Rooting for laundry, yet again

The worst team in baseball traded one of the best players in baseball for the hope of better seasons to come, and Nats fans should have seen that coming. Because we saw this movie last year.

Tuesday’s trade by the Washington Nationals that sent outfielder Juan Soto as well as first baseman Josh Bell to the San Diego Padres in return for a cast of prospects (first baseman/designated hitter Luke Voit, shortstop C.J. Abrams, outfielders Robert Hassell III and James Wood, and pitchers MacKenzie Gore and Jarlin Susana) evoked last year’s trade of pitcher Max Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner to Los Angeles, although with a higher long-term potential upside. It essentially completes the sell-off of our 2019 World Series team for a cloud of baseball probability.

And yet seeing a generational talent like Soto go feels like less of a gut punch than last year’s trade-deadline move.

First, last year we could pretend that the team had been in a 2021 equivalent of 2019’s 19-31 start. Yes, the Nats were also terrible in 2020, but that season started late and didn’t feature fans in the stands at Nationals Park, so it was just weird even before all of the injuries among an aging team.

This year, however, we have been objectively bad from Opening Day onwards. Soto gave those of us in the stands exciting moments, but if he wanted to win a lot of games soon, Nats Park was not going to be his home field of choice.

Second, the team made a good-faith offer even though current ownership is now exploring selling the team. You can say that management should have worked harder to keep homegrown prospects around over the past few years, but you cannot say that $440 million over 15 years was not a legitimate deal to put on the table.

Soto turning that down only made it a question of what we’d get in a trade before the 2024 expiration of his contract–unless you were thinking that new ownership would swoop in first, back up an even larger bank truck and get a different answer. But what about the star-crossed history of baseball in D.C. would lead any Nats fan who had been in the stands for the 2012 NLDS to pin their hopes on that outcome?

So I feel less gutted about the thought of Soto in a Padres uniform than I might have expected. It helps that he won’t be wearing a Yankees, Braves or Phillies jersey; it will not help if, years from now, the cap on Soto’s likely portrait on a plaque in Cooperstown represents a team that isn’t the Washington Nationals.

Meanwhile, I live in the same place that I’ve called home for the last three decades and counting, the players who run out of the dugout on the first-base side of Nats Park at the start of a game wear jerseys with a curly W for my city, and a pennant above the scoreboard reminds me that I saw D.C. win a World Series championship and redeem all the pain of previous postseasons. And the next time I see a game in some other ballpark, of course I’m going to wear a Nats cap. I love baseball and I love having it here, even if the daily reality of this business may sometimes make me feel like a chump.

Indie-rock rainouts are a less-obvious D.C. summer tradition

My first Fort Reno concert in three years lasted maybe 30 minutes. And in retrospect, I should have seen that coming–as in, I should have consulted the weather apps on my phone or iPad before heading out.

Thursday evening’s weather-interrupted free outdoor show in the Tenleytown park named after the Civil War fort limited me to watching most of an entertaining set by opening act Sparklebot. After that performance, I walked around the park to see how it had changed since 2019 (for example, the gravel path bisecting the field had been paved and lined with solar-powered lights), returned to my picnic blanket and started tucking into the dinner I’d brought from home.

And then rain set in, rapidly.

I hurriedly shoved the lid back on my meal and tossed that container into the bag I’d brought (of course, that lid popped off later to leave me with a mess), folded up my lawn chair, and tossed my picnic blanket over my head to avoid getting completely soaked. Then I retreated under a tree to wait for the downpour to ease.

After 20 minutes, it was obvious that the next set was not going to happen, so I walked a little more around the park as the rain faded to take a photo or two. Then I walked back to my car. My four idle thoughts on the drive home:

  1. At least I resumed what used to be one of my favorite D.C.-summer rituals–after shamefully missing all of last year’s Fort Reno shows.
  2. Since this show got suddenly rained out after Monday’s Fort Reno concert had been preemptively canceled because of rain showers that had then stopped before 7 p.m., what kind of beef does D.C. weather have with indie rock?
  3. Knowing what we know now about how effectively ventilation, especially a breeze outdoors, can prevent the pandemic, the show could have gone on at 40th and Chesapeake Streets NW in 2020. It could have been one little thing to bring my city slightly closer together during one of the tougher years we’ve ever had.
  4. The next show is Monday, and my calendar looks clear that evening. Could we please have clear skies then as well?

Amazon Fresh first look: Just Walk Out, then wait for the receipt and hope it’s accurate

Friday morning started with me driving to a grocery store in a neighorhood in which I’m sure I’d last bought milk in the 1990s, and it was all Amazon’s fault. The tech giant opened one of its Amazon Fresh stores in Crystal City Thursday–and while technological curiosity alone would have pushed me to try this establishment’s Just Walk Out surveillance-checkout system, the analog lure of a $10-off-$20 coupon mailed to our house sealed the deal.

Plus, that mailing promised an Amazon gift card, from $5 to $50, for the first 50 customers in the store on the first three days. How could I not?

Alas, finding a street parking spot–more of an issue then when I lived in a less lively Crystal City from 1993 to 1994–ate up too much time for me to get that Amazon bonus. But the shopping trip was enlightening in other ways.

After waiting in line to enter the store after its 7 a.m. opening (during which my 11-year-old and I each got a free bag of “chocolate truffle snacks” from a cheerful greeter), I authenticated myself to the store by opening my phone’s Amazon app and showing its QR code to a turnstile scanner that could have fit into any cutting-edge subway system.

(Amazon also offers Amazon One palm scanning as a store check-in method. But while I accept the inevitability of governments collecting my biometrics at national borders, I don’t have to help every for-profit company build its own biometric database.)

At about 16,000 square feet, this Amazon Fresh location was even smaller than the compact Safeway in the Crystal City Underground that I relied on in a previous century. Its selection made me think of a miniaturized Whole Foods that had gone to the dark side by stocking such forbidden-at-WF items as various flavors of Coke–a more useful Whole Foods, if you will.

The place also soundly beat Whole Foods in some categories by stocking Amazon house-brand “Happy Belly” items. For example, while a gallon of 2% milk at Whole Foods now goes for $4.99, Amazon Fresh matched the Trader Joe’s price of $3.69.

After checking the prices of everything I’d deposited in a reusable shopping bag to verify that I’d cleared $20, I checked out. By which I mean I did not “Just Walk Out” but instead scanned the QR code in that paper coupon and then scanned the QR code in the Amazon app for a second time at an exit faregate of sorts.

And then I waited for a receipt to arrive. That documentation did not land until more than five hours later, when it reported a total about $10 more than I’d expected. Somehow, the cameras and machine vision that drive Just Walk Out had decided that my picking up four individual kiwi fruits really represented me picking up one of what people once called a Chinese gooseberry, followed by two bundles or packages of those fruits.

Amazon’s app provides a “Request item refund” option for Fresh shoppers that lets you select “item not taken” as the reason why. But selecting that on my phone–and then in the Amazon app on my iPad–yielded a “We’re sorry” dialog. It apologized: “An error has occurred, but rest assured, we’re working to resolve it as quickly as possible.”

I resorted to a common coping mechanism when dealing with indifference from a giant multinational corporation: tweeting about the problem, then diverting my attention to other things. And then about four hours later, I got an e-mail from Amazon saying (“Reason for refund: Item billing error”) that they would refund the sum in question.

Will I return to that store? Absolutely! There’s a $20-off-$40 offer for Amazon Prime subscribers who shop there Tuesday and Wednesday. I may, however, use an old-school checkout on my next visit.

Every team is tied for first place at the start of Opening Day

Thursday gave me an excuse to leave my house that I haven’t had since 2018: a ticket to a Washington Nationals home opener. But instead of a sunny daytime game, hours of rain pushed a 4:05 p.m. start against the Mets back to 7:05 and then further to 8:20 p.m.

This Opening Night was also unlike every other one I’ve seen in D.C. because the game had a D.H. on both teams. Major League Baseball’s adoption of the designated hitter across both leagues as part of the settlement that ended the owners’ lockout of the players left me feeling a little lost every time I looked at the scoreboard and didn’t see a pitcher in the lineup column on each side.

I’m already in baseball mourning over the obsolescence of my rough understanding of double switches. I trust I have plenty of company in National League cities.

The game itself, however, fit into a familiar pattern of early-season mediocrity. The Nats lost to the Mets 5-1, with the highlights being some precision throwing by catcher Keibert Ruiz and shortstop Alcides Escobar to catch runners at first and home in the first and fourth innings, plus Juan Soto’s solo shot to right in the sixth.

The rest of this don’t-call-it-a-rebuilding season doesn’t look to be much better. But even if I’m going to see my team lose more games than it wins, I’ll still enjoy seeing less-likely moments like a crisply-turned double play that isn’t the usual 6-4-3, a double legged out into a triple, a stolen base that started at second or third instead of first, and a pitcher embarrassing the other team by hitting a home run… ugh, never mind.

So sick of Silver Line schedule slips

My least favorite genre of local transportation story, by an overwhelming margin, is reports of delays in the second phase of Metro’s Silver Line to Dulles Airport and beyond. Over the past few months, I’ve let myself grow optimistic that this wait for a one-seat international-airport ride would end–and then this week served up a new round of gut-punch news about the project’s long-anticipated entry into revenue service.

Thursday, Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority general manager Paul Wiedefeld used the agency’s board meeting to announce a new problem: incorrectly sealed joint boots connecting third rails to their power supply. It’s sufficiently irritating that these cable-connector assemblies–a basic part of the system that you can easily identify from a train, given that they look like giant orange hair dryers–were not installed right, pushing the extension’s opening into, maybe, July.

But it’s worse that Metro and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the agency overseeing the construction, apparently knew about this snafu for months but did not see fit to loop in the taxpaying public. To put this more directly: When WMATA and MWAA posted presentations earlier this month about Silver Line progress that didn’t mention this hangup, they lied.

And this development follows a long series of dashed deadline hopes.

In 2014, months after the first phase of the Silver Line had opened, this expansion was projected to open in 2018. A year later, extensive design changes had pushed that timeframe out to sometime in 2020. That estimate held through discoveries in 2018 and 2019 of such problems as defective concrete panels, incorrectly installed railroad ties and flaws in fixes for those concrete panels. But then issues with the train-control system found in 2020 yielded a revised estimate of 2021 that then evaporated as fixes for them dragged on into the summer of 2021.

MWAA declaring “substantial completion” for the Silver Line’s tracks and stations in November, followed by it reaching the same milestone in December for the extension’s rail yard, was supposed to put this extension officially in the home stretch. Instead, these two agencies have found new ways to prolong the punch-list work needed before Metro can take control of the line and then, after some 90 days of its own testing, open the faregates.

I am among the less-inconvenienced stakeholders. I don’t commute to Reston or Herndon and only lose an extra 15 or 20 minutes and $5 on each trip to IAD by having to transfer to MWAA’s Silver Line Express bus at the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station–not that every time I’m waiting for that bus, I don’t think that a completed Silver Line could have already whisked me to the airport.

But the larger picture is that $2.778 billion worth of infrastructure continues to sit idle while MWAA and WMATA point to the other party (or the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, which must provide a separate sign-off) as the reason for the latest delay. I don’t perceive any urgency at either agency’s leadership to put this asset into service–although at this point I mostly blame Metro, since I see the same feckless lack of initiative in the transit agency’s prolonged inability to get its 7000-series trains back into service.

It’s a disgraceful failure of project management all around, and only one thing eases the embarrassment factor for my city: the far more horrific cost and schedule overruns afflicting New York’s transit projects.

It’s not the same old Rock Creek Park trail these days

I went for a bike ride through Rock Creek Park this afternoon. That doesn’t set this Saturday apart from a great many others over my last 25-plus years–but the state of this long-neglected trail is finally changing from the cycling route I’ve known since I was a much younger man with far fewer gray hairs and a considerably faster average speed on a bike.

A long-overdue rehabilitation project led by the National Park Service and the D.C. Department of Transportation kicked off this spring, and it’s already yielded some impressive benefits and applause from cyclists. The Western Ridge Trail–the stretch from from the intersection of Beach Drive and Broad Branch Road to Klingle Road–is no longer a narrow, pothole-pockmarked relic. Further south, the Rose Park Trail, a spur that links the Rock Creek trail to M Street and Georgetown, has received the same upgrade.

But the really exciting work is still in progress: a new hiker/cyclist bridge over the creek just south of the Zoo tunnel. That will replace a shamefully narrow sidepath on the existing Beach Drive bridge that requires cyclists to walk their bikes unless nobody is coming in the other direction.

This work will also include rebuilding the trail’s Zoo bypass, closed since 2018 after part of it washed into the creek. Since then, cyclists have had to ride on a five-foot-wide sidepath in the tunnel that takes Beach Drive past the zoo–which, as tricky as that can be, is not outright terrifying like the two-foot-wide curb that cyclists had to white-knuckle their way along until an earlier renovation wrapped up in 2017.

From the state of construction I saw today, with piers for the bridge partially complete on either side of the creek, I’d like to think I will be able to enjoy this bridge no later than next summer. By then, the stretch of the trail south of the Taft Bridge should also have reopened, ending the need for a steep climb out of the creek’s valley up to Woodley Park. (Since that detour then sends me down Connecticut Avenue, past an old apartment of mine and through some of my favorite parts of the District, I don’t mind it that much.)

There’s a lot about 2022 that’s up in the air at the moment, but at least I have these little things to look forward to.

Farewell, cicadas

I flew out of town Friday morning–my first post-vaccination travel!–and returned Tuesday afternoon. Those four days and change spent visiting my mom, my brother and his family in the Boston area were enough to come home to a Washington area that no longer sounded as it did before I left.

By which I mean, the high-pitched call of millions of cicadas buzzing for each other’s attention no longer greeted me the moment I stepped outside the house. Instead, it was the standard soundtrack of birds chirping that I’d heard most of the previous 17 years. Walking around the neighborhood was different too, without red- or orange-eyed bugs crawling underfoot, flying about, or occasionally landing on me.

Barely a month after Brood X emerged in volume in my neighborhood, the cicadas seem to be vanishing as quickly as they appeared. I now see remarkably few signs of their having been here at all; the weeping cherry tree I planted last spring had one small branch die off and show scars from female cicadas depositing their eggs there, but that seems to be the extent of the plant damage. And so far, the yard does not smell from an excess of decomposing cicadas, something I would very much like not to change.

I do have all the pictures I took of Brood X to remind me, plus a video or two. But as weirdly amusing as I found these harmless bugs and their lifecycle from nymph to adult (maybe seeing their mass emergence for a second time in my life reduced the freakout factor?), that was nothing compared to the interest my daughter developed in them. After more than a year of the pandemic penning in her horizons and, for most of that time, reducing school to a series of boxes on a screen, a fascinating spectacle of nature arrived in our backyard and around our neighborhood that she’d never seen before and wanted to learn more about.

As crazy as it may sound, I will miss the insect word’s answer to short-period comets just because of that. But these little alien-looking arthropods haven’t really gone; their offspring are now beginning a 17-year subterranean sojourn that will lead to them emerging en masse to surprise the children of 2038, and hopefully fascinate some of them.

Secondary thoughts on working yet another primary election

Tuesday had a lot in common with the four days I spent last year working as an election officer for Arlington County. Just as in March, June, July and then November, I staggered through a sleep-deprived day that started with a 5 a.m. arrival at the polling place and didn’t end until around 8:30 p.m. As in all of those elections except last March’s Democratic presidential primary, the day left me with a fair amount of downtime to fill with reading a book and chatting with my fellow poll workers. And once again, it felt deeply fulfilling to help my fellow citizens do their part to hire candidates for temporary, taxpayer-funded jobs.

Lillies bloom in the foreground, while the background shows election signs in front of a community center in Arlington, Va.

But since November 3, the subject of election security–a topic I’ve been covering on and off for most of the last two decades–has fallen prey to fever-dream conspiracy theories among Donald Trump followers who refuse to believe that the former president was fired by the largest electorate in American history.

I am tempted to give this post over to yet another rant denouncing those advocates of Trump’s Big Lie–as well as the sedition sympathizers in Congress who kept pandering to those dead-enders after the deadly riot at the Capitol January 6.

But instead, I will talk about my workday Tuesday. Here are some things you should know about how we did our part in Virginia’s primary elections, which I hope map with how elections are run wherever you may read this:

• Trust paper. Arlington uses hand-marked paper ballots that each voter feeds into a scanner that will read the ballot if it’s upside-down, right-side up, forwards or backwards. (We also have ballot-marking devices for voters with disabilities.) That paper trail then becomes part of the risk-limiting audit that Virginia now conducts after each election; the audit run after November’s election (but not reported out until March) confirmed that the votes as scanned accurately recorded how people marked their ballots. If your state is among the minority to still use “direct-recording” machines that leave no paper trail (hello, Texas), direct your ire at the elected officials who haven’t fixed that problem.

• Don’t confuse voter identification with TSA Pre. I checked in one voter who did not have a Virginia driver’s license but did appear in our poll-book app as a registered voter, and I saw other voters show up with the same scenario. That was understandable, as the Virginia DMV is struggling to catch up with a pandemic-inflicted backlog. It would be unconscionable to kick those people out of polling places when one government bureaucracy can’t issue ID cards fast enough while another has already confirmed their eligibility. I should note here that this voter brought their voter registration card; should you get stuck in this situation, bringing that other piece of paper will save a tired poll worker a little time.

• Expect software to fail; design for resilience. The most reassuring paper product I saw Tuesday was the printout of the entire pollbook for our precinct, which meant that we did not have to rely on our pollbook app to stay up all day. Fortunately, that software did work, by which I mean it functioned aside from the feature that was supposed to scan the bar code on the back of a Virginia driver’s license but instead failed at least nine out of 10 times in my experience.

• Check everything at least twice. My day started with opening packs of ballots and counting them, 10 at a time. Each shrink-wrapped pack should have held 100 ballots and did, but we checked that anyway–so that there would be no discrepancy between the number of ballots handed out and the number of voters checked in. We also verified each total at the end of every hour; each time, there was no surplus of voters or ballots. And then we made one last check after polls closed to confirm that we had handed out exactly one ballot per voter.

If the above sounds inefficient, you read this right. Election administration has to suffer some inefficiency to accommodate the conflicting demands of allowing voters secret ballots and yielding an auditable paper record. Deal with it.

Waiting for the cicadas

The neighborhood is about to get a lot more crowded for the next month or so. The mid-Atlantic’s 17-year cicadas are now emerging–first as holes they make in the ground while crawling out as nymphs, then as exoskeletons left on branches and leaves after molting, and soon as hordes of bugs with beady red eyes.

Around my neighborhood, the local ambassadors of Brood X haven’t yet reached that third stage. Every day I see more of their cast-off exoskeletons (exuviae, if you didn’t know) clinging to foliage like little beige bug bookmarks, but until tonight I hadn’t seen any of this year’s cicadas alive. That’s when I learned that you can hear them molting–a sort of quiet, slow and moist clicking–then spot them slowly tugging their pale selves out of their old shells.

Yes, that is slightly alarming to witness.

But it’s nowhere close to the freakout potential of having thousands of cicadas within a block–meaning you have to watch where you step, and that going for a jog or a bike ride ensures some will bounce off of you. Plus, there is the vaguely extraterrestrial racket generated by their mating calls.

I am fairly tolerant of insects overall (except for mosquitoes, which should be genetically engineered into extinction), but gardening may lose much of its charms until the middle of June.

I learned this in 2004, the previous emergence of Brood X and my own introduction to the evolutionary freakshow that is the periodical cicadas’ survival strategy. Instead of trying to hide or escape from predators, cicadas arrive in such massive numbers that other animals get full and have to take a break from this free buffet. The surviving cicadas can then make millions of cicada eggs that the females deposit in trees–from which larvae will drop to the ground, burrow underground and wait 17 years before emerging to fascinate or frighten the children of 2038.

People have been writing about this ritual of life in the mid-Atlantic for centuries, but this year’s cicada onslaught will be different from previous emergences because of a different plague: social media. If you suffer from any sort of arthropod anxiety, you’re not going to enjoy all the cicada Facebook status updates, cicada tweets, cicada Instagram pics and stories, cicada TikToks, and other social testimony that will soon be swarming screens. This could be a really good time to give those apps a rest and instead start reading an intimidatingly long book.

Sore feet for a shot: an afternoon as a Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteer

Like many of you, I’ve spent much of the last year feeling helpless against this accursed pandemic–not just because of the existential dread inflicted by a disease that keeps striking people who wear masks and do the other right things, but because I could not do anything to help others beyond wearing a mask myself and writing the occasional article about exposure-notification apps and novel-coronavirus antibody testing.

Add on the guilt I’ve picked up about not getting sick despite the chances I have taken (meaning, gratuitously non-essential travel), and I felt even more that I had to give something else back. Thursday, I finally did.

That opportunity came via the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps, a program the state government set up in 2002. Although the MRC emphasizes medical backgrounds, it also welcomes volunteers with zero credentials in the field. I filled out my application in early February, got approved a couple of days later, and then waited to get an e-mail inviting me to an online training session. That didn’t arrive until March 1, at which point I realized I could have watched a prerecorded session any time over the previous three weeks.

Photo showing part of my Virginia MRC badge and COVID-19 vaccination card atop papers relating post-vaccination advice.

That video covered the basics of helping with COVID-19 vaccination clinics–including a mention that at the end of a shift, volunteers may receive leftover doses of the vaccine–but it did not prepare me for how quickly volunteer opportunities would get snapped up. The first few squandered chances pushed me to set up a Gmail filter to star and mark as important every MRC message.

And after weeks of waiting for vaccinations to open up for people in group 1C (my cohort, both because the Centers for Disease Control chose to categorize journalists as “other essential workers” and because I could stand to lose a few pounds), I finally opened one of those “Volunteers Needed” e-mails fast enough on April 1. I quickly signed up for a noon-5 p.m. shift April 8 at a community center in Arlington hosting second-dose vaccinations.

After a quick recap of basic rules Thursday afternoon (the important one being not to guess at answers to people’s questions) and my being issued a badge with my name and photo (as if I had a real job!), I got my assignment of minding the line. It was easy work: Check to make sure that the closest taped stripe on the floor inside the entrance wasn’t occupied, then wave in the next person on the line outside.

After a couple of hours, I took a break to finish gobbling down the sandwich I’d packed, then got moved to an indoor spot at which I could remind people to have their IDs and vaccination cards ready.

Here’s one thing I didn’t expect to get out of that: realizing how many people in so many different demographics were still waiting to finish getting vaccinated. Months after first responders and people over 75 should have all been covered, I saw several senior citizens in wheelchairs and two police officers waiting for their second shots, plus dozens more people visibly older than me.

That instantly silenced my inner monologue of grumbling over seeing younger friends posting vax selfies–and properly relegated my sore feet from hours of standing to the least of everybody’s problems.

The other surprise of this experience: how much I enjoyed brief banter with total strangers, something I last experienced working the election in November. (In retrospect, serving as a poll worker was a gateway drug for MRC volunteering.) I complimented people on the designs of their masks, greeted people wearing UVA caps with “Go Hoos,” made dad jokes about having your boarding pass ready… yeah, I do need to get out more.

One of the supervisors had asked early on if I would be interested in a vaccine dose if one were available (my reply amounted to “[bleep] yeah”) and as the last of hundreds of people with booked appointments stood in line, he said the words I’d been waiting to hear since last spring: “We have a shot for you.”

A day after getting my first dose of the Moderna vaccine, I have some soreness in that upper arm and a profound sense of gratitude. Instead of counting up after every exposure risk–five days without symptoms is my rough benchmark for assuming that I haven’t gotten infected–I can now count down. I’m T-minus 13 days until the vaccine should hit 80 percent effectiveness per the CDC study released at the end of March, T-minus 27 days until my second dose, and T-minus 41 days until my immune system has fully processed the vaccine.

I just hope today’s Costco run isn’t the crowded-places errand that gets me sick first.

But if I can get through the next five days and then cross that two-week post-first-dose mark, I’ll be ready to work another volunteer MRC shift. And this time, I’ll wear my hiking boots.