If you’re in DC during the week, attend a Committee hearing on Capitol Hill. Regardless of whether or not you’re interested in politics, regardless of whether or not you’re interested in that Committee or that hearing, just pick one and go. You don’t have to stay for the whole thing. Don’t stay for the whole thing, because it will bore you to tears, I promise. I attended the Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs’ State Department budget hearing, where my favorite person in the world, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was answering questions and talking about what the State Department does and what they’re planning on doing, all things I’m interested in, and I was still bored to tears after an hour. It’s exhausting, it’s frustrating, but it’s necessary and here’s why:

We, the public, as a whole, have lost touch with our politicians, with the people that actually run our country. And that is bad. Very bad. Because it means they have also lost touch with us, and what we want. Which means they pass laws and mandates based on what they want, and that is not how the government should work. They should do what we want because we elect them and we pay their salaries. Many of us read the paper and see the names of our politicians, but to us, they’re just names. I mentioned the ‘American mythology’ and how coming to DC is seeing that all the things you read about in the paper actually exist and happen and you can touch them, and the same applies to politicians. We forget that they are real and you can touch them (although I would suggest you don’t).

This is where going to these hearings comes in. Because at these hearings are members of Congress, right there, in front of you, in the flesh, doing real things like drinking water and coughing and laughing and chatting and scratching themselves, and all of a sudden, they’re human. Of course we know they’re human, but I think we hold our ‘leaders’ up on a pedestal. And sitting at these hearings, you realize they’re just like us. They’re not just ‘human’, they’re human. If they were in casual clothing riding the Metro, you would have no idea. When you only ever see someone’s picture in the paper or online, or their face moving on television, it creates a barrier between you and that person. But to see them in person, in the flesh, it changes you, and it changes your perception of them, and that is very important. So go to a hearing, stay for 10 or 20 minutes, take not of who was there, put names to faces, and see if your perception of them changes.

The second most important lesson to learn, and this applies to interning mostly, is know your faults and know how to handle them. Know what you’re bad at, know your weak points. There’s a joke that this question, what are your biggest weaknesses?, is asked a lot during job interviews. The person always answers ‘I care too much’ or ‘I’m a workaholic’. Stop. Those aren’t weaknesses. Those are strengths you’re dressing up as weaknesses to impress someone. An interviewer will be more impressed if you know your actual faults, because it means that you know how to look out for and handle them. My faults are as follows: I procrastinate, I shut down when I’m overwhelmed, I have a quick temper, I always need to be right, I hold people up to impossible standards, I don’t check my work, I’m impatient, I help out other people when I should be doing my own work, I don’t focus well, the list goes on. I’ve known these faults for…well my whole life, because I’m me and I’ve been me my whole life and I think I know my strengths and weaknesses by now. But I’ve never really been in a situation where I have to confront them on such a regular basis, like I am at work. And it can be frustrating. When your boss comes over and scolds you for spelling errors, or when your boss thinks you made a mistake and you want to argue with him, or when you’re checking other people’s work and keep finding stupid mistakes, it all gets very frustrating. But every time something happens that sets off one of your weaknesses, a red flag should go up in your mind. That red flag says ‘take whatever your first instinct tells you to do, and do the opposite’. If your first instinct tells you to start an argument, apologize and let it go. It’s like a mental time-out.

So yeah. Go to hearings. And make mental red flags.

As mentioned in my last post, I am challenging myself to eat at as many family-run/local/hole-in-the-wall establishments as possible. My roommates and I have been working our way up 23rd street in Arlington, which has a smattering of restaurants with almost any kind of food you can dream up. I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but the first place I tried was Kabob Palace, on a recommendation from a friend that lived here last summer. It’s open 24 hours, which is a big plus considering I feel like most of the places around in Crystal City close early. As the name implies, it deals mainly with kabobs: chicken kabobs, lamb kabobs, beef kabobs, but they also have chicken biryani that’s to die for, with meat that literally falls apart. The establishment itself can be a little overwhelming: it isn’t a large place, and if you don’t know what you want, it can feel a little rushed. That and the meat you’ll be eating is right in front of you as you walk in. But that’s how it should be. The quality and all around taste of the meat from places like Kabob Palace or really any Indian/Pakistani/Afghani restaurant/food truck is so different from what you’d get from the grocery store it’s almost from a different planet.

And speaking of food trucks. Food trucks are a godsend. They let you try out different, and often unique combinations of food for a decent price, and usually you get a lot more food for your money than at Cosi or Starbucks or Subway. The food trucks have ‘Farragut Fridays” where a ton of them gather at Farragut Square and you can literally have your pick of anything. Last Friday I stopped at a random truck, painted all white with just the words “Halal Meat” painted in red. I wanted butter chicken, and I was about to walk right by it when I turned my head and happened to see that they had butter chicken, as well as tandoori chicken, chicken biryani, naan, and a bunch of side dishes. I got all three types of chicken, some bread, and a diet coke for $8, and it was literally at least 4 pounds of food. Can’t do any better than that.

Two weeks ago my roommate and I went to Urban Thai on 23rd street in Arlington, also on a friend’s suggestion. I had never eaten Thai food before, so I studied the menu online thoroughly before going to the actual restaurant. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but I’m really picky. I had the Panang chicken, which was chicken curry with peanut sauce and lime. It was fabulous, and there was a lot if it. The menu tended to be a little more expensive, but they gave you so much food it was worth it.

Next I’m going to tackle U street and Conn. Ave, by Adams Morgan.

A challenge

February 16, 2012

I’ve decided that since I now live in a beautifully diverse and expansive environment, I would take advantage and do something that would be impossible to attempt in small town Massachusetts: eat at/shop as as many locally/family owned non-chain stores/restaurants as possible

To achieve this, I get to do two of my favorite things: exploring and eating.

In my limited time doing this, I’ve found you can usually get better tasting food for much cheaper at these places than if you went to Cosi or Panera or Subway for dinner. Not that there’s anything wrong with these places (I love them too). But you’re in DC, man. Right next to that Cosi is a Naan & Beyond, where you can get a chicken tikka naan wrap, a side of naan and a veggie samosa for under $10.   So on my lunch break, or class break, or after class, or a weekend when I’m bored, I’ll pack up and take a walk to an area I haven’t really explored yet, and just wander around trying to find new little shops or restaurants, and jot them down in my notebook (a good journalist always has a steno pad handy) or take a picture with my camera ( a good journalist also always has their camera).  And it’s not just when I’m in DC either. In Arlington you can find areas of nothing but little restaurants, right around 23rd street. You’ll find Mexican, Ethiopian, a few Thai places, Italian, and my favorite, Kabob palace.  Perhaps I’ll post little reviews up here whenever I go to somewhere new.

The non-restaurant part of this challenge usually extends to bookstores. I’m a sucker for books. I’m well on my way to starting my own private library, and I have this need to keep buying more. With Borders out of business, alternatives are needed. There are several Barnes & Noble locations in DC, but I don’t advise you to go there. They have half the selection of Borders, at twice the price. Do what I do, look for smaller bookstores around DC, there’s tons.

In doing this I found two new amazing places: Krammer books and Second Story. Both are located in DuPont circle, Krammer on Conn ave, and SS on P street. Krammer reminds me of the library at the beginning of Beauty and the Beast, with books piled up everywhere and the sliding ladders used to reach the higher shelves. It’s like an overcrowded city, with tons and tons of books jammed into a tiny space, but its very intimate. And my favorite part: there’s a cafe in the back, with a full bar (happy hour is from 4-7). They have performances at the cafe sometimes, all listed on their website.

Second Story books is the Mecca for any history/book nerd. It’s a used/rare book store, where you can find a $3 book on the same shelf as a rare $300 book from the 1600′s. They have first editions, signed copies, first prints, anything, if you’re willing to shell out the cash. And if you’re not, they still have something for you. They’re a little lacking in the fiction section, but they more than make up for it in non-fiction and just awe-value. They have a website you can search, or you can go to their store and just get lost for hours. I was there for 30 minutes and didn’t even make a dent in it. Go there.

The second tour I took this week was at the Library of Congress, which contrary to it’s name, isn’t your typical library.  It’s also not a place I would think to ever take a tour of, but I urge you, if you’re looking for something ‘touristy’ to do, go there.  The tour is only 40 minutes and it doesn’t cover anywhere near everything in the Library, but it’s an amazing experience.  First of all, the artwork in the building is captivating.  The entire ceiling and most of the walls are covered in giant murals and quotes and there are so many different frames and themes and shapes that it would take months to see them all.  I had a headache afterwards because I spent 75% of my time there with my head craned back, trying to take in all of the paintings.  Don’t try to take everything in at once: it will cheapen what you do take in.  Instead, focus on a particular part, like the Discovering the America’s exhibit, or Thomas Jefferson’s library.  The Library is free, and it’s always going to be there.  And even though I usually staunchly refuse to take museum tours, I would highly suggest going on one of the hourly tours.  They’re only about 40 minutes, which is nowhere near enough time to cover everything, so the tour guide will show you what they personally find interesting, meaning every tour is going to be different.  Plus there’s a lot of things you’ll learn about the Library through the tour that you wouldn’t learn otherwise.

Highlights:

-the Reading Room and the murals/statues surrounding it

-the ceiling

-the Thomas Jefferson library

-the first maps of the Americas

-the Gutenberg Bible

So go!

Capitol lessons in humility

February 12, 2012

I ‘book-ended’ this week with two tours, although technically the first one happened on Friday.  My boss took us on a ‘Press tour” of the Capitol, which was basically all the places I needed to know to be able to do reporting from the building.  The Capitol is such a beautiful building, and it’s a shame that most of the statues and murals can’t be seen by the general public.  Walking through, especially through the offices, there’s such a casual relationship with history.  There’s a plaque on the floor where John Quincy Adams collapsed from a stroke, one of the offices being used is where Thomas Jefferson was sworn into office, there’s a rotunda inside that was going to serve as George Washington’s burial place.  It’s crazy to think that people go and do their work every day without thinking about that, thinking “I’m standing where Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison, or JQA, or any of our “Founding Fathers” from our American mythology once stood”.  Or maybe they do think about that, and have just gotten used to it.  I don’t think I ever could.

This week was my first “real” week of work.  I say that because it was the first time we were given extra tasks, other than gathering Op-Eds for the blog, and the first time I ever found myself getting frustrated.

I figured, since I was getting the hang of emailing people and posting to the blog, I would start helping out the other reporters and editors when they asked.  I ended up taking two different jobs on, with two different results.  The first was for a reporter who was working on a piece about PACs and campaign funding.  She asked me to do what basically amounted to administrative work: look up the PACs (political action committees), enter into a spreadsheet how much money they had, how much they spent, and any individual contributions they made, for 128 different PACs.  While I’m usually driven to madness by menial and repetitive tasks like this, I did take enjoyment in making fun of the different PAC names, and the one’s that had received a grand total of $50 and had spent $48 of it.  It was strange work.

The second task was more research based, which is right up my alley as a history major.  The reporter was working on a column and wanted to know about this upcoming Presidential Inauguration.  Basically, because the last day of Obama’s term will fall on a Sunday, the Inauguration ceremony will have to be performed twice, once in private on Sunday and once in public on Monday or whatever day they decide.  The reporter wanted to know about the planning of the ceremony, and the legality of it all, which one is binding, etc.  To do this I had to get in touch with members of the previous Inauguration Committee and Senate historians, as well as staff at the Supreme Court.  This required a lot of work on my part, because the members of the Inauguration Committee are all high ranking leaders in Congress, so talking to them was out of the question.  I managed to track down the Communications Director for the Committee, who now works in some interior office at the Treasury.  She spoke to me on the phone about planning the whole thing, and it was interesting.  You don’t realize just how much planning goes into an event like that, how literally everything is choreographed down to the minute, and everything that can be considered and planned for is taken into consideration ( like transportation, security, press, weather, anything).  She directed me to the Senate historian on the legality issue, who then provided me with a Congressional study, done the last time this situation happened (Reagan’s second Inaug.) which explained their findings and that the only legally binding ceremony was the private one in this case.  It was all very interesting work and I learned a lot about the Inauguration, but it also required a lot of research and a lot of legwork to even get to the point of calling people and asking questions.

The point of talking about both of these is that sometimes in the office you’re going to be asked to work on things, and it won’t all be glamorous, and you won’t always get the recognition you deserve, but you have to keep doing it.  That’s how I worked my way up to supervisor at my other job: I just kept taking on jobs, regardless of if they praised me for them or not, until I was known as someone that could be counted on.  Because at an internship, you’re starting at zero, and you have to work your way up any way you can.

February 2, 2012

“Tent of Dreams” at Occupy DC in McPherson Square.  Not seen: Guy Fawkes mask on McPherson

A rundown of my internship and what I do

I’m working at The Hill Newspaper this spring.  We’re primarily a political publication, and our main readership is members of Congress and people working on the Capitol.  We’re basically a one-stop guide to everything happening on the Hill.  Myself and five other interns, as well as our editor, run the Congress blog on the website, which can be found here: http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog

The Congress blog is a place for Congressmen/women to submit Op-Ed (opinion-editorial) pieces regarding current happenings in Congress and anything big that’s going on, or just anything they want to talk about.  We reach out mainly to members of the House, if only because Senators are generally busier and there are fewer of them.  With 430+ House Reps, we’re far less likely to run into repeats, although we have stepped on each other’s toes a few times.  We spend our days (9-5) reading political publications and checking up on what is on schedule for the House of Reps for that week, as well as what the various Committees are up to in order to try and guess what issues or bills are going to be deemed important and get picked up by the media.  Once we find a suitable topic, we find the Reps involved, trying to get Democrats and Republicans, or support and opposition, and either call the office to speak with their press contact, or email their press contact directly about submitting a piece. We try to get at least 6 posts on the blog every day, but how we go about that is largely up to us.

In addition to our work on the Congress blog, we also get extra work from our editors if we ask for it.  This is usually research for a story being done by another reporter, interviews for different features or special editions, or being sent to Committee hearings on the Capitol.  We can also go out on our own and find stories we might find interesting and run them by our editor.

Overall, it’s very involved work, that is different every day.  I may spend all day on one topic, get my solicitations done, and then try to find one or two topics to start on the next day.  Rarely am I working on the same thing for more than two days, and rarely do I spend one day working on the same thing.  I usually have about 2 or 3 projects I work on at a time on any given day.  It’s not your typical office or administration job, but it also rewarding to see your work, or work you came up with, on the website for everyone to read.

What can I say?  I’ve been to DC before as a tourist, but living here is well, different.  The city is welcoming, and even forgiving, bustling, but never overwhelming.  I love it, but if you asked me what I love about it, I don’t think I would be able to answer you.  It’s just a feeling I get when I’m walking to work and I see the Washington Monument always looming over me, or on the Metro passing through Arlington National Cemetery, or getting off at Union Station and seeing the magnificent dome of the Capitol and thinking “I could walk there.  I could go in there if I wanted to”.  It’s like the grand “American mythology” of the founding fathers and the government and the President that we learn about in school but never really experience, is all right here, living and breathing.

Although if you asked me what I don’t like about DC, I could certainly provide you with plenty very specific examples.  I could say, well, the Metro is too expensive, and the pricing system doesn’t really make sense.  Why is it more expensive for me to go from Crystal City to West Farragut than it is for me to just travel one stop further and get off at McPherson Square?  I’m spending more time on the Metro, and going farther, so shouldn’t it cost more?  And depending on what time you’re traveling, there are three different prices you could be paying.  I don’t like that I can never find a cheap cup of coffee, or a cheap anything.  I don’t like that once you get away from the main tourist area, up around the Northwest quadrant, all the streets and blocks start to look the same.

But that’s just me nitpicking, because I do love it here.  I love that there is plenty of free stuff to do if you know where to look.  For example, the Kennedy Center puts on free concerts every night at 6.  All the Smithsonian museums are free, and I have a feeling you could spend a whole year here and never see everything those museums have to offer.  It’s a city where you can go to work all day, and then go be a tourist.  And you’re in the middle of everything.  It is very difficult to be in DC and be totally sheltered from politics.  And if politics isn’t your thing, whatever your thing is, it’s here, without a doubt.

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