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.

Happy 10th birthday, iMac

A decade ago today, I set up the computer on which I’m typing this post. That is an absurdly long lifespan for any computer, much less one that’s seen near-daily use over that many years.

But here we–meaning me and the late 2009 iMac that’s now graced the same desk for 10 years–are. Three things made this longevity possible.

One is my working mainly in text and non-moving images. If I had to do any serious video editing, this model’s processor would have forced its retirement long ago. As is, there’s not that much computational labor involved in polishing prose–and while working with high-resolution photos can require a few CPU cycles, I do most of that editing online anyway.

Another is the relative repairability of this model. In the previous decade, Apple still designed desktops that allowed memory upgrades, so I took advantage of that option to double this iMac’s RAM early on. Apple didn’t intend for owners of this model to replace the hard drive, but its design left that possible with fairly simple tools–as in, no need to cut through adhesive holding the screen in place. I didn’t exploit that opportunity until a couple of years later than I should have, but the SSD upgrade I performed last spring now looks like some of the best $200 I’ve spent.

I could have replaced the optical drive that stopped reading CDs and DVDs in the same manner, but instead I bought a cheap Samsung DVD burner and plugged that into a free USB port–so much for the all-in-one concept!

(My second-longest-tenured daily-use computer, the Mac clone I kept from 1996 to 2002, was far more tolerant of tinkering, since Power Computing designed it along the lines of any PC desktop. That box ended its service to me after two processor upgrades, one hard drive replacement, an internal power-supply transplant, a memory upgrade and the addition of two USB ports.)

Last comes Apple’s baffling inability to keep its desktops current over any sustained stretch of time. The company formerly known as “Apple Computer, Inc.” spent several years not updating the iMac or Mac mini at all. By the time it finally refreshed the iMac, buying a new all-in-one desktop would have meant buying a 4K monitor inseparable from a computer would grow obsolete well before the display. But when Apple finally updated the moribund Mac mini last year, it shipped it with a joke of a 128 GB SSD and then listed insultingly high prices for adequate storage.

It’s since slightly moderated the storage rip-off, but the Mac mini has now gone over a year without an update, so I’d feel like a chump paying new-Mac pricing for that old design now. Even though my legacy Mac is now living two editions of macOS in the past–Apple dropped support for this model with macOS Mojave, leaving macOS Catalina completely out of the question. If Apple weren’t still shipping security updates for macOS High Sierra, I’d be in a real pickle.

Okay, I guess there’s a fourth factor behind this iMac’s longevity: I can be really cheap, stubborn or both sometimes.

Updated 12/3/2019 to note my OS-support issues and better crop a photo.

A World Series title comes home to Washington

World Series celebrations were things for other cities.

That’s what I knew for a fact during the long twilight years when the city I chose didn’t have a baseball team. The next 14 years–first salted with 100-loss futility, then scarred with first-round postseason exits–didn’t shake my fear that I’d live my entire life while watching other places’ players jump on each other on an infield in October.

But that just happened. For my city. In my lifetime.

The Washington Nationals beat the Houston Astros 6-2 in a game 7 that wasn’t supposed to happen after… the team started the season with a 19-31 record… our bullpen was revealed to be built partially out of balsa wood… we had to claw our way into the postseason via a come-from-behind wild-card win against the Brewers… we needed five games to beat Los Angeles in the division series and crush our own postseason curse… we swept St. Louis and jumped to a two-game lead over Houston that we then refunded to find ourselves down 3-2, needing to win two games on the road.

(By then, it looked like the primary accomplishment of our ill-spent World Series homestand would be providing an appropriate and deserved greeting to President Trump. Readers: It’s your right to boo a politician making a public appearance at a baseball game–and if that politician otherwise hides from all unfriendly audiences, booing might be your obligation as a citizen.)

We grabbed game 6 from the Astros, but game 7 saw us staring down eight outs from a second-place finish that I would have accepted. Can’t lie: I thought we were smoked then.

Wrong. We did it. We flipped the script. The Nats are world champions. They can replace the blank white flag that’s flown over the Nationals Park scoreboard since the venue’s 2008 opening with a pennant bearing four digits: 2019.

The Nats aren’t done playing baseball this year

A postseason series involving the Washington Nationals ended last night, and I did not wake up this morning feeling like I got hit by a truck.

That’s a novel experience. Every prior postseason appearance by the Nats–2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017, which followed seven years of playoff-deprived baseball, which themselves followed 33 0-0 seasons in D.C.–left me not just staggering-around tired but emotionally crushed.

It wasn’t enough for us to lose the division series. Each time, we had to lose after giving ourselves a serious chance to win–in 2012, getting an out away from the National League Championship Series.

It looked like game five in Los Angeles would follow that dismal pattern. Previously unhittable Stephen Strasburg gave up a home run in each of the first two innings to put us in a 3-0 hole against the 106-win Dodgers that we still had not escaped by the start of the eighth inning.

The only consolation it seemed we could claim would be reaching the NLDS at all–via a thrilling come-from-behind win over the Brewers in the wild-card game–after nobody expected the Nats to play anything but golf in October after a wretched 19-31 start.

But then history did not repeat itself. Solo home runs by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto tied the game and sent it to extra innings, Howie Kendrick’s grand slam sent the Nats bustin’ loose, and bedlam erupted in front of TVs.

And now the Washington Nationals are going to St. Louis to see if they can’t pay back the Cardinals for 2012 and win a pennant for D.C. for the first time since 1933 (the first Nationals) and 1948 (the Homestead Grays).

In the meantime, we know we’ll never again have to hear people carp that the Nats have never won a playoff series–the same way the Capitals blew up their Death Star by finally beating Pittsburgh in a postseason series last summer. The Caps weren’t content to kill off just one sports curse, and I trust the Nats aren’t either.

If only I weren’t going to be out of town for every NLCS home game next week…

Flying on September 11

NEW ORLEANS–I marked Sept. 11 this year by getting on a plane. That wasn’t my first such observance.

Sept. 11 landing at EWRThis year’s flight brought me here for the Online News Association’s conference. In prior years, I’ve flown on 9/11 for TechCrunch Disrupt and CTIA’s conferences… looking through my calendar, I thought I’d done this more often. Some of those years, it turns out, I flew on the 10th or the 12th of September.

Is it weird that I wish I’d flown more often on Sept. 11?

I have paid my respects at all the 9/11 sites: the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanskville, Penn. Those were intensely meaningful visits, and every American who is able should see least one of those memorials.

But another way you can honor this day is to spend time above the clouds.

Today was a good day to do that. I was glad to connect through Newark, so I could see Manhattan’s reborn skyline from the air, then take a moment to appreciate the memorial United employees set up near gate C120 for the crews of UA 93 and UA 175.

A friend has called flying on this day her act of defiance. I’m not sure I’d give myself that much credit. But going to an airport, boarding a plane, and showing a little solidarity with the people of commercial aviation does seem like a decent thing to do.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport is still not open

BERLIN–My introduction to this city seven years ago was supposed to feature a new, world-class airport. I continue to wait on that.

When I booked my flights for the IFA trade show in 2012, Berlin Brandenburg Airport was set to open in early June as a unified airport for the unified city, replacing both Tegel in the western half and Schönefeld in the east.

But fire-safety concerns forced a postponement of Berlin Brandenburg’s opening to the next spring. And by “fire-safety concerns,” I mean the belated realization that expecting to vent smoke by having fans blow it down from ceilings to vents in the basement would be very much not up to code. So I flew into Tegel instead and have since gotten to know that airport rather well.

Brandenburg empty gatesTXL is no prize, with a weird layout that puts passport and security at each gate. It’s also one of the few major attractions in Berlin that’s not walking distance from a U-Bahn or S-Bahn stop, instead requiring a bus connection. But Tegel does have the advantage of being open and operational.

BER, meanwhile, has seen its opening pushed back year after year while it’s sunk from being a subject of local civic concern to the internationally recognized spot where German efficiency went to die. As a BBC feature from late June recaps,  the saga involves epic levels of engineering, financial and political malfeasance. It will probably be taught as a cautionary tale in project-management classes for the next hundred years.

But although I have yet to step on or off a plane at Brandenburg, I have been inside the place. During my 2015 IFA (then, as now, the show’s organizers covered most of my travel costs), I took an afternoon off to take the BER airport tour.

Seeing this zombie airport from up close was a remarkable and spooky experience, even if I could only catch the occasional word or phrase in the German tour narration. In any language, it’s bizarre to stand on an airport ramp and not smell any jet fuel.

I took a bunch of photos and told myself I’d sell a story about that visit somewhere. And then I spent months failing to close the deal anywhere before eventually giving up. One might say that this drawn-out inability to execute was my Berlin Brandenburg Airport of freelance pitching.

Those airport tours are still available–and are something I will have to do anew before trying to revive this story idea–but now they require booking a reservation online three months in advance. So like BER itself, returning to this story will have to wait until next year. When, per the latest estimates, Berlin Brandenburg will finally open–not that you should bet too many euros on that happening by the new deadline of October 2020.

In the meantime, you might as well enjoy some of the pictures I took four years ago; if you’d rather not click through to my Flickr page (speaking of things from an earlier time), there’s a slideshow after the jump.

(Edited 9/6/2019 to explain the initial delay better and move one link.)

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Three decades of D.C., or how I learned to stop worrying and love the District

This Wednesday, classes began again at Georgetown University–which was my reminder that 30 years prior, I arrived in D.C. for my own new-student-orientation exercise. And somehow, I never got around to leaving.

I think that the awkward kid from New Jersey with the bad haircut has improved with age, but I know the city on the Potomac and the Anacostia has.

We overcame Marion Barry’s mayoral mismanagement and the city’s subsequent fiscal ruin (although municipal corruption lives on). The District’s population has topped 700,000, a level last seen in the 1970s, while the Washington area now ranks as the country’s sixth-most populous. Downtown is no longer pockmarked with parking lots, and neighborhoods teem with new development–some at the expense of residents who lived through the bad times. We have a baseball team that may yet advance past a division series in the postseason. The rivers and the Chesapeake Bay are cleaner. It’s vastly easier to get around without a car.

Yes, we have issues. Housing costs too much–but at least we don’t have San Francisco or New York’s insane real-estate markets. The summer weather is usually outright hideous. I wish there were more places to get a good bagel or a cannoli. Every place has its tradeoffs, and these are ours.

My appreciation of the upsides of here has advanced immensely too. For the first two years at Georgetown, I scarcely ventured farther from campus than Dupont Circle and spent my summers away. But I didn’t leave for the summer after my junior year, instead working an unpaid internship (thanks, Mom and Dad!) in the West End. That’s also when friends started bringing their own vehicles to off-campus group houses, allowing me to get to know much more of the District and its surroundings. (You haven’t fully lived K Street traffic until you’ve driven it in a 1977 Toyota Corolla with a four-speed stick shift.) An expanding Metro system further opened up the area to me, eventually leading me across the Potomac to Arlington.

It took me another three years to began discovering the bike-accessible parts of the D.C. area and realize one more great thing about living here: You don’t have to ride far to find yourself in the middle of a forest or overlooking a gorge, with only the sound of airplanes to remind you that not that many miles from a major city’s downtown.

Three decades in, I continue to find new parts of this place to celebrate and discover, as D.C. license plates used to say. And I’ve collected enough Washingtoniana memories to bore younger people with my curmodgeonly recollections: the reek of the old 9:30 Club, National Airport’s Interim Terminal, the evil and stupid taxi-zone map, seeing Fugazi play at Fort Reno shows. I look forward to gathering many more.

D.C. may be the city that politicians love to hate when they sneer about “Washington” (before deciding to stay here after they lose an election or retire), but it’s become the center of my world. My choice to go college someplace not at all like rural New Jersey seems to have worked out pretty well so far.