New house, new job, new bike!

Columbia Heights, DC

Pamela Olson
May 13, 2007

Sorry for the gratuitous exclamation point in the subject line. I started this note weeks ago when it was all still new enough to excite punctuational passion. Now I'm just kind of mellowly enjoying a new and better life in DC.

For starters, I moved into a huge new townhouse in Columbia Heights (one of DC's Bohemian neighborhoods, not yet hip enough to be expensive, though it seems we're about to be invaded by a Target) with four roommates: one who did Peace Corps in Turkmenistan, one who's with the Democratic National Council, a bartender chick who makes a mean tuna avocado dip, and a guy from Peru. We have two living rooms, a sun room, a cute little front lawn with irises and a tree, a back porch and tiny backyard that we really should do something with, and a good-sized kitchen.

Like my old house, the new one is two blocks from the nearest Metro. But my new room is bigger, sunnier, and prettier than my old one, $230 per month cheaper, and a lot closer to several friends and most of the good house party houses. You really can't beat house parties. Lots of good random people, chill atmosphere, free booze, and often stumbling distance to home. Sweet.

The new neighborhood is a lot more neighborhoody than my old one, too -- more trees, prettier lawns, older houses (neither McRenovated nor McCondos), and graceful church towers punctuating the silken sky, rather than the massive construction zones, Stepford houses (all built identically by the same company but deliberately made cosmetically slightly different), and loud playground (or "screamground") I used to live next to. Plus we're up on a plateau, so if the Potomac catastrophically floods, we're golden.

Long story short, even though my old roommate kind of arbitrarily asked me to leave my old place at the beginning of April to make room for her brother, which was not very nice, we negotiated an agreement, and I definitely came out with the long end of the stick.

* * *

On the job front, it was one of the warm pleasures of my life to give my two weeks' notice at that "defense" think tank. It's been an education for sure, but in the end, it was too draining biting my tongue all the time and spending time and energy on projects I found useless or worse.

Occasionally a project would come along that was really interesting, like the conference we put together between U.S. Government officials and prominent American Muslims to see how they could work together for mutual benefit. Although in a weird twist, about half the U.S. Government people backed out all at once on the same day. Our suspicion is that Daniel Pipes or someone similar got to them and "warned" them of the possible public consequences of cavorting with Muslims, or in Pipespeak, "suspected terrorists."

But these kinds of projects were few and far between (or perpetually on the verge of getting funded). For another project, I was asked to help with a study to figure out how to bolster military retention and keep the volunteer armed forces stocked with new recruits in these difficult times.

The only reasonable thing I could think to say to anyone pondering enlisting in the U.S. Armed Forces in 2007 was: "Don't. You'll run an unacceptable risk of being used and abused for causes you won't be able to defend to your grandchildren, if you even survive as a functional human being. Worse, the government might not even take decent care of you or your family when/if you get back."

But we don't get grant money if we say things like that.

(Note: I have friends and family members who are benefiting from their honorable service in the U.S. Armed Forces, and of course the military serves many useful functions such as disaster relief and, ideally, enforcing international law impartially. But enough of our men and women in uniform are, in my estimation, being abused on false pretenses -- and sometimes on honest but indefensible or illegal pretenses -- that I would not feel comfortable recommending enlistment right now.)

So I'd been looking for alternative employment for quite a while when an unexpected opportunity fell into my lap in March. I was looking at a group house up in Mt. Pleasant (another Boho 'hood), and although the room was a little pricey for me, the roommates were very cool. We kept in touch, and they invited me to a party at their place a couple of weeks later. To my astonishment, I noticed on the invite that their new roommate was a guy I had met in Ramallah two years ago when he was doing summer courses at Bir Zeit University.

He'd just finished his Master's at Columbia and was heading down to DC to start a new job. He forwarded me an application to the place he would soon be working, the American Association for Palestinian Equal Rights (AAPER) -- the first organized pro-Palestine lobby and public education organization in America. AAPER's platform is simply that America should serve as a broker in the Israel/Palestine question based on the rule of law and the principle of universal human rights rather than on distorted domestic political considerations and power differentials. We believe that this will not only serve our friends in Palestine and Israel but also serve American interests and security.

A tagline I personally use for the organization is, "We're more pro-Israel than AIPAC in the same way that we're more pro-America than Dick Cheney." I and many of my Israeli friends believe that the established "pro-Israel" lobby in America is harmful to Israel's public interests and security in the same way the neo-cons have been a disaster for America.

So I filled out the application, sent it back, and thought little more about it until I got a call a couple of weeks later from the President and Founder, a young Egyptian-American lawyer based in New York.

We arranged to meet at a coffee shop in Dupont Circle for an interview, and I found that I didn't feel any need to BS whatsoever. I couldn't improve upon my actual interests, experience, and contacts. I was basically custom-made for the job. Hell, I write research papers and presentations about Palestine in my spare time. And here was a chance to do it in a more organized and directed way, and get paid for it.

Ten days later I got another call saying the position was mine if I wanted it. I was the second employee hired.

So my job is basically to educate Americans about Palestine in as compelling a way as possible, people who are in pretty much the same place I was four years ago: skeptical of both sides but hungry for credible information. We'll work hard to be air-tight and appeal not to the "base" (Arab and Muslim Americans and Arafat-scarf-wearing lefties who just can't get enough of that kid throwing rocks at a tank) but just to ordinary Americans who don't necessarily want their tax dollars going to foreign policy disasters and crimes against humanity. I not only have to figure out how to educate people, I also have to figure out whom to target to leverage ourselves optimally vis-a-vis actually changing policies. So far we've been talking to veterans, church groups, and labor organizations. I plan to meet soon with the survivors of Israel's deliberate 1967 attack on the USS Liberty that killed 34 American servicemen. The survivors are still seeking war crimes charges against Israel.

Of course, it's pretty upsetting to be reminded all day about what's going on over there. But I guess that's the point -- if we can upset a few other people (in ways that humanize Palestinians and leave people feeling empowered rather than just depressed), maybe they'll start to take exception.

Whatever happens, learning what works and doesn't work regarding affecting policy decisions and educating ordinary people about important issues will be a good springboard for whatever comes next. Seeing if and how this democratic process of ours might actually work.

* * *

I got the aforementioned new bike from Craig's List, and by an amazing coincidence, it's the same make and model as Eleanor (the mountain bike I had from when I was 12 until it got stolen while I was in Palestine) -- a Specialized Hard Rock. It's a men's instead of a women's, and there's a bit of rust on the spokes, but otherwise it's like old times. Harold is his name.

* * *

A couple of weeks ago I went to an all-day conference at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the topic was whether or not the American Empire is in decline, and if not, why not, and if so, how can we reverse the trend and/or soften the landing of our eventual downfall.

Lots and lots to think about, the equivalent of trying to squeeze three or four graduate-level history and poli sci classes into eight hours. And a lot of smart kids with diverse careers and opinions -- though I couldn't help but notice several enormous elephants in the room that everybody quite obediently tiptoed around as if by unspoken consensus. It was almost creepy.

It was mostly liberal kids, since most DC people are quite liberal on the whole (and the conservatives, even the young unmarried ones, tend to cloister themselves in the 'burbs, which is an interesting and telling trend in itself), and since the conference was held at the Carnegie Endownment for International Peace rather than the Kissinger Endowment for the Casual Mass Murder of Brown People. (Ha.)

And there was a tall half-Sudanese half-British guy there who looked eerily like Alexander Siddig, the actor who played Dr. Bashir on Deep Space 9 and the Saudi reformist prince in Syriana. My best friend and I had such a crush on Dr. Bashir when we were tweens back in Stigler, before we even knew what an Arab was. Turns out that Siddig is half-Sudanese half-British, too, and that the guy at the conference, Tarig, is actually a distant relative of Siddig! Small world...

* * *

Oh yeah, and my security clearance was officially denied. No classified documents for me. Hooray! OK, so it's kind of irritating that a jowly-faced judge and a moronic government lawyer teamed up at my hearing to ask me a million retarded questions about how, why, when, where, with whom, why, how, where, and when I've patronized the Doobie Brothers the approximately twice a year I generally do so, and then denied me access to classified info based on excessively minimal doobieage.

"For the last time, the Bedouin just give this stuff out like candy. It's normal. I wasn't even in the U.S."

It's like, dudes. Seriously. Get a life.

And I wouldn't be surprised if that was just a convenient excuse. My unarmed, open-eared time in the Middle East probably didn't help much. Even people at the think tank expressed frustration that anyone who actually knows anything about the Middle East is automatically considered suspect and preferentially kept out of the loop. How miserably counterproductive is that? (Well, counterproductive to sound policy, not necessarily to certain people's agendas.)

But at least I don't have to worry about it anymore, and to be very honest, I wasn't entirely thrilled to carry the burden of knowing things that, if I got drunk and blurted them out at a party, could land me in federal prison. Who needs that, right? And unless they're lying, most of my friends with clearances say they only learn boring stuff anyway, and only on a need-to-know basis. It is interesting, they say, to be able to speak freely while in cleared areas with other cleared people -- occasionally you do learn something interesting that way. Oh well.

If only I was a square or a liar...

* * *

I also learned about a soccer team I could join through a member of my ultimate frisbee team. Soccer plays after work, when the sun's just going down over the trees and the Washington Monument. Really beautiful.

We got slaughtered on our first game and merely tripled (1-3) on our second game. By the third game, we were playing like a team and, in our estimation, only lost on bad calls by the refs. One of our guys, Pablo, is fast enough that the refs kept calling him offsides on our best plays because they didn't think he could get that far down the field if he'd crossed the defense line after the kick. If even half their calls had been incorrect, their correction would have made it a very different game.

We still have several games to go this season, and next season we anticipate being a force to be reckoned with.

Meanwhile, my ultimate frisbee team just won the D-league championship. A-league is college/professional level, and D-league is slightly above the level I played at in high school. Personally, I think it's the optimum level of play, because you don't get the uptight super-competitive types and it's not organized enough to be boring. There are still some good random flings and plenty of dives, plus a lot of wasted energy running around, which makes it a better workout.

(I tried to play ultimate in college for a while, but the skill level was so high and the play was so rigidly organized it wasn't even fun -- kinda like college volleyball. Bump, set, spike, block. Bump, set, spike, block. Bump, set, spike, failed block -> point. Yawn.)

And the best part was, the captain of the team we played in the finals was a guy from Stanford who was president of the Zionist Club (or something like that) when I was doing my independent study about Israel/Palestine at Stanford in the spring of 2004. My old arch-nemesis! (Just kidding -- I actually thought he was kinda cute.) Anyway, we kicked their butts, and I'm not gonna say it wasn't satisfying. First trophy I've won since middle school.

* * *

So, life is good. Hopefully I'll be heading to Palestine June 14-30, after commemmorating the 40th anniversary of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza on June 10 here in DC with demonstrations and a lobbying day.

I just hope the socialists and LaRouchies don't show up and try to co-opt it, like they always do. Throw your own demonstrations, guys. Seriously. What if you threw a birthday party and like 50 random guys showed up and said, "Let's get this high school reunion started!" and then just acted like it was their high school reunion? At your party, with your food, in the venue you set up, with your people already there trying to celebrate the birthday party? How would you like that? Huh? Punks.

* * *

This Easter was my grandparents' 60th wedding anniversary, and for the first time in years, every single member of our family was there, including Luke and his family. 31 people, including 11 grandkids and 5 great-grandkids. We hid eggs for the kids, which they raced through in short order, and then Luke and his wife, with quiet fanfare, brought out dozens and dozens of dyed eggs with tissue paper glued on top. No one knew what they were until Luke took one and smashed it on the nearest head, at which point it exploded into a million pieces of confetti. They'd somehow hollowed out all the eggs, colored them, filled them with confetti, and glued tissue on top to stop the hole.

Needless to say, those were also demolished in short order.

Mom made a huge production of songs and family pictures and videos, and we all watched and enjoyed that. Then the fiddlers got out their fiddles, the guitarists got out their guitars, and the mandolinist pulled out his tiny instrument. And all the rest of us escaped to the backyard. (Kidding.)

It was great to be together as a large and expanding family.

* * *

Oh yeah, and the house where my new coworker lives up in Mt. Pleasant had a massive crab party last Saturday that was off the hook. Four kegs, three bushels of Maryland crabs, and a lot of very random, good people -- including more folks that I happened to know from Palestine but hadn't been in touch with in ages. It is a ridiculously small world.

* * *

I hope you are all doing well, too, and I'd love to hear about what you're up to. Pamela


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