Sunday, December 03, 2023

All Aboard! The Perfect DC Train Adventure

[Composed: 8/27/2023]

Shira and I wanted to take G on a train adventure, but we wanted to make sure it was scaled for a toddler. Our plan: take a 'real' amtrak train from Alexandria's Union Station to Washington DC's, Union Station. We figured the 25 minute ride would be enough to entertain the little guy without getting old. Once in DC, I suggested we visit the nearby Smithsonian National Postal Museum. From there, we could Amtrak, Metro or even Uber back to our car.

In the fine tradition of train travel, as we approached the Alexandria station, we got word that our train was running an hour late. This turned out to be a good thing, as across the street from the station is the iconic George Washington Masonic National Memorial. The memorial has about a thousand steps, interesting architecture, beautiful views and a number of busts of George Washington. G, tackled it all like a pro. He even knew who GW was; I'm certain that's due to my Sister-in-Law's influence (had there been a bust of Yoda, my brother's contributions to my nephew's education would have shined as bright). He climbed the countless steps without complaint and enjoyed spotting planes and trains from the high vantage point.

We then made our way back to the Alexandria station, where G and I sat briefly in the lobby on hard wooden benches. The station has been restored to its 1905 configuration and waiting there does feel like stepping back in time. We then joined Shira on the platform where we watched a passenger train heading out of DC arrive. G, and frankly I, was entranced by the frenetic activity as the train arrived. Stools were put in place, doors flung open and passenagers got off and on. G and I walked down to the front of the train, where the driver engineman opened his little window, waived at us and told us that a freight train would be arriving shortly.

The freight train did not disappoint: it was massive and sped through the station like a rocket.

Finally, our train arrived and G (with some help from Shira), bravely boarded. We found our seats and before we knew it, we were under way. While the trip is only supposed to be about 25 minutes, I realize that typical toddler's attention span is measured in seconds. I figured G would quickly tire of sitting in the seat, and I hoped we'd have a chance to poke around the train (look, it has a bathroom!) and maybe even find our way to the cafe car for a snack. I even brought some playmobile pirates to entertain us should we need another distraction.

All of this turned out to be unneccessary. When the train started moving, G fixed himself in front of the window and was rivetted there until we arrived in DC. The conductor came by and greeted us warmly, giving me some extra seat-check tags as a souvenir of our trip. G was non-plussed; he was locked in on the landscape zipping by.

In short order, we arrived at DC's station. We made our way off the platform and towards the main part of the station, though stopped in a passage way that crosses over the tracks to survey the scene. There we chatted with a station worker who explained that North of DC the tracks are electrified, so they need do an engine change from diesel to electric. We watched as the engine at the front of the train was driven off and a new one backed into place. I wonder if it's worth staying on the platform next time and trying to catch this switcharoo up close and personal. G again showed incredible patience as we watched all this unfold before us.

One advantage to arriving at DC's Union Station is that there's a food court in the basement of the station. That means we could easily re-fuel before heading into the Smithsonian. In my memory, the food court was a bustling, trendy place to grab a meal. What we found was far more drab and utilitarian. But, it was food none the less. We got G a pizza - technically a crape with cheese and tomato sauce. But he enjoyed it none the less, and we warded off the possibility of being cranky due to lack of food.

One of the most glorious moments of the day came when we walked outside of Union Station, and as promised, directly adjacent to the building, was the Smithsonian Postal Museum. Shira was impressed. I'd promised toddler friendly access and I'd delivered.

Following this moment of glory was a moment of panic: we walked into the Smithsonian, and while the interior was absolutely gorgeous, it was far from kid friendly. The first sign we saw directed us to a stamp gallery. I'm sure the stamp gallery is a thrilling place; just not for a 3 year old. Years ago we'd been to the Postal Museum and I remember it being fun and kid friendly. Maybe I was wrong.

Thankfully, we stuck with the museum another couple of minutes, and when we turned the corner, found an escalator down to a large room filled with planes, trains and automobiles. Hurray and whew.

What the space lacked in size, it more than made up for in sights that were perfect for G. There was a display of mailboxes that he could deliver mail to, a mail train-car he could explore, planes hanging from the ceiling and even a semi-tractor trailer he could "drive" and talk on the CB radio. We flitted from exhibit to exhibit, and they were perfect for G.

We finished up our Postal experience by buying and writing out some post cards.

To save a bit of time, we opted to take the metro home rather than Amtrak. By this point, we were all tired and didn't want to push our luck. We got back to the Alexandria station without incident, and G got more time aboard a train. We finshed up our adventure by snacking on gummy bears (G's favorite!) on the way home.

The day was an overwhelming success. Both G and I crashed with much needed naps. Mission accomplished!

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Hot Dog Cooking Challenge: Tea Light Edition

Last week, Shira and I celebrated Thanksgiving with a delightful trip to Death Valley in California (full post coming...eventually). While purchasing provisions in Las Vegas, we realized that with a bit of careful shopping we could pick up a portable Thanksgiving feast. We grabbed hot dogs, buns, pickles, mustard, a cooling rack and a two-pack of Sterno fuel. When Thanksgiving arrived, we positioned the cooling rack using a few handy rocks over the can of fuel and cooked the hots with a field expedient grill. The meal was delish!

We had evidence this would work, as we cooked hot dogs over Sterno on a secluded beach in Puerto Rico. That time, we used coconuts as rocks weren't handy. We got by without a grill by wrapping the dogs in aluminum foil.

Turns out, the Sterno company thinks that cooking over Sterno isn't such a crazy idea, and offers a cheap folding stove so you can do this on the go without having to improvise.

A Travel Friendly Solution

This got me thinking: if we were traveling to a destination that we knew had Sterno, we could easily pack or pickup basic supplies to make cooking  simple affair. But, what if the destination we have in mind doesn't have Sterno? Or, we don't want to drive around town looking for the stuff? TSA is a hard no when it comes to flying with any fuel, so you can't bring the cans with you.

Looking around for other cooking ideas, it occurred to me that we could consider the humble tea light. This begs the question: can you cook hot dogs over tea lights? Tea lights are TSA safe, portable and easy to travel with. But, do they generate enough heat to make a quality dog? Last night, Shira and I decided we'd find out.

Getting Fired Up

My first attempt was to spread out a 2 x 4 grid of tea lights, and then make four pillars of two tea lights each to rest the grill on. I lit the candles and tossed the doggies on:

Within moments, parts of the hot dogs turned black. In my attempt to make as hot a setup as possible, I'd put the dogs too close to the candles. The result wasn't burned hot dogs, but rather dogs covered in candle soot. I wiped off the doggies and tried again, this time elevating them further from flame by using four baking ramekins. This did the trick nicely. The dogs sizzled away and didn't accumulate soot. Holding our meat thermometer between the dogs showed temps as high as 300°F. So apparently, the candles gave off plenty of heat.

It took about 12 minutes to cook the hot dogs, though Shira wasn't impressed with how carefully I turned them to avoid any charring. But when we finally ate the dogs, they were hot all the way through and quite tasty.

I experimented a bit with making a sort of aluminum foil tent over the hot dogs, attempting to capture some of the heat being lost to the room. Ultimately, I think this wasn't necessary, but it seems like this approach could be used to get a more oven like effect than just cooking over the flame. I'd also like to try placing the tea lights in the bottom of a meatloaf shaped pan with the grill on top.  I wonder if that configuration would also capture more heat than having the tea lights in the open.

The main lesson learned from experiment is: be patient. The setup seems improbable, but give it time. The tiny tea lights will produce plenty of heat, so don't rush the process. We're talking slow roasting here, not 30 seconds in the microwave.

I'm looking forward to our next travel adventure where hot dogs are on the menu. It's powerful stuff knowing that 8 tea lights, a bit of foil and some ingenuity is all that's standing between us and a gourmet meal.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

In Support of Local Public Art Projects

Every time I run or drive by the The Pike, a public art installation located on the West end of Columbia Pike in Arlington, I have the same couple of thoughts.

First, I love it. The sculpture consists of a wind turbine wing standing on its end, with 4,000 plus coins embedded in its base. You can read the artist's explanation of the symbolism here. From my perspective, the wind turbine component is a clever nod to innovation. Wind power is 7,000 year old tech that we continue to strive to improve. The coins, donated by Arlington residents, come from 117 countries and every continent minus Antarctica. They capture the quintessentially diverse nature of Columbia Pike, my neighborhood.

The second thought that quickly follows the first is, what a thankless job it must be creating public art. If the comments on arlnow are any indication, the majority of my neighbors are far less impressed with this creation. Here are some comments from the post announcing the project:

Apparently the Arlington County Government Committee of Drunken Sailors has met and come up with another waste of our taxes.

So a discarded wind tribune/blade, that an "artist" self proclaims is "art" will be stood up on end and cost the good people of Arlington how much?

In all honesty, that is horrendous. Just very ugly. Putting aside the cost.

To celebrate the Pike.....
The single blade is part of a wind turbine project that was started and never completed. Thus the blade represents Columbia Pike, as the "failed project" artwork represents the streetcar project.

I like it! It’s says, “ Welcome to Columbia Pike! We’re the stabbiest part of Arlington!”*

This is dumb, ugly, and not even a sculpture. Failure on every level.

People in Arlington Mill don't want this horrible postmodernist garbage to come into our neighborhood and symbolize the gentrification and how college-educated (sub)urbanites think we're so "cool," this is our worst nightmare. I hate my neighborhood already, but you're gonna make me hate it for more than one reason, hopefully a gang of unemployed teenagers with some common decency will find a way to destroy this piece of blasphemy. Get out of my neighborhood, and take your farmers' market, your foul sculpture and your multiple masters' degrees with you.

The trip we took to New York City last year did a fine job of tuning my perspective on public art projects. Specifically, it was the time spent on Liberty Island and learning about the Statue of Liberty that made me appreciate just how significant a public art project can be. In short, if you want to help poor immigrants erecting a massive statue seems like a counter productive move. And yet, Lady Liberty has helped cast a mindset that has done amazing good. I'm not suggesting The Pike is our Statue of Liberty, but for those with even a modicum curiosity The Pike has an important story to tell.

Lest you think criticizing public art projects is anything new, here's a snippet from the October 10th, 1886 edition of the New York Dispatch. The author manages to slam both the Statue of Liberty and President Grover Cleveland in one go. Arlnow commentors have nothing on this writer.

It occurs to us that the selection of President Cleveland to deliver the dedicatory address is very appropriate. Like the Bartholdi statue, he owes his prominence to the position he occupies. Like the Bartholdi statue, he is hollow, and large and thinly plated. Like the Bartholdi statue, he can stand around and do nothing. It has cost a great deal of bother, worry and trouble to squeeze out of the American people enough money to put the Bartholdi statue in position upon its pedestal, and everybody will be glad to have it dedicated and done with.... If it bad been advertised as a monument of President Cleveland’s incapacity, the money would have come in more easily.

*OK, that one is pretty good.