Dispatches from Rahway, NJ

I have officially survived my sober and overscheduled October and am firmly into November.otto Soon enough, things will gradually calm down and I will spend the second half of December relaxing(ish) and, knowing myself, reflecting on a quite eventful year of change. It’s still mind-blowing to me that I’ve been here for nearly a year; I can’t believe how fast it has blown by, and I suppose at least part of it is that I have been too busy to be bored. Life is good, though, and while I am constantly grappling with what’s next, I have not ever felt I chose this step incorrectly. My father asked me if I still miss Alaska, and the answer is always yes, and will likely always be yes, but it was a good call to take a break and do something else. I also do not (yet) regret holding onto my house up there; I would be struggling a lot more emotionally if I had left nothing there to go back to.

This month’s story begins with my former roommate from Anchorage visiting. I had not seen him in a year. fifthstringHe is more of a brother to me than a former roommate, or even friend, and conveniently one of his defense contractor buddies relocated to Denver at the same time I did, which meant he was visiting both of us here. Even more conveniently, we have become good friends in this past year, so we had a blast together. Matt (Anchorage) is in Djibouti now, and if I’m lucky I’ll see him again in the spring or summer.

An affinity for high-end meals is something we share, so we ate a ton. manhattanWe also drove up to Leadville, a little mining town that quite a few people have recommended to me, and it was an all around awesome day. Leadville is very Alaskan; remote and quite rough around the edges. There was a bar for sale on the main strip when we visited that the guys later chased as a lead for our imaginary future together, where we all live on a compound, they never have to grow up or assume any responsibility, and I run the business to keep us all afloat. If only. The bar sold before we could grab it, so I guess we’re all stuck in our present lives.

Being a defense contractor or a member of the Armed Forces have never been attractive career paths to me, but the guys did finally talk me into taking the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT). It took a few days of mulling and surfing the web, but after easily passing the practice tests, I decided to do it. The process is long and the amount of assessments and screens have months of wait time between them, but given the cost ($0) I figure I’ll give it a whirl and see what happens. I still have some legwork to do (you need to pick a track, and the one I will probably choose is the most competitive), but the only thing I lose if this doesn’t go anywhere is the $40 I’ve spent on used study guides and a few hours of time.

It may look strange to abruptly change careers, but I’ve done so before and was never committed to one path in my life anyway. I bypassed a more focused specialization in college solely to ensure I had transferable skills that did not limit me geographically. I’ve had a pretty unbelievable experience thus far, and my experiences living in and traveling to bizarre backwater locales is an advantage. I shared with a family member last night that my life feels somewhat dull and ordinary; I am on the gerbil wheel. I have concerns about my future and my retirement and very few strings attached to anything here.

I talked a lot to some friends on this recent trip about what a hassle it is to feel like the world is your oyster – if that isn’t a first-world problem, I don’t know what is – I tend to try new things all the time and force myself into discomfort and end up excelling at most things I try (I think the excellence is a byproduct of being willing to really try to master new things instead of any kind of intelligence or talent), and maybe it’s time to start over and use my years upon years of devouring books and Economist articles to do some good. It’d also be an opportunity to serve; while the country devolves domestically into wokism, racism and other psychoses, it may be time for the rational and educated moderates to pick up some slack and make more deliberate sacrifices. We live in an age where even speaking of serving your country earns sneers and laughs, and that is pretty shameful to me. I also think there’s a decent chance of finding more people who are out in the world navigating complexity versus armchair quarterbacking on world events with minimal interest in experiencing it.

In any case, this potentially multi-year process starts on Dec 21, when I register for the FSOT in February. Then, we wait and see. In the meantime, now that I am off my retention contract and there is no penalty tied to leaving my company, I will be evaluating my options for next steps. I need a lot of friction and challenge in my life and have no intention of keeping this middle management job for very long, despite the fact that I seem to be quite good at it. I’ve never wanted an ordinary life. I don’t mean that as an insult to anyone else. I don’t know how or what that will translate to, but that feeling of constantly needing to be challenged has dominated my entire life and many of my choices. I know I have walked from many opportunities to lead a normal existence, and I reflect on that regularly (weddings definitely are a good opportunity to do so). While the idea of a life of routine fills me with dread, I am perfectly at peace in my skin with no concrete plan or commitment to one lifelong passion to rule them all. I think (wedding thoughts) especially as an unmarried woman pushing 40 surrounded by married siblings and cousins, it’s important to feel like you made your own choice, and I do.

The week that Matt showed up, mariscosI ventured out on a weeknight to see Batushka, who were awesome as usual. The following week, Juan flew in to see Brujeria and partake in some In-n-Out and a mariscos place I’ve been holding out on for his visit. Interspersed in those two weeks were two single-night trips to Texas, but they were both highly productive ones. That team has come a long way; they are all on the upswing after last quarter’s spirit crushing. I have also managed to get to the gym regularly and have not broken my 10K step a day streak, no matter how annoying it has been to get them in. I wish I could say I’ve trimmed off 10lbs, but that does not seem to be the case; I’ve dropped a pathetic 5lbs since returning from Mexico, which is less than half of what I expected for the month of October, given not drinking, OMAD, gym and my step streak. Disappointing.

justinI have barely had a moment to spare in between all of these things; by the time Juan departed, my final friend visit of the month took place, a Rhode Islander I’ve known since high school. Thankfully he is the most sedentary of my October visitors and we had a pretty low-key weekend perusing bookstores and farmers markets. None of these people are in any way connected to one another; they have very little in common and I find that feature of my friends interesting. They have completely different lives and experiences and priorities. They work in all different capacities, at many different levels of expertise, have different levels of education and personal wealth. As has always been the case, the only thing that binds them together is me.

A few days after Justin departed, I made my way to Pennsylvania, then to New York. I expected to have more time this year to spend with people here, but that did not work out. I primarily came back to attend my cousin’s wedding: I skip most family affairs, but my cousin was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer a few years ago and made it through chemo, a double mastectomy, a breast reconstruction and freezing her eggs (she is in her early 30s). Her now-husband proposed to her when she was going through chemo. I figured that was a relationship I could get behind, so I attended.

I dropped into the Catskills first, the closest place I have to the kind of “home” people talk about when they use that word. olana1It’s always amazing to go back and I have so many positive memories of my second set of years up there (I hated growing up there, my school sucked and I was bored out of my gourd). Some things have changed a lot; other things haven’t. I had wonderful company, ate amazing food and slept a lot. I am never back there for long enough. I always leave New York grateful so many people love and care for me; I don’t deserve the quality of people I have in my life. And despite living in Alaska and Colorado, New York state is a treasure; it is a much less austere kind of beauty up there, the fall colors are unmatched, it has the architectural history the West doesn’t. wedding1_blurI expect to drive back in the spring to pick up an heirloom and hopefully that’ll buy me some more time up there.

The rest of my time here in the Tri-state Area has been nice. Spent a few days in PA, then dipped into NJ yesterday for the wedding. The wedding was nice; loafing around all day with my sister and her husband are the highlight of the Jersey portion of this trip. This trip partially serves as an excuse for me to skip traveling home for the holidays (again) so it was well-timed. I feel very indifferent about holidays; I loathe flying into one of the busiest parts of the US for them. I did order a Christmas tree and a smoked turkey breast for Thanksgiving so there will be a bit of holiday spirit, but I am really stoked on staying in alone after the craziness of these past few months.

Three books I’ve managed to bang out this month despite everything going on: Bloodlands, Putin’s People and Life is Hard. I am now working through a great book on the history of the Silk Road that’s lit a fire under my ass to book my Central Asia trip, so I will probably be set up to head to Uzbekistan by my next post. Bloodlands and Putin’s People were amazing – Putin’s People was illuminating even for someone who knows a lot about the history of Russia’s oligarchy and the rise of the KGB. Bloodlands should be required reading in high school: it’s basically about the steamrolling of Eastern Europe between the World Wars and if you don’t know history well enough to feel horrible for Poland and Ukraine, you probably should read this one. I read a ton of dark history and the scale of destruction and murder in Eastern Europe is horrific even when you know about what you’re reading already: as Stalin said, the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic… and that is grotesquely true.

I also read a book called Life is Hard (it was reviewed in the Economist and was in line with some of the other stuff I’m reading for work). I personally didn’t find it particularly interesting or noteworthy. 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. I also watched the documentary on Larry Clark’s cult masterpiece Kids while Matt was here (we both grew up in the time of that film). Predictably sad and unfortunate, but a good watch. I also watched the remake of All Quiet on the Western Front, which was very good, as well as Ken Burns’ new documentary The US and the Holocaust, which, despite its dubious beginning and ending, were really excellent. Tim Snyder, who wrote Bloodlands, was featured in Burns’ documentary, so that was cool.

I think I’ve rambled on long enough. By the time November ends, I should be out of the woods, with one lonely work trip in December before the year winds down.

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