Book Review: Ron Chernow’s Biography of Ulysses S. Grant

I read 900 pages about Ulysses S. Grant in Ron Chernow’s authoritative biography. It was extraordinary. It’s hard not to agree with Chernow claims that Grant is the most underrated president in U.S. history.

I knew little to nothing about Grant going in, and hadn’t read a full length book about the Civil War before. So I got a superb education in the three areas I look for when reading a biography:

  1. A person of consequence
  2. The time period in which the person lived, in this case, Civil War-era America
  3. The ideas that defined their life’s work — in this case, fighting to free slaves and to maintain that freedom afterwards

I highlighted 163 sentences on my Kindle. I’ve pasted many of them below and bolded the sentences that stand out.

A few of my high level takeaways first:

  1. Grant was a common man who for much of his life lacked grand ambition: “Unlike many great historical figures, Grant brooded on no vast dreams, harbored no spacious vision for his future, and would have settled for a contented, small-town life.”
  2. Grant was and is to this day rather misunderstood as a drunkard who got lucky in war. He battled an inclination to alcohol his whole life but his reputation in this regard, Chrenow argues, is undeserved.
  3. The truly bloody horror of the Civil War. The image of thousands of bodies rotting in the battlefield and there having to be a mutually called-for truce for a couple hours because the stench overwhelmed the olfactory senses of both sides — that image is seared in my memory. 
  4. The degree to which black people in America were massacred after the abolition of slavery. “Americans today know little about the terrorism that engulfed the South during Grant’s presidency. It has been suppressed by a strange national amnesia. The Klan’s ruthless reign is a dark, buried chapter in American history. The Civil War is far better known than its brutal aftermath.”
  5. Reconstruction was a failure. “Once Reconstruction collapsed, it left southern blacks for eighty years at the mercy of Jim Crow segregation, lynchings, poll taxes, literacy tests, and other tactics designed to segregate them from whites and deny them the vote.”
  6. The Mexico war and how America acquired/stole/fought for what is now California, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Arizona — an imperialist move, at Mexico’s expense, that deeply troubled Grant.

Kindle highlights now pasted below — all Chernow’s words:

Grant never grew vainglorious from military fame, never gloated over enemy defeats, never engaged in victory celebrations. He has been derided as a plodding, dim-witted commander who enjoyed superior manpower and matériel and whose crude idea of strategy was to launch large, brutal assaults upon the enemy.

The relentless focus on Grant’s last battles against Robert E. Lee in Virginia has obscured his stellar record of winning battles in the western war long before taking charge of Union forces in early 1864.

While scandals unquestionably sullied his presidency, they eclipsed a far more notable achievement—safeguarding the civil rights of African Americans.

Frederick Douglass paired Grant with Lincoln as the two people who had done most to secure African American advances:

The imperishable story of Grant’s presidency was his campaign to crush the Ku Klux Klan.

Perhaps the most explosively persistent myth about Grant is that he was a “drunkard,” with all that implies about self-indulgence and moral laxity.

what they saw as the overweening executive power of “King” Andrew Jackson, selecting the “Whig” name to liken their struggle to that against King George III. Abraham Lincoln ventured into politics as an ardent Whig, characterizing the party as one founded to depose that “‘detestable, ignorant, reckless, vain and malignant tyrant,’ Andrew Jackson.”

The Whig ideology featured a strong moralistic component that doubtless resonated in the straitlaced, church-going Grant household. To strengthen the country’s moral fiber, many Whigs wanted to expand the school system and favored Sabbath observance. They inveighed against the menace of alcohol, which was both a national problem—by 1830 each American drank, on average, seven gallons of pure alcohol per year—as well as a local scourge in Brown County, which had two dozen distilleries and many grape-growing sections.

He tamed even the most refractory horses through a fine sensitivity to their nature rather than by his physical prowess. “If people knew how much more they could get out of a horse by gentleness than by harshness,” Grant once observed, “they would save a great deal of trouble both to the horse and the man.”

“Boys enjoy the misery of their companions,” Grant concluded, “. . . and in later life I have found that all adults are not free from the peculiarity.”

Although Julia stood just five feet two inches tall and grew stout and homely with the years, she was a dainty adolescent with many attractive features.

It is a striking feature of Grant’s early life that women spied his hidden potential and forecast great things for him, whereas men counted his gentleness against him and overlooked his virtues.

In his Memoirs, Grant blasted the Texas scheme as an imperialist adventure, pure and simple, designed to add slave states to the Union. “For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” He always said he never forgave himself for going into the Mexican War.

“Texas had no claim beyond the Nueces River,” Grant later noted, “and yet we pushed on to the Rio Grande and crossed it. I am always ashamed of my country when I think of that invasion.”

As the American army tarried near Monterrey, Grant savored his time there and was beguiled by Mexico—an attraction that lasted a lifetime, feeding a love of foreign travel. “The climate is excellent, the soil rich, and the scenery beautiful,” he informed Julia.

With Scott’s army poised to strike at Mexico City’s gates, President Polk had his emissary, Nicholas P. Trist, attempt on September 2 to negotiate a peace treaty by which Mexico would relinquish Texas to the Rio Grande and transfer New Mexico and California to the United States for a negotiated sum.

But in time Grant saw how a wise, charitable policy toward a conquered civilian population restored peaceful conditions with impressive speed. “Lawlessness was soon suppressed,” Grant wrote, “and the City of Mexico settled down into a quiet, law-abiding place.”91 Other accounts of the American occupation depicted atrocities raging on both sides.

The war culminated with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a huge bonanza for the United States. It expanded American territory by nearly a quarter, forcing Mexico to shed half its territory. The United States gained Texas with the crucial Rio Grande boundary as well as New Mexico and California—territories encompassing the current states of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of Arizona and New Mexico, and part of Colorado. In exchange, the United States relinquished claims to Baja California, assumed $3.5 million in Mexican debts owed to American citizens, and handed over $15 million.

As the war’s rabid opponents—Senator Charles Sumner, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson among them—had predicted, the victory carved out a vast territory up for grabs between slave owners and abolitionists, possibly tipping the tenuous balance between North and South.

As a Whig opponent of slavery, Abraham Lincoln supported the Wilmot Proviso and denounced President Polk’s war in thunderous terms: “He is deeply conscious of being in the wrong . . . he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him.”

One impression superseded all others: that Grant was “just power and will and resolution,”

This episode makes clear that Grant, from an early age, acknowledged that he had a chronic drinking problem, was never cavalier about it, and was determined to resolve it. This overly controlled young man now wrestled with a disease that caused a total loss of control, which must have made it more tormenting and pestered his Methodist conscience.

It is unclear how closely Grant followed current affairs as the national debate over slavery broadened and intensified. Through the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted as a free state while other territories wrested from Mexico were left free to adopt slavery or not.

The Sackets Harbor idyll ended in May 1852 when the Fourth Infantry was ordered to the West Coast, triggering a slow-motion crisis in Grant’s life. The Gold Rush had drawn a stampede of settlers to California that demanded a strengthened military presence.

but he had no assurance of that as he journeyed to Governors Island in New York to prepare his regiment for the taxing journey to Panama, across the isthmus, then up the West Coast to San Francisco.

zone rife with cholera, but he was blandly reassured by army brass that the epidemic would be “quickly over.”51 In the end, his anxiety proved more than justified. From the outset, the ill-fated trip was an irremediable fiasco.

Altogether Grant estimated that one-third of the people under his care died at Cruces or Panama City as well as one-seventh of the Fourth Infantry group that had left New York Harbor. As the hellish story surfaced, it provoked fierce condemnation of War Department negligence, an indictment Grant endorsed, telling Julia darkly “there is a great accountability somewhere for the loss which we have sustained.”

The fort commanded a hundred-foot bluff with spacious views of Humboldt Bay and the sea beyond, and was hemmed in by deep stands of towering sequoia and other redwood trees, steeped in perpetual shadow.

Aside from recreational drinking and dancing, the only available pastimes were fishing and hunting elk, deer, and black bears, activities that awakened little interest in Grant.

Because local Indians posed no real threat, all the drills and discipline performed at the post seemed pointless and irksome.

Despite his grim stint at Fort Humboldt, Grant had fallen in love with the natural beauty of northern California and grown so attached to the place that he had visions of making it his permanent home in future years.

In May, Republicans met in Chicago at a huge, barnlike wooden structure known as the Wigwam where Abraham Lincoln emerged as the presidential standard-bearer. While his opposition to extending slavery was well known, he ducked many controversial issues. A comparative unknown, a dark horse who could juggle conflicting constituencies, he became the nominee less because he appealed to the most people than because he offended the fewest.

Despite pro-Union sentiment thinly scattered through the South, many southern officers felt that loyalty to their states outweighed attachment to the federal government. The decision of Robert E. Lee, who rebuffed an offer to command the U.S. Army and rushed to Virginia’s defense, was typical of southern officers who opposed secession but stuck with their native states.

“The air fresh and invigorating, without being cold.”

They were both haunted men, tough and manly on the outside, but hypersensitive to criticism,

Shiloh was a free-for-all of death in which brute force trumped tactical subtleties. “It was a case of Southern dash against Northern pluck and endurance,” Grant wrote.

The ground was slick with blood and carpeted with torn limbs and decapitated heads. Wild pigs rooted among putrefying bodies, their snorts audible to the dying soldiers.

Breath Work and James Nestor’s “Breath”

“If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe better.” — Dr. Andrew Weil

Noticing your breath is the foundational skill of every meditation practice I’ve been exposed to. No matter the ultimate instruction — body scans, mantras, visualizations, etc. — almost every meditation session begins with noticing the inhale and the exhale. For therapeutic benefit, breath awareness serves as an effective way to simply calm down. For more a more transformative mental experience, the breath is a powerful object of concentration that can settle the mind and prepare it for deeper explorations.

At my first long meditation retreat, we spent several days learning about anapana breathing, and the instruction was to notice your inhale as the breath crosses your upper lip and into the inner nostril, and to notice exhale over those same places. Noticing the breath in this way, breath after the breath, served to quickly ground you in the present moment, and that presence was the gateway to the broader vipassana practice. I remember at the end of the retreat, chatting with a couple of the other guys (after the silence had lifted), and one of them telling me, “I struggled with the body scan instructions, but I’ll always have the breath practice when I need it.”

Later on, in a long concentration retreat, breath was my first and last object of concentration during the whole retreat (outside of a smattering of metta practices). This meant close to 100 hours engaging in microscopic analysis of breath. It started with awareness of the belly as the breath begins through the inhale, and then choosing a point on the body to rest your attention during the “pause” between inhale and exhale, and then noticing the full exhale.

So, I have a fair amount of experience with all things breath — in a meditation context.

But it turns out I knew next to nothing about “breath work” as a broader field. I began hearing about breath work a year or two ago, and it was only in my research into sauna and cold plunge that I discovered the sort of sister field of breath work practices that are often implemented with cold plungers.

(I’m probably especially ignorant here because I don’t do yoga and even casual practitioners of yoga know about pranayama breathing, one type of breath work.)

Breath work is a new piece of the puzzle of wellness and spirituality for me. I currently have three types of breath work I employ. First, when I’m seeking relaxation, I’ll do 3-4 seconds each of inhales, hold (full lungs), exhale, hold (empty lungs). “Navy SEALs use this technique to stay calm and focused in tense situations.” Second, before some meditation sits, I’ll do the pranayama type technique of rapid exhales and passive inhales. Third, in cold plunge, I do a version of Wim Hof of relatively quick inhales and exhales roughly 30 times, with a breath hold at the end. I’m still learning, to be clear — on the BOLT test to measure your current management of breath and carbon dioxide, I landed in the “average” zone.

I’m stunned that these types of breath work exercises are not discussed in more detail on Buddhist meditation retreats. At the Buddhist retreats I’ve been on, adjacent fields like qi gong and yoga are referenced or taught (as optional afternoon

 activities, say) but more elaborate ways of managing your breath are not addressed. A huge opportunity awaits someone who can synthesize the knowledge of these fields.

James Nestor’s book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art is a splendid introduction to the research and practices of breath work. I learned a ton. The single most important lesson was about the benefit — the really amazing health benefit — of nose breathing over mouth breathing. And of taking fewer, slower, deeper breaths over many fast, shallow breaths. But there’s a bunch more beyond that’s pretty interesting. I recommend it. Below are my highlights from Nestor’s book.


Mouthbreathing, it turns out, changes the physical body and transforms airways, all for the worse. Inhaling air through the mouth decreases pressure, which causes the soft tissues in the back of the mouth to become loose and flex inward, creating less space and making breathing more difficult. Mouthbreathing begets more mouthbreathing.

During the deepest, most restful stages of sleep, the pituitary gland, a pea-size ball at the base of the brain, secretes hormones that control the release of adrenaline, endorphins, growth hormone, and other substances, including vasopressin, which communicates with cells to store more water. This is how animals can sleep through the night without feeling thirsty or needing to relieve themselves.
But if the body has inadequate time in deep sleep, as it does when it experiences chronic sleep apnea, vasopressin won’t be secreted normally. The kidneys will release water, which triggers the need to urinate and signals to our brains that we should consume more liquid. We get thirsty, and we need to pee more. A lack of vasopressin explains not only my own irritable bladder but the constant, seemingly unquenchable thirst I have every night.

The interior of the nose, it turned out, is blanketed with erectile tissue, the same flesh that covers the penis, clitoris, and nipples. Noses get erections. Within seconds, they too can engorge with blood and become large and stiff. This happens because the nose is more intimately connected to the genitals than any other organ; when one gets aroused, the other responds.

What our bodies really want, what they require to function properly, isn’t faster or deeper breaths. It’s not more air. What we need is more carbon dioxide.
In other words, the pure oxygen a quarterback might huff between plays, or that a jet-lagged traveler might shell out 50 dollars for at an airport “oxygen bar,” are of no benefit.

It turns out that when breathing at a normal rate, our lungs will absorb only about a quarter of the available oxygen in the air. The majority of that oxygen is exhaled back out. By taking longer breaths, we allow our lungs to soak up more in fewer breaths.I realized then that breathing was like rowing a boat: taking a zillion short and stilted strokes will get you where you’re going, but they pale in comparison to the efficiency and speed of fewer, longer strokes.

Gerbarg and Brown would write books and publish several scientific articles about the restorative power of the slow breathing, which would become known as “resonant breathing” or Coherent Breathing. The technique required no real effort, time, or thoughtfulness. And we could do it anywhere, at any time. “It’s totally private,” wrote Gerbarg. “Nobody knows you’re doing it.”

One thing that every medical or freelance pulmonaut I’ve talked to over the past several years has agreed on is that, just as we’ve become a culture of overeaters, we’ve also become a culture of overbreathers. Most of us breathe too much, and up to a quarter of the modern population suffers from more serious chronic overbreathing.

In Japan, legend has it that samurai would test a soldier’s readiness by placing a feather beneath his nostrils while he inhaled and exhaled. If the feather moved, the soldier would be dismissed. To

The key to optimum breathing, and all the health, endurance, and longevity benefits that come with it, is to practice fewer inhales and exhales in a smaller volume. To breathe, but to breathe less.

The takeaway is that hypoventilation works. It helps train the body to do more with less. But that doesn’t mean it’s pleasant.

They discovered that the optimum amount of air we should take in at rest per minute is 5.5 liters. The optimum breathing rate is about 5.5 breaths per minute. That’s 5.5-second inhales and 5.5-second exhales. This is the perfect breath.

“In ten years, nobody will be using traditional orthodontics,” Gelb told me. “We’ll look back at what we’ve done and be horrified.”

Breathing is a power switch to a vast network called the autonomic nervous system.

The stress-inducing breathing method that brought me to this roadside public park is called Inner Fire Meditation, and it’s been practiced by Tibetan Buddhists and their students for the past thousand years.

Here’s the information: To practice Wim Hof’s breathing method, start by finding a quiet place and lying flat on your back with a pillow under your head. Relax the shoulders, chest, and legs. Take a very deep breath into the pit of your stomach and let it back out just as quickly. Keep breathing this way for 30 cycles. If possible, breathe through the nose; if the nose feels obstructed, try pursed lips. Each breath should look like a wave, with the inhale inflating the stomach, then the chest. You should exhale all the air out in the same order. At the end of 30 breaths, exhale to the natural conclusion, leaving about a quarter of the air left in the lungs, then hold that breath for as long as possible. Once you’ve reached your breathhold limit, take one huge inhale and hold it another 15 seconds. Very gently, move that fresh breath of air around the chest and to the shoulders, then exhale and start the heavy breathing again. Repeat the whole pattern three or four rounds and add in some cold exposure (cold shower, ice bath, naked snow angels) a few times a week.
It can work wonders, but few of us will ever reap these rewards, because the vast majority of people who try to meditate will give up and move on. For those with chronic anxieties, the percentages are far worse. “Mindful meditation—as it is typically practiced—is just no longer conducive to the new world we live in,” Feinstein explains.

I increased my performance on the stationary bike by about 10 percent. (Olsson had more modest gains, about 5 percent.) These results paled in comparison to the gains reported by sports training expert John Douillard, but I couldn’t imagine any athlete who wouldn’t want a 10 percent—or even a 1 percent—advantage over a competitor.

Down the street from my house is a startup called Spire, which created a device that tracks breath rate and alerts users every time respiration becomes too fast or disjointed.

Any gum chewing can strengthen the jaw and stimulate stem cell growth, but harder textured varieties offer a more vigorous workout. Falim, a Turkish brand, is as tough as shoe leather and each piece lasts for about an hour. I’ve found the Sugarless Mint to be the most palatable. (Other flavors, such as Carbonate, Mint Grass, and sugar-filled varieties, tend to be softer and grosser.)

Clubhouse and Continuous Partial Attention

Anytime a new social app like Clubhouse captures millions of people’s attention and skyrockets to a supposed billion dollar valuation in a matter of months, I wonder: What is this activity replacing? Which app has been shoved aside for the new kid on the block?

The obvious answer is that Clubhouse listening time is replacing podcast listening time.

But analogizing Clubhouse to a podcast obscures its unique benefits, which is that it’s social and live. Unlike a podcast, which is an entirely passive consumption experience, on Clubhouse there’s the prospect of participation (if the moderator invites you to speak). You can see all your friends who are listening alongside you in real time. I’m sure you’ll soon be able to text chat with them. Until then, a peanut gallery live chat happens in real time on Twitter.

Active participation requires one notch more attention than listening to a podcast. Dedicating that extra attention is what produces Clubhouse’s unique benefits; it’s also what makes Clubhouse potentially problematic for our ADD-prone brains.

To be clear, one can engage with Clubhouse passively. I could listen to it in the same spaces I listen to podcasts: walking the dog, eating, driving, etc. and just forego all the social+live benefits. But in that case, I’d rather just listen on-demand to the recorded version of a show on 2x speed, as I can with podcasts. A passive Clubhouse experience is inferior to podcasts.

So how have I actively listened to Clubhouse so far? I’ve sat in a chair, with the app open and my ears alert, and stared at the wall. Unfortunately, my wall is nice but it’s not that nice. I mean, there’s a reason TV eclipsed radio. There’s an extraordinarily high quality bar to justify devoting your undivided attention to…live audio.

It’s not surprising then that when I talk to Clubhouse junkies about when and how they listen, they’ll say they keep it on in the background while doing other work. A friend of mine told me he can dip in and engage when he’s intrigued; zone out when he isn’t. I suspect this is the case for most Clubhouse listeners today who have day jobs: they multi-task.

I’m unable to do this. When human voices are involved – or lyrical music – I can’t focus on anything cognitive. I can’t turn Clubhouse on in the background, do real work, and then dive in to the conversation, like a bird plucking a fish out of the water, the moment my interest is piqued. My attention is all or nothing.

Well, that’s not often true. I’m no focused zen saint: My attention is horribly fractured in a million pieces most of the time. But when I hear humans in conversation or song, I can’t multi-task even if I try.

But I aspire for “all or nothing with my attention” to be true in more parts of my life. I’d like for one of my superpowers to be the ability to focus, to be fully present, to be able to direct my attention to one thing with great intentionality. I’m fairly persuaded by Buddhist literature on this point: “We may believe that it’s the quality of the sunset that gives us such pleasure, but in fact it is the quality of our own immersion in the sunset that brings the delight.”

I also aspire to cultivate this attention superpower for balder career reasons: Rare skills, if valuable, are especially remunerative, and no one in tech seems to be able to focus anymore. Zig when others zag, perhaps?

So Clubhouse for me is a complicated experience. I’ve enjoyed some of the content a great deal, especially the conversations that you can’t find anywhere else, such as Elon Musk’s remarkable grilling of the Robinhood founder days after the Gamestop fiasco.

But I worry that for a user to benefit from what makes it a uniquely compelling product requires practicing a form of continuous partial attention. This may or may not matter much to you in that particular Clubhouse moment—perhaps those emails you’re archiving as you listen with vague awareness aren’t terribly important. But I worry it can have knock-on consequences to the underlying muscle of focus. That it will erode your ability to pay attention to one thing at a time when you actually want or need to.

Not that many people will pay attention to this concern, of course. Right now, Clubhouse rules. And Cal Newport weeps.

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I reviewed Tyler Cowen’s The Age of the Infovore some years ago and wrote approvingly of the pleasures of multi-tasking and distraction… And here’s a search result for my writing and experiences with Buddhism.

What I Read Over the Holidays

I read a bunch of books over the Christmas break.

First, I read all three editions of Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” trilogy. It’s really something. Very little plot. But a ton of fascinating little nuggets, reflections, sentences, and pieces of dialogue. Look it up if you’re not familiar with Cusk. The premise is you learn about the narrator based on her questions of and dialogue with other people. A ton of highlightable sentences, which I include below. Other books included an obscure theologican’s take on identity politics; Chernow’s exhaustive biography of John D. Rockefeller; and John McPhee’s book on tennis.

1. Outline: Book 1 by Rachel Cusk. Kindle highlights:

A couple of years ago they gave me six months’ sabbatical, six whole months just for writing, and you know what? I put on ten pounds and spent most of the time wheeling the baby around the park. I didn’t produce a single page. That’s writing for you: when you make space for passion, it doesn’t turn up.

I thought often of the chapter in Wuthering Heights where Heathcliff and Cathy stare from the dark garden through the windows of the Lintons’ drawing room and watch the brightly lit family scene inside. What is fatal in that vision is its subjectivity: looking through the window the two of them see different things, Heathcliff what he fears and hates and Cathy what she desires and feels deprived of. But neither of them can see things as they really are.

Writers need to hide in bourgeois life like ticks need to hide in an animal’s fur: the deeper they’re buried the better.

It was important, my neighbour said, to remember to enjoy yourself along the way: in a sense, this had become his philosophy of life these days. His third wife, he said, had been so puritanical that he sometimes felt no amount of pit-stops and pauses would make up for the years he spent with her, in which every event was faced head-on, unanaesthetised, and every little pleasure interrogated and either deemed unnecessary or else written down – with tax added on, he said – in a notebook she kept with her at all times for the purpose.

The idea that you should love your enemies is patently ridiculous. It is entirely a religious proposition. To say that you love what you hate and what hates you is the same as admitting you have been defeated, that you accept your oppression and are just trying to make yourself feel better about it.

‘Once I too bought my son a dog,’ she said in a shocked and quavering voice, ‘when he was a little child. He loved it madly, and while it was still a puppy it was run down before his eyes by a car in the street. He picked up its body and carried it back into the apartment, crying more wildly than I have ever known a person to cry. His character was completely ruined by that experience,’ she said. ‘He is now a cold and calculating man, concerned only with what he can get out of life. I myself put my trust in cats,’ she said, ‘who at least can settle the question of their own survival, and while they might lack the capacity for power and influence, and might be said to subsist on jealousies and a degree of selfishness, also possess uncanny instincts and a marked excellence in matters of taste.

2. Outline: Book 2 by Rachel Cusk

[On losing his gf’s beloved dog] He was standing at a busy intersection on Richmond Avenue. He had one glimpse of her, streaking like a brown arrow uptown through the traffic, and then she had completely vanished. It was strange, he said, but standing there on the sidewalk with the great grey chasms of Toronto’s streets extending away to every side of him and the leash dangling from his hand, he had felt for the first time that he was at home: the feeling of having unwittingly caused an irreversible change, of his failure being the force that broke new ground, was, he realised standing there, the deepest and most familiar thing he knew. By failing he created loss, and loss was the threshold to freedom: an awkward and uncomfortable threshold, but the only one he had ever been able to cross; usually, he said, because he was shoved across it as a consequence of the events that had brought him there. He had returned to Diane’s apartment and waited while the rooms grew dark, the leash still in his hand, until she got home. She knew instantly what had happened; and strange as it may sound, Gerard said, their relationship began at that point. He had destroyed the thing she loved most; she, in her turn, had exposed him to failure through expectations he was unable to fulfil. Without meaning to, they had found one another’s deepest vulnerabilities: they had arrived, by this awful shortcut, at the place where for each of them a relationship usually ended, and set out from there.

I said it seemed to me that most marriages worked in the same way that stories are said to do, through the suspension of disbelief. It wasn’t, in other words, perfection that sustained them so much as the avoidance of certain realities.

I think it might have something to do with paying attention not to what comes most naturally but to what you find most difficult. We are so schooled, he said, in the doctrine of self-acceptance that the idea of refusing to accept yourself becomes quite radical.

It inculcated in Julian the belief that he was special, because the fact of his existence was made noticeable in everything that happened. And that fact was becoming increasingly unbearable to his stepfather, who only didn’t hit him, Julian now realised, because he knew that if he started he wouldn’t be able to stop.

He wasn’t obliged to get his family’s permission but he wanted it anyway, because it wasn’t enough for it to be simply his truth, his point of view. Point of view, he said, is like those couples who cut the sofa in two when they get divorced: there’s no sofa any more, but at least you can call it fair.

He’s often been called brave for writing about it, but in fact, once he’d done it once, he’d blab his story to anyone who’d listen. You only need one thing, he said, you only need the door to be left unlocked once. For a long time, after he’d moved to London and started the process of becoming himself, he was a bit of a mess. He was like a cupboard rammed full with junk: when he opened the door everything fell out; it took time to reorganise himself. And the blabbing, the telling, was the messiest thing of all: getting control of language was getting control of anger and shame, and it was hard, hard to turn it around, to take the mess of experience and make something coherent out of it

he often caught himself living in the mistaken belief that transformation was the same thing as progress. Things could look very different while remaining the same: time could seem to have altered everything, without changing the thing that needed to change.

the story of loneliness is much longer than the story of life. In the sense of what most people mean by living, she said. Without children or partner, without meaningful family or a home, a day can last an eternity: a life without those things is a life without a story, a life in which there is nothing – no narrative flights, no plot developments, no immersive human dramas – to alleviate the cruelly meticulous passing of time.

3. Outbook: Book 3 by Rachel Cusk. Kindle highlights:

despite our nostalgia for the past and for history, we would quickly find ourselves unable to live there for reasons of discomfort, since the defining motivation of the modern era, he said, whether consciously or not, is the pursuit of freedom from strictures or hardships of any kind.

‘More than anything,’ he said, ‘people dislike being made to feel stupid, and if you arouse those feelings, you do so at your own cost.

Because they were conscious of her, everyone made an effort to say witty and interesting things. Yet because she didn’t conceal herself the conversation was never real: it was the conversation of people imitating writers having a conversation, and the morsels she fed on were lifeless and artificial, as well as being laid directly at her feet, so that the spectacle of her satisfaction was artificial too.

‘I guess it reminded me of having a kid,’ she said finally. ‘You survive your own death,’ she added, ‘and then there’s nothing left to do except talk about it.’

‘I admit,’ she said finally, ‘that I took pleasure in telling you about my life and in making you feel envious of me. I was proud of it. I remember thinking, yes, I’ve avoided making a mess of things, and it seemed to me that it was through hard work and self-control that I had, rather than luck. But it was important not to look as if I was boasting. It always felt then as if I had a secret,’

Friends of his had advised him that if he wanted to make it as a creative writer, he should stop savaging other people’s work, but you might as well ask a bird not to fly or a cat not to hunt; and besides, what would his poetry be worth if he wrote it while living in the same zoo as all the other denatured animals, safe but not free?

There was a word in his language, I said, that was hard to translate but that could be summed up as a feeling of homesickness even when you are at home, in other words as a sorrow that has no cause.

4. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl Trueman

A theologian presents a perspective on the rise of therapy culture and individualism and the cost of Christian values he holds dear. I disagreed with most of the points here but it was interesting to dip into the perspective of someone who thinks very, very differently from me. Highlights:

Take, for example, the issue of job satisfaction, something that is significant for most adults. My grandfather left school at fifteen and spent the rest of his working life as a sheet metal worker in a factory in Birmingham, the industrial heartland of England. If he had been asked if he found satisfaction in his work, there is a distinct possibility he would not even have understood the question, given that it really reflects the concerns of psychological man’s world, to which he did not belong. But if he did understand, he would probably have answered in terms of whether his work gave him the money to put food on his family’s table and shoes on his children’s feet. If it did so, then yes, he would have affirmed that his job satisfied him. His needs were those of his family, and in enabling him to meet them, his work gave him satisfaction.

And economic man thus gives way to the latest player on the historical stage, that which Rieff dubs “psychological man”—a type characterized not so much by finding identity in outward directed activities as was true for the previous types but rather in the inward quest for personal psychological happiness.

even now in our sexually libertarian world, certain sexual taboos remain in place, pedophilia being perhaps the most obvious. Not all expressions of individuality, not all behaviors that bring about a sense of inner psychological happiness for the agent, are regarded as legitimate. Whether any given individual notices it or not, society still imposes itself on its members and shapes and corrals their behavior.

Emphasis on what we might call the “right to psychological happiness” of the individual will also have some obvious practical effects. For example, language will become much more contested than in the past, because words that cause “psychological harm” will become problematic and will need to be policed and suppressed.

The intuitive moral structure of our modern social imaginary prioritizes victimhood, sees selfhood in psychological terms, regards traditional sexual codes as oppressive and life denying, and places a premium on the individual’s right to define his or her own existence.

5. Titan: Biography of John D. Rockefeller by Ron Chernow

This is a massive book and deep look at one incredible American entrepreneur. Did not know how religious Rockefeller was, among so many other things.

This marriage, consummated under false pretenses, fused the lives of two highly dissimilar personalities, setting the stage for all the future heartache, marital discord, and chronic instability that would so powerfully mold the contradictory personality of John D. Rockefeller.

Throughout his life, he expended considerable energy on tricks and schemes to avoid plain hard work. But he possessed such brash charm and rugged good looks—he was nearly six feet tall, with a broad chest, high forehead, and thick auburn beard covering a pugnacious jaw—that people were instantly beguiled by him.

Growing up as a miniature adult, burdened with duties, he developed an exaggerated sense of responsibility that would be evident throughout his life. He learned to see himself as a reluctant savior, taking charge of troubled situations that needed to be remedied.

there’s no doubt that Rockefeller’s achievement arose from the often tense interplay between the two opposing, deeply ingrained tendencies of his nature—his father’s daring and his mother’s prudence—yoked together under great pressure.

When John was a child, Bill would urge him to leap from his high chair into his waiting arms. One day, he dropped his arms, letting his astonished son crash to the floor. “Remember,” Bill lectured him, “never trust anyone completely, not even me.”

Rockefeller never regretted his apprenticeship at Hewitt and Tuttle and, like many self-made men, lavished a retrospective tenderness on his early years.

As John knew, his father’s style as a banker followed a grimly manic pattern of conviviality giving way to Scrooge-like severity.

The year revealed both his finest and most problematic qualities as a businessman: his visionary leadership, his courageous persistence, his capacity to think in strategic terms, but also his lust for domination, his messianic self-righteousness, and his contempt for those shortsighted mortals who made the mistake of standing in his way.

Where Rockefeller differed most from his fellow moguls was that he wanted to be both rich and virtuous and claim divine sanction for his actions.

A sweet, good-natured woman, Cettie nevertheless had a strong didactic side that could verge on fanaticism. As she once confessed to a neighbor, “I am so glad my son has told me what he wants for Christmas, so now it can be denied him.”

Rockefeller placed a premium on internal harmony and tried to reconcile his contending chieftains. A laconic man, he liked to canvass everyone’s opinion before expressing his own and then often crafted a compromise to maintain cohesion. He was always careful to couch his decisions as suggestions or questions.

6. Levels of the Game by John McPhee

As I’m learning to play tennis more and more, I’d like to learn more about the history of the game. I actually haven’t read any McPhee — I’ll remedy that more in the future — but for now I dipped into his short take on the Arthur Ashe vs. Clark Graebner match and related issues related to race in tennis. One quote: “A person’s tennis game begins with his nature and background and comes out through his motor mechanisms into shot patterns and characteristics of play. If he is deliberate, he is a deliberate tennis player; and if he is flamboyant, his game probably is, too.”

Setting Up a Home Sauna and Cold Plunge

The most consequential purchase in my life in 2020? Installing a Finnish barrel sauna in my backyard in the Bay Area.

Over the past few years, I’ve been enjoying sauna more and more: Relishing hotels that offered them. Luxuriating in the steam room at the local Equinox gym several times a week. And making special treks to public saunas such as the Archimedes Banya in San Francisco or the vast Munich facility I visited last Christmas or bath houses in Turkey and Japan.

There’s something about sweating and then cold plunging — the contrast between the two — that I find incredibly relaxing and energizing.

Not that I’ve exactly made a new discovery here. Sweat traditions have been around forever, from the Native American sweat lodges to the bathhouses of Russia, Turkey, Finland, Japan, and elsewhere. For hundreds of years, in every corner of the globe, people have purposively sweat in search of benefits such as basic relaxation, skin health, cardiovascular health, and more. Pick a desired health outcome and there’s certainly many anecdotes, maybe even a study, that supports sauna’s salutary effects. The timeless popularity of sauna has been complemented in most of these places by a recognition of the energizing power of contrast: high heat and then low cold. Sauna + jumping in a cold lake, for example.

So among the many unfortunate consequences of Covid-19, one that hit me especially hard: all the saunas and gyms are closed! It finally felt right to invest in getting my own sauna for my own backyard. After a bit of research, I purchased an outdoor barrel sauna from Almost Heaven Saunas.

The sauna arrived on a pallet, and a hired handyman assembled it in 5-6 hours. It’s a two-person sauna but it really just fits one person comfortably. An electrician had to run an upgraded power line out to connect to the Harvia heater inside the sauna — that took another half-day.

It’s beautiful:

In concert with the sauna, I bought a 150 gallon stock tank to serve as a cold plunge. I fill it up with garden hose water. No ice. It’s cold enough with simple hose water in the Bay Area. I put a little hydrogen peroxide in the water to keep it clean and empty it out every 10 days or so and re-fill with fresh water.  I haven’t done a DIY freezer set up yet; nor splurged on a super expensive dedicated cold plunge. For now, it does the trick.

In the two months I’ve had the sauna, I’ve used it about every other day. It’s glorious. Routine: 10-15 mins in the sauna at 180-200 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold plunge for 2-3 minutes while slowing inhaling and exhaling. Sit and rest for a few minutes and stare up at the enormous redwood tree in my backyard. Drink water. Then sauna again. The “stare up at the enormous redwood tree” is a real step in the process. I really hadn’t fully appreciated its majesty before the sauna routine. There’s something about warming back up after a plunge, sitting in the recliner chair, and staring up that produces a light spiritual experience:

As I was preparing to receive the sauna, I read a great book called The Wedge: Evolution, Consciousness, Stress and the Key to Human Resilience by Scott Carney. The wedge refers to the space between stimulus and response. For example, on the cold plunge experience: “At some point I told myself that it wasn’t cold that I was feeling on my skin; the muscle-tensing sensation caused by my environment was joy itself. This mental trick transmuted the entire experience. I consciously assigned a meaning to my sensations, and that alone made me more resilient.”

Scott takes a tour of different environments that produce stress and writes about their effect on the body. Among other things, Scott trained with Wim Hof.

Another excerpt from Scott:

“A person can choose a life path of muted sensations, avoiding pain and living indoors protected by a cocoon of technological comfort. That person can work a 40-hour work week, fully fund a retirement plan, carry acceptable insurance, dutifully pay taxes, have a few children and ultimately die comfortably in bed. This is the default life plan that many Americans follow.”

I also read Jesse Coomer’s e-book on cold exposure, which is a helpful overview of how to think about cold plunging and a cold practice in general.

If you’re getting interested in sauna, I’d recommend the Sauna Times, and the Sauna Talk podcast which is a delight to listen to for any sauna enthusiasts. If you’re interested in cold exposure, start by taking cold showers (do the last 1-2 minutes of your shower with just cold water) and focus on your breath, inhaling and exhaling slowly. Cold showers alone can be a tremendous boost to energy.

Some requests on my end:

  • I’m looking for tips on good sand timers (clocks) that won’t melt or get stuck inside the sauna. The one I bought has sand that’s jammed.
  • I’m interested in doing a sauna tour in Finland (or elsewhere). I.e. spend a week traveling and check out different saunas/bathhouses in the country. Any suggestions welcome.
  • If any entrepreneurs want to create a Soho House like business for sauna, let me know. Or a D2C business that involves sauna or cold plunges. Americans are slowly waking up to sauna and I bet there will be some interesting businesses built in the space.