Thursday Thoughts

I’ve been thinking about something lately. There’s a quote—you’ve likely heard it—that we’re each a compilation of the five people with whom we spend the most time. It’s an interesting idea—and a powerful incentive to spend time with really cool people. It also prompts a lot of what I call “chicken versus egg” questions. As in, what comes first? Am I spending time with funny people because I’m funny? Or am I funny because I spend time with funny people?

Anyway, none of that is the point of this post.

I’ve been thinking a lot about data-driven online artificial intelligence-powered algorithms lately. (Evidently, some of my five people are nerds.) I watched this really fascinating TED Talk about how companies like Facebook (no surprise), Google, and Amazon are tracking our time online, then feeding that into algorithms that predict behaviors in ways humans have never before been able to predict behavior—the artificial intelligence is smarter than we are.

In the talk she gives a great example of how if you’re trying to sell plane tickets to Vegas, in the past you might have targeted your ads for that to men in the 25-35 age range with high credit card limits. Now, someone’s history of Google searches and Facebook posts can be used to determine how likely they are to buy a plane ticket to Vegas—even if they’ve never once searched for Vegas or plane tickets. Of course, this is used for way crazier stuff—like, these algorithms can predict things like when someone who is bipolar is about to have a manic episode.

And here’s where it gets especially interesting. The algorithms don’t understand mental illness or manic episodes. But they do understand that the individual approaching manic is much more likely to spend money. And so they target ads for Vegas plane tickets straight to them. And, of course, it works.

We think we’re wise enough to recognize online targeting—I click on news about Trump tweeting stupid things, I’ll get more negative Trump news. I click on a pair of shoes I want, those shoes will show up on every site I visit for a week straight. I stalk an ex on Instagram (never happened) and then I have to look at his photos in my feed for a month. We all know this, right?

But it’s so much more than that. And it’s growing so fast. And we’re all spending so much more time in front of our screens.

Which brings me back to the quote about being a compilation of five people. It’s from like 20 years ago. And I think it’s changed. I think maybe we’re a compilation of four people, plus our online self. I’m influenced by the people I spend the most time with, but I’m also heavily influenced by the trail of data I’m leaving and artificial intelligence is following.

There’s a lot to unpack here from societal polarization to privacy issues. But I’m more interested in the psychological effects. And now we’re back to the “chicken versus egg.” Am I the person I am because of my Google searches? Or are my Google searches based on who I am? Am I connecting with some people via social media because of our shared interests? Or do we have shared interests because of social media?

Not to go all 1984 on you, but my hypothesis is that in 2018 even the most self-aware among us are likely being influenced (nice word) or manipulated (less nice word) into subtly changing our personalities—and even our lives—based on artificial intelligence-powered algorithms.

I’ve been a slacker lately on my book reviews. But I’m still going strong on the whole book-a-week theme. Audible is my favorite cheating tool because it lets me “read” books while I do things like yard work or dog walking. Anyway, these are short reviews because no one wants to read eight long ones. Here goes:

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The Dry
This story sounded like an exciting mystery novel. It’s set in remote Australia and about a girl who died and those accused of her death. It was more a coming-of-age story than a mystery though, and it was ultimately pretty depressing. It’s well written, it moves fast, and the descriptions of the place are fantastic, but I don’t like books that bum me out.

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Braving the Wilderness
Everyone seems to love Brene Brown. For some reason though, she just doesn’t resonate with me. I’d had several people suggest this book. It’s about the need to be vulnerable and courageous—especially during this era of polarization. So, in that way, every person in America should probably read it. But I still don’t really get the people who call her their spirit animal.

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Sycamore
I wanted to like this more because it’s by a local author and the story sounded cool. It’s set in a tiny dessert town in Arizona, where a newcomer out for a walk stumbles on bones that may be a girl who disappeared 18 years before. I loved the way the author wove the time periods together and captured emotions like grief and loneliness. Unfortunately, I just don’t like books about grief and loneliness.

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The Girl With Seven Names
Finally! A book I loved. I want everyone I know to read this book so we can all talk about it. It’s an autobiography by a woman who grew up in North Korea and now lives in the United States. Every single page is fascinating. I couldn’t put it down. I seriously read it in a day and a half. Then I watched her TED Talk. Then I spent another day just reading articles about North Korea online. Read this book.

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Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changes White House Years
Another great one! I’ve already written a little bit about this book. I listened to this one on Audible and the author is the reader. (Best kind of Audible book.) It’s an upbeat and interesting book. No major revelations here, just amusing stories that made me laugh out loud, and an up-close look inside the Obama White House, which I picture as exactly like The West Wing—something Litt references multiple times throughout the book.

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The Destroyers
I picked this one because it was named Esquire‘s Best Book of the Year in 2017. Now, I want to read everything ever written by this author. I really loved this one. It took place on a tiny Greek island and was full of intrigue, interesting characters, and exciting plot twists. For some reason this author gets compared to Franzen. The only similarity I see is that this is a super long book. Franzen puts me to sleep. This kept me up past my bedtime.

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The Woman in the Window
I’d noticed this book on bestseller lists, but was a little bored with the genre so I hadn’t read it. Then, I stumbled across its author’s Instagram. He went to school in Charlotte! So, I read it. And I get the hype. It’s a fun book that takes place in New York and echoes old movies like Rear Window. It’s full of surprise twists and has an unlikely heroine and an even more unlikely villain. This is going to be a great movie eventually.

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Red Sparrow
Speaking of books made into movies, I’m assuming it’s the recent Jennifer Lawrence movie based on this book that moved it to the top of the charts. The movie was kind of a flop though. And, honestly, I thought the book was too. It’s about a Russian woman trained to use seduction as a spy who then becomes a double agent for the US. Even though that storyline sounds fun, the story itself felt pretty tired and predictable to me.

Ok, jumping into more books soon. Any suggestions?

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I’m listening to an Audible book called “Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years.” It’s by a former Obama speechwriter, David Litt, and it’s hilarious. For anyone who has read much from the Obama White House, it’s nothing new really—another Ivey League-educated white kid talking about hanging in the Oval Office. But it’s an amusing tale of a happier time, and I’ve really enjoyed it.

It’s also offered some pearls of wisdom. Yesterday, I was listening to a portion in which Litt talks about a taping an Obama speech. The speech was happening outside and during it there was a candle of some sort behind the President’s head. As he was speaking, something went wrong and the small candle slowly grew into a giant ball of flame.

There were three staff members, including Litt, who were present as a large ball of flame threatened to incinerate the head of the President of the United States. Initially, none of them did anything.

Litt says this wasn’t because they were unconcerned. It was because they were “staying in their lane.” They knew their job duties and none of their jobs included “saving the President from a ball of fire.”

Eventually, one of them did finally leap forward and extinguish the fire. The point remains though. And I’ve been thinking a lot about it since listening to this passage yesterday. Often, in our jobs, we see the metaphorical balls of flame about to destroy the leader of the free world and we don’t do anything. Ok, maybe not that level of catastrophe, but we see places where implementing change would be a great idea and because it falls out of our realm of duty, we don’t say a single word.

It’s a strange system the professional world has set up for us. It makes us feel comfortable—we know what’s expected of us, but it’s not really conducive to creative innovation or game-changing moves.

I’m a stay-in-my-lane rule-follower by my nature. And while that serves me well much of the time (I’m not in prison), there are a lot of times when I wish I’d calmly and diplomatically (and metaphorically) told the President he was about to be severely burned.

So, consider this a little plug for the book—which is no way a self-help book. And a little plug for spending more time outside your lane.

Under the Spell of San Miguel

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The first time I heard of San Miguel de Allende in the mountains of central Mexico was about 12 years ago. I remember thinking “Sounds like a lovely place, but if I’m going to Mexico, there better be a beach involved.”

But over the last year or so I’d noticed its charming stone streets and colorful architecture pop up on my Instagram feed and in magazine articles. So, I decided that beach or no beach, it was time for a trip. Which is how four of my best girlfriends and I ended up spending five glorious days there in January.

San Miguel is magical. Its baroque architecture, dry climate, and rolling hills make it look like Spain or Tuscany. Its history as a haven for ex-pat artists means that it’s full of colorful shops and gorgeous galleries, as well as stylish restaurants, hip rooftop bars, and chic coffee shops. And mixed in with all of this is the rich culture of Mexico—and all of its famed tequila, guacomole, and tacos. For me, it was love at first sight.

I could write sonnets about San Miguel, but those wouldn’t really be helpful (or very good). So, instead, I’ve listed my top recommendations for your trip below. Because trust me, you want to go.

STAY

We stayed in this Airbnb. It was perfect. The centuries-old home was gorgeously restored and spacious with hidden courtyards, and a rooftop perfect for wine and cheese sunsets and sunrises full of church bells. We were a block away from our favorite breakfast spot (literally, they gave us hugs goodbye on our last morning) and two blocks away from the city’s center square.
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Rosewood San Miguel
Like all Rosewood hotels, this luxurious spot was beautiful. It’s on the edge of the historic part of town, but easily walkable to everything and close to its beautiful gardens. It’s a perfect spot if you want the amenities of a hotel. However, we took full advantage of it even not staying there. We spent an evening at its rooftop bar (a must), a morning shopping at a market in its courtyard (so fun), a day by its modern pool (another must), and an afternoon in its serene spa (duh).

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Spa at the Rosewood
This might be the most reasonably priced luxury spa I’ve ever gone to. I had a blissful two-hour treatment that included a lavender scrub followed by a lavender oil massage. It was hands down the best massage I’ve ever gotten. And the whole thing cost  around $110. Amazing.

La Gruta
About half an hour outside San Miguel are these natural hot springs. Grab a taxi in town and have them take you by the Sanctuary of Atotonilco on the way. The historic church is a World Heritage Site and often called the Sistine Chapel of Mexico for the incredible murals across its ceilings. The springs are less than a mile away and well worth the trip. You could easily spend a day here relaxing in the sun and swimming in the various pools.

Shopping!
There are adorable shops on every corner in San Miguel. This Travel + Leisure article does a great job rounding up a few. My personal favorites were Mixta and Doce 18. Mixta is just a cool boutique. Doce 18 had me kind of losing it because it was so cool. They call it a “concept house.” The idea is that there are mini versions of shops and restaurants throughout its sophisticated space and bright courtyard. This feels like something you’d find in London or New York—not off a cobblestone side street in the middle of Mexico. There’s an art gallery, champagne bar, macaroon stand, clothing store, tequila tasting room, mac and cheese bar… it just keeps going. And every one of them is more Instagrammable than the last.
EAT & DRINK
We ate SO much great food. As shocking as this is, I had to narrow it down significantly to get to this list of my absolute favorites.
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You’ll likely have to wait in line just to get in the door of this charming coffee shop and brunch spot. It’s worth it. So worth it. Sit in the tree-filled stone courtyard. Order the lavender latte (and another one to go) and poached eggs. It’s like teleporting to a summer morning in the fields of Provence.

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Cumpanio
This elegant Italian bakery became our favorite spot to gather for cappuccino and fresh pastries most mornings. They had an almond brioche that makes my mouth water just thinking about it. This is the kind of place where you’ll want to linger over lattes and long conversation.
El Manatial
It’s a hip favorite for the locals and fills up fast most nights. Known for its ginger margaritas and seafood tostadas, it’s a convivial little cantina where we literally ordered half the menu (food and drink) and still only paid like $12 each for dinner. The dream.

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La Posadita
This rooftop restaurant was the perfect place for a long lunch in the midday sun. It’s right next to the cathedral and offers impressive views from any seat. The guacamole was my favorite from the whole trip (and we tried A LOT) and the oversized icy  margaritas were made for those lazy kind of vacation afternoons.

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Luna Rooftop Tapas Bar
This spot on top of The Rosewood more than lives up to its hype as the best bar in San Miguel. When we stepped off the elevator and walked around the corner into it, I literally stopped and said “Whoa.” It’s that impressive. The views are amazing, there’s live music most nights, and the creative mezcal and local tequila cocktails are the kind of things you’ll want to sip on for hours.

For a fancier experience–or a more romantic evening, if that’s your thing—this is your place. It’s a beautiful spot in a courtyard draped with twinkling white lights and centered around a fountain filled with fresh rose petals. The dishes and the wine list feel more European than Mexican—think buratta cheese, foie gras, and housemade pasta.

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I’ll stop now. But a few quick things to know before you go: San Miguel is at 6,500 feet and a desert climate. It gets very cold when the sun goes down. It’s about an hour and a half from the Leon Airport. The Bajio Go shuttle service was easy, friendly, and inexpensive. And finally, take me with you, please.

January’s Books

One of my New Year’s goals was to read one book per week this year. Sometimes I think about this WSJ article where Karl Rove talks about President George W. Bush reading 95 books one year. While he was BEING PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. Always makes me feel like I really need to step up my game.

Anyway, my plan is mini-reviews of each book at the end of each month. So, let’s do this:
The Wicked City
The Wicked City
Reading a Beatriz Williams book is the literary equivalent of a hot bath and a full glass of red wine. She weaves fun stories of primarily strong—and primarily wealthy—female characters throughout the 20th century. This one was all speakeasies, jazz music, and New York in the gilded age. Perfect indulgent book to curl up with on a cold winter weekend.
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The Perfect Horse
My friend who is an equestrian vet recommended this to me. She called it “a page-turner.” In retrospect, this would be like if I was recommending a book on dachshunds and cheese and called it a page-turner. Slightly biased. It is a fascinating story though that gives a unique angle on WWII. It focuses on the heroic efforts from a variety of sides of the war to protect some of the world’s top horses. It’s heartbreaking at times—as any war story—but it’s a remarkable tale.
The New Jim Crow
The New Jim Crow
You know how now you hear about things from the Civil Rights era and they seem so obviously wrong? Like, of course “separate but equal” was a farce. But at the time it was just accepted. This book feels like reading the future’s view on our current state. Like, of course mass incarceration of black men for minor drug arrests is completely insane. But for some reason we’re all just accepting it. This one is like getting a peek at how history will view our era—and it’s not pretty.
Slow Days Fast Company
Slow Days, Fast Company
I can’t stress enough how much I loved this book. It genuinely feels like stepping back in time to the 60s and 70s in Southern California. The writing is beautiful. The stories are fascinating. I didn’t want it to end. It’s a book with descriptions that make you feel like you can literally taste and feel the moments she’s describing. So good. (Fair warning: It was the 60s in California. If heavy drug use and unconventional sex offend you, don’t read this.)
The Kind Worth Killing
The Kind Worth Killing
I love stories with crazy, smart, manipulative women seeking revenge. Think Gone Girl. I was one hundred percent pulling for that brilliant psycho to get away with it. I should probably talk to a therapist about this. Anyway, this book has more than one of these type of characters. It’s a fun thriller full of juicy plot twists. I’m ready for the movie now.

Five Favorites

Just because it’s a dreary January day and we could all use some fun stuff. These are five simple, happy things I’m loving right now.

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A co-worker recently introduced me to Flow Magazine, which led me to this book by its editors. The idea is that it’s a book to be savored. Think of it like this: All the crazy media we get shoved down our throats all day is like the dry burger you grab at the drive-through at 2 pm on a Tuesday. This book is like the chef-prepared meal you linger over in a vineyard garden on a warm Saturday afternoon. It celebrates creativity, it’s full of inspiration, and it’s just really pretty.
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Between the bitter cold outside and the blasting heat inside, my skin is looking a little alligator-y. Which is why I love these masks. They’re super hydrating and feel amazing on my face, but they also smell like a bouquet. They’re also fun to put on and scare your dogs. Oddly, Anthropologie doesn’t include that in their promotional material for them.
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By the time the holidays were over my house had started to permanently smell like apple cider at a Christmas tree farm. My holiday candle fetish may have gotten out of hand. But now I want my house to smell clean and fresh, but also cozy and warm. Enter this candle, which smells like a spring garden at dusk. I’m obsessed.
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I first saw Parker’s paintings at an art event in Charlotte last summer and fell hard fast. The NC artist bases each painting series around a piece of scripture, and I just think they’re so beautiful. I’d been stalking her for months on Instagram and finally purchased my first piece (above). It’s from her Heaven Meeting Earth series based on the glory of heaven dwelling among us. I love it.
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Winter Grain Bowls
I know this is really annoying-millennial of me, but I love some grain bowls. And right now, my favorite things to put in them are farro, roasted butternut squash, balsamic Brussels sprouts, beets, feta, crumbled walnuts, and greek yogurt. I make it all on a Sunday afternoon, and then spoon it in together for meals throughout the week. Easy peasy.

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I think Bob Goff is pretty great. Love Does is one of my favorite books. And I loved this talk he recently gave in Atlanta.

Most recently, I came across his Instagram. In general, Instagram is a place where I spend too much time feeling envious of things like perfect families and Louis Vuitton bags. Goff’s quotes and photos are a breath of fresh, inspiring air. Do yourself a favor and follow him.