WordPressDC: Create a Home Page That Gets You Clients

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Before social media and SEO, web sites were all about words.

Content, we called it, and content was king.

The site with the best words won.

At least they did for a few brief years in the 90s, before keyword stuffing, monetization strategies, content management systems, personalization, cookies, bots, influencers, viral videos, tweet storms and other forms of digital manipulation embraced by late-stage capitalism.

Every once in a while, however, I’m reminded that web sites are about words. Without them, your web site is an empty shell.

Marylyn King presented on the power of words at the October WordPress DC Meetup on creating a home page that gets you clients.

She made the point that effective web sites clearly spell out their offer. Ask for what you want!

It’s a novel concept that’s been lost as so many home pages are soaked in indecipherable jargon. If you’re in the IT field, it’s buzzwords about the cloud. Government agencies decorate their pages with undefined acronyms. Nonprofits do everything but describe what they do.

No one wants to say, “I sell widgets.” Instead, they claim, “We’re a next generation industrial enterprise bringing lifestyle solutions embraced by the marketplace.”

But if you want your customer to buy something or donate money or sign-up for the newsletter, ask them! Make it clear, direct and bold.

Marylyn explained how to write the copy for an effective home page:

  • Problem
  • Solution
  • Authority
  • Call to Action

You describe the problem – I want toast.

You give the solution – here is a toaster.

You mention your authority – 99% of Amazon shoppers gave this toaster five stars.

And then the call to action: buy the toaster!

The silly examples are mine but web content does not need to be complicated and should not be complicated. You’re dealing with a fickle consumer who will click away from your site within seconds.

So, tell them what you offer immediately. Don’t make them figure it out. Don’t make them think.

Content management systems may change. Web design fads differ from year to year.

But the power of words is a constant. Invest in them to deliver returns.

Open Streets DC Opens Eyes

yoga on Georgia Avenue

Georgia Avenue is a street that I actively avoid. I live close to it – less than a mile – but I do everything in my power to avoid walking, biking or driving there.

Why?

Georgia Avenue is a traffic sewer designed to benefit Maryland car commuters rather than the people who live in the neighborhood. It is six lanes of hell, filled with angry drivers rushing from traffic light to traffic light but getting nowhere fast.

With narrow sidewalks blocked with utility poles, it’s not fun for pedestrians, either. And the few times I’ve biked on the street, it was only due to a navigational error on my part.

Until Saturday.

Open Streets Georgia Avenue

Georgia Avenue went car-free on October 5, 2019, for Open Streets DC. For a few hours on Saturday, anyone could use the street and they did! Thousands of people came from around the region to experience this fleeting pedestrian paradise.

In addition to the simple joy of walking, running or biking down the wide avenue, people enjoyed yoga, a climbing wall, bands, DJs and anything else that they could dream up on this open stretch of asphalt.

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But it was the kids who enjoyed it most. Everywhere you looked, you saw children on scooters, bikes, trikes and even unicycles. Parents could safely let their children wander the wide lanes without worrying about crazed car commuters.

It opened my eyes – literally. Without the fear of being run over, I could pause and look around, discovering new delights everywhere I turned.

My day was spent saying coasting down Georgia Avenue on my bike with friends and saying, “I didn’t know that was there…” It’s really a majestic avenue, filled with neighborhood shops and a wonderful tree-lined stretch near Howard University, one that is revealed only when cars are absent.

For example, last week, I walked by a new beer garden – Hook Hall. Yet, I barely noticed it for I was trying to get across Georgia Avenue without being hit by a car. Even with a marked crosswalk, drivers didn’t want to stop for me.

Hook Hall

With Open Streets DC, I was able to peer into the beer garden, leisurely stroll in, and enjoy a stein of beer. I also had pizza at Sonny’s, another place I had walked by but not seen due to the distracting presence of drivers.

Call Your Mother was another place I had read about but hadn’t seen, because it is on inaccessible Georgia Avenue. There was a block-long line for a bagel! And I discovered a new coffee place, Colony Club, and I am always up for new coffee places.

Open Streets DC opened my eyes – literally. Without the danger of cars, I could lift my head up and look around. The area I thought of as “hellish Georgia Avenue” is actually the lovely neighborhood of Park View.

Alas, after a few short hours, Open Streets DC came to an end. By 4 PM, massive SUVs and double-parking Ubers had replaced pedestrians. Parents took their children home before they were hit by a car.

Georgia Avenue was hellish again. I crossed the street and biked home via 11th St, a much safer route but also one that avoids Hook Hall, Call Your Mother, Sonny’s and all the other retail establishments of Park View.

DC was not designed for cars; it was meant for people. Open Streets DC was more than just a successful urban experiment, it reawakened the idea that the streets belong to everyone.

the #BikeDC crew

Letter from Washington: Why Men Great ’til They Gotta Be Great?

American flag on the 14th St Bridge

Why men great til they gotta be great?
– Lizzo

One of the most puzzling aspects of the Trump Administration is the lack of resistance within the institutions of government. When Trump was elected, I assumed that these august bodies and our revered Constitution would keep him from wrecking this country through treason, trade wars and other acts of willful destruction.

Like many other assumptions of 2016, this proved to be wrong. Instead, we got children in cages, a drunken frat boy on the Supreme Court and Trump yucking it up with Russians in the Oval Office.

Our institutions proved to be hollow shells. Pretty on the outside, with their marble columns and American flags snapping smartly in the breeze, but run by men (and it was mostly men) who were poor imitations of our Founders.

I won’t say they failed at resistance because they didn’t even try. Instead, they implemented Trump’s orders, no matter how cruel.

We’ve poured billions into the Department of Homeland Security since 9/11 to protect our democracy yet when a tyrant appears in our midst, this vast and unaccountable internal police state aids and abets this agent of our enemies rather than combat him.

The roll of honor of Washington institutions that resisted tyranny is exceedingly small. Prime among them is the chronically underfunded National Weather Service, which had the temerity to the state the truth: Alabama wasn’t going to be hit by a hurricane, even if the President put them in a cone of danger with his Sharpie.

I’m proud to say that I once worked in communications at the National Weather Service. You will not find more dedicated civil servants, people who have dedicated their lives to keeping the rest of us safe.

I also spent a few months at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This agency, the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren, was designed to protect consumers from scams like payday loans, which take advantage of the poor with usurious interest rates.

After the CFPB Director left, Trump installed Mick Mulvaney to gut the agency. At the time, there was a question about the legality of this move. Would the CFPB staff follow his orders? The media gathered outside the agency on the G Street to see what would happen next. Demonstrators showed up to support CFPB, including Elizabeth Warren.

Agency lawyers said Mulvaney was in charge, so Mulvaney was in charge. The mission of protecting consumers from big banks was flipped on its head. Gouge the poor all you want and the CFPB will protect you from their complaints.

There was no walkout. No strike. The media left.

Why?

First, CFPB staff wanted to protect what they had. Not just their salaries and positions, but the programs they ran. Mulvaney was in charge and the game now was to convince him that their activity was non-partisan and not at all connected to She Who Must Not Be Named (Elizabeth Warren).

Second, they assumed that someone else would undo this obvious crime. A con artist should not run an agency designed to protect consumers.

Someone else would rescue them – Bob Mueller, the courts, someone. Like an episode of The West Wing, a politician would deliver a speech that shamed evil Republicans into doing the right thing. Cut to commercial and life would be back to normal.

Of course, no rescue was coming for our institutions are largely weak, ineffectual and compromised.

The whistleblower has done what three branches of government couldn’t: check Trump’s behavior by carefully documenting his criminality.

A savvy communicator, the whistleblower assembled an air-tight case against the tyrant. It’s irrefutable, providing a road map to impeachment in a way that the legalistic Robert Mueller never could. Simple, clear and direct, it’s a model of communication, perhaps the most important memo ever written, a letter that could save the nation.

No one is coming. This not an episode of The West Wing. If we’re going to save this country, we have to do it ourselves. The whistleblower knew that, and acted.

The Vine Trail: A Tale of Two Trails

Biking the Vine Trail

“Biking among vineyards, that sounds lovely,” a friend said after I mentioned that I had gone biking in California’s Napa Valley.

The Vine Trail is that but it’s also something else; the experience is a tale of two trails.

I rented a bike in Yountville from Napa Valley Bike Tours. Took all of five minutes and the trail is just a couple blocks from the store.

My bike was a Specialized Alibi. Being the owner of a Specialized Sirrus, I was instantly comfortable on the Alibi, for it was similar to my Sirrus with one important exception: airless tires.

Airless tires are filled with foam, not air, so are flat-free. Also: ouch. I felt every little bump. I moved the seat up to take the pressure off my rear end and more evenly arrange my weight between handlebars and saddle. Should’ve packed bike shorts.

Riding south from Yountville, the first five miles of the trail are beautiful. The Vine Trail is flat and straight, running down the middle of the valley along tracks used by the Napa Valley Wine Train. Sun, blue sky and vineyards stretch toward the mountains. Alongside the trail are exhibits, if you want to stop and read. I didn’t know that eucalyptus trees had been imported from Australia. And that they explode during wildfires.

The trail grows suburban as you reach the outskirts of Napa. You roll by a subdivision, a Hilton Garden Inn, and then the trail ends at a bus depot.

Napa Valley Bike Tours supplied a handlebar bag with a trail map attached to it. You have to ride on the sidewalk for a little bit and then cross a road to find the trail again.

The Vine Trail in Napa

Then begins the urban portion of the trail. In fact, the way the Vine Trail goes past warehouses and through backyards reminded me of the Orlando Urban Trail. Interesting, but not what I expected Napa to look like.

The trail discontinues again, leaving you at another intersection. After consulting the map, I made my way across the busy road and down to Oxbow Market. This sprawling marketplace along the Napa River is a paradise for foodies, featuring vendors including Ritual Coffee, Three Twins  Ice Cream, The Model Bakery and more.

After fortifying myself with a BLT from Gott’s Roadside, and a look around Napa’s downtown, I made my way back to the trail.

BLT at Gott's

It was ten miles back to Yountville, for a twenty mile round trip. I had fun – the trail is flat, the scenery interesting and Oxbow Market makes a delicious destination.

But, if you have a fantasy about biking to wineries, the Vine Trail is not it. While there are wineries along the route, they’re not easily accessible from the trail. If you want to bike for wine, I’d suggest a guided tour.

If you’re in Napa or Yountville and want to get a little exercise, the Vine Trail is perfect for that. It’s a tale of two trails, one urban and the other a dream of sun-soaked vineyards.

Specialized Sirrus Disc: First Impressions

new bike day

It was time for a new bike.

I knew that my Specialized Sirrus needed some work. The rear wheel was wobbly, the brakes were squeaky and the gears protested when shifting.

Since purchasing it in 2006, I had logged thousands of miles on the bike. Its wheels had rolled down the sands of New Smyrna Beach, climbed the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and performed lots of everyday biking in Washington, DC.

It was way more use than I ever imagined. Bikes don’t last long in DC. I figured it would’ve been stolen or wrecked by now.

But the Sirrus endured, with just some minor repairs and tune-ups.

Until now. Taking the bike into Conte’s for repair, I was not surprised to hear that nearly everything on the bike needed to be replaced. I had ridden the Sirrus into the ground.

Time to get a new bike! I had long anticipated this moment.

I had been looking at new bikes for years, reading websites and checking out other people’s rides. I had tried other bikes, like a Riide electric bike and a Brompton folding bike, but was waiting for the moment when my old bike would fall to pieces and I could get a new one.

I tried the Specialized Sirrus Disc and bought it. Loved the look. The black with the recessed cables is sexy as hell. Could be none more black. Built-in reflectivity in the frame and on the tires makes it more visible than my old Sirrus.

I also wanted a flat bar bike, since I like having my brakes handy in the city.

And the brakes! That was the first thing I noticed as I took the bike around on a test ride around the Navy Yard. The v-brakes on my old Sirrus need to be stomped on to work. It was always a panic stop with them, as you tried to modulate between stopping and flying over the handlebars. In contrast, disc brakes are so smooth and safe.

Also, the Sirrus Disc has slightly wider tires than my old bike, which made it feel much more secure on city streets.

Which is what the bike is designed for: urban rides and fitness. It’s for bike lanes and trails for the semi-advanced rider.

New bike was $625. My bike friends would consider that cheap, while my non-bike friends would find that expensive. Considering I got thirteen years and thousands of miles of transportation out of my old bike, it’s a bargain.

I also got the Conte’s Protection Plan. $60 for three years of repairs is a deal.

The staff at Conte’s moved my bell, water cage, lights, etc… from old bike to new. Then I rolled out on my new bike, leaving my old Sirrus for the bicycle graveyard.

New bike is much faster and smoother than old bike, I noticed as I cruised down Eye Street. It took me past another cyclist as if it had a will of its own.

Fourth Street was a surprise, however. It is notoriously potholed. My old Sirrus had a spring built into the seat; new Sirrus does not so it was a harder ride.

It takes time to get used to a new bike. You need to live with it for a while. But the Sirrus Disc felt right from the moment I got on it.

The Influencers Published in Marathon Literary Review

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Driven by a quest for fame, American life has become all about optics. The truth does not matter; instead, it’s about popularity and surface appearance. It’s all about likes.

My short story, The Influencers, recently published in Marathon Literary Review, examines the pursuit of online celebrity. In this dark comedy, a prolific Twitterer accepts a free trip to Mexico and stumbles into disaster.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written fiction about social media – my novel Murder on U Street was also concerned the dangerous lure of the online world.

I write about it because I am one of its victims. Like the protagonist in The Influencers, I’m obsessed with Twitter. This fire hose of electronic information, discourse, debate and applause is irresistible to me, though it has stolen my attention span and wrecked my sanity.

I recognize the dangers of social media but am unwilling to break free, trapped in this digital funhouse with real-world consequences, like the glib characters of The Influencers.

Searching for Joy in Little Free Libraries

Go for the Moon

What do you make of these times? It’s an age where we salute past wonders, like the moon landing, while we keep children in concentration camps. A President spews hate while the rest of us just try to get along with our neighbors.

Washington is a place where you can be killed sitting in a park. But it’s also home to Little Free Libraries where you can discover a dream land of pagans, dark forests and a 99.9% literacy rate.

We’re driven mad by the distracting devices we cannot bear to part with, though we know they’re charging our minds in unseen ways. Time itself has become compressed, sped up, out of control.

To the Moon

Fifty years ago, we went to the Moon. I went to the Washington Monument on a hot evening (it would get hotter) to see the Apollo rocket that took them there projected onto the marble spire.

It was a reminder of American greatness. We’ve always been great. Thousands filled the National Mall to watch a reminder of our past achievements.

Inspiring, what we can do. Or could do. A half-century ago, engineers sent a man to the Moon. Today, our engineers design a better like button.

But the memory remains. May it serve to inspire a new generation to do better.

You Acclimate

Robert remembers his friends

The society that conquered space is unwilling to prevent drivers from killing people. Two homeless men died sitting in a park. The driver went through the park with such violence that they destroyed trees and benches. I talked to a witness who said that the SUV went airborne.

A remembrance was held in their honor. It has become the grim task of my friend Rachel Maisler to organize these events. Her banner “We demand safe roads” signed by so many with so much hope has become faded with time.

My hope comes and goes, flickering like a candle. Is change possible? A week earlier, I attended the unveiling of DDOT’s plans to rebuild Pennsylvania Avenue to make it safer. It will happen, some day. Too late for the men killed at midnight.

“It could’ve been me!” Robert, a friend of of the men, cried, tears rolling down his cheeks. I stood in white, a mourner, a small crowd in a park at the end of a weekday.

The temperature increased, rising to nearly 100. You acclimate. You learn to adjust.

I played soccer on Saturday. Though we started at 8 AM, after an hour I was approaching heat stroke.

The Joy of the Little Free Library

Pagans

On Sunday, I biked in brief spurts between bouts of air conditioned comfort, making a tour of downtown on Capital Bikeshare. Coffee shop, Greek place, more coffee and then someplace new: the Latvian Little Free Library.

I had spotted it on earlier jaunt, located outside the Embassy of Latvia on Embassy Row. I returned to drop off a copy of The Swamp – I like leaving my  novels in Little Free Libraries.

Not surprisingly, most of the books in the little free library were about Latvia. A beautiful white tome caught my eye: Latvia 100 Snapshot Stories.

Opening the book at random, I read about how the pagan tradition survived in one of the oldest civilizations in Europe. A country that loved books with a 99.99% literacy rate. A democracy that embraced women. A place that overcame Nazi and Soviet occupation to regain their independence through nonviolent resistance in 1991. Also, bicycles, beer and saunas in a nation that is still half-covered in primeval forest.

Paging through the book as the temperature climbed toward a record, I was swept away in a cold dream of bikes, books and women.

 

I’ve become one of those cranks who attend public meetings

making a u-turn through the Stop U-Turns Protest
The moment I became an activist.

I’ve become one of those cranks who attend public meetings.

The thought occurred to me as I sat for a presentation on street redesign in a library multipurpose room.

This was a surprise. I’m a Gen Xer, part of a generational cohort noted for its extreme cynicism.

Getting involved was something that Baby Boomers did – and look at what a mess they had made of things, destroying every American institution in a long march through history that culminated with the election of Donald Trump.

Boomer culture was something that my generation rejected. Caring was a fool’s errand, destined for failure, our voices swamped by the too large, too wealthy, too loud Boomers.

It started with Stop U-Turns on Penn. I went, not as a participant, but as a photographer.

The objective was to get barriers installed (called park-its) installed on Pennsylvania Avenue so that cars couldn’t make u-turns across the unprotected bike lane.

I thought it was a waste of time. No way would the city do anything in for bicyclists like me. I had accepted my second or even third-class status in a city dominated by the needs of drivers.

The protesters, including Dave Salovesh, put their bodies on the line, standing along both sides of the unprotected bike lane in front of the Wilson Building, home to DC’s city government.

And, while they stood there, with cops and media in the middle of the street, a driver made a u-turn. Right across the solid white lines of the bike lane. Mid-block. In a gap between protesters. Everyone yelled and a police officer pulled the driver over.

Inspired by their bravery, I joined them, moving from observer to participant, transitioning from cynical to cautiously hopeful.

I crossed a deep psychological chasm for Generation X: I cared.

And we, for I was part of something now, won. Park-its were installed down the length of Pennsylvania Avenue bike lane.

Pennsylvania Avenue West redesign meeting
I did the unthinkable: attend a local government meeting.

Which is how I found myself sitting in a conference room at the West End Library on a Thursday night. The District Department of Transportation was there to show how they intended to redesign Pennsylvania Avenue West to make it safer for pedestrians and cyclists. There were discussions about road drainage, loading zones and bicycle lane width. I viewed the slides, listened to the briefing and talked to DDOT staff.

I even offered a suggestion, using the provided post-it notes to scribble a comment and affix it to the redesign plan taped to the wall.

Gen X cynicism is a mask, since we believe that caring is a hopeless proposition.

But I had seen that change is possible. Sometimes only after great tragedy. Florida Avenue, where Dave Salovesh was killed, is getting redesigned this summer to make it safer.

On a Thursday night, I provided feedback to government officials who, I was confident, wanted to do the right thing. I believed. I had faith. I knew my voice mattered.

I had become one of those cranks that attend public meetings.

Varina, a novel about the South

No one writes better about the South today than Charles Frazier. The best-selling author of Cold Mountain gets more than just the flora and fauna right (though he is expert at that) he expresses the feeling of the South being part of America and yet apart from it.

His new novel, Varina, explores what makes the South different from the rest of the country by looking at the tumultuous life of Varina Davis, First Lady of the Confederacy.

The daughter of a wastrel, she was married off to Jefferson Davis, a rising politician in antebellum Mississippi. Renowned for her wit and beauty, her years in Washington before the Civil War were the happiest of her life. But trouble was coming – she saw it in prophetic dreams.

A sense of doom settled over her and Jefferson as the South seceded. Both knew that the Confederacy was a sham enterprise.

Yet, Jefferson believed that the states had a right to quit the USA. More importantly, he asserted that slave owners had a right to do whatever they wanted with their property – it was guaranteed in the Constitution.

Jefferson led this nation into a disastrous war, one that smashed the lives of millions. As Richmond fell, Varina packed what remained of her family into a wagon and fled, nearly making it to Florida before she was caught.

Jefferson Davis never got his day in court to argue the legality of slavery; instead, he received exile and poverty. Varina Davis suffered further tragedies but reinvented herself as an author and advice columnist. Notable among her friendships was the widow of Ulysses Grant.

“The right side won,” she would say later in life.

Varina tells her story, jumping around in time, as she explores her memories in response to a visitor with a mystery of his own.

It’s a beautiful novel, an exploration of the moral cost of an immoral system. Like many of us, Varina doesn’t directly challenge the evil around her, though she knows that there will be a terrible price to pay. That’s what makes her voice contemporary and relevant for our own times.

American Chernobyl

American runner

There’s a great speech in the first episode of Chernobyl, HBO’s series about the Russian nuclear disaster. A group of Communist party officials gather in a command center as the scope of the catastrophe begins to emerge. They debate whether to inform the people of the danger, their voices verging on panic and coming dangerously close to honesty about the Soviet system.

Invoking the ghost of Lenin, an elderly apparatchik rises and tells them to have faith. If the people ask questions, they should be told to keep their minds on their labor and leave matters of the state to the state. He orders that the city be sealed off and the phone lines cut. “This is our moment to shine!” he exclaims.

Chernobyl is about more than just  the meltdown of a nuclear reactor; it is about the meltdown of an entire political system. Soviet officials deny the truth – the reactor cannot have exploded! – even as firefighters stumble into the hospital, their faces peeling off from radiation exposure. Those valiantly trying to contain the damage have to fight the Politburo and a bureaucracy intent on its own self-preservation.

The world finds out about Chernobyl only when radioactivity leaks outside the borders of the USSR. The damage to Soviet prestige was incalculable. The Soviet Union was not a Communist paradise. Suddenly, ordinary citizens began to question their leaders. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR, argued that it was a bigger blow to the country than his policy of perestroika.

The Chernobyl disaster, more than anything else, opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue.

Watching the series, I wondered if we would do any better if faced with a similar disaster.

But it’s not a reactor that’s melting down here in America: it’s democracy.

The Chernobyl disaster exposed all the flaws of the Soviet state – the secrecy, the suppression and the hollow core of a superpower.

The Trump disaster is peeling away the comforting myths that we believe about our country – our fairness, our institutions and the belief that we’re the good guys.

Friends of mine who come from other countries cannot believe that this is happening to America. We’re supposed to be better than this. We’re not supposed to be vulnerable to the kinds of xenophobia and dictatorship that plague other parts of the world.

History does not always move forward. Sometimes it slides backward. Karl Marx believed that Communism was inevitable, in the same way that we believe that democracy will naturally win out.

As the plant at Chernobyl burned, pouring radioactive debris into the atmosphere, Soviet officials denied the facts on the ground, lied to each other, issued misleading reports and tried to cover up the scope of the disaster, working to ensure the illusion of state infallibility rather than confronting the truth.

As our Chernobyl burns, pouring toxic politics across the American landscape, we busy ourselves with reality TV, the churn of social media and news reporting that ignores a dictatorship slouching towards its birth.

American Chernobyl has exposed the weaknesses of the American system – our media addiction, unrelenting greed and the pursuit of fame, to the detriment of every other value that we once held dear.

In face of disaster, we’ve not done any better than the Soviet Union. And we’re destined to share their fate unless we confront the truth about ourselves.