writer, photographer, web person from Washington, DC.
Author: Joe Flood
Joe Flood is a writer and photographer from Washington, DC. He is the author of the mystery novel Murder on U Street, as well as articles, short stories and screenplays. In his spare time, he likes wandering about the city with a camera.
While The Subtle of Art of Not Giving a Fuck contains revealing and profane stories of personal dissipation and blogging-fueled awakening, at its core is the timeless message of the Stoics: life is short. Make better choices with your time.
Despite its roots among the ancient Greeks, Stoicism is a philosophy that’s still relevant today. First practiced by men such as Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, its core tenet is that while we can’t control circumstance, we can control our response to circumstance. Born from troubled times, the Stoics admired people who played the cards they were dealt, no matter how bad, searching for a way out of difficulty.
The Obstacle is the Way in other words, a (much better) book that popularizes this ancient belief system with examples from throughout history.
What makes The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck unique is its rejection of happy talk. Mark Manson shreds the relentless positivity of the self-help industry which is not helpful at all. Divorce, illness, joblessness – sometimes life is just going to suck and trying to talk yourself into happiness won’t get you there.
In fact, concentrating on being happy will just make you less so, for it is an emotion that flies from you as you seek it.
Manson prescribes the doctrine of the ancient Greeks: don’t worry about happiness, for you will be dead soon.
Instead, focus on being useful. Put aside your illusory dreams of riches and fame. Be a better person today, to the people around you, for that is the ultimate measure of a life.
A friend who does PR for a distillery sent me a new premium Tennessee whiskey to try out – Uncle Nearest.
Similar to Knob Creek, it makes an excellent Manhattan and, at 100 proof, will warm you up on a cold day.
Made from Tennessee grain, filtered through charcoal and aged in oak barrels, it tastes like bourbon but is technically not a bourbon for legal reasons.
But what’s most interesting is the story behind the spirit – Uncle Nearest honors Nathan “Nearest” Green, the first African-American master distiller on record in the United States.
Born a slave, Green worked for Dan Call, a farmer, preacher and whiskey maker. When young Jack Daniel wanted to learn the tricks of the trade, Call instructed Green (now a free man) to teach him.
Jack Daniel called Green, “the best whiskey maker the world never knew.”
Author Fawn Weaver, who has been researching the Green family, and recently launched the Nearest Green Foundation, met with his descendants.
“I asked them what they thought was the best way to honor Nearest,” Weaver said. “Their response was, ‘No one owes us anything. We know that. But putting his name on a bottle, letting people know what he did, would be great.’”
When you drink whiskey, you’re drinking history, American water and grain aged in barrels until it becomes magic. The forgotten story behind Nearest Green just adds to the experience of enjoying this new spirit.
How do you write a novel in a time that’s stranger than fiction?
Queen + Adam Lambert came to Washington, DC. A friend had an extra ticket and graciously invited me. We sat in the upper reaches of the Verizon Center as Lambert and the group went through a fast-moving set, filled with the kind of lasers and stagecraft that’s expected from a band in 2017. It’s not enough just to be a musician, any more.
They played all the hits – Bohemian Rhapsody, Killer Queen and Another One Bits the Dust.
It was not the same. Lambert is not Freddie Mercury, something he would be the first to admit – and did admit – during a tribute to the late singer early in the show. Queen + Adam Lambert made me appreciate the genius of Freddie Mercury, a man with an unreproducible vocal range but also an awkward shyness that’s missing in the age of the polished pop star.
The Queen show took place during the short-lived Age of Mooch. The reign of Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications Director was far too short, a rich comedic opportunity that was thrown away before the Mooch even received his Saturday Night Live parody.
“Scaramouche. Scaramouche. Will you do the fandango?” Imagine the possibilities – Scaramucci singing the Queen classic live from New York.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” You can learn more about a nation from its artists than from politicians. Shakespeare does a better job explaining the English than some dry book of history.
But what happens if events progress faster than comedians, satirists and novelists can comprehend? We barely had time to mock the Mooch before he disappeared.
I’ve written another novel: The Swamp. I started writing it a couple years ago, inspired by the tail end of the Obama administration. I wrote something I thought was outrageous – an errant drone lands on the White House, leading to the end of Washington as we know it.
After November 8, 2016, my idea didn’t seem so outlandish, as reality raced past the conception of the possible, devolving into a scenario that even the bleakest dystopianist would find implausible.
The problem with writing timely fiction is that times change. Does my novel The Swamp still make sense? After the election, I had to put aside the book and think about it.
I went on to write Victory Party, a short story that won the City Paper fiction contest. It’s another very timely work, for it concerns election night in DC and one person who’s happy about the result.
It’s a story that I wrote quickly and then ruthlessly cut, slowly paring away everything that was non-essential. I deleted exposition, explanations and any word that wasn’t necessary. It worked. “Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” according to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition.
So, I went back to my novel and I cut, reorganized and rewrote, aiming for clarity. Sections that I deleted went into a document called Remnants. Hurt less that way.
I also changed the title. My book was originally called Drone City, a title that I thought was clever. Drone City. DC.
I changed it to The Swamp, for the book is about the city that America has come to hate. My dark comedy follows swamp denizens – politicians, journalists, millennials – blindly chasing spoils, unaware that the world around them is about to turn upside down.
Trump, American Carnage, Spicey, Boy Scouts, Build the Wall, Russia, Deep State, Mooch – little of this makes any sense now and it will make even less so to future generations. It will be up to the artists, the legislators of our age, to explain the dark and confusing year of 2017.
XYZT: Abstract Landscapes is a world-travelled installation by internationally acclaimed French contemporary digital artists and multimedia choreographers Adrien M & Claire B.
The interactive show offers an exploratory physical experience through ten digital landscapes. Tickets are $15 -$25 and it’s open until September 1 at Artechouse, located near the Mandarin Hotel, just a short walk from the National Mall in Washington, DC.
XYZT: Abstract Landscapes is a show designed for the Selfie Age. No longer enough to just passively enjoy art, contemporary audiences want to interact with installations and memorialize the experience. This photo-friendly exhibit provides what the public wants – places to take good selfies that they can post to Instagram, sharing with their friends the joy that they’ve experienced. The neon installation at the end of the exhibit is ideal for this.
More importantly, XYZT: Abstract Landscapes provides the opportunity to play. See yourself distorted in a video funhouse mirror. Organize swirling motes and hurricanes on a flat table. Blow into a glass to send letters into a bottle. Hold back a cascading alphabet with your hands.
An hour in this underground installation passed in an instant. The experience of playing a game provides a compelling, engaging, rewarding experience that the real-world often fails to match.
While I’ve worked on web sites my entire career, I’ve primarily been on the content side, as someone who writes, edits and manages web content. I’m a writer, not a designer, and have never convened focus groups to evaluate web site design or any of the other typical tasks of a UX expert.
Web sites are a mix of content, design and tech, perceived as a whole by users. While I have not identified my work as focused on usability, it’s inevitable that it does. Good, simple, usable web sites require good, simple, usable content.
At the meetup, the AARP team spoke about the challenges of designing digital experiences for the 50+ audience. The stereotype is that “seniors” don’t use technology. But the fact is that older Americans are passionate users of iPhones and Facebook, just like the rest of us.
I worked on the AARP web site myself, in the late 90s. It was surprising how much older Americans took to the online world – particularly games, member discounts and romance.
While we wanted them to read articles about Social Security, the most popular section of the site was Member Benefits, for it contained the most relevant information for them, i.e., how to get discounts on travel and insurance.
Another surprise was what avid gamers they were, even when playing crossword puzzles on AOL via dial-up modem. We also created message boards to discuss serious topics, which were ignored, while members looked for love in the open chat forums.
The lesson is that the audience wants what it wants and there’s not much you can do about that. While users are determined when looking for something they want, like romance, they don’t have much patience for complicated design.
Ann Li, a usability expert for AARP, discussed a test she did on hamburger buttons. Popularized by the iPhone, these are the three little lines that you find on web site menus. Click on it, and an additional menu drops down beneath it.
They don’t work, as Li discovered, confirming research from the Nielson group. People do not understand three cryptic lines and don’t get that they can click on them.
I’ve looked at enough Google Analytics for the sites I’ve managed to know that hardly anyone uses menus. Visitors to your home page scan for relevant content and, if they can’t find it, they immediately go to Search.
Usability is simplicity. It’s using the terms that the public uses, not what you want to say. Li discussed another example – an online course on driver safety. Users flocked to the course, thinking that they could learn how to get discounts on car insurance.
The user is always right, as WordPress creator Matt Mullenwegg would say, even when they’re wrong. The course was renamed to make it clearer that it was about driver safety not driver discounts.
In government, where I worked for almost ten years, we never had money for usability testing. However, we had to comply with laws like Sec. 508, which mandates that web sites be accessible to all users, including the blind and disabled. That means that text alternatives have to be available for multimedia information. It forced you to make simpler sites, ones without annoying video intros and Flash.
Making sites accessible is about making them simple. It’s about using the terms that your audience uses. In Washington, we love specialized terminology, for it marks a person as “in the loop.”
Don’t do this. Instead, use simple words that the public knows.
And it’s a good practice, no matter the audience, according to Li. Making a site easy enough for seniors to use will benefit all readers. After all, not everyone is a native English speaker. Not everyone has a sleek laptop with a wifi connection. And there are a surprising number of people who still use AOL to access the web. Your audience is more than just tech-savvy millennials.
You don’t need to be a usability expert to design a usable web site. Focus on simplicity.
After all, you can’t fight Father Time. You’re going to get old. Design simple sites now, ones that all Americans can use.
The lotus flowers are blooming, a sea of pink flowers emerging from the primordial muck of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. It’s an impressive sight, for the flowers are as big as plates, rising from lilies on massive stalks.
I biked to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens – the only national park devoted to water-loving plants – early Sunday morning. The wetland is right off the new Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. The park service was prepared for crowds, even crowds of cyclists, for they set up a long row of bike racks for the two-wheeled. Despite the early hour, the ponds were busy with photographers angling for the perfect shot and tourists taking selfies with pink lotus flowers.
Looking at the exotic blooms against a backdrop of overwhelming green, with insects buzzing everywhere and humidity pouring off the shallow pools crowded with lily pads, Washington has never felt more like a swamp.
One of my friends was arrested recently, flying in from Arkansas for the privilege. She was protesting TrumpCare. In addition to spending a day in jail, she was mocked online, Trump supporters and other trolls doubting whether the people in wheelchairs crowding the hallways of Capitol Hill were really sick.
“Never read the comments” is one of the cardinal truths of our age.
There’s been much hand-wringing in the media about the need to understand Trump supporters. What motivates them? What do they believe? Why do they stick with him?
I tried my hand in understanding the phenomena in Victory Party, my short story in the City Paper, imagining who might be happy about the unexpected election result.
Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter. There’s a hard core of people who will believe anything – that’s another one of the cardinal truths of our age. They cannot be persuaded, despite evidence of Russian collusion from Trump’s own family. They will follow Trump to the end, even if it ends in resignation and defeat.
The Resistance is winning. Despite control of both houses of Congress, all of Trump’s plans have collapsed in disgrace. He does not know how to craft legislation or mobilize support for a bill. His ideas are so slapdash and badly formed that even Republicans reject them, especially when confronted with scores of the sick being arrested outside their offices.
Washington may be a swamp but occasionally it produces programs that ordinary people really value. Programs that save lives, like Obamacare. Like a lotus flower emerging from a dank pond, the underside of the program may look terrible, a morass of slime and waste, but after seeing it in person, how could you take it away from others?
The swamp is not going to be drained. While not pretty, Americans depend on it, an appreciation that has been forced on them by their President.
When there was a last-minute opening on the TryBrompton Demo Tour, I jumped at the opportunity to borrow one of these iconic folding bikes.
Made in London, Brompton makes folding bikes that are ideal for cities. With 16″ wheels and sturdy steel frames, they can be easily carried from subway to street and back again.
And they’re damn good-looking. I’ve been in love with the bike since seeing them by the score at the Brompton Challenge, where Brompton riders raced through Congressional Cemetery and participated in folding/unfolding competitions.
I have experience with folding bikes, too. One of my favorite bikes ever was a Dahon foldy – my beloved foldy – that I bought for $300 off Craigslist and took with me all over the country. Fun to ride and rock-solid (well, at least until the frame cracked), that bike was my constant companion on the rutted streets of Washington, DC.
Given my experience with another folding bike, I was curious to try the Brompton. What do you get from a $1600 Brompton compared to a considerably cheaper foldy?
With six speeds and a light frame, the black Brompton I borrowed from BicycleSpace could fly, easily catching people on “real” bikes cruising leisurely around the monuments. With its little wheels, it started quickly from a dead stop and then kept accelerating to almost dangerous speeds.
Technically, I could carry my old Dahon. Lugging was a more accurate term. Heavy and ungainly, I took it on the Metro a few times but it wasn’t something I wanted to do regularly. I would’ve developed a huge right arm if I had done so. The extent of my carrying the bike was from the trunk of a car to the street.
In contrast, the Brompton is light and easy to carry. Part of it is the bike’s 16″ wheels, which make it a lot lighter than my old Dahon (which had 20″ wheels). The bike is also designed for cities, perfected over a couple decades of use on the London tube.
The folding is not simple (the Brompton rep at BicycleSpace made us fold and unfold the bike a half-dozen times before leaving) but it does compress into a tiny package that can be easily carried. My bike even had a rack on it with wheels built into it so that it could be easily rolled through a train station.
The Brompton’s legendary portability is achieved by way more knobs and levers than I’d like (as if Dr. Who designed a bike) but you can’t argue with success – it’s perfectly designed for the task of street-to-train transportation.
Would you buy an iPhone that looked like a brutal slab? Of course not. The iPhone’s success is due to what’s on the outside as much as what’s on the inside.
Bromptons are beautiful, whether they’re passing you on the street or folded up in a shop window. Eye-catching and fun, it’s a bike that you want to own as an art object. While biking around DC, pedestrians checked out my sleek black ride while Bromptoneers nodded appreciatively.
With the ability to customize the bike endlessly (colors, speeds, racks, fenders, lights, handlebars), it’s the ultimate bespoke product for the discerning cyclist.
Every bike is a compromise, a calculus of weight, speed and price. What didn’t I like about the Brompton?
Bike theft is rampant in DC. Just borrowing a $1600 Brompton made me paranoid. No way was this bike leaving my sight. I didn’t worry about my $300 Craigslist find this way.
Little wheels make you very conscious of the road ahead. While riding, I found myself scanning the pavement for potholes, ruts, steel plates and other obstacles in DC’s post-apocalyptic streetspace.
Who is this Bike for?
Wealthy Cycling Fanatics. Some people just like acquiring bikes, filling their spare spaces with every kind of bike they can get their hands on. Obviously a Brompton is needed to round out the collection.
Train Commuters. If I had to take the MARC train to Baltimore every day, hell yes I would get a Brompton. It’s the Swiss Army knife of biking – with its fenders, rack and portability, it can do everything and take you just about anywhere.
At the end of my 24-hours with Brommie (I named it – a bad sign), I didn’t want to return it. At first, I found the bike a little wobbly and uncertain, due to its small wheels. However, it rapidly grew on me. I liked how the rear wheel folded under the frame, making its own stand. As I cruised along the Potomac, passing hapless tourists on red Bikeshare bikes, I was delighted by its speed. Cornering tightly on city streets, I was reminded of how much fun a foldy bike can be.
I would like to own a Brompton – some day. As an object of art and a quick, handy bike, it can’t be beat. But the $1600 price is too high.
The casual user might be better off with a Dahon or Giant foldy. But if you want the best, or need the best, then get a Brompton.
No matter what bike you get, make sure you try it out first. This is especially true for folding bikes, which handle differently than full-sized bikes.
Adios for now, Brommie! Hope to see you again in the future.
For the friends of Hemingway in 1920s Paris, everything was dated B.S. or A.S. Before the publication of The Sun Also Rises, their lives were complicated and largely anonymous. After Sun, their flaws were exposed to the world.
The story of the making of this literary masterpiece is told in Everybody Behaves Badly, an account of Hemingway, his friends and the events that inspired the first modern American novel of the 20th Century.
I paired the book with Bell’s Two Hearted. One of the early IPAs, it’s been a favorite ever since it first surprised my taste buds on a 100 degree day at the Capital Fringe Festival. Tangy and citrusy, it defines summer to me.
Named after the Two Hearted River in Michigan, a favorite vacation spot for young Hemingway, and the setting for one of his most famous short stories, it’s perfect the beer pairing for a book about Papa at work.
What does it take to create a novel? For Hemingway, it meant betraying nearly everyone in his world – mentors, drinking buddies, literary rivals and even his wife – as he strived to become a giant in American letters.
The Sun Also Rises was a revolution when it was published in 1926, a fusion of high/low style, in which Hemingway took postmodern “less is more” prose and married it with a scandalous story of dissipation among the idle rich. What lifted it above a drunken yarn was the epigraph from Gertrude Stein, “You are all a lost generation.” This defining quote, as well as the title, turned the novel into a representation of youth scarred by war, seeking for a meaning in a landscape without God or authority.
The novel is less a story and more transcription of a disastrous trip to see the bullfights in Pamplona. Following the debacle, Hemingway wrote the book in a period of weeks, not even bothering to change the real names of people that he used in the first draft.
The characters in Sun are all real, and scarcely disguised from their actual counterparts. The most appalling depiction is that of Harold Loeb, who admired Hemingway with almost slavish devotion. In return, he gets mocked in the novel as Robert Cohn, a Jew who doesn’t know his place, with the temerity to romance Lady Brett, a woman that he certainly doesn’t deserve. It was a portrayal and a betrayal that Loeb never got over and one that he spent decades trying to understand.
After the publication of the book in 1926, there was a craze to be like Lady Brett, the hard-drinking sex symbol of the novel. Like her literary counterpart, Lady Duff Twysden was a broke alcoholic of a dubious lineage. Fleeing debts and family complications, she ended up in Santa Fe, before dying of tuberculosis. Hemingway, cruel to the end, told his biographer that her casket was carried by former lovers, who dropped it at the funeral – a fictitious tale.
Her husband in the novel, Mike Campbell (the real Pat Guthrie), the very model of the dissipated English upper classes, died of a drug overdose, owing money to bars and hotels all over Paris.
Depicted as trying to trick Cohn into marrying her, Frances Clyne (the real Kitty Cannell) went on to one of the most fascinating lives of all the people mocked in The Sun Also Rises. After surviving Paris during Nazi occupation, she become a game show guest, noted for her expertise in everything from timeless glamor to surviving prison. One subject she wouldn’t discuss: Hemingway. She thought he was a bastard from the very beginning.
While the backstories in Everybody Behaves Badly are fascinating, what makes the book great is the story of how Hemingway created his masterpiece. Everybody Behaves Badly is a writer’s book – I’ve never read a book that does a better job explaining how a novel actually gets written, showing how Hemingway took real events and transmuted them into his novel.
One character Hemingway leaves out of the book: Hadley, his wife. The Paris Wife depicts her as crushed by this omission, knowing that she was losing her husband.
By the time The Sun Also Rises is published, Hemingway was moving on from the woman who subsidized his early writing efforts for a richer catch: the heiress Pauline Pfeiffer.
Thirty years later, in the posthumously published A Moveable Feast, Hemingway tried to blame the pernicious influence of rich friends on his decision to leave Hadley. They said that Hemingway deserved someone more stylish than doughty Hadley.
But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald predicted back in 1926, with every major new book, Hemingway would have a new wife. After Pauline would come Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh.
Write what you know. That’s the cardinal rule of writing. For Hemingway, that meant mining his own life for the material to create The Sun Also Rises. It’s his best book and the novel that frees American literature from its fussy and florid predecessors. Like a good IPA, it’s a sharp and refreshing shock to everything you’ve experienced before.
Following the election of Donald Trump, I was not discouraged. I wasn’t even particularly interested, as if I was watching a TV show featuring a car wreck rather than actually living through one. I even a wrote a short story that appeared in the City Paper, Victory Party, that was sympathetic to the misguided wishes of Trump supporters.
Once in office, I assumed Trump would be a new and better man, cognizant of history and burdened with global responsibilities.
We know how that worked out.
His derangement is such a weird outlier in American history that our system doesn’t know how to respond. What do you do if the king is mad? It’s a problem more out of Shakespeare than anything written in the Constitution.
Engulfed by scandal, a rational man would resign. A rational party would step in and force him to do so, like the Republicans did during Watergate.
Instead, Washington is powerless, the will of one man dragging the country into a political abyss from which both parties, and the country as a whole, will be irrevocably changed.
Not even six months in office and Trump recently held his first reelection fundraiser. Shamelessly, it was held at the Old Post Office, a historic building that he’s trimmed with gold and slapped his name on, the Emoluments Clause be damned.
On the street, a few dozen protesters, their focus being on the repeal of Obamacare and its replacement with the rump plan of Trumpcare.
There were two Trump supporters. The first, a homeless man who revived from his drug-induced stupor to stagger across the sidewalk and demand that we respect the President. The second, a tourist who shouted her love for Trump before her husband led her away.
The Presidential motorcade drove by, as if the protesters and supporters didn’t exist, their cries rising up to an empty sky, the interloper slipping into the grand old building that belongs to the public.
I took a few photos of the motorcade. I could see the Presidential seal but not Trump himself. I deleted the photos. Didn’t want them.
In ancient Rome, some rulers were so awful that their reigns were erased from history. Nobody wanted to remember them. Their temples were destroyed. Their burial places hidden. Their names scratched off monuments.
When this ends, and it will end, there will be a similar effort. If America had an undo button, we would hit it. Instead, we will try to pretend that this never happened, like the ex-wife nobody talks about or the house guest that stayed too long.
Of course, we won’t forget – nor should we, this hard lesson in democracy.
When I first started biking, I contemplated the map of Rock Creek Park with amazement, watching the trail stretch miles out of the city to a place called Lake Needwood.
It seemed an impossible distance, a good twenty miles away on a winding ribbon of asphalt. One would need all day to get there – maybe two! The fantastical white spires of the Mormon Temple just beyond the Beltway was my idea of a long ride.
But you keep biking and the distances seem smaller and smaller. Twenty miles goes from an epic journey to something you do after a couple beers on an evening.
I did a century a few weeks ago, a 100-mile ride to the end of the WO&D Trail, a destination that once seemed as far away as Shangri-La. On Sunday, I set out for another place I hadn’t been to: Lake Needwood.
With just a sideways glance at the new Klingle Trail (I’ll do that another day), I enjoyed the widened Rock Creek trail by the National Zoo before encountering the rutted surface of Beach Drive. Then I just kept going north, past the Mormons and deep into suburban Maryland.
I imagined a beer garden. Or at least a place to get a hot dog. Yet, after a couple of hours of biking through the woods, there was neither. Instead, a beautiful lake dotted with bright kayaks. But I had made it to the end, accomplishing what once seemed impossible.
Needing food (a common theme of these bike journeys), Yelp alerted me that there was a Big Greek Cafe in Rockville. I love Big Greek!
My Strava route for this section is amusing, showing figure eights in a parking lot as I search for the restaurant, which was on other side of the shopping plaza.
After lunch, I decided to take a different route back to the city. Google Maps led me down this long, circular road with speed bumps next to a huge empty lot. Ahead, an unfamiliar tower of condos.
Then it hit me: this was the White Flint Mall. Or, rather, the remains of it, for the entire structure has been demolished save for Lord and Taylor. People don’t go to malls, anymore.
And they certainly don’t go to Rockville, for the entire area has been rebranded as North Bethesda, a tony district of new condos, restaurants and a Whole Foods.
Also included, the latest hipster amenity: a protected bike lane, running by yoga studios and kombucha joints.
The protected bike lane led me to the Bethesda Trolley Trail, which goes through backyards all the way to actual Bethesda. The trail is being widened around NIH, for the population of cyclists is ever-increasing in this traffic-choked region.
The trail (which is just a sidewalk near NIH) ends in a postcard-cute Bethesda neighborhood. Good signage led me to the Capital Crescent Trail, another rail trail and a nice downhill run back to DC.
50 miles done! What once seemed impossible now very much possible, even easy, new horizons opened up by one of man’s greatest inventions: the bike.