The Worst: 2017 in Review

inauguration protesters set limo on fire

Most Americans voted against Trump. Elected by a disaffected rump of the population, the crass New Yorker governed like a tyrant, his models being Putin, Erdogan and Chavez. The country was saved solely by the incompetence of the man, who turned out to be more Mussolini than Der Fuhrer.

Still, 2017 was a deeply traumatic year, where the infection of politics found everyone, even those who sought to avoid it, like myself, naively thinking that I could ignore the new President as helicopters whirred overhead on Inauguration Day.

That was the moment I was radicalized, hearing Trump speak of American carnage while I watched real carnage on the streets of DC. I spent my life avoiding politics in Washington, feeling it to be a pointless exercise. Yet, by the end of the year, it seemed essential that every American, including me, resist incipient tyranny.

reading at Kramerbooks

Ironically, a few weeks earlier, I was sympathetic to Trump voters, representing my beliefs in the short story Victory Party, which won the City Paper fiction competition. Yet, after my reading at Kramerbooks (the highlight of the year for me), events pushed me left.

My journey, and the journey of millions like me, was summed up in a tweet:

Running was a consolation, even in mid-winter, pounding around the monuments useful stress relief. I aimed for 300 miles this year. Not much for some, but more than I’ve ever run, and nearly got there except for injury.

Women's March crowds on 14th St

In March, cherry blossoms bloomed and then were covered in snow – it was that kind of year. By then, protests had filled the streets for months, from the comedic geekery of March for Science to the staggering crowds of the Women’s March, every one of them exponentially larger than the paucity of people that greeted the Donald to DC.

The year saw me increasingly politicized, especially after witnessing the heartless attitudes of Trump tourists toward refugees and visiting a South clinging to Civil War memories. The eclipse brought the country together, but only briefly.

eclipse in black and white

Meanwhile, I was thinking of The Swamp, doing some freelance work while I hammered my comic novel into place. Originally titled Drone City, and about 90% done at the start of the year, I revised it extensively for an era that was stranger than fiction, my selection of the title a clapback at the Trumpkins who think America can survive without a government. In my book, I gave them their wish.

My books are a cynical look at DC, while my photography is a romantic vision of the city. I like wandering the streets and taking photos, even in the snow, like the shot of the Spanish Steps which won the Mitchell Park Photo Competition and admission to the French Ambassador’s residence, a fancy event I attended in a ripped jacket.

A better fit for me was the wonderful Community Collective show, square views of the city curated by friends of mine. In addition to being the unofficial photographer of #BikeDC, I was also a Brand Ambassador for Enterprise CarShare and took trips to Gettysburg and Little Washington.

2017 was the year that money seemed to slosh through the economy, just out of reach for real people, but readily available for questionable notions like coworking and dockless bikesharing.

this could be a millennial-themed ad

Some of that free stuff found its way to me. I got to sample Uncle Nearest, the bourbon with a fascinating backstory. My bike dreams came true with a Brompton for a day. Through my friends at InstagramDC, I got to experience the interactive art of Artechouse.

But this was the year that America, and its Baby Boomer overlords, said, “Fuck it. We’re not even going to try anymore.” Their parents won a war, built infrastructure and sent a man to the Moon. Boomers spent money on themselves as America fell apart around them. I asked, Does Anybody Make Real Shit Anymore?

I won’t blame Boomers for one loathsome plague: brunch. Sloppy, gross and everywhere, it defined the horror show of America, 2017 edition. One of my last memories of the year was waiting for a friend to finish brunch (I refused to go) while Millennials arrived by Uber and were removed by ambulance, unable to handle their mimosas.

Just when you think that things couldn’t get worse, it got worse with Nazis marching and murdering in Charlottesville. The year saw me reading about the collapse of democracies and how ordinary men ended up standing over death pits with guns in their hands.

Tyranny is no longer academic in America, for a good chunk of the population longs for dictatorship – that’s the lesson of 2017. And why you should resist in 2018.

Elizabeth Warren

Our institutions are under attack. I worked for a few months at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a wonderful agency designed to protect poor people from financial scams. The Trump administration is now taking it apart from the inside. Elizabeth Warren came to protest, trailed by a media scrum worthy of a presidential candidate.

Thank god for biking, and a record year of it for me, and for books. It was the kind of year where you read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, as well as great novels like The Sympathizer and A Friend of Mr. Lincoln. Plus, some less great books that I picked up at Carpe Librum (used books for less than $4) like A Good Year, a wine caper that I thoroughly enjoyed, and reads from DC’s rejuvenated public library system (hello, West End!) including Everybody Behaves Badly.

The Swamp - proof

After much editing, rearranging and reorganizing, The Swamp came out toward end of the year. My friend Lynn Romano edited it, while Rachel Torda did the cover. Publishing through Amazon, the book is available in print and Kindle. If you’re in DC, I’ll sell you a signed copy for $10.

The Swamp starts with a meteorologist who thinks that he can predict the weather, if only he had a little more data. Things go badly from there. The theme of  the novel is that it’s foolish to think that you can forecast the weather – or anything else.

I will make no predictions for 2018. But I know what I’ll be doing. I’m going to write and resist.

Letter from Washington: Endgame

Protest in support of the CFPB

Never a good sign when there are people picketing the office. I started a contractor gig at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently. Monday morning, I was greeted by protesters in front of the brutalist home of the agency a block from the White House.

But they were in support of the CFPB, not opposing it. The Director had left the week before and had tried to appoint one of his deputies as Acting Director. The Trump administration had countermanded this order and sent over Mick Mulvaney, the OMB Director, to run the CFPB. He arrived Monday morning with donuts.

Outside, the media asked, “Who’s in charge?” Inside, there was no confusion: Mulvaney, because the agency’s General Counsel said so. Americans have an admirable belief in the rule of law, even when it harms their interests.

Mulvaney settled into the executive suite with a small team (including his own Jonah – life imitates VEEP) and immediately put a hold on all activities. Innocuous communications work, like the type I was hired to do, will be allowed to continue but Mulvaney will put a stop to enforcement actions, such as penalizing Wells Fargo for creating fake accounts and bilking consumers.

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren came to protest on Tuesday, trailing the largest media contingent I have ever seen. Presidential, I would describe it, a scrum of reporters, TV crews and giddy supporters so chaotic that I couldn’t hear anything she said about the agency she helped to found.

Inside, we were instructed not to talk to reporters. I would gladly talk to reporters, if I knew anything. We work for the people. They have a right to know.

Inside, the line was: Mulvaney will change us, but we’ll change him too. CFPB is staffed by relentless, Obama-era optimists.

Lincoln weeps for the nation

Thursday night, I went for a run, ending up in front of Lincoln, dead and forgotten in his memorial. Republicans, what happened to you? The Great Emancipator freed people from bondage while today’s GOP works to put consumers in debt traps, provide tax breaks for the wealthy and collude with Russia to destroy democracy.

Just before starting the CFPB gig, I finished reading A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, which takes Abe off his pedestal, revealing his early life as a scrambling politician. Born poor, he worked for the common man, trying to bring canals and railroads to the frontier, always on the side of farmers and tradesmen, believing that government worked for the people.

If Lincoln awoke today, he would be appalled, recognizing in today’s GOP the exploitative planter class that he destroyed during the Civil War. For abandoning the beliefs of Lincoln in favor of a charlatan, Republicans have disgraced themselves for eternity.

The week continued with the chaos typical of the Trump regime, with rumors of Tillerson being forced out at State and a nightmare of a tax bill being forced through the Senate.

Then, a Friday morning bombshell: Flynn pleads guilty! The odious former National Security Advisor made a deal with the Special Prosecutor, who is working through the Trump administration, as if he were rolling up a Mafia family.

Because Trump can’t stop tweeting, even on the weekends, he had to comment on Saturday about Flynn, seeming to incriminate himself in obstruction of justice.

How does this end? Nixon had the decency to resign. A member of the Greatest Generation, he left office to preserve the country (and his party).

Donald Trump, the ultimate representation of the crass and selfish Baby Boom Generation, lacks the honor of Nixon. A con artist, draft dodger and rapist, he will not surrender office willingly.

As justice draws near, I see three possible endgames:

1. Trump fires Mueller. The country is thrown into chaos. 2018 is a year of mass demonstrations and widespread resistance until the midterm elections. Then, with a crushing Democratic majority, Trump is impeached.

2. Trump is charged with obstruction of justice, but Republicans refuse to impeach. Again, widespread domestic chaos hopefully ending with a Democratic majority.

3. Trump goes to war against North Korea to distract from the Mueller probe. Like World War I, a regional conflict spirals into a global catastrophe, leaving millions dead and the end of the US as a superpower.

I hope to be proven wrong but if 2017 has taught us anything is that each week brings ever-growing chaos and peril, as American democracy comes under sustained attack from without and within. It’s up to us to resist.

Biking the NCR Trail

flags in Parkton

I’m a Brand Ambassador for Enterprise CarShare. In return for sharing my photos, I get three free trips from the carsharing service. For my first trip, I went on a lovely loop around western Maryland, including a stop in Shepherdstown.

For my second trip, I returned to Maryland but this time went north, to Monkton, and the Northern Central Railroad Trail (NCR). Loading up my Specialized Sirrus in the back of a Nissan Rogue, I got an early start on a very steamy Sunday.

A couple hours later, I was in Monkton Station, the most scenic starting point on the trail – and the most crowded. Parking restrictions meant that I had to park a couple blocks away, on a side street. But I had a bike so it didn’t matter to me. I rolled over the bridge and onto the trail.

Monkton Station
Monkton Station on the NCR Trail is a popular spot for biking, hiking and tubing.

And into the mud. Epic rains had hit the night before, flooding the nearby town of Ellicott City. The trail had some big puddles and some muddy patches to traverse. There was even a tree down. My Specialized Sirrus is an older model with skinny tires. It got wobbly at times passing through the mud.

NCR Trail
NCR Trail has a crushed stone surface with some muddy patches.
Gunpowder River
Gunpowder River

The trail follows the Gunpowder River upstream. It’s an incline that I only noticed by the amount I was sweating. Trail amenities (like water) are sparse once you get north of Monkton. It’s a pleasant ride through the woods with a river for company. Lots of runners on the trail, utilizing several access points along the NCR.

A dozen miles in, and I was about out of water. But, by then, I was really close to the Mason-Dixon Line, so I kept going for the photo-op. Pretty cool to pass over the line and then cross into another state.

Bike at the Mason-Dixon Line
Made it to the Mason-Dixon!

At the Pennsylvania border, the trail becomes the York Heritage Trail as it rolls into New Freedom. What a cute trail town! Reminded me of the towns along the WO&D except this one had a real steam engine plying the rails. I had lunch and waited for my friend Bob, who started later, and caught up with me at the trailside cafe in town.

Steam engine in New Freedom
A working steam train in New Freedom.
Me in New Freedom, PA
I did not visit the Party Caboose.

On the way back, most of the mud had dried, so we flew downhill. Bob exited at Parkton, which had a very cool stone bridge and a former bank that had been turned into a private residence.

There was a slight uphill portion getting back to Monkton. I passed people carrying tubes along the trail. They put in the river upstream and float down to Monkton. It was a long walk for them – at least a mile. After hours in the muggy heat, I was ready to get home.

Tubers and bikes in Monkton
Carrying tubes upstream at Monkton.

In the morning, there had just been a couple cars on the side street where I parked. When I returned in the afternoon, cars were everywhere and there was a tow truck on the street. Time to leave. My bike was covered in soft sand and mud. I put it in the back of the Rogue and took off.

The NCR Trail is a beautiful woodsy trail – but the Heritage Trail in Pennsylvania looks even nicer. I hear there’s ice cream along the trail, too. That’s my kind of bike ride. Looking forward to going back to New Freedom and riding it north to York.

Sunday afternoon bike ramble in Alexandria

Sunday afternoon ramble

Lately, I’ve taken to rambling bike rides in Virginia. I like crossing the Potomac. Like my coffeeneuring friend Mary G., I enjoy looking at the river. It’s more than just open space in the city – it’s a bright, blue, cheerful respite from trees turning brown everywhere.

I don’t bike too far on my rambles – twenty miles or so. And they have a casual aspect to them that makes using Strava a bit of a joke. Average speed: 10 miles an hour, thanks to frequent stops to backtrack, eat cupcakes, get lost and take photos.

Sunday afternoon is a great time to bike, too. There’s hardly any traffic in DC and, if the weather’s the least bit cool, the trails are largely free of other cyclists and runners. I like exploring new places.

I don’t know much about Del Ray in Alexandria so set out there. I biked over the 14th St Bridge (the Memorial Bridge is closed to traffic) and then to Crystal City, for a mediocre slice of pizza, then rolled through Del Ray on Monument Avenue. It’s a cute neighborhood that has somehow managed to avoid complete gentrification.

I wanted coffee (always be coffeeneuring) but didn’t see any place in Del Ray so, after getting lost for a bit, made a left down King Street and another left on Royal. A cop car at a stop sign freaked me out – was he going to give me a ticket for failing to completely stop with my foot down? But the car was empty, fortunately.

One pretty cupcake. Seems a shame to eat it. #IGDC #lifeiswanderfood

Royal led me to the Mount Vernon Trail Alternate, which I knew would take me right by Buzz Bakeshop. Buzz! The coffee is decent and the cupcakes are photogenic as hell.

Afterwards, I got lost in the development north of Buzz, wondering if it connected back to the Mount Vernon Trail. It doesn’t (I didn’t believe the No Outlet sign). I went back to the MVT and then around the makeshift cyclecross trail that the National Park Service has established around National Airport.

Then I zipped home before the early winter sunset caught me.

Trail closed detour

Why am I exploring Virginia? Part of me wonders: could I live there? I like DC but I envy those MVT commuters. And it would be so much fun to live near the WO&D Trail.

Northern Virginia seems bike-friendly, from the perspective of a Sunday afternoon trail rider. What it’s like during the week?

Murder on U Street – Now on Amazon!

Cover for Murder on U Street by Joe Flood

My third novel, MURDER ON U STREET, is now available on Amazon in print and Kindle editions.

In this murder mystery, someone is killing artists and hipsters in Washington, DC. And they’re blogging about it in this social-media soaked novel. It’s up to a cynical DC detective to solve the case against the backdrop of a rapidly gentrifying city. From parties full of bright young things to forgotten housing projects, MURDER ON U STREET depicts life beyond the monuments for ordinary people in Washington, DC.

It’s a sequel to my earlier book, MURDER IN OCEAN HALL. A reader said that my books explain, “How Washington works – and doesn’t.” I thought that was a perfect description, for my aim in these books is show what the city is really like, from someone who has lived here for twenty years.

Buy MURDER ON U STREET today!

Pick the Winner of the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition

Come see the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition tomorrow night at the Navy Memorial. Watch a live reading of short screenplays and you get to decide on the winner. As a judge, I helped pick the finalists. But you get the ultimate choice of who wins $2000.

And while I’m counting the votes, enjoy The Goblin Baby by local filmmaker Shoshana Rosenbaum.

Friday Photo: Poolside Edition

Poolside

Summer is coming to an end. It’s been a very mild Washington summer, the coolest that I remember. The water in the pool is chilly and you can sleep with the windows open.

The days are starting to get a little shorter. The shadows a little longer. Soon, fall will arrive and poolside will be a distant memory.

Matt Mullenweg Is a Very Dangerous Man

Matt Mullenweg is a very dangerous man.

At the inaugural WordPress for Government and Enterprise meetup on May 6, the co-founder of WordPress & founder & CEO of Automattic, discussed the amazing journey of WordPress from a home-spun blogging tool to the world’s most successful enterprise content management platform.

Mullenweg believes in democracy. He believes in competition. He believes in open-source. All dangerous notions in Washington, DC, a city devoted to closed-systems, insider deals and imperial government.

WordPress is free. Government spends hundreds of millions of dollars on complicated content management systems that don’t work. “Why is the free thing better than what your agency spent $5 million on?” Mullenweg asked.

WorePress LogoFor him, users drive software. They are always right. Users will decide whether WordPress survives or fails – and he accepts that. “You win because you’re the best,” he said.

I asked him how government could avoid debacles like healthcare.gov. He called for more transparency, imagining a world in which hackers could fix the doomed health care site and develop their own, better vision.

No one got fired for healthcare.gov. Why should they? The project managers at HHS followed all the policies and procedures for government procurement and contract management. You can’t blame the contractors either – they were just doing what the feds told them to do, as crazy as it must’ve seemed at the time. Healthcare.gov was built according to all the regulations and was a $1 billion failure.

The world is moving in Mullenweg’s direction. We, as consumers, pick winners and losers – not the government. Yet, we have a federal bureaucracy designed for the 1930s.

Walter Russell Mead calls this “the blue model“. He writes:

The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore. The gaps between the social system we inhabit and the one we now need are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper over them. But even as the failures of the old system become more inescapable and more damaging, our national discourse remains stuck in a bygone age. The end is here, but we can’t quite take it in.

Big Government doesn’t work in a world that’s become small, dynamic and user-driven. For example, Mullenweg works with a distributed team that gets together once a year. He doesn’t even know what some of his employees look like. In contrast, government spends millions on buildings it doesn’t use and struggles with implementing even the most basic of telecommuting policies.

Working in government, I have an old Dell wired to an ethernet jack. We don’t even have a working copier. Office supplies are locked away. Wi-fi is forbidden.

At home, I have a MacBook Pro, wi-fi, WordPress, a digital camera, Dropbox, an iPad and a host of other tools – as well as better coffee. The consumer market provides me better tools than a billion-dollar bureaucracy.

If government is to survive, it must be reformed. We can no longer afford a massive, unresponsive federal state that’s tied down by endless rules and regulations.

Government must become responsive to citizens. It must adopt the WordPress model that users are always right. Citizens pay for government and they deserve better.

If government does not reform, debacles like healthcare.gov are not only likely – they are inevitable.

Governments like China fear WordPress for the openness and free expression it provides. The American government should fear it too. WordPress demonstrates a new, more democratic and more user-driven way of working together. It’s impossible to go back to the blue model. Matt Mullenweg is a very dangerous man.

Imperfect Art is Better Than No Art at All

Artomatic, 2008
Artomatic, 2008

Artomatic is ten floors of bad art. Held every couple years in an abandoned office building, it’s a multi-week, multimedia arts event held in the Washington, DC area. Artomatic is non-juried. Pay a small fee and you’re given a section of wall to hang your work on. Like some sort of bizarre department store, Artomatic is home to thousands of square feet of slapdash painting, crude sculpture and out-of-focus photography. Added to this joyful mix of mediocrity are garage bands, freelance DJs, teen dance crews and deeply personal works of unwatchable performance art.

It really sucks. But that’s the key to its success. There’s an undeniable energy to the experience that you won’t find in some staid museum. No curators organized the art for you. The lighting is harsh. There is no audio tour. And around the corner could be anything – photos of Keds, a male nude or some impressionistic take on your home town that you fall in love with.

Artomatic celebrates the artist. It is about the messy process of art, as you struggle to achieve perfection with the most imperfect of materials: yourself.

As the author of two novels, I’ve met plenty of people over the years who say they have the perfect idea for a book. It’s so brilliant that they hesitate to even tell me about it. Maybe it’s the next War and Peace.

But we never find out because they never write it.

There’s a great chapter in The Up Side of Down by Megan McAardle about writers, procrastination and the fear of failure. We put off work because we’re afraid that our work won’t be perfect. We have the perfect manuscript – in our heads – but in writing it down, it will inevitably be corrupted by our imperfections, ending up like one of the misbegotten pieces hanging on the walls of Artomatic.

Yet, despite the psychological peril, writing gets done. Novels are written, screenplays drafted, poetry composed. Why?

“Work finally begins,” says Alain de Botton, “when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

McArdle has her own advice for writers: you have permission to suck. Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be terrible. But get it done and get it on the page. You can fix a bad first draft; you can’t fix nothing.

Letting go of perfection is freeing. Tom Wolfe’s career began with a case of writer’s block, after being hired to write an article for Esquire:

I was totally blocked. I now know what writer’s block is. It’s the fear you cannot do what you’ve announced to someone else you can do, or else the fear that it isn’t worth doing. That’s a rarer form. In this case I suddenly realized I’d never written a magazine article before and I just felt I couldn’t do it. Well, Dobell somehow shamed me into writing down the notes that I had taken in my reporting… so that some competent writer could convert them into a magazine piece. I sat down one night and started writing a memorandum to him as fast as I could, just to get the ordeal over with. It became very much like a letter that you would write to a friend in which you’re not thinking about style, you’re just pouring it all out, and I churned it out all night long, forty typewritten, triple-spaced pages. I turned it in in the morning to Byron at Esquire, and then I went home to sleep. About four that afternoon I got a call from him telling me, Well, we’re knocking the “Dear Byron” off the top of your memo, and we’re running the piece.

You have a unique story to tell. But only if you share it. Let go of perfection and write it down in all its messy glory. It’s not going to be the idealized version in your head. It’s going to have rough edges and jagged corners. It might lack supporting beams and doors and windows. All of these problems can all be fixed – but only if you have the raw material to work with. You can’t reshape illusions.

Your work may be as flawed and imperfect as the art hanging on the walls of Artomatic. But it will be real. It will exist in the world. And imperfect art is better than no art at all.

Friday Photo: Construction Crane Edition

construction crane

14th Street NW in Washington is one of the hottest corridors in the country. This once beat-up strip lined with auto repair joints is being transformed into blocks of condos, micro-apartments, restaurants and high-end retail. Very high-end.

This is one of the construction cranes that Mayor Gray touts as proof of the city’s growth. He’s right – this crane is building a set of $500,000 condos on the site of an old parking lot.  There used to be empty lots on 14th Street and boarded-up buildings. They’re just about gone now, the march of construction cranes marking their disappearance.