Columns, Opinion

MAHDI: Lights, Camera, Action?

As I fumbled with one of the office’s iPads while a scholar waited patiently for me to angle the shot, I felt pretty ridiculous. My duties were no longer solely comprised of proofreading and formatting information. I had taken a leap of faith and pitched a project of my own.  With U.S. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech to air Tuesday, my assignment was to get scholar’s predictions on what to expect. As this is the nation’s political hub, I experienced a new phenomenon, one about which everyone (and I mean literally everyone) had an opinion. From small cafés to other workplaces, to the hundreds of interns cramming their bodies on the Metro to get to work everyday, you cannot escape it. There’s a saying that one should never discuss religion or politics. I soon realized discussing controversial issues that could divide opinion was what kept the cogs going in this small yet larger than life town.

This project I had decided to pursue quickly dominated this past week of my life. Emails flew through cyberspace as I scheduled appointments with scholars according to subject area. I conducted interviews in their offices, unsure what personality sat in the room before me, papers askew and views awaiting.

I was gaining confidence as I settled into my new role as a hybrid of cameraperson and interviewer.  I was no Oprah, but my piece was coming together.

One afternoon, I entered a scholar’s office and asked if he could close the blinds behind him so we could adjust the lighting. With great gusto, he climbed onto his wall-mounted radiator and began his epic battle to adjust his old blinds, which had probably never been shut before, what with the beautiful view of the city behind his windows. His foot kicked one of the vent tiles off of the radiator and into it. Despite my attempts to help, he rummaged through his desk drawers and brandished his tool of choice: a letter opener.

His attempts only aggravated the situation as three more tiles flew to the ground. Was I officially the worst intern ever? After a few more minutes of this struggle, he mumbled as he grabbed a paperclip, unwound it, and essentially began to fish for this elusive tile. Slowly but surely, he pulled the tile out in one elaborate gesture and it landed near his desk. The interview could finally begin. By the end, he was forthcoming about how excited he was for this venture to take form, a reaction I was not in the slightest expecting after the comedy of errors I had just witnessed.

I drove myself crazy editing videos. I played them over and over again. Analyses of entitlement programs, sequestration and foreign policy plagued my mind as I manipulated angles and light. I was settling into a madness of my own making. I needed some inspiration. I needed some air. I needed to step away from the dancing spikes on my screen signifying color contrast and background noise.

It seemed serendipitous that we were all scheduled to visit Lincoln’s Cottage that day.

President Abraham Lincoln’s retreat is and was on the grounds of a veteran’s home, a site that has endured more than a century. I was stunned when we entered a separate exhibit before our official tour; there lay one of the signed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation. We poured over this momentous relic of history in wonder. I had studied this document in school, I had seen a movie on it, and now it was real, tangible, before my eyes.

A disclaimer for anyone expecting plush period furniture in the cottage today: you won’t find any. The walls and rooms are sparse; the patio which once overlooked the Potomac is now shielded by trees and overlooks construction. Times have certainly changed, but the feeling remains. This was not a quiet, secluded spot for the former president. When war ravaged America and slavery was still commonplace, you could still hear the artillery being fired in the surrounding land. From Lincoln’s library, you could see deceased soldiers being buried in the nearby cemetery, a precursor to the burial ground at Arlington.

Since then, the battleground has moved from the fields to the halls of Congress. But one thing is the same: there is no retreat and there is no avoidance of what the issues are, even if the execution of solutions is less than perfect. That’s the beauty of this city. It is phenomenally difficult to get anything done — that much is true. It’s a makes-you-want-to-fling-tiles-off-your-radiator kind of frustrating.

So, where’s the silver lining? Call me naively optimistic, but I think it’s inherent in the way that people in this city come here because they aren’t complacent or content with how life is now. Doing those interviews, I found people who have views on American life and who are willing to dedicate their careers to its improvement. For what Washington seems to lack in action, it compensates in a spectrum of visions. And that’s an important first step.


Sofiya Mahdi is weekly columnist for the Daily Free Press, and a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences studying abroad in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at [email protected]

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