2020 election

99 Days: A Turning Point

I was living in Philadelphia during the run-up to the 2004 election and working my final few weeks at a nonprofit art gallery. I had been at the same gallery on the morning of 9/11, had watched George W. Bush turn that unifying tragedy into a power grab with the hastily passed Patriot Act and the opening of wars in Afghanistan (somehow still going 19 years later) and Iraq. The Philadelphia I’d begun exploring on foot, bike and transit in early 2001 — like cities everywhere — became an increasingly hostile place as money flowed in for barriers, surveillance and police. Months earlier, I had taken a bus to New York to join the huge march against the Iraq war, but the election was fast approaching. What could one person do in the finite days remaining?  

My friend Claire invited me to a MoveOn meeting on voter turnout at St. Peter’s Church on Pine Street. High voter turnout in our heavily Democratic Philadelphia neighborhoods was key to winning Pennsylvania, the organizers explained. I did a bit of volunteering for that effort in the weeks that followed, but calling strangers and knocking on doors made me nervous. Instead, with that seed of an idea about voter turnout in mind, I spent much of that fall making voter-themed street art and postcards, and encouraging other friends to do the same. I don’t know if anyone voted because of our strange stickers and stencils and postcards, but the effort felt a lot more constructive than sitting at home and fretting about all the dire news. 

Vote bird
A postcard my friend Katie created for the 2004 election.

A few days before the election, a band of cyclists from Portland arrived to crash with Claire. Or perhaps they knew her activist/artist roommate Elena, who I’d met through an arts program at Temple University. Their multi-level apartment — a tangle of stairs and bedrooms and awkward rooms split with partitions atop a giant old Spruce Street row house — had been home to a half dozen friends in quick succession around that time. Its rooms were a collective resource passed on from friend to friend when someone moved away or moved in with a lover. 

2020 election

100 Days: The Start of Something

We are 100 days out from the U.S. presidential election. This will be the seventh I have been eligible to vote in. Of the previous six, three went the way I voted and three did not.* It’s the losses I have been thinking about as this election nears. Not because I believe Trump will be reëlected, though it is possible. But because the losses hurt more when you wonder after the fact if you might have done more to help. Better to do what you can now.

As a writer and artist living in quarantine in a place certain to vote against Trump (Washington, D.C.), it is hard to know what more to do these next 100 days other than write, make art, and hope that some of it ripples out to places where the vote is more likely to be close. And so, I’ve recently reconfigured this site to help me do that. There are plenty of places for punditry and analysis of breaking news, I have no interest in that, so I find myself asking again, “what is the conversation you want to be having?”

It may take 100 days to find an answer, but the ties between current events and the books and film and stories I’ve been immersing myself in will surely be part of it.


Observations in the Time of Coronavirus: 5 p.m.

At 5:20 p.m., my speakers come to life with music. A streaming radio station from Minneapolis, my hometown. It’s an alarm I set three or four years ago, timed for a brief segment of banter between the empathetic DJ and a charming curmudgeon of a newsman I’d known from Twitter. The newsman has since retired, but I keep the 5:20 alarm. The music reminds me to end my work day and transition to something else. I’ve worked from home for years, and so the coronavirus stay-at-home order had not been a huge change for my nine to five. But after five is harder. These days, the music station is often playing songs by musicians who’ve fallen ill or died from the coronavirus. They now interrupt their usual programming with news headlines from NPR and their sister news station. I think of friends and family in far off Minnesota.

The debate in the news today has been over face masks. Preparing for my walk, I’ve dug out a stylish scarf and a black balaclava I once wore under my bike helmet in winter (the bike rides are shorter now and the winters are warmer). But neither of these things will easily and comfortably stay over my nose and mouth. And it’s warm out. Near 70 degrees. I don’t plan to go inside any buildings on today’s walk. I plan to avoid other people, walk less-trafficked streets. So I hang the scarf and the balaclava on my coatrack for another day. I step outside, wondering if this was a mistake.

Outside silence. There are cars. But this is Friday at what would be rush hour. The time between distant vrooms and whooshes can be counted slowly. Tens of seconds filled instead with bird song. Wind rustling blue tarps on the scaffolding of the old school. The squeaking sound of vinyl rubbing against vinyl as a sun-bleached banner relaxes its folds to lay flat against a chain-link fence that clatters on its poles. Somewhere a soft clinking of metal at the same rhythm as a railroad crossing’s warning bell.

“Hey There,” a man shouts. He’s the first person I’ve seen out. But he’s not talking to me. He is in a hurry, taking big strides in black shorts, black sandals, black gloves, black jacket, black sunglasses, black sandals.

The speakerphone in his hand replies to his greeting: “Hi Mr. ———. How are you today?”

I wander further. The sun is out. The flowering trees are all in bloom. Neighbors are talking to each other at a distance across front yards.

I am squinting as I face the low evening sun and fail to spot two athletic men until we are twelve feet apart. They recoil from me, struggling to break step and fall in to a single file line, balancing like schoolchildren at the edge of a garden.

A restaurant on 14th Street has music blaring and perhaps eight people near its tiny outdoor bar, many with drinks in hand. Everything is to-go now, but perhaps if the to-go order takes long enough to prepare, the restaurant can sell two rounds of drinks. I stay on the quieter side of the street. Two women walking their dog notice what I’ve noticed. One says, “I do not understand these people. It makes me so angry!”

Just then my phone vibrates with a New York Times alert: “The C.D.C. advises all Americans to wear non-medical masks, President Trump said. He added: ‘I’m choosing not to do it. It’s only a recommendation.’”

I turn away from the commercial streets. I walk minor residential streets, but even these are busy now. I turn down an alley to avoid crossing paths with more people. I follow the alleys home. At my gate, I wave my touch-less key fob and pull the gate towards me by grabbing a low area of the fence my neighbors are less likely to have touched. Inside the apartment I hang my coat, wondering if it is contaminated. I wash my hands and begin making dinner.

One of 24 posts inspired by Half/Life, a 2019 collaboration with Katherine Mann and Kristin Hatleberg. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.


Observations in the Time of Coronavirus: 2 p.m.

Construction, Stillness and Caffeine Withdrawal

2 p.m. // The construction site outside my window begins to quiet down in the 2 p.m. hour (construction is considered “essential” under Mayor Bowser’s stay-at-home order). The crew shows up between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m., so anyone on site much later than 2:30 or 3 p.m. is likely due overtime pay. The hammers and rebar cutters and beeping trucks slow. Only a few finishing touches and cleanup are left on the day’s big push. No new messes or deliveries. With less noise from the work crew, I open my windows. The sound of birdsong has taken over the empty city. 

Inside the apartment, I have a big cooking project going. Chili in the slow-cooker fills the space with the smell of spices that I’ll harvest at dinner time. I give it a stir and then chop an apple and heat some water for herbal tea.

2 p.m. is the hour I long ago set to stop having caffeine. In practice, this alert—when it popped up on my phone—had become a reminder to hurry up and make a final cup of coffee to go with my light afternoon snack (lately an apple with peanut butter or cashews). 

Back in mid-February, when COVID was barely on my radar, I listened to this interview with Michael Pollan about caffeine (and the short Audible story he was promoting). Pollan doesn’t come up with any serious health reasons to avoid caffeine, but a researcher suggests he can’t understand the chemical compound without getting it out of his system for a time. And that’s what Pollan sets out to do. As he tapers his dosage and goes through withdrawal, he finds it harder to write, but his sleep is far better, and his moods more level. As I listened, I realized that I’ve had caffeine in my bloodstream almost continuously since my first barista job in the mid-1990s. Few days off from coffee in 25 years, if any. Maybe this caffeine-tapering experiment is one worth trying? And so I began gradually brewing smaller and smaller doses of caffeine in the morning, and cut out any small amounts of caffeine (green tea, chocolate) from my 2 p.m. snack. 

Making a major change to your daily chemical addictions just as a global pandemic starts might sound ill advised. It might be something you postpone along with the baseball season and St. Patrick’s Day bar crawls. But I was deep in to the experiment by the time stay-at-home became the clear best practice for flattening the curve of COVID’s spread. At least I’m ahead of the game if coffee becomes as scarce as toilet paper. I’m not completely off the drug yet. There is still about 1/4 real coffee mixed in with the decaf I’ve started brewing in the morning (and even decaf has traces of caffeine). I no longer feel a craving for a 2 p.m. dose, and could probably go to all-decaf tomorrow if I wanted (but I’ll wait until I run out of regular). I’m finding that the afternoon is less up and down, steadier. And I’m sleeping well, which is likely not what most people are saying these days.  

Still, I get tired by the end of the 2 p.m. hour. I start my day of screen work and house chores around the same time the construction crew starts their day of building concrete forms and positioning rebar. As the clock nears 3, I remind myself it’s OK to take it slow. I play a guided meditation on my phone instead of clicking on the unread COVID alerts from the Post and the Times. I’ll come back to email later. 

Inspired by Half/Life, a 2019 collaboration with Katherine Mann and Kristin Hatleberg. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.

books essays film

Why I Didn’t Read ‘Little Women’ Until Age 44

Back in December, I was excited to hear that Greta Gerwig had a new film coming out. One of the first things I heard about the film was that she had departed from the source material in interesting ways, ways that critics described as feminist and innovative. I was excited about this, but embarrassed that I hadn’t read the source material. A gap in my reading history had become an obstacle to my love of film. So I finally read Little Women in the week or two before the film opened in D.C. As I did so, I couldn’t help but ask myself why I’d never read Louisa May Alcott until now.

Many of the ideas that ran through my head are explored thoroughly by Anne Boyd Rioux in “Why Don’t More Boys Read Little Women?” — a book excerpt that LitHub helpfully shared just when I was interrogating myself over the question. The excerpt is worth reading in its entirety (and I’m now curious about the full book, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters). After pointing out that boys once read Little Women in far greater numbers, and finding some choice quotes from powerful men praising the book, Rioux cites three main ideas that have conspired to relegate Little Women to a secret rite of passage that girls “read alone with a flashlight under the covers,” rather than part of the canon for boys and girls:

  1. fear of discussing the story’s feminist implications in the classroom,
  2. a push to teach more contemporary texts, including those by women and people of color, and
  3. a focus on solving the crisis in boys’ reading rates by favoring texts perceived to be interesting to boys.

I have only the vaguest memories of Little Women from my childhood. My mother is a writer. I can picture her speaking of the book fondly, perhaps suggesting it as a book she’d like my brother and I to know and be able to discuss with her. Why didn’t I read it? In these hazy memories, the title and cover played a role. The culture had taught me that there were boys’ books and girls’ books. Yellow spines on Nancy Drew stories. Blue spines on Hardy Boys mysteries. Was I a product of the “crisis in boys reading” educators are so concerned about? I don’t think so. I remember devouring anything that was assigned and getting placed in a seperate “gifted” reading group that met outside of my usual classroom. But, yes I was more excited about after-school cartoons. Given a choice, I picked dubbed Japanese space adventures like Voltron and Robotech over a nineteenth century family drama like Little House on the Prairie (which I assume remains perpetually in syndicated daytime reruns in Minnesota today).

None of my teachers assigned Little Women. At home, my parents periodically made sure that reading something for fun was part of my brother and I’s summer, but this usually meant a trip to the library or bookstore to pick whatever we were excicted about. One exception was Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn which my parents assigned one summer ahead of an educational family road trip down the Mississippi (Mark Twain’s classics are a good foil for Little Women in Rioux’s exploration above, since they are from the same time period and widely taught tales of a typical American boys’ experience assigned to both boys and girls).

As I got older, there must have been a popular renewal of interest in Alcott in 1994 when Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation of Little Women starring Winona Ryder came out. I have no recollection of such a wave then either. I was busy in college that year at the suburban/small town campus of the University of Wisconsin—River Falls. I was meeting new friends who introduced me to the books they were excited about, taking classes on literary theory and the modern novel. My reading list was dominated by the influence of those friends and professors for the next decade. They were mostly men: the friends, the professors, and the imparted canon of influences (I remember men teaching literature and women teaching writing in that English department). Beat writers, the Russians (Dostoevsky and Tolstoy mainly), and some tangents I explored on my own like Camus and Beckett and Ellison. To be sure, there were exceptions. Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison come to mind. But no Little Women.

I also recall girlfriends referencing Jo, or talking about the book with their girl friends. But by then we were all struggling to be adults — or at least I was — and making “serious” reading lists of new writers or heavy classics was part of the program. How to make room for a child’s book titled Little Women? Surely whatever lessons a book like that holds are not important to twenty-somethings or thirty-somethings or forty-somethings more than a century later, I might have thought when the book came up.

In the couple of decades since then, it’s become clear that limiting your cultural diet to the perspective of one type of person, just dudes, just white western dudes, is a kind of starvation. It should be obvious, but reading and seeing the world from the perspective of someone with a different body, a different relationship to power will inform your actions towards people unlike you. This is true on both sides of any such difference.

When I wrote more frequently about film in the mid-2000s (something I suppose I’m dipping my toes in to again with this post), I quickly joined in the culture writer’s hobby of list-keeping, ranking filmmakers and films, naming favorites and creating top tens. Once I started down this road, it quickly bled over in to my music and book habits. Once you’ve put ten filmmakers, ten musicians, or ten authors in your journal or spreadsheet, it is hard not to notice your blind spots. Either you decide you are someone who lives and dies by Tarantino and Kubrick, Trent Reznor and Mick Jagger, David Foster Wallace and Charles Bukowski — or you ask what is missing from your list, what your cultural blind spots are, what other people have on their lists that you haven’t yet stopped to consider. Maybe Agnes Varda, Patti Smith, and Margaret Atwood should be in the mix. Maybe they’re closer to the top of the list. What else is missing? Can I dig deeper? What can I learn?

Many of my friends — especially women — who grew up under the same kinds of influences I’ve just outlined now avoid reading men altogether, or are in book clubs organized around doing so. After a year or two of consciously alternating between books by those who don’t identify as male and those who do, I’ve taken a more fluid approach. I know that if I blindly take in acclaimed books and films and pursue threads of reference from one artist to the next, the scale quickly tips towards perspectives and backgrounds I’ve heard plenty from in my life. So I keep lists in notebooks and in Goodreads (and Lightbox for film) of what I’ve finished and what I’m excited to take on next, reviewing the lists as I go to make sure I’m taking in a diverse and challenging set of perspectives. It takes work, but it’s worth it.

So what’s my take on Little Women after finally having read the book and seen Gerwig’s adaptation? Loved both. Gerwig’s timeline and pacing are a delight if the book is fresh in your mind. The departures she takes from the book are light and perfectly in keeping with our understanding of Alcott’s life as a writer, and Jo’s relationship to publishing within the book. Highly recommend.


One Year Ago Today

10 a.m. // By random lot the next hour in my posting queue happens to include this day one year ago, November 13. And so, please remember that one year ago today the alley reeked of garbage and stale beer. It doesn’t always. Today — the first sustained sub-freezing morning of the winter of 2019 — odors are faint and distant. When the wind picks up, fresh asphalt, perhaps being trucked to a construction site, carries before resistance to the icy air overpowers my ability to focus on the sense of smell.

Also on this day in 2018, a friend and her boyfriend were on their way to the metro and I tried for the first time to explain why I was standing outside in the cold in an inhospitable place with a notebook. The explanation hasn’t gotten easier a year later.

Neither of these facts made it in to our collage for the 10 o’clock hour. Katherine’s lines suggest the cold puddles I’ve written about here, but the text sampled comes from an hour later on a different morning. We’ll encounter “mom with stroller / hey hey hey no jumping” again when it comes time to write about 11 a.m. The more mundane hours easily bleed together, and notes from early in the project were not as diligently set apart. //

I’ve not been posting these notes prompted by the Half/Life collaboration daily as I originally intended. There are 24 to post, and when I began there were about 24 days left before we’d intended to take the paintings off the walls and leave H-Space vacant. But leaving an art space vacant is a sad thing and a waste in a city so starved for such venues. With nothing programmed after us (the space’s parent organization Hamiltonian Artists is going through some restructuring), we’ve left the show up (viewable by appointment, send me a message if you’d like to stop by). Without the urgency of an end date, I’ve been giving each of these posts more time to marinate.

I am posting these writings both on Instagram and on the relaunched This new version of Future Cartographic will be a home for creative writing, for art engaged with place and time, and for building community with anyone interested in such things, including contemplation of last years’ stale beer puddles. It’s not for everybody. But it might be for you. Stop by, and drop me a note if you do.

One of 24 posts inspired by Half/Life, on view at H-Space in Washington, DC (on view indefinitely as of this posting). Contact Erik to schedule a visit. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.


Watching the Detectives

3 a.m. // Often while observing my neighborhood for these writings, I can’t help but observe the cops. They of course also observe, though much more conspicuously. At times I felt an urge to erase these stories from the Half/Life project, to walk to another part of the block, to tell a different story. But on the walks between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. they were so often present, idling at the end of the alley, shaping the psycho-social dynamic of fully a third of the clock hours that this dance of watching the cops watch the street and then watching the street in the place of the cops repeated over and over and became the story.

I found it hard not to feel that my act of observing was cop-like as I stood conspicuously in spots where nobody other than police lingers, writing in my notebook at odd hours. Sometimes, as I waited for observations to strike me, I thought of scenes in detective noir films where the private eye waits under a streetlight. Anything could happen. Will my informant show up at the rendezvous point to whisper secrets? Or did she or he flip, inspiring the mob boss to send thugs speeding this way to spray the corner with machine gun fire? And what exactly does the neighbor peering through the Venetian blinds think when she sees the detective out at random hours again and again? Some passers-by give me a look that seems to question or wonder if I’m up to no good. Do they think I’m a drug dealer, a fence, a pimp? But no, criminals tend not to keep notebooks, or so I would assume. Some kind of undercover agent? If not police then perhaps a city inspector. Bureau of alcohol regulations. Nuisance remediation administration. Vice minding council.

Last night I watched the cops again as I brushed my teeth in my warm apartment with the lights out. A squad car pulled in just then. After scanning the alley it turned around and positioned itself in the familiar spot, hood just barely jutting in to foot traffic. The squad car’s row of rooftop floodlights then lit up U Street with an ugly cold white glare. Antithesis of the sleepy cold November Monday night calm of the scene until that moment. Like florescent lights coming on at a nightclub. A driver innocently stopped at the red light raised his arm and averted his eyes from the painful flood of extreme brightness, his car’s interior suddenly on view to the world. Passengers on a city bus squinted to see what caused the police to activate such hostile tech, but their ride soon moved on. Three officers in black uniforms, METROPOLITAN POLICE in white letters on their backs climbed out of the car. One man lifted plastic bags and set them down on the squad car’s trunk. Another unsheathed steaming boxes and passed them out. A dinner conversation in the cold shadows made invisible by excessive use of light. //

One of 24 posts inspired by Half/Life, on view at H-Space in Washington, DC (on view indefinitely as of this posting). Contact Erik to schedule a visit. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.



3 p.m. // Caring starts with noticing and acknowledging those around you. This was a big theme of these walks — noticing and acknowledging people and details easily missed.

9 1/2 Street is often a backdrop for photo shoots. Girls change outfits in cars and shoot photo after photo that end up where? On Instagram? In fashion school portfolios? Headshot photographers arrange professionals in confident poses against brick walls in shots destined for LinkedIn. Recently the 2020 Census shot on location here using an athletic bearded white actor to portray a homeless person. These photographers are using this place as a stand-in for the generic idea of a gritty urban environment. Noticing my neighbors, the details of this place, noticing me, noticing actual homeless people is an inconvenient distraction on these kinds of projects.

At the same time, noticing too much can be unwelcome. Part of the draw of cities — and of nightlife districts in particular — is the illusion that it is possible to be lost and anonymous here, to go unnoticed. Crowds, music, darkness, and the unfamiliar grant us permission to experiment with trying on new selves, with release, with finding new people to be alone with, together with, or both. The camera and the scribe with his notebook shatter this illusion. What happens on U Street might not stay on U Street, or so the questioning looks of passers-by seemed to suggest. Then again, those who noticed the scribe were also acknowledging, taking a curious step forward, meeting halfway, towards caring.

One of 24 posts inspired by Half/Life, on view at H-Space in Washington, DC (on view indefinitely as of this posting). Contact Erik to schedule a visit. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.