Book Review: Our Man by George Packer

I wasn’t expecting to read a 600 page biography of the late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, but after reading Walter Isaacson’s excellent review of George Packer’s biography, I one-clicked the Kindle purchase of Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.

It’s extraordinary. On several nights the past couple weeks, I climbed into bed exhausted by the day and expecting to read for just a few minutes before falling asleep. Instead I stayed up past my bedtime, riveted by the historical sketches of far-flung places, the complex shades of grey of each of the Beltway cast of characters, and the compelling portrait of the man at the center of this biography: Holbrooke.

I learned a lot about Vietnam, Bosnia, and Afghanistan — and America’s foreign policy record in each place. I learned about the “American century” of foreign policy, as Packer calls it, the 50-60 years after WWII when Pax Americana ruled and there was a sense that no humanitarian or democratic cause was too small for America — that American diplomatic, cultural, and military might could right wrongs in every corner of the earth. And most of all, I learned a lot about one man — Holbrooke — who embodied the idealistic values of his generation, and who became a one-man wrecking ball whose energy and intellect and doggedness and arrogance and unapologetic ambition really did change the world in several concrete ways.

Holbrooke was of a class: “These were unsentimental, supremely self-assured white Protestant men—privileged, you could say—born around the turn of the century, who all knew one another and knew how to get things done. They didn’t take a piss without a strategy.”

He set his ambitions high from the outset of his career, where, shortly after joining the Foreign Service and heading to Vietnam, he openly predicted that he’d one day become Secretary of State. Packer’s description of how Holbrooke manifested his ambition — so sweatily transparent it was repulsive even to those inclined to affection for the man — reminded me of Caro’s description of Lyndon Johnson’s early political years. “Ambition is not a pretty thing up close, Packer writes. “It’s wild and crass, and mortifying in the details. It brings a noticeable smell into the room.”

LBJ of course achieved his ultimate ambition (the White House) whereas Holbrooke never quite did. He served key roles throughout the State Department and ultimately was named Ambassador to the UN by Bill Clinton, but never reached Secretary of State. In this sense Packer suggests Holbrooke was “almost great”– and the “almost” ate at Holbrooke till the day he died. Packer writes, about himself, “As a member of the class of lesser beings who aspire to a good life but not a great one—who find the very notion both daunting and distasteful—I can barely fathom the agony of that ‘almost.’ ”

One corollary to Holbrooke’s ambition and frenetic workaholism was a complete lack of an inner life. Packer suggests that whatever introspecting Holbrooke engaged in served his ambition more so than a search for truth or identity. “So much thought, so little inwardness. He could not be alone—he might have had to think about himself,” Packer writes. Packer elaborates:

Except in fiction, the only inner life you can ever really know is your own. With others we might get flickers, intimations of the continuous parallel hidden experience that’s just as alive and rich in contours as the visible, audible person. Some of us have a talent for projecting it outward—detailed dreams and memories, Tourette’s-like eruptions, self-analysis. Holbrooke was not among these translucent souls. For most of his life, in almost every situation, he kept the parallel experience under heavy guard.

After romping through Vietnam and Bosnia — the Dayton peace accord being Holbrooke’s signature diplomatic achievement, of course — the final fifth of the book takes place in Obama’s White House. We see Holbrooke fail miserably to connect with Barack Obama or the inner circle of the Obama foreign policy team, a team very self-conscious about breaking from the foreign policy establishment and which had little interest in lessons from Vietnam. Packer suggests Obama saw his role as “managing America’s decline wisely” — from the sole superpower with an ambitious idealistic agenda — to that of a more humble player on an increasingly crowded global stage, chastened by the catastrophe of the Iraq war. Of course, the Obama philosophy of restraint and humility cut against Holbrooke’s more idealistic instincts and revealed the generational divide between the two: one who came of age during a time of American greatness and the other rose to power during the clear decline of American power. Nonetheless, Obama and Holbrooke should have gotten along more than they did: Holbrooke actually shared Obama’s perspective on America’s involvement in Afghanistan, which was to send fewer troops than the generals were requesting. But interpersonally, they clashed, and Holbrooke was sidelined.

Packer was granted exclusive access to Holbrooke’s diary entries, Holbrooke kept dutifully throughout his career, ever attentive to his legacy. The entries are wonderfully written. Certain chapters in Packer’s book are entirely Holbrooke’s diary. He’s a wonderful writer; indeed, Holbrooke spent considerable time as a writer/journalist/ghostwriter. So you can really see his mind come alive. For example, here’s Holbrooke’s private diary entry on Bob Woodward’s book on Afghanistan decision making in the Obama White House:

It’s a very poor book in terms of explaining how policy is made. It’s full of meaningless and trivial little factoids and anecdotes that are irrelevant to the larger theme. Woodward would argue that those illustrate the personality of the president, and in that sense he’s right. But he doesn’t have the ability to distinguish between what matters and what doesn’t matter, and because he writes as he gets the information, the information is out of context. A minor dispute that was resolved quickly but with great intensity might take precedence over a major policy dispute which is resolved in a different, more orderly way.

By the end of this biography, you get a sense of a man so rich in strengths and yet so hobbled by weakness. So beloved, and yet so hated by so many people. Packer writes: “I used to think that if Holbrooke could just be fixed—a dose of self-restraint, a flash of inward light—he could have done anything. But that’s an illusion. We are wholly ourselves. If you cut out the destructive element, you would kill the thing that made him almost great.”

Below are some other highlighted sentences from Our Man from my Kindle. Here’s my report from traveling to Bosnia that includes highlights from Kaplan’s the Balkan Ghosts. Here are my notes from Joseph Epstein’s book Ambition. George Packer is a gifted writer. Here’s a previous post on George Packer commenting on Andrew Sullivan; here’s my quick recap of Packer’s earlier book.


[Holbrooke would say:] “I feel, and I hope this doesn’t sound too self-satisfied, that in a very difficult situation where nobody has the answer, I at least know what the overall questions and moving parts are.”

The only problems worth his time were the biggest, hardest ones.

How he lobbied for the Nobel Peace Prize—that kind of thing, all the time, as if he needed to discharge a surplus of self every few hours to maintain his equilibrium.

Holbrooke had invoked his father and it nearly undid him. If those few words were enough to break his formidable public control, imagine what else lay breathing in his depths. Throughout his life, the person whose approval he needed most was no longer there to be impressed. If you want analysis, that’s the best I can give you.

Today it’s impossible to imagine someone his age, aglow with molten ambition, choosing the Foreign Service. But in those days it was different. Business wasn’t entrepreneurial and heroic—it was corporate and dull.

Years later, when his students at Georgetown would ask him how to become secretary of state, he would answer: “If you eat turds for the rest of your life to become someone, either 1) you’ll achieve it and discover you’re not happy, or 2) because you’re eating turds and your ambition is so obvious, you won’t get it.”

[In his youth] His ambition still had a clean smell, and youth was working in his favor—physical courage, moral passion, the boundless energy and enthusiasm and sheer sense of fun, the skepticism, the readiness to talk straight to ambassadors and generals.

After the evacuation of dependents and the arrival of ground troops in 1965, South Vietnam became a vast brothel. But even before there were half a million Americans, sex was an elemental part of the war. “I have the theory that if the women of Vietnam had big copper spoons through their noses and looked like Ubangis,” a reporter once said, “this war wouldn’t have lasted half as long, and maybe wouldn’t have even started.”

Inaction, inactivity is as much an action as action itself; it is as much of a decision to do nothing as it is to do something.

“You have a brilliant future ahead of you,” an administrator at the embassy told Holbrooke, “but you will move faster if you slow down.”

The process of disenchantment was excruciatingly slow. Later on, people would backdate their moment of truth, their long-deferred encounter with the glaringly obvious. [On Vietnam]

She was an intelligent woman, Phi Beta Kappa at Brown, but his brilliance sapped her self-confidence. There was nothing in her life she could be proud of, except the boys and the occasional canard à l’orange. She felt that she bored her husband when she tried to confide in him, and so she was lonely even when they were together.

While she slept, there had been a revolution in the lives of American women. In 1964 she was expected to be her husband’s helpmeet. In 1971 she was a loser for having no career of her own.

If Holbrooke found you interesting but not threatening, he could be the best company in the world.

So there’s a mystery. And maybe there should be. We like to think that truth lies in details, the more details the clearer the truth, like the cumulative pages of a trial transcript, but this piling up of facts only gives us the false assurance that we’ve gotten to the heart of the matter when in fact we understand almost nothing. There’s a kind of injustice that goes by the name of thoroughness. Who could hold up under trial by biography? None of us. I’ll try to stay clear of testimony, verdict, and sentence.

Deng’s sixteen-day “lesson” in February 1979 killed twenty thousand people—ten thousand Vietnamese soldiers and civilians and an equal number of Chinese soldiers—while destroying a large swath of northern Vietnam that had been spared American bombing.
Blythe couldn’t stand Washington. Her reasons weren’t original—it was full of self-important bores who made no distinction between work and personal life—but you can imagine her particular frustration as a young woman.

But it wasn’t enough to rescue people at sea—they had to be given permanent homes somewhere. Neighboring countries announced that they were full up, tugging boats back out to sea and even threatening to shoot the desperate passengers. In June 1979, Holbrooke flew on Air Force One to Japan for the G7 summit meeting, and during the flight across the Pacific he badgered first Vance and then Carter to double the number of Southeast Asian refugees admitted into the United States from seven to fourteen thousand. It was not a priority issue.

The next year—the last of his presidency—Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980, which tripled the annual number of refugees allowed into the country. By 1982 the United States had admitted half a million Indochinese, by far the most of any country in the world. The number eventually reached one and a half million. Holbrooke had a lot to do with it.

It’s strange to remember that there were no bigger celebrities in the eighties than the men and women who read news scripts on TV. Everything about them—their seven-figure salaries, their rivalries, their haircuts—was a story, often bigger than the news itself, as when ABC and NBC tried to steal Sawyer away from CBS (ABC finally got her).

Not because he ever closed a deal—he didn’t—but because bankers who knew their own deficiencies were as dazzled by his political intelligence and worldliness as he was by their money. No matter how rich and successful, bankers tend to be narrow and gray, and Holbrooke was polychromatic company.

Ever since the acquisition of Lehman by Shearson/American Express, Holbrooke had been star-fucking the CEO of AmEx, James Robinson (in spite of finding him intellectually incurious and self-absorbed),

Ghostwriters are a tolerated literary scandal, but their presence lingers like the echo of another voice that confuses the sense of true verisimilitude.

Holbrooke considered the scandals a late-life lapse that didn’t lay a glove on the great man.

His shameless hunger made him more vulnerable than his heroes, and, to me at least, more human.

Something went wrong. The speakers were improvising and trying to top one another, paying back the high cost of being in his life. They didn’t know how to be witty, the jokes cut too deep and true, and the smell of blood turned the play savage. Holbrooke, who could never laugh at himself because he didn’t know himself, was laughing now from his table by the podium because it was the only way to survive the disaster, and he kept looking around for others to join him. But no one else was laughing.

SHE WAS INDISPUTABLY BEAUTIFUL, with the middle coloring he liked. Magyar cheekbones. Brown eyes keenly, you could say acquisitively, fixed from earliest childhood photos on the object of their desire. European style of elegance—she could get away with a trench coat and foulard. Breasts larger than he expected—he liked that too. Her beauty wasn’t the kind that sat back and waited to be unveiled. It was acutely conscious of its power, and when she walked into a room not only did every man think, She looks great, but they felt, in some subtle way that they didn’t understand, compelled to tell her, as if the price of not doing so would be too high. She elicited admiration and fear, leading men and women alike to cast themselves as obliging extras in the drama she created.

And in fact you could easily imagine her as the passionate and calculating Comtesse de Marton in a novel by Stendhal—the quick wit, the love of books and talk, the shrewdness about other people, the machinations.

[Diary entries:] I talked to Les Gelb tonight, who said that he had had the worst conversation of his life with Tony Lake, a thirty-minute screaming match which had basically torn what was left of their friendship. … Entering the Oval Office for the “pre-brief” with Christopher, Berger, and Gore, I was startled when the president looked up from his desk at me and said, “I didn’t know that you were dating Peter Jennings’s ex-wife.” Then, looking right at me, he said, “She’s lovely—really lovely.” I said I agreed and thanked him, and he said, “Shows good taste on your part, but I don’t know about the women.” I wanted to say, “I’ll tell you my secrets later, Mr. President,” but looking at his watch Sandy pulled the discussion back to the reason for the meeting.

If Holbrooke had told Clinton that a certain Lieutenant Colonel Randall Banky—not a Rhodes Scholar, not on the call, not on the president’s peace mission—had gone down the mountain, rescued the wounded, and found the remains of the dead, there would have been a subtle deflation over the line, and the origin myth might have never been born, and with it the American drive for peace. Holbrooke, who loved history, told the kind of story that history loves.

Banky knew that this wouldn’t happen, and it didn’t happen, and in 2002, having been passed over for promotion, he retired as a lieutenant colonel, unable to lay to rest the suspicion that his army career ended because “Colonel Banky had disappeared.”

They were cut from similar Foreign Service cloth—cerebral and mordantly witty.

As for Izetbegovic, Clark was more his kind of American—solid, respectful. Holbrooke’s intensity seemed to bring out the madness in Bosnian leaders, and Izetbegovic didn’t trust him. He and Holbrooke talked by paying each other false compliments—“Mr. President, you are absolutely right, but…”—so they could never become partners like Holbrooke and Milosevic.

But she knew many Serbs who helped Muslims, including the man who dragged her sister over a bridge across the siege line to safety. When her neighbors on the rooftop cheered the air strikes, the woman pointed out that innocent people would also be killed.

Holbrooke let him go on, enjoying the parley, and then always brought them back to the war. He would step out to take calls—taking calls during meals was one of his favorite shows of status—and come back to say that it was the White House on the phone, though Hill and the others thought the calls were probably from Kati.

And yet this mix of the outsized and drab—this American, specifically midwestern atmosphere, at once banal and imposing and earnest—it told the gilded palaces of Europe: you have the history and the beauty, but you failed to end this war on your continent. Nothing happened until the Americans got involved—until the uncouth, sleepless Holbrooke barged in.

Washington, which has an animate and collective mind, considered Madeleine Albright more solid than brilliant, a politically savvy tactician rather than a serious strategist.

Pax Americana began to decay at its very height. If you ask me when the long decline began, I might point to 1998. We were flabby, smug, and self-absorbed. Imagine a president careless enough to stumble into his enemies’ trap and expend his power on a blue dress. Imagine a superpower so confident of perpetual peace and prosperity that it felt able to waste a whole year on Oval Office cocksucking.

Holbrooke met one-on-one with more than a hundred members of Congress. Most of them had never sat down with a cabinet member and were flattered by the attention of a diplomatic star.

And they were happily married. At least he was, and in his case an affair didn’t disprove it. The younger woman merely aroused an appetite in a class where affairs were practically expected. He was still gone on Kati.

Holbrooke didn’t quite fall in love with Afghanistan. He was too American to go native anywhere. The only foreign language he ever learned was French, which he spoke fluently with a heavy New York accent, and when he bought local artifacts it was to give them away as gifts, not to furnish his own houses. He fell for problems, not countries, and it was the problem of Afghanistan that began to consume him.

They called themselves Taliban—“students.”

Karzai began to sound like a nationalist—not an aggressive one like Milosevic, but more like Diem, proud and resentful, with the humiliated anger that a poor man feels toward a rich man whose help he sought.

“I am deeply torn about this,” he wrote in his diary. “An undefined job is like entering a room in which all the seats are taken, then insisting that everyone move to make room…Everyone says I must take this job, and I probably will. But with no great enthusiasm or hope I can make much of it, given its difficulties.—My ability to get something done will depend on H + BO willingness to listen to my views—and I am worried on that score.”

Haqqani would set about to teach Holbrooke how to see through Pakistan’s deceptions and self-deceptions.

“Your problem is you care about substance,” Holbrooke warned Rubin. “Government is all about process.” And he told Nasr, “I want you to learn nothing from government. This place is dead intellectually. It does not produce any ideas—it’s all about turf battles and checking the box. Your job is to break through all this. Anybody gives you trouble, come to me.” Once their security clearances came through, Nasr would advise Holbrooke on Pakistan and Rubin—who knew Karzai well—on Afghanistan.

But if Rubin condescended in any way to Clinton, she wouldn’t listen to a thing he said. Holbrooke had noticed Rubin’s habit of speaking arrogantly to people he thought knew less than he did. “Okay, I get it,” Rubin said. “Funny, I heard exactly the same thing about you.” “See—that’s just what I’m talking about.”

He wasted no time on greetings or small talk. He was, Holbrooke thought, the opposite of Bill Clinton—disciplined like a corporate boss, comfortable giving orders, impatient, sometimes cold. Obama had the remoteness of an introvert who didn’t pretend affection any more than he’d lie about having read your book. His sense of integrity depended on refusing to backslap. He saved his warmth for the few who really generated it—his family, his old friends. The distance he kept from his advisors gave him a power Clinton never had. Still, Holbrooke wished he’d smile or laugh now and then.

But in fact Obama had a distaste for Holbrooke, almost a physical repulsion that made him go cold.

Government had grown specialized, compartmentalized, and that suited Obama, who was a stickler for orderly process—a technocrat disguised as a visionary.

Every president needs a loyalist who doesn’t care what anyone else thinks as long as the boss has his back, which gives his actions a higher blessing than ordinary morality.

If his interlocutor is another American not in his chain of command, his lack of patience when he isn’t speaking is palpable.

Book Review: The Second Mountain by David Brooks

Some people love to hate on David Brooks. And his latest book, The Second Mountain, offers opportunity for his haters to hate: It’s a book about morality and values, in large part fueled by his own personal transformation over the past decade, including a decision to split from his wife and then, later, to marry his research assistant 20 years his junior. His critics are making hay over this aspect of his personal story. Personally, I find Brooks’ personal life not essential to understanding and even agreeing with the arguments in the book. Further, I’m not sure why divorce and re-marriage (even to someone younger than you) ought to subject someone to ridicule. So, I both enjoyed the book, and do not judge Brooks’ personal life.

I find the “two mountains” premise simple yet deep: The first mountain you climb in life is about worldly success, career achievement. You get to the top of the mountain and realize it’s not totally satisfying. “Is this all there?” you wonder. So you begin to climb a second mountain in life–a journey of searching for deeper meaning in life:

You don’t climb the second mountain the way you climb the first mountain. You conquer your first mountain. You identify the summit, and you claw your way toward it. You are conquered by your second mountain. You surrender to some summons, and you do everything necessary to answer the call and address the problem or injustice that is in front of you. On the first mountain you tend to be ambitious, strategic, and independent. On the second mountain you tend to be relational, intimate, and relentless.

This resonates personally, not that I’ve necessarily conquered any mountain yet in my life. It also resonates when I think about my friends later in life who are very much at the top of a career mountain but are still searching for…something. The Buddhist idea that getting what you want won’t make you happy — this truth, if indeed true, is incredibly profound. And it seems true.

Brooks lays out a bunch of interesting researched stories, personal anecdotes, and research snippets to make his case that leading a more purposeful life requires intentionality if you are to overcome the natural order of shallowness. For Brooks, part of the journey to a deeper life involved religion, and becoming a “confused Christian” in addition to his Judaism. The most compelling stories to me were about people who prioritized service and volunteerism in their lives.

Here are some of my highlights from the Kindle edition.


There are temporary highs we all get after we win some victory, and then there is also this other kind of permanent joy that animates people who are not obsessed with themselves but have given themselves away.

It’s all the normal stuff: nice home, nice family, nice vacations, good food, good friends, and so on. Then something happens. Some people get to the top of that first mountain, taste success, and find it…unsatisfying. “Is this all there is?” they wonder. They sense there must be a deeper journey they can take.

I’ve written this book, in part, to remind myself of the kind of life I want to live.

We can help create happiness, but we are seized by joy. We are pleased by happiness, but we are transformed by joy. When we experience joy we often feel we have glimpsed into a deeper and truer layer of reality. A narcissist can be happy, but a narcissist can never be joyful, because the surrender of self is the precise thing a narcissist can’t do. A narcissist can’t even conceive of joy. That’s one of the problems with being stuck on the first mountain: You can’t even see what the second mountain offers.

This is the sudden bursting of love that you see, for example, on the face of a mother when she first lays eyes on her infant. Dorothy Day captured it beautifully: “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure, I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms….No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.”

As Haidt notes, powerful moments of moral elevation seem to push a mental reset button, wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and moral inspiration. These moments of elevation are energizing. People feel strongly motivated to do something good themselves, to act, to dare, to sacrifice, to help others. When people

All of this points in one direction: into the ditch. The person who graduates from school and pursues an aesthetic pattern of life often ends up in the ditch. It’s only then that they realize the truth that somehow nobody told them: Freedom sucks. Political freedom is great. But personal, social, and emotional freedom—when it becomes an ultimate end—absolutely sucks. It leads to a random, busy life with no discernible direction, no firm foundation, and in which, as Marx put it, all that’s solid melts to air.

If this sense of lostness can happen to a Tolstoy, then it can happen to anybody. After all, the rest of us can be haunted by the idea that we haven’t accomplished as much as we could. But Tolstoy was one of the greatest writers who ever lived and knew it. Wealth and fame and accomplishment do not spare anybody from the valley.

This is a telos crisis. A telos crisis is defined by the fact that people in it don’t know what their purpose is. When this happens, they become fragile. Nietzsche says that he who has a “why” to live for can endure any “how.” If you know what your purpose is, you can handle the setbacks. But when you don’t know what your purpose is, any setback can lead to total collapse.

A lot is gained simply by going into a different physical place. You need to taste and touch and feel your way toward a new way of being. And there are huge benefits in leaving the center of things and going off into the margins.

The wilderness lives at the pace of what the Greeks called kairos time, which can be slower but is always richer.

Think about it: Almost every movie you’ve ever seen is about somebody experiencing this intense sense of merging with something, giving themselves away to something—a mission, a cause, a family, a nation, or a beloved.

Maybe some of us will learn these lessons while racking up success after success, or just being thoroughly loved, but for most of us the process is different: We have a season when we chase the shallow things in life. We are not fulfilled. Then comes hardship, which exposes the heart and soul. The heart and soul teach us that we cannot give ourselves what we desire most. Fulfillment and joy are on the far side of service. Only then are we really able to love.

I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of a dinner table. It’s the stage on which we turn toward one another for love like flowers seeking the sun.
It is a paradox that when people are finding themselves they often have a sensation that they are letting go and surrendering themselves. You meet a person in need. At first you just commit to help them a little. An hour a week. It’s no big deal. But then you get to know and care about the person, and the hooks of commitment are set. Now you’ll do what needs to be done. At this point you just let go of the wheel. You stop asking, What do I want? and start asking, What is life asking of me? You respond.

When they are working with the homeless or the poor or the traumatized, they are laboring alongside big welfare systems that offer services but not care. These systems treat people as “cases” or “clients.” They are necessary to give people financial stability and support, but they can’t do transformational change. As Peter Block, one of the leading experts on community, puts it, “Talk to any poor person or vulnerable person and they can give you a long list of the services they have received. They are well serviced, but you often have to ask what in their life has fundamentally changed.”

One task in life is synthesis. It is to collect all the fragmented pieces of a self and bring them to a state of unity, so that you move coherently toward a single vision.

Like T. S. Eliot, Orwell believed that good writing involves a continual extinction of personality. One struggles, Orwell wrote, “to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.” The act of writing well involved self-suppression, putting the reader in direct contact with the thing described.

“Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him,” Walker Percy observes.

Technical, book knowledge, Oakeshott writes, consists of “formulated rules which are, or may be, deliberately learned.” Practical knowledge, on the other hand, cannot be taught or learned but only imparted and acquired. It exists only in practice. When we talk about practical knowledge, we tend to use bodily metaphors. We say that somebody has a touch for doing some activity—an ability to hit the right piano key with just enough force and pace. We say that somebody has a feel for the game, an intuition for how events are going to unfold, an awareness of when you should plow ahead with a problem and when you should put it aside before coming back to it. We say that somebody has taste, an aesthetic sense of what product or presentation is excellent, and which ones are slightly off.

Eighty-three percent of all corporate mergers fail to create any value for shareholders, and these mergers are only made after months and years of analysis. When making the big choices in life, as L.A. Paul puts it, “You shouldn’t fool yourself—you have no idea what you are getting into.”

In most key decision moments, there are actually many more options that are being filtered out by that point of view. Every time you find yourself saying “whether or not,” the Heaths argue, it’s a good idea to step back and find more options. Maybe the question is not breaking up with Sue or not; it’s finding a new way to improve your relationship.

You can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but you can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.

Who you marry is the most important decision you will ever make. Marriage colors your life and everything in it. George Washington had a rather interesting life, but still concluded, “I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of one’s life, the foundation of happiness or misery.”

“I don’t really know of many happy marriages. I know a lot of marriages where parents love their kids.”
J. B Priestley once observed that there is probably no talk quite so delightful as the talk between two people who are not yet in love, but who might fall in love, and are aware that each has hidden reserves waiting to be explored.

“He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love,” King wrote.

Neuroticism, Tashiro continues, is what you want to avoid. It seems exciting and dramatic at first, but neurotic people are tense, moody, prone to sadness. Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative emotions such as anger and anxiety with great force. “Neurotic individuals tend to have a history of turbulent and unstable relationships with others, including family and friends. They also tend to be prone to what looks like bad luck, but with time, one often sees that there are ways that their neuroticism evokes unfortunate

John Gottman, the dean of marriage scholars, grasped the essence: “Happy marriages are based on a deep friendship. By this I mean mutual respect for and enjoyment of each other’s company. These couples tend to know each other intimately—they are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams. They have an abiding regard for each other and express this fondness not just in big ways but in little ways day in and day out.”

Emotional knowledge, Roger Scruton argues, is knowing what to feel in certain situations—so that you can be properly disgusted by injustice, properly reverent before an act of self-sacrifice, properly sympathetic in friendship, and properly forbearing when wronged.

One morning, for example, I was getting off the subway in Penn Station in New York at rush hour. I was surrounded as always by thousands of people, silent, sullen, trudging to work in long lines. Normally in those circumstances you feel like just another ant leading a meaningless life in a meaningless universe. Normally the routineness of life dulls your capacity for wonder. But this time everything flipped, and I saw souls in all of them. It was like suddenly everything was illuminated, and I became aware of an infinite depth in each of these thousands of people. They were living souls. Suddenly it seemed like the most vivid part of reality was this: Souls waking up in the morning. Souls riding the train to work. Souls yearning for goodness. Souls wounded by earlier traumas. Souls in each and every person, illuminating them from the inside, haunting them, and occasionally enraptured within them, souls alive or numb in them; and with that came a feeling that I was connected by radio waves to all of them—some underlying soul of which we were all a piece.

Rabbi Heschel says that awe is not an emotion; it is a way of understanding. “Awe is itself an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves.”

Then, as now, I try to hire people who have some progression on their résumé that doesn’t make sense by the conventional logic of the meritocracy. I want to see that they believe in something bigger than the conventional definition of success.

There is a Muslim saying, Whatever you think God is, He is not that.

I experienced grace before I experienced God, and sometimes I still have trouble getting back to the source. But I find that as long as there are five or ten people in your life whose faith seems gritty and real and like your own, that keeps the whole thing compelling.

Later in life, Buechner found himself amid young Christians who spoke confidently about God as if they talked to Him all the time, and He talked back. God told them to pursue this job and not that one, and to order this at the restaurant and not that. He was dumbstruck. He wrote that if you say you hear God talking to you every day on every subject, you are either trying to pull the wool over your own eyes or everybody else’s. Instead, he continues, you should wake up in your bed and ask, “Can I believe it all again today?” Or, better yet, ask yourself that question after you’ve scanned the morning news and seen all the atrocities that get committed. If your answer to that question of belief is “yes” every single day, then you probably don’t know what believing in God really means, Buechner writes. “At least five times out of ten the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you’re human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession and tears and…great laughter.”

One of the signature facts of the Internet age is that distance is not dead. Place matters as much as ever, and much more than we ever knew. The average American lives eighteen miles from his or her mother. The typical college student enrolls in a college fifteen miles from home. A study of Facebook friends nationwide found that 63 percent of the people we friend live within one hundred miles. Americans move less these days, not more.

Hyper-individualism, the reigning ethos of our day, is a system of morals, feelings, ideas, and practices based on the idea that the journey through life is an individual journey, that the goals of life are individual happiness, authenticity, self-actualization, and self-sufficiency. Hyper-individualism puts the same question on everybody’s lips: What can I do to make myself happy?

 The tribalist is seeking connection but isolates himself ever more bitterly within his own resentments and distrust. Tribalism is the dark twin of community. The tragic paradox of hyper-individualism is that what began as an ecstatic liberation ends up as a war of tribe against tribe that crushes the individuals it sought to free.

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve got a long backlog of books to blog about. Here are some highlights from recent reads.

1. Ties by Domenico Starnone

A wonderful novel about marriage, affairs, and family life, written by the person who’s rumored to be have a relationship with Elena Ferrante.

Jhumpa Lahiri‘s introduction is worth the price of admission on its own. Here’s Lahiri:

Love is a key word in Ties, a term that is questioned, redefined, shunned, treasured, maligned. At one point Vanda says that love is merely “a container we stick everything into.” It is, in essence, a hollow vessel, a placeholder that justifies our behaviors and choices. A notion that consoles us, that cons us more often than not.

And then Lahiri goes on:

Ties looks coldly at the price of freedom and happiness. It both celebrates and castigates Dionysian states of ecstasy, of abandon. And though happiness often involves linking ourselves to other people—in other words, stepping outside the confines of ourselves—it is something, in the final analysis, that characters experience privately, alone.

From the book itself, now. How our busyness keeps memory and remorse at bay:

the tight mesh of the days—meetings, rivalries, permanent tensions, small defeats, small victories, trips for work, kisses and embraces in the evening, at night, in the morning: a perfect antidote for keeping memory and remorse at bay—slackened imperceptibly.

On how affairs start:

At every opportunity—I said to myself—I could have a lover: It’s like the rain, a drop collides randomly with another drop and forms a rivulet. All you had to do was insist on that initial curiosity, and the curiosity would become attraction, the attraction would grow and lead to sex, sex would call for repetition, repetition would establish a habit, a need.

…I’m not sure of the reasons why I behaved this way. Certainly the sport of seduction, sexual curiosity, and the impression (unfounded) that each flirtation reawakened lost creativity all played a role. But I prefer a motivation that’s more elusive, and also more true: I wanted to prove to myself that in spite of having reformed the old couple, in spite of having returned to the family, in spite of putting a wedding band back on my finger, I was free, that I no longer had real ties.

2. No One Tells You This by Glynnis MacNicol

A surprisingly engaging memoir from a woman in her early 40’s who’s unmarried and childless, and the swirl of emotions and decision points surrounding those two facts.

On motherhood:

Parents, especially women, have a habit of talking about motherhood as though it were an exotic mystical land where everything is dazzling; as if they’d walked through a closet and the world has suddenly gone Technicolor. Or at least that’s how it often felt, listening to them from the shores of childless land. With each breakfast rush and school run and nighttime snuggle, I was traveling further and further into that land, if only as a tourist. It did not feel mystical, unless you count the hallucinatory effect of having no sleep. But it was electrifying. There was a charge in this I could not deny, a sense of propulsion and deep, absolute necessity.

On having kids — it tells you what you’re going to do over 20+ years, and ensures you’ll always feel at least somewhat important:

“This is why people have babies,” I said, “because it’s exhausting not to know what you’re supposed to do next. A baby is basically a nonnegotiable map for the next two decades.

…Ambition is ambition; like running water it has to go somewhere, and this was a place I could understand it going. The truth was, there was some brief relief to that picture: on a very basic level I would know exactly what I was supposed to do every day, and it would always be important to someone. I’d never have to wonder over my own necessity or whether what I was doing was worthwhile.

On her close friend getting married, and how that upends their friendship, and what she would have liked to say — with all the attendant complexities — as a wedding toast:

I wasn’t envious of Mauri. If anything, I was envious of our past lives together, and I was mourning a life I was losing. The resentment, I’d realized, was rooted in the fact that I never had any control over this upending of my life. It had never occurred to me that I was allowed to do anything but silently accept it. The fact that no one acknowledged that I had anything to be upset about made it all that much worse. It was hard work to root yourself so deeply in life that you could still love people and rely on them, knowing at any point they could make decisions that would leave you scrambling to find solid ground again. This was the better or worse of friendship, undeclared. What I wanted was for there to exist some way for me to say I’m happy and sad and not jealous all at the same time, and also This is a loss and is still beautiful. Maybe that was the wedding toast. We are really the ones giving you away. And it’s hard. And I will miss our life. And I am still so happy for your happiness. And so proud of you.

No one knows what you’re missing when you pick one path over another:

But it seemed to me that going through life making decisions on what I might possibly feel in a future that may or may not come about was a bad way to live. I wasn’t going to have a baby as an insurance policy against some future remorse I couldn’t yet imagine. I had more respect for myself than that. The truth was, no one knows what they’re missing in the end. You can only live your own life, and do your best with the outcome when you roll the dice.

3. Between the World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates has his lovers and his haters. I’m neither, by virtue of not having read his full canon. But I really enjoyed his most famous book. There are so many poetic lines it’s hard to do justice without pasting 50 excerpts below. Suffice to say it was one of the more powerful accounts of the role race plays in the American experience that I have ever read.

You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.

I have my work. I no longer feel it necessary to hang my head at parties and tell people that I am “trying to be a writer.” And godless though I am, the fact of being human, the fact of possessing the gift of study, and thus being remarkable among all the matter floating through the cosmos, still awes me.

Not long ago I was standing in an airport retrieving a bag from a conveyor belt. I bumped into a young black man and said, “My bad.” Without even looking up he said, “You straight.” And in that exchange there was so much of the private rapport that can only exist between two particular strangers of this tribe that we call black. In other words, I was part of a world.

Through the windshield I saw the mark of these ghettos—the abundance of beauty shops, churches, liquor stores, and crumbling housing—and I felt the old fear. Through the windshield I saw the rain coming down in sheets.

A little girl wanders home, at age seven, after being teased in school and asks her parents, “Are we niggers and what does this mean?”

4. Normal People by Sally Rooney

The acclaimed novel by the very young Irish writer. The dialogue simmers with authenticity and, in these exchanges between the few main characters, you are taken along in a basic growing-up-and-going-to-college story. The novel has an addictive quality.

Not for the first time Marianne thinks cruelty does not only hurt the victim, but the perpetrator also, and maybe more deeply and more permanently. You learn nothing very profound about yourself simply by being bullied; but by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget.

He’s aware that he could have sex with her now if he wanted to. She wouldn’t tell anyone. He finds it strangely comforting, and allows himself to think about what it would be like. Hey, he would say quietly. Lie on your back, okay? And she would just obediently lie on her back. So many things pass secretly between people anyway. What kind of person would he be if it happened now? Someone very different? Or exactly the same person, himself, with no difference at all.

There’s always been something inside her that men have wanted to dominate, and their desire for domination can look so much like attraction, even love.

5. The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

A brisk, informative, unadorned tour through the disastrous first few months of the Trump Presidency, overseen by one ignoramus after the other.

6. Lying by Sam Harris

A short e-book that makes the case for never lying, inclusive of white lies. I found it interesting, as always with Harris, but not totally convincing.

Book Review: An American Marriage

“Everyone who reads novels has read An American Marriage,” she told me. I guess I’m behind, I thought.

So I downloaded the book on my Kindle, and got hooked. When I finished the book a couple weeks later, I stared off into the distance for about a full minute. Which I guess in the sign that something really sunk in.

It’s a wonderful story, compellingly told from different viewpoints. The primary theme is marriage and its discontents (and contents). Other themes include criminal justice and wrongful imprisonment (the main character Roy, wrongfully accused of rape) and the colors of the American South. The writing is straightforward but often beautiful.

A good chunk of the book is told via letters, sent from prison, between husband and wife. It’s an incredibly effective technique for conveying the intimacy of love — and doubt.

The final letter contains my favorite line: “My prayer for you is for peace, which is something you have to make. You can’t just have it.”

Other highlighted sentences below. Highly recommended.


Still, the truth is that there was nothing extra. If my childhood were a sandwich, there would be no meat hanging off the bread. We had what we needed and nothing more.

It was a wonderful feeling to be grown and yet young. To be married but not settled. To be tied down yet free.

“November 17,” I said before she could complete her thought. Other couples use safe words to call a time-out from rough sex, but we used it as a time-out from rough words. If either of us says “November 17,” the anniversary of our first date, then all conversation must cease for fifteen minutes. I pulled the trigger because I knew that if she said one more word about my mama, one of us would say something that we couldn’t come back from. Celestial threw up her hands. “Fine. Fifteen minutes.”

One of the hurdles of adulthood is when holidays become measuring sticks against which you always fall short. For children, Thanksgiving is about turkey and Christmas is about presents. Grown up, you learn that all holidays are about family, and few can win there.

But a man who is a father to a daughter is different from one who is a father to a son. One is the left shoe and the other is the right. They are the same but not interchangeable.

As I watched her walk away, I made note of everything about her that I didn’t admire. I ignored the devotion that she wore like a cape, I paid no heed of her strength or hardworking beauty. I sat there thinking of all I didn’t love about her, too angry to even say good-bye.

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.