I’ve Been Off Instagram in 2019 (and Book Review: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport)

This past New Year’s day I was sitting in the lounge of the top floor of a very nice hotel in Taipei, looking out over the green hills. I had a lot to be grateful for, on a number of levels.

I had been off the grid for the previous 10 days. I opened up my phone and went online for the first time. I opened Instagram and began to scroll through. The first photo was someone posing in a Happy New Year’s photo from a Four Seasons in Hawaii. The next photo was someone at an epic party at a different Four Seasons in Mexico. The next was a photo of a beautiful family having a great time in the Middle East.

I put my phone down. An odd feeling swept over me. Everyone else was living these ridiculously nice lives in ridiculously fun places for New Year’s…and what was I doing? Oh yeah, I was also at a nice hotel in an exotic locale.

It seemed absurd to be prompted to feel sorry for myself — in that ever-so-slight FOMO kind of way — given the circumstances.

I haven’t really used Instagram since. Seeing a stream of everyone’s most beautiful selves in their most beautiful exotic locales — and choosing to refresh that stream 10 times a day (thanks to the product’s dopamine producing qualities) — didn’t seem like it was making my life better.

It was in this spirit that I was excited to dive into Cal Newport’s latest book, the instant New York Times bestseller: Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.

I’ve been talking to Cal for years about his ideas here and he pulled it all together very nicely in this book. He discusses the philosophy of minimalism applied to technology; why he’s not wildly supportive of “digital detox” routines; the value of leisure time that doesn’t involve devices; and some practical tips to manage tech use, such as deleting addictive apps from your phone (even if you still access them on your computer).

So many of my friends are so incredibly addicted to Twitter, Facebook, email, etc. It intrudes on personal happiness (Cal’s topic) and professional effectiveness (the topic of Cal’s next book). This is rather urgent topic. I’m not much better. As I tweeted recently:

I recorded a podcast with Cal the other week about the book. It’s a 45 minute conversation. You can listen to it here. Show notes pasted below.

Show Notes

Cal starts out by defining what digital minimalism is exactly. He talks about why he refrains from using social media and explains how the mechanics of social apps create something resembling an addiction.

They discuss Henry David Thoreau’s philosophy of time management as explained in Walden, and why you should “think of your phone like the closet in the Marie Kondo show.” Cal explains why a 30-day reset is necessary and how exactly to use that time to find clarity around what is most valuable to you.

Cal talks about the kinds of offline activities that new digital minimalists start to engage in, his unique definition of solitude, and why solitude is so important.

They also give a sneak peek of Cal’s next book, on digital minimalism in the workplace.

Quotes From This Episode

“Minimalism says if you really want to maximize your quality of life, find the things that are really valuable, focus on those, and miss out on the things — not that are bad — but that are good but not that good.”

“The cost of the clutter is going to overwhelm the benefits that each of these things causing the clutter actually creates.”

“You can think about your phone like the closet in the Marie Kondo show.”

“Never before in human history could we get rid of every single moment of solitude in the day.”

“Clean out the proverbial closet and rebuild your digital life from scratch, but just do it much more intentionally.”

Book Notes: The Point Is by Lee Eisenberg

Lee Eisenberg’s The Point Is: Making Sense of Birth, Death, and Everything In Between is a wonderful set of reflections on the meaning of life — or what “the point” of life really is.

The ostensible thesis is that the meaning of life is all about the narrative you create for yourself:

Whether the theme is “Look how far I’ve come,” or “I want to leave the world better off than I found it,” or “I need to put my hidden talent to better use,” or “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” whatever the refrain, the narrative we create about ourselves amounts to a “personal myth,”

Throughout the book Eisenberg pulls from different studies, quotes from literature, and pop cliches to reflect on this timeless question. In the hands of a less capable writer, such a scattered approach would be deadly. Eisenberg, formerly editor of Esquire magazine, writes with aplomb.

Below are some of my favorite paragraphs from the book. I began to bold sentences below but then realized I was bolding all of them.


Julian Barnes, in his novel The Sense of an Ending: “How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.”

Arthur Schopenhauer said, “To our amazement we suddenly exist, after having for countless millennia not existed; in a short while we will again not exist, also for countless millennia. That cannot be right, says the heart.”

Margaret Atwood, one of a number of writers invited by Wired magazine to compose a short story using only six words, turned out a classic, right up there with Madame Bovary: “Longed for him. Got him. Shit.”

We don’t need to know everything, the interviewer says, we’ll just focus on a few “key things.” Included among the key things are eight events the interviewer may refer to as “nuclear episodes”—“nuclear” in the sense that they’re central to your personal myth. Nuclear events include a positive and a negative childhood memory; a “wisdom event”; a vivid adult memory; a high point and a low point; a spiritual experience; and a turning point.

It asks that you imagine you have only twenty-four hours to live—so think hard about “Who you did not get to be” and “What you did not get to do.” You’d think, wouldn’t you, that there’d be a huge number of different answers to “Who did you not get to be?” and “What did you not get to do?” But there aren’t. Our answers fall into a handful of categories: Didn’t give enough back. Didn’t make peace with a loved one. Worked too hard. Wasn’t creative enough.

Bertrand Russell, philosopher/mathematician/activist/confirmed atheist, declared in his autobiography that the point [of life] was three things rolled together: love, because love relieves loneliness; knowledge, because knowledge enables us (in theory) to know how the universe works; empathy, because empathy allows us to hear the cries of pain of the oppressed in a world of poverty and pain.

Just as a baby needs food, Jung said, the human psyche cries out for meaning. Jung reckoned that fully a third of his patients suffered from nothing other than the perceived “senselessness and aimlessness” of their lives. And every patient over thirty-five, he said, borrowing from Hamlet, battled the sense that the world felt “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.”

Meaning isn’t a luxury. Meaning is crucial. We have a “will to meaning,” Viktor E. Frankl declared. To be human is to live in three dimensions—the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. It’s this spiritual dimension that compels us to seek answers to why we exist.

There are numerous other avenues to symbolic immortality. Putting something into the world that wasn’t there before can act as a buffer against existential anxiety. Studies suggest that taking pride in, and being admired for, one’s own good works suppresses, at least to some extent, one’s anxieties about dying. Some say the drive for symbolic immortality is what art is all about, creativity in general: putting something into the world that wasn’t there before.

On why we’re afraid of death: There are, you’ll excuse the expression, three main buckets: We’re afraid that death will disrupt our personal goals. We’re afraid that death will do damage to our close relationships. We’re afraid of what happens in the hereafter. To break these down a notch further: We’re afraid of pain and suffering. We’re afraid of nothingness.

Before you die, the book advises, you should (1) ask for forgiveness; (2) extend forgiveness; (3) thank the people who’ve loved you; and (4) say you love them as well. (This presupposes that you really mean it.) The nondenominational minister said a “good death” is when a dying person can say, “I’m at peace with my loved ones,”

Robert Penn Warren, in an exquisite passage near the end of A Place to Come To: “As long as you have a parent alive, you are a child; and mystically, the child is protected, the parent is the umbrella against the rain of fate. But when the umbrella is folded and laid away, all is different, you watch the weather with a different and more cunning eye, your bones ache when the wind shifts, all joy acquires a tinge of irony (even the joy of love for a child, for you feel yourself as the umbrella or lightning rod, if you will, and know the frailty of such devices). Furthermore, with the death of your parent you begin to see in each death the weight of a ‘tale told’… and you begin to feel the fleeting impulse to verbally sum it up for yourself, or for some common acquaintance.”

Of all the last words I collected for possible use in this book, none rival the courage and eloquence of the two words Irish poet Seamus Heaney sent to his wife, Marie, shortly before he died in 2013. The words weren’t engraved in metal or inscribed in stone. They were transmitted in a text message, of all things. And they were in Latin: Nolle Timere—“Don’t be afraid.”

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote, “the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

The only other Stephen King book I’ve read is On Writing, his excellent guide to writing more crisply. Here are my notes from that book from 13 years ago.

I’ve never read the Stephen King thrillers that have made him famous; I tend not to seek out books or movies (or theme park attractions) that are likely to frighten me.

King’s new-ish novel, 11/22/63, is a thriller of sorts but not of the horror genre. In any case, it’s utterly compelling for most of the 800+ pages. I recommend it, especially to baby boomers who lived through the 60’s or to JFK assassination theorists — conspiracy or otherwise.

It can be easily summarized: A man time travels back to 1963 and attempts to stop the JFK assassination. The plot explores what the world might be like had that seminal event not taken place.

The writing is fluid and often bare. I highlighted only 37 sentences on my Kindle and there aren’t a lot of interstitial thought-bombs. The writing keeps the plot moving along. If there is life wisdom on offer, it comes in sentence fragments or the occasional witty piece of dialogue.

Mainly, you’re tracking plot and you’re learning about what life was like at the time JFK was shot. King conducted an immense amount of research into the actual historical circumstances of the assassination. Much of the novel, apparently, is historically accurate. You really get a flavor for the Texas of that era.

I thought of Russ Roberts and his frequent admonitions about unintended consequences. It turns out that if you time travel back in time to re-write history, you can’t always anticipate how everything will be different afterwards…

Book Review: My Struggle – Book 6

I spent hundreds of more pages inhabiting Karl Knausgaard’s mind in My Struggle: Book 6, the finale in the series. I skipped the final two thirds which is made up of musings on literary history and Hitler but I rather enjoyed the first third of musings which focus on how his family and friends react to reading a draft of the manuscripts of the earlier books. If you’ve read the earlier books (as I have), and thus can appreciate the inside baseball meta plot commentary on his other books, it’s worth taking a stab at this one. There were more genuinely funny moments here than in the previous editions.

Below are some choice quotes.

The meaning of life becomes less self-evident as you get older:

All generations live their lives as if they were the first, gathering experiences, progressing onward through the years, and as insights accumulate, meaning diminishes, or if it doesn’t diminish, it at least becomes less self-evident. That’s the way it is.

Karl befriends a neighbor who’s a parent of one of his kids’ friends. Funny anecdote:

We had been given the plate by the same couple when they were moving house and didn’t need it anymore. They had actually helped us a lot. What had we done for them in return? Not much. I always listened patiently to whatever they talked about, asking questions and making an effort to seem interested. I had introduced him to our Sunday football. And I had given him a signed copy of my previous novel inscribed with a dedication. Two days later he told me he had given it to an uncle “who was interested in books.” But it was for you personally, for goodness’ sake! I thought to myself, though I said nothing; if he hadn’t grasped the fact on his own I wouldn’t be able to explain it to him.

It occurred to me when reading this that I don’t often conclude that it’s not worth trying to explain something to someone on the grounds that if they hadn’t grasped it on their own they’d never be able to learn it.

His experience washing the vaginas of his young daughters:

I took three cloths off the pile on the shelf, put soap on them and washed all three of them between their legs. It felt like an assault, that was the thought that came to me every time. Imagine if someone came in and saw what I was doing, what would they think? A perverted father rubbing the crotches of his daughters? It was a thought only a man who had witnessed the incest hysteria of the eighties was capable of thinking, I knew that, but all the same it didn’t help, the feeling was there and couldn’t be ignored, and when they sat down again and I rinsed the cloths, wrung them and hung them over the radiator to dry, I was as relieved as ever that no one had come in and seen me.

Random on fathers:

“Nearly everyone I know has a father who failed them in some way. And everyone tries to compensate for that failure in the way they relate to their own children.”

On ambitious people who are going out to achieve something in the world

“They’re the ones who make something of life, who achieve something in the world rather than just using or enjoying it.”

“But even in those people there’s a sense of restlessness. That’s why they create or act the way they do, because there’s a restlessness inside them, something incomplete. But what they’re aiming for, all the time, is harmony. All through their twenties and thirties and forties. The aim is to be able to sit in a garden and watch the sprinkler watering the lawn, with their children all around them, and to be able to think, right, that’s it, I’m happy now. All human urges are about the urge for harmony.”

This is a very Buddhist idea. The sense that someday, perhaps a day very soon, you’ll be able to kick back, look around, take it all in, and say, “Ahhhhh, this is it. I’m finally happy. I’m finally at peace.” That day will never come so long as it is contingent upon the obtainment of stuff or the organization of external forces, and even if you manage to achieve the inner harmony that gives rise to peace, it is not stable or permanent in any way.

On men’s emotions and intimacy:

Now we connect intimacy and closeness with the truest of feelings. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read people ridiculing men’s ways of dealing with emotions. Slapping each other on the back, that sort of thing. But a woman doesn’t know what it means to get a slap on the back when you’re down in the dumps. Men’s emotions are worth no less, if anyone believes that, just because they’re not expressed the way women’s are. What I’m saying is there are many different kinds of solicitude, and intimacy isn’t necessarily going to be right in itself.

On what friends give you versus what lovers give you — the person you love enables you to live more effortlessly in the present, whereas the friend helps you fully understand yourself and your life:

While meeting Geir [his friend] gave me a viewpoint on myself and a space in which it could be articulated, in other words remoteness, which was invaluable, meeting Linda [his wife] gave me the opposite, in that encounter all remoteness was dissolved, I became closer to her than I had ever been to any other person in my life, and in that closeness there was no use for words, no use for analysis, no use for thoughts, because when all is said and done, which is another way of saying in life, when it presents itself in all its intensity, when you’re there, at the center of it all, with your entire being, the only thing that matters is feeling. Geir gave me the chance to look at life and understand it, Linda gave me the chance to live it. In the first instance I became visible to myself, in the second I vanished. That’s the difference between friendship and love.

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

1. Blitzscaling by Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh. Not that I’m exactly unbiased given the authors and my entangled relationships here, but lots of good insights from Silicon Valley and China on how to build a huge, world-changing company. Reid and Chris worked super hard to distill the complicated and sometimes contradictory lessons of fast scaling companies into a book structure that’s digestable and practical.

2. The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil. Beautifully written memoir about surviving genocide, becoming a refugee, and resettling in the United States. “It’s strange, how you go from being a person who is away from home to a person with no home at all. The place that is supposed to want you has pushed you out. No other place takes you in. You are unwanted, by everyone. You are a refugee.”

4. Dancing with Life: Buddhist Insights for Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering by Phillip Moffitt. Phillip led the meditation retreat I went on earlier this year and this book summarizes the Buddha’s wisdoms, and Phillip’s experience with it, clearly and relatively concisely. Phillip was co-owner and editor in chief of Esquire magazine before leaving the material world and pursuing serious meditative and yoga practice. The book is divided into four sections corresponding with each of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths:  1) There is suffering in the world, 2) there are known causes of suffering, 3) there are solutions to the causes of suffering, and  4) there are specific tactics that can be followed to put into practice these solutions.

3. Mastery by George Leonard. During one of my private interview sessions with Phillip Moffitt at the meditation retreat, I wondered aloud whether I had hit a plateau in my meditation practice. Without hesitating, Phillip recommended I read this book from George Leonard, which discusses the issue of plateaus in the journey toward mastery. Some good insights; nothing earth shattering. The premise: “Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it.”

Where in our upbringing, our schooling, our career are we explicitly taught to value, to enjoy, even to love the plateau, the long stretch of diligent effort with no seeming progress?”

Here’s my previous post on the sorts of skill building that results in quantum leaps versus continual iterations of improvement.

6. Tribe of Mentors and Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss. Two gargantuan interview books from Tim; tons of life hack nuggets and solid book and gadget recommendations across the two.

7. Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg. I love Jonah’s writing and his speaking (on his podcast and on BloggingHeads.tv). In this book, he makes the following argument: “Capitalism is unnatural. Democracy is unnatural. Human rights are unnatural. The world we live in today is unnatural, and we stumbled into it more or less by accident. The natural state of mankind is grinding poverty punctuated by horrific violence terminating with an early death.” And as such, we should be utterly grateful for what we have, and utterly paranoid about not destroying the golden goose of modern civilization that’s laying such wonderful eggs.

More:

In later chapters, I spell out how liberalism and capitalism created the Miracle and how the United States of America is the fruit of the Miracle. But the key point to understand for the arc of this book is that both are unnatural. The idea that we should presume strangers are not only inherently trustworthy but also have innate dignity and rights does not come naturally to us. We have to be taught that—carefully taught. The free market is even more unnatural, because it doesn’t just encourage us to see strangers to be tolerated; it encourages us to see strangers as customers.

Other random highlights:

One of the most interesting taboos in American life is the taboo against discussing human nature.

Virtue requires denying one’s baser instincts—i.e., human nature—and doing what is right. This is why C. S. Lewis argued that “courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point…”

Hypocrisy is often a terrible failing but it is more often a misunderstood one. Hypocrisy is the act of violating an ideal or principle you admonish others to follow. Too many people believe that hypocrisy is an indictment of the ideal as much as it is the hypocrite. This is folly. A world without hypocrisy is a world without ideals.

Book Review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid is one of my favorite writers. Here’s my somewhat detailed review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Here’s my review of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

Exit West is his excellent latest novel. It’s about refugees fleeing an unnamed homeland (Syria?) and transporting through different spaces in the quest for safety, eventually ending up in Northern California. The couple, Saeed and Nadia, share an unexpected romantic connection that ultimately weakens over time, with Saeed indulging in nostalgia for the past and his religious roots, and Nadia seeking to break through and embrace a more secular stance toward the world. But before they grow apart, they endure together war and grief and other hardship.

The writing style is calm, sometimes bare. The novel’s opening line gives you a sense of the rhythm of the book: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”

The theme of refugees struck a chord personally. And even for those of us who stay in the same house our whole life: “We are all migrants through time,” Hamid writes.

Highly recommended. Some highlights from Kindle are pasted below.


…they had gone to his place that night, and she had shuffled off the weight of her virginity with some perplexity but not excessive fuss.

the curfew served to conjure up an effect similar to that of a long-distance relationship, and long-distance relationships are well known for their potential to heighten passion, at least for a while, just as fasting is well known to heighten one’s appreciation for food.

All agreed he was a fine and delicate man, worryingly so, for these were not times for such men.

…but Saeed had wept only once, when he first saw his mother’s corpse and screamed, and Saeed’s father wept only when he was alone in his room, silently, without tears, his body seized as though by a stutter, or a shiver, that would not let go, for his sense of loss was boundless, and his sense of the benevolence of the universe was shaken, and his wife had been his best friend.

…in any case Nadia had taken one look at Saeed’s father and felt him like a father, for he was so gentle, and evoked in her a protective caring, as if for one’s own child, or for a puppy, or for a beautiful memory one knows has already commenced to fade.

Saeed’s father encountered each day objects that had belonged to his wife and so would sweep his consciousness out of the current others referred to as the present, a photograph or an earring or a particular shawl worn on a particular occasion, and Nadia encountered each day objects that took her into Saeed’s past, a book or a music collection or a sticker on the inside of a drawer, and evoked emotions from her own childhood, and jagged musings on the fate of her parents and her sister, and Saeed, for his part, was inhabiting a chamber that had been his only briefly, years ago, when relatives from afar or abroad used to come to visit, and being billeted here again conjured up for him echoes of a better era, and so in these several ways these three people sharing this one apartment splashed and intersected with each other across varied and multiple streams of time.

Saeed was grateful for Nadia’s presence, for the way in which she altered the silences that descended on the apartment, not necessarily filling them with words, but making them less bleak in their muteness.

Nadia had long been, and would afterwards continue to be, more comfortable with all varieties of movement in her life than was Saeed, in whom the impulse of nostalgia was stronger, perhaps because his childhood had been more idyllic, or perhaps because this was simply his temperament.

He did not press the point, but when Nadia brought her face close to his in bed that night, close enough to tickle his lips with her breathing, he was unable to muster the enthusiasm to bridge the tiny distance it would have taken to kiss.

They made their way outside. The sky had begun to change, and was less dark now than indigo, and there were others scattered around, other couples and groups, but mostly solitary figures, unable to sleep, or at least unable to sleep any longer.

Maybe, Saeed thought initially, they feared he might be able to understand them. Later he suspected something else. That they were ashamed, and that they did not yet know that shame, for the displaced, was a common feeling, and that there was, therefore, no particular shame in being ashamed.

They put their lack of conversation down to exhaustion, for by the end of the day they were usually so tired they could barely speak, and phones themselves have the innate power of distancing one from one’s physical surroundings, which accounted for part of it, but Saeed and Nadia no longer touched each other when they lay in bed, not in that way, and not because their curtained-off space in the pavilion

She noticed other women looking at him from time to time, and yet she herself felt strangely unmoved by his handsomeness, as though he were a rock or a house, something she might admire but without any real desire.

It seemed to Nadia that the farther they moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.

Saeed wanted to feel for Nadia what he had always felt for Nadia, and the potential loss of this feeling left him unmoored, adrift in a world where one could go anywhere but still find nothing.

In Marin, Saeed prayed even more, several times a day, and he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way. When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world, and so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope, but he felt that he could not express this to Nadia, that he did not know how to express this to Nadia, this mystery that prayer linked him to, and it was so important to express it…

There was also closeness, for the end of a couple is like a death, and the notion of death, of temporariness, can remind us of the value of things, which it did for Saeed and Nadia, and so even though they spoke less and did less together, they saw each other more, although not more often.

everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.

In the morning when she woke he was looking at her, and he stroked the hair from her face, as he had not done for months, and he said if anyone should leave the home they had built it was him. But as he said this he felt he was acting, or if not acting then so confused as to be incapable of gauging his own sincerity. He did think that he ought to be the one to go, that he had reparations to make for becoming close to the preacher’s daughter. So it was not his words that felt to him like an act, but rather his stroking of Nadia’s hair, which, it seemed to him in that moment, he might never have permission to stroke again.

…and so they distanced themselves from each other on social networks, and while they wished to look out for each other, and to keep tabs on each other, staying in touch took a toll on them, serving as an unsettling reminder of a life not lived, and also they grew less worried each for the other, less worried that the other would need them to be happy, and eventually a month went by without any contact, and then a year, and then a lifetime.

[Meeting as older adults years after breaking up] Their conversation navigated two lives, with vital details highlighted and excluded, and it was also a dance, for they were former lovers, and they had not wounded each other so deeply as to have lost their ability to find a rhythm together, and they grew younger and more playful as the coffee in their cups diminished, and Nadia said imagine how different life would be if I had agreed to marry you, and Saeed said imagine how different it would be if I had agreed to have sex with you, and Nadia said we were having sex, and Saeed considered and smiled and said yes I suppose we were.

Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot is not a “beach read” in the metaphorical sense, but it was a terrific beach read in the literal sense for me a couple weeks ago, when I was in between scuba dives in Cozumel, Mexico. 500 pages of tightly spun goodness; a classic love triangle story told by one of the living masters in Jeffrey Eugenides; a reading experience where you enjoy both the plot and the random life philosophy thought-bombs; and, for the writerly inclined, plenty of “what a sentence!” moments.

One of the things I’ve learned about myself, as far as reading fiction is concerned, is that I tend to like fewer protagonists and a relatively straightforward plot line. When dozens of characters surface and when the timeline keeps jumping around, I can easily lose my place and my momentum. Partly this is a function of not always being able to read large chunks of the book in consecutive days; if a few days pass in between reading, I’m prone to forget what’s going on. It might also have to do with brain works, apparently: I can’t keep track of dozens of fictional side characters in novels.

The Marriage Plot works to my style, then. There are three main characters, they graduate from university, and they go on to experience love and work and complications in the big bad real world. The chapters alternate between characters. Among the more captivating threads for me involved the manic depressive highs and lows of Leonard’s character.

I’m not informed enough to grok the literary inside baseball that pops up throughout this novel. I’m a mere surface reader of Eugenides and this novel — i.e. there are emotions in here about “real life” and I believe the stories and emotions to be realistic enough that I can enjoy the absorption. I’m not looking for or reflecting on some deeper meaning that’s being portrayed — commentary about other novels, literary trends, or sly references to Eugenides’ contemporaries. The relationship dynamics between the characters are provocative enough!

Some of my Kindle highlights are pasted below. Paragraphs appear as I pasted them in, they are not actually in sequential order in the book.


Phyllida, holding her handbag protectively against her chest, had paused to peruse the student art on the walls: six paintings of small, skin-diseased dogs wearing bleach-bottle collars. “Isn’t this fun?” she said tolerantly. [“Tolerantly” as a way of describing the tone of a statement.]

That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren’t left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical—because they weren’t musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.

But after three solid years of taking literature courses, Madeleine had nothing like a firm critical methodology to apply to what she read. Instead she had a fuzzy, unsystematic way of talking about books. It embarrassed her to hear the things people said in class. And the things she said. I felt that. It was interesting the way Proust. I liked the way Faulkner.

Even Madeleine, who found all the reading hard going, could tell that Zipperstein’s contribution to the field was reformulative and second-tier.

The pleasure Madeleine got from looking at Dabney was reminiscent of the pleasure she’d gotten as a girl from looking at sleek hunting dogs. Underneath this pleasure, like the coals that fed it, was a fierce need to enfold Dabney and siphon off his strength and beauty. It was all very primitive and evolutionary and felt fantastic. The problem was that she hadn’t been able to allow herself to enjoy Dabney or even to exploit him a little, but had had to go and be a total girl about it and convince herself that she was in love with him. Madeleine required emotion, apparently. She disapproved of the idea of meaningless, extremely satisfying sex. And so she began to tell herself that Dabney’s acting was “restrained” or “economical.” She appreciated that Dabney was “secure about himself” and “didn’t need to prove anything” and wasn’t a “showoff.” Instead of worrying that he was dull, Madeleine decided he was gentle. Instead of thinking he was poorly read, she called him intuitive. She exaggerated Dabney’s mental abilities in order not to feel shallow for wanting his body. To this end she helped Dabney write—O.K., she wrote—English and anthro papers for him and, when he got A’s, felt confirmed of his intelligence.

Leonard did sound a little nervous. That wasn’t good. Madeleine didn’t like nervous guys. Nervous guys were nervous for a reason. Up until now Leonard had seemed more the tortured type than the nervous type. Tortured was better.

As he stood on the platform, Mitchell wondered if Madeleine’s wearing her glasses indicated that she felt comfortable around him, or if it meant that she didn’t care about looking her best for him.

Presently, Billy had one hand sensitively in the back pocket of Madeleine’s jeans. She had her hand in the back pocket of his jeans. They were moving along like that, each cupping a handful of the other. In Madeleine’s face was a stupidity Mitchell had never seen before. It was the stupidity of all normal people. It was the stupidity of the fortunate and beautiful, of everybody who got what they wanted in life and so remained unremarkable.

Mitchell felt guilty for fantasizing about his friend’s girlfriend but not guilty enough to stop.

He was looking at her with his big eyes. He reached out to take her hands. “I love you!” he said. And Madeleine had surprised herself by replying, “I love you, too.” She meant that she loved him but didn’t love love him. That, at least, was one possible interpretation, and, on Bedford Street, at three a.m., Madeleine decided not to clear up the matter further.

He was defective, and she wasn’t, and there was nothing she could do about it. The cruelty of this thought felt rich and sweet and Madeleine indulged in it for another minute.
Suddenly the dog sped past again, ripping up sand. “I don’t know why it makes me so happy to watch my dog run,” MacGregor said. “It’s like a piece of me gets to hitch a ride.” She shook her head. “This is what it’s come to. Living vicariously through my poodle.” “There are worse things.”

Larry was in a good mood. The speed with which he’d gotten over Claire was stunning. Maybe he hadn’t really liked Claire all that much. Maybe he disliked Claire as much as Mitchell did. The fact that Larry could get over Claire in a matter of weeks, whereas Mitchell remained heartbroken over Madeleine—even though he hadn’t gone out with Madeleine—meant one of two things: either Mitchell’s love for Madeleine was pure and true and earthshakingly significant; or he was addicted to feeling forlorn, he liked being heartbroken, and the “emotion” he felt for Madeleine—somewhat increased by the flowing chianti—was only a perverted form of self-love. Not love at all, in other words.

At one point, in his sleep, Larry rolled on top of Mitchell, or Mitchell dreamed this. He had an erection. He thought he might throw up. Somebody in his dream was sucking his cock, or Larry was, and then he woke up to hear Larry say, “Ugh, you stink,” without pushing him away, however. And then Mitchell passed out again, and in the morning they both acted as if nothing had happened. Maybe nothing had.

“Wow. Most people don’t know that. I’m impressed.” She leaned toward him and said in a quiet voice, “Are you a Christian?” Mitchell hesitated to answer. The worst thing about religion was religious people. “I’m Greek Orthodox,” he said finally. “Well, that’s Christian.”

Our relationship has always defied categorization, so I guess it makes sense if this letter does too. Dear Mitchell, I don’t want to see you anymore (even though we haven’t been seeing each other). I want to start seeing other people (even though I’m already seeing someone). I need some time for myself (even though you haven’t been taking up my time). Okay? Do you get it now? I’m desperate. I’m taking desperate measures.

All of this, as Leonard later learned from his therapists, amounted to emotional abuse. Not to be made to live in a house where a murder had taken place but to be the go-between in his parents’ affairs, to be constantly asked his opinion before he was mature enough to give one, to be made to feel that he was somehow responsible for his parents’ happiness and, later, their unhappiness.

It was like having a wild party in your head, a party at which you were the drunken host who refused to let anyone leave, who grabbed people by the collar and said, “Come on. One more!” When those people inevitably did vanish, you went out and found others, anyone and anything to keep the party going.

There was something about tennis—its aristocratic rituals, the prim silence it enforced on its spectators, the pretentious insistence on saying “love” for zero and “deuce” for tied, the exclusivity of the court itself, where only two people were allowed to move freely, the palace-guard rigidity of the linesmen, and the slavish scurrying of the ball boys—that made it clearly a reproachable pastime.

That was when Leonard realized something crucial about depression. The smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cut you up. As he was speaking, for instance, Leonard noticed Wendy Neuman cross her arms over her chest, as if to defend herself against the blatant insincerity of what he was saying. To win her back, Leonard admitted to this insincerity, saying, “No, I take that back. I’m lying. Lying is what I do. It’s part of my disease.” He eyed Wendy to see if she was buying this, or if she regarded it as further insincerity. The closer Leonard monitored her reactions, the further he got from telling the truth about himself, until he trailed off, feeling embarrassed and hot-faced, an eyesore of denial.

The bias of these kids was that Western religion was responsible for everything bad in the world, the rape of the earth, slaughterhouses, animal testing, whereas Eastern religion was ecological and pacific.

Madeleine’s excitement about the future seemed all the more vibrant against Leonard’s sudden lack of it. He was more or less sane now, more or less healthy, but he felt none of his usual energy or curiosity, none of his old animal spirits.

The logic of his brilliant move rested on one premise: that manic depression, far from being a liability, was an advantage. It was a selected trait. If it wasn’t selected for, then the “disorder” would have disappeared long ago, bred out of the population like anything else that didn’t increase the odds of survival. The advantage was obvious. The advantage was the energy, the creativity, the feeling of genius, almost, that Leonard felt right now.

It was like plowing through late James, or the pages about agrarian reform in Anna Karenina, until you suddenly got to a good part again, which kept on getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure.

All her life she’d avoided unbalanced people. She’d stayed away from the weird kids in elementary school. She’d avoided the gloomy, suicidal girls in high school who vomited up pills. What was it about crazy people that made you want to shun them? The futility of reasoning with them, certainly, but also something else, something like a fear of contagion. The casino, with its buzzing, smoke-filled air, seemed like a projection of Leonard’s mania, a howling zone full of the nightmare rich, opening their mouths to place bets or cry for alcohol.

What I’ve Been Reading

Recent books.

1. Principles by Ray Dalio. In the category of “books worth reading since a lot of smart people are currently reading it.” I enjoyed it. I didn’t know a lot about Dalio / Bridgewater beforehand so it was a handy way to get up to speed.

The advice in this book that I hear referenced most often is about sharing blunt feedback with colleagues — i.e. if you think someone on your team screwed up, share that feedback with them without a sugar coat. Ray shares several vivid examples of colleagues more junior than him saying to his face (remember, he was the CEO) that his performance in a meeting was disastrous or that the quality of one of his presentations was C+ in quality. It’s the best way to improve, Dalio argues.

I’m a bit more cautious on this advice. No doubt that candid feedback is necessary to improve as an individual and as an organization. But I question how many people are truly interested in constructive criticism even if they ask for it. They know they should be asking for constructive criticism but deep down they don’t want to hear it and will resent you afterwards (without ever admitting the source of the resentment, of course). A resentful colleague may be less effective than a colleague who’s not addressing their weaknesses as quickly as they could because they’re only getting the “nice” feedback.

The other question I’m left asking myself after reading Principles is whether we should audio/video record more of our meetings at work, like Bridgewater does, have them transcribed, and then keep a searchable text archive of all meetings so that colleagues who weren’t in the room can quickly sync up at their convenience.

2. Emerald City by Jennifer Egan. After devouring Manhattan Beach, I’m now working my way through the rest of the Egan canon. This collection of short stories is terrific. Out of the 11 stories, at least 7-8 of them held my attention all the way through; indeed, I was disappointed when they came to an end.

My favorite story is “Letters to Josephine,” which is about a woman named Lucy’s complicated feelings about becoming wealthy (via marriage) relative to her childhood and to her childhood friends. Lucy’s reflections on the blur of luxury travel that she indulges in with her aloof husband are spot-on. An example exchange between her friend Josephine and her:

“What does it look like from an airplane, when you land at night?” Josephine asked. “I always try to imagine it, how cities must look from above with all their lights blinking. Is it pretty?” Lucy pictured herself and Parker in an airplane, both of them tired and eager to land. “Well, it’s…” she paused, wondering what Josephine wanted her to say. She longed to say the right thing, to acknowledge the beauty without dwelling on it in a way that would seem self-satisfied. “It is pretty,” she said. “But you get used to it.”

From other stories, on feeling preemptively nostalgic in the *present* moment:

Bernadette notices the breeze, the limp water washing her toes. She feels an ache of nostalgia. Jann’s hand presses against her back. Between them all is a fragile weave of threads, a spider’s web. Bernadette longs for this moment as if it had already passed, as if it could have been.

On developing pleasure in observing others:

Lucy sits with a magazine in her lap and watches people. She has only recently begun to know the pleasure of watching others. For many years she could only worry that she herself was being watched, and would hide beneath wide hats and sunglasses and lipstick to avoid people’s stares. But lately she has grown more curious, less self-conscious.

3. Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Terrific. A collection of meandering essays written in the second person as direct advice to his daughter. Here are my other posts on Knausgaard. Note this is not part of the My Struggle series.

One of my favorite paragraphs near the end:

And perhaps the following is nothing but self-deception: the easy life is nothing to aspire to, the easy choice is never the worthiest solution, only the difficult life is a life worth living. I don’t know. But I think that’s how it is. What would seem to contradict this, is that I wish you and your siblings simple, easy, long and happy lives.

On how quickly we forget the generations before us:

Grandmother and Grandfather had been dead for more than twenty years, but were still vivid in my memory. To you they would be vague figures in the murk of history; you were born a hundred years after them, and when you entered your twenties, they would represent for you what people born in the 1860s did for me. Which is to say, practically nothing. The only ones who count are the living. That’s how it’s always been, and that’s how it will always be.

The paragraph continues with an original way of capturing the idea that the trivia and tedium of life is life:

Life clatters within the living, with all their mentalities and psychologies, and when they die and the clatter within them subsides, it continues in their children, and one comes to understand that the clatter was the main thing, the clatter was the point, the clatter was life.

And the final two sentences, from father to daughter:

Do you understand? Sometimes it hurts to live, but there is always something to live for. Could you try to remember that?

4. The Diversity Bonus by Scott Page. Some solid research arguing that the quality of decision making goes up for complicated decisions when there’s more cognitive diversity around the table. Very similar to Scott’s previous book, The Difference.

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In movie/TV land, the film “Sorry to Bother You” is terrific and truly original art, and set in my current city of residence, Oakland. The Netflix documentary series “Wild Wild Country” is pretty wild indeed and fairly binge worthy.

Book Notes: Motherhood: A Novel

The question of whether to have kids or not is a difficult one for some people, including me. I find the opinions of those who were utterly certain when making their decision (be they parents or settled non-parents) to be relatively uninteresting. I like people who wrestled with the pros and cons. That said, while the new novel Motherhood by Sheila Heti portrays a protagonist who’s relatively set on not having kids, it still intrigued and stimulated me and kept me reading to the end. For those thinking about the kids decision, it’s a solid supplement to non-fiction like Meghan Daum’s collection.

The plot of this book is non-existent other than one character ruminating over and over again: Do I want to have kids? I don’t, right? Here’s why I don’t. Well, maybe I do. No, surely I don’t, and here’s why. Good nuggets throughout on this singular question. But if the question isn’t of interest to you, this book isn’t for you…

Highlights below.


Parents have something greater than I’ll ever have, but I don’t want it, even if it’s so great, even if in a sense they’ve won the prize, or grabbed the golden ring, which is genetic relief—relief at having procreated; success in the biological sense, which on some days seems like the only sense that matters. And they have social success, too.

There is a kind of sadness in not wanting the things that give so many other people their life’s meaning. There can be sadness at not living out a more universal story—the supposed life cycle—how out of one life cycle another cycle is supposed to come.

I brought up my worries over paths not taken, and she said everyone had those, but often when you looked back on your life, you saw that the choices you made and the paths you went down were the right ones. She said it wasn’t a matter of choosing one life over another, but being sensitive to the life that wants to be lived through you. You need tension in order to create something—the sand in the pearl.

A lot of time is wasted in thinking about whether to have a child, when the thinking is such a small part of it, and when there is little enough time to think about things that actually bring meaning. Which are what? Nobody completely expected it to go the way it went—their life. Nobody is completely happy with the way things turned out for them. But most people manage to find some pleasure in it anyway.

What I need is so small: to eradicate any sentimentality from my feelings and to look at what is. Today, I defined sentimental to myself as a feeling about the idea of a feeling. And it seemed to me that my inclinations towards motherhood had a lot to with the idea of a feeling about motherhoodIt’s like the story my religious cousin told me when we were at her home for Shabbat dinner—of the girl who made chicken the way her mother did, which was the way her mother did: always tying the chicken legs together before putting it in the pot. When the girl asked her mother why she tied the legs together, her mother said, That’s the way my mother did it. When the girl asked her grandmother why she did it that way, her grandmother said, That’s how my mother did it. When she asked her great-grandmother why it was important to tie the chicken legs together, the woman replied, That’s the only way it would fit in my pot. I think that is how childbearing feels to me: a once-necessary, now sentimental gesture.

Will you one day feel about the mothering instinct the same way you now feel about the sex instinct, which also suddenly turned on? Like that other passage, you’ll resist it, but in retrospect, it took you.

Are the fantasies that visit us, of living other lives—like living with children if we don’t have them, or living without if we do—taboos? yes Are we supposed to build a conscious relationship with these taboos, so we might feel more at home in the world, on a macrocosmic level? yes How are we to do that? By challenging these taboos with our behavior? no By challenging them conceptually, in thought alone? no Instead of challenging them, should we be trying to bind the taboos with our lives, and so create a synthesis in our living? yes

Living one way is not a criticism of every other way of living. Is that the threat of the woman without kids? Yet the woman without kids is not saying that no woman should have kids, or that you—woman with a stroller—have made the wrong choice. Her decision about her life is no statement about yours. One person’s life is not a political or general statement about how all lives should be. Other lives should be able to exist alongside our own without any threat or judgment at all.

Some people try to imagine what it’s like not to have children—and they imagine themselves without children, instead of picturing a person they might never be. They project their own potential sadness over not having this experience on those who don’t want it at all. A person who can’t understand why someone doesn’t want children only has to locate their feelings for children, and imagine that desire directed somewhere else—to a life that is just as filled with hope, purpose, futurity and care.

Of course raising children is a lot of hard work, but I don’t see why it’s supposed to be so virtuous to do work that you created for yourself out of purely your own self-interest. It’s like someone who digs a big hole in the middle of a busy intersection, and then starts filling it up again, and proclaims: Filling up this hole is the most important thing in the world I could be doing right now.

All the times I’ve listened to myself, has it ever been a mistake? Often, yes. But wasn’t the freedom to make those mistakes greater than all the advice in the world?

I don’t have to live every possible life, or to experience that particular love. I know I cannot hide from life; that life will give me experiences no matter what I choose. Not having a child is no escape from life, for life will always put me in situations, and show me new things, and take me to darknesses I wouldn’t choose to see, and all sorts of treasures of knowledge I cannot comprehend.

Nobody looks at a childless gay couple and thinks their life must lack meaning or depth or substance because they didn’t have kids. No one looks at a couple of guys who have been together forever, love each other, are happy in their work, have chosen not to have kids, are probably still fucking, and pities them; or thinks that down deep inside they must know they’re living a trivial and callow life because they’re not fathers. Nobody thinks that! The idea of it is ridiculous!..  It’s only straight couples people have these feelings about—how empty their lives must be. No, actually, it’s not even the man—people look at him like he got away with something. It’s just the woman—the woman who doesn’t have a child is looked at with the same aversion and reproach as a grown man who doesn’t have a job. Like she has something to apologize for. Like she’s not entitled to pride.

I had always thought my friends and I were moving into the same land together, a childless land where we would just do a million things together forever. I thought our minds and souls were all cast the same way, not that they were waiting for the right moment to jump ship, which is how it feels as they abandon me here. I should not think of it as an abandoning, but it would be wrong to say it’s not a loss, or that I’m not startled at being so alone. How had I taken all of us as the same? Is that why I started wondering about having kids—because, one by one, the ice floe on which we were all standing was broken and made smaller, leaving me alone on just the tiniest piece of ice, which I had thought would remain vast, like a very large continent on which we’d all stay? It never occurred to me that I’d be the only one left here. I know I’m not the only one left, yet how can I trust the few who remain, when I’d been so mistaken about the rest?

What I’ve Been Reading

Recent books.

1. Feel Free by Zadie Smith. Collection of her non-fiction writing over the past many years. Lovely as always, with Smith. Skip around and pick the topics that tickle your interest. It’s quite a diverse compendium. I enjoyed it. To be sure, Tyler Cowen said he “spotted several intellectual and emotional fallacies” in the collection. I read it for the quality of the writing.

2. Heartburn by Nora Ephron. A famous novel from the 80’s, I finally got around to reading Ephron for the first time. I found Heartburn consistently laugh out loud funny, and insightful too. Some highlights.

On being single versus married:

One thing I have never understood is how to work it so that when you’re married, things keep happening to you. Things happen to you when you’re single. You meet new men, you travel alone, you learn new tricks, you read Trollope, you try sushi, you buy nightgowns, you shave your legs. Then you get married, and the hair grows in. I love the everydayness of marriage, I love figuring out what’s for dinner and where to hang the pictures and do we owe the Richardsons, but life does tend to slow to a crawl.

On systems of thought that can simplify if you’re not careful:

When I talk about it I sound a little like one of those starlets on The Tonight Show who’s just stumbled onto Eastern philosophy or feminism or encounter therapy or any other system of thought that explains everything in the universe in eight minutes.

On loving versus hating someone you marry:

You fall in love with someone, and part of what you love about him are the differences between you; and then you get married and the differences start to drive you crazy.

On crying:

The first is that I have always believed that crying is a highly overrated activity: women do entirely too much of it, and the last thing we ought to want is for it to become a universal excess. The second thing I want to say is this: beware of men who cry. It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.

3. Bandwidth by Eliot Peper. Eliot’s new, widely heralded sci-fi novel got published today! Very timely. Eliot has his pulse on the Valley.

4. Be the Pack Leader by Cesar Milan. Great advice on how to think about how to relate to dogs. Recommended for first time dog owners. Cesar’s Netflix show Cesar 911 is also amusing and educational.

5. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. A bit repetitive. Sleep is vital, and the author manages to say this in 50 different ways. I’m convinced! I already was convinced. I did glean some practical tips though:

  • I’ve been turning off my bedroom light as soon as I get in bed and reading only by the light of my Kindle before sleep. He discusses the impact of light in the bedroom and the importance of getting into a dark room as quickly as possible as you try to fall asleep.
  • I now splash water on my face each night before getting into bed. “It is no evolutionary coincidence that we humans have developed the pre-bed ritual of splashing water on one of the most vascular parts of our bodies—our face, using one of the other highly vascular surfaces—our hands. You may think the feeling of being facially clean helps you sleep better, but facial cleanliness makes no difference to your slumber. The act itself does have sleep-inviting powers, however, as that water, warm or cold, helps dissipate heat from the surface of the skin as it evaporates, thereby cooling the inner body core…Consequently, you fall asleep more quickly because your core is colder. Hot baths prior to bed can also induce 10 to 15 percent more deep NREM sleep in healthy adults.”
  • I more aggressively use A/C or a fan. “A bedroom temperature of around 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3°C) is ideal for the sleep of most people.”
  • I will ask doctors who need to perform work on my body how many hours of sleep they got the night prior. “If you are a patient under the knife of an attending physician who has not been allowed at least a six-hour sleep opportunity the night prior, there is a 170 percent increased risk of that surgeon inflicting a serious surgical error on you, such as organ damage or major hemorrhaging, relative to the superior procedure they would conduct when they have slept adequately.”

6. Reset by Ellen Pao. Powerful personal testimony and a call to arms about diversity in the tech industry. Required reading for all VCs, at a minimum, if not everyone who works in tech.