Tuesday, November 30, 2021

There's Something Fishy About This Menorah

Last week we were in Florida, and spent time on Sanibel Island (pics coming soon!). Sanibel Island has a reputation for being a shell collector's paradise. Naturally, I collected a Ziploc baggie full of shells, but it wasn't until last night that I realized I had a use for them: to craft a Shell Menorah!

Looking at my humble findings, a couple of shells seemed perfect for holding a pool of oil to serve as a lamp. If I had collected eight of these, I could have fashioned a meaningful and effective Hanukkiah. Alas, I only had two. Last night we marked the second night of Chanukah, and so along with lighting our standard menorah, I experimented with using my beach discoveries as lamps:

I used a bit of mounting putty to align and stabilize the shells, and then filled them with olive oil and added a floating wick. I lit the wicks, and to my surprise and delight, the setup worked perfectly!

This partial menorah was not only eco-friendly and personalized, but it also served as sort of a living history demonstration of how early costal communities would have thought about their ecosystem. Seashells weren't pretty trinkets, they were essential for tool construction. Including lamps!

While I didn't collect enough shells to create a proper menorah, the process did inspire me to dig into the topic. I learned a couple of useful tidbits. First, using a menorah is optional. Lighting two lamps, plus a 3rd candle as a shamash, was a Kosher way to mark the second night of Chanukah. The requirement is to have the proper number of lights, and while this is ideally done with a menorah, you can accomplish this by using "several glasses or cups placed in a straight line.".

Second, I could repurpose the shells I collected for use as Shabbat 'candles.' While I've always lit wax candles for Shabbat, the original requirement called for lighting oil lamps, and in many communities this is still practiced. This makes sense, as wax candles weren't a thing nearly two thousand years ago.

Finally I had to ponder what relationship Jews have with seashells. The first thought that came to mind was this memory of visiting a shul in Venice:

While the shuls have been in continuous use (even to this day, they get a few uses every year), many of the reasons behind the symbols on display have been lost. Consider the case of large sea shell above the doorway in one of the shuls. What is this non-kosher item doing there? Does it represent the wash basin used by the Levi'm, or was it simply an in-vogue symbol of the time, so the architect put it in place? Nobody knows. But being Jews, we have no problem coming up with a handful of explanations, and using the one we prefer the best.

The tour had a strict no-photography rule, so I don't have a picture of this memorable decoration. But YouTube does:

There's another connection between Jews and seashells. Specifically with Murex trunculus, a particular sea snail. This little guy is believed to be the source of the blue dye used for creating tekhelet, the special blue thread that used to be included in the creation of tzitzit.

If tekhelet can come from a humble sea creature, then it seems more than appropriate to have a menorah from a similar source.

Here's to a happy and resourceful Chanukah!

Monday, November 29, 2021

Touring Antietam National Battlefield

We had a full day to spend adventuring with my Mother-in-Law and Ron, but weren't quite sure what activity would work given our constraints. We wanted to do something Covid-friendly, which suggested we needed to be outdoors, but the cold and blustery conditions gave us pause. After a bit of discussion, we came up with a plan: we'd visit Antietam National Battlefield and do an audio guided driving tour.

While all of us had toured the battlefield at Gettysburg, none of us had spent any meaningful time in Antietam. We figured we could spend the majority of the time in our warm car, yet hop out as needed to snap pics and get closer to any monuments and sights.

After a delightful 90 minute drive to Sharpsburg, Maryland we found ourselves at the visitor's center in time to listen to most of a ranger talk and then catch most of an informational movie.

The talk, movie and audio driving tour all covered essentially the same content: what lead up to, happened on the day of, and followed the Battle of Antietam. Hearing this information essentially three times in a row may seem like tedious redundancy. And for some, that may be the case. In hindsight, I'm glad we caught all three presentations.

For one thing, it's hard to process the full series of events that took place on September 17th, 1862. Hearing the events recounted multiple times, vastly increased my chances of appreciating what went on during this bloody day of battle.

Additionally, each of the presentations brought along a unique set of insights. The ranger talk, brilliantly delivered in frigid temps, challenged the notion that George McClellan was a timid solider. He laid out the case, at least for this one battle, that McClellan's reputation for lacking bold action was undeserved.

The movie (found on YouTube here), emphasized the international role of the Battle of Antietam, a factor I'd never considered. Britain and France were apparently one large Confederate victory away from recognizing the CSA as a legitimate county. Had Lee been victorious at Antietam, French and British recognition could have lended significant backing to the Confederacy. In actuality, the loss at Antietam helped pave the way for the Emancipation Proclamation and helped keep Europe neutral.

The audio car tour, provided by Action Tour Guide, provided us with in-context commentary that shared a number of fascinating details. The audio tour was a bargain at $5.99, and I'd absolutely recommended it if you decide visit Antietam. The tour app is GPS powered, so occasionally it would get confused and either clip some narratives or repeat others. Still, the quality of narration and storytelling more than make up for a bit of glitchiness.

After the Ranger Talk and Movie we piled in the car and did the audio driving tour. We made our way through notable battle locations, viewed countless interesting monuments, and generally took in the sights of the now placid countryside. It was a fascinating and engaging way to spend the day and more than exceeded our expectations for an accessible and unique DC day trip.

You'd think that after hearing the battle recounted three ways and driving the grounds, I'd be ready to move on to another battlefield. And yet, I'd gladly go back to Antietam. When the weather warms up, perhaps I can convince Shira to walk the battle field with me to better appreciate the scale of the events. Or maybe we can use historic maps to find specific locations on the battlefield where special moments unfolded. There's much more to learn about this battle, and we've only begun to scratch the surface.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

No, They Don't Give Out Samples | Visiting The DEA Museum

After years of being on my list of things to see, we finally made it to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Museum. My Mother-in-Law and Ron, in the for the weekend, were up for exploring this small, quirky destination.

The museum starts with an odd contrast: on one hand, the signs outside building are quite inviting. Yet, as soon as we stepped into lobby we were reminded that we were visiting a working federal building. We had an armed escort to a security checkpoint, followed by a screening that seemed more thorough than TSA. From there, we had an escort to the museum itself. Once inside, we could wander freely.

The museum itself is relatively small, consisting of one large room with various displays and artifacts. It would be easy to walk in, think there's not a whole lot to see and walk out. However, we took our time and were not disappointed.

Much of the history of drug use in America is quite fascinating. From a Coke bottle back when Coca-Cola contained cocaine, to an asthma inhaler which was also powered by cocaine (!!), the artifacts underscore America's casual relationship with some very hard drugs.

While drugs often held amazing promise, even back in the day doctors had their limits. The museum cited Charles Bradley's 1937 experiment where he gave 'unruly' children amphetamines and counter intuitively, it calmed them down. It took another 25 years before anyone seriously considered his work, which ultimately led to the Ritalin that's used to treat kids today.

The museum spotlights three major classes of drugs: opiates, synthetics and marijuana. It's this last drug which gives the museum a bit of a propaganda feel. Outside the walls of the museum, in Virginia, cannabis is now legal to own and use. In the museum, cannabis like LSD and heroin, is highlighted as a Schedule I drug. It's considered to have "a high potential for abuse, [and] no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States."

Ron noted that in contrast cocaine is a Schedule II drug. He asked the docent about this rating, especially in the context of the recent push for legalization. I piled on: what about alcohol and nicotine? Why don't they even make the list?

The museum staff member tried to explain that a Schedule I ranking isn't intended to imply it's more dangerous than Schedule II, just that it meets a particular standard set by the FDA. And my question about alcohol and nicotine may be fair to ask, but the short answer is, for historic and legal reasons the DEA doesn't get involved with alcohol and tobacco.

The museum, however, isn't purely a 1980's anti-drug commercial. They delve into topics such as how class and fear of minorities often drove drug policy. One classic example is the treatment of lower cost crack cocaine versus more expensive powdered cocaine. The response to these variants varied significantly and were directly related to the race and socioeconomic status of the population using the drug.

If you find yourself in the Pentagon City area, the DEA Museum is worth checking out. Expect to spend 30 minutes to an hour there, and know that it has kid friendly exhibits and activities. We certainly enjoyed ourselves and learned a thing or two!

Sunday, November 14, 2021

US Open 2021 Final, In Pursuit of History

The Plan

For the last seven years we've had a straightforward strategy for taking in the US Open: go up for the middle weekend to experience some amazing in person tennis and then watch the final comfortably from home.

This year, with Novak Djokovic looking like he may pull off a calendar grand slam, we decided to tweak our plans. We'd still go up for the middle weekend (we did, it was great), but if Novak made it to the finals, we decided we would hustle up to New York for the day to see him go for this historic title.

After a fairly extensive brainstorming session we came up with our strategy for taking in one day of tennis in New York: we'd fly from DCA to LaGuardia, pick up a rental car, drive the few miles to the stadium, park in a reserved spot, take in the women's doubles and men's finals and then hop in the car and drive 4+ hours back to DCA. We'd drop off the rental at DCA and then drive home. Easy, right?

We considered flying or taking the train home, but the unpredictability of the match duration made this not especially practical. Do you plan for a 5+ hour match and then spend hours waiting when it turns out to be a 1.5 hour blowout? Or, do you plan for 3 hours and leave early, knowing that you're missing an epic battle? Driving home it was.

The Execution

Getting to the stadium happened without any notable glitches. The flight from DCA to LGA was easy, and with no luggage to wait for, we were at the rental counter in no time. Incidentally, the rental cars are stashed near the old Marine Terminal. We only had time to appreciate the facade of this building, with its quirky flying fish motif. Hopefully we'll get back and I'll have a chance to head inside to see the 1940's era, 240 ft mural.

This is our first time driving in Queens, Koreatown and I have to say, wow. Shira's driven all over the world, including places where traffic laws seem optional, and this experience was still unique. We waited on a side street to turn right into a larger street, and absolutely nobody made space to let us in. It took a few minutes, but Shira cracked the code: she was just going to have to pull into traffic and assume that would be the signal to make space. It worked.

Hey Look, Tennis!

And so we found ourselves at Arthur Ashe stadium taking in the end of the doubles final between Sam Stosur and Zhang Shuai against Coco Gauff and Caty McNally. Gauff and McNally are both Americans, so the crowd was naturally behind them. But we'd been watching Stosur and Zhang have an amazing run since the Western & Southern Open, so we couldn't help but cheer for them. We may have been the only fans in the stadium to do so.

It was a nice bonus for the day to see them take the title.

The Main Event

With the women's doubles champions crowned, it was time for the main event. Could Djokovic win one more match this year, thereby handing him a calendar gland slam and making him the first man in 52 years to pull off this feat? The stadium was absolutely packed with Novak fans, a first in US Open history.

Sure, there were fans of his opponent, Daniil Medvedev, in the crowd. And they cheered on their man when he'd hit a winner or make an amazing shot. But the stadium absolutely rocked every time Djokovic made forward progress towards winning.

Alas, Djokovic's win wasn't meant to be. Medvedev played the match of his life, managing to keep his A game going for all three sets. Djokovic had a few glimmers of success, but it looked like he kept waiting to wake up and alas, never did.

In hindsight, this loss wasn't really a surprise. For the last few matches, Djokovic had an extra slow start, and he only managed to beat his opponents because they dropped their level long enough for him to get into the match. Medvedev to his credit, never did this.

So he lost and history wasn't made. To avoid the crush of exiting fans, we watched Djokovic and Medvedev hug it out and then scooted from the stadium. We watched the medal ceremony on a big screen near court 17. It was eerie how we had the space to ourselves.

I have to admit, my first thought, after watching Djokovic limp through three sets of tennis and ultimately lose was: well, if I had known the outcome, I'd have skipped a full day of travel to see this spectacle. But, with a little time to take in the loss, now I'm not so sure.

In many respects, what makes a champion, and what makes a champion worth learning from, is how he or she deals with losses. Especially big losses. And being three sets away from one of the most impressive accomplishments in Tennis certainly falls in the big loss department. To get an up close view of how Djokovic responded to this crushing defeat is actually quite valuable.

During the medal ceremony, he was gracious and talked about how the crowd gave him a sense of connection he'd never had in New York. His post match press conference was even more impressive. He talked openly about the full range of emotions he experienced from his loss, and again stressed how the love from the crowd was so special. (Indeed, we have never seen a crowd embrace him so completely). He gave full credit to Medvedev, and tried to explain some of his own short comings. He even managed to step back and switch into tennis ambassador mode, talking about his hopes for the game itself and how he and others needs to do a better job supporting lower ranked players.

When I have massively disapponting moments in my life, I hope I can muster the perspective to have these kind of thoughts. Djokovic setting this kind of example is impressive and appreciated.

Homeward Bound

After the medal ceremony we found our rental car and got on the road. The ride was mostly uneventful, until Google told us it had a faster route. The catch: we'd be leaving the highway to take side roads.

Did Google know something we didn't? Was it trying to avoid an accident or construction that wasn't yet on the map? Or, was it a glitch in Google's logic that would add an extra 30 minutes to an hour taking side roads when the highway would do the trick?

Shira and I recounted times when we'd both listened to and skipped Google's recommendations, and how that'd had resulted in both wins and losses. Ultimately, we decided to follow Google's suggestion and got off the highway.

I'm not sure this saved us any time, but it did take us by a Friendly's where we got some delish ice cream and recharged.

16 hours after we left our house for the airport, we pulled into our driveway. The trip had been a success. History hadn't been made for Novak, but the day was anything but a loss. We'd exercised our logistics skills, watched Stosur and Zhang take the title, watched Medvedev make history winning his first grand slam title and watched a champion wrestle with a massive setback. Not bad for a day's work.