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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Capitalizing on the start of a Boarish Year

Hockey Night in the District of Columbia

It's been an eventful few weeks since I last posted something on this blog in the middle of January. Conversely, I haven't had anything to blog about because of those eventful few weeks. As you may or may not recall in this age of short media attention spans, the U.S. was wracked by a government shutdown unprecedented in length - 35 days from December 22 (2018) to January 25. During most of that period I was forced to stay at home as FSI was closed and my Amharic class was suspended. Actually, I returned to work on the 22nd as the State Department announced to its employees that enough funds to cover one pay period (meaning for two weeks) had been "found" (were department sofas thoroughly combed for all loose change?), but the shutdown ended soon after - or at least until Feb. 15, the next date to note on your crisis calendar. I will refrain from commenting on this national disgrace idiocy issue until after I retire from government service.

I didn't do much during the latter half of the furlough (including studying Amharic), except for taking some long walks on the local bicycle trails (and even those were curtailed after it started snowing more frequently). Financial concerns and the closure of many museums and sightseeing spots in Washington during the shutdown limited our leisure options. At least one good thing has come out of the disruption to my studies - my classmates aren't as ahead of me as much as before the furlough!

Another big news story of recent note has been the unbelievable cold affecting large swathes of the United States. Our area has been spared the worst of the freezing temperatures, with the lowest thermometer reading according to my Smartphone being 9° Fahrenheit (-13° Celsius, which sounds much colder!). Still, the temperature was below freezing for days at a time, enough that my daughter's school had two-hour delayed starts for much of this past week. As a parent I appreciate the school district's looking out for the well-being of my child, but I can't help but feel it's all somewhat of an overreaction. Recall that we spent the previous two winters in Lithuania, where the schools never closed due to snow and the benchmark for keeping students home was -20°C (-4°F) for elementary-age children, and -25°C (-13°F) for middle- and high-school students. Amber's swimming coach was even tougher - his rule was practices would be held as usual unless the outside temperature had fallen to -30°C (-22°F)! A hardy lot, those Lithuanians...

The Year of the Boar (sounds better than the Year of the Pig) 豬年 began on Feb. 5. According to my wife, this year will be an auspicious one for people of my Chinese Zodiac sign (hint: I ain't no pig), so let's hope for once superstition turns out to be true...

Finally, this article from The Japan Times ジャパンタイムズ brought back memories of the time Shu-E and I lived in Yokkaichi 四日市 from April 2004 to September 2005 (my wife actually moved back to Taiwan three months before me to prepare for our daughter's birth). Though we never went on one of the factory night view cruises mentioned in the story, we certainly saw enough of the コンビナート, including once the sun went down. Looking west from our fourth floor balcony not far from Ise-Matsumoto Station 伊勢松本駅, we had a nice view of the Suzuka Mountains 鈴鹿山脈; looking east could be seen the oil refineries and petrochemical complexes lining the Yokkaichi waterfront, source of the Yokkaichi asthma 四日市ぜんそく cited in the article, as well as a unique odor if the wind was blowing our way. Despite being eyesores and potential health hazards, I was (and still am) fascinated by the factory complexes, especially at night when the lights come on - just take a look at the images on the sides of this blog!. In Yokkaichi Shu-E and I one evening took a bus out to Kasumiminato Park 霞港公園, where there is an observation tower that provided a decent view of the コンビナート - I remember it being an almost otherwordly experience. And it wasn't just in Japan - in Taiwan, my wife drove me once to see the massive oil refinery in Mailiao 麥寮, in her home county of Yunlin 雲林縣, to see the sci-fi aura emanating from the complex at night. 

That doesn't mean I would want to live anywhere near one of those complexes. 

Some recent photos: One of the bike trails where I went for long walks while furloughed:

Do you remember the hubbub over the "super blood wolf moon" a couple of weeks ago? My sad attempt to get a photo of the unusual phenomenon ended up looking like a blurry picture of Mars as seen through a cheap telescope. Much better photographs can be seen here:

Towards the end of January my daughter officially became a teenager. God help us all:

I was pleased to learn that a nearby supermarket stocks Habesha Cold Gold ሐበሻ ቢራ. I'm looking forward to more in-depth research of the Ethiopian beer market beginning this summer:

Enjoying the snowfall from our balcony:

Taken at work when the temperature was 19°F (-7°C). Poor Ben Franklin was feeling the chill more than I:

A Lunar New Year (I won't say "Chinese" in deference to the Koreans and Vietnamese, for whom it's also an important holiday) celebration at the Tysons Corner shopping mall:

The Confucius Institute, where you can learn about Chinese culture and language. Just don't expect open exchanges of ideas on Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang or human rights in general:

Amber at the mall...:

...and at a Taiwanese-style tea shop:

A wintry sunset:

The penultimate day of the Year of the Dog 狗年 was the sunniest and warmest seen in a while. So while Amber and Shu-E were out of the house in the afternoon for my daughter's Chinese class, I took a walk downtown to check out the graveyard at the historic Falls Church Episcopal. The church's history dates back to 1734, and it once counted George Washington among its parishioners:

A pamphlet is available which points out some of the more notable burials in the churchyard. The oldest identifiable grave is that of one John Carolin, who passed away in 1805. The rounded indentations in the headstone are believed to have been caused by musket balls fired by soldiers who were quartered there during the Civil War:

Henry Fairfax was a West Point graduate who was killed in Saltillo, Mexico in 1847 during the Mexican-American War:

Daniel Dulaney's (1780-1848) barn was used to store gunpowder to prevent its capture by British forces when they attacked Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812:

Union and Confederate soldiers, both known and unknown, were buried here in unmarked graves during the Civil War:

From the pamphlet: "Anti-slavery activist John D. Read (1812-1864) was a lay minister of Columbia Baptist Church. Before and during the Civil War, Read and his daughter Betsy helped run a school for free and enslaved African-Americans in Falls Church. He was a member of the interracial Falls Church Home Guard, a militia of Union loyalists organized to protect villagers during the Civil War. Accused of being a Union spy by "Mosby's Raiders," under Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby, Read and his black companion Jacob Jackson were kidnapped, shot execution style, and left for dead on October 24, 1864. Jackson survived but Read succumbed.":

The tallest monument in the graveyard is the headstone of George F. Bailey. He was a member of the Bailey family who ran a circus that ultimately found fame as the Barnum and Bailey Circus:

And on the first night of the Year of the Boar, my family and I welcomed the new year in that most time-honored of traditions - taking in a National Hockey League game:

OK, admittedly it wasn't the traditional Taiwanese activity, but we attended the game at the Capital One Arena at the suggestion of some friends of ours. It was a first for the girls, but the second NHL game for your humble scribe. Way back in 1982, thanks to a friend's family connections, I attended Game Three of the Clarence Campbell Conference divisional semifinals, pitting the host Los Angeles Kings facing off against the Edmonton Oilers (and Wayne Gretzky, aka  The Great One). Sitting in the VIP section of the old Fabulous Forum and rubbing elbows with Jimmy Connors and Buddy Ebsen, I was witness to what Wikipedia describes as "the greatest comeback in NHL history" as the Kings fought back from 5-0 down to win 6-5 in overtime:

Monday's regular season contest wasn't quite as dramatic, but the hometown Washington Capitals are the defending Stanley Cup champions, and were playing host to the visiting Vancouver Canucks. The introduction was certainly dramatic:

Our game made some history of its own as Alex Ovechkin's assist on the Capitals' 1st period goal gave him 1180 points, making him the top-scoring Russian player in NHL history. That goal in the first three minutes of the game was the only scoring for the first two periods. The view from our seats:

In the third period both teams scored two goals, resulting in a final score of 3-2 in favor of Washington

Occasionally while walking around, I will come across something that reminds me of Taiwan, like this small shrine in the window of a local hair salon:

And on that note I and mine wish you and yours a heartfelt 新年快樂 and 恭喜發財! 

Sunday, January 13, 2019


A lone snowflake holds out against melting on the glass of a bus stop in Falls Church

A snowstorm + a government shutdown = a snowlough. I can't take credit for this equation as I saw it on Facebook on Sunday morning, but it is an apt description for the current state of affairs. This weekend has seen heavy snow on the east coast of the U.S. In our area, it was predicted that a cumulative total of at least 8 inches (20 centimeters) would fall from late Saturday afternoon to Sunday night. The photographs below show that the forecast was pretty accurate. Here in Falls Church a "snow emergency" was declared at 1000 hours on Sunday morning. My daughter has seen her Saturday evening swimming lesson and Sunday afternoon Chinese class canceled as a result of the snow, with the icing on the cake (so to  speak) being the closure of all public schools on Monday.

Waiting for a bus on Saturday evening

This is all a far cry from when we were living in Vilnius, Lithuania just a year ago this time. There, the policy at Amber's school was classes would continue to be held until the temperature had fallen to below more than -20° Celsius (-4° Fahrenheit), while her swimming coach insisted on having practice unless the temperature was colder than -30°C (-22°F)! In contrast, the coldest it has gotten in the daytime here over the weekend was -2°C (28°F); at the same time, roads have remained open, buses and trains are still running and most stores still appear open for business (except for the local Barnes & Noble bookstore, much to my disappointment Sunday afternoon). Much ado about nothing?

A snow-covered park

A hypothetical question would concern whether or not my Amharic class would be held on Monday. But as you're probably aware, the reason the question is only a hypothetical exercise is that the federal government has been partially shut down since December 22, and I am one of the approximately 800,000 federal government workers who has been furloughed. I didn't mind at first, as it meant I was no longer required to submit daily independent study plans from home (classes weren't scheduled to be held during the period between Christmas and New Year's Day). But now the shutdown has dragged on to the point where it's now the longest in U.S. history, and, more importantly, I'm not getting paid.

Though it may appear to have been taken earlier in the day, this photograph was shot at around 2300 hours on Saturday night. I don't know why camera makes it look otherwise

I'm fortunate in that our housing is being provided for while I'm in training, and that hasn't been affected by the lack of funding (yet). So the financial effects of not having an income won't be felt immediately. But there are many federal employees who are already struggling to make rent payments, pay bills and so on while being furloughed; it must be especially difficult making ends in meet in the Washington, D.C. metro area, where housing costs are among the highest in the country. I can only imagine the impact the shutdown is having on this region in particular, where so many are employed by the federal government, and where tourism, a major industry, has no doubt been effected (all the Smithsonian museums are now closed, for example). There have been a number of media reports on the effect of the shutdown and the furloughs - see here, here, here and here (or just do a Google search).

The view from our balcony as I went to bed on Saturday night/Sunday morning

Considering my employment situation, I'll refrain from assigning blame for the current state of affairs. Let's just say certain promises were made during the last presidential campaign that do not appear to have been kept. Ahem. I will, however, point out that the guidance being given out by the government to its affected employees borders on the offensively oblivious - see here, here and here for examples. Then again, on the advice of a friend, I should enjoy my free vacation and rest assured that a strong border will be my safety net!

The view on Sunday afternoon

I, for one, just wish for this "vacation" to be over so I can get back to learning Amharic. I've tried to keep up with my studies, but without the structure of a teacher and a classroom, it's a struggle just to maintain what I've already learned. On the bright side, I can blame my future failure on the final Amharic exam later this year on the failure our executive branch's leadership (oops).

So can we please end this ridiculous situation sooner rather than later, and stop playing politics with the livelihoods of so many people? Or, as Montana Senator Jon Tester puts it, there's a lot of work to done and that work starts with opening the government.

Fountain at Eden Center

I went for a stroll in the snow after dinner on Sunday evening:

Right after taking this selfie, two large deer ran by me before crossing a creek and disappearing into the woods:

A Monday morning street scene in Falls Church:

The Falls Church Presbyterian Church has some history behind it - the Gothic-style structure with its bell tower was built in 1884 from local granite and was the town's first stone building (modifications were carried out in 1925 and 1966):

Go here for much better photos of the snow in Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

And another one is in the books

Selfie op at the National Building Museum

A happiest of New Years to one and all! No resolutions this year, other than to pass my Amharic exam in the summer so that we can leave for Addis Ababa as scheduled at the end of July. Our departure for our third tour is no doubt the biggest thing on the agenda for 2019. On a more personal level, there's the wish for general health and well-being for all members of my family, as well as to my good friends and acquaintances. Speaking of health, I'm hoping this year will see a lot fewer visits to clinics and hospitals, following a 2018 that included an MRI, a CAT scan, an EEG, an EKG, a colonoscopy and more blood tests than I can (or care to) remember.

I'm supposed to go back to work tomorrow, but the government is still largely shut down and at this point I have no idea when the furlough will end and life can return to some semblance of normality. If you're wondering what one does during these trying times, read on...

Last Saturday my daughter and I went to the local farmers market, where we discovered a tasty Turkish treat called börek (in my defense I've never claimed, nor aspired, to be a foodie):

After our visit to the market, Amber and I were able to drag Shu-E out of the apartment to enjoy a sunny afternoon with a drive into the nearby Virginia countryside. Our destination was the small burg of Clifton, population of fewer than 300 souls, which I had driven through the weekend before while on my way to do some hiking. Clifton is one of those charming small towns that was dying a slow death before gentrification and weekend visitors gave it a new lease on life. We parked near the red caboose on the site of Devereux Station, a railroad siding on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad that supplied Union troops defending Washington, D.C. during the Civil War:

The main thing to do in Clifton is to walk up and down Main Street, looking at the old houses and reading the informative signboards in front. The 1900 Kincheloe House belonged to a local "huckster":

The 1902 Huckbill House was the residence of one Oscar Woody, who went down with the Titanic:

This church isn't much to look at, but as the sign explains is the oldest African-American house of worship in Fairfax County:

In case you were wondering where "Sleepless in Seattle" was written, you now know where to go to pay your respects:

More old residences:

We broke for lunch at the Main Street Pub. Being the designated driver, I had to make do with a bottle of root beer. From Virginia, of course:

This may look like a disgusting doughnut, but not to worry - it was the daily special, a beefsteak hamburger smothered in onions, mushrooms and gravy:

Passing through horse country on the way back to Falls Church:

My wife has a thing for illuminated displays. On Saturday evening we drove to Alexandria to check out the locally famous Collingwood Lights. This year's edition earned the homeowner a $50,000 prize:

We also stopped by another house to see its light show, but as Shu-E pointed out, the bar had already been set very high by the Collingwood Lights:

On Sunday, while my wife settled into her usual spot in the living room armchair, I dragged took my daughter into the District of Columbia to visit one of the sights not affected by the government shutdown, the National Building Museum. The exterior is impressive, starting out life in 1887 as the home of the Pension Bureau:

The frieze depicting Civil War soldiers extends around the entirety of the exterior:

But it's the massive interior, with its towering columns, that truly impresses:

The interior has been used to host inauguration balls, which explains the Presidential Seal set into the floor near the South entrance:

It doesn't cost anything to walk inside and admire the scene, but the museum hosts several small exhibitions that can be visited on one reasonable admission fee. The first exhibit we checked out was Secret Cities: The Architecture and Planning of the Manhattan Project. Prefabricated houses, like this 1934 "Motohome", were coming onto the housing market before the Second World War...:

...but it was the atomic bomb project that spurred the creation of new developments in places like Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington:

The cottage in Los Alamos, New Mexico where Robert Oppenheimer and his wife stayed during the war:

Oppenheimer's famous observation following the successful Trinity test:

The exhibit didn't shy away from what happened in Hiroshima 広島...:

...and Nagasaki 長崎:

The surface of this ceramic tile from the roof of a Buddhist temple in Hiroshima was blistered by the nearly 3300° Fahrenheit (1800° Celsius) temperature of the blast:

An example of the post-war fasciation with nuclear energy:

Another exhibit details the eviction crisis in the U.S. Every year 2.3 million mostly low-income people face being kicked out of their residences as rents rise in urban areas. "Our cities are becoming unaffordable for our poorest families, and the problem is leaving a deep and jagged scar on the next generation" (Matthew Desmond):

Flickering Treasures examines the forgotten movie theaters of Baltimore:

An ornamental lion's head fornice, circa 1915:

The view from the second floor:

Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs - memories from childhood:

Amber looks for inspiration without an app:

Making Room: Housing for a Changing America shows how the building industry is struggling to catch up with changing residential demographics. A nuclear family like mine now makes up a smaller percentage of the housing markets compared to single and childless couple households:

The Open House exhibit includes an example of a modern residence featuring moveable walls and multifunctional furniture. A typical Japanese urban apartment, in other words. The influence is clearly there, but not acknowledged:

The Pilot District Project focuses on Washington, D.C.'s efforts to tackle the underlying causes of the uprising/riot that broke out following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968:

While the weather was pleasant on the weekend, it was rainy all day on New Year's Eve. After seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in the afternoon, my daughter and I walked to the downtown area in Falls Church after dinner to see what was going on. Watch Night was what was happening, but the lousy weather dampened the turnout:

This star was going to drop at the stroke of midnight, but we didn't feel like waiting around in the drizzle to see it. Instead, Amber watched the ball drop in Times Square from the comfort and dryness of our living room:

At one point, we walked away from the festivities to explore the churchyard of The Falls Church Episcopal. The church's origins date back to 1732, and is home to the oldest identifiable grave in the city. The churchyard will be explored in greater detail on a sunnier and dryer day:

Back on Broad Street, where the Sudden M Pac Band was belting out Seventies favorites to a small but enthusiastic crowd:

However, this kid had the best way to see out 2018, with his rendition of "Walk the Line", complete with slick dance moves:

And so 2019 is now upon us. Happy New Year, 明けましておめでとうございます, 新年快樂, С новым годом and መልካም አዲስ ዓመት to you all!

However, a reminder that the Year of the Pig doesn't begin until February 5...