What I’ve Been Reading

Books.

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I spent the holidays reading this epic Russian tome, my first Russian novel. It was a good book to read while on Christmas break — being able to sink into it for a few hours each day allowed me to stay grounded in the plot and keep track of all the characters over the course of the 800+ pages. I had the expectation that I’d get lost; I don’t tend to do well when the character count exceeds a handful. But now, with a couple months of distance from the experience, I still have a vivid sense of Levin and Kitty and Vronsky and Anna, which shows the depth of the

2. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. A compelling memoir of a therapist reflecting on the act of being a therapist and going to therapy herself. Lots of excellents nuggets into how therapy works and doesn’t work. A few highlights:

Therapists use three sources of information when working with patients: What the patients say, what they do, and how we feel while we’re sitting with them…

“We’ve talked before about how there’s a difference between a criticism and a complaint, how the former contains judgment while the latter contains a request. But a complaint can also be an unvoiced compliment…

Anger is the go-to feeling for most people because it’s outward-directed—angrily blaming others can feel deliciously sanctimonious. But often it’s only the tip of the iceberg, and if you look beneath the surface, you’ll glimpse submerged feelings you either weren’t aware of or didn’t want to show: fear, helplessness, envy, loneliness, insecurity…

As Andrew Solomon wrote in The Noonday Demon: “The opposite of depression isn’t happiness, but vitality.”…

Sex comes up with almost every patient I see, the same way that love does. Earlier on, I’d asked John about his sex life with Margo, given the difficulties in their relationship. It’s a common belief that people’s sex lives reflect their relationships, that a good relationship equals a good sex life and vice versa. But that’s only true sometimes. Just as often, there are people who have extremely problematic relationships and fantastic sex, and there are people who are deeply in love but who don’t click with the same intensity in the bedroom.

3. Autumn by Karl Knausgaard. I love Knausgaard — search my blog for my other reviews. This one didn’t stick for me. I did like this paragraph though:

But if it were possible to see everyone who has retired to their beds in a great city at night, in London, New York or Tokyo, for example, if we imagined that the buildings were made of glass and that all the rooms were lit, the sight would be deeply unsettling. Everywhere there would be people lying motionless in their cocoons, in room after room for miles on end, and not just at street level, along roads and crossroads, but even up in the air, separated by plateaus, some of them twenty metres above ground, some fifty, some a hundred. We would be able to see millions of immobile people who have withdrawn from others in order to lie in a coma throughout the night.

4. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. A modern, funny, incisive novel that’s being widely read, apparently, by those in the in circles of Brooklyn lit, etc etc. I enjoyed it a great deal. I didn’t find it, in the end, as feminist a book as I was expecting.

He explained to Toby that presence in a yoga class, no matter your ability, was a shortcut to showing a woman how evolved you were, how you were strong, how you were not set on maintaining the patriarchy that she so loathed and feared….

She was now an inner ear problem, something affecting his balance…

I’d read those stupid blogs about Disney, and they all warned me that the character lunch at the Crystal Palace would fill up fast, so I should book at eleven A.M., but they did not warn me about the existential dread of being there. It was like I could finally see what I’d become, made clear through my presence among yet another entire set of women who looked just like me. I couldn’t bear being this suburban mom who was alternating between screaming at her kids and being the heartfelt, privileged witness to their joy. But the people around us—the haranguing mothers and the sexless fathers—I kept trying to find ways that I was better than these people, but all I kept landing on was the fact that the common denominator was me.

5. Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. Lots of interesting observations from one of the strongest non-fiction storytellers at work today, even if the big picture thesis eluded me, a bit. Still recommended.

And of every occupational category, poets have far and away the highest suicide rates—as much as five times higher than the general population…

In one national survey, three quarters of Americans predicted that when a barrier is finally put up on the Golden Gate Bridge, most of those who wanted to take their life on the bridge would simply take their life some other way. But that’s absolutely wrong. Suicide is coupled.

Book Notes: The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison is a searing account of her struggles with alcoholism.

It’s long. I read the first 400+ pages and got distracted by something else and never came back to it. But the 400 pages I read were phenomenal, and gave me great insight into the mind of a super high functioning alcoholic and the nature of addiction. I’m no expert in the genre of addiction memoir but this one, apparently, is considered among the best.

Some of my Kindle highlights below. Bolded sentences my own.


In John Barleycorn, a novel published in 1913, Jack London conjured two kinds of drunks: the ones who stumbled through the gutters hallucinating “blue mice and pink elephants,” and the ones to whom the “white light of alcohol” had granted access to bleak truths: “the pitiless, spectral syllogisms of the white logic.” The first type of drunk had his mind ravaged by booze, “bitten numbly by numb maggots,” but the second type had his mind sharpened instead.

Life with Daniel was weird and ragged and unexpected. It tingled. He was a messy eater. There were bits of cabbage in his beard, patches of ice cream melted on his sheets, crusted pots and pans in his sink, tiny beard hairs all over his bathroom counter.

drinking and writing were two different responses to that same molten pain. You could numb it, or else grant it a voice.

My ability to find drunken dysfunction appealing—to fetishize its relationship to genius—was a privilege of having never really suffered. My fascination owed a debt to what Susan Sontag calls the “nihilistic and sentimental idea of ‘the interesting.’” In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag describes the nineteenth-century idea that if you were ill, you were also “more conscious, more complex psychologically.” Illness became an “interior décor of the body,” while health was considered “banal, even vulgar.”

My own pain seemed embarrassingly trivial, self-constructed and sought.

At a certain point we were on my bed and I didn’t want to fuck him—but I was too drunk and too tired to figure out how not to fuck him, so I just lay there, still and quiet, while he finished. The situation would sharpen into awareness, in fleeting moments, and I’d think, This isn’t what I want, and then it would dissolve into soft focus again.

In early drafts, there were no explicit traumas in the narrative that produced their self-destructive impulses. The mystery of these impulses was what I wanted to explore, the possibility that you might damage yourself to figure out why you wanted to damage yourself—the way exhaling into cold air makes your breath visible.

Being just a man among men, or a woman among women, with nothing extraordinary about your flaws or your mistakes—that was the hardest thing to accept.

A few scientists eventually wondered: What if they were given some company? What if they were given something else to do? In the early eighties, these scientists designed Rat Park, a spacious plywood habitat painted with pine trees and filled with climbing platforms, running wheels, tin cans for hiding, wood chips for playing, and—most important—lots of other rats. The rats in that cage didn’t press the coke lever until they died. They had better things to do. The point wasn’t that drugs couldn’t be addictive, but that addiction was fueled by so much besides the drugs themselves. It was fueled by the isolation of the white cage, and by the lever as substitute for everything else.

Their aliveness, their daily-ness, their back-and-forth energy, came like a sudden slap, a confirmation of my fears: He would always crave the sharp tingling sensation of falling for someone, rather than having her.

Pool told me that he started shooting heroin after dropping out of college, operating under the notion, as she put it, that “writers needed conflict and adversity. So he deliberately went out to find some.”

Describing Dave to a friend, I invoked that scene from Out of Africa where another character explains what’s charming and infuriating about Robert Redford as a big-game-hunting, impossibly restless lover: “He likes giving gifts, but not at Christmas.”

When Dr. Chisolm told me that she sometimes attaches a warning when she encourages certain patients to seek out AA, it didn’t surprise me. “You’re really smart,” she tells them. “That might work against you.” The idea of being “too smart for AA” immediately resonated with the part of me that sometimes found its truisms too reductive or its narratives too simple.

At meetings, I hated when other people abandoned narrative particularity in their stories—I accidentally crushed my daughter’s pet turtle after too much absinthe—for the bland pudding of abstraction—I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I wanted crushed turtles and absinthe. Clichés were like blights, refusals of clarity and nuance, an insistence on soft-focus greeting-card wisdom: This too shall pass, which I once saw on a cross-stitch in the bathroom of a Wyoming meeting, followed by It just did. Long ago, I had learned that to become a writer I had to resist clichés at all costs. It was such accepted dogma that I’d never wondered why it was true.

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books. Many of which I didn’t fully finish but I take pride in that (not finishing most/all books I start).

1. The Problem With Everything by Meghan Daum. I read everything Daum writes. I even took a writing workshop with her earlier this year. She’s one of the premier essayists around, in my view. This book is not a collection of essays, though, it’s a continuous narrative documenting her “lived experience” (the phrase of the moment) navigating the culture wars. I found myself sympathetic to many of her arguments about the extremes of modern left wing cultural norms.

2. String Theory by David Foster Wallace. Collection of old DFW essays about tennis. Always great and worth perusing if you’re learning to play tennis, as I am.

3. One and Only by Lauren Sandler. Excellent summary of the research on being an only child and excellent personal reflections on what it’s like to be and parent an only child. Refutes many inaccurate stereotypes about being an only. She points out that singletons are immune from modern political correctness culture — it’s still fair game to make fun of the self-centeredness of only children, even though that stereotype (among others) is unfounded.

Some quotes:

“Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self,” May Sarton wrote—a musing that makes me want to pull on a coat, leave behind my cell phone, and take an indulgently long walk on a crisp day.

“Only children are well self-connected in their primary relationship in their life.” By primary relationship, what he means is that whether we like it or not, married or single, identical twin or only child, every relationship we have is secondary to the one we have with ourselves—nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide.

In their much-discussed analysis of a survey of 35,000 Danish twins, women with one child said they were more satisfied with their lives than women with none or more than one. As Kohler tells me, “At face value, you should stop at one child to maximize your subjective well-being.”

The University of Chicago’s Linda Waite, whose research focuses on how to make marriages last, tells me, “You’re better off to ignore your kids and focus on your relationship than to focus on your kids and ignore your relationship”

4. Recursion by Blake Crouch

Fairly compelling sci fi. I read it on a beach — a good book to get absorbed by on the road. That being said, I preferred Crouch’s other novel Dark Matter.

“His mind races. It is the lonely hour of the night, one with which he is all too familiar—when the city sleeps but you don’t, and all the regrets of your life rage in your mind with an unbearable intensity.”

5. Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream by Nicholas Lemann

Some big ideas that didn’t captivate me.

6. The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes by Frank Bures

Some fun stories about how culturally determined many diseases are. Eating disorders are uniquely American, for example. Penis snatching (the feeling that someone has stolen your penis) is unique to certain countries in Africa. Makes you wonder what other beliefs in life are so culturally influenced. I read the first half but didn’t finish. Here’s Nick Gray’s summary.

7. A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen. I love Keith’s writing. I eagerly dove into this novel. The writing is spare and expert…so spare, in fact, that at halfway I began to bore of the slow-moving “and today I woke up and helped my grandmother down the stairs” plot developments. I’m okay with micro observations but prefer more elaborate Knaussagardian flourishes.

There are, though, some touching scenes of the protagonist taking care of his aging grandmother, whose mind is going, memory flickering in and out.  Or of the grandmother trying to not go mad of boredom, as she never figured out a way of “doing leisure” in the late afternoon witching hour.

8. Open by Andre Agassi. A super well written memoir from the tennis legend — likely credit the same ghostwriter who penned Phil Knight’s renowned Shoedog, J. R. Moehringer.

The most stunning fact from Agassi’s memoir: he hates the game of tennis. Always has. His abusive father turned him into a tennis maniac as a child against his wishes, basically, and there was no turning back — from playing the game he became amazing at, or from hating every second of it.

I like playing tennis but I’m not that into the history of tennis tournaments to desire so much detailed blow-by-blows of matches and tournaments. I’d still recommend the memoir for any casual tennis player or fan to get inside the head of a world class sports champion and better appreciate the sacrifice and mental fortitude that made him so.

9. This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom by Martin Hägglund

I dipped into a few chapters of this one. Spiritual freedom is defined as being able to ask what you should do with your time — you possess a meaningful degree of autonomy with which to challenge norms and shape a life. And secular faith is defined as acknowledging the fundamental finitude of life, and consoling oneself over the unchangeable fact that no one gets out alive. Religious faith assumes the ability to live forever in the afterlife.

The loss of loved ones is the experience that is hardest to bear in a secular age. – Charles Taylor

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.