Letter from Washington: Rites of Resistance

The Jericho Protest

Small acts of rebellion serve to remind others that they’re not alone.

On Sunday mornings, I like to go for coffee at Peet’s by the White House. Located on a sunny corner, it’s a good place to write in the quiet moments just after dawn. Inside, it’s usually just me, Secret Service agents taking a break and the odd jogger.

One of those odd joggers is the man from the Jericho Protest. I saw him a couple months ago. A runner with a vuvuzela. He stopped in front of 1600 Pennsylvania, blew his horn, and jogged off. Clearly, it was his Sunday morning routine.

So, when I saw a person with a horn in front of Peet’s, I had to stop and get his photo. He does seven laps around the White House, blowing his horn on each circuit, just like the Jericho legend.

The plaza in front of the White House is blocked off to cars. Located at the intersection of two major bike lanes, it’s the Mixing Bowl of #BikeDC. If you bike in this city, and are going east-west or north-south, it’s hard to avoid the Trumpian residence.

How do you respond?

Some go out of their way, not wanting to be reminded of the figure in the White House.

Others incorporate protest into their daily routine.

Flipping off the White House

There’s a cyclist who flips off the President every morning. For a while, I had the same schedule as her. I’d see her, the woman in the Ortlieb backpack, one hand held up in defiance as she pedaled by, her moment of protest for the day.

On Tyranny is a great little book on defending democracy. In it, Timothy Snyder highlights that tyranny is only possible through consent. Our actions, even small ones, matter:

The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote

Rites of resistance, from blowing a horn at the White House to flipping off the President, make a difference, for they signal to others that Americans will not give up democracy without a fight.

Weekend Read: In the Midst of Winter

In the Midst of Winter

My reading is guided by serendipity. I let books find me. Reading should never be required but something you do because you enjoy it.

One night, going through Netflix, I found Allende, a portrayal of the last hours of the Chilean president, who was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup in 1973. The Spanish title for the film is even better: Allende en su laberinto or Allende in His Labyrinth. The movie is not magic realism, despite the title, but gritty realism, as Allende single-handedly defends his revolution against nearly every other institution of the state. His loss results in decades of dictatorship.

The movie left me curious about the thin country so when I saw In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende, I had to pick it up. This new novel by the niece of Salvador Allende concerns itself with social justice. Not what’s legal, but what’s right for vulnerable people such as refugees. As a child, Isabel Allende was driven from Chile following the overthrow of her uncle.

The novel starts with a car accident on a snowy day, an incident that upends the lives of everyone involved. Richard Bowmaster, a stuffy norteamericano academic, gets drawn into the lives of Evelyn Ortega, an illegal immigrant, and Lucia Maraz, a lusty 60-something Chilean. All three are haunted by painful tragedies, their lives shaped by the loss of loved ones. Drawn together in conspiracy, they grow closer as they share the stories of their lives.

The plot is a bit of a melodrama (a mysterious body in the trunk of the car), but, after reading of how much Richard, Evelyn and Lucia have suffered, you want a happy ending. You want them to discover an invincible summer in the midst of winter, to quote Camus.

How do you respond to tragedy, from the loss of family members to the inescapable indignities of growing old? What are our obligations, beyond the law, to refugees? How do you build a just society in an age of cruel states and dictatorships?

In the Midst of Winter offers the simplest of solutions – take care of your fellow humans – a revolutionary act to counteract a world steeped in tragedy.


Where Do Book Ideas Come From? The Story Behind The Swamp

Perfect headline/photo from the Express #snowquester

In my novel The Swamp, a drone crashes into the White House, changing the course of history forever. Where did my idea come from? A bad weather forecast.

The Triggering Incident

On this day in 2013, Washington was supposed to get an epic snow storm. There was a run on milk and toilet paper. The federal government shut down. The local TV channels suspended programs and went to wall-to-wall coverage. Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel even flew in to witness the snowy carnage.

And it rained. I watched it all day, waiting for it to turn to snow, but the precipitation remained persistently non-frozen. It was the city that cried snow, to quote the Washington Post Express.

Around 4 PM, I gave up and went to happy hour, walking deserted downtown streets to be the only customer at a bar. The weatherman on TV said that there was a layer of hot air over the city; it was snowing in the suburbs.

Layer of hot air…. If you’re a writer, this is one of those amusing details that you file away.

Collecting Information

Ironically, I had recently started working in communications at the National Weather Service. A few months later, I had the chance to visit the Weather Forecast Office in Sterling, the office that had issued the bum forecast.

I didn’t ask them about that. Instead, I was shown how they used computer models and data displays to customize local forecasts. I was also shown a weather balloon, which carried a radiosonde designed to transmit atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speed data.

“The Secret Service visited after we had balloon end up on the White House lawn,” a meteorologist told me. Another interesting detail, filed away.

At the same time, I was annoyed by the ever-increasing level of security theater in DC. Public spaces and parks have been stolen by the Secret Service and other agencies in the name of security. The perimeter around the White House expands ever outward, seizing Lafayette Park to the north and the Ellipse to the south, grand public spaces that are routinely closed off. This is done despite the Secret Service’s failure to prevent fence jumpers and other miscreants.

Then, in 2015, a man crashed a drone into the White House in what was described as a drunken lark. It made a mockery of security theater. How can you keep the President safe in the age of the drone? Another interesting detail.

If you’re a writer, you constantly collect information – even if you don’t realize it, filing away interesting stories and amusing incidents for future use.

Write What You Know

I had a recently finished writing a mystery novel, Murder on U Street. It’s a dark comedy in which I kill off hipsters.

For my next book, I wanted to write a satire with a political edge, like Scoop by Evelyn Waugh.

What could I write about? The image of the drone disappearing into the night stuck with me. It would be a great way to open a book.

Write what you know. What did I know? The National Weather Service had taught me about weather forecasting and government bureaucracy. I knew security theater, for I had seen places I loved locked away by fences. And I had heard enough anti-Washington sentiment to understand that a good chunk of this country wanted this city to disappear.

Putting all of these thoughts together, I had my idea for The Swamp:

A meteorologist, humiliated by a bum forecast, puts a drone into the layer of hot air over DC to measure its strength. It crashes into the White House, triggering a security scare. The nation is outraged. How can we keep the President safe from drones? By moving him, and the rest of government, out of Washington.

Now, I just had to write it.

Hail Caesar! Three Books About Tyranny

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century

Heavily marketed, The Storm Before the Storm is a book that I desperately wanted to like. This work of popular history about the end of the Roman Republic has so many parallels to our time – at least according to the sales copy – but the book itself is a tedious examination of the political issues before Rome became an empire. Praetors, consuls and legates come and go in a swirl of assemblies, riots and wars, a mix of similar-sounding names and titles adding to the confusion.

Rome wasn’t a democracy, but a republic, ruled by a narrow set of wealthy families jockeying for political power in a country grown wealthy from foreign conquest. The original 1%, they governed through a series of norms and traditions that became degraded with wealth and privilege. Citizenship was narrowly construed (even Italians outside Rome couldn’t be citizens) and the masses restless, seeking cheap grain for the cities and land for ex-soldiers. Failure to resolve these contradictions, and defend their sacred institutions, led to Caesar and the Roman Imperium.

Left unsatisfied by The Storm Before the Storm, when I saw Dictator sitting on a shelf at the beautiful new West End Library, I had to pick it up. This novel by Robert Harris, the last in a trilogy about ancient Rome, does a far better job at explaining Roman politics and the end of the Republic. His Cicero is a tragic, deeply flawed figure in a brutal age. The novel starts out beautifully, with Cicero on the run from his enemies, lucky to escape into exile. He’s lost everything. But, through his genius and dogged work, he regains his property, his stature and his reputation.

Caesar is a dangerous man who indulges Cicero – to a point. The orator, however, doesn’t know when to shut up, even after being warned by Caesar’s generals. Is this due to vanity or a genuine commitment to democratic institutions?

The most practical guide to our times is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Early in this spare tome, Timothy Snyder, who has written extensively about the Nazi regime, makes this observation:

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands.

Germany was a democracy, just like us, yet they fell into catastrophe. Why? It’s not just “good men doing nothing”, it’s the systematic corruption of an entire society – the media, courts, even truth itself. On Tyranny is a guide to defending democratic institutions, and this slim little book provides practical advice on how to do so, drawn from the dark history of central Europe.

Are we Rome? Are we Germany? The founders of this country studied history, so as not to repeat the errors of the past. We would do so too, if we are to prevent tyranny in our time.

Letter from Washington: The Fascist Impulse

Kids protest gun violence in front of the White House

There they were, by the hundreds. Students from local high schools who had walked out of class to protest the Florida massacre. Streaming past the White House, they chanted, “Hey hey ho ho, the NRA has got to go!”

When I got home, Facebook told me this didn’t happen. They were paid actors, according to videos posted to the site, a vicious slur coming from the social network known for distributing disinformation during the last election.

Why not? their shareholders may ask. They can monetize the traffic, selling ads against the videos, the Republic be damned. A user is a user, whether they’re an American citizen, or Russian bot.

Twitter has at least done something, purging thousands of suspect accounts, as conservatives wail that they’ve lost followers, more concerned with social media fame than their role as unwitting (or perhaps witting) agents of a foreign power.

Unlike past tragedies, the nation is not moving on from Parkland. Trump held a listening session where he needed crib notes to remind himself to be human.

But the real fireworks came that night, at the CNN Town Hall, as students pilloried the politicians that had failed to protect them from assault rifles. Senator Marco Rubio appeared, thinking he could filibuster his way out of this mess. Instead, he was confronted with angry Floridians who demanded that he stop taking contributions from the NRA. He dodged, and the crowd roared in outrage.

Conservative commenters complained that the students were disrespectful. Days earlier, these kids watched their friends get slaughtered. That they had the composure to attend the town hall and ask questions is a tribute to their generation. Their strength and unity gives me hope for the future of this country.

But right-wing pundits online wouldn’t let go of the respect issue. The Trump movement is, at its core, a fascist impulse. Make America Great Again is about respecting your betters (old white people). Throwing aside American traditions, these so-called patriots forget that this country was founded by people with a healthy disrespect for authority. America is no place for kings, and the rowdy democracy demonstrated at the CNN Town Hall was restorative and inspiring.

The kids demonstrated how you deal with Trump and his ilk: you relentlessly attack. You stay focused on the core issue (banning assault weapons) and force opponents to fight on your terms. You don’t take any shit, in other words.

After the election, liberal friends of mine tried to understand and empathize with the other side. That time is over. We all know what Trump and Republicans want now: a totalitarian state where dissent is suppressed in the name of authority. The party of Lincoln has become a fascist cult of personality enthralled by fake news. It must be destroyed if democracy is going to survive.

The kids have shown us how it’s done. Powerless, but speaking truth to power, from the streets of DC to a brightly lit town hall in Florida, enduring the endurable to build a better nation.

They’re coming to Washington next month to March for Our Lives. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

A Good Pitch: The Age of Surge

Sometimes people send me books to review; sometimes I review them.

As a writer myself, it’s an interesting approach to marketing. Based upon my previous Amazon reviews, authors have approached me to review their books. It’s almost always business books, and rarely novels or bottles of whisky. Perhaps this is because business authors are more marketing-savvy.

The email pitch was a good one:

I’m a first time author reaching out to those who love learning and reading about innovation, leadership and new ideas on reinventing companies for digital.
Your review of StrengthsFinder 2.0 is what caught my eye.  Our new book (The Age of Surge.) was written to help leaders and everyday employees take the kinds of ideas covered in StrengthsFinder 2.0 and show how to put them to work in even the most dysfunctional, “broken” companies.   I think you’ll find our book provocative and thought provoking…  you might even like it 🙂
Would you be open to reading our book if I send you a free digital copy (no strings attached)?  Obviously I’d welcome and appreciate any time you’re willing to spend leaving an honest review.

This was a good pitch for a couple of reasons:

  1. It was personalized. The email was not just a press release but a personal note that highlighted the fact that I liked a similar book. There was research behind it.
  2.  It was written in a human voice. The pitch came from the author. It was direct, concise and respectful of my time.

That said, just because it’s a good pitch doesn’t mean I’m going to review it.

I look at these books on business reinvention with a jaundiced eye – my novel Don’t Mess Up My Block satirizes the genre, following a clueless consultant who leaves disaster everywhere he goes. It’s based upon my experience seeing organizations conduct ill-conceived change initiatives.

I didn’t want to like The Age of Surge. But it is a very readable, humane look at change in the workplace from someone who operates in the real world, not the theoretical domain of management consultants. The author praises middle management – I’ve never seen that before.

So, it’s not enough to craft a catchy email. First, you have to write a great book. But to get reviewers to read your book you have to approach them with a personalized, human, relevant message. That’s a good pitch.

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice

Donald Trump may demonize refugees but it’s impossible to look at a suffering person and not feel compassion.

That’s why photography is so important and why the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies recently hosted a panel of photojournalists and an accompanying photo exhibit.

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice examined the impact of photojournalism and creative storytelling on policy.

But when we say policy, what really mean is people. Immigration is a policy; seeing a photo of a child saying goodbye to a deported father is heartbreaking reality.

After the photographers presented the work, a large part of the discussion centered around how to share their photos with the wider world. The set of people willing to go to JHU on a weeknight for a talk on social justice and photography is self-limiting. It was an audience sympathetic to the plight of the dispossessed.

But in an era when people can select their own reality, how do you break through the Fox News bubble?  In his work, Salwan Georges depicts a view rarely seen on network news – the Arab community of Dearborn, Michigan. These are Americans who have given their children in service to this country but their stories are rarely told. Salwan had touching photos of imams at work, not just providing religious instruction, but visiting with their congregants and even arranging marriages, a portrayal of the Muslim faith that never reaches conservative media.

Bridging this gap requires reaching out. It means that photographers and advocates must invite not just the familiar universe of liberals but also other groups, such as churches and veterans. None could look at 15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice and go away unmoved.

The Johns Hopkins photography panel was just the first of several to occur this year, leading up to Focus On the Story, a new photography festival, coming this summer.


Find Work That Matters in 2018

Crowd at Finding Work That Matters

According to a recent survey, nearly 10% of respondents made finding a new job their New Year’s resolution – that’s double from last year. 2018 is the year that America moves on to something better, at least when it comes to work.

The passion for a change was evident at How to Find Work That Matters, a free class at General Assembly in Washington, DC.

Led by career coach Joy Haugen, a packed house of participants took part in exercises designed to identify their dream jobs – and how to get them.

Current/Future State

After a brief introduction, Joy put us to work. The first activity was to write down what your life was like right now – your career, finances, personal life, everything.

Next was to picture your life five years in the future. What does it look like? Where are you living? What are you doing?

Joy then made everyone in the room stand, spin three times, and share your dream with someone else. Three other people, to be exact, as the room burst into noisy conversation.

While Joy encouraged people to think big, most people’s dreams (including mine) were more prosaic: a good job doing interesting work with nice people. That is the American Dream, 2018 edition.

The purpose of this activity was to identify what really mattered to you. Is it being able to walk to work? Make lots of money? Travel? Time off? In order to find work that matters, you must know what matters to you.

Throughout the exercises, Joy’s point was to switch the job-searching paradigm around. You are not a powerless candidate trying to fit into a prescribed box of qualifications. Instead, you are talent, bringing your unique strengths (your superpower, in her words) to an employer lucky to have you.


What is your superpower? What makes you unique? What do you love more than anything else? The next step was to tell the person next to you what that was. (The evening is an introvert’s nightmare). Mine was writing. “Finding an apartment,” spoke the young woman next to me, a true super power in DC.

Your resume should be all about your superpower. What’s the point of listing a bunch of stuff you don’t want to do? My resume is about writing, specifically writing for web sites and social media.

Even if you think your superpower (like finding an apartment), isn’t relevant it probably can be related to real-world skills. The super girl of apartment searching needed to be organized, quick and decisive to find a home in a city with few rentals.

Tip: Add a section called “Skills” at the top of your resume. Hiring managers spend six seconds on a resume. Make it easy for them by listing what you do best. 


Next, Joy made us create two lists:

  1. What I’ve enjoyed at work.
  2. What I’ve not enjoyed.

After we scribbled down our lists, she asked us to look for patterns. My likes were writing, web sites, social media, creative people, collegial environment, happy hour. My dislikes were bureaucracies, bad bosses and no benefits.

Looking at the lists, what stands out? What are your values? Is it important to work in an innovative company? Work independently? Be part of a team?

My values: Creativity, Learning, Nice.

Applying for jobs is a full-time job. Only apply for opportunities that meet your values.


What I liked about Joy was that she was not overly prescriptive.  There are many different ways of doing a resume but the format she recommended was:

  • Name
  • Contact Info (just email/phone – no address needed)
  • Skills
  • Objective/Brand Statement (what you want to do/who you are)
  • Experience
  • Education
  • Other (your side hustle, millennials)

One page for every ten years is her rule. Lots of bullets to make the resume easy to scan. And data. Numbers. If you increased sales by 20%, include that.

Cover Letter

Joy is also an advocate of the cover letter. It should contain five paragraphs:

  1. What you’re applying for.
  2. Why you’re great.
  3. Why they’re great.
  4. What great things we can do together.
  5. Call to action – call me!

The purpose of the resume and cover letter is to get you past the screener. A typical HR staffer may be recruiting for twenty jobs. For each job, they get 100+ resumes. Make it easy for the screener to match you with the job by clearly spelling out your skills and interests.


Of course, the dream is to skip past the screener. You do that through networking. Go to events in your field. Stalk people on LinkedIn. And, when you meet people, stand out by not asking that most DC of questions, “What do you do?” Instead, ask people what they like about their jobs or what they do outside of work or, frankly, anything. The purpose is just to have a human conversation so that they’ll remember you in the future.

Tip: For an easy networking opportunity, go to General Assembly’s First Friday Happy Hour.

Let’s Make a Plan

Most people who resolve to find a new job in January give up by February. Job searching is hard.

Joy advocates blocking out time on your calendar to work on applications. And celebrate your wins, even if it’s just updating your resume or going to a networking event.

Washington is awash in jobs. But it’s also awash in candidates.

The temptation is to apply to everything and anything. After all, you can do so with the click of a button.

What I took from Finding Work That Matters is the importance of finding a job that meets your values. For me, that’s finding a writing job with nice people in downtown DC close to bars and bike lanes 🙂

Mapping BikeDC: Photos from the Nation’s Capital

The BikeDC Flickr map displaying photos tagged BikeDC from around the city.
The BikeDC Flickr map displaying photos tagged BikeDC from around the city.

What does biking look like in Washington, DC? Find out with the new BikeDC Flickr map created by Michael Schade.

It’s a heat map of Flickr photos of bikes and bicyclists in DC. Areas with the most photos glow red while those with none are gray. See the favorite spots for pictures of bikes, taken by people on bikes, and ponder the empty quarters of the city. Zoom in to find your favorite trail and zoom out to see an overview of  the Washington region.

How it works

When you take a photo on your iPhone, location data is captured. If you upload it to Flickr, that geolocation is included, joining a worldwide map of photos auto-generated by this online service.

Another little-known feature of Flickr is the ability to tag photos with keywords. Doing so helps you and others find your photos.

To build his map of biking in DC, Michael used Flickr’s map and limited it to photos tagged with the BikeDC keyword.


The BikeDC Flickr map corresponds neatly with the Strava heat map of biking in DC. Most biking occurs in the Northwest section of the city. People go on bikes go to their jobs downtown and then on the trails during the weekends. Still, there are surprises in the data.

Anacostia Trail – why so few riders? This gorgeous new trail follows the Anacostia upstream by Kenilworth Gardens and the Bladensburg battlefield.

No one bikes to H St? After wrecking on the trolley tracks, I’m not a fan of biking to this neighborhood. But I know people do.

The Metropolitan Branch Trail is underrepresented. This urban trail is lined with beautiful murals and is an active commuter route. It needs photos!

BikeDC really loves Dupont Circle. It’s a convenient meeting spot and where the DC Bike Party starts so it’s a flaming red hot spot.

15th and P – en fuego! Okay, this is my fault. I’m a prime contributor to BikeDC photos and this is my neighborhood. I take a lot of photos of the 15th St bike lane, especially when the Awesome Foundation cheered on bike commuters.

Cyclecross in the City – BikeDC doesn’t just happen on the roads. If you pan up to Park View, you’ll see a bunch of pictures from DC Cyclocross, where city cyclists go off-road at the Old Soldiers Home.

BikeDC is just not DC – The BikeDC photo blob extends across the river, following the Arlington loop of bike trails as well as extending south to Alexandria and north to Silver Spring, MD.

How you can help

Got a favorite bike spot that you don’t see on the BikeDC Flickr map? Know a neighborhood or trail that’s underrepresented? Upload your photos to Flickr. Make sure that your pictures include location info (if not you can add it in the Organizer) and tag them with the keyword BikeDC. Help build a pictorial representation of biking in the city.

If you have questions about the map, contact Michael Schade. He generously created this project on his own time. It’s still a work-in-progress but demonstrates the breadth of BikeDC across the city and beyond.

The Swamp: Early Reviews

Meeting Mandi, one of my readers in Orlando, Florida.

One of the most gratifying things about being an author is hearing that people enjoyed your book.

And readers have enjoyed THE SWAMP!

Here are some early reviews of my funny new novel about Washington, DC, and the times we live in now.

Even better than experiencing good reviews is meeting readers, like Mandi in Florida! Her extended family has been some of my biggest supporters. Her aunt Rachel (the cool aunt) designed the cover of my novel.

Check out THE SWAMP yourself and enjoy this rollicking read!