Coronavirus Chronicles: The Science March

Nevertheless Science Persisted

An algorithm reminded me that it’s been three years since the March for Science.

This was one of several huge protests that occurred after Trump’s inauguration by a people desperate to show their resistance to the cruelty and stupidity of the new regime.

It was a rainy afternoon and I went to take photos. I looked for people I knew in the march – I’d spent years working in science communications for NOAA and The Nature Conservancy.

On that Earth Day in 2017, I thought that the attack on science was a tragedy.Hurricane forecasts would be less precise, cancer treatments would be delayed, basic research would get defunded.

The know-nothingism would harm the country, of course, but would not impact me personally.

Now, I live in an abandoned city. My only contact with other humans is through webcam. I scrounge grocery stores for toilet paper among mask-wearing shoppers terrified of catching disease.

I just finished watching The Plot Against America. The HBO series is based upon Philip Roth’s novel of the same name, depicting an alternate history where Charles Lindbergh becomes president, persecutes the Jews and allies with Hitler. Yet, the forces of democracy resist.

The series ends with a beautiful montage expressing the hope and horror that is America. Sinatra croons as people of all races, creeds and beliefs line up to vote. Then the screen dissolves to ballot boxes being burned. The Levin family anxiously listens in to their radio for election results.

Unlike the novel, the ending is ambiguous. You can decide for yourself whether the country chose fascism or FDR.

Last week, I was on a Zoom call with friends. After an hour of gloom-and-doom talk, I had to drop out. I could not take any more Coronavirus news and speculation.

Back in 2017, around the time of the Science March, I thought I had problems. Compared to today, these were not problems.

The Obstacle is the Way was an enormous comfort to me. The book popularizes age-old Stoic ideas with examples drawn from history. Rather than bemoaning your fate (plague was common in the Roman world of the Stoics), you should do what you can with what you have available. Action is the way to overcome anxiety. In other words:

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
– FDR

I do not have control over the pandemic or the government’s fumbling response to it.

But I can act.

I have set up monthly donations to Joe Biden and the Florida Democratic Party. We have to win Florida to rid ourselves of Trump.

Together, we can wrench this country back to the right timeline.

Letter from Washington: Coronavirus Edition

Dupont Circle during coronavirus

With the approach of coronavirus, Washington is rapidly emptying of people. Meetings, conventions and parades have been cancelled. The Smithsonian has shut down. Everyone who can has switched to telework.

The city feels like a ghost town, absent the daily influx of tourists and commuters. It happened quickly last week, the cancellation of the NBA season triggering the shutdown of everything else. What seemed like a joke became a terror.

Socially Distant

Social distancing is recommended.  I’ve been practicing it for years. You’d think it would be difficult in a big city to avoid people but the opposite is true.

I walk or bike places, naturally keeping a six-foot distance from others. If I go to a coffee place and there’s too many people, I go somewhere else.

And I’ve been teleworking most of the time for the past year so I’m not trapped in the recycled air of modern offices. I interact with people, but not in large groups. On some days, the only person I talk to is a barista.

Friday was strange. 14th Street is usually jammed with crazed Maryland car commuters heading downtown but they had all disappeared, as if a neutron bomb went off. Street parking was even available!

I had to go the Apple Store to get a case for my new iPhone. On the way, I stopped for coffee at the Starbucks in the Marriott Marquis, the big convention center hotel. They have a beautiful lobby designed to fit hundreds of people. And I was the only one in it. So quiet that I could hear myself typing.

At the Apple Store, I got my case. A twinge of concern for myself and the Apple employee as we both handled her iPhone to swipe my debit card and enter my PIN. Apple stores are now closed until April.

Online Shaming

On social media, people have been shaming Washingtonians for going out during the crisis, posting photos of folks in bars and restaurants.

I went to Glen’s Garden Market last week because I like that place and want it to survive. Saturday morning, I played soccer as usual (with jokes about social distancing). Afterwards, I biked to the DC Library West End branch to pick up a book on hold before the library system shut down.

I’m not going to judge other people. What seems frivolous to me may be essential to you.

Going to Whole Foods this morning was probably the riskiest thing I did all week. The grocery store appeared as if it had been looted overnight but I needed a couple of things. After waiting in line with a dozen people, all inches apart, I watched as a cashier handled my food with wet gloves and placed it in a bag.

Chernobyl, 2020

More than one person has suggested that I use this quarantine time to write another book. Shakespeare was at his most productive during the plague, as was Isaac Newton.

Instead, I obsess over the news and social media. The difference between then and now is that plague was common in the 17th Century. But in 2020 America, death shouldn’t sweep in a wave across the continent.

Shouldn’t our government protect us? We’re a superpower. Anne Applebaum has an excellent essay in The Atlantic about how the coronavirus crisis exposes the rot of American society.

We brag about being the best in the world but every major American institution, from the phone company to the dunce in the White House, is broken. Why don’t we make real shit anymore? In America, things only work if you have money or connections, like late-stage USSR. Coronavirus is our Chernobyl, ripping away the facade of an exhausted empire slumping toward collapse.

Maybe some good things will come out of this, like a greater acceptance of telework and the need for universal healthcare.

Americans will remember panic shopping for toilet paper. The fear of death will stay with them long past Election Day. Now they know the consequences of electing a corrupt, evil and incompetent leader.

Change is coming. May we use this crisis to build a better country that works for all its citizens.

WordPressDC: Create a Home Page That Gets You Clients

Headline with image

Before social media and SEO, the home page was all about words.

Content, we called it, and content was king.

The home page 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.

Create a Home Page That Gets You Clients

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.

Home Page Elements

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 your home page 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.

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.

My Photos in Song Protesting Child Separation Policy

Hard to believe that we’re a nation that puts children in cages. But we do every day at the border.

The Trump administration tried to hide the child separation policy from the public, knowing that it was cruel even for this cruel age. Despite statements from the Department of Homeland Security, families are still being separated.

Americans have hit the streets in protest. With my camera, I’ve documented those protests in Washington, DC, from the White House to DHS headquarters. I want future generations to know that we protested this crime against humanity.

Now, my photos have been put to music in a new song called Cages by Flo Anito and Seth Kibel.

A rough version of this song received an Honorable Mention from the Mid Atlantic Song Contest. This version was recorded at American University and Asparagus Media and will be released on an upcoming EP of original protest music.

Flo Anito has toured Europe and appeared on DC’s biggest stages: Strathmore, Wolf Trap, Merriweather Post Pavilion, the Birchmere, Blues Alley, the Fillmore, Hamilton Live, and Bethesda Blues & Jazz. She’s a clever songwriter with a unique voice and a sense of social mission.

Seth Kibel has been wowing audiences on saxophone, clarinet, and flute for more than a decade. Winner of 28 Washington Area Music Awards (Wammies), his most recent recording, Seth Kibel Presents: Songs of Snark & Despair, features an all-star cast of vocalists and instrumentalists from throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

I first met Flo playing soccer. When she asked to use my photos for Cages, I was glad to help. It’s a beautifully moving song written to protest an inhumane policy, one that was done but can be undone. As the chorus goes:

Children and hearts in cages
One by choice, and the other by force
You’ve locked up what’s left of your conscience
You’ve jailed all regrets and remorse
Children and hearts in cages
One of these is an easy fix
Fling open the doors to these prisons
Let parents be with their kids