There’s a tendency to think that people at the top of large organizations are smarter than you. After all, they’ve made it to the top. They must brilliant people guided by devoted staff and working within a well-organized system.
The truth is more like the moment Dorothy peeks behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz – it’s all chaos, a sham of smoke and mirrors aimed at concealing the very human weakness of the person in charge, as Michael Wolff’s reveals in Fire and Fury, his takedown of the Trump administration.
I’ve worked in communications for major organizations in Washington, DC. Everywhere, it’s the same – you may have smart staffers, and a process designed to to prevent embarrassing mistakes, but the work is driven by the whims of The Boss. If he (and it’s almost always a he), wants to put out a press release announcing his birthday, then one is produced.
I read Michael Wolff’s book Burn Rate back in the 90s. This was the era of Silicon Alley, when New York dotcoms aspired to be the next Excite or Yahoo. Wolff, a journalist, founded a company and then proceeded to burn through VC cash before walking away from the wreckage. The book mocks Internet pioneers and the industry.
He’s a loathsome character, with the attitude of a con artist putting one over on the rubes. In this case, the marks are his employees, who he stiffs, and investors, who lose their money. There’s a scene at the end of the book (and it’s very novelistic) where he succeeds at unloading the remains of his business on someone else though his media company is little more than a Filemaker database, a feat that Wolff gleefully recounts.
Whenever I’d see his name in the media, I’d think, “Ugh, that guy.” After burning Internet bridges, he went on to excoriate Rupert Murdoch and other billionaire/tyrants, his villainous headshot atop gossipy columns in Vanity Fair and other publications.
A simple Google search would’ve revealed all this.
Inviting this devious miscreant into the White House is the greatest act of communications malpractice this century. Instead of warning staff not to talk to this unreliable scribe, Sarah Sanders allowed this New York creature to observe the Trumpian chaos from a comfy couch. He’s a journalist who specializes in ripping apart media figures – what did they think he was doing there?
As Drew Margary in GQ writes, it takes a rat to catch a rat. Promising a nice book, and then writing a nasty one, Wolff worked the long con to perfection. For a change, Trump was the one being tricked.
Unethical, self-absorbed and steeped in the values of the billionaire elite, Wolff is the biographer that Trump deserves.
Bathed in light, I watched the cutest little bit of stimulus money creep into the green environs of Winter Park, FL. The station is tiny, and families waited along the palm tree-lined track to catch the three cars of the SunRail train. The destination was Orlando, five miles away. Driving (or even biking) would’ve been faster but this was some cheap fun for bored children a couple days after Christmas.
Kids love trains, as do most adults though they dismiss them as impractical. But if trains ran more often, and to more places, they would be practical.
Instead, we build roads. Near where my parents live, the state built a flyover at a suburban intersection, allowing traffic to soar on a concrete ramp twenty feet in the air, going from Red Bug Road to 436, one of those six-lane highways lined with fast food joints and gas stations that could be anywhere in America. In a car, you wait for the light to change, go under the massive flyover and then run into another traffic light.
After watching the train disappear into the verdant flatness of Florida, I drove to my favorite hipster coffee joint. I love how Orange Avenue meanders between Winter Park and Orlando, winding around lakes and passing lingering bits of Old Florida. Along the way is Foxtail Coffee, which makes a great cappuccino and has an outdoor seating area with fake grass and real palm trees. Next door, there’s a place for tiny, tortured salads and a local brewery. It’s about as Portlandia as Florida gets.
Foxtail is nine miles from parents’ place. Easily bikeable, where it not for the presence of six-lane roads like 436. The Google bike directions send you through the flyover.
In Orlando, people bike in subdivisions or they bike on trails but they don’t bike on roads, especially ones like 436. You don’t even see people walking along these suburban corridors.
There’s a tendency to think that this is the natural state of things, as if God ordained the car and America built a network of highways in response to his word.
I watched Secrets of Spanish Florida with the family. American history doesn’t begin with Jamestown but with St. Augustine in 1565, where Spain established a melting-pot colony of Europeans, Indians and escaped slaves. The first Americans were not Puritans, and the first Thanksgiving was not in Massachusetts. By the time the English got to America, the Spanish had been living here for decades. In La Florida, citizenship was available to all, no matter your race.
Perhaps if the Spanish remained in control, Florida would look like Spain, with high-speed trains and excellent ham.
Florida doesn’t have to be a place where retirees go to escape taxation. It can be different. America can be different, too.
I unleashed a volley of obscenities at the two (two!) cars parked in the middle of the bike lane. After a minor fender-bender, these two drivers decided the best course of action was to move their cars into the protected bike lane of 15th, thus forcing people on bikes (me!) into traffic.
I cursed; they cursed back. At the next light, a woman on a bike pulled up next to me. “That wasn’t helpful,” she said.
“But,” I started, thinking of all the different ways the bike lane is blocked daily by cars, construction and utility companies determined to dig up every bit of asphalt in this city. However, I’ll admit when I’m wrong and I was. Yelling at them did not help matters nor did it make me feel better. It just left me with a hangover of rage.
It’s a tough time of year. I dread these days when the sun sinks lower in the sky until it just barely seems to get above the horizon. You go to work under gray skies and leave when it’s black.
A time of deep crankiness, when schedules are packed with commitments while you’re pressed with a tyrannical demand to appear jolly. Humans, however, are cyclical animals and this is the low end of the year, a sputtering conclusion to a particularly bad one.
Thank god I can run. On Monday, after wrestling with “Run? Don’t run?” I plodded toward Georgetown as the sun set. Running along the waterfront it occurred to me that perhaps the way to conquer winter was to embrace the darkness. Cold temps bring a stillness to the city, banishing the fair-weather tourists. I ran alone by the dark Potomac. Light lingered in the west, across the river.
I stopped to capture the moment. Pretty photo but I’m never going to love winter. Move faster, earth, and spin these dark days away until we reach spring.
Blocked off from traffic, the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue is peaceful and calm. Just after dawn, I slowly pedal by, just me, a few joggers and the Secret Service. In the warm light of morning, the White House looks serene.
A plot against America, carried out by the President’s campaign. If this was a season of House of Cards, it would strain credulity. Democrats and Republicans, while they have their differences, all believe in democracy – right?
No. Trump and his family colluded with Russia to win an election, gleefully aided by a Republican party willing to do anything to win.
Some GOP leaders knowingly compromised their principles and our national security to support Trump’s victory. We must hold them accountable.
At first glance, the scandal seems like a black comedy cooked up by the writers of Arrested Development, the Bluth family writ large, a global scheme to launder money and filled with bit players such as a George Popadapoulos, catfished by Russia into thinking he was meeting Putin’s niece. Funny, right?
But then you remember that this isn’t TV. It’s not HBO. It’s your country and the scandal is an attack on democracy, an act of collusion between a corrupt candidate and a Russian adversary eager to upend the global order.
Our external enemy (Putin) has joined with our internal one (red states) in an alliance to bring down the country that they hate: America.
Over the weekend, I watched Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. She too was cursed to live in interesting times, the 1970s, and used her talent to document the disorder she saw in brilliantly-written essays that reported on the decline. Combining a literary eye for detail with a pitiless examination of her personality, she captured what life was like when things fall apart.
We tell ourselves stories to live.
The thing about the 70s is that no one knew how it would turn it out. As a kid, I remember seeing maps on the spread of communism, from Angola to Yugoslavia. The Russians were going to win – just look at the map. During the Carter era, we were stuck with a combination of inflation and stagnation that economists said couldn’t exist: stagflation. Or maybe another Ice Age was coming. Seemed plausible. Anything did back then, because we didn’t have a defining story, a vision of the future.
Like the 1970s, we’re in a hinge moment. The narrative of democracy has collapsed. A new era of tyrants has emerged, promising a revenge saga of blood and iron. To quote Yeats:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
In the evening, I return home past the White House. Tourists gather by the fence to snap photos, like they always have. This symbol of American democracy remains a powerful one, despite its current occupant.
And the strength of our story, the American story, endures, as it waits for a new storyteller, and a new vision of the future, to bring us together once again.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.