Can there be a Kramerbooks without Dupont Circle?

Kramerbooks closed at eight on a Sunday night

Kramerbooks may leave Dupont Circle.

In this year of loss, this news struck me hard. Kramerbooks is urban life. As a college freshman, the experience of visiting the store defined the city for me.

The RA in my dorm at American University had led a bunch of us on a tour of the monuments. On the way back, we got off at the Dupont Circle Metro. As I rose out of the earth on the escalator, I was immediately enchanted by this bohemian neighborhood of art galleries, record shops and bookstores.

Kramerbooks defined cool. More than just a bookstore, it was open late, served brunch and you could even get a drink there.

It was the height of urban sophistication. When I moved back to DC after a few years in Florida, I made sure to be within walking distance of Kramers.

On the weekends, I’d amble around the city and stop off at the bookstore. There, I’d browse through the new books and imagine myself as an author.

Joe Floods reads Victory Party at Kramerbooks. Photo courtesy of Kramerbooks.
Joe Flood reads Victory Party at Kramerbooks. Photo courtesy of Kramerbooks.

Years later, my dreams came true. My short story, Victory Party, won the City Paper Fiction Competition. I did a reading at Kramerbooks. Staff pushed back the stacks, chairs were set up and there I was in the window of Kramers, sharing my creation with an audience.

And perhaps inspiring another writer, like I once was by the Kramerbooks experience.

Location, Location, Location

DC is all about real estate – Kramers is no exception. Behind the fantasy of a clean and well-lit place for literature is the brutal reality of dollars and cents. Dealing with three landlords, as Kramers does, is complicated.

And Dupont Circle is no longer fashionable; it has become old and tired. The record stores and dive bars that were its peers are long since gone. Storefronts are empty and tents for the homeless have sprung up on the sidewalks.

All the energy of the city has gone east. Why stay in a cramped building on Connecticut Avenue when you could move to a larger space in a shiny new neighborhood like H St or Yards Park?

Kramerbooks is Dupont Circle and Dupont Circle is Kramerbooks. Their brands are married in a bohemian embrace. It’s hard to imagine Kramers anywhere else.

But cities change. That’s what makes them so interesting.

The bookstore I fell in love with as college freshman. The piles of novels I dreamily browsed there on Sunday afternoons. The experience of reading Victory Party before a crowd.

If the Coronavirus crisis has taught us anything, it’s to cherish those precious and unrecoverable moments. Kramers may change but the experiences it created will endure.

How to Telework Without Going Crazy

working on the roof

With the threat of the COVID-19 virus, thousands of federal workers in Washington face the prospect of mandated telework.

I’ve been teleworking for a large government agency for more than a year as a communicator. I write. Words for screens, primarily.

While it sounds like a dream, making the transition from cubicle life to telework was surprisingly difficult. The office provides more than just a paycheck. Going to work gives meaning and structure to the day, as well as an instant social life.

Without an office to report to, I felt cut off, alone with my laptop, the little green status light in Google Chat my only reminder that I was part of something.

It made me a little crazy. How did I learn to telework without losing my mind?

Make a Routine

Putting on pants, sitting in a cubicle, following orders – those are habits that you learned. Probably very painfully in the first few months out of college. You learned how to office.

Now it’s time to make a new routine. The work is still there but the performative aspects of the office are no longer required. No need to wear a tie if you’re at home on the couch.

I keep the same schedule I did when I went to an office but instead I report to my neighborhood coffee shop. I wake up at the same time, get dressed, and leave the house with my laptop. But instead of commuting to work, I get coffee.

(Note: this is also how I wrote my first book! Every morning, I’d get myself to a coffee shop and write.) 

Habits are important. I don’t need to think about my day. Instead, I know that when the alarm goes off, it’s time to report to work – at the coffee shop.

Enforce Work/Life Separation

Leaving my house to work is also a way to signal work/life separation. When I sit down at Peet’s, I know the workday has begun and personal time is over.

However, I can’t spend eight hours drinking coffee, as amazing as that sounds. After a couple hours, I return home.

With a laptop with you at all times, you will be tempted to read and answer emails at all hours of the day and night.

Don’t.

During office hours, do your work. When the day is over, put the laptop away. Remove it from your sight.

At the end of the workday, I unplug my Dell and return it to its bag. I even take the cord out and put it away so that I can’t see it.

I then go for a walk, even if it’s just around the block, to enforce the idea of work/life separation.

Be Available

Say you’re looking for a coworker. You go by their cube and they’re not around. No big deal. Probably in a meeting.

Paradoxically, when you telework, you’re expected to me more available than if you were in the office. You’re just sitting around at home – why don’t you answer my text?

No long lunch breaks when you telework. Be available. I make sure that my laptop is within earshot to hear the tell-tale bing of an email or message.

Cope with Missing Social Cues

The hardest part of adapting to telework is the absence of social cues.

Without a human across the table from you. It’s easy to misinterpret a text, chat or email message

Words on a screen are just pixels. I perceive your message based upon my previous experiences. A friendly reminder may not seem so friendly when it’s stark text popping up in a chat box.

Everyone communicates differently. We’ve all received emails that require collaboration from coworkers to decipher. We lean over the cubicle walls and ask, “What’s this all about?”

When in doubt, communicate more, not less. Fill in the gaps so that teleworkers can understand.

Working from home is a dream, if you do it right. Follow a daily routine. Create a work/life separation ritual. Make sure that the boss can see you (online) and ask for clarification if you don’t understand a message.

Thousands of federal workers in Washington are about to discover that it’s possible to be productive and sane while working from home.

City Paper 2020 Fiction Contest Reading at Eaton DC

City Paper 2020 Fiction Contest Winners
(l to r) City Paper 2020 Fiction Contest Winners Carmen Munir Russell-Sluchansky, Rhonda Green-Smith, Joe Flood

I had a chance to read my short story, Apartment 101, at a reading arranged by the Washington City Paper for its 2020 Fiction Contest winners.

I read first, sharing my fiction before an audience at the arts-friendly Eaton DC hotel and online via Facebook Live.

Standing in front of the crowd with my short story in hand, I read slowly, stressing the funny lines and looking up at the audience occasionally. A reading needs to have a bit of performance to it.

This wasn’t my first reading. I won the City Paper contest in 2017 for my short story Victory Party and read at Kramerbooks, which was the experience of a lifetime.

I was glad to read first because then I could sit back and enjoy the work of the other winning writers from the Fiction Issue.

Carmen Munir Russell-Sluchansky shared his story about an epic paintball war in DC. It’s funny, a rarity in these grim times in the nation’s capital. A journalist, he wrote it the night before the contest submission deadline.

Rhonda Green-Smith read her story of a child who learns everything she needs to know about life one morning in 1986. Her voice is DC authentic, coming from the real city beyond the monuments. This story is part of a collection that she’s working on.

Then we did a Q&A with the audience, including being asked for writing advice. I said: write what you know. Apartment 101 is based upon an apartment I lived in during the 90s. The characters and the events were all drawn from my experiences.

Thanks to City Paper for setting this up! Fiction provides a more satisfying experience than skimming a tweet. I hope that I inspired other people in the room to pick up the pen and start writing.

Apartment 101 Published in Washington City Paper Fiction Issue 2020

Washington City Paper Fiction Issue 2020
Washington City Paper Fiction Issue 2020

Three people. Three decades. One drafty apartment.

That’s the premise behind my short story Apartment 101, which was a winner in the Washington City Paper’s Fiction Issue 2020. The issue also includes two other great stories by local authors about life in Washington, DC.

The inspiration behind Apartment 101 comes from experience. During the 1990s, I lived in an apartment building at 15th and Swann.  Like in the story, there was a drug dealer on the corner, a weird hoarder in the building and I got up on the roof. And it was drafty as hell.

Creative people need unstructured time. I got the idea for the story walking home from work on a rainy December evening. My brain was wandering, thinking about how many years I’ve spent walking around DC. I got to thinking about my old apartment and how much I witnessed there. Could that be a story? How could I organize it?

Once home, I immediately sat in front of my computer and started to write. I’ve written so many traditional stories that I wanted to write something with a different structure. Apartment 101 is three stories in one, with little vignettes from 1989, 1999 and 2009.

Originally, I intended to include 2019 but I ran out of space – the contest limit was 1500 words. Guidelines are good for creativity, however. The sparse word limit forced me to cut my sentences down to what was absolutely necessary.

I wrote most of it in one sitting over a couple of hours but returned to it dozens of times over the next week, making little tweaks and changes.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been in the City Paper Fiction Issue. My short story Victory Party appeared in 2017. I’ve also written several novels set in Washington, including my latest, The Swamp.

Look for Apartment 101 on newsstands and online! And come out for reading by contest winners on January 15 7 PM at Eaton DC.

 

Eight Life Lessons Learned, 2010 – 2019

Andrew Jackson statue at sunset

The world has been turned upside down since 2010. This crazy decade has taught me eight invaluable life lessons.

  1. If you don’t do politics, politics is going to do you.
  2. Your most interesting times will be the worst.
  3. You can bike in any kind of weather. Snow, rain, polar vortex. Doesn’t matter. Humans are designed for this.
  4. Read that book. Reading is the best use of your leisure time.
  5. Write that book! Creating art has its own rewards.
  6. Don’t try to monetize your hobby.
  7. If you’re healthy, appreciate that. If not, endure.
  8. We’re not here forever. Go to that party, hug that friend, take that cheesy sunset photo.

Open Streets DC Opens Eyes

yoga on Georgia Avenue

Georgia Avenue is a street that I actively avoid. I live close to it – less than a mile – but I do everything in my power to avoid walking, biking or driving there.

Why?

Six Lanes of Hell

Georgia Avenue is a traffic sewer designed to benefit Maryland car commuters rather than the people who live in the neighborhood. It is six lanes of hell, filled with angry drivers rushing from traffic light to traffic light but getting nowhere fast.

With narrow sidewalks blocked with utility poles, it’s not fun for pedestrians, either. And the few times I’ve biked on the street, it was only due to a navigational error on my part.

Until Saturday.

Open Streets Georgia Avenue

Georgia Avenue went car-free on October 5, 2019, for Open Streets DC. For a few hours on Saturday, anyone could use the street and they did! Thousands of people came from around the region to experience this fleeting pedestrian paradise.

In addition to the simple joy of walking, running or biking down the wide avenue, people enjoyed yoga, a climbing wall, bands, DJs and anything else that they could dream up on this open stretch of asphalt.

IMG_6481

But it was the kids who enjoyed it most. Everywhere you looked, you saw children on scooters, bikes, trikes and even unicycles. Parents could safely let their children wander the wide lanes without worrying about crazed car commuters.

It opened my eyes – literally. Without the fear of being run over, I could pause and look around, discovering new delights everywhere I turned.

Open Your Eyes

My day was spent saying coasting down Georgia Avenue on my bike with friends and saying, “I didn’t know that was there…” It’s really a majestic avenue, filled with neighborhood shops and a wonderful tree-lined stretch near Howard University, one that is revealed only when cars are absent.

For example, last week, I walked by a new beer garden – Hook Hall. Yet, I barely noticed it for I was trying to get across Georgia Avenue without being hit by a car. Even with a marked crosswalk, drivers didn’t want to stop for me.

Hook Hall

With Open Streets DC, I was able to peer into the beer garden, leisurely stroll in, and enjoy a stein of beer. I also had pizza at Sonny’s, another place I had walked by but not seen due to the distracting presence of drivers.

Call Your Mother was another place I had read about but hadn’t seen, because it is on inaccessible Georgia Avenue. There was a block-long line for a bagel! And I discovered a new coffee place, Colony Club, and I am always up for new coffee places.

Open Streets DC opened my eyes – literally. Without the danger of cars, I could lift my head up and look around. The area I thought of as “hellish Georgia Avenue” is actually the lovely neighborhood of Park View.

Alas, after a few short hours, Open Streets DC came to an end. By 4 PM, massive SUVs and double-parking Ubers had replaced pedestrians. Parents took their children home before they were hit by a car.

Georgia Avenue was hellish again. I crossed the street and biked home via 11th St, a much safer route but also one that avoids Hook Hall, Call Your Mother, Sonny’s and all the other retail establishments of Park View.

DC was not designed for cars; it was meant for people. Open Streets DC was more than just a successful urban experiment, it reawakened the idea that the streets belong to everyone.

the #BikeDC crew

The Vine Trail: A Tale of Two Trails

Biking the Vine Trail

“Biking among vineyards, that sounds lovely,” a friend said after I mentioned that I had gone biking in California’s Napa Valley.

The Vine Trail is that but it’s also something else; the experience is a tale of two trails.

I rented a bike in Yountville from Napa Valley Bike Tours. Took all of five minutes and the trail is just a couple blocks from the store.

My bike was a Specialized Alibi. Being the owner of a Specialized Sirrus, I was instantly comfortable on the Alibi, for it was similar to my Sirrus with one important exception: airless tires.

Airless tires are filled with foam, not air, so are flat-free. Also: ouch. I felt every little bump. I moved the seat up to take the pressure off my rear end and more evenly arrange my weight between handlebars and saddle. Should’ve packed bike shorts.

Riding south from Yountville, the first five miles of the trail are beautiful. The Vine Trail is flat and straight, running down the middle of the valley along tracks used by the Napa Valley Wine Train. Sun, blue sky and vineyards stretch toward the mountains. Alongside the trail are exhibits, if you want to stop and read. I didn’t know that eucalyptus trees had been imported from Australia. And that they explode during wildfires.

The trail grows suburban as you reach the outskirts of Napa. You roll by a subdivision, a Hilton Garden Inn, and then the trail ends at a bus depot.

Napa Valley Bike Tours supplied a handlebar bag with a trail map attached to it. You have to ride on the sidewalk for a little bit and then cross a road to find the trail again.

The Vine Trail in Napa

Then begins the urban portion of the trail. In fact, the way the Vine Trail goes past warehouses and through backyards reminded me of the Orlando Urban Trail. Interesting, but not what I expected Napa to look like.

The trail discontinues again, leaving you at another intersection. After consulting the map, I made my way across the busy road and down to Oxbow Market. This sprawling marketplace along the Napa River is a paradise for foodies, featuring vendors including Ritual Coffee, Three Twins  Ice Cream, The Model Bakery and more.

After fortifying myself with a BLT from Gott’s Roadside, and a look around Napa’s downtown, I made my way back to the trail.

BLT at Gott's

It was ten miles back to Yountville, for a twenty mile round trip. I had fun – the trail is flat, the scenery interesting and Oxbow Market makes a delicious destination.

But, if you have a fantasy about biking to wineries, the Vine Trail is not it. While there are wineries along the route, they’re not easily accessible from the trail. If you want to bike for wine, I’d suggest a guided tour.

If you’re in Napa or Yountville and want to get a little exercise, the Vine Trail is perfect for that. It’s a tale of two trails, one urban and the other a dream of sun-soaked vineyards.

The Influencers Published in Marathon Literary Review

tiny hands

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.

The Influencers

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.

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.