Monthly Archives: April 2014

A Little Free Time in DC


A recent meeting took me to DC for a few days, and because I took the train down the night before, I had a little free time to spend.  Thus I found at least one answer to the question of what a former Fellow does when returning to her Capital roots.

Even the trip down to Washington felt like a return to my fellowship year since I took Amtrak. It was a delight to arrive at the station a mere 15 minutes before my scheduled departure, park for free, and not deal with security, taking off shoes, checking a bag, or any of the hassles of flying.  I simply hopped on the train, plugged in my laptop and settled in for a long comfortable uninterrupted time for getting caught up on work.

The best way to travel

The best way to travel

I arrived in Union Station around 10 PM.  As a former DC native, I knew that it was actually much faster to take the Metro to my hotel than to wait in line for a taxi.  Having a pre-charged metro pass made the process even easier.  I chuckled at the nostalgia I experienced on the way as I passed the familiar stations:  “Judiciary Square- where the National Building Museum is.  Gallery Place/Chinatown where the National Portrait Gallery is.  Metro Center for shopping and shows.”  When I left back in August, I had expanded my bucket list multiple times, and there weren’t many if any experiences I felt I had missed.  I realized upon my return, however,  that I’m ready to do them all over again.  As one of my fellow Bennet fellows told some new folks who were complaining that they were bored, “There are 1000 things to do around here, and Laura Pence did them all!”

One of the challenges of my recent visit was that I wasn’t going to be available for any evenings to meet up with people.  I was reluctant to ask anyone to get up too early, but I should have remembered sooner that Fellow Maggie has always been up for anything.  We got together at 6:45 AM and walked the Mall through the morning fog.  We started by coming down behind the White House, and then headed off for the Lincoln Memorial.  We even found something new to do and found another early bird to take our picture with the statue of Albert Einstein.  We asked our photographer what kind of nerd he was, and he said, “I’m a pretty extreme nerd.  I’m a librarian.”  Maggie and I agreed later that we weren’t sure that a librarian really stacks up as an extreme nerd against a chemist and a chemical engineer, but we weren’t about to burst his bubble.

By the time we had walked from the Lincoln Memorial all the way up to the Capitol, we were somewhat caught up with each other’s latest adventures, and Maggie had to go to work.  I went into the Russell Senate Office Building, where I used to work, and managed to navigate security at the entrance for non-Senate staff.  The visitors who don’t go through security daily almost all needed two tries to get through the metal detector.  I remained patient, and I was rewarded by getting a quick hug from the security guard after I got through (without setting off the metal detector, of course!)  After a little shopping in the Senate Gift Shop, I spent some brief time with my former co-workers.  It was a real pleasure to see them, and I do miss all the action of that office.

One of the main things I miss most about no longer being a Fellow is my Senate ID badge.  While I was on staff, I made a point of wandering through the Capitol as often as I could, and I no longer have that privilege.  My fellow Bennet Fellow helped me work around that limitation, and she corralled one of the interns to escort me through the tunnels to the Capitol.  I was pleased that the Senate train was there to pick us up since I still enjoy the nostalgia of catching that ride.


Once in the Capitol, I easily navigated myself over to the Library of Congress where I used my Reader Card to gain access to the Main Reading Room.  When I had told my upperclassmen that I was cancelling class for a meeting in DC, they were very impressed with my importance.  I figured it would be appropriate to add luster to that reputation by grading inorganic problem sets in the Library of Congress.  I did actually grade for a little while, but then I just looked around and soaked up the atmosphere and joy of being in such a beautiful space that not only has lovely architecture, but is also full of books!

I missed the peak of the cherry blossoms by only a few days, and it seemed that all of the flowering trees came into full bloom just over the course of a single day.  I took a few pictures so that my friends and family from the chilly north would be assured that spring really is on the way.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court

My morning walk made sitting in a meeting all day easier to take, so the following morning, I decided to squeeze in another expedition to the Mall.  In contrast with the fog from the day before, it was clear skies, and it was a treat to watch the sun rise over the monuments.  The scaffolding is finally down from the Washington Monument, and since it has been closed since the 2011 earthquake, I’m wondering if it will be possible to go up again soon.  It looks like I’ve restarted my DC bucket list after all.

IMG_0768 IMG_0771

The best way to travel!


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Colin Powell

For some years, now, I have taken advantage of the long trips to American Chemical Society meetings to try to plow through one of the jumbo-sized nonfiction books on my To Be Read shelf.  Having developed a taste for biographies of political personalities, Colin Powell’s autobiography seemed like a good choice for my recent trip to Dallas.


Unlike many nonfiction books that I slogged through last year mostly because 1) I was a captive audience on my Metro commutes and 2) I know better than to take fiction to work since sometimes I can’t stop reading, My American Journey was a real pleasure to read.  It was neither a tell-all nor an opportunity to name drop.  Indeed Colin Powell’s unwritten rule seemed to be, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” which I respected.  I did learn to watch out for the people who were not mentioned in depth since other books I’ve read that mentioned the same person were more candid about the person’s shortcomings.

In addition to a narrative of the formative experiences of his life, the book was organized by life lessons.  For many years, Gen. Powell kept a list of rules on the surface of his desk so to remind him of the lessons he had learned over the course of his career.  His autobiography told many of the stories that accompanied either his learning or his using these lessons.

For example, he was stationed in Korea long after the war there ended as part of a deterrent force to make sure the region did not heat up again.  Since it was anticipated that eventually all of those troops would be coming home, there was not a lot of investment in infrastructure, and those troops had far from the best of everything.  The Commanding Officer, “Gunfighter” Emerson was determined to keep morale up.  Because conventional sports could only occupy a small fraction of the troops, Gunfighter devised new sports such as Combat Football, which involved 50 men on each side and two footballs.  There were almost no rules, much to the unhappiness of the medics who patched up enough injuries for a small battle after each event.

Gunfighter also decided that since wars are not fought on a 9-5 schedule, he regularly overturned the troops’ days so that for a week at a time, the troops would sleep days and train nights.  At the end of one of these flipped training weeks, Powell’s group was returning from an arduous training exercise and arrived at the point where they were supposed to pick up their buses only to find that there weren’t enough buses for everyone, leaving them with a 12+ mile hike home.  As they reluctantly and tiredly started off, one of Powell’s officers came up to him and said that the trek home could be used at the final qualification many of the men needed to get their Expert Infantryman Badge since Powell had been pushing them to get qualified and they only needed a 12 mile hike in under three hours.  Powell was skeptical, but he abided by the rule, “Never step on enthusiasm.”  Word went around the group of the plan, and the pace picked up as everyone was determined to accomplish the goal.  When they arrived back in came at about 4 AM, they broke into parade ground formation.  They marched passed the CO’s house, where the CO was on hand to inspect the troops and salute in his bathrobe.  Powell’s unit ended up with more Expert Infantryman Badges than the other two units combined.

Powell’s perspective on racism was remarkably free of bitterness.  In spite of being stationed in Alabama early in his career, where once he was off base, he could not buy a drink to quench his thirst, something to eat, or use a rest room, he focused on the army’s inclusive culture where he was treated just like any other soldier.  Powell obviously dealt with a fair number of challenges because of his race, but he always tried to find some positive aspect to share.

One practice that did annoy Powell throughout his career was what he called, “breaking starch.”  This term was derived from the soldiers’ practice of heavily starching their trousers to look good for inspections.  Unfortunately, the pants became so stiff that the men would beat them with a broom handle to get them flexible enough to put on.  Thereafter, Powell was constantly on the lookout for examples of habits that had formed because they looked good rather than because they were useful or productive.

One last lesson that I wish I had learned two years ago was, “Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.”  On one of my fellowship interviews, I was asked to make a recommendation and then was immediately asked what would be my response if I was specifically prohibited from going forward with that recommendation.  Well, the topic was climate change, and I was advocating for adaptation.  I knew how important adaptation was going to be, and I just couldn’t let go of the importance of that suggestion.  That was the one fellowship for which I was not a finalist because indeed, my ego was far too invested in my position.  In my interview for my second fellowship, I got effectively the same question, and because I was less invested in my recommendation, it was far easier for me to say, “Well, this might not be the right time, or it might not be possible to include my recommendation this time.”  I was a finalist for that fellowship.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it.  To close, I’ll share

Colin Powell’s Rules

  1.        It ain’t as bad as you think.  It will look better in the morning
  2.       Get mad, then get over it.
  3.       Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when you position falls, your ego goes with it.
  4.       It can be done!
  5.       Be careful what you choose.  You may get it.
  6.       Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
  7.       You can’t make someone else’s choices.  You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.
  8.       Check small things
  9.       Share credit
  10.   Remain calm.  Be kind.
  11.   Have a vision.  Be demanding
  12.   Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
  13.   Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier



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