Dreams of El Dorado: Taking Apart the Myth of the West

Dreams of El Dorado

History gives you perspective: things could always be worse. Rather than sitting at home with Netflix and DoorDash during a pandemic, you could be:

A fur trapper, stripped nude and forced to run for your life for the entertainment of Native American warriors.

A family on the Oregon Trail, bamboozled by your guides, and left for dead in the mountains.

A San Francisco resident during the Gold Rush watching the city burn down for the second time in a week.

The settling of the West, as told in Dreams of El Dorado by H.W. Brands, is the story that we’re all familiar with – human endurance in the face of hardship – but it also takes apart a host of comforting American myths.

Rugged individualists did not last long in the West. In an inhospitable landscape full of deadly people and things, you needed to work with others to survive.

For example, the wagon trains that set out for Oregon were cities on wheels, with experienced leaders, rules and a daily schedule. Fur trading was a multinational affair, with trappers from different countries working in teams and then partying at the end of the season as they exchanged their goods. The lone gold miner might find a nugget or two but the real money was earned by companies who organized workers and sluices to shift whole mountainsides.

And none of this success would’ve been possible without the tribes of the West. The Sioux, the Crow and other Native peoples were allies and competitors until they were exterminated or forced into reservations by the American invaders.

The story of the West is also the story of the federal government. Everything west of the Mississippi started out as federal land, when Jefferson purchased it from Napoleon. California and other territories were taken from Mexico. While Texas won its independence, the Lone Star State would not have survived without annexation by the U.S.

The West, unlike the settled states of the East, is a creation of the American government. Through the Homestead Act and other laws, Washington controlled who got land and (more importantly) water in region, unlike anywhere else in the country.

Yet, we cling to our myths of the open frontier, for they express the American ideal of endless reinvention.

Dreams of El Dorado describes how, for a few short and brutal years, freedom could be found in the West, often at a terrible cost, before it became just another region of America, a dry landscape that you glimpse from a window seat as you fly over the country.

The Coronavirus Chronicles: We Are All Soviets Now

the end of days at the Lincoln Memorial

Before, one of the highlights of my month was the Third Thursday #BikeDC Happy Hour. People who bike in the greater DC area would get together for beers. We just restarted the happy hour at Glen’s Garden Market in February; now it’s on hold, like everything else.

The need for companionship is still there, however, so we did the happy hour virtually on Google Hangouts. I showed up wearing a helmet. You can never be too safe, even in your own home.

Primarily, we talked about food. What grocery stores were open. Where to find fresh produce. Has anyone been able to find pasta or toilet paper?

When I bike the deserted streets of Washington, DC, I carry a bag with me, just in case I spot a store with consumer goods.

In the old Soviet Union, they called this an avoska, a luck bag. People would carry one around in the hopes that they would get lucky and find some meat or butter in the shops.

Somehow, we defeated the Soviet Union and become them. We are all Soviets now.

The shortages even extend to books. The Little Free Libraries in my neighborhood used to be overflowing with them. Now, these little book boxes have been picked clean by a desperate population eager for entertainment in a city without bars, restaurants or nightclubs.

Maybe this is a good problem. It’s forced me to read all the books that I have at home.

Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy explains the economically-fucked state we’re in, where millions face unemployment, shorn off by a heartless corporate state that treats employees like serfs.

Why do they have power and you don’t? After the 1929 market crash, New Dealers curbed the power of banks and corporations, binding them with laws and regulations. The worst of the malefactors, like tax-cheat Andrew Mellon, were prosecuted while big monopolies like Alcoa (which controlled aluminum) were broken up. This was done to curb speculation and strengthen democracy.

Over time, however, the financiers were let out of their box. Free to devise new ways of fleecing the public, they engineered the 2008 credit crunch. This should’ve lead to populist reform. Instead, the banks got bailed out while the rest of us still had to pay our bills.

A couple weeks of coronavirus shutdown and the airlines are running to the government for help. Marriott just laid off most of its staff. The cruise lines demand a slice of the pie, too.

The fact that American-style capitalism can’t survive a short spell of economic turmoil without federal relief demonstrates that it’s not a sustainable system that should be preserved.

What we call capitalism in this country is a financial scheme run by the connected (like Senators with insider information) designed to benefit themselves with no obligation to anyone else. And when it fails, they walk away, leaving the rest of us to foot the bill.

We were taught that capitalism is a fair competition. The company with the best product wins. But as Matt Stoll highlights in Goliath, monopolies like Facebook, Conagra and Boeing rig the system through legal strategies and corporate lobbying to squash smaller rivals and keep consumers powerless.

Against these giants, the ordinary person – the person with the avoska looking for meat – doesn’t have a chance.

In 2008, we missed the opportunity to reform American-style capitalism to make it fairer and more equitable. Let’s not make that mistake again.

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.

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.

Exposed DC: A Photographic Record of a Crazy Year

What a long strange year it’s been.

That was my thought looking at the 14th Annual Exposed DC Photography Show.

I’ve had photos in the show twice before. I was in the very first one in 2007 and again in 2012.

The annual Exposed DC show is always an interesting snapshot of the times, illustrating what life is like in Washington, DC.

In 2019, the Nationals won the World Series, an Apollo rocket took off from the Mall and Gilead came to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. They’re all captured in the exhibit, as well as much quieter and more domestic moments, photographers finding beauty in the simplest of compositions, like a kitchen sink in light that is just right.

A couple of the photographers in the show recently spoke about street photography . Geoff Livingston is a storyteller that who looks for dramatic moments. His winning photo – Scoot Down the Highway – depicts an electric scooter rider in light and shadow. It’s an image which makes sense in 2019 but would seem like science fiction if it was in an earlier show.

Mukul Ranjan is not afraid to get up close and personal. His photo of three women in a convertible is more than just an image, it depicts a relationship between the photographer and subjects. Aware of his presence, they’re smiling for him, knowing that they look great and wanting him to capture this late-afternoon moment. His street photography advice is simple: get closer.

If I had to explain to someone what they missed in DC in 2019, I’d take them to the Exposed DC Photography Show. Full of feeling, the photos share what it was like to be alive in Washington during this tumultuous time.

Exposed DC Photography Show – 14th Annual Exhibition
 – Touchstone Gallery 
901 New York Avenue Northwest
Washington, DC, 20001
United States (map)

 

Specialized Sirrus: The Perfect City Bike (for Me)

Specialized Sirrus and the capital

I fell in love with my new bike on a rainy day in Georgetown.

After playing soccer with friends, I went for coffee, watching the drizzle turn into a downpour as I sat in the window. Locked up to a parking sign outside, my Specialized Sirrus was marinated in rain.

By the time I left, it was a cold monsoon. 38 degrees and pouring. The weather was so bad that I contemplated putting my bike on a bus for the ride home.

But that seemed complicated. I could be home in ten minutes if I biked. It was all downhill from Georgetown back to my Logan Circle apartment.

I wiped the water off my seat and pedaled away.

After going over the little rise near Book Hill, I rolled down steep R St, approaching a stop sign. Would my bike stop on the slippery street?

The Sirrus stopped with aplomb, its disc brakes working effortlessly. A gentle squeeze on the levers was all it took. On my old bike, with its v-brakes, there would’ve been some sliding and squeaking.

That’s the moment I fell in love with the Sirrus. I was cold and wet but felt secure on two wheels.

Bike manufacturers like to talk features. The bike has Shimano shift levers, an aluminum frame, rack mounts.

But what matters to buyers are benefits.  Will this bike get me home on a miserable day?

Yes. Flat bars with disc brakes make it easy to stop and start on busy city streets. Lots of gears make quick work of hills. Wide tires roll over DC’s potholes.

Buying a bike is personal. What’s right for me may not be right for you. For my style of riding (recreational, urban), it’s perfect. As I wrote earlier, as soon as I got on the Sirrus, it felt right.

Additional Observations

  • The bike might be slightly too big for me. It’s a medium, while my old Sirrus was a small. The old Sirrus was more of a road bike; this is closer to a mountain bike. Also, I could cram my old bike into the backseat of a sedan while the new bike definitely does not fit.
  • After buying the bike, I realized I basically bought the same bike as my friend Mr. T in DC! After long admiring his immaculate black Cannondale Bad Boy to the point where he joked that he was going to leave it me in his will, I pretty much purchased the Specialized version of his bike.
  • I put front and rear lights on the bike so that I could be more easily seen. I also purchased a cheap frame bag for my Kryptonite lock and other essentials.
  • Living downtown without a car, I’m on a bike just about every day. On the weekdays, I use Capital Bikeshare. I use my Sirrus for longer rides and on the weekends.
  • Once you have one new bike, you want more! While in Florida over Xmas break, I got my Dahon folding bike fixed. My bike friends think two bikes is not enough. One day, I’d love to have a better foldy (like a Brompton) and I wish I had stuff to haul around so I could get a Tern GSD. I tested and loved this compact utility e-bike.

Letter from Washington: Impeachment

Reject the Coverup rally in Washington, DC

A small crowd stood in the cold outside the Capitol.

Impeachment had failed.

The speakers were desultory; the mood, bitter. A banner waved in the night reading, “REJECT THE COVERUP.” But the cover-up had succeeded, the Republicans admitting that Trump had blackmailed Ukraine and obstructed Congress. But they weren’t going to do anything about it.

What do you do when you lose?

You can fall back upon conspiracy theories. My favorite is that Trump has dementia. All the signs are there, from his fumbling speech to incoherent rage. You can see it in his dilated eyes, his exhaustion, his warped and twisted body language.

Yet, his handlers have managed to keep him upright through meds, makeup and camera tricks. There’s no reason to think he’ll collapse before Election Day. He must be defeated at the ballot box.

A few days after impeachment failed, Nazis marched in the streets of DC.

They slipped into the city without notice and quick-marched to the Capitol, protected by a phalanx of DC police. They wore masks, lest they be identified and shamed. They vow to return.

This is why the election is so critical. “We’re not at fascism – yet,” one of the speakers at the Reject the Coverup rally said. Yet.

I support Elizabeth Warren but lately I’ve been drawn toward Michael Bloomberg. Why? He’s a fighter.

Bloomberg?

I’m cheered by articles about him spending lavishly and hiring the best people. So many enterprises in American life (Uber, Amazon) are built cheaply on the backs of underpaid labor. Bloomberg is willing to pay for quality.

And his ads are amazing, a slap across the face of Trump and his slavish supporters. They’re clear, direct and motivating.

Does a candidate lead the people or do the people push their representative to victory? According to Rachel Bitecofer in Politico, it’s the latter. The most motivated side wins. Candidate quality is less important.

There are no swing voters. There are no undecideds – how can you be undecided in a contest between fascism and democracy?

With impeachment failure, this may feel like the end, the gotterdammerung of the American experiment.

It isn’t. This is merely the pause before the last act. November 3 will be when this dark opera comes to a crashing end, with the voters rendering a final decision.

Fleishman Is In Trouble: More Than Rich People Problems

Fleishman is in Trouble

I have a thing for novels about the problems of wealthy New Yorkers. One of the first novels that made an impression upon me was The Bonfire of the Vanities. Of course I was going to pick up Fleishman Is In Trouble.

Rich People Problems

Toby Fleishman is doctor making $300,000 a year who still feels poor. Possessed with rage against almost everything, but especially his ex-wife, he drowns his sorrows in a never-ending cornucopia of app-based sex.

And then his ex disappears, leaving him with their two children.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner dissects with anthropological precision this tribe of rich (but not rich enough) New Yorkers who always want more. Another million, another beach house, another trip to Biarritz while they relentlessly self-improve through spinning classes and Goop-level quackery.

But buried in this sharp satire is a love story. It’s a story about loving yourself. What do you do when all this hustling leaves you empty? How do you cope when your spouse turns into a stranger? When is enough enough and how do you get off the hedonic treadmill?

I nearly gave up on this book. Brodesser-Akner doesn’t believe in chapters and the novel unspools in novella-length sections. Fleishman’s sexual adventures get a bit tiresome and you start to wonder where all this is going.

But, the last fifty pages of the novel are incredibly moving, tying together all the disparate strands of narrative and revealing the truth beneath them.

Fleishman Is In Trouble is a book about the trouble all of us will confront, a kind of middle-aged malaise that will eat away your soul. Brodesser-Akner writes about finding meaning when everything falls apart.

I had expected a satiric novel about New York. Fleishman Is In Trouble is so more than that, a compassionate guide through the dark wood of the midlife crisis.

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.