January

Nine years ago, when I was in public media, I worked with a guy named David Kanzeg. I was never quite sure what he did for work, other than raise the bar for everyone in the building; he was extremely highly respected because he was knowledgeable and wise and extremely well-connected. Because I didn’t have a background in radio, one of the things he was responsible for was my voice training, and one of my assignments was to record the Gettysburg Address for him to critique. For a few months, he kept reminding me that I hadn’t yet given him my recording, and I kept putting it off, until I had an idea.

At the time, I was reading Tim Ferriss, and had just hired a virtual personal assistant from South Africa to do things for me. She would research people I was going to talk to, or find articles for me to read, or look up gifts for my sister for her birthday. I got her a Skype account with credit on it and Kanzeg’s direct phone number, and told her when David and I would be in a staff meeting together. While we were in the meeting, she called him, and left a message, which went, “Hello Mr. David Kanzeg, this is Lydia. I am Mr. Samtoy’s virtual personal assistant, and he asked me to call and tell you that four score and seven years ago…”

Our meeting ended and we all went back to our desks. Five minutes later, David’s face appeared around the corner. He has this wonderful way of pausing before speaking, something I would love to learn to do, and he simply said, “You know…she has a lovely accent.” He never asked me for the Gettysburg Address again, but I think he appreciated my creativity, and we became friends.

Sometime after this, I happened to be in the same place as him and Dan Moulthrop, who had been at the same station and then had taken over the City Club of Cleveland. Somehow the topic of The Power Broker came up; Dave asked if I had read it, and Dan said, “Oh, don’t start with that again…” and it came out that Dave had been trying to get Dan to read it for a long time and Dan never got past the first few chapters. On our walk back to the office, I asked Dave about it, and he explained that it was all about how the world works, and how things got done in America, and it explained the reality behind politics and business. I ordered it.

And, like Dan, couldn’t get past the first few chapters. It is a biography over 1,000 pages of dense, smal-print text.

Last year, though, I got sick of small books, and wanted to read something substantial, so I committed to reading it. I finished it on January 22. It was epic, and I am grateful to David Kanzeg for the recommendation, and I wonder if, nine years later, I beat Dan.

Actually, Dan Moulthrop was a huge deal in Cleveland, and still is. The first time I met him, he was interviewing me. At the time, Obama was planning on visiting Cleveland, and there was talk that the White House was interested in a photo op with me because of Cash Mobs. I don’t know how this thought arose in my head, but I decided I was going to tickle President Obama, because really, there are probably three people alive right now who have tickled President Obama, and all of them are in his immediate family. Wouldn’t it be amazing to be the guy who tickled President Obama! And I knew how I was going to do it, and somehow this came up when I was talking with Dan: I was going to shake Obama’s hand, but on his right side, so my left hand would be free and his right hand would be occupied. While the cameras flashed, and we smiled, I would raise his right hand with my right hand, sneak my left hand under his arm, and tickle him. To ensure that he knew what was going on, I would murmur, “tickle tickle” in the voice you use with a little kid.

Dan wanted to know how it would work, so I said I would show him, and we got this photo, and in retrospect, while it would have been cool to get a photo op with Obama, I am glad I didn’t, because it would probably have gotten me killed.

Tickle tickle.

I wanted to start something a bit lighter after a 2,500 page book, but…well, with that momentum, you can’t just go into Dan Brown, so I started The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy. It is a bit of a slog, at least at the beginning, but it is offering me a lot of consolation considering the psychotic state of the world. For example, short-term, China scares the hell out of me. Long term, with all of its problems, I think America will do OK, as historically,

…however imposing and organized some of those oriental empires appeared by comparison with Europe, they all suffered from the consequences of having a centralized authority which insisted upon a uniformity of belief and practice, not only in official state religion but also in such areas as commercial activities and weapons development. The lack of any such supreme authority in Europe and the warlike rivalries among its various kingdoms and city-states stimulated a constant search for military improvements, which interacted fruitfully with the newer technological and commercial advances that were also being thrown up in this competitive, entrepreneurial environment. Possessing fewer obstacles to change, European societies entered into a constantly upward spiral of economic growth and enhanced military effectiveness which, over time, was to carry them ahead of all other regions of the globe.

“The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” by Paul M. Kennedy

According to Sunny, who is still the wisest person I have ever met, the demographic trends in China also look really bad for them and really good for the rest of the world.

Russia, though. FFS. Daniel, if you are reading this in the future, Putin is, right now, threatening to invade Ukraine, and everyone wonders what his grand strategy is, what his plans are. For consolation, I go to this:

There’s snow, there are bears, there’s vodka – and then there’s chess, one of the irritatingly durable clichés for Russia and Russians. Consider the classic Russian film villains: there’s the brutish thug, of course, but there’s also the unemotional chess player, ten moves ahead of his rival. American politicians seem especially to love this metaphor. During Barack Obama’s presidency, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers complained that ‘Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles.’ More recently, Hillary Clinton asserted that Donald Trump ‘is playing checkers and Putin is playing three-dimensional chess’.

Of course, this is not actually about chess. The prevailing tendency of seeing Putin as a Machiavellian grandmastermind plays to a Western fear that he is behind everything that goes wrong, and that each setback is part of some complex Russian strategy. Donald Trump’s election, Brexit, the rise of populism in Europe, the migrant crisis and even football hooliganism have all at some point been blamed on Moscow; as a result, we run the risk of giving him too much power. As will be discussed in a later chapter, much of Putin’s international adventurism is bluff, a little like the way an animal when confronted by a predator may puff itself up or bristle its fur to look as big and formidable as possible. We have a tendency to not look past the bristle.

There is no denying that Moscow is often trying to manipulate elections and widen social division in the West, although – as we will see later – rarely with anything like the kind of impact that we sometimes fear. But the main point is that this all implies some fiendishly subtle long-term plan to take the world step by step where Putin, the archetypal Bond villain, only without a lair in an extinct volcano, wants it to go.

In fact, there is no evidence that Putin plays chess, and in any case, it is not his sort of game. Chess is a contest of inflexible rules, transparency and of an intellectual competition where the options are strictly constrained. Everyone starts with the same pieces, and everyone knows what a pawn can do and when it’s their turn to move.

Putin doesn’t want to limit his options like that. He does know judo, however. A black belt, he has been honing his skills since starting as a teenager, and his approach to statecraft seems to reflect this. A judoka may well have prepared for a rival’s usual moves and worked out countermoves in advance, but much of the art is in using the opponent’s strength against him to seize the moment when it appears. In this respect, in geopolitics as in judo, Putin is an opportunist. He has a sense of what constitutes a win, but no predetermined path towards it. He relies on quickly seizing any advantage he sees, rather than on a careful strategy. As a result, both he and the Russian state he has shaped are often unpredictable, sometimes even acting in contradictory ways, especially regarding foreign policy. Many apparent short-term ‘successes’ prove to be long-term liabilities, having been neither thought through beforehand or followed through afterwards. But this helps explain why we are so often unable to predict Putin’s moves in advance – he himself doesn’t know what he’ll do next. Instead, he circles us in the ring. He is aware that overall and when united, the West is so much more powerful than Russia, with twenty times its gross domestic product, six times the population, and more than three times as many troops. But he’s waiting for us to make a mistake and give him what looks like a good chance to strike.

– from “We Need to Talk About Putin: How the West gets him wrong” by Mark Galeotti

So for all the uncertainty surrounding Ukraine, I am also hopeful, and I think the West is playing it well. Time will tell.

More current events. Since reading Bad Blood, I have been looking forward to the Holmes trial for a long time. I don’t see her prosecution as sexist – I agree with my friend Cara that this was about clear fraud, and she endangered the lives of a lot of people. (I am more than a bit jealous of Cara’s line, “We cannot ‘move fast and break things’ when those ‘things’ are people.” It seems that this can extend to so much more in Silicon Valley than blood testing.)

Anyway, I read the article, and this list, and thought: this is a clear example of a double standard. If any male founder – Zuckerberg, Gates, even “failures” like Adam Neumann or Travis Kalanick – had written these rules, tech bros across the valley would be copying them down and we would see scores of young white men walking around the bay area with their hands in their pockets, not talking unless they had something to say. In fact, these kinds of rules are exactly what Power by Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, The Charisma Myth by Silicon Valley coach Olivia Fox Cabane, and their ilk actually recommend to people – mostly men – looking to climb greasy poles. When a woman behaves like this, however, it is “suited for a robot.”

  1. “I do everything I say – word for word.” Why is this bad? Isn’t this the sort of integrity that we should applaud in business? And isn’t the fact that she didn’t do this what got her in trouble?
  2. “I am never a minute late.” Again, why is this bad? I guess that this DOES violate Pfeffer’s advice that those who want to gain power be intentionally late – like Henry Kissinger, who made people wait thirty minutes for him even when he was a student. If anything, being on time shows respect for others and self-control. Another point in Holmes’ favor.
  3. “I show no excitement … calm, direct, pointed, non-emotive.” For a woman in a male-dominated industry, trying to lead a company, I expect Robert Greene would say this is exactly the right thing to do. In fact, if someone like Ryan Holiday was to advise his followers to do this and called it…I don’t know, “Stoicism,” then I bet lots of people in Silicon Valley would soak it up. When a woman does it, she is a robot.
  4. “I call bullshit immediately.” She doesn’t let people get away with lazy thinking or actions? Good for her.
  5. “My hands are always in my pockets or gesturing.” Enter Cabane, who says that fidgeting is extremely anti-charismatic. My strong suspicion is that Holmes naturally fidgets; this is a way to either stop fidgeting or to stop people from seeing that she is fidgeting. Cabane tells people to not fidget and she got a best-selling book out of it. Holmes hides it, or goes after Power Gestures like James Hume might advise, and is no longer human.
  6. “I speak rarely. When I do — CRISP and CONCISE.” Who in the world doesn’t wish that every person in every meeting took this advice? In fact, Robert Greene advises that his disciples do this in the 48 Laws of Power – it was apparently part of the secret to Louis XIV’s enigmatic reputation. Why this is not absolutely applauded is a mystery to me.

I despise Holmes, and think she is a terrible person. But this list actually makes me admire her (a bit).

She apparently did try to emulate Steve Jobs, and I suspect that that got her into trouble. I was thinking about that this month: lots of entrepreneurs seem to use Steve Jobs as a reason why they should be pigheaded, stubborn, and not deviate or swerve from their image; the common lesson seems to be, “Steve Jobs was a total asshole, ignored others, and imposed his vision on the world, so that is what I am going to do in order to implement my idea.” Steve Jobs also went weeks eating nothing but raw apples, went barefoot whenever possible, and rarely bathed (and apparently smelled like it).

Actually: ten years ago, I had dinner with some investors and a bunch of Bay Area billionaires. Afterward, our host, one of the top VCs in San Francisco, picked me up from my hotel and asked me what I thought of the dinner. I remarked that I didn’t know what kind of phone any of the other guests had; the Twitter guys weren’t tweeting about the meal, the Instagram guys weren’t taking photos, the Foursquare guy wasn’t rating things, the Pinterest guy wasn’t pinning recipes. They were extraordinarily polite and well-mannered, brilliant conversationalists, and very nice to be around.

“Of course,” he said. “That’s how business is done.”

By all means, entrepreneurs, be like Steve Jobs, but if you are not willing to go all the way, I suggest that you instead:

  • Be kind
  • Listen to others, especially your customers
  • Keep learning

Away from the news. A surprising number of people wrote messages about my post in December, when I wrote that I was not going to teach Daniel that Santa Claus is real. One friend wrote to say that her son had an incredibly difficult time trying to figure out why his father lied to him about Santa. “He lied to you because he loves you” is just not a satisfactory answer. Another friend, from high school, who grew up non-Christian in East County San Diego, said that it never occurred to her to tell her peers that Santa Claus was not real; she just let them believe what they believed.

Oh, for more of that kind of tolerance!

And on the possibility that the unvaccinated should voluntarily forgo medical treatment if they get COVID, I heard from a woman that I went to elementary school with, who may have to forgo potentially life-saving surgery because the health system is overwhelmed with people who are not vaccinated and taking up hospital beds. I found some consolation in this Guardian article by a doctor who was asked to choose between a patient with cancer and an unvaccinated person with Covid (and who, in my opinion and the opinion of the doctor asking her to prioritize the unvaccinated patient, made the right choice when she decided that the patient with cancer still deserved a chance). I also got a few chuckles from this article about another doctor in California, who is being forced to face the impacts of non-vaccination every day:

(The doctor) recalls walking into an isolation room to examine a 39-year-old unvaxxed man who’d been brought in, gasping for breath with a critical case of covid. “He was wearing one of those anti-vax ‘Live free or die’ t-shirts. I just said, ‘I see you made your choice.’ He was already so far gone he couldn’t hear me.” The patient died two hours later.

We’re the idiots now, 1849 Magazine

I’m always hesitant about putting my political opinions out in the open, but I feel like maybe there are people who might agree with me. Maybe I will be more publicly opinionated in the future.

One of my year goals was to be the first person in the pool every morning, starting in January. I soon saw that there was another guy was in early every day as well – usually just after me. He was just slightly slower than me, and did about five minutes less, and then he would get in the hot tub and relax. After the first two weeks of January, he missed Monday and Tuesday; on Wednesday, he was back. When I was done with my laps, I noticed he was still in the hot tub, so I went over to see if he was OK.

“I told my wife that my swim club hasn’t been meeting,” I said.

He laughed, and said that he had injured his back, so took a few days off.

“You usually do 40 lengths, right?” he asked.

“I do 42,” I said, “a kilometer and then just a little bit extra.”

“That’s my dream!” he said. “I do 30, but I want to work up to 40.”

I started to get out of the hot tub. “If you can do 30, you can do 40,” I said.

The next day, I was in first, and he was in right after me. I swam my usual session, and when I got out and went to the hot tub, he wasn’t there. I looked back at the pool, and he was still swimming.

When he reached the wall, I was waiting for him. “Did you seriously just do that?” I asked, and we high-fived.

He looked at his watch, checking the numbers. “Forty-two, just like you!” he said, beaming.

When we got to the hot tub, I asked, “What made you go for it?”

“To be honest, it was you telling me that I could,” he said. “I thought, ‘he’s right – I can do that.’ So I did.”

Later, I got a bit sad, because maybe that power is within all of us – to just give a bit more, do a bit more, to accomplish our dreams, our goals. What if a complete stranger believed we could accomplish whatever we call our “dreams”? What if our friends believed in us? What if we believed in ourselves?

Regardless, I now definitely have a morning swim club with Chris, my new friend, who reached within himself to do what he didn’t think was possible, just because I told him he could, and that feels like a successful month right there.

I also decided to give myself a haircut every week, with mixed results, in my opinion. Basically, it never looks as good as I imagine it could; there is something to be said for professionalism. But then I was watching a video on Jiu-Jitsu, and one of the guys had a really weird haircut – long on top, super short sides, way less blended than mine is. Then I started to notice men’s haircuts on the streets, on the mats, waiting in line at grocery checkout. When I see peoples’ hair, I assume that haircuts are intentional, and I don’t judge them; they are just different. I started to think that maybe other people feel the same way – that they don’t look at me and think, “What a terrible haircut” but “huh. That is his hair.” I mean maybe that is just projecting my own response onto others; maybe everyone else in the world looks at each others’ hair and judges it closely and harshly, but I somehow doubt it. I think it is more likely a case that “if you are worried about what other people think about you, don’t, because they aren’t.”

Which is an interesting life lesson to get from self-care like this. Maybe one day I will get to Clooney-level skillz.

And at the end of the month, I was in the changing room before Jiu-Jitsu, talking to my friend Peter. He was talking about a podcast he was doing and then had stopped; when I asked him why, he said that he had kids and then needed to prioritize things like…well, sleep. It reminded me of the question: if there is one thing I could do right now that would massively improve my life, what would it be, and why am I not doing it? Then there was another question I asked myself: if I was training for an excellent event – the world championship of something, the Olympics of something – what would I be doing differently? (I type this as I look at the remains of a leftover breakfast pizza next to my computer…)

And variations:

  • How can I do this in an absolutely superb way?
  • What am I not doing right now that, if I did, would have an incredibly positive impact on my life?
  • What am I doing right now that, if I stopped, would no longer have a negative impact on my life?
  • If I was training for an exceptional event, what would I be doing differently right now? Why am I not doing that?

One last non-Daniel thought for the month: I was looking at some Hermes catalogs that I picked up over the years, and decided to sell on eBay. Something about them – their layout, the mystique, something intangible – made me think that there is something special about their products – they are not higher quality, or more durable, but they somehow invite contemplation of an object as a thing of beauty. Objectively, of course, a Chinese-made bag from a dollar shop will probably hold more than a $10,000 Louis Vuitton bag, and a mass-produced nylon wallet will hold more cards, better, than an Ettinger card holder, just as a Timex digital watch will be more accurate, more functional, and more durable than a Patek. Then I thought: these expensive brands are more expensive, though, and maybe price is a feature of items. It is not separate from the thing; it is part of the item itself, and should be considered when purchasing something, because the price will impact the experience of the item.

And last but not least: Daniel. Once a day, we watch a music video, and then we watch five minutes of California Trains. For most of the time we have had this ritual, he chose Shake It Out by Florence and the Machine; he would cuddle really close (“I want to get really really super cozy!”) and would watch the screen intently. Recently, as in over the last few days, he has switched: he wants to watch Freedom.

I support this 100%. When he asks “What does that say, daddy?” I tell him that white people in America carried out a comprehensive system of genocide against the indigenous people who lived there first, and herded them onto small pieces of land and impoverished them, and when the original Americans wanted justice, they were slaughtered, and the government is still carrying out systemic oppression of these people. I explain that justice has been perverted to keep this man, Leonard Peltier, in jail; he is still there, and he is still suffering from an unjust, racist machine, and that there is so much to be angry about in the world, to be furious with, to protest. In the 90s, it was the same, but I get the sense that we were more aware then, more righteously furious with the state of the world, than people are now. But maybe…maybe it is the right that is furious now, not the left, and I don’t see their anger as legitimate or justified – I think of it as mass psychosis against a world steadily bending its arc in the right way.

Anyway, one day Daniel will be angry, and I hope I can look at his legitimate anger and understand it, and know that he has the tools to do something because we raised him to take action, to change things, to lead.

…And to stuff his cheeks with pieces of cucumber.

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