The unremarkable rise of dockless bikesharing

LimeBike outside Tonic
Dockless bikes, like this one from Lime, have become a familiar part of the Washington, DC streetscape.

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.

Mobike comes to DC
Mobike mo problems?

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.

JUMP pedal-assist electric bike
JUMP pedal-assist electric bike.

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).

15th St needs to be widened
More bikes than cars on 15th St during rush hour.

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 launch party in DC

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.

Let’s hate on brunch!

fried chicken and french toast
Hedonism or fried chicken on french toast?

A tremor went through the social media world of Washington, DC – someone was slamming brunch! With anticipation, I clicked and read What the DC Brunch Says About the Young Urban Elite.

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.

Brunch, for tomorrow we die.

 

ARTECHOUSE offers escape from broken reality

Spirit of Autumn at ARTECHOUSE

“The real world just doesn’t offer up as easily the carefully designed pleasures, the thrilling challenges, and the powerful social bonding afforded by virtual environments. Reality doesn’t motivate us as effectively. Reality isn’t engineered to maximize our potential. Reality wasn’t designed from the bottom up to make us happy. And so, there is a growing perception in the gaming community: Reality, compared to games, is broken.”
Jane McGonigal, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

Spirit of Autumn is an interactive installation at ARTECHOUSE in Washington, DC, that celebrates the fall season through a variety of immersive digital activities.

But let’s call it what it really is: a game.

This basement off the National Mall is a powerful game space where people of all ages come together to create their own virtual experience of fall by manipulating a series of video artworks. Clap your hands in front of a sensor and rain appears. Dance before a wall with a leafy avatar of yourself. Play with swirling patterns of light, sending them flowing across the floor with your finger.

Spirit of Autumn is like a good game – social, easy to begin and with rewards for mastery. As you enter the underground space in a group, you are given no instruction. What do you do here? You see colorful leaves and a digital tree ascending upwards.

Quickly, players figure out that if they move in front of one wall, a ghostly avatar appears. Stand still on the floor and leaves cluster around you. Within few minutes, everyone is at play, running from game to game, and making their leafy representations dance.

You see what other people do – what happens if I jump? can I send the flowing light up this wall? where do I clap to make it rain? – and you learn from the experience, making new friends as you enjoy this digital world.

Time passes quickly, like a good game, as you’re engrossed by the interactive experience. Why are games so compelling? According to author Jane McGonigal, a game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we can master. Games have rules, provide feedback and have an achievable goal.

Spirit of Autumn at ARTECHOUSE is more than just an art show in a basement. It’s an opportunity to escape broken reality for a colorful and compelling world where people work together to create a beautiful, shared experience.

Letter from Washington: Disabled

Wheelchair-bound protesters return home
Wheelchair-bound protesters return home.

After pulling my calf, I’ve been biking even more than usual. Since it hurts to walk more than a block, I’ve been biking everywhere, door to door if I can, aiming to never let my feet touch the ground.

I was coming back from a happy hour for the Climate Ride. Cyclists did 208 miles over three days to raise money for climate change research. Once in Washington, they were greeted by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who insisted that climate change was a bipartisan issue and that there were Republicans who would be on their side, were it not for the pernicious influence of anonymously-funded PACs.

It was a sweaty day, unusual for the end of September, with temperatures in the 80s. The news has been filled with hurricanes, first Florida and then Puerto Rico, while Trump has tweeted slurs against NFL athletes.

After happy hour, I rode home as it got dark. Just off the National Mall, traffic was stopped.

Filtering up to the top of the queue, I saw why – a long stream of people in wheelchairs were rolling through the intersection. They were returning home to their hotel after demonstrating against the repeal of Obamacare. Imagine the level of commitment – and desperation – required to travel anywhere in a wheelchair, much less a strange city, to spend the day demonstrating against a government that wants to kill you.

The Metropolitan Police Department had blocked traffic so that these wheelchair-bound protesters could get home. Three cars were devoted to this purpose. The MPD has mastered this kind of rolling roadblock, gaining experience escorting the numerous anti-Trump demonstrations that have rocked the city.

A long silent moment passed as drivers, cyclists and pedestrians waited respectfully as the people in wheelchairs crossed the intersection. The protesters who came to Washington, the police protecting them, the people who waited – we represent the best of the country, while our leadership represents the worst.

The Obstacle is the Bike Way

Soccer at Marie Reed
The scene of the injury.

It felt like someone had hit me on the back of the leg with a baseball. One moment running on the soccer pitch, the next yelling in pain. I turned around to see where the baseball was – but there was nothing on the ground. Instead, just players staring at me in puzzlement.

My calf had exploded. That’s what it felt like. Limping off the field, I sat down and sipped water as friends came to check on me. “I don’t know, not so good, maybe need hospital,” Oleg the Russian said.

Instead, I consulted Dr. Google. He diagnosed a torn calf muscle, with varying and frightening levels of severity. Sitting on the sideline, I read about muscles torn and bunched, swelling and other symptoms. Did I hear a popping sound? I don’t think I did, just a sharp, sudden and arresting pain.

Nothing was bruised or red. The calf was tender and it hurt to walk. A friend asked if I wanted to go the emergency room.

I did not. I had my bike. If I get on it, I could bike home. Gingerly, I hopped on, put my Specialized Sirrus into its lowest gears and slowly pedaled home, my bike both transport and a rolling crutch when I got to the lobby of my building.

This is a recurring injury for me, though this was the most severe occurrence. Five years earlier, after similar pain, I went to an orthopedist. It was like a factory. Patients came in, they were diagnosed, sent for an MRI, given drugs and prescribed orthotics. No matter the kind of foot/calf pain, that’s what you got and a hefty bill was sent to Blue Cross.

Having been through that, I knew that there was no real treatment other than staying off it until it got better. So, I did, keeping my leg up and on ice all afternoon.

my Specialized Sirrus
Transport and crutch, my Specialized Sirrus.

The next day, I wanted to go out for coffee. I’m a terrible invalid. I could accept not being to able to walk but if I couldn’t bike? Unthinkable.

I figured I could bike for coffee without walking more than a few steps. Using my bike again as a crutch, I made it to the elevator and out the front door of the building with just a little bit of pain. Then I hopped on the bike and rode to get coffee. Moving on two feet – painful. Moving on two wheels – painless.

I’m a huge fan of The Obstacle is the Way. Great book. I recognized this scenario. If walking is taken away from me, then what opportunity am I given? The opportunity to bike everywhere! Let my feet never touch the ground, but only be on pedals, as I make my way around the city.

So, it’s life on two wheels for me (not a problem!), as I minimize walking and maximizing biking. Today, I tried grocery shopping by bike, buying just enough food to fill my backpack, choosing items high in calorie count but low in size.

I’m fortunate to live in a city. If I was in the burbs, I would be trapped. In Washington, I can get everywhere I need to go by bike.

this could be a millennial-themed ad
Dockless means you can leave LimeBike in front of the local bar.

This week has also seen the launch for four (!) separate dockless bikesharing systems in DC. Dockless means you can leave the bikes anywhere you want. I tried one of them out – Lime. While the bike itself was unimpressive, the technology behind the service is interesting. You download an app, scan the barcode on the back of the bike, and the rear-wheel lock unlocks. When done, you just leave the bike wherever and snap the lock shut.

It’s an experiment. Will DC take to these new bikes or will they all end up in the river, like other cities? Time will tell.

Time is also what I need. There’s no real treatment for a pulled calf. It just takes some time to heal. In the meantime, I’ll be on two wheels.

Smart Cities Summit: The Way We Work Now

Manhattan Laundry
WeWork coworking office at Manhattan Laundry, near U Street in Washington, DC.

Even by government standards, the office was a dump. A brutalist structure on the treeless expanse of L’Enfant Plaza, the building was awkward and uninviting from the outside – a concrete slab with windows encrusted in filth.

Once through the doors, there was the usual puzzle of obtaining entry, 1960s architecture and security theater combining to create an imponderable maze of hallways decorated with faded American flags and outdated office directories encased in plexiglass.

The interview was in a conference room. I followed my guide to a subterranean level, where he submitted a letter to a functionary behind a desk before he was given a key. We then went back upstairs to unlock the conference room.

After the interview, I was shown where I would work. I had been warned. “Make sure you show it to him,” the interviewer said.

For good reason. I’ve worked as a government contractor for ten years, primarily in environments that look straight out of Office Space. Fluorescent lights, beige furniture, chunky computers – depressing but doable. Windows are reserved for feds. Contractors get the worst space.

But I don’t need much. A little desk in a corner somewhere and I’m fine.

But what I was shown wasn’t even a cubicle – it was a worn formica table in a noisy hallway crammed with people, including consultants working elbow to elbow, the two of them sharing one desk. It was like working in a submarine, but one cluttered with broken office equipment and sagging cardboard boxes. I must’ve visibly recoiled because I did not the get the job.

I recently attended the Inclusive Smart Cities Summit, primarily because I was interested in the transportation session – Gabe Klein, who created the 15th St bike lane and bikesharing in DC was speaking – but before that panel, there was a discussion on workplaces of the future.

At first, it was the usual thing, a panel of buzzword-spewing experts describing the future of work as open and collaborative though everyone I know who works in an open office wants out. Those pushing the open space trend typically do so from executive suites, where they don’t have to listen to coworkers discussing medical conditions with their doctor.

What’s missing from the open office trend? Data. Listening to Randy Fiser, CEO of the American Society of Interior Designers, was a revelation. They selected and designed their office based on employee needs, choosing a downtown building with an abundance of green space, fresh food and walkable transportation. After moving into their new office, they then measured the results, with productivity and employee satisfaction both increased.

WeWork Manhattan Laundry - interior
WeWorkers at work at Manhattan Laundry

WeWork has been billed as the future of work. I certainly hope so. I’ve taken advantage of their DC locations through their Summer Mondays promotion.

While WeWork is open space, I love it because it doesn’t feel crowded or claustrophobic. There’s room to move around, plenty of seating options and lots of natural light. Plus, there are phone rooms for private conversations and a kitchen stocked with coffee, beer and snacks.

It’s about creating a narrative, according to Dave McLaughlin. The WeWork exec has a screenwriting background, a refreshing change from the MBA-educated consultant class. WeWork is for creators. With local artworks, low couches and millennials busily working on laptops, it provides a hip backdrop, as if you’re working in a Hollywood romcom.

WeWork wants you to do more than just create – they want you to accomplish your dreams through collaboration with other WeWorkers. Space is designed to facilitate chance encounters, with hallways that are a little too narrow, so that you have to look up from your iPhone and make eye contract with other people.

According to Randy Fiser, we spend 91% of our time indoors. We spend so much time at work that we should make it as pleasant as possible. Not every office can look like WeWork but design matters. Humans need space, natural light and privacy. Create offices that people want to work in – it’s that simple.

Americans Will Believe Anything

Heather Heyer memorial
Heather Heyer memorial in Charlottesville, VA

Despite blackening the sky, the eclipse was not a transcendent moment for America. Within minutes of totality exiting the United States, we went back to business as usual, with a big chunk of this nation denying any fact they find to be inconvenient as “fake news.”

On the way back from North Carolina, I decided to stop in Charlottesville to see the Heather Heyer memorial. This anti-racist demonstrator was mowed down by a driver on a side street in the downtown of this beautiful Virginia city.

It’s chilling. She died just steps from the city’s pedestrian mall, on a narrow lane offering no escape from a driver with his foot on the gas. It was a deliberate act of murder from an extremist who hunted down protesters.

Heather Heyer died – but for what?

This week, Hillary Clinton emerged, hawking yet another autobiography. And worse – she endorsed a laughable web site, Verrit, which Jack Shafer memorably described as looking like North Korean agitprop. What’s different about this new site? It provided verified factoids, with their own Verrit code, enabling you to live in a Clinton-approved media bubble without any exposure to the messy real world.

Patronizing, clumsy and conflicted – it’s everything you hate about Hillary in a single site. This kind of top-down lecturing from our political betters (you will read what we want you to read) is why Hillary and her sycophants lost an election that should’ve been easily won.

This kind of appeal to authority no longer works in America. Kurt Andersen documents America’s slide into unreason in How America Lost Its Mind, a voluminous Atlantic article that comprehensively name-checks nearly political and cultural movement from the past fifty years, everything from chemtrails to Uri Geller.

Why are Americans so crazy?

The short answer is because we’re Americans—because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned.

Andersen puts the American tendency to create our own beliefs in a historical context. It’s been with us from the start, with invented Thanksgiving myths and tall tales about George Washington.

We also have a rich tradition of con-men, Donald Trump just being the latest in a line which extends back to L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith and P.T. Barnum.

What Andersen misses is that Americans have good reason not to believe in American institutions. They’ve failed. American business has become parasitic, little more than Uber and AirBnB bros skimming value while employing only contractors. The American political class, as embodied by Hillary Clinton, has no core beliefs, other than getting elected (it’s her turn!). And our vast security state has given us endless war while failing to protect us from actual Nazis.

No room for racists

Posters reminiscent of World War II propaganda have emerged on the streets of DC. They are a call for resistance against Trumpism. The creator of this evocative art, Robert Russell, said:

In the the 1940s, America unified against an explicit and obvious enemy. In this case, the enemy is firmly entrenched in the White House. We’re inverting that message and saying the threat is right here, so look out.

But the posters do more than just target an incipient fascist. They remind us what Americans believe and what we’ve fought and died for – that we’re all created equal.

While Americans may hold their own idiosyncratic beliefs on the efficacy of vaccines or the possibility of alien life forms, this belief in democracy is a shared one and one that we must defend, whether we are Republican, Democrat or Independent.

Coming Soon – THE SWAMP

When an errant drone crashes into the White House, it triggers a chain of events that leads to the end of the country as we know it.

Welcome to THE SWAMP, my new novel mocks the city that America has come to hate.

THE SWAMP begins on Christmas Eve, when a drone crash causes a security scare at the White House. Fox News screams, “How can we keep the President safe?” A crackpot idea from a cynical TV correspondent – let’s move the nation’s capital to an underground bunker – becomes an uncontrollable political movement. Can the President and the rest of official Washington contain this red state rebellion or will it swamp them all?

From mommy bloggers to scheming bureaucrats, THE SWAMP is a love letter to this city – and a wish for its destruction – packaged together in a black comedy reminiscent of Christopher Buckley and Evelyn Waugh.

Read the first chapter to get a taste of THE SWAMP.

Road Dog: The Life of an Indie Filmmaker

Road Dog by Kelley Baker

What I like about Kelley Baker is that he demystifies the art of filmmaking. You don’t need a million dollars or an expensive degree to make a movie. Instead, you need some basic technical knowledge – which I saw him impart during workshops for the DC Shorts Film Festival – and, more importantly, a story.

A better drinking partner could not be found. During the DC Shorts Film Festival, there always came a moment when the festival director, overwhelmed by the chaos of running a week-long event, would disappear with Kelley for a few hours of bourbon drinking. He would then return relaxed. This made everyone happy.

Seeing Kelley every year at DC Shorts was one of the highlights of the festival for me. We were old-timers, who had been a part of the festival almost since the very beginning. His was a familiar face who made movies, liked parties and was endlessly encouraging for creatives like me.

Also, he wasn’t one of those Hollywood bullshit artists who bragged about their connections or, even worse, promised that riches were just a screenplay away. Instead, having made films for decades, he was realistic about the industry. Yes, you can make a movie but, since dreams of fame are illusory (and Hollywood will probably screw you), make the movie that you want to see. Make your story.

Kelley shares his story, the ups and downs of an indie filmmaker, in his new book Road Dog. Get his book and look for him on tour this fall.

America, Eclipsed

eclipse at totality

It was the Great American Eclipse, a continent-spanning solar event that would bring squabbling America together, if only briefly. And, who knows, the sight of forces much bigger than ourselves – the sun blocked out by the moon – might even cause people to put aside their prejudices and unite as one.

Novels are full of epiphanies, life-changing moments when characters realize the folly of their ways.

But real life rarely has those moments for most people never give up their guiding principles, no matter how misguided.

With friends near the path of the eclipse, I was determined to experience this unique event. Totality would occur just a few miles from their home in Waynesville, NC.

The morning of the eclipse, my friends demurred, seeing traffic backed up on the highway, afraid that they would be caught in a historic traffic jam rather than history. But me, familiar with gridlocked DC, was unfazed, reasoning it couldn’t any worse than the Beltway on any day at any time.

It wasn’t. I reached the campus of Western Carolina University with hours to spare. WCU was in the zone of totality and I had my friend’s parking pass so I could park on the closed campus.

The biggest problem I encountered was getting something to eat. It was the first day of classes at WCU and students were lined up everywhere for lunch.

Slowly, the sun diminished. By the time I finished my sandwich, it was as if the solar orb had been turned down by a dimmer switch, the light fading to the point that I no longer needed sunglasses.

Students watch the eclipse at WCU

Crowds in purple (WCU’s color) filled the center of campus, near the clock tower. Scientists from WCU provided color commentary while students lined up for eclipse glasses and moonpies. I settled into the grass and waited for the show.

Minutes before the eclipse I saw people heading indoors, bags of food in hand, choosing to miss this magical moment. It’s curious but there were some in the path of the eclipse who wouldn’t even look outside, annoyed at the impertinence of the sun. A friend’s mother couldn’t be bothered with it, thinking it all to be overrated. Fake News!

But on the packed campus at WCU, the crowd sighed as clouds washed over the golden orb. Apps were checked, as students counted down the moment to totality and willed the clouds to part.

the crescent of the sun during the eclipse

The moon ate the sun, until just a shining crescent remained, screened by the wispy cumulus. It was beautiful but there was more to come.

Seconds before totality, the offending cloud drifted off and the campus broke into relieved applause.

Then the sun was extinguished, disappearing, all but the sharp platinum ring of the corona. Students cheered, as if rooting for their favorite team. Eclipse glasses were removed. People stood and embraced, a rising tumult echoing off the mountains.

Seated on the grass, lens pointed upwards, I snapped photo after photo in happy disbelief.

It was night on campus, the clock tower lit up against the dark sky, stars visible in the blackness but light lingering in the west, like sunset on a strange world.

the sun returneth

After a minute of star-speckled darkness, the sun broke free from the moon’s grip. Another round of applause then everyone got up to leave, the sky still strangely dim.

Traffic going back was bad but moved steadily over Balsam Gap. My friends in Waynesville had seen a lot – like shadow bands and the mountain across the valley go dark – but had not experienced totality. An eclipse is like being pregnant. It’s either 100% or nothing.

The next night, Trump gave a speech so unhinged that commentators began seriously wondering about his sanity. The Mad King.

The eclipse did not fix America. It was not a transcendent moment that brought people together. No one questioned their beliefs following the cosmic occurrence. Despite science predicting the eclipse’s exact path across the United States, there are those who still cry “Fake news!” at any fact that they find disagreeable.

The Great American Eclipse will not usher in the Age of Aquarius. Instead, it’s an ominous portent that the ancients would recognize, heralding a time of troubles for the nation. May it just last a moment, exiting quickly and returning light and reason to the country.