The Russia Obsession

Confession time. I am a history nerd. Ok I said it. History is kind of a hobby for me. One day I was talking to a dear friend about how I was watching a documentary about Russian history. She asked if I was preparing for class. I said — no. I was just watching them for me. I didn’t say that I was watching the documentary for the hundredth time because I wanted to memorize what was in it.

I don’t remember when the obsession with Russia quite started. It was probably when I was a kid. I’m a child of the Cold War, with my family directly affected by it. We live in the United States because of the Cold War. I grew up with the images of the military parades in Red Square. I am a huge gymnastics fan and for many years, the Soviet Union had the best gymnasts in the world, wearing these intimidating red leotards, with this Soviet crest on it performing so much better than anyone else, proof positive that socialism was the superior system.

It personal for me as well. My grandfather was born in Russia, in Pechora, a town near the Northern Urals. My grandfather had to leave Russia because of the revolution in 1917, when he was five. The family made their way to Poland. Then his daughter emigrated to America. People move around. Always have, always will.

One time I saw a picture of Czar Nicholas, Empress Alexandra and Queen Victoria. I thought about how these two people controlled almost the entirety of the Earth’s surface at the time and how each of them had affected the fate of my family. The Russian revolution and the Czar’s abdication would fundamentally alert the course of my grandfather’s life, while his granddaughter would come to live in the United States, in the city where another revolution would be sparked to break free of Queen Victoria’s ancestor, King George III.

Fast forward to 1989, when it all fell apart. In 1991, the Soviet Union became Russia and its republics. My obsession continued. In 1997, I got the opportunity to travel to Russia.

It was almost destiny that I would visit this place that was the site of such an obsession for me. I remember the first night I was there, when we had settled in our hotel when someone said we should walk to Red Square. I remember just spotting Red Square out of the corner of my eye and thinking — that cannot be real. I am not actually walking over there right now. That cannot be real. But it was. Just two and a half years earlier, I had been walking across a stage getting my high school diploma, ready to leave behind the podunk town I went to high school in and then there I was in Red Square. Russia remains without a doubt, the most amazing place I have ever visited.

Russia is also known for its icons. The icons play a huge role in the worship that takes place in the Russian Orthodox Church. They have a specific style to them. There’s also something very haunting about them. The figures also look very sorrowful and in pain.

There’s a museum of Russian icons in Clinton, Massachusetts. Kind of a little random corner to have a museum, but it is a lovely place. You can learn about the icons and how they are made and how they are part of the worship in the Russian Orthodox Church. I jumped at the chance to see them, what with my obsession with that corner of the planet.

Here are some icons from the museum, in all of their glory.

Musicology

Story time.  If you aren’t interested, scroll down for the photography.

Oh hello.  Thanks for staying.  Well, music is in the title of the blog entry.  So ever since the Walkman came out, I have had a pair of headphones on my head.  I think I got my first Walkman when I was eight or nine.  I spent most of my childhood at the Tower Records near Lincoln Center or in Greenwich Village.  I got 50 cents a week for an allowance.  Records, yes they still had those, were $6.  Cassettes were $9 and CDs were the princely sum of $12.  So I would save my allowance for a record, a tape if I were particularly flush that month.  And I was a kid.  So my allowance was spent on things like candy bars.

I don’t know what it was about the Walkman but as soon as it came out, I wanted one.  And headphones, well, I don’t even know if I have the proper words to explain about how the world feels when you’re wearing headphones.  Everything you see just takes on the mood of whatever music you are listening to.  Everything sort of moves to the rhythm of the music you are listening to.  

I go through music moods and listen to different kinds of music at different times of day.  I’m also obsessed with music from movies. One of my favorite movies of all time is The Other Dream Team, about the Lithuanian men’s basketball team that won a bronze in the 1992 Olympics.  Lithuania had just gotten its independence a year earlier.  Suddenly the Lithuanian players weren’t on the Soviet team anymore, but independent.  They had no money and were sponsored by the Grateful Dead.  It’s kind of an amazing story but the thing I like the most about the movie is the music, especially this piano music by a guy named Dustin O’Halloran, who wrote this really haunting soundtrack for the movie, as well as a band called If Trees Could Talk.  Both pieces add so much mood to the movie.  I looked and looked for this music and finally found it.  I’ve been listening to it for years.

Lately though, all of my obsessions have united.  I’ve been listening to the soundtrack from the Crown and there’s this haunting harp music that they play in Season Four, when Diana appears.  The episodes of the show are particularly emotional this year and I guess we’re all emotional with the covid and all.  I just started a new job in a new location doing something slightly different than what I used to do and somehow the Crown soundtrack fits this. I might change the music in a few weeks but this is it for now.  Since it’s a new neighborhood, of course it has to be continually, obsessively photographed.  Of course.  And works starts hella early in the morning, so the light is also different.  All together it just creates this really unique atmosphere.  Me walking around taking my usual eight million photos (with my film camera now) with this music creating this mood.  

As a Friday treat for myself, I go to the photography shop that develops my pictures near South Station.  Since I use a film camera now, I have to finish the roll before I can leave it at the shop.  Lately I wander around Chinatown, photographing everything and anything around there and then I go to the shop to get it developed.  I wonder sometimes if the music I’m listening to influences my choices of subject or how I take the picture.  

Well, anyway, enough prose.  Ok well one more note.  These pictures are a lot “quieter” than the ones I used to take.  No big loud events.  Just little corners of things, observations, small scenes.  Little stories in each one.  

You Just Want to Create

Over the past year, I’ve taken this plunge back into film.  It’s still a strange experience for me because I could take out my phone and just snap the image no problem, or take out the magic digital box and snap things in one minute.  Instead I’m laboring to turn the film, taking a long time to pick my subjects, being really conservative with my film.  It took me three months to finish a roll of film recently and the thing is, that doesn’t even bother me.  Not even a little bit.  Odd in a way.

The film camera has a magic of its own.  The digital camera, you always have to be on alert that the thing at the moment you want to take the photo, just boom, will not focus.  It’s the worst feeling in the world when you compose the image and the sensor just goes off and won’t stop and the thing will not let you take the picture.  With the film camera, yeah, you are stuck to whatever roll of film you threw in there, but with the manual focus, you can shoot the image, no problem.  Trade offs, I guess.

Since I’m pretty much constrained to my own neighborhood, it’s funny for me sometimes, picking my film and my cameras so carefully for my daily walks to buy parmesan and ant traps.  Sometimes I carry two cameras with me, just because they have rolls in them that need to be finished.  Inevitably, I find something to take a picture of.  There is no shortage of things to photograph.  I’m not going out to photograph anything in particular and I never really think of it that way.  I just grab the camera when I leave the house.  I can’t help it.  I would feel strange without the camera on me.  There are moments when I don’t have the camera on me and I kind of feel around for it or it feels strange not having the thing around my neck at all times.

I think about it too when I go through the pictures.  Why am I doing this?  I take an astounding amount of pictures and I am always amazed by the results and want to take more constantly.  The worst is when I see someone else’s pictures and I get really jealous of them.  That drives me too.  But you just want to create.  You want to make something that provokes a reaction from you and the person viewing your pictures.

So here are some recent pictures from my $8 Minolta from the thrift store and my trusty 40 year old Canon AE-1.  Enjoy.

The Hardest Season

I guess this as good of a title as any for an entry about spending six months in winter in Sweden.  But here goes.

I was sitting at home yesterday, flipping though HBO and I found that they have a movie about the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.  I started to remember when I visited the Stockholm stadium in 2007.  Oh and the circumstances surrounding it.

In 2007, I got a phone call to come for a job interview to Sweden.  The phone call came like a bolt out of the blue.  I thought — well, this is worth a shot.  The place I worked sent me a plane ticket and off I went.  I wasn’t sure about the place or the job.

Looking back on it now, it was a time in my life when I was looking for something.  I was on this constant search for something but I wasn’t exactly sure what.  My life was missing something but I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly what that was.  Where did I belong???  What was I supposed to do???  Where was I supposed to live???  These were all questions in my mind that seemed to have no answer.

After two more trips to Sweden, I got hired and set off to live there.  One of the people who had interviewed me said that I was going to have a hard time there because I was all alone.  It was a weird thing to say to a person that you had just agreed to hire.

The whole situation wasn’t great from the beginning.  I had never met the person I was supposed to work for and when I did, we did not get along.  I was supposed to be editing documents there but there was no real schedule or system to keep track of the documents.  It was utter, utter chaos and nobody was willing to even entertain any ideas of organizing it.  The worst part was that it was winter and it was pitch dark outside by 3pm, sometimes 2:30.  It was like it was plunged into night all the time.  A lot of things happened over the few months I was there.  I could go into a litany of wrongs that were done to me in this place, but I don’t really want to do that.

It was a very difficult experience, mostly due to the fact that I was completely alone.  Completely.  I knew the people I worked with but I wasn’t friends with any of them.  I was so focused on figuring out how to do the job I had that I couldn’t concentrate on finding people to actually hang out with.  Two friends came to visit me when I was there but otherwise, I was completely alone.  Six months in a foreign country alone.  

The thing was too was that I had this attitude at the time that I didn’t need anyone.  People told me I was so brave going there alone and I thought — of course I’m alone.  I don’t need other people around.  Besides, people who needed other people were weak by my estimation and I wanted to be anything but weak.  I still had this pretty fatalistic outlook that we’re born alone and we die alone. In way, the experience in Sweden kinda showed me that needing people didn’t make me weak.

Now I talk to my friends every single day and we all still have a lot of contact with each other (over zoom and in other ways) despite the pandemic.  Not a day goes by when I don’t talk to one of my friends.  I can’t even think how I got through being alone there.  Now I wouldn’t be able to do that.  But then again, that experience helped me find what I was looking for.

I discovered I didn’t ever want to be alone.  I wanted to find a good, solid community.  I also discovered that I did not want to sit behind a computer all long, that I wanted to do something where I had contact with people.  I didn’t want to read about things that were far away from me.  I wanted to do an active job.  I didn’t want to sit behind a desk and just read all day long.  Most of all I wanted to have purpose in my life.  I didn’t just want to process other people’s information.  I wanted to create my own.  I wanted to influence people and have an impact on their lives.  All of this I learned during that cold, dark Scandinavian winter.  My most difficult season.

Last year before the Covid hit and everything went haywire, I went to see a friend’s band play in Cambridge.  I had some exceedingly happy times in Cambridge going to Honkfest, out for dinner with friends, listening to jazz, going kayaking, going to Head of the Charles and the list could keep going on.  That night too was very special.  I had never seen this friend perform with his band before and the music was catchy and charming and his stage presence mesmerizing.  We had all met when I was teaching at one of my university jobs.  There I was thinking — I’m here listening to this interesting music with my friends from my time teaching at the university.  There was something so remarkable about it.  

For some reason, my mind though suddenly went back to that job in Sweden, on what turned out to be my last day on the job.  I left the place and was walking across this bridge.  I was walking, to where I had no idea.  I lit a cigarette because I smoked back then, when I was in a very anxious state, which I was.  I was crying and smoking and had no clue where I was even walking to.  I was in a strange city where I knew no one.  There wasn’t even anyone around to tell what was had happened.  I remember getting home eventually and my dad sending me an email telling me that it was going to all be ok.  It was going to be ok?  I mean my life was over right then and there.

These memories came flooding back to me a year ago.  I was astounded that I thought my life was over at that point, when really it was just the beginning that led me to where I am now.  I’ve thought about it a lot how things we think are going to have this huge impact on our lives really don’t have that big of an impact.  I went to Sweden fourteen years ago for a few cold winter months.  Except for my two best friends and my parents, no one in my life now even knew me then.  I have some pictures and a few souvenirs from that place now.  I have cordial contact on Facebook with two people I knew then but that’s it.  Then on the other side of it, I took this part time job in this goofy, dysfunctional school in Downtown Crossing and was told I could maybe stay two weeks but not longer.  I stayed for almost seven years and this whole new life and career opened up to me.  It’s never really the end of the world, just a new beginning.  A difficult season can lead to better season.

Anyway, if you have persevered through the prose, you get a reward. Here are my recently rediscovered pictures from Stockholm. Sweden has that Scandinavian goofiness but they’re all a bit too serious. Give me their Gammeldansk drinking neighbors to the south any day of the week. Sorry Swedes!!!! But Stockholm is very beautiful, I will give you that.

The WPA

I had a rather interesting first job when I graduated from college. I worked a 1pm to 9pm shift putting together a tax magazine. The job was unusual in so many respects. I was like a medical resident. When they needed me, I was there. One day I’d be out reporting all day long and returning to the office at 3pm to start work. Other days, I’d sit around and do nothing for hours. Well, not really nothing. But nothing work related.

This was my beginnings with photography, you know when things got really out of control.  LOL.  I would spend all day looking at different pictures, different images just to figure out what I liked and what my aesthetic was.  My style at that time was kind of “point camera, take picture.”  I looked at so many images all day.  I was constantly getting ideas too about photographs I wanted to take.

One day I saw these pictures taken during the Great Depression by the Works Progress Administration, the WPA.  This was a government agency created to get artists back to work and this entire WPA aesthetic was created.  The aesthetic was modern and straightforward, not too much ornamentation.  I really liked it from the first time I saw it.  I particularly liked the color photos I saw done by the WPA.  There’s a set taken by the Farm Security Administration that I particularly love.  It’s like an encyclopedia of America life during the Depression.  What is the most remarkable is that most of the pictures are in color.  Looking at color pictures of the past can feel kind of strange.  We’re used to past being portrayed in black and white and seeing it in color is kind of jarring because you forget it was in color back then.  It’s all been in color all along obviously but when you see it in color, you think — that looks like now but why are all cars so old and the clothes and hairstyles so old fashioned and out of date?  

The pictures from that era too are marvels of technique.  They look so true to life because the cameras they were taken with were had such good optics and tone reproduction.  Everything is beautifully rendered.  You feel like you are right there with them.

Recently, I took my trusty Lubitel out for a walk around the neighborhood and inadvertently took my own WPA style photos around my neighborhood.  I guess in a way I’m also documenting what my neighborhood looks like now.  It won’t look this way in ten or twenty years.  But photography captures that and that is the magic of the whole thing.  Here are some examples of that:

Hey Jealousy

I know the title is a 90s song lyric, which now is … 30 years ago.  I just had a heart attack writing that, but whatever.

So yeah, sorry for the big gaps between writing stuff.  The pandemic has limited me to a one hour on foot radius around my neighborhood but that doesn’t really bother me.  Oh and I’m shooting film again and yeah, that makes the times between taking the pictures and seeing the pictures a lot longer.  

I don’t know why the pandemic drove me back to shooting film, but I’m kind of glad it did.  Digital is great for getting your images quickly but film is so much more creative.  I never become a photoshop person and I don’t really retouch my photos.  That just always seemed like overkill to me.  But the film stuff, I always loved and it’s been great getting back into it.

When I started photography, I remember seeing these images that had the film holes on them.  With black and white, you can do those with a contact sheet but I also saw them in color.  And I never knew how people did them.  All I knew was that I wanted to do them and I had no idea how.  And I was jealous of the person who had done it initially.  Because that really drives you with photography.  Jealousy.

To get serious here for a second, as a photographer, I have ALWAYS looked at other people’s images and thought — how did they do that?????  How do I get to do that??????  It this continual search to figure out ways to do images.  And it’s a lot of fun.

So I figured out how to take the sprocket hole photos.  Sure my first roll of film had exactly one image on it and I had to tweak the process a few times but I think the results came out very well.  I call this experiment a success.  Here’s sprocket photography, sure to be the hot trend this pandemic season:

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Where’s the line between an accident and art

So it’s the March 927th or something.  I don’t know.  2020.  Ok whatever, enough complaining.

Quarantine has driven me back in time, back to my film roots.  I spent so many years shooting film and generally messing around with it for the sheer joy of it.  Happy accidents.  Weird things on the camera.  All in good fun.  Photography in the spirit of DIY and experimentation.

I have always wanted to do a double exposure series, just to see if I could even pull it off.  I don’t know why I did do this before when I was messing around with tungsten film, infrared, low speed film and various kinds of cameras.  Recently I thought — wouldn’t it be fun to put a roll of film in the camera, take 36 shots and then stick it back into the camera?  Let’s just see what happens.

First, before I actually did anything, I watched some YouTube videos.  I guess this is a kind of a university now.  For my camera, there’s a way to do it where you wind back the film and can gets a double exposure.  That sounded too complicated and I preferred my cowboy let’s see what happens kind of a way.

So I loaded up the film and set out on my daily constitutional around my neighborhood.  I did shoot the film at a very big aperture.  If the camera recommended 5.6, I opted for 4 just to make it nice and light and for the images to layer on well.  I thought — how am I going to shoot 36 exposures?  I hadn’t even reached the end of my walk and I had already done them.  Then I got home, broke out my dark bag and re-ran the film through.

The results were well, interesting but on the good side of interesting.  Not interesting like a bad haircut or a potato salad with raisins in it but actually interesting.  It was funny picking out which pictures to throw up on Flickr and social media.  Is this actually cool or just two pictures layered onto one?

Anyway, here are the results.  Luckily I live down the street from a religious supply store so those images got layered over the other stuff I shot nicely.  And my neighborhood is pretty nice too, so that was easy as well.

Double exposing in all of it’s experimental glory:

The Mere Clicking of the Shutter

The pandemic drove us all inside and away from each other.  For me, something even funnier happened.  It drove me back in time, photography wise.  There I was shooting with all manner of digital cameras for almost 15 years.  Now I’m shooting with my film cameras again and getting back into that big time.

Now I’m lugging my medium format camera and my old Canon film camera with me everywhere.  I’m festooned with cameras, happy as ever.  I’m already starting to take a lot of film pictures again.  I have a digital darkroom kind of a set up now with a scanner for the film.  I unspool my rolls of film and this magic just happens.  I can sit and scan for hours without stopping.  I do though sit there sometimes and wonder why I’m doing this, why I even ever picked up a camera in the first place.

A lot of people that take pictures talk about how they got interested in it because they loved how the image showed up on the paper in the darkroom or that they were interested in how the camera actually worked.  For me it was always that you created a world or a memory that only existed inside the camera.  But for me there was always so much more to it than that.

For me, it was growing up in New York City in the 1980s.  Growing up, it was always just me and my parents.  Us three.  No siblings.  No babysitters.  Me among the adults, along for the ride.  We used to walk around New York for hours.  I saw people break dancing and guys wearing gold chains and Adidas.  I saw Wall Street Yuppies.  I saw wealthy teenagers.  I saw it all in that city.  New York City lit up at night alone would make you want to take pictures of it.  What was there then is now lost to the world.  What fascinated me most doesn’t really exist anymore.  There is no more Tower Records in Greenwich Village.  The B Altman building is still across the street from the Empire State Building but it’s not a department store anymore.  I wish I had been able to capture what it was like to go to Tower Records in the 1980s and what the entry to B Altman looked like.  I remember thinking I wish I could capture this stuff for myself.  It was such an interesting world. 

We also went to Poland to visit my family a lot in those years.  We visited Poland in the 1980s, when it was still communist.  Just sitting in my grandparents’ living room in those days.  I can still picture it with all the furniture, the black and white television and the dog.  They lived in this communist apartment block and you could see the rest of the buildings in the complex from their balcony.  They looked as desolate and cold as anything you saw in any movies or pictures of those places at that time.  I remember the tiny kiosks that you would go to buy tram tickets and even the trams themselves, old, wooden creaky things.  There were these old communist stores with these neon signs on them.  There were these fancy old style delicatessens.  And that was just in my city grandparent’s area.  I remember riding my bike around my country grandmother’s house and seeing a guy standing there with a sickle.  I remember wishing I had a camera at that moment to capture that.  It all made such an impression on me that I wish I could have documented it on my own.  

That desire to document the world around me never really left.  Now its really funny because I don’t really leave my neighborhood but I still find tons of things to photograph around me and seemingly never run out of things to photograph.  Here’s some recent pictures from my neighborhood.  I’ve been in Boston now for eleven years and living in my “new” neighborhood for the past two years but the desire to document it all is fresh as ever.  Once the photography bug bites you, it never really leaves you.

What I Saw At the Politics Show

I guess putting the word “politics” in the title of the blog entry, well that mean I’m going to talk about politics.  Well, I am but not the here and now politics.  I don’t really want to open that particular can of worms.  Rather, I’m going to talk about being a fresh faced kid in big bad Washington DC.  Nah I’m kidding.  But I am going to talk about my time in DC, what I saw, who I met and what (if anything) I learned.  Buckle up.

We have to start at the beginning, as good a place as any I guess.  That I would live in Washington was almost a foregone conclusion.  Growing up every night my dad would watch the McNeil Lehrer news hour.  Every single evening.  I mean it was with good reason.  The family was far away in a place where a lot of political upheaval was happening and hey, its always good to know what’s going on.  I was just a kid.  I remember sitting in our living room in our old house in New York, playing with my Legos where people like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski held court on one topic or another.    

But the real show was on Sunday.  Every week we watched This Week with David Brinkley.  The courtly, slyly witty David Brinkley, firebrand Sam Donaldson and the country squire firebrand George Will.  What a combination.  Brinkley would always have his funny asides at the end about postage stamps and hilariously named bills in Congress.  

Needless to say I was fascinated by all of this.  There was this spark and this fun in this world, but they also seemed really serious at the same time.  I remember having conversations with the adults around me about one political thing or another.  Never mind I was in ninth grade at the time.  

Ninth grade is also pertinent to this story.  It was when we went on our school trip to Washington DC.  I remember our school trip pulling up to the White House.  I sat there on the bus and said to myself — one day you’ll be in there.  Same thing for the Capitol building.  One day, you’ll be there.  Little did I know how soon that would actually be.

You always hear about the science and math geeks in high school but I think not enough attention gets paid to the history and politics nerds, which is the herd I belonged to, although in my high school, that was a herd of one.  Still the interest persisted into college, where I became a political science major.

Now, now you want to hear some straight shot story about someone studying political science, graduating with extreme and excessive honors and busting out, ready to take on the world.  Well, that’s not the story here.  Yeah, I graduated with some kind of latin distinction after my name but I really did not find political science that interesting, the deeper I got into it.  When it came down to the nitty gritty of it, I wasn’t really that interested in campaign finance reform and things like that and the experience overall was uneven, to say the least.  

The real story was that in my junior year, I did study abroad in Denmark.  A lot of stuff happened during that semester, that I detail in another blog entry.  Initially I thought I was going to go to law school but the semester in Denmark made me rethink those plans.  My dad said to me — so, what now? By the end of that week, I had formulated that I was going to go do journalism.  Looking back on it now, I don’t even know how this even worked out for me.

Around that time, I went to my academic advisor, a guy named Charlie Tarlton.  He was a political science professor at my college but he had been some kind of hippie in California in the 1960s.  In other words, he could understand this 21 year old that was a bit lost.  I still remember our conversation though, a less auspicious beginning to anything you could not find.  I went to Tarlton’s office wearing shorts and a t-shirt.  The night before somebody had gotten attacked in the area next to my dorm.  It woke up the entire dorm.  I’m sitting there half asleep and Tarlton goes — so why are you here?  I said — well, I’m eight credits short of graduation and I don’t want to study anymore.  Tarleton sat back and said — we have this DC internship program you could do.  Your GPA is ok.  You should be able to get into the program.  

I went to DC and did an internship at the Voice of America.  This is twenty some odd years ago now, but still working at the Voice of America is one of my favorite work experiences.  I showed up on my first day of work and people from the office were coming over to talk to me.  One of them said that they had heard I was from Chicago and I said — no, I just lived there when I was a little kid.  I was 21 at the time and the guy said to me — when you were a little kid??  I have TIES that are older than you.  I don’t know but I just found this super funny.  These people were straightforward and honest and that’s all you can really ask for.  Working at VOA was my first brush with Washington and I saw it at it’s best.  The people in the office had worked for some DC grandees but they didn’t seem too taken with themselves.  I wrote crime alerts and editorials for worldwide broadcast which was such a thrill.  I would sit at the desk everyday and look out at the Capitol Building.  It never stopped being a thrill for me looking at it, corny as that might be.

My other internship was at this place called Connection Newspaper, which was a local Northern Virginia weekly that wrote about high school band concerts, football games and other kinds of local news.  The guy I was assigned to sort of shadow handed me a folder of stories and said — these are my dogs.  He didn’t mean canine.  He meant stories he didn’t feel like writing, so I as the intern could have at them.  I wrote a story about a guy and his butterfly collection and attended and wrote about the aforementioned high school band concert.  By the end of it, I had six clips.  I think.  Six pieces of journalism with my name on them.  I thought — journalism in DC.  I mean that’s a real long shot.  

A couple of months later, I was applying for jobs when I happened upon this place called Tax Analysts.  I’ll never forget what happened the day they called me for my interview.  It was the end of the summer, three months of job hunting, no offers yet and I get a phone call from Tax Analysts.  I had a cell phone then, an actual phone not some glowing rectangular electronic Swiss army knife like we have now, but a phone phone.  I called the number back to book the day I would go for my interview.  It was raining.  I’m standing on Pennsylvania Avenue and a car goes by.  Every single person on the street has stopped.  The window rolls down and it’s Bill Clinton waving at everyone and smiling.  Everyone waved back.  It was odd because at that moment, I thought — you are going to be OK.  You are going to be OK.  A job will come and you will be fine.  Bill Clinton, and I’m sure you frequently read this blog, thanks for the reassurance.  

All the other jobs I applied for had been in DC but this one was in Falls Church, Virginia.  I walked into this job and thought — I will work here.  I was interviewed by this slightly intimidating older editor and the staff, including a guy wearing a t-shirt with a basketball on it.  More on him a bit later.  I was to be formatting a magazine and there would be reporting opportunities.  I thought — hopefully not really soon because I was still kinda learning journalism.

By then I had moved to Capitol Hill and soon, there were reporting opportunities.  Soon there were many reporting opportunities.  Soon there were many many many reporting opportunities.  I mean there were a lot but I was also very willing to take them and I lived a couple of blocks from the Capitol so it was easy enough to get there.  The guy in the t-shirt with the basketball on it, my best friend of the past 20 years, Herman Ayayo, told me that I got the reporting opportunities because I lived in the neighborhood.  LOL.

There I was finally at the politics show.  Heady stuff for a person who had just six years earlier walked across a stage to get their high school diploma. There I was seeing people I had read about in books and seen on the news.  It all had this surreal quality to it.  

There were so many moments that were just unbelievable.  I remember seeing Ted Kennedy a few times.  He was the lion of the senate by that point but all I thought was — my mother, who grew up in another country saw your brother get killed live on television and here I am standing in front of you.  There was the time I was standing next to Tom Daschle when he was talking to the press and I was on the news that night.  Mitch Daniels, former governor of Indiana, yelled at me.  I mean he didn’t yell at me but he got smug and an attitude with me when I asked a question.  Jerold Nadler pointed at me at a hearing once and said — nobody from the press is here.  Kevin Hassett, an advisor to George 43 at the time, said — Paul Krugman always gets his tax wrong and you can quote me on that in Tax Notes.  

I went to the White House a couple of times for work.  The first time I went was in 2001, for the signing of the Bush tax cut.  Going to the White House, no matter who you are, how old you are or how jaded you are takes your breath away.  It just does.  I remember going there and feeling like was walking around in the back of the twenty dollar bill.  Yet more surreal was at another event I went to with the prime minister of Spain at the time, where 43 tried some Spanish on Jose Maria Aznar and Aznar was having none of it.  That day, the Spanish press were giggling and taking pictures of themselves on the presidential limousines.  Oh and smoking everywhere.  After the big meeting, there was a press conference at a very fancy hotel across the street from the White House.  The Spanish contingent crossed the street and they’re smoking in the lobby of the hotel.  I’m thinking the hotel personnel is going to lose their minds but on it all went.  Oh and I went home that night and you could see the back of my head on C-Span at the White House.

It wasn’t until much later that I thought — I was in the White House inside of nine years since being on the school trip with the high school, just as I had predicted.  I didn’t realize how remarkable that is until very recently.

A couple of things struck me about all of this.  Washington, inside the beltway, operates on a completely different set of rules than the rest of the world.  Sometimes, a lot of the time it felt like a lot of smoke and mirrors but there was real work being done under the smoke and mirrors.  But also at the same time, you could see how human they all were.  Human beings made all of this government policy, imperfect as it may be.  I remember sitting in the House press gallery, waiting for some briefing to start and Dick Armey, the House Majority leader at the time, walks in.  He was this really tall tanned Texan, who could have been a movie actor playing a politician, except he was a real politician.  There was a bit of time before the press briefing began and Armey started this stand up comedy routine.  I could not believe how funny he was and even more, I could not believe I was laughing this hard at jokes told by a guy whose politics I so vehemently opposed.  A lot of them were funny and very charismatic.  The fact that their political beliefs weren’t aligned with yours didn’t really matter.  

That was the thing that struck me the most.  When it came right down to it, when dealing with a crisis, they did actually work together to mitigate the crisis.  This is what great politicians do.  Teddy Roosevelt is considered a great American president who created our national parks.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt rescued America from the Great Depression.  Ronald Reagan, along with many others, worked to end the Cold War.  How many people remember that two were Republicans and one was a Democrat?  The great ones transcend party.  

I still have an abiding love for the Capitol building.  Now when I see it on TV, I remember all the times crossing through Statuary hall or the rotunda to get to some hearing and thinking — I was here when I was 15.  Now I’m rushing to get to a work thing.  Even now I see people reporting from there and I still remember standing at the same spots in the Capitol.  The affection for the building has never left me.

Well, anyway, enough talking.  Did I mention I used to bring my mini camera with me to all of these meetings?  No.  Well, I brought my tiny little sneaky Russian camera along to all of my meetings.  I had to.  I never knew what I would see.  So here are shots of former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, Jeff Flake, Dennis Hastert, TV actor Bradley Whitford, a shot when I was definitely the only woman there, shots of a couple of the policy forums I attended and some other stuff.  Enjoy what I saw at the politics show:

Stars Hollow

TV isn’t really something that we should use to gauge reality.  It is really bad at doing that.  Really bad.

Case in point — the Gilmore Girls.  A charming story about a mother and a daughter living in this idllic place called Stars Hollow.  It’s a town full of quirky characters and the town just looks so beautiful.  Who wouldn’t want to live there?

I remember watching the show continually and thinking — that looks like any other town in New England.  New England, I mean that’s a normal place.  What’s so special about it?  But then you realize that what’s normal and workaday is exotic to someone else.  When I went to Chile, I couldn’t get over how beautiful the mountains were off in the distance in Santiago and the locals just said — eh, las montañas.  That’s how I always felt when people were amazed by places like Stars Hollow or wherever I lived.  Eh, it’s just New England.

But no, it’s actually really special.  Here are some places that are close to home for me that I realized recently are pretty special and beautiful — Jamaica Plain and Walden Pond.  Oh and these were shot on film, my first film shots in 15 years.  Hence why they look like freshly done paintings.  Enjoy.