What Makes a Washingtonian? You Decide.

(By Ron Edmonds -- Associated Press)
By John Kelly
Monday, October 20, 2008

The place we live, the wisdom goes, informs the way we live. As surely as the nectar-rich flowers of certain tropical islands influence the shape of a hummingbird's beak, so our unique environments turn us into the people we are. A New Yorker is a New Yorker because he grew up in the Big Apple; an Angeleno is an Angeleno because she calls that city home.

So what does it mean to be a Washingtonian? Answer that question in 300 words or less and you might win a nice prize and the admiration of millions.

Here's the deal: I'm helping washingtonpost.com with a contest called "What Does It Mean to Be a Washingtonian?" That sounds like a fairly simple concept, but let's examine it a little more closely. The first hurdle is deciding what exactly a "Washingtonian" is.

We've had definitional dust-ups on this subject in this space before. There are some who say you can't be a Washingtonian unless you were born within the District's borders and have never lived anywhere else. Others are even stricter: Your parents have to have been born here, too.

I prefer a more liberal interpretation. You are a Washingtonian if you are affected by the gravitational pull of the capital, if your routine or your mind-set is influenced by the unique rhythms and practices of the federal government.

That doesn't mean you have to work for the federal government -- far from it -- just that your contest entry has to acknowledge a certain Washington-ness.

I was going to write "a certain indefinable Washington-ness," but of course the whole purpose of this contest is for you to define it, or at least to explore it. And you can explore it in just about any medium you like. We're accepting prose, photos, videos, songs and poetry.

The best entries, we think, won't read as if they could have been written about any random Metropolitan Statistical Area. They won't celebrate a tight-knit Herndon cul-de-sac in a way that, frankly, could be used to describe a tight-knit Houston cul-de-sac.

To provide inspiration, we've asked some Washingtonians -- natives and transplants -- to take a stab at our question. Their essays will appear online in coming weeks. Washington, writes poet Kenneth Carroll, is a place where "hope and disappointment live uneasily on the same block, like natives and gentrifiers."

For bookstore owner Barbara Meade, growing up in Washington means absorbing "a certain sophistication from living in the nation's capital but also a tremendous nonchalance, an inability to understand that our cosmopolitan environment was quite different from the legions of hometowns across the country."

As Post columnist Colbert I. King puts it: "To be a Washingtonian is to know at a very early age that you live someplace special."

We do live someplace special. Now tell us why that is.

We'll post your entries for all the world to see. We'll publish our favorites here and award one grand-prize winner a $100 American Express gift certificate. The deadline is Dec. 31. For full details and the all-important contest rules, go to http://voices.washingtonpost.com/essay-contest. You can post your entries online. If you don't have Internet access, mail your essays to me: John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

A Commons Denominator

It's been said that the three scariest words in the English language -- right up there with "The IRS called" and "What's that lump?" -- are "Read my blog." And yet here I am, blog in hand.

"John Kelly's Commons" starts today over at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/commons. Why does someone who writes a column five days a week need a blog? It's a way to provide more of me, of course, but even more important, it's a way to provide more of you. "John Kelly's Commons" -- it takes its name from the communal land where members of the public can graze their cattle -- is a place I hope you'll help me colonize. It's based on the notion that the sum can be greater than the parts. And, as with the essay contest, it means I'll be depending on your input, your ideas, your contributions.

I hope to see you there.

My e-mail:kellyj@washpost.com

© 2008 The Washington Post Company