Day of Remembrance for Victims of Traffic Violence

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Nearly 40,000 people are killed on our streets and roads every year – the equivalent of a major war that America fights annually, endlessly and always loses.

You or probably someone you know has been impacted by traffic violence.

Several years ago, while in a crosswalk near Dupont Circle, I was hit by car. Traffic stopped for me as a I crossed but then a driver decided to whip around the stopped cars and hit me. Luckily, it was a little Porsche that just scooped me up on its hood, leaving me unharmed.

Others, like my friend Dave Salovesh, weren’t so fortunate. Traffic deaths have increased every year in DC since 2015.

On Sunday, DC Families for Safe Streets spoke in front of the Wilson Building on a day of remembrance for loved ones lost to traffic violence. Survivors, loved ones and allies marched from Chinatown to the seat of the DC government in a plea for safe streets in the nation’s capital.

A poem was read to mark the solemn occasion. As we bowed our heads in remembrance, a huge flock of starlings took flight, traversing the sky in vast circles as the day came to an end. It felt like a sign that we weren’t alone.

There is a simple solution to the problem of traffic violence: return space to pedestrians.

Washington, DC would be a good place to start. Designed in the 1700s, the nation’s capital was never meant for cars. With narrow streets and short blocks, it’s a city that was built for pedestrians.

Yet, we’ve let cars go nearly everywhere in the city. And not just people who live here, but anyone in any kind of vehicle is allowed to drive into the middle of this densely-populated urban environment.

The result is frustration for all – drivers, pedestrians, cyclists – forced to fight for limited pavement in an increasingly lawless environment.

Mayor Bowser has stated that she wants DC to be a world-class city. Then do what other world-class cities have done: ban cars.

Cities from Madrid to New York have begun to ban or limit cars. Washington should do the same. We have public transport – the Metro. There is no reason anyone should drive downtown.

If the Mayor wants to reverse the trend of traffic deaths and make Washington a truly world-class city, then she can demonstrate her commitment by banning cars from downtown.

40,000 traffic deaths a year is not something we have to live with. Change is possible. It is time to end the silence on traffic violence.

WordPressDC: Create a Home Page That Gets You Clients

Headline with image

Before social media and SEO, web sites were all about words.

Content, we called it, and content was king.

The site with the best words won.

At least they did for a few brief years in the 90s, before keyword stuffing, monetization strategies, content management systems, personalization, cookies, bots, influencers, viral videos, tweet storms and other forms of digital manipulation embraced by late-stage capitalism.

Every once in a while, however, I’m reminded that web sites are about words. Without them, your web site is an empty shell.

Marylyn King presented on the power of words at the October WordPress DC Meetup on creating a home page that gets you clients.

She made the point that effective web sites clearly spell out their offer. Ask for what you want!

It’s a novel concept that’s been lost as so many home pages are soaked in indecipherable jargon. If you’re in the IT field, it’s buzzwords about the cloud. Government agencies decorate their pages with undefined acronyms. Nonprofits do everything but describe what they do.

No one wants to say, “I sell widgets.” Instead, they claim, “We’re a next generation industrial enterprise bringing lifestyle solutions embraced by the marketplace.”

But if you want your customer to buy something or donate money or sign-up for the newsletter, ask them! Make it clear, direct and bold.

Marylyn explained how to write the copy for an effective home page:

  • Problem
  • Solution
  • Authority
  • Call to Action

You describe the problem – I want toast.

You give the solution – here is a toaster.

You mention your authority – 99% of Amazon shoppers gave this toaster five stars.

And then the call to action: buy the toaster!

The silly examples are mine but web content does not need to be complicated and should not be complicated. You’re dealing with a fickle consumer who will click away from your site within seconds.

So, tell them what you offer immediately. Don’t make them figure it out. Don’t make them think.

Content management systems may change. Web design fads differ from year to year.

But the power of words is a constant. Invest in them to deliver returns.

Letter from Washington: Why Men Great ’til They Gotta Be Great?

American flag on the 14th St Bridge

Why men great til they gotta be great?
– Lizzo

One of the most puzzling aspects of the Trump Administration is the lack of resistance within the institutions of government. When Trump was elected, I assumed that these august bodies and our revered Constitution would keep him from wrecking this country through treason, trade wars and other acts of willful destruction.

Like many other assumptions of 2016, this proved to be wrong. Instead, we got children in cages, a drunken frat boy on the Supreme Court and Trump yucking it up with Russians in the Oval Office.

Our institutions proved to be hollow shells. Pretty on the outside, with their marble columns and American flags snapping smartly in the breeze, but run by men (and it was mostly men) who were poor imitations of our Founders.

I won’t say they failed at resistance because they didn’t even try. Instead, they implemented Trump’s orders, no matter how cruel.

We’ve poured billions into the Department of Homeland Security since 9/11 to protect our democracy yet when a tyrant appears in our midst, this vast and unaccountable internal police state aids and abets this agent of our enemies rather than combat him.

The roll of honor of Washington institutions that resisted tyranny is exceedingly small. Prime among them is the chronically underfunded National Weather Service, which had the temerity to the state the truth: Alabama wasn’t going to be hit by a hurricane, even if the President put them in a cone of danger with his Sharpie.

I’m proud to say that I once worked in communications at the National Weather Service. You will not find more dedicated civil servants, people who have dedicated their lives to keeping the rest of us safe.

I also spent a few months at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This agency, the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren, was designed to protect consumers from scams like payday loans, which take advantage of the poor with usurious interest rates.

After the CFPB Director left, Trump installed Mick Mulvaney to gut the agency. At the time, there was a question about the legality of this move. Would the CFPB staff follow his orders? The media gathered outside the agency on the G Street to see what would happen next. Demonstrators showed up to support CFPB, including Elizabeth Warren.

Agency lawyers said Mulvaney was in charge, so Mulvaney was in charge. The mission of protecting consumers from big banks was flipped on its head. Gouge the poor all you want and the CFPB will protect you from their complaints.

There was no walkout. No strike. The media left.

Why?

First, CFPB staff wanted to protect what they had. Not just their salaries and positions, but the programs they ran. Mulvaney was in charge and the game now was to convince him that their activity was non-partisan and not at all connected to She Who Must Not Be Named (Elizabeth Warren).

Second, they assumed that someone else would undo this obvious crime. A con artist should not run an agency designed to protect consumers.

Someone else would rescue them – Bob Mueller, the courts, someone. Like an episode of The West Wing, a politician would deliver a speech that shamed evil Republicans into doing the right thing. Cut to commercial and life would be back to normal.

Of course, no rescue was coming for our institutions are largely weak, ineffectual and compromised.

The whistleblower has done what three branches of government couldn’t: check Trump’s behavior by carefully documenting his criminality.

A savvy communicator, the whistleblower assembled an air-tight case against the tyrant. It’s irrefutable, providing a road map to impeachment in a way that the legalistic Robert Mueller never could. Simple, clear and direct, it’s a model of communication, perhaps the most important memo ever written, a letter that could save the nation.

No one is coming. This not an episode of The West Wing. If we’re going to save this country, we have to do it ourselves. The whistleblower knew that, and acted.

The Influencers Published in Marathon Literary Review

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Driven by a quest for fame, American life has become all about optics. The truth does not matter; instead, it’s about popularity and surface appearance. It’s all about likes.

My short story, The Influencers, recently published in Marathon Literary Review, examines the pursuit of online celebrity. In this dark comedy, a prolific Twitterer accepts a free trip to Mexico and stumbles into disaster.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written fiction about social media – my novel Murder on U Street was also concerned the dangerous lure of the online world.

I write about it because I am one of its victims. Like the protagonist in The Influencers, I’m obsessed with Twitter. This fire hose of electronic information, discourse, debate and applause is irresistible to me, though it has stolen my attention span and wrecked my sanity.

I recognize the dangers of social media but am unwilling to break free, trapped in this digital funhouse with real-world consequences, like the glib characters of The Influencers.

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.

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.

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: The Grifter Economy

Jared is a spy

Why are Americans so unhappy?

We’re the richest, most powerful nation in history. Yet, individual Americans are staggeringly unhappy, according to a recent survey from the World Happiness Report:

Americans are unhappy, according to the report, an annual list ranking the overall happiness levels of 156 countries — and it’s only getting worse.

For the third year in a row, the U.S. has dropped in the ranking and now sits at No. 19, one spot lower than last year, according to the report produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a U.N. initiative. The top three spots this year were occupied by Finland, Denmark and Norway. At the bottom were Afghanistan, Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Researchers point to an “epidemic of addictions” as the cause. We’re a nation with an unhealthy relationship to food, booze, opioids and social media.

While we certainly should minimize the role of social media in our lives, our addictions are not a cause of unhappiness but a symptom a bigger disease: economic insecurity. We use drugs and social media to cope with dislocation for the same reason that the gin craze swept England in the 18th Century.

Americans of the right and left agree on one thing: the economy is rigged against them. And they’re right.

The college cheating scandal revealed how the rich have gamed the system for their benefit. It wasn’t enough for celebrities to be rich and famous, they had to pass on their elite benefits by bribing their way into top universities.

This isn’t an isolated incident, but a pattern across American life. Bankrupt a bank and you get a government bailout. But go broke due to a trip to the emergency room and you die on the street.

And it’s only going to get worse, with the Trump/Kushner crime family in the White House. They’ve worked the system for decades, using tax breaks and federal aid for personal enrichment. Watch the excellent A&E series on the family to learn how they’ve stiffed contractors, defaulted on loans and cheated their way to tax abatements and federal funds. They’re a family that grew rich by fleecing the American taxpayer.

The posters you see in DC are probably correct: Jared Kushner is a spy. Communicating by secret with the journalist-murdering Saudis, he’s pursuing his familial economic interests while flying on US government jets. Kushner knows that you use insider connections to scoop up ill-gotten wealth in the Grifter Economy.

Another emblematic figure of the Grifter Economy is Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos. She sold a beautiful lie to Baby Boomers who wanted to live forever, the promise of a device that could detect diseases with a single drop of blood. Everything about the story was a fraud, including her earthy voice. Hundreds of millions of dollars were lost in a fantasy, one that was only uncovered by the kind of dogged reporting of the kind that Trump, Kushner and the Saudis want to go away.

Before Trump became president, I wrote a novel about an American grifter: Don’t Mess Up My Block. I thought it was funny to imagine someone who took “fake it until you make it” as a guiding belief. In my book, Larry Christenson shaves his head, changes his name and reinvents himself as a management consultant, despite having no business experience. He then wreaks havoc across America in this parody of a self-help book.

Don’t Mess Up My Block was inspired by my experience seeing the destructive “solutions” that consultants sold organizations. A PowerPoint and some buzzwords and people got laid off, while the consultants went on to the next engagement, leaving the organization in tatters. It was a grift.

Little did I know that this kind of grift, and these kind of grifters, would take over America in 2016. Now we all must figure out a way to survive the Grifter Economy.

Do you want to make something or grift something? Making is hard; grifting is easy and far more profitable. Better to create a con (Make America Great Again) than to bring real value to the real world.

The Grifter Economy offers little for the hard-working and nothing for the honest. No wonder Americans are so unhappy.

Letter from Washington: Gilead or Green New Deal?

The Handmaid's Tale

Gilead came to DC on Friday. The Handmaid’s Tale filmed at the Lincoln Memorial.

I hurried down at the end of the day to catch a bit of the shoot. Was I watching a TV show or a preview of the future?

Visually, it was striking to see the red robes against the white marble. And unsettling to see a police state operating in an American setting, even if it was just fiction.

The handmaids moved with military precision. When the scene at the Lincoln wrapped up, they turned en masse and marched in formation down the marble steps. I hurried out of the way, intimidated by the martial display.

The handmaids then assembled at the base of the memorial, lining up in neat rows with the Washington Monument in the background.

Production assistants walked down the lines of handmaids, adjusting robes and bonnets. The camera wheeled into place. Brown-robed Aunts with cattle prods surrounded the handmaids and, surrounding them, soldiers with assault rifles.

“Veils on!” the director commanded. The handmaids covered their mouths. Then the camera rolled down the line of women, all perfectly still in their obedience.

It can happen here, I thought as I watched. Anything is possible.

Earlier in the day, Trump had declared a national emergency, so that he could violate the Constitution to build his border wall. Republicans cheered.

Democracy only works when people follow the law. Once the law becomes meaningless, anything is possible.

A precedent has been set. Congress won’t do what you want? Declare a national emergency.

I had coffee with a friend. He said that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal to build a fair and environmentally sustainable country was unrealistic. We can’t afford a Green New Deal. The Washington centrist position is is that AOC’s vision for this country is unattainable.

Or is it?

Trump has shattered our democratic norms. Now, anything is possible.

On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I witnessed the Republican vision for the country. A handmaid future, with women enslaved for the benefit of men.

One possibility.

But with the norms of convention smashed, it’s possible to create another, better future, too, one in which we go beyond the stale politics of our era to build a country that is fair for all its citizens.

Gilead or Green New Deal? Both are possible now.

Bus to Work Day DC: A Story in Four Lines

Busses stuck on 16th St

Today is Bus to Work Day DC.

Before the age of Uber, riding the bus was a rite of passage in DC. It is now a lost art, which is a shame. Riding a bus teaches you patience, math skills and geography.

Plus, you get to overhear fascinating conversations! Taking the bus is the best way to learn about Washington beyond the monuments.

My transit experience helped me write several novels about the city, providing ideas and inspiration for my writing.

Here’s my public transit story. A story of four bus lines.

Patience: The N Bus

As a student at American University, my introduction to the city was through Metrobus.

That bus was the N2/N4/N6 bus which stopped at the edge of campus. Running down Massachusetts Avenue, it took you to internships in downtown DC.

It was a bus line that taught you patience. You’d get to the stop, check the schedule and then the bus wouldn’t appear. Or the bus would be pulling away as you arrived.

The random quality of the Metrobus experience taught me patience. Unlike Uber, there was no countdown to your ride. No estimated arrival time.

So, I’d sit down and wait, with only my thoughts for company in this pre-iPhone age. There’s a quote in the novel LessBoredom is essential for writers.

If you want to be creative, take the bus. Plenty of time to let your mind wander.

Math Skills: The 96 Bus

It’s 6:32. The 96 bus to Adams Morgan will be across the street at Wisconsin and Woodley at 6:58. Do you have enough time to finish your plate of spaghetti?

That and other dramas were part of my life when I lived off campus in an apartment building. My home was well-served by the 30s bus, which ran constantly along Wisconsin Avenue and the 96, which ran infrequently to Adams Morgan.

My roommates and I liked to take the bus to the 18th St bars of Adams Morgan. But the 96 bus didn’t run that often, particularly on weekends.

So, we became adept at math problems like the one above, adding and subtracting, factoring in walk times, the probability of the bus being late and the speed at which a plate of pasta could be shoveled down.

We even counted money, in this era before SmartTrip cards. There’s a pile of nickels and dimes on the kitchen table – is that enough for the bus?

There was something really satisfying about running for the 96, jumping aboard with no time to spare and then feeding loose change into the fare box as the bus rolls away.

Geography: The H2

One of my first jobs after graduation was a temporary job at the National Rehabilitation Hospital.

Located across the city, it required me to take the H2 bus west to east from Tenleytown to Washington Hospital Center.

This was pre-gentrification DC. Marion Barry DC. Murder capital of the country DC.

The bus would chug from leafy Northwest, through tony Cleveland Park and then cross Rock Creek Park, the barrier between good and bad in DC at the time. The bus would go down Irving Street, where the Target is now, past boarded-up buildings and one of the largest open-air drug markets on the East Coast.

The bus is different from taking an Uber. An Uber will take you directly to your destination. Bus routes wind their through cities, picking up passengers here and there, as they go from neighborhood to neighborhood. By taking the bus you learn the place.

It was an education, revealing a whole other city beyond the world I knew west of the park. A city full of stories. This experience, of seeing DC at its roughest, eventually ended up in Murder on U Street, which is set in many of these same neighborhoods.

Conversations: The X2

I’ve lived in DC forever. There’s only one bus that scares me: the X2. Running down H St, from the White House to Benning Road, it’s the Jerry Springer show on wheels.

Everyone has their X2 story. The craziness doesn’t just happen inside the bus – a teen was caught holding on outside to the back of the bus.

The line uses articulated buses that are twice as long as normal buses. Miscreants congregate in the back, far from the driver and engage in all sorts of illicit trade. The bus attracts even more crazy people than normal – the babblers, the shouters, the recently released.

Sit there and listen to people on their phones discussing court cases, relationship problems and family issues, like a George Pelecanos novel set on public transit.

As a writer, it’s great. Buses are ideal for hearing other people’s stories. Remove your earbuds and listen to the drama around you.

Take the bus! It’s easy – get a SmartTrip card and the NextBus app to navigate your way around Washington. Learn patience, math and geography while you’re entertained by overheard stories from city residents.