Washington, DC trip report
Last week I went down to Washington, D.C. to deliver a paper at a conference in the technical field where I worked, ten years or so and two or three careers ago, before the dot.com trash. The trip was solely an exercise in merit-making, since I doubt very much I'll get work in the field, but reconnecting with old friends was really great -- even if some of them did not recognize the older, greyer, and heavier me, nor I the (ditto) them -- and I got to have dinner with DCBlogger and letsgetitdone. Here are a few random reactions.
1) Wealth. I was in Bethesda, Maryland (near the National Institutes of Health). The entire area seemed like it was optimized for Beltway Bandits going to conferences or making pitches. And everything -- even things like curbs and sidewalks -- was bigger, made from better materials, and more well-cared for than up here in Maine. Things were done, one might say, on an imperial scale. The conference was at a Marriott, and the comparisons to Versailles -- or a 21st Century business class version of Versailles -- were inescapable. Two-story hallways lined with massive pillars. Marble flooring, or rich carpets (not just monochromatic indoor-outdoor stuff). Glints of gold everywhere. Nothing like that up here, not even at the Casino in Bangor. Certainly not at the public university. Of course, none of it's built to last; I'm sure the marble floors are thin, and the pillars aren't solid. In another decade or so, they'll "refresh" the place with a new "skin," or tear it down. But then again, "I'll be gone; you'll be gone."
2) Auto-centric. I made the mistake of walking -- it was hot, but nothing like Bangkok -- from the conference hotel to an after-party deeper in Bethesda. Sign on light pole where you press the button to get a green light to cross: "Pedestrians should not be in crosswalk." No kidding, buster!
3) Power and Deference. This is a very big country. Answer to query for directions to conference registration up north: "See the restaurant? Take a right." Down in D.C., a whole interaction with greetings, farewells, detail on the name of the ballroom, and various other amenities. Some of this is hotel hospitality, but it does feel different. Of course, another definition of courtesy (mine) is taking the absolute minimum of other people's time, but that is by no means the universal definition. It also occurred to me that I get the same level of deference in Thailand, and I wonder if it has anything to do with how culture in former slave states evolve. After all, a slave society can be a pleasant place to be, if you aren't a slave, have thick skin, an easy sense of entitlement, and an effective overseer, preferably well off-stage.
4) Scale. Again, this a big country. Left Washington, D.C. at 10PM, took the night train to Boston, and was back in Maine at 2:30PM, to 16-and-a-half hours. That time would take me from London to Edinburgh and back -- twice (that's in Great Britain, for those who came in late, a country that once controlled a very large part of the world). And yet that time covers only a smallish portion of the American continent. Not sure what to make of that -- except to remark that protest strategies that work for European countries probably do not scale to the American continent.
And then when I came back, all was well -- which is always a relief -- with the single exception that my tomatoes have blight; since I was gone for a week, I couldn't spray them with copper to ward it off. Do I need to pick the green tomatoes? The plants are not entirely blighted, and the squash are holding up pretty well!