Letter from Washington: Stranger than Fiction

queen + lambert

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.

Usability is Simplicity

“I’m not a usability expert.”

That’s what I said, prior to the recent NoVA UX Meetup, User Experience for the Experienced.

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.

Roughly four-in-ten seniors are smartphone owners
Pew survey on 65+ smartphone use

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 Americansare 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.

hamburger menu example
Hamburger menu. It’s clear what you do here, right? No?

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.

Letter from Washington: Lotus Flowers

lotus flower and bee

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.

I Biked 100 Miles

WO&D Trail near Purcellville, VA
WO&D Trail west of Leesburg, VA

I hate my birthday – it’s a reminder that I’m getting old. Rather than stewing in annual misery, I decided to do something about it. My birthday would be the perfect opportunity to bike a century (100 miles). A Birthday Century!

I’m a city cyclist. A typical ride for me is a Sunday jaunt around DC, with a requisite stop for coffee. Decidedly not a MAMIL (a middle-aged man in lycra), I don’t have clip-in pedals, bike shoes, a trip computer or any of the other accoutrements of the serious cyclist.

Instead, I have a ten-year old Specialized Sirrus that I call Bikey.

With little more planning than filling up a water bottle, I set off early on May 31. Destination: the end of the WO&D Trail in Purcellville.

A hundred miles provides a lot of time to think. Here’s what I learned along the way:

The Rolling Community of Cyclists

I like Best Buns. I cannot lie. With hours of biking ahead of me, I decided to fuel up with a massive pastry from this Shirlington bakery.

Rolling up after crossing the river from DC, I saw bikes and a couple of bike people that I recognized.

It was the Hump Day Coffee Club, a meetup of Northern Virginia cyclists. There are coffee clubs around the region, including a Friday Coffee Club that I occasionally attend at A Baked Joint. It’s a chance to meet other bike riders, swap notes about commuting routes and plan future rides.

I proudly told them of my plan to bike to the end of the WO&D, as if I was Magellan about to set out into the unknown. One of the coffee klatch casually tossed out that she had done the whole trail herself, on a whim, when she got a new road bike for her 60th birthday.

Suitably shamed/impressed, I set out from Shirlington, following Four Mile Run until it connected to the WO&D Trail. A long day of biking stretched ahead. Twenty miles later, as I biked through Reston, I heard a shout. It was one of the coffee club members, passing me, with a friendly hello.

As I rode my century, I tweeted and shared photos using #abirthdaycentury. In return, I received suggestions and encouragement from other #BikeDC cyclists on Twitter and Instagram. Though I might find myself in a dark wood, in the middle of my journey (like Dante), I never felt alone because of the BikeDC community. Instead, I felt like I was part of a small town on wheels, a rolling community of cyclists that exists on streets, trails and in cyberspace.

Eat, Eat, Eat

My plan was to get as far down the trail as possible without stopping. I knew that each time you stop, it’s harder to get back on. So, I kept going, the towns going by every few miles – Falls Church, Vienna, Reston, Herndon, Ashburn.

I reached Leesburg around noon. Eat here or keeping going to Purcellville? I had packed a single Clif bar so I ate that, before beginning a four mile ascent through Clark’s Gap and over the low range of green hills that I’d been watching since Reston.

Long climb to Purcellville

The elevation profile tells the story. Doesn’t seem a lot but it was enough to wipe me out. This was the hardest part of the ride, 45 miles in and a climb to the highest point on the trail on an empty stomach.

You really cannot eat enough on a long bike ride. During the day, I ate:

  • Massive muffin (Shirlington)
  • Clif bar (Leesburg)
  • Burger and fries (Purcellville)
  • Smoothie (Herndon)
  • Clif bar (Vienna)

But this was not enough. I could’ve fit in a whole other meal and not been satisfied.

Never(mind) the Weather

I felt sense a tremendous sense of accomplishment seeing the end of the trail and the iconic Purcellville train station, photos of which I had seen in the Instagram feeds of countless #BikeDC friends. Now I had joined them.

Untitled
Made it! The end of the trail in Purcellville, VA.

55 miles done. I just needed to get back. Thankfully, it was mostly downhill, providing me the opportunity to enjoy a gorgeous ride through the woods back to Leesburg.

Then I went back through the towns I had passed earlier, like a film being rewinded. Leesburg, Ashburn, Herndon. Local biking legend Mr T in DC suggested on Twitter that I stop for a smoothie at Green Lizard Cycling so I did. It was delicious but I needed more food.

The day before, Northern Virginia had been hit by a line of severe weather, possibly including a tornado. More storms were expected. As I biked back, I noticed the puffy clouds gathering behind me, chasing me back to DC.

Rolling into Vienna (almost home!), the skies grew dark and I felt the first patter of rain. I decided to duck into Whole Foods as a thunderstorm swept the region. I bought some Clif bars and waited for the storm to pass. It was a big one, with hail in Reston (which I had just gone through).

Rain won’t kill you. But lightning will. You should respect the weather. After the rain was mostly done, I resumed my journey on a jet-black trail with steam rising off it.

Gear Matters

I was going to write that gear doesn’t matter. After all, I did a 105 miles on an outdated hybrid bike with an even more outdated human.

But gear does matter. Without padded bike shorts, I wouldn’t have been able to spend all day in the saddle. A bike jersey with a ventilating zipper kept me cool in the stuffy weather. Gloves enabled me to hold on to handlebars slick with rain.

Riding back after the storm, my backside grew damp, as my wheels kicked up water and grit from the trail. Fenders! Why don’t I have fenders? And as much I love Bikey, a road bike or even a newer hybrid would’ve made the century faster and in more comfort.

Gear matters. Of course, you can bike without bike shorts, a jersey, gloves or, hell, even a water bottle but those basics make biking easier.

I took the Custis Trail back into DC, a roller coaster ride, going up and down overpasses all the way into the city. I was hungry, and moving, flying down the descents as the sun emerged over the Washington Monument.

 

105.1 miles in nine and a half hours, according to Strava. But numbers don’t tell the true story of a Birthday Century. It wasn’t the miles biked or the hours in the saddle that was important. Instead, like any journey, it’s the lessons learned along the way.

Does anybody make real shit anymore?

metro trash

I ask, cause I’m not sure:
Do anybody make real shit anymore?

– Kanye West, Stronger

I put off getting a new iPhone as long as possible, waiting until the battery life was mere minutes and I carried a charger every time I left the house.

I knew replacing it would be an ordeal. Months earlier, I had gone to the Apple Store and asked about my options. It took an Apple genius 30 minutes and a complicated diagram to explain the new pricing plans.

Eventually, I upgraded, ordering an iPhone 7 through my carrier, AT&T. FedEx lost it. I called AT&T, who blocked the phone from the network. Then, of course the phone showed up. AT&T unblocked it and then, perversely, decided to block it again the next day, making my phone a shiny, non-operational brick. I tweeted in frustration.

 

@ATTCares responded. Their Twitter account says that they provide support. But they don’t, they just refer you to the website, to an endless customer service chat. On Friday, I went through a lengthy chat where I had to type in various technical data about my phone. They said they would unblock. And I went through the whole process again on Sunday. My phone still doesn’t work.

This isn’t an unusual story. American life these days largely consists of doing battle with broken things.

On Sunday, while I was trying to work all this out, I had to go downtown. Ten years ago, I would’ve taken Metro. I avoid the transit system now. During the week, Metro features breakdowns and beatings, while on the weekends, it barely runs it all.

Instead, I took Capital Bikeshare. I write about CaBi so much because it’s a system that actually works. Swipe your key, hop on a bike, and go.

Washington seems to be going backwards in terms of transportation, from heavy rail to bicycles and rickshaws. I fully expect a horse-sharing scheme to emerge within the next couple years.

At least I wasn’t on Amtrak #161, a Twitter saga that also unfolded on Sunday, passengers trapped on a train outside Washington for so long that they had time to order pizza. Their rescue was delayed for want of a stool so that they could climb from one train to another. Richest country in the world.

Romans didn’t just wake up one morning in the ruins of empire. Instead, it was a slow decline. Officials weren’t paid. Water from the aqueducts stopped flowing. Barbarians walked in, unopposed.

We could have a national train system that’s not dependent on a stool. DC could have a safe and efficient Metro (it once did). AT&T could fix problems for customers instead of sending them to chat-based hell.

It’s a choice. As Kanye, bard of our age, asks: Does anybody make real shit anymore?

We can’t cut our way out of crisis. If America is going to move to the next chapter, then it needs to invest in quality once again. We need to make real shit.

What happens to serendipity in a world without bookstores?

Remaindered reads - this is a good one. Arts and Entertainments by Christopher Beha is a sendup of the highly scripted world of reality TV #books #reading #fiction

What happens to serendipity in a world without bookstores?

The Barnes and Noble in Bethesda is closing. The last of the great literary superstores, it anchors downtown Bethesda, MD, providing a focus to the community and a convenient rest stop on the Capital Crescent Trail.

Books used to be big business. Downtown DC had several stores much like the leftover Barnes and Noble, from the sprawling Borders on L Street to the bustling Waldenbooks in Union Station. All gone now.

The margins are better in clothing. Most of the book stores now sell cheap frocks from China.

I’ll miss shopping at Barnes and Noble for the same reason that I miss reading the newspaper – serendipity. Online shopping is task-oriented – you know what you want and you search for it. Browsing in a good bookstore is about exploration. It’s about luck. It’s about stumbling upon the right book at the right time.

I had a gift card with $5 left on it. I didn’t know what I wanted, so I ended up in the remaindered section of the Bethesda Barnes and Noble, searching through the stacks of marked-down books at the front of the store.

I didn’t care for the cover of Arts & Entertainments but read the blurbs and the first couple pages and was sold. At $4.98.

This funny New York novel by Christopher Beha asks, “How real is reality TV?” The answer: not very. Like with scripted programs, reality characters have arcs – narratives imposed upon them by producers. We like pantomime villains and high drama so that’s what reality TV gives us, whether it’s true or not.

And once you join the reality world, it’s impossible to get out, for you become addicted to fame and money. The only escape is death and, even then, your demise will be used to anchor another story, another narrative arc, another turn of the wheel, your complex existence reduced to a single stereotype, whether that’s hero or heel.

I was thinking of doing a blog series on remaindered books, panning for gold among these leftover titles.

But, like the last Barnes and Noble, even these remnants of the publishing industry are soon to be no more.

People still read – 73% of adults read a book in the last year, most of them in print.

Bethesda will survive the loss of Barnes and Noble. In cities like Washington, we have other options, independent booksellers like Kramerbooks.

But, in most of the country, Barnes and Noble was the only bookstore in town. And it did more than just sell books, too, but provided a safe space for reading groups, online dates and Craigslist transactions. It’s a loss to the community.

No more will readers have the experience of aimless browsing, of searching through stacks of discounted books looking for something you can’t describe until you pull a black comedy out of the pile. The end of Barnes and Noble means the end of serendipity.

In a country enthralled by reality TV, Barnes and Noble is no longer needed. But what about all those remaindered books? Where will they go? To the great pulp mill, destined for recycling as flimsy wrapping paper, their contents unread.

A War We Must Win: The USA vs Trump

greetings comrades glory
Greetings, Comrades. Glory!

There was a moment during a recent demonstration. A crowd had gathered outside the White House to protest immigration policy. Standing in front of a chain-link fence, a young Honduran woman described fleeing the violence in her country. She loved America for saving the lives of her children. People applauded, including a 94-year old Holocaust survivor who had insisted on attending the demonstration. Stooped over, her eyes flickered with life.

At the edge of the crowd, a middle-aged couple approached, the female half in a Make America Great Again hat. They saw the demonstrators protesting Trump’s treatment of refugees. The woman snuck into the crowd and made a mocking peace sign so that her husband could get a picture. They laughed.

My friend Pippa is conducting dinners with Trump supporters. She feels that if only we all knew each other a little better, it would be easier to get along. Results have been disappointing. Breaking bread doesn’t change political opinions.

I was not a political person until this year. Living in DC, I had the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill. I declined, feeling it to be a waste of time, disliking the passion people brought to even the simplest of issues. A pragmatist at heart, I voted for Republicans and Democrats, always seeking the candidate who would do the least harm.

But Trump is different, representing an assault on democratic institutions, something that every American should oppose. Evidence is growing that he colluded with Russia, part of a Putin strategy to use fake news and select leaking to influence the 2016 election. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Secretary General of NATO, warned:

“It is Russia’s aim to undermine the political cohesion in Western institutions.”

Putin seeks is to divide and weaken the West, to discredit democracy itself and restore the old Soviet Union. He wants to end the Pax Americana that has kept the world free of global wars for more seventy years. It’s a dangerous moment, as America wavers, the prospect of a new wave of conflict on the horizon. A global war would mean the end of the connected world that we know and enjoy.

Encouraging these end times is a selfish con man, Donald Trump, a dupe who is willing to go along with Putin’s schemes and court international disorder if it will benefit his family of grifters.

Trump’s supporters have told me that he can do whatever he wants, because he is the President. They’re willing to throw away the Constitution and their own hard-won democratic rights in pursuit of vengeance against people like me. “We suffered under Obama. Now it’s your turn,” I’m told.

After the election, I was ambivalent. I even wrote an award-winning short story about my mixed feelings, Victory Party, in which a waiter receives the election news with something approaching happiness.

But since Trump’s American Carnage speech (“That was some weird shit,” George W. Bush), it’s clear what he and his supporters want: revenge. They don’t want to build a new America; they want to punish America and are willing to work with the Russians to do so.

“Since when are you a liberal?” a friend of mine jokingly asked me. I’m liberal in the classical sense, as someone who believes in free speech and free markets. I believe in the West, in freedom from tyrants under a system where every person is equal before the law. That marks me as an enemy of the state, at least this state, for Trump and his supporters seek to turn this country into a soft dictatorship, Putin light, where an autocrat makes all the decisions, without the pesky impediments of the Constitution.

“There was a very serious effort made by Mr. Putin and his government, his organization, to interfere in major ways with our basic, fundamental democratic processes. In some quarters that would be considered an act of war.”

Who said that? Dick Cheney.

The war began last year, when Trump’s entourage colluded with Russia to subvert the election. It’s a war against democracy itself – and one that we weren’t even aware that we were fighting until recently.

No amount of gentle conversations around a candle-lit dinner table will budge the hate and envy in the hearts of Trump partisans. Sorry, Pippa! No accommodation is possible with people who would collaborate with a foreign power to snuff out democracy in America.

Trump and his Russian backers declared war on America during the last election. It’s a war that will be fought in the streets, courts, legislatures and media. The majority of the country voted against Trump. We did not choose this war. But it’s one that we must win.