Specialized Sirrus Disc: First Impressions

new bike day

It was time for a new bike.

I knew that my Specialized Sirrus needed some work. The rear wheel was wobbly, the brakes were squeaky and the gears protested when shifting.

Since purchasing it in 2006, I had logged thousands of miles on the bike. Its wheels had rolled down the sands of New Smyrna Beach, climbed the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and performed lots of everyday biking in Washington, DC.

It was way more use than I ever imagined. Bikes don’t last long in DC. I figured it would’ve been stolen or wrecked by now.

But the Sirrus endured, with just some minor repairs and tune-ups.

Until now. Taking the bike into Conte’s for repair, I was not surprised to hear that nearly everything on the bike needed to be replaced. I had ridden the Sirrus into the ground.

Time to get a new bike! I had long anticipated this moment.

I had been looking at new bikes for years, reading websites and checking out other people’s rides. I had tried other bikes, like a Riide electric bike and a Brompton folding bike, but was waiting for the moment when my old bike would fall to pieces and I could get a new one.

I tried the Specialized Sirrus Disc and bought it. Loved the look. The black with the recessed cables is sexy as hell. Could be none more black. Built-in reflectivity in the frame and on the tires makes it more visible than my old Sirrus.

I also wanted a flat bar bike, since I like having my brakes handy in the city.

And the brakes! That was the first thing I noticed as I took the bike around on a test ride around the Navy Yard. The v-brakes on my old Sirrus need to be stomped on to work. It was always a panic stop with them, as you tried to modulate between stopping and flying over the handlebars. In contrast, disc brakes are so smooth and safe.

Also, the Sirrus Disc has slightly wider tires than my old bike, which made it feel much more secure on city streets.

Which is what the bike is designed for: urban rides and fitness. It’s for bike lanes and trails for the semi-advanced rider.

New bike was $625. My bike friends would consider that cheap, while my non-bike friends would find that expensive. Considering I got thirteen years and thousands of miles of transportation out of my old bike, it’s a bargain.

I also got the Conte’s Protection Plan. $60 for three years of repairs is a deal.

The staff at Conte’s moved my bell, water cage, lights, etc… from old bike to new. Then I rolled out on my new bike, leaving my old Sirrus for the bicycle graveyard.

New bike is much faster and smoother than old bike, I noticed as I cruised down Eye Street. It took me past another cyclist as if it had a will of its own.

Fourth Street was a surprise, however. It is notoriously potholed. My old Sirrus had a spring built into the seat; new Sirrus does not so it was a harder ride.

It takes time to get used to a new bike. You need to live with it for a while. But the Sirrus Disc felt right from the moment I got on it.

Varina, a novel about the South

No one writes better about the South today than Charles Frazier. The best-selling author of Cold Mountain gets more than just the flora and fauna right (though he is expert at that) he expresses the feeling of the South being part of America and yet apart from it.

His new novel, Varina, explores what makes the South different from the rest of the country by looking at the tumultuous life of Varina Davis, First Lady of the Confederacy.

The daughter of a wastrel, she was married off to Jefferson Davis, a rising politician in antebellum Mississippi. Renowned for her wit and beauty, her years in Washington before the Civil War were the happiest of her life. But trouble was coming – she saw it in prophetic dreams.

A sense of doom settled over her and Jefferson as the South seceded. Both knew that the Confederacy was a sham enterprise.

Yet, Jefferson believed that the states had a right to quit the USA. More importantly, he asserted that slave owners had a right to do whatever they wanted with their property – it was guaranteed in the Constitution.

Jefferson led this nation into a disastrous war, one that smashed the lives of millions. As Richmond fell, Varina packed what remained of her family into a wagon and fled, nearly making it to Florida before she was caught.

Jefferson Davis never got his day in court to argue the legality of slavery; instead, he received exile and poverty. Varina Davis suffered further tragedies but reinvented herself as an author and advice columnist. Notable among her friendships was the widow of Ulysses Grant.

“The right side won,” she would say later in life.

Varina tells her story, jumping around in time, as she explores her memories in response to a visitor with a mystery of his own.

It’s a beautiful novel, an exploration of the moral cost of an immoral system. Like many of us, Varina doesn’t directly challenge the evil around her, though she knows that there will be a terrible price to pay. That’s what makes her voice contemporary and relevant for our own times.

Behind the Scenes of a BikeDC Conspiracy

Ghosts of Bowser

The conspirators gathered at dawn. Working quickly, they unloaded the truck on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Out came bikes, walkers, canes, shoes, helmets, scooters and car parts – all painted white. It was ghost memorial for the 128 victims of traffic violence in Washington, DC. 128 men, women and children killed during the administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser.

These were the Ghosts of Bowser.

A How-To Manual for Conspiracy

Conspiracy by Ryan Holiday outlines how conspiracies form, organize and succeed as he tells the story of Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the gossip web site Gawker.

Conspiracies begin with a crime. An outrage. An offense that people can’t bear, something that makes them willing to leave their ordinary, conspiracy-free lives behind and sacrifice to right the wrong.

For the members of #BikeDC, the rolling community of people who bike in the nation’s capital, it was the death of Dave Salovesh, killed by a driver on Florida Avenue. Plans to redesign the street to make it safer for cyclists and pedestrians have been on the books for years, yet the city has done nothing. A protected bike lane might have saved him.

In response to his death, a ghost bike was installed on Florida Avenue. A bike painted white to memorialize his death.

This wasn’t enough. Dave was a beloved figure, someone who everyone in DC knew – including me.

Two days after he died, another person was killed by an out-of-control driver in DC. Abdul Seck, visiting Washington, struck on a sidewalk.

While memorials were held for Dave and Abdul on the streets where they were killed, the Mayor attended neither.

A Conspiracy is People Working Together

I yelled at the Mayor. Caught her at an event on K St. Confronted her over her failure to fix Florida Avenue – she said these things take time. Over her failure to respond to the more than 100 people who emailed her. Or to show up at Dave or Abul’s memorials. She replied that too many people were killed in DC for her to make an appearance at every memorial.

Me. An individual expressing my rage.

But to the move the world, you need a group of people acting in concert. A conspiracy.

As Americans, we think that conspiracies are a bad thing, forgetting that our country was formed in conspiracy, 13 colonies acting against the Crown.

“When they go low, we go high,” is a sentiment that the men who fired the first shots at Lexington would’ve found hopefully naive. If you want independence, then you have to act in secret using every tool available.

Conspiracies Require Secrecy

Fortunately, we have better communication methods than Paul Revere riding in the dark. Modern conspiracies are organized by time-expiring emails and password-protected Google Docs.

Days before the Ghosts of Bowser installation, teams of people scoured the city for objects to represent the deaths of 128 men, women and children killed in traffic violence. From junk yards, garages and alleys, they emerged with car parts, bikes and shoes that they painted white. A conspiracy requires a village, a large group of people who share your outrage and desire for change.

Secrecy is the essence of conspiracy, from the classical era to today, as Holiday points out in his book. Roman slaves were rewarded for informing on their masters. If the city had learned of Ghosts of Bowser before it was constructed on Pennsylvania Avenue, they might have stopped it.

Conspiracy Controls the Narrative

Modern conspiracies, like Ghosts of Bowser, must balance secrecy with the need for outreach. You want the media to show up at your protest. Ghosts of Bowser had talking points, artwork and a hashtag #ghostsofbowser ready to debut on social media.

Reporters, and allies like me, were told to expect something in front of the Wilson Building, without being told the exact details.

In the light of dawn, as the Ghosts of Bowser installation was taking shape outside the Wilson Building, home to the DC city government, a pair of security guards emerged.

The volunteers, busy piling white bikes and strollers into a parking space marked for councilmembers only, knew what to do. They had been briefed. There was a script for descalating conflict with the police.

Which was not necessary. The guards just didn’t want bikes on the steps of the Wilson Building, where they might trip people up, a request that was easily accommodated.

A Conspiracy Has a Clear Goal

Conspiracies need a clear goal. For Peter Thiel, offended that Gawker had outed him as gay, the objective was to bankrupt the gossip site.

Conspiracies also need people willing to do whatever it takes to win. Thiel found that in Hulk Hogan, whose sex tape Gawker exposed to the public. He would be the instrument that Thiel would use to get his revenge.

#BikeDC wants streets that don’t kill people in DC. You shouldn’t die riding your bike or walking down the street in Washington. The city has plans to implement safe streets but has failed to act upon them. Protected bike lanes, road diets, banning right-turns on red and reclaiming streets for the people all could save lives, if only Mayor Bowser would act.

Often conspiracies exist within broader movements for change – think of the network of spies that Alexander Hamilton ran during the American Revolution.

Sherri Joyner shows her mangled bike

Hours after the ghost installation, the Washington Area Bicyclists Association held a die-in on Pennsylvania Avenue. As the names of 128 traffic victims were read, hundreds of people lay down on Pennsylvania Avenue. Every member of the “transportation community,” as Mayor Bowser would call it, was there – bike commuters, casual cyclists, walkers, runners, environmental activists and their friends and family.

“All eight wards” is a slogan Mayor Bowser uses to represent the entire city. It was right outside her window that day, if only she would look. This is a community ready to do what it takes to build safe streets in the nation’s capital.

Conspiracies Have a Cost

Conspiracy has a cost. The signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor, knowing that they had committed treason. There was no going back.

Peter Thiel won his battle against Gawker, after spending millions of dollars and years of his time. Aiming to protect his privacy, he ended up with even worse press, as his role as the banker behind the Hulk Hogan lawsuit was exposed. Believing that he now understood the common man, he went on to endorse Donald Trump at the 2016 Republican Convention. Thiel has lost his privacy and his reputation, becoming just another Republican tarnished by Trump.

That’s the point Ryan Holiday makes in Conspiracy – the endgame is the most dangerous part of a conspiracy.

Confronted with evil times, from Donald Trump pushing America toward dictatorship to the deadly traffic toll on DC’s streets, we need to conspire to make change.

The good guys don’t always win. The long arc of history does not bend toward justice, it is pushed and prodded that way by people acting together in conspiracy.

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics

Tyrant

The name “Donald Trump” does not appear in Tyrant: Shakespeare in Politics.

But it’s impossible to read this examination of tyranny in Shakespeare’s plays without considering our own times and our own tyrant.

As author Stephen Greenblatt observes, Shakespeare, “deftly sketched the kind of person who surges up in troubled times to appeal to the basest of instincts and draw upon the deepest anxieties of his contemporaries.”

Richard III is perhaps the greatest villain in history. Shakespeare makes him a warped, pitiable creature that enacts horrors yet somehow gains our sympathy. Rudely stamped, Richard III rises to power through allies who think they can control him and followers who seek advantage in his power.

Yet, when obtaining the crown, he finds it an empty experience, the source of more troubles rather than less as his enemies gather to overthrow him. He dies, alone on a battlefield, abandoned by all.

Macbeth is a reluctant tyrant, goaded into murder by his wife, and then haunted by memories of the bloody deed. “Oh, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!” he says of his anguish. Macbeth recognizes his sin and is driven mad by it, to the detriment of his country.

King Lear is another self-destructive monarch, divvying up his kingdom among ungrateful daughters while spurning those who speak truth to power. The consequence is internal exile and madness, the narcissism of the old king laid bare.

In Coriolanus, ancient Rome is beset with turmoil. The patricians have taken too much, leaving the plebeians to starve. In a speech reminiscent of Howard Schultz, an aristocrat claims that the patricians are the source of every good thing in the lives of the people:

you shall find
No public benefit which you receive
But it proceeds of comes from them to you
And now way from yourselves.

This goes over as well as Schultz at SXSW. After a series of conflicts, the war hero Coriolanus is on the verge of becoming dictator of Rome. All he needs to do is humble himself before the plebeians. Yet, he can’t even do this minor thing, unable to hide his hatred of commoners. His candidacy fails and he is banished.

Shakespeare was an optimist, believing that tyrants ultimately fall, undone by their character.

We have our own mad king now, a little bit of Lear and a lot of Richard III, a villain, a usurper, that has troubled domestic tranquility as he gnaws away at American democracy.

Yet, like the tyrants depicted in Tyrant: Shakespeare in Politics, he too will meet his end, undone by the flaws in his character.

Digital Minimalism – Control Your Social Media Addiction

Digital Minimalism

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport is a call for the intentional use of social media, controlling it rather than letting it control you.

Social media is the tobacco of our age, an addictive product that consumers are almost powerless to resist. How can you fight against a corporation using the top engineers in the world to turn you into a digital lab rat?

Take a Break

An avid non-user of social media, Newport offers solutions in Digital Minimalism, ranging from the practical to the absolute.

One of the most radical is to take a 30 day break from social media. Log off. Delete the services from your phone. Block them on your computer. Then figure out what to do with your free time, like going to the gym or taking up pottery. After thirty days, consider in a very deliberate manner what services you want back in your life.

He takes another idea from the Amish, who are not as techno-phobic as they appear. They adopt technology when it useful to them, such as gas generators and power tools, but only if it fits in with their commitment to be “in the world, but not of it.” The Amish example is an argument for carefully weighing the impact of new technology before you let it into your life.

Free isn’t free. For me, this was the most compelling point in Digital Minimalism. Everything has a cost, including free online services. The cost is your time. Facebook is an amoral corporation that wants to seize every minute of your day in order to serve you more ads and collect more data.

My Name is Joe Flood. I’m addicted to Twitter

The iPhone is also an anxiety-making device. I was never much of a Facebook user but I fell in love with Twitter when I first saw it at SXSW a decade ago. In the early years, it was glorious – a collection of the techno-savvy offering help, support and advice.

When I wrote my first novel, Murder in Ocean Hall, I tweeted out my progress, posting the word count as I went. The encouragement I received kept me going as I typed away in coffee shops.


Twitter in 2019 is very different. Now, it is the thing you check every morning on your iPhone to see if the world still exists. What part of the Constitution is Trump violating? How many children are being jailed on the border? Who has Mueller indicted? And what racial/sexual/political scandal is stirring up society today?

For most Americans, anxiety climbed in 2016 and then accelerated into the stratosphere, fueled in part by the device that we obsessively consult, and our Troll-in-Chief, Donald Trump.

Involuntary Digital Minimalism

I recently had to get the battery in my iPhone replaced. When they told me it would take three hours, I nearly sobbed. I left the Apple Store in a daze, unsure of what to do with myself without the device I used for news, entertainment, diversion and even to tell the time.

I wandered across Wisconsin Avenue and down the cobblestone streets of Georgetown, my eye draws to a garden of beautiful red roses.  Wanted to Instagram them. But I couldn’t.

I continuing walking, not knowing what I was doing or where I was going. I saw a park I had never seen before. Walking through it, I realized it was behind a public pool that I used to go to when I lived in Glover Park.

I decided I’d walk uphill to the Georgetown Library. They would have a clock there, so I would at least know the time.

In the library, I still felt antsy, checking my pocket where my iPhone should be. Barely thirty minutes had passed.

I got a novel from an author I had never read before: Bernard Cornwell. After walking down the hill, I got a sandwich and then coffee, immersing myself in the adventures of Richard Sharpe for a few hours.

I didn’t know what time it was. Didn’t know what was going on with the world. Was unaware of any likes I might have received. Instead, I had sunk into the pleasure of a tale well told.

It was the most relaxed I had felt in months. Going back to the Apple Store, I sat a table in the busy store and read, a book in front of me instead of a glowing screen, an outlier among patrons concerned only with the restoration of their electronic tablets.


A Genius emerged from the back with my iPhone.

I didn’t want it back. Wanted to stay in this quiet moment with this book forever.

He handed me the phone. I took it.

Let’s Get Intentional

Since then, I’ve tried to be more intentional about my social media use. I carve out time to read and write. I turn off all my iPhone notifications. Try not to check Twitter during meetings. Place my phone out of reach when watching Netflix.

I’m addicted, like most Americans. I can’t imagine going 30 days without social media.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writer’s block, is that your brain resists commands from the ego. It doesn’t like prohibitions.

Bad habits can’t be banned; they have to be replaced with good ones.

Digital Minimalism made me realize that almost anything, even wandering the streets looking at flowers, is better for my psyche than the the bright and false world of social media.


The Club: How the English Premier League Took Over the World

Wearing a Premier League jersey turned into a way to tell your friends that you were sophisticated, curious and sometimes drunk in the morning.

That’s me!

The Club tells the story of how the English Premier League transformed a grim, violent, working-class sport into a slick, family-friendly TV spectacle seen around the world.

The EPL was formed in 1992, motivated equally by greed and duress. English soccer was a primitive backwater in a modern nation, a holdover to when football matches were semi-organized riots between neighboring villages.

And it was deadly, with Victorian-era parks stuffed to capacity and beyond. After the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death in overcrowded stands, the Taylor Report mandated comprehensive changes, including replacing standing terraces with all-seater stadiums.

This meant fewer tickets sold and financial distress for clubs. Out of desperation, the top teams in the country broke away from the existing league to form the English Premier League.

Making a fortune off television rights for a sport rarely broadcast seemed unlikely. Yet, the big clubs – Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea – had inspiration from across the pond, where the NFL sold their rights for billions of dollars.

The league was born. And once it was seen around the world, it was flooded with cash. Every plutocrat wanted an EPL team for his portfolio. It was a way to show that they were not just about the money.

Unlike the NFL, there are no guarantees. Spend as much as you want on your team! But if you don’t win enough games, you could be relegated. The three lowest teams get bounced down to the lower division.

Filled with wild dreams and outsized personalities, The Club is, at its core, about money. An infusion of international cash saved the game and broadcast it to the world, where it is now seen more than ever, including by me at home (or in a bar) in Washington, DC.

One of the last chapters in the book is about the deal where NBC Sports bought the rights to the EPL in America. NBC does the coverage perfectly. Show lots of games on lots of channels, including free ones. Use English commentators with just enough American flavor to remind you that you’re in the States. And reach out with local fan fests and social media.

I love watching the English Premier League for the reasons described in the book – it’s international, the games are exciting and they’re 90 minutes long. Plus, the concept of relegation means that no games are meaningless.

It’s hard for me not to contrast the league I grew up with – the NFL – and the one the I’ve adopted – the EPL. The NFL has grown incomprehensible, even for Americans. What is a catch? What is a football move? You’ll get a dozen answers to these questions.

Also, in light of what we know now about concussions, watching the NFL gives me an uneasy feeling, as if I’m seeing men damage their brains for our entertainment.

And why can’t we get rid of a team like the Washington Redskins? Mediocre, with a racist name and an evil owner, they persist in a league without the gift of relegation. America claims to be capitalist but no team is ever allowed to fail in the NFL.

I’ll watch men chase a ball around a field instead, tuning in on Saturday and Sunday mornings to listen to English accents wax poetic over the beautiful game. Maybe I’ll do so over a pint. More likely, a cup of coffee. Give me the swashbuckling drama of The Club.


Switchers: A Guide to Changing Careers

Switchers by Dawn Graham

When I was looking for a job, Switchers by Dr. Dawn Graham was the most helpful book I read.

You don’t have to stay in the same position forever. Nor do you need to remain in the same industry. You can change to something new. Your skills are transferable, no matter where you are in your career.

While a career switch can seem like an impossible chasm to cross. Graham breaks it down into small, achievable steps.

The first task is to figure out where you are now. What is your role? What is your industry? What do you like to do? And what do you want to do next?

Switchers can get you to that next place by showing how to translate your experience into something new. The book is filled with real-world stories of people who have successfully switched jobs and industries in search of meaningful work.

What kind of switch do you want to make? Do you like your industry but want a different role? Do you want to do the same job in a different industry? Or do you want to swap your current job and industry for something completely different?

The secret is to design your resume around what you want to do – not what you’ve done in the past. Focus on where you’re going, not where you’ve been.

Apply for fewer jobs. When I was job-searching, I followed the traditional “spray and pray” approach. I’d apply for everything, even jobs I knew weren’t suited for me.

It’s more productive to aim for a specific job title and industry. Spend your time on quality jobs that you want to do rather than the temptation of clicking “submit” on endless job postings.

Try to stay out of the resume pile, Graham advises. While everyone seems to recognize that the hiring system is broken, with managers overwhelmed by resumes and applicants ghosted by employers, I don’t see an alternative, at the moment. It would be nice to think that you can network your way to something new but most people I know find new jobs through old-fashioned applying.

Graham also includes helpful tactics to convince skeptical employers to shelve their assumptions about career switchers. This is the biggest barrier for switchers but, as a hiring manager, wouldn’t you want someone enthusiastic about joining a new field?

In my job search, I ultimately ended up in the same role and same industry. I’m a digital communicator for government agencies. Thanks to Switchers, however, I know that my experience is transferable.

Life is too short for a job you hate. Use Switchers to make a daring career move into something more satisfying.

An Invincible Summer: Books Read and Unread in 2018

beer and a book at Frog Level

What books did I read and not read in 2018? In a year of political turmoil, it was a time to find inspiration in novels.

Books Read

A book that stayed with me throughout the year was The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. No one writes better about the Greek gods than she does, presenting them as flesh-and-blood figures that are also undeniably strange, for they are immortal and we are not. Achilles is doomed to die, something even his divine mother cannot prevent. We see the hero struggle with his fate, as told by his lover Patroclus. Set against the backdrop of The Iliad, it’s a novel about embracing your destiny.

If I had to sum up the way we live now, I’d refer people to Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart. In this tragicomic novel, a hedge fund manager flees his problems on a Greyhound bus across America. It’s about wealth, inequality and the souring of the American dream. I think  his earlier novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is a better book but no novel does a better job at describing our times than Lake Success

What if we had a civil war and other countries intervened in it to prolong the agony? What if they picked sides and supplied them with arms like we do overseas? That’s the story of American War, set in the not-to-distant future, in which the country is consumed by war and environmental collapse.

The Hunger was a surprise, a book I picked up at Carpe Librum, a great used bookstore in Union Station. For the Donner Party, the horror began long before they reached the mountains.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven is another novel about overcoming difficult times, this time the Blitz in London during World War Two. A moving book that highlights the sacrifices Londoners made during the darkest hours, when they carried on with no prospect of relief.

A novel about resilience is In The Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende. It’s about people caring for one another despite the cruelty of governments.

The Man Who Came Uptown is an ode to books set in Washington, DC. It’s also a crime story and a tale of personal redemption. Should be required reading for everyone who lives in DC.

Another ode to books is The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders, a fascinating exploration of mankind’s best invention.

War on Peace was a rare contemporary read for me. This account by Ronan Farrow of the hollowing-out of the State Department highlights the fact that the rot in American governance started well before the Trump administration. We’ve become a nation of perpetual war, with billions for bombs but little for diplomacy.

Books Unread

Fire and Fury, the Michael Wolff gossip-fest released in January – remember that? Kramerbooks had it on sale at midnight and people lined up for it. Not me.

Trump has been good for booksellers. There was the Bob Woodward tome. The Omarosa book. And then all the nonfiction works about Russian collusion, as well as a separate pro-Trump category for aspiring fascists.

I did not read any books about the nascent dictator, rebelling against the idea of spending sacred reading time immersed in the horror.

Instead, I took inspiration from fiction with tales of people finding strength in difficult times. Achilles embracing his destiny. The Donner Party surviving the unimaginable. An ex-con “going uptown” and leaving crime behind.

Amid the daily chaos of the news, I found consolation in novels.

Isabel Allende took the title for her book from Camus. A fitting summary for all I read and didn’t read in 2018:

In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.

—Albert Camus

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.

Lake Success: A Novel of Our Times

Lake SuccessHow do you write a novel in a time that’s stranger than fiction?

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 in the East 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 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 their boy, a situation that sends them both 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.

New York, New York

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 a 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.

Super Sad True Love Story

Despite the topical theme, Lake Success is not his best book about our stranger-than-fiction era.

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 good 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.