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.

The Rich are Different than You and Me

spanish steps in the snow.jpg

It was a very wet snow, typical for DC, one of those storms lingering on the edge of the rain/snow line. A damp, cold and miserable day.

But I went out anyway, not being one to sit inside, no matter the weather. Perhaps that’s why I love photography so much – it gives me an excuse to get out and explore the world.

Ice formed on the hood of my jacket as I trudged up Massachusetts Avenue. When it snows, I enjoy doing a loop around the historic mansions of the Kalorama neighborhood.

In my photography, I like classically-framed compositions. I like strong lines and contrast. I like photos that tell a story, ones that you draw you into the frame.

Which is why I love the Spanish Steps so much. With wet flakes falling on the marble steps, and one streetlight golden, the scene looked like a fairy wonderland. I took off my gloves, pulled out my Canon Rebel, and took this photo.

One of the benefits of being an amateur is that my photos are for myself. I took this photograph with no expectation of anything other than producing a pleasing image.

A couple of years later, I was walking through Mitchell Park, the green jewel that sits atop the Spanish Steps. There was a flyer for a photo contest, sponsored by the Friends of Mitchell Park. Free to enter, prizes unspecified. Remembering my photo in the snow, I entered it into the contest.

Several months later, I received an email telling me that I won one of the categories and would I come to a reception at the residence of the French Ambassador. Sure! There I was trudging up another hill in Kalorama, this time to a Tudor mansion, after a couple of $4 beers at Glen’s Garden Market.

Inside, it was like a scene from the Great Gatsby, though the crowd was older, as supporters of the park enjoyed champagne and canapés. The French Ambassador gave a short speech, thanking those present for their support in making Mitchell Park such a special little park. DC parks often depend on outside financial support for their operation.

The other two winners and myself were then recognized and given prizes. Mine was a wine tasting for six! That’s way more than I expected from a free contest.

The rich are different than you and me, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Mitchell Park has some illustrious neighbors, including the Obamas, Ivanka Trump and Jeff Bezos. Topics at the reception included speculation on how much the Amazon founder paid for his mansion. While the Mitchell Park supporters were not as wealthy as Bezos or Trump, they were a world away from my $4 beer lifestyle.

But money can’t get you everything. Money can’t buy the experience of pulling on your boots and venturing outside in terrible weather. All the riches in the world won’t put you in front of the Spanish Steps on a snowy afternoon, as you line up the perfect shot, your fingers slowly freezing. That’s something that you have to do for yourself.

Fear and Loathing in Washington, DC

 

white-house-construction

Washington, DC, has a raw, unfinished quality to it. The Presidential reviewing stand is still up on Pennsylvania Avenue, as the National Park Service disassembles it with their usual lethargy. The site is surrounded by chain link fences, adding to the type and variety of barriers that encircle the White House – yellow caution tape, red wooden snow fences, concrete bollards, decorative planters, metal car barriers that pop up and, of course, the historic wrought iron fence that has proven to be so easy to climb.

Behind these walls, a couple of orange-hatted construction workers toil at disassembling the reviewing stand by hand, while observed by a platoon of heavily armed Secret Service agents. Work isn’t expected to be completed until March.

On the other side of the White House is the empty spire of the Washington Monument. It’s closed until Spring 2019, due to an elevator problem. We’ve fought and won wars in less time. It’s a symbol of America but is not a priority to Congress, who is more interested in taking things apart than fixing them.

Looking out on this tableau of dysfunction is Donald Trump. Brooding, tweeting, as he wanders the White House in a bathrobe. He doesn’t think to right the broken things around him. Instead, he conspires to break more things, appointing a parade of loathsome incompetents to high office – Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Betsy DeVos.

I wrote a novel called Don’t Mess Up My Block, the thesis of which is that you have to fake it until you make it. In this satire of a self-help book, a loser reinvents himself as a management consultant, despite having no qualifications or experience. With the blind confidence of a conman, he goes from Dinkytown obscurity to DC success.

Even with my fevered literary imagination, I never thought a conman could take over the federal government.

What this city needs is a good snowstorm. Today, it’s 65 degrees. I’m in a coffee shop by the White House. The air-conditioning is on. Outside, tourists walk by in shorts and t-shirts.

We need a blizzard, something to remind lawmakers of the power of Mother Nature to silence them all. A storm that shuts the city down for a week (like the one that occurred last year) might instill some humility in these cruel powerbrokers.

But that’s not going to happen. Winter is nearly over.

Rescue is not coming. “At some point, the adults will step in,” I assured myself during the election. Party elders. The media. The wisdom of the American people. Someone would save us.

We’re going to have to save ourselves. Humor is a good start. The parody of Sean Spicer by Melissa McCarthy did more to shape the public view of the administration than hours of talking heads on CNN, revealing the Trump regime’s bullying and incompetence.

Humor is subversive, an effective tool targeting tyranny and freeing people from fear. There’s a reason why anti-Trump demonstrations in DC feature so many hilarious signs – the people sense it’s working, these little pinpricks getting under the skin of delicate Donald and his supporters.

 

How does this all end? Mass demonstrations began the moment Trump was inaugurated. And they’ve continued despite seasonably cold weather in DC. Six major marches are coming this spring, from everyone from outraged scientists to outrageous juggalos.

If I was the city government, I would prepare for a million people to descend upon Washington, mass demonstrations of a size and scope not seen since the Vietnam War.

 

And if I were demonstrators, I would lay siege to the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue. The General Services Administration foolishly leased this grand building to Donald J. Trump, who garishly affixed his name to it in gold.

But this landmark belongs to the public, who saved it from demolition in the 1970s. Trump does not belong there; the Old Post Office belongs to us.

And, unlike the White House, the so-called Trump International Hotel is not ringed by fences. The Old Post Office is open to the public and right on Pennsylvania Avenue. It is vulnerable and should be the focus of demonstrations.

Surround the Trump Hotel. Discourage stays there. This would hurt Trump in his pocketbook. And, more importantly, his pride. Destroy the Trump brand. Make it mud. That’s how you drive this particular tyrant from office.

From the Sidelines to the Streets: Resistance in DC

Resist banner over the White House
Greenpeace hung this Resist banner on a crane overlooking the White House.

 

Strange days indeed, where I’m retweeting Van Jones. My politics don’t fit into an easy category. I’m socially liberal, believing that people should be free to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t harm others. I also believe that government is too big and does too much, interfering in aspects of life (such as mandating health insurance) that it should stay out of. Nearly a decade of experience as a government contractor has just reinforced that notion. As I wrote in Victory Party, my award-winning short story (shameless plug!) about election night in DC, government is:

nothing but a big blind beast, stumbling across the American landscape, more likely to crush you than help you.

The economy is the most important issue to me; the biggest moral issue of our age is the lack of real economic growth, for it leaves millions unemployed and underemployed in the vast heartland of our country, a tragedy of abandoned towns and people, like a modern Grapes of Wrath. In a fit of 2008 optimism, I voted for Obama but then switched to Romney in 2012, wanting a President that would focus on jobs. He doesn’t look so bad now, does he? Trump vs Clinton was a nightmare choice for me, literally Kang and Kodos. In a fit of pique, I wrote in independent Evan McMullin (I might have a thing for Mormons), knowing that blue DC was going overwhelmingly for Hillary.

Trump merchandise for sale outside Treasury Building
Few takers for Trump merchandise for sale outside the Treasury Building.

Like everyone else, I expected Her to win. When she didn’t, I was ambivalent, fictionalizing my response in Victory Party, my tale of DC on election night.

I am ambivalent no more.

What does it take to get someone as jaded and as cynical as me off the sidelines? A week of chaos from the Trump administration, from the graceless “American carnage” inaugural address to the dissing of the Women’s March and on to the Monday night massacre firing of the acting Attorney General.

Trump is a bully, now with the overly vast power of the federal government behind him. There’s never been a better argument for limiting the size and scope of the executive branch than Donald J. Trump.

I expected the evil – it’s the incompetence that surprises me. They have no idea how government works. And despite their purported social media savvy, it didn’t occur to them that public servants, such as the National Park Service, could push back anonymously using these same tools.

Rather than uniting the country around the need for economic growth, Trump has issued a series of bizarre and poorly thought out decrees. It’s government by tweet, straining this country’s democratic institutions beyond the breaking point.

Protesters besiege the Old Post Office
Muslim ban protesters besiege the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.
me at the Muslim Ban march
Me at the Muslim Ban March. I used Capital Bikeshare to get around and take photos.

The streets of DC have been filled with demonstrations the size and scope of which I have never seen before. And I’ve been out, biking around the city with a camera, capturing the moment. And participating as well, something I never thought I would do.

As Van Jones points out, it’s no longer a question of Democrat vs Republican. It’s whether you believe in democracy or not. If you do, then you must resist.

Solidarity at the White House

How to Write an Award-Winning Short Story

My short story, Victory Party, won First Place in the City Paper Fiction Issue. Since then, a number of friends have asked me about the story. Where did the idea for Victory Party come from? How did I write it? Why did I write it?

Here are answers to Frequently Asked Questions. It’s the story of a story – how Victory Party got made.

Idea

The deadline for the City Paper contest was not long after the Presidential Election. It was a natural subject. According to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition, the vast majority of short story submissions dealt in some way with the election.

I was surprised, like most people, by the depth of Trump’s support. This election was Hillary’s to win – all the polls agreed. But, clearly, there was a secret class of Trump supporter, people in the shadows, who kept their opinions to themselves.

Who were they? What motivated them? Exit the DC bubble and it’s not hard to find folks suffering from hard times. As I wrote in Victory Party, these were people who:

voted for the man, out of desperation, a mad hope that someone could change their cursed little town and their cursed little lives.

But what would it be like to be a Trump supporter in Washington, where 96% of people voted for Clinton?

Conducting research with The Emperor's Clothes at McClellan's Retreat
Conducting research with The Emperor’s Clothes at McClellan’s Retreat

Setting

There are a lot of bars in my fiction. Write what you know! It’s the default setting for a Joe Flood story. I find bars to be interesting places that bring all manner of people together. Having talked to a few bartenders, I’m also fascinated by the business of bars, how a couple dollars worth of booze gets magically transformed into an $18 drink.

DC has seen a rise in this “cocktail culture” over the past few years, as the loveable dives of my youth give away to exclusive speakeasies. I decided a ridiculously hipster bar would make a good locale for my story, the better to illustrate the contrast between elite DC and the real world.

I had two sources of inspiration for my setting: Bar Charley and McClellan’s Retreat. I wandered into Bar Charley on election night. It’s a cozy, brick-lined basement much like my bar in Victory Party. And, like in my story, there was a palpable sense of tension there on election night, an expectation of victory tinged by a fear of the unfathomable.

My other inspiration, McClellan’s Retreat, I just love. Quiet, dark and with no TVs, this Dupont Circle craft cocktail bar is a great place to meet friends for an intimate chat.

Characters

I mock the people of DC in books like Murder on U Street. I think newcomers to the city are naive and clueless. A shiny veneer has been placed over a Washington that still houses the poor and disaffected, a city where anything not locked down gets stolen.

In Victory Party, my bar patrons are sloppy and careless, blithely handing over their credit cards to questionable individuals and willing to get in any car that looks like an Uber.

It’s also a city of winners and losers, in which incumbents capture whole economies and take the benefits for themselves. Homeowners vs Renters. Baby Boomers vs Gen X. Feds vs Contractors.

I illustrated this dichtomy with two characters: Randy and Michael. Randy is an ex-con with $27 in the bank. Michael owns a bar which serves watered-down drinks – and no one notices. Their view of America is shaped by the opportunities available to them. Crime tempts Randy while Michael is effortlessly rich.

Plot

Short story submissions to the City Paper contest had to be less than 1000 words. That’s short. This blog post is longer than that.

The word limit forced me to focus on the most essential elements of my story. All I wanted to show was the moment that Trump won, the shock in DC, and one person who was happy about it. Victory Party sketches out its characters and themes and then delivers us to that epiphany.

Writing & Editing

When I write, I like caffeine and background noise, preferring to work in coffee shops. I wrote the first draft of my story the week before Thanksgiving. The first draft was 1300 words. It was called “Her” and was largely about the reaction of Hillary’s supporters to the loss.

After writing the first draft, I let the story sit for a day and then began cutting, to get the tale below 1000 words. Inspired by the excellent new Hemingway bio, Ernest Hemingway: A New Life, I chopped anything resembling exposition, i.e., explaining the characters rather than showing them do stuff. Show, not tell. 

I focused on Randy and his outsider’s view of the speakeasy, letting out just enough exposition for the reader to understand why he would resent a bar full of wealthy, naive Democrats. “Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” Mary Kay Zverloff said in her introduction to my story, a comment which made me happier than anything else. She even used Victory Party in her writing class as an example of how to do exposition.

After getting my story below 1000 words, I picked at it for days, like a turkey carcass, deleting and rewriting bits and pieces of it.

The ending was a struggle. How much happiness would Randy reveal? I rewrote the last paragraph several times. In the end, I opted for my main character having a quiet moment of victory, one that he knows won’t last.

I also changed the title, from Her to the ironic Victory Party.

What’s Next

me-reading-at-kramerbooks
Joe Flood reading at Kramerbooks. Photo by Kramerbooks.

To celebrate the Fiction Issue, the City Paper had a party at Kramerbooks, where I read my story before a packed audience. I’ve been going to Kramers for decades – this was a thrill.

If you liked Victory Party, you’ll love my novel Murder on U Street, a mystery set in the real city beyond the monuments. Read this book if you want a wry look at the DC art scene.

I also have another novel in the works – Drone City, a satire in which a drone crashes into the White House, leading to the end of the country as we know it. It’s a comedy. I’m editing the manuscript now and am looking for agent. Look for it later this year 🙂

Interview with a Zombie

i'm socially conscious

The blogger “Zombie” of the blog Zombietime has been covering anti-war, anti-Bush and antinomian protests in San Francisco, the city that never met a liberal cause it didn’t like. While we may mock these silly displays of moral rectitude, Zombie has revealed, through pictures, the really dark and violent fantasies that these marchers would impose upon the rest of us. Their world is one in which sadistic murders would go free, suicide bombers are heroes and Israel would be wiped off the map.

PolicyByBlog has a really interesting interview with Zombie on how and why Z decided to document these rallies. An avowed liberal, Z thinks these protesters are, “actually, literally insane.” Are these people the mainstream or are they just freaks? They are apparently in the mainstream of the SF left.

Even if you hate politics, Zombie is a great example of the power of a citizen journalist. Guided by a zeal to show the full story of events, Z shows us the anti-war left in SF in all its unhinged madness. It’s not pretty, but it’s true.

Zombie’s been an inspiration for me, too, as you can see of the photo above of a cheekily subversive protester which I snapped at anti-war rally in DC.