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.


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: 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.

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.

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.

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders

I won’t link to the clickbait article (since removed) on how libraries should be replaced by Amazon. You’ve seen it or at least heard about the piece, published by Forbes, who will apparently post any piece of dreck that crosses their digital transom.

Twaddle, came the response from librarians on the Internet.

Among the many things that the author (an economist!) gets wrong is that libraries solely provide books. While they’re very good at that, today’s libraries supply a valuable “third space” to meet, learn and check your email without having to buy anything. This alone is an invaluable service to the community.

Libraries Under Threat

I’m fortunate to live in Washington, DC, which has a wonderful public library system. This wasn’t always the case (see the Marion Barry era) but today the nation’s capital is graced with beautifully renovated branches, like the West End Library. I love checking their online catalog at home, putting a hold on a book, and then picking it up.

If an entrepreneur pitched this concept to Silicon Valley (it’s Uber for books!) it would be worth a billion dollars. But, since libraries have been around since the dawn of civilization, we take them for granted.

Don’t.

Seminole County, FL, where I grew up, is considering outsourcing its library to the lowest bidder, a project that will make a contractor slightly richer and the community much poorer.

A Catalogue of Wonders

Instead, let us celebrate and appreciate libraries. A good place to start is The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells.

This book is less a history of libraries (though you’ll get that) and more of a wonderful collection of stories about bookish pursuits from a master storyteller. You’ll learn how books created the world, from Sumerians scribbling down accounts of grain surpluses to the sweeping tales of the Bible. Every great society has valued books and libraries, from the Romans who treasured (and stole) Greek manuscripts to hidden collections of books amassed by Elizabethans.

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders is a world tour of libraries, both real and imagined, from the secret stacks of the Vatican to the biblioteca of Borges. Along the way, you’ll learn the scurrilous methods used by collectors to assemble their libraries and how collectors were deceived by unscrupulous booksellers. Henry Clay Folger bought a lot of dubious crap marked Shakespeare when bringing together the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Libraries made us. Without books, and the ability to transmit knowledge across time and space, we would not have civilization. Let’s celebrate our one of our oldest and most valuable inventions: the library.

 

When Conflict Comes Home: American War

American War

The problem with most dystopian fiction is that it’s too neat, taking place far enough in the future to feel exotic, but familiar enough so that we can picture ourselves in the action. Katniss Everdeen could be your teen neighbor, confronting tyranny the same way she protests changes in the school lunch menu.

In contrast, American War by Omar El Akkad feels too real. It’s an America just twenty years in the future, a day that most of us will live to see, depicting a world in which our decline has continued into catastrophe. A country split by red and blue has stumbled into a second Civil War.

The world intervenes in the conflict, like we intervened in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. But this time it’s the Arab world rescuing the new one. The Red Crescent builds refugee camps. Food aid arrives on ships. And arms and advisers are sent to the Southern side to continue the war.

But in American War, we don’t learn this until later. Unlike other dystopian novels, we don’t know exactly what’s going on at the start of the novel. War comes to an isolated homestead in the American south. A family must decide whether to stay, fight or flee.

Omar El Akkad has reported from countries wrecked by American intervention. He takes their stories and places them here. His brilliant novel is about the collapse of our civilization, the desire for vengeance and how war has a logic of its own, imposing dreadful decisions upon even the most enlightened citizens.

American War shreds the neat formulas of dystopian fiction to show a future that is far too real for comfort. It also illuminates the deadly cost of our own overseas interventions by placing war in the United States. In this novel, we’re the refugees, the soldiers and the terrorists, all trying to find safety in a devastated land.