I had seen Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters in my local bookstore in a stack of paperbacks where they kept the popular fiction.
Glancing at the cover, with its sunny shot of the Italian Riviera, and the blurbs from from famous people, I instantly put it in the category of “Live, Laugh, Love” books, dismissing the novel as a piece of feel-good, literary fluff.
I didn’t have to read the back cover. I was sure Beautiful Ruins was some silly nonsense about rich people going to Italy for some spurious reason (a marriage, perhaps) and then rediscovering the joy of life among the simple Italian peasantry.
Instead of light fare, I got a weighty and complex tale told from multiple viewpoints, spanning from World War II to today. A story that encompassed combat fatigue, post-war poverty in Italy, the making of Cleopatra and even the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Beautiful Ruins was a literary page-turner, full of surprises.
And full of profound questions on the life of an artist. If you write one perfect chapter, is that enough? Will becoming famous really change anything? Is it more important to make money from your art or pursue your own vision?
Jess Walter’s novel left with me a lot to ponder. And it came from a novel that I dismissed as fluff, based solely on the cover. There’s a lesson there somewhere….
The Axios article is correct. Downtown DC is deserted. I live at the edge of downtown, and spend a lot of time walking and biking through it.
Recently, I went to lunch at Soho Cafe at 13th and K St NW. Pre-covid, it was one of my favorite lunch spots – I have a thing for steamtray Chinese food.
Normally, it’s a buzz of activity, in which you elbow your way up to the buffet, fill a tray with food, wait in line to pay and then try to find a place to sit. Sometimes, I even had to share a table with someone else.
Yet, when I walked into Soho yesterday, one of the cafe workers was taking a nap in a chair. There were no customers, no line and I had my pick of tables.
Looking around the cafe, I thought to myself: this place won’t make it.
DC is Back?
DC is not back, despite the social media campaigns. It’s not DC’s fault, though. Spooked by Delta, the federal government is still working remotely. The thousands of feds which commuted back and forth to downtown offices have not returned.
The return of DC’s indoor mask mandate killed off meetings and conventions, too. Visitors are often surprised at the strictness of the mask mandate, which applies to everything, including hotels, nightclubs, restaurants and museums. Meeting planners have moved their events across the river to mask-free Virginia.
Some places reopened too soon. Swing’s Coffee, for example. It doesn’t open until 8 AM and even then it doesn’t seem to have enough business to support itself, with the nearby World Bank still working remotely. I meet a group of biking friends there on Fridays and we make up most of their business.
A block away is Peet’s Coffee. I love this spot, since it’s on a corner with lots of windows and a view of the Old Executive Office Building. In the morning, sometimes I see the Vice President’s motorcade go by. Pre-covid, there’d always be a line. Now, no line. It reopened months ago and I’ve never seen it busy.
There used to be multiple Peet’s locations downtown – 15th and M, 17th and L, 11th and E. Only the location near the White House remains.
I never thought I’d see Starbucks close locations but many of them closed as well. And the sandwich places downtown have mostly disappeared.
Hoteling is the Future
I work as a government contractor. Pre-covid, we did hoteling. No one had an office. Instead, when you went into headquarters, you picked out a place to sit like you would an airplane seat. I’d spend the day in a stuffy room at a long table with several dozen other people (hello super spreader event).
Luckily, I only had to go in 1-2 days a week. This arrangement had enabled the government to consolidate office space, saving millions in the process.
My agency was going to have an optional return to the office starting in October. Delta shelved those plans. Covid caused many agencies to rethink who even needed to be in the office. At the minimum, many agencies are going to hoteling models, where people work in the office for a couple days and at home for the rest of the time.
Other businesses have followed the government’s lead. Not everyone needs to be in the office all the time. And if they’re not there, why rent all that space?
But as a friend reminded me, the cars are back. The people who are coming downtown are driving, feeling safer in their own vehicles than Metro.
Which is a shame, because Metro is beautiful. If everyone goes back to the office in force, not everyone is going to be able to drive without complete gridlock.
Ironically, DC has more traffic on the weekends. People may not feel comfortable going to the office but everyone knows you can’t get covid in a bar, right? Between the Ubers delivering people to U Street clubs and the Ubers delivering Chik-fil-A to lazy apartment dwellers, DC approaches traffic meltdown on Friday and Saturday night.
This is the End
So, how does this end?
Federal commuters will eventually return, but in much smaller numbers. Most people will work remotely at least part of the time. With fewer people working downtown, many businesses will not make it. Offices will be consolidated leaving an opportunity for the city to remake this space – into housing perhaps?
Not everyone can drive everywhere so we will need Metro to survive, as well as vibrant car alternatives like protected bike lanes and pedestrian-only streets (like the recent Open Streets Georgia Avenue).
And Uber needs to be destroyed, before this parasitic company swamps DC with cars delivering chicken sandwiches.
I’m optimistic. Cities are unique places with an energy that cannot be duplicated. The pandemic has taught us that virtual is no substitute for the real thing.
No one wants to do another Zoom meeting but have lunch in a cafe, browse a bookstore, grab a latte with a friend – yes. People want that.
Biking up 8th Street, I heard Madonna’s song, recognizing the 80s classic instantly: Holiday. Echoing off the buildings was her call to take a holiday and celebrate one day out of life.
In front of the Portrait Gallery, the street had been closed and a temporary outdoor rolling rink constructed. It was Downtown DC on Wheels. Skaters were enjoying a mild afternoon of rolling in the shadows of the marble columns of the museum. The scene was joyous as kids learned to skate and older folks relived their youth, while a DJ played extended dance remixes.
And I thought: who would want to destroy this beautiful city?
The day before, the Capitol rioters had returned, staging a rally to free their January 6 co-conspirators. This time, the Capitol Police were prepared and the rioters were heavily outnumbered. The rally was an embarrassing bust.
It was a beautiful weekend, too, featuring the kind of sunny and mild days that DC gets in September before summer comes to an end. Soon, the leaves will be gone from the trees, the sun will set before 5 PM and we’ll be in mid-winter dreariness.
Why waste your time enslaved to a conspiracy theory? Imagine spending a beautiful weekend in DC – not to see the monuments or visit the museums – but to wave signs and shout slogans from a failed political campaign.
I don’t feel sorry for the demonstrators. They made their choice.
I am with the people rolling around the rink to Madonna’s Holiday, who know that it is better to pursue joy than surrender your mind to conspiracy.
While the novel Dune by Frank Herbert has its science fiction elements, it’s really a book about politics and manipulation.
I’ve read it three times, having just finished it again in anticipation of the upcoming film by Denis Villeneuve. At first glance, the novel appears to be the classic Hero’s Journey in which a young man loses his father, gains new skills and allies, and then defeats his enemies to restore the world.
Herbert presents and subverts this familiar tale. As he says in the book, “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”
The novel is a warning about charismatic leaders, though that’s easy to miss in this exotic story of Fremen, sandworms and spice. Herbert is telling readers to think for themselves, and to ponder the way that leaders manipulate their people.
Masses Manipulated by Rulers
The Dune universe is one in which the masses are manipulated by their rulers. Even the good Duke Leto brags that he has the best propaganda corps in the business.
We see this most notably in the way that Paul and Jessica Atreides adopt the myth of a redeemer to cement their hold on the Fremen people and restore the House Atreides to power. The Fremen were seeded with this myth by the Missionaria Protectiva, an arm of the Bene Gesserit that plants superstitions among primitive peoples for later exploitation. Jessica knows the myth and rituals and is able to use them to make Paul the divine leader of the Fremen.
Yet, chaos is the rule of the universe. The Kwisatz Haderach comes too soon for the Bene Gesserit and is beyond their control. And even this omniscient being cannot control the jihad that the Fremen will wreak upon the universe.
Stagnation is the greatest enemy, according to Herbert, and humankind must be periodically refreshed by the kind of wild mingling of genes that occurs only during wartime.
This jihad is an echo of an earlier one: The Butlerian Jihad. While this is often characterized as a revolt against machines, it was a rebellion against the rulers who controlled the machines. As Herbert states early in Dune:
Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.
The jihad began when the people discovered that their choices were being manipulated. Free will was an illusion. The course of their lives were being altered by men with computers.
Men with Machines
Frank Herbert had his own kind of prescience.
Writing in 1965, he could see our future, in which our decisions are manipulated by social media algorithms through the reinforcement and discouragement of certain behaviors.
What path are men like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos subtly sending us down? It’s not the golden path of the Bene Gesserit, seeking to better humanity. Instead, it’s all about the likes. Hate likes, love likes, fear likes – all that engagement adds up to greater wealth and power for the social media titans.
In the Dune universe, people rebelled against this kind of manipulation, though it plunged thousands of worlds into chaos. Shorn of their computing devices, humankind was forced to develop its innate potential, producing human computers like mentats, Guild navigators for safe space travel, and the Bene Gesserit with their exquisite mind-body control and limited prescience.
Butlerian Jihad 2.0
Back in the 1990s, I believed that the Internet was a democratizing force. Anyone could create their own web site – even me. This exciting new medium was a way to get around the traditional gatekeepers and let human creativity bloom.
Yet, the diverse and funky Internet that I was a part of is no more. Instead, the network has been taken over by global social media conglomerates with very different agendas from connecting the world’s people.
Why would you connect the world’s people unless you wanted to control them? Even the noblest soul would be tempted to manipulate users during a crisis (for example: now). You might think you’re doing something good, by raising some voices and silencing others, but it’s still manipulation.
A situation that Frank Herbert would instantly recognize. The machines themselves are not bad; it’s the men who control them that we should suspect. We’ve all been impacted by social media – consider your attention span – and we should ask how these men with machines are controlling our lives.
The Butlerian Jihad did away with thinking machines. There was a new commandment, with the penalty of death for anyone who violated it:
Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.
Frank Herbert had a healthy skepticism for leaders of all types. His view was that we are too ready to surrender our will to others, whether they be a charismatic hero or a powerful man with a machine.
It’s hard to describe The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin without giving away the plot. And I don’t want to spoil the surprises in this sci-fi novel.
Instead, I’ll describe the three emotions I felt reading the book:
There’s the commonplace anxieties that make up much of life (and are mined endlessly for literary fiction) and then there’s the cosmic horror when you consider that your life is a mere speck in the universe.
The Three-Body Problem engenders that feeling, especially the more deeply you read into the book. If H.P. Lovecraft studied astrophysics and quantum theory, then you’d get a novel like this one, full of very real and plausible terrors existing in deep space. Things to worry about that you’ve never worried about before, I guarantee it.
It makes you feel unimportant. What is one life, even if it’s yours, compared to the broad sweep of galaxies and the mysteries of space and time?
Matt Haig in The Midnight Library believes that every life is precious. But in Liu’s cold and unfeeling universe, individual lives matter little, compared to the needs of collective humanity.
Which brings me to my next emotion:
After putting down the book, I had never been so happy to live on a stable planet orbiting a single, predictable sun.
Is it the author or the translator? Did Liu Cixin write these clunky sentences (the dialogue in parts reads like a bad police procedural) or was it the translator, Ken Liu?
This isn’t a book with sweeping prose to thrill the heart. Instead, it plods along with long discursions on radio telescopes and nanoparticles. At times, I paged ahead to see if the plot got going again or if I should give up.
I kept going because it’s a really good mystery that Liu Cixin has set up. It’s a book about ideas – big ones – and not about characters, which are just clumsy pawns set against an unfeeling universe.
So, would I continue? Am I going to read the rest of the trilogy?
While the ideas in the novel are fascinating (and troubling on a human level), I can’t read another huge book of clunky prose. Instead, I’ll wait for the Netflix series.
I spent years walking through Lafayette Square on my way to work. This historic park was a constant in my life when all else changed. With the statue of Andrew Jackson in the middle of it, the square had a timeless quality.
I assumed Lafayette Square would be there forever. But after Trump had demonstrators violently cleared from the park, he put a fence around it.
Tyranny can take everything from you – even a park.
I wrote about the park to share the local perspective. For the 700,000+ people who live in DC (like me), the parks and monuments are more than just tourist attractions. They are part of our lives.
Lafayette Square wasn’t history to me – it was a shortcut and a green respite from the busy city. I thought the park was sacred and inviolable. 2020 taught me that our institutions can be destroyed if not defended.
This isn’t the first op-ed I’ve had in the Post. See my articles for more.
As a writer, people sometimes approach me with book ideas. They have the idea, they just need someone to “write it up.”
Sometimes, they even offer to split the profits with me. They’ve done the hard part, after all – thinking up the idea – and just need someone to put the words on the paper.
But an idea is nothing. It’s like saying that you have an idea for a bridge and just need someone to build it for you.
Which is why the central dilemma of The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz didn’t resonate with me. In the novel, Jacob Finch Bonner steals the plot for a novel from one of his students.
Bonner turns the idea into a best-seller. And then is blackmailed by an anonymous figure who accuses him of being a thief. Bonner then desperately tries to cover up his “crime” while trying to figure out the identity of his accuser.
But it’s not a crime. As Bonner himself says, plots are in the air. They’re narratives we’ve heard a million times before, from the Odyssey to Star Wars. They’re stories we hear from friends. Things we read about in the newspaper. Tales we overhear on the bus.
All these plots – they say there are only seven of them – slosh around in the culture and get recycled time and time again.
Where would we be if we couldn’t use the material around us? My short story collection, Likes, is based upon things I experienced, heard about or read about. I take the stories that are in the air and refashion them into tidy short fiction.
Which is why I didn’t understand Bonner’s guilt in The Plot. Or why he was trying to unmask his blackmailer.
It’s the expression of the idea – not the idea itself – that is the real thing. Jacob Finch Bonner took a plot and turned it into a novel. He did the hard work. He did nothing wrong.
So, if you’re around a writer, be careful. We may steal your stories. And not feel guilty about it.
Now in its 15th year, this outdoor exhibit of photos can be found in the alley next to Ellē restaurant at 3221 Mt Pleasant St NW.
My photo is of Cupid’s Undie Run, in which people race around the streets in their skimpies to raise money for charity. I took the photo in February 2020, just weeks before the pandemic struck.
During the dark days of covid, I’d go days without talking to another human, my only interaction with others at a distance, our mouths covered. It was surreal to look at photographs like this, with people not wearing masks or much else. It gave me hope to see humans doing something great together. Very together!
Exposed DC is one of my favorite things about Washington. I’ve been in the show before but what I love about it is all the different photographic takes on the city. I always discover places to visit and new ways of seeing DC from the show.
Check out these unique visions of our nation’s capital at the Exposed DC 2021 show until July 11. Free and in an alley – how cool is that?
In these last days of the pandemic, I have a certain wistfulness about what we will lose with the return of “normal” life.
“It’s the first time we’ve been out in a year,” a couple told me excitedly as we waited to get into happy hour at the Heurich House Garden.
I’ve been going to the garden since they opened in February. It’s a nice outdoor space within walking distance of my home. During the winter months, they served mulled wine (something I never thought I’d like) with enough alcohol content to keep me warm for a while. I’d meet friends there and we’d talk, until our extremities began to freeze.
The pandemic is coming to an end in Washington, DC. Vaccines are freely available and incentives (such as free beer) are now being offered to get them.
Hard to believe that just two months ago, I was talking with my friends in the garden about the difficulty of obtaining a vaccine. Now, we’ve all been vaccinated.
I am deeply thankful for this amazing development that was only possible due to big government and American ingenuity.
In 2020, DC was so empty that I could run in the street. Now, the drivers are back and running in the street would be a death sentence. Literally – traffic deaths have risen dramatically, despite Mayor Bowser mouthing Vision Zero platitudes.
We learned how to eat outside in any weather. 14th St is lined with outdoor tables on the street, protected from traffic and sheltered from the weather. Some are quite elaborate, like the cozy little rooms at Le Diplomate.
Outdoor drinking in DC has become ubiquitous, even infamous. Logan Circle Park is known locally as Club Logan. On the weekends, the grass is packed with picnickers sipping to-go drinks from the bars on 14th St.
While the neighborhoods are rocking, not much is going on downtown. With the federal government teleworking, south of K Street is deserted. Most of the coffee shops and restaurants are closed. The city is trying to lure people back with things like the outdoor office in Farragut Square.
The General Services Administration, where I work, was already teleworking a majority of the time, pre-pandemic. No one had assigned desks; everyone had laptops. Hoteling, they called it. Nothing really changed for us when the pandemic hit.
GSA is not alone. Many organizations have discovered that they can work successfully online. Office space will be shed – what’s the point of leasing square footage downtown for people who aren’t there? Maybe you need a DC address or place for meetings but you don’t require a whole floor on K Street.
For many businesses, the question will be not when everyone goes back to the office but who actually needs to be there.
I thought that the last days of the pandemic would end with a bang. A celebration as people discarded their masks and resumed life.
Instead, everyone is cautiously exploring the world once again, like the couple I met in the garden. They will discover an America that has changed utterly.
This is a novel about the Trojan War, but from the women involved, from meddling goddesses to ordinary mortals, all caught up in a civilization-ending cataclysm.
I love contemporary takes on Greek mythology. For this book, it helps to know a bit about the Odyssey and the Iliad. If not, there’s a guide at the beginning of the book to the characters.
In this novel, the muse Calliope sings, but of the women. The goddesses Hera, Aphrodite and Athena who forced Paris to make a fateful judgement. Hecuba, enslaved, with her city destroyed. Clytemnestra slowly plotting revenge against her husband.
My favorite part was Penelope musing as she hears increasingly fantastical tales about her long-missing husband, Odysseus, and his wanderings through the known world after the fall of Troy. Supposedly on his way home, he sure gets kidnapped by beautiful women a lot.
Like Circe, this is another book where the man of twists comes off badly.
Which is why I liked Circe and A Thousand Ships so much. Both novels deconstruct Greek fables and force us to look at them with modern eyes. Maybe The Odyssey isn’t a tale of adventure and perhaps Penelope wasn’t as faithful as she appears. What woman wouldn’t get impatient with a man who goes out of his way to piss off Poseidon?
These stories have endured over the centuries because they are complex, with many layers, and contain dilemmas and challenges that even modern readers can appreciate. A Thousand Ships breaths life into these ancient tales to create a beautiful novel of women’s voices.