Now that the calendar has actually turned over to August, reality is starting to set in: last weekend’s relaxed enjoyment and exploration really is the final full weekend in Washington, DC of my tenure as a Jefferson Science Fellow. In some ways, it feels like the time at the end of a party: people are starting to say their good-byes, but no one has actually left yet. There is also the question of leaving early and maybe missing something, or staying until the very end with the hosts wondering, “When will this guy ever leave?” In the social media era, people seem to talk about this as FOMO, but there is another concern in play here.
One of the local public / community radio stations here in Washington is WPFW; they are one of my options for jazz music. (As I just mentioned in the blog a couple of days ago, I have a long personal history with jazz.) An interesting piece of spoken jazz was in fact a parable: imagine an insect (ant or beetle) navigating on one of the most beautifully designed, luxuriously tufted, exquisitely crafted Oriental rugs ever created. However, this insect has lived its entire life with the tufts and weaves of the rug, and only sees the tufts and knots as problems confronting it and degrading its existence. The insect has never had the chance, or thought, to raise up its perspective to look down on the beauty and wonder of the pattern of the rug, and so it laments as burden what we would see as splendor. Poor, foolish insect. However…
Things have been very hectic at work over the past few weeks. Offices at the State Department are used to turnover during the summer, where people head off to embassies and consulates across the world, and others return back from those locations to take up work here in Washington. Those rearrangements don’t always mesh smoothly; right now, we’re down a few folks. Combined with travel, it meant that there were only two of us around in my particular unit for a while, and one was tied up with logistics for a very high profile event. Last Thursday, that event came to fruition, with lots of last minute frenzy and scheduling nightmares and trying to navigate 100 people through a maze of hallways and elevators into a room that holds 80. What could possibly be worth all of this?
Figure 1. William F. Hagerty IV sworn in as US Ambassador to Japan by VPOTUS Pence.
Not surprisingly, the official naming of an Ambassador is a pretty significant historical event, especially when the Vice President of the United States (VPOTUS) does the swearing in ceremony. It takes a few moments of someone not yet jaded by the process (a foreign affairs intern) to put it in perspective: even with the challenges, “you’re experiencing history”. In the Old Executive Office Building (the Indian Treaty Room). With dignitaries.
Situations like this can be trivialized with the goal of trying to diminish their historic significance or my involvement in them, but over time, I have come to realize that this actually doesn’t have the effect that I had originally intended. Sometimes a moment ends up with more impact than is intended, such as a young boy from Arkansas meeting a US President. They can even be played up to fictional excess, such as Forrest Gump’s unintentional influence on history. But let’s dial that back a bit. The event was what it was. There were other people who felt this particular ceremony very important to attend, which of course makes it more special for those who were there…
Figure 2. L-R: Sen. Corker, Amb. Hagerty, VPOTUS Pence, Mrs. Hagerty, Sen. Alexander
Particularly, if you happen to be from Tennessee, as the Hagertys are (although the Ambassador’s mother still prefers U. Kentucky basketball, but thinks Gallatin is a better place to witness the Great American Eclipse than Hopkinsville), this is a pretty significant bit of history to experience.
On Sunday, I saw a person on the National Mall wearing a t-shirt, “I am Black History”. I can become easily overloaded by such a statement, even though I do actually have a t-shirt that says, “I am kind of a big deal” (thanks, Keena!). No, I could never wear such a shirt! I didn’t do this, or that, or whatever else… I’m not these people:
Figure 3. NASA Legend Kathrine Johnson receives Medal of Freedom from POTUS Obama.
But, as Kathrine Johnson said, history is what each of us does, every day. I am reminded of this quote from meeting her daughters earlier this year:
Figure 4. NASA Program Manager Allen, Kathrine Johnson’s Daughters Katherine and Joylette, BSC
Yes, there have been a number of such experiences—not just during this fellowship, but in my own past. Apparently, I keep bumping into bits of history in the rug. I should not minimize the value of getting a sense of perspective on them, or lament my interactions with them. From a different vantage, the beauty and value of the pattern is hard to ignore.