I unleashed a volley of obscenities at the two (two!) cars parked in the middle of the bike lane. After a minor fender-bender, these two drivers decided the best course of action was to move their cars into the protected bike lane of 15th, thus forcing people on bikes (me!) into traffic.
I cursed; they cursed back. At the next light, a woman on a bike pulled up next to me. “That wasn’t helpful,” she said.
“But,” I started, thinking of all the different ways the bike lane is blocked daily by cars, construction and utility companies determined to dig up every bit of asphalt in this city. However, I’ll admit when I’m wrong and I was. Yelling at them did not help matters nor did it make me feel better. It just left me with a hangover of rage.
It’s a tough time of year. I dread these days when the sun sinks lower in the sky until it just barely seems to get above the horizon. You go to work under gray skies and leave when it’s black.
A time of deep crankiness, when schedules are packed with commitments while you’re pressed with a tyrannical demand to appear jolly. Humans, however, are cyclical animals and this is the low end of the year, a sputtering conclusion to a particularly bad one.
Thank god I can run. On Monday, after wrestling with “Run? Don’t run?” I plodded toward Georgetown as the sun set. Running along the waterfront it occurred to me that perhaps the way to conquer winter was to embrace the darkness. Cold temps bring a stillness to the city, banishing the fair-weather tourists. I ran alone by the dark Potomac. Light lingered in the west, across the river.
I stopped to capture the moment. Pretty photo but I’m never going to love winter. Move faster, earth, and spin these dark days away until we reach spring.
My new novel, THE SWAMP, begins with a bad weather forecast. A meteorologist predicts snow for Washington, DC. But snow turns to rain over the city, for it is protected by a layer of hot air.
How much hot air? To determine this, the meteorologist sets a drone aloft over the skies of DC, triggering a comic chain of events leading to the end of the country as we know it. Welcome to THE SWAMP.
DC always seems to be on the rain-snow line and with another questionable forecast in the air, I decided this weekend was the perfect time to launch THE SWAMP. This dark satire of DC is now available in print and Kindle on Amazon.
A five-star review described the book as a “dystopian thriller that will have you wondering..what if? or if only?”
THE SWAMP is set in a mercifully Trump-free era. It’s an alternate history of DC, in which sleazy TV correspondents, mommy bloggers and jaded politicos struggle to control a world spinning away from them. If you like dark comedies filled with complex characters and ironic plot twists, then you’ll love THE SWAMP.
Never a good sign when there are people picketing the office. I started a contractor gig at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently. Monday morning, I was greeted by protesters in front of the brutalist home of the agency a block from the White House.
But they were in support of the CFPB, not opposing it. The Director had left the week before and had tried to appoint one of his deputies as Acting Director. The Trump administration had countermanded this order and sent over Mick Mulvaney, the OMB Director, to run the CFPB. He arrived Monday morning with donuts.
Outside, the media asked, “Who’s in charge?” Inside, there was no confusion: Mulvaney, because the agency’s General Counsel said so. Americans have an admirable belief in the rule of law, even when it harms their interests.
Mulvaney settled into the executive suite with a small team (including his own Jonah – life imitates VEEP) and immediately put a hold on all activities. Innocuous communications work, like the type I was hired to do, will be allowed to continue but Mulvaney will put a stop to enforcement actions, such as penalizing Wells Fargo for creating fake accounts and bilking consumers.
Elizabeth Warren came to protest on Tuesday, trailing the largest media contingent I have ever seen. Presidential, I would describe it, a scrum of reporters, TV crews and giddy supporters so chaotic that I couldn’t hear anything she said about the agency she helped to found.
Inside, we were instructed not to talk to reporters. I would gladly talk to reporters, if I knew anything. We work for the people. They have a right to know.
Inside, the line was: Mulvaney will change us, but we’ll change him too. CFPB is staffed by relentless, Obama-era optimists.
Thursday night, I went for a run, ending up in front of Lincoln, dead and forgotten in his memorial. Republicans, what happened to you? The Great Emancipator freed people from bondage while today’s GOP works to put consumers in debt traps, provide tax breaks for the wealthy and collude with Russia to destroy democracy.
Just before starting the CFPB gig, I finished reading A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, which takes Abe off his pedestal, revealing his early life as a scrambling politician. Born poor, he worked for the common man, trying to bring canals and railroads to the frontier, always on the side of farmers and tradesmen, believing that government worked for the people.
If Lincoln awoke today, he would be appalled, recognizing in today’s GOP the exploitative planter class that he destroyed during the Civil War. For abandoning the beliefs of Lincoln in favor of a charlatan, Republicans have disgraced themselves for eternity.
Then, a Friday morning bombshell: Flynn pleads guilty! The odious former National Security Advisor made a deal with the Special Prosecutor, who is working through the Trump administration, as if he were rolling up a Mafia family.
Because Trump can’t stop tweeting, even on the weekends, he had to comment on Saturday about Flynn, seeming to incriminate himself in obstruction of justice.
I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!
How does this end? Nixon had the decency to resign. A member of the Greatest Generation, he left office to preserve the country (and his party).
Donald Trump, the ultimate representation of the crass and selfish Baby Boom Generation, lacks the honor of Nixon. A con artist, draft dodger and rapist, he will not surrender office willingly.
As justice draws near, I see three possible endgames:
1. Trump fires Mueller. The country is thrown into chaos. 2018 is a year of mass demonstrations and widespread resistance until the midterm elections. Then, with a crushing Democratic majority, Trump is impeached.
2. Trump is charged with obstruction of justice, but Republicans refuse to impeach. Again, widespread domestic chaos hopefully ending with a Democratic majority.
3. Trump goes to war against North Korea to distract from the Mueller probe. Like World War I, a regional conflict spirals into a global catastrophe, leaving millions dead and the end of the US as a superpower.
I hope to be proven wrong but if 2017 has taught us anything is that each week brings ever-growing chaos and peril, as American democracy comes under sustained attack from without and within. It’s up to us to resist.
My ten-year-old Specialized Sirrus faithfully carried me on all these adventures, a bike that just refuses to quit. Most of routine city riding was done on Capital Bikeshare. In 2017, I also tried out a Brompton folding bike, sampled the junky new dockless bikeshare bikes and rocketed down a trail on a JUMP electric bike.
If you get hit with tear gas, flush your eyes out with milk. Flashbang grenades make a lot of noise but aren’t harmful. The DC police are very professional but will lash out if they feel trapped. These are the things you learn at a FotoWeek panel. The subject was UnPresidented, a great photo book documenting the Trump inauguration protests.
Joe Newman organized some of D.C.’s top street photographers to document the contentious inauguration of Donald J. Trump, which was met with rioting, peaceful civil disobedience and one of the largest protest marches in U.S. history. The images from the three days of the inauguration — which included President Obama’s last full day in office, the day before the inauguration, and the massive Women’s March on Washington, the day after — were published in UnPresidented: The Inauguration of Donald J. Trump and the People’s Response.
Joining him for this panel discussion at the Mexican Cultural Institute were Chris Suspect and Mukul Ranjan, who documented a weekend of chaos on the streets of DC.
Protests in DC typically have a routine quality to them, a polite display of signs and chants. But the inauguration protests were different in size, scope and level of anger. I was on the streets and saw things I never expected to see in DC, like people getting punched and a limousine on fire.
But I was also witness to the start of something. Days of rage gave way to the inspiring spectacle of the Women’s March, the largest crowd I have ever seen, stretching from the Capitol to the White House and beyond. It was a nation finding its voice: The Resistance.
These momentous days of protest and and rebirth are captured brilliantly in UnPresidented.
In my short story Victory Party, which won the City Paper Fiction Competition, I portray a Washington shocked by the Trump victory – and one person who’s happy about the result.
Election 2016 was an event that traumatized the American psyche. I wasn’t the only person who processed this horror through fiction. A majority of the submissions to the City Paper contest concerned Trump, as I learned during a reading at Kramerbooks.
I assumed the worst was over. A horrible punch to the gut but then life in Washington would resume along the contours of previous experience. Trump would rise to the occasion and become a normal Republican like Bush.
I was wrong. Realized it during his American Carnage inauguration speech. Everything went downhill from there, a year of outrages culminating in the firing of James Comey. Now, we’ll be lucky to survive 2017 without Trump kicking off war on the Korean peninsula.
During the year, I wrote a novel – The Swamp. My fictional depiction of the Obama era seems quaint. The book presents a scenario I thought outlandish, in which a political groundswell demands that the nation’s capital be moved out of DC. Out of Washington, I called it. But this fictional future reads like a best-case scenario now.
Thinking back on my short story, Victory Party, what would my protagonist make of the past year? My ex-con Randy was happy, the Trump victory representing revenge upon the elite class, through he’s wise enough to know it won’t last. One year later, it hasn’t, and I imagine him trying to stay honorable in very dishonorable times.
We write to make sense of our times, trying to impose narrative on chaos. Washington wrote following the Trump victory. Washington continues to write as the nation unravels.
Blocked off from traffic, the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue is peaceful and calm. Just after dawn, I slowly pedal by, just me, a few joggers and the Secret Service. In the warm light of morning, the White House looks serene.
A plot against America, carried out by the President’s campaign. If this was a season of House of Cards, it would strain credulity. Democrats and Republicans, while they have their differences, all believe in democracy – right?
No. Trump and his family colluded with Russia to win an election, gleefully aided by a Republican party willing to do anything to win.
Some GOP leaders knowingly compromised their principles and our national security to support Trump’s victory. We must hold them accountable.
At first glance, the scandal seems like a black comedy cooked up by the writers of Arrested Development, the Bluth family writ large, a global scheme to launder money and filled with bit players such as a George Popadapoulos, catfished by Russia into thinking he was meeting Putin’s niece. Funny, right?
But then you remember that this isn’t TV. It’s not HBO. It’s your country and the scandal is an attack on democracy, an act of collusion between a corrupt candidate and a Russian adversary eager to upend the global order.
Our external enemy (Putin) has joined with our internal one (red states) in an alliance to bring down the country that they hate: America.
Over the weekend, I watched Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. She too was cursed to live in interesting times, the 1970s, and used her talent to document the disorder she saw in brilliantly-written essays that reported on the decline. Combining a literary eye for detail with a pitiless examination of her personality, she captured what life was like when things fall apart.
We tell ourselves stories to live.
The thing about the 70s is that no one knew how it would turn it out. As a kid, I remember seeing maps on the spread of communism, from Angola to Yugoslavia. The Russians were going to win – just look at the map. During the Carter era, we were stuck with a combination of inflation and stagnation that economists said couldn’t exist: stagflation. Or maybe another Ice Age was coming. Seemed plausible. Anything did back then, because we didn’t have a defining story, a vision of the future.
Like the 1970s, we’re in a hinge moment. The narrative of democracy has collapsed. A new era of tyrants has emerged, promising a revenge saga of blood and iron. To quote Yeats:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
In the evening, I return home past the White House. Tourists gather by the fence to snap photos, like they always have. This symbol of American democracy remains a powerful one, despite its current occupant.
And the strength of our story, the American story, endures, as it waits for a new storyteller, and a new vision of the future, to bring us together once again.
In your head, it’s perfect, the Great American Novel, a book destined to be a classic. All you have to do is write it down.
But an idea is not a real thing. It’s nothing. Saying you have a great idea for a book is like saying you have a great idea for a jet fighter. It’s a fantasy. Only by taking your story and actually telling it do you create art.
Your book will be imperfect. Shockingly so, which is why most people never get around to creating art. It’s safer to be an imaginary artist than a real one.
But, if you’re an artist, you get your art out the door and into the world. “Real artists ship,” as Steve Jobs said. You become a writer by writing, not by dreaming about it.
National Novel Writing Month in November is an excellent time to start your creative journey. Join a global community of people striving to write a novel. Challenge yourself to pick up the literary habit, find the solace of creating something new and make a real contribution to the world.
The objective during NaNoWriMo is to write a novel – not necessarily a good novel. NaNoWriMo is about quantity, not quality, with a single goal to attain: 50,000 words. That’s 1667 words a day.
The novel can be crap. In fact, it probably will be crap. Expect it to be crap. Giving yourself permission to write crap is enormously liberating.
And you can always fix it. Many great novels have emerged from painful first drafts. Every book gets revised. Hemingway wrote 47 different endings to A Farewell to Arms.
I tend to write and cut. For my short story, Victory Party, which won the City Paper fiction contest, I wrote it over a couple of days but then spent the next month picking away it like a turkey carcass, deleting anything that sounded like exposition until only the bones remained. You can fix stories but first you have to write them.
My first novel, Murder in Ocean Hall, began as a joke. After three years at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, I was going to take some time off to write a big, serious novel about 9/11. No pressure.
But, at my going away party, I joked that I was going to write a book called Murder in Ocean Hall. I had learned a lot about the big egos of ocean explorers while at NOAA, as well as interesting background behind the construction of the Ocean Hall exhibit at the Smithsonian. I could pair these interesting stories with my street-level knowledge of DC beyond the monuments to create a murder-mystery.
Write what you know.
Plus, writing a mystery was a way of taking pressure off my own artistic ambitions. I wasn’t writing serious literature. Instead, I was writing genre fiction. It didn’t have to be the Great American Novel; readable would suffice.
I don’t know why people say writing is painful. “Just open a vein and bleed,” according to Hemingway.
But, for me, writing is a joy. Starting during NaNoWriMo, but continuing long after, I went to a coffee shop and made stuff up, piling up words and solving problems as I built my book, learning how to write a novel over endless cups of java.
Is Murder in Ocean Hall any good? Does it matter? I had fun writing it and I enjoy seeing it on my shelf.
Which is why you should NaNoWriMo. You’ll do what few people have – actually write a book rather than just talking about it. But also because writing is a fun and creative activity with its own rewards. And you can do it while hanging out in coffee shops. That’s why I write.
What’s remarkable about the rise of dockless bikesharing is how unremarkable it has become. An apocalypse was anticipated. Washington Post readers gleefully predicted failure, with the bikes stolen and destroyed (like in Baltimore) or begriming the streets in vast piles (as in China).
But what if a revolution occurred and no one noticed it? The bikes, first green ones from Lime, and then a rainbow of other colors, appeared on the streets of DC, lined up and ready for use, part of a pilot program. Photos were snapped – by me, and others – entranced by the novelty of these seemingly unsecured bikes in a city where anything left outside gets stolen.
The bikes then dispersed, taken by riders young and old (I saw kids in school uniforms on them) to surprising places in and out of the city. A couple were left by National Airport. Others made their way deep into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, despite the fact that they were supposed to be kept in DC. Without the requirement to dock the bikes, people left them in alleys, Metro stations and on top of cars.
Checking the Lime app to see where the bikes had gone became a popular activity on Twitter. I wondered about the cyclist near Seven Corners, navigating suburban highways on a small, rickety bike.
For the bikes are subpar. Biking a couple miles on a Lime required an inordinate amount of work – the geometry is off. Ofo is better though its airless tires (a feature of all the dockless bikes) make the ride a rough one on the mottled streets of DC. You can’t be tall on any of these bikes, for the seat doesn’t go up high enough to accommodate long legs.
There is one major exception to my dockless critique: JUMP. Dockless with a difference, JUMP is a pedal-assist electric bike. And it rocks! Get on this sizable steed, pedal a couple times and the electric motor kicks in, rocketing you down the street at a speed that’s actually a little scary. The more you pedal, the faster the ride gets, ferrying you to your destination without breaking a sweat.
The advantage of dockless, whether it’s Lime, Mobike, ofo or JUMP, is that you can pick up and leave the bike anywhere you want. It works through an app on your phone. Check the map to find a bike, scan the code on the back of it and ride off. When you’re done, leave it and slide the rear-wheel lock into place (every bike should have one of these).
DC needs more bikes. We have a great bikesharing service – Capital Bikeshare – but in many neighborhoods, the docks are empty by 8 AM. And while CaBi has saturated Northwest DC, there are many neighborhoods, particularly east of the Anacostia, where bikes are few and far between. Dockless offers the potential to change that, to address issues of equity that are present in any DC debate.
Also, more bikes means safer cycling for everyone. The advent of Capital Bikeshare slowed down the crazed commuters that fill this city every morning, by making drivers aware of cyclists. They’re more cautious around me when I’m on a big red CaBi, than on my regular bike, because they assume I’m a lost tourist. Adding more bikes might make MD Driver in DC hesitate before running that red light. Maybe.
According to Wired, dockless bike sharing is the next Uber. There’s big money in cheap bikes, with the Chinese startup Mobike valued at $3 billion. That’s an astonishing valuation for $1 an hour bike rides. Investors believe that dockless bike sharing is a new kind of business that can operate on scale, offering a service that urbanites will eagerly adopt.
Seems so easy. Create an app, flood a city with bikes and profit. For users, the experience is seamless – no humans required. Find a bike with your phone, scan it, and go.
But if investors think that bike sharing is a new people-free business model, they are mistaken. An unseen army is busy at night fixing bikes, moving them around and retrieving lost ones.
Ofo had a launch party recently near Dupont Circle with free lemonade and swag. Started by a Chinese college student, they’re the original dockless bikesharing service, with 400 bikes in DC now. An ofo rep said that someone rides every bike every day to make sure it works.
Dockless also depends on the goodwill of a city and its residents, for the bikes occupy public space such as sidewalks. The ofo rep I talked to recognized that they had to be good corporate citizens. It’s a business, like much of the new economy, that uses the commons for corporate profit, with no requirement to benefit society, unless we demand it.
While talking at the launch party, we saw JUMP and Spin bikes cruise down R Street. A couple biked by, one on a CaBi, the other on a Lime. A Mobike was parked on the sidewalk. The ofo reps offered free rides on their bikes to people coming up from the Metro. It seemed so unremarkable, as if these brightly colored bikes had always been with us.
Critics claimed that it would never work. Yet, in just a few short days, dockless bike sharing has gone from novelty to just another part of the busy urban landscape, the city and its residents rapidly adapting to the latest advance in transportation.
The best line in the piece by Addison Del Mastro was at the beginning:
brunch in D.C. has evolved to be little more than a way for the young urban elite (today’s yuppies) to make their messy weekends look neat, drunkenness hip, and materialistic desires something other than hedonistic.
After that highlight, the text got vague, with standard indictments of DC as being too white, too rich and too fake. Then, weirdly, a call from the highly educated author for others to skip college.
Hoping for a polemic against a Washington institution deserving mockery, I put the iPhone down in disappointment. Do you even brunch, bro? The problem with authors seeking to eviscerate DC is that they know so little of the city beyond the monuments.
As a cynical Gen Xer, long-time resident and someone who wrote a novel where I gleefully murdered millennials, I felt the article missed so much of what’s so awful about brunch.
I have the misfortune of living off 14th Street. This once-gritty corridor, home to auto repair shops by day and hookers by night, has been refashioned as a temple of conspicuous consumption for the city’s elite. Everything notorious about the strip is now gone, replaced by juiceries and micro-apartments.
A little after 1 PM on a Sunday, I saw a 20-something stumbling down the street. I was concerned. Was he sick? While DC is safer than it used to be, it’s still the kind of city where the weak are considered prey.
As he passed me, I saw. Raging drunk, in the middle of the day. The cause: brunch. Head down, in the classic intoxicated stumble, he rambled toward points unknown.
I have never liked brunch. In the morning, I want coffee and I want it now. In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain described brunch as basically the worst:
Brunch menus are an open invitation to the cost-conscious chef, a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights.
Why wait in line for leftovers when all I want is coffee and a bagel?
I like things neat. I like things organized. Brunch is a mess, as sloppy and gross as a plate of runny eggs dumped on a table by a waitress who is slammed by a dozen tables of mimosa-swilling morons.
It’s not breakfast. It’s not lunch. It’s not coffee. It’s not drinking. And, yet, it’s all of those things.
There is no escape from brunch, even for someone who objects to the institution. Sometimes, you have visitors. They demand brunch and want you to find a place.
I chose Boundary Stone, because I knew it was a good neighborhood joint and blocks away from the “whoo girls” that throng 14th St.
Being GenX, we arrived promptly at 11 AM. First ones in the restaurant but the manager insisted on squeezing us all into a tiny booth, carefully packing us together like a puzzle of human parts. I was placed in such a contorted position that I left with a paralyzing backache. Within an hour, Boundary Stone was packed, with tables butting against the front door, all filled with young couples sipping Bloody Marys, some with actual babies (Addison Del Mastro thinks people in DC don’t have children).
It was fine. No, it was good. How can you not like french toast and fried chicken, even if it’s served at a time offensive to my Midwestern sensibilities? But the waiter kept pushing bottomless mimosas – “You just want one?” – confused by these strange people who didn’t want to get hammeringly drunk before noon.
We left, full and tipsy, the brunch scene a dull roar behind us. My guests were delighted, not just with Boundary Stone but also the squashed rat they saw near their car. “Flat rat!” they giggled, taking photos. Now that’s authentic DC.
Brunch is big business in this city. A friend of mine tried going to drag brunch. She was turned away. Reservations required. Imagine, having to plan ahead to get insulted by drag queens as you pick at a plate of cold eggs.
Brunch has ruined Logan Circle. On the weekends, there is virtually no escape from it. Gaggles of girls get into strange cars, mistaking them for Uber. Bros smoke as they loiter outside restaurants. Impatient couples tell hostesses how long they’ve been waiting and that they were here long before that other group!
The swarm is not limited to the streets, but ascends to the skies, to the rooftop pool of my apartment building. Once home to quiet grad students, the building has now attracted swingles who pack the pool during the summer. Vodka is consumed, Katy Perry plays and everyone gets to hear stories of terrible life decisions.
Maybe if I was a morning person, I’d like brunch better. But I really don’t want talk to you before coffee. I don’t want to be social.
But brunch is all about the social, less about the food, and more about the Instagram. It doesn’t matter that you waited an hour for pancakes. What matters is how they look. And how you look, as you craft a social media persona to make your friends back home jealous. Fabulous! So totally Sex and the City! Even if life in DC little resembles the glitzy 90s series as we devolve into a country that looks a lot like Idiocracy.
I grew up a free-range child, with formless days where I disappeared with a gang of kids to ride bikes around town (no helmets!) and play on the railroad tracks. There were no Helicopter Parents back then. We solved our own problems.
As a Gen Xer, I think you should keep your shit together.
Daylight should not see you fall out of a rolling Uber. You should not discuss boy problems with a voice loud enough for the whole pool to hear. Nor should you meet a stranger who “found” your phone – that’s a really bad idea.
Brunch is sloppy, careless and usually paid for with someone else’s money – much like millennials. It is their meal, where they take leftovers and turn them into a social media representation of joy.
I don’t blame them.
Shit is fucked up. With Trump in the White House, all of this may end in a mushroom cloud.
Let the millennials have their mimosas. Indulge the french toast. Clink champagne glasses.