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Grab your permission slip and a sack lunch, because it’s time for a field trip!

In the last few weeks, my group at work has taken two trips to visit other research labs in the DC area. Visiting the lab of a fellow researcher is pretty standard practice in physics. If you’re in town for a meeting, you might call up someone you knew in grad school or who is doing work related to yours and stop by and chat about their work. You usually learn something new about a different topic and also trade advice and tips on the gritty details of experimental physics. There are plenty of research establishments in the DC area doing work that’s tangentially related to ours, so when some recent opportunities to go visit a couple of labs arose, our group decided to pay them a visit.
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Last week was the peak bloom time of Washington DC’s famous cherry blossoms. These cherry trees, given as a gift to the US from Japan in 1912, bloom every spring and draw massive crowds of admirers to the city. While there are many blooming trees, the most famous are those surrounding the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial. Though the trees typically bloom in the early part of April, peak bloom date isn’t accurately estimated until a few weeks beforehand, as it can vary quite dramatically depending on the weather during early spring. This makes it particularly challenging to plan a trip to DC in advance to coincide with peak bloom, but that doesn’t deter millions of visitors from taking a gamble on timing and planning spring trips to the city in hopes of catching the blooms at just the right time. This influx of visitors causes added chaos on top of the normal insanity of DC traffic. However, for us locals, even though we have to deal with the added commotion, we have the luxury of swinging by the Tidal Basin to catch the blooms at precisely the perfect time.

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As the old saying goes, the darkest hour is just before dawn, and this is evidently when I will be heading to work from now on.

Part of the deal I made to be able to move to Virginia was to adopt a shifted commuting schedule. Because of traffic and the flexible work schedule the Observatory allows us to have, many people here opt to come in early and leave early. I already went to work early when living in Maryland to edge out the heaviest volume of traffic in the morning. But now it is imperative to leave early for multiple reasons.

First, I now commute primarily by interstate highway, whereas I took normal streets before. There are good and bad parts to both situations: previously, I had 44 stoplights between my home and work, but I also had the option of taking alternate routes around side streets if the flow of traffic was better. Now, most of my commute is interstate, and I only have 6 stoplights the entire way. With normal traffic (which appears to be steady but not bumper-to-bumper) I’ve cut my travel time from 40 minutes on an average morning to 25 minutes, which is fantastic. But if anything at all happens on the interstate, I’m stuck on a five lane highway with everyone else. Leaving early reduces the chances of that, though days where traffic is already a disaster at 6:00 a.m. will surely be inevitable.

The second reason I leave early is because I now take Rock Creek Parkway, a unique roadway that ducks out of the hubbub of the immediate downtown area and snakes up through the district along Rock Creek Park. This park is actually part of the National Park Service and runs many miles up through the district and into Maryland; in fact, our rent house was just a few blocks from the northern end of the park, and occasionally we would walk through it. Rock Creek Parkway, as well as other roads that run through the park, offer some alternative driving routes through the city while avoiding the busy grid of downtown. If I take the parkway up out of Virginia, I cut out dozens of stoplights and smoothly exit onto Massachusetts Avenue a mere two blocks from the Observatory.

It makes for an ideal commute, with one huge caveat: the Parkway changes to one direction into downtown at 6:45 a.m. Unfortunately, my commute takes me out of downtown, meaning that if I don’t finish my commute by 6:45, I have to find an alternate route to work. While it’s definitely possible, it’s much preferable to do everything in my power to make sure I hit it before that. Similarly, it switches the opposite way at 3:45 p.m., meaning I have to wrap up my workday before too late or face being stuck in traffic on the West End or in Georgetown.

In reality, having a shifted work schedule is kind of great. I get done early in the afternoons and have time to come home and enjoy a large chunk of the day. However, it does have its obvious down sides. First, I am not a morning person. Period. I hate waking up early, but evidently I’ve proven to myself that I can actually do it. I just don’t have to love it. It’s also apparently going to be dark for my commute all but for one or two months in the summer. I guess this will be okay once I learn the route, but right now, while I’m still learning what lanes to be in and how to merge into traffic, it’s a bit tricky. It’s also bizarre to be at work when it’s pitch black, like I’m somehow working the night shift. On the other hand, in the dead of winter when it gets dark barely after lunch, I’ll already be home.

My first two morning commutes and my afternoon commute yesterday went relatively smoothly, and I’m grateful for that. I’ve improved my commute time both ways by around 10-15 minutes, though I’ll need a few more data points to get a good average. As I mentioned before, learning what lanes to be in when is key, and it’s going to take me a week or two to get those down without accidentally ending up in the Pentagon parking lot or at National Airport. I’ve been using navigation on my Google Maps app to make my drive as foolproof as possible, but she doesn’t really tell you which of the four lanes you want to be in. I also need to purposefully learn those alternative routes reliably, because it’s guaranteed that on the rare occasion I’ll be forced to come in later or stay later and will miss out on the Parkway. Knowledge is power, and being comfortable with alternatives will ease the white-knuckle terror I usually feel when I’m forced off a known path and into the bowels of downtown DC.

I’m thankful the new drive has gone smoothly so far, and I hope my new routine gets even easier as we get more settled into our new place. But now excuse me while I go stare bleary-eyed at the coffee pot in the lab and wonder when after 31 years I’m going to finally be forced to start drinking the stuff.

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Whenever life changes, I become particularly aware of the last times I experience things I did frequently before. Moving is a particularly strong motivator of these feelings, as physically relocating changes so much of what you do day to day.

Moving week has sneaked up on me this time, and I almost forgot to pay attention to the things in my routine that I’ll do for the last time. I reminded Bart on Sunday that it was the last time we had to drive to church from Maryland; our new house will be about 15 minutes closer now and won’t involve crossing a bridge or state line. I also am counting down the days that I commute to work via my current route. My new commute will be in a completely opposite direction, and while it’s three miles longer than my current route, I should make it much faster, as it’s mostly interstate and parkway (with the big caveat that I do my commute on off-times, or else it would be hopeless with traffic). I’ll no longer head north to go home, passing not four school zones, a large traffic circle, five speed cameras, and 44 stoplights (not even joking; I counted them up). I may miss driving down 34th Street/Reno Road, as it was a surprisingly serene and calm bypass of the craziness of the District, but I will never, ever regret it if I never go through Kensington or the intersection of Connecticut Ave. and Bradley Street again in my life. Ever.

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I usually cherish the last things I do around our home before we leave: last meal, last night sleeping there, last walk through before handing in the keys. But I feel strangely detached about our current house, lacking the usual sentimentality associated with our routine activities. I’m sure this is due to the fact that it’s a rental, though it was more tied to the fact that we knew it was going to be temporary. When we rented as a young couple before buying a house, we didn’t necessarily intend to move at the end of our lease. It turned out that way a few times, but we settled in each time and made it a home. This time, we knew we intended to buy and didn’t plan on being there any longer than we had to. In that way, I never formed the attachment of “home” with this house. It’s grown on me some over the year we’ve been there, but all of the old, annoying features of it made me long for a place to call my own.

The sentiment I lack about leaving this house will be more than made up for by the verve with which I shall embrace the first things in the new house: first meal cooked on the gas stove, first dinner party, first DIY project, first house guests. I’ve been unsettled for nearly a year here, but just in the last two months our new chapter of life in DC is starting to form; having our own home is one of the last pieces cementing our feeling of finally belonging here.

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Today, I feel that my initiation into urban society has been completed. Today, I commuted to work by metro.

Normally, I have a very mundane, suburban routine of driving to and from work. Generally, traffic in DC is atrocious, and so is parking; however, USNO boasts wide open parking lots and flexible work schedules, so I go in early and leave early, making a driving commute mostly reasonable. Taking the metro is possible, but it is both costly and inefficient for me. I would have to pay to park at the station near my house, and the nearest stop to work is over a mile away, requiring a hike or a second hop via bus. Parking and subway fees also add up quickly, so I stick with driving.

Today, however, I had an all-day meeting in Arlington, requiring some deviation from my regular commuting schedule. It was possible for me to drive, but it would have required fighting traffic and finding a parking garage somewhere in the vicinity. But since my destination was mere blocks from not one but two metro stations, it seemed obvious that taking the train in was the way to go.

My trip there this morning went very smoothly; there wasn’t even a huge throng of people around. My return trip is going quite well; in fact, I’m composing this blog post right here on the red line. There’s no doubt that letting someone else drive while I kick back on my smartphone is an A-plus compared to my usual routine of battling wahoos on Connecticut Avenue.

I’m sure if I had no other choice but to commute by train every single day, I would totally be over it. But since I only use the metro occasionally, usually for fun or interesting events, I still find it über cool and novel. Plus, I feel like a totally hip urbanite who roams the city like I own it. Until I accidentally take the wrong escalator from the Orange line platform and have to slink my way back through Metro Center station to the right one…

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For Bart’s birthday in April, I purchased a Groupon for an hour of batting cages in Gaithersburg. We went to one a few years ago with some family back in Arkansas, and it was on our list of things to do again. So when I saw the deal come around, it seemed like a natural thing to do.

Unfortunately, it took us a while to get around to it, since right after Bart’s birthday we got busy with travel and house hunting. But after a rough commute home today (you’re seriously going to close one entire lane of northbound Connecticut Avenue on a Friday afternoon during rush hour? Seriously?), I knew that beating the crud out of something was just what the doctor ordered.

Now, despite watching baseball all the time these days, neither of us know anything about actually playing it. But we grabbed our bats and balls and headed out to our cage. It took a whole 5-gallon bucket of balls each before we got our stride, but before too long we were making contact.

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I’m a big wuss, so I whined a lot about the balls being too fast or too slow or too close together or whatever. But I managed to finally get quite a few solid smacks. Take that, road construction.

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By the end of the hour, we had blisters on our hands from gripping the bat with our dainty palms. Next time, we need some batting gloves. But we had a good time, and who knows? Judging by the number of players on my fantasy baseball team that keep going on the disabled list, the major leagues might be desperate for some hitters in the near future. You just never know.

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