NOTES FROM THE DISTRICT
My Best Friend's Wedding
September 2, 2006
In the first week of July, I spent a lovely week in Oklahoma, where my best friend since I was eight years old married her dream guy in the prettiest, most unique, and most enjoyable wedding I've ever been to. It was held at the Dresser Mansion, a gorgeous yet home-like estate on the Arkansas River with a large grassy courtyard in back.
The day before the ceremony, she and her fiance hosted their immediate family and the wedding party (bridesmaids, groomsmen, and me, the poem reader) in a gut-crushingly awesome Indian feast, where she handed out gifts to every member of the wedding. I got a travel box, an Indian mirror, and a gorgeous amber necklace.
After the dinner we went to her fiance's parent's place for a pre-party with a live calypso band and danced to Jimmy Buffet. One end of the yard was a grassy area surrounded by garden and illuminated only by white string lights around the periphery. A six-year-old niece in a white dress frolicked around there and looked like a princess in a secret garden. Some of us demi-grown-ups joined in the frolicking for a while, too.
The ceremony and after party (or reception, in proper terms) were also great, and I wore an amethyst gown given to me by a quadrilingual Palestinian friend who had gotten it from an American friend. I borrowed it for a wedding in Ramallah, and she let me keep it because she said it never fit her anyway. It worked perfectly for Holly's wedding, too -- matched the peacock color scheme and everything.
During the ceremony I read a beautiful poem that Holly had written. While she was saying her vows, she beamed in a way I've never seen a bride beam before. I'm so thrilled she's found someone worthy of her. He is amazing, and his family is, too.
The "wedding cake" was several platters of hand-made chocolate truffles in various other-worldly delicious flavors and beautiful designs (the champagne ones had the tiniest dust of fine silver glitter on them) from a local chocolatier. It was without a shadow of competition the best chocolate I've ever tasted. It beats Godiva without trying. Nothing in Switzerland even pretended to put up a fight. Not only is it rich, flavorful, delicate, creatively exotic, and made with the best ingredients, it's hand-made by people who have a personal stake in how it turns out. It's chocolate with a soul.
At the end, we lit sparklers to bid them farewell as they were whisked away in their love mobile, and we looked only slightly like an angry mob with torches trying to storm the landlord's mansion.
It was great fun.
That was July 1 (the theme of the wedding: Almost Independence Day), and on July 3, I went with my mom and step-dad and some of their friends on a party barge to watch the Eufala Lake fireworks show over the water. People on all the boats also fired a constant barrage from before sunset until well after we were heading home.
We also took a golf cart and sneaked a peek at a neighbor's show. The young men lighting the fireworks kept running at it when it was still sparking, or setting off more than it seemed like they meant to. It was really stressing my mom out until I said, "Mom, come on. What's the worst that could happen? We lose a couple of rednecks."
In the neighboring small town, during their big fireworks show, almost the first firework they lit flew up and landed right in the middle of all the rest of the fireworks, setting off a spectacular explosion. Who says the Middle East has all the fun?
It was my first 4th in America since 2000 -- my first since Bush took office. I tried not to think about it.
Holly's family also had their usual 4th of July party on their large lawn complete with archery, fireworks, and beers -- a winning combination.
After the party, we went out to the lake to shoot off our own fireworks, and as usual we got bored in short order doing the normal things, so I started lighting flying flame spinners and putting them in bottles (plastic bottles melted down colorfully, glass bottles served as excellent launchers), and a neighborhood kid packed 110 sparklers together into a pipe and made sure we were all looking before he lit it. We figured it would sparkle pretty intensely, but what happened was that it exploded into a huge seven-foot fireball. Austin ran for his life and everyone else laughed their asses off. Good times.
One of Holly's uncles rigged up a two-foot foam boat with more firepower than your average U.S. Navy Destroyer, with the fuses all fused together in sequence. Once lit, it kept going for what seemed like half an hour in all kinds and colors of different explosions. So entertaining.
Allez Les Bleus
Then I came back to DC with World Cup Finals weekend ahead. Everything was going well. France, who beat defending champs Brazil in the quarterfinals, breezed beautifully past Portugal for a well-deserved spot in the finals. Germany unfortunately lost to Italy, but then beat Portugal in a high-scoring and satisfyingly beautiful game to take third place. (Portugal's spectacular diving header goal in that game may have been the prettiest score of the tournament, even if it was meaningless.)
So it was down to France and Italy. France were the favorites, and they'd played prettier and worked harder to get there. And the French don't roll around on the ground howling like babies every time they get touched, and they play more elegant and offensive football. It wouldn't be easy, but they clearly out-classed Italy, and everything seemed like it was going to turn out like it was supposed to, but not without some suspense. Perfect.
A friend of mine was meeting some friends to watch the final at the Lucky Bar, the preeminent place in DC to watch the games. They had stood in line for hours to get in, and when I showed up at 12:30 (the game started at 2:00), I knew I had no chance. A huge, slack-jawed bouncer and a miles-long line stood in my way.
I called my friend, who was already inside, and he directed me to two more of his friends, who were standing near the front of the line. I introduced myself and joined them. The owner had come out earlier and told the line he'd let a few more people in when the game started. We were very near the likely cut-off point.
If we didn't get in, we'd be in the awkward position of figuring out where to watch the game once it had already started and everywhere would be packed.
But this was THE place. We were so close. We waited it out as we watched person after person try and fail to sneak in by various underhanded methods. Hulky McSunglasses wasn't budging.
At about 1:50, the owner came out again and said he would let ten more people in, and that would be it. We were about fifteen people back. Damn.
But luckily, the bouncer didn't know how to count. We were waved in in our turn, and then it got to me. I reached for my ID, but for some unfathomable reason, it wasn't in my purse. I was searching frantically for it when he held out his hand for it. I showed him my government ID, my credit card, my student ID from Stanford.
I said, "I'm twenty-six! I swear! You can cut me down and count my rings!"
No dice. Horrors. I was running out of stuttering excuses to refuse to retreat, when suddenly...
A group of people behind me got impatient and surged forward trying to make their way in. The bouncer turned back to stem the tide, and I quickly tip-toed past him and into the bar. Home free.
Later a friend told me he'd seen me make my move, and the bouncer had looked back toward me, confused, as if he'd forgotten what had just happened.
The crowd was rowdy, mostly supporters of Les Bleus. When the cameras panned to Bill Clinton's face in the stadium crowd, everyone in the room erupted into delirious cheers -- French, Italian, and everyone in between. I guess Bush has lowered the bar to the point where Bill Clinton looks like Jesus Christ himself and the Good Ol' 90's seem like paradise on earth.
The rest is history, of course. France lost on a head-butt. A spectacular head-butt. Not only spectacular, but spectacularly random. The football during the game was kind of disappointing, but the head-butt made up for it.
And now Italy gets to pretend like they're the World's Best for the next four years. Whatever.
Soccer in the Park
My favorite thing about DC by far is Meridian Hill Park, a.k.a. Malcolm X Park, two blocks from my house, where I play soccer on Tuesdays. It's built on a hillside, and on top it has a huge flat grassy area, big enough for four 11-sided soccer games at once, edged in by tenderly green deciduous trees. (The Middle East has deciduous trees, but here there are so many, and they are so casually lush.) At the southern end, the park plunges downhill in a series of man-made waterfalls to a pool at the bottom, with statues of Dante and half-naked Greeks along tree-lined paths down toward Florida Avenue.
From the fields, it looks like the southern end is suspended in space, with a statue of (oddly enough) Joan of Arc on a horse lining up perfectly with the Washington Monument, which spikes out of nothingness into the dusky blue sky.
The perfect heaven skies of the continental East Coast are a big change from what I've been used to for the past eight years. Mediterranean skies are sharper, clearer, more distant. Sometimes this is alienating, because it's not what I grew up with. At times the distance and clarity are overwhelming, and they hold in little moisture, so when the sun goes down, the temperature plummets rather shockingly. Sometimes you are not in the mood for skies so stark to remind you, rather brutally, when you're just trying to eat dinner, of the heart-stopping nature of reality.
Other times, when you are in the mood, you feel like you can almost see right through to the other side.
As I've said before, it is no surprise to me that the three great monotheistic religions were born in the eastern Med.
But here in DC, the skies look like they were painted on low-hanging silk an infinitely soft and dignified and inoffensive shade of baby blue with every shape of bright cloud passing across. DC skies are friendly and don't ask too many questions. They just hang over us with unpretentious, beaming beauty. They don't even care that most people here don't pay any attention to them.
PC in OK
On an unrelated note, a friend of mine in Oklahoma who shall remain nameless was recently required to take sensitivity training along with her fellow employees. She expected to make fun of it because it would be so absurdly PC, but in the end she had to eat her words. Because she found it so offensive.
From her blog:
Things Our Sensitivity Trainer Actually Said, Swear to God:
* Yeah, when I first started working with black people, when they talked all I could hear was "mya mya mya mya mya." So that's what I wrote down. Two months later, I could even tell them apart.
* I'm Hispanic. And Latino [note: she is a woman]. You have to switch back and forth because some people get offended by one or the other. But I'm not Mexican.
* When I got my first teaching job, I told them I was Indian so they would hire me.
* Minorities make up 64% of this district's population.
* [After asking us to define "respect" in groups, prompting debate] Well, those are okay, but the definition of respect is accepting cultural diversity.
* You'll notice east Tulsa has a lot of poverty, drop-outs, free lunches, and crime. This is because the Mexicans live there.
* You can't discriminate against gays just because they chose to live that kind of life.
On July 29-30, I got beat up and burned to a crisp at a 4-on-4 ultimate frisbee tournament on the beach on the South Jersey Shore. Too much fun. We played well considering we had so few subs and were running on about three hours of sleep due to unforeseen delays. We won three of our six games. In two of the lost games, we out-classed and out-played the other team but lost primarily due to unforced errors due to exhaustion -- both because of the lack of sleep and because our players had to play 3/4 of every 50-minute full-on-running game because we had so few subs. I made at least 20% unforced errors, most of them for points, many of which I very likely wouldn't have made if I hadn't been running on an 8-hour sleep debt.
The only game where I felt OK losing was against a team from William and Mary College that wound up advancing quite far in the tournament, and we could have beat even them if we'd had a couple more subs. (One of the guys who was supposed to play with us told us he'd be out clubbing in New York the night before but would be sure to get up early and come join us. Then he went into radio silence for the remainder of the weekend.)
In between matches we could head up to the Boardwalk, a strip with the same kind of funnel cake stands, Zombie House rides, T-shirt vendors, bottle-toss games, and fat Midwesterners wearing big hats and Lycra and yelling at their kids that every boardwalk-style place has. I said once, "I keep losing track of which coast and which decade I'm in."
Everyone's feet got blistered all to hell, there were occasional rocks and pieces of glass in the sand we were playing on, and I landed on the same spot on my knee and shin five times and got kicked pretty hard on the shin another time. We all swam in the ocean at the end and complained about how there was no single part of our bodies that didn't hurt.
It was unbelievably nice to get out of DC and go on a road trip with some amazing guys (all from Stanford, two of whom I met for the first time and were awesome), go camping, and play on the beach all weekend. I really needed it, though I walked around for the next five days like an old woman who'd been beaten up and left for dead in a tanning booth.
Things are pretty good now that the Lebanon War's over. That took me out of commission for a while, and I still have trouble controlling myself when I think about it. I went to a panel about Lebanon reconstruction at the US Institute of Peace last week, and it featured a guy from USAID (speaking for America), a guy from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (claiming to be a Syria expert, but he spoke in nothing but Israeli talking points -- WINEP, like Fox News, claims to be Fair and Balanced, but the think tank was founded and is run by Zionists, and this comes out clearly in its analyses), and three Lebanese guys who politely but firmly cut through the previous BS.
The panel was televised on CSPAN2, and I asked a question during the Q&A (which the WINEP guy dodged), and two friends (news junkies, obviously) emailed me and said they'd seen me on TV.
I'll start taking an Arabic II class at the USDA in mid-September. Arabic One would have been a total snooze, and Arabic II will be some review for sure, but better to firm up my basic knowledge of Modern Standard Arabic before I go much further. All I know so far is street Palestinian, and my grammar even in that is pretty poor.
I gave my presentation about Palestine at my think tank a couple of weeks ago for my division, and it was very well-received. I was invited to give it again for an office-wide audience. Our office has 800 people in it. Score.
But the next day, that permission was decidedly retracted for unexplained reasons. The lame excuse given was that "it would almost demand a rejoinder and might spark a debate." So? What's wrong with a debate? We're professionals here, right?
If someone gave a presentation about his time among the Tamil and wanted to educate his colleagues about their perspective and worldview, would it require a response from someone representing the Sri Lankan government, potentially spark a debate, and therefore be banned? I doubt it. And it wasn't any secret that my presentation was an elucidation of the Palestinian perspective. It's called "The Palestinian Perspective: What the World Looks Like from the West Bank and Gaza". And that was no problem the first time around.
I wrote back to my supervisor that I thought an equally even-toned, fact-based presentation from the Israeli perspective would be welcome and appropriate, and that
"I've been privileged to have a rare view into a region whose culture, politics, and perspectives are very important to our national security strategy and hot areas of study in the defense community. Sharing with my colleagues some the knowledge I have gleaned through more than two years of research and experience is a service I would be very happy and honored to provide."
I haven't received an answer yet.
To be honest, I'm surprised I was allowed to give it even once. The people who let me give it the first time must have been unschooled in DC orthodoxy. It's generally a bad career move in Washington to show sympathy for the Palestinian perspective, or even to acknowledge that there is a Palestinian perspective. Too controversial. As in, certain people know how to turn a rational debate into something so acrimonious and smear-a-licious that most mid-career professionals are quite happy to avoid the subject at all costs. Remember when Howard Dean naively suggested that America should take a more even-handed approach to the Israel-Palestine problem? He was forced to retract the statement.
I just learned something else shocking. A friend of mine from the World Council of Churches said that preachers who spoke against Bush Administration policies were finding their churches under tighter financial scrutiny and other unjustified pressures. Meanwhile, Pat Robertson and the conservative megachurches freely preach tax cuts, supporting Israel (so the Prophecies will be fulfilled and the Messiah will come back and convert or kill the Jews), and assassinating Hugo Chavez.
It is a truly McCarthyist atmosphere in this country these days, even in places of worship. How dare they do that to our country? Who do they think they are? King God? This is America, dammit. Why are we taking this lying down?
I've been going to more Happy Hours lately, including one for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and meeting some cool kids. One of them works for the Council on Foreign Relations and expressed interest in hosting my Palestine talk. Hopefully the Men in Black won't get to him and gently change his mind before I have a chance to take him up on his offer.
Anyway, I wanted this email not to be political, and there I went.
But while I'm at it, this Daily Show clip features an Arab-looking correspondent who pretends to truly believe everything Bush and Condi have been saying about the "birth pangs of a new Middle East" -- a beautiful, hilarious reductio ad absurdum.
John Stewart: "When I see the news, people in the Middle East seem really angry."
Last weekend I went up to Delaware to hang out at a friend's condo, body surf on the beach, and shop at some of Delaware's tax-free outlet malls. I got some adorable skirts and shoes at clearance prices. My new yuppie wardrobe is officially reaching saturation. My apartment is almost there, too. After a couple more cute shirts, some winter boots, and a night stand, I can put my credit card back in its holster and start saving up for my next travels.
Aasif Mandvi: "Yes, well, what did you expect? As Secretary Rice said, we're going through some birth pangs over here. I mean, you know how people tend to scream and say things they don't mean when they're in labor. Nonsense like: 'How could you do this to me?' Or, um, 'Death to America!'"
P.S. If you're in the mood for a politics fix, you can check out my new pages (and take bets on how long I'll last in Washington):