Free Library Find: Cicero

Cicero at the Free Library

Little Free Libraries are little boxes of bookish surprises scattered around the world, like a real-life Pokemon Go, but for readers.

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician was a serendipitous find, a biography I was interested in, but then forgot, until I saw it in the Little Free Library on N St.

The last defender of democracy, Cicero used his oratory and wits in a face off against Caesar and the forces of dictatorship. While he ultimately failed, his true legacy was that, in the words of Voltaire, “He taught us how to think.”

With its marble-columned temples and soaring public spaces, Washington is a Roman city, one that Cicero would instantly recognize and feel at home in. He argued cases in the courts, led marches against the government and gave passionate speeches before the Senate. Our three branches of government, with its checks and balances, would be familiar to him, for they stem from Roman antecedents, our founding fathers inspired by Cicero’s failure to create something more resilient.

An aspiring dictator like Donald Trump would not surprise him. Cicero famously uncovered the Cataline Conspiracy, a plot by a bankrupt aristocrat to overthrow the government and burn Rome to the ground. He said:

A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear.

He had the traitor executed.

Democracy in Rome, as limited as it was, could not manage a rapidly expanding empire beset by financial problems and a military quagmire in the Mideast. Our troubles in the region would be depressingly familiar to Cicero. After uncovering the Cataline conspiracy, he was appointed governor of Cilicia, where he suppressed rebellious tribes in Syria.

Ultimately, however, Cicero was just an orator. As Rome slid toward autocracy, first through the self-dealing Triumvirate and then the rule of Julius Caesar, he was warned to stay out of politics,  a tale told in the interesting novel Dictator.

But Cicero couldn’t stay out of the Senatorial limelight. While not part of the plot against Caesar, it was he who Brutus hailed as the dictator bled to death. Once Caesar was gone, Cicero tried to unify the Senate against Mark Antony and the Julian faction.

A bloody civil war took place across the Mediterranean world of the Roman Empire, from Spain to Cleopatra’s Egypt.

When it was done, Rome had an emperor: Augustus.

A list was drawn up of enemies of the state. If you were proscribed, you could be put to death and your properties seized. Cicero was hunted across Italy. When soldiers caught him, he bared his throat so they could slash it properly, the gesture of a gladiator who meets his end nobly in the arena.

Democracy was dead but Cicero’s legacy lived on. Much of what we know from the Roman world comes from the voluminous letters of the orator, many of which survived. He also was a key transmitter of Greek and Roman ideas and philosophy, which were rediscovered during the Renaissance.

From him, we have the concept of natural law, the belief that there is a moral order beyond the rules enacted by governments. As he said,

For there is but one essential justice which cements society, and one law which establishes this justice. This law is right reason, which is the true rule of all commandments and prohibitions.

Our Founding Fathers were inspired by his life and writing.  John Adams said, “As all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero, his authority should have great weight.”

And weighing the lessons of Cicero, they produced the republic of checks and balances that we have today. Thanks to the ancient Roman orator, we have the means to resist a dictator.

Instagram is a Lie Factory

urban vultures

On my way to brunch, I saw a pair of vultures.

They were in the middle of the street, fighting over a rat carcass. A car honked but they did not move, consumed by their struggle.

I’m a compulsive photographer. Not a day goes by where I don’t take a photo of something and share it on Instagram.

I loved Instagram when it first began. While there were similar photo apps, Instagram was a community, allowing me a look into the lives and visions of people around the world.

It was more than just an online app. I met great friends through InstagramDC, local photographers like me who share a passion for mobile photography.

It felt real. Excited by this new medium, people created images of things that meant something to them. They experimented. They grew.

You were excited when people you respected liked your photo, the heart providing a bit of virtual recognition.

The other apps fell away and Instagram exploded. Suddenly, it was not a niche tool used by insta-photographers but something that everyone had on their iPhone.

There were top ten lists in magazines. Who were the best Instagrammers in DC? Find out!

Companies ran contests. Take a photo, share it, and you could win a trip!

 

View this post on Instagram

 

The Poutinerie is open! Get a taste of Canada at Dupont Circle @aircanada #aircanadafliesthere #contest #poutine #canada

A post shared by Joe Flood (@joeflood) on

Marketing firms put together lists of influencers. Want to get the word out about your new restaurant? Reach out to these food photographers. Give them drinks and they’ll post photos of your place online.

I’m guilty. I went to those meals, bewitched by the chance to be cool.

The fun photo app that was Instagram became a marketing tool for big brands, a new way to get advertisements in front of eyeballs, a digital method to drive conspicuous consumption.

But this one was sneaky. We know how to ignore banner ads on web sites, glossy ads in magazines, commercials blaring during timeouts. But how do you ignore marketing messages that look like Instagram posts?

Is that travel photographer you follow being paid for her fabulous adventures? She gushed about a hotel. Is her post a paid ad or an uncompensated review?

Everyone got in on it, even me. I was a Brand Ambassador, paid to take day trips around the DC region. I loved it. Would do it again.

Enterprise CarShare followed the FTC’s Endorsement Guides, which required that I put #ad #sponsored on my post. Not every company is so scrupulous.

And would you notice a #sponsored in a hundred other hashtags? Social media marketing is virtually unregulated, with the difference between legitimate post and a compensated one nearly impossible for consumers to determine.

But that’s not the only deceit.

You see a beautiful plate of pasta on Instagram, bolognese bright against a white plate. What you don’t see is the time carefully arranging the noodles, wiping off the mess, setting up the tripod for the DSLR, softening the scene with a lightbox and then editing the photos in Photoshop.

Instagram is all about the likes now, an online popularity contest, the hell of high school duplicated in cyberspace.

In response to virtual rewards, we lie and present curated lives, our fears hidden by bright images of an idealized life.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

The LEGO takeover has begun #lego #bikedc #lincolnmemorial

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“You have what I want,” someone told me. “You just ride bikes and drink beer.”

But that’s not true. Like much of America, I’ve had a lousy couple of years, a fact that I’ve largely kept to myself (I’m from the Midwest), my social media feed showing little evidence of crushing anxiety and depression.

One of the creators of Instagram quit the app, after seeing what Facebook did after purchasing the online photo service. Instagram become a celebrity-driven marketplace engineered to sap users’ time and attention at the cost of their well-being. The community she nourished from birth become merely another profit center for the online leviathan.

Facebook scaled Instagram and monetized it, filling it with ads and content that looks like ads, while committing unknowable violations of privacy and decency along the way, anything, even treason, to keep the Silicon Valley machine growing.

Instagram is a lie factory. The photos aren’t real, the users aren’t honest and the company deceitful.

Yet, I still use it and love it. Is this due to my passion for photography or the virtual rewards I receive? Is it about the photos or the likes?

I took a photo of a pair of vultures fighting over a rat carcass. I did not share it on Instagram. It did not fit my brand, my carefully curated life of bikes and beer.

The answer is there. Like millions of other Americans, Instagram to me is not about photography, it’s about the likes.

Lake Success: Fiction in an Age Beyond Belief

Lake SuccessHow do you write fiction in an age that is beyond belief?

Gary Shteyngart demonstrates how in his funny new novel, Lake Success.

Shteyngart is a novelist of decline, previously aiming his lens at the former Soviet Union in Absurdistan. He writes of societies in collapse, his characters powerless to stop the farcical sweep of history.

The rot that began overseas has now come here, personified by Donald Trump, who loiters on the periphery of this book set in the summer of 2016. He’s the disaster that won’t happen, the New Yorkers in the book assure themselves. We, of course, know better.

Shteyngart doesn’t typically write about winners. But he does so in Lake Success, the book centered on a pair of the 1%, a hedge fund manager and his wife. Despite their astronomical wealth, and all the luxuries it can buy, they are desperately unhappy. Their son is autistic, a diagnosis that they refuse to admit to themselves or their families. All the money in the world can’t fix him, a situation that sends both of them spiraling out of control.

Barry breaks first, making a run for it, with his $2.4 billion hedge fund collapsing and the SEC on his trail. Throwing away his iPhone and going off the grid, he takes a nostalgic journey – on Greyhound – in search of an ex-girlfriend and the path not taken.

Shteyngart is a New York novelist. No one writes better of the delights and terrors of the city. There’s a great passage at the beginning of the book where Barry stumbles into the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 4 AM, drunk, bleeding and incoherent. To the cops stationed there, “he looked just like another New Yorker.”

The bulk of the novel is Barry traveling by bus across the country, meeting a very different world from his hedge fund manager associates. These chapters are not as strong as the New York sections, lacking the detail and emotional connection of his Gotham work. While there are funny vignettes of dead downtowns (Germans on a tour of “The Wire” locations in Baltimore), they seem rushed and superficial.

While Barry goes in search of his past, his wife Seema is left to clean up the mess. After engaging in an affair with poseur novelist, she’s forced to be truthful with her striving Indian family about her son’s condition. She also must confront the truth of her own life. Is she more than a rich man’s wife?

In Lake Success, Shteyngart writes about Trump without writing about Trump. Barry has benefited enormously from our leveraged economy, memorably described as a man who goes like a thief in the night, stealing a little bit from every house he visits. And, like Trump, he makes and loses immense sums, with little consequence to himself, but enormous consequences to the country as a whole.

Despite the topical theme, it’s not his best book about our times.

Super Sad True Love Story is a better novel. Without the burden of the present, Shteyngart creates a New York and a country gone mad, teetering on the edge of financial collapse, and the deluded, dream-like worlds of Americans who don’t realize that their world is about to end. Brilliant, hilarious and heart-breaking, it’s a love letter to a country that’s about to disappear.

Everything by Shteyngart is worth reading but if I was new to the author, I’d start with Super Sad True Love Story, his masterpiece.

Walking Away from Democracy

crazy stupid sign

The rain, sadly, ended in time for the Walk Away pro-Trump rally in Washington, DC.

Supposedly a group of ex-Democrats who had “walked away” from the party, they gathered, a couple hundred of them, on the concrete expanse of Freedom Plaza.

The Florida bomber wasn’t mentioned. Nor the Pittsburgh shooter. Instead, they complained that they were the victims, renounced by friends and family for “walking away” from liberalism.

Over and over, speakers claimed that they weren’t racist, to a very white and old crowd. I have never seen so much vaping in DC. One woman said that she couldn’t be racist because she had a black husband and a black baby.

“You won’t see this picture on the mainstream media!” she shouted in front of a collage of portraits of people in the movement, steps away from the Press tent, where the media could check in. Trumpkins desperately want coverage from the media that they scorn.

Political group demonstrates in DC isn’t news, especially if there’s only a couple hundred of them. This is a city which has seen anti-Trump demonstrators by the millions.

Q

Another speaker bragged of his ignorance. He only got the news from Twitter, as a couple circulated through the crowd holding a “Q” in red, white and blue. It’s the right’s favorite conspiracy theory, too complex and stupid to summarize. Basically, the government that Republicans have cursed as incompetent is secretly so competent that they can organize a deep state conspiracy against Trump.

The dangerous part is that these conspiracy theorists believe that Trump will strike back soon, with a military coup, that they cheer and encourage, as they work to make Trump a dictator.

It’s important to know your enemy. I went to see and record their anti-democratic beliefs and oddball notions. There is a temptation to ignore the madness of our fellow citizens.

But it’s better to know what they believe, for they are Trump’s base and provide cover for acts of violence like the Florida bomber. They are the sea in which terrorists swim.

For the Trump movement is a fascist movement. If the leader of another country called the media “enemies of the people” and winked at acts of violence against them, that’s how the American media would cover it. They’d call it fascism and refer to Trumpkins as right-wing militias or violent supporters of the regime.

But, since it’s here, we deny what occurs before our very eyes. We can’t be 1970s Argentina. Or Franco’s Spain. Yet, we have much in common with these fascist states, including a vast military, economic inequality and a leader’s cult of personality.

We should take seriously the words of Trump supporters. Calls for dictatorship and violent suppression of enemies (“lock her up”) are preparation for the real thing.

A couple hundred people rally in DC, walking away from reality and into the comfort of authoritarianism. It’s easy to mock them as old and stupid and sick. But we do so at our peril.

America Needs Diplomats

War on Peace

Ronan Farrow has done the impossible in War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, creating a story about bureaucracy that’s compelling and relevant to our troubled times. In this account of recent American diplomatic history, he reveals how the State Department has been hollowed out by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, to the detriment of our national interests.

Standing in for a robust, bipartisan American approach to international relations is the towering figure of Richard Holbrooke, who Farrow worked for at the State Department. He brought peace to the Balkans by literally locking squabbling leaders in a room. His mix of personal charisma, backed with American power, was indispensable in the Clinton era.

But not for Barack Obama, who disdained this figure tied to his political opponents. While he was eventually called to serve, and given the hopeless task for bringing peace to Afghanistan, he was undercut by an administration under the sway of its generals. Foreign policy problems, like coming to some sort of accommodation with the Taliban, became military problems and handled with the same kind of counter-insurgency tactics that failed in the Vietnam War.

Holbrooke lived long enough to see America escape one nation-building exercise, Vietnam, only to become embroiled in another one in Afghanistan.

Farrow makes the case that America needs its diplomats in War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence. Sadly, the decline that began under Bush and Obama has only accelerated under the nationalist Trump. We don’t even have ambassadors in hotspots like Saudi Arabia, anymore. Instead, our country is represented by double-dealing members of the Trump/Kushner crime family, who are focused on personal profits rather than our long-term national interests. This would be an anathema to Richard Holbrooke and any of the giants that built the peaceful post-war world that we enjoy.

City Paper Fiction Issue Needs Submissions!

You can’t escape the news. It’s everywhere in 2018, blaring from TV sets and buzzing across iPhones. Every day, a new outrage, as America stumbles through the year, like a drunk on the edge of a subway platform.

Sure, you see the headlines emanating from Washington, DC, but what’s it like to live here?

For that, you need fiction, which can not only tell you what’s going on but make you feel it as well. Short stories allow you to inhabit the mind of another person, seeing the world through their eyes, and uncovering their terrors and anxieties, which may be different than yours.

Or they may be the same. The last City Paper Fiction Issue in 2017 featured three stories of electoral disaster, with my piece, Victory Party, the winner. Three fictional works that took you into the id of a city, uncovering its existential terror and disbelief.

That’s another thing about writing fiction: it’s therapy. Victory Party was my attempt to define our disordered reality in neat words and paragraphs.

And it was an amazing experience to see my winning short story in print all over the city. I got to do a reading, too, at Kramerbooks, which was the experience of a lifetime.

The contest is back! The City Paper is calling for submissions for their upcoming fiction issue. It’s only 2000 words – that’s nothing! You’ve probably written longer emails. The deadline is November 11.

Writing a short story about DC will help others understand what it’s like to live in a place where so much is so wrong. And it might help you, too.

φ

Art from Injury: Ocean Agate by Theresa Amelia

Theresa Hillsdon and Ocean Agate

The brain is a mysterious thing.

After suffering a concussion, Theresa Amelia turned to art for healing, depicting the shapes that she saw in her mind after her injury.

The result is the beautiful work pictured above – Ocean Agate – that now hangs in a home in Georgetown. It’s mixed media, weighing in at 45 pounds, and features glass and crushed gemstones that glitter in the light, including over 25,000 hand-set mosaic pieces of glass, 20,000 hand-set pieces of tumbled or raw gemstones (Brazilian Aquamarine, Lapis Lazuli, Green Agate, Blue Soapstone, and Green Bloodstone) and over 20,000 ml of poured, custom colored acrylic resin.

Theresa was not an artist before her traumatic brain injury. While she did have a visual sense, from her experience as a photographer, to develop the skills, focus and vision to produce a work of art like Ocean Agate is an almost unexplainable leap. She spent more than 240 hours in its creation.

The injury changed her, producing innumerable negative consequences (like memory loss) but a few positive changes, as precious and as rare as the stones used in Ocean Agate. In addition to her newfound artistic ability, she now empathizes with people in a way that she never had before, feeling what they feel just by looking at them. Maybe this is due to her realization of the fragility of our consciousness or maybe the injury unlocked a part of her brain that we no longer use, this kind of empathy unsuitable for our busy, complicated societies.

Art provides consolation and a way to work through difficult times. Art therapy is used to help veterans returning from combat – traumatic brain injury is a “signature injury” from our endless wars.

And in some cases, brain injuries can lead to extraordinary art.

Thankfully, I’ve never had a concussion. But I’ve seen friends after it’s happened. They are truly not themselves, not knowing where they are or their own name. Experiences like that teach you that our identities are thin and flimsy things, held together by a few membranes in our heads.

Safe Streets Needed in the Nation’s Capital

Man blocks traffic to protest city's negligence in protecting people

“A tragedy,” you hear on the news but when you encounter real grief it’s almost impossible to process. You look away from the mother alone in her pain. She lost her son doing something that should be safe – riding an electric scooter in Washington, DC.

And here she was, days after his death, on the spot where he was killed, as cars honked and drivers cursed.

This was the scene at the memorial ride for Carlos Sanchez-Martin, who was run over by an SUV in a Dupont Circle crosswalk. A white ghost scooter was erected to memorialize him, placed at the spot where he died. We then occupied the street for ten minutes, placing our bikes and our bodies on the asphalt for safe streets.

Drivers couldn’t wait ten minutes. Someone died here and they couldn’t wait ten minutes. They honked and honked and a couple even got out of their cars to confront us, a situation thankfully defused by the Metropolitan Police Department.

Ten minutes. Drivers won’t even give ten minutes for someone that they killed. This is why we need safe streets in the nation’s capital.

Untitled

After the ten minutes were up, we left the intersection. Drivers poured through, nearly hitting people in the same crosswalk where Carlos Sanchez-Martin was killed. Drivers ran red lights despite the presence of uniformed officers. No tickets were issued.

Rachel Maisler organized the memorial ride. It has become her sad duty to coordinate these events, having brought mourners together for cyclist deaths on H Street and M Street.

And there will be another one, on Thursday, for Thomas A. Hollowell, who was hit by a red-light runner at 12th and Constitution, just off the National Mall.

If you’re murdered by a gun in this city, the police flood the neighborhood. Lights are put up. Squad cars are posted on corners to reassure people that they’re safe.

But if you’re a murdered by a car, nothing is done. I visited 12th and Pennsylvania the day after Hollowell’s death and cars were still running red lights. A more enlightened city would make physical changes to the intersection to make it safer and crackdown on red light runners.

But not the District Department of Transportation (DDOT). Safety is not a priority for this unresponsive bureaucracy.

At the memorial for Carlos Sanchez-Martin, a man sat down in the street. This wasn’t planned – no one even knew who he was. He sat down in front of four lanes of traffic with his scooter next to him.

DDOT does so little to stop rampaging drivers that ordinary citizens are willing to put their bodies on the line for safe streets.

The memorial rides are grassroots affairs. Organized by Rachel Maisler, they have forced the city to make changes that keep people safe, like removing parking spaces on the M St bike lane. Negative media coverage is the only thing that DDOT responds to.

The memorial ride for Thomas Hollowell is Thursday 5:30 PM at Farragut Square. People on bikes, scooters, rollerblades or even just walking – anyone who believes in safe streets is welcome. Wear white. It will be a silent procession to where Hollowell lost his life. Follow Rachel Maisler on Twitter for more details.

The Man Who Came Uptown

The Man Who Came Uptown

Can a book change a life?

Anna thinks so, believing that putting the right book in the right hands at the right time can turn someone around. She’s a librarian at the DC Jail, responsible for picking out titles for troubled men. With time on their hands, they are avid readers, devouring everything from Westerns to Steinbeck.

One of the men is Michael Hudson, facing a felony gun charge. He’s freed, thanks to Phil Ornazian, a private investigator, who sprung Michael to involve him in a series of armed robberies. Phil, and his partner, an ex-cop, target drug dealers and pimps. They think that they’re the good guys.

With a library card and a new-found love for reading, Michael is trying to go straight. Can he escape those who seek to entrap him in criminality?

That’s the basic plot of The Man Who Came Uptown but the novel is really about the line between good and bad. Pelecanos is great when it comes to depicting men who operate on both sides of the law, people who commit violence in the name of justice. But once you cross into that kind of criminality, is it possible to come back without consequence?

His style can be awkward at first, with characters that speak in exposition, explaining things like gentrification in ponderous sentences.

But if you live in DC, this is a must read. George Pelecanos portrays a gritty Washington of neighborhoods far from the monumental core. It’s also a love letter to books and the DC Public Library system, a feeling that I share.

There really is a library at the DC jail. Books can change a life. It’s possible to come back from bad and rediscover your essential goodness.

Shameless Plug: If you liked The Man Who Came Uptown, check out my crime novel Murder on U Street. It traverses many of the same neighborhoods as Pelecanos’ book but with more of a satiric bite.

Chasing the Great American Eclipse

Chasing the Great American Eclipse

Watching the sun go dark in the middle of the day will change how you look at the world. Suddenly, everything you thought of as permanent seems transitory, made even more precious by the idea that the world we know could disappear in an instant.

That was my experience seeing the eclipse last year in western North Carolina, a moment that was both humbling and inspiring.

I was delighted to see my essay and photos in Chasing the Great American Eclipse, a new photobook that documents last year’s epic solar event. This gorgeous tome follows the eclipse as it darkens the United States, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, with stories and images from a nation brought together, if just for a moment.