May 28, 2015

My Machiavellian Moment


It was in Southern California, the early years of the twenty-first century, and I was facing an intense moment of crisis. Newly remarried, my husband Eric and I had moved in together with our kids and were trying to blend our family. From the beginning, it was total chaos. Not only had we not set any ground rules for trying to govern our family, we hadn’t even established any ground rules for our marriage.

So, somehow, virtually all of the household chores fell by default to me. This included all the grocery shopping, the cooking and cleaning, the drop-offs and pick-ups from preschool, and all the car-pooling, bathing, bill-paying, laundry, and diaper-changing.

At the same time, I was trying to finish the dissertation I was writing as the final requirement for my Ph.D. in history at UC Berkeley, and I had just started a demanding new full-time job writing legal briefs from home. All of which meant that I was trapped (read: imprisoned!) inside for days at a time with my four rambunctious young kids whose constant bickering was driving me nuts.

Oh, did I skip that part? Four children. Under the age of eight.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my kids dearly and would walk to the far ends of Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell and back on their behalf. But they also have the uncanny ability to drive me to the brink of insanity.

At six, Teddy, my oldest and most independent if sensitive daughter, would sometimes mimic me by screaming at her siblings when they irritated her with their silly childhood pranks. "Stop following me! Leave me alone! I can’t take it anymore!" she’d howl, as they giggled while trying to cuddle up next to her on the couch.

Complicating matters was the fact that I share custody of Teddy with my ex-husband Paul. He hasn’t remarried and doesn’t have any other kids, which means that he can shower his undivided attention and affection on her in a way that I never can. Plus, whenever she stays with him, his peaceful well-ordered home is her own little kingdom, where she can reign as she sees fit without so much as a hint of internal subversion or opposition. No one sneaks into her room to steal her beloved white furless stuffed kitten (more about that disaster later). No one rifles through her backpack and tears up her carefully completed homework (more on that epic battle later, too).

Which brings me to my then-three-and-a-half-year-old-daughter Katie. Katie has Down syndrome and is happiness personified. But she can also be infuriatingly stubborn and defiant. Some of her defiance was actually quite impressive in terms of originality, concept, execution, and the sheer creative-destructiveness of it. And had she been performing in some sort of early-childhood-drive-your-mommy-totally-insane-competition, I would’ve given her a perfect 10. A virtual gold-medal-winner in insubordination.

Katie is also an accomplished escape artist (more on that little trick later, too). Whenever I took my eyes off her to, say, take a quick two-minute shower or search for my cell phone that she had turned off and surreptitiously hidden under the sofa cushions, she’d spring like a fox into action and find something even more cunning and crafty to do.

Meanwhile, her trusty co-conspirator was her younger brother Trevor, who was firmly entrenched in the midst of his Terrible Twos and had a tendency to throw earth-shattering tantrums whenever our cat Lucky managed to escape from his grasp (or he otherwise didn’t get exactly what he wanted and exactly when he wanted it).

These behaviors weren’t sufficient to trigger a maternal breakdown, but, in the aggregate, they made me resent motherhood and question my fitness as a parent. “I'm a terrible mother," I'd mutter to myself as I changed yet another diaper and dreamed of the day they were all safely away at college. Then I'd feel guilty for wishing their childhood away.

Still, I desperately wanted to mold them into less irritating little creatures whose constant bickering didn't drive me to drink, who didn't suck every ounce of energy out of me with their constant needs, who were more obedient little people who would quickly and predictably submit to my parental commands.

So, like millions of other modern moms, I ignored centuries of wise advice and tried to change them—by yelling, nagging, or ignoring them. This, of course, only made their behavior worse. They'd argue a little louder, slam doors harder, and leave dirty glasses and plates on the table with greater frequency.

One night, after washing the dishes and tucking our kids into bed, I talked to my husband about the mind-numbingly tedious and oppressively isolating tyranny of motherhood. He didn't understand what I was complaining about and said that staying home all day sounded “great” to him.

“Why don’t you take the kids to the park if you’re going stir crazy in the house?” he helpfully suggested one cold rainy evening.

“The park?” I said sharply. “Why don’t YOU take them to the park?”

After a heated exchange, Eric made a hasty retreat to our bedroom and turned on the TV as I stomped off to my office. Too exhausted to work, I sat at my desk and stared at a dusty old shelf of books. It was practically buckling under the weight of dozens and dozens of history and literature and philosophy titles that were piled up high upon one another in no particular order of importance.

“Even my bookshelf’s a mess,” I thought.

And, as I began straightening it, an old copy of The Prince caught my eye. Pulling it from the shelf, I studied its cover – a portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli dressed in his elegant robes of office. His intelligent, determined eyes stared out humbly at me; his thin lips turned up in a slight knowing smile; his stance calm, relaxed, powerful, and confident—everything that I was not at that particular point in my life.

To read more of this excerpt from Machiavelli for Moms click here!

May 14, 2015

Machiavelli was Funny!!

Five hundred years ago, in a letter dated December 10, 1513, Niccolo Machiavelli announced to his friend Francesco Vettori that he had written a "little study" on politics.

That letter, one of the most celebrated in all of Renaissance literature, not only provides an important timeline indicating when Machiavelli likely penned what would become known to the world as The Prince but reveals something that many of his critics don’t know: that he was well-loved by his friends for his bawdy, ironic, self-deprecating sense of humor.

Yes, Machiavelli was funny!

In fact, there's a lot of evidence in his correspondence which suggest that he was a very likable, down-to-earth guy who was probably a blast to hang out with in local taverns and bars. But it’s his poems, tales and plays that give us the clearest glimpse of his dark humor and wit.

In his comedic play, Clizia, for example, he mocks the folly of an older man’s pursuit a beautiful younger woman, and in the novella Belfagor he has his protagonist choose between the torments of hell and "the anxiety of the marriage yoke." Anyone who’s been married for long enough can see the humor in that, right?

Even the dark and brooding German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche found humor in Machiavelli’s prose, noting that in The Prince, he “lets us breathe the dry, refined air of Florence and cannot help presenting the most serious matters in a boisterous allegrissimo, perhaps not without a malicious artistic sense of the contrast he risks—long, difficult, hard, dangerous thoughts and…the very best, most capricious humor.”

But the most startling example of Machiavelli's vivid imagination and lascivious wit can be found in a letter he wrote to his friend Luigi Guicciardini. In it, he tells a tale about an encounter he supposedly had with a grotesque old hag who he was tricked into having sex with one day in Lombardy.

“Damn it all, Luigi!” he begins. “You see how fortune can bring about in men different results in similar matters. You, when you have had her once, you still get the urge to have her again.” He then recounts his own recent foray in a dimly lit room, only to discover, after the fact, that he had been sorely duped.

“My God!” he writes. “The woman was so ugly that I almost dropped dead.” On the top of her bald head, he said, “were a number of lice taking a stroll”; her “eyebrows were full of nits;” “one eye looked up and the other down”; her “nostrils were full of snot and one of them was cut off” and “her mouth looked like Lorenzo de’ Medici’s” but “it was twisted on one side and drooled a bit since she had no teeth to keep the saliva in her mouth. And I swear to God!” he quips, “I don’t believe my lust will return as long as I am in Lombardy.”

Did this actually happen?

Who knows. But that’s not the point. What matters is that Machiavelli could find humor in even the grimmest of situations. That he was a master at this is reflected in a letter he wrote near the end of his life in which he cites the lines from one of Petrarch’s sonnets: If at times I laugh or sing/ I do so because I have no other way than this/ To give vent to my bitter tears.

Poor guy.

But here’s the bottom line: there’s a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt, as humorist Erma Bombeck observed. And that's a fate (especially as parents!) we can’t ever escape.

So what do we do?

Laugh and sing, my friends. Laugh and @&% sing — just like Machiavelli!

For my book click here

January 9, 2015

On Machiavelli and George Clooney

So you might not think that Machiavelli and George Clooney could be mentioned in the same book but they are in Machiavelli for Moms, along with many others, including:

Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Jim Hensen, Harry Houdini, Thomas Jefferson, Steve Jobs, Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, Vince Lombardy, Steve Martin, John Quincy Adams, Lorenzo de'Medici, Jopseh Campbell and James Madison. And that's not all. Also mentioned are Cicero, Thucydides, Richard Nixon, Steve Martin, Gene Wilder, Erma Bombeck, Dr. Spock, Emile Zola, Sir Issac Newton and Machiavelli's literary hero, Dante!

To learn more about Machiavelli for Moms click here.

May 2, 2013

Three Myths about Machiavelli: Or, Why Does Everyone Think He's Such a Meanie?

MYTH 1: The Prince is a Guidebook for Tyrants.

When Machiavelli sat down to write his little primer on politics, he couldn’t have known or even imagined that it would become the most infamous political tract of all time, one that would, in one way or another, influence some of the greatest political thinkers of all time, from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, and Montisiqueu to James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams. Instead, he intended it to be a sort of glorified job application in which he sought to dazzle and impress the Medici princes who held power in Florence with the vast knowledge he had acquired through years of experience and study.

In his dedicatory letter to Lorenzo de’Medici, he writes:

Those who desire to win the favor of princes generally endeavor to do so by offering them those things which they themselves prize most, or such as they observe the prince to delight in most. Thence it is that princes have very often presented to them horses, arms, cloth of gold, precious stones, and similar ornaments worthy of their greatness. Wishing now myself to offer to your Magnificence some proof of my devotion, I have found nothing amongst all I possess that I hold more dear or esteem more highly than the knowledge of the actions of great men, which I have acquired by long experience of modern affairs and a continued study of ancient history.

His overtures, however, went unanswered and it’s not certain if Lorenzo even bothered to read his little gift.

Nevertheless, The Prince addressed an immediate crisis that Machiavelli had seen with his own eyes – the disunity and ruin of Italy – and was meant to be a kind of "how to" book, a pragmatic master plan, a pithy and pungent no-hold-barred call to action for a cunning and ruthless new ruler endowed with the ambition to create a strong, unified state, one that – and this is important – is “distinguished from tyranny by the fact that it serves what Machiavelli calls the ‘common good.’" And by that term he has in mind, according to historian Paul Rahe, “war, conquest, and empire aimed at satisfying at the expense of outsiders the ambitions of the citizens and their longing for power, glory and wealth.”

His republicanism, as Rahe explains:

inflames appetite; it sanctions and encourages licentiousness; and then, by means of laws and practices...it orders and channels appetite in such a way as to sustain liberty and encourage expansion.

Bottom line: Machiavelli made it clear throughout his career that he hated tyrannies, and so for this and other reasons, it seems safe to say that he didn’t intend his little masterpiece to be a guidebook for tyrants.

MYTH 2: The Ends Justify the Means

Machiavelli didn’t actually write this infamous phrase in The Prince. What he wrote was more along the lines of: "in considering the actions of men...one must consider the final result." That’s not to say, however, that he wasn’t concerned with ends and means. In his Discourses on Livy, a longer and more thoughtful book, he writes, “while the act accuses him, the result excuses him, and when the result is good, like that of Romulus, it will always excuse him, because one should reproach a man who is violent in order to ruin things, not one who is so in order to set them aright.”

That’s a little arcane, I know. But Machiavelli’s referring here to Romulus' murder of his brother Remus, an act that, according to mythology, led to the founding of the ancient city of Rome. So what’s the difference between justifying such an act and excusing it? Well, according to historian Peter Bandanella:

Machiavelli seems willing to excuse some shocking acts (such as the murder of Remus by Romulus) if the deed is done for an extremely important and moral cause (in this case, the foundation of the city of Rome, and implicitly its empire). To justify such an action as the killing of a brother means to render such an action just, and Machiavelli certainly does not believe that what Romulus did was just. But he is willing, in this particular and limited case, to excuse what Romulus did, not because it was just but because excusing an action means to recognize that an action is wrong but was committed under extraordinary circumstances that attenuate its wrongness.

In other words, justifying such an act assumes that no moral wrong was committed whereas excusing it concedes that a wrong was committed but its wrongness is attenuated or “excused” by the greater good or “end” that is served. Either way, the point remains that Machiavelli never wrote that phrase about the ends justifying the means to which he partly owes his sinister reputation.

MYTH 3: Machiavelli was a Meanie.

Machiavelli’s personal letters contain some of his most beautiful writing and reveal him as a loving father, loyal friend, and deeply thoughtful, sensitive man. (Of course, some of his letters are quite lurid but that’s a story for another day.)

In any event, in a letter to his son Guido, Machiavelli discusses the problem posed by a mad mule. “Since the young mule has gone mad,” he writes, “it must be treated just the reverse of the way crazy people are, for they are tied up, and I want you to let it loose...take off its bridle and halter and let it go wherever it likes...The village is big and the beast is small; it can do no one any harm.”

Here again, we see that there is more to Machiavelli than his brutal realism. And by that I mean that if he was as hard-hearted as his critics portray him to be, he would’ve instructed his son to simply destroy the poor beast, don’t ya think? Either way, the point remains that Machiavelli wasn’t a meanie. In fact, when it came to his family, friends, and even a mad mule, he could be, and probably often was, a total softie!

To learn about my new book click here

February 6, 2013

Machiavelli for Moms: Maxims on the Effective Governance of Children (Simon & Schuster)


Machiavelli for Moms has been hailed by Parade Magazine as "a funny and creative new parenting guide." For an excerpt click here!