How I Officiated a Wedding

I was honored to officiate a wedding recently for some friends.

As I prepared for the duties, I reflected on the number of weddings I’ve attended where, by the end of all the festivities, I couldn’t answer two basic questions:

  1. Who is the other person in the marriage? I know one person in the partnership really well, presumably. What’s the life story of the guy/gal who’s marrying my friend?
  2. Why are these two people getting married to each other? What’s the essence of their dynamic?

Based on this, I structured my remarks to make sure everyone in attendance could at least nominally answer both questions by the end of it. The three-part structure was:

  1. Describe the bride and groom each as individuals: their childhood, basic attributes/personality, professional activities. [This required interviewing the bride and groom beforehand and collecting stories/anecdotes/nuggets.]
  2. Describe who they are as a unit: why they’re marrying each other, how they’re similar (the hallmark of friendship), how they complement each other (the hallmark of partnerships).
  3. Look toward the future and offer some general perspectives on marriage, love, and life.

There were no other speakers or readings during the ceremony, so I ended up speaking for about 18-20 mins and could cover all these points. It worked pretty well.

Of course, no matter what you plan to say, if the audience can’t hear you — literally — it doesn’t matter. I’ve witnessed my fair share of wedding ceremonies where the house A/V doesn’t work, or more commonly, the people speaking don’t know how to use or hold a microphone. With handheld mics, 99% of people hold the mic like an ice cream cone instead of a toothbrush, and so the audio quality oscillates. (Hold it like a toothbrush very close to your lips!) A lav mic is almost always better for this reason but even still it can poorly positioned on the shirt such that as people turn their head when they speak, you start missing words. Anyway, in this ceremony, the mic situation worked fine, thank the Lord!

Below is an excerpt of my closing remarks from my officiating.


We know there will be moments of joy for you both, we just don’t know what, when, or how. Will they occur at predictable intervals, such as at the birth of a child or the realization of a huge professional goal? Or will joy sneak up on you, will it happen when the two of you are going on one of your regular walks around New York, and for whatever reason you see something that reminds you both of an inside joke and you both laugh uncontrollably?

A spiritual teacher once taught me: Don’t miss the joy when it comes! Stay present with the joy as you experience it, he said. He said to tell yourself, “Oh, this is what joy feels like.” “This is what it’s like when I feel happy.” “This is what it feels like to see a beautiful bouquet of flowers.” “This is what it feels like to experience a beautiful sunset.”  We might even look around the room right now, at all our friends and family, and take a second to think to ourselves: This is what love feels like.

In addition to the joy, we also know there will be moments of serious hardship ahead, we just don’t know what, when, or how. Will there be a wave of expected grief at the death of a good friend? Or will malaise sneak up on you guys in a less expected moment, perhaps a pang of doubt on a cloudy day in late fall, doubt about whether you’re doing the right thing in your career or whether – god forbid – you married the right person.

Marriage, in my experience, brings more joy, and sometimes more pain, than if you were living life on your own. It adds dynamism and love and struggle. Amazing highs and sometimes really challenging lows.

The natural human thing to do is to try to hold onto the joyful moments, and avoid the unhappy moments.

But that’s impossible, because everything changes. In fact, someone once summarized the entire cannon of Buddhism in those two words: everything changes. The Buddha argued that everything in life is impermanent.

There have been so many joyful moments in your relationship so far. [Personal details]

So there have been some amazing moments. They’re now in the past. Marriage will be filled with millions more of these impermanent moments. The Buddha taught: Stay awake to the moments of joy that arise from being married to each other, and feel them.  Know that they will pass.

Also be aware of the moments of dissatisfaction that arise from being married to each other. Know that they will pass.

And do what you can to have more good moments than bad ones. That is what I wish for the two of you.

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.

Smart Is Not Enough: What Marc Benioff Taught Me When I Was 15 Years Old

Many years ago, I cold-emailed Salesforce founder/CEO Marc Benioff. I was 15 years old and starting a CRM software company like his. Would he meet to give me some advice? I wasn’t the only one inspired by Marc’s vision of the “end of software” at the time. But I may have been one of a smaller group who was especially inspired by the fact that Marc had started companies as a teenager back in his day.

To my surprise, he replied, we met for breakfast, and it kicked off a series of meals that we shared over several years. He eventually wrote the foreword to my first book.

At one of our early breakfasts, Marc told me something I’ve never forgotten. I remember the moment exactly. I was wearing a suit and tie, which in hindsight was kind of crazy. (“I hope you don’t normally wear a suit and tie when you go to school,” he said with a laugh.) He ordered pancakes. He had been telling me about swimming with dolphins in Hawaii, what he learned from Larry Ellison, and riffs on spirituality.

He then told me: “Ben, people in Silicon Valley are ridiculously smart. Super, super smart. You’re not going to be able to out-smart people. You have to figure out how to win in some other way.”

I was not lacking in self-regard for my own intelligence at the time. But when he said it, I knew immediately it was true. I may be generally smart but general smarts is like vanilla ice cream. Vanilla ice cream is a fine dessert but it’s not going to win a chef any culinary awards. And IQ is IQ. No amount of study would allow me to compete head-to-head in an IQ contest with the highest IQ people in the tech industry. If you regularly feel like you’re the highest IQ person in the room, you’re hanging out in the wrong rooms. The tech industry may not be as intellectually intense as academic disciplines like chemistry but there are plenty of rooms with off-the-charts IQ people in them, and those are the rooms you want to be in — even if they make you feel a bit inferior at times.

As I contemplated Marc’s comment in the months afterwards, my first plan was that I could out-work everyone in order to be successful. I may not be smarter than everyone else, but surely I could out-work them, right? Then I realized that there were people who could work harder than me, and already were. Damn those people who only need 4 hours of sleep a night!

Marc’s advice is not obvious to a lot of people. These days I still meet many super smart and super hard working people in business who, deep down, are mystified as to why they haven’t been more successful in their careers. They really believe their raw intelligence and/or their work ethic should be enough to carry the day.

Anyway, in the years after that breakfast, in my early 20’s, I came upon two deeper insights that ultimately are how I answer and incorporate Marc’s advice to me.

First, I could get good at facilitating the intelligences of other smart people. You don’t have to be smarter than someone in order to enable that person to be all they can be. Most business efforts involve teams — multiple smart people interacting with each other. If you can develop the ability to work with different kinds of smart people, to bring them together, to facilitate all the IQ points sloshing about, you can be a really high-impact player. In fact, I’d argue this is what great CEOs do well. They’re not the smartest person in the company. But they get all the other smart people to play well together. Arguably, that’s the most important job of all on a team.

Some years ago, my friend Auren Hoffman emailed me and said there had been a cancellation at an event he was hosting in New Orleans and asked if I wanted to take the open spot. I said yes. As I reviewed the list of other attendees, it was obvious that I was the B-list invite to an event filled with other A-listers. I was excited but a bit nervous. Then, a few days before the event, Auren asked me to moderate a 90 minute session with 15 accomplished people at the event. At first I thought he had sent the email to the wrong person; I think I was 17 years old at the time. The people in my session were all much smarter and more experienced than me. But I accepted the task, and I did fine. I did good, even. And it emboldened me with the confidence that I could credibly be a participant in a large meeting even if on paper I wasn’t the smartest or most experienced person.

The second insight I internalized in the years after that breakfast with Marc Benioff was that I could get good at combining multiple skills in unique combinations. Scott Adams once wrote that to be successful you need to either be the very best in one field or the top 25% of skill in multiple fields. In other words, if you’re not world class at something but you’re really good at a couple things and the combination of those two skills produces a valued offering in the market, you can be successful. Example: You can either be one of the top pianists in the world and succeed through sheer singular talent, or be a really, really good pianist (if not world-class) and also be really, really good at marketing (or some other skill), combine the two really-good skills, and success will follow.

Given my curiosity and knack for synthesis, I saw a path for me that would involve getting really good a couple things and combining them in interestingly unique ways (versus becoming solely obsessed with one skill area). I could take basic intelligence and work ethic, and layer on top of that very strong — even if not truly world-class — abilities in entrepreneurship and written / oral communication, for example, and that could produce some interesting career opportunities. (That specific skill combination helped me be a complementary partner to Reid Hoffman over the four years I worked for him.) In the years since then, I’ve continued to hone different skills that in combination in an attempt to develop a unique competitive advantage in whatever market I’m playing in.

Like a lot of important wisdom, Marc’s comment to me at breakfast in San Francisco all those years ago sounded simple. The depth of its truth took years for me to appreciate.

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.”

The Wisdom of Eric Ries

I was delighted to chat with Eric Ries, world famous author of The Lean Startup, a month ago in front of some of our founders at Village Global. Eric dropped an insane amount of wisdom on the business of starting a startup, pivoting, minimal viable products, and more. Video embedded below and also available as a podcast episode on the Venture Stories podcast.

Show notes pasted here:

Over the nearly 75-minute session, Eric gave a masterclass in Lean Startup techniques, addressed questions from founders on some of the finer details of the framework, and shared what he has learned from his entrepreneurial journey in the early 2000s as well as more recently as founder of the Long Term Stock Exchange.

Eric and Ben start out by talking about uncertainty as the core of a startup and the stark contrast between planning in an early-stage company versus in a large enterprise. Eric points out that those in the startup world take for granted certain startup best practices that “would get you fired in any big company.” He talks about the need for structure around entrepreneurial exploration, including making one’s hypotheses explicit and rigorously testing them.

Eric discusses the difference between customer discovery and customer validation. He tells the story of a founder who interviewed prospective customers and was told that the product was great and that they would use it, but that when he asked those same customers to put their name to a letter recommending their bosses purchase the product, not one would do so.

“The ideas that sound big are usually not the things that end up big.”

They move on to a discussion of pivots and why Eric says that in virtually all cases, after having pivoted, founders say they wish they had done so sooner. He explains why every six weeks is an ideal cadence for a “pivot or persevere” meeting.

MVP (minimum viable product) has become household term that was popularized by Eric. He discusses how founders can get over their fear of shipping something they perceive as incomplete and why he says the ideal MVP has “way fewer features than you think it needs.” He fields questions from Village founders on MVPs and talks about how small companies should think about their MVP when targeting large companies as customers.

“Engineers always think that more features will solve any problem.”

Eric explains what he means when he says that “entrepreneurship is a process of self-discovery” and why managing yourself and your own emotions as a founder can be equally as important as managing those of your team. He also addresses some of the criticisms of the Lean Startup methodology and common misunderstandings of the framework.

“I truly believe that entrepreneurship is a process of self-discovery. I think that two people working on the exact same company, encountering the exact same evidence, and deciding on a pivot, would probably choose two different pivots if they had different values. You discover something about what you really care about.”

Along the way, they discuss some of the seminal works in entrepreneurship, like The Four Steps To The Epiphany by Steve Blank and Crossing The Chasm by Geoffrey Moore.

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…

The Wisdom of John Donahoe

I interviewed John Donahoe, CEO of ServiceNow, for a Village Global masterclass. Video of our conversation embedded below and linked here. John is one my all-time favorite CEOs, and a real inspiration. We were in a private meditation retreat together and got to know each other well a few years ago. In this conversation, we talk about ServiceNow, leadership, what he learned as CEO of eBay, and from his board service at Nike and other legendary companies.

Impressions of Vietnam and Taiwan

(Hoi An – Photo Source)

I spent Christmas and New Year’s in Vietnam (Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City) and Taiwan (Taipei). Wonderful trip. Here are some impressions:

Vietnam generally:

  • Vietnamese people are obsessed with food. We were told that the average person eats more than three times a day. And in between eating sessions, they discuss past and upcoming meals. A country where the locals are obsessed with food means culinary delights await tourists — so if you visit, prepare to eat your way through the country. Where in Vietnam you’re traveling will bear on your food experience. It turns out that the Vietnamese people are highly regional in their tastes. More than one Vietnamese person said she can’t stand the food in other parts of her country; indeed, she and others bring coolers of food with them when they travel domestically. (I saw several of coolers at the airport in the domestic terminal.)
  • How to tell whether one of the innumerable side-of-the-road food stalls/mini restaurants is a good one? One food tour guide offered this tip: look for dirtied, used up napkins on the ground underneath the tables. Locals will toss their used napkins on the ground, and a surplus of them on the ground indicates that a) there have been many customers at the establishment, b) the cook has been so busy cooking that she hasn’t had time to go pick up all the trash.
  • For large people like myself, eating at the side of the road produced an amusing visual given the chairs seem to be made for kindergartners — they’re truly miniature.
  • The Ken Burns documentary about the Vietnam War — or “The American War” as they know it in Vietnam — is incredibly informative. Haven’t finished the whole thing yet but well worth watching before traveling to Vietnam.
  • Americans who travel to Vietnam tend to have the War as a primary frame of reference. For baby boomers especially, cities like Da Nang recall memories of events from the war. I’d guess that visiting Vietnam is partly an exercise of morbid curiosity for American baby boomers. For me — the war was before my time — Da Nang is simply the airport you fly in to in order to visit Hoi An. By contrast, among many Vietnamese people themselves, the War is mostly old news. Of the 100 million people in the country, ~25% of them are under age 18. There seems to be very much a look-forward mentality among the young.
  • Vietnam is known for being cheap for U.S. dollar holders and we felt that almost every time we tried to spend money. $20 for 90 minute massages. A solid lunch would cost a few bucks. Manicures and pedicures for mere dollars.

Hoi An — A lovely small town on the coast, that’s peaceful and safe and boasts good food and 200+ tailors that make cheap custom clothing.

  • This food tour in Hoi An was excellent.
  • Our guide joked that men in Vietnam are very lazy. She then pointed out that at each cafe, in the middle of the day during the workweek, you’d see dozens of men sitting in the outdoor cafe smoking cigarettes and staring at their phones. It was true. In Vietnam claim about war being reason men flushed from workforce, and then women took over, and stayed in charge of the house.
  • The regional noodle dish (is it a type of pho?) is Cao Lao and it was excellent. The water for car lao comes from a well in the area that’s 1,000 years old. If the water isn’t from that well, it’s not cao lao. Or so the story goes.
  • A few years ago, Anthony Bourdain traveled to Hoi An, ate a Bahn Mi sandwich at a local place, and declared it the best Bahn Mi in Vietnam. Today, that restaurant has a line that circles the block. We didn’t go in but it made me wonder: Is that Bahn mi actually the best? Was Bourdain just in a good mood when he ate it? How many sandwiches did he really try in the country?
  • The old town is lovely if a bit noisy with all the scooters honking, but bike a few blocks outside town, and you’re in the real Hoi An. Bike a little further out and you’re in remote rice paddy fields and corn fields, where chickens run around and stray dogs roam amid the peace and quiet.
  • There are 200+ tailors in Hoi An who make custom fitting clothes for you. It’s the most famous tourist activity in the town and deservedly so. The tailor experience was professional, the clothes cheap but high quality, and of course all custom fitting. I got a suit, a few dress shirts, a blazer, and trousers — all for cheap and all fit to my body.
  • Being in Hoi An for Christmas was kind of funny. The country is 90% Buddhist; no one around us seemed to celebrate Christmas. The hotel informed all guests that there was a “compulsory Christmas Eve dinner” that would cost $110 USD per person (!). At the dinner buffet, there was a huge ice sculpture that spelled the word: “X-Mas”. Tinny Christmas music on the speaker system. And staff kept saying “Merry Tristmas” — I guess because ‘Ch’ is hard to pronounce. Reminded of the podcast episode about the factory in China that manufactures most of the stuff found in American dollar stores, including Santa Claus trinkets. There was a line about one of the workers in the factory, surrounded by Santa Claus figurines seven days a week, marveling at Americans’ obsession with someone who apparently is a kind, portly man.

Ho Chi Minh City – The commercial center of Vietnam in the south.

  • In the relative calm of Hoi An, some other travelers mentioned that HCMC was crazy loud and chaotic given the number of scooters and their penchant for ignoring street lights. “Try crossing the sidewalk and not getting killed by a scooter,” one traveler said. Perhaps because of that expectation-setting, HCMC seemed much more livable than I expected. Yes, there are a thousand scooters a second whizzing by when you try to cross the street, but it’s manageable, especially in the more built up neighborhoods.
  • Pizza in Vietnam? Two foodies recommended 4 P’s Pizza in HCMC. Japanese-inspired pizza where all the cheese — not easily found in Vietnam — is homemade. It was delicious.
  • The food/motorbike tour of the city was a hoot. College kids take you around on scooter (you ride behind them) and you visit all their favorite local haunts. Felt like a very authentic way to see the city through a young person’s eyes, and eat some delicious street food.
  • Preferring more “active” / adventure travel to museums or buses, we did a bike/kayak tour in the Mekong Delta area, biking through the rural backroads, and riding in a boat through the floating markets — it was an awesome way to see this part of Vietnam and get a workout in at the same time. A small highlight: Throughout the day, anytime we passed young kids on bike, they’d yell out “Hello!” while standing on the street watching us. They had a giant grin on their faces — they seemed genuinely fired up to see us westerners in the area.
    • The floating markets are going away. Used to be top tourist attraction of the Mekong Delta — to see the locals buy and sell on the markets. Now it’s just tourists who cruise by with a small number of vendors. As the local roads and other infrastructure have improved, it makes more sense for people to leave their houseboats and sell their goods elsewhere.
  • The War Remnants Museum offered powerful exhibits about the Vietnam War, even if there was a real propaganda dynamic. Exhibits relating to how Agent Orange affects the 4th generation of Vietnamese were particularly moving.
  • In HCMC, there was a general sense of growth and prosperity: people are busy, working, economy growing. A new subway system is on the way. New skyscrapers being built. Lots of potential.
  • Grab (the Uber of SE Asia) was everywhere in Ho Chi Minh city. Dominant. Go-Jek (Uber of Indonesia) has just entered.

Taipei:

  • My one word description of Taipei is “livable.” Efficient public transit, clean streets, good infrastructure, no homeless people, no litter. It’s a very green city. Lots of parks, green public spaces, and a sense of clean freshness everywhere. The national airline is EVA — Evergreen Airlines — perhaps that’s the hint. If I had other work reasons to be there, I’d be delighted by the opportunity to live in Taipei.
  • The city didn’t feel overly crowded. especially when compared to other big first world Asian cities I’ve been in (Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo). Even in relatively busy areas, neither people nor cars made much noise.
  • Eating at the night markets was billed as a primary thing to do. At the Shihlin night market near our hotel — the largest in the city — there were plenty of tasty food stalls. But standing and eating is tricky for me. I prefer to sit and eat over a table with silverware. The night market was a very fun scene but not quite as as extraordinary as it was hyped to be.
  • There were at least five Nike stores in the Ximending shopping neighborhood — all legit stores, not counterfeit. I’ve never seen so many Nike outlets in close proximity to each other. After passing the first three stores, by the fourth time you see one, you break down and enter and buy something.
  • Someone in Vietnam told us that Taiwan is “America China” whereas Hong Kong is “British China.” Sports is one area where this shows up. In Taiwan, baseball and basketball dominate.
  • Taipei doesn’t have blockbuster tourist attractions. We didn’t see very many non-Asian tourists in the city. Taipei seems like a place people love to live in, but it’s not at the top of most Westerners’ travel lists.
  • There’s a strong food culture, with night markets, hole in the wall shops, and high end restaurant offerings. Dumplings, various noodle dishes, stinky tofu, lots of pork. The Taiwanese people are very focused on food, according to our local food guide, and this makes a delightful place to eat as a tourist.
  • The big local news while we were there was President Xi’s speech about Taiwan unification with China. Via the local newspapers, it seems many Taiwanese people remain quite wary of China and are eager — although not especially optimistic about — continued U.S. support.
  • Globalization continues to shrink the differences between countries. For example, Din Tai Fung — the famous dumpling restaurant of Taiwan, which we went to and enjoyed — now has a location in San Jose, CA.
  • Airbnb inventory was limited in Taipei. Those that exist offer odd formulations — e.g. 6 single beds in two bedrooms, or 4 queen beds and one bathroom.
  • National Palace Museum has a nice East Meets West exhibit that showed artifacts exchanged between China and Western explorers and how that exchange deepened an understanding of the other’s culture.
  • We bore witness to the city trash truck pull up playing ice-cream-truck music, and residents hustling out to drop off their trash. Exactly as described in this 99% Invisible episode.
  • Good food tour in Taipei. Walk the streets and eat!
  • Random: I was complimented on my chop stick use multiple times across Vietnam and Taiwan. It happens frequently when I’m in Asia. People in Asia may not realize how much chopstick use there is in the U.S.

Bottom Line: Vietnam and Taipei are lovely places. More broadly, Christmas/New Year’s continues to be a great time to get out of town. The past six years I’ve gone overseas during this time of year. It’s the least disruptive time to travel and be off the grid because so many other people are doing the same. Already thinking about where to go in 12 months…

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.