception of “Senators Only” or “Members Only” entrances. It allows me to access the tunnels between the office buildings and the Capitol without clearing security, and it allows me to bring whatever I want into the Capitol and to avoid the usual food and drink prohibition. I can take books out of the Senate library as well.

The ubiquitous communication device

The ubiquitous communication device

Congressional staffers from personal offices all communicate via the ubiquitous Blackberry, which generally serve as mobile email devices more than phones. Vote recommendations can be communicated via Blackberry to the Senator on the chamber Floor during rapid fire voting sessions, and a staffer at a hearing will send email updates almost like a Twitter feed to let the Senator’s Scheduler know the progress of the events and when the Senator must arrive to take his turn for questions.

My Gold Eagle.  The real deal does have my contact info, but not for the web.

My Gold Eagle. The real deal does have my contact info, but not for the web.

Because staff positions require taking numerous meetings with lobbyists and constituents, having business cards is critical to participate in this ritual. I usually have several extras tucked in with my ID in case I forget to bring some. All of the Congressional business cards look pretty much the same, so I have a large stack of governmental cards from the people I met when I did placement. I hadn’t much thought about the contrast to the cards used by non-government people until I took a meeting off the Hill, which was attended largely by industry representatives. I was handed cards with crazy colors, wild fonts, bold logos, and two-sided designs. In return, I simply laid down my card adorned only by the embossed gold eagle. That understated elegance conveyed a power and influence that immediately trumped everything a highly paid design shop could produce. Yes, it made me feel just a little bit smug.

The one difference that Fellows experience in contrast to our staffer colleagues is that because we are not directly employed by the Senate, we do not have automatic authorization to go out on the Senate Floor to staff our Senators. Often when a Senator is giving a speech, a staff member will come along to carry large pictures or simply be available for assistance. That authority to enter the main body of the Senate chamber is known as “floor privileges.” For a Fellow to be allowed onto the Floor, the Senator must ask for unanimous consent to give a Fellow floor privileges. The Fellow’s name is thus permanently in the Congressional Record, the daily transcript of everything that is said officially in the Senate chamber.
This past Thursday, Senator Bennet was giving a speech on the Floor, and without telling us, the Legislative Director and my Legislative Assistant wrote the piece for Senator Bennet to request unanimous consent for the three Fellows in his office to receive Floor privileges for the remainder of the Session, ie. for the duration of the 113th Congress. We were watching the speech on C-Span, so when the Senator made the request, the two of us Fellows who were in the office at the moment cheered. The third Fellow was at a hearing doing the aforementioned Twitter feed-like reports, so we emailed her to share the moment.
I have yet to get out on the Floor to staff the Senator, but I stand ready to serve!

The Congressional Record from 1/24/13

The Congressional Record from 1/24/13

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2013 Presidential Inauguration

We are invited

We are invited

My Beloved Husband decided it was the chance of a lifetime to come to a Presidential Inauguration to help use my two tickets, so he joined me for the weekend.  The weather on Sunday was particularly lovely, so we enjoyed a stroll at a leisurely pace across the front of the Capitol to observe the preparations for Monday’s main event.  It may have been President Obama’s second Inauguration, but there was still a buzz of excitement in the air, and people were very generous about taking pictures for each other at the low spots in the fence in front of the Capitol.

It was much warmer on Monday!

It was much warmer on Sunday!

Inauguration day dawned chilly and partly cloudy.  With a 6:45 AM departure from my apartment, we arrived at our designated Judiciary Square Metro orange ticket starting point at about 7:25 AM.  Numerous signs and security police directed us to the end of the security line, which was already wrapped around the block.  Having seen the President twice at pre-election rallies in Wisconsin this past fall, my BH is a veteran of Presidential security lines and the patience required.  The line moved reasonably well, and we were entertained by the enterprising individuals hawking inauguration T-shirts, buttons, and flags, as well as more practical items such as chemical handwarmers and knit caps with “Obama” spelled out in rhinestones.

The fanciest tickets I've ever seen!

The fanciest tickets I’ve ever seen!

When we arrived at the security screening tents, my BH observed that the English feel that Americans simply do not understand the concept of forming a queue.  As I looked at the mobs of people surrounding each entrance to the tents, I had to agree.  I was rather proud that by going to the end entrance, we were able to establish a somewhat more orderly line at least briefly.  No, it was not because I started organizing people either!  I think it was my BH’s Englishness that made the difference.

For some reason, although we were admitted to the Mall before 9 AM, we were some of the first people diverted into overflow space adjacent to the reflecting pool rather than into the standing space designated by our tickets.  Although we were further away from the action, that location turned out to be a significant advantage, because we found a tree on a small rise that gave us a reasonable view of a Jumbotron and allowed me to see over people’s heads.  Even when more space was opened up in front of us, we stuck with our original spot.  Another huge advantage of that spot was that because we were not in among the jostling crowd, we were able to sit down on the ground for at least an hour, which took the strain off our feet.

One of the most exciting parts of being present at the Inauguration for me was the arrival of the various dignitaries who sat on the platform.  The Joint Chiefs of Staff arrived and were followed by the Members of the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court justices, the Cabinet Secretaries, and then the past Presidents of the United States.  Attending this year were President and Mrs. Carter, who were warmly greeted by the crowd, followed by President and Mrs. Clinton, who were welcomed even more enthusiastically.  When the Obama and Biden families arrived, I was reminded of an article I had read mentioning that Mrs. Obama obviously pays attention to what her family wears so that photographs look good.  They are never cookie cutters of each other, but they all dress in a harmonious color palette.  The girls’ lilac and purple coats blended well with the First Lady’s blue and gray as well as with their father’s blue tie.

One in a million people!

One in a million people!

The reality of being at the Inauguration is that there are quite a few trees on that side of the Capitol which restricts the views in spite of being leafless in January.  Thus we couldn’t see the platform at all, and our view of the Jumbotron was a bit fuzzy.  What I did learn is the magic of being physically present and sharing a momentous occasion with a crowd of other people.  I don’t think I have ever before been one in a million, the approximate number of people who attended in person.  When President Obama mentioned climate change in his speech, there was a short pause as the comment registered and then a swell of approval from the crowd.  When he later mentioned equal opportunities for “our mothers, our wives, and our daughters,” followed by his endorsement of gay marriage, there was an even more enthusiastic roar.  That energy can’t be captured effectively by remote viewing.  Likewise it was a thrill to cheer along with everyone else after each oath of office was administered.

Trying to get home after the ceremony was a bit of an adventure.  I had no doubt that the Metro stations would be complete chaos, but it was about a four mile walk home, so I proposed that we instigate an Inauguration Pub Crawl.  We quick-walked about two miles to Dupont Circle and found a pub in which to find refreshment and to warm up a bit.  On TV, we were able to watch the lunch in Statuary Hall in the Capitol and then watch the start of the parade.  I had signed up for the text and email alerts from the Metro, so I kept track of the stations that were closed temporarily because they were overwhelmed by people.  I was glad we had decided to walk, and that we had found a way to break up the trek.

We next proceeded to walk up Connecticut Avenue until my BH announced, “It’s a pub crawl.  We need to go into more than one place.”  So we found another refreshment and another television to watch President and Mrs. Obama and Vice Present and Dr. Jill Biden walk up Pennsylvania Ave greeting the crowds.  (As a side note, there have been numerous approving comments from my female fellow Fellows that Dr. Jill Biden was introduced with her proper title!)  I was especially happy to finally understand the purpose of the odd structure that had been under construction behind the White house for the past several months.  It served quite nicely as a parade viewing spot for the Obamas and the Bidens.

That was the end of the adventure.  Except that it wasn’t.  I kissed my BH good-bye the next morning and went off to work.  Shortly after I arrived at the office, Maggie forwarded an email to me that staff were welcome to take family and friends out to the Inauguration platform to take pictures any time that day.  I organized a group of the Fellows, who met outside just before lunch and just before everything got busy, and we got some wonderful photos.  I also emailed my BH, whose train out of Union Station wasn’t departing until 3 PM, and asked if he wanted to come in and get his picture taken with me on the platform.  He said it was a chance of a lifetime, so he came in, I whisked him through credentialing and security, and Maggie met up with us to take pictures.  We have pictures standing where the podium was where the oaths of office were taken, and we have pictures of us with the decorated dome of the Capitol in the background.  Those pictures and that opportunity was probably the most amazing part of the whole Inauguration weekend.

On the Inauguration platform

On the Inauguration platform

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Inauguration Preparation

From Union Station

From Union Station

I have seen parties, proms, graduations, and weddings, but I have never before witnessed the phenomenal level of preparation required for a Presidential Inauguration.  I imagine it must be comparable to staging an invasion; this event is of shorter duration, but the troops are less experienced.

Four years ago, 1.8 million people descended upon the Capital to witness the inauguration of the first African-American President.  The estimate for this year of 800,000 visitors is obviously far less, but organizers are still determined to learn from the challenges of the previous event and improve upon the experience.

Last Sunday morning starting at 6 AM, the organizers led the volunteers in staging a complete run through of the event to learn their parts.  To be a volunteer at the Capitol for the event, the requirement was to have a valid Congressional staff badge and to be able to navigate around the Capitol complex.  In addition to greeting guests, several hundred “packages” must be picked up and delivered.  Those packages are people, such as past Presidents, Cabinet Secretaries, Supreme Court Justices, and guests who will be arriving at the Capitol and must be conducted safely and efficiently to their seats on a tightly scheduled timetable.  I understand that multiple walking routes have been established through the building to reduce traffic jams.  Each guest is conducted by a specific volunteer along a specific route, which was all rehearsed last week.  One of the most exalted jobs in the rehearsal was standing in for the main players; the Washington Post showed pictures of four figures wearing signs of “POTUS” (President Of The United States), “Mrs. Obama,” “VPOTUS,” and “Mrs. Biden.  The tall graceful young woman who doubled for Mrs. Obama sent a message to the First Lady that she strongly recommended wearing comfortable shoes for the event, since her own stylish footwear was less than comfortable by the end of the day.

IMG_0279

The new head of the Capitol Police has been thrown into the deep end of event preparation.  Success in that position leads to potential advancement, but failure to pull off a smooth day leads to disaster.  There are already numerous signs directing people to the correct locations for their tickets, and barriers have been prepared to close off the core streets to vehicle traffic.  The metro system has likewise been working for several weeks to prepare for the influx of visitors and to educate everyone on how to have a smooth day.  The three metro stations on the mall will be closed for the day, specific stations have been designated for people with each ticket color to disembark, and everyone is encouraged to purchase their metro passes in advance.

Where to go and how to get there

Where to go and how to get there

Around the Senate, an entirely different set of logistics were being navigated.  The various Inaugural balls and parties were spaced out over the course of several nights, so staff members were making decisions about where they might go and for which events spare tickets might be procured.  Securing a tux or making time for a quick shopping trip to find an evening gown became important scheduling considerations.  The Chair of the Inaugural Committee, Senator Chuck Schumer, mentioned an enormous range of requests from donors and constituents ranging from the impossible to the truly outrageous, such as demanding additional tickets or trying to parlay a single party invitation into including a dozen friends.  Due to a Ticketmaster error in which they accidentally opened up the system for purchasing tickets to the official Inaugural balls a day early, those tickets became impossible to obtain as well.

With all those challenges, I still got a big smile out of watching some constituents come through security on Friday afternoon.  They proudly announced that they had come from Wisconsin and had arrived to pick up their Inauguration tickets.  Their excitement was contagious.

The Fellows, all experiencing our own first Inauguration, have been plotting equally enthusiastically, if at a somewhat lower level than the veteran staffers.  A few elected to avoid the chaos of the event, but most of us have plunged in with great energy.  Our offices were all generous enough to provide us with tickets for the main event, so the emails flew around on Friday exchanging information about where our tickets were located.  “Green!”  “Orange West!”  “Orange North!” “Gold!”  “Look for me!”

Map of ticket locations.  We are Orange North Standing

Map of ticket locations. We are Orange North Standing

My own preparations began back in December, when I signed up to be a volunteer, not knowing if I would be able to get tickets or not.  I ended up with a plum assignment, working volunteer check in, with a break to watch the swearing in ceremony from the platform.  Then I learned that I would be getting two tickets to watch.  It would be great to watch from up close, but my Beloved Husband has been such an unflagging and staunch supporter of this fellowship year in Washington, that I decided that it would be a far more special event if I could go with him.  I offered Maggie as a substitute for my volunteer slot, so I’ll still get to see pictures.  I was thrilled that my BH agreed that seeing a Presidential Inauguration in person was the chance of a lifetime, so we have our warm clothes and comfortable shoes, and we are ready for action tomorrow!

Union Station

Union Station

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Science and the Law

During the Fellows’ Orientation, one speaker specifically addressed the contrasts between science and the law, which fascinated me.  The use of science to solve crimes is a popular premise for TV shows such as “Bones,” and similarly scientists may appear as expert witnesses in court cases, but fundamentally, the process of law and the process of science are different.

One divergence between science and the law is their timelines.  To answer a question scientifically, we carry out a study or experiment, analyze the data, and when we are finished, we can produce an answer that is as complete and valid as possible.  That investigation often takes years, but it is understood to be the scientific process. In the courtroom, the goal is to produce a swift and definite answer.  Cases must be decided on the best information available at the time, even if the data are incomplete or are totally lacking.  Judges understand that producing a timely resolution to a case thus implies that available information may change over the years, sometimes indicating that the decision might have gone the other way, but it is also important that court cases are not tried on scientific timelines.  The priority of the court is to pass judgment based on the best information available at the time and to allow the parties to get on with their lives.

The standards of proof are also different in the two fields.  In law, my understanding is that one party must prove that it is “more likely than not,” or a 51% chance that their argument is true.  We all expect a higher standard of science.  Looking at the very contentious issue of climate change, around 95% of the scientific community agrees that the Earth is getting warmer, and the change is being caused by human activity.  That’s called scientific consensus where as many people as practically possible all agree.  Even so, some people still refuse to believe that overwhelming evidence (although they never seem to focus on the idea that just a tiny fraction of scientists have any disagreement with the consensus.) What is tremendously persuasive in the courtroom is not sufficient for scientific proof.

Science and law also are radically different in their rates of change.  Science is accustomed to extremely rapid change with new discoveries being announced almost daily.  A quick Google search just now showed me news of developments in anthropology, medicine, astronomy, and meteorology.  (Apparently it was a slow day in chemistry or we just aren’t as sexy as these other fields.)  In contrast, law changes very slowly and incrementally.  The courts want precedent and predictability.

Even the training systems are different for the two fields.  Scientists are trained in the context of cooperative teams and often share information.  The law is premised on an adversarial system; in some cases, there may even be two scientific expert witnesses who are trying to interpret data to the benefit of their side.

For expert witnesses and for judges, a landmark case called Daubert v. Dow (Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals), was decided by the Supreme Court in the 1980s and set the standard for the use of scientific knowledge in expert testimony.  Most significantly, there was a concern that in technical cases, an average jury would not be able to evaluate the quality of scientific evidence from two different expert witnesses. Scientific evidence is expected to be reproducible through multiple trials and by different experimenters and to have been through the peer review system in which a manuscript is sent to multiple anonymous reviewers in the field for comments on the work’s validity before it is published.  A jury might be faced with one witness presenting results from studies using standard accepted scientific techniques and a second witness presenting evidence based on experimental techniques that had not been validated and were not broadly accepted in the field.  The information provided by the scientific standard is viewed as reliable whereas the evidence of the second is not yet established to be trustworthy, but those distinctions are difficult to make for someone without the right background education in the general field.  Thus judges became the gatekeepers who would determine in advance what expert witness testimony met the standard and would be allowed into evidence and what testimony would be excluded.

I immediately wondered how a judge would be better off than the jurors, but our speaker, who was herself a judge, told us an intriguing story of one highly technical case she was assigned and how she was able to pass judgment on the validity of the expected testimony.  In conference with the two attorneys, she announced that she had absolutely no idea how to evaluate the scientific arguments, and she needed to learn more of the background.  She asked the two lawyers to agree on a local expert who would be willing to come in once or twice a week to tutor her in that specific field so she could evaluate the expert testimony.  A professor from the local university was agreed to, and he conducted a weekly class for the judge.  The two lawyers also attended every session since neither attorney wanted to be left out or to allow the other person to bias the information.  After what amounted to a graduate level course in the field compressed into two months, the judge was fully qualified to make a decision about what testimony met the scientific standard for inclusion.

The speaker actually stopped her story there, but a follow up question elicited the information that after all the scientific training the judge and the lawyers received, the truth of the case became blindingly obvious to all participants to the point where it was settled out of court and did not come to trial.  For all their differences, science and law turn out to be compatible after all.

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DC Dress Code

 

A professional wardrobe in DC is distinctly different from the professional wardrobe of an academic.  Certainly I fall on the more formal end of the spectrum for an academic since I normally wear blazers and dress pants except for Fridays, but working in the Senate has exposed me to a far more formal set of norms.

One observation I had made on previous trips to Washington was the large number of women who wear skirts.  Indeed skirts and dresses are probably more prevalent here than trousers for professional women.  Those skirts also tend to be short and straight; long skirts or full skirts do not seem to make the cut.  The second observation I made for Senate staff is that when the Senate is in session, suits are the norm.  For men, that’s not even a sport coat and pants.  It’s a matching suit.  The options seem to run the full (?) spectrum from navy to gray, sometimes with a pin stripe for the extremely stylish.  Women also tend toward solid neutrals, although they are more likely to have a dash of color by adding a scarf or colored blouse.  Patterned jackets, such as those I wore regularly as an academic, are somewhat unusual, and I have yet to wear my red blazer.  Women Senators wear pretty much whatever they want, but there is more uniformity among the female staffers.

I can probably summarize the level of formality in the Senate in two words:  cuff links.  I remember finding a few sets of cuff links in my father’s dresser drawer when I was young, but I don’t recall ever seeing him wear them.  Senate staff are rarely seen with cuff links, but they are de rigueur for some of the high powered lobbyists who come for meetings.

(Yes, de rigueur.  I picked up some interesting phrases from a stint reading romances set in the English Regency period some years ago, and I like to keep all of you on your toes.)

A number of years ago, I got a behind-the-scenes look at how exclusive boys boarding schools work.  I had figured that these lads learned at a young age how to accomplish lofty skills such as tying a necktie.  Thus I was quite amused to learn that often the boys arrive at school with all of their ties pre-tied by their fathers, and the boys would simply loosen the ties to put their heads in and then tighten them up again for class.  I find that the male Senate staff  have similar tricks up their sleeves.  My sense is that after dry cleaning, trousers go home, but jackets all go straight to the office, often still in their protective plastic.  If all the suit jackets are already at the office, then it is easy to pull out the match to the trousers of the day.  Jackets are donned specifically for meetings and are often shed as rapidly as possible thereafter.  There also seems to be an extensive collection of ties in our office, but I have yet to identify to whom they belong.

Inevitably, women’s clothing with all its nuances is far more challenging.  The most important wardrobe piece for me is a jacket, since it serves two purposes.  First, it elevates my outfit to business formal.  Second, all of the thermostats everywhere are set to make sure that the men in their jackets and ties are not too hot, so my jackets are a vital temperature control device.  I favor suits for days when we are in session, but I’ve also been enjoying wearing skirts lately as well.

One of the greatest challenges with this level of formality is shoes.  On some days, I walk quite a bit, so comfortable shoes are vitally important.  Of course, fashionable and comfortable are mutually exclusive, which is problematic.  I’ll often wear sneakers to work and then bring dress shoes to change into.  Apparently I am not alone with this problem, because I’ve heard of women who have a collection of shoes under their desks to rival the guys and their collection of jackets.

For days when the Senate is not in session, the dress code will depend heavily on the office.  For Colorado, we tend toward the casual with the whole office staff wearing jeans and boots or casual (comfortable!) shoes.  If I have a meeting on one of those days, I’ll often try to add a jacket to dress up a little.  The guys just grab a jacket from their collections, and they are ready to go!

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Schoolhouse Rock turns 40

One nearly universal touchstone for my generation as school children was Schoolhouse Rock, the 2-3 minute educational segments inserted between Saturday morning cartoons.  Schoolhouse Rock turns 40 this coming week, and the Kennedy Center celebrated with a special concert on the Millennium Stage over the weekend.

As the Washington Post explained, Bob Dorough, who recently turned 89, was the man who got the job of writing and voicing most of the ditties that we know so well.  For years, he would be playing his jazz gigs only to have someone mention that his voice sounded familiar, and when the connection was identified, there would be an immediate request for some Schoolhouse Rock.  Bob Dorough played about half the concert and the other part was provided by a local band called, Rocknoceros.

The Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center is known for providing a free concert every day of the year, so it was on my DC list of things to do.  I sent out an email to the Fellows telling about the concert, although I really wasn’t sure if there would be any takers since our age differences might put the younger folks out of the bracket who grew up with Schoolhouse Rock.  It turned out that Schoolhouse Rock ran for two time periods, first from 1973 through 1985, and then another few years in the mid-1990s.  I suspect that Maggie is a child of the second generation, but she announced that she wouldn’t miss the concert.

Sunday night was billed as a family night concert, but in spite of the large array of toddlers, the event was really all about the adults.  The Millennium Stage is in the back hallway of the Kennedy Center and has very minimal seating, so the crowd was perhaps 12-15 people across and then stretched back as far as I could see.  Maggie and I estimated between 700 and 1000 people in attendance, and although it was often hard to hear, the music was still excellent.

Taken from about halfway back in the crowd.

Taken from about halfway back in the crowd.

Bob Dorough, who obviously is an old hand at this music, came to the piano and started off with “Three is a Magic Number,” followed by “Figure Eight.”  (If you skate, you would be great,
If you could make a figure eight.  That’s a circle that turns ’round upon itself.)  Both of these songs are part of Multiplication Rock, so even if the audience didn’t know all the words, we could be relied on to provide the products of the times tables.  By the second time through, Bob would pause for us to fill in, “10 x 3 is (30), 9 x 3 is (27), etc.”  I, personally, was much happier on the 3 times tables than on the 8’s, but Figure Eight is certainly a good song.

From there, we went into Grammar Rock and the train song, “Conjunction Junction.”  The crowd supplied the repeated phrase, “Conjunction junction, what’s your function?” and Bob would fill in, “Hooking up words and phrases and clauses” along with all the verses.  I even had the little girl next to me joining in for the chorus!  I did realize partway through, however, that even back when I was watching Saturday morning cartoons, I learned harmony rather than melody, but I sang the line that I knew, and that didn’t seem to bother anyone.

It was inevitable and appropriate for a DC concert that the two History Rock songs next were “I’m Just a Bill” and “The Preamble.”  I can only imagine how satisfying it must have been to sit on the stage and listen to hundreds of adults singing the Preamble to the Constitution all from memory and realize that it was your project that taught the lesson.  I remember being required to recite the Preamble in Ms. Gonser’s 8th grade social studies class, and because of Schoolhouse Rock, I already had it learned on the first day.

Rocknoceros took over for a while and started off with “Unpack your Adjectives,” which was a bit more challenging to follow without the animation and without being able to hear the voices clearly.  Maggie and I discovered that the set of songs that we remembered were slightly different; she hadn’t learned the Preamble song, although she looked up the lyrics on her iPhone.  I don’t remember any of the Science Rock songs, so “Electricity” and “Energy” weren’t familiar to me.  No one else sang those songs either, so I didn’t feel left out.  “Fireworks,” which is apparently the story of Colonial America, was slightly more familiar, but that also wasn’t one I knew well.

The last song of the short concert was, “Interjections,” which was a crowd favorite.  Bob Dorough returned and joined Rocknoceros for this finale, and either his deft touch with song selection or with the audience was quite apparent.  I actually knew the verses for this one, and we all sang the choruses.  There is also an interlude section in which the hundreds of Schoolhouse Rock veterans in the crowd ended up supplying all of the interjections:

“So when you’re happy – HURRAY! Or sad – AWWW, or frightened – EEK! Or mad – RATS or excited – WOW or glad – HEY! An interjection starts a sentence right.”

Most of us went into fits of laughter after the first pass on that section because we shared not only the right words, but also the same inflections, especially the heartfelt disgust of “RATS!”  I can only imagine what the kids were thinking as all those adults suddenly yelled out in unison.

Happy Birthday, Schoolhouse Rock, and thanks for teaching me and my generation about math, grammar, history, and science.  We’ve learned our lessons well.

 

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