Rediscovering E. L. Doctorow

Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow

The historical fiction of E.L Doctorow provided solace to me during these troubled times.

It was the day before the world ended.

March 24.

Non-essential businesses were to be shutdown in a desperate attempt to stop COVID-19 in the nation’s capital. Washington, DC, was going into lockdown and I was at Kramerbooks searching for something to read.

The bookstore looked pillaged. Deliveries hadn’t come in for days and book-readers had snapped up as much as they could, desperate for something to read for what was announced as a 30-day shutdown.

Gloves and hand sanitizer was available but not masks. That requirement was in the future. Masks were for medical personnel, only.

I wanted to get in and get out. I figured two big books would be enough to last me for the month. The first was a massive tome, The British Are Coming, a serviceable work of history about the opening days of the American Revolution.

But it was the second book that imprinted itself on my memory, providing consolation during these chaotic, disastrous days.

Ragtime

That book was Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. It’s one of those books that I’m sure my parents read. They have bookcases full of novels. Maybe I picked it up at some point when I was kid and paged through it. Maybe even it made me think that one day I could write a novel.

I saw it on a ravaged shelf at Kramer’s and took it.

There’s a magic that only a good novel can perform. It’s a spell cast by an author that envelopes you completely, taking you out of your world and placing you in another one that seems just as real as your own.

Doctorow conjures America in 1906, all the heady optimism and crushing tragedy, with an operatic scope that touches upon lives large and small. We meet historical figures, like Harry Houdini and Henry Ford, and the ordinary folks of New Rochelle, NY.

Ragtime unfolds as if in a dream, a story told by an omniscient, God-like presence that zips back and forth in time, sweeping across the entire American continent. The stories pile up upon each other, a kaleidoscope view of a country in constant motion, powered by new technologies such as automobiles and electricity, a people finding their power on the world stage.

I read the book as the shutdown lasted well beyond 30 days. I read the book as the news grew dire. I read the book on park benches, the city as quiet as a tomb, no cars on the roads, no planes in the sky, with just dog walkers and runners outside.

On June 22, non-essential businesses like Kramerbooks were allowed to reopen. I think bookstores and libraries are essential; I was glad to see them open again.

I returned to Kramer’s. I masked up and picked up the only E.L. Doctorow novel on the shelf.

The March

The March by E.L. Doctorow is about Sherman’s path of destruction through the South during the Civil War. It’s a tragedy but is also about finding little bits of hope among the ruins. Like Ragtime, it features real characters. We go into the mind of Sherman himself, full of darkness and doubt, yet determined to prosecute this war to the bitter end. And we meet colorful characters like General “Kill Cavalry” Kilpatrick, whose roguish adventures were so unbelievable that I had to look them up on Wikipedia. They’re all real.

While the country has reopened, the coronavirus news is even worse. 138,000 dead, a total more than most of our wars. I read The March at home, sheltering from other people and the stultifying heat. And I finished it by the pool, on the first day it reopened, my neighbors and I carefully spaced apart on the rooftop, everyone a bit nervous.

Like you probably do, I spend too much time doomscrolling. Looking at Twitter and reading articles about contemporary disasters.

Reading fiction breaks that habit. A good novel does more than just transport you to another time and place; it heals your brain. The hours go by as you silently read, whether it’s on a park bench or poolside. The nervousness dissipates as you enter the dream world of the novel.

Put down your iPhone and take up a book instead.

Lincoln on the Verge

Lincoln at National Harbor

The Lincoln statue was a surprise.

I had biked to National Harbor to look at The Awakening. During this pandemic year, one invents activities to pass the time.

The Awakening is an aluminum sculpture of a giant emerging from the earth. Formerly at Hains Point, it was moved downriver a few years ago to National Harbor, the hotel/casino/shopping complex in Maryland.

The sculpture was blocked off by fences so I took the opportunity to bike around the abandoned streets of National Harbor, idly coasting by shuttered restaurants and stores until I spotted the Great Emancipator.

The rail splitter can be found on American Way, right by South Moon Under,  up the steps from Potbelly. Lincoln overlooks a video screen (“Good morning from National Harbor: Capitalize on it all!”) and a massive Ferris wheel on a pier jutting out into the Potomac.

I just finished Lincoln on the Verge, the powerful and moving story of this common man advancing toward death and destiny.

If his statue in National Harbor could come to life, what would he think of America in 2020?

I think he would be pleased that we lasted so long.

He would be delighted by people of all races enjoying a stroll along the promenade. The bright colors and carnival wheel would be charming diversions to him. But the old boatman would be most pleased to be within sight of a river.

Plague would not surprise him. Death and sickness were old friends. He often talked with the dead, believing that they existed in a spirit world that was within reach.

Leaving his home in Springfield in 1861, he did not expect to return. Just getting to Washington required providence, as he was nearly done in by overly exuberant crowds and gangs of assassins, as depicted in Lincoln on the Verge. Four years later, he returned home, in a coffin, his route retracing his earlier rail journey.

Unlike other politicians of the era (who remembers anything James Buchanan said?), Lincoln’s words live on because he spoke clearly and directly. We’d call this authentic. To the people of 1861, who had suffered decades of sophisticated oratory to protect the institution of slavery, this was electrifying.

Elites in the cities scoffed at his homespun tales. But if he was liberated from his bronze, and was free to walk around National Harbor, he’d have a comforting story for listeners:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, “And this too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses!

This too shall pass. Lincoln inherited a broken country and in four short years created an America worthy of its ideals. He knew he didn’t have long. But he endured and triumphed. We will too.

Lincoln on the Verge – Book Review

Lincoln weeps for the nation

I’m reading the wonderful Lincoln on the Verge, which beautifully captures Old Abe’s rail journey to Washington after his election.

There were two countries in 1860, the year Lincoln was elected. A free and prosperous North and an aristocratic South where wealth was built by slavery.

Despite having a smaller population, the South had elected most of the presidents during the nation’s history. Congress was run for its benefit. The Supreme Court was stacked in favor of slave-masters.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, the long tentacles of Slave Power had spread north as federal marshals hunted escaped slaves in states like Ohio. It was all perfectly legal. And obscene.

Washington was a swamp, literally and figuratively. Filled with half-completed monuments and stinking canals, it was a city controlled by powerful men in the lobby of the Willard Hotel. A new term was developed for them: lobbyists.

The Republican Party was formed in response to this corruption and the endless compromises that kept the slavers in power.

Lincoln was a fresh voice who spoke in simple terms that any person could understand. He said:

A house divided against itself, cannot stand.

I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

It will become all one thing or all the other.

Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

Plots were hatched to prevent his inauguration.

Parliamentary schemes were proposed of the type that would be familiar to Mitch McConnell. There was talk that Congress, still controlled by the South, would refuse to certify the election.

Conspiracies formed in Baltimore to assassinate the President-Elect.

Armed militias drilled in towns like Alexandria to oppose the federal government.

Lincoln on the Verge depicts how Abraham Lincoln made it to Washington, protected by a nation that wished to reclaim the true American ideals of equality.

More than a century later, the institutions of government are controlled by lobbyists once again. The canals of Washington are long gone but the city is still a swamp. Corporations have been bailed out while ordinary people line up for food banks. The stock market is juiced by a Federal Reserve devoted to printing money, which props up asset-owners while leaving the poor with less.

Once again, as in 1860, we have two nations.

An America of the grift, controlled by the Trump crime family, where favored industries are bailed out and insiders are tipped to dump their stocks before catastrophe.

An America of a precarious working class, one paycheck away from starvation.

Which nation shall prevail? As in 1860, we face a fight.

As told in Lincoln on the Verge, the United States found its champion at exactly the right moment in history. During the long journey to Washington, the people propelled Lincoln forward. They made him as much as he made them.

That is our task now. To fight for our country.

Dreams of El Dorado

Dreams of El Dorado

History gives you perspective: things could always be worse. Rather than sitting at home with Netflix and DoorDash during a pandemic, you could be:

A fur trapper, stripped nude and forced to run for your life for the entertainment of Native American warriors.

A family on the Oregon Trail, bamboozled by your guides, and left for dead in the mountains.

A San Francisco resident during the Gold Rush watching the city burn down for the second time in a week.

The settling of the West, as told in Dreams of El Dorado by H.W. Brands, is the story that we’re all familiar with – human endurance in the face of hardship – but it also takes apart a host of comforting American myths.

Rugged individualists did not last long in the West. In an inhospitable landscape full of deadly people and things, you needed to work with others to survive.

For example, the wagon trains that set out for Oregon were cities on wheels, with experienced leaders, rules and a daily schedule. Fur trading was a multinational affair, with trappers from different countries working in teams and then partying at the end of the season as they exchanged their goods. The lone gold miner might find a nugget or two but the real money was earned by companies who organized workers and sluices to shift whole mountainsides.

And none of this success would’ve been possible without the tribes of the West. The Sioux, the Crow and other Native peoples were allies and competitors until they were exterminated or forced into reservations by the American invaders.

The story of the West is also the story of the federal government. Everything west of the Mississippi started out as federal land, when Jefferson purchased it from Napoleon. California and other territories were taken from Mexico. While Texas won its independence, the Lone Star State would not have survived without annexation by the U.S.

The West, unlike the settled states of the East, is a creation of the American government. Through the Homestead Act and other laws, Washington controlled who got land and (more importantly) water in region, unlike anywhere else in the country.

Yet, we cling to our myths of the open frontier, for they express the American ideal of endless reinvention.

Dreams of El Dorado describes how, for a few short and brutal years, freedom could be found in the West, often at a terrible cost, before it became just another region of America, a dry landscape that you glimpse from a window seat as you fly over the country.

Exposed DC: A Photographic Record of a Crazy Year

What a long strange year it’s been.

That was my thought looking at the 14th Annual Exposed DC Photography Show.

I’ve had photos in the show twice before. I was in the very first one in 2007 and again in 2012.

The annual Exposed DC show is always an interesting snapshot of the times, illustrating what life is like in Washington, DC.

In 2019, the Nationals won the World Series, an Apollo rocket took off from the Mall and Gilead came to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. They’re all captured in the exhibit, as well as much quieter and more domestic moments, photographers finding beauty in the simplest of compositions, like a kitchen sink in light that is just right.

A couple of the photographers in the show recently spoke about street photography . Geoff Livingston is a storyteller that who looks for dramatic moments. His winning photo – Scoot Down the Highway – depicts an electric scooter rider in light and shadow. It’s an image which makes sense in 2019 but would seem like science fiction if it was in an earlier show.

Mukul Ranjan is not afraid to get up close and personal. His photo of three women in a convertible is more than just an image, it depicts a relationship between the photographer and subjects. Aware of his presence, they’re smiling for him, knowing that they look great and wanting him to capture this late-afternoon moment. His street photography advice is simple: get closer.

If I had to explain to someone what they missed in DC in 2019, I’d take them to the Exposed DC Photography Show. Full of feeling, the photos share what it was like to be alive in Washington during this tumultuous time.

Exposed DC Photography Show – 14th Annual Exhibition
 – Touchstone Gallery 
901 New York Avenue Northwest
Washington, DC, 20001
United States (map)

 

Specialized Sirrus: The Perfect City Bike (for Me)

Specialized Sirrus and the capital

I fell in love with my new bike on a rainy day in Georgetown.

After playing soccer with friends, I went for coffee, watching the drizzle turn into a downpour as I sat in the window. Locked up to a parking sign outside, my Specialized Sirrus was marinated in rain.

By the time I left, it was a cold monsoon. 38 degrees and pouring. The weather was so bad that I contemplated putting my bike on a bus for the ride home.

But that seemed complicated. I could be home in ten minutes if I biked. It was all downhill from Georgetown back to my Logan Circle apartment.

I wiped the water off my seat and pedaled away.

After going over the little rise near Book Hill, I rolled down steep R St, approaching a stop sign. Would my bike stop on the slippery street?

The Sirrus stopped with aplomb, its disc brakes working effortlessly. A gentle squeeze on the levers was all it took. On my old bike, with its v-brakes, there would’ve been some sliding and squeaking.

That’s the moment I fell in love with the Sirrus. I was cold and wet but felt secure on two wheels.

Bike manufacturers like to talk features. The bike has Shimano shift levers, an aluminum frame, rack mounts.

But what matters to buyers are benefits.  Will this bike get me home on a miserable day?

Yes. Flat bars with disc brakes make it easy to stop and start on busy city streets. Lots of gears make quick work of hills. Wide tires roll over DC’s potholes.

Buying a bike is personal. What’s right for me may not be right for you. For my style of riding (recreational, urban), it’s perfect. As I wrote earlier, as soon as I got on the Sirrus, it felt right.

Additional Observations

  • The bike might be slightly too big for me. It’s a medium, while my old Sirrus was a small. The old Sirrus was more of a road bike; this is closer to a mountain bike. Also, I could cram my old bike into the backseat of a sedan while the new bike definitely does not fit.
  • After buying the bike, I realized I basically bought the same bike as my friend Mr. T in DC! After long admiring his immaculate black Cannondale Bad Boy to the point where he joked that he was going to leave it me in his will, I pretty much purchased the Specialized version of his bike.
  • I put front and rear lights on the bike so that I could be more easily seen. I also purchased a cheap frame bag for my Kryptonite lock and other essentials.
  • Living downtown without a car, I’m on a bike just about every day. On the weekdays, I use Capital Bikeshare. I use my Sirrus for longer rides and on the weekends.
  • Once you have one new bike, you want more! While in Florida over Xmas break, I got my Dahon folding bike fixed. My bike friends think two bikes is not enough. One day, I’d love to have a better foldy (like a Brompton) and I wish I had stuff to haul around so I could get a Tern GSD. I tested and loved this compact utility e-bike.

Fleishman Is In Trouble

Fleishman is in Trouble

I have a thing for novels about the problems of wealthy New Yorkers. One of the first novels that made an impression upon me was The Bonfire of the Vanities. Of course I was going to pick up Fleishman Is In Trouble.

Rich People Problems

Toby Fleishman is doctor making $300,000 a year who still feels poor. Possessed with rage against almost everything, but especially his ex-wife, he drowns his sorrows in a never-ending cornucopia of app-based sex.

And then his ex disappears, leaving him with their two children.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner dissects with anthropological precision this tribe of rich (but not rich enough) New Yorkers who always want more. Another million, another beach house, another trip to Biarritz while they relentlessly self-improve through spinning classes and Goop-level quackery.

But buried in this sharp satire is a love story. It’s a story about loving yourself. What do you do when all this hustling leaves you empty? How do you cope when your spouse turns into a stranger? When is enough enough and how do you get off the hedonic treadmill?

I nearly gave up on this book. Brodesser-Akner doesn’t believe in chapters and the novel unspools in novella-length sections. Fleishman’s sexual adventures get a bit tiresome and you start to wonder where all this is going.

But, the last fifty pages of the novel are incredibly moving, tying together all the disparate strands of narrative and revealing the truth beneath them.

Fleishman Is In Trouble is a book about the trouble all of us will confront, a kind of middle-aged malaise that will eat away your soul. Brodesser-Akner writes about finding meaning when everything falls apart.

I had expected a satiric novel about New York. Fleishman Is In Trouble is so more than that, a compassionate guide through the dark wood of the midlife crisis.

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.

Specialized Sirrus 1.0

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.

Specialized Sirrus 2.0

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

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 Sham Enterprise

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.

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.