City Paper Fiction Issue Needs Submissions!

You can’t escape the news. It’s everywhere in 2018, blaring from TV sets and buzzing across iPhones. Every day, a new outrage, as America stumbles through the year, like a drunk on the edge of a subway platform.

Sure, you see the headlines emanating from Washington, DC, but what’s it like to live here?

For that, you need fiction, which can not only tell you what’s going on but make you feel it as well. Short stories allow you to inhabit the mind of another person, seeing the world through their eyes, and uncovering their terrors and anxieties, which may be different than yours.

Or they may be the same. The last City Paper Fiction Issue in 2017 featured three stories of electoral disaster, with my piece, Victory Party, the winner. Three fictional works that took you into the id of a city, uncovering its existential terror and disbelief.

That’s another thing about writing fiction: it’s therapy. Victory Party was my attempt to define our disordered reality in neat words and paragraphs.

And it was an amazing experience to see my winning short story in print all over the city. I got to do a reading, too, at Kramerbooks, which was the experience of a lifetime.

The contest is back! The City Paper is calling for submissions for their upcoming fiction issue. It’s only 2000 words – that’s nothing! You’ve probably written longer emails. The deadline is November 11.

Writing a short story about DC will help others understand what it’s like to live in a place where so much is so wrong. And it might help you, too.

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Art from Injury: Ocean Agate by Theresa Amelia

Theresa Hillsdon and Ocean Agate

The brain is a mysterious thing.

After suffering a concussion, Theresa Amelia turned to art for healing, depicting the shapes that she saw in her mind after her injury.

The result is the beautiful work pictured above – Ocean Agate – that now hangs in a home in Georgetown. It’s mixed media, weighing in at 45 pounds, and features glass and crushed gemstones that glitter in the light, including over 25,000 hand-set mosaic pieces of glass, 20,000 hand-set pieces of tumbled or raw gemstones (Brazilian Aquamarine, Lapis Lazuli, Green Agate, Blue Soapstone, and Green Bloodstone) and over 20,000 ml of poured, custom colored acrylic resin.

Theresa was not an artist before her traumatic brain injury. While she did have a visual sense, from her experience as a photographer, to develop the skills, focus and vision to produce a work of art like Ocean Agate is an almost unexplainable leap. She spent more than 240 hours in its creation.

The injury changed her, producing innumerable negative consequences (like memory loss) but a few positive changes, as precious and as rare as the stones used in Ocean Agate. In addition to her newfound artistic ability, she now empathizes with people in a way that she never had before, feeling what they feel just by looking at them. Maybe this is due to her realization of the fragility of our consciousness or maybe the injury unlocked a part of her brain that we no longer use, this kind of empathy unsuitable for our busy, complicated societies.

Art provides consolation and a way to work through difficult times. Art therapy is used to help veterans returning from combat – traumatic brain injury is a “signature injury” from our endless wars.

And in some cases, brain injuries can lead to extraordinary art.

Thankfully, I’ve never had a concussion. But I’ve seen friends after it’s happened. They are truly not themselves, not knowing where they are or their own name. Experiences like that teach you that our identities are thin and flimsy things, held together by a few membranes in our heads.

The Power of Image: David Hogg at the White House Correspondents Dinner

David Hogg at the White House Correspondents Dinner

Last night, I took a photo: David Hogg at the White House Correspondents Dinner, pictured with Zion Kelly.

I’m a writer and a photographer. Living near the hotel, I thought I could get some photos of celebrities. But I arrived late and missed most of them.

With my Canon SL1 and a zoom lens, I captured this image of David and Zion posing on the red carpet. I was outside the glass doors of the hotel, standing in the driveway, near the spot where Reagan was shot in 1981. A small plaque marks the location.

Once home, I posted it to Twitter, thinking my followers would like it. I’m an admirer of the Parkland survivor. To be capable of speaking out after surviving a mass shooting – that is unimaginable to me. And that AR-15s should be banned is common sense.

The tweet took off, with hundreds of mentions occurring in my timeline, as my photo was retweeted, liked and shared.

And commented upon. 95% of those comments were positive, recognizing David as a powerful voice for common-sense gun control.

This same power terrifies Trump supporters. David is an “other” – a boy who doesn’t know his place. In response to my simple photo, they replied with hate, insults and conspiracy theories.

Because they’re weak. If the Trump movement was strong, then they wouldn’t need to attack David. Even an image of this teenager triggers them.

With their online hate, Trump supporters betray themselves, surrendering to their fear, hoping for a few moments of relief from self-loathing and the knowledge that the country is slipping away from them.

I didn’t respond to my critics. They’re beneath me.

My photo was enough, with more power than an army of online trolls. Let it go out into the world and inspire others to make their voices heard.

Little Free Library Find: Bel Canto

Bel Canto

What kind of books do people leave in the Little Free Library? Are they books they don’t like or books they want to share with others? Seeing a well-worn copy of Bel Canto in my local Little Free Library, I’m inclined to believe the latter.

This novel by Ann Patchett is a visualization of Stockholm Syndrome in an unnamed South American country. Appropriate for the geography, the tale is told as magic realism, with a narrator who dips into the story at key moments, sharing what the captors and hostages should know but don’t. Despite the close relationships between terrorists and victims, they are equally doomed as their dreamy jungle idyll is bound to end in tragedy.

Bel Canto is both too long and too short, as we discover the life stories of all the participants – the talented soprano, the Japanese businessman, the illiterate rebel. The plot inches ahead, with key events taking place off-stage that are hinted at but not described. And then the fantasy comes to an end, as all do, and we’re left with unanswered questions.

This is by design. As Ann Patchett says in The Getaway Car, her short book on writing:

What I like about the job of being a novelist, and at the same time what I find so exhausting about it, is that it’s the closest thing to being God you’re ever going to get. All the decisions are yours. You decide when the sun comes up. You decide who gets to fall in love and who gets hit by a car. You have to make all the trees and all the leaves and then sew the leaves onto the trees. You make the entire world.

Her world, and the world of Bel Canto, is a lot like ours. A little messy, a bit ominous and love the only consolation for an uncertain future.

Science Not Silence: Voices from the March for Science

The thinking cap photo is mine

I have a photo in this beautiful book from MIT Press! Science Not Silence celebrates last year’s March for Science with stories and photos from around the world. More than a million people came out to support science, in cities across America and around the world.

My photo is the guy in the thinking cap. Heading down to the march in Washington, DC, I didn’t know what to expect. The weather was terrible – it had rained all day. Would people even show up? But when I approached Constitution Avenue, I heard a dull roar. Crowds stretched in both directions, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol, a half-million people joyously marching, singing and chanting.

I was proud to support the cause. I’ve spent a career working with scientists, helping to communicate their achievements at The Nature Conservancy and NOAA. What makes science different than other professions is that it’s not just a job, it’s a life. You are a biologist or an oceanographer or a chemist – it’s not just something you do 9-5.

It’s inspiring to be around that kind of passion. After my NOAA experience, I wrote a novel, The Swamp, that features a meteorologist as a character. He has to send his employees home after their shifts, otherwise they would hang around the forecast office:

weather being as much an obsession as a vocation and one that they would abandon only upon death.

That’s the kind of dedication I’ve found in the sciences.

At the march, there was so much to see – women dressed as Klingons, people in dinosaur suits and countless hilarious signs grown soggy from steady rain. I captured the photo of the guy in the thinking cap toward the Capitol, where the crowds began to thin. I liked his expression.

I had been out for an hour, zipping around the edges of the massive demonstration on a bright red Capital Bikeshare bike. Despite my raincoat, I was cold and wet. The thinking cap photo was one of the last I took before I left to get warm.

“Science predicted rain,” read one sign. The forecast came from a National Weather Service meteorologist, a government employee and a scientist, which must enrage the red state know-nothings who believe that they can live in some kind of lawless, free fire zone of ignorance.

The rain fell on everyone – marchers, tourists, photographers. Like science, it was non-partisan. Like science, you can deny it but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re soaked.

Science Not Silence: Voices from the March for Science Movement is available from MIT Press.

SEO for Everyone: Search Engine Optimization with Yoast

nice bikes

You can’t outsmart Google.

That said, there are simple things that you can do to improve Google’s ability to find your site. That’s called search engine optimization (SEO).

Yoast SEO is an excellent WordPress plugin for search engine optimization. Coming in free and paid versions, the free version will keep you busy for weeks while you tweak your site and learn SEO along the way. It’s better than any course, for you will learn by doing rather than dozing off in a classroom.

Yoast SEO concentrates on three main factors in search:

Keyword

What is this page about?

A keyword doesn’t have to be just a single word – it can be a phrase, the more specific the better. It’s the word or phrase that you want in your page title, description and throughout the content of your page.

For example, when I worked at the National Weather Service, one of our best-performing web pages  was on Wireless Emergency Alerts. Why did this page get so much traffic? Because it was focused on a single topic – Wireless Emergency Alerts – and repeated that keyword over and over again in an organic manner, for it was an FAQ about Wireless Emergency Alerts. Google loves FAQs.

Title

The most important decision you will make will be your page title. Imagine readers scanning down a list of search results, trying to determine if your page is relevant to their needs, with only the titles and little bit of description to help them out. You have just a few words to grab their attention – what will they be?

Your title should include your keyword, to make it as easy as possible for your customer.

Here’s a good example of a title from Capital Bikeshare. With “bikeshare” mentioned three times in the title, it’s obvious that they’ve optimized their page on the “bikeshare” search term.

Description

Think of the snippet of text nestled under the page titles in a search result. That’s the page description.

If you don’t write a description, Google will take the first text it sees on your page and put it in this field. Frequently, this is text that does not help the reader.

Here’s a company that didn’t put anything in their description field. Without a description, Google pulls text from the site’s navigation.

A good page description is a sentence or two that contains your keyword and provides additional context for readers.

SEO Belongs to You

I’ve worked on web sites my entire career. SEO is typically an afterthought, something that the coders do, metadata that is added during the publishing process.

But SEO is key to your site being found. It belongs to the writers. It belongs to you.

Keyword, title, description – if you write relevant content for these fields you’ll have done more than many sites and improve your chance of being found by customers.

Learn SEO the Yoast Way

Yoast SEO ranking screenshot

Yoast SEO will teach you how. With the plugin installed in WordPress, you’ll see a set of SEO bullets like the ones above for each post or page. Look at the analysis to see how you’re doing. You’ll get an overall ranking for your post, using a simple stoplight formula – Red, Orange, Green – with the same scale applied to the specific factors that impact search engine optimization.

Fix the errors and the red bullets turn green. It’s weirdly satisfying, like a game – the sign of a good user interface.

SEO for Everyone

What makes Yoast SEO different are its guides that are actually fun to read. Confused by one of your SEO bullets? Click on the Content Analysis Guide to learn what you’re doing wrong and how you can fix it.

With a mission of SEO for Everyone, it’s no surprise that they’ve managed to write content on search engine optimization that’s engaging and free of jargon. Even if you don’t use Yoast, their site contains information helpful to anyone, like their sections on SEO basics and small business SEO.

Search engine optimization is not a dark art. Help readers find your content by producing quality content with good keywords, titles and descriptions.

Letter from Washington: The Fascist Impulse

Kids protest gun violence in front of the White House

There they were, by the hundreds. Students from local high schools who had walked out of class to protest the Florida massacre. Streaming past the White House, they chanted, “Hey hey ho ho, the NRA has got to go!”

When I got home, Facebook told me this didn’t happen. They were paid actors, according to videos posted to the site, a vicious slur coming from the social network known for distributing disinformation during the last election.

Why not? their shareholders may ask. They can monetize the traffic, selling ads against the videos, the Republic be damned. A user is a user, whether they’re an American citizen, or Russian bot.

Twitter has at least done something, purging thousands of suspect accounts, as conservatives wail that they’ve lost followers, more concerned with social media fame than their role as unwitting (or perhaps witting) agents of a foreign power.

Unlike past tragedies, the nation is not moving on from Parkland. Trump held a listening session where he needed crib notes to remind himself to be human.

But the real fireworks came that night, at the CNN Town Hall, as students pilloried the politicians that had failed to protect them from assault rifles. Senator Marco Rubio appeared, thinking he could filibuster his way out of this mess. Instead, he was confronted with angry Floridians who demanded that he stop taking contributions from the NRA. He dodged, and the crowd roared in outrage.

Conservative commenters complained that the students were disrespectful. Days earlier, these kids watched their friends get slaughtered. That they had the composure to attend the town hall and ask questions is a tribute to their generation. Their strength and unity gives me hope for the future of this country.

But right-wing pundits online wouldn’t let go of the respect issue. The Trump movement is, at its core, a fascist impulse. Make America Great Again is about respecting your betters (old white people). Throwing aside American traditions, these so-called patriots forget that this country was founded by people with a healthy disrespect for authority. America is no place for kings, and the rowdy democracy demonstrated at the CNN Town Hall was restorative and inspiring.

The kids demonstrated how you deal with Trump and his ilk: you relentlessly attack. You stay focused on the core issue (banning assault weapons) and force opponents to fight on your terms. You don’t take any shit, in other words.

After the election, liberal friends of mine tried to understand and empathize with the other side. That time is over. We all know what Trump and Republicans want now: a totalitarian state where dissent is suppressed in the name of authority. The party of Lincoln has become a fascist cult of personality enthralled by fake news. It must be destroyed if democracy is going to survive.

The kids have shown us how it’s done. Powerless, but speaking truth to power, from the streets of DC to a brightly lit town hall in Florida, enduring the endurable to build a better nation.

They’re coming to Washington next month to March for Our Lives. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice

Donald Trump may demonize refugees but it’s impossible to look at a suffering person and not feel compassion.

That’s why photography is so important and why the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies recently hosted a panel of photojournalists and an accompanying photo exhibit.

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice examined the impact of photojournalism and creative storytelling on policy.

But when we say policy, what really mean is people. Immigration is a policy; seeing a photo of a child saying goodbye to a deported father is heartbreaking reality.

After the photographers presented the work, a large part of the discussion centered around how to share their photos with the wider world. The set of people willing to go to JHU on a weeknight for a talk on social justice and photography is self-limiting. It was an audience sympathetic to the plight of the dispossessed.

But in an era when people can select their own reality, how do you break through the Fox News bubble?  In his work, Salwan Georges depicts a view rarely seen on network news – the Arab community of Dearborn, Michigan. These are Americans who have given their children in service to this country but their stories are rarely told. Salwan had touching photos of imams at work, not just providing religious instruction, but visiting with their congregants and even arranging marriages, a portrayal of the Muslim faith that never reaches conservative media.

Bridging this gap requires reaching out. It means that photographers and advocates must invite not just the familiar universe of liberals but also other groups, such as churches and veterans. None could look at 15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice and go away unmoved.

The Johns Hopkins photography panel was just the first of several to occur this year, leading up to Focus On the Story, a new photography festival, coming this summer.

How to Find Work That Matters in 2018

Crowd at Finding Work That Matters

Find work that matters by identifying what matters most to you.

According to a recent survey, nearly 10% of respondents made finding a new job their New Year’s resolution – that’s double from last year. 2018 is the year that America moves on to something better, at least when it comes to work.

The passion for a change was evident at How to Find Work That Matters, a free class at General Assembly in Washington, DC.

Led by career coach Joy Haugen, a packed house of participants took part in exercises designed to identify their dream jobs – and how to get them.

Current/Future State

After a brief introduction, Joy put us to work. The first activity was to write down what your life was like right now – your career, finances, personal life, everything.

Next was to picture your life five years in the future. What does it look like? Where are you living? What are you doing?

Joy then made everyone in the room stand, spin three times, and share your dream with someone else. Three other people, to be exact, as the room burst into noisy conversation.

While Joy encouraged people to think big, most people’s dreams (including mine) were more prosaic: a good job doing interesting work with nice people. That is the American Dream, 2018 edition.

The purpose of this activity was to identify what really mattered to you. Is it being able to walk to work? Make lots of money? Travel? Time off? In order to find work that matters, you must know what matters to you.

Throughout the exercises, Joy’s point was to switch the job-searching paradigm around. You are not a powerless candidate trying to fit into a prescribed box of qualifications. Instead, you are talent, bringing your unique strengths (your superpower, in her words) to an employer lucky to have you.

Superpower

What is your superpower? What makes you unique? What do you love more than anything else? The next step was to tell the person next to you what that was. (The evening is an introvert’s nightmare). Mine was writing. “Finding an apartment,” spoke the young woman next to me, a true super power in DC.

Your resume should be all about your superpower. What’s the point of listing a bunch of stuff you don’t want to do? My resume is about writing, specifically writing for web sites and social media.

Even if you think your superpower (like finding an apartment), isn’t relevant it probably can be related to real-world skills. The super girl of apartment searching needed to be organized, quick and decisive to find a home in a city with few rentals.

Tip: Add a section called “Skills” at the top of your resume. Hiring managers spend six seconds on a resume. Make it easy for them by listing what you do best. 

Values

Next, Joy made us create two lists:

  1. What I’ve enjoyed at work.
  2. What I’ve not enjoyed.

After we scribbled down our lists, she asked us to look for patterns. My likes were writing, web sites, social media, creative people, collegial environment, happy hour. My dislikes were bureaucracies, bad bosses and no benefits.

Looking at the lists, what stands out? What are your values? Is it important to work in an innovative company? Work independently? Be part of a team?

My values: Creativity, Learning, Nice.

Applying for jobs is a full-time job. Only pursue opportunities that meet your values.

Resume

What I liked about Joy was that she was not overly prescriptive.  There are many different ways of doing a resume but the format she recommended was:

  • Name
  • Contact Info (just email/phone – no address needed)
  • Skills
  • Objective/Brand Statement (what you want to do/who you are)
  • Experience
  • Education
  • Other (your side hustle, millennials)

One page for every ten years is her rule. Lots of bullets to make the resume easy to scan. And data. Numbers. If you increased sales by 20%, include that.

Cover Letter

Joy is also an advocate of the cover letter. It should contain five paragraphs:

  1. What you’re applying for.
  2. Why you’re great.
  3. Why they’re great.
  4. What great things we can do together.
  5. Call to action – call me!

The purpose of the resume and cover letter is to get you past the screener. A typical HR staffer may be recruiting for twenty jobs. For each job, they get 100+ resumes. Make it easy for the screener to match you with the job by clearly spelling out your skills and interests.

Networking

Of course, the dream is to skip past the screener. You do that through networking. Go to events in your field. Stalk people on LinkedIn. And, when you meet people, stand out by not asking that most DC of questions, “What do you do?” Instead, ask people what they like about their jobs or what they do outside of work or, frankly, anything. The purpose is just to have a human conversation so that they’ll remember you in the future.

Tip: For an easy networking opportunity, go to General Assembly’s First Friday Happy Hour.

Let’s Make a Plan

Most people who resolve to find a new job in January give up by February. Job searching is hard. It’s easy to stay in a sucky job than find work that matters.

Joy advocates blocking out time on your calendar to work on applications. And celebrate your wins, even if it’s just updating your resume or going to a networking event.

Washington is awash in jobs. But it’s also awash in candidates.

The temptation is to apply to everything and anything. After all, you can do so with the click of a button.

What I took from Finding Work That Matters was the importance of determining your values and not compromising on them. You can always learn knew skills, if you’re in a supportive environment that you enjoy. Find work that matters in 2018 by respecting your unique needs.

Mapping BikeDC: Photos from the Nation’s Capital

The BikeDC Flickr map displaying photos tagged BikeDC from around the city.
The BikeDC Flickr map displaying photos tagged BikeDC from around the city.

What does biking look like in Washington, DC? Find out with the new BikeDC Flickr map created by Michael Schade.

It’s a heat map of Flickr photos of bikes and bicyclists in DC. Areas with the most photos glow red while those with none are gray. See the favorite spots for pictures of bikes, taken by people on bikes, and ponder the empty quarters of the city. Zoom in to find your favorite trail and zoom out to see an overview of  the Washington region.

How it works

When you take a photo on your iPhone, location data is captured. If you upload it to Flickr, that geolocation is included, joining a worldwide map of photos auto-generated by this online service.

Another little-known feature of Flickr is the ability to tag photos with keywords. Doing so helps you and others find your photos.

To build his map of biking in DC, Michael used Flickr’s map and limited it to photos tagged with the BikeDC keyword.

Surprises

The BikeDC Flickr map corresponds neatly with the Strava heat map of biking in DC. Most biking occurs in the Northwest section of the city. People go on bikes go to their jobs downtown and then on the trails during the weekends. Still, there are surprises in the data.

Anacostia Trail – why so few riders? This gorgeous new trail follows the Anacostia upstream by Kenilworth Gardens and the Bladensburg battlefield.

No one bikes to H St? After wrecking on the trolley tracks, I’m not a fan of biking to this neighborhood. But I know people do.

The Metropolitan Branch Trail is underrepresented. This urban trail is lined with beautiful murals and is an active commuter route. It needs photos!

BikeDC really loves Dupont Circle. It’s a convenient meeting spot and where the DC Bike Party starts so it’s a flaming red hot spot.

15th and P – en fuego! Okay, this is my fault. I’m a prime contributor to BikeDC photos and this is my neighborhood. I take a lot of photos of the 15th St bike lane, especially when the Awesome Foundation cheered on bike commuters.

Cyclecross in the City – BikeDC doesn’t just happen on the roads. If you pan up to Park View, you’ll see a bunch of pictures from DC Cyclocross, where city cyclists go off-road at the Old Soldiers Home.

BikeDC is just not DC – The BikeDC photo blob extends across the river, following the Arlington loop of bike trails as well as extending south to Alexandria and north to Silver Spring, MD.

How you can help

Got a favorite bike spot that you don’t see on the BikeDC Flickr map? Know a neighborhood or trail that’s underrepresented? Upload your photos to Flickr. Make sure that your pictures include location info (if not you can add it in the Organizer) and tag them with the keyword BikeDC. Help build a pictorial representation of biking in the city.

If you have questions about the map, contact Michael Schade. He generously created this project on his own time. It’s still a work-in-progress but demonstrates the breadth of BikeDC across the city and beyond.