Monthly Archives: May 2013

A Weekend in the Neighborhood

My Beloved Husband came to DC this weekend, and we spent a delightful time exploring my neighborhood in between resting up from weeks of non-stop action.  My BH said several times how much he approves of Cleveland Park as a neighborhood, and we exploited many of those advantages during his visit.

Washington National Cathedral

Washington National Cathedral

The National Cathedral is about a half hour walk from my apartment, and we decided to get tickets for their gargoyle tour.  About half way through the construction of the cathedral, the new architect realized that people were willing to pay all kinds of money to sponsor a gargoyle and perhaps influence its design, so that became an innovative way of financing some of the building.  The cathedral has both gargoyles, which have the requisite rain spout, and grotesques, which lack the water drainage feature.  They are an integral part of the stone, so they can’t be added on later.  There are animals, such as an elephant, a donkey, a warthog, a frog, and a wise owl.  There are a number of statues that are tributes to husbands, such as the bird watcher or the dentist, who is carving away at walrus teeth.  I especially liked the salacious stone carver, who faces the adjacent girls’ school, and the nearby scandalized dean.

The husband who is a bird watcher.  He's sitting on a chair and propping up his neck.

The husband who is a bird watcher. He’s sitting on a chair and propping up his neck.

The tour started with an indoor slideshow featuring close up pictures of the gargoyles and grotesques so we could hear the stories.  That was a very wise move since many of the statues are challenging to view even with the binoculars that were supplied until they ran out.  Because we had seen the pictures, it was much easier to pick out the details on the actual stone figures.  I was also quite thrilled when I checked the photos on my camera and realized that I had successfully captured an image of the cathedral’s most famous denizen, Darth Vader.

a frog

a frog

Darth Vader is on the right hand side of the gablet

Darth Vader is on the right hand side of the gablet

My BH, the gardener, was also enchanted by the “Bishop’s Garden” at the cathedral.  We enjoyed a good wander through that space, and we commented that someone obviously enjoyed purple flowers since the allium, salvia, and baptisia were all in bloom.  It was a glorious spring day, and it was a treat to be outside.

The Bishop's Garden

The Bishop’s Garden

On our return walk, we encountered peripheral traffic from one of the other local attractions.  Cleveland Park is less than ten minutes away from the National Zoo.  Although the Woodley Park metro stop is identified as the zoo stop, the experienced metro riders know that it is better to all the way to Cleveland Park because the zoo is *downhill* from there.  The zoo visitors were easy to identify since they generally involved adults pushing strollers of children who were completely exhausted.  If the kids weren’t exhausted, then the parents certainly were!

Cleveland Park was planned extraordinarily well.  There are a few commercial blocks around the metro stop that include a small grocery store, two banks, two pharmacies, a dry cleaner, a movie theater, and a wealth of restaurants.  The surrounding area is all residential, but almost everything needed for daily living is available within walking distance.  My BH and I chose to check out the Mexican restaurant, which was new to me.  It had excellent strawberry margaritas as well as good food, so I’ll definitely go back there.  (Since I didn’t take this picture, I assume that this chap kept my BH company while I visited the restroom.)

My BH found a friend at the Mexican restaurant

My BH found a friend at the Mexican restaurant

On Monday, we decided to explore a nature trail that we had spotted on our return from the Cathedral the day before.  We liked the unexpectedness of a small nature preserve in the midst of an urban area, but it was an excellent walk in the woods.  The land was too small for a loop trail, but we enjoyed our return walking by the lovely houses on the neighboring streets.  The land for each house is minimal, so I liked looking at what kind of garden or landscaping had been done in the front.  My BH spotted several interesting plants, but I could also tell when his fingers got itchy to weed someone else’s plot.

One of the items on my DC bucket list has been to go to the Uptown Theater, a lovely art deco building right on the main drag.  They are currently showing “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” which my BH and I saw last weekend, so we debated a bit about whether or not to go.  As I was looking up movie times on the internet, I was intrigued that the Uptown Theater has a page on Wikipedia, so I clicked on the link.  The Uptown Theater is supposed to be the best movie theater in the entire metro area, and has hosted such events at the World premieres of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jurassic Park, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Dances with Wolves.  It was also one of the first theaters to show Star Wars and Apocalypse Now.  Having read all that, my BH and I decided that we absolutely had to check it out.

Uptown Theater

Uptown Theater

Unlike many of the big old fashioned theaters which were subdivided into several smaller theaters years ago, the Uptown still has only one screen, but it is one of the largest screens in the DC area.  The theater has a capacity of 850, down from over 1000 before a 1996 renovation, and when my BH and I discovered that it had a balcony, we decided that must be a prime viewing spot.  The sound system was also excellent; when the Enterprise went to warp, there was almost a palpable thump in my solar plexus.

It was a wonderfully relaxed weekend, which my BH and I both needed, but it was also a pleasure to realize how many opportunities were within walking distance and didn’t even require a trip on the Metro.

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The Capitol Dome

At the top of the rotunda

At the top of the rotunda

Two of the most difficult tours to access in DC are the West Wing of the White House and the Capitol Dome.  I was all set up for a West Wing tour when the sequester struck and discontinued White House tours, and I had assumed that there was no hope of my getting a tour of the Capitol Dome.  The challenge of the Dome tour is the group size is limited to about seven people, and it is a requirement to have your Member of Congress or Chief of Staff along.  That arrangement is far more possible in the smaller offices of the House than in the larger offices of the Senate, and I figured that was one of the trade-offs that I accepted.  Out of the blue recently, one of my fellow Fellows forwarded me intel that one of the House offices had six spaces on a dome tour for that afternoon!  She couldn’t attend, but my Beloved Husband has taught me to be spontaneous, and my year in DC has taught me to be opportunistic.  I fired off an email to the contact and offered chocolate as an appropriate gesture of gratitude.  I was queried exactly what form the chocolate might take, and after auditioning several recipe options, my chocolate chip meringue cookies were accepted as an acceptable barter for the tour.

It turned out that the House office had set up a tour for their Chief of Staff who decided not to go, so I was joined by six strapping young bucks who obviously also had good instincts for jumping on opportunities.  I was slightly intimidated when our tour guide mentioned that the climb was 18 floors and over 300 steps, but it turned out that we paused regularly along the way and it was not as strenuous as it sounded.

The dome that we see on the Capitol was actually a relatively late addition to the structure.  The original dome was constructed in about 1824 by Charles Bullfinch, who also did the golden dome over the Massachusetts State House in Boston.  Bullfinch’s original Capitol dome was wood covered by copper, but there was concern about a fire risk, and the structure needed constant repair.  Also, once the new House and Senate chambers were added on to the original structure, Bullfinch’s low bowl-shaped dome was no longer in proportion to the enlarged building.  Thus in December 1854, a new fire-proof dome was designed and funds for construction were authorized by Congress at lightning speed, a mere 10 weeks later.

Under the skirt

Under the skirt

One of the more open staircases

One of the more open staircases

We started our climb through the many narrow twisty staircases, and our first stop was behind the dome “skirt” which is the very base where it starts to rise up from the building.  At that point, we were standing next to the foundation of the old dome on the inside and the new outer wall built to give the proper perspective to the new dome.  The space also hides ventilation equipment as well as utilities such as electricity for the inside lighting.

The puzzle pieces

The puzzle pieces

The new dome is made from cast iron, and I had pictured some kind of cast iron lattice work perhaps?  No, basically the entire shell is made of cast iron puzzle pieces.  If you’ve seen the spherical jigsaw puzzles that are assembled from numbered pieces, that was the concept used to create this dome.  Each one of the indentations on the inside of the rotunda corresponds to one of those pieces.  Here again, we passed between the inner walls of the rotunda and the outer walls of the dome.

If you look through the lit windows, you can see the stairs going up.

If you look through the lit windows, you can see the stairs going up.

Our first inner rotunda stop was about half way up where we could get an excellent view of the Constantino Brumidi fresco mural that encircles the space.  Brumidi did the original design and about half of the painting, but at one point when he was painting, he slipped on the scaffolding.  Fortunately, he had the upper body strength to hold on and was rescued about fifteen minutes later, but since he was in his 70’s at the time, he decided that he would be much happier on the ground.  His student carried on his work, but although the student did his best to stretch the scenes that Brumidi had sketched out, there was a gap when the work was done.  Our guide pointed out that the second artist, rather than signing his work, painted his face onto a tree.  The gap was filled by yet a third artist some time later when Congress was more disposed toward appropriating the funds, so the last scene is of Wilbur and Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk.  It was a pleasure to be looking across at the murals instead of up and getting a crick in my neck.

The Brumidi Fresco

The Brumidi Fresco

 

If you look toward the bottom of the painting, you'll see the railing for the second balcony

If you look toward the bottom of the painting, you’ll see the railing for the second balcony

Another twisty winding climb brought us to the very top of the dome, known as the oculus.  I was not the only one to stand a little ways back from the railing!  In the Capitol dome, the oculus features the Brumidi fresco painting called, “The Apotheosis of Washington.”  An apotheosis depicts a figure sitting in the heavens in an exalted manner, according to Wikipedia.  Washington is flanked by Victory, in green to his left, and Liberty, in blue to his right.  Liberty is wearing a Phrygian cap, based on a Roman tradition that when sons left home or when slaves were freed, they were given this cap to wear to denote their status.  On the Library of Congress tour, we had learned about Phrygian caps being used on one of the figures denoting freedom from ignorance.  When the statue of Freedom was designed for the top of the Capitol dome, she was originally given one of these caps to denote freedom from tyrrany, but since slavery was such a divisive issue, she was redesigned with a Native American headdress instead. Back to Washington, who is encircled by thirteen maidens, who represent the thirteen original colonies.

The Apotheosis of Washington

The Apotheosis of Washington

The central part of the fresco is easily visible from the floor, but the paintings around the perimeter can only be seen in their entirety from the balcony around the oculus.  I’ll mention just three that had interesting details.

Science is represented by Minerva (I’ve always had a soft spot for Minerva), accompanied by Ben Franklin, Samuel Morse, and Robert Fulton.  A box of batteries and a printing press are supposed to illustrate American invention.

Science

Science

Marine issues are illustrated by Neptune (who is sitting and watching while not helping), and Venus, who is busily laying the transatlantic telegraph cable.  An iron clad warships appears in the background.

Venus doing all the work in Marine

Venus doing all the work in Marine

In the scene of War, Freedom, also known as Columbia, is accompanied by an eagle carrying arrows reminiscent of the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States.  Columbia is said to be crushing tyranny, but there has been much discussion that the figures being crushed are the Confederate leaders from the Civil War.  Robert E. Lee has the white beard, Stonewall Jackson is in the armor, and Jefferson Davis is cloaked and hooded carrying the two torches.

War

War

One other interesting detail we learned was that in the early 1900’s as part of a building conservation project, all the paint was stripped off the walls of the rotunda and the adjacent hall, with the assumption that the original walls were unpainted.  Our guide pointed out that if the plan had been for the walls to be unpainted, then there would have been an effort made to match the sandstone colors.  Since the stones are not matched, the intent of the architect was obviously to have the chamber painted.  Unfortunately, at this point the unpainted walls have now taken on historical significance.  Our guide suggested that these decisions are what drive curators crazy.

The unpainted sandstone walls

The unpainted sandstone walls

The view from the top!

The view from the top!

Last but definitely not least on our tour, we got to go outside to the balcony just under the statue of Freedom on top of the dome.  It was a perfect day to be outside, and the views were magnificent.  My spontaneity paid off wonderfully, and I was thrilled to get to go on this special tour.

On the top of the Dome

On the top of the Dome

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National Memorial Day Concert

With my BH on the Balcony of the Capitol

With my BH on the Balcony of the Capitol

In yet another demonstration of the power and leverage of the Fellows’ connections, my fellow Fellow, Maggie, contacted me and asked if by Beloved Husband and I would be interested in viewing the National Memorial Day concert from the balcony of the Capitol.  I thought it was a wonderful idea, and we eventually settled on the Saturday rehearsal concert, since the crowd would be smaller than for the main event on Sunday.

My BH and I met up with Maggie and headed toward Union Station.  To access the Capitol in the evening on a weekend, we needed to enter through the Senate office buildings, where there is a single entrance that remains open 24/7.  In the absence of crowds of people trying to get through security, the guards were quite chatty.  They looked at the images of the bags we were bringing through and promptly asked if the wine was red or white.  The woman who came in after us was bringing snacks, and the outline of each individual cookie was visible on the scanner as well.

The “Chariots of Democracy,” the underground trains connecting the office buildings to the Capitol, don’t run on the weekends, but it is a pleasant walk past all the state flags and state seals, and my BH continues to enjoy his opportunities to see the underbelly of Capitol Hill.  My BH and I had scouted out our destination on Friday afternoon, so we had no problem with navigation.

One of the perks of being a senator is that each person has a hideaway somewhere in the Capitol so that he or she doesn’t need to go all the way back to the office between votes on the floor.  Some of these are not much larger than broom closets with space for perhaps a desk and a few chairs or a couch, but others are more extensive and more well-appointed.  The hideaways have been created as space has become available in the main building block.  For example, when the Capitol Visitors’ Center was built, the Capitol Police moved out of their basement offices.  The space on the House side was turned into conference rooms since there is no way to create 435 hideaways on that side, but the Senate side made more hideaways so that every senator now has at least a small room.

Maggie works on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee, which is chaired by Senator Harkin.  As a very senior senator, Senator Harkin has one of the best hideaways.  He apparently moved there only recently, and his staff had to convince him that if he traded a bathroom for the balcony that the balcony would indeed be used.  We were quite happy to help out on that count!  Sen. Harkin’s hideaway was part of what had been the Library of Congress before it was moved to its own building, so it was off a beautifully decorated back hall right behind the Rotunda.

The view from Senator Harkin's hideaway and the reflection of inside.

The view from Senator Harkin’s hideaway and the reflection of inside.

One of the other characteristic traits of the HELP committee is that they seem to have the best food of any group I’ve encountered on Capitol Hill.  The rehearsal concert was no exception since there were a wide variety of beverages, cheese and crackers, popcorn cookies, and strawberry cheesecake rice crispy treats.

 

Best seats in the house!

Best seats in the house!

From our balcony location in the center of the Capitol, we had an outstanding view of the concert stage, and the Megatron screen hoisted over the tent gave us close-ups of the action.  It was an excellent mix of music and speeches that paid tribute to our veterans, our current soldiers, and the families of all of them.  An actor who has regularly played Jean Valjean in Les Miserables sang “Bring Him Home,” from that show, which was a beautiful fit for the concert.  The “Pie Jesu” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem got me equally teary, although I commented to Maggie that the Pie Jesu is the only easily singable part of that entire Mass.  They also honored the passing of World War II veteran Charles Durning, who I recognized from Tootsie, and who had been a longstanding supporter of the annual National Memorial Day concert.  From our balcony, we had a prime view of the military trumpeter hoisted in a cherry picker so that when he played “Taps,” the Capitol dome and flag would be behind him.  (OK, so I have no idea what branch of the military goes with the red jacket.  Any experts in the audience?)  My last favorite part of the concert was when the National Symphony Pops played the songs of all five branches of the armed services.  I still need to learn the Coast Guard’s anthem, but I’m proud to be able to match the songs with the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.

A salute to Charles Durning

A salute to Charles Durning

My BH departed at one point to seek out the facilities, and when he came back, he reported the surreal experience of being the only person in the rotunda.  He has only ever gone through with me when there were hordes of tourists, so he said that he had a Night at the Museum sense that perhaps the statues might come alive.  It was indeed strange to be part of only a handful of people in all of the Capitol; I rather enjoyed the quiet.  My BH was also pleased that Maggie and I have not lost our thrill of unexpected pleasures in the Capitol.  Rather than hiking all the way back to the Senate office buildings, we ducked out through the carriage entrance of the Capitol itself.  I have never been out that door before and probably never will be again, so that was another exciting part of the evening.

The rotunda- are the statues ready to dance?

The rotunda- are the statues ready to dance?

The concert should be shown on PBS on Sunday night in most locations, and I highly recommend it as an appropriate way to honor this weekend.  When I visited the National Cathedral last fall, the docent asked us to find some way to honor our soldiers and veterans on Memorial Days and not to use the weekend solely to go mattress shopping.  I feel that I have done justice to her request.

View of the dome from the carriage entrance.

View of the dome from the carriage entrance.

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Traveling Mercies

I picked up the phrase “traveling mercies,” some years ago from the pastor who eventually performed the wedding ceremony for my Beloved Husband and I.  Traveling mercies go beyond “safe travels,” because they acknowledge that sometimes everything doesn’t go smoothly on a trip.  Traveling mercies wish that when things do go wrong that there are friendly and helpful people who will take care of you, give you aide, and perhaps give you laughter.

This past weekend, I traveled up to Connecticut to go to the University of Hartford undergraduate commencement.  Most of the chemistry and chemistry-biology majors in the class of 2013 had taken general chemistry with me in their first years, and watching each of them grow and progress has been one of the delights of being a professor.  I wanted one last opportunity to tell each one how proud I was and to be part of this ceremony that each had work toward for four (or more) years.

On the afternoon of my departure, I blithely mentioned to one of our DC staff members that I vastly preferred taking the train over flying.  The train might be an hour longer, but it was so restful and relaxing.  Who knew that I was jinxing myself?

I arrived at Union Station to catch my Amtrak train a mere 10 minutes prior to departure after boarding was already well underway.  I figured my Beloved Husband would be proud since his ideal timing is arriving just before the door closes behind him.  I’m obviously getting pretty casual about this whole train business. It doesn’t hurt that the station is less than 10 minutes from work, another bonus of traveling by rail.

We trundled up the track towards the first stop at New Carrolton, and I dove into my book.  Unfortunately, at that point we stopped.  Eventually, we reversed back to Union Station where they established that our engine was not going to make the trip.  They were able to change the engine, and we set off again, a mere hour behind schedule.  It’s important to get into a Zen mode when traveling by train since there is a considerable amount of slop in the schedule.  I was cheerfully ensconced in the quiet car, and I didn’t really notice the time passing by.

Then we arrived at Penn Station in New York City, and we were informed that there had been an “incident” in Bridgeport, and the train wasn’t going to go any further.  (Traveling mercies- I wasn’t on either of the trains that derailed!)  I naively stood in two different lines to try to get some advice on alternate plans, but patience was not in abundant supply for the local personnel.  I happened to know that it was possible to get a bus from NYC to Hartford, so I went up to the street level and looked around.  I was somewhat rattled at this point, and in spite of the odds being 50-50 that I could take off in the correct direction, I knew that there was actually a 100% chance that if I chose to walk, I would go exactly 180 degrees from where I wanted to.  So I decided to hop in a cab and go to Grand Central Station.

On the occasions when I’ve gotten unexpectedly stranded, my first thought is to do an inventory of who I know who lives nearby.  Traveling mercy- one of my fellow Fellows is a native New Yorker, and he answered my, “Help!” text immediately.  When I arrived at Grand Central and realized that Grand Central is only trains, he replied, “Yep, you need to go to the Port Authority.”  He’s a man after my own heart, and he not only gave me the address where I needed to go, he also inundated me with data in the form of city bus route options, screen shots of bus schedules, and anything else he could think of that might be helpful.

The incident at Bridgeport turned out to be two trains that collided and derailed, and the regional buses were doing everything they could to pick up the slack.  I bought a ticket for the 9:30 bus at 9:28 (chanting “Print! Print! Print!” at the machine) and ran off to find the gate.  It said “52” on my boarding pass, but that turned out not to be a gate at all.  A resourceful NYC entrepreneur obviously knew of this information gap and had stationed himself conveniently to ingratiate himself to lost travelers who needed directions.  He asked for a tip, but I’ll still count his presence as a traveling mercy that was worth five bucks!

So I sprinted to the correct gate- only to find multiple merged lines and absolutely no direction.  The 8:30 and 9:30 buses both left at 10:15, but since each bus all afternoon had been oversold by a few seats, I was one of about 10 people who didn’t get a spot on my bus.  My next real shot was on the 11:30 bus, and I was glad of it since the 10:30 bus hadn’t yet left when my bus left on time at 11:30 PM.  I felt it was a traveling mercy that I got a bus ticket at all, so I was not about to complain.

Traveling that late at night meant that we had smooth sailing to Hartford and we made excellent time, arriving at 2:30 AM.  I had planned to get a cab when I arrived, but there were none in sight when I got off the bus.  Traveling mercies- one showed up almost immediately, and I got there just before the people behind me.  And traveling mercies- my BH took the dog for his early morning walk the next morning and let me go back to sleep.

My BH and I didn’t get much quality time together over the weekend between his commencement and mine, but we did go out to dinner and see the new Star Trek movie.  That was worth the trip right there!

Commencement was wonderful on Sunday, and it was heartwarming to be greeted by so many people who had missed me.  I won’t actually be returning until August, but I have enough requests to do lunch to last for months after I get back.  It was also absolutely worth the trip and the challenges to see my students graduate.  I started a tradition a few years ago to take a picture of the graduates and the faculty at Commencement, and we’ve been hanging the pictures on the wall in the Chemistry Department.  I was very pleased to make sure that this year’s picture was taken and will be added to the collection.

 

Class of 2013

Class of 2013

 

My original return train departure from Berlin Connecticut was scheduled for 5 PM, which was plenty of time to work around Commencement, but since Friday’s derailment had ripped up the tracks between New Haven and New York, my train wasn’t running on the Connecticut leg.  Traveling mercies- my BH had chatted with one of his colleagues at their Commencement the day before, and his friend suggested picking up the Metro North commuter rail in Danbury and taking it down to New York.  So that’s what we did.  Commencement even got out early enough that I was able to take my picture, do hugs all around, and change my clothes at home before we needed to depart.  It got a little stressful when traffic slowed down to a crawl on several stretches in I-84 to Danbury, but with traveling mercies, we made it to the station with about ten minutes to spare.

From there on out, the traveling mercies were abundant.  I had no problem making the Metro North connection in South Norwalk, and once I reached Grand Central Station, I had over an hour to walk to Penn Station for my Amtrak train.  I even went in the correct direction out of Grand Central!!! (although there was a considerable amount of analysis that went into the preparation for that decision.)  I had neglected to bring an umbrella since the weather report had been for clear weather, so I was grateful for the traveling mercy that it was simply misting for my walk.

As I walked, I rather enjoyed the silliness that I had even a brief time above ground in New York since usually all I see is the train tunnels.  Having surreptitiously checked the map on my phone for landmarks, I was enjoying a mental chorus of, “Give my regards to Broadway!  Remember me to Herold Square,” which was on the way, when I looked up and saw an even better landmark.  Macy’s!  Look it’s Macy’s!  How cool am I?  Although my suitcase was light, I elected not to go shopping in favor of ensuring that I would make it to Penn station on time.

I did so well at Penn Station that I even had a little time to call and chat with my sister.  My Amtrak train left on time, and as I was trying to get a seat in the quiet car, I ran into a fellow Fellow, and I was able to sit with a friend.  My last challenge had been arriving back in Union Station before the last Metro train left for the night since the Metro is infinitely cheaper and faster than taking a cab.  We got in early, and I only had a six minute wait to get a train.

Was the crisis in New York on the way to Connecticut fun?  No, definitely not, but I was buoyed by the support of friends via text and Facebook, for the kindness and commiseration of strangers, and for being given the resources to find a way home.  My family has picked up the habit of wishing each other “traveling mercies,” and I offer it to everyone who reads this post as a hope for your own experiences.  When everything doesn’t go quite right, may you have blessings and good people to help you along the way.  Traveling mercies.

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A Tribute to Sally Ride

This picture was the go-to image of Sally Ride during the tribute

This picture was the go-to image of Sally Ride during the tribute

When one of my fellow Fellows invited me to join him for the Tribute to Sally Ride at the Kennedy Center, I was thrilled to accept.  I especially appreciated his attitude of, “Since it was Sally Ride, I knew I needed to invite a female to use the other ticket.”

In June will be the 30th anniversary of Dr. Ride’s flight as the first American woman in space.  I can look back and think that it was inevitable that a woman would fly at some point, but I’m sure it didn’t feel quite like that at the time.  The event at the Kennedy Center honored both Dr. Ride’s accomplishment and her subsequent contributions to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education, especially for women.

A recorded Tom Brokaw speech kicked off the event via a large screen hanging center stage.  He introduced a video presenting the story of Sally Ride’s life and accomplishments.  It included commentary by Sally’s life partner, Tam, as well as by her mother and sister.  All three were in the audience last night, but I thought it was lovely that almost invariably, Tam was acknowledged first of the three.

Sally apparently loved music and dance, so a wide variety of tributes took that form and added texture to the evening.  Twyla Tharp was in the audience and donated the performance of “Jordan” from Sweet Fields, which she choreographed.  Damian Kulash played “All is Not Lost” on solo guitar, and Patti Austin in a rich contralto sang, “Way Up There,” which was written by Tena Clark, also present in the audience, as an anthem to NASA.  Of all the musical selections, my favorite was Clair de Lune played while stunning images of Mars were shown on the screen.  Yes, a slight mismatch in the Moon-Mars there, but it all worked.

Mars

Mars

Two former astronauts represented all of the astronaut corps in giving remarks.  Pamela Melroy talked about the differing attitudes before and after Sally’s flight.  When Ms. Melroy was in high school, she explained that she took one of those standard career tests. One of the two options suggested by the test was “florist,” and Ms. Melroy recalls that even when she was taking the test, she was frustrated that they weren’t asking her the right questions to identify her passion for science and her goal of going into space.  If my mother had been present last night, I knew she would have cringed even at the start of the story.  My mother has impressive credentials at railing against career tests that suggested that boys become doctors but girls become nurses.  I seem to recall that the best match goal identified for me when I took the test was, “Teaching Catholic Sister.”

Ms. Melroy went on to explain that there are positive signs that times have changed.  Both she and her college roommate went on to become astronauts, and they became part of a sisterhood of intelligent, motivated, talented, and successful women.  When Ms. Melroy’s son was six years old, he asked his mother, “Mommy, can boys become astronauts, too?”

A theme for the evening was breaking glass ceilings, and Senator Barbara Mikulski, the first Democratic woman to be elected to the Senate in her own right gave impassioned remarks about the need for women and girls to have equal opportunities to those of men and boys.  When Ms. Mikulski was elected as Senator of Maryland (or Senator of Goddard Space Center, as suggested by the MC), one of her first letters of congratulations came from Sally Ride.  It was thus with great pride that Senator Mikulski brought greetings from all twenty women currently in the Senate.

Speaking to Sally Ride’s unflagging efforts to ensure STEM opportunities were available to both girls and boys was Craig Barrett, who met Sally early in her career.  As he explained it, “Sally went on to work for a little start up called NASA.  I went on to work for a little start up called Intel.”  Craig later became CEO of Intel, but he noted, “Sally went higher than I did.”  Years later, Craig and his wife brought Sally out to their ranch in Montana for some rest and relaxation.  Sally refused to get on a horse, so the three set off to tour the area on all terrain vehicle-type bikes.  As is typical in the Rockies, one dirt road they traveled was precipice on one side and vertical wall on the other.  Craig and his wife realized that Sally had fallen behind, so they went back to collect her.  Her ATV was tipped over near the wall-side of the road.  When they asked her if she was OK, she replied, “I’m just a little bit scared of heights.”  Craig loved that this talented and accomplished woman who had flown 200 miles in the sky was still so down to earth.

Billie Jean King had known Sally Ride when Ride was a nationally ranked tennis player who spent a summer as a camp counselor at King’s tennis camp.  King had encouraged Ride to go pro on the tennis circuit, but Ride explained that she was going to graduate school to get a doctorate in astrophysics.  King asked, “Is that like astronomy?  What are you going to do with that degree, go into space?”  Ride replied, “Well, yes.”

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice via video remembered that she was a junior member of the faculty at Stanford when Dr. Ride joined the ranks.  Determined to have a word with this famous woman but incredibly tongue-tied, when they were introduced, Rice blurted out, “What was it like being in space?”  Ride answered with grace and poise, and the two of them went on to be neighbors and friends as well as colleagues.

In addition to giving numerous talks encouraging interest in STEM disciplines, Ride helped to create two programs that were designed to engage middle school students.  EarthKAM (KAM = Knowledge Acquired by Middleschoolers) was an extra camera flown on each shuttle flight dedicated to taking photographs requested by middle school students.  It’s rather fascinating to look at the image gallery and see what the students requested.  MoonKAM is a similar camera program allowing students to study the moon.  I can imagine that geography would be far more interesting when taught via space-based photography.  When I looked through the image gallery for an illustration, I learned that our atmosphere has a lot of clouds!

EarthKAM image of Florida

EarthKAM image of Florida

NASA administrator, Charles Bolden, was pleased to share that President Obama had announced that Sally Ride was being awarded a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor, which is the country’s highest civilian award.  The award recognized her not particularly for her historic flight, but more for her tireless work afterward to advocate for STEM education and to inspire young women and girls to break through barriers and pursue their dreams.  After hearing the evening of tributes and the many examples of Sally Ride’s influence, I agreed that the award was quite appropriate and well-earned.

Dr. Ride was especially fascinated by the blue band of atmosphere around the Earth.

Dr. Ride was especially fascinated by the blue band of atmosphere around the Earth.

Sally Ride passed away in 2012 after a 17 month battle with pancreatic cancer.  She will obviously be missed by far more than just her own family.  Godspeed, Sally Ride.

 

 

 

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Library of Congress

When a friend told me he had an in at the Library of Congress who could do a tour for me, I had no idea that the friend would turn out to be the Director of Volunteer Services.  This was obviously the man who gives master classes to tour guides, and it was most certainly one of the most stellar tours I have ever had the pleasure to experience.  That my parents, who obviously supplied me with a powerful pair of bibliophilic genes, were able to join me was icing on the cake.

We started off in the Bibles Gallery, which contains a pair of extremely rare specimens.  The first is the Giant Bible of Mainz, one of the last great hand-written bibles which took about eighteen months to complete.  A reader would read a bible verse, and the monk would inscribe it on the page.  In general, the monks who scribed bibles were anonymous, but this particular monk did such a find job that he eventually received his own nickname, “Calamus fidelis” or “the faithful pen.”  The pages of the book are designed to be embellished with fancy borders or illustrations, but for some reason, the illustrations stopped only a few pages in.

Giant Bible of Mainz

Giant Bible of Mainz

In the second case in the Bibles Gallery is a Gutenberg Bible.  In the time it took Calamus fidelis to produce a single copy of the Bible, Gutenberg made about 160 copies with his printing press.  One detail that I hadn’t thought about before was that since Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press in the West, there were no pre-made cases of type to access.  Thus someone had to count up the number of A’s, B’s, C’s, etc on each page and then all of those letters had to be made before the type could be set.  Of the approximately 50 existing copies of the Gutenberg Bible, about 12 are on vellum, which is dried animal skin, and the rest are on high cotton content paper.  One of the odd artifacts of using vellum is that there was no particular standard size for a page.  Thus if the vellum was cut into large pieces, then the entire bible might be contained in just two volumes.  If the dimensions of the pages were smaller, then three or four volumes might be required.  For displaying both the Mainz and the Gutenberg Bibles, the cases are filled with argon gas, the lighting level is low, and the pages are turned periodically so that the exposure to the elements is minimized.

Gutenberg Bible

Gutenberg Bible

The Library of Congress (LOC) was established in 1800, and along with the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Supreme Court, they shared space in the Capitol while construction was continuing on the building.  That lasted until 1814 when the British arrived in Washington, burned the White House, and using the books from the Library of Congress collection as fuel for also burned the Capitol.  Thomas Jefferson, in retirement at Monticello, offered his personal book collection as a replacement, which started the shift from a collection that focused on law to a collection that reflected Jefferson’s broad-ranging interests.  Jefferson, always a planner, sent his books in eight ox carts with four taking one route and four taking another, just in case.  All of the books arrived safely, but I respect his caution.

Jefferson’s library occupies a special exhibit space in the building, and it is constructed in a conch, which is nearly a circle.  Jefferson had always wanted to have all of his books in a circle around him so that he could sit in his swivel chair and scan for the title he wanted.  Having been to Monticello, I know that he certainly didn’t have the space for it at his home, but the LOC decided they would give it to him now.  Sadly, about two-thirds of Jefferson’s original books were also lost in a fire, but a generous gift to the LOC allowed for the reconstruction of the library.  If a book in the library has a green ribbon bookmark, it is one of Jefferson’s originals.  If the ribbon is gold, then the book is a replacement of the exact edition in Jefferson’s library.  No ribbon means the book is the same title and approximate edition, and titles that have not yet been replaced are noted by a box whose spine contains the title and author information.  The books are arranged in three groups: Memory, Reason, and Imagination, which Jefferson interpreted as history, science, and arts.

Jefferson's Library in the LOC

Jefferson’s Library in the LOC

In 1886, the book collection was overrunning the Capitol with books stacked in staircases and in hallways, so at last Congress appropriated money to construct a new building for the Library.  The original construction company turned out not to be up to the task, so the project was turned over to the Army Corps of Engineers, who completed the project early and under budget.  I rather enjoyed the idea that the Army Corps could build a library as adeptly as building dams.

The Jefferson building of the Library of Congress was designed as an Italian Villa and is extremely ornate.  We were told a story of President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin arriving through the front doors of the building for an event.  Initially absorbed in their conversation, Yeltsin eventually looked up, stopped, and then said to Clinton, “You have never had Tsars here.  How did this building happen?”

Great Hall in the LOC

Great Hall in the LOC

Putti

Putti

Of all the stories of the décor, my favorite involved the carved marble figures going up the steps.  My memory of the story is that the Army Corps general recruited several marble carvers from Italy and brought them over to do the work.  The general announced that he wanted babies, known as Putti, carved on the wall next to the stairs.  The craftsman said, “no.”  The general pressed his point that the putti were typical of the Italian style, but the craftsman explained that this library was a place of study and exploration rather than indolence and apathy.  When the General would not accept the craftsman’s answer, the craftsman finally replied, fine, he would carve babies, but they would be worker-babies.  Thus each of the putti represents some kind of occupation or profession.  There is a farmer carrying a scythe and wheat, an architect looking at plans, an astronomer holding a telescope, and even babies representing the performing arts.  There is one who is identified as a physician, but our guide, who understood his audience, said that because the putti was holding a retort, he obviously was a chemist!  Our guide also made a point of showing us the wall panel honoring chemistry as well.

The chemist putti- no matter what the label says

The chemist putti- no matter what the label says

The original Jefferson LOC building had four courtyards for a wonderfully open floor plan. In 1908, the LOC approached Congress and explained that they were running out of space to store books. Congress replied, “How many courtyards do you have?” The LOC replied, “four.” Congress replied, “Use one of them.” So they enclosed one of the courtyards and added book storage.  That eased the space issue for a few years until 1927 when the LOC again approached Congress and said that all of their space was full. Congress again replied, “How many courtyards do you have?” “Three,” was the reply. “Use one of them,” was the direction from Congress. These conversations repeated until the LOC was down to a single courtyard, and Congress finally authorized construction of the Madison Building. The Adams Building followed at some point after that, but both of those structures are a bit more utilitarian; the Jefferson building remains the showpiece.

Main Reading Room in the LOC

Main Reading Room in the LOC

The Main Reading Room made my library-loving heart go pitter-pat. Not only is it a magnificent space with book-filled nooks all around the perimeter, but we also learned the process of doing research. A researcher will first go to the Madison building to get a reader card and to talk through the general topics that are of interest. The person is then sent to the best starting point of the 26 reading rooms around the three LOC buildings. If the Main Reading Room is the best place to start, then the researcher is assigned a desk and is given a form to request up to 10 books. The books are delivered 45 minutes later, and that desk belongs to that person for the duration of her stay. If the researcher stays longer than a week, then she is assigned her own book shelf to keep her materials. If she is planning to stay for six months or more, then she gets assigned a tiny cubical in a different building that allows her to keep all of her materials safely in one spot. Certainly the architecture of the Main Reading Room is splendid, but all those books and the idea of my own desk in the LOC really put me over the moon.

Our last stops were in a few special rooms on the first floor. There is an extensive collection of music and instruments belonging to the Gershwins, and about a quarter of Bob Hope’s memorabilia are displayed in an adjacent room. I was particularly excited that we were able to go into the “Whittall Pavilion,” which is a meeting room where the instruments by Stradivarius are kept. Since violins must be played regularly to keep their quality, the LOC regularly invites visiting string quartets to come play the instruments and give concerts in the Coolidge auditorium of the LOC, a performance space designed with perfect acoustics.

My family has gone on numerous tours over the years, so we have high standards for guides.  This tour was one of the best I’ve ever been on and the space was absolutely amazing.  I highly recommend a visit to the Library of Congress.

 

 

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A Day (or Two) in the Life of a Congressional Fellow

I have been asked what a typical day looks like as a Congressional Fellow, and the reality is that there is no such thing as a typical day.  Still, the question remains valid, so I’ve chosen two recent days that were admittedly a bit more crazy than usual but that give an idea of the breadth of my activities.  The writing and researching projects are especially infinite in their variety, but here are two days from last week according to my calendar and my email traffic.

 

Tuesday

Read the Washington Post before I left home

8:15 AM          Arrived at the office to be ready for an 8:30 meeting. Took a quick look at my mail and met the folks who were already waiting.

8:30 AM          Meeting.

I have found that the one aspect of my job for which I was woefully underprepared is interacting with the military.  I find that anyone in a dress uniform fairly reeks of competence, so I had to squelch my admiration for the handsome man with the indecipherable gold braid and colored squares of plastic on his chest and get down to business.  I have also accepted that sooner or later, I’m going to be called, “Ma’am.”

9:00 AM          Start in on the day’s email, especially the news briefs

Every morning, I get seven different email blasts with headlines and summaries of news in environment, energy, and technology.  I also receive a blast summary of clips from around the Rocky Mountain Region, and I get an email of press clips mentioning the Senator plus a round-up of articles from the press in Colorado.  Fortunately, these are spaced throughout the day, but I try to work through them steadily to keep up with developing issues.  I also get the four Capitol Hill newspapers delivered to my desk (The Hill, Roll Call, National Journal, and Politico), and I try to scan those at some point.

9:30 AM- ~ 11:00 AM   Hearing sponsored by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

I really wanted to attend this hearing since it was on a bill that I am expecting to handle for the office, and it was organized by a fellow Fellow. Unfortunately, my water bill had been introduced for consideration (known as being “on the floor”) so I really couldn’t get away.  Happily, the hearing was broadcast on Senate TV, so I could work and listen.  By paying attention to the speakers, I learned all the key background, issues, and controversies involved with the bill.

~ noon             Grab lunch and bring it back to my desk.  It’s one of those days.

12:30 PM        Team Environment Phone call

To make sure that the DC staff and the state staff are coordinated and are well-informed, we have weekly phone calls among the folks who deal with environmentally-related issues. These are separate from our full staff meetings on Monday since we discuss more details and more strategy for how we can be helpful.

1:30 PM          Meeting with a constituent

~ 2:10 PM       Head down to the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry meeting room

2:30-4:00         Briefing on Forest Fires and Forestry

Because the Senator is the Chair of the Subcommittee on Forestry, our staff got to play a significant role in setting up this Ag Committee briefing.  The Senator came down and made some remarks to kick off the session, and then we had three really good speakers who talked about the science of forest fires, the challenges of limited resources, and the view from firefighters on the ground.  I had done just a small part of this work, but it was gratifying to have it all come together into an extremely informative session.

During the time I’ve spent at my desk today, I’ve been monitoring the Senate amendment tracker to see what amendments have been filed on my bill.  I’ve been transferring them into my own spreadsheet and including summaries so I have an idea of what each amendment does.  I know from the budget vote-a-rama that we won’t actually consider every amendment, so I’ve also been keeping an eye and ear on the Senate floor.  If Senators give speeches about particular amendments, those are more likely to come up for a vote.

I’m also waiting for notification of some kind of agreement on what votes we might be having today, and I’ve found that inevitably that doesn’t happen very early.

6:25 PM          We finally get the announcement of the probable amendments to be voted on for tomorrow, and I start writing vote recs for the three amendments

The following week, the Farm Bill is scheduled for a “mark up,” which is the committee amendment process, so my LA is simultaneously dealing with those issues.  I’m happy to be contributing to his sanity by handling the first pass on everything for my bill.

6:56 PM          Sent off a draft of the vote recommendation (“vote rec”) for the first amendment

7:17 PM          Sent off a draft of the vote rec for the second amendment on my list

7:26 PM          Sent off draft of the vote rec for the third amendment.

I haven’t gotten faster, there’s just less I could do on this one.  I’m good at summarizing the issue and often the pros and cons, but I don’t have the background to understand how this vote weaves in to the Senator’s entire voting record.  My LA is a master at that, though!

7:57 PM          I manage to leave just before my usual door from the building is closed for the night

9:46 PM          I check my Blackberry one last time. I’ve gotten a “Can you please find out first thing tomorrow” email from my LA, so I let him know I’m on top of it.

There were two receptions I had planned to go to in the evening that didn’t happen.  I also sent 62 emails over the course of the day.

Wednesday

I’m not sure if I got to read the Post before I left home or not.

In the unscheduled times, I worked on email, watching the amendment tracker, putting information into my own amendment tracker, and watched the floor.

8:30 AM          I arrived in the office and started working on yesterday’s tasks

9-10:00 AM    Colorado Coffee

Every Wednesday that the Senate is in session (and thus the Senator is in town), we host “Colorado Coffee.”  This is an opportunity for constituents to meet with the staff and to have some interaction with the Senator.  He stops by for half of the hour, usually gives a short speech, and then carries out a question and answer session where no topic is off limits.  During the half hour that the Senator is not present, the staff have been assigned to specific constituents so that the guests will speak to someone who is knowledgeable about their topic of discussion.  The interns are a vital part of this process since I often have multiple people to meet with, and the interns help me find those people and make sure that everyone gets attention.  It’s an exciting but exhausting event because I’m so hyper-focused on people.

10:00 AM        Constituent meeting

10:30 AM        Constituent meeting (this one got canceled, so I squeezed in time to call the Congressional Research Service with a question about an amendment topic)

11:00 AM        Constituent meeting

Noon               Trying to leave for lunch with my fellow Bennet Fellows, but I’m also trying to watch the floor. One Senator announces that he is withdrawing one of his two amendments, so there will only be two votes later.

12:15-12:45 PM          The Legislative Director agreed to watch the floor for a while, so I got lunch with my fellow Bennet Fellows. That is actually a rare treat for us, but our healthcare fellow was finishing up at the end of the week, and we wanted our own celebration.

1:00 PM          My LA returns from a meeting, and I was able to fill in him in that one less vote was expected. We actually hadn’t gotten a floor update email, which is unusual, so this was a valuable piece of intel.

~2:00 PM        Votes start on the floor

On one of the amendments, we decided to keep track of who voted which way.  That sounds easy, right?  After about 10 minutes if there is a break in the action, the Clerk reads the list of senators voting in the affirmative and senators voting in the negative.  It doesn’t sound like she is reading quickly, but it was a real challenge to keep up, even with an alphabetical list in front of me!

2:30 PM          I had planned to watch one of the appropriation hearings.  That didn’t happen.

2:48 PM          We get word that there are three more amendments in line for consideration, so that’s three new vote recs.  Sometimes it isn’t clear exactly why the issue in the amendment needs to be address, so I’ve learned to call the office that is offering the amendment and ask for a one-page summary, which they usually have on hand.  I have had numerous experiences with very friendly and competent staff from both sides of the aisle who are happy to help me.

So I wrote drafts of my three vote recs and continued to watch the floor for updates on what votes might be occurring that day.

5:30 PM          We get the word: We are voting at 5:45 on a completely different amendment that isn’t on the radar at all!  Ahhhhhhhh!   New vote rec!

5:35 PM          I send the five minutes of work I have to my LA

5:40 PM          The LA sends his work to the Legislative Director (LD) for the final check

5:42 PM          The LD sends the vote rec off to the Senator who goes to the floor and votes.

Oh, and the three vote recs I had worked on in the afternoon- they all got adopted by Unanimous Consent, so we didn’t need vote recs after all.

I sent 50 emails today.  Neither happy hour I was signed up for happened. I think I pooped out around 7 or 7:30 PM.

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