Tag Archives: Georgetown

Running Toward Your Resolutions

Tomorrow being New Year’s Eve, many of my readers will be coming up with resolutions for 2014.  Yet statistics say that most resolution-makers are going to fail in their attempt.  If you believe that you are too fat or too skinny, chances are you will be looking in the mirror and thinking the same thing four weeks from now.  If the house continues to approach candidacy for an episode of “Hoarders”, don’t be surprised if come Spring cleaning, the place still looks like a dump.

The reason for resolution failure, those same statisticians tell us, is often a lack of specificity.  If John tells himself, “I want to get in shape,” but cannot answer the question, “To what purpose?”, then he is more likely to fail.  This is common sense, since if we have learned anything from the examples of our current President and the “mainstream” media, one does not achieve any demonstrable goals based purely on feelings.

Yet sometimes, even when you think you have a solid goal that you are working toward, a well-planned resolution itself will not be enough to make you continue down the path to a changed life.

I was never an athlete when I was in grade school or in high school.  However in college, I became friendly with many of the athletes playing for Georgetown, which was a mix of both NCAA Division I – basketball, track, lacrosse, etc. – athletics, and also some not-so elite athletics.  I grew particularly interested in track, and was told that if I wanted to try to walk on to the track team – no easy task – as a middle-distance runner, which given my height and rather long legs seemed the most sensible option, I would have to be able to run the 1500-meter at under 4 minutes, not for competition but at practice every day.

Being young and stupid, I decided to go for it.  I began running like crazy on all different types of surfaces, using a sports watch, eating like mad, as well as keeping a journal of my miles logged and how I felt after each run.  Gradually I added more and more miles every week, based on the advice that the middle-distance fellows gave me.  I learned what shoes – never sneakers, mind you – to buy, who were the good manufacturers of different types of athletic gear for the sport, and began reading magazines like “Runner’s World”.

Running became one of the most important aspects of my life, even though I was nowhere near competing with anyone in a race.  I attended track meets so I could learn more about the sport and support my friends.  I trained in all kinds of weather, wearing everything from only split shorts with a thin t-shirt all the way up to layers of tights with three layers of sweatshirts, gloves, and a hat.  Gradually my friendships dwindled down to a small circle of track people and non-track people, with the latter group growing thinner and thinner.  I lost interest in my coursework, but was so caught up in this new sport and the friendships I had formed around it, that I wasn’t paying attention to developing my mind – which of course was the whole point of being in college in the first place.

Then one night when no one else was running, but the field lights were still on up on the track, I headed up the hill from my dormitory with a young lady I was interested in at the time.  I asked her to time me on a stopwatch as I attempted to run the 1500 in under 4 minutes.  I would be timing myself on my stopwatch as well, so that there could be independent verification of the result.  I do remember loosening up a little bit, but mostly I remember just staring at the somewhat spongy surface of the track, before suddenly everything became a blur, as I exploded into a flat-out run.

Lo and behold, I did it: both timepieces confirmed that I had run the 1500 in 3:56.  The elation I felt at the time was very difficult to describe, although to be honest more than feeling happy I was completely out of breath and wanted to throw up.  Fortunately, I had the presence of mind not to do so in front of a lady.

Later that evening as I lay in bed, I realized that this was not supposed to be a one-time achievement.  Rather, this was something that I would be expected to do every single day in practice, and to surpass it during competition at track meets.  And that was assuming I would even get a look-see from the track coach.

It was then that I realized, for all I had done to myself to get to that point, that I was not interested in pursuing this sport any further.  It was no longer fun, or a way to hang out with my new buddies, it was very quickly going to become a chore, and one that if I was honest with myself, I did not actually enjoy.  Within days, the running shoes and tights were in the garbage, and I was back to enjoying cocktails and espresso, writing journal entries about literature and architecture, instead of charting how many miles I had run.  I have never regretted that decision to walk away when I did.

The moral here, if there must be one, is that although 2014 may be a great year for you to try something new, or change something about yourself, without a specific, achievable goal in mind you are probably not going to succeed.  Your first task is to identify something that you can see through from start to finish in a reasonable period of time.  You need to have some idea of how many days, weeks, or months it will take for you to achieve that goal, calendar for yourself accordingly, and stick with it.

Yet you may well have a second task, just as important as the first: identifying what happens when you achieve the achievable goal.  If you lose 20 pounds but still dress like a schlub, or clean out the guest room but never have anyone come stay for the weekend, what was the point?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of the fact that at least once in my life, I ran at a reasonably elite level of speed.  Yet when I reached that goal and realized that pursuing it further would require more of me than I was willing to give, I stopped and focused my attentions elsewhere.

So be prepared Gentle Reader, this New Year’s Eve, that when you make your resolution, you not only have an achievable goal in mind, but that you are also considering what, if anything, will happen when and if you achieve that goal.

"Runner" by Unknown Artist (19th C. copy of Ancient Greek Original)  Achilleion Palace, Corfu

“Runner” by Unknown Artist (19th C. copy of Ancient Greek Original)
Achilleion Palace, Corfu

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New Life for the Old Georgetown Theater

When I first moved to Washington as a Georgetown undergraduate many years ago, I would wince as I walked past the old Georgetown Theater on Wisconsin Avenue, with its iconic but crumbling neon sign spelling out “Georgetown” on the facade.  I never knew the building in its original incarnation as a movie theater, since it had long been sold and gutted on the inside, having been turned into a jewelry store where signs in the front window prominently announced that one could buy lengths of gold and silver chain by the foot.  Back then there were still a number of other small cinemas in the neighborhood, which more recent transplants to the city would not be familiar with, but eventually they all faded away, replaced with the rather grand multiplex Georgetown AMC-Loews Theater down on K Street at the waterfront.

Now it has been announced that architect and longtime Georgetown resident Robert Bell has purchased the property, and hopes to redevelop it as a mixed-use retail and residential space.  As happy as I am that this building will be brought back to life, I must admit that I am slightly jealous.  Those who know me well can attest that in conversations about what one would hypothetically do with one’s winnings if one won the lottery, buying and restoring the Georgetown Theater has always been one of the top items on my list.

Of course, while it is probable that Mr. Bell will restore the current mock stone, post-war facade of the building as he renovates and reconfigures the interior, my own preference would have been to recreate the rather unusual – for Washington, anyway – facade of the building from when it began life as the Dumbarton Moving Picture Theater back in 1913.  You can see in this photograph in the collection of the D.C. Public Library, taken about the time the theater was inaugurated, that it was a rather exuberant look for a city not known for innovative architecture.

Named for neighboring Dumbarton Street, the theater as it originally looked would have been perfectly at home in turn of the century Barcelona or Prague.  Its mixture of Neo-Gothic elements, swooping Art Nouveau, and pure imagination, would have fit right in to the urban landscape which those cities took to extremes between about 1880 and 1920.  Washington however, is a city which I overheard several tourists in Union Station yesterday describe as a “city full of rules”, and so perhaps it is not a surprise that this fantastical decoration was torn down in 1949, and replaced with something rather more bland and sensible.

Even though Mr. Bell may not be bringing back the whimsy of the old Dumbarton, his efforts to secure the renovation of this space is of long-standing duration and we should all pleased that someone who cares so much not only about this building but about his community has managed to obtain it.  I am looking forward to seeing what will become of the place, and if rumors are correct that the ground floor may become a second branch of the excellent Politics and Prose bookshop and cafe, so much the better, for Georgetown desperately needs a place where locals and visitors can gather and linger.  Just as the village’s many movie theaters disappeared long ago, so too our many bookshops have, with one or two exceptions, all but vanished as well.

These types of commercial spaces which lend themselves to community interaction are always very much needed to help bring life and a greater sense of neighborliness to urban areas.  They serve, in a modern context, what the old assembly rooms of towns and cities in the 18th and 19th centuries did: as a bridge between the public and the private, where all are welcome.  Given the success of these types of venues in revitalizing corridors in other cities and indeed in other DC neighborhoods, we can hope that this particular stretch of Wisconsin Avenue, which has suffered from retail blight and neglect for decades, will get a new lease one life through a creative and well-executed revival of this local landmark, one which both we villagers and those who visit us can come to enjoy and appreciate.

Wisconsin

Current, dilapidated state of The Georgetown Theater

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Tonight’s Do-Not-Miss Event in Washington: “The Final Gladness”

If you are in the Washington, D.C. area, then I urge you to put this on your calendar for tonight, even if it means leaving work or class a little bit early. For today at 5:00 pm in Gaston Hall, Georgetown University government professor James V. Schall, S.J. will be delivering his final lecture before retirement.  All that we know at this point is its title: “The Final Gladness” – and to be honest, even if we did not have that title, I would still urge those of you who are in the Washington metropolitan region to make an effort to attend, and hear what this great mind is going to share with us.

Father Schall earned his Ph.D. in political philosophy at Georgetown in 1960, and has been one of the great intellects of the university ever since.  The author of more than 30 books, as well as a contributor to many others, for decades he has been a voice of reason and common sense both in the United States and around the world.  His articles and essays have appeared in publications such as the National Review, Economist, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, L’Osservatore Romano, Christian Science Monitor, First Things, Crisis, Commentary, and so many, MANY others, that one is humbled by both the quantity and quality of his output.

Even if you are not a Catholic, chances are you have read Father Schall’s writing somewhere, if you have studied politics or current events beyond the mind-numbingly pedestrian, screaming-as-analysis sort of nonsense that tends takes place these days in certain quarters, both left and right.  He has seen it all, over the past fifty years, and has been a part of the national conversation long before many of my readers were even born.  His calm witness to classical principles, from the virtues of the classical academy to the benefits of a sensibly governed democracy, is no less sharp and insightful now, in his mid-80′s, as our country’s future hangs rather precariously in the balance.

For example, the reader may recall that in April of this year, Congressman Paul Ryan came to speak at Georgetown about the budget battle and the philosophical underpinnings of each side, left and right, with respect to the role of government in out lives.  As it happens, that lecture was given in the very same hall where Father Schall will deliver his final lecture this evening.  The reader may recall that a number of the leftist faculty on campus turned out to criticize Congressman Ryan, even before he made his speech to the faculty and students.

Father Schall was, very decidedly, not among these.  In his review of Congressman Ryan’s speech, Father Schall pointed out that the present Administration appears more and more interested in taking control over the wealth of others, in order to foster greater dependency upon the government:

This accumulation of wealth gives government huge power over citizens who are increasingly dependent on it. They are increasingly afraid to oppose its growth for fear that they will be cut out of societal benefits. Indeed, there is considerable speculation that this growing dependence of more and more citizens on the government is precisely what many politicians, bureaucrats, and other interested parties want. This leaves a mass of voters who do not dare oppose the state but who demand more and more for themselves.

He went on to observe how our increasing dependence on the government as the provider of goodies for all is not going to make our country wealthier and thereby better-able to take care of the poor; instead, the reverse will happen:

The poor are not poor because the rich are rich. The only way for the poor to hope to increase their wealth is for the economy itself to grow as a result of their own endeavors. This is the classic notion that we must allow reward and incentive to flourish. If we take these away, no one will do anything to help himself. Everyone will become more dependent on a government increasingly willing to claim that it is itself the solution. Americans once knew this approach of the all-caring government was, to put it mildly, counter-productive and even dangerous.

In his personal philosophy of education, Father Schall has always been decidedly opposed to the idea that the university is nothing but an over-priced trade school.  Rather, in the Platonic tradition of the Academy, it is a place where minds go to be formed, away from the influences of the outside world, so that they can come to understand what is true.  He has often pointed out that more learning can arise from a good conversation in a pub, asking questions and challenging notions, than in simply memorizing and regurgitating facts in order to get a high mark in a class, and thereafter a high-paying job.

In an interview he gave recently, Father Schall pointed out that many universities, including Georgetown, have abandoned the idea of what the university is supposed to be, becoming “resumé universities” in pursuit of the almighty dollar, rather than classical universities in pursuit of truth:

“Resumé universities have students who focus on their internships, their extracurricular activities, their sports. What’s behind them is the notion that education is more than just knowing, but that detracts from the purpose of a university,” he said. “You can’t be a student if you’re doing 30 hours a week of something else.”  Schall maintains that students should remain actively involved in their educations whenever not in class. “Of course you can do nothing if you want, but you have the time to be free to be thinking about things,” he said.

Whether you have long admired Father Schall’s work, or whether you are now reading it for the first time, this is an event not to be missed.  Although Gaston Hall seats around 600 people, I suspect that it is going to be packed to the rafters with people who will want to hear Father Schall’s last public address to the Georgetown community.  Again, if you are in the Washington area this evening, I urge you: do not miss this opportunity to wish this very great man well, as he leaves the active teaching life to prepare for what comes next.

Schall

The Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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Reflections on the Death of an American Ambassador

With the breaking news this morning about the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, the attacks on our missions in Egypt and Libya, and unexpectedly running into a diplomat friend twice over the past two days, the subject of diplomacy as a career choice has been on my mind quite a bit over the past 24 hours. In fact, diplomacy was a career which at one point I both studied and fully intended to embark upon – and, never say never, I have always been open to considering in the future. Yet despite what the public often thinks about a diplomatic career, that it is little more than one endless cocktail party out of some James Bond film, it is in fact a rather difficult life, based on the espousal and promotion of principle, which often involves a great deal of personal sacrifice.

My grandfather worked for the United Nations in South America during the 1960′s, and I grew up hearing from my mother about the experiences she had with him and my grandmother living in places like Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Peru, among others. This was part of my motivation for becoming interested in international politics, and why I wanted so very much to get into the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown. There were other undergraduate universities I could have attended, but the Catholic roots of SFS – a school founded by a Jesuit priest and housed in a building named for another – really sealed the deal for me, when it came to selecting which institution would become my alma mater.

Once at school, I quickly obtained a part-time position with a diplomatic studies think tank, and set about trying to figure out the best way to graduate and end up in Europe, preferably Spain or Germany, for a diplomatic post upon graduation. I had visions of meeting and befriending interesting people in business, politics, and society in these places, trying to help our respective countries understand each other better for mutual benefit. In fact this was a view which I suspect was shared by quite a number of my classmates, since we were entering into uncharted waters, historically. The Soviet Union had only just recently collapsed; it looked as though Western values had finally triumphed and a new age of democracy and international cooperation was dawning.

Reality, of course, soon comes knocking when one imagines that any sort of career path is going to be easy. Within the first few days of orientation, I became acquainted with one of my classmates whose parents were both diplomats. He had lived all over the world, sometimes in rather exotic and unpleasant-sounding places, and possessed a kind of world-weary air combined with a love of British alternative music which I happened to share.

However over time I began to sense that having no permanent sense of home had left him intellectually bright but personally detached in some way. This was by no means an isolated case, but rather a pattern of personality which I often observed among the children of diplomats whom I befriended at college. It is of course unfair to speak in generalities, as no doubt there are plenty of well-adjusted diplomatic children. However I did hear repeatedly the lament that the constant moving about, having to leave old friends and make new ones, made it difficult for these children to form attachments, knowing they could rupture at any time.

Then of course apart from family strife, there is the danger for the diplomat that you will be sent to work in some horrid place in which you have absolutely no interest, and this is a very legitimate concern indeed if you are not someone who enjoys being far from civilization and organized agriculture. I have never wanted to ride a camel into a desert, nor trek through a rain forest, nor have a pee in a lean-to made out of aluminum siding, and I should hardly care to live in an environment where such things are not uncommon. In short, and with all due apologies to people who live in such places, if the local insects are generally the size of my hand, I will not be going there.

Academically I have always been more interested in Europe than in the other continents, and focused on it in my studies. This made the chances of their being a need for a fluent German speaker specializing in European economic integration or German foreign policy in off-putting corners of the world hopefully rather slim, at least in theory, if I did chose to follow the diplomatic route. Yet over time and meeting more diplomats, it became clear that this was not often the case. When you received your assignment, sometimes you got Paris, but sometimes you got the back of beyond – and frankly I’d rather not go there, thanks all the same.

Then yesterday and today on the way in to work, I ran into a friend in the diplomatic service whom I have not seen for some years, someone who is temporarily back in Washington for a few weeks before the next assignment overseas. I could not help but imagine, from the pure serendipity of the encounters, that my life might have turned out similarly, and there was a faint sense of something appealing about it, even with all of the potential drawbacks involved in living that life. At the same time of course, it is impossible not to think of the risks that career diplomats like my friend or Ambassador Stevens who, though the chances are extremely rare, can find themselves in, by the very nature of who they are and the offices they hold, and indeed by what they represent around the world.

Perhaps I am now at the age when I can appreciate that this is not such a bad thing, which in my late teens and early 20′s I would not have understood. I still want absolutely nothing to do with giant bugs of course, but as you grow older, and you come to not only understand but deeply appreciate the values behind our American form of democracy, you realize that promoting its interests abroad and encouraging others to follow in the good footsteps of our example is not such a bad thing. For however much we may at times fall short of living up to our own values and principles, as a nation we do actually believe in them, and keep striving to achieve and perfect them. It is our can-do attitude and sense of trying to give people a fair shake which makes us such a remarkably effective country around the world.

I think this is something Ambassador Stevens clearly understood, as he risked his life to work in such an extremely dangerous part of the world. He worked to communicate with the Libyan rebels as they sought to free themselves from the Gaddafi regime, and stayed on as the new Libyan state began to form out of the chaos of civil war, when he could so easily have asked to come home. His family ought to be proud, and his countrymen grateful, that he served his country so well.

So forget the black-tie balls and garden parties you see in Hollywood’s imagining of what diplomatic life is like. Instead, remember the example of those who, like Ambassador Stevens, put themselves into personal danger simply by representing your country in a different part of the world, far from home. For that is both a great position to hold, and a great responsibility to one’s nation.


Detail of “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein (1533)
National Gallery, London

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Your Time Is Now

Yesterday afternoon I decided to attend daily mass a few blocks from my house, and then pick up some things for dinner at a nearby deli, where I used to shop as an undergraduate at Georgetown University.  Monday happened to be the first day of classes, since the students all moved in this past weekend, and the relative quiet of the neighborhood around campus in summer is now broken once again.  There were young people everywhere, some carrying bags full of shopping, others bumping into one another and asking, “How was your summer?”, others heading back from class, internships, or athletic practice.

As I walked about, I experienced this rather vivid sense of time travel which is a bit hard to describe.  Perhaps the feeling was originally triggered by seeing a classmate of mine (whom I only knew slightly) on C-Span that morning, speaking on a panel discussion about the Republican National Convention, and remembering what she was like when she was about 19 years old.  It wasn’t that I actually ran into someone I knew after mass, for although I still know a professor or two at Georgetown, almost everyone who would remember me there is long gone.

Rather, it was something like putting myself back into that time when I was a new Hoya.  I still remember walking this particular route, on a Monday in August many years ago, as I made my way from campus down into the village for the first time.  It isn’t as though I had never walked this route since: as a matter of fact I probably take it at least a couple of times a month, if I am going to patronize certain commercial establishments, or attend a lecture on campus, etc.

Instead, it was a certain combination of golden, late afternoon light,  walking among these groups of students, that was a sort of journey beyond just that of heading home after church with some groceries.  It was not just that click or flash, where you are suddenly reminded of something and then it fade, but rather quite a lengthy visitation or reverie, putting me in mind of people I had known and had not thought of in many years, whose names I have forgotten but who at one time if I saw them on the other side of Prospect Street I would have acknowledged, even if not necessarily stopped to talk to.  Although I did not know the students around me, and they did not know me, there was a very strange sense that I could almost detail their lives…

And then of course, I realized that this is all rubbish.

Living in the past does no one any good – e.g., Miss Havisham.  We all know people who fit the old stereotypes of people who cannot left go of the past.  There are high school or college athletes for example, who got stuck in their own golden, afternoon light with the wet lawn beneath their feat, when they were young, handsome, and had a full head of hair.  Decades later they are unhappy, and seem to resent life and themselves in equal measure.  And this is simply one example among many.

Today the Church remembers the great St. Augustine, who spent the first part of his life having rather a good time carousing about.  By his mid-30′s however, that attempt to simultaneously hold on to youthful excess underneath a veneer of adult respectability became impossible for him to maintain.  He abandoned what he thought his life was supposed to be as a successful academic, and went down a completely different path.  How fortunate for all of us that he took that later call he received in life, and ran with it, rather than remaining trapped in a kind of hedonistic time which would have become increasingly ridiculous and sad as he grew older.

We are all living in the age in which we were meant to born, which is a rather sobering thought.  The question becomes what each of us will do with that inescapable fact, in the time we have each been given.  There is nothing wrong with periodically looking back with some sense of nostalgia, nor looking to the future with longing.  Yet if you spend most of your life doing these things, then you miss out on the opportunities you have before you today, here and now.

It was certainly an interesting experience I had yesterday afternoon, feeling as though I had returned to the past for several minutes, with my whole future in front of me just waiting to be defined.  In the end, however, I was very glad to find that the feeling passed, with no real sense of regret or loss.  There are too many things that need doing, for me to sit about and live in the past, and after all: if St. Augustine only started to figure out where his talents were really needed in his 30′s, then I am in most excellent company.

Aerial view of Georgetown on a summer late afternoon

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