Tag Archives: Washington

Sleeping Giants

What did I conclude about the meaning of life and the possible existence of an afterlife from my visit to the National Museum of the American Indian?  Only that there’s a reason so many people are drawn to Native spirituality, and that’s its focus on the natural world and that we are interdependent with it and with one another.  Some tribes believe that everything is connected—seen and unseen, natural and manmade.  So the next time you swear at your computer, stop and try to have a little compassion for it!

Coincidentally, while I was in DC I started to read a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro called The Sleeping Giant which provided me with a comforting metaphor about death.  I started reading Ishiguro in August when I was in Scotland, and I kept reading.  When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature this month, I kind of felt like a genius because I could drop the names of four of his books and discuss the plot lines in detail in the lunchroom at work and at happy hours with friends.

Anyway, The Sleeping Giant uses the metaphor of a boatman ferrying people to an island from which there is no return.  It’s very peaceful except that they have to go alone—they have to leave their spouse or children or whoever they love most on the shore.  There’s no telling what’s on the island, but the novel is set in ancient Britain so it’s heavily wooded.  There we are, back to nature again. I found this illustration online that is kind of cool except it leaves out the woods.  My takeaway is that this worldview of death is that it’s a journey to an unknown but pleasant-enough-looking land.

I still think it could just be Lights Out.  But there could also be some new adventure on the other side.  As a traveler, the idea of taking a boat ride into the unknown is intriguing.

My flight home didn’t leave until 7pm, so I took in another exhibit at the AI museum about the Inca highway, which extended from what is now Chile to Colombia, or almost 25,000 miles (about 40,000 kilometers).  It was another extensive exhibit and I decided to just look at the artifacts and not read all the plaques about its construction or about the blood baths carried out during the Spanish conquest.  There were some beautiful and whimsical artifacts representing the many cultures and eras that had lain along the route.

I liked that the signage was in English and Spanish.  I would read the Spanish titles, then check to see if I’d got it right.  I mostly had, and I also learned a few new words.

This is a scale used by the Inca.  Keep in mind this was pre-Columbian (made, roughly, prior to the arrival of Columbus in 1492).  Amazing that it survived.

I at first took the item below for an intricate neck piece but it is an example of a quipu, a counting and communications system which employed different colored strings with knots whose positions indicated values.

I had my doubts about eating a late lunch in the cafeteria.  Indian food in Minnesota means fry bread, which is basically deep-fried dough.  Not my idea of a healthy or delicious meal. But the cafeteria was organized by regions of American Indians, so there was everything from ceviche to salmon and yes—fry bread.

I filled my plate with salmon, a wild rice salad with water cress, and mashed sweet potatoes.

Good thing that admission to the museum was free, because after about five hours in the exhibits I dropped a wad of money in the cafeteria and gift shop.

I wandered around DC a bit more.  The International Monetary Fund and World Bank were having their annual meeting and banners with the theme END POVERTY were on prominent display.

Directly across the street from this building was a park full of homeless people.

And this is my view as I descended the escalators into the Metro.

Scary.  Our domestic infrastructure is being held together with rusty bolts, but we’re going to spend billions to build a wall to keep Mexicans out.

A Worldview from The Hill

A free day in Washington, DC.  There’s so much to see there.  It was a tossup between the two new museums, one dedicated to African Americans and one to Native Americans.  I chose the latter, since I had been to a Native wedding the previous weekend and had been thinking about cultures and spiritual traditions and my lack thereof.  Maybe I could learn something here.

And I hit the food-for-thought jackpot.  There was an entire exhibit about Native American cosmologies—worldviews and philosophies related to the creation and order of the universe.  It would take an encyclopedia to do justice to Native American cosmologies, so I apologize in advance for what I am about to get wrong or leave out.

I watched a 15-minute introductory video which made the point that the term “American Indian” encompasses hundreds of tribes from Bolivia to Alaska and from Seattle to Florida and that they all have their own traditions and customs.  The video showed a guy doing something most people would associate with Native Americans—drumming in a pow wow or carving a totem or some such (I can’t remember) and he said, “This isn’t something we do for fun—this is the way it is.”

I’ve been to pow wows so I think I know what he meant.  A non-Native could come away from a pow wow thinking, “Well that seemed like a nice excuse to dance and socialize and I’m glad they let me observe but it seemed kind of cheesy and repetitive and I don’t need to go again.”  Whereas for Natives who take it seriously, the regalia and music and dancing have significance way beyond their outward appearance.

The cosmology exhibit featured eight tribes.  An impression I’ve always had about Indian spirituality is that it’s nature based.  Having been raised in a Catholic milieu, I can’t think of anything related to the natural world in Catholicism.

Judaism, the world religion with which I’ve always identified, has a few nature-focused holidays.  Sukkot requires us to build a temporary dwelling outdoors and eat in it every day for 10 days to remind ourselves of the 40 years we spent wandering in the desert.  Tu B’Shvat is the New Year of Trees and we … plant trees.  We throw bread on the water (a river or lake) during the High Holidays to symbolize casting away our sins.  But these are once-a-year holidays.  We used to sacrifice bulls under the full moon but thankfully discarded that tradition.

The natural world was the starting point all of the tribal cosmologies.  Basically, each worldview started with some kind of geographic division: the four compass directions or, in the case of the Mapuche, six dimensions including the water below and Father God above.  Each natural sphere is associated with values or animals or human traits.

The values overlapped but weren’t exactly the same from tribe to tribe.  The Lakota Souix and Anishinabe are tribes that inhabit Minnesota and vast areas beyond.  Lakota values corresponding to the four compass points are generosity, wisdom, respect, and fortitude.  Anishinabe values also include wisdom, respect, and fortitude—plus love, courage, honesty, humility, and truth—but not generosity.  The Maya value wisdom, honesty, integrity, faithfulness, authority, and spiritual leadership.  The Yu’pik value respect, loyalty, and authority.

These are Yu’pik elders consulted on the exhibit.

In Judaism, I would say justice is the primary value.  I thought maybe the Lakota value of truth was close to this but for them “truth” is about things that are eternal, like the sun and the moon—things that never change.  Courage was the closest to justice; in the case of Natives it means moral strength to do the right thing.

I won’t get into the forms of worship—if that’s the correct word—but it does seem true that Native practices—at least the eight tribes represented here—really did spring from and revolve around nature.

Some tribes had worldviews that included an afterlife; some didn’t even have a future tense.  One of the afterlives was described as “a place where you go when you die to dance forever.”  I’m sure that sounds great to some people but not to me.  I’m a horrible dancer.

A Little Lunch

The workshop continued with a series of speakers, the younger ones speaking in vocal fry.  I’m not the first one to notice this trend, and I haven’t heard an explanation for it.  My theory is that it’s a class marker—a way for young, mostly white women to signal to each other that they are highly educated members of the professional class.  I find it irritating but no one under 30 seems to even notice it.

They also used a lot of modifiers like “sort of” and “kind of.”  I’ve written about this before but here I noticed the younger men as well as women doing it.  I realize it’s an unconscious habit, but did it originate from a need to ingratiate one’s self?  Is it something you would hear in a corporate setting, or is it only used in the nonprofit and government world, where everyone is concerned with not appearing too overbearing?

The third feature of the younger speakers was fast mumbling.  They would let fly a lightning bolt of words that dropped to an indecipherable end.

These people were clearly smart and earnest and good speakers in general.  I thought back to when I was 30.  Did I talk in some way that grated on my elders’ ears?  I don’t think so.  Back then, valley speak was the speech trend derided by all, and that wasn’t anything you would have adopted at work to get ahead.

Wait, that’s a lie.  I know I say “like” way too much.  That comes from working at a university for 10 years, where I was surrounded by students who did it.  Because yes, speech styles are contagious.


Lunch time.  I know USG agencies try to use taxpayer dollars responsibly, but really, the box lunch was a huge disappointment.  Mine contained rendered “turkey breast” on white bread with a limp piece of iceberg lettuce.  There was a four-ounce bottle of water and a small bag of potato chips but no potato salad or cole slaw, no cookie, not even a pickle.

But I was one of the lucky ones.  As I watched others open their boxes, some of them looked like this otter who thought he was getting a chocolate chip cookie but it was oatmeal raisin.

Their boxes contained Fritos, not potato chips.  The woman across from me said, “I haven’t had Fritos since I was 12.”

“Right?” the guy next to her said (“right?” is another new filler), “and there’s a reason for that.  They suck.”  They looked around hopefully, as though maybe one of us lucky ones who got potato chips might want to trade.  Each table had a pile of Fritos bags at the end of lunch.

The networking was good though.  It was so nice to be around people who do similar work on similar issues. I exchanged a lot of business cards and will be following up to try to establish partnerships with other organizations.

For the afternoon sessions I moved to be away from the paper rustling sigher and wound up sitting right behind a head bobber.  This guy nodded enthusiastically at everything every speaker said.  As usual I seemed to be the only one who noticed.  Why am I so bothered by the way people talk or sigh or crinkle their gum wrappers or nod?  Sometimes I think I must be farther along the spectrum than most people.

After the workshop I walked up to Dupont Circle.  I had stayed there years ago and remembered it as a lively shopping area.  But there were no shops except CVS and a comic book store.  It was lively with restaurants but I didn’t feel like fine dining alone.

I walked back toward the flat and went into the Marriott across the street from it.  There was a beautiful, quiet outdoor area with comfy seating.  The rest of the customers were inside watching a football game.  “You get $2 off your beer because of the game!” exclaimed my server.  “Wow, that’s awesome!” I replied, as I sat with my back to windows and read my book for hours before going back for my second night in the grotty flat.

No Spies just Blue Skies

I lay in bed composing a scathing review of the Air B&B in my head.  The one photo of the place hadn’t done it injustice enough.  When I did fall asleep I slept straight through the night for eight hours, which never happens.

I quickly dressed and gathered my few belongings.  I just had to check in for my flight before I left for the workshop, since the agenda said there would be “no internet” in the venue and I would leave for the airport straight from there.  Hmm … I wondered why I hadn’t received an email from Delta yet?

A cold wave of panic flushed through me when I saw that my flight was … tomorrow, not tonight.  Noooo!!  I had briefly discussed staying two nights with our travel agent but distinctly remembered sending him an email saying I’d settled on just one night.  It was my bad, I know.  It’s my responsibility to check the details before accepting an itinerary.  The agent had been careless, and so had I.  This was what moving, my mom’s stroke, and moving my mom had done to my brain, I guess.

Thank goodness I had only written the scathing review in my head, because now I had to ask if I could stay here one more night.  The manager said yes, and even said she wouldn’t charge me because the cleaners hadn’t shown up before my arrival.  That explained a few things.

I felt virtuous, saving my organization hundreds of dollars, even though I was sure my coworkers wouldn’t be lining up to do the same.  I didn’t have my laptop so I wouldn’t be able to get much work done.  I would take a day off in DC, which was something to look forward to.  But first, the USG workshop.

No internet in the venue—I wondered if that was some kind of cool spy vs. spy thing where they blocked satellite transmissions? No, it turned out they had just meant there was no wireless.  Correction: one person did.

Since the election, federal employees have left Washington in droves. The new administration put a hiring freeze in place, so every bureau is woefully understaffed.  The poor DRL people are no exception.  Three of them were trying to work out how to make coffee for 150 people.  This was bureaucracy in action, and it failed miserably.  They blew a fuse and had to start over.  Finally, we all lined up to get a lukewarm cup, only to be greeted by a sign, “No Food or Drink in Auditorium.”  The coffee servers literally winked and nodded at us as we filed in with our cups in hand.

I found a seat and introduced myself to the guy on my right.  He had a heavy accent and I thought he said he was from Grecian Aid but based in the Dominican Republic.  “That must be interesting,” I said, “working for a Greek organization from Latin America.”  He looked at me a long time, then smiled.  “Eet ees Chreeeshchun Aid,” he said slowly, handing me his card that said Christian Aid.

“Ahh,” I smiled, “that makes more sense.”  We talked shop; we were both what’s called “new business” people and we had a lot in common.

The first speaker opened by admonishing us not to have any food or drink in the auditorium, as she winked toward her cup of coffee balanced on the lectern.

A paper-shuffling sigher had sat behind me.  On my left was a woman wearing a flower-festooned headband.  Was she from Ukraine?

I looked around to see about half the audience paying attention while the rest were staring at their mobiles while the speakers were trying to hold their attention.

The content was helpful, and chock full of insider lingo like, “Decisions were made on 7th Floor,”  “Folks at post want this,” and “’F’ Indictors.”

One speaker mentioned “blue sky options.”  I had no idea what this meant but I always come back from workshops with jargon to spring on my coworkers to make them think I’m up to date.  Once I Googled it and knew what it meant I would try to drop it at least once in every meeting.

In Eton, In DC

From Shaftsbury, Lynn and I drove to Eton where I would house sit for a month.  But first we had to find it.  It looked so easy on the map but as usual we got terribly lost and since Sam was expecting me at 12:30 I got panicky and may have been a bit short with Lynn.  Well, I know I was, but as a Minnesotan this took the form of hinting about what I thought she should do.

The map wasn’t detailed enough. We didn’t have a GPS.  I couldn’t call Sam with my phone because I didn’t have international service and I couldn’t message him because I had let my data plan lapse because I “never needed it.”

“Use my phone,” Lynn offered.  I managed to switch it to airplane mode and it took me 20 minutes to figure that out, with Lynn trying to assist while driving 80MPH.  I got Sam’s voice mail.  We drove in circles around Windsor, the town across the Thames from Eton.  Looking back, I don’t know why we didn’t try to find it using Google maps on Lynn’s phone, but we didn’t.

Finally I glimpsed a cathedral-like building in the distance. “That must have something to do with Eton College,” I said.  “It looks like one of the colleges at Oxford.”

“Well spotted!” Lynn cried with relief.  “Now what’s the address?”

“123 High Street,” I said confidently from memory.  We paced the high street, and Lynn declared, “There is no 123!”  She burst out laughing when I checked and said weakly, ‘Oops, it’s 321.”

Five minutes later Sam was greeting us at the door.  Greeting me, I should say.  He gave Lynn directions to Heathrow, waved her off, and ushered me in.  Poor Lynn, I later learned, had had hopes of using the bathroom but she kept a stiff upper lip until she got to the airport.

In real time, I just returned from Washington, DC and I’ll write a few posts about that before returning to my summer in the UK.

I went for a workshop for grantees of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, or DRL.  Don’t ask me why it’s not BDHRL, but I’m okay with that.

I won’t go into the content of the workshop because then I’d have to kill you.  Just kidding, you would die of boredom before I could kill you.

The building in which the workshop was held does not have an address and is not on Google maps.  Really.  I don’t know if this is intentional—for security purposes?—or just part and parcel of the crazy patchwork of streets that is DC.

The cheapest hotel our travel agent could find was $585 a night.  That wasn’t some 5 star place, just a Marriott.  I found a studio apartment on Air B&B for $182 within walking distance of the venue. My expectations of it were low but when I arrived I had to lower then further.  The studio was in a 40s-era building that had been badly renovated.  It was on the George Washington University campus and in keeping with that was reminiscent of a dorm room.  Not that I’ve ever been in a dorm room, but think: cheap Walmart navy blue bedspreads with pilly grey sheets on twin beds, bare walls, a giant-screen TV, and a window with a view of a brick wall.  Here is a picture of the bathroom “door” from inside the bathroom.

Good thing I wasn’t sharing the room with a coworker.  I was motivated not spend any time here.

I did a recon to ensure I could find the workshop in the morning.  I copied the map from the agenda onto my palm.  There was no signage, but I was pretty sure I’d located the building, so I wandered on and accidentally found the area with the Washington Monument, White House, and other iconic places. There were the usual protesters in front of the White House, but far fewer than I remembered from past visits.

Darkness forced me to return to the room.  I crawled into bed fully dressed so I wouldn’t catch cooties. Thank god I was only here one night.