Q & A: Biking in D.C.

8 Oct

Biking in the cityTo learn the ins and outs of biking in D.C., I consulted an expert. Jon Gonzalez from WABA (Washington Area Bicyclist Association) shares what newbies need to know to get started.

What are the most important rules of the road that the area’s new bicyclists should know?
I think there’s a general concept that’s a little more important than specific rules. When they are on the road, cyclists should act like a car, and I feel like a lot of people are confused with what that actually means. When a bike is on the road, the only difference is that the bicycle is allowed to filter. So that means bikes should stop at all stop lights, stop signs and yield to pedestrians.

What does filter mean?
It’s when a bicycle can jump the line of cars at a stoplight. This is recommended because it increases the bike’s visibility, so the chances of getting hit are reduced. It’s just a safe practice. That’s really the only difference between cars and bikes on the road.

Do you consider Washington, D.C., a bike-friendly city?
Yes, 100 percent. Especially because of the outside connections into the city like the Key Bridge or Capital Crescent Trail from Bethesda, which make getting into the city quite easy. Then once they’re in the city, there are all kinds of shared lanes, bike racks, things that connect the city.

What is the biggest danger or hazard that local cyclists face?
Literally the cars and trucks on the streets. But I think an even more important danger would be an uninformed public. This is how a colleague of mine recently put it: The bike culture has grown so rapidly that all the other road users haven’t had enough time to learn and adapt to the changing environment. There are cars that don’t realize that bikes have rights when they’re in the street. And then there are cyclists who need to realize that they have rights, and they have the right to be in the road. It’s safer to be in the road than on the sidewalk where there are pedestrians.

If someone is interesting in biking to work but feels a bit overwhelmed by the idea, how would you recommend they get started?
Find a bike buddy. There’s probably at least one other person who rides to work. That person may not be an expert but they will have tips or know of a particular road that’s best. That person knows what you will have to deal with.

For those looking to bike just for fun, what are—in your opinion—some of the area’s best trails?
My favorite trail is the Anacostia River Walk Trail. It’s a loop that starts and ends around Nationals Park. There’s a great mix of outdoorsy stuff like the pirate ship playground. It’s family-friendly, there’s a good mix of restaurants and shops, and a nice off-street trail. My favorite ice cream parlor, Ice Cream Jubilee, on Yards Park is there, too.

One of my readers’ biggest questions is how to make local friends. Are there any ways they can meet people through cycling? Any groups or events you’d recommend?
WABA has 5,000 members and every couple of months we have large group rides where 400-500 people show up for a ride and we all tour the city together.

I run the Bike Ambassador Program, a safety and education program that encourages responsible bicycling in the city. We like to come together and do outreach events during the week and go on social bike rides on the weekends. There’s an orientation coming up soon—we’re always looking for new people to share our love of cycling with.

There is also a great Facebook group called Women and Bicycles that is a fantastic resource for female bike riders in D.C. They also set up their own social bike rides and do fun bike things together.

Ten Things to Know Before Hiking Old Rag

7 Oct
Old Rag 2

Fall, with all the changing colors, is the best time to hike Old Rag.

There’s no day-hike within driving distance of the DC area that’s more popular than Old Rag Mountain in the Shenandoah Mountains, and with good reason. The 9-mile loop offers gorgeous views, fun rock scrambles and is challenging yet doable for most fitness levels. It takes about 2 – 2.5 hours to get there and is particularly great in the fall.

1. It can—and will—get crowded. If you’re going on a weekend and it’s nice weather, you’ll want to plan on leaving as early as you can tolerate. There’s one particular place about halfway through that requires a tricky shimmy in between two rocks. I have twice waited a whopping 45 minutes to get through this section. There’s another option, walking around a large bolder, but the ledge is pretty narrow (as is the margin of error).

2. You’ll have to pay for parking. There’s a grass field down the road from the trailhead with a park ranger pay booth. The cost is $8/individual, $15/ car or $30 for an annual pass and, surprisingly, they prefer credit cards. Don’t forget to get a national park stamp if you’re into that sort of thing. Note: There used to be a few parking spots right by the trailhead, but they’re no longer available.

3. Go before you go. There also used to be a port-o-potty right at the trailhead. They got rid of that, so make sure you use the two that are in the parking lot before heading up the road to the trailhead.

4. Bring some cash. On the road walking to/from the trailhead, there’s often someone selling cider or apples. I always regret not having cash on hand to purchase some.

5. Don’t forget to bring the basics. Over the winter my roommate and her friend forgot to bring water on their Old Rag hike. They had to eat snow. So yeah, don’t do that. And bring lunch, snacks and sunscreen too.

One of the trickier (and most fun) sections.

6. Decide where you’re going to eat afterward, beforehand. There’s no question that you’ll want to eat a big meal after the hike. You’ll pass through Sperryville, but the only cheap option is pizza. (Here’s a list of the most current dining options.) Last time I hiked Old Rag, my friends and I had trouble finding a convenient place to eat on our way home, and it was annoying because by that time we were tired and hungry. I advise pre-planning and making a decision on the drive up.

7. Go clockwise. I get so annoyed with hikers who go in a counter-clockwise direction. Most people go clockwise, and so you will be constantly going against traffic if you go the other direction.

8. You will hate your life for the last 45 minutes. Assuming you go clockwise, the last 45 – 60 minutes are down a dirt path. It’s boring and by then I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be over it. Since there’s not actually anything you can do about it, maybe I shouldn’t have brought it up at all … oh well!

9. Beware of bears. The first time I did this hike it was on a weekday and I was by myself. I only saw a few other hikers the entire time. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Luckily, I didn’t see any bears that time, but I saw one on my most recent trip a few yards from the trail.

10. Be realistic. The amount of time this hike takes varies dramatically depending on your fitness level and the number of breaks you take. My roommate took 4 hours while my co-worker, on the same day, took 7.5. If you think you’ll be pretty slow, make sure to bring adequate supplies and leave early enough so you don’t have to worry about the sun setting while you’re still on the mountain.

Want more info? Check out the National Park Service’s Old Rag webpage.

Dating in D.C.: Grouper

1 Oct
This picture of a literal grouper has nothing to do with this post, but I didn't know what other photo to include. In case your curious, this particular grouper is a Nassau.

This picture of a literal grouper has nothing to do with this post, but I didn’t know what other photo to include. In case you’re curious, this particular grouper is a Nassau.

A friend recently approached me about going on a Grouper with her. What’s a Grouper, you ask? It’s a group date—3 women who are already friends meet up for drinks with 3 guys who are already friends (or 3 women/3 women, 3 men/3 men). The idea, of course, is that it will be less awkward if you’re with a couple friends, and you’ll get to meet not one potential mate, but three. Grouper is offered in 25 cities so far. It costs $20 per person, per Grouper, but that does at least include one drink.

Without hesitation, I agreed to go, figuring it would be either really awesome (all the publicity photos, after all, show people having a bang-up good time) or really terrible. Either way, therefore, it was going to be a fantastic story.

So my friend, another friend and I signed up using the mobile app. They don’t ask you many questions beforehand. Instead they (allegedly) use your Facebook profiles to match you up with your dates.

We got to pick one of three date times. All were on a Thursday at 8 p.m., which I thought was unfortunate—a girl likes her beauty sleep after all, but then I realized that I’m not 80-years-old so I should STFU about it and act like the young, hip single gal I pretend to be.

We didn’t hear anything more from Grouper until the day before our date. We were told to meet the guys at Cafe Citron near Dupont Circle at 8:30 instead of 8:00 (ugh).

When I told people I was going on a Grouper their first reaction was always, “What if you all like the same guy?” Dude, I don’t know, what if that happens on a normal night at a bar or a party? You just figure it out. Unfortunately, as it turned out, we needn’t have worried.

So my first though of the guys was relief. They were normal-seeming and normal-looking. My friends and I had come up with a few pre-thought-out questions to ask the group in case of any awkward silences even though we probably wouldn’t need them, I mean, how can six people not think of anything to say to one another, right? Well, we went through our secret list of questions within the first 20 minutes or so. It was basically just continual awkward silence punctuated by a sentence here and there.

One guy didn’t really participate in the conversation the entire time—turns out there was a speaker blaring music behind him and he couldn’t hear (but didn’t bring this up until we were paying the bill). Another guy completely checked out 30 minutes in, and started playing on his phone. The third guy, who organized his friends to go on the Grouper, was the nicest and actually pretty funny. Unfortunately, he was way, way shorter than my friends and me, which we all consider a deal breaker (I’m not talking a little bit shorter, I’m talking a LOT).

What made things more awkward was that there was another Grouper at the table right next to us! I felt like we were all sizing them up to see if their group was more exciting. Needless to say, it was.

Every time I thought we were wrapping up this disaster it just … kept … going. Then my friend suggested we move to another bar. (This is when I learned that she’s obviously a masochist … and sadist.) The guys initially agreed but then waffled and eventually backed out. It was an awkward goodbye in that no one asked for anyone else’s number. We hugged goodbye and one of the guy’s said, “Maybe we’ll see you on another Grouper!”

Maybe not.

With that said, would I do it again? Sure. I didn’t have the time of my life, but it wasn’t awful either. And while I doubt I’ll find the man of my dreams on a Grouper, it got me out on a weeknight, I got to hang out with a couple friends and it caused me less anxiety than a one-on-one date. There are, for sure, worst ways to spend an evening.

How to Find a Job in D.C.

10 Sep
Lincoln Monument

D.C. is considered one of the easiest places in the country to find a job.

As I’ve lamented before, D.C. is a city of overachievers, so if you’re going to get a job, you need to bring your A game.

After returning from Australia, it took me three months to get a job. I felt very fortunate because, from what I’ve read, the average length of time in this area is at least 6 months.

Below are the resources that helped me. I hope they can be of help to you, too.

National Search Websites
Indeed.com: It’s all about Indeed.com these days, which compiles job postings from seemingly every other possible site. I found that the only downside was the number of posts it aggregated; it can be a bit overwhelming. Then again, I was unemployed and had nothing but time.

LinkedIn: My last true job search was about 6 years ago, so this time around I was a bit slow to realize how important LinkedIn has become. It took me several weeks to start looking at job postings on the site. Doh! Such a rookie mistake.

LinkedIn gave me a month of the “premium” membership. I didn’t find that I needed it, and discontinued it after the free month, but it did help me see what keywords my competition was using, and it also let me get an idea of how qualified (or not) I was for various positions.

If at all possible, get a couple recommendations from past managers or coworkers. And keep your profile as up-to-date as possible. I found many hiring managers looked at my profile, so I made sure to have additional information beyond what was presented on my resume.

Regarding the LinkedIn photo, this is just a guess, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Washington, D.C., has the highest percentage of LinkedIn users (not counting actors) with professional head shots on their profiles. Personally, I couldn’t afford to get my head shots done, but luckily I had a decent photo that I think passed muster. Suffice it to say, however, that a selfie in your car is not going to cut it.

Craigslist.org: This site is generally most useful, I’ve found, for part-time work, but I still checked it about once a week during my job search.

 Idealist.org: I’ve found two full-time jobs using Idealist in the past, and it’s still a great way to find non-profit jobs.

USAJobs.gov: This is where to go if you’re looking for a government job. Recently, the application process has, thankfully, become much less cumbersome.

Local Search Website
Washingtonpost.com: The Post’s jobs website has heaps of job listings. In fact, I found my current job on the site.

DCjobs.com: Another site that many local companies and organizations take advantage of.

The Hill: Go here for jobs on Capitol Hill.

Industry-specific Resources
Websites: I found quite a few writing and communication job postings on Mediabistro. Investigate websites in your industry that list job postings. ScienceCareers is another example.

Listservs: Look for job listservs in the work that you’re interested in. Here are a few for Capital Hill jobs.

Ask a Manager
After reading this blog, I completely changed my cover letter. I also emailed the owner of the site with a couple questions, and she got back to me right away. This is an incredible resource; so much so that, after I accepted a job offer, I sent her a thank-you note.

Temping
Don’t dismiss the idea of temping, especially if you’re just starting your career. I worked for an organization whose jobs were very competitive, and three of my co-workers got their feet in the door by temping as administrative assistants. Eventually all three found other jobs within the organization that interested them more.

I temped a couple times after college and found it a great way to see different parts of the city, meet different people and get an idea of what work environments suited me.

Glassdoor
Glassdoor is a place where former (or current) employees post yelp-like reviews of the place and often show salary information for certain positions, which can really help when you are required to give a company your salary requirement. You can also job search on the site.

Networking
I used to hate the term networking because, to me, it conjured up images of schmoozing and asking for favors. When I returned to the D.C. area, however, I was overwhelmed by the number of people—some of whom I didn’t even know that well—who offered to help me in any way they could. Friends and acquaintances passed along my resume, endorsed me on LinkedIn, proofread my cover letters, and gave me much-needed words of encouragement. Now I don’t see “network” as a dirty word, but as a band of people helping to get me where I want to go.

Thanks to A&E editor Bruno for his assistance with this article.

The Inside Scoop: Wolf Trap

17 Aug
Courtesy of Wolf Trap

Courtesy of Wolf Trap

I’m sure you all remember Sports Editor Rachel who, in addition to reporting on the area’s sports news, regaled you with the tale of her speed dating experience. Yet another impressive area of Rachel’s expertise is the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, which is best known for the summertime events held at its outdoor theater called the Filene Center. Rachel was an illustrious parking attendant there for several summer breaks during college.

Though Rachel abandoned me to move to San Diego with her boyfriend (who she did not meet at speed dating), she agreed to share some Wolf Trap tips and tricks with us.

1. When is it worth shelling out the money for proper seats instead of lawn tickets?
The lawn is a great spot, but keep in mind that the sun will be bright for a large portion of the performance during the summer, when sunset is late in the evening. This can make it very challenging to get a good view of the stage inside the darkened pavilion from out on the lawn. So get a proper seat when you want to have a good view of the performers. This might be the case for a:

  • dance performance
  • play or musical
  • concert by a performer you really like, if you’re a front-row-seats type of guy/gal

For a concert by the NSO, a rock show or one of the annual sing-a-longs, stick to the lawn.

2. Say it’s raining and I’ve got lawn seats. Is it still worth going or should I stay home with my TiVo instead?
It depends on how much rain you’re getting, and how excited you were about the show. If it’s sprinkling on-and-off, I suggest going to the show and setting up your blanket. There are a few covered spots where you might be able to take shelter for a few minutes. Keep in mind that many people are likely to choose not to go to the show, so you’ll probably be able to get a great seat if you stick it out. On the other hand, if it’s a thunderstorm, and I were you, I’d probably skip it.

However, if there are empty seats inside the house, you’ll be able to “buy up” by paying the difference in price between your lawn seat and that inside seat.

3. If I have lawn seats and it’s nice weather, how early do you recommend I arrive to get a decent spot on the lawn?
The lawn opens 1.5 hours prior to the start of the show. If you must have a seat in the front row of the lawn, I recommend arriving around 2 hours before the show. This will give you time to park, unpack your car and line up. The ushers will often even scan tickets a few minutes ahead of opening the gate, so everyone can make a run for it.

4. Where’s the best place to park to avoid the long lines getting out?
The parking arrangements vary slightly depending on the expected crowds for that day’s performance. The most reliable option for a quick exit is parking in the west parking lot, right by its entrance. The west parking lot is the one across Trap Road from the Filene Center–see below.

Traffic from various exits is often all directed in one direction or the other, no choosing allowed. If you’re not familiar with this area of Virginia, I recommend having the GPS fired up in case you end up detoured.

(One additional note from me: Rachel never had to take the Dulles Toll Road to get to Wolf Trap because she lived close by, but my friend recently waited in a line of cars at the toll-booth for 45 minutes. Either take an alternate route down Leesburg Pike or factor in the waiting time.)

5. Is there a way to get discounted tickets?
Nothing came immediately, but a Google search for “wolf trap discount” did seem to have some good options. Everyone, please give that a try before you purchase!

6. Any other tips? Fun facts?
Some performances have a Pre-Performance Discussion, where an expert shares information about the upcoming show. Check out the 2014 schedule.

If you park in the lot I recommended, you can hitch a ride on a golf cart up the hill to the theater. My tip is actually to skip the golf cart: there’s typically a queue, and you’ll save time by walking. Plus, you know you’re going to have some wine with your picnic on the lawn—earn it with your exercise here.

On the other hand, if anyone in your group requires accessible parking or other assistance, this can be arranged by calling the park ahead of time.

In a typical theater, lights are dimmed in the lobby to indicate the show is about to start or resume. At Wolf Trap, a large farm dinner bell is rung.

The park was called Wolf Trap Farm Park until 2002. It was renamed because it had been a concert venue for quite some time and needed a more accurate name to avoid confusion.

If you have a National Parks Passport, don’t forget that Wolf Trap is a national park! Stop by the Ranger Station for your stamp.

Thanks Rach! Miss ya!

Wolf Trap map

Click on the map to make it larger.

Foreign Service 101

6 Aug
The U.S. Embassy in Berlin

The U.S. Embassy in Berlin

You can’t swing a dead cat in D.C. without hitting someone who’s either in the foreign service or wants to be. Therefore, it would behoove you to know a thing or two about it so, ya know, you can sound smart. Here’s your crash course:

1. What’s a foreign service officer anyway?
A foreign service officer is a diplomat. If you’ve ever been to an embassy or a consulate, you were interacting with foreign service officers (unless they were national staff, which the State Department also employs). The U.S.  is unusual in that it takes people from all walks of life into the foreign service, not requiring any particular education background or work history.

2. What does a foreign service officer do?
For a generalist (I’m not going to get into specialists) there are 5 tracks: consular, economic, management, political and public diplomacy. The life of an FSO is an unusual one. Officers are required to move about every 2 years, and if they are in a hardship post, their family can’t come with them. Understandably, many marriages are strained by this lifestyle, particularly because employment for spouses can be difficult to get, unfulfilling or poorly paid.

3. So what’s the appeal of being in the foreign service?
Serving your country, seeing the world and having a hand in important diplomatic issues.

4. How do you get in?

  • Step #1: Complete an online exam.
    The first part is multiple choice and it tests your knowledge on everything from history to math to management. The second is an essay question, the topic of which is a surprise.
  • Step #2: Complete four narrative questions.
    You have to write brief examples showing that you possess the skills it takes to be an FSO. Reviewers look at your answers along with your application materials.
  • Step #3: A super intense, all-day oral exam.
    This is where they really separate the boys/girls from the men/women. First you have to figure out a hypothetical problem with the other people in your group while the evaluators watch you interact. Then you have a written exercise. Finally, there’s an interview with the assessors. Then you wait awkwardly with your group as your called in and told whether you pass go and collect $200 … or begin the entire process again.

5. Is it, like, competitive?
At lunch one time I overheard (okay, fine, I was eavesdropping) two young women discussing their dating lives. One had recently started dating a guy who was applying to be in the foreign service. She said, “I’m not too worried, he probably won’t get in.” While her new beau probably wouldn’t have appreciated her pessimism, she was, statistically speaking, correct.

Only 2-3% of the 20,000 people who take the foreign service written exam actually become a diplomat. In addition to the three steps previously discussed, applicants also need to pass health and security screenings (plus you can take a foreign language test to bag some bonus points). AND, as if that’s not enough hurdles, those who completed all those steps but don’t get offered a job within 18 months have to begin the ENTIRE process all over again. You can go through the process as many time as you like until you turn 59, and then you’re too old.

6. I want more!
If you think this sounds like the job for you, here are some helpful resources to get you started:

Image by Scott on flickr.

Mormon Temple

27 Jul

Washington TempleUpon moving to DC it won’t take long to either see the Mormon Temple as you drive on the Beltway (aka 495) or hear it referenced on a traffic report (i.e. “backed up past the Mormon Temple).

No matter your religious affiliation (or lack thereof), there’s no denying it’s a strikingly beautiful building. It’s the tallest temple in the country and cost 15 million to build. Dedicated in 1974, 750,000 people attended the open house and I’ve heard (aka my mom told me) that afterward they ripped out all the carpet and replaced it.

Surrender DorothyYou can’t actually go inside the temple (which is technically in Kensington, MD) unless you’re literally a card-carrying Mormon. This even applies to wedding ceremonies. There is a free visitors’ center open to the public but, if the Yelp reviews are to be believed, you’ll likely be asked about your religious beliefs and be encouraged to consider converting. Each Christmas there’s a popular annual lights display along with various holiday concerts and events.

The Temple looks like a white version of the Emerald Palace in Wizard of Oz, and for a long time many people’s favorite part of the temple was the “Surrender Dorothy” graffiti that was painted on the Outer Look overpass nearby from the 1970s to 2007.

Read three stories about the Mormon Temple, including the time when a guman took the people inside hostage.

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