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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Varina, a novel about the South

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Chernobyl

American runner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorial Day Weekend Book Recommendations

condo view of New Smyrna Beach, FL

If you’re like me, a three-day weekend means three days of reading! Whether you’re on a plane, a beach or a cabin in the woods, the Memorial Day holiday offers an uninterrupted stretch of quality reading time. It’s a great opportunity to get away from the tyranny of devices and reconnect with the oldest of experiences: the written word.

But what to read? How do you choose what books to pack in your suitcase or Kindle?

From historic fiction to a contemporary novel, here are seven good books to choose from:

Historic Fiction

Varina explores the fascinating and disastrous life of the First Lady of the Confederacy.

Mythology

Circe make classical myths real and contemporary in this story of a scorned woman who finds her power.

Sports

The Club: How the English Premier League Took Over the World is an underdog story, about how a grim, working-class sport became a fan-friendly global spectacle.

History

The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 makes the case that it was the generous temperament of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that won WWII and not the bombast of Winston Churchill.

Politics

War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence argues that we need more diplomats and fewer generals.

Self-Help

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport is a call for the intentional use of social media, controlling it rather than letting it control you.

Washington, DC

The Swamp by me (shameless self-promotion) is a dark comedy set in the nation’s capital.

Behind the Scenes of a BikeDC Conspiracy

Ghosts of Bowser

The conspirators gathered at dawn. Working quickly, they unloaded the truck on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Out came bikes, walkers, canes, shoes, helmets, scooters and car parts – all painted white. It was ghost memorial for the 128 victims of traffic violence in Washington, DC. 128 men, women and children killed during the administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser.

These were the Ghosts of Bowser.

A How-To Manual for Conspiracy

Conspiracy by Ryan Holiday outlines how conspiracies form, organize and succeed as he tells the story of Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the gossip web site Gawker.

Conspiracies begin with a crime. An outrage. An offense that people can’t bear, something that makes them willing to leave their ordinary, conspiracy-free lives behind and sacrifice to right the wrong.

For the members of #BikeDC, the rolling community of people who bike in the nation’s capital, it was the death of Dave Salovesh, killed by a driver on Florida Avenue. Plans to redesign the street to make it safer for cyclists and pedestrians have been on the books for years, yet the city has done nothing. A protected bike lane might have saved him.

In response to his death, a ghost bike was installed on Florida Avenue. A bike painted white to memorialize his death.

This wasn’t enough. Dave was a beloved figure, someone who everyone in DC knew – including me.

Two days after he died, another person was killed by an out-of-control driver in DC. Abdul Seck, visiting Washington, struck on a sidewalk.

While memorials were held for Dave and Abdul on the streets where they were killed, the Mayor attended neither.

A Conspiracy is People Working Together

I yelled at the Mayor. Caught her at an event on K St. Confronted her over her failure to fix Florida Avenue – she said these things take time. Over her failure to respond to the more than 100 people who emailed her. Or to show up at Dave or Abul’s memorials. She replied that too many people were killed in DC for her to make an appearance at every memorial.

Me. An individual expressing my rage.

But to the move the world, you need a group of people acting in concert. A conspiracy.

As Americans, we think that conspiracies are a bad thing, forgetting that our country was formed in conspiracy, 13 colonies acting against the Crown.

“When they go low, we go high,” is a sentiment that the men who fired the first shots at Lexington would’ve found hopefully naive. If you want independence, then you have to act in secret using every tool available.

Conspiracies Require Secrecy

Fortunately, we have better communication methods than Paul Revere riding in the dark. Modern conspiracies are organized by time-expiring emails and password-protected Google Docs.

Days before the Ghosts of Bowser installation, teams of people scoured the city for objects to represent the deaths of 128 men, women and children killed in traffic violence. From junk yards, garages and alleys, they emerged with car parts, bikes and shoes that they painted white. A conspiracy requires a village, a large group of people who share your outrage and desire for change.

Secrecy is the essence of conspiracy, from the classical era to today, as Holiday points out in his book. Roman slaves were rewarded for informing on their masters. If the city had learned of Ghosts of Bowser before it was constructed on Pennsylvania Avenue, they might have stopped it.

Conspiracy Controls the Narrative

Modern conspiracies, like Ghosts of Bowser, must balance secrecy with the need for outreach. You want the media to show up at your protest. Ghosts of Bowser had talking points, artwork and a hashtag #ghostsofbowser ready to debut on social media.

Reporters, and allies like me, were told to expect something in front of the Wilson Building, without being told the exact details.

In the light of dawn, as the Ghosts of Bowser installation was taking shape outside the Wilson Building, home to the DC city government, a pair of security guards emerged.

The volunteers, busy piling white bikes and strollers into a parking space marked for councilmembers only, knew what to do. They had been briefed. There was a script for descalating conflict with the police.

Which was not necessary. The guards just didn’t want bikes on the steps of the Wilson Building, where they might trip people up, a request that was easily accommodated.

A Conspiracy Has a Clear Goal

Conspiracies need a clear goal. For Peter Thiel, offended that Gawker had outed him as gay, the objective was to bankrupt the gossip site.

Conspiracies also need people willing to do whatever it takes to win. Thiel found that in Hulk Hogan, whose sex tape Gawker exposed to the public. He would be the instrument that Thiel would use to get his revenge.

#BikeDC wants streets that don’t kill people in DC. You shouldn’t die riding your bike or walking down the street in Washington. The city has plans to implement safe streets but has failed to act upon them. Protected bike lanes, road diets, banning right-turns on red and reclaiming streets for the people all could save lives, if only Mayor Bowser would act.

Often conspiracies exist within broader movements for change – think of the network of spies that Alexander Hamilton ran during the American Revolution.

Sherri Joyner shows her mangled bike

Hours after the ghost installation, the Washington Area Bicyclists Association held a die-in on Pennsylvania Avenue. As the names of 128 traffic victims were read, hundreds of people lay down on Pennsylvania Avenue. Every member of the “transportation community,” as Mayor Bowser would call it, was there – bike commuters, casual cyclists, walkers, runners, environmental activists and their friends and family.

“All eight wards” is a slogan Mayor Bowser uses to represent the entire city. It was right outside her window that day, if only she would look. This is a community ready to do what it takes to build safe streets in the nation’s capital.

Conspiracies Have a Cost

Conspiracy has a cost. The signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor, knowing that they had committed treason. There was no going back.

Peter Thiel won his battle against Gawker, after spending millions of dollars and years of his time. Aiming to protect his privacy, he ended up with even worse press, as his role as the banker behind the Hulk Hogan lawsuit was exposed. Believing that he now understood the common man, he went on to endorse Donald Trump at the 2016 Republican Convention. Thiel has lost his privacy and his reputation, becoming just another Republican tarnished by Trump.

That’s the point Ryan Holiday makes in Conspiracy – the endgame is the most dangerous part of a conspiracy.

Confronted with evil times, from Donald Trump pushing America toward dictatorship to the deadly traffic toll on DC’s streets, we need to conspire to make change.

The good guys don’t always win. The long arc of history does not bend toward justice, it is pushed and prodded that way by people acting together in conspiracy.

Three Ways to Build Safe Streets in DC

Safe roads for all

Dave Salovesh was killed by a driver on Florida Avenue in Washington, DC. He was a friend of mine and, like me, a member of #BikeDC, the rolling community of cyclists that call the nation’s capital home.

Following his death, friends of Dave wrote to the Mayor pleading for safe streets. No one should die walking or biking in DC.

Dear Mayor Bowser,

My friend Dave Salovesh is dead. It should never have happened. DC has known for years that Florida Avenue is unsafe. DDOT made plans for traffic calming measures to make the street safer and never implemented them.

You now have a chance to do things differently. You have the opportunity to prove that Vision Zero is more than just a slogan. Take dramatic action to prove that this time is different. Radical change is needed for safe streets and only you can make it happen.

I propose that you implement the following over the next 90 days:

1. Shutdown for Safety. Every time there’s a crash with injuries, the street is shut down for 24 hours. This will give DDOT the chance the investigate possible measures to prevent future crashes and underscore the city’s commitment to traffic safety. When drivers and residents see that streets are Shutdown for Safety, they’ll know that the city cares about them. This little inconvenience will send a message that the lives of DC residents are more important than keeping the traffic moving.

2. Declare Portions of DC Car-Free. We’re a European city, designed by a European with a street grid of narrow roads that were never meant for cars. Like leading cities in Europe, the city center should be free of cars. I’d follow the Inauguration street closure plan and close roughly everything between the White House and the Capitol. Imagine being able to stand in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue and take in the Capitol at sunset without having to worry about being run over.

3. Ban Carsharing. It’s madness to allow a bunch of suburbanites to play taxi driver in Washington, all to benefit some massive corporation in California. Ubers clog the roads and are an environmental and economic nightmare, a predatory company with investor money that is undercutting public transportation. Ban Uber and bring back DC’s taxis.

You can be different. You can be a pioneer among America’s mayors. With these three steps, you can build safe streets and set yourself apart as the Mayor who made a historic difference in the life of the nation’s capital.

Joe

The Mayor’s response came a week later and was a form letter to the more than 100 people who emailed her about Dave. And it only came after I confronted her at an event and demanded answers.

Dave Salovesh

Dave Salovesh

Bad news always arrives via Twitter.

I saw earlier in the day that a cyclist was killed on Florida Avenue. The crash sounded horrific – a driver fleeing police had clipped a car and hit someone on a bike going the opposite direction.

The crash took place in the Trinidad neighborhood of Washington, DC. Neighbors, including friends of mine, had been complaining about Florida Avenue for years. Maryland commuters use it as a freeway despite the fact that it travels through some of the most densely populated areas of the city. 

Ruby Whitfield was killed in almost the same spot in 2013 while walking home from church. A street is named in her honor. Plans were drawn to slow traffic on the street and put in a protected bike lane. Nothing was ever done.

Twitter then delivered the horror, as it has since 2016. The name of the cyclist killed was Dave Salovesh.

A flood of responses online: shock. Dave was the most confident city cyclist I ever met, one of those people who biked everywhere in all weather, with strength and power, determined to prove that the streets belonged to everyone.

I first met Dave at the Stop U-Turns Protest on Pennsylvania Avenue. I wasn’t an advocate. I was just there to take pictures. Dave wanted barriers put up to stop drivers from making u-turns across the bike lane. The demonstration took right in front of the Wilson Building, home to the notoriously unresponsive DC city government.

I thought nothing would come of it. To my surprise, Dave won. Curbs were put in so drivers couldn’t make u-turns across Pennsylvania so easily.

As I got more involved in bike advocacy, moving from observer to participant, I saw Dave everywhere, at every protest, rally and meetup. He was someone you could count on being there.

As @darsal, he was a ceaseless presence on Twitter, an advocate with a mission to make the streets safe for everyone.

Little-known fact: he also ran @DCBikeWX, a wonderful Twitter account that provided weather forecasts for local cyclists. He wasn’t a meteorologist but every day would look at the charts and develop a forecast, advising bike commuters when to pack rain gear or remember their gloves.

He was one of those people you assumed would always be around. Until he wasn’t.

On Easter Sunday, a ghost bike was installed where Dave died.

I couldn’t go. Couldn’t do this one. I’ve been to other remembrances for people killed on city streets, dutifully taking photos, my lens a shield against the raw experience of grief.

But I couldn’t do this one. It was too personal. I knew Dave.

On Easter Sunday in DC, another deadly crash, a driver running through a stop sign, smashing into a car and killing a pedestrian, no break from automotive mayhem even on the holiest of days.

Things have to change.

Will they change?

Dave believed that they would, because making the streets safe for everyone was the right thing to do.

Things can change. Email Mayor Bowser and demand safe streets. It’s time to stop the carnage.

Letter from Washington: After the Space Shuttle

Space Shuttle Flyby from the Reeves Center

Seven years ago today, I stood on a roof as the Space Shuttle said goodbye.

As I watched it circle Washington, DC on the back of a 747, it seemed like the end of an era – because it was. No longer would we be a people who went to space.

Why?

The Space Shuttle was too old. Too expensive. Too dangerous.

Rather than fix it, we got rid it. Rather than replace it, we chose to do nothing. It was too hard so we, a nation that had sent a man to the Moon, let the Space Shuttle fly off into the sunset, our space program reduced to a museum exhibit, just a memory for people old enough to remember the age of exploration.

People like me. Going to high school in Florida, we were let out of class to see every Space Shuttle launch. Even in Orlando it was visible, a towering cloud of smoke ascending into the atmosphere as the shuttle escaped the bonds of Earth.

No more. All gone, Democrats and Republicans agreeing that the time of manned space exploration had passed, as if Columbus was forced into retirement when he returned from his discoveries.

We, as a people, would no longer do great things. Grown cynical, we no longer believed that government could accomplish much.

I worked in government. I knew government waste. But the Space Shuttle was a tiny program compared to the billions wasted on endless war or shoveled to greedy seniors.

If we could not keep the Space Shuttle flying, what could we do?

Nothing. I saw it where I worked at NOAA, as Congress chipped away at the agency’s budget, refusing to maintain a weather forecasting system that was the envy of the world. Rather than replace meteorologists who retired, remaining staff were forced to work long hours. In my office, the computers were ancient and to get office supplies, you had to know someone.

Lawmakers didn’t care, knowing that their constituents had lost faith in government, despite the evidence all around them, such as tornado warnings and disability checks. Government was not something we did together, but something we took for granted.

Sometimes I wonder, how did we get to Trump? We lost confidence in our ability to do great things as a people, setting us up for charlatans like the current President.

But we can do great things, because we’ve done great things before. The proof is in the society that we’ve built together. Frayed and under pressure, but still there.

It is time that we, as a people, have faith again. Americans were meant for the stars. It is time we renounced con artists and took up our destiny. The candidate who wins in 2020 will be the one with a vision for the future as bold as the Space Shuttle.

New article: Seven Reasons to Join a Photo Collective

Tap city on 4th St

Sweating and gulping beer, I watched Steph tap dance in a nearly empty apartment building on the edge of downtown DC. The structure was going to be gutted and gentrified but first one last party on a steamy summer evening. No need to worry about the neighbors because there were no neighbors – everyone else in the building had moved out.

And I owe it all to photography. I met Steph through InstagramDC, a community for photographers in Washington, DC. We get together for instameets, happy hours and other events – it’s a photo collective.

Which is why I wrote Seven Reasons to Join a Photo Collective for Submittable.

Through a collective like InstagramDC you can expand your skills, pool talents and, most importantly, meet new people. If you’re creative, inspiration comes from new experiences, such as watching a friend tap dance on a sweaty evening in an abandoned building.

Published! Five Tips for a Better Weather Photo

cyclist on P St

I have a new article in The Washington Post – Five Tips for a Better Weather Photo!

In this listicle for the Capital Weather Gang, I share my tips for creating a good weather photo. It’s about composition, knowing your camera, including people, getting out of the car and telling a weather story.

The photo editor included lots of bike photos – that’s what I’m known for as a photographer. A bike is also how I get around the city and am able to capture so much interesting imagery.

I’m a huge Capital Weather Gang fan. It’s the best part of the paper, IMHO. I was glad to share my knowledge with their readers.