Memorial Day Weekend Book Recommendations

condo view of New Smyrna Beach, FL

If you’re like me, a three-day weekend means three days of reading! Whether you’re on a plane, a beach or a cabin in the woods, the Memorial Day holiday offers an uninterrupted stretch of quality reading time. It’s a great opportunity to get away from the tyranny of devices and reconnect with the oldest of experiences: the written word.

But what to read? How do you choose what books to pack in your suitcase or Kindle?

From historic fiction to a contemporary novel, here are seven good books to choose from:

Historic Fiction

Varina explores the fascinating and disastrous life of the First Lady of the Confederacy.

Mythology

Circe make classical myths real and contemporary in this story of a scorned woman who finds her power.

Sports

The Club: How the English Premier League Took Over the World is an underdog story, about how a grim, working-class sport became a fan-friendly global spectacle.

History

The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 makes the case that it was the generous temperament of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that won WWII and not the bombast of Winston Churchill.

Politics

War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence argues that we need more diplomats and fewer generals.

Self-Help

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

Washington, DC

The Swamp by me (shameless self-promotion) is a dark comedy set in the nation’s capital.

Dave Salovesh

Dave Salovesh

Bad news always arrives via Twitter.

I saw earlier in the day that a cyclist was killed on Florida Avenue. The crash sounded horrific – a driver fleeing police had clipped a car and hit someone on a bike going the opposite direction.

The crash took place in the Trinidad neighborhood of Washington, DC. Neighbors, including friends of mine, had been complaining about Florida Avenue for years. Maryland commuters use it as a freeway despite the fact that it travels through some of the most densely populated areas of the city. 

Ruby Whitfield was killed in almost the same spot in 2013 while walking home from church. A street is named in her honor. Plans were drawn to slow traffic on the street and put in a protected bike lane. Nothing was ever done.

Twitter then delivered the horror, as it has since 2016. The name of the cyclist killed was Dave Salovesh.

A flood of responses online: shock. Dave was the most confident city cyclist I ever met, one of those people who biked everywhere in all weather, with strength and power, determined to prove that the streets belonged to everyone.

I first met Dave at the Stop U-Turns Protest on Pennsylvania Avenue. I wasn’t an advocate. I was just there to take pictures. Dave wanted barriers put up to stop drivers from making u-turns across the bike lane. The demonstration took right in front of the Wilson Building, home to the notoriously unresponsive DC city government.

I thought nothing would come of it. To my surprise, Dave won. Curbs were put in so drivers couldn’t make u-turns across Pennsylvania so easily.

As I got more involved in bike advocacy, moving from observer to participant, I saw Dave everywhere, at every protest, rally and meetup. He was someone you could count on being there.

As @darsal, he was a ceaseless presence on Twitter, an advocate with a mission to make the streets safe for everyone.

Little-known fact: he also ran @DCBikeWX, a wonderful Twitter account that provided weather forecasts for local cyclists. He wasn’t a meteorologist but every day would look at the charts and develop a forecast, advising bike commuters when to pack rain gear or remember their gloves.

He was one of those people you assumed would always be around. Until he wasn’t.

On Easter Sunday, a ghost bike was installed where Dave died.

I couldn’t go. Couldn’t do this one. I’ve been to other remembrances for people killed on city streets, dutifully taking photos, my lens a shield against the raw experience of grief.

But I couldn’t do this one. It was too personal. I knew Dave.

On Easter Sunday in DC, another deadly crash, a driver running through a stop sign, smashing into a car and killing a pedestrian, no break from automotive mayhem even on the holiest of days.

Things have to change.

Will they change?

Dave believed that they would, because making the streets safe for everyone was the right thing to do.

Things can change. Email Mayor Bowser and demand safe streets. It’s time to stop the carnage.

Letter from Washington: The Grifter Economy

Jared is a spy

Why are Americans so unhappy?

We’re the richest, most powerful nation in history. Yet, individual Americans are staggeringly unhappy, according to a recent survey from the World Happiness Report:

Americans are unhappy, according to the report, an annual list ranking the overall happiness levels of 156 countries — and it’s only getting worse.

For the third year in a row, the U.S. has dropped in the ranking and now sits at No. 19, one spot lower than last year, according to the report produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a U.N. initiative. The top three spots this year were occupied by Finland, Denmark and Norway. At the bottom were Afghanistan, Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Researchers point to an “epidemic of addictions” as the cause. We’re a nation with an unhealthy relationship to food, booze, opioids and social media.

While we certainly should minimize the role of social media in our lives, our addictions are not a cause of unhappiness but a symptom a bigger disease: economic insecurity. We use drugs and social media to cope with dislocation for the same reason that the gin craze swept England in the 18th Century.

Americans of the right and left agree on one thing: the economy is rigged against them. And they’re right.

The college cheating scandal revealed how the rich have gamed the system for their benefit. It wasn’t enough for celebrities to be rich and famous, they had to pass on their elite benefits by bribing their way into top universities.

This isn’t an isolated incident, but a pattern across American life. Bankrupt a bank and you get a government bailout. But go broke due to a trip to the emergency room and you die on the street.

And it’s only going to get worse, with the Trump/Kushner crime family in the White House. They’ve worked the system for decades, using tax breaks and federal aid for personal enrichment. Watch the excellent A&E series on the family to learn how they’ve stiffed contractors, defaulted on loans and cheated their way to tax abatements and federal funds. They’re a family that grew rich by fleecing the American taxpayer.

The posters you see in DC are probably correct: Jared Kushner is a spy. Communicating by secret with the journalist-murdering Saudis, he’s pursuing his familial economic interests while flying on US government jets. Kushner knows that you use insider connections to scoop up ill-gotten wealth in the Grifter Economy.

Another emblematic figure of the Grifter Economy is Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos. She sold a beautiful lie to Baby Boomers who wanted to live forever, the promise of a device that could detect diseases with a single drop of blood. Everything about the story was a fraud, including her earthy voice. Hundreds of millions of dollars were lost in a fantasy, one that was only uncovered by the kind of dogged reporting of the kind that Trump, Kushner and the Saudis want to go away.

Before Trump became president, I wrote a novel about an American grifter: Don’t Mess Up My Block. I thought it was funny to imagine someone who took “fake it until you make it” as a guiding belief. In my book, Larry Christenson shaves his head, changes his name and reinvents himself as a management consultant, despite having no business experience. He then wreaks havoc across America in this parody of a self-help book.

Don’t Mess Up My Block was inspired by my experience seeing the destructive “solutions” that consultants sold organizations. A PowerPoint and some buzzwords and people got laid off, while the consultants went on to the next engagement, leaving the organization in tatters. It was a grift.

Little did I know that this kind of grift, and these kind of grifters, would take over America in 2016. Now we all must figure out a way to survive the Grifter Economy.

Do you want to make something or grift something? Making is hard; grifting is easy and far more profitable. Better to create a con (Make America Great Again) than to bring real value to the real world.

The Grifter Economy offers little for the hard-working and nothing for the honest. No wonder Americans are so unhappy.

Letter from Washington: Gilead or Green New Deal?

The Handmaid's Tale

Gilead came to DC on Friday. The Handmaid’s Tale filmed at the Lincoln Memorial.

I hurried down at the end of the day to catch a bit of the shoot. Was I watching a TV show or a preview of the future?

Visually, it was striking to see the red robes against the white marble. And unsettling to see a police state operating in an American setting, even if it was just fiction.

The handmaids moved with military precision. When the scene at the Lincoln wrapped up, they turned en masse and marched in formation down the marble steps. I hurried out of the way, intimidated by the martial display.

The handmaids then assembled at the base of the memorial, lining up in neat rows with the Washington Monument in the background.

Production assistants walked down the lines of handmaids, adjusting robes and bonnets. The camera wheeled into place. Brown-robed Aunts with cattle prods surrounded the handmaids and, surrounding them, soldiers with assault rifles.

“Veils on!” the director commanded. The handmaids covered their mouths. Then the camera rolled down the line of women, all perfectly still in their obedience.

It can happen here, I thought as I watched. Anything is possible.

Earlier in the day, Trump had declared a national emergency, so that he could violate the Constitution to build his border wall. Republicans cheered.

Democracy only works when people follow the law. Once the law becomes meaningless, anything is possible.

A precedent has been set. Congress won’t do what you want? Declare a national emergency.

I had coffee with a friend. He said that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal to build a fair and environmentally sustainable country was unrealistic. We can’t afford a Green New Deal. The Washington centrist position is is that AOC’s vision for this country is unattainable.

Or is it?

Trump has shattered our democratic norms. Now, anything is possible.

On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I witnessed the Republican vision for the country. A handmaid future, with women enslaved for the benefit of men.

One possibility.

But with the norms of convention smashed, it’s possible to create another, better future, too, one in which we go beyond the stale politics of our era to build a country that is fair for all its citizens.

Gilead or Green New Deal? Both are possible now.

Bus to Work Day DC: A Story in Four Lines

Busses stuck on 16th St

Today is Bus to Work Day DC.

Before the age of Uber, riding the bus was a rite of passage in DC. It is now a lost art, which is a shame. Riding a bus teaches you patience, math skills and geography.

Plus, you get to overhear fascinating conversations! Taking the bus is the best way to learn about Washington beyond the monuments.

My transit experience helped me write several novels about the city, providing ideas and inspiration for my writing.

Here’s my public transit story. A story of four bus lines.

Patience: The N Bus

As a student at American University, my introduction to the city was through Metrobus.

That bus was the N2/N4/N6 bus which stopped at the edge of campus. Running down Massachusetts Avenue, it took you to internships in downtown DC.

It was a bus line that taught you patience. You’d get to the stop, check the schedule and then the bus wouldn’t appear. Or the bus would be pulling away as you arrived.

The random quality of the Metrobus experience taught me patience. Unlike Uber, there was no countdown to your ride. No estimated arrival time.

So, I’d sit down and wait, with only my thoughts for company in this pre-iPhone age. There’s a quote in the novel LessBoredom is essential for writers.

If you want to be creative, take the bus. Plenty of time to let your mind wander.

Math Skills: The 96 Bus

It’s 6:32. The 96 bus to Adams Morgan will be across the street at Wisconsin and Woodley at 6:58. Do you have enough time to finish your plate of spaghetti?

That and other dramas were part of my life when I lived off campus in an apartment building. My home was well-served by the 30s bus, which ran constantly along Wisconsin Avenue and the 96, which ran infrequently to Adams Morgan.

My roommates and I liked to take the bus to the 18th St bars of Adams Morgan. But the 96 bus didn’t run that often, particularly on weekends.

So, we became adept at math problems like the one above, adding and subtracting, factoring in walk times, the probability of the bus being late and the speed at which a plate of pasta could be shoveled down.

We even counted money, in this era before SmartTrip cards. There’s a pile of nickels and dimes on the kitchen table – is that enough for the bus?

There was something really satisfying about running for the 96, jumping aboard with no time to spare and then feeding loose change into the fare box as the bus rolls away.

Geography: The H2

One of my first jobs after graduation was a temporary job at the National Rehabilitation Hospital.

Located across the city, it required me to take the H2 bus west to east from Tenleytown to Washington Hospital Center.

This was pre-gentrification DC. Marion Barry DC. Murder capital of the country DC.

The bus would chug from leafy Northwest, through tony Cleveland Park and then cross Rock Creek Park, the barrier between good and bad in DC at the time. The bus would go down Irving Street, where the Target is now, past boarded-up buildings and one of the largest open-air drug markets on the East Coast.

The bus is different from taking an Uber. An Uber will take you directly to your destination. Bus routes wind their through cities, picking up passengers here and there, as they go from neighborhood to neighborhood. By taking the bus you learn the place.

It was an education, revealing a whole other city beyond the world I knew west of the park. A city full of stories. This experience, of seeing DC at its roughest, eventually ended up in Murder on U Street, which is set in many of these same neighborhoods.

Conversations: The X2

I’ve lived in DC forever. There’s only one bus that scares me: the X2. Running down H St, from the White House to Benning Road, it’s the Jerry Springer show on wheels.

Everyone has their X2 story. The craziness doesn’t just happen inside the bus – a teen was caught holding on outside to the back of the bus.

The line uses articulated buses that are twice as long as normal buses. Miscreants congregate in the back, far from the driver and engage in all sorts of illicit trade. The bus attracts even more crazy people than normal – the babblers, the shouters, the recently released.

Sit there and listen to people on their phones discussing court cases, relationship problems and family issues, like a George Pelecanos novel set on public transit.

As a writer, it’s great. Buses are ideal for hearing other people’s stories. Remove your earbuds and listen to the drama around you.

Take the bus! It’s easy – get a SmartTrip card and the NextBus app to navigate your way around Washington. Learn patience, math and geography while you’re entertained by overheard stories from city residents.

My Photos in Song Protesting Child Separation Policy

Hard to believe that we’re a nation that puts children in cages. But we do every day at the border.

The Trump administration tried to hide the child separation policy from the public, knowing that it was cruel even for this cruel age. Despite statements from the Department of Homeland Security, families are still being separated.

Americans have hit the streets in protest. With my camera, I’ve documented those protests in Washington, DC, from the White House to DHS headquarters. I want future generations to know that we protested this crime against humanity.

Now, my photos have been put to music in a new song called Cages by Flo Anito and Seth Kibel.

A rough version of this song received an Honorable Mention from the Mid Atlantic Song Contest. This version was recorded at American University and Asparagus Media and will be released on an upcoming EP of original protest music.

Flo Anito has toured Europe and appeared on DC’s biggest stages: Strathmore, Wolf Trap, Merriweather Post Pavilion, the Birchmere, Blues Alley, the Fillmore, Hamilton Live, and Bethesda Blues & Jazz. She’s a clever songwriter with a unique voice and a sense of social mission.

Seth Kibel has been wowing audiences on saxophone, clarinet, and flute for more than a decade. Winner of 28 Washington Area Music Awards (Wammies), his most recent recording, Seth Kibel Presents: Songs of Snark & Despair, features an all-star cast of vocalists and instrumentalists from throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

I first met Flo playing soccer. When she asked to use my photos for Cages, I was glad to help. It’s a beautifully moving song written to protest an inhumane policy, one that was done but can be undone. As the chorus goes:

Children and hearts in cages
One by choice, and the other by force
You’ve locked up what’s left of your conscience
You’ve jailed all regrets and remorse
Children and hearts in cages
One of these is an easy fix
Fling open the doors to these prisons
Let parents be with their kids

Letter from Washington: The Cruelty is the Point

Nathan Phillips leads a dance at the Indigenous Peoples March
Nathan Phillips leads a dance at the Indigenous Peoples March before the MAGA teens showed up.

When video surfaced of Covington Catholic teens mocking a Native American at the Lincoln Memorial, I realized that I had missed the encounter by just a few minutes.

After work on Friday, I biked to the Lincoln Memorial desperate to see some sun after days of gloom.

At the memorial, I saw Native Americans (including Nathan Phillips) leading everyone in a giant dance with people holding hands in an ever-expanding circle. Pictured above, it was a beautiful moment seeing how everyone came together.

And a respectful one. Non-natives watched the dance from a few feet away. When invited to join, they did so, the dance expanding outward to accommodate newcomers on the plaza in front of the Lincoln Memorial. A drum played and Phillips sang as I watched this impromptu community demonstrate how we are all one people. Lincoln would be proud.

With all the museums closed due to the Trump Shutdown, there’s not a lot to do in Washington. The outdoor monuments and memorials are some of the few things that are open. The tourists who took part in the Native American dance circle were happy to have this unique experience of a different culture in an iconic setting.

After I left, the Covington Catholic kids came along. While there are innumerable videos and Rashoman-like confusion, one thing is clear: the MAGA teens mocked Phillips. You can see and hear them laughing at him and doing tomahawk chants while surrounding him on the steps of the Lincoln. He’s one elderly man faced off against a sea of youths in Trump gear.

Ironically, they were in Washington for the March for Life. But rather than showing respect for the lives of others, they mocked a Native American elder.

Where were the parents? Supporting them. In the video, you can see the chaperones on the sidelines enjoying the humiliation.

The cruelty is the point is the theme of a great essay by Adam Serwer on the Trump movement. A party that believed in limited government now operates a gulag system across the Southwest for immigrant children.

The Covington Catholic kids chose to wear Trump hats to the March for Life. The purpose of the march was secondary. If any of these callow youth got a girl pregnant, their beliefs would change pretty quickly.

Rather, the march was an opportunity to show the power of the Trump movement in the nation’s capital. With their uniforms and crowds, it was meant to intimidate.

But Nathan Phillips didn’t back down, even as he was jeered. He stood up to hate.

Their behavior exposed, the Covington kids face online humiliation. It won’t last. Like other wealthy men, they won’t suffer for their transgressions.

Ironic that this confrontation occurred under the watchful eyes of Abraham Lincoln. He did more than just free the slaves. He freed all of us from an evil system that poisoned this country, crushing an earlier version of Make America Great Again.

But he is just marble now, his faith and goodness forgotten by a Republican Party that has embraced cruelty.

Trip Report: Orlando Urban Trail

Orlando Urban Trail

Only three miles long, the Orlando Urban Trail packs in art, history and food  as it navigates a city few tourists see.

The trail starts at the edge of downtown Orlando, just off Magnolia Avenue and Lake Ivanhoe.

From there, it follows the path of an old railway, the Dinky Line, which used to ferry students to Rollins College in Winter Park. This green corridor is preserved because the line was used into the 1980s, not by students, but by businesses, including a lumber yard on Mills Avenue.

After going by a brewery, the trail parallels Mills, which is Orlando’s hipster district, home to the once-and-future dive bar Wally’s and the excellent Pig Floyd’s, where I had a pork bento box for lunch.

Pork bento box at Pig Floyd's

Around mile 1.5, the trail reaches Loch Haven Park, home to museums including the Orlando Science Center and the Mennello Museum of American Art.

You cross Mills Avenue, ride along the sidewalk a bit, and then there’s a brief section on neighborhood streets where you wind your way between lakes and by some expensive real estate. Lots of signage – it’s impossible to get lost.

Mead Garden bike sign

The trail ends at Mead Garden, a green spot in Winter Park which offers walking paths and a range of programs, including yoga.

With nearly the entire trail protected from traffic, the Orlando Urban Trail is  ideal for people of all ages. And with museums, parks and restaurants along the route, it makes a great urban adventure.

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.

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.