stories and essays with no general theme at all

My Big Date with Ben Casnocha

I recently met Ben Casnocha for a date at his hotel in Bogotá. Ben Casnocha is an entrepeneur and author, a heavyweight in the blogosphere, and an intellectual. He is a regular guest on NPR's Marketplace and contributes articles for The American. His blog is here. His bio here. His book can be found here. His company here. His Delicious page here. He is only 21!

I found his blog a few months ago and was humbled by how smart, mature, and accomplished he is at such a young age. I follow him on Twitter (here). In March, he tweeted that he would be in Colombia soon. I re-tweeted that I was moving to Bogotá April 3. He replied that he would still be in town and maybe we could meet up. He also mentioned that he looked at my expat blog and noted it was "very entertaining." He asked if I ever worry about STD's (haha). We agreed to meet his last night in the lobby of his hotel.

That night at dinner with Ryan and Fabien (who were both in town), I started writing down questions for the big date . After dinner, I ran to my hotel. I briefly worried that Ben may have sent me a cancellation email. I showered, shaved, and brushed my teeth. I put on my nicest dress shirt, a white Burberry button-down with yellow stripes, along with my cleanest jeans and dress shoes. I grabbed a bottle of Peruvian Maca tablets for a gift and ran out the door. I stepped out of my no-frills, $8 / night hotel in La Candelaria and passed all the junkies and sketchballs on my voyage to Ben's nice hotel by the airport. I stopped by Ryan's and Fabien's hostel to borrow a camera. They joked about how I put on a collared shirt for my big date. I got the camera and left, arriving at Ben's hotel forty-five minutes early. He had an early flight so I assumed he would end our date after an hour. I sat at a table, monitoring every hallway and looking at every person who passed through. After about twenty minutes, I recognized Ben leaving the gym, drenched with sweat. I greeted him. He said he was going to take a shower. While I waited downstairs, I paced back and forth in nervous anticipation. Ben came down and we got a table in the hotel restaurant. He ordered a pasta and I ordered nothing. I told him I already ate, which I had, but the truth was that I didn't even want to look at the menu due to my brokeness and what the prices would look like.

I didn't think Ben would be pretentious based on our email exchange, but I didn't expect him to be so interested in me. I couldn't ask any of my questions for the first half hour because he peppered me with questions first. What do I read? What blogs do I follow? What did I study? How did I decide on this Latin American life? What do I do? What did I do? What am I doing with this writing thing? Etc. As I said, I thought Ben would give me an hour. We talked from 9:30 - 11:30. Besides being smart, Ben Casnocha is nice and down-to-earth, chock full of decency. He asked me great questions. In two hours, I think he has me accurately sized-up. We covered some interesting subjects.

After getting warmed up, Ben's questions got around to the sexual nature of some of my Expat Chronicles posts. He asked what is meant by my tagline, "sexually-frustrated, alcoholic gringo in Latin America." Specifically, sexually-frustrated. The truth: it's a slogan meant to entice people to click through to the blog. He asked if I had read Neil Strauss' The Game. I haven't. He asked if I followed any of the pickup artists' blogs. I don't, and I am not a pickup artist. In fact, I think my game is below average. I'll often go out and not hit on a girl all night.

Ben asked why I aim for many partners. I don't know, maintenance? Maybe it makes me feel like more of a man. He asked if I tell the girls that I'm not faithful. I don't. Ben is very STD-averse. He asked if I'd been tested. I told him I'd go as soon as it burns when I pee. He pointed out that some STD's can be transmitted through condoms and some carriers never show symptoms. 1/4 of American women and 1/3 of New York City women have herpes. I told him I probably have it then. He recommended getting tested just to know where I stand. But, he said, if I test positive for something, then I am in a difficult predicament: would I tell women about it? Good question, Ben! I would like to think I would, but I know I wouldn't at least once. What happened to me? I used to be a decent guy, and I still consider myself to have a decent heart. But something has changed along the way.

One of my first questions for Ben was about reading. The man aims to read 100 books / year! I would consider it a good year if I put down 25. How can the man possibly read so much? I asked how much time he spends reading every day. Blogs, news, books, everything. He estimated an hour and a half plus all the flights he takes. That doesn't seem like enough time, I said. He said he flies a lot. And he reads fast. He doesn't speed-read, but he reads fast. He reads the first and last sentence of each paragraph closest and skims sometimes. I forgot to ask him what he thinks of Tim Ferriss' (author of The 4-Hour Work Week) recommendation of a Low-Information Diet, in effect choosing to not read so much in order to focus on more important things. But I assume that Ben would wholeheartedly disagree.

Because of a few interesting posts and book recommendations, I asked Ben about his religion. From what I've read, I couldn't tell where he stands. He replied, "I'm a non-believer." I probed him to discern if he were closer to agnostic or atheist. He doesn't like the word 'atheist' because of the dogmatic atheists like Christopher Hitchens, American Atheists, and the like. Ben isn't trying to convert anybody, but he believes there is no God. I consider myself more agnostic. I have no idea what God or the point of life is.

Ben wrote a great review of a book that had a profound effect on me: I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe (Wikipedia entry here). That novel is an accurate slice-of-life work about the American college experience in the 21st century. I credit it with my realization of the superficiality of Greek life as well as the pointlessness of watching sports. Ben's review pointed out an angle I didn't see, how Charlotte was initially strong enough to resist tempation to fit in, or to go with the flow, in her rural hometown. But she succumbed in the face of the prestigious Dupont University (loosely based on Duke).

Ben's review struck a chord with me because, like Charlotte, I was a prodigy student early on. However, I wasn't comfortable being a nerd. I never resisted the tempations. I got into trouble and played down my intelligence to fit in / seem more normal. I asked Ben how he got his confidence to resist conforming. He said being comfortable in your own skin is hard, but it always came natural to him. He was quite athletic / jockish early on, and that helped. I mentioned that maybe my parents' early divorce affected me. While he agreed that can happen, he contended that the biggest influence our parents have on us is at conception. He thinks upbringing is highly overrated. He recommended I read Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, which supports that assertion.

Also overrated (not Ben's words) is higher education in America. I told him that I've come to the conclusion that, especially if you read like Ben does, college may be a waste of time. The guy's company was a success while in high school, so I imagine even finishing his diploma was a pain in the ass. His book published when he was 19. I think if you're going to be an entrepeneur, and you're dedicated to learning informally, you may save the time and money of a formal education. I may have learned just as much from books and newspapers as I have from a classroom setting. Ben completed three semesters at Claremont McKenna, studying political science. He doesn't know if he'll finish. One beef he has with higher learning is the censorship of ideas. Where these institutions purport to support the free reign of thinking, politically incorrect ideas are often shut down by the academia powers-that-be. For example, any discussion of affirmative action (that it might not work) wouldn't be tolerated. Another example was the backlash against former Harvard president Larry Summers for suggesting that there may be a genetic difference between male and female brains which inhibit women from going into engineering and science. Ben thinks it's a shame that these kinds of ideas have to be developed at think-tanks and in the blogosphere. Where does Ben fall politically? He voted for Bob Barr (Libertarian), but he would have voted for Obama if California were in play. I would have voted for Obama if I thought it were worth my time.

Going along with Charlotte Simmons, and the confidence to go your own way and be a nerd, I wondered something about Ben that I couldn't quite phrase. The way I asked it was something like, "Do you think you're missing out on anything by skipping the gutter side of life?" To accomplish what he has, you have to lead a relatively squeaky-clean life. For example, by the time I was his age, I had tried most drugs, committed a slew of various crimes and been in a few different jails, and flirted with danger in other adventures. Ben has never used a recreational drug (not even marijuana!). He said he's obviously missing something in life, but the question is whether that's worth it or not. He said he'd be mildly interested in that side of life. I told him some of my stories, none of which I think are more extreme than what's out there. My First KO in Peru, The Cusco Incident, any of the brothel stories, the time I went to jail high on LSD, or the time I went to jail in South Carolina and almost got in a fight with the biggest, blackest dude in there. Or one of the best days of my life: eating mushrooms and seeing the museums in Amsterdam. In retrospect, I don't think I asked this question to see what he thought about the wild side. I think I asked this to see if he thought that kind of wild side is compatible with the kind of success he has enjoyed. Because my wild side is natural in me, and I wonder if it's incompatible with as stellar of a career as Ben's. I think I'm doomed.


Ben's intelligence is intimidating (I've never felt that from anybody). He asks questions that show how quickly he understands you. As I was riding in the taxi back to my hotel, I felt like I talked twice as much as he did. How the hell did that happen? When reading his blog posts, I would think how much I would love to sit down and pick his brain and learn what I could. And now I just had the chance, and I ended up talking more than listening. What does this mean? When it comes to a thirst for knowledge, or an active mind, nobody is hungrier than Ben Casnocha.


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