A Thousand Ships

A Thousand Ships

If you liked Circe by Madeline Miller, then you’ll enjoy A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes.

This is a novel about the Trojan War, but from the women involved, from meddling goddesses to ordinary mortals, all caught up in a civilization-ending cataclysm.

I love contemporary takes on Greek mythology. For this book, it helps to know a bit about the Odyssey and the Iliad. If not, there’s a guide at the beginning of the book to the characters.

In this novel, the muse Calliope sings, but of the women. The goddesses Hera, Aphrodite and Athena who forced Paris to make a fateful judgement.  Hecuba, enslaved, with her city destroyed. Clytemnestra slowly plotting revenge against her husband.

My favorite part was Penelope musing as she hears increasingly fantastical tales about her long-missing husband, Odysseus, and his wanderings through the known world after the fall of Troy. Supposedly on his way home, he sure gets kidnapped by beautiful women a lot.

Like Circe, this is another book where the man of twists comes off badly.

Which is why I liked Circe and A Thousand Ships so much. Both novels deconstruct Greek fables and force us to look at them with modern eyes. Maybe The Odyssey isn’t a tale of adventure and perhaps Penelope wasn’t as faithful as she appears. What woman wouldn’t get impatient with a man who goes out of his way to piss off Poseidon?

These stories have endured over the centuries because they are complex, with many layers, and contain dilemmas and challenges that even modern readers can appreciate. A Thousand Ships breaths life into these ancient tales to create a beautiful novel of women’s voices.

After the Pandemic: What Matters Now?

yoga on a foggy morning in DC

A friend asked me if I’m writing anything.

During the pandemic, I wrote LIKES, a book of short stories about social media.

But now I’m writing nothing.

My books have always been very topical. I write about the times. LIKES is about about social media obsession, THE SWAMP concerns DC during the Obama years and MURDER ON U STREET is a story about gentrification.

Yet, I cannot write about the coronavirus or the other traumas of the past year, like the January 6th assault on the Capitol. My fiction reworks reality, reframing it and pouring it into the mold of dark comedy. But 2020 was too deadly and chaotic to turn into anything coherent.

With vaccines and seasonality, coronavirus in America is ebbing. DC is springing back to life, full of people once again, the empty streets of last year now just a memory.

During the pandemic, every choice you made had meaning. Even the simplest ones. I felt accomplished just biking to 350 Bakery for a scone. Riding a bike kept me healthy while spending my money locally kept people employed.

Now that era is over and the American consumption machine is roaring back to life. Storefronts are no longer dark and brunchgoers fill 14th Street again.

On Saturday, I was at the Lincoln Memorial. The steps were crowded with people, a yoga class was going on, joggers were going by. It was beautiful to see.

And yet, seeing normal life resume made me feel: too soon.

Two weeks after I got vaccinated, I went to a bar. Something I had been looking forward to for months. With antibodies in my veins, I could drink beer and eat wings again. I could sit at a table and talk to other humans.

Yet, it was not as satisfying as those early-morning bike trips to 350 Bakery. I’d take bikeshare, buy a scone and then walk home.

Life during the pandemic gave me purpose, imbuing even the simplest of actions with meaning.

Normal life is returning. In America, that means a frenzy of buying and selling. Our nation is gearing up to spend once again.

I’m not writing because I can’t answer the question: what matters now?

Behind the Photo: Rahul Dubey

Rahul Dubey. The Hero of Swann St. He opened his home to keep protesters safe from violent police

I have a photo of Rahul Dubey in the Swann Street Report from the ACLU, which covers the mass arrest of protesters in DC. Here’s the story behind it.

June 1, 2020, was a very dark day in Washington’s history. The night before, protests against the death of George Floyd had grown violent. Windows were smashed downtown and drug stores hit by gangs of pill thieves.

Trump decided he had to do something. That something was a PR stunt.

Protesters were violently cleared from Lafayette Park so that Trump could have a photo-op with a Bible. The Park Police and other agencies beat and tear-gassed people protesting police violence, just in time for the national news.

But that was just the start of the rampage. In addition to the police, armed troops were let loose upon the city. From my apartment a mile from the White House, I watched Black Hawk helicopters thunder at rooftop height. From the seventh floor, I was at eye-level with the pilots.

With a curfew in place, most of the protesters went home. Some carried on and were joined by others outraged by what had happened in Lafayette Park. I slipped out of my apartment and filmed as they marched up 14th St.

protesters on 14th St

The Metropolitan Police Department got ahead of them, blocked off streets and redirected the protesters until they were trapped on the 1400 block of Swann St NW.

I know the street well, having lived at 15th and Swann for years. My short story, Apartment 101, which won the Washington City Paper contest, was set there. Swann Street is a narrow, one-way street lined with gingko trees that turn gold in the fall.

On the night of June 1, I read alarming tweets from the block as kids were “kettled” by the MPD. The city had been sued for using this tactic and had to pay out millions in settlements. But now they were kettling people again.

As the young protesters were squeezed together, sprayed with pepper spray and arrested, a hero emerged: Rahul Dubuy, who opened his home to protesters, giving them shelter.

I still live in the neighborhood and was outraged that such violence could happen here. The next morning, I hopped on Capital Bikeshare to see for myself. On Swann Street, there was little sign of the chaos from the night before. Rahul was standing out front with a few of the teens that he had sheltered from the police.

I introduced myself and said what had happened was terrible. I then asked if I could get a picture, wanting to memorialize this hero. It’s an iPhone shot and shows how comfortable Rahul is with the people that he had just had met hours earlier. He not only opened his home to them, he kept them safe with the police pounding on his door.

That’s a remarkable act of courage, demonstrating a faith in humanity that was rare in 2020, which is why he is a hero.

 

Letter from Washington: The Bars Are Returning

drinks with friends at Heurich House
Are we happy because we’re drunk or frozen? Drinks at the Heurich House.

While I enjoy drinking outdoors at places like the Heurich House Museum, I am glad that the bars will soon reopen in DC.

With strict covid rules in place, many of DC’s bars closed for the winter. The fear was that they would be gone for good. Now they’re planning to return.

This bit of news cheered me for I am getting very, very tired of drinking outside. During this covid time, I’ve had old-fashioneds while being frozen solid on a street corner. Sipped bourbon on a snow day in the park. And met friends for beers on a cold afternoon at a golf course.

Did you know that there was a golf course in DC? Several of them in fact. Hains Point is near the Lincoln Memorial. It’s on a peninsula that people like to bike around. There’s also a pro shop where you can get a beer and sit outside. Despite extra layers, after two beers, I was freezing. On my way home, I pedaled as hard as I could just to generate some warmth.

Last night, I was better prepared. The Heurich House Museum, a historic Dupont Circle mansion, has a lovely outdoor garden where they do happy hour on Thursday nights with beer, mulled wine and other treats. Wearing a sweater and a jacket, I was too warm. An hour later, when the wind picked up, I was very glad to have overdressed.

With my friends, we talked the usual subjects: covid and politics.

Everyone wants the vaccine but it’s like getting concert tickets for the hottest band in the world. The DC web site failed again (thanks Microsoft). All the vaccine appointments were gone within ten minutes. Vaccines are coming but they are in short supply.

In politics, Trump is like a bad addiction. A friend confessed to watching Trump’s speech on Sunday because he had to get a dose of the crazy.

I will be forever thankful to Twitter for banning Trump from the platform. Out of the Presidency and without a social media platform, he can no longer troll us. My mood has improved 100%.

But the consequences of his disastrous time in office remain. Q cultists believed that yesterday, March 4th, would be when Trump would return to power and hang traitors like myself. Fortunately, this did not happen, though security was strengthened around the Capitol, which is already guarded by troops and surrounded by a three-mile-long fence topped with razor wire.

I was amused to hear the complaints of the surprisingly mild QAnon Shaman and the Arkansas insurrectionist who thinks being locked up is unfair. Republicans love watching Cops but when the police come for them, what they gonna do? They cry.

It’s also funny that Senator Josh Hawley is awfully concerned about the FBI sweeping up cellphone metadata from the totally non-surprising January 6 attack on the Capitol. I watched as he kept asking the FBI head about phone records. It’s rare that a defendant gets to ask questions of an investigator.

Now we wait for the cherry blossoms. They’re predicted to reach peak bloom April 2-5. Around the Tidal Basin, you can see the first buds on the trees.

In the name of covid, the National Park Service may restrict access to them, like they did last year. No matter. There are plenty of cherry blossoms around Washington, DC, to see.

In the words of Pablo Neruda:

You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.

The bars will reopen soon. The cherry blossoms are coming. Trump is gone. That’s enough for me.

The Insurrection Was Not a Surprise

Capitol security fence at 3rd St NW

The insurrection at the Capitol was not a surprise.

Everyone in DC knew that something bad was coming on January 6, 2021. If you lived in DC, you had seen Trump supporters escalate their violence over the previous months.

Escalating Threats

In November, Trump supporters brawled with counterprotestors in the streets of downtown DC and in front of the Supreme Court. The Proud Boys took over Harry’s, a dive bar downtown, and used it as a base of operations to drunkenly menace the city, cheered on by President Trump.

December saw the return of Trump supporters who again brawled with police and bystanders, in addition to vandalizing a church by burning a Black Lives Matter banner. Thousands of police officers were mobilized and a huge chunk of the city was shut down to contain the violence.

I had seen how violent the Proud Boys could be. On the day of the December rally, I ran into some of them downtown. I didn’t think they would be out at 8 AM but there they were, looking for people to fight. After yelling at some black kids on Black Lives Matter Plaza, one of them got up in my face. The Proud Boys advance in their organization by fighting “Antifa” even if it’s just a guy going out for coffee.

After the two previous rallies, Trump supporters felt emboldened, feeling that they could attack people without consequence.

How Should DC Respond?

Prior to the Stop the Steal rally, there was a debate in DC on whether progressive groups should organize a counterprotest or not. The city discouraged this and Mayor Muriel Browser urged residents to stay away from downtown to avoid confrontations.

I typically photograph large protests but I stayed away from this one. Photographer friends of mine, the fearless ones who document everything in DC, stayed home too. A friend of mine shared a video showing a Trump supporter following him and threatening to kick his ass.

The day before the insurrection, DC boarded up. Nearly everything downtown, from restaurants to office buildings, closed for the day. It was so obvious that an insurrection was coming that I even Instragrammed about it:

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Joe Flood (@joeflood)

I was alarmed by the numbers of Trump supporters I saw everywhere in DC, even in Logan Circle, where I live. They wore red MAGA hats but, more ominously, were also outfitted in military-style tactical gear, including helmets, vests, bear spray and poles wrapped in Trump flags that could be used as weapons. In their trucks, they drove around the city, Trump flags flying.

One Last Chance

January 6 was the last chance they had to “stop the steal.” Take control of Congress and they could prevent Joe Biden’s victory from being certified.

Online, there was lots of chatter about doing that:

I don’t have the Capitol Police’s $460 million budget. Yet, it was obvious to me and everyone else in DC that something terrible was going to happen on January 6.

So, it was quite extraordinary to hear the claims by former Capitol Police officials that the insurrection was an intelligence failure.

The Insurrection Was Not a Surprise

You didn’t need an FBI report to know that something incredibly violent was coming on January 6; all you had to do was look out the window! Every hotel in the city and nearby suburbs was filled with Trump supporters, people who had escalated their violence over the previous months. They had weapons with them and were motivated to “stop the steal.” January 6 was the last chance to keep their cult leader in office.

I didn’t know that they were going to attack the Capitol but I knew that they were going to do something incredibly violent.

I assumed that every police agency in this city (and there are many) would be 100% prepared for every possible eventuality.

Watching a violent mob push aside “bike rack” barriers and rush the Capitol, I was shocked at how unprepared the Capitol Police were.

The insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 was not a failure of intelligence. It was a failure of leadership.

The Midnight Library

the midnight library

A review of The Midnight Library on Amazon is entitled, Like many things in 2020 this book is awful.

Books exist in context, being a product of their times. The ones that take off, like The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, succeed because they resonate with readers, expressing feelings that they possess but are unable to articulate.

In another year, I’d probably dislike The Midnight Library, too. A book recommended by Good Morning America? It’s probably mainstream and inspiring. Yuck! That’s not reality – give me a dark comedy that reveals the bitter truth that most people can’t grasp.

But 2020 was different. I did not want to read something dark and despairing in this long winter of disease and disunion.

Give Me Sunshine

Instead, I was drawn to something sunny. And I picked up The Midnight Library in a very sunny place: Tombolo Books in St. Petersburg, FL.

I love this little indie bookstore next to a coffeeshop in the Kenwood neighborhood of the city. Sitting in the sun-soaked courtyard with my new purchase, I felt a world away from dark and boarded-up Washington, DC.

The Midnight Library has an intriguing premise. Between life and death, there is a library. Each volume in it contains a variation on your life, full of possible versions of you to explore as you linger between the worlds.

In the novel, Nora Seed gets to experience different paths she might have taken in her life, from rock star to Olympic gold medalist, while she decides whether she wants to live or not.

No Surprises

It’s not a book that will surprise you. Reading Nora’s adventures as she tries on different lives, you pretty much know where this is going. Also, it’s a tad too long.

Yet, all of this is overwhelmed by the hopeful spirit of the novel. It’s an antidote to regret. It’s an affirmation of life. You’re being manipulated, of course, with a feel-good parable that hits you across the head at times.

In another time, I would say: yuck.

But in this pandemic year, The Midnight Library is essential reading for reminding us that life is full of possibility. It is ever-changing and shaped by our choices. Good times could be right around the corner, as long as we keep moving.

Pick up The Midnight Library. Set your cynicism aside and dive into the spell of this uplifting novel.

How to Write a Short Story

I recently had the opportunity to talk about how to write a short story before a virtual class of high school kids. I discussed where ideas come from, the two types of short stories, how to get started and how to edit your own work.

In my talk, I used examples from my own short stories, including my book LIKES and the award-winning Apartment 101.

I put the presentation on SlideShare. Feel free to share!

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Dispatch from the Green Zone

four years ago, I saw a limo burn here

I stood on the spot where four years earlier, I had watched a limousine burn.

At the time, I thought that was the craziest thing I would ever see in Washington, DC. It occurred on Inauguration Day 2017, after anarchists tossed a flare into an empty limo on K St. The police responded with flash-bangs and everyone ran. Hearing a flash-bang was also new to me.

limo in flames on K St

Then came the Muslim Ban and the Family Separation Policy, where immigrant children were taken from their parents and placed in cages.

But this was not the worst crime that the Trump administration could perform. They were just getting started.

I Was Wrong

I was wrong. If I had to sum up the 2016-2020 period in American politics, I would merely say, “I was wrong.”

After Trump was elected, I told friends that Republicans would get him under control and make him a normal President. This was the right thing to do. Instead, the GOP, a party of limited government and respect for individual rights, gleefully participated in the near destruction of American democracy.

Fine people on both sides after the Charlottesville atrocity. The unhinged speech before the Boy Scouts. The constant firings and the endless lying from the press room lectern.

I have friends who come from countries with experience in dictatorships. They said I was naive in my belief in the sanctity of our institutions and for holding onto my faith in American exceptionalism.

Resist/Persist

We protested. The Women’s March. The March for Science. The Tax March. Kava-nope. The continuous nightly protests outside the White House, back when you could get close enough to see it.

The low point for me was after the first impeachment. Failure on a very dark night at the Capitol felt like I was lost in a wood that I would never escape. I wondered how I could leave this country.

They Smashed Things Up

There’s a quote from The Great Gatsby that’s applied a lot to the Trump family:

They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made

Tom and Daisy Buchanan at least had the decency to retreat back into their money after they smashed things up. Trump kept running over America, day after day, a new horror with every sunrise.

framed covfefe

The Trump Twitter Presidential Library was around the corner from where I saw the limo on fire. It was a couple years later, when we could still find comedy in our tragedy. Sponsored by Comedy Central, it was a room full of crazed Trump tweets in frames and embedded into art. There was even a Trump wig that you could put on and they’d take a photo of you tweeting from the toilet, like the Commander in Tweet himself.

We did not know the horror that awaited us.

2020: Year of Horrors

2020 is a year that none of us want to remember, needing a kind of willful forgetting, like a name in a horror movie that we dare not mention.

I had an ambivalence about living in Washington, DC, because it had gotten too crowded. The bars were packed, reservations were needed for even mediocre restaurants and the brunch crowd were a drunken hazard on Sunday afternoons.

Well.

By the end of March, that was not a problem. Covid struck and the offices downtown emptied out. They are still empty, almost a year later.

forsythia steps in Dumbarton Oaks Park

The gridlock-blocked streets became so empty that I could run in them without worrying about cars. I ran up Massachusetts Avenue and into Dumbarton Oaks Park, a woody sanctuary that had become my happy place. Just me and the occasional dog walker in a forested ravine in the middle of the city.

We all learned what exponential growth meant, as coronavirus exploded through the nation, sickening millions and putting millions more out of work.

The pain that I had seen imposed upon other populations (immigrants, Muslims) now was visited upon my friends and family members.

I saw scenes which were unbelievable just a few months earlier. Protesters rioted against Trump near the White House and looters struck liquor and drug stores throughout the city, even in my neighborhood.

In response, Trump poured in military and police assets. A grab-bag of random dudes in motley uniforms appeared on street corners while helicopters circled at rooftop heights. There was a curfew and kids out protesting were kettled on Swann Street, just blocks from where I live.

The year was hardly over. Confederate statues were toppled and a giant fence was constructed around the White House. In the midst of a highly-contagious pandemic, Trump anointed himself the Republican nominee with a fireworks display over streets filled with protesters, including me.

I Love DC

Facebook “friends” said that my city was a lawless hellhole. I read that comment as I was sitting in Meridian Hill Park, as kids played around the statue of Joan of Arc and people picnicked in the grass.

All my ambivalence suddenly disappeared: I loved DC.

Joan of Arc and kids in Meridian Hill Park

Trump got covid and I watched as his helicopter took him to Walter Reed for experimental treatments unavailable to ordinary Americans. The Presidential campaign began, a slog of insufferable idiocy as Biden debated a Trump spewing both disease and lies.

We won. It was not easy, but we won.

But the failed Trump administration had one final horror to unleash upon my city: an angry mob. I saw them before they sacked the Capitol, for they were staying in hotels in my neighborhood. Everyone knew that they came to fight. I watched them stream toward the Mall, armed with bats, poles, mace, body armor and helmets.

A coup of dunces, live-streamed for the world to see, is an appropriate end to the Trump administration, an action that sums up all the cruelty, stupidity and sloppiness of the man and his movement.

The Garbage Barge

Tomorrow, he will be gone. Off to Florida.

There’s a scene at the end of a Simpsons episode where escaped prisoners are sent to:

a garbage barge where you will bareknuckle-box until one of you emerges as king of your floating hell.

Palm Beach, in other words, where Trump will be lord of the disgraced, surrounded by his low-intelligence children, incompetent henchmen like Rudy Giuliani and coup enthusiasts like the MyPillow Guy, all fighting over shrinking scraps of attention and money.

Now it’s up to us to put America back together, stronger and more secure for the future.

K Street is closed to traffic now, part of the expanded Green Zone necessary after the mob attack on the Capitol. I walked to the spot where I saw the limo burning four years ago and considered everything I had seen happen in Washington, DC.

What a long, strange trip it’s been. I’m glad it’s over.

The Calm After the Storm

Tributes to Officer Brian Sicknick at the Peace Monument

An eerie calm has descended upon Washington, DC.

A lot of my neighbors in my apartment building are gone – packages are piled up in front of their doors. Some left for good during the pandemic and others left for safety after the coup attempt.

The  building is noticeably quieter. In a big apartment building, you get used to a certain amount of noise – the ding of the elevator, the sounds of plumbing, people laughing over cigarettes in the alley or the distant thump of a neighbor playing bad techno as they prepare to go out.

I used to complain about it; now I almost miss these signs of life.

The streets are also darker. Last night, as I walked to the front door, I thought one of the streetlights must be out. It wasn’t. A lot of the apartments which face the street are empty, which means less light on the street.

Downtown DC is noticeably darker, with most of the hotels and restaurants still boarded-up.

Yesterday, I went to see the tribute to Officer Brian Sicknick, who was killed by pro-Trump rioters at the Capitol. He died in defense of liberty.

I did not take pictures of the security build-up around the Capitol and National Mall, not wanting to provide intelligence to MAGA terrorists; that’s something I think about now.

Away from the federal zone, life in DC goes on. I can still get scones at 350 Bakery, buy new books at Kramers and run around in the woods of Rock Creek Park.

The coup failed. Those that feared the Deep State are about to discover that it’s very real and will track down every last one of them.

I’m not leaving. It’s not just because Washington is now filled with thousands of police and federal troops.

But it’s because Washington is a beautiful city that belongs to everyone. We cannot let a mob take it away from us.

I’ll be home, like you, watching the Inauguration on TV. And then later I’ll go for a walk or bike ride around DC.

 

Eight Thoughts on a Coup Attempt

The Capitol protected by the DC National Guard

I’ve lived in Washington, DC, for more than 20 years. Most of the time in the Logan Circle neighborhood.

On January 6, my neighborhood was flooded with Trump supporters who came to overthrow the government.

They filled the hotels and saw the sights. And then they went to the Capitol to stage a coup. They attacked the police, broke into the Capitol and looted it, all in a futile attempt to stop Joe Biden from becoming President.

The next day, they packed up their cars and went home, proud of what they accomplished.

Eight thoughts on a coup attempt:

  1. This was planned. I saw it all over social media. Trump supporters planned to come to DC to “get wild” and hang the traitors.
  2. Trump encouraged them. Trump held a Nazi-style rally and then told them to storm the Capitol.
  3. They came to fight. In my neighborhood, I saw men in faux military garb and weapons. Camouflage, tactical gear, body armor and helmets – they looked like a military unit. They brought poles, clubs, batons, pepper spray and other weapons.
  4. They believe in a deranged conspiracy theory. I got in a verbal argument with some of them. They kept calling me a pedophile. They believe in the “save our children” QANON conspiracy theory that states that the USA is controlled by a pedophile ring.
  5. They are wealthy white people. The hotels in my Logan Circle neighborhood, which are not cheap, were at capacity with the rioters. The stereotype that Trump supporters are poor is incorrect.
  6. This was a white riot. I was shocked that they could storm the Capitol and walk away without consequence. All day yesterday, I watched them check out of their hotels and leave as if nothing had happened.
  7. The smarter ones took steps to conceal their identities. The group I argued with was in rental car. They told me it was so people couldn’t track them.
  8. They will return on Inauguration Day with guns. The ones I argued with said that they would be back. They want to stop Joe Biden’s inauguration. It’s obvious what their next step will be.

Don’t want to happen this? Make pariahs out of Trump supporters.  Take their jobs, friends, online platforms and reputations from them.

Unless coup supporters are punished, there will be future coups.