An unlikely return to the skies

Weeks spent wondering when I might next get on a plane turned into months–and then that wait ended a little after 7 a.m. Friday, when I boarded a flight from National Airport to Newark.

I had no personal or business appointment near EWR. I just had my habit developed over the last nine years of flying on Sept. 11–plus a stash of future flight credit on United with no imminent use, a growing despondency over my grounded status, an empty schedule Friday, and enough research to establish that I could take a day trip then on largely-empty planes for a reasonable fare.

Commercial aviation’s pandemic-wracked status made this short-notice jaunt possible, in that I didn’t book Friday’s itinerary until Wednesday. The price of procrastination was a little complexity: The cheapest itinerary that would let me leave my city and altitude and arrive home in time for dinner without brittle connections had me flying from National to Newark to Columbus back to Newark and then home to Dulles.

That’s a bit ridiculous, but as a card-carrying avgeek I could not turn it down.

The flights themselves were fine and seemed safe. I spent more time near more random people making my grocery-store visits this week than I did up in the air, and airplanes have much better air ventilation and filtration. It helped that my frequent-flyer status on United allowed my upgrades to clear on all four legs–but note that a seat up front doesn’t get you much more in these pandemic days than extra personal space. I kept my mask on except to have a beverage or a snack on each flight, and everybody near me did the same.

But the real reward consisted of the chances to appreciate the memorial United employees once again set up at EWR to commemorate the crews of UA 93 and UA 175, soak in the post-departure perspective of a Manhattan skyline that doesn’t match the one I knew up to Sept. 11, 2001, and treasure returning safely to one of my two home airports.

The wrong kind of endless summer

Today is Aug. 22, and I need to look at the lock screen of my phone more than usual to confirm that fact.

Months after the novel-coronavirus pandemic’s swift demolition of my business-travel schedule, the days and weeks blur into one another. Not only has no work travel since appeared on my calendar, personal travel has vanished too.

Visiting my mom and brother in Massachusetts became a non-starter once that state declared a 14-day quarantine for arrivals (you’re exempt if you can produce a negative COVID-19 test result from no more than 72 hours before your entrance, but good luck with that turnaround time). We thought about visiting my wife’s family in the Bay Area but decided to hold off on spending that much time in airports and airplanes, and now the latest bout of wildfires make a visit there ill-advised for anybody.

And we never got it together to plan any other trip anywhere because of [gestures weakly] all of this.

So for the first time since… ugh, 1993, I will go nowhere for the summer. And back then, at least I had plenty of opportunities to leave my sad Crystal City apartment and get lost in the city.

This summer offers almost nothing: no lunchtime panels, no evening receptions, no weekend parties, not much of anything aside from such brief escapes as a timed-ticket visit to the National Zoo or a crab feast on a neighbor’s deck. Lately, I can’t even count on the arrival of the mail to remind me that it’s Saturday versus Sunday.

The only respite has come from, of all the things, the weather, which has mixed things up with a delightfully cool spell over the last week and change. Opening the front door to temperatures in the 70s has let me pretend I’ve woken up in California or Europe–until seeing the untidy state of the lawn reminds me of overdue chores here.

Having written all that, I feel utterly unentitled to any pity. The three of us may be growing weary of all this time cooped up at home, but lots of people have never had the money or the time off to go anywhere fun for vacation. And many others have been treated exponentially worse by this accursed pandemic.

Yesterday, I was chatting online with a friend who has been recovering from some severe depression this summer. Not quite knowing what to write, I typed this: “This entire year… I think if we can all get through it, nothing will ever seem as hard.”

God, I hope that’s true.

Race with a capital B and a capital W

The Shift key is now getting more work on journalists’ keyboards, thanks to this summer’s sweeping adoption by news organizations of the custom of capitalizing Black and, often, White, when describing a person’s race.

Yeah, it looked weird to me too at first.

When you’ve always typed a word one way, changing it absent new evidence can feel forced. I remember my college paper’s editorial board discussing whether to capitalize the “b” in “black” and then voting against it, and I’m sure I was among the no votes.

I’m also sure about who wasn’t among any of the votes: actual Black people.

How to describe fellow human beings of an enormous variety of cultures and religions with one easily-observable characteristic that others without that complexion often fixate on so they can put all these people into one racial basket? 

“African-American” isn’t bad, but it implies an other-ness to Americans whose ancestors may have been in the United States for centuries longer than the ancestors of White people whom almost nobody labels “European-American.” (You can call me that if you want, but only because of my Irish passport.) And for many Black Americans, the genealogical trail stops on this side of the Atlantic, courtesy of the Middle Passage not yielding the documentation that came with the vessels on which my grandparents and great-grandparents came to Ellis Island from the 1910s onward.

As a catch-all term, African-American also fits poorly for more recent immigrants with family trees rooted on this side of the Atlantic. See, for example, presumptive Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D.-Calif.), whose half-Jamaican, half-Indian ancestry led a relative to ask on Facebook how she could be African-American. A much less polite debate has boiled over on the Wikipedia entry for Harris.

Lower-case-b “black” fails in a similar manner if you write it next to an equally broad demographic description like “Asian” or “Latin.” It doesn’t seem weird to capitalize other ethnicities, but not the one we seem to talk about most often? 

So Black it is, however belatedly. What about us paler folks? Do we write “white” in lowercase as one might lowercase “brown” when describing most people without European heritage?

I now say no. One reason, as the Washington Post observed in a note announcing its style change, is that “White also represents a distinct cultural identity in the United States.” But hold the mayo jokes, please: What that item left for a later Post podcast to observe is that whiteness has often amounted to the powerful absence of race.

As in, race is something for other people. If you don’t note somebody’s race when describing them, they must be White, and White people in the conversation may breathe a little easier knowing that they’re not about to slide into some uncomfortable conversation about race. Being White is the default setting that you don’t have to adjust or even acknowledge. That is a real thing that we should stop pretending doesn’t exist.

And as that Post podcast’s nuanced discussion reminded me, this issue of how we label these differences that exist far more in our minds than in actual human biology is fascinating. I wish my old Post colleague Bill Walsh were still around to join this conversation; I’m sure the most erudite copy editor I’ve known would have something smart to say.

Airports I’ve used

Last Friday set an ignominious personal milestone: I broke a record for consecutive days spent away from airplanes that went back to to 2001.

Back then, the post-9/11 shutdown of commercial aviation and my own relaxed travel schedule ensured I wouldn’t board a plane between early August, when I landed at National Airport after a summer vacation in California, and early January, when I took off DCA for my first Macworld Expo. This time, the novel-coronavirus pandemic has grounded me, and it’s unclear when I’ll once again feel jet engines shove me back in my seat and watch the ground fall away from the wing.

So I might as well document the airports I used in the Before Times, having already done the research for my friend Craig Fifer’s Flight Quest project to track who among his friends had taken off from or landed at more airports. As an inveterate list-maker and avgeek, how could I not have taken part in that competition?

So here you go: the 95 airports I’ve used listed by IATA and ICAO code, plus my comments about each.

This almost certainly isn’t complete, as before 1997 I’m limited to incomplete paper records and my own memory. But I don’t think anybody can question my lifelong effort to prop up commercial aviation.

Updated 9/12/2020 to add CMH.

Protests, vicariously

Donald Trump’s administration began with American cities packed with protesters, and today–150 days before Election Day–their streets are again overflowing with people exercising their First Amendment rights.

The situation in 2020 is more grave than in 2017. People aren’t marching to show their rejection of one new president and the prospect of his authoritarian misrule, but their anger about an entire system that tolerates the killing of black people by police and neighbors for little more than living in their American skin. These protests are happening while a global pandemic makes large gatherings dangerous, especially for those not wearing a mask.

And too many police have greeted these protesters–and sometimes journalists–with beatings, tear gas, bullets sold as non-lethal, and even bike theft. These alleged law-enforcement professionals could have picked no surer way to show that people denouncing police abuse of power have a point.

But as I did three and a half years ago, I stayed home today to perform the modern-parenting task of watching our kid while my wife marched.

My entire experience of what’s going on around the newly-fortified area formerly known as the White House grounds, just a few miles from my home, has been weirdly distant. About the only difference in my daily routine has been hearing what might be a few more sirens, which could reflect a response to protests or the occasional and disgraceful outbreak of looting or could have been first-responder business as usual.

The one protest I’ve seen firsthand happened Tuesday around the Clarendon Metro; it was peaceful, and the Arlington County police officers watching it did not wear riot gear. At another protest in Arlington last weekend, my spouse (a county government employee with no role in law enforcement) noted that ACPD officers cleared a lane of traffic and handed out water bottles.

Some of the same officers, however, responded Monday to a mutual-aid-agreement request by the U.S. Park Police and helped forcibly clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square so President Trump could have his picture taken fondling a Bible outside St. John’s Church.

Arlington’s police leadership has since shown itself willing to hear constructive criticism, and once again I feel insulated from the problems around me. 

All of which is to say, the past two weeks have provided the opportunity and the need for me to consider my own privilege in this society and how each of the few times I’ve been pulled over by a cop, it’s left me to fear little beyond getting points on my insurance.

Return to flight

For the first time in almost nine years, Americans began a journey to space from Florida instead of Kazakhstan. SpaceX’s successful launch Saturday afternoon of NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on a Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket closed the longest gap ever in human spaceflight from U.S. soil and broke a government monopoly on travel to orbit.

The long wait after the last shuttle mission in July 2011 for this day and this liftoff took me back all the way to 1981. That’s when my 10-year-old self woke up unnaturally early on a Sunday morning to watch the space shuttle Columbia roar to life, taking John Young and Bob Crippen to orbit after a more than five-year drought that followed the splashdown of the U.S. half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in July of 1975.

I didn’t get to watch that launch on YouTube on a flat-panel TV–instead, it was an over-the-air CBS signal on a cathode-ray-tube set. There was also no social media; the only people I could rejoice with afterwards were my brother and my mom and dad.

But then as now, the United States had been through hard times. Not only did NASA have to sit and watch as the Soviet Union sent cosmonauts to orbit and the shuttle program’s delays dragged on, the end of the 1970s saw our country reeling from an oil crisis, an economic crisis, and the hostage crisis. The USSR felt free to invade Afghanistan and throw its weight around the rest of the world.

It was a lot for a nine-year-old boy who had only recently gotten into the habit of reading the New York Times and watching the evening news. It felt like my country kept getting kicked around.

The past year has not been like the year running up to STS-1. It’s worse. So much worse. A global pandemic has killed more than 102,000 Americans and wrecked the U.S. economy (with the inconsequential collateral damage of my being unable to cover the SpaceX launch in person as I did 2018’s Falcon Heavy launch). The president is a ignorant bigot, a pathological liar, and a magnet for the corrupt and the incompetent–NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine being a blessed exception. The streets of some American cities were on fire Friday night.

The state of American spaceflight was nowhere as bad before today as it was at the end of 1980–astronauts have kept flying to space on Russian rockets without the shuttle’s fatal vulnerabilities, and the ISS is a spacecraft big enough to see from the ground. But all the other things make today’s misery index exponentially higher.

And this time, the kid trying to make sense of the world is my daughter. I try to help her with that, but I don’t know that I’m doing that much. Could anybody?

Saturday’s launch doesn’t cure the novel coronavirus, put tens of millions of Americans back to work, vote Trump out of office or banish his brand of cruelty from American politics, bring George Floyd back to life, or excise systemic racism. But as my friend Maura Corbett put it in a tweet, this accomplishment gave “a grieving and broken country some wonder and hope today.” And it should remind everybody that hard work and a willingness to learn may ultimately take you through adversity. And to the stars.

At least I’m getting caught up with my photography

I’m old enough to remember putting pictures into photo albums as a regular rainy-day activity, so now that we’re in an endless series of metaphorical rainy days I’m not surprised to find myself finally editing, captioning, organizing and sharing old photos.

And I’m not surprised to doing this on Flickr, because I’m old enough to have started using social media before that term meant Facebook and Twitter. I’ve tried to keep up with sharing new photos there–both as I take individual ones that interest me and in album form (photoset form, if you’re an old-timer like me) after I come back from trips and events.

But those same trips and events also often got in the way of me taking the time to edit, caption, organize and share. Because Flickr isn’t Instagram, I want to take the time to make sure I’ve decided what makes one photo better than those I took immediately before and after and therefore worth including in an album–and then crop it just so and write a correct and useful caption instead of throwing in a clever phrase and stamping the pic #travel.

So my Flickr output lagged, even though as a paying Flickr Pro user I should want to get the most out of my money.

Now, however, I have nowhere to go and a lot more free time. So my photostream may have looked more like a time machine as I’ve finally posted albums from such past happenings as the 2018 edition of the IFA tech trade show, an hour or so I spent last April flying above Sonoma County in a friend’s plane, and last year’s Web Summit.

I’ve also filled out such older albums as my set of ballpark pictures and my collection of window-seat photos from aircraft. And each time I do this, I come across more old photos that I don’t want to keep confined to my private backup.

I worried at first that seeing pictures of interesting places that I can’t visit now or anytime soon would depress me, but instead this exercise has reminded me of what I like about photography. And at least that’s one hobby I can still pursue in my backyard if I must.

 

Gardening as pandemic therapy

The only way I’m being more productive than usual this spring involves dirt under my fingernails. The added housework from having everybody home all the time and the cognitive load imposed by trying to keep a nine-year-old on track with remote schoolwork may have blown up my settled work-from-home lifestyle–but at least I can still garden.

Planting, weeding, and transplanting are always a distraction at this time of year, but they’re worse when the novel-coronavirus pandemic has scoured my schedule of work events around D.C. or away from it. This ongoing public-health crisis has also left little else in my life that offers any sense of control.

So I don’t step outside too often without taking at least a few minutes to find and rip out bittercress, chickweed, and deadnettles as if they were rogue viruses. I have sunk more time than seems practical into moving lilies and ground cover from overgrown plantings into patchy areas of the lawn that I should have given up on already, then tilling other parts of the lawn before scattering grass seed there just before a night of rain.

And I picked up a few new plants last Monday to dress up the yard, the most important being a weeping cherry for the front lawn. Because I can’t leave enough well alone, I couldn’t just plant that and adjourn for a nap; I also had to yank out an overgrown laurel from one side of the front porch and and move it to a back corner of the yard. Then I moved a smaller shrub into the laurel’s old spot; it will probably grow too big in a few years. I also shifted a few yucca plants around before finishing up with a dessert course of still more weeding.

Two hours later, my clothes were caked with dirt and my joints ached. But today, the new cherry tree looks great. And neighbors who are left with few forms of outdoor recreation beyond walking around the neighborhood have something pleasant to distract them. Giving them that seems like the least I could do under the circumstances.

This weak excuse for a winter

All this month, Facebook has been reminding me of the epic blizzards that hit D.C. a decade ago–as if I needed more reasons to feel cranky about Facebook.

Where February of 2010 saw D.C. get whomped with almost 30 inches of snow in a week, this miserable excuse for a winter has yet to grace my city with an inch of snow total.

I have yet to ski anywhere this season. And with the eroding accumulations at the local ski areas, it looks like I’m either going to have to fly somewhere or hope for a March blizzard to avoid breaking a streak of skiing somewhere and somehow every winter–downhill or cross-country–that dates to 1997.

And what if next year’s winter is just as warm as this one’s? And for every year after? Global warming sucks… and being deprived of local snow sports is one of the least painful elements of this problem we continue to cook up.

Yes, having a Washington winter act more like what passes for that season in the Bay Area has offered some advantages. I’ve biked a lot more than I would expect, including a great ride through Rock Creek Park last Sunday (as seen in the photo above). Our yard is already waking up to spring, with the first lilies already popping out of the ground and arugula and parsley still growing since last fall.

But I’d trade all that for a freeze followed by low clouds dumping six inches of snow all around. Or even four: My cross-country skis are already trashed, so all I really want is an excuse to air them out instead of them collecting more dust in the basement.

A belated introduction to Wreaths Across America

I spent two hours walking around Arlington National Cemetery in a chilly drizzle this morning, and I could only think I should have done that sooner.

The occasion was Wreaths Across America, a relatively new tradition of placing wreaths on graves at military cemeteries. I was all set to forget about it until it had begun once again, but a tweet from ArlNow two weeks ago reminded me that I could sign up to volunteer. I filled out a form online and got an e-mail confirming my registration, which led to me waking up early this morning to take a short bikeshare ride over to Arlington’s Ord & Weitzel gate and join a line to get through a security screening.

After 35 minutes, an inspection of my bag, and a soldier’s once-over of me with a handheld metal detector, I walked into the cemetery and over to the closest truck distributing wreaths. (Yes, registering online was not actually necessary.) Another volunteer handed me a wreath, which I took over to the nearest row of graves and placed against one after reading the short story of service carved into it: name, rank, military branch, war or wars, dates of birth and death. Then I repeated the task.

We didn’t get much direction besides encouragements to say the name on each grave and the occasional unexplained instruction to skip those with a Star of David. Because I had not thought seriously before about the protocol of decorating strangers’ burial sites, I did not know that Jewish custom frowns on leaving flowers at a grave. Should I do this next year, I may bring some pebbles to place on those headstones instead.

(The tradition of leaving stones on a grave has spread to non-Jewish burial sites at Arlington; Medgar Evers’ headstone, for example, was topped with pebbles left by passerby.)

I quickly realized that two things about a headstone would catch my attention: a connection to someplace I’ve lived, or a date of death suggesting the person didn’t make it home from a war. I made a point of leaving wreaths on headstones of several people from New Jersey, D.C. and Virginia who had apparently died in Vietnam.

After half an hour, I decided to hike over to Section 60, the last resting place of those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. The marble headstones are brighter there, the names and the religious emblems on them more diverse, the mementos left more numerous and personal. I could not avoid thinking that in an alternative universe, one or both of my cousins who fought with the Marine Corps in Iraq would be there–but unlike some of their comrades, they came home physically intact. You can’t not think of the cost of war when visiting Arlington National Cemetery, but that price exists in its rawest, most painful form in Section 60.

Volunteering at Wreaths Across America (run by a non-profit organization that has bought its wreaths from a single company with family ties) isn’t necessary to make this pilgrimage to Arlington and contemplate how much we ask of service members and their families. But it looks like I needed that push.

By 10 a.m., I was starting to have trouble finding undecorated graves. That’s when a volunteer at a truck handed me not one or two wreaths but six, and I had to walk about half a mile to find places for them. I should have taken a moment beforehand to check the @ArlingtonNatl Twitter account, which posted updates about which sections still needed wreaths.

After two hours, I could see no more headstones in need of a wreath anywhere near me. That seemed improbable, given the enormous size of Arlington–easy to overlook when you drive or bike around it, not so much when you walk more than three miles through it. But we had somehow done it. Also improbable: that after hundreds of thousands of internments at Arlington, space still exists for more. I wish I were not so convinced that we will fill it all.