When an errant drone crashes into the White House, it triggers a chain of events that leads to the end of the country as we know it.
Welcome to THE SWAMP, my new novel mocks the city that America has come to hate.
THE SWAMP begins on Christmas Eve, when a drone crash causes a security scare at the White House. Fox News screams, “How can we keep the President safe?” A crackpot idea from a cynical TV correspondent – let’s move the nation’s capital to an underground bunker – becomes an uncontrollable political movement. Can the President and the rest of official Washington contain this red state rebellion or will it swamp them all?
From mommy bloggers to scheming bureaucrats, THE SWAMP is a love letter to this city – and a wish for its destruction – packaged together in a black comedy reminiscent of Christopher Buckley and Evelyn Waugh.
What I like about Kelley Baker is that he demystifies the art of filmmaking. You don’t need a million dollars or an expensive degree to make a movie. Instead, you need some basic technical knowledge – which I saw him impart during workshops for the DC Shorts Film Festival – and, more importantly, a story.
A better drinking partner could not be found. During the DC Shorts Film Festival, there always came a moment when the festival director, overwhelmed by the chaos of running a week-long event, would disappear with Kelley for a few hours of bourbon drinking. He would then return relaxed. This made everyone happy.
Seeing Kelley every year at DC Shorts was one of the highlights of the festival for me. We were old-timers, who had been a part of the festival almost since the very beginning. His was a familiar face who made movies, liked parties and was endlessly encouraging for creatives like me.
Also, he wasn’t one of those Hollywood bullshit artists who bragged about their connections or, even worse, promised that riches were just a screenplay away. Instead, having made films for decades, he was realistic about the industry. Yes, you can make a movie but, since dreams of fame are illusory (and Hollywood will probably screw you), make the movie that you want to see. Make your story.
Kelley shares his story, the ups and downs of an indie filmmaker, in his new book Road Dog. Get his book and look for him on tour this fall.
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.
While The Subtle of Art of Not Giving a Fuck contains revealing and profane stories of personal dissipation and blogging-fueled awakening, at its core is the timeless message of the Stoics: life is short. Make better choices with your time.
Despite its roots among the ancient Greeks, Stoicism is a philosophy that’s still relevant today. First practiced by men such as Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, its core tenet is that while we can’t control circumstance, we can control our response to circumstance. Born from troubled times, the Stoics admired people who played the cards they were dealt, no matter how bad, searching for a way out of difficulty.
The Obstacle is the Way in other words, a (much better) book that popularizes this ancient belief system with examples from throughout history.
What makes The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck unique is its rejection of happy talk. Mark Manson shreds the relentless positivity of the self-help industry which is not helpful at all. Divorce, illness, joblessness – sometimes life is just going to suck and trying to talk yourself into happiness won’t get you there.
In fact, concentrating on being happy will just make you less so, for it is an emotion that flies from you as you seek it.
Manson prescribes the doctrine of the ancient Greeks: don’t worry about happiness, for you will be dead soon.
Instead, focus on being useful. Put aside your illusory dreams of riches and fame. Be a better person today, to the people around you, for that is the ultimate measure of a life.
A friend who does PR for a distillery sent me a new premium Tennessee whiskey to try out – Uncle Nearest.
Similar to Knob Creek, it makes an excellent Manhattan and, at 100 proof, will warm you up on a cold day.
Made from Tennessee grain, filtered through charcoal and aged in oak barrels, it tastes like bourbon but is technically not a bourbon for legal reasons.
But what’s most interesting is the story behind the spirit – Uncle Nearest honors Nathan “Nearest” Green, the first African-American master distiller on record in the United States.
Born a slave, Green worked for Dan Call, a farmer, preacher and whiskey maker. When young Jack Daniel wanted to learn the tricks of the trade, Call instructed Green (now a free man) to teach him.
Jack Daniel called Green, “the best whiskey maker the world never knew.”
Author Fawn Weaver, who has been researching the Green family, and recently launched the Nearest Green Foundation, met with his descendants.
“I asked them what they thought was the best way to honor Nearest,” Weaver said. “Their response was, ‘No one owes us anything. We know that. But putting his name on a bottle, letting people know what he did, would be great.’”
When you drink whiskey, you’re drinking history, American water and grain aged in barrels until it becomes magic. The forgotten story behind Nearest Green just adds to the experience of enjoying this new spirit.
How do you write a novel in a time that’s stranger than fiction?
Queen + Adam Lambert came to Washington, DC. A friend had an extra ticket and graciously invited me. We sat in the upper reaches of the Verizon Center as Lambert and the group went through a fast-moving set, filled with the kind of lasers and stagecraft that’s expected from a band in 2017. It’s not enough just to be a musician, any more.
They played all the hits – Bohemian Rhapsody, Killer Queen and Another One Bits the Dust.
It was not the same. Lambert is not Freddie Mercury, something he would be the first to admit – and did admit – during a tribute to the late singer early in the show. Queen + Adam Lambert made me appreciate the genius of Freddie Mercury, a man with an unreproducible vocal range but also an awkward shyness that’s missing in the age of the polished pop star.
The Queen show took place during the short-lived Age of Mooch. The reign of Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications Director was far too short, a rich comedic opportunity that was thrown away before the Mooch even received his Saturday Night Live parody.
“Scaramouche. Scaramouche. Will you do the fandango?” Imagine the possibilities – Scaramucci singing the Queen classic live from New York.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” You can learn more about a nation from its artists than from politicians. Shakespeare does a better job explaining the English than some dry book of history.
But what happens if events progress faster than comedians, satirists and novelists can comprehend? We barely had time to mock the Mooch before he disappeared.
I’ve written another novel: The Swamp. I started writing it a couple years ago, inspired by the tail end of the Obama administration. I wrote something I thought was outrageous – an errant drone lands on the White House, leading to the end of Washington as we know it.
After November 8, 2016, my idea didn’t seem so outlandish, as reality raced past the conception of the possible, devolving into a scenario that even the bleakest dystopianist would find implausible.
The problem with writing timely fiction is that times change. Does my novel The Swamp still make sense? After the election, I had to put aside the book and think about it.
I went on to write Victory Party, a short story that won the City Paper fiction contest. It’s another very timely work, for it concerns election night in DC and one person who’s happy about the result.
It’s a story that I wrote quickly and then ruthlessly cut, slowly paring away everything that was non-essential. I deleted exposition, explanations and any word that wasn’t necessary. It worked. “Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” according to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition.
So, I went back to my novel and I cut, reorganized and rewrote, aiming for clarity. Sections that I deleted went into a document called Remnants. Hurt less that way.
I also changed the title. My book was originally called Drone City, a title that I thought was clever. Drone City. DC.
I changed it to The Swamp, for the book is about the city that America has come to hate. My dark comedy follows swamp denizens – politicians, journalists, millennials – blindly chasing spoils, unaware that the world around them is about to turn upside down.
Trump, American Carnage, Spicey, Boy Scouts, Build the Wall, Russia, Deep State, Mooch – little of this makes any sense now and it will make even less so to future generations. It will be up to the artists, the legislators of our age, to explain the dark and confusing year of 2017.
XYZT: Abstract Landscapes is a world-travelled installation by internationally acclaimed French contemporary digital artists and multimedia choreographers Adrien M & Claire B.
The interactive show offers an exploratory physical experience through ten digital landscapes. Tickets are $15 -$25 and it’s open until September 1 at Artechouse, located near the Mandarin Hotel, just a short walk from the National Mall in Washington, DC.
XYZT: Abstract Landscapes is a show designed for the Selfie Age. No longer enough to just passively enjoy art, contemporary audiences want to interact with installations and memorialize the experience. This photo-friendly exhibit provides what the public wants – places to take good selfies that they can post to Instagram, sharing with their friends the joy that they’ve experienced. The neon installation at the end of the exhibit is ideal for this.
More importantly, XYZT: Abstract Landscapes provides the opportunity to play. See yourself distorted in a video funhouse mirror. Organize swirling motes and hurricanes on a flat table. Blow into a glass to send letters into a bottle. Hold back a cascading alphabet with your hands.
An hour in this underground installation passed in an instant. The experience of playing a game provides a compelling, engaging, rewarding experience that the real-world often fails to match.
While I’ve worked on web sites my entire career, I’ve primarily been on the content side, as someone who writes, edits and manages web content. I’m a writer, not a designer, and have never convened focus groups to evaluate web site design or any of the other typical tasks of a UX expert.
Web sites are a mix of content, design and tech, perceived as a whole by users. While I have not identified my work as focused on usability, it’s inevitable that it does. Good, simple, usable web sites require good, simple, usable content.
At the meetup, the AARP team spoke about the challenges of designing digital experiences for the 50+ audience. The stereotype is that “seniors” don’t use technology. But the fact is that older Americans are passionate users of iPhones and Facebook, just like the rest of us.
I worked on the AARP web site myself, in the late 90s. It was surprising how much older Americans took to the online world – particularly games, member discounts and romance.
While we wanted them to read articles about Social Security, the most popular section of the site was Member Benefits, for it contained the most relevant information for them, i.e., how to get discounts on travel and insurance.
Another surprise was what avid gamers they were, even when playing crossword puzzles on AOL via dial-up modem. We also created message boards to discuss serious topics, which were ignored, while members looked for love in the open chat forums.
The lesson is that the audience wants what it wants and there’s not much you can do about that. While users are determined when looking for something they want, like romance, they don’t have much patience for complicated design.
Ann Li, a usability expert for AARP, discussed a test she did on hamburger buttons. Popularized by the iPhone, these are the three little lines that you find on web site menus. Click on it, and an additional menu drops down beneath it.
They don’t work, as Li discovered, confirming research from the Nielson group. People do not understand three cryptic lines and don’t get that they can click on them.
I’ve looked at enough Google Analytics for the sites I’ve managed to know that hardly anyone uses menus. Visitors to your home page scan for relevant content and, if they can’t find it, they immediately go to Search.
Usability is simplicity. It’s using the terms that the public uses, not what you want to say. Li discussed another example – an online course on driver safety. Users flocked to the course, thinking that they could learn how to get discounts on car insurance.
The user is always right, as WordPress creator Matt Mullenwegg would say, even when they’re wrong. The course was renamed to make it clearer that it was about driver safety not driver discounts.
In government, where I worked for almost ten years, we never had money for usability testing. However, we had to comply with laws like Sec. 508, which mandates that web sites be accessible to all users, including the blind and disabled. That means that text alternatives have to be available for multimedia information. It forced you to make simpler sites, ones without annoying video intros and Flash.
Making sites accessible is about making them simple. It’s about using the terms that your audience uses. In Washington, we love specialized terminology, for it marks a person as “in the loop.”
Don’t do this. Instead, use simple words that the public knows.
And it’s a good practice, no matter the audience, according to Li. Making a site easy enough for seniors to use will benefit all readers. After all, not everyone is a native English speaker. Not everyone has a sleek laptop with a wifi connection. And there are a surprising number of people who still use AOL to access the web. Your audience is more than just tech-savvy millennials.
You don’t need to be a usability expert to design a usable web site. Focus on simplicity.
After all, you can’t fight Father Time. You’re going to get old. Design simple sites now, ones that all Americans can use.
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.
When there was a last-minute opening on the TryBrompton Demo Tour, I jumped at the opportunity to borrow one of these iconic folding bikes.
Made in London, Brompton makes folding bikes that are ideal for cities. With 16″ wheels and sturdy steel frames, they can be easily carried from subway to street and back again.
And they’re damn good-looking. I’ve been in love with the bike since seeing them by the score at the Brompton Challenge, where Brompton riders raced through Congressional Cemetery and participated in folding/unfolding competitions.
I have experience with folding bikes, too. One of my favorite bikes ever was a Dahon foldy – my beloved foldy – that I bought for $300 off Craigslist and took with me all over the country. Fun to ride and rock-solid (well, at least until the frame cracked), that bike was my constant companion on the rutted streets of Washington, DC.
Given my experience with another folding bike, I was curious to try the Brompton. What do you get from a $1600 Brompton compared to a considerably cheaper foldy?
With six speeds and a light frame, the black Brompton I borrowed from BicycleSpace could fly, easily catching people on “real” bikes cruising leisurely around the monuments. With its little wheels, it started quickly from a dead stop and then kept accelerating to almost dangerous speeds.
Technically, I could carry my old Dahon. Lugging was a more accurate term. Heavy and ungainly, I took it on the Metro a few times but it wasn’t something I wanted to do regularly. I would’ve developed a huge right arm if I had done so. The extent of my carrying the bike was from the trunk of a car to the street.
In contrast, the Brompton is light and easy to carry. Part of it is the bike’s 16″ wheels, which make it a lot lighter than my old Dahon (which had 20″ wheels). The bike is also designed for cities, perfected over a couple decades of use on the London tube.
The folding is not simple (the Brompton rep at BicycleSpace made us fold and unfold the bike a half-dozen times before leaving) but it does compress into a tiny package that can be easily carried. My bike even had a rack on it with wheels built into it so that it could be easily rolled through a train station.
The Brompton’s legendary portability is achieved by way more knobs and levers than I’d like (as if Dr. Who designed a bike) but you can’t argue with success – it’s perfectly designed for the task of street-to-train transportation.
Would you buy an iPhone that looked like a brutal slab? Of course not. The iPhone’s success is due to what’s on the outside as much as what’s on the inside.
Bromptons are beautiful, whether they’re passing you on the street or folded up in a shop window. Eye-catching and fun, it’s a bike that you want to own as an art object. While biking around DC, pedestrians checked out my sleek black ride while Bromptoneers nodded appreciatively.
With the ability to customize the bike endlessly (colors, speeds, racks, fenders, lights, handlebars), it’s the ultimate bespoke product for the discerning cyclist.
Every bike is a compromise, a calculus of weight, speed and price. What didn’t I like about the Brompton?
Bike theft is rampant in DC. Just borrowing a $1600 Brompton made me paranoid. No way was this bike leaving my sight. I didn’t worry about my $300 Craigslist find this way.
Little wheels make you very conscious of the road ahead. While riding, I found myself scanning the pavement for potholes, ruts, steel plates and other obstacles in DC’s post-apocalyptic streetspace.
Who is this Bike for?
Wealthy Cycling Fanatics. Some people just like acquiring bikes, filling their spare spaces with every kind of bike they can get their hands on. Obviously a Brompton is needed to round out the collection.
Train Commuters. If I had to take the MARC train to Baltimore every day, hell yes I would get a Brompton. It’s the Swiss Army knife of biking – with its fenders, rack and portability, it can do everything and take you just about anywhere.
At the end of my 24-hours with Brommie (I named it – a bad sign), I didn’t want to return it. At first, I found the bike a little wobbly and uncertain, due to its small wheels. However, it rapidly grew on me. I liked how the rear wheel folded under the frame, making its own stand. As I cruised along the Potomac, passing hapless tourists on red Bikeshare bikes, I was delighted by its speed. Cornering tightly on city streets, I was reminded of how much fun a foldy bike can be.
I would like to own a Brompton – some day. As an object of art and a quick, handy bike, it can’t be beat. But the $1600 price is too high.
The casual user might be better off with a Dahon or Giant foldy. But if you want the best, or need the best, then get a Brompton.
No matter what bike you get, make sure you try it out first. This is especially true for folding bikes, which handle differently than full-sized bikes.
Adios for now, Brommie! Hope to see you again in the future.