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.

Tweetstorm: Five Lessons from Going Viral

Tweet activity

A viral photo became my most popular tweet ever, racking up more than 200,000 impressions.

It’s a picture that I captured outside the White House Correspondents Dinner, a quick shot of Parkland survivor David Hogg before I was shooed away by security. Happy to get any photo, I posted it to Twitter, thinking my photographer friends would enjoy it.

And then it blew up online, my phone steadily buzzing with notifications through the night and for days afterward.

What can you learn from going viral?

  1. It will be accidental. It’s nice to think that you can make a post go viral – you can’t. Twitter is driven by the users. Their likes, dislikes, passions, prejudices and whims determine what goes viral and what doesn’t. I’ve written funnier tweets, taken better photos and shared more interesting links but it was this post of David Hogg that went viral, for it was timely (the dinner was going on as I posted the photo) and Hogg is a controversial figure in the gun control debate.
  2. You’ll want to change your tweet. In my photo, another person is pictured. I didn’t recognize him so just identified David Hogg. Within minutes, a reply told me that it was Zion Kelly, whose brother was shot to death on the streets of DC. You can’t edit a tweet so I added a threaded post identifying him.
  3. You will be personally attacked. I didn’t reply to the gun nuts who thought that the presence of David Hogg at the WHCD was preposterous. But a couple people said that I was racist for omitting mention of Zion Kelly in my original tweet. When I explained to one that I didn’t recognize him, she grudgingly admitted that I might not be a racist but my response was “problematic.”
  4. You won’t understand the analytics. My original tweet had 221,000 impressions. The thread I added with Zion Kelly’s name had 680,000 impressions. Why does the thread have more than the original?
  5. It won’t amount to much. Seeing the photo go viral, I wrote a post the next day on the moment, which captured some of the traffic my photo generated. But out of 220,000 Twitter impressions, I gained five new followers. The raging discourse of America had landed briefly on me, lit me in its fire, and then moved on to the next topic in the endless, infernal debate.

Going viral is short-lived and unsatisfying. All that storm und drang around my photo ultimately amounted to little.

The next morning, I bundled up and biked to see my friends from the District Department of Transformation, a group of activists trying to make the city’s streets safer. They’re all people I’ve met through Twitter. They had blocked off a street for breakfast, an action designed to show that streets should be for people, not cars.

I took a photo and shared it using the #BikeDC hashtag.

That’s the type of engagement that matters – real, small-scale and committed.

If you’re a social media manager, don’t chase social media fame, which is ephemeral and low-value. Instead, use Twitter to build an impactful community of engaged supporters, people who will show up for you on a cold Sunday morning to occupy a street.

The Power of Image: David Hogg at the White House Correspondents Dinner

David Hogg at the White House Correspondents Dinner

Last night, I took a photo: David Hogg at the White House Correspondents Dinner, pictured with Zion Kelly.

I’m a writer and a photographer. Living near the hotel, I thought I could get some photos of celebrities. But I arrived late and missed most of them.

With my Canon SL1 and a zoom lens, I captured this image of David and Zion posing on the red carpet. I was outside the glass doors of the hotel, standing in the driveway, near the spot where Reagan was shot in 1981. A small plaque marks the location.

Once home, I posted it to Twitter, thinking my followers would like it. I’m an admirer of the Parkland survivor. To be capable of speaking out after surviving a mass shooting – that is unimaginable to me. And that AR-15s should be banned is common sense.

The tweet took off, with hundreds of mentions occurring in my timeline, as my photo was retweeted, liked and shared.

And commented upon. 95% of those comments were positive, recognizing David as a powerful voice for common-sense gun control.

This same power terrifies Trump supporters. David is an “other” – a boy who doesn’t know his place. In response to my simple photo, they replied with hate, insults and conspiracy theories.

Because they’re weak. If the Trump movement was strong, then they wouldn’t need to attack David. Even an image of this teenager triggers them.

With their online hate, Trump supporters betray themselves, surrendering to their fear, hoping for a few moments of relief from self-loathing and the knowledge that the country is slipping away from them.

I didn’t respond to my critics. They’re beneath me.

My photo was enough, with more power than an army of online trolls. Let it go out into the world and inspire others to make their voices heard.

Michelangelo and Real Artists Don’t Starve

Real Artists Don't Starve

The Starving Artist is just a story we’ve told ourselves, according to Jeff Goins, author of Real Artists Don’t Starve.

And it’s a story that we can change. Marshaling examples from history (Michelangelo was the Steve Jobs of the Renaissance), Goins demonstrates that you don’t need to starve to pursue your art.

Rather than seeing money and creativity as diametrically opposed, see them as intertwined. Money allows you to make your art. Michelangelo was not content to be a starving artist – he demanded to be paid. Money is a form of respect.

Prior to his stand, artists were considered mere craftsman. When the Pope sent Michelangelo a letter addressing him as a commoner, he sent the missive back, demanding be addressed as a nobleman. He believed that he was descended from a noble family. It turned out not to be true but this belief is a helpful one for an artist.

Michelangelo kept careful records of what he was paid, and owed, as he supervised vast construction crews during the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. More than just an artistic genius, he was running a business during the Renaissance, and died a wealthy man.

Michelangelo understood that artists need patrons – Popes and Medicis – and artists need networks of collaborators to complete their work. The myth of solitary genius is another false idea we cling to.

His genius did not arise of out of nothing. Michelangelo apprenticed with earlier artists, learning by copying their work. We’d call what he did forgery – he made copies of Roman statues that were passed off as original – but this work taught him the classical principles that he needed for his greatest work.

All artists copy. There is nothing new under the sun. Michelangelo remixed Greek and Roman influences to restart Western Civilization in Italy.

Real Artists Don’t Starve is much more than Michelangelo, encompassing anything from the muppets of Jim Henson to paintings sprinkled with moon dust. The bibliography alone is worth the price of the book.

But the story of Michelangelo – painter, sculptor, architect and poet (yes, that too) – is the one that stayed with me, this Renaissance man alive for an explosion of culture and technology. A time much like our own, with new opportunities for artists willing to discard the myth of the starving artist for something better.

Horror on the Great Plains: The Hunger

Alma Katsu examines the dichotomy between the myth of Manifest Destiny and the grim reality of settlers trudging west in her new novel, The Hunger.

It’s a story you’ve heard before, of how the Donner Party turned to cannibalism to survive after getting stuck in the mountains on their journey west.

Katsu’s point in this gripping novel is that the evil began long before then. It was with the wagon train from the beginning, trapped in the dark hearts of the settlers, all of whom had good reasons to flee their lives back east. These are less brave pioneers than troubled souls seeking salvation in California. The Hunger tells us their stories, unwrapping them slowly, the true horror not revealed until the very end amid the squalor of a desperate camp in the Sierras.

Interestingly, the book overlaps with another I read this year – A Friend of Mr. Lincoln. The doomed Donner party originated in Springfield, with many of the principals familiar with the future president, though this is unmentioned in The Hunger. You could read the books back-to-back, the straight historical fiction of A Friend of Mr. Lincoln and then the horror of The Hunger, to see how different authors depict historical figures and events.

They’re both good reads, particularly if interested in American history, and the truth behind some of our most cherished myths.

My DC: Blossoms, books and gelato

Jefferson Memorial with cherry blossoms

A weekend of cherry blossoms, books and gelato taught me to love DC once again.

I’ve become inured to the sights and sounds of Washington, DC – the historic monuments, the thudding helicopters, the blue sparkle of the Potomac. I see and yet don’t see, because they’re so familiar. Playing tour guide for the weekend helped me rediscover the city.

The occasion was a college reunion. Because I was the only one who still lived in the city, I was appointed tour guide.

It’s hard work being tour guide! Much easier to be led by another, not knowing where you’re going to eat or what you’re going to do next, confident that the tour guide has those details figured out. Make it a large group – eight people – and make it the height of the spring tourist season, and you can understand why I was a bit anxious. Thankfully, it was an easy group that I knew from time spent together at American University.

The advantage of being tour guide is going to the places you like best. Here are my choices for 36 hours in Washington, DC.

Friday

The Darcy
My friends stayed at this boutique hotel by Hilton. Located near Logan Circle, it’s an ideal home base for visitors who want to explore the city. Even better when you get an upgrade to a top-floor suite!

Tidal Basin
If you come to DC, you’re going to walk. During cherry blossom season, it’s also the easiest way to get around (other than biking, of course). After checking-in at the Darcy, we walked down 16th St to see the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin, along with half a million of our friends, it seemed. The walk is about thirty minutes, and filled with interesting sights along the way, like the White House and Washington Monument.

Thai Tanic
Every Thai restaurant in DC must have a pun-based name. Popular among Logan Circle locals like me, Thai Tanic been serving interesting Thai dishes on 14th St for years. They were also very accommodating as our party grew from six to eight on a busy Friday night.

Gelato time

Dolcezza
How I love this place! The gelato is delicious. I almost always get a combo of dark chocolate and hazelnut. If you’re with me, this is a mandatory stop.

Saturday

American University
It wouldn’t be a college reunion without a trip to college. We went to AU in the pre-wonk era, which was far more fun, and considerably cheaper, than the serious world-changers of today. While the campus is nicer, with a brand new School of International Service, it’s not the same, probably due to the lack of alcohol.

Surfside
One of the challenges of leading a large group through DC is, “Where will we eat?” While they took my favorite burrito off the menu, Surfside in Glover Park was still a good choice. No one noticed a group of eight in this taco joint mobbed with soccer moms and kids from the field across the street.

Bob in Georgetown

Georgetown Waterfront Park
If you’re with me, you’re walking (or biking). Thankfully, my friends love to walk. After lunch, we walked down Wisconsin Avenue and 33rd Street to the Georgetown Waterfront Park, which has a great view of Rosslyn and the Key Bridge.

Dog Tag Bakery
Georgetown Cupcake is for tourists. Instead, visit this pleasant little shop near the C&O Canal that helps military veterans and families. The scones are great and they serve Compass Coffee.

Whole Foods P St
Finding a table for eight on a Saturday night in Logan Circle struck me as impossible. Instead, everyone got food and drink at Whole Foods and partied back in the suite at the Darcy Hotel. Sushi, cheese, fruit, beer, wine, chicken, chocolate rugelach – we ate well, without the hassle of going out.

Sunday

Lil B
This New Orleans-inspired coffee shop at the Darcy Hotel became the spot to meet every morning. While the beignets are more like fried dough than what you’d find in the Big Easy, they make good hangover food.

Dupont Circle Farmers Market
Why don’t I go here more often? This sprawling market has more than just produce. You can get pancakes, pizza and even a growler of beer from Right Proper.

Spanish Steps
One of those 0ff-the-beaten path places that I love, this miniature version of the Roman landmark is a spot I captured in an award-winning photo. It’s a lovely walk from Dupont Circle, as well, in which you pass art galleries and embassies. Makes a great spot for portraits.

Kramerbooks

Kramerbooks
Now, this is a required stop, at least if you’re with me. Washington loves its bookstores and Kramerbooks is the oldest and most famous. I have a connection to it too – I did a reading here. You’re sure to find something smart for the plane in this bookstore.

Of course, this is just a small sample of things to do in DC. But if I’m the tour guide, there’s going to be gelato, coffee and books. That’s my DC.

Little Free Library Find: Bel Canto

Bel Canto

What kind of books do people leave in the Little Free Library? Are they books they don’t like or books they want to share with others? Seeing a well-worn copy of Bel Canto in my local Little Free Library, I’m inclined to believe the latter.

This novel by Ann Patchett is a visualization of Stockholm Syndrome in an unnamed South American country. Appropriate for the geography, the tale is told as magic realism, with a narrator who dips into the story at key moments, sharing what the captors and hostages should know but don’t. Despite the close relationships between terrorists and victims, they are equally doomed as their dreamy jungle idyll is bound to end in tragedy.

Bel Canto is both too long and too short, as we discover the life stories of all the participants – the talented soprano, the Japanese businessman, the illiterate rebel. The plot inches ahead, with key events taking place off-stage that are hinted at but not described. And then the fantasy comes to an end, as all do, and we’re left with unanswered questions.

This is by design. As Ann Patchett says in The Getaway Car, her short book on writing:

What I like about the job of being a novelist, and at the same time what I find so exhausting about it, is that it’s the closest thing to being God you’re ever going to get. All the decisions are yours. You decide when the sun comes up. You decide who gets to fall in love and who gets hit by a car. You have to make all the trees and all the leaves and then sew the leaves onto the trees. You make the entire world.

Her world, and the world of Bel Canto, is a lot like ours. A little messy, a bit ominous and love the only consolation for an uncertain future.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

While The Subtle of Art of Not Giving a Fuck contains revealing and profane stories of personal dissipation and blogging-fueled awakening, at its core is the timeless message of the Stoics: life is short. Make better choices with your time.

Despite its roots among the ancient Greeks, Stoicism is a philosophy that’s still relevant today. First practiced by men such as Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, its core tenet is that while we can’t control circumstance, we can control our response to circumstance. Born from troubled times, the Stoics admired people who played the cards they were dealt, no matter how bad, searching for a way out of difficulty.

The Obstacle is the Way in other words, a (much better) book that popularizes this ancient belief system with examples from throughout history.

What makes The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck unique is its rejection of happy talk. Mark Manson shreds the relentless positivity of the self-help industry which is not helpful at all. Divorce, illness, joblessness – sometimes life is just going to suck and trying to talk yourself into happiness won’t get you there.

In fact, as with writing, concentrating on being happy will just make you less so, for it is an emotion that flies from you as you seek it.

Manson prescribes the doctrine of the ancient Greeks: don’t worry about happiness, for you will be dead soon.

Instead, focus on being useful. Put aside your illusory dreams of riches and fame. Be a better person today, to the people around you, for that is the ultimate measure of a life.

Books and Beer: Everybody Behaves Badly

Bell's and behaving badly
A Hemingway-themed beer to go with a Hemingway-themed book.

For the friends of Hemingway in 1920s Paris, everything was dated B.S. or A.S. Before the publication of The Sun Also Rises, their lives were complicated and largely anonymous. After Sun, their flaws were exposed to the world.

The story of the making of this literary masterpiece is told in Everybody Behaves Badly, an account of Hemingway, his friends and the events that inspired the first modern American novel of the 20th Century.

I paired the book with Bell’s Two Hearted. One of the early IPAs, it’s been a favorite ever since it first surprised my taste buds on a 100 degree day at the Capital Fringe Festival. Tangy and citrusy, it defines summer to me.

Named after the Two Hearted River in Michigan, a favorite vacation spot for young Hemingway, and the setting for one of his most famous short stories, it’s perfect the beer pairing for a book about Papa at work.

And it was recently named the best beer in America.

What does it take to create a novel? For Hemingway, it meant betraying nearly everyone in his world – mentors, drinking buddies, literary rivals and even his wife – as he strived to become a giant in American letters.

The Sun Also Rises was a revolution when it was published in 1926, a fusion of high/low style, in which Hemingway took postmodern “less is more” prose and married it with a scandalous story of dissipation among the idle rich. What lifted it above a drunken yarn was the epigraph from Gertrude Stein, “You are all a lost generation.” This defining quote, as well as the title, turned the novel into a representation of youth scarred by war, seeking for a meaning in a landscape without God or authority.

The novel is less a story and more transcription of a disastrous trip to see the bullfights in Pamplona. Following the debacle, Hemingway wrote the book in a period of weeks, not even bothering to change the real names of people that he used in the first draft.

The characters in Sun are all real, and scarcely disguised from their actual counterparts. The most appalling depiction is that of Harold Loeb, who admired Hemingway with almost slavish devotion. In return, he gets mocked in the novel as Robert Cohn, a Jew who doesn’t know his place, with the temerity to romance Lady Brett, a woman that he certainly doesn’t deserve. It was a portrayal and a betrayal that Loeb never got over and one that he spent decades trying to understand.

After the publication of the book in 1926, there was a craze to be like Lady Brett, the hard-drinking sex symbol of the novel. Like her literary counterpart, Lady Duff Twysden was a broke alcoholic of a dubious lineage. Fleeing debts and family complications, she ended up in Santa Fe, before dying of tuberculosis. Hemingway, cruel to the end, told his biographer that her casket was carried by former lovers, who dropped it at the funeral – a fictitious tale.

Her husband in the novel, Mike Campbell (the real Pat Guthrie), the very model of the dissipated English upper classes, died of a drug overdose, owing money to bars and hotels all over Paris.

Depicted as trying to trick Cohn into marrying her, Frances Clyne (the real Kitty Cannell) went on to one of the most fascinating lives of all the people mocked in The Sun Also Rises. After surviving Paris during Nazi occupation, she become a game show guest, noted for her expertise in everything from timeless glamor to surviving prison. One subject she wouldn’t discuss: Hemingway. She thought he was a bastard from the very beginning.

While the backstories in Everybody Behaves Badly are fascinating, what makes the book great is the story of how Hemingway created his masterpiece. Everybody Behaves Badly is a writer’s book – I’ve never read a book that does a better job explaining how a novel actually gets written, showing how Hemingway took real events and transmuted them into his novel.

One character Hemingway leaves out of the book: Hadley, his wife. The Paris Wife depicts her as crushed by this omission, knowing that she was losing her husband.

By the time The Sun Also Rises is published, Hemingway was moving on from the woman who subsidized his early writing efforts for a richer catch: the heiress Pauline Pfeiffer.

Thirty years later, in the posthumously published A Moveable Feast, Hemingway tried to blame the pernicious influence of rich friends on his decision to leave Hadley. They said that Hemingway deserved someone more stylish than doughty Hadley.

But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald predicted back in 1926, with every major new book, Hemingway would have a new wife. After Pauline would come Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh.

Write what you know. That’s the cardinal rule of writing. For Hemingway, that meant mining his own life for the material to create The Sun Also Rises. It’s his best book and the novel that frees American literature from its fussy and florid predecessors. Like a good IPA, it’s a sharp and refreshing shock to everything you’ve experienced before.

Exit Right: Lives of the Apostates

The lives of those who abandoned liberalism are examined in Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. Whittaker Chambers, James Turnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens see their political lives examined in this profile of apostates.

What makes a man switch parties? It’s not just a question of changing an affiliation but often means leaving your friends, family and profession behind. The personal is the political.

Whittaker Chambers was a Soviet spy who discovered the error in his ways, his life a hopeless tangle of Christian belief, suppressed sexuality and a devastating family history. Secrecy was an easy fit for him and he left his world of subterfuge only when realizing that his own life was in danger.

Daniel Oppenheimer makes the point that there’s rarely a “road to Damascus” moment in political conversions. Instead, it’s a slow change in beliefs, often accelerated by practical concerns.

For example, Ronald Reagan faced the end of his acting career following WWII. A Roosevelt Democrat, he found a new calling in touring General Electric plants and speaking to employees. GE executives treated him well, offering a fresh arena, a new stage for the man who longed for the spotlight. Did the Democratic Party leave him or did he discover a more receptive audience on the other side of the aisle?

The saddest case is Christopher Hitchens, whose life marks the sputtering end of the neoconservative movement. A natural contrarian, he railed against dictatorships for years. But liberals, embodied by the poll-testing Bill Clinton, never did anything about the evils in the world. When there was a chance to finally right a wrong, using American power, he took it, reverting to a view of imperial power that shaped his youth. The United States would civilize the world, like Britain once aspired to, a project that lies in ruins in the bloody sands of Iraq.

Irving Kristol, the godfather of the neoconservative movement, once said that a neoconservative was a liberal who had been “mugged by reality.” Neocons watched the Democratic Party move left. They stood still – losing friends, families and livelihoods in the often wrenching process of political change.

Today, we see a Republican Party that has been captured by a conman, casting aside Reaganite principles in favor of a small, mean, America First philosophy. As for the Democrats – what do they believe in? Is the party merely a vehicle for rewarding coastal elites?

In this era of political turmoil, millions of Americans are confronted with the agonizing choices that faced the men in Exit Right. Do you stay loyal to the old faith or do you turn apostate?