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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

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Friday, May 19, 2000

LA Unconfidential #7

L.A. Unconfidential
May 19, 2000

Sentient readers of this journal will recall the author’s recent struggles with the xenophobic tendencies of US financial institutions. The villainous, black-hearted, fat-cat Americans’ lack of trust in the banking infrastructure of banana republics had, of late, deprived our hapless protagonist of credit and forced him to go running to daddy. Well, dear reader, you will be relieved to know that intellectual superiority has won the day. Just as higher brain function has allowed our species to triumph over all manner of sensibility and dominate lesser beings of God’s creation, I had a brainwave that would put all credit problems behind me.

Rather obvious, once it occurred to me, as all great insights are. I have been a Citibank customer for quite a quantity of years: transaction accounts, credit cards, even a mortgage paid with military discipline. Of course! Citibank is a global financial institution and, while it is just the sort of institution to oppress lesser peoples, it is also exactly the kind of behemoth that, sitting astride all continents, as it does, should work to my personal convenience. So on the phone I duly got.

“Citibank, my old chum, my partner in prosperity, my business associate in all financial dealings lo these long years, we are again at one! Your Australian and American savants need but to exchange their secret handshake, pass a single dossier between them and, Hallelujah, a customer smote by oppressive corporate nationalism will have been saved by the standard-bearer…nay, the exalted creator of financial globalism! You have first-hand intimacy with my credit-worthiness! You, therefore, and you alone, are able, in this global village, to hold up my example of pecuniary fastidiousness as an example to the world! Lay low the false borders of small-minded old-world risk adjusters obsessed with arbitrary political boundaries! Power to the itinerant knowledge worker of the new economy and his portable liquidity! Stop the madness! Apply your divine knowledge of my solvency—knowledge gained by your altruistic bestowing of highly priced credit instruments upon me—and issue me with a MasterCard that I may continue to line your pockets with exorbitant fees!”

“I’m sorry Mr. Spencer, but our international divisions don’t share that kind of information.”

“Ah, Citibank, my liege, perhaps you’ve mistaken my fervor for senselessness. I ask only that your credit card department inform your credit card department that I am a credit card customer already, so that I may be a credit card customer some more!”

“I’m sorry Mr. Spencer, but we don’t accept international credit reports.”

“…um, not even your own internal reports?”

“No, sir.”


That was pretty much where the conversation ended, unless you count the howling on my end of the line. “Global fanchise” my ass. You know, when I was still a consultant, I served a big bank for a while. I was never quite able to shake off the feeling that I was in the presence of pure evil. Next time you hear the corporate poop about international borders falling in favor of more sensible ways of doing business, remember that what they mean is the borders are falling for them, not for you.

Which brings me to the fact that my butt hurts. Yesterday, I decided that I’d lived at the beach too damn long not to have taken my new bike for a spin. New place at the beach, new bike: What was I waiting for? Turns out that there’s a darn convenient bike path that runs right along the beach, too! Turns out, also, that very fit women in bikinis rollerblade on this path. Turns out you can get awful distracted. Turns out you can ride two hours to Santa Monica and hardly notice the time passing. Turns out that if you haven’t been on a bike in a few years, four hours in the saddle is a pretty rude way to start. I’ve been gingerly walking from soft cushion to soft cushion for a day and a half.

The long ride did help clear my head, though. It was a long week at work. Nothing overly scary or weird, but the intensity doubled. It was decided that one job that takes more than sixty hours a week wasn’t enough; two would be a better number for me. It appears I’m now the acting Director of Marketing, too. The only impact I can see, other than complete lack of sleep, is that I’m going to have to stop referring to marketing people as “total f**king wankers”. It’s a pretty big lifestyle change for me.

One final note: I’d like to thank those of you who shared with me your pleasure at discovering the mis-spelling in my opening paragraph on pedantry in the last Unconfidential. I’m sure you’ll have precocious children. And I hope they correct you in front of company.

Sunday, May 14, 2000

LA Unconfidential #6

L.A. Unconfidential
Number 6
May 14, 2000

Okay. I’ve been a pedant all my life. Come by it honestly. My dad is a pedant too. We’re in good company. Most of the great minds have been sticklers. Exceptions to the rule—you know, like Einstein—don’t rattle me. What does is my long-felt inkling that negative karma is attached to pedantic acts. So, maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised when I send out a hastily composed, grammatically flawed Unconfidential and get skewered by a long queue of “friends” joyfully taking me to task for multiple flubs. Thank you, thank you all, for your vigilence. Without you, my inflated self-esteem would be kept in check only by woeful penis size and inability to get credit.

The day after I sent that ill-born screed, I took my first business trip with my new company. No longer must I labor under the duress of a McKinsey travel schedule: dropping everything at a moment’s notice to jet off to Paris, Johannesburg, Auckland, Hong Kong and the like. My derriere no longer retains the semi-permanently molded impression of a Qantas business-class seat. I have traded-in these absurdities for a much better life: a last-minute booking in random economy-class seating on Southwest airlines to glamorous Las Vegas. Out of LAX by 7:30am, back by two o’clock.

It was a blast, actually. I went to an e-healthcare convention. My little team was ticked off that I got to go and they didn’t. Why they were envious of a 9-hour business trip evaded me, but I tried to retain their good favor by treating the entire episode as a toy-gathering expedition. Dot-coms do convention toys very well, and my mind was made up that I would return to L.A. with as big a bag of toys as could be carried back to my team. And the convention delivered: t-shirts, hats, Frisbees, multiple yo-yos, key rings, American-sized travel drink cups, sports bottles, pens galore and more. (It being a healthcare-oriented carnival, one pen was a rather convincing ersatz syringe, complete with blood.)

At first, my toy hunting was systematic and stealthy. (1) Sneak up looking seriously interested in the booth proprietor’s business offering. (2) Engage in conversation for the minimal amount of time possibly construed as genuine interest. (3) Gather as many toys as propriety would allow, and off to the next booth. I quickly tired of this laborious and inefficient strategy. Soon, I swooped as soon as I saw toys my team might value—the most colorful or gruesome—and pluckily grabbed. This was apparently more in line with convention norms, and I attracted exactly zero derisive looks. The only available toy I was unable to snatch was the Porsche Boxster that was up for door prize.

I did, of course, have some legitimate business to do. In addition to toy-hunting, fact-finding, mind-expansion, and inspiration-seeding, there was a meeting scheduled to culminate a deal I’d been negotiating for a long while (Internet time translation: several days). Having gathered a full complement of team goodies, I finally sauntered up to the booth where the other company’s VP of Development, Sarah, was to meet me. Although this was the first time we were to meet in person, Sarah and I had gotten along famously from our first phone call, so she just laughed as she saw me approaching with my “show bag” full of baubles. She asked, “How many kids do you have?” “None,” I said, “unless you count my radio manager.” And we commenced our haggle.

Then, the big bazoomba hit. (The big bazoomba, as aficionados will recognize, is not a base slang referent to a singular mammary, but a generic taxonomial handle for any event of such surprising scope or construct, that the reaction of the experiencer escapes description.) In short, Greta Thomas sauntered by.

Many of you know Greta. And, those of you who do, know she’s supposed to be in France. One might reasonably infer, therefore, that she’s not supposed to be at the Las Vegas Hilton. So, we summarily freaked out. The previously bemused Sarah now reconsidered her position and became incredulous. She only returned to her bemused state when the excitement calmed and Greta and I arranged a meeting point for thirty minutes hence. Greta suggested—and only those of you who know her will fully appreciate this—that we meet at the Porsche. So, business concluded, I proceeded dutifully to the Boxster, rendezvous’d with Grets, and indulged in a noon margarita and a lengthy catch-up session in the hotel bar surrounded by the chink-chinkling of the slot machines around us.

Apparently, I’ve chosen the right geography for hanging out with Sydney friends. Suzanne Parker—at whose Prague wedding in August I’ll butcher the Czech language as Master of Ceremonies—spent Friday night with me in my new pad. I don’t mean that in the Biblical sense. No sin, anyway, but lots of tequila-inspired parable and confession. We got hung up on margaritas and never made it to the purpose-bought Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

Given the recurring theme in these encyclicals, no doubt some of you are concerned about the likelihood of my spending time in tequila detox in years to come. In a bald-faced attempt to reinforce your concern, I should close by mentioning my mom. Yesterday, the day before Mother’s Day, I drove down to San Diego, where she occasionally resides. The adjacency with Mother’s Day was a coincidence. I went down for her going-away party. She and Lowell are off to Alaska for several months on their new boat. That won’t surprise those of you who have fantasized about emulating my mom’s lifestyle for some time. Nor will her parting gift to me: a bottle of Damiana, the Mexican liquor deemed to be the distinguishing ingredient of truly authentic margaritas, and widely reputed to be an aphrodisiac. It comes in a bottle shaped like a sensuously rotund naked woman.

Scuze me. I’m parched.

Sunday, May 07, 2000

LA Unconfidential #5

L.A. Unconfidential
Number 5
May 7, 2000

These stream-of-consciousness rants may start to clench their gluteus cheeks. One of the folks receiving them is a cool woman I met in my last six months at McKinsey. She’s the editor of the Australian Financial Review’s management magazine, Boss. She mentioned, before I left, that I oughta write something for the magazine about what it’s like leaving the comfy, cozy world of McKinsey and throwing myself to the uncertain winds of a startup. Don’t know why she chose me; there are plenty of folks in my shoes, as the Wall Street Journal observed rather pointedly a couple weeks back. But I was flattered, so I started thinking about what I’d write. In the meantime, I put her on the mailing list of the Unconfidential. The more the merrier, hey?

Well, guess what got published? While I was meditating about the insightful new-economy management mini-tome I would write for her, she sent me a note after the first Unconfidential saying, “Thanks for the article. It’ll be in the next issue.” Am I happy? Sure. But now I’m also cursed with forethought, dammit. Thanks, Helen.

The standout events of recent days aren’t about the business, however. They’re about credit and arrogance, about tables and cars.

Since I arrived, I knew I’d need to make two major purchases once I found a place to live: a car and a table. As long as the six-week relocation period lasted, I could rely on the company-funded rental car. And, as long as I was in a hotel, I would have a place to eat, write, and use as a horizontal filing cabinet. Those times have passed.

So, last week, I set out to buy a car and a table almost simultaneously. Perhaps there’s some valuable character diagnosis in the fact that I went to buy a used car on the Internet (iMotors—thanks, Nikki), but was unwilling to choose a table without touching it first. Anybody who’s into cars will consider this crazy. Anybody who’s into tables just voted me sane despite contradictory evidence. Anybody who isn’t into tables or cars will wonder why these items are milestones for me.

Both purchase decisions were dead easy. I don’t care about cars, so image is unimportant and reliability and value are essential: 3 year-old Honda Civic. I do care about tables, so they’ve gotta be sturdy and big enough to seat eight for dinner parties. On the other hand, I can’t stand sinking big money into objects other than cameras, so the table I chose was inexpensive: Ikea.

So, items chosen, I got on the phone. To cut to the chase, Ikea won’t take my credit card and iMotors won’t finance my car. Why? I don’t exist, apparently. For the last ten years, I’ve lived in Australia. In they eyes of American creditors, that means I’m a ghost. That’s what one of them actually said: “You’re a ghost, Mr Spencer.”

As it turns out, two things are true that I hadn’t imagined plausible. First: a clean, inactive credit history is the same as having bad credit. It’s kind of like being born into Christianity. Even though you’ve just arrived on the planet, you’re already a sinner. Second: the United States considers other country’s banking system credible enough to establish an individual’s credit-worthiness. Been paying a mortgage in Australia, carrying credit cards in Hong Kong and single-handedly funding the debt of Botswanaland? U.S. banks will politely point out that, “Unfortunately, you have no credit history, sir.” It is with a straight face that Americans incredulously tell you they don’t understand why the rest of the world thinks them arrogant.

The upshot: at 32 years old, making comfortably more than the American average and with zero debt, I’ve gotta get my father to co-sign on my car loan.

By the way, my washing machine arrived yesterday. And I haven’t a clue how to drive it.