An ode to my ‘iPhone mini’

Every time I check my phone, I get looks. People make fun of me. I get it: I have an old phone.

The iPhone SE, to be precise. I picked up this beauty after dropping my iPhone 6 in the toilet at Kara Swisher’s holiday party in 2016. Yes, the closest contact I’ve had with tech’s most revered journalist is when she gave me a bag of rice to try and save my phone.

The Apple Store was out of the sleek new iPhone 6S thanks to the holiday rush, so I had to buy an SE.

For those who don’t remember the hazy days of 2016, the SE is the same shape as the iPhone 5. Its 4″ screen is at least 25% smaller than any major smartphone today.

iPhone XS Max vs iPhone SE

It’s a testament to how quickly phone fashion changes that this phone looks so outdated. Or maybe not, since it looks like the iPhone 5, which Apple introduced in 2012.

I’m the CEO of a company that makes a mobile app (download Hitlist!), and friends have gone so far as to say it’s unprofessional for me to walk around with a phone that looks like it could be – gasp! – 7 years old.

Let them have their criticism.

Here are the reasons I love my tiny old iPhone:

  1. It’s small. I can hold it in one hand and reach anywhere on the screen. I can sit with it in the front pocket of my pants and not feel like it’s going to snap. It is the second lightest iPhone ever made (a mere gram more than the iPhone 5).
  2. It has a paltry amount of storage, 16 GB. Essentially enough to keep mail, calendar, maps, Whatsapp/Messenger, Uber/Lyft, and Spotify going. I can’t even download Facebook and Instagram because those apps are so damn big. This means it’s less distracting. Everyone’s talking about reducing their screen time, then spending $1k on a phone designed to make you want to use it all the time. Instead of relying on self control or system-controlled time limits, buy a small phone you don’t want to stare at for hours on end.
  3. I’m more productive with this phone. Unless you’re a social media influencer, very little serious work happens on a phone. What needs to be done on the go – checking and quickly responding to emails, taking conference calls – this phone can handle. Anything beyond that is usually 50%+ faster to do on a laptop. I’m not tempted to try and work more on my phone, so I do more faster when I get back to my laptop. (If you’ve found great ways to be productive on your Mega Phone, would love to hear how in the comments).
  4. Because I’m on the phone less and don’t have data-hungry apps I save money on data. I switched from my $80+ a month T mobile plan to Google Fi and rarely exceed $40/month now.

Pretty much the only thing I wish for is a better camera. The built in one is serviceable but I do drool a bit when I see what the Pixel 3’s night vision can do. If I’m dreaming –

Here’s a complete list of things I actually want in a phone:

  • Small size (4” screen or smaller)
  • Rubberized exterior, or something equally durable, so I don’t need a case
  • Amazing camera
  • Long battery life
  • Waterproof
  • Basic health tracking (step counter)
  • headphone jack

And I’d happily compromise on screen & processing quality: as long as it works for emails, navigation, and messaging I’m good. I don’t actually want to play games or watch streaming movies.

In conclusion

For now, when my iPhone mini croaks – which it doesn’t seem likely to anytime soon – I’m more likely to buy a refurbished SE on eBay (current price: $79.99) than to buy anything that’s in the market right now.

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How to travel with no luggage (2019)

For the last four years, I’ve been gradually whittling away at my possessions to the point I carry almost everything I need at all times. I can walk out of the door of wherever I’m living with just my purse and no idea when I’ll be back.

I’m hardly the only digital nomad living out of a backpack. In fact, there’s an entire subreddit dedicated to the art of this particular kind of travel. But I haven’t met many ‘onebag’ers who are also

  1. Trying to look formal/put together enough for business meetings as opposed to extended leisure/adventure travel
  2. Women

So here’s my VERY detailed breakdown of everything I need for extended travel – or to keep looking put together every day.

This isn’t just for travelers. Living with less can be good for the environment and good for your mental health. In my case, it’s helped me concentrate on what makes me happy: building a company, spending time with friends and family, and investing in the communities that have helped me live this life.

(Disclosure: I put in some Amazon affiliate links and received some items for free, noted where appropriate).

Apparel, in roughly descending order of how often I wear it:

  • Uniqlo airism seamless top ($14.90) – I wear this pretty much every day as a base layer. I used to swear by an Everlane silk cami but last year I switched to a Uniqlo synthetic which is slightly more durable in workouts.
  • skirt – I like to bike, so I go with a pleated skirt for mobility. Make sure it has pockets! The one I’m currently wearing I picked up from a Zara in Beirut in 2010 for about $20.
  • boots – for dressy occasions, poor weather, or anytime I want to look more put together. I like ones with a bit of a heel but still comfortable enough to wear all day. If I know I’m traveling to only warm weather destinations, I’ll swap these out for a pair of sandals I can dress up / down. My current pair are Charles Davids I bought at Community Thrift in San Francisco for $6.50.
  • Ex Officio underwear (x2, $18 each) is the traveler’s staple and I have those for every day, and two cute pairs of various brands for when someone else might be seeing my underwear (sorry, Ex Officio is never sexy). Chantelle underwear (usually $35-50) is as durable as Marks & Spencer tights (see below) so worth shelling out a couple extra $.
  • bra – one regular bra is enough. Currently into the Chantelle Merci plunge bra ($60).
  • tights (x2, £8) – extra warmth for little space. I bought these from Marks & Spencer four years ago and have never had to replace them despite wearing probably 50x each, so it seems insane to buy any other brand. 
  • ROAV folding sunglasses ($165, though the company sent me a pair for free) – anyone who’s hung out with me outside in the last 3 years has probably experienced me unveiling my ROAV sunglasses and trying to convince them to buy their own pair. They weigh almost nothing, collapse to the size of 3 credit cards, protect your eyes effectively with polarized lenses, and look stylish to boot. They’re also incredibly durable: they’ve survived a volleyball to the face (without damaging my face) and two Burning Mans. These are my favorite thing I own.
  • leggings – for workouts and colder days (layered over tights if need be). I’m currently wearing a pair from American Apparel I found at Community Thrift ($3) that have a nice sheen to them, sort of like faux leather, but they’re pretty flimsy and I’m excited to try out the Ever Brand Sweatflow leggings ($60), which have pockets (yay) and promise to go five days of continuous wear before they need to be washed (I’m skeptical but have ordered a pair to try them out).
  • Uniqlo sports bra ($19.90) – is super lightweight so is comfortable to wear for long plane rides. If I’m doing something that will have me bouncing around a lot I double up with my bikini top.
  • bikini – I LOVE Athleta’s sadly discontinued cross strap bikini top (bought on eBay for $40) because I can go for a run or dive off a cliff without worrying about things popping out, while still feeling cute and minimizing tan lines. If I’m doing a light impact workout like yoga I’ll wear this instead of my sports bra. The bikini bottoms can be used as an extra pair of underwear in a pinch. J Crew makes really durable and flatteringly-cut bikini bottoms so I usually just buy a new one when they go on sale.
  • Nike free flyknit 4.0 sneakers (bought on eBay for $60) – I used to wear Cole Haan Misha suede oxfords ($100) which I preferred for their street-to-boardroom versatility. I figured it was fine to work out in them because Olympians before the 1980s pretty much wore rubber slippers to run marathons, so how bad could it be to run in unsupportive leather shoes? Then I sprained my ankle for the sixth time (first wearing the Cole Haans) and my doctor politely insisted I wear more supportive shoes. Definitely on the hunt for something with more street style that will keep my ankles from rolling over, but the flyknits are good for workouts for now.
  • scarf/coverup – ideally big enough to wear as a dress, use as a blanket, sarong/towel on the beach – 4×6 ft works well for me. A silk/linen/wool blend is excellent for transcending multiple use cases. I bought a swatch of poly blend fabric I liked on 9th St in LA’s fashion district ($13) but wish I’d sprung for silk/wool.
  • wool socks – I’ve worn the same pair of icebreaker merino wool socks ($16) for a week straight and I’m not ashamed of it. No smells, no athlete’s foot. I’ve heard people say Darn Tough is even better so I’ll likely switch to that brand when this pair wears out. I usually get by with just one pair of ankle length socks but will bring an extra pair of longer ones if I’ll be in cold weather for extended periods. 
  • merino wool long sleeve – if you hang it up overnight will smell fresh as a daisy in the morning. I’m currently wearing the Patagonia Capilene midweight (found at Goodwill on 23rd St in Manhattan for $2) but I’d like to replace it with something a bit more ‘office casual’ with the same performance characteristics if I can find it. 
  • custom made leather jacket from Bilgili Leather in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul ($165) – this thing is beaten to a mostly pulp after eight years of heavy wear, but it adapts to many styles, doesn’t pick up smells, and has lots of handy pockets. I’d like to replace it with something a bit lighter and a bit more formal looking.
  • Uniqlo lightweight packable hooded jacket ($5.90)- for rain, but also as a good extra layer when it’s really cold.
  • Columbia Heavenly synthetic down vest ($19 from Headwall Sports in Jackson, WY, amazing source for second hand outdoor gear)
Fur goes with everything, including John Deere, my ROAV sunglasses, and my beloved leather jacket.
  • fur headband ($8.99) – faux if you feel strongly, but nothing matches warmth/weight/style like fur.
  • gloves – I have a super cheap knit pair for now but am on the hunt for something more high quality and durable. Have heard good things about the Icebreaker merino glove liners ($25) worn as a standalone for not toooo freezing temperatures. 

Toiletries/accessories

I decant most toiletries into MUJI 12ml PE Cylinder with snap top containers, and paint the container tops with nail polish to be able to tell them apart. I also split toiletries into two categories: my overnight bag and a smaller mesh pouch I carry with me all the time. There are a few ‘swing’ items that will make it into my day kit based on weather/time of month.

  • overnight bag ($3): a PVC pouch I got on amazon that’s tooled to look like ostrich leather, so I can use it as an extra small clutch for going out.
  • tooth powder – a vial the size of a regular tube of travel size toothpaste will last you months (though may raise eyebrows as it looks like about $2k worth of cocaine). I’ve been using Eco-dent ($6.25) but recently sampled Lush’s ‘Tooth Fairy’ ($9.95) and will switch to that when this one runs out because it tastes much better. 
  • Lush ‘No Doubt’ dry shampoo/body powder – ($8.95) for keeping hair fresh but also for sprinkling inside clothes if you are forced to go longer than expected between showers or washing clothes. 
  • razor head (no handle) – I briefly traveled with a straight razor because I like that it entails less plastic waste but TSA does not like those razor blades. Now I travel with one or two disposable razor heads.
  • q tips, band aids, sanitizing wipes, sewing kit, safety pins, all held in the plastic baggie the MUJI rubber bands ($2.30) came in
  • tweezers, nail clippers, eye drops
  • Doctor Plotka’s mouthwatcher folding toothbrush ($8.49 for a set of 2)
  • OPI mini nail lacquer ($15.95 for a set of 4)
  • Public Goods mini lip balm ($1.25)
  • Drugs – I store these in a mini Altoid container
    • antibiotic – if you might be traveling in places where food poisoning is likely, it’s standard to ask your doctor for a antibiotic prescription. I’ve got cipro, which is a broad spectrum antibiotic; reports vary about whether it’s safe and it’s best to consult a doctor about what makes the most sense for you. I try not to take antibiotics but if something isn’t getting better with a day or two of rest a course of these usually cures what ails me. 
    • ibuprofen or any standard painkiller
  • sweet breath ultra concentrated breath mints – these really belong in my everyday kit but the bottles are so tiny I tend to just keep a few of them in various pockets.
  • (optional, not pictured) castile soap – can be used as shampoo, body wash, and laundry detergent. This usually isn’t necessary because I’m either staying at a hotel that provides shampoo/conditioner/body wash; or more likely staying with friends who will have this anyway. If for some reason I am somewhere that doesn’t provide this, I can pick up something at any local drug store. 

Essentials that can be slipped into the clutch or my regular bag:

  • argan oil ($22 for 2) – all purpose moisturizer for face, body, and hair. Trader Joe’s has a good one that I decant into one of the MUJI tubes.
  • reef-friendly sunscreen ($14.44) – I use sunscreen sparingly, because I believe the risk of melanoma is lower than the risk inherent in spreading a bunch of chemicals on my body every day, but will use this on my face if I know I’ll be getting a lot of exposure.
  • Lipstick (can also be used as blush), mascara, eye liner – I have had the same mascara and eye liner for 15 years which should indicate how often I use them, and how useless my advice on brands would be.
  • Lush Aromaco deodorant ($6.95)- all natural, free of aluminum, lasts for months, and actually works, which is more than you can say of most natural deodorants.
  • Mason Pearson pocket hair brush ($105, received as a gift) – I’ve had the same Mason Pearson pocket brush for 20 (!) years and while I wish it were a little smaller, there’s nothing that treats my hair so well.

‘Swing’ items I’ll include depending on plans/time of month:

  • Intimina collapsible menstrual cup ($28.54) – if you haven’t already gotten on the menstrual cup train, ladies, this is the way to go.
  • Condoms – not pictured but Lelo Hex ($19.90/12) earn rave reviews from my male friends.
  • ROAV sunglasses (already mentioned in apparel)
  • lens cleaning cloth
  • small perfume sampler
  • USB-3 to lightning adapter
  • crossbody clutch/fanny pack – big enough to throw kindle, keys, phone, and an extra layer for if it gets chilly, useful for days when you don’t want to carry around the whole bag. I found this one from a street vendor in NYC for $20.

Electronics

  • Pixelbook ($849.95) – replaced my Macbook and I haven’t looked back. Portability, the ability to switch it into a tablet, two USB-C outlets, and affordability for the specs. 
  • iPhone SE ($399) and Google Pixel (refurb on eBay for $249) – as an app developer I need to have both an iPhone and Android for testing. It’s also useful to have a backup in case one gets stolen, dropped in a toilet, or runs out of battery – just move the SIM card over.
  • kindle ($129.99) – I use Libby to check books out from the library.
  • headphones ($18.99) – I prefer wired earbuds to wireless because 1. I don’t want another thing to charge and 2. I would probably lose one if they weren’t wired together and 3. I like to be able to plug into in-seat entertainment on airlines and 4. they work as semi effective earplugs if I want to block out noise. 
  • light ($15.99) – a small flashlight comes in handy more often than you might imagine. I clip this to the outside of my purse. 
  • Kikkerland universal power adapter ($9.70) is about a third of the size of every other adapter I’ve seen and does everything you need it to. 
  • USB stick – feels a bit ancient but it comes in handy more often than you’d imagine. 
  • port adapters – carry fewer cords when you have adapters to make all of them do what you need. I have a long and short usb-c to usb-c cord, then adapters to make those plug into traditional usb, micro usb, and lightning. 

Miscellaneous

  • lock ($14.99) – for trips to the gym, locking things at the beach, etc. 
  • stationary + stamps – I like sending thank you notes if I stay at a friend’s house or go to dinner. I also try and send a postcard every day since I find they tend to spark joy. 
  • Space pen ($16.99)- takes up little space and writes upside down, underwater, and in zero gravity, in case that’s ever relevant. 
  • checks – it is INCREDIBLE that the US banking system is so backward, but I find checks are sometimes still the cheapest way to move money. 
  • currency – I try not to carry much cash since you can do pretty much everything by card, but if I have leftover currency at the end of an international trip I keep it in case I end up back in that country in the future, or if I meet a friend that’s heading that direction. 
  • passport – I carry this with me at all times – you never know when an opportunity for adventure will arise, and it’s also useful to have a backup ID on hand. 
  • credit cards – I do most of my spending on a Chase Sapphire Preferred card which has excellent travel rewards, no foreign transaction fees, and a reasonable annual fee ($95). The best card for you is highly subjective, I suggest checking out Nerdwallet to help you evaluate the best fit based on your own spending habits. 
  • debit cards, transit cards, AAA card, health insurance card – since I pass through London, Los Angeles, DC, New York, San Francisco, and Boston with some frequency, I have public transit cards for all of them
  • driver’s license
  • earplugs, extra earbud pads
  • water bottle
  • matches
  • Alaska bear silk eyeshade ($7.99)
  • Hitlist tote bag (priceless) – for picking up groceries or using as overflow if I don’t have time to pack methodically.
  • Travel compression packing cube ($16.99) – all my clothes fit in the smallest one.
  • Drawstring sack ($9.88) – to separate dirty laundry, take to the gym/beach.
  • Cote & Ciel Moselle backpack ($485, received as a gift) – the one bag that fits ALL of the above. I’ve worn this for 7 years and get a lot of compliments, though my ex also referred to it as my ‘deflated couch cushion’, so there’s no accounting for taste. This isn’t the most ergonomic but looks like a fashionable purse and meets every carry on bag restriction.
Traveling outfit – everything else is in the purse.

A few last notes for those who are working on getting to the ‘one bag’ lifestyle:

  • I have a duffel bag with more winter clothes; hiking boots; ski, biking, and boxing gear; camping essentials; a ballgown; and essential documents (birth certificate, company incorporation docs, etc) that lives wherever I am currently spending the most time. I generally ship it to wherever I’m going to need it rather than carrying on the plane.
  • My parents will fairly point out that I still have a closet full of clothes at their house. To be fair on my side, I know my mom raids it and she would never let me throw out my prom dress or marching band T-shirt anyway.
  • I try to get clothes I can wear for a long time between washes, and don’t think that should be considered gross. Washing clothes takes a tremendous amount of energy, releases microplastics into the water supply, and destroys the clothes themselves. Wool, silk, leather, and linen last forever and don’t pick up smells. Darker clothes and patterns are less likely to pick up stains. I wash my underwear after every wear and the leggings after 1-2 wears, but very seldom wash the rest of the things in my bag.
  • If you ever find yourself lacking something you really need, thrift stores are a great source.

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Forming an Advisory Board that’s not horrible

In my last monthly company update for Hitlist, I asked for advice on how to form an advisory board. Here’s a distillation of the feedback I got.

WHEN TO FORM AN ADVISORY BOARD

  1. Not too early. “Advisory boards are super helpful (and cheap) if done right, and an expensive (in equity) waste of time if done wrong.” – Josh Elwell, a partner at ValueStream Labs, a FinTech accelerator. “Asking someone to become a formal advisor in the early stage of your company’s growth might be overkill. You can gain many of the same benefits through lunches or phone calls every couple of months – something most can commit to.” – Kerrie MacPherson, Principal, Financial Services Office at Ernst & Young (h/t to Betsy Mikel of Women 2.0 for pointing me towards her post).
  2. If you’ve raised an angel/seed round without a lead investor. “The problem and the challenge with not having the board after the Seed round is that there is no outside, non-executive perspective on the company. There is no higher level accountability for CEO, there is no regular milestones, and no regular check-ups… great boards help keep the business healthy and help accelerate it” – Alex Iskold, managing director of TechStars New York (h/t to Brittany Laughlin of USV for pointing me towards his post).

WHO TO HAVE ON THE BOARD

Via Chris Thorpe, director of engineering at EMC:

  • Advisory board members are people who can either make introductions to key people (former travel executives, for example) or solve hard problems but you don’t need them full time.
  • Ideally look for people who have been on “real” boards and/or have been CEOs or C_Os of companies that you admire.
  • I see executives hire “big names” to advisory boards and it looks good on your website but if they never read your emails or make intros then it’s just marketing. So you should reference check people.

Via Tim Peek of Peek Disruption:

  • While it’s important to have people in your industry on the board, I also believe that diversity of thought and experience is even more important for a disruptive player like Hitlist. So, I’d look for people in “adjacent” industries — areas of business that share some attributes with the travel industry but also are different or perhaps already experiencing what you hope to create in travel. What other industries have followed a trajectory similar to the one you hope to create in travel? Look for people from there to advise you.
  • Culture. I do think culture is the major differentiator for businesses in this century. In my experience too many startups are solely focused on execution (makes sense – there is a lot to do, not much time, and not many people to do it) and culture grows unnoticed. They end up with cultures that ultimately are unsustainable — I believe this is why so many startups don’t survive or have a deep “sophomore slump” and can’t come up with an effective 2.0 product or strategy once they are off the ground. So, what businesses have cultures which are successful and which you want to emulate — get those folks on your board.
  • A leadership advisor specifically for you. Someone you believe can take your leadership to the next level, support you in finding solutions to tough questions, and help you keep your head above the rising tide of daily business to focus on the big questions and direction.

Again from Josh Elwell:

  • Try to get at least one person who is “friends” with lots of people you want to know (investors, partners, customers, etc). Warm introductions are valuable, but that person pushing on “friends” from behind the scenes is even better at getting things done quickly.
  • Try to get at least one person with a “big” exit who fully understands the strategic process of getting a business sold (the second part is critical, because lots of entrepreneurs were lucky, not strategic). I get the best advice from people like that because they think about the end goal and how little decisions made now can help later.
  • Those might be the same person.
  • Relevant industry experience is nice, but I find that people with it aren’t as helpful as I had initially expected if they don’t have 1 and 2 (apart from just using their names for credibility).
  • I have an advisor who used to be a senior level management consultant. He is super helpful with lots of stuff even though he doesn’t have 1, 2 or 3. He always asks the right questions, cleans up all our pitch decks with ease, and is just generally a great person to get rapid feedback on new ideas.

Again from Alex Iskold:

  • Include 2-4 people plus the founders.
  • Recruit one or two of your top angels + other experienced operators/mentors.

HOW TO RUN THE BOARD

  1. Commit to talking to each board member every 4-6 weeks and meeting with the whole board every 2-3 months. People can dial in if necessary, but in person is ideal.
  2. “Don’t be afraid to swap folks out if it turns out to not be a fit.” – Iskold
  3. Set clear expectations for commitment. “Board members will only rise to the level of performance articulated to them and expected of them, so as a board, it is important to clarify expectations with potential new members from the beginning.” – Sarah Najarian and Caroline Page of Robin Hood (h/t to Betsy Mikel of Women 2.0 for pointing me to their post)

More from Thorpe:

  • Grant up to 2 years for your advisory board’s stock grants (typically 10–25 basis points, in my experience, depending on their contribution and experience), but then have it renew by mutual agreement every quarter and vesting happens quarterly. If someone isn’t helping you or they get busy, then you simply don’t renew them for the next quarter.
  • Building the right culture around your board is paramount and it’s one of the things that’s really hard to do when you’ve never done it before. In my opinion for a new CEO, it’s ideal to have a friendly “chair” who can help you manage the rest of the board. This is ideally a former CEO who shares your cultural values, is busy with other things, and doesn’t want your job.
  • Practice building your communication skills with them, talking about issues, presenting company strategy, cash flow, income, creating a plan and showing your progress against the plan (and how the plan evolves over time – it’s a startup, not a public Fortune 500 company). Make a habit of calling your board members in advance of your meetings and making sure they understand what’s going to happen and that you have a chance to answer their questions and address their concerns.
  • At some point investors will want to take a board seat or have formal board meetings. That’s why it’s important to have already established strong relationships and board culture that work well for your company, so that your existing board members can keep meetings in line with that culture. Culture helps prevent unproductive habits like board members ordering you about what to do, regularly showing up late, talking directly to your employees, or going “off the ranch” to others outside your company. A good maxim is “eyes on, hands off” (or “fingers out”). And you kind of need to see people in action for a while before you know. Do they support you as CEO in the board meeting and prepare you ahead of time with their issues? Do they seek to support you when bad things happen, or do they surprise you in the middle of a board meeting with a hostile question? Do they work through you, not around you? Do they ask you hard questions that make you defend your decisions and understand your assumptions better, even if you don’t change your mind? Do they respect your deep understanding of the landscape more than their own brilliant insight from 30,000 feet? Etc.
  • Board meetings can turn into a lot of work, so try very hard to limit the amount of work to just the amount needed to keep you accountable and get strategic and tactical advice. I’ve seen a lot of startups spend way too much time preparing detailed analyses and predictions on the basis of data that are too limited or early stage to be of much predictive power. Understand what you can reasonably know and not know, and what you can reasonably predict from that knowledge. Don’t be afraid to say “this is the best we can say given what we know today, and we’ll update it as we learn more.”

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Traffic

I recently noticed Blogspot has a new ‘stats’ feature that allows the blogger to see how many people are visiting the website and what brought them there. Among the search terms that will bring you to Gill Morris’s blog are:

buying marijuana in Istanbul
dating a Ukrainian man
Christians in Dongguan

I think this would be excellent material for the next time I play two truths and a lie.Share this:
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A Greenwich Citizen

As I’m sick of being harangued by the one or two people who actually read this blog about the lack of posts over the last month, I’ve decided to make like a real writer and recycle old material. I’ve been writing a biweekly column for The Greenwich Citizen, a local paper from my hometown, since the beginning of August. If you can tolerate the odd bit of Greenwich arcana, please click the links below for a fresh take on some old places. I’ve tried to insert them in more or less chronological order – apologies for the occasional redundancies.

Go East, Young Woman, and go Crazy with the Country

Dear, Dirty Dongguan

Spot of Golf, Genghis?

O Sad Siberian Night

The Bush-Ahmadinejad Connection


A Country to be Proud Of

Everyone Should Have Experience

(Actually, I have no idea how many people read this blog. At least two, guilty of mentioned haranguing. Please feel free to email or comment to let me know you’re reading – I’d love some feedback!)

Also, here’s pretty picture of the Basilica Cistern, in Istanbul’s old city, because everybody likes beautiful pictures:

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Turmoil or in turmoil?

A new dimension of hilarity was added to my job search when I discovered Reuters-sponsored AlertNet.

A fantastic website, a noble cause, but who decided which euphemisms to use? Choose one under ‘Filter by Emergency’:

Afghan Turmoil
Chad Troubles
Iraq in turmoil
Nepal Peace
Thailand Violence
Western Sahara dispute
Very Intense Tropical Storm HamishShare this:
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Gillian in China, the second time

I flew into Hong Kong under a typhoon warning. I expected drama when I arrived, but the air was perfectly still. The white birches lining the hallway seemed somehow sepulchral. There is nothing so terrifying as the calm before the storm.
It didn’t help my feeling of unease when, at the border, a Chinese official wearing a mask pointed something that looked very much like a pistol at my head. Apparently, he was measuring my temperature in an effort to make sure that no one with swine flu made it into the country.
The typhoon never materialized.

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The future, Part I

I’m a senior in college. Many of you will be at some point and more of you have been already. This is the year that decides the rest of your life, or so at least many of my classmates seem to think. Realistically, with the average American changing careers 6-7 times during the course of their adulthood, whatever my peers and I end up doing next year is not necessarily make-or-break. 

Even with this in the back of my mind, however, I got swept up at the beginning of this year in ‘e-recruiting’, also occasionally, affectionately known as selling one’s soul. E-recruiting is the name given to the process wherein hundreds of Harvard students are wooed by firms that intend to offer one or two spots (maybe) to students, who go on to fame and fortune – really just the latter – in the world of finance or consulting. I half-heartedly applied to some firms and then started looking into grad school and fellowships.  

It’s been kind of fun. I recently turned in an application to follow the steps of thousands of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route across France and northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela; ostensibly to study the motivation and religious convictions of modern-day pilgrims while cleverly incorporating the knowledge gained from my medieval history courses and language study here at Harvard.

And then a few weeks ago I went to morning prayers, a fifteen minute service held at 8:45 every morning in Memorial Church. Other than a hymn and a closing prayer, it’s not much of a religious affair. The centerpiece is always a speaker, unreliably Christian, who gives a short homily about work, life, baseball, whatever.

I always mean to come more often, but I suffer the delusion that I will get something incredibly important done during the same time period (usually sleep).  Anyway. The talk of the morning was about being mindful of the world’s poor: about how a mosquito net which can save a human from malaria costs less than two coffees, if we would only take the time to send the money in the right direction. 

These are logical points, and they are ignored on a regular basis. In the midst of e-recruiting and fellowship-applying, it was easy to forget how using Harvard’s money to fund a joy-trek across northern Spain might not be the best way to ‘give back’.

Of course there are different ways of doing our best for the world. I’m not condemning the idea of looking for spiritual fulfillment or suggesting that every college senior should do Teach for America in Mississippi or build canals in the African desert. People have different strengths, and the way to best serve the greater good of humanity – or God, if you like – is going to be different for every individual. Maybe, on said trek across northern Spain, I’d gain cultural insight and language proficiency that would allow me to make better informed decisions in a future job in the US foreign service. 

It’s easy for those of us who are studying: we can glorify the stuff we do every day as contributing to our future usefulness.  And those of you who teach are surely helping us. And those who work to make this University community such a good place for fostering intellectual and personal growth are likewise performing a valuable service. 

I could go on. Anyone who does any small thing to make the world go round is serving the greater good. A father who drives his kids to school is taking time to raise his children well, which is for the greater good. The dining staff who check our IDs at the entrance of the dining hall to make sure each hall is allotted the right amount of money – is serving the greater good. 

The difference is in the degree. Maybe that father could be better serving the world by having his kids ride the bus, saving the gas money, going to work earlier and coming home earlier to spend time with his kids in the afternoon. Maybe that dining hall ID checker could be inspiring freshmen to be a better person like Domna over in Annenberg. Maybe I could spend next year challenging myself by teaching in rural Mississippi. Maybe each of us could have two fewer coffees and buy a mosquito net. 

Simply put, it’s not enough to be doing well if we have the ability to be doing better.  It’s not enough for ourselves, it’s not enough for humanity.

I have no wish to discuss my own religious beliefs or lack thereof on the internets, but Sir Francis Drake wrote a poem in 1577 that I’ve always found moving:
Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true

Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when 
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.


Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

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Sex, Politics, and Football

I’m working in Spain this summer, but I flew to Paris, where I used to live, to get a cheaper transatlantic flight and to catch up with old friends. I met one in the Marche St Honore, a quaint square not far from the Avenue de l’Opera which had an alarmingly modern glass brick of a building in the middle. 

She and another friend, Caroline, had just seen ‘Definitely, Maybe’, a ‘chic-flic’, to console Caroline, who has just broken up with her boyfriend of two years. After briefly discussing our personal lives, Caroline turned to me and asked ‘Alors, tu adores George Bush?’ She went on to explain that she fancied herself the only libertarian in France and that, while she disapproved of Bush’s spending habits, foreign policy, actually his entire administration in general, she saw a lot to like in the American Republican party.

I said that she must, then, be happy to have Sarkozy, practically a libertarian by left-leaning French standards, in the Presidency. She gave me a withering look and I was reminded of the fact that I have yet to meet a French person who has expressed any faith in the political system. What did she think about Europe, then?, I asked. And the Lisbon Treaty, which the Irish so recently blocked by voting against it in their national referendum? (The EU, still lacking a Constitution – the draft proposed in 2005 failed to pass referendums in France and the Netherlands – takes as its legal code a succession of treaties, the most recent of which is the 2001 Treaty of Nice). It would never pass, she said. 

The way she sees it, Europe is doomed to a future of lukewarm alliances between semi-hostile nations who nevertheless realize they have more in common with each other than the rest of the world and therefore will accept small compromises, but only after exhausting every effort to demonstrate they would rather not. Like, for example, the Irish, who will eventually accept some version of the Lisbon treaty, most likely almost identical to the one 53% of them just rejected. In sum, Europe can look forward to a future as full of exasperating negotiations as the last 50 years.

Tiring of politics, the discussion moved on to football. Not to make any gross generalizations, but I’ve found that many of my conversations in France follow this basic pattern: standard greeting (a kiss on each cheek), inquiry into the personal life (do you have a boyfriend?), discussion of politics (plus ca change, toute c’est la meme chose), and, finally, football. 

Spain beat Russia in the semi-final for the quadrennial European Cup and will be playing Germany tomorrow evening. I mentioned how frustrated I was with myself for having bought a ticket for the overnight train from Paris to Madrid for Sunday evening and therefore unwittingly ruining my chances to see this potentially historic event with the Madrilenos. Two years ago, I was chaperoning a tour in Italy and we found ourselves in Rome the night Italy won the world cup. After putting my charges to bed with dire warnings about how dangerous the streets would be – full of drunk soccer hooligans! – a fellow chaperone and I put on as much azure (the color of the Italian jersey) as we could find and hit the streets. 

The scene was, as one might predict, absolute bedlam. Thousands of mopeds and Peugots with twice as many passengers as they should normally hold were packed bumper-to-tire along the avenues. Blaring horns competed with flag-draped and beer-soaked revelers chanting ‘Italia!’ and the opening lick to the White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’, which I later learned is the theme music played on TV before soccer games. I’m not a fan of professional sports and you could not pay me to watch a Red Sox game on TV, but I’ve had quite an affection for European soccer matches since that evening.

‘I wouldn’t worry about it,’ my friend said with a wink. ‘You won’t be missing anything. Germany is definitely going to win this one.’

Reassured (falsely), I said goodnight to my friend and met a friend from Harvard who wanted to go dancing. One thing led to another, and we found ourselves watching the sun rise over Paris from the steps of Sacre Coeur with Nick, a rather drunk American serviceman on leave from Baghdad. 

Sitting among the glass shards of wine bottles left over from others’ Saturday night revelry, I asked him how long he had before he went back to Iraq. ‘I’ve been stop-lossed,’ he said. ‘Do you know what that means?’ I replied that I wasn’t sure, but from what I understood it meant that soldiers who had served their time were sent back overseas rather than discharged. ‘Exactly,’ he said. 

I didn’t press him on it, but I’ve been wondering a lot about the policy recently. According to Wikipedia, ‘Stop-loss’ is ‘the involuntary extension of a service member’s active duty service under the enlistment contract in order to retain them beyond their initial end of term of service (ETS) date.’ When servicemen enlist, they generally sign a contract obliging them to a fixed term of 2-4 years. In the fine print, however, is the catch: ‘the President may suspend any provision of law relating to promotion, retirement, or separation applicable to any member of the armed forces who the President determines is essential to the national security of the United States’ Title 10, USC Section 12305(a). Challenges to the legality of the policy are, therefore, difficult, but challenges to the moral rightness of sending those who have already put their lives at risk for their country back into the combat zone involuntarily are gaining ground, no doubt aided by the recent movie ‘Stop-Loss’ and the general discussion provoked by our upcoming election.

I turned to hug Nick, in a completely inadequate gesture of sympathy for his situation, but found he had wandered over to a group of French 20-somethings in order to bum a cigarette. They asked him what he thought of the war in Iraq. He drew his eyebrows together in a look of extreme concentration for a moment, shrugged his shoulders, and said, ‘It’s heavy. Shit. It’s heavy.’

Not knowing what to say, we watched the rooftops turn from dark gray to silver. My father once pointed out how, in the early morning twilight, it always seems like the sky is as bright as day, and then the sun actually appears and it’s hard to hold back a feeling of utter joy and contentment with the world. I’ve always found it to be true, no matter what is on my mind, and this morning was no exception. I wonder if it worked for Nick.

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