They kicked everyone else out of the Sistine Chapel and let us take photos.


I love this new Christopher Michel series where he photographs someone sitting on a chair and then makes a jacket for Om out of that same chair.


Palm Springs


The new Elon Musk biography is out!


Everyone’s a winner

Went to Sherwood Forest. Explained to Eli and Evie that they wouldn’t win the toy car in the 2p sliding game. Had clearly been in there since 1975. Pretty sure it was attached with glue and magnets. So of course they had to prove me wrong.


Nigeria

Last Monday, Sarah and I flew 17 hours to Nigeria so Sarah could speak for 45 minutes on stage at a megachurch, about entrepreneurship. The next day we flew 19 hours all the way back again (thanks, jet stream!) whereupon we realized that somehow it was already the weekend.    

Still even spending less than two days in Lagos was an education, not least because it was my first ever trip to Africa. Here are just some of the highlights…

  • Landing at Lagos, exhausted and discombobulated we were almost immediately shaken down for not having proof of immunization against yellow fever. Never mind that European and American passport holders are exempt from the vaccination requirement, the immigrations officer made clear we weren’t going anywhere until we paid her to “solve the problem.”
  • Fortunately, the problem was quickly solved without any money changing hands when our official security escort – accompanied by members of Nigeria’s state security agency –  appeared and whisked us through immigrations with nary a glance at our passports, to a waiting SUV.
  • That, by the way, was my first experience of Nigeria’s dual economy – the way that “rich” Americans (or an American and a Brit) are treated fundamentally differently than regular Nigerians. We benefitted from this same VIP treatment throughout our trip, even down to the lights-and-sirens police escort we enjoyed from the airport to our hotel and back.
  • As a Brit, any type of queue jumping is excruciatingly embarrassing. Being whisked through customs into a motorcade is a special kind of hell, which I tried to offset by apologizing to literally everyone we were whisked past.
  • Everyone (Sarah included) had warned me to expect to feel overwhelmed by the intensity of Nigerians – lots of shouting, lots of getting in your face – which, to the uninitiated, can seem extremely threatening. In fact, everyone I encountered was tranquility incarnate. Although in fairness that night be because we spent the bulk of our time in churches and art galleries, or inside motorcades.
  • We bought a painting!
  • The event at which Sarah spoke – the Platform – is a twice-annual conference about entrepreneurship, hosted by the Covenant Christian Center. The idea being, I suppose, that God wants you to pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get rich. Which is not to be confused with the American notion of the prosperity gospel, in which sinners are told that all they need to do is pray (and tithe) and god will magically reward them with fancy cars and flashy clothes. By contrast, The Platform offered an incredibly diverse (and secular) roster of speakers: The speaker before Sarah was newspaper editor Segun Adeniyi who gave an impassioned presentation on how/why Nigeria needs to ween itself from the oil industry. The speaker afterwards was Dr Anil Gupta who offered what one attendee described as a 45 minute MBA. Not a single huckster, snake oil salesman or tech douche to be found and a near equal female/male speaker ratio. American conferences could learn a lot.  
  • Having said that about fancy cars and flashy clothes, actually God did send me some flashy clothes. Specifically, at dinner after the conference, I happened to mention to the wife of our host that I hoped to go shopping for one of the amazing brightly colored shirts I had seen people wearing around the city. Ah, she explained, you can’t really buy those off the rack – they tend to be custom made by local shirtmakers and tailors. The next day, an immaculately dressed man appeared at our hotel, introducing himself as one of the Covenant Pastor’s flock and explaining he had been sent to measure me for a shirt. He offered a fat book of fabric swatches and took about two dozen different measurements. Then he was gone. Less than twelve hours later, as we waited for our motorcade to the airport, the same man reappeared to deliver my new shirt. Which, it goes without saying, fit dazzlingly. In Nigeria, God works in mysterious ways, with an impressively fast turnaround time.
  • I ate my own bodyweight in chicken and rice.
  • The police escort did prove useful on the return drive – which, it turned out, coincided with the country’s labour day holiday. We had been warned that the roads would be gridlocked, but this wasn’t American gridlock, this was a special kind of African gridlock. Not an inch of movement for hours, in any direction. Unless of course you have a convoy of police cars clearing the way for you, making you feel like an obnoxious, privileged, neo-colonial asshole. 
  • An obnoxious, privileged, neo-colonial asshole who didn’t miss his flight!
  • It was only at the airport as we prepared to fly home that I finally encountered one of the angry, shouting people I had been told to expect in Lagos. He was yelling at a poor woman over some trivial ticket misunderstanding, bringing her close to tears.
  • The angry, shouting man was the gate agent for Delta. 

Piano

The last time I picked up a musical instrument was back in 2007, when I sold my ten year old Fender Stratocaster guitar and amp for fifty bucks before setting off on my hotel living adventure.

Despite having owned the guitar for a decade, I’d never learned to play a single note (strum a single chord?)

Same story ten years earlier when, in high school, I bought a second hand drum kit, convinced its overbearing presence in our living room would force me to learn to play. 

In the end, I couldn’t even master a simple drum roll.

Post-Strat, I resigned myself to the fact that I would never learn to play music. That, when others produced their guitars or harmonicas at parties, or jammed with friends on weekends, I’d be resigned to singing along atonally and self-consciously in the background.

Twenty five is pretty much the cut off for learning music, isn’t it? Didn’t I once read something about brain plasticity and how it’s easier for a toddler to play Mozart than a grown man to learn chopsticks? Something like that. 

But then a few weeks ago, during my weekly French lesson, a bold thought struck me. They say the same about language, don’t they? That it should be impossible – or at least highly problematic – for 39 year old me to learn French from an almost standing start.  Yet there I was, sitting in a classroom, yammering away about Brexit and Macron in a foreign tongue with something at least approximating aplomb. What I lacked in youthful brain plasticity, I seemed to have compensated for using a grown up’s understanding of grammar and logic (and Brexit and Macron). 

So why couldn’t an old man like me learn to play an instrument?

Somewhere out on Union Square a man was playing a drum solo, expertly, on a set of plastic buckets. I’d walked past him on the way to class, and now I could hear him through the open window. Could I see myself as a late blooming Phil Collins or Karen Carpenter?

No, I thought. Not drums. I’m definitely too old for drums. Drums, at 39, are a sure signifier of a midlife crisis. 

And definitely not guitar. Christ, anything but guitar. Even if somehow I could succeed where I already once failed, imagine suffering all those hours of practice – never mind the callouses – just so I could be half as competent as that guy strumming his Jack Johnson covers while he waits at the gate for his flight to Maui. 

For drums, see also saxophone. For guitar, see also harmonica.

So what does that leave? Harp? Tuba? Xylophone? Piano?

Piano!

Now there’s an idea fit for a 39 year old! Uncool but approachable. With the promise of quick early results, but still the potential for a lifetime of improvement. Any instrument that comes with its own chair is surely the instrument for me.

Moreover, Evie (6) has also expressed interest in learning to play — so the cost of the thing would be an investment for the family, not just a selfish hobby. Imagine the family singalongs!

A quick Yelp search (also how I found my French teacher) confirmed my assumption that there are countless piano teachers in the city, albeit only a few really good ones. And of course all of those good ones had yawningly long waiting lists.

But that suited me fine too: As the lateness of this newsletter will testify, life is a little hectic at the moment and this probably isn’t the best time to commit even an hour a week to something new. So I emailed the best (according to Yelp) teacher, added myself to her list and mentally prepared myself for an endless wait. 

Two weeks later, an email arrived: A slot had suddenly opened up! Weekly, on a Thursday, two hours before my weekly French lesson.  Kismet! Thursday would henceforth be my afternoon of learning!

And so it was that this past Thursday, I took my first piano lesson. My first music lesson, in fact. Unlike with French, where I at least had a rudimentary understanding of directions and bread purchasing, I had never played a single note on a piano, except by accident. And yet by the end of the class, I was proudly, happily, and slowly plink plonking along to Camptown Races and Mary Had A Little Lamb amongst other toddler favorites. It was as if I’d been playing piano for… well… maybe an hour and a half.

The only indication that maybe I had rushed into things came at the start of the lesson when the teacher asked me, almost in passing, what kind of piano or keyboard we had at home. 

“Ah,” I said, “I suppose I need to buy one of those.”

“Probably,” she said.

The following day – thank you Amazon – I finished assembling our new Yamaha in the dining room and invited Evie to be the first to try it out. She seemed delighted at the prospect but then, once she’d sat down in front of the keys, she hesitated. I thought maybe she was overwhelmed at the 88 keys, or already bored at another of Apple Paul’s ridiculous games. But no – I realized she was the exact opposite of bored. She was focusing intently, carefully adjusting her fingers on the keys, like she had seen the teachers do at school. 

And then she started to play – not a recognizable tune, obviously, but definitely, recognizably a melody. She innately understood that the higher notes went in one direction, and the lower notes in the other. The look of concentration as she moved her fingers up and down the keyboard, striving to find the right sound to tell whatever story she was telling in her head was genuinely astonishing, as was the tunefulness of the result. I went to fetch Sarah, and asked Evie to show her mom what she had shown me. 

“That’s amazing,” said Sarah.

“It really is,” said I. 

It really was. Just like it was amazing the first time we heard Evie pitch-perfectly mimic a birdsong, or teach herself to whistle. In hindsight, of course she was going to be a natural on the piano. 

So that was lesson one: Learning piano as an adult is certainly possible, provided you don’t mind being outclassed by a six year old.

I have a feeling these next few years – as I try to master chopsticks and Evie prepares for her first performance of Ballade no 1. in G minor – are going to be a good reminder of the importance of humility.


Disney

A few weeks back we – Sarah, the kids and I – spent five days at Disneyland for Evie’s birthday. We were hoping to stay at the Disneyland Hotel but due to some kind of pool refurbishment we ended up at the Paradise Pier, the lowest budget of the three major Disney hotels. 

I’m glad we did. Because staying at the Paradise Pier confirmed my suspicion that, at every price point, Disney has hotels down. 

If you’ve read any of my books (and if you haven’t, I forgive you), you’ll know that I grew up in hotels. As the child of hoteliers, I spent many of my early years living in and around hotels. I learned to ride a bike on the flat roof of a city-center hotel; I ate my first solid food in a hotel. Before I spoke my first word, I dialed nine for an outside line. Then, as an adult, I spent five years travelling the world, living only in hotels: an adventure I documented in The Upgrade.

I couldn’t tell you how many hotels I’ve stayed at in my life. Hundreds, certainly. A thousand, very possibly. So believe me when I say this: Nobody in the world understands hospitality like Disney.  

Which is not to say that Disney has the nicest hotels. They most assuredly do not. Nor is the service the best I’ve ever experienced – the Connaught has them comfortably beat, as do countless family owned places in countless tiny towns.

When I say Disney has hotels down, I mean that the Walt Disney corporation, more than anyone else on earth, has perfected the machinery of hospitality. That it has figured out, better than any corporation on the planet, how to extract the maximum possible number of dollars from the most possible guests, while simultaneously making them feel delighted about it. 

From the moment we checked in, the service at Paradise Pier wasn’t just perfect, it was perfectly on brand. Our room on arrival was decorated with Evie and Eli’s favorite Pixar characters: pillows, stuffed toys, candy, even a banner strung across the window. Every staff member – from the receptionist at check in, to the lifeguards in the pool, greeted us with a perfect Disney smile, and a ‘happy birthday’ for Evie.

On our last day we went to “Princess Breakfast” at the Grand California hotel where the kids got to meet Pocahontas, Aurora, Mulan, Tiana (above) and Rapunzel. For about half an hour – even after the other kids had left – Pocahontas and Mulan stuck around to play with Evie and Eli, teaching them “warrior poses” and showing them the strawberries growing behind the restaurant. I’ve never seen those – or any – kids look happier, and their imagination made more real.

Then there was the park itself: The twice daily parades and lightshows and Maxpasses which meant they didn’t have to line up for more than a few minutes even for the most in demand rides. Since our last visit to Disneyland, the Disney app has become much, much better: We were able to order and pay for food in advance, check ride queue times, and even download photos taken as we plunged over Splash Mountain. 

Of course every single one of those incredibly perfect experiences cost us an absolute fortune. The magic of Disney is making that fortune seem like a bargain. 

They call Vegas adult Disneyland, but that’s not true. Yes, Vegas has the same sieve like ability to allow people to pass through but leave their money behind. Yes, the Las Vegas has incredible crowd-handling skills – wrangling millions of toddlers/drunks without any of them dying or going missing. But nobody has ever left Las Vegas feeling like they got value for their money. Nobody ever leaves Vegas felling happier than when they arrived. 

Vegas is the hospitality capital of the world, but nobody – nobody – knows the hospitality business like Disney. 

And yet. 

By day five of our trip, I was ready to come home. I couldn’t walk another step and my Amex card was screaming for mercy. Sarah felt the same way and, Eli’s tears notwithstanding, the kids were both absolutely wiped out. 

It was on that fifth day that I thought back – with absolute disbelief – to the very first time I visited a Disney park. It was 1994. I was 14 and my younger brother was 7, and we travelled from the UK to Orlando for a three week vacation to all the Disney Parks, plus Universal Studios, Kennedy Space Center and just about every other kid-friendly attraction the Sunshine State has to offer.

Three weeks.  

Earlier this month, as we trudged, exhausted, onto the plane at LAX, I was baffled: How the hell did my parents take my brother and me to Disney World for three fucking weeks? Never mind how did they possibly afford it… how did they not die from exhaustion or kill each other, or kill us?

I actually asked them about this last time I visited them. My dad shrugged at the question and said he wasn’t quite sure how we survived it either. But one thing he was certain of: He remembered it as the best holiday we ever had. My mom did too. 

Which means either my parents are somehow superhuman, or they’ve forgotten all the expensive and exhausting parts of the trip and remembered only the happiness. In which case, I’ve done the same: That vacation is one of my happiest childhood memories. 

How will Eli and Evie remember their trip to Disneyland with Mom and Apple? In twenty years will they look back with the same happiness with which I remember my trip to Orlando? 

Will it take them more than 20 years to truly appreciate how much Sarah planned for them, and how hard she worked to arranged the princess breakfast and make sure they got to see all their favorite characters? Will they marvel at how we could possible have afforded it all while trying to build a startup, never mind while living in insanely expensive San Francisco? (Note to future Evie and Eli: We couldn’t.)

Maybe. But first I hope they remember the joy they felt on walking into that hotel room and seeing all the Pixar characters strewn across the bed. I hope Eli remembers how captivated he was even as he rode It’s a Small World for the hundredth time, or Evie’s smile when she got to swap haircare tips with Rapunzel. I hope Eli remembers eating M&Ms for breakfast with Goofy and Minnie Mouse, and Evie never forgets the price she felt after she was brave enough to ride the Matterhorn. 

Because, more than anything else, vacations like this are an investment: A trade of time and effort now for children’s memories later. 

Note I didn’t include money in that trade. Memories don’t have to be expensive. Other happy childhood memories include visiting my dad at work and being able to play on the typewriters in the accounts office – and even send a TELEX. I remember the hours my mum spent ferrying me back and forth to magic conventions and competitions (I haven’t yet written about my previous life as a magician, but I will I promise), never once complaining about the time it took, or the miles. 

The common factor of those memories, and my childhood trip to Disney World, is not money, but time. Children remember the time you spend with them. Maybe they don’t appreciate it straight away, or even for two decades afterwards, but they always remember it. 

Childhood passes quickly, and that once it’s gone, so is the chance to make those memories. So call this my extra resolution for 2019: To give as much of my time as possible to Eli and Evie; to get more memories in the bank in the hope that they’ll look back on their childhood, as I do to mine, with happiness and gratitude.


Pete

I know, I know. I promised I’d write about Disneyland this week. 

But first, like everyone else on the planet, I want to talk about Pete Buttigieg. Or ‘Mayor Pete’ as he seems to be quite wisely branding himself. 

A month or so back I wrote that we are living in an Assholistocracy. That is, a world governed and controlled by unredeemable assholes, all trying to out-asshole each other in order to appeal to a small but vocal asshole sector of the electorate. 

Then, two weeks ago, I wrote about the decline in popularity of religion, which is being replaced by the twin pseudo-religious concepts of “wellness” and “spirituality.” All the ritual and sense of belonging but none of the stigma of God as interpreted by right wing bigots and evangelical hypocrites. 

Implicit in both of those posts were a couple of questions: Is the assholishness trend, on a national and global level, irreversible. Even if, individually, we all try our best not to be assholes, is the world on an inexorable path towards more divisiveness, selfishness, and assholishness? 

Enter stage center-left, Mayor Pete who – in a single candidate – gives me hope that the answer to both questions could be “no.”

Now. Let me start with the caveat that, having not yet been vetted on the national stage, Pete Buttigieg (Boot-Edge-Edge) may yet turn out to be a serial killer, a liar, or – I dunno – a secret Republican. He is a politician, after all. I also know better than to place my hope in any white dude who craves high office: That really hasn’t worked well in the past. But for the sake of this one newsletter, allow me to embrace optimism over experience.

Let me also say that, in a right and proper world, the democratic nominee would be someone like Stacy Abrahams or Elizabeth Warren; that is, either a true breath of progressive fresh air or an experienced policy wonk unafraid to take on Trump on his own terms. And also a woman. Unfortunately, as previously stated, we live in an assholistocracy. And, in an assholistocracy, even woke democrats seem hell-bent on nominating a white dude. It’s insane, but apparently it’s also America.

So, as recently as last month, with creepy Joe, brocialist Bernie, and mopey Beto the three front-running candidates for the role of Chosen Democratic Dude, I was mentally preparing for four-to-eight more years of yelling and gaffes and bombast and bluster and bullshit, regardless of which party won in 2020.

And then, out of a clear blue sky, came Mayor Pete who, according to the most recent polling out of Iowa and New Hampshire has leapt into third place behind Bernie and Biden, leaving Beto in the dust. 

If the democrats will insist on nominating a dude, it’s hard to imagine one who’s a more perfect antidote to the Assholistocracy, or a better response to the bastardisation of religion (and specifically Christianity) by bigots and frauds like Mike Pence than Mayor Pete Buttigieg. 

Buttigieg clearly realizes this. That’s why he’s cleverly chosen Pence, not Trump, as the foil to his message that you can – gasp – be patriotic (a navy veteran of Afghanistan) and religious (a Catholic-turned-Episcopalian, who cites Jesuits as his biggest influences) without being a total fucking wanker. Moreover that it’s possible to be religious and well-read, religious and honest, religious and uncreepy, religious and… well… every single thing that Mike Pence isn’t. 

It helps that Buttigieg is also the kind of Obama-esque born-for-primetime candidate whose rhetorical abilities leave his rivals in the dust. If we must have a white guy as the Democrat candidate, then please God let it be someone who says things like “If you have a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”

Let it also be someone whose personal biography reads like a list of things Donald Trump would/could never do in a million years. Things like…

…Speaking eight languages (and teaching himself Norwegian so he could read his favorite un-translated author)

….Playing guitar and piano (including with Ben Folds, and the South Bend Symphony Orchestra

…Serving in the military, and actually seeing combat

…Rescuing two dogs, or really doing anything at all to help any living thing

And let it be a non-asshole with many of the right policy ideas. Ideas which (per PBS) include supporting labor and DACA immigrants, identifying climate change as a national security threat, implementing deep background checks for gun ownership and a single payer system for healthcare. 

And let it be a non-asshole who might also be able to reclaim Jesus from fucking nutjobs like Mike Pence and in doing so force Trump’s evangelical base to own their own bigotry and hatred.

If that non-asshole candidate also happens to be our first openly gay** president then, heck, isn’t that just the icing on the cake?

Does Buttigieg really have a shot at victory, in the primaries let alone the general? Was President Obama right when he described Buttigieg (and Kamala Harris) as “the future of the democratic party” way back in 2016? Is America really ready to elect a man called “Buttiegieg”? And, more seriously, how will America’s first openly gay presidential candidate fare against America’s deep-rooted homophobia? (Because make no mistake, Democratic voters just as capable of bigotry – especially in the form of unconscious bias – as their Republican neighbors.) 

I have absolutely no idea the answer to those questions. Not least because in an assholistocracy nobody knows anything. I also don’t know if, strategically speaking, Buttiegieg would make a better VP candidate with a more experienced woman at the top of the ticket. 

Here’s what I do know: Even though as a green card holder I can’t actually vote for the next president, I will still have to spend four to eight years explaining him or her to Eli and Evie as he or she either continues to divide the country or tries to repair the damage done by Donald Trump. For that reason – and if the polling is correct and Democrats stubbornly refuse to pick a woman – I desperately need there to be at least one non-asshole candidate with a shot at the nomination.

Right now, Mayor Pete seems like our best hope of ending the Assholistocracy. Please God.

* Fun fact: In 2000, Buttiegieg won the Kennedy Profile In Courage high school essay contest with an essay praising Bernie Sanders. Nobody’s perfect.

** I don’t know about you, but I find the phrase ‘openly gay’ incredibly jarring. I understand the implication: That perhaps previous presidents were gay, but secretly so. But it also has a weirdly seedy undercurrent: A self-confessed homosexual! Can we imagine a news organization describing a candidate as ‘openly straight’? Or am I overthinking things?


Gotta get the kids used to police surveillance early!

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