A D.C. summer isn’t complete without a Fort Reno concert

I don’t get out to concerts much these days, but Monday allowed me to check out a couple of indie-rock bands for free. The Northwest D.C. venue I attended lacked such typical amenities as a bar, air conditioning and walls–but I couldn’t miss what I thought was my last chance to catch this summer’s Fort Reno concert series.

These free shows in that Tenleytown park at 40th and Chesapeake Streets NW, named after the Civil War fort, have been on my calendar since it existed on paper–so my first would have been sometime in 1996, but I can’t tell you when. They’ve been on the District’s schedule since 1968, which is an amazing record for a volunteer-run production.

The format hasn’t changed over the two decades I’ve been attending, or trying to attend, Fort Reno shows. Three local bands play short sets on a bare platform from about 7 to 9 p.m. in front of an all-ages crowd picnicking or dancing on the ill-kept grass around that stage.

I wrote “trying to attend” because an evening thunderstorm is guaranteed to cancel the proceedings–I blame that for scrubbing at least one show featuring the Dismemberment Plan that I’d had on my schedule. And the more frequent scenario of swampy heat in the high 90s will discourage a lot of music fans from spending two hours sweltering to the beat.

But if the weather cooperates, you can see some pretty great bands. My all-time favorite show would probably be Fugazi’s August 2001 set there, but I’ve never seen a bad performance there. Monday introduced me to Makeup Girl’s peppy alt-rock; sadly, I only caught one song from Bacchae and missed Numbers Station.

Fort Reno is easy to get to, provided the Red Line isn’t a mess and traffic on Foxhall Road or Wisconsin Avenue isn’t the same (at least there’s plenty of free parking on the nearby blocks). And while you do have to bring your own dinner and a picnic blanket, you need not think too hard about nourishment: Duck into Whole Foods, get some prepared food and a non-alcoholic beverage in a non-glass bottle, and you’re set.

(The three things forbidden at Fort Reno shows are alcohol, drugs, and glass bottles. Don’t be a jerk; you can get a beer later on.)

Nobody will mind if you walk around the park to explore the scenery. Telecommunications nerds should appreciate the radio and TV transmitter towers looming overhead, while geography-minded types can summit the highest natural elevation in D.C., all of 409 feet above sea level, by walking uphill behind the stage past a large oak tree until the slope levels off, then looking for a small metal marker.

And the crowd is always a delight. Monday’s show featured the usual mix: cool moms and dads bringing their kids up right, aging hipsters (one sporting a t-shirt with the 1980s political commentary “Meese Is A Pig”), and slam-dancing teenagers. There was also one boy wearing a wolf’s-head mask, who got a “wolf boy! wolf boy! wolf boy!” cheer from the band and the crowd.

I also found out Monday that it wasn’t the last show of the summer: The organizers had rescheduled a rained-out show for this Thursday. As I type this, the weather looks… not fantastic, but definitely not rainy. So you should go.

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Self-employment is easier if you’re not at the mercy of health-insurance companies

I am thankful every day that my wife has a good job that includes affordable health insurance for our family. But seeing the Republican Party attempt to demolish the Affordable Care Act over the past few months has made me even more appreciative of being a kept man.

For as long as I’ve been self-employed, I’ve been able to tell myself that if my wife’s job ever went away, the ACA would give us a fair shot at keeping health insurance for the three of us–even today, the rates I see quoted at HealthCare.gov remain reasonable. Meanwhile, not having to worry about exceeding lifetime coverage caps (my friend Kate Washington’s testimony about the costs of her husband Brad’s treatments for cancer are essential reading) or being judged to have a pre-existing condition takes a lot of anxiety off my mind.

Most of the GOP’s proposed replacements for the ACA would have taken a hammer to some if not all of those protections. It’s possible that my wife’s premiums would have dropped as a result. But we don’t want to trim that bill at the cost of screwing over other people.

Like, for example, self-employed friends who get their coverages on ACA exchanges. Tom Bridge and his wife Tiffany each run tech consultancies in D.C., and without the law’s protection they’d be looking at vastly higher coverage for themselves and their son. He’s tweeted often and well about how this product of the Democratic Party has allowed him to build a business.

Friday morning’s Senate defeat (thanks, Senators Collins, McCain and Murkowski and all 48 of their Democratic colleagues) against the latest in a long line of ACA-gutting bills drafted in secret and in haste should ease the existential dread they and many others have been feeling.

(President Trump being President Trump, he won’t shut up on Twitter about how the GOP should keep trying to kill “Obamacare” despite its unbroken record of failure so far. He’s the Black Knight of American politics on this subject.)

It does not, however, end the need to fix what’s wrong with the ACA in some markets. Another freelancer friend, Seattle-based tech writer Glenn Fleishman, has seen his costs climb to “ridiculous” levels–as in $20,000 this year. He’s now seeking full-time employment to escape that.

Now would be a great time for the Republican Party to accept that Americans have decided health insurance shouldn’t be left as a privilege, then bring some business smarts towards crafting the most efficient, choice-driven way to meet that goal. Since most other industrialized countries achieved universal coverage long ago, there’s a huge variety of ideas for them to steal, and which Republicans could have learned from over the past seven years instead of repeatedly staging stunt votes against the ACA.

The party that constantly says it speaks for entrepreneurs should be able to sell this as making it easier for people to start a business and create jobs. Or the GOP can continue to try to tear down this part of President Obama’s legacy, all so the self-employed can once again be “free” to run into the embrace of a large corporation if they don’t want to have to worry about getting sick.

Lawn enemy number one: the Tree of Hell

Fourteen summers of battling the weeds in our lawn have left me with a weird, foliage-driven sense of the calendar.

If I’m twisting loose chickweed with a weeding fork, it could be February but it shouldn’t be later than April, lest I waste my efforts on plants that have already gone to seed. Pungent deadnettles come about a month later. followed by crabgrass.

And from late spring on, I can expect to see Ailanthus altissima saplings invade the front yard. “Tree of Heaven,” my ass: This invasive, quasi-viral plant grows like a weed, literally stinks, and spreads with zombie-like persistence.

Clawing out one of our worst imports from Asia requires advanced stubbornness. Plucking a shoot out of the lawn is easy but leaves a densely-coiled root that will send more growths aboveground within days.

You have to shove a trowel underneath it, elevate a clump of lawn, then feel through the dirt for that root mass and then tug it loose. Done right, you’re left with a long stretch of subterranean subversive that can no longer make a nuisance of itself.

I want to think I’ve seen results this summer, in the form of patches of lawn that haven’t sprouted new ailanthus shoots in weeks (but do show the collateral damage of bare spots that I’ll have to re-seed in the fall). It may seem like an endless task, but it can’t be as futile as trying to evict our single worst import from across the Pacific, the tiger mosquito. Right?

Mike Musgrove

This hasn’t been a good month for the extended Washington Post family. Last week, we lost Bill Walsh, and Wednesday inflicted the news that my onetime henchman Mike Musgrove died Monday.

Mike and I both started at the Post as copy aides, which meant we both had to ask ourselves at some point “did I spend four years at college to sort mail and answer phones?” Not long after I stumbled into my escape from mailboxes and then somehow got anointed as an editor (it remains unclear what exactly possessed management to do that), I realized I’d need an assistant.

Mike had been kicking in reviews for months, and this St. John’s College graduate wrote a marvelously un-self-conscious cover letter that name-checked C.S. Lewis and “Baywatch” and ended with “Give me the job.” His references checked out and the other applicants couldn’t string words together like him, so I gave him the job.

Mike wrote with a sly wit, an awareness of the fundamental goofiness of much of the tech industry, and an interest in life outside of gadgets. He had the idea of reviewing the tech-support soundtracks of computer vendors, he had a sideline testing recipes for the Food section, and he reviewed concerts (including Vanilla Ice) for Style.

His insight on the e-book experience, the product of reading Monica Lewinsky’s 1990s testimony on a Rocket eBook, still resonates today:

If the eBook or a product like it ever gets cheap enough, this could definitely fill a niche: beach reading, airport books—books that you only read to kill time. Books that you would only ever read once and don’t particularly want taking up space in your bookcase—books like Monica’s Story, in other words.

He introduced Post readers to the Diamond Rio, the first mass-market MP3 player, and later gave them their first look at Gmail–a piece that I was delighted to see resurfaced on the tenth anniversary of Google’s e-mail service.

Along the way, Mike graduated from moving words to moving the freight, ensuring that reviews would still run when I was out of town. That led to him playing an unwanted role on the worst day of my life.

As in, Mike learned that my dad had died before I did. In that innocent time, I had flown to the Bay Area for a friend’s wedding without a cell phone (because 1999). My mom called my desk line and then Mike, and he left an urgent voicemail to me that I happened to phone in to hear (because 1999). I called Mike, and he suggested that I not get the news of the day from him. “Call your mom,” he said.

Mike’s last role at the Post was a coal-mine canary. He hit the ejection seat a year before me, burned out by too many demands for inconsequential stories and hit with a cruel review that led him to think his odds looked better away from 15th and L.

He had enjoyed some years as a full-time dad, interspersed with writing the occasional book review for the Post. Then he took some classes in Web development (so, unlike me, he could code his way out of a wet paper bag) and picked up work that way.

I knew he had split up with his wife, and I knew he was looking for work after a contract had run out. But I had no idea that Mike saw himself in such a bleak place that he felt compelled to shoot himself. My understanding is that he didn’t leave a note, so I may never know what led my friend to ensure that he would never again hug the daughter he loved.

Not for the first time, I’m left with a Springsteen lyric: “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world “

Bill Walsh would have made this post better

The English language is in rougher shape and the world looks a little meaner and shallower today, because we lost Bill Walsh yesterday. The longtime Washington Post copy editor died of complications of cancer at only 55, which is way too goddamn early.

I got the news on the bus from Dulles to Metro late in the afternoon, and it reduced me to a sobbing lump, slumped against the window. I’d known this news might come since Bill’s Facebook post last summer announcing the news (in which he joked about a possible upside by commenting, “I’ll never be a doddering old man!”). But I didn’t think it would hurt that bad to learn that my friend and former colleague was gone.

Bill was literally a gentleman and a scholar. He wrote with zest and clarity–see, for instance, this 2015 story explaining why the Post would switch from “mike” to mic” and allow the singular “their.” He was unflappable in the newsroom even as buyout after buyout inflated his workload. And Bill influenced my own writing: I don’t use an exclamation point with “Yahoo” or write non-abbreviation corporate or brand names in all caps, because he called those out as tricks to steal a reader’s attention.

Bill was also a cyclist, a gourmet, a photographer and a gambler. He loved tennis and travel. He and his wife Jacqueline Dupree (if you’ve ever looked for details about buildings and food near Nationals Park, you’ve probably been enlightened by her neighborhood-news site JDLand.com) were my favorite Post couple. It is vile of cancer to deprive us and her of Bill’s company.

I can’t close this without saying two other things.

One is about the murderer in this case. Cancer took my friend Anthony’s dad, robbed  journalism of Steve Wildstrom and Steve Buttry, damn near killed my friend Kate’s husband Brad, and menaced my neighbors David and Christine’s son Jason (how do you tell a four-year-old to kick cancer’s ass?) before the doctors at Inova Fairfax beat it into complete remission. There is no disease I hate more than cancer. Fuck cancer.

The other is the last e-mail I got from Bill, which was also the first message I’d received from him in months. He asked if I’d learned of any systematic glitchiness in the Galaxy S7 Edge. A week later, I sent a perfunctory, tech-focused response while at Mobile World Congress when I should have taken another minute to taunt him over my access to delicious ham sandwiches or add some other personal note to convey this idea: “I’m thinking of you, friend.” The next time somebody you care about writes for the first time in a while, please don’t make my mistake.

I miss skiing

This has been an oddball winter in Washington, on account of the nearly complete absence of snow. But it has been too typical in another respect: Once again, I’m doing a horrible job of propping up the skiing industry.

View looking uphill from Ski Liberty's chairliftBack in the pre-parenthood era, I had the opposite problem. Between day trips to the handful of places sufficiently nearby (one of D.C.’s less-obvious virtues is having the closest hill, Ski Liberty, less than an hour and a half away), long weekends in West Virginia and at least one trip a year to Colorado, Utah or some other faraway place with Real Mountains, I was spending serious money. Even without having to rent equipment.

Having a baby put a stop to most of that. Instead of expecting to rack up 10 ski days a year, I was lucky to get in one or two–and none out of town.

In prior winters, I could at least count on the occasional blizzard giving me a chance to cross-country ski around the neighborhood. This year? Forget it.

Meanwhile, my ability to give myself an occasional day off to make that drive to one of the local hills has atrophied. It turns out that while freelancing from one’s home does let you dodge your responsibilities long enough to stage an efficient Costco run on a weekday morning, blowing off work for an entire day is no easier than in any other full-time job.

So it’s now been almost two years since my boots, skis and poles got any use. And it’s been almost a year since I last grabbed the cross-country skis for a tour of the neighborhood.

This is lame, and I’m not happy about it–especially not after reading this fine overview of nearby skiing options from my fellow Nats fan/victim William Yurasko. But as I type this, it’s 50 degrees outside with a high of 63 forecast tomorrow, and besides we already have a bunch of things on our schedule. Maybe next weekend?

2016 in review: a year of travel

This has been a trash bag of a year in so many ways, but on a personal level it could have been worse. As in, for a few weeks in the late winter I thought the overwhelming source of my income would vanish along with most of the Yahoo Tech operation.

Instead, Yahoo Finance picked me up before I’d gotten too far in exploring other possibilities. But the publicity over Yahoo’s content cutbacks wound up helping an overdue diversification of my income anyway–an editor at Consumer Reports e-mailed to ask if the news meant I’d be interested in writing for them. That led to a good series of stories, one not yet published.

2016-calendarI got another lucky break when a press-room meeting at the cable industry’s sparsely-attended INTX show yielded a string of assignments for the FierceTelecom group of sites.

These and other new clients still leave most of my income coming from a single company, but the totals aren’t as skewed as they were last year.

2016 did, however, see me do much better at finagling opportunities to speak on panels that got my travel expenses covered in the bargain. My mileage totals kept climbing as conferences and other tech events took me to places I’d hadn’t seen in 18 years (Hong Kong), 25 years (Paris), 43 years (Lisbon), or ever before (Israel), as well as my now-regular trips to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress and Berlin for IFA.

Domestically, New York was once again my most frequent travel destination, followed by Boston (now that both my brother and my mom live around there, I’m kind of obliged to find interesting tech events around the Hub). I also made my way to Austin, Denver, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and the Bay Area. Having SFO appear as a work destination only once seems like a grave dereliction of duty; I’ll try to do better.

(Read on after the jump to see all of my air travel plotted on a map of the world.)

My single favorite trip of the year: Viva Technology Paris, which brought me back to France for a second time this summer and showed that I could moderate four panels in a day. The trip also allowed enough downtime for me to take a train to the suburb of Louveciennes, knock on the door of the house my family rented a quarter-century ago, and discover that the family we’d rented the place from still lived there and was happy to let me look around.

The most challenging trip of 2016 would have to be Web Summit. Doing three panels on four hours of nightmare-level sleep is not an experience I need to repeat.

On that note, I can only hope that 2017 will bring less bad news than 2016. But I don’t know how it will turn out, only that I have work to do and good fortune to repay somehow.

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