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Thanks, John, and How Tiny Washington Feels from Afar

Here's a raw and heartfelt thank you to the daily diarist of the national capital region, John Kelly, for so ably stepping in and making Raw Fisher the spot for his first try at this odd art. It's his Washington, and we're lucky to be able to peek inside every day in the Post to read John Kelly's take on what it's like to live here. He's of course welcome back here on the big blog anytime.

Meanwhile, your crochety host has returned from a glorious week in cold, wet, snowy Arizona. Do not for a moment believe a word you read about drought or extreme heat. We drove the length and breadth of the state and were in some form of driving rainstorm, wild snow or wacky ice conditions for almost the entire week--and of course we loved it bigtime. From watching the A's crush the Cubs in Phoenix on a very chilly, very wet afternoon to watching giant trucks slide off Interstate 17 on the big climb from the desert to the white-capped mountains around Flagstaff, and on to the very snowy Grand Canyon and the stunning vistas and icy cold winds of the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest, this was an almost preposterously big week--big rivers, bigger canyons, biggest sky. It all makes our little hills and scrawny skyline and cramped highways and tight streets seem unnaturally constricted, too taut, too narrow in the way we think and the way we live.

Washington is almost unimaginable from the great deserts and mesas of the West. While we chuckle here about how the rest of the nation misconceives the District and its suburbs, imagining us as an entire city of lobbyists and fat cat politicians, it's also true that those of us who live in the Bosnywash megalopolis too often forget that what we dismiss as Out There is so very far away not only in miles and politics, but in the pace and texture of daily life. We met people who find the structure of our lives to be nothing short of insane. They would never spend 12-14 hours a day working--for what possible reason? They've chosen to live in the mountains, out in the big spaces, expressly because they saw what it was like to spend three hours a day in the car getting to and from the office and they decided that was bizarre behavior. They don't see a hot tub as a strange and wonderful thing to do four times a year, but as a basic part of daily life, every bit as routine as we see driving the kids 20 minutes each way to a ballgame or a music lesson.

Sure, there's a suburban sameness to American life, from Surprise and Scottsdale to Springfield and Shirlington--the same dreary chainstores, the same unfortunate left-turn lanes, the same AM radio band (though theirs has Rush Limbaugh on nine, count em nine, stations, whereas we have him on but one spot on the dial.)

But if you look beyond the superficial, there is a qualitative difference between their lives and ours. In the car on the way to the airport to head home, we talked about those differences and we all agreed that we like our lives better--we prefer the bustle and the edge, the harsher art and the culture of argument that flourish in a big metro area. But we also agreed that the body and the mind need the occasional reminder of bigness and life that takes place at fewer bpm. We tuned into the Chill channel and it did its thing. Now, let's ratchet up the pace once more....

By Marc Fisher |  March 27, 2006; 6:40 AM ET
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Just got back from Australia where I experienced much the same thing... an appreciation of nature and a slower pace of life. However, while I agree with you that I like things quicker overall, now that I'm back I find myself detesting the people I've bumped into in DC. This town is full of smug egomaniacs, which would be less likely if we all didn't spend 12-14 hours a day doing something we're convinced is important.

Posted by: Washingtonian | March 27, 2006 8:45 AM

I'm sure there are no smug egomaniacs in Australia or Arizona.

It's good that you visited a different place, Mark, and appreciated it for what it was. I can't help but feel that most people who come here don't get the same appreciation for what Washington truly is ... beyond the lobbyists and fat cat politicians, the smithsonian and the cherry blossoms. the real people and places of DC, not just the congressional interns and midwest transplants.

I'm reminded of it every year at this time, when the tour groups from missouri come for their spring break in DC, and don't experience anything beyond a tour of the capitol and a trip to pentagon city mall. and I know that's all they take from the trip, too, because that's what they talk about when you meet them later in college and tell them you're from DC - "oh, I remember my seventh grade field trip there."

it's a shame that the rest of the country has such a simplistic view of such a great city, a shame because it means they have only the negative shorthand fed to them by their political representatives, who all go home and rail against the excesses of the city (which, incidentally, are entirely created by those same politicians) and have less overall respect for our political process.

Posted by: In Defense of Washington | March 27, 2006 9:25 AM

Are you a Cubs fan? We're leaving Phoenix this morning after a weekend of spring training games - my mom had the best time of her life and got to meet Ron Santo. The weather has been beautiful for us - I'm sunburnt! Welcome back to the daily grind.

Posted by: misschatter | March 27, 2006 10:13 AM

Oh and... It is totally different out here. I went out with a group of friends who live here (Phoenix area), three of whom are unemployed at the moment by choice and thrilled about it. My DC brain wonders how on earth they can do that?

Posted by: misschatter | March 27, 2006 10:14 AM

I too love some of the comforts of a less urban environment. But, sadly, in America that country or simpler suburban lifestyle isn't open to all. It's great if you're straight, Christian, and preferably white.

There are many, many parts of America that I can't really live in without constant struggle because I'm not straight. It's a shame, really.

Posted by: Hillman | March 27, 2006 10:27 AM

Its just home to me. Born here, raised her, schooled here, worked here. Just a small town where the gossip is political rather than personal, where the cherry trees bloom each year, where people come to "visit" for 2,4,6, or eight year government stints, and to us Washingtonians - where we call home.

Posted by: Washingtonian | March 27, 2006 10:31 AM

Know why everyone's so laid back in the red states? Cause we're paying the freight here in the land of blue. Check out this study from Tax Foundation-

But does New Mexico ever send New Jersey a thank you note?

Posted by: kurosawaguy | March 27, 2006 11:58 AM

Hey k-guy.... everyone's looking for you over on the Boodle. C'mon over and play.

Posted by: TBG | March 27, 2006 1:12 PM

Washington is different from other places. Not better not worse. Just different.

Born & raised here. Wheels are just normal people with overlarge egos, just like the mayor of a small town or the local college BBall coach.

Just got back from Italy. Folks in the olive groves in Tuscany might just as well be in the 1930s. Good? Bad? Indifferent?

On the drive from the airport to Rome, the van hit 100 (MPH, not KPH). Don't complain about 270 or the Beltway. Talk about your heart in your mouth.

Also, Romans are true multitaskers. You try driving a tiny car, making a 160 deg turn up a hill and down onto a cobblestone street, while smoking a cigarette and talking on your cell phone.

Beautiful middleaged lady in Florence with a mink coat, riding a bike.

As I said, not better, not worse, just different.

Also, those folks in the various states should stop blaming their troubles on "Washington". They managed to send the 535 + 1 Pres. here. Their Bad!!!!

Posted by: Catcher50 | March 27, 2006 1:24 PM

Catcher50, I agree with you on both parts:

I've always wondered about that blame game from the folks who sent them here.

I grew up here too and now I'm raising my family here. And in our travels around the U.S. (long road trips, no interstates allowed), we've discovered one thing: very few people live like we do. Some live better, some live worse--but most of the U.S. does not look like my suburban-DC neighborhood.

Posted by: TBG | March 27, 2006 1:50 PM

Welcome back!
Did you ask anyone out there if they thought it was appropriate for their Senator (McCain) to refer to your town (DC) as the "City of Satan"? Did you ask them if they would like their cities or states to be referred to like that?


Posted by: jim preston | March 27, 2006 2:40 PM

I moved to Washington from my native Dallas in 2000 because I had a feeling that I would get more of a true "big city" experience living in DC, and approaching age 50, it was now or never. I haven't been disappointed, although Washington takes some getting used to. For example, having come from a city with a florid, nouveau-riche symphony center (a product of the typical Texas "edifice complex"), I was disappointed at first by the Kennedy Center's "Ramada Inn Red" carpet and its plastic chandeliers. I can overlook the architecture now because of the quality of the programming and the significance of the events that take place there. But what happened to the skyscrapers? Sure, the Washington Monument is impressive, but it's just one building! And the bricks don't even match colors as they go up! (Took me a while to figure that one out.)

Perhaps what's been most surprising has been how much I've come to treasure weekends touring through rural West Virginia, a place I once regarded as the ends of the earth, full of chaw-spittin', gun-totin' hillbillies who all marry their cousins. Couldn't have been more wrong. My office mate at Ft. Belvoir commutes from his home in WV every day, and I've rarely met a more urbane or well-traveled man.

There's a story about a well-to-do native of San Francisco who was asked why she never traveled to other places, despite her obvious ability to afford it. She replied in all seriousness, "Why would I need to travel? I'm already here!" I'm starting to feel that way about the 300-or-so mile radius around Washington. We've got New York City, Fallingwater, the Outer Banks, mountain range after mountain range, and everything in DC that people come from all over the world to see--we're already here!

Posted by: Scott | March 27, 2006 3:29 PM

Come on...people here are different. I've lived in 4 states over the last 7 years. A large number of people who live here ARE egomaniacs who live to work instead of work to live. I plan on padding resume another year and I'm outta here!

Posted by: Anonymous | March 27, 2006 3:31 PM

Just moved away from the DC 'burbs in February after 8 years of grad school and early career, which included a marriage and two kids. We loved it there but couldn't afford to live there any more after our second child was born. We sold the house for twice what we paid for it in 2001, and bought something twice as big in Denver for $100K less. I really like Denver so far--the mountains and the sky from our front yard are definitely big and glorious--but when I was back in DC last week for a conference, I almost started crying when I saw a cherry blossom. There's something about spring in DC, witness those tourists. Having grown up in Wisconsin, I thought spring was a myth until I came to DC.

Posted by: niner | March 27, 2006 3:47 PM

Niner-for what it's worth, Denver is my second favorite city after DC. The narrow streets jammed tight with classic bungalows in the Washington Park and Cheeseman Park neighborhoods remind me of much of NW DC. And the downtown "pedestrian mall" is one of the few in the country that manages to impart a true urban feel, crowded with shops, restaurants, and lofts. If the drought has lifted, Denver will have a glorious spring, too, just not until May! Give it're probably living in the one city that can ease your homesickness for Washington.

Posted by: Scott | March 27, 2006 4:01 PM

Some good observations, Marc. I grew up on a farm near a tiny town in the Midwest and have since lived in seven different places: three big cities, two medium-size cities, and one small city.

I like the culture of argument, too. But unless one moves directly into a work environment that provides that culture, finding people to argue with can be, in big, busy cities, be a substantial challenge. I've had both experiences, i.e., moving into a university department that provided a set of people with similar interests but, sometimes, dissimilar perspectives and also moving to a big city on my own. It can be tough.

Years ago, I described to a friend the experience of "being known," which is harder to achieve than getting to know someone because it's less under your control. In the community I grew up in, I was known to everyone simply because I was my parents' kid. Lots has been written about the lack of privacy, opportunities, and so on in small towns, and much of that is true. But they do offer some opportunities that big cities don't, which is not to say that I have any intention of moving back.

There's lots more I could say on this topic, but one can't spend all day reading and writing comments on blogs. I will say, though, that the five years I spent in Tucson were some of the best I've had. The constant sunshine, the dinner parties on patios, the Thanksgiving picnics, hiking, Southwestern jewelry, the amazing (to a Midwesterner) vegetation, and great (and cheap) Mexican food are all great memories, not to mention that that was one of the places that gave me a community of people to argue--and laugh--with.

Glad to have you back.

Posted by: J.Rae | March 27, 2006 4:24 PM

For every negative you can drudge up about this place, there's at least two counterarguments and three worse things about the alternatives. Maybe it's not for everyone, but I also believe that if you make the effort to get to know the ENTIRE area (and not just the Mall, or just the Georgetown cocktail circuit, or just Reston), there is no better place to live and work on Earth than the metropolitan DC area.

Posted by: DC | March 27, 2006 4:44 PM

And what do you recommend as a way of getting to know the entire area, DC? I'm really interested.

Posted by: J.Rae | March 27, 2006 4:59 PM

I don't know. If you're serious and not just being sarcastic - do more than just go to the Kennedy Ctr and criticize the ugly chandeliers, maybe give money to support the arts and enjoy the world class performers that come through town (and take advantage of the free shows, too!); learn why the Washington Monument is more than one color; discover the mountains of WV, the wine country of Charlottesville, the beauty of Chincoteague or the Outer Banks, the Baltimore museum of art or the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond; socialize with more than just the K Street, Capitol Hill, or Dulles tech crowds; go to restaurants that aren't Applebees or the Palm, there's plenty in between (in fact, most of them are better than the supposed elites of NYC, who are really just coasting on reputation rather than serving excellent meals; I recommend starting at any Ethiopian restaurant); talk to people about the Skins or the Bullets, or Md or Gtown hoops, or the Nats' new stadium. And this is just off the top of my head. Heck, there's an entire blog on this site (Going out gurus) devoted to the unique things you can do in DC that don't involve rubbing elbows with the sweaty masses from the midwest who wander the Metro system and stink up the Smithsonians.

This city is one of the most economically, racially, culturally, internationally, regionally diverse cities in the world. Make an effort to do things that aren't just marketed to tourists. You wouldn't live in NYC and claim that you knew everything there was to know because you had been to Statue of Liberty and Rockefeller Plaza, would you? You wouldn't say you were finished with LA because you had seen the Hollywood sign and driven down Rodeo Dr, would you?

Posted by: DC | March 27, 2006 5:24 PM

I actually really enjoyed that piece. I guess it is all what you like. I was born and raised in the area. After college I moved to Charlotte and didn't like it. It was too NOVA, the entire city was big box stores, too conservative. No mass trans, no neighborhoods. DC felt like Paris or Hong Kong in comparison. Others I knew loved it there. I did like that nobody wore a suit.

I was there during the last banking boom. Half the guys that had the real money jobs were all from NYC. I remember talking to one head trader and said how do you go from NYC to here? He said NYC is home always, but this place has benefits. For what they pay me here I have a huge house, fresh air, wife and kids live like kings,and I am a player here. 1.2m a year and I am a player in this town. In NYC there are guys barely older than you making more than that. I work at "the" bank here. Up there it a third tier "Southern Bank." So I guess everyone has reasons for what they prefer. A sense of belonging, being someone.

For my friends from Philly or NYC DC is a foreign planet. They still find it hilarious to see women with pearls on going to work. They aren't used it. What is up with all the Ann Taylor, fake blonde hair, and pearls? They look like they are going to a wedding. I never thought about it. That is what they wear to work downtown, it has been this way my whole life. So to me Charloote was too Southern they feel they same way about here.

Personally I enjoy it here. Will I be here always, probably not. I think if I were 10 years younger and could afford something more than a 700k studio I'd pick the East Village. Growing up NY was too big and dirty, people were rude. I visit friends there a few times a year and remember the first weekend I spent there. Going out to grab a cigarette and one foot out of the apartment complex at 9 am on Thursday a man in a business suit, a fellow with a huge mohawk and green polo shirt on, and a model looking woman, just beautiful, all crossed my path with in 30 seconds. I thought this is the greatest city in the world. Why couldn't I have experienced this when I was in my 20s or 30s.

There is the right place for everyone out there.

Posted by: DClivin | March 27, 2006 5:37 PM

I wasn't being sarcastic at all. It's not so much that I don't have ideas about where to do; it's that I'm sort of new here, and I came on my own. So, I don't have people to do all these entertaining things with. And I'm a chatty person who feels like she hasn't really done something (e.g., seen a movie, gone to a restaurant, taken a trip, whatever) until she's talked it over with someone.

But that's more about my life than the city.

Posted by: J.Rae | March 27, 2006 5:39 PM

Quite frankly, if you tell folks you're from Washington, they are pacifying you with the 7th grade trip story, and praying you leave soon with their town intact.

There is a vast difference between intelligence and wisdom.

Posted by: WDCHillbillies | March 27, 2006 11:58 PM

Getting to know the area...

Join (it's free) Professionals in the City and see if your college has an alumni chapter here.

On the weekends, take the Metro to different parts of the city, visit museums, visit the zoo, check out the Cherry Blossoms -- that in itself is an adventure.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 28, 2006 2:31 PM

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