If I Were in Charge of These Hills

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Rancho Santana, Nicaragua.-There is an unwritten rule when building your house on top of a hill: Keep the roofline below the treetops. When you violate this rule by setting a two-story structure at the very crest of the hill, you create an ugly and permanent blemish on the profile of that landscape. Any sensitive someone looking at the hill from afar would have his pleasure ruined – the vista’s soft and undulating strata of green interrupted by an ugly man-made block.

We have such violations in Nicaragua, along the Pacific coastline north of Rancho Santana. One of them is a restaurant called Mag Rock (short for Magnificent Rock), a barn-like, three-story structure perched at the top an outcropping of rock that rises above and juts out from the shoreline like a prow heading into the ocean.

Every time I look at it, I get annoyed. What kind of shallow, selfish, and aesthetically demonic person would do this. And stupid. You can get your view, even of both sides, without destroying the tree line. All you have to do is cut the structure into the hilltop. (See illustration below.)

So when Andy and Cecily said how much they enjoyed their lunch at Mag Rock, with its “mag-nificent” view and all, I had to say something.

“I’d like to burn it down,” is what I said.

Cecily decided to ignore me. Andy took me up. I explained my theory about building on hillsides.

“There should be a law,” I said.

“Maybe there is,” he said.

I like to think of myself as a classic Libertarian – i.e., that if forced to choose, I’d choose freedom over other social values. But when it comes to beauty – and let’s be real for a moment, sooner or later nearly every ideological view comes down to deeply held views about beauty – I’m a law-and-order monger.

“Lots of people think the world would be better if they were in charge ofeverything. I just want to be in charge of beauty,” I said.

“A Grand Minister of Aesthetics?” Andy offered.


I smiled and thought about it.

“It would be a big job,” I admitted. “I’d need help. Several ministries beneath mine. I’d need a Ministry of Landscape, a Ministry of Architecture…”
“A Ministry of Interior Décor?”

“Certainly. And a Ministry of Attire… and Jewelry… and Watches… and Cars…”

“With you at the helm?”

“Naturally. Someone has to set and approve the standards.”

“And would there be penalties? Fines perhaps?”

“Not tough enough. Corporal punishment. Torture and death.”

Seriously, just think about how much better – i.e., more beautiful – the world would be if we could do away with all the ugly things.

Forget about eliminating war and poverty for a moment. Think about how wonderful it would be to wake up each day to a world devoid of aesthetic abuse.

Think of all the things that would not be. Such as:

* Buildings built upon hilltops

* Brightly lit, quasi-Italian restaurants

* Boca-styled mansions

* Boca Raton itself

* Duck backs and comb-overs

* Gold-plated faucets

* Almost any fixture plated in gold

* Which is to say Trump Tower

* Earth shoes and tube socks

* Plastic furniture coverings

* Renoir reproductions

* Any sort of stretch material on unattractive bodies

The list goes on.

Dinner at Mad Dog Pizzeria

Monday, January 14, 2019

Rancho Santana, Nicaragua.- Dinner last night was at Mad Dog’s, located about 20 minutes west of Rancho Santana on the coastal road by the turnoff to Guasacate.

It sits in the corner of a brand-new shopping mall that is said to have been built by “the Italian guy that owns that huge house with the giant blue dome on the beach.” I find that easy to believe. Both structures are wonders in bad taste.

Partly because it is new, but mostly because tourism in Nicaragua has all but disappeared since the political protests began early in 2018, the mall has only this one tenant. (And three cars in the parking lot last night.)

It’s called a pizzeria. And although it does serve pizza, one can see that it’s really a wannabe restaurant, with a menu that includes appetizers and entrees, as well as wines, beers, and desserts.

The layout is unfortunate: one oversize room, heavy on the marble, topped by a ceiling fresco of the sky and ducks (of all things). And the place is lit up like an operating room.

I’ve seen restaurants like this in some of the smaller cities of Italy. Just last year, we had dinner with Peter and Jill at one in Salerno. We would have never thought of entering based on its appearance. But it was recommended confidently (and correctly, as it turned out) by a pretty young woman on the street as having the best pizza in town. But that was Italy. This is Nicaragua.

Andy and Cecily were still on their way, coming back from a day-long adventure that included climbing the Mombacho volcano, visiting a coffee plantation, having a late lunch in Granada (the most perfectly preserved Spanish Colonial city in the Americas, according to UNESCO), and then zip-lining. (“We never got to take the boat tour of the isletas of Lake Granada,” Cecily complained. “We ran out of time.”)

So there were seven of us for dinner at Mad Dog’s, including my sister Gaby, who has lived in Rome for 30 years; Cecily and Andy, who met while working for me 30 years ago; Tommy, my friend of nearly 60 years; and Tommy’s 180-pound, 11-year-old son Billy, who was halfway through a warm-up pizza when we arrived.

The waitress spoke some English, which would have been unheard of 20 years ago when I first came to Nicaragua. She was far from fluent, but she was familiar with such idioms as, “I’ll check it out.” (I wondered about the history of that.)

The menu was odd. Light on salads and vegetables, heavy on pizzas, and featuring six entrees, half of which were not available. I chose the pork belly, which turned out to be a mistake. But everyone else’s meals were reported to be “good” to “very good.” Tommy said his lamb was the best he’ ever had. And “little” Billy finished his pizza and ordered a few tacos to boot.

As near as I can recall, the dinner conversation was mostly about nothing. But there were two discussions that I did enjoy.

One was about the difference between sweet potatoes and yams. (Most yams – and almost all sold in US supermarkets –  are actually a type of sweet potato, softer and more orange than the harder type that retains the name. True yams are entirely different. They come from a plant that is native to Asia and Africa, and are sold only in specialty shops.)

The other one was a brief argument about the meaning of the word “Palladian.” I had come across it during my daily exercise of looking for new or unfamiliar words. The reference I used defined it as somehow related to the goddess Athena – in particular, as “something that gives symbolic protection,” like the many statues of Athena that you see all over the classical world. But Cecily thought it had to do with architecture.

I looked it up – and we were both right. Palladian architecture is a 17thcentury neoclassical style – symmetrical and balanced – that was inspired by the work of the 16thcentury Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580).

It looks like this:

Driving back to the ranch in the blackness, the car’s suspension system rattling from the hard dirt and rock road, I thought about how lucky I am to be having ordinary dinners in such extraordinary places with people I’ve known for so many years.

Today’s Word: tome (noun) – A tome (TOHM) is a large, heavy book. As used by the Indian-American writer/critic Karan Mahajan: “Novelists get to say plenty in their massive tomes; rock singers only get four-minute songs with two verses and a chorus worth of lyrics, and so there’s a real pleasure in accessing the intelligence behind the music, even if it doesn’t qualify as ‘great literature.’”

Did You Know?: Spaghetti was invented in China.

Worth Quoting: “Every day above earth is a good day.” – Ernest Hemingway

What I’m Reading Now: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. This is actually a relatively long history of nearly everything, beautifully (i.e., simply) written. Bryson begins by explaining the origin of the universe and moves on from there. It took him three years to research and write the book, but that seems like no time compared to the accomplishment.

Something to Think About: “This Could Be Worse Than 1929”

By Bill Bonner

This is an essay from Bill Bonner about why “buy and hold” investing might not work. I find his long-term gold/Dow system intriguing and exciting, so I’ve made it a point to keep following it.

I have a system for buying and selling stocks that is still in development. (I’ve told you about in dribs and drabs, but it’s not “official” yet.) It is also about timing, but it is not about selling stocks to avoid crashes.

I like my system. But as I said, I’m also interested in Bill’s. I’m passing this essay along so you can judge for yourself…


The New Challenge I Give Myself Every Day

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Delray Beach, FL.-I received a note from a former protégé who is using my personal productivity system (my “Goaltending Program”) to accomplish her very demanding schedule as editorial director of a growing publishing company.

I thanked her for the note, congratulated her on her success, and said, “You know, I’ve taught this system to dozens, showed it to thousands… yet you may be the only person besides me that is using it!”

Then I shared with her something that I’ve added to the Goaltending Program.

It’s a new challenge I give myself – four things I try to do in order to enjoy the satisfaction of an intellectually fulfilling day:

  1. Write something worth reading.*
  2. Do something worth writing about.*
  3. Read something worth recommending.
  4. Learn something worth teaching.

This is a quality-of-life challenge. There are no requirements in terms of “how much” or “how long.” For example, “Learn something worth teaching” might be how to adjust one’s side view mirrors so that there are no blind spots. And “Write something worth reading” might include this little journal entry that you are reading right now. (Of course, you are the judge of whether I’ve succeeded.)

*I got the first two from Ben Franklin.

Today’s Word: exoteric (adjective) – Something that’s exoteric (ek-suh-TER-ik) – as opposed to esoteric – is commonplace, simple; suitable for or communicated to the general public. As used by Marcel Duchamp: “The curious thing about the Ready-Made is that I’ve never been able to arrive at a definition or explanation that fully satisfies me. There’s still magic in the idea, so I’d rather keep it that way than try to be exoteric about it.”

Did You Know?: Topolino is the name for Mickey Mouse in Italy.

Worth Quoting: “Only those who dare to fail can achieve greatly.” – Robert Kennedy

What I’m Reading Now: Man Up: How to Cut the Bullshit and Kick Ass in Business (and in Life), by Bedros Keuilian

I’ve always disdained the common disdain for “motivational” speakers and writers. The implication is that we don’t need is any more inspiration. We need facts and specific strategies to show us how to succeed. The opposite case could be easily made, though, because the strategies are relatively simple and widely known but the energy and the courage and the tenacity to follow them is always on the verge of disappearing.

Put differently, you need to learn the strategy only once. But the inspiration to pursue the strategy… that you need every single day.

It is with that thought in mind that I can recommend Man Upas a good, fast-reading, and inspirational book about breaking out of the quicksand of laziness and fear and victimhood and moving on, energetically and responsibly.

I was a bit worried by the title that the advice would be in the genre of what I call Bully Coaching – where the protégé is belittled and then bullied to “man up” and follow the coach’s rules. But it’s not. To his credit, Keuilian explains his rules of success (which are of the ilk of being responsible and decisive and honest with yourself) by recounting experiences in his own life when he wasn’t manning up.

Something to Think About: “Love Is Now a Hate Crime”

The white man’s dilemma – hate yourself or be hated.




10 “Truths” About  Building Wealth That You Won’t Hear from Your Financial Advisor

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Delray Beach, FL.- When I “decided” to get rich, I didn’t know the first thing about creating wealth.

I was an editor. I wanted to be a novelist. I’d never taken a course in finance or economics. Plus, I was broke.

But I had a great advantage. I was working for a human wealth machine – a man who, at 43, had already created three hugely profitable businesses. He adopted me as a surrogate nephew and taught me everything he knew about making money. Eventually, he made me his partner.

I retired about 7 years later with a net worth well in excess of $10 million.

Eighteen months later, I gave up on retirement and went to work as a “growth” consultant for a publisher I much admired. By combining the marketing know-how I’d learned from my previous partner with this man’s ideas and generosity of intellect, I was able, about 10 years later, to retire again, my wealth having multiplied many times over.

In this, my second retirement, I focused on two long-put-aside lifetime goals: to write and to teach. I was able to do both at the same time by starting a blog called Early to Rise. In the ensuing 10 or 11 years, I wrote and published more than a dozen books and thousands of essays, “teaching” my readers what I knew about entrepreneurship, marketing, business management, and wealth building.

And even though it was no longer a priority, my net worth continued to grow.

At 60, I meant to retire again. But I got talked into going to work for someone who worked for someone who worked for me. (Don’t ask.) As co-founder of Palm Beach Research Group, I still write about wealth building. But I’m older now and have more experience.

I’d like to think that my observations and advice are somehow better now. At the very least, I’ve been able to go wider and deeper in terms of thinking about wealth, how it’s created, how it’s invested, and how it’s lost.

Why am I telling you all this?

Maybe because I’d like you to think that when it comes to the subject of building wealth, I have some insights that might be useful to you.

For example, I’ve come to believe that many commonly accepted “facts” about wealth building are, in fact, fallacies.

Take these examples:

Read More10 “Truths” About  Building Wealth That You Won’t Hear from Your Financial Advisor

Today’s Word: whelm (verb) – To whelm (HWELM) is to submerge, engulf, overcome completely. As used by Dante Alighieri in Paradise, Canto 27: “That canst not lift thy head above the waves / Which whelm and sink thee down!”

Did You Know?: The last course in a traditional Chinese meal is soup, so that the earlier courses can “swim” toward the stomach for digestion.

Worth Quoting: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” – Soren Kierkegaard

What I’m Reading Now: South and West: From a Notebook, by Joan Didion. Not a novel. Not a memoir exactly. More a series of notes about a trip she took with her husband through the South and some notes she made during the Patty Hearst trial that turned out to be about privileged young women growing up in California. The thesis of the book, if there is one, is that the culture of the South, however backwards we feel it is, is steeped in history and likely to endure, while that may not be true of California’s very different culture. It is really well written. Sparse and precise and at times poetic.

Didion was a very attractive young woman who grew up wealthy and connected. But her writing is undeniably good – and that is a fact that cannot be diminished by her various advantages.

Watch This: Every time I go to San Francisco its streets are dirtier and more depressing. It’s sad to see one of America’s great cities decline so steadily. There is always hope — New York is now a much cleaner and safer city than it was 30 years ago. It took the intervention of an administration or two that recognized the fact that a city’s survival is based on its ability to attract and keep good businesses.

This video — though a bit preachy — is funny and depressingly accurate


Timothy Leary, the Psychedelicists, and the Doors of Perception*

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Delray Beach, FL.- In August 1960, Timothy Leary (a Harvard professor) traveled to Mexico to explore the ceremonial use of psilocybin mushrooms by the indigenous Aztecs.

It was there that he ate the psychedelic mushrooms for the first time. It was, he wrote, life-changing. He said he learned more about his “brain and its possibilities” in particular and about psychology generally than he had learned “in the preceding fifteen years of studying and doing research in psychology.”

When he got back to Harvard, Leary and his associates, notably Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass), began The Harvard Psilocybin Project. The goal was to determine if psychedelic substances could alter human behavior in beneficial ways.

Their first subjects were convicted criminals. Most of them, Leary and Alpert reported, felt they had “mystical” or “spiritual” experiences while taking the drugs. This got the attention of Alan Ginsberg, the poet, who then joined the team. Bolstered by Ginsberg’s support, the project became a cause célèbre of artists and intellectuals.

The project was expanded to theology students and then to graduate students, writers, and philosophers. According to Leary’s autobiography, Flashbacks, LSD was given to 300 subjects. Two hundred and twenty-five of them described their experiences as significant, revelatory, educational, and/or transformative.

In 1964, Leary and Alpert (along with Ralph Metzner) coauthored a book titled The Psychedelic Experience. In it, they wrote:

A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness. The scope and content of the experience is limitless, but its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of space-time dimensions, and of the ego or identity.

Read MoreTimothy Leary, the Psychedelicists, and the Doors of Perception*

Today’s Word: mise-en-scène (noun) – In film production, mise-en-scène (meez-ahn-SEN) – French for “putting onto the stage” – refers to the arrangement of everything that the camera sees: the actors, the setting, the lighting, the props, etc. The French film director/screenwriter Bruno Dumont explains its importance this way: “The landscape is a reflection of the inner life. Since I can’t shoot the inner life… I can only really touch the inside through the mise-en-scène . So through the mise-en-scène of the outside we can explore the inside.”

 Did You Know?: If you plant an apple seed, it will likely grow a tree that produces a different type of apple.

 Worth Quoting: “Self-contempt…sharpens our eyes for the imperfections of others.” – Eric Hoffer

 What I’m Reading Now: The Writing Life is the first Annie Dillard book I’ve read. It is a thin book, but not necessarily a quick read. You want to read it slowly because it’s finely written. You want to know it. And enjoy its many enjoyable bits. It’s about what the title announces: the writer’s life. Or, more exactly, Annie Dillard’s life as a writer. Her interest in her profession is mostly about the work. How it’s difficult. Why it’s difficult. And why it matters, if it matters. There’s a lot about how the struggle is less about the subject matter and more about the medium itself: the words and sentences and paragraphs and how they tend to shape the narrative. Another major theme is the often-unpleasant necessity to reduce, delete, and revise early words and sentences and paragraphs. These are issues that all true writers contend with.

 Something to Think About: Friendship

 Friendships formed in tribulation tend to be the deepest and most enduring. Even when life’s circumstances pull you apart for long periods of time, the reunions have that magical quality of beginning again just where they left off.

Such is most of the friendships I formed as a Peace Corps volunteer in Chad from 1973 to 1975. One of my friends from that period, Harry, sent me this memory about a mutual friend, Charlie, that I enjoyed. You know neither Harry nor Charlie, but I’m sure you have friendships like I have with them.

My Friend Charlie

A Story by Harry Birnholz

Charlie was a great friend and human being. I will miss our random encounters that, over nearly 45 years, would bring us together somewhere in Africa, the US, or the Balkans.

I think anyone who has spent time with Charlie knew what a funny, engaging, committed and full-of-life person he was. He would ask smart questions, would comfortably make fun of himself, and was always there to lend a helping hand. But I’ll bet there is one thing most of us did not know or hear Charlie talk about: his entry into the world of magic and Voodoo.

I can’t recall exactly when the topic first came up with Charlie, but undoubtedly, sometime in 1975, on one of his visits to my village when we were Peace Corps Volunteers in Benin. My recollection is that Charlie lived in a somewhat isolated location in a region renowned for its powerful magic. He stayed in the village or as we would say in Peace Corps, “en brousse” for an extended period of time. He was determined, and it was his nature, to want to integrate himself into the life and culture of the village. I think I had heard that his predecessor had been initiated into one of the magic cults of the region, giving him a certain credibility and legitimacy amongst the village elders. It was also a passport to better promote the use of the improved grain silos being introduced into the region to reduce crop loss due to insect and vermin infestation.

I recall asking Charlie about the stories I had heard about his predecessor entering the cult and then I began to understand that Charlie had become an initiate, too. He told me that it was almost expected of him by the elders of the village if he was going to become part of the village society. He would not let on much, but I understood that he saw it as a positive force. I understood from him that the initiation process was not a laughing matter and both physically and mentally demanding. As volunteers, living in Benin and interacting with our local counterparts and village neighbors, we came to understand the power and influence that magic and secret societies had on daily life.

Once in a while I would tease Charlie and ask if he could whip me up a magic potion or make a good luck amulet, commonly referred to as a “gris-gris.” He would laugh off my request and tell me this was not to be fooled with.

Sometime in the 1980’s I was on a visit in Washington DC and met up with Charlie at a bar in Adams-Morgan. We sat at the bar and ordered beer. (These were the days before Charlie decided to take alcohol out of his life.) The barman was black and had an accent that piqued our interest. We asked him where he was from and he said Benin. Quickly the conversation switched to Fon, the predominant language of southern Benin. The bartender was floored to hear this little bearded white guy speaking fluent Fon with a mastery of talking in proverbs.

At some point there was a change in the bartender’s demeanor; I noticed that he was lowering his head and not looking into Charlie’s eyes when responding to him, a sign of respect accorded to village elders and persons of importance. And without any request on our part, he was constantly refilling our drinks. When we finally got up to leave, the bartender refused to give us a bill and proceeded to go through a long ceremonial goodbye and bid us a safe return home. Charlie later told me that the bartender was from the region of Ouidah where Charlie had been a volunteer and that he understood that Charlie was bestowed by the village elders with a certain knowledge and power of magic. We never spoke about this again.