August+

I had wanted to put more effort into this photo gallery, and space them apart the way I did with the Balkan trips, but the truth is I’m short on time and patience. I contemplated sharing the entire Google Photo gallery I made for a friend, but that seems like overkill. So, I will just intersperse a few smaller galleries in somewhat random order throughout my text.

It already seems like this past trip was a long time ago; I have not stopped since I got back, and have, since my last post, recovered from COVID, been to Dallas, been to Austin twice, and am about to leave for Mexico on Friday. I feel strangely organized and in the zone considering everything I have going on (my heart rate variability score would disagree). I am a bit disappointed that I have not been to the gym as much as I’d prefer, but otherwise I am pretty happy with how I have managed, despite not having any kind of free time whatsoever. I have comforted myself by making numerous batches of random soups and stews, which is a definite throwback from living in New York, but still is oddly soothing to me. Butternut soup, my grandmother’s shrimp/okra gumbo and Thai coconut soup now fill my freezer, and I’ve managed to procure a few high-end ham hocks to continue this into the fall.

People at work regularly ask me if I’m managing OK, which always takes me a bit aback: I like this. This workload is not sustainable, but it’s interesting, and I feel there are many problems to solve right now. I am very grateful I had the foresight to book a trip to Mexico, as it’s given me something to look forward to. Forced relaxation time seems to be the only way to chill, and I’m happy I’ve learned that much about myself.

A few shots from Old Town Tbilisi:

I haven’t been reading as much as I would like, either, and most of my energy has gone into the experience of having one high performing team and one severely low performing team that is entirely lost and having to start them from zero, spread between Denver, Dallas and Austin. I am chipping away at some very interesting books, and hope to get through a few in Mexico. I am almost done with Plagues Upon the Earth, which is incredible, and I’ll be upset when I run out of pages.

My Airbnb rental season has ended as well, and that’s been a relief; I will be turning my condo over to my tenants shortly. I’m bummed I was not able to find time to return this fall, but it is what it is. I still feel regular pangs of sadness that I am no longer living up there, but Denver is slowly growing on me. I wouldn’t call it somewhere I love living, but I don’t hate it either, and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be outside of back in AK. My boss will be interviewing for a promotion soon, and if he gets it, I plan to apply for his job (I have no idea what my actual chances would be) to make up for lost time. When I shared my intentions with him, he didn’t laugh at me, so I think that’s an OK indicator.

I really hated my current job until around July, when I had a ton extra dumped on my plate. The many months of thought and effort I had put into building a healthy culture from a toxic, broken team also really began to pay off, and after getting through business reviews, I’m pretty happy about where everything is, although I still do not believe this job is for me in the long run. I am fairly sure after this most recent trip to Austin, they will not be joining my fanclub. Managing people is hard, but I am interested in how different people are, and what motivates them, as much as they all piss me off near-daily. In one month, I’m free of being indebted by contract to my employer, and it has taken me almost that long to enjoy what I’m doing and to wake up fairly eager to start another day. Going back and forth to Texas has been a lot of fun; having a good (metalhead) friend in Austin makes it even better. So does Velvet Taco. Overall I am better at this than I thought, and at this juncture it’s not as miserable as I expected. I’ll take it.

I plan to be pretty busy with this, friends’ visits, shows and travel for the remainder of the year, and will happily be staying home alone for Christmas. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that it’s been almost a year since I accepted this job and subsequently moved; I can’t believe how fast time has passed, and that changed so dramatically after watching the days ooze by like molasses during the pandemic.

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I can’t understate what an unbelievable experience this was for me, and for that reason there are a lot of photos.  I would have preferred to stay there for much longer, as there is a lot to explore. I was really blown away by the unbelievable intricacy of some of these buildings, and the timelessness of some of them, even despite the complete disrepair. I was extremely sick one afternoon from the heat and I did not care at all. This was my favorite part of the trip despite the disgusting humidity. 

Apart from that, there’s not a whole lot to say. It was Fuji’s 9th birthday this past weekend, and I mostly kept to myself. I have multiple friends flying in to visit in October, then am going back to NJ/NY/PA, then my parents are visiting, and it sounds like the travel plans will just roll forward until Christmas. I plan to winter camp in Moab later in the winter/very early spring, and will probably return to Denmark and continue onto Finland in May. I am closely watching what else transpires in Central Asia, for many reasons, one of them being that I’d like that to be my next big trip (Tajikistan is not on my list, but Kyrgystan is). 

My life feels fairly normal at this point after a very large valley of despair. I had to take stock recently in how much success I’ve had in moving down here in terms of what my goals were: to have more people in my life, to challenge myself at work, to struggle more. To feel more like a part of the world again. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m proud of myself, but I made a good call by relocating, and I’ve worked hard to get to where I am now, as exhausting as its been.

Random photos from wherever (+Armenia, Czech)

Until next time.

August I: There and back again

I should be sitting outside during the coolest part of the day sipping my coffee, but I also need to organize my life in blocks of time, and I’m overdue for this post. berkeley_lakeI have many unanswered emails and other things to do, but instead of knocking them out, I started cold-stratifying bonsai seeds as I think growing a few different bonsai trees (obviously a very long-term project) will be fun and low-investment. I’ve always been pretty interested in plants, this is the first time I have enough real sunlight to do so. When I was a kid, I had a hydroponic vegetable garden (before hydroponics were cool) and a terrarium full of venus flytraps and pitcher plants, which are not the easiest plants to sustain, especially in upstate New York.

I learned a lot this summer about plants, heat, sun and altitude: my morning glories dutifully covered my porch, but they only flowered twice, and they drink too much water to be feasible in full sun in the future. My bougainvillea grew up to the roof of my house, but it never flowered, so either the days are too long or I overfertilized it. My sword lilies popped beautifully, and I will probably buy more bulbs for next year, even though their foliage is ugly and they take forever to flower. My dahlias bloomed but the colors were ultimately disappointing and I’ll probably buy cuttings next year instead of relying solely on seeds so the blooms are bigger.

To my delight, I have two beautiful elephant ears indoors. Of the three shitty-looking sprouted bulbs I got, two survived and one is huge. It took me a few months to find the right solution to tiny, annoying little aphids, and I had to spray everything down with Neem oil and buy sticky traps, but the combo worked perfectly. I walk past a house every day with HUGE tomato plants so I will be doing Jersey tomatoes next year, I felt unsure about my success this summer but I’m pretty confident now.

Keeping plants hydrated here in peak summer is a major pain in the ass. And I talk about next summer, I suppose, because I think there’s a reasonable chance I’ll stay here for a bit longer, given I still have no idea what I want to do next in my life. The job postings I was waiting for were posted while I was gone, but have restrictive office requirements that would require immediate relocation (again), which I think is stupid, and consequently am not applying. I hate the heat here and am growing more frustrated as these 90 degree days continue; I used to get crankier and crankier as the summer continued back East, but I suspect it will stay warmer longer here than in the Catskills. I hate it. I will never be a summer person, but I’d be a lot worse off if it was also humid. I will say life has been easier now that I’ve fully given up and begun wearing shorts, though I will not wear them to work.

Speaking of, I am actually pretty happy with where I’m at in my job. While I lost my peer group bestie to a promotion, I also lost the peer who annoyed me the most. Given my major complaint about this job has been the other managers in my group, I am almost out of the woods on that. Managing 19 people (soon to be 20) in 3 different offices across two states is not particularly easy, but I am definitely not bored. My primary team is performing well; this co-located Texas team is not. We (Denver) went through business reviews this week, and Monday I’ll head to Dallas, then to Austin, to prep the other team for theirs the following week. The process of onboarding new people, training them up, dealing with two very different levels of tenure and competence and assuring I provide support for all three offices is pretty interesting and forces me to be as efficient as possible.

I will probably continue to do this through the remainder of 2022, and potentially into 2023. To be clear, this job does not spark joy, but for an industrious person, doing the job of two people instead of one is very rewarding.

I realize I’m rambling about plants and work when ultimately I’ve been away for the most of the month; khachapurimy trip abroad began with (of course) a typical Turkish Airlines delay that forced me to run from one end of Istanbul airport to the other in 15 min to make my connection to Tbilisi (they literally closed the door behind me); my bag did not make it onto the plane, but showed up later in the evening. I was happy just to actually get there on time and feel like I was comfortably away from my life in what at this point is definitely my favorite foreign city (New York is still my favorite American city, sorry not sorry). I was slimy and exhausted by the time I got there, but I was over the moon to be there and we went straight to our standard breakfast spot to stuff our faces with khachapuri.

Departing from JFK was a good opportunity to drop in on my sister, and my parents ended up driving down for dinner. njMy sister and her husband finally moved out of their shithole garden level unit in Belleville and moved into a really beautiful, sunny apartment in Rahway. My sister and I are very different — she has very few hobbies, no college education and is mostly a homebody — but she got a second pug and has been showing her, so I’m pretty stoked she is busy and doing stuff she’s genuinely passionate about. I really wish they’d get the hell out of New Jersey, but as I said, we are very different people. I’d love for us to eventually live closer to one another: we hated each other when we were kids but we are very close now, and she continues to look creepily similar to me as she gets older.

My grandmother passed away the last day of my trip, which was incredibly sad but was not entirely unexpected. My parents were in Africa and I’m sad she died alone, but it seems like it happened pretty suddenly and no one would have been able to make it there regardless. I think a lot of people feel regret when their grandparents die: that they should’ve spent more time, paid better attention, learned more from their parents’ parents. I do not feel that way. I called her every weekend from the time I left for college until fairly recently (it was increasingly difficult to reach her, she had no phone and the facility was not always able to transfer me). I saw her in December when I was home, and every other time I went back to the Northeast, and I had a pretty special relationship with her. She was a very cranky person when we were kids (I’ve referred to her many times as the Slavic Olivia Soprano): I found this hilarious and endearing. I’ve learned to make all of our family’s food in my adulthood, from pierogies to cabbage rolls to Russian cutlets (they are like flat, pan fried meatballs). In the past decade, I’ve retrieved all of our family’s naturalization records, birth certificates and other documentation to nail down what happened and when, as many people in her community never talked about the “old country” and only ever wanted a fresh start in America. Every year of my adult life that I’ve been in the US for Christmas, I’ve done Ukrainian Christmas (Eve) dinner, whether I am with my family or (more often) not.

My grandmother only got so far as elementary school: she started working as a child and worked hard her entire life. She had my father at 17, and my grandfather was significantly older. She lived a very modest life; she never flew in an airplane, never left the US, my parents had to drag her kicking and screaming on any adventure farther than the grocery store. She lived in two houses as an adult: the one my parents live in now, and the one across the street. She never tasted a drop of alcohol or smoked a cigarette. She lived vicariously through all of us as we grew older and began traveling (especially my parents, who did not venture abroad until I went with them the first time, and now have been all over, from the Amazon river to Galapagos to Greece and Africa). My one regret is that she lived through my cousin dying of a heroin overdose (and was lucid enough to suffer emotionally as a result), and my piece of shit aunt — her fuck-up daughter — calling to try to collect his modest life insurance policy payout. My parents buried him. Conversely, I’m happy I went to the trouble to have the beautiful French chairs I always wanted from her house reupholstered and shipped here so I can look at them every day. I have a piece of her life in my house and will for the remainder of mine.

My trip also concluded with me getting COVID. It took me 2 years and 8 months and going overseas to test positive. I actually believe I ended up with the lightest symptoms of anyone I know, though I just may have higher tolerance for suffering. Razorblades in my throat, a very mild dry cough and a VERY runny nose, with a half day of feeling like my own voice was bouncing off the insides of my skull and some severe nausea/clamminess. I recovered quickly, though I had a lingering wet cough and congestion and was sleeping 8h+ a night for awhile, which is not typical for me. I sadly missed out on my trip to Chicago, but recovered with negative results in time to get back into the office later into the week after I returned. Having COVID actually forced me to chill out and recover from the trip, so it was ultimately a mixed bag.

My trip was wonderful, and it was equally wonderful to get home. foojI had hired a dog sitter off of Rover to drop in on Fuji 3-4 times a day and while he has the best reviews of anyone in the area on Rover, I was not impressed: he did not walk her once despite committing to do so, he failed to show up one night and never communicated that he was not coming (according to him, he was in a car accident, and yet showed up the next day in the same car which was unharmed), and he spent very little time with her. Thankfully my neighbors were around to pop in periodically and we’ve decided to just trade off on drop-ins for each other’s pets for the foreseeable future (I am taking care of their husky and cat now, and they’re on Fooj duty next week). This was an ambitious experiment to determine whether the dog was better off just staying home alone for 3 weeks, and despite my dog sitter not meeting my expectations, she was in a much better mental state than she would’ve been if I had kenneled her the entire time. I checked on her couch-lounging regularly and tossed her many Furbo treats, and she was just fine, so I will definitely opt for her staying here alone overnight versus worrying about putting her in a kennel or boarding facility. Fuji’s dog aggression is annoying AF but otherwise she’s pretty much perfectly behaved.

The time away helped me further appreciate my living situation, and while it still pains me to pay so much to live here in this neighborhood (there is nothing for sale in my neighborhood under $800K except for a $570K empty lot, to give you an idea of the insane prices in Denver), I’ve spent a lot of time and money making this place somewhere I want to be, and it’s paid dividends. I can’t say I’m in love with Denver by any means, but it’ll do for the time being, and it was actually pretty fantastic to have so many of my new friends at Brutal Assault and in Prague to end the trip. Last weekend, two excellent people got married at a Czech bar here and it was a blast. I think my life is set up pretty nicely all around… it took some time, but my priorities were spot-on and everything is how I want it to be.

My FitBit Charge4 somehow broke into about 6 different pieces when I got home, and while I was tempted to buy another fairly inexpensive FitBit (well, first, I tried to superglue it back together, but too many springs popped out and I gave up), I was intrigued by Juan’s Garmin watch and figured I’d cough up the $ for something that will actually track my exercise (the FitBit never reliably tracked the stairmill workouts). I ended up with the fenix 6, which retails at $549 and was on sale for $350. I am extremely pleased so far, and it’s been about two weeks. No ragrets, and this thing actually tracks my workouts correctly. It is kind of a manly watch for me, but what it lacks in femininity it makes up for in data quality.

I also noticed yesterday that I’ve logged 35 days of PTO for the year, which is a vast improvement over the 10 I took last year. I bunched my time into the middle/end of the year as I wanted to master my responsibilities first, but I’m coming up on a trip back to Mexico in a few weeks and I am really looking forward it. Heading back to NY/NJ in November, then my parents are visiting, and I’m considering on dropping in on a friend in Vegas for a weekend in December. Outside of that, I plan to stay home alone for the holidays and relax… I have always hated flying back to the NY metro area at the busiest time of year.

I’m actually going to stop here, and drop in some photo galleries and thoughts around the destinations in the next few posts, coming soon (possibly tomorrow and/or Monday).

All Abroad

It’s hard to believe that this time next week, I will (hopefully) be sweating my ass off in Tbilisi. I say hopefully because I have a one hour connection in Istanbul, and I can only hope the gates are not too far from one another. After my Turkish Airlines melodrama, fujiI decided I’m too old and impatient to spend 28h getting from Prague to JFK, so I coughed up another $1100 for a direct flight back to NY to catch my unlinked flight to Denver. I am never flying with Turkish Airlines again; while I still got a decent flight there, they’ve managed to pilfer enough money and time from me that I will avoid them in the future.

I’m hoping everything goes according to plan and Fuji doesn’t burn the house down or find a way to chew through the wall. I’ve waited for 3 years to get back there: we left a few things undone and I hired a private guide to take us to Abkhazia, the Black Sea and Armenia. I wish we had decided to spend more than ten days there, but it’ll be nice to get back to Prague as well, which is typically an annual pilgrimage. Quite a few bands we wanted to see have fallen off Brutal Assault thanks to a variety of logistical issues in Europe, but we decided this year that if we’re over it, we’ll split and go somewhere else. Maybe I can show Juan around Odessa before it’s leveled by missiles… that’s probably a hard nope for him.

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Unfortunately it’s been tough over the past two weeks to feel like I’ll be able to unplug: two of the three other managers in my peer group have given their notice and are leaving immediately, and now it’s me and one other manager over roughly 40 people, with many new people starting. Still worse, the other remaining manager told me weeks ago she’s planning on turning in her notice sooner than later, so I’m hoping she can hold out for a few weeks while I break out of here for a bit. Two of the three are transferring internally, which is cool: my company isn’t a total dumpster fire, but my org wears people out fast.

I’ve now inherited the co-located Dallas/Austin team, which is not the worst thing ever, and I happily accepted the challenge, although the timing is awful. I will return from Prague and then go to Chicago, return to Denver for my own team’s presentations, then to Dallas and Austin a week later, then return to Austin the following week for that team’s business reviews. I will probably have these two teams for the remainder of the year, and if the other (Atlanta team) manager quits, that will be interesting. The timing is bizarre considering I had recently shared with my boss that I need a bit more chaos, so I can’t complain about that.

The one saving grace here is that my own team is impressively productive at this point, and I can throw a lot at them and know they’ll manage. I told my boss today that when the opportunity arises, I will move onto a different line of business, but I think this will keep me busy for awhile. I’d also like to kick 2-3 top performers off my team by the end of the year, which is a rough ride for an over-stretched manager, but it’s time.

I’m working on three books right now, but I have finished two work-related books, and I loved both of them:

  • Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness | dohardthingsThe running analogies in this book were not relatable to me, but this book really made me think about the checks and balances I have in my own life, and how to inspire people to move faster and embrace the suck. I’ve had to have a few tough conversations at work over the past few months, and this book will help me choose even more effective words. Both these books gave me some good ideas related to efficiencies and empowering people to do better. It also made me reflect on the things I do to help myself suffer, and why it works: the rules that unfold in my head when I am dying at the gym, and refuse to quit until I hit a ten minute interval, at which time I end up feeling fine, only to dip into misery halfway to the next ten minute interval. This is a great book for many reasons, not least because it puts forth plenty of research around the complete worthlessness of calling people pussies and berating them until they do a better job. There’s a lot around planning for contingencies, breaking things down into measurable pieces, controlling your reactions to externalities, being self-aware enough to know that things will be hard, and setting yourself up for success. I’ve learned to do a lot of these things by trial and error (ie, smuggling my Caucasian rug down here to Denver so my empty-ass house felt a little familiar for the month before my belongings showed up), but a lot of people could skip a lot of fuck-ups and fails by just reading this and taking the advice.
  • How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be | howtochangeThis is a lot of the same kind of material, around setting yourself up to actually change permanently. This one also gave me some good ideas for work, and can be credited for some of the leaning I’m doing on my own team while I’m away. For many years I’ve managed my personal goals via spreadsheet, and I credit this book for helping me realize I am not actually insane: that people actually do think of their lives in terms of chapters, and my milestone updates actually make sense. I thought this book was going to be super boring, actually… but it wasn’t. High recommend on both.

In other news, it’s been so goddamn hot here that I finally gave up and submitted to the indignity of wearing shorts. The weather has only recently normalized to 80s after weeks of it being over 100 degrees… it super sucks. I am slowly acclimating, but I don’t think I will ever enjoy hot weather.

That’s about all I’ve got. My annual “am I circling the drain” medical checks went better than expected, although I ended up getting a second Moderna booster, which sucked and was probably unnecessary, but we’ll see. We’re approaching another surge, which means nothing to me apart from the surging hysteria and reimplementation of rules, particularly in Europe, but we will mostly be on the fringes of Europe proper. I’m pleased I decided to go back to Mexico and that will be a welcome respite from work.

I also booked tickets back to NY/NJ for November, and my parents are coming to visit shortly after. I have no intention of going anywhere for the holidays, and I am sure by that point I will be very happy to stay put and take in everything that has transpired in this very expensive and strange year. I thought hard about how to make this work for myself, how to acclimate to the city again, how to make this less than miserable, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job. I don’t even hate it here.

Until next time.

High Desert Summer

I’ve put this post off long enough that the prospect of chopping up the past few months seems like a huge commitment, but I fear if I wait any longer I won’t post until the fall. I’ve also noticed this blog’s visitor count has increased dramatically, which is bizarre: I don’t find my own life particularly interesting, and I mostly write in here because it auto-sends to close friends I don’t speak to or see as often as I’d like, and writing has always been pretty therapeutic for me. I threw in some food porn that is completely irrelevant to the content, but props to Barolo Grill and Fifth String for many amazing meals in the past few months. I’ve also explored a lot of nearby Tennyson Street and found a few places I really like.

I set aside some time to post about Myrtle Beach & Alaska, but I’ve been all over outside of that as well, most recently Dallas last week. I’m hoping July is mostly uneventful for me as I will be away for most of August and some of September, October and November. baroloI was surprisingly invigorated by my Texas trip: it was a pretty quick trip, but it reminded me of my old life, Life Before COVID, always en route, packing or unpacking. I shared with my boss that I’d like to find a way to get more of that back; I have never been the settling type and I’d like to ping-pong around more in the fall (and I will, starting in Chicago in August, 3 days after I return from Prague). My road warrior life — the life I lived for many years without complaint — was exhausting, but so rewarding. Sometimes I feel like I’ve lost more than I realized initially, the free-wheeling that has collected this cloud of COVID doom in these past few years: what if I test positive? What if I get sick? What if I get stuck? What if the hospital is full?

Ironically, perhaps, while I picked up salmonella last fall, I have yet to test positive for COVID, and I’m unsure of how or why, though it’s improbable that I’ve never caught it, and I don’t own a thermometer, so I wouldn’t have bothered to do anything if I felt like shit anyway. I have not worn a mask since the mandate dropped here, and I’ve been to a ton of concerts, parties, Costco, restaurants, and the office. My phone dings at least once a week with exposure alerts, and I calmly test, wait for the result, and move on with my life. I have not caught so much as a cold despite my many travels and social events, nor have I managed to pick up the flu everyone else had. I am the kind of person who, after a streak of luck, I’m waiting for lightning to strike, so I imagine it’s only a matter of time before this winning streak comes to a probably very inconvenient and ill-timed end.

My friends from New York hidivecame to visit in May, and that has been one of the highlights of the past 7 months: first, virtually all of my favorite pre-AK life people live in New York. These two guys came in to see our other friend’s band one night (they are based in San Francisco). I talk frequently to another friend here about how thus far, Colorado people aren’t really my cup of tea (or his), but it was glorious to have more friends in town: we ate amazing food, watched sci-fi movies, listened to metal and drank on my porch. We managed to get into In-n-Out 5 minutes before they closed at 1:30am the morning they left, and the entire trip was amazing. Apparently there are dirt cheap Frontier flights from Albany to Denver, and I’m hoping my people keep taking advantage of the relatively inexpensive airfare. Bonus round, the headliner for this show was a Canadian post-hardcore/metalcore band that gave me massive throwback vibes.

Otherwise, this settled down, in-the-office-twice-a-week life is not without its hectic parts: fujiI beat myself up for being pretty introverted, but I’ve built a fairly robust community here in a short period of time, and while I’m spread thin, it’s nice to have the option to do things. Today was the first day in awhile that felt like what a weekend day should feel like: yesterday I hustled to hit the gym and walk the dog before making a giant broccoli salad and heading up to a BBQ in the mountains. I spent today cooking a week+ of food to save myself the hassle next week, and I’ve been taking Fuji on 2 long walks a day (1 with a 16lb weighted vest, which I thought would be heavier and challenge me more than it has). The dog spectacularly failed her boarding interview a few weeks back; I figured I’d at least see if she’d be happy hanging out with other dogs and the answer is hell no, she was having none of that, so I finally gave up and found pet care on Rover for my lengthy trip. She’s turning 9 this year and has not slowed down at all. I am thankful. Having a dog and wanting to be on the go all the time is a pain in the ass, but she has been an anchor for me and it has been more than worth the trouble and expense.

July also seems to be maintenance month for my autoimmune stuff: in transferring my Mayo Clinic records to a local rheumatologist, I realized that it was three years ago that I ended up there essentially being told it was only a matter of time before my thyroid burned itself out, and my only options were irradiating it preemptively or just waiting for it to die on its own (I chose option #2). 1655610622963It’s actually pretty incredible to me that I survived this brutal move and all of the suffering that went along with it without having another hyperthyroid episode, but my most recent labs came back perfect and it’s difficult to express how grateful I am that this hasn’t gotten worse. For the most part, even with the heat, I seem to be acclimating fairly well here; the summer temperatures are horrible and I feel hot all the time, but my July goal is to shave off another 10lbs or so before I go to to Tbilisi, which is derived from an Old Georgian word that means “warm place.” Every pound I can drop is less I’ll be sweating through my damn clothes, in the land where “air conditioning” usually means a dirty old fan or a window that you can prop open with a water bottle. I also noticed today that Turkish Airlines once again fucked up my return flight with their schedule changes, so hopefully I can figure that out this week: Turkish is the only airline I’ve ever flown on where you almost never get the flights you pay for, because they constantly change shit and don’t even send you a courtesy e-mail.

My Achilles heel is stress, unfortunately, and based on my scale weight over the past week, I’m holding too much water, which means my cortisol levels are f’ed, which means I need to sequester myself at home and submit to my routine for a few weeks. I am not a great sleeper and an even worse relaxer, and I spent awhile poking around yesterday for new side hustle opportunities today before talking myself out of it. I’ll end up making about half what I did last year with my Airbnb gig, which is depressing, but it’s not easy to manage from 3,000 miles away nor is it ideal to cut someone in on the cleaning portion. I do pretty well and shouldn’t complain, but the looming fear of being older and digging half-eaten tuna sandwiches out of dumpsters is constantly hanging over my head. Is this totally irrational? Perhaps.

My birthday was last week as well, and for the past number of years I have been filling out a spreadsheet to track my annual wins and losses, travels, and goals. It’s been a bizarre stretch, I wanted to give myself a bit more time and take this trip abroad to really get away from my new life and enjoy myself before I hang myself out to dry in Microsoft Excel; I will complete in September.

Ultimately rainbowI am never satisfied with myself, and I think that is a blessing and a curse; people either drive themselves into the ground or are lazy as shit and don’t care about progression… I still believe I am somewhere in the middle (maybe a bit more driven than I need to be, but violently turned off by people’s lack of motivation). I did very little on my actual birthday; a friend from work decided it was unacceptable for me to spend it alone (she is young, she’ll understand someday), so she came over for tacos, a shitty grocery store lemon meringue pie (the only kind of pie I wanted, and could not find a better one on short notice, and I refuse to bake anything beyond keto muffins and key lime pies) and Netflix’s new FLDS documentary, and we had hit up a classical music outdoor thing the night before following a little BBQ at her building. This huge rainbow was a bonus.

In years past I’d make a point to do something crazy on my birthday (which shares the day with Swedish Midsummer): the northern tip of Newfoundland; Salzburg, Austria; Finnish Karelia; Swedish Lapland; off-the-beaten-path Alaska destinations… fifth_stringI’ll maybe pick that tradition up again by 40. I took the day off work and ran a bunch of errands, and that was enough of a gift for me. All in all it was awesome to not be working and have a second of three 3-day weekends in a row.

I was disappointed the first few months here that I couldn’t get into the swing of things with reading, but I’ve gotten through quite a few books, and I’m going to group them together by theme instead of yapping through each of them. I’d still like to be moving through books at a faster clip, but I have a huge pile I’m chipping away at, and I’m making some progress. I am currently reading Letters from an American Farmer, and I could not have started a more appropriate book for 4th of July. What an incredible read. More on that to come.

Work-related: Dare to Lead | Can’t Hurt Me | The Honest Truth About Dishonesty | The Dumbest Generation Grows Up | arielyI ended up grudgingly agreeing to read Brene Brown’s latest book, and it wasn’t bad, to be honest. I realized in refining my business/self-improvement book Excel sheet (yep. I have one of those) that I had read her previous book and enjoyed it. She says the same thing over and over again, which is annoying, but what she says is not untrue. David Goggins’ book Can’t Hurt Me was also not bad: a guy on my team loved it and I traded him for Jocko’s Extreme Ownership, which I definitely like much more, but it was enjoyable. The guy basically grew up in a dumpster and became a Navy SEAL+++, an ultramarathoner, etc etc. He has incredibly strong will and determination and also has beaten the shit out of his body, which will catch up with him sooner or later. As I said before you’re either lazy or you drive yourself into the ground, this dude is all the way at the “needs to hurt himself physically or he is depressed” end of the spectrum. Dan Ariely’s Honest Truth About Dishonesty was OK as well, it was suggested to me by another person at work, and I had read his others, I actually liked Predictably Irrational a lot more, and was already familiar with most of the studies in Dishonesty.

The biggest win in this category is The Dumbest Generation Grows Up. dumbest_generationI had not read this guy’s precursor, but I feel well versed enough having a team of millennials. The title is misleading in that it implies he blames millennials for being stupid, ultimately he puts a lot of blame on educators. I’m not even “dumb” is the appropriate word: I’d use “dull.” The Dullest Generation Grows Up. This book better-articulated a lot of my struggles than I could and has allowed me to outline more of a problem statement at work, which is that the people I’m managing lack a lot of history and knowledge, and as a result their daily lives, struggles and challenges are not placed in any context. It is a really, really, really hard problem to solve when you’re trying to develop young people who do not have the attention spans to read a single KB article in its entirety. I don’t want to be too general in grouping people by generation, and I am an older millennial myself, but there seems to be a distinction, and I see it every day at work: a lack of curiosity, an inability to connect the dots and link concepts together, a completely missing sense of imagination. It is very sad, and my company, and I’d imagine many other companies, are not equipped to upskill because they do not understand the entirety of the problem. Very strong recommend, although it’s quite depressing to see some of the results: the gradual plunge of SAT, ACT, ASVAB scores over time, the declining reading comprehension, the complete failure in STEM subjects. IQ increased over time for many decades, and it is now declining precipitously. Even worse from my perspective, people have lost their interest in the world, the awe of experiencing even the smallest joys, the ability to persevere through hardship by anchoring themselves to history. It is a tragedy.

Russian Classics: The Gulag Archipelago, Vol II | One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich | Darkness at Noon | darknessatnoonI’m not sure whether or not I had mentioned that I finished Vol 2 of Gulag Archipelago, but I did. I am patiently waiting my next Audible credit so I can pick up Vol 3. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Gulag Archipelago is the most brutal, horrifying book I’ve ever read, and this is my second time through this series. While I’ve been waiting, I started and finished One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which was good, but had nowhere near the breadth. Darkness at Noon was another classic I had not bothered to read and finished it in about two days: it was good, but not high on my recommend list: it is too much like 1984, and not nearly as harrowing as many others. There were some memorable passages, though.

Misc.: A Brief History of Inequality | Hooked: Food, Free Will and How the Food Giants Exploit our Addictions | picketty2I somehow managed to make it all the way through Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century years ago, and while a lot of his data ended up being disputed, I actually really enjoyed the anecdotal material, and his ideas. A Brief History of Inequality was a lot shorter, obviously, and easier to digest. Quillette reviewed it and has a lot more text than I’m willing to type out, so that review is here. I actually liked Capital in the 21st Century more, despite all its 800+ pages. Hooked was also good, if you’re into that kind of thing: I have a morbid curiosity with how the agro-industrial complex fucks us all over, and this book was well researched and had a bit of everything. Ironically reading books about the food system or dubious marketing practices to sell people garbage is my junk food.

Is this the longest blog post I’ve ever written? Not sure, but 6am will come early, and I’m off. I’m hoping to post a July roundup before I depart, but we shall see. I also plan to drag my heavy and inconvenience Canon 5D to take photos of Tbilisi’s Old Town and an abandoned sanatorium in Abkhazia, so photos to come.

Reprieve: Alaska

Thursday | I had planned to post more about May prior to this, cook_inletbut it’ll have to wait until I get back to Denver. I did want to carve out some time to write while I’m back up here in the North, though I selfishly thought I’d have a bit more time to relax, and that has not been the case. I’m not very good at relaxing anyway, so I suppose I’ll live. I had originally planned to be up here for two weeks, and cut it down to one, so it’s my own fault in the end. Alas, here I am, sitting on a floor cushion pecking away on my opium table, my favorite spot in my favorite spot.

I got choked up flying into Anchorage at 1:45am, right in time for the very brief dip below the horizon the sun makes in the summer before it comes up again. I think continuously of Robert Service’s “Spell of the Yukon”, one of my favorite poems, and one I will never forget:

No! There’s the land. (Have you seen it?)
   It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
   To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it;
   Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
   For no land on earth—and I’m one.

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel being back here, and I still don’t know. I do know it feels like it was yesterday that I packed my shit and left. I went to my old ANC house and slept on a mattress for a few hours, got up, grabbed a breakfast burrito and some coffee and then some supplies and drove down to Girdwood. virgin_creekLeaving Alaska was bittersweet, being back here is like visiting your childhood hometown, the things you hate and things you love surfacing interchangeably. I feel more like that here than I do returning to the Catskills, which have changed so dramatically since I grew up there. The po-dunk mountain town I grew up in is basically a satellite colony of Manhattan and New Jersey now; Alaska will probably always be the same as I left it. AK is just too far for the hordes of city-dwellers from New York and California that have colonized Montana and Colorado and the other mountain towns of North America, and for that I am grateful. I think often of John McPhee’s Coming Into The Country, probably the most renowned read on Alaska history, and I think about all the people up here I’ve met over the years who talk about how different things are now. And they are, but subtly: change materializes slowly up here, excepting the weather.

I don’t want to romanticize too much: the first morning here, some cracked out girl wearing only a bra and leaning on her friend to walk keeled over in the spaghetti aisle, and I forgot the skin-crawlingly creepy looks you get from many men as a woman in this town; Anchorage is still a shit hole, and a dangerous one at that, but I miss Alaska all the same.

After 6 months in Denver, I’m still doubtful I’ll love anywhere as much as I’ve loved living at these latitudes, nor do I have any intention of staying in Colorado; I don’t like the culture and Coloradans don’t seem very authentic to me. The city is also wildly overpriced and the whole state is too freakin’ brown. I’ve been mulling over what’s next and I’m increasingly leaning toward the eastern seaboard, where there is actual lush greenery and the ocean is not so far. I wonder if I’m done with the West, and I’m not totally sure, but Denver is about as much “my thing” as I expected it to be: not very. Ultimately it’s not about Denver: I am just not interested in living in a city. I’ve done it before and I may have to do it again, but it’s not the way I want to live my life at all. That said, as long as I hold onto my little house up here, I think I’ll feel OK doing whatever, but the 9-to-5 corporate life is not one I wish to hold onto.

Unfortunately this is the second year I’ve returned to this condo to find it in relative squalor. I say relative because it could be, and has been, left in worse condition, but I made a mistake last year by issuing a warning instead of charging a fee for my trouble. While I’m tempted to align my experiences with the well-researched fact that conservatives are higher in conscientiousness, I’ll just say I don’t know what the hell is wrong with people these days or why anyone would have so little respect for someone else’s home, but it’s pretty depressing to come back to my house and see the state it’s left in. When I shared my disappointment with the owner of the company I lease this place to for the winter (and told him I’d be sending him a bill), he was super apologetic and shared that he feels self-centeredness is a hallmark of this generation. I’m inclined to agree. It doesn’t help that my house resides in a town of hippies and trustafarians who believe homeowners should “return their property to the commons” (direct and LOL-worthy quote).

Sadly most of the places I’ve loved throughout my life are being overrun with this hipster mentality: the Catskills and Adirondacks, especially… Asheville, Bozeman, Sedona, Santa Fe… and cities I don’t even much like: Portland, Seattle, Austin, Denver. Pittsburgh and Savannah will probably follow in time.

I bought this place in 2013 and I doubt I’ll let it go anytime soon, 1654905724575despite the fact it’s appreciated in value by over $100,000. This little home is pretty special to me and I’ve renovated it piece by piece over the years from the wood paneling, laminate counters and cream-colored carpets it had when I bought it. It is now one of the nicest, most updated (and energy efficient) units in my complex. There are still things I want/need to do in the coming years: replace the washer/dryer, get rid of the dated textured walls and repaint, fix some of the trim… but every year I upgrade a few things to maintain its value.

I, like anyone in a similar position, have heard many times about how “lucky” I am, which is insulting and dismissive of all the damn work I put into my side hustles and sacrificing in the short term for longer term gains. I finally felt taken advantage of enough this trip to charge a hefty fee for my trouble, and it sounds like a pilot or other typically-anal-retentive person will be placed in here for the next lease term, and I like the sound of that. I have had more than enough of irresponsible, self-centered millennials living in my house splashing wine all over my shit.

In any case, it’s Thursday and I leave late tomorrow night. alyeskaLast night I ventured up to the high-end restaurant atop the mountain with a close friend; when I worked in this town, our resort at least had a cool culture, but almost all of the high quality people have moved on, and there is a void where there used to be a passionate, fun-loving, hard-working culture. I was the first of us to leave in 2014; there now remains one of the 8-10 person exec-level dream team.

I have one more day of errands and tomorrow to tie up any loose ends and head out. Delta’s schedule changes foiled my plans to meet up with my dog/house sitter and swap keys in the beginning of this trip, so we had to adjust accordingly, but I’ll end up leaving having accomplished everything I needed to, including a dentist appointment (and another one tomorrow), training my housekeeper, one of two massages I pre-copaid for last year and fixing a few things at the Anchorage house. I dragged a Caucasian rug up here and am lugging a larger, more expensive one back to Denver, and I’m feeling very organized.

I’m tempted to come back up here over the summer or early fall, but I found $850 RT tickets to Amman yesterday and plan to nail that trip down when I get back. If that is the case, despite all the change and hardship, I’ll have hit Georgia (and Abkhazia), Czech Republic, Jordan & Lebanon in a year of low travel… not half bad all things considered (this excludes Vegas, Alaska, Dallas, Myrtle Beach and back to the Northeast for my cousin’s wedding in the fall).

Sunday | After a full blown panic attack to wrap up my trip on Friday night and two trips to Anchorage in one day to fix a chipped tooth, feeling like I had nowhere the amount of time I wanted to say goodbye for what is in all likelihood an entire year, I returned to Denver. For a few seconds at the Japanese restaurant, where I ordered and then felt too nauseous with anxiety to eat, I thought about what the repercussions would be if I just bailed out on my flight. The feeling of being trapped was pretty overwhelming. I also left a bag of salad mix and forgot to put out a hand towel in the bathroom before I left, which in my psychotic brain negated all the work I had done to prepare for the first guest’s arrival. I don’t visibly crack very often, and usually juggle a ton of shit with no complaints, but I was beginning to come unglued on Friday night. I carry a few tabs of Clonazepam with me wherever I go, and that was a rare night I dipped into my stash.

My dog sitter friend’s flight back to Anchorage was canceled Saturday evening and she ended up staying an extra night; I slept most of yesterday, and only woke up to build my P&L for rental season, update my Airbnb listing and create invoices for my winter tenant, including a $500 cleaning bill, which probably should have been more. My big-ticket maintenance jobs are fresh in my mind and I’ve already started scheduling for next spring/summer. She had a great time here and may come back and stay if I end up going to Jordan in September, so that rules.

I am a control freak (shocker) and am not in love with the idea of managing this vacation rental from afar, but I am also curious enough to try. This will probably be my last short-term rental season for awhile, as the winter leasee wants it full time year round moving forward. It was pretty hard to rush out of there and say goodbye to the place once it was finally clean, but I accomplished a lot in a very short period of time. All the items I had swapped between houses and made it back here safely, I am fully unpacked and I suppose I have no choice but to go back to work tomorrow.

The rest of this month is going to be pretty hectic, but I have quite a few bonus days off work. I’m a little sad to be back here, but I wouldn’t have been much happier up there slaloming through tour buses on the highway for the next few months. On the other hand, I am eternally grateful to have two beautiful homes (Denver is a rental, but inside it’s very “me”). On that note, the end.

Bloom

I rolled back into Denver at 4:30pm yesterday after driving nearly 1,800 miles in 2 days. My father has told me in the past to not drive more than 600 miles in a day: it’s “too much.” The internet tells me it’s “not safe” to drive over 500 miles/8 hours in a day. fujiThe route from Myrtle Beach to Denver is 1,745 miles, and it would’ve been feasible to clock 1000 instead of 900, but 1000 is probably my limit. It’s not easy, but it’s doable. I realized on the way home I think I like these trips because (a) I love to plan, and the logistics of travel can be challenging, and (b) I am extremely goal oriented. Long drives require discipline and grit. 900+ miles in a day requires determination. I have all of those things, and I love to suffer to test my own endurance. I’d go so far as to say that’s why I’m here, in my life, in Colorado, in good health, why I haven’t crawled into a hole with booze or pills or God knows what else. Determination is also helpful in avoiding the descent into a homicidal rampage at the ineptitude of other drivers, who clearly have not heard of cruise control, and love to chill in the left lane driving under the speed limit.

The drive out, at least day one, was grim. I hate, hate, hate driving through farmland. Research indicates that humans experience a primitive appreciation for rolling hills: long a symbol of prosperity and sustenance. Me, I fucking can’t stand endless cows, I hate farmland, and driving through the pastures, wheat fields and cornfields of Kansas and Nebraska makes me want to slit my wrists. The smell of the big cattle and pig farms is overwhelming. There is no worse place to drive through than the “heartland”, although I lol’d a few times at the enormous Jesusy billboards (“Shackled to lust? Jesus saves”). You had better believe that enough years looking at fields of absolutely nothing, you’re going to need Jesus in your life. You’re going to need SOMETHING. The second day, through endless interchanges, weaving through traffic as I approached the East Coast, was better. I’d take hours of traffic and 6-lane highways over Kansas any day. It’s particularly amazing, the extent to which the pandemic has pushed people into previously pretty rural places: Tennessee. Missouri. The Great Smoky Mountains area, which used to be very sleepy and beautiful, is now just inundated with people. Goddamn city people.

Driving is also good reflection time for me, but it sucks when you’re a perfectionist and ruminate over how much you aren’t up to your own impossible standards: fresh off the annual convention in Vegas, I spent most of the day beating myself up for being so different from everyone else, for being so overwhelmed by 3,000 hotel partners and probably 1,000 employees and struggling to stay present in so many iterations of pleasantries and small talk. After three gin & sodas one night, I told my boss I don’t plan to stay in this job for any longer than it takes me to master it. While this seems like a stupid thing to tell your supervisor, my company is pretty devoted to helping people who have put in their time find somewhere better suited to their strengths. It will take time; I am in no rush and I need to feel confident I’m good at every aspect of this job before I leave. I explained this to him. Having descended from Carpathian coal miners, I wonder when things changed in the world – when it became a right to have a job you like. In any case, I refuse to move on until I feel content in my own performance. Again, determination, and a love for suffering. My entire focus in my life has been range, and I shared the famous Heinlein quote with my team when I first started:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I have no desire to be exemplary at any one thing; I am interested in improving in many areas of my life where I lack natural talent and/or ability. That single desire has remained a theme throughout my entire adult life. I continuously jump head-first into things I know I will have to struggle to learn and ultimately master, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s no better feeling than realizing you’ve become good at something you sucked at, or knew nothing about, and that extends to everything. People live their entire lives in the comfort of what they know, what they can excel at easily, I have never been able to live that way. It gives me nothing.

On paper I’d call this trip a wash – mbI only took Friday off after failing to swim M-Thu (riptides, rain and other trash weather disrupted my plans), and Friday was windy and cloudy, but I did end up in the ocean, thankfully. I had the mornings to myself (in EST, working on MST), and I loved chilling on the balcony reading: I finished four books (more on that in my next post), and got enough down-time to sustain me for awhile. I went out there to swim as much as possible, as whatever micro-creepy crawlies the ocean has to offer do wonders for my skin, but I loved my time down there anyway and I’m grateful to have access to a beachfront condo to visit any time I please. One of the two happiest moments of my life was as a young kid, lying awake on a twin bed in my grandparents’ house on Long Beach Island while my sister slept in the bed next to me, smelling the bay breeze waft in through the windows and thinking to myself, “let me hold onto this.” Even as a kid I knew life was fleeting, years pass in an instant. Every time I’ve eaten an oyster in its salty water or walked out onto a dock in Alaska I’ve remembered those nights, gratefully awake, the smell of the sea.

My other happiest memory was pulling out of the driveway of my parents’ house to leave for Alaska, and for these reasons I wonder often if the best years, and best moments, are behind me. I wonder if my hopes and dreams have already actualized, and I wonder what’s left that will fulfill me. Conversely, it’s all I’ve experienced in my life that allows me the freedom to be happy to bite the dust at any time, with no regrets. I’ve chased a lot of dreams and done what I’ve loved. I’ve sacrificed a lot: life is full of trade-offs. But in giving up Alaska and returning to the lower 48, I feel loved and am gradually feeling content in my life despite the mediocrity of the city life and my job. I’m honored to have collected such wonderful people. I can’t say that enough.

After driving BACK through goddamn Kansas, I was even overjoyed to get home, to my beautiful little home, and neighborhood full of huge trees that popped while I was away, and where all the sidewalks were sunny when I left, there are now tunnels of shade, and canopies of leaves I have not lived around in many years. fuji2I think I am fully out of whatever dark place I was trapped in for months, if not longer, feeling hopeless and empty and devoid of any direction, any value, any purpose. I took that trip to remind myself of who I was before the pandemic: a road warrior, a lone wolf, someone who just wanted to be out and immersed in the world, someone who rarely stopped moving, who wanted to see and experience everything. I have unbelievable appreciation for this country, for the different landscapes and people and histories of the different regions, and I have always been so fascinated by how other people live. One of the top pros of moving back down here was to be able to drive anywhere again, and I’m happy I prioritized that for myself: it’s still a huge part of who I am. I’m even grateful, seeing so many cars with blown out tires or broken down on the side of the road, to have a reliable vehicle, and a furry little derp to come along for the ride, and the funds to afford to take such a trip.

It’s taken many months to shake off the stress and sadness of the last two years. I worked really hard to do whatever I could to limit anxiety, afraid to trigger an existing or new autoimmune flare, or spend months shaking, insomniac, heart palpitating. I finally went in for a physical today in order to get a new primary care physician on the books here: I picked a guy with a Slavic last name (I thought he was Ukrainian, but he’s Polish, though I suspect he’s from Galicia by the spelling of his name); these people don’t sugarcoat shit or waste time with pleasantries, and in attempting to find some explanation for my heat syncope and my weird but rare hypoglycemic reactions, I was told I was simply dealt a bad hand, and to stop searching for answers and live my life. I have a drunk immune system, and it is what it is, so if something doesn’t work, or makes me sick, stop doing it. The end.

He’s not wrong; I wish I could amass a bit more information to further help myself live as healthily as possible (and continue my familial tradition of living past 90). He then referred me to an immunologist, I then asked him to reconcile telling me that doctors don’t understand autoimmunity with the recommendation to see a specialist, and he told me more insight is better than less, so fair enough. I appreciate his honesty, and I think I’m doing well given my losing the genetic lottery in my family and sprouting more autoimmune issues as I go through life. All to say, it’s easy to look at someone and say they’re lucky: I’ve busted my ass for every day I wake up feeling good. I work hard to compensate for extra annoying hurdles, and I’m doing quite well all said and done.

Life has checked me these past few years: self-care is a thing. Boundaries are a thing. PTO is a thing. Gratitude is a thing, but that has come more naturally to me than to others. It’s amazing the damage people can do to one another, toxicity can crush someone emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically, and I’ve learned some hard lessons over the past few years of my life. I wonder if the stubborn determination that has propelled me through life will ever be noteworthy to anyone but me, if anyone will ever scratch the surface of understanding what I have put myself through to be the person I am, but I at least think I am back in a place where I feel good about myself, where I am, my value in relation to myself and others, and all it took was months/years of struggle, moving across the country, crushing despair and hopelessness, and a 3500 mile drive. It took kindness and love from countless friends I’m grateful to have held onto throughout my many years in the hinterland, my sparse visits, e-mails, Zoom calls, all bringing me to this place and time where despite it all, the pandemic, the tragedy, the misfortune, the flakiness of people, I still can put my paltry struggles in a box and appreciate the world around me and the people who have traveled with me in time, and are still here.

The end.

April Showers

April has flown by. Time is moving much more quickly these days; my weekends have been spent primarily with visitors, events and local adventures, and I seem to careen pretty rapidly through the workweek now that I have my schedule nailed down. There’s a beautiful lake up the street from my house and I’ve loved walking the dog around it in the evenings, spotting so many birds I haven’t seen in years. lakeThe nicest things about moving back down here have been the small pleasures: how comfortable the weather is, the herons and cormorants, the constant sunshine, even the wind. I still would put sitting outside in the sun with a book and slamming cocktails as among my top 5 favorite things to do; my house is comfortable, my neighborhood is quiet, Fuji is happy. My gym routine is working out well for me, and I’ve got 4lbs more to shave off before I hit my target range. I still feel pangs of… something, when I think about what I left to be here, and what those things meant to me over a decade of my life. Alas, it could all be a lot shittier here, and it’s not. I spent $100 on a set of baller wind chimes that I can hear from inside and you’d think it’d take a lot more to make someone happy in the moment. Not so.

fujiIt seems that it was a long time ago I was thinking about driving to South Carolina, and flying back up to AK, and those trips are coming up fast. I still feel a deep sense of ‘what’s next?’ in my life, but it’s slowly dissipating as I ramp up socially and make more plans. I moved here, more than anything else, to be closer to people, to see familiar faces more often, to have more people to talk to, and I have in 4 months managed to turn that into a pretty excellent reality. Maybe it’s OK to not know what the future holds. Maybe things just need to not be lonely and depressing af first. Everything was so epically beautiful where I was (this is not ‘the grass is always greener’ rationale, because a lot of things sucked up there) – but in returning to the lower 48, I’ve become a willing participant in a kind of lifestyle I hate: 9-5, commute to the office, etc. This is not my long-term plan. I do not want this kind of life with any kind of permanence. I am making the best of it, for now.

I met up with a former boss earlier in the month and once again cried in public (this dude has a special talent for making me weepy in absolutely inconvenient situations), but he ended up sending me a book called Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents that gave some more concise explanation to this prevailing feeling that I am always alone, and I have no one to blame but myself. It’s a special kind of frustration to realize that despite many years of therapy you’re still fucked up, but somehow reading that book allowed me to add some context and to address some phantom threads of some of my core feelings and how I (often fail to) relate to the world around me. I’ve channeled some effort into building more training modules for work, specifically around curiosity and assertiveness and what they’re worth in terms of character traits, so I still don’t love my job, but I don’t hate it as much as I did in the beginning. I still sometimes feel like I am required to insert myself into a clique, which has pushed me more than once to start looking for other opportunities. I’m hard-wired to struggle through things and I committed to a year in this role, so I shan’t be giving up for now. I’ve received pretty glowing reviews from above and below, but if you asked me if I truly enjoyed this role, my answer would be mostly no.

Today and tomorrow are the calm before the storm this week, and early Wednesday I fly to Vegas for 37 hours for our annual convention. I have done my best to avoid attending over the years as it’s all just way too much for me in terms of fervent partying and drinking and the militant networking makes me cringe, but I decided to suck it up and go this year, though I will sneak out after my “look pretty and talk to people” responsibilities are over to hit a dive bar with a friend, preferably far away from my coworkers. I am departing a bit earlier than others to get back here, swap my luggage, throw the dog in the car and drive to Myrtle Beach via Kansas City & Nashville. This drive will suck in terms of scenery: driving through Kansas especially is the absolute worst (tied for #1 most visually boring US state with Nebraska), endless flat blandness, but I’m stocked up on podcasts and audiobooks and driving has always been a sort of meditation time for me, so I think it will do me good. The stairmill, planes and long drives are periods I deconstruct my life and process large swathes of information, so I think this is long overdue.

I am sure it will be bizarre to be crossing state lines; I’ve wondered many times how living in AK imprinted so heavily onto my life that everything afterwards has felt so unreal, but I think a lot of it is that I never thought I’d leave and I still feel some skepticism about being back down here. I told my mother a few weeks ago that while most people spend their 20s-30s finding a partner and settling down and I spent mine hurtling around in small planes, driving every dirt road in Alaska and vacationing in the Eastern Bloc, I’ve arrived in my late 30s as a single person with a particular richness of experience that sometimes makes it difficult for me to garner as much deep understanding/connection from others. This will be a lifelong challenge, and it will only grow as I become a weirder and weirder individual. I don’t feel better than anyone, but I do feel very different in many ways and the further you deviate from the mean, the harder it is to find multiple points of common ground.

I have, however, surprised myself once again in my ability to collect/attract good people.FB_IMG_1651417969249 I showed up here barely knowing anyone, and I’m charmed by how many solid people I’ve already collected, not to mention the many people who have already stopped in to spend time. My former roommate’s coworker relocated to Denver as well, shortly after I did, and we’ve been spending Sundays drinking Bloody Marys in my yard and I’m grateful one of my favorite people managed to gift me another quality friend.  I hosted a small-ish house party on Saturday to get to know some of the local metalheads, I’ve had a number of work and personal-life visitors, including my sister and her husband, and a close friend from the Catskills. Juan came in for the Amorphis show, a long-time friend from Albany is flying out for our other friend’s band’s show over Memorial Day weekend. There are many great bands coming through, and I love that aspect of being back down here.

sarah_mikeMy social life overall is pretty full… I cannot complain. I even have really enjoyed getting closer to the Ukrainian on my team, and we are navigating the fine line between professional and personal relationships. Before I know it, it’ll be July, I’ll be packing for Europe, and maybe… just maybe… this whole depressing pandemic ordeal is mostly over, and I’ve emerged from this pretty dark, fucked up period of my life. I even caught up on WhatsApp with some people we met last time we were in Georgia and we’ll be meeting up for drinks in Tbilisi. For a pretty introverted, private person, I somehow manage to connect deeply with certain people and keep them around for years. I don’t know why people go out of their way for me, or remember me, or put in the work, but I am always grateful and feel a lot of love in the social sphere after all this time. So thank you all.

I’ve forgotten how to pack multiple bags at once and string complex itineraries together, so I’m crossing my fingers for the muscle memory to return. It’s inconceivable to me that, before the pandemic, that was my lifestyle, and everything just stopped for a long time. baroloI’m signing over my condo to the heli-ski company full-time as of October, so this may be the first and last summer of remote coordinating vacation rentals. Depending on how my June trip shakes out, I may go back up there again before the end of the summer… we’ll see. I’m torn; I want to go to Jordan, I’d also really like to make an appearance in Sarajevo as it’s been a hot minute, so we’ll see. I’ve had some epic food adventures here in town over the months, and many more places to hit up, but all in good time.

I wrapped up two work books this past month for training/presentations: Never Split the Difference, which was awesome, and Cracking the Curiosity Code, which was also OK (the latter was more of a refresher, it’s very hard to turn this stuff into teachable content, so I have to spend long periods of time how to distill applicable pieces to convey to large groups.

I also finished re-reading (listening to, rather) The Gulag Archipelago: Vol I, which I’ve been chipping away at for a long time; I first read it when I was in high school. I can’t stand the audiobook reader’s voice, which is unfortunate as he also did Vol II and III. Gulag Archipelago is so twisted that it actually makes me laugh (I think I owe this to Solzhenitsyn’s dark sense of humor and sarcasm). This should really be required reading in high schools; I believe it is in some countries, sadly not the US. These books have helped me so many ways, they’ve added so much context and a sense of fortitude, they’ve helped me put my own bullshit in perspective. I remember reading Kolyma Tales as a kid and being amazed at just how tough humans can be, what they can survive.

I also finally read Vasily Grossman’s Forever Flowing, and I’m taking my hard copy of Life and Fate to Myrtle (what better place to read Soviet / WWII history than on a sunny beach?) Forever Flowing is incredible, another must-read, so fucking grim and depressing. There are some really beautiful passages I won’t soon forget:

He went through the Hermitage–to find that it left him cold and indifferent.  It was unbearable to think that those paintings had remained as beautiful as ever during the years in camp which has transformed him into a prematurely old man.  Why hadn’t the faces of the madonnas grown old too, and why hadn’t their eyes been blinded with tears?  Was not their immortality their failure rather than their strength?  Did not their changelessness reveal a betrayal by art of the humanity which had created it?

On that note, I’ll wrap this up. We are already into another month: Picketty’s new book is on my list, plus Douglas Murray’s War on the West (his interview on Rogan was excellent). I’m still not reading as much as I’d like, but I’m getting there.

Life at 5279′

It’s been a strange but productive month here. While it’s a daily struggle to not be consumed by Russia’s savagery, I am gradually acclimating to my new life. General excitement to be here is not a byproduct of this acclimation, and I won’t lie and say I love this job, but I certainly don’t hate my core responsibilities, and my team is slayin’ it. I believe in the long run, what will keep me here for however long I remain will be loyalty and devotion to my team, and it will have to offset the many, many frustrations in the leadership space. At this juncture, the return of my actual supervisor in two weeks will either help me or nothing will change, and I will start surveying the market at the end of the year/beginning of 2023.

I do believe this transition has cemented the idea that people can only lean into discomfort to a certain degree before the frustrations outweigh the gains; ultimately I am a person who wants to fix things and drive efficiency, and based on what I’ve seen thus far, I do not think I am a good fit for the org I am presently in, as there is far too much duplication and unnecessary busy-work. People want to own projects and rubber-stamp initiatives even if they make no sense, and I think this desire in other leaders will remain an uphill battle for me. It’s unfortunate, as I love my team and their ambition and hunger to learn and succeed are highly enjoyable for me, but I sometimes feel an undercurrent of tension in my peer group. I have found a sense of reward in helping people grow and “round out.”

I’m definitely not the world’s most agreeable person, and one of my primary strengths is this: it’s fairly easy for me to see whether an idea is going to work or not, and as a result one of my informal responsibilities is to address processes that do not work, to find more efficient ways to do things, to push back on things we do that we just do because we’ve always done them that way; that’s fine until you realize you’re trampling on someone else’s idea, and pushing back in general doesn’t make you many friends in the long run. So I’m in a weird place. While I don’t care on a personal level whether people like me, I do need general cooperation and goodwill to get things done, and I wish I didn’t feel like I was caught between doing my job and trying to smooth out the tension that sometimes creates. I’ve never been married to my ideas: I have far more curiosity than sense of ego, which is somewhat atypical. I believed up to this point that it was a function of maturity, but it doesn’t seem that is the case. So coming in as a new person shaking up a bunch of shit doesn’t exactly make me everyone’s favorite.

I spent a long time this past weekend on the phone with a long-time mentor of mine who works at Google. He is East German (thus very rational and level-headed), and has a pretty good understanding of me after all these years: the advice I received is that it’s on me to bend to the group, as cognitive flexibility is based in brain chemistry, not personality, and if I want things to be better I’ll have to use my overabundance of that particular trait. I’m torn; I have spent many years leaning into what I suck at in order to improve, but I will reach a point in the not-so-distant future where I no longer want to sacrifice my own personality to get along with everyone else. I am surprised by the sometimes even petty feelings in the leadership space; surprised, and disappointed. People usually stay in their lanes in terms of strength and competence, I’ve always wanted to chip away at my flaws and get better at things that are outside the bounds of what I’m naturally good at, and as a result I end up having to try harder in some ways than others. I force myself to adjust to suit a job so that I can develop broader range in abilities, but it may eventually be time to find a job that suits me. Additionally, I am intuitive, and also hard on myself, so I am aware of what’s happening around me and how people feel about me – and I beat myself up for it.

On a positive note, one thing that’s surprised me as time has gone on is that my direct communication style seems to be deeply appreciated by my team: I continuously check on this, and am told to keep doing what I’m doing, as I quickly course-correct people if they veer off-course, and there is a lot of accountability and expectations are clear. I went so far as to tell someone crying in a Zoom call that she needs to get it together, and if she allows complete strangers this much influence over her feelings, she will be miserable daily. She thanked me for this, which was insane to me. I did not expect this level of acceptance, but I am really pleased, and it’s at least given me some small sense of validation. I may not be the friendliest, most empathetic person on earth, but my curiosity and individualization have helped to compensate. I also continually use my position to knock down barriers for them, which is an expectation, but also helps them feel insulated from additional bullshit.

In any case, next week we return to offices on our hybrid model, which to my team means 2 collaboration days in the office. This is another initiative I’m on the fence about, and I’m unsure of why “50% of the time in the office” is top-down and applies to all teams. I would go so far as to say I believe the days of office-based work are largely behind us, and it’s only a matter of time before they begin closing (more) regional offices. Being together benefits my team, but ultimately when they reach the appropriate level of competence, I’m not sure what difference it makes where they work from. It took me some time to decide whether I would want to take the bus or drive, and driving takes 10 minutes versus ~45 to/from/on the bus, so I will be paying for parking for the time being. You can always make more money… you can’t make more time.

Weekdays are sometimes quite brutal, whether I’m home or in the office: by the time 5-6pm rolls around and I’m done, I have a drink and am regularly too tired to do much else with my life. Since my unfortunate salmonella episode last October, I’ve become accustomed to sleeping on a heating pad, so usually around 8-9pm I crawl into bed to read. Is this how life is supposed to be? Is this how normal people live? Fuck. I had intended to go see Leprous last night, but I’ve been feeling severe exhaustion for the past few days, and didn’t want to risk driving myself further into the ground immediately before my sister arrives. I took tomorrow off: the dog has a vet appointment, I need to hit the gym, I have a bunch of errands to run and need to clean/prep for their visit. That’s what a “sick day” means to me, and why I still get a C+ at best in this mystical thing I’ve slowly been painstakingly learning called ‘self care.’

I’ve been getting out a bit more. mtpMy work bestie came out from LA last week and I took two mid-week days off (this is only feasible with appropriate notice). We went out to Indian Hot Springs, which was a shit-show in the main pool, similar to my experience at Mt. Princeton, but I rented a private jacuzzi for us, so that was pretty great. I’m not sure why I end up investigating these hot springs in the first place, as I don’t love hot tubs or hot water in general and am prone to rapid overheating, but it’s been interesting to see what’s here in that vein.

We started the next day at the gym (God bless gay men, who want to work out on their vacations), boulder_dushanbethen went to Boulder. Boulder has a unique tea house that was shipped here in pieces from Tajikistan, and I was grateful to see it survived COVID. The inside is absolutely beautiful, and the food is amazing. Their tea menu, predictably, is also excellent. lambWe then met another work friend back in Denver at a Spanish place I’ve heard everyone rant and rave about, which was OK. I am sure there are better Spanish places here than that one.

I had planned to try a Northern Italian restaurant I had heard a lot about last weekend, but my plans fell through and I ended up discovering an awesome Australian grill. I finished three books over the weekend as well, so I was pretty pleased. My gym routine has vastly improved, and I’ve enjoyed many afternoons just sitting in the sun reading on my back patio. Before my friend from LA arrived, I had laser therapy on my face, so I looked like toasted shit all last week, but I’ve healed up pretty well and am pleased (again) with the results. While I refuse to brush my hair or wear makeup, skincare has been a priority for me, and laser technology is pretty incredible for zapping imperfections. It is also quite painful.

I had plans to take a week of PTO to spend in Myrtle Beach, but those have been foiled by having to attend our annual conference. This is another area I need to improve in: taking ample time away. I have no extended PTO until I head out in the end of July. I’m heading back to Alaska for a week in June, but doing home repairs doesn’t necessarily equate to vacation. And I will go to Myrtle after our convention… but I will work from there. I’m also considering earmarking a week to go to Jordan in October or November. I’ve always wanted to check out the Dead Sea. Why not?

In the meantime, I have quite a few guests and visitors scheduled, including my sister and her husband this weekend; three other upcoming weekends are earmarked for friends, and this has been really nice to see after living so far away for so long. The company and conversation is great for me as much as it stresses me out to plan for other people visiting – once anyone gets here, it’s awesome, and it rips me away from my job. I am really touched that as soon as I got here, so many of my favorite people made plans to come see me… I’m grateful that I have friendships that have survived a decade of living in the Great White North.

With the exception of feeling like shit for the past few days, things are gradually getting easier, at least in terms of what I can expect out of my life at this time. My calendar blocks have worked well to insulate me from being overscheduled, I’ve made time in the past month to find a dermatologist, get the dog her Colorado shots, get back to reading, go to the gym with more frequency. Amorphis is coming next month, which will rule, and while I’ve only hit one show out of three since I’ve arrived, I expect that to be better in the future.

Ultimately I don’t think I’ll have a very exciting life here, there will be no comparison to how I lived most of my years in Alaska, but I’m OK with that for the time being. I’ve begun sprouting seeds for the spring and summer, and in another month they’ll go outside. It was almost 80 this past weekend, which scares me; anything above 90 is difficult to deal with, as I have never had any heat tolerance, so we’ll see if I can get through an entire summer here without heat syncope/smashing my face on the pavement. I’m testing different electrolyte mixtures, and I wish I could find something cheaper that I like as much as Pedialyte AdvancedPlus packets, which cost MINIMUM $1 per packet.

In terms of books, I finally finished my colossal Gorbachev biography, which was excellent, and I want to read his autobiography at some point as well. I knew a fair amount about Gorbachev prior to reading this, but there is a ton of information in that biography and I would highly recommend it. I also picked up a copy of The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives by Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor… I’ve seen this book pop up repeatedly over the years, and while it’s outdated, a lot of his geopolitical opinions were spot on, as well as his forecasts: interestingly, he believed Ukraine would be in NATO long ago, and he underestimated the rise of China – but much of his opining on Central Asia and the Caucasus was (and still is) spot-on. I’m finishing two others this week, one of them has gained some great press: There is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century by Fiona Hill. I’m not far enough into it to really comment on her argument that the US is approaching the same opportunity deficit as Russia (and current events have probably complicated said argument), but it’s interesting so far.

I’m cracking open a few work-related books in April, aftermathbut I am also about to finish an unbelievably interesting book set in Germany immediately following WWII. Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955. I have never read anything like this (I’m actually listening to it, I had a bunch of Audible credits to spend) but it is very unique in its content and I am learning a ton. I consider myself fairly well-versed in WWII, but I have never come across a book on this topic and the glowing reviews are well-deserved.

That’s about it for this month; though I may end up writing more often than once a month… we shall see. April and May will be busy months, but hopefully good ones, as well.

EDIT: I completely skipped one of the highlights of March: attending Jordan Peterson’s talk here in the city. A lot of it resonated with me, particularly his addressing his belief that happiness comes from the attainment of goals. Given that I’m still fairly new here and just uprooted my entire life, and am still figuring out what this looks like, I was somehow comforted by realizing that feeling somewhat lost lately simply comes with the territory. Despite the many deliberate decisions I have made to completely change my own life, I’m at a juncture now where I’m not sure where I’m heading next, and I think that’s OK. I imagine I will feel like this for awhile. In any case, I was thrilled to see him in the flesh, and listen to him speak, and he drew an enamored audience, which was very nice to see.

Slava Ukraini (II)

I had grand visions for the second part of my rambling about Ukraine, but as time drags on, that vision becomes increasingly blurred. Quillette has been publishing some excellent content, particularly an article out today about Russian literature. I’ve shared many of their articles with many people. The US news is minimum 24h behind, and I’ve had better luck with Telegram, Reddit and WhatsApp group texts.

On the positive side, the world has not yet lost interest in this conflict, which absolutely blows my mind. At best I assumed people would care about some faraway country most Americans would be hard-pressed to point out on a map for a maximum of two weeks. The impeccable marketing prowess of the Ukrainians doesn’t hurt their cause; I have never seen advertising and social media used as such a robust component of war in my life. I suspect this skill is a result of two things: 1) a recent history as a democracy and adoption of Western values (and along with it, media) and 2) a lengthy history of exposure to propaganda, which they have used to their benefit as well. Probably an additional element is that the private sector has mobilized to help, Elon Musk finally becoming the savior he has always yearned to be. Of course, there is some imbalance: internet has been unreliable in the East for weeks, so there are a lot of people completely isolated.

The second aspect of their “help us” ad campaign — propaganda experience — is ethically dubious, as it’s questionable to use half-truths even for what we deem as a ‘good’ cause, and if they are caught in deeper lies, it will surely backfire. I further suspect that most Americans with little historical knowledge of this neck of the woods are drawn to the story arc, and the Ukrainians are the underdogs — the heroes fighting off an evil repressor, the David to the Russian Goliath — which is not incorrect, but also is far too simplistic. That story arc resonates deeply with Americans, and as far as that idea is concerned, I’m happy to accept whatever works to keep the West engaged. Another softer source of power here is that there are an awful lot of Ukrainian-Americans: their diaspora is enormous, particularly in the US and Canada. Even so, it’s important to note that a huge factor in how plugged in we are to Ukraine can be linked back to the classic hero’s journey and good vs. evil story arc that has shaped civilization as a whole, and secondarily to our national identity of overcoming our own oppressors during the formation of our own country.

I’ve also seen a lot of woke bullshit about how no one is standing for Yemen, no one stood for Iraqis (not true), no one was issuing sanctions for Afghans (Ethiopia comes to mind as well, though their civil war is not equivalent to Russia’s invasion of a sovereign nation). These vague comparisons are not only ignorant, but patently absurd: Ukrainians have the same values, the reside in Europe, and have been striving to join the West since the fall of the USSR. They have been thwarted repeatedly by Russian-backed leaders and Russia’s threats. A more contentious truth is that they mobilized to fight, where training troops who have been tribally organized for centuries was a constant uphill battle. There is not an Inclusion & Diversity angle here, and it’s annoying to see it so prevalently in the news (Q also featured a great article about this, this past week).

The West has failed to accept the threat of Putin, and Ukraine is paying in blood and guts. That includes America, although Germany shoulders a disproportionate amount of blame, for turning a blind eye to Putin’s agenda and squaring itself up to buy even more energy from Russia. This is a typical Western thing: to hold such a narrow view of the world that it is assumed all people think the same way we do, and possess the same values, and this ignorant approach to existence has backfired in many ways: prior to this war, a good example is the refugee camps that have sprouted up in Sweden particularly, and the shock of European citizens in the face of refugees self-sorting into ghettos and living off the welfare system for generations. This is a huge generalization, of course, but it is a persistent problem in Western countries that have taken tens of thousands of refugees with different cultural norms. By contrast, it is culturally and politically a much smoother transition to accept other people from within Europe who already understand how society works in the West. Finally, for all their Law & Justice bullshit in the past ten years, the Poles have been particularly kind to refugees, despite long-standing disputes over land between the two countries.

Nordstream II was a nail in the coffin of a (relatively) peaceful Ukraine, and Russia using its additional leverage to blast Ukraine into oblivion was predictable. The West also did almost nothing when Putin began chipping off pieces Georgia, followed by Crimea (where Crimean Tatars were all shipped out to Uzbekistan in the 40s and the region was resettled by ethnic Russians) and Donbas. (Meskhetian Turks were deported from Georgia to Uzbekistan in the 40s as well… seeing a theme here?) Watching the laziness and ineptitude of the West over the years has made me unbelievably resentful toward Europe especially; I am sure this has played into my transition from traveling in Western Europe to my primarily traveling to the former Eastern Bloc, Balkans and Caucasus over the past decade+. I had said from the beginning of the Nordstream II construction that once it was up and running, I would never go back to Germany, and that may happen anyway, unless Putin provokes NATO and is subsequently crushed by the West. For years and years, the warnings of Poland, the Baltics and other former Soviet countries has been scorned as “paranoid”… not so much.

The West has also been terrified forever by Russia’s military might, and their power lies only in their nuclear arsenal and their leader’s sociopathic delusion: Russia’s military is a rusted, non-functioning piece of crap, like everything else made in the USSR. Totalitarian regimes capitalize on creating a façade of terrifying might, and they have done that well all these years. The Chechens have done this well too, though the fear they inspire originates in the sheer brutality they exert on innocent civilians. If Kadyrov could bite the dust soon too, that would truly be a gift from God.

What has also surprised and depressed me is the portrait of Zelenskyy as a leader possessing near-superhero status, and I think that says a lot about the low standard of governmental leadership we’ve come to expect. I was ashamed that he was offered an escort out: it cemented even more how goddamn pathetic life has become in terms of politics in the US and Western Europe: it is now assumed you will govern in exile and not stay on the ground with your shelled citizens: you will scurry out and hide. If nothing else comes of this on a domestic level, I hope it’s at least obvious that we should stop electing cowards, that you do not need an Ivy League education and a career in politics shaking hands with the right people to be a leader. That anyone can be brave and courageous, even a comedian-turned-president. I have been long-surprised by the scorn his experience has received, even well before this: Vaclav Havel, one of the most prominent politicians during the fall of the USSR, was a playwright. Courage and integrity are not taught at Yale, nor do they naturally occur in the wealthy or aristocratic. In a world of inequality, those traits are likely evenly distributed.

In some ways, watching this unfold is like living in an advent calendar, waking up every day to a new gift of dissent: separatists from other repressed parts of Russia have joined in the common struggle to knock down the world’s biggest bully. Belorussians, Georgians, Chechens, Dagestanis, Azerbaijanis, Bashkirs from the Urals, not to mention other Eastern Europeans have joined in what is already a proxy war, as much as people do not want to admit it, unified by their common hatred of Russian oppression. The sanctions, the contempt, the shaming of companies still doing business in Russia, the repossessing of oligarch yachts are all music to my ears: in my perfect world, Putin is dead, and whenever that comes to pass in my lifetime, it will be one of the happiest days of my life. Putin is playing the long game that Lenin and particularly Stalin set the groundwork for: where Stalin ripped ethnic minorities out of their ancestral homes to crush their sense of identity, Putin continues to capitalize on this by using the democratic framework to hold elections, in which ethnic Russians vote: hence Crimea voting to break away from Ukraine. This has always troubled the Baltic countries: it’s not paranoia. It’s history and, to be fair, brilliant manipulation of said history to show the West in their own language that Russia stretches beyond its current borders. In that sense, his misstep here is incredible: he clearly chose the echo chamber over history.

None of the good deeds completely cancel out the mistakes the West has made: sheltering oligarchs, buying cheap energy, politicians assuring themselves and their people that this will never come to pass. As much as Putin miscalculated how much we would rally around Ukraine, the West has amassed years if not decades of grave miscalculation that has brought us here. I’ve been alternating between wrapping up my Gorbachev biography with Zbignew Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard and it’s been interesting to see that he projected that by 2010 Ukraine would be a member of NATO and/or the EU, and yet here we are.

The West has failed Ukraine, and I hope we make it right.

That’s all for now. Next post, soon to come, will be a standard one.

Slava Ukraini (I)

Stepping out of my “one post a month” routine, as there is certainly plenty going on in the world to warrant some additional thoughts and words. You wouldn’t necessarily think so in some circles, given Americans’ penchant for whining about gas prices instead of having much geopolitical interest. Considering fewer than 40% of Americans have passports, it’s not entirely surprising.

This statistic used to fill me with scorn for my fellow Americans, although the US is so enormous it’s somewhat easy to find many destinations within our borders before leaving them. I’m not sure if that’s a valid excuse over the term of someone’s entire adult life, though: traveling is often fairly inexpensive and takes courage and more importantly some level of curiosity, which seems to occur at roughly the same rate as passport issuance does in this country. It’s taken some time abroad to realize these things:

  • Americans idolize multilingual people, but most of those people speak multiple languages because they live closer to other countries than we do, or had to learn English secondarily.
  • Western Europeans are not exotic by any means, they can barely function outside of cities, for the most part, and have little survival instinct. Their entire lives are built around civilization: American life is not.
  • Many Europeans are better-traveled than Americans solely due to planes, trains and sharing of borders with multiple other countries.

These are, of course, not excuses to not travel, but when looking at Americans vs Europeans, it’s not exactly apples to apples. That said, I had a minor meltdown yesterday seeing my parents’ friends whining about the cost of gas to drive from one of their homes to the other on Facebook: my mother told me I “need to understand that not everyone is as lucky to be so well traveled,” which is not helpful and also completely absurd. My parents’ friends vacation to Disney and own a second home in a beach community, so that strikes me as more of a personal choice than “luck.” In fact, I did not travel abroad until I was 18, and no one in my family went farther than Canada until I dragged them overseas. The first ten years or so I spent going abroad, I made almost no money (seriously, my paycheck was around $400 a week for my first job out of college). So not being wealthy is not an excuse, especially not all these years later when affordable travel is even more accessible than it was back then.

As for my own good fortune, I totally imploded my first semester in college and happened upon a study abroad program through Harvard, to which I was accepted and subsequently took out a few thousand dollars in student loans to make ends meet overseas in 2003. I stretched my paltry $6,000 pretty far: completed two semesters in Sweden, and also went to Copenhagen, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn, Vilnius, Riga, Warsaw, Prague and Kiev (now Kyiv). I returned multiple times per year, winding my way through Scandi-land, Eastern Europe and Russia, and I never stopped pushing further East.

I enjoyed Scandinavia and spent many, many months there. Sweden is OK… Norway is better. Finland is awesome (I have a tattoo of the view from a cabin window in a birch forest in Karelia on my back), but I became bored with the Nordic area: life in terms of people and culture is too tame, to contained, to orderly. I originally went there as an homage to my mother’s mother, who grew up in Ekerö, in the Stockholm archipelago. We still have family in Stockholm, and we continue to keep in touch to this day. I could talk forever about Scandinavian cultures, and I say cultures because those countries have surprisingly different cultural norms, and I dislike Swedish ones the most. Karl Ove’s My Struggle series actually covers a lot of this, and his observations are perfectly symmetrical to mine. I will return to Iceland sooner than later, and have taken many friends around the island — the rest, probably not. Very yawn.

I knocked out every (other) country in Western Europe except for Greece over the years as well, and most recently I’ve traversed the Balkans and the Caucasus. My plan was to push into Chechnya, Dagestan and the Don region of Russia in late 2022, as that is now delayed for obvious reasons. It occurred to me yesterday that I have spent most of my free time over the past 20 years either in the Far North or among Slavs, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. For a little more context and some indication of how little people change, I’ve spent my entire adolescence and adulthood steeped in Arctic expedition novels/accounts, and Russian literature. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky have kept me company over the years, beginning when I was a teenager. As a kid I was horrified by the Bosnian war, and it gave me a deep disgust and also appreciation for the power of propaganda (essentially the route I took with my undergraduate degree)… that interest is very much alive today, and has motivated me to read probably thousands of books at this juncture about the USSR, the Caucasus, the Eastern bloc, the Balkans, the World Wars.

I’ve mentioned in the past that all of this reading has helped bring these countries to life for me, and there is no better example than being in the Balkans a few years back having read probably 100 books on the region, including all of the folklore and epic poems, including Montenegro’s The Mountain Wreath (I did the same for Finland with The Kalevala, Iceland with their sagas). I was flipping out in the Caucasus having read Tolstoy and Lermontov over the years. I make fast friends abroad, and part of it is because I go in armed with reference material and have taken the time to think about their experiences and the history and folklore that has shaped their countries. Most recently, it was And Quiet Flows the Don that sealed the deal on finally moving Rostov-on-Don up my list, in addition to currently reading a lengthy biography of Gorbachev, which makes me want to visit Stravropol. They are not far apart.

I have always so deeply loved the disarray of Eastern Europe, and the nostalgia I feel there, especially when it comes to food, decor and culture; I remember blogging years ago about the way Prague was beginning to look like any other Western European capital, which I found troubling, as it’s traded some of its Eastern Bloc character for the prosperity of department store billboards and too many H&Ms and magnet vendors. Life is a series of trade-offs: Prague was an epicenter of resistance from the Prague Spring to the Velvet Revolution, I hope it retains its importance in terms of struggling to break free of the USSR (I’m too lazy to link all of these references, but Wikipedia has all the answers).

I’ve persuaded many friends over the years to head to these glorious countries, and they’ve all hopped on board as well. Some countries are more frequented than others, namely the Baltic countries and Poland. Bulgaria and Romania less-so, though we had a blast in Bulgaria years ago and the Carpathian wooden villages and Transylvania are worth a trip to Romania. I’ve been pleased to hear my friends are enjoying Riga, Bucharest and Dubrovnik over the years rather than toiling in line at the Louvre.

Which brings me to Ukraine, an unfortunately non-EU country that has been fighting for its right to exist peacefully for longer than people realize. Ukraine is particularly interesting, even for Eastern Europe: it resides at a convergence of cultures between Europe and Russia; settled by Vikings en route to Byzantium, who blended with Slavic tribes and the Kievan Rus was born. The area has been partitioned, crushed, rebuilt, trampled, starved, collectivized and been reborn as independent over the last few hundred years. Despite what you see on the news, Ukraine has rarely been unified as a country throughout time: particularly over the last 100 years, parts of it fell under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then the USSR. The country is split in religion as well, with swathes of Western Ukraine belonging to the Eastern Rite Catholic Church (aka Greek Catholic aka Byzantine Catholic Church) and the rest being Ukrainian Orthodox (which also split off from the Russian Orthodox church recently, not without a fight from Putin). This country has been home to Crimean Tatars, Cossacks, Carpatho-Rusyns, Volga Germans, Russians, Jews and many others. It is home to three particularly historically significant and completely contrasting cities: Kiev, the ancestral home of Ukraine and the Kievan Rus; Lviv, the Byzantine Catholic center of the Carpatho-Rusyns and capital of the old provinces of Galicia and Volhynia; and Odessa, on the Black Sea coast, home to many Crimean Tatars, Jews, Greeks, Bulgarians and others. Ukraine also has black soil, and as we (maybe) all learn in Elementary School, it is the “bread basket” of Europe. The land is extremely fertile; it is worth invading for its natural spoils. And it has been.

Worth noting perhaps that my grandmother is Lithuanian, and my grandfather was Carpatho-Rusyn. My father grew up speaking Lithuanian in heavily-Slavic Northeastern PA, and my family went to Byzantine Catholic Church; my deceased family members are all buried in a Byzantine Catholic cemetery. These were curiosities to me as a kid, and I only really began digging into our history when I was in my 20s. While I find Scranton to be bleak and ugly, I admire its roots, and how much it’s kept alive even to this day: so much so that when I moved to Alaska, I was horrified that I could not find the food I grew up eating, as even as an adult I thought it existed more commonly everywhere. My grandfather died when I was in college, but I wanted to track down our entire family history before my grandmother died (she is still alive, gratefully). I found a Carpatho-Rusyn scholar who assisted me in putting my records together, and like anyone who came over from that part of the world, our records are a wreck: my grandfather’s family all came from Lviv Oblast, but it says Czechoslovakia on our documents (many Carpatho-Rusyns ended up in modern-day Slovakia after borders were redrawn). Our name was Americanized, yet still manages to confuse people. I don’t know if I believe in being “proud” of your heritage, as you do nothing to earn what you get, but I do know that as an adult I cherish my multifaceted childhood: I had one grandmother who spoke Swedish, one who spoke Lithuanian, my siblings and I went to Lutheran, Byzantine & Roman Catholic mass, as well as Ukrainian Orthodox church, and the town I went to high school in was and still is heavily Jewish, with a lot of Hasidic Jews at that, who live (mostly) peacefully alongside everyone else (the Catskills were actually called the Jewish Alps at one point in time). My parents are also members of two different political groups, so I’d like to think that’s contributed to me growing into a fairly open-minded person.

All this to say we have roots in this part of the world, though arguably my love and admiration has more weight: though admittedly if Putin had invaded Latvia I would be equivalently enraged. My loyalty lies with the Eastern bloc and the Caucasus, some, like Chechnya, which have yet to break free of Soviet shackles. I often feel more alignment with this part of the world than I do with my own country full of countless spoiled idiots, and I have little intention of living out the rest of my life in the US: for the most part I’m here for the higher base salary and tax benefits of being an American, and if I hear one more person bitch about gas prices I’m going to accelerate my plans to disappear permanently. I don’t know that my own heritage has anything to do with anything beyond what growing up in that culture gave me in terms of familiarity with Slavic countries. I’ve spent my whole life reading about their tortured history under the Soviet Union. It is probably one of my most significant obsessions, and has been from the beginning.

I’ll skip the part where I yap about Ukraine and how it has changed before my eyes in the past 20 years: it seems disingenuous, and I’ve spent a shitload of time in all of these countries except Belarus (my choice). But what is happening here and now in the world is unbelievable in many ways.

What I told people prior to this invasion is that Ukraine will never roll over, Slavs always go down swinging, and I have not been wrong. During the Holodomor in the 1930s, Stalin starved over 7m Ukrainians to death during collectivization. Ukrainian Jews died in droves during the second World War, most famously in Babi Yar. The Western part of the country has been home to resistance movements since that time, particularly the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, and Russian forces have gotten nowhere near Lviv yet. Ukraine’s Maidan revolution in 2014 was a clear cultural end of their time as a Russian satellite, and they have paid dearly for it over the years while the west has done absolutely nothing.

I’m not sure where to go from here, as I never plan these blog posts and I just let them take me on whatever inspired tangent I wish. That said, I’ve run out of steam today and this all means a lot to me, so I’m going to post this with a “stay tuned.” I’ve laid a foundation of love and respect for these unbelievable people, and a very brief history of Ukraine. Next up, how the world reacted.

I haven’t said much about this to most people outside a few close friends and a Ukrainian from Transnistria I manage (I have a Russian starting on my team in a week as well); I also have a group of friends who live in Kharkiv, Odessa and Kyiv, and none of them have any intention of leaving their country, so if you’re into prayers, say a few for them: they are as of today all still alive and staunchly remaining in Ukraine (my friends in Kharkiv have relocated to Lviv for the time being). Odessa is next up on the shelling list. Fuck Putin, to be continued.