I finally remembered to ski

Taking a weekday off to go skiing is one of the more underrated perks of working a flexible schedule around D.C. So I enjoyed it Tuesday for the first time since 2015.

When I started freelancing, that was not the plan. Even at the Post, I was able to carve out a personal day a year for the short drive to one of the two closest ski areas, Ski Liberty (about an hour and 15 minutes away) or Whitetail (roughly an hour and 40).

But parenthood, not getting paid unless I write something and the mid-Atlantic’s increasingly chaotic winters confined my skiing in 2016 and 2017 to my neighborhood–courtesy of snow storms that left just enough accumulation for me to break out my already-trashed cross-country skis.

This season’s scant snowfall has lent no hope of even that. But last weekend, I saw that the forecast called for temperatures in the 30s Tuesday–an appointment-free day. I worked for a couple of hours that morning, grabbed my skis, boots and poles, enjoyed the unlikely driving pleasure of a traffic-free Beltway and I-270, and was on the chairlift at Liberty by noon.

Yes, the only snow in sight had been shot out of machines, and 620 feet of vertical goes by quickly. But with no lift lines in sight either, I could easily get get in seven runs an hour. It felt fantastic to realize that the years off hadn’t left me too rusty, test myself on the most difficult runs, then catch a little air coming off bumps. For a day when I would have been happy merely to avoid injuring myself or others, that was pretty great.

After three hours and change with only brief pauses to check my e-mail (of course), I headed back and once again felt spoiled by my commute. Even after sitting in some Beltway congestion, I pulled into our driveway by 5:10, leaving plenty of time to savor the pleasant soreness of this overdue workout. And to wonder what had gone wrong with my priorities the last two winters.

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Launch logistics: Booking a trip to see Falcon Heavy fly on three days’ notice

I’ve had the idea of covering the first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket in the back of my mind for the last few years, but I didn’t book my travel for Tuesday’s launch until Saturday afternoon.

I was waiting for a confirmation of the schedule from the company that would be more solid than a notional “No Earlier Than” date, and which would then let me know if I could still attend a Yahoo Finance cryptocurrency conference in New York on Wednesday. Besides, I knew that D.C. and Orlando often represent a cheap city pair.

The schedule details I needed from SpaceX arrived shortly after noon Saturday, so I got to work–one travel component at a time.

Having to reach the Kennedy Space Center by 1:15 p.m. to visit Launch Complex 39A ruled out some decent mid-day fares. But Southwest’s site showed a 6 a.m. nonstop out of National for only $50. Sold!

Then I canceled the D.C.-NYC Amtrak reservation I’d had for Tuesday night (I appreciate that the railroad still lets you do that for free until 24 hours before departure) and booked a Tuesday-night flight from Orlando to New York to replace it.

I went with United for that leg, spending a little extra (a still-reasonable $155) to fly on an airline where my frequent-flyer status would allow a free same-day-change to a Wednesday flight to Newark if a launch scrub required that. A few more clicks to book a rental car and one night’s lodging, and I had launch travel solved… or so I thought until an hour after a liftoff that got pushed back to 3:45 p.m. by upper-atmosphere winds.

At that point, the “OMG! OMG!” shaking had stopped, I’d filed my copy, and Google Maps indicated that the usual 45-minute drive from KSC to Orlando would run an hour and 15 minutes. Nope! As horrendous post-launch traffic dragged Google’s arrival estimates past my flight’s boarding time, I called United to see if they had space on the morning’s first MCO-EWR nonstop, a 5:36 a.m. departure. They did.

After dropping off my rental car and getting through a mercifully quick security checkpoint (is there a better exhibit for TSA Pre or Clear than MCO?), I ran to my original flight’s gate and saw for myself that the plane was gone. I called United back, the rep bailed me out of the consequences of my overly-optimistic travel tactics by putting me on that 5:36 a.m. flight for free, and then I opened my laptop–tethering off my phone because the airport WiFi didn’t let me connect–to book a hotel barely two miles away for $90.

By then, it had been some 10 hours since I’d last eaten, so I treated myself to a nice dinner at the airport. (If you, too, get stuck at MCO and want something more original than the terminal’s fast-casual brands, head upstairs to McCoy’s in the Hyatt Regency). After a prolonged wait for the hotel van, thanks to no visible signage indicating that these shuttles could pick up at either of two spaces on the B side that sit maybe 800 feet apart, I was in bed by around midnight.

I somehow woke up one minute before the 4:15 alarm I’d set on my phone and was through security 40 minutes later. You can image my relief at seeing my upgrade clear, then having a quick NJ Transit ride from EWR to Manhattan help wrap up this prolonged commute by 9:10 a.m.

A long and informative day ensued with Yahoo colleagues, most of whom I hadn’t seen in months, and various cryptocurrency experts. But then my travel luck ran out again when my train to D.C. left more than an hour and a half late. Twitter, not Amtrak, informed me that this was the result of a tragedy–a northbound Acela striking and killing a person walking along the tracks in the Bronx, which led police to close the railroad for two hours.

That meant I didn’t get home until nearly 1 a.m, almost 21 hours after my day had begun. But I did get to sleep in my own bed, and I came home with two posts filed from KSC that more than covered my travel costs as well as dozens of photos (since edited into a Flickr album) and one unusual recording that you can hear after the jump.

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2017 in review: This has not been easy

This year has been lousy in a variety of ways.

On a national level, the Trump administration luxuriated in lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence. We learned that even more men in power had spent decades inflicting or tolerating vile sexual harassment. And widely-distributed firearms ownership left us with another year of American carnage that featured a few mass shootings so horrifying that Congress did nothing.

On a personal level, the worst part of 2017 was the day in March when I learned of just one of those tens of thousands of gun deaths: the suicide of my old Post friend Mike Musgrove. I think about that almost every day and still don’t have good answers.

But I have had meaningful, paying work, and for that I’m grateful.

Most of that has taken place at Yahoo Finance, where I easily wrote 8,000 words on net neutrality alone.

I continue to appreciate having a widely-read place at which I can call out government and industry nonsense, and I wish I’d taken more advantage of that opportunity–the second half of the year saw me let too many weeks go by without any posts there. But 2017 also saw some overdue client diversification beyond my usual top three of Yahoo, USA Today and Wirecutter.

I’ve done more wonky writing for trade publications, which tend to offer better rates (even if they sometimes pay slower) and often wind up compensating me for the kind of research I’d need to do anyway to write knowledgeably for a consumer-focused site. This year has also brought about the reappearance of my byline in the Washington Post and the resulting, thoroughly enjoyable confusion of readers who hadn’t seen me there since 2011.

Once again, I did more than my share to prop up the travel industry. Conferences, speaking opportunities and story research took me to Las Vegas, Barcelona, Austin, New York (only once, which should have led Amtrak to e-mail to ask if I’m okay), Lisbon (twice), the Bay Area (three times), Shanghai, Paris, Berlin, Cleveland (being driven most of the way there by a semi-autonomous Cadillac was one of those “I can’t believe I’m being paid to do this” moments) and Boston.

(See after the jump for a map of all these flights.)

Tearing myself away from my family each time has not gotten any easier, but at least all of last year’s travel put me in a position to make myself more comfortable on more of these flights. As an avgeek, the upgrade I most appreciated is the one that cleared 36 hours before my trip to Shanghai in June to put me in the last seat available on the upper deck of a United 747–barely five months before the the Queen of the Skies exited United’s fleet.

Almost all of these international trips involved concerned queries from citizens of our countries about the leadership of my own. I understand where they came from but wish they weren’t necessary. Someday, that will happen–but not in 2018.

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2017 gardening report card: lettuce, at last

With last Thursday’s hard frost, another year of backyard gardening has come to an end and it’s time once again to assess the results of a hobby that may not make much financial sense on an opportunity-cost basis–but which does allow a regular analog respite from all of my screen time.

(For reference: my 20162015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

Herbs: A+

Planting basil seeds in a different, sunnier spot paid off with weeks of abundant leaves that I could toss into pesto sauces. The sage did even better and has kept on going into winter, although the relative lack of recipes for it means I’ve left most of the crop outside (any ideas to change that?). The parsley, meanwhile, rebounded from its subpar 2016 showing and once again led me to make multiple batches of tabbouleh in the spring. Mint, oregano, and rosemary were their usual prolific selves, and chives and dill did well in the fall. But cilantro only showed up in trace quantities.

Arugula: A

I got a terrific spring crop of this versatile green that lasted into July, then had another several weeks’ worth in the fall. If you’re thinking of starting a kitchen garden, this should be first plant you aspire to after parsley or basil.

Lettuce: A

Planting this in a sunnier spot paid off spectacularly well in the spring and summer, yielding an outstanding return on my investment in a couple of seed packets. If only I’d bought more: I couldn’t try for a fall crop because I forgot to purchase extras in the spring and then couldn’t find any after August.

Spinach: B

Last year’s plants held on through last winter–the day I got back from SXSW, one day after the season’s one notable snowfall, I brushed off some of the accumulation to pluck some leaves to use in a pasta sauce. It flourished throughout the spring but did not reward me with a fall crop.

Green beans: B-

These did great through the spring, but then some of our neighborhood’s many rabbits got into the raised bed and devoured the plants. Having enjoyed the Peter Rabbit books as a toddler, I can only laugh at the thought that I’ve become Mr. McGregor.

Tomatoes: C

Modest, incremental improvements at cultivating tomatoes did not yield a huge difference in this gardening paradox: I have no trouble getting tomato plants to sprout, but coaxing any to bear fruit is much less of a sure thing.

Cucumbers: F

Just to show that there’s no year-over-year logic to gardening, a comparable level of effort this year yielded 100 percent less than last year. Fortunately, cucumbers cost almost nothing at farmers’ markets.

Bell peppers: F

For yet another year, I got nowhere trying to grow these.

A Thanksgiving baking project: almost-no-work bread

Well over a decade since I got into the habit of baking sandwich bread from scratch, I still remember how nervous I was at first about winding up with a deflated loaf. The recipe I’m sharing here cuts that risk as close to zero as possible; all it asks in return is about 24 hours of time.

Because I, too, am a little hesitant to try out a recipe with that much latency, I waited to try the “No-Work Bread” recipe in my well-read copy of Mark Bittman’s “How To Cook Everything” (which you may have seen in the New York Times as “No-Knead Bread”). I shouldn’t have: This product of Sullivan Street Bakery owner Jim Lahey is the most fault-tolerant bread recipe I know, and if you start it by mid-afternoon Wednesday you can have it ready for Thanksgiving dinner.

(My apologies if you’ll be spending Wednesday afternoon on highways or in the air. Maybe bookmark this for Christmas?)

  • 4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
  • 2/3 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 cups water, about 70 degrees
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon cornmeal

Mix the flour and salt in a 2-quart bowl. Stir the yeast into the water, and after a few minutes mix that into the dry ingredients for longer than seems necessary. This may look like a mess, but as long as you don’t have any chunky bits left, you should be fine.

(Bittman’s original recipe calls for half a teaspoon of instant yeast, which I never buy because Costco sells regular yeast in a 2-pound package. The last time I made this, I forgot the 1:1.33 instant-to-active-yeast conversion and threw the non-instant yeast in with the dry ingredients. Everything turned out fine; as I said, fault-tolerant.)

Take a 3-quart bowl and coat it with the olive oil. Dump the dough into it, cover with plastic wrap, and leave it alone for about 18 hours. You’ll know it’s done, or close enough, when it’s risen to near the top and it’s covered with bubbles as if they were craters on the surface of the moon.

(While the dough enjoys that long rise, you may want to watch an episode of the Great British Baking Show for motivational purposes.)

Dust a clean surface with flour and pour the soggy dough onto it–taking a moment to enjoy the aroma of the risen, fermented yeast. Fold the dough over a couple of times into a ball, more or less, and cover it with plastic wrap for 15 minutes.

After that rest, scatter more flour on the dough and re-form it into a ball. Scatter the cornmeal on a silicone baking mat, wax paper, or a towel (as in, something that you can grab to lift the dough off the surface) and leave the dough ball there for two hours.

About an hour and 15 minutes into that last rise, put a 3- to 4-quart pot, cover included, into the oven and preheat it to 450 degrees. Half an hour later after hitting 450°, open the oven, remove the lid and dump the dough into the pot.

This is when the results–a damp glob slumped unevenly in the pot, part of it stuck to its side–may look like a culinary catastrophe. Ignore the untidy appearance, put the lid back on, and shove it in the oven for 30 minutes.

Open the oven, remove the lid and you should see that the bread has settled back into a somewhat flattened ball. Set the lid aside, close the oven and bake for another 20 minutes. If the crust looks browned like something in a real bakery, it’s done; otherwise, try another 10 minutes.

Let the bread cool for 30 minutes. Try not to eat it all at once.

It’s been real, RFK

The circular shrine to crumbling concrete and peeling paint at 2400 East Capitol St. SE is about to lose its last reason for existence. More than 56 years after it opened, RFK Stadium will host D.C. United’s last home game–and then, with United moving to Audi Field next year, face a future of essentially nothing.

It’s been over 10 years since I’ve had a chance to inhale any of RFK’s fumes–since Sept. 23, 2007, when the Nationals closed out their three-year tenancy there with a 5-3 win over the Phillies. Beyond the win, the highlight of that afternoon was the “SHORT STILL STINKS” banner fans briefly hung from the outfield wall–a nod to the protest of fans at the Washington Senators’ final game at RFK in 1971 before villainous owner Bob Short moved the team to Texas.

Washingtonians tend to have long memories about RFK.

Mine start with the Rolling Stones concert I saw September of my freshman year at Georgetown, when anything east of Union Station seemed unimaginably distant from campus. I had neither the budget nor the interest to go to any Redskins games–even though our NFL franchise wasn’t objectively cursed at the time–but I did make my way back to RFK for the occasional mega-concert: U2 in 1992 (still the best show I’ve seen there), the Stones again in 1994 and U2 for a second time in 1997.

For Generation X D.C., however, “RFK + concert” will always equal “HFStival.” That all-day music festival put on by the long-gone modern-rock station WHFS packed the stadium and its parking lots every summer in the mid 1990s. I attended it two or three times as a paying fan–then covered it for the Post in 1995, 1996 and 1997.

Seeing Soul Aslyum, Tony Bennett (!) and the Ramones close out that first show from the risers was definitely one of those “I can’t believe I’m being paid to do this” moments. So was taking a break from carrying a notebook around 1997’s show to try crowdsurfing for the first and only time.

I also saw one or two Skins games on other people’s tickets, then later went to a few D.C. United games, but it took most of the next decade before I got any regular acquaintance with RFK as a sports facility.

The Nats’ home opener in 2005 kicked off the place becoming a part of my life every summer for the next three years. I developed a profound acquaintance with the many ways a bad baseball team can lose games, along with how hot a 45,000-plus-seat concrete donut can get when no outside breeze reaches the stands.

But we did win a few games too. My favorite after the team’s debut: the Father’s Day victory over the Yankees in 2005, when Ryan Zimmerman belted a walk-off home run over the outfield wall to and the place erupted in bedlam. I still don’t think I’ve ever heard RFK get so loud.

Sunday, I’m going to see if RFK’s last home team can win one more there. Soon enough, RFK will become like the old 9:30 Club’s smell or National Airport’s Interim Terminal–something D.C. types of a certain age laugh knowingly about more than they actually miss. But first, I want to see those stands bounce one more time. Vamos, United!

Ranking my Nats postseason nightmares

It happened again. Of course it did.

The Nationals’ 9-8 loss to the Cubs in Thursday’s National League Division Series game 5 stands apart from the team’s other postseason exits for how utterly snakebit the Nats looked.

Barry Svrluga’s breakdown of the defeat only begins to capture what a shitshow this game was. The nightmare fifth inning alone–in which previously lights-out Max Scherzer got lit up for three hits, had a third strike turn into a run-scoring error when Matt Wieters dropped the ball and then airmailed it past Ryan Zimmerman (except play should have stopped after Javier Baez’s bat grazed his mask), saw the bases load on a catcher’s interference call, and walked in a run by hitting Jon Jay with a pitch–will haunt me for years.

But the upshot is the same as in 2012, 2014 and 2016: We lost a winnable division series in avoidable ways, leaving me with a strip of NLCS tickets to set on fire in the driveway before I wait to see which other city’s team gets to mob the infield after winning the World Series.

In the meantime, as an inveterate list-maker I feel compelled to rank the relative misery of our final home games in each postseason, all of which I’ve had the dubious privilege of witnessing in person.

4) 2014 NLDS game 2. Eighteen innings. Eighteen freezing innings. And all after we got within one out of a victory before robo-manager Matt Williams took out Jordan Zimmermann for Drew Storen because that’s what the book says to do. Giants 2, Nats 1, but we did still have three more chances to win–only one of which we took, leading to our fastest NLDS exit.

3) 2016 NLDS game 5. A great start by Scherzer turned to ashes in a horrible and prolonged (one hour and 5 minutes!) seventh inning that saw five relief pitchers give up four hits before Chris Heisey’s two-run shot in the bottom of the frame concluded our scoring in the series. Dodgers 4, Nats 3.

2) 2017 NLDS game 5. Seriously, this was grotesque. I’ve now attended maybe 250 Nationals games, and this one subjected me to onfield calamities I never thought I’d see even in the woeful seasons in which we lost over 100 times.

1) 2012 NLDS game 5. The worst. Witnessing a 6-0 lead collapse, inning by inning, into a 9-7 loss to the Cardinals ranks as my most painful sports memory ever.

And so the D.C. postseason curse grinds on. I would like to think that it will end in my lifetime, preferably before inflicting too much trauma on our daughter. But that’s also what I said to myself in 2012. And 2014. And 2016.