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DC’s 2020 Chlorine Switch: I Have Defeated You

April 22, 2020

One drinks pitcher and two filtered water pitchers at the ready

It’s that time of year again in DC — all the green things are popping up, the gorgeous red leaves on the Japanese maple trees are unfurling, the soon-to-be bloodthirsty mosquitos are innocent of crimes, and DC’s water reeks of chlorine. DC’s 5-week long 2020 Chlorine Switch doesn’t care about the global pandemic or about how the water becomes undrinkable for many people. But thanks to the odd necessities created by the novel coronavirus, I’ve defeated the Chlorine Switch for the first time ever!

Here’s a TL;DR link to my DC Chlorine Switch dechlorination process at the bottom of this post.

But I see you are still reading. Perhaps a promised tale of victory in these troubled times is appealing? An Earth Day victory even?

I’m a big fan of tap water. I get a lot of looks about this, and those looks suggest I’m a fool. I don’t care! I drink the tap water throughout the U.S. unless it tastes funny. In international locations with dodgy water, I don’t hesitate to boil it for 2 minutes. Boiling water means I don’t add plastic to the trash, and it leaves me feeling better about my environmental footprint — like I’m honoring an unspoken social contract related to my occupying a few feet of  another country’s beach for a week.

DC’s Chlorine Switch may be maddening, but I know it’s done to keep the drinking water safe. Usually, the water has a different disinfectant in it — chloramine. I can’t taste chloramine. Most people can’t. Here’s the EPA’s “Basic Information about Chloramines and Drinking Water Disinfection.” Five weeks of the year, though, water companies across the country switch to chlorine instead. Putting chlorine into the water system means bacteria can’t develop resistance to chloramine, and the amount of lead that leaches into the water from lead pipes is greatly reduced. Switching to chlorine for 5 weeks a year saves lives and makes other lives better. It’s the right thing to do, but there are complications.

DC’s Water’s guidance about the Chlorine Switch says, “During this time, you may notice a slight change in the taste and smell of your drinking water.” If so, their recommendations are to do the following:

  • Run the cold water tap for two minutes. Run it for 5 to 10 minutes when water is not used for several hours.
    • [The Chlorine Switch may deserve initial caps, but I require all-caps to express my thoughts in this case: RUNNING THE WATER DOES NOT HELP ENOUGH!]
  • Refrigerate cold tap water in an open pitcher. Within a few hours, the chlorine taste and odor will disappear.
    • [WRONG!]
  • Some filters may reduce the chlorine taste and smell. DC Water recommends using devices that are installed at your faucet tap or pitcher-style filters.
    • [I ALREADY FILTER MY WATER! DON’T PATRONIZE ME!]

Okay, so the water smells and tastes bad. Surely, a normal person could just deal with it, drink something else. How bad can it be? Waaaa, waaaa, waaaa! Don’t I have something better to do like ponder charts showing the exponential infection rate growth of the novel coronavirus or contemplate one grocery store’s item replacement algorithm?

egg replacement fail

This is not an ad. These were my egg replacement options. Good luck not googling “Butter Krak.”

In fact, I do have better things to do. Here are links to some of my favorite science news sites — AAAS’s Science Insider and The Lancet’s Covid-19 Resource Center. While I’m reading those sites, I like to drink a large glass of water, which is literally one of just 3 things I can drink! (Milk and tea being the other two. Alcohol, I miss you.) There’s some ancient patch of gastritis in my stomach that simply will not go away. I need to be kind to it, or it wreaks its vengeance upon the rest of me. Things I can’t pour onto that gastritis patch include but are not limited to: anything sour, anything acidic, and WATER WITH CHLORINE IN IT INSTEAD OF CHLORAMINE!

I am not the only one in DC with a chlorinated drinking water issue. During the Chlorine Switch, the water aisles at the grocery store are denuded.

Like so many others, I have to purchase enough water to get me through those five weeks. It’s so much plastic. It’s atrocious. The purchases usually happen a few gallons at a time with each trip to the grocery store. Plus, I always have a several gallons of water stored at home. That’s not just because of Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines but also because of how many times I’ve seen the bottled water supply dry up locally during the Chlorine Switch.

I’m not the first to say this year is different from other years. I’m also not the first to marvel at just how much crazy 2020 already has packed into it. And I thought we were full up of crazy considering the last four years. I’m expecting the Ghost of Christmas Present to offer everyone a double dose of extra-strong happy cider in 8 months. This is a special year. Thanks to the global pandemic, in addition to the dearth of yeast, tissues, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, frozen pizza and fat-free milk, bottled water is not so easy to come by.

Two weeks before the March 30th Chlorine Switch was set to start, I knew I was in trouble.

So I learned about all kinds of ways a normal person tries to clean up their water. Here’s the CDC’s information about “Making Water Safe in an Emergency.” Here’s another site about how to make a still for water, not moonshine! I would need a space much larger than my postage stamp backyard to accomplish a chlorine-free water still, and I’m pretty sure the local squirrels would use the plastic sheet as a slide just to mess with me. On the super-positive, non-rabbit-hole side, now I know why I’ve seen clear plastic rooftop bottles of water during some of my travels — solar decontamination is super-effective!

Nothing I read directly applied to my situation, but I was starting to understand what might work.

Maybe chlorine dissipates into the air, or maybe the air affects the exposed chlorine in the water and changes it to something less hideous. Surface area of the water seemed to be important. My PUR water filter helped a little in normal circumstances, but not nearly enough. I had an idea, and Bed Bath & Beyond had the supplies that arrived in time!

Tools of victory - one uncovered drinks pitcher, two covered and filtered water pitchers, and a spatula

Tools of victory – one uncovered drinks pitcher, two covered and filtered water pitchers, and a spatula

Here’s what I do to make my water drinkable during DC’s 2020 Chlorine Switch:

  1. Fill up my beloved 2 liter (no-longer-used-for-alcohol!) open drinks pitcher with water.
  2. Leave the  uncovered pitcher on the counter for 6 hours. Stir the water occasionally. This is the only part that takes a bit of planning, but when I do it correctly, I can get in 3 rotations a day.
  3. After 6 hours, pour the open container water into a PUR water pitcher with a lead-reduction filter that claims to reduce chlorine taste. When transferring the 6-hour water from the open pitcher to the first filter pitcher, the water still smells of chlorine, but it’s not quite as bad as it smelled from the tap 6 hours earlier. This pitcher is covered. I’m using this PUR water pitcher and these filters.
  4. Once that first water filters, I pour the water into another PUR pitcher with a lead-reduction filter that claims to reduce chlorine taste. At this point, the chlorine smell is nearly gone. I put that covered pitcher into the refrigerator. For this second filtration, I’m using an ancient PUR water pitcher and the same filters as above.
  5. Soon, the water has filtered for a second time. The chlorine smell and taste is gone!

The process is a bit of a pain, but the alternatives are so much worse. And the process works! Done right, I can get 6 liters of water each day. That’s enough for drinking water, for cooking, and for sharing with the rest of the household. To get the supplies I didn’t already have cost $43. I would have spent $45 on water in gallon and multi-gallon sizes over the 5 weeks. And now there are no loads of plastic to be recycled and partially used. This is a huge victory!

Plus, as the winner of the Battle of the Chlorine Switch, I can save some of my lost time by drinking straight from the second filter pitcher. (I would never do that!)

Second PUR filter ready for duty with defrosting pandemic milk and essential brick-of-Velveeta on guard!

Second PUR filter ready for duty with defrosting pandemic milk and essential brick-of-Velveeta on guard!

Backyard Birding in Washington DC

February 3, 2020
Cardinal

Cardinal

I once had a mini mental breakdown when a domesticated parrot landed on my shoulder to hang out with me. I cried a little — in that petrified way a person does when they think a modern-day dinosaur might puncture their carotid artery.

My bird terror track record is long. I’ve felt the menace of peacocks, the dive-bombing of hummingbirds and the crazy-eyed taunting of chickens. Irate geese have pooped savagely in my direction. A lifetime of anticipating bird assaults means that I can spot a hawk on a roofline from half a mile away.

So I surprised myself a few years ago when I decided to get a bird feeder that sticks to the second-floor window of my house.

The quiet rabble

The quiet rabble

The starlings might have been the reason. I first noticed them on the National Mall. Their flock was massive and their chatter mesmerizing. Just to be clear, I don’t anticipate a flock attacking me, only individual birds with vendettas. The flock would lift up from behind a construction fence, roll through the air and return to the ground like a thousand fighter pilots landing on an aircraft carrier at once. Before long, I noticed another flock of starlings roiling around tall buildings in Southwest DC at dusk. Their dividing dives and re-congregations at sunset were beautiful.

Blue Jay Juvenile - First day with the new wings

Blue Jay Juvenile – First day with the new wings

Understanding how to make the most of the suction-cupped-to-the-window bird feeder was a challenge. At first, I used the wrong kind of food and too much of it. That last mistake encouraged lone bird pugilists to fight viciously with others at the feeder. It was disturbing to watch. Also, because I opened a window repeatedly (and incorrectly) to fill the feeder, I broke something in the window track. After hiding the feeder and tweezing all the seed casings from the window track so an all-knowing window technician wouldn’t give me the “You’re an Idiot, Lady” lecture and look, I paid to get the window fixed.

Worse, my initial bird feeder placement was easy for the squirrels to access. I didn’t realize that until I came face to second-floor-face with one of the critters. My yelling caused the squirrel to leap poorly. People say time lenses during great stress. Like with birds, I have a history with squirrels. I went through a range of lensed emotions (anger, shock, regret, hope) as I watched that spread-squirrelled impact with the ground. I felt bad for almost causing a mammalian death and most-likely causing injury. Unlike bird ancestors in the Mesozoic era, squirrel kin were tiny.

Cooper Hawk

Cooper Hawk

The feeder was moved. I began to fill it just once every week or two on a schedule that I hoped identified the feeder as a food source, but not as the only food source. I sorted out what kind of birdseed to get so as not to cause seed casing chaos in my backyard and also so I was providing seed that was the most appropriate. I didn’t expect to see anything in particular where type of bird was concerned, but I was delighted about the house finches and purple finches who arrived. I hadn’t even known such birds lived in DC!

Then one day while filling the feeder with seed, I forgot to press the feeder’s suction cups to the window pane. When I (carefully) put the window back in place, the feeder crashed to the ground. Unlike the nefarious squirrel, the feeder broke into many pieces. Birdseed coated the backyard. Many squirrels were made happy that day. I was not.

For a month, I contemplated what to do. The world was topsy-turvy. I was supposed to be afraid of birds. Perhaps the destruction of the feeder was a sign that I should give up this folly and get a cat. I love cats. All cats. Even the mean ones. But I missed the birds. I had seen so many different types of birds because of the feeder — red-winged blackbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, house sparrows, cardinals, blue jays, doves, northern mockingbirds and more.

Mockingbird mocks me

Mockingbird mocks me

I got another bird feeder. Happy birds barely paused their swooping by. After too many missed pictures, I reset my camera to multi-shot.

I also confirmed that blue jays are jerks. I mean, pretty jerks, but still jerks. I knew that the blue jays and the cardinals always seem to show up around the same time in the backyard, but it was a while before I came to understand that if there is one blue jay, there are probably five more nearby. And if you’re a cooper hawk, all six of those blue jays are going to dive bomb you until you move along. Maybe the jerkiness makes sense in bird world (nests, eggs, general principle), but the harassment is a gripping spectacle for the humans who notice it.

Cooper Hawk Versus Four Blue Jays

Cooper Hawk Versus Four Blue Jays

I was seeing so much about birds. Not just how they look but also their songs and their chirping plus which ones hop and which ones fly. In the summer, when I watered the flower beds, I could hear the birds start up their calls to each other about how the sporadic food spot was definitely a watering hole today. I was so pleased that the feeder brought the birds and encouraged them to hang around sprinkling their little packets of bird poo magic on my backyard and giving rise to the occasional flower I didn’t plant.

Uh-oh. Starlings.

Uh-oh. Starlings.

Everything was lovely until the starling flock discovered my feeder. The birds I thought were so beautiful roiling over tall Southwest DC buildings had settled into the neighborhood a few streets away. Specifically, the starlings made homes of three large streetside trees. Every night, starlings chattered loudly and incessantly while coating several cars with bird poo and no flower potential. The amount of excreta was a wonder to behold. I had seen it myself from slightly afar while not looking directly overhead.

The neighborhood was on a tear about the starling invasion. I couldn’t let the human world know I had a bird feeder. I couldn’t let the starlings feed at the feeder. Not only would they decimate the contents, but their swarm and noise would be obvious to all. If I didn’t stop the starlings, what the neighbors would do to me would make a six blue jay assault on a cooper hawk look like a friendly game of tag.

House Finch Juvenile

House Finch Juvenile

I’m not embarrassed to say that I took immediate crazy lady action. I threw things at the bird feeder window. I ran toward it. I jumped onto the couch and banged against the panes. Loudly, I exulted in the fleeing of the starlings. I learned something else about starlings — they frighten easily and are reluctant to return to my feeder.

Now, every few weeks when the starlings return I only have to repeat my gesticulating charge.

Doves

Doves

Eternal vigilance is the price of feeding the birds, who it turns out I do like. I even appear to have grown protective of those birds without brute force on their side. I just need a bit of double-paned, see-through glass separating me from those doing the seed-eating equivalent of pecking at a carotid artery.

For a good picture-based overview of birds in DC, check out “Common Birds of NE Washington, DC” on iNaturalist.org.

Even the True Queen of Denmark

October 2, 2019
Faroe Islands Hike Hvíthamar

Faroe Islands Hike – Hvíthamar

I usually go for the seat in the middle of an airplane row. That means if I’m alone, I can sit pretty much anywhere on the plane. Or if I’m with Cake Man, he gets a people buffer.

One thing let to another on our flight from the Faroe Islands to Copenhagen, and Cake Man ended up in the middle seat next to a young Faroese woman wearing a perfect fuzzy white sweater. The woman looked very uncomfortable, and she was instantly chatty. I assumed she was afraid of flying. I could tell this was going to be one of those plane flights with a conversation that stretched from departure to arrival. Quietly, I tried to let Cake Man know we could switch seats before the plane took off, and I could sit next to her. But he is Cake Man, King of Chill, and he needs no assistance.

Faroe Islands Hike Hvíthamar Looking Back (Those White Things Are Cars)

Faroe Islands Hike – Hvíthamar Looking Back (Those White Things Are Cars)

The beautiful sweater being worn on the hottest week of the Faroese year actually was meant to remind our seatmate of home. She was headed to another part of Europe to begin her post-university life. Her plans were wonderful — the kind anyone would hope for.

We learned a lot on that flight, including that as the oldest descendant of a line that lost a battle with someone about a thousand years ago, our seatmate was the True Queen of Denmark.

I don’t begrudge anyone such a possibility. A very good friend claims to be related to basically every monarch mentioned in the Tower of London’s display of the Crown Jewels. Also, our seatmate was a great conversationalist who spoke several languages and had an impressive knowledge of world affairs and history. I could see how she might be the True Queen of Denmark by some reckoning. It wasn’t like she was asking me to give her a twenty for two tens.

She claimed not to be nervous about flying either. She seemed to know all the staff on the plane and several of the passengers. I felt like we were sitting next to a celebrity who was really big on a new social media platform that had not yet arrived in the United States. But I was worried for her and the way she kept pressing one hand into the seat in front of her and trying to strangle the armrest with the other hand.

Faroe Islands Hike Miðvágur Bøsdalafossur

Faroe Islands Hike – Miðvágur Bøsdalafossur

So we kept chatting with her, and we learned about:

  • the Faroese foster care system and which one of her parents’s behavior landed her in it
  • how up until the time of the True Queen’s grandmother, pirates (particularly French ones) were encouraged by Faroese husbands to have sex with their wives so as to diversify the gene pool
  • the acceptability of an all-cooked-meat art project in the shape of a baby
  • the enduring love of foster parents who eat said meat baby with you after your art project has been graded and found to be of the highest caliber

I wanted to hear everything the True Queen had to say. She was so interesting. But I needed to use the restroom at the back of the plane. Cake Man seemed to be having a good time chatting, and he appeared cognizant of the importance of being a good complete stranger to someone who obviously was nervous about flying even if they didn’t know it.

I returned four minutes later. The look on Cake Man’s face suggested I had missed something big.

Nix Statue, Faroe Islands, Near the Airport

Nix Statue, Faroe Islands, Near the Airport

The True Queen let me know what it was — a description of her menstrual cramps. She’d been having terrible ones ever since she went on The Pill. The cramps were particularly bad today, and the concerned observer might easily mistake her pained expression for fear of flying. To Cake Man’s unending credit, he had already offered her my Alleve. She wanted to tough it out though. Menstrual cramps might be bad, she said, but getting pregnant would be so much worse at this point in her life.

The True Queen of Denmark was unforgettable. She isn’t in the process of claiming her title, but it’s clear she’s going to do amazing things.

For me and Cake Man, the jury is still out on who sits in the middle seat during the next plane flight.

In a series of related notes:

  • A podcast of Connie Willis’s award-winning “Even the Queen” (a science fiction short story about menstrual cycle politics) can be found here.
  • A free, 60-page guide to hiking the Faroe Islands is here.
  • More about the Nix Statue is here.
Funningsfjørður, Faroe Islands, in August at 10pm

Funningsfjørður, Faroe Islands, in August at 10pm

Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths

August 23, 2019
Karagwe artist, Tanzania, Bovine figure, Mid-19th century, Iron

Karagwe artist, Tanzania, Bovine figure, Mid-19th century, Iron

The day I went to see the exhibit Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths, I also decided that fixing the diverter on my bathroom tub was beyond my skill level and above my home improvement tolerance threshold. If the workings of tub knob innards is a solvable mystery I don’t want to pursue, then the art of forging iron tools and other iron objects is unknowable magic. Striking Iron at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art has all the magic.

Note #1 to my devoted email subscribers, especially Dad: Yes, I’m embarrassed about calling the plumber. I know you could fix the tub yourself without a problem and that I could learn how to do the same.

Getting to the galleries of the Museum of African Art is like walking into a fantasy portal. The Museum of African Art is one of the few that acknowledges and utilizes the existence of what I’ve come to believe (without trying too hard to figure out if it’s true) is a vast underground concrete cave and tunnel system beneath the National Mall. On a day topping a hundred degrees, there’s nothing like opting for a museum that extends four floors to the subterranean.

I wasn’t trying very hard to get to the Striking Iron exhibit before all the other Museum of African Art exhibits. The pieces on display throughout the Museum are just too interesting. I wandered through the exhibit I Am…Contemporary Women Exhibits of Africa.

And the Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa’s Art exhibit.

And the Walt Disney-Tishman Africa Art Collection.

Striking Iron - The Art of African Blacksmiths
It was amazing. Because of 1) the twisty-corridors nature of the Museum and 2) my reluctance to ask the front desk for a map and then be asked where I was from only to have to admit I’m local and then try to establish my bona fides (exhausting work), I wasn’t always sure if I had entered the Striking Iron exhibit. Then I was completely sure.

Note #2 to my devoted email subscribers, especially Dad: Much of the rest of this post is going to continue to be far more pictures than text. No, I’m not “dialing it in” like you legitimately accused me of 4 years ago in the Southwest DC Artsfest post. No, I will not let that go. IT WAS A BUSY TIME!

Still from Forging Video - The Blacksmith's Tools, narrated by lead curator Tom Joyce

Still from Forging Video – The Blacksmith’s Tools, narrated by lead curator Tom Joyce

Above is a picture of a video of a forge in Africa. The alacrity with which I take a picture of a video comes from the same place inside me that calls a plumber to fix the tub.

I learned from the Striking Iron exhibit that after workable iron from deposits is extracted, a smith heats iron particles to form a bloom, which is then worked into an object. I love the imagery here (from an exhibit sign): “‘Birthing’ blooms out of iron ore and objects out of blooms is a ‘procreative’ metaphor used by many African peoples to describe these two transformative processes. Ironworking in Africa is a male-dominated technology that also must involve elements of female power to succeed.”

Blacksmith Tools

Blacksmith Tools – Click here for descriptions.

The bellows above was one of my favorite objects from the exhibit. A sign near the bellows says, “A talented Luba artist carved the four-chambered bellows…It is displayed vertically to draw attention to the face of its commanding female figure, suggesting the metaphor of creating life at the forge. The air chambers served as its lungs. They were once covered with leather bags attached to vertical sticks; these would have been grasped by men who pumped substantial volumes of air into charcoal-fueled fire to efficiently heat large-scale works.”

I also learned that the Mafa spirit pot pictured above ensured a successful smelt, and “Although Mafa women were excluded from iron production, wives of smelters made clay crucibles, conical tubes for furnace tuyères (nozzles), pots for bellows, and ritual vessels representing ancestors that were prominently placed at smelting sites.”

Note #3 to my devoted email subscribers, especially Dad: Aren’t those tools cool? Mom would love them. She would know all their names without having to look at the signs. She could tell us how many of each American-equivalent tool she has ever owned or seen at an auction or coveted or tried to talk someone out of. In this exhibit, she would be like a kid in a candy shop. Or like Mom in a candy shop.

Blades of Value

Blades of Value – Click here for descriptions.

Blades of Value

More Blades of Value. Click here for descriptions.

Striking Iron has a large portion of the exhibit devoted to knives and blades used as currency and other stores of value (see images above). That is something I had never considered! I get the idea of bartering, and I like to point out that the U.S. monetary system is built far more on trust than on the value of goods, but I had never stopped to consider that for currency whole societies might use iron objects in the shape of farm implements. That makes far more sense to me than many things about monetary systems.

Below are my two favorite excerpts from the currency signage:

“These currency forms stood as payment in the transactions that mattered most in life…Hoe-blade-shaped currencies were created as bridewealth tokens by many African societies, linking agricultural productivity to the reproductive power and labor a wife brings to a household.”

“Sara Madjingaye smiths forged currencies of a form derived from the sacred knife called Miya-bo, owned by Sara Madjingaye’s Supreme Being, who used it to bring rains. The value of these fragile, humanlike forms derived from cosmology and manly pursuits, specifically throwing knives in battle.”

The exhibit includes a collection of rainmaking wands (pictured above). I particularly liked the wand shaped like a serpent. From the exhibit text, I learned that the “spiraling composition of a three-headed python was planted upright to summon rains and protect people from lightning.”

And then there were these elaborate and beautiful show knives and staffs crafted by Ekonda blacksmiths.

Ekonda artists, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ritual staffs, Early 20th century, Iron, wood

Ekonda artists, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ritual staffs, Early 20th century, Iron, wood

Note #4 to my devoted email subscribers, especially Dad: Did you tell Mom yet?!?

Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths runs through July 2020. If you can’t make it in person, you can browse the collection online here.

Green Burial at Congressional Cemetery: One Way to Spend an Afternoon

May 31, 2019
Congressional Cemetery cherry tree in full bloom

Congressional Cemetery cherry tree in full bloom

April Fool’s Day was the perfect occasion to visit Congressional Cemetery. A free tour and an even freer (with snacks!) presentation about green burial was on offer. As a fan of shadows, cemeteries, uncommon perspectives and food I don’t have to pay for, I thought everything sounded just right. Of course, I invited a friend.

Although the cemetery’s permanent residents were not available to comment on their level of afterlife amusement, the  vast majority of Congressional Cemetery visitors and volunteer staff seemed to be having a good time. I counted at least six volunteers there,  four times as many human visitors, and even more canines than people.

Congressional Cemetery is a welcoming place. Lummi Poles at a crossroads indicate as much, but the cemetery’s “About Us” page is explicit. To be buried in Congressional Cemetery, only one requirement exists: “You just have to be dead.”

Anyone getting a cemetery tour from Paul Williams, President of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, should expect many such frank nuggets of laughter-provoking honesty.

“Get your headstone before you die,” Williams told my group, “or your kids will take the money and go on a cruise.”

A recently-completed underground map of Congressional Cemetery showed that seventy thousand people are buried there. Thirty thousand of them lay in unmarked graves.

The Prinzessin Victoria Luise, first launched in 1900, is commonly believed to be the first purpose-built pleasure ship. Congressional Cemetery was established in 1807 — ninety-three years before the Prinzessin’s maiden voyage. That’s over nine decades of absconding with the inheritance but being unable to purchase a cruise ship ticket.

My friend Wikipedia tells me that the same year Congressional Cemetery was established, the first fare-paying passenger railroad service also began. Based on no evidence whatsoever, I posit that between 1807 and 1900, numerous drunken teenagers inheriting money from aged relatives celebrated their tombstone-free good fortune with wild railcar parties.

I call this "Awesome Cemetery Shadows." Nearby, Walt Whitman turned over in his grave at my non-poetic description of this beautiful scene.

I call this “Awesome Cemetery Shadows.” Nearby, Walt Whitman turned over in his grave at my non-poetic description of this beautiful scene.

Not only did mapping the cemetery reveal all the unmarked graves, the effort also helped the Association understand previous mistakes. Apparently, all Congressional Cemetery headstones are not necessarily placed near bodies. Whether that meant drunk teenagers one hundred fifty years ago instead decided to take expired Aunt Elspeth on a cross-country South American tour like she always wanted is beyond even my impudent calculations.

It turns out that less than a page of federal regulations exist on how to bury a body. On the other decaying hand, disinterring a corpse is highly regulated. That begs the question — should a body be buried before or after a cross-country South American tour?

On the off-chance that the modern Auntie El clarified in her will that the teenager’s inheritance was contingent on Auntie’s immediate interment complete with a headstone, a green burial might be the way to go. Congressional Cemetery permits them. All manner of corpse coverings are allowed like shrouds, wicker baskets and pine caskets purchased online and assembled at home, preferably in detached garages, where no one but you will know to worry about what all the leftover screws were supposed to hold together.

My companion for the afternoon mentioned one green burial method Williams didn’t touch upon. “The most organic way to get rid of a body is to feed it to pigs,” she said. “Pigs will eat the f^*k out of things. One pig equals 6 days. But 6 pigs equals 1 day!”

The afternoon continued to be full of other unexpected and delightful facts.

Tall cemetery tree picture that somehow contains no dogs running around

Tall cemetery tree picture that somehow contains no dogs running around

Most cemeteries wait 75 years before re-using plots. Congressional Cemetery waits 125 years to add more ingredients to the stew. When spots open in the cemetery, they go quickly, “like used cars,” the tour guide / comedian / non-profit guru Williams said.

Things were a little different in 1988, when Leonard Matlovich was buried in Congressional Cemetery. Matlovich’s grave anchors the LGBTQIA section of the cemetery. Christ Church, which owns the grounds, was one of the first churches to permit the burial of AIDS victims. Matlovich was a gay Vietnam veteran with an exemplary military record who, alongside the ACLU, officially tested the Air Force’s policies toward gay people. Matlovich’s story is worth reading about.

On the less serious side, Matlovich succeeded in being buried in the same cemetery row as Herbert Hoover and his long-time lover Clyde Tolson. Sometimes, the deceased make their own fun even without the help of a drunken relative.

Congressional Cemetery has 50 funerals each year, which is far more annual interments than when the cemetery was run-down and unsafe. Concerned citizens and neighbors helped turn it around. Along the way, in our weird culture that is captialism and civil-mindedness, Congressional Cemetery became a private dog park with annual dues, a long waiting list to join and strictly-enforced rules like “To maintain the integrity of non-dog walking events, the owner of any dog found to be on the Cemetery grounds during closure hours will have their membership/day-pass privileges immediately revoked.”

That’s badass. They don’t even refund the annual dues you paid.

The Association has a great page about the cemetery’s history including how dog owners helped turn around the space. For my part, I found the late-afternoon dogs racing through the cemetery surreal and entertaining. My group also got a sneak peak at the location of the future pet cemetery, which has since been announced. Competition is rife to be the first owner with a pet buried there.

Primo late-afternoon cemetery shadows

Primo late-afternoon cemetery shadows

At the end of the outdoor tour, my group was deposited in the chapel. We loaded up on free wine, chips and cheese, as if those would be sufficient to endure an hour of embalming scare tactics. Admittedly, most of the reason I was interested in the presentation was because of Mary Roach’s excellent book Stiff, which goes into extensive detail about all the interesting things that might happen to bodies after people die. Stiff has an intriguing chapter on green burials.

Congressional Cemetery takes its bathroom art very seriously

Congressional Cemetery takes its bathroom art very seriously.

I consider the talk a win for the fact I learned about the cryopreservation of Bredo Morstøl’s body. Since 2002, Morstøl’s continued and unexpected cryopreservation has inspired Frozen Dead Guy Days in Nederland, Colorado. The Wikipedia article does a great job of summarizing the journey of Morstøl’s body and the administrative headaches encountered if an individual is in possession of a frozen human body but not in possession of funds to pay the electricity costs of a people-sized deep freezer.

If I’m ever in Nederland, Colorado, on a Frozen Dead Guy Day, I am definitely going to try the official ice-cream — cream crushed oreos and sour gummy worms. That will be another interesting way to spend an afternoon.

 

Exploring Space Lecture Series at the National Air and Space Museum

February 25, 2019
Dying Young: Massive Dead Disk Galaxy Challenges the Picture of How Galaxies Evolve

Hubble Image about gravity, “dead” galaxies and MACS J2129-0741. Image Credit NASA, ESA, M. Postman (STScI), and the CLASH team.

Last year I stumbled onto one of the coolest free events in Washington D.C. — the Exploring Space Lecture Series at the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall.

In this case, “coolest” meant 1) related to space stuff and 2) occurring beyond regular Museum hours after all the Ben Stiller look-alikes have been shooed out of their bathroom stall hiding spots and booted onto the sidewalks of Independence Avenue. “Free” meant “sponsored by two private sector companies that build rockets and provide launch services.” Very D.C.

The theme of the Exploring Space Lecture Series changes every year. In 2018, the Series focused on all the amazing things the James Webb Space Telescope will be doing for astronomy and cosmology after its hoped-for launch in 2021. The massive new space-based telescope is a spiritual successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

'Pandora's Cluster' Seen by Spitzer. Image credit NASA-JPL-Caltech

‘Pandora’s Cluster’ Seen by Spitzer. Image credit NASA-JPL-Caltech.

The Exploring Space presenters do not disappoint (mid-lecture references to spacecraft or services provided by one or more of the sponsors notwithstanding). But to discover the awesomeness, I first had to get through a ridiculously long and slightly troubling queue to enter the Museum. The line switched back-and-forth within the entry vestibule, spilled out of the building, and trailed down the exterior stairs.

In those 45 minutes of line shuffling, I had plenty of time to size up the other attendees of this first lecture of the year. Most of those in line looked like academics or engineers who had just been freed from their computers and anti-gravity workspaces a few blocks away at NASA Headquarters.

One man was mumble-practicing the question he planned to ask the lecturer. It was a very long question, the type that seemed to exist in place of the summary section of a dissertation that was never written. Looking at that guy, be-suited as he was, I thought I had identified the lecture’s most likely Off-Kilter Questioner (OKQ). I made an effort to sit far from him when I got inside the IMAX theater.

That first lecture was called “The Earliest Galaxies: Exploring Cosmic Sunrise with Hubble, Spitzer, and JWST.” The presenter was Garth Illingworth, professor emeritus in the department of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California Santa Cruz. I enjoyed everything about that presentation — the lecture, the slide, the jokes, the movie clips. However, I had not properly identified the most likely OKQ.

Audience question time arrived. Six seats away, which was far too close, in the calm sea of otherwise reasonable questions, the actual OKQ leaped to his feet. “What if someone already knows what dark matter is?” OKQ asked. He claimed to have arrived at this dark matter knowledge via spontaneous understanding.

Illingworth showed himself to be a seasoned presenter. His answer related to how peer review works. That was genius. OKQ scoffed. I learned so much that night, and it wasn’t all related to theories of the universe’s first galaxies.

Zeiss Star Projector on the Way to Retirement

Zeiss Star Projector on the Way to Retirement

The line to get into that first lecture put the fear of missing out in me, so I arrived in plenty of time for the early May Mars lecture, which was held in the Museum’s Albert Einstein Planetarium.

That’s right — FOR FREE!

The lights went down. I prepared to be wowed. I was. Before long.

Hoppy Price, Chief Engineer of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, offered a slightly surreal Powerpoint presentation at planetarium horizon level. The presentation addressed how humanity is in the process of getting itself, robots, and satellites to Mars. Next, the Museum’s curator of planetary science Matt Shindell shared vintage Martian landscape paintings. It was all very interesting especially from the perspective of “that’s really cool considering the human species has been around for 200,000 years and only 61 years ago did we first launch something into space.”

The more traditional wow’ing began when the regular staff of the planetarium took over the lecture.

The National Air and Space Museum is in the process of retiring its out-dated-yet-beautifully-illuminated Zeiss Star Projecter, which was given to the Museum in 1976. The Projector is headed to the Udvar-Hazy Center. The planetarium is going digital with, as its exuberant ad proclaims, “An 8K Full Dome System [that] projects ultra-high-definition visuals that are 16 times the resolution of your HD TV. Get ready to be immersed in brightness, clarity, and color that is out of this world!”

Sometimes, advertising is right on target.

The Exploring Space attendees were treated to a preview of the new digital system’s capabilities.

Mars Orbiter Missions and Natural Satellites. Image Credit NASA-JPL-Caltech

Mars Orbiter Missions and Natural Satellites. Image Credit NASA-JPL-Caltech.

The image above doesn’t convey the amazing experience of sitting in a comfortable recliner beneath a 77-foot dome, visually swooping toward and away from planets in our solar system, and following the myriad paths of natural and unnatural satellites of those planets. But it’s the best I could do.

With the new digital system, the views changed constantly and could be approached from any angle. It was dizzying. It was amazing. It was like flying.

It was the visual equivalent of me as a kid listening to a Walkman’s headphones for the first time. Suddenly, the music was everywhere around me. I couldn’t even feel the headphones on my ears. The air of the world was simply filled with music.

The Albert Einstein Planetarium’s new digital display was like that. The views were everywhere. I was transported. I was wowed.

University of Alberta Professor Robert Smith, Ph.D., whose excellent presentation was as entertaining as this gleeful picture suggests

University of Alberta Professor Robert Smith, Ph.D., whose excellent presentation was as entertaining as this gleeful picture suggests.

The last lecture I attended in 2018 was “The Historical Quest to See to the End of the Universe…Or Its Beginning.” Robert Smith from the University of Alberta was the funny, smart, engaging speaker with enlightenment to offer.

His task was to talk about the history of people trying to understand the universe’s size, its beginnings, and humanity’s place within it.

My favorite Smith quote of the evening was, “The most fascinating thing about the universe is that we think we can comprehend it to some degree.”

In a presentation that eventually wrapped back around to the James Webb Space Telescope, I learned so much.

There was Frances Burney, a patron of cosmology. Smith told a fascinating story about the contributions of this amazing woman who was born in 1752 and lived until 1840. My memory of that story was obliterated by this harrowing description of Burney’s mastectomy in 1810 that I found on Wikipedia. What a survivor that woman was! Smith also introduced me to James Hutton, who gave the world many things including the concept of deep time, the foundations of the modern study of geology, and Hutton’s Unconformity at Siccar Point.

Smith’s presentation was filled with information, laughs, eyebrows-raised-in-concern, and plenty of fodder for subsequent internet searches.

The Moon's North Pole. Image credit NASA-GSFC-Arizona State University

The Moon’s North Pole. Image credit NASA-GSFC-Arizona State University.

The Exploring Space Lecture Series for 2019 is coming up. It’s bound to be at least as good as the 2018 version. The focus in 2019 will be on the Earth’s moon and includes:

  •  March 28, 2019 – “Apollo Legacy” with presenter Farouk El-Baz who “was a guiding force in the Apollo lunar landing site selection process.”
  • April 24, 2019 – “The New Moon: Recent Advances in Lunar Science” with presenter Brett Denevi, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
  • May 22, 2019 – “Apollo Landing Sites Revisited: Modern Datasets at Familiar Locales” with presenter Noah Petro, a Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter scientist.
  • June 19, 2019 – “The Future of Lunar Exploration” with presenter Jim Green, NASA’s Chief Scientist.

More information about 2019 lectures, including links to sign up for them, can be found here. Tickets are free but must be acquired ahead of time and have been known to “sell” out.

One more neat thing about the Series: after each lecture concludes and as long as the weather cooperates, the Museum sets up a telescope on Independence Avenue. Anyone can have a peek through its lens for an extra-surreal, educational experience — getting a close-up view of the night sky while standing not only near a bright, busy street in the nation’s capital but also near all those Ben Stiller look-alikes.

Full moon photographed from the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Image credit NASA

Full moon photographed from the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Image credit NASA.

 

Expect the Enema Bag Sculptures: Rachel Whiteread at the National Gallery of Art

December 31, 2018

This exhibit is not what it seems
I’m told that art is supposed to provoke a reaction. My first reaction to Rachel Whiteread’s exhibit at the National Gallery of Art was surprise. As I walked from room to room, amusement followed. Soon, amusement was leading me, or more like pulling me, into each new part of the exhibit.

I don’t think amusement was what Whiteread or the curators at the National Gallery of Art were going for. Clearly, I am not their target audience. If there had been a pre-test to determine my worthiness to view this exhibit, I would have failed it.

This is what happens when museums are free. No-cost museums mean simply anyone can walk in, lured by what appears to be a photograph of a not-yet-hung door in a Caribbean home, and opinionate about the difference between what they expected after not reading about the exhibit ahead of time and what the exhibit actually contained.

I sincerely apologize to the art-loving community for my complete and utter lack of refinement. Usually, in situations where I just don’t seem to be “getting” the art or the lecture, or I don’t understand the “transitional elements in the Mark Rothko-esque moth-loves-lamp meme,” I lurk near other people. I listen to the appreciative, knowing things they say, and I try to learn something.

Eavesdropping for knowledge was not possible at the National Gallery of Art on the day I saw the Whiteread exhibit. It was a Wednesday morning right after the museum opened. The only ones to talk with were the guards. This being me, I talk with guards all the time, or at least I give them the wide-eye about odd human behavior going on in an exhibit. But it didn’t seem right to chat with the guards about this exhibit. The only questions I could come up with were leading ones, and I would have been fighting a chuckle or a snort. The wide-eye would have been about me, and the guards would have been giving it to each other.

Instead of chatting, I spent an inordinate amount of exhibit time taking pictures and contemplating the difference between what I guessed certain pieces should taste like and what they would most likely actually taste like. The tasting-thoughts portion of the exhibit did not begin until after I was beyond the enema bag sculptures. Thank the Maker.

Just because I don’t get Whiteread’s art doesn’t mean people who can’t visit don’t want to see it. I can only hope enough good comes of my posting these pictures (despite the internal dialogue I offer below) that all the negative karma I’m accumulating on this page is somehow abated.

If that’s not how karma works, I’m in big trouble. Regardless…

Untitled Domestic, 2002, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Domestic, 2002, Rachel Whiteread

This exhibit is for me!

Untitled Torsos, 1992-1999, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Torsos, 1992-1999, Rachel Whiteread

Oh. Oh, what? Oh, my. I did not know there were so many types of enema bags.

Untitled Twenty-Five Spaces, 1995, Rachel Whiteread 2

Untitled Twenty-Five Spaces, 1995, Rachel Whiteread 2

These jellies do not wiggle.

Various Pieces, Rachel Whiteread

Various Pieces, Rachel Whiteread

This furniture store is very disappointing.

Untitled Library, 1999, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Library, 1999, Rachel Whiteread

Is it still a library if no one can read the books?

Untitled Yellow Bath, 1996, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Yellow Bath, 1996, Rachel Whiteread

I do not want a bath in the yellow bath.

Untitled White Slab, 1994 and 2017, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled White Slab, 1994 and 2017, Rachel Whiteread

Tongue depressor for a whale.

Flap, 1989, Rachel Whiteread

Flap, 1989, Rachel Whiteread

Huh.

Untitled Amber Mattress, 1992, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Amber Mattress, 1992, Rachel Whiteread

[…]

Untitled Bath, 1990, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Bath, 1990, Rachel Whiteread

I found one of the sinks Victor the Cleaner used.

Art is everywhere.

Study, 2005, Rachel Whiteread

Study, 2005, Rachel Whiteread

On Craigslist, I once gave away a desk like this for free.

Doorway 1, 2010, Rachel Whiteread

Doorway 1, 2010, Rachel Whiteread

Damn you, beautiful door of lies.

Night Glass, 2011, Rachel Whiteread

Night Glass, 2011, Rachel Whiteread

The buttons on this Nintendo controller do not work.

Untitled Hive II, 2007 and 2008, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Hive II, 2007 and 2008, Rachel Whiteread

This jelly house would taste like the screams of dying insects.

Untitled, 2011, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled, 2011, Rachel Whiteread

WAIT I LIKE THIS ONE I AM SO CONFUSED.

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