April into May: Great Expectations

T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land that April is the cruellest month, but I beg to differ. April 2021 has been pretty good to me. I landed back in Anchorage at 2am on Sunday after two weeks in the Northeast, suitcase chock full of crap I can’t buy here, feeling like a million bucks after seeing my friends and family for the first time in 1.5 and 2 years, respectively. catskillsI had really only gone back because I was concerned about my parents’ mental and physical health and wanted to check in on my people — most of my loved ones live in the Tri-State area, and months sitting here by myself left a void of conversation, advice and moral support. That void is now overflowing and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to get back there, despite the shitty weather (rain, snow, hail, the typical schizophrenic Northeast trifecta).

I wish I had same the sense of community and the loving friendships here in Alaska, but for the most part I don’t; I’m not sure what that means for the rest of my life, but I’m glad I have that depth somewhere, even 4,000 miles away. I always come back from that time back reminded of how valuable I am to people and how much people care for me, and that was a sentiment that has been lacking up here during a long winter of COVID solitude.

While I was in Albany, NY seeing friends, I drove past the hotel where a live-in boyfriend in my 20s had rendezvoused with escorts while I was visiting my sister in Florida… I’ve reflected many times on how that was a turning point in my life, because after the shock of that event it became apparent to me that it’s more fruitful to channel negativity into personal progress. And while I sometimes regret that I lacked (and still lack) the spite to have fully humiliated that guy at the time and ruined his reputation, I had enough foresight even in my 20s to play the long game: I decided to get hotter. And happier. And broaden my horizons. I started taking really long hikes with my dogs, I read more, I deepened my friendships by hosting amazing dinner parties with friends I will never forget (the friends and the dinners). I felt so awesome in almost no time.

Since then, over the last decade+, there have been many times I’ve felt hurt or angry… I’d even throw in depressed and aimless in a few instances. And every time I’ve reminded myself that living well is the best revenge. It takes a particular kind of person to be hurt and to pay him- or herself back positively.

The last 6 months have hurt me in many ways. Some people have let me down. I’ve been lonely, and sometimes devoid of the kinds of deep conversations I have always needed, about life, and purpose. I’ve realized I won’t get some things I want; I’ve realized some things I hoped would change never will. I’ve realized my job is even more a means to an end than I had accepted previously, and that I’ve sacrificed more to live here than I initially had expected.

COVID has also made me ruthless in a way that’s been difficult to wrap my head around: being here alone for so long and forcing myself to make the best of it has shown me how intolerant I find people who do nothing to better themselves, and how unsatisfying it is to interact with people who do not care to learn and grow as human beings. I’ve missed the experience of being pushed by my loved ones to improve, to broaden and fine-tune my opinions, to feel as though figuring out what life is all about is a shared experience instead of something that happens to us all. I’ve noticed over the past months that many people say they’ll do things and don’t; that destructive habits die hard and there has to be some kind of catalyst for a lot of people that drops on them like a ton of bricks before they choose to propel themselves forward, if they choose that at all. Even in the weeks before I went back to NY, still struggling to shake off some of the morbidity of the winter, I upped my fitness goals and dropped another 8 lbs; I ate really clean and drank very little; I got a lot of things done. I slept well. I was overjoyed to get back there and see many of my other close people had changed their lives for the better, despite the headwinds of the pandemic: my parents are back at the gym, and are happy, and feeling better. My friends all prospered in a variety of ways, and it made me look back at some of the people in my life up here and realize that the only gains made during COVID in their lives has been amassing more financial wealth. Otherwise, progress of any kind is nil.

My mentor at Google used to always tell me I needed to find “my people,” and I struggled with this idea. I have always been torn between many different worlds, but I think I finally realize the kind of people I want to be “my people,” and they’ve always been there: people who turn lemons into lemonade, as the saying goes, and persevere through dimensions of bullshit to come out the other end as better individuals, richer in character and self-awareness. When I visit my friends in New York, their homes and lives are so filled with the warmth of love and confidence… it always reminds me of what my priorities are. It reminds me that a long time ago I chose to take a path to be a better, more versatile, decent human over solely focusing on financial success, and it reminds me that especially recently, I’ve chosen to only associate with people on a similar path. “My people” aim for progress.

Jordan Peterson podcasts have also really helped me, and while most of his ideas are familiar, it’s helped me to putter around my house and listen to him talk through things that are important to me. I’m not discounting financial security — and that’s been even more of a concern to me lately — but money isn’t everything.

I don’t have much in terms of books for this month: I finished Hyperion and my audiobook buddy wants to complete the series, so I’ll be starting on The Fall of Hyperion in a few days. I can’t say I’m in love with this level of dorky science fiction, but the series is so revered and there are so many references back to it I’m noticing (even in modern life) that it’s worth the time. While I’m juggling many things this month in preparation for summer, I do hope to finish 2-3 other books this month as well.

The weather is warmer and the snow is melting fast up here… yesterday was my first sunny evening out on my back patio. There’s a lot to be done to prepare this house and my other house for the next 3-4 months, which will be filled with a lot of friends, family, hikes, road trips and oysters. I’m also dropping in on some friends in LA and Idaho later this month, so despite all the monotony of being here for months, there’s a lot to look forward to.

Comping over COVID-19: March

Amusingly enough, one day after my personal campaign to catch a leftover shot commenced, I received a call from a little hole-in-the-wall clinic down the street from my house, and on March 2, I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine. I’m relieved to have managed to grab an mRNA vaccine; the mRNA vaccines seem to be the least risky with regard to autoimmune bullshit.

There are risks, of course, anyway, and there are a lot of unknowns; I received my second dose on Tuesday at 10am; by midnight or so, I woke up in the fetal position, teeth chattering under my heavy down comforter. A few hours later I woke up marinating in my own sweat (I preemptively slept on a towel… wise choice). The next day I remembered how much the flu can suck… I thought, many years ago, that people who had the flu were being giant babies: then I got it, one year in New York, and could barely walk (I actually fell down the concrete stairs trying to take my dog out when my legs decided to mutiny). I woke up every morning in a puddle of sweat. The flu is awful. The reaction to the second shot is more like a bad drug trip: you know it’s ending sooner than later and just have to ride it out. Wednesday I was completely useless; I’m glad I took a sick day.

But, that has passed. And a week from now I’ll be home for two weeks to see friends and family, so what I said about getting an earlier shot not influencing my plans turned out to not be true: I need to check in on my parents, see my sister, and I deeply miss my friends in NY. I can’t wait for all of those things (and Marshall’s, and Aldi, and Wegmans, and we’re even dipping into the Jersey Shore for a night). I further booked a long weekend in LA with my work husband in May, and Memorial Day weekend with one of my bffs who moved to Idaho last summer. Maybe… just maybe… my life will feel a little more normal. I’d like to get a few trips under my belt before I sequester myself up here for the majority of the summer.

Things are looking up either way: the days are growing longer. springThe snow is melting. This is break-up, a season of mud, grime and pot holes, but evening sunshine. It doesn’t get dark until after 9pm. COVID winter is coming to an end, and while the media is determined to stick to a solid rotation of doom and gloom on a daily basis, there is a lot to be hopeful for. Unfortunately, spring brings some real bummers in the ski world: with all the snow we’ve received this winter, some of our heliski operators have suffered tragic losses (last week, an avalanche killed a woman in the Talkeetna Mountains), and I was particularly horrified by last weekend’s heli crash near Knik Glacier; one of the people who died was someone I’ve known for years, and was a world-renowned guide and just an all around awesome dude. Helicopter crashes like this almost never happen in this industry, so this has been a tough one to choke down.

I’ve spent the past month shoveling (of course), cooking baller Saturday night dinners with a friend of mine… watching trash television… exercising, sleeping well, cleaning like a psycho, putting in a lot of extra hours at work, walking my dog, and reading. And trying to resolve (or, at least, conceal) my eye allergies, to no avail. I’m not sure how or why this has happened; I’ve never really had this issue before last spring (or any allergies, ever), but whatever is melting with the snow has given me a months-long bout of allergic conjunctivitis and extremely puffy, shitty looking eyes.

This is already a wordy post, so I am going to ramble about a few books here and there and then save the rest for April.

jp_2Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life | I preordered this book months ago, and was concerned that all of the SJW outrage was going to disrupt its publication. That did not happen, and after his trip to hell (and Russia, and Serbia) and back, Jordan Peterson’s new book might even be better than his last. Or, maybe not — maybe some chapters just resonated so deeply with me because I have really, really, really been struggling with the pandering, disruptive, often absurd inclusion & diversity initiatives at my workplace. I actually (professionally, and tactfully) lost my shit a few weeks ago and sent my litany of complaints up the chain in a thoughtful enough way that it seems to have stopped the constant barrage of woke bullshit that is teetering on becoming compulsory. This has occupied a lot of my headspace in the past few months; and because I am a rational person, I have often wondered if I am insane, or if I have just become more conservative as a result of living in Alaska, but I’ve come to discover that that is not true at all: my friends from college and elsewhere, who live and work in East Coast cities or in California or the Pacific Northwest feel exactly the same about their companies’ I&D policies; further, many of my colleagues feel the same and are afraid to say so. This has been a really challenging ordeal for me; I am avidly against virtue signaling, or talking about any of these things in any capacity whatsoever at work. I don’t want to be involved in any of these conversations, and thus far I have refused to do so, and will continue to do so. The amount of lip service and utter hypocrisy I’ve witnessed in the past few months has been revolting. I keep hearing that these “ideas” are “good intentions.” As was Communism. Hitler would tell you he had good intentions, too. Good intentions are relative. “Good” is relative. My plan at this point is to ride this out for the time being and continue pushing back against these shenanigans becoming required conversations; I have no qualms whatsoever with other people passionately trading their thoughts and ideas regarding these topics, but the creeping sense of it being required is deeply troubling. Further, I would say I’m old school: I just want to show up and do my job. Why is that so hard these days? I have observed, to my frustration, that “inclusion and diversity” does not include diversity of opinions on this matter.

But, I digress. JP’s new book is wonderful; I bought the Kindle version originally, and then opted to buy the Audible version so I could hear him read it. 12rulesThen I bought a copy of his first book, 12 Rules for Life, which I am revisiting at night. I also spent a better part of March listening to his podcasts; in one of them he mentioned that he’s been overwhelmed by how many people grew up with no encouragement and found that in him, and I am one of those people. If anything happened to this guy, I really don’t know who could fill these shoes. He is just such a brilliant, thoughtful, insightful person and such an unbelievable role model for people who don’t drink the woke Kool-Aid. What I love above all is that in some sense, he ignores all of that in a sense — the monster people make him out to be — and continues to push people to push themselves to be better. These are his next 12 rules (and his first 12 are here, on his Wikipedia page). I recommend both his books to anyone and everyone who will listen; his first one has many more Biblical references, but it is worth the trouble even if you don’t (yet) appreciate what you can pluck out of the Bible:

beyondorder

The only chapter I was a bit disappointed in was 10. Romance — I thought he could’ve said a lot more. This book seemed a much more abridged than his first one. And 12. Be grateful is probably the most appropriate considering everything that’s transpired in the world over the past 12 months. I love that I have both Audible versions, and can listen to them whenever I want to. If I had to make a list of the things that have kept me striving over the past few years, Jordan Peterson would be one of them. It’s surprising how much you can feel a little less alone in the world as a result of someone you don’t know personally, and never will.

richdad_poordadRich Dad Poor Dad | I’ve been looking for some easily digestible books to pass along to my sister and her husband to help them better manage their finances, and this one was OK. The first chapter was completely lost on me — I have no idea what he was trying to say — but the rest of it is good. A lot of it is about making your money work for you; investing wisely; paying yourself first. The author took significant financial risk in some cases and many of them paid off… he lost money too, of course. I think the other important takeaway was the way you should really look at assets and liabilities; in the US buying a house is still very much a cultural aspiration (less so than it was in past decades); not necessarily a wise choice for everyone. I don’t think all of these things are universally applicable, but his perspective on cash flow and visualizing the flow of money in and out could be very useful to a lot of people. I bought a second book to check out on the same topic that I’m eager to read. I appreciate the general premise of this book: that this guy had two dads giving him financial advice, and many people grow up with none. It’s difficult to teach yourself how to manage money when no one guides you or sets an example, so this is a good resource.

howdowelookHow Do We Look | For years now, Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome has been my sleep-to audiobook for long plane rides and insomnia (I didn’t sleep through the first pass, but I so love the book and the narrator’s voice that I’ve probably listened to it 10 or 15 times by now). I’ve also enjoyed How Do We Look: The Body, The Divine, and the Question of Civilization, though I wish I had bought a hard copy instead of listening to it. While I’m familiar with most of the works of art she addresses in this pretty short book (I think most if not all of them are in the new Civilizations series, which was excellent), it’s a pain for a visual person if you’re listening to this in the dark and you don’t want to look at stuff on your phone alongside the reading. Anyone interested in what art meant to its viewers and its creators over vast periods of time should grab this (a hard copy); it’s no SPQR but it’s a short and thoughtful read. Short Kirkus review here.

orwellWhy Orwell Matters | I traded How Proust Can Change Your Life to a friend for his copy of Hitchens’ Why Orwell Matters and this was a really great find as well; I’ve read a lot of Hitchens’ other stuff, though long ago, and was not aware he had written a book specifically about Orwell. There’s a ton of detail in here about Orwell’s experiences in Burma, the formation of his ideas and opinions, and the life of skepticism and ire he endured as a result of both ends of the political spectrum thinking he was stupid and/or insane. Orwell has been the most influential writer in my lifetime: reading his books in middle school truly changed my life and my perspective on the world, and reading his others later in life have only added to my admiration. Despite all of that I learned a lot from this book, and Hitchens was a gifted voice in his own right. Publishers Weekly blurb here.

hyperionI’ve taken a break from the exhausting Ulysses to read Hyperion with a good friend of mine in New York. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything cheesier in my entire life, but I’m actually surprised by how much I like it (it’s become a daily ritual for me to walk around my house finishing my 15,000 steps listening to one of the very long chapters. Apart from laughing out loud at some of the content, there are layers and layers of literary and historical references, and the book touches on some really interesting concepts. I actually told someone years ago that I hate sci-fi, which was probably the dumbest, most wrong thing I’ve ever said about myself… I love a lot of sci-fi. I don’t know that I love Hyperion, but I’m intrigued. And I’m happy to have a 2-person nerd book club for this one, since I read virtually everything else alone.

Everything else that has been occupying my time is boring and dull; I’ve amused myself and my close inner circle by buying one shitty food item at Walmart every week and reviewing it on Snapchat with the big mouth filter: I’ve gone through strawberry frosted donut Oreos, Cheetos mac & cheese, and various flavors of pudding and Jello (I can’t stand Jello, and pudding is pretty gross as well). I’ve also been reviewing the stupid beauty devices I’ve found on Amazon to help smooth out my raccoon eyes, including 24k gold gel eye patches and this hilarious rose quartz roller.

I also have fully taught myself how to “dry clean,” or, rather, to clean delicates by hand with the correct detergents. I decided to stop going to the dry cleaner out of laziness and pick up a new skill (which will be especially useful someday in the future when I start wearing my nice clothes again). I’ve managed to successfully wash and clean cashmere, silk, hand-painted silk, wool, suede and leather so far and I am pretty stoked on this. I’ve always been pretty interested in textiles (and fashion), but learning how to care for these fabrics has been really fun and interesting for me.

Last, I’m down nearly 15 lbs from this time last year, mostly due to drinking less, sleeping more, counting steps and sticking to one meal a day. After this pandemic year and a handful of other misfortunes, I feel pretty good, and I’m stoked to get back on a plane and get the fresh hell out of here for a hot minute.

Shots! Shots! Shots!

February tends to be an upswing month in the far north, and this year didn’t disappoint. While the Lower 48 is still reeling in pandemic turmoil, Alaska is nearing 30% of its age-eligible population vaccinated, and we’re moving quickly through the eligibility tiers. I decided over the past few days to participate in the vaccine Hunger Games, hoping to catch a shot on its way to the trash, as many of my friends have. I even called our state hotline to ask them if this was an acceptable thing to do, and they said yes. So, here’s hoping. All in all, my parents have received their second shots and my siblings caught COVID early on, so I’d say everyone else is in a good place. Here in Anchorage, our positivity rate is hovering around 2%, which isn’t half bad and has made it seem somewhat reasonable to occasionally have dinner at a restaurant and see a friend or two regularly. At around 30 degrees, my cold-wimp of a dog can run happily outside as well, so I’d say the past month has been a win. 

I won’t gain much from an earlier shot; I’ve surrendered to not traveling extensively for some time. My parents are visiting this summer, and I don’t want to go back to the Northeast until most of everyone I’d want to see has been vaccinated and thus comfortable socializing. My company’s travel ban still stands; so whether I am vaccinated today or a month or two from now changes very little if anything for me. After a year of not seeing my closest friends or my family, the only real source of any value in my life has been whatever I do alone: working out, reading, etc, and the very brief periods of time I spend with a very small handful of other people. Maybe somehow it doesn’t feel all that horrible full-time because I’ve been here before; feeling like I have very little other than myself is more of a normal feeling than an abnormal one. Some days, like today, I wake up and wonder if the way I’ve structured my life has been a massive error in judgment… but generally, I am just chugging along. Nothing meant anything prior to the pandemic and I’m not sure that has changed for better or for worse.

The insomnia and “blah” feeling that punctuated my winter seems to have largely passed, though I haven’t quite been able to pinpoint its cause. While a lot of people up here struggle with some level of seasonal affective disorder, I’ve always enjoyed the dark days of winter, and the ensuing excitement of spring. The sun is strong, and the days are growing longer rapidly; we’ll be getting tans in no time (I typed this up yesterday, and as I hit “publish” it’s pukin’ outside, brah). The vaccination timeline doesn’t leave much room to travel before it’s summer up here, and I plan to stay put for most of it and bounce around the state; I’ve spent too many Alaskan summers careening through other countries. Sadly, most of the countries on my to-do list will not be open or vaccinated for some time regardless, so I expect to not go far until 2022. And New York is too hot in the summer to be bothered; my pilgrimage to the homeland will take place in the fall or winter. While our tourism industry will take another huge hit this summer, the state of Alaska will be wide open to Alaskans and people who DIY their trips, and I’m looking forward to that. What money I (continue) to save on international travel will be pumped into the remaining upgrades to my house.

Further, in an increased effort to help myself feel better, I’ve been using my FitBit to help me sleep (did you know caffeine stays in your system for hours and hours and you should probably cut that shit out by 3pm? Well, I didn’t, but it’s made a huge difference); I added the oh-so-popular 10,000 steps to my daily regimen (tough when you barely leave your house); I tried kencko, which isn’t bad but I’m not sure evaporated fruit and vegetable flakes are worth the money… and a friend and I jotted down a bunch of food ideas on scraps of paper and put them in a jar, and we draw one a week for our Saturday dinner & movie night. This very simple thing has been a lot of fun and given me something to look forward to and provided a small outlet for much-underutilized creativity. I haven’t been much for cooking this entire time, as it’s been just me, but the small spurts of company I have have given me a reason to do so. 

Fathers and Sons | I’ve been working through some Russian classics I had missed as a teenager, and this was a great one. I found the theme pretty timely given how polarized everyone is, although in Fathers and Sons it’s between generations, with the backdrop of significant social and political change in Russia. This novel is the birthplace of “nihilism,” at least in the context it’s used today, and you watch the characters marry and separate from their chosen beliefs; the rifts those beliefs cause in their families and in themselves and the friction toward one another. It of course ends in relative tragedy, after love challenges the belief systems of both the “sons” and they proceed in different directions. This is the first more contemporary novel I’ve enjoyed (contemporary in its subject matter) — of the somewhat-recently read Russian classics, I didn’t love The Master and the Margarita, but I have really deeply loved And Quiet Flows the Don and A Hero of Our Time. Bazarov is a Byronic hero, as well, which is one of the many reasons this book was so enjoyable; it’s an easy read in a way versus something like A Hero of Our Time because so much of Fathers and Sons is about characters who outwardly explain their belief systems.

Big White Ghetto | My mother saw this author on the news, told me this sounded “right up my alley,” and she wasn’t wrong. This book is an informed rampage through what to me (and the author) are often well intentioned and nonetheless stupid ideas. The title is to some degree misleading, as he also talks about inner-city blacks, but his focus is on how policies have allowed people to retain their victim mentalities and foster poor health and often poorer financial decisions. I was particularly pleased by the chapter about casinos, which have become an absurd “solution” to Alaska’s budget deficits recently (and I’ll be writing a lengthy op-ed for one of our local outlets about that sooner than later). This is not an insane right-winger read: he can’t stand the tail end of either party. It is more than worth a read, and his solutions aren’t warm and fuzzy by any means. His own backstory gives this book special credence; he’s not someone who hasn’t lived in the world of learned helplessness. On top of offering a ton of variable content and subject matter, he’s a gifted (and often darkly funny) writer. Review in Forbes here.

Oblomov | I was sure I wouldn’t like this, but I ended up loving it. I initially hated the slothful, worthless Oblomov, but he becomes an incredibly sympathetic character really rapidly — when his friend arrives to dress him down about wasting his life taking naps — and he explains that participating in the trivialities of society seem utterly worthless and he doesn’t want to spend his life pretending and talking about stupid shit to people who don’t really care about one another. Some parts of the book are really long and tiresome, particularly the part about his childhood, which gave more context to why Oblomov became the person he was but was also a bit boring. I actually loved the way the ending wrapped up with basically “and there lies Oblomov, and I wanted to tell the story of his life, and it’s the story I just told you.” Goncharov is probably the easiest Russian writer to read; he writes totally matter-of-factly, and most of the book happens in dialog, which makes it super easy to follow. I found a lot of it to be about picking your battles; grappling with meaninglessness versus ambition and purpose; tradition versus modernity. As much as I really detested his character, his laziness, his indifference, his lack of motivation, I found him to be one of the most sympathetic lazy characters I’ve encountered.

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error | I heard a lot of mixed reviews on this book — mostly that it was good but had a lot of fluff — I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. She offers a ton of historical and biological context; she paints a picture with a lot of different but all entirely interesting information. There’s some behavioral econ, some evolutionary biology, some anthropology, some philosophy. I’d say it’s more of a mish-mash than a book that concludes somewhere, but the material presented adds a lot of context for anyone and she does a good job of fleshing out why it’s difficult to accept being wrong, and why humans try to avoid it at all costs, and how we do so, whether consciously or not. NY Times review here.

March’s audiobook project is Ulysses, which is hard for me not because it’s hard but because I don’t love stream-of-consciousness writing at all, though I will take this opportunity to plug probably the best modern SOC book I’ve read that was never included in this blog: Ducks, Newburyport. It’s tough to even call Ducks, Newburyport a book, when it reads like more of a project, an entire book in a single sentence, but it is unbelievable in its style and imagery and the sheer volume of emotion the author can cram into a single sentence. I will not finish this book for a very long time; I read bits and pieces here and there, but it is pretty extraordinary and well worth the read even if this narrative style is not your thing. My plan is to finish Ulysses and take another pass at Infinite Jest before the summer, thanks to two contemporary SOC works I’ve loved: Ducks, Newburyport and many years ago Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (I loved this book so much I’ve read every single one of his other books, and found that very sadly none of them are even remotely as good). Jonathan Safran-Foer’s Everything is Illuminated was pretty OK, too. Not my favorite, but not bad. New Yorker review of Ducks, Newburyport here.

That’s all for February. We’re now comping over COVID-19; so the next 12 months in comparison should be better than the last, month:month. 

2020, A Retrospective

I’m a context person and a big fan of reflecting on the past, and 2020 hasn’t let me down in terms of a grim retrospective. It’s the time of year when large media outlets are also publishing reflective op-eds on the shitshow of 2020, and I’d say individually and collectively as a species we’re all happy to be proceeding into 2021.

This year has offered up some pleasant surprises in past weeks, namely the distribution of highly effective vaccines, which I certainly didn’t expect until well into 2021 or later (and many of us won’t be receiving them until then anyway). I was prepared for the collapse of life as we know it in March, but I was not expecting to rebound with an effective vaccine so fast, so this staves off the dystopian nightmare planted in my pre-teen brain now decades ago by Huxley, Orwell and Golding.

I’m also pleased our fucktard of a president will be out of office… he had a larger shot at re-election than most people wanted to believe, and it was likely COVID that sunk that ship. I’d love to say my friends and family have escaped emotionally unscathed from this, but that has not been the case; lately some of my people have really been suffering, and even I have felt pretty sad, more for the people I love than for myself. It seems counterproductive to fall prey to pandemic depression when the end is in sight, but feelings are difficult to control. I think back to a Jordan Peterson clip I saw a few weeks ago where he mentioned that depression is different than feeling sad — people have a right to feel sad when shit sucks, and he’s right. And shit sucks, and it’s reasonable to feel crappy about it. Deep loneliness takes years off people’s lives, and loneliness has been difficult to avoid this year.

While I have spent this year flexing my “shit could be worse” muscles, I admit it’s tough at times, even for me, in a nice house with a cute dog and plenty of creature comforts. I’m homesick, I miss my Outside people, I regularly beat back the temptation to believe no one really cares about me anymore: I am simply out of sight, out of mind. I mailed an envelope of photos to my grandmother a few days ago, who is in a nursing home in Pennsylvania, and I sat here and labeled each one with my name and my sister’s, because if anyone might’ve forgotten I exist this year, it’s her, and I guess understandably so… she is 88 years old after all. The days lately are long, even here in the Far North where they are also short.

I filled in my birthday check-in spreadsheet this week — every year since I turned 30 I populate the columns, beginning in December and ending in June: The Good / The Bad / Failures / Goals. 2020 still has more good than bad; if I click back in time, it has been years since there were more items in the Bad column than the Good. Even in the year of COVID, I have more things to be happy about than to reflect on with dismay. Further, I have accomplished every single one of my goals from last year’s sheet except for one: to teach myself how to play chess. This spreadsheet has been really helpful in warding off cognitive biases that distort my perception of the present.

Somehow all of the worst things that happened to me this year don’t seem as bad when I recognize that they were entirely out of my control, that I could have done absolutely nothing to prevent them, and I’d go so far as to say I’m glad everything unfolded the way it did because I’d rather see the truth sooner than later. I think I will pass into 2021 with less of an inclination to assume the best of people and take them at their word; talk is cheap and it’s taken me many years and a lot of misfortune to learn that lesson. That said, I’d be lying if I said I’m not angry about some things that happened this year. I think it will take a long time for that to dissipate. I wrote an e-mail to a friend (who I see as a kind of long-time mentor to me) yesterday asking him a question that has been plaguing me for years now: is this all there is?

In July I changed up my fasting regimen and switched to one meal a day, which has leveled out my mood and staved off a lot of the monotony of not eating for long periods, along with digestive and sleep issues caused by years of long fasts. I bought a cheap stair climber in the spring, which has served me well; last week I bought a pretty impressively affordable body composition scale, and yesterday I finally bit the bullet and got a newer FitBit (I used to use a small clip); I’ve been messing with it and am really impressed by the new features, so I’ve set some health goals for myself to prep for hiking season. Overall I’m ending 2020 8lbs lighter than I was when it began, and shooting for another 7-8lbs down over the next few months.

A friend and I booked our accommodations for the Brutal Assault Festival in August in CZ; personally I’m not holding my breath at life being that back to normal by then. I’d personally be grateful to go back to NY/NJ and eek out a week at the beach, though I dream of cheap Georgian wine and the simmering, radioactive Tblisian heat.

One of the biggest wins this year was using my extra day off to remodel my condo: despite the pay cut and canceling all of my plans, I was unbelievably fortunate to have two beautiful places to reside all summer, and I learned a lot working on that house. I have always hated remodeling, and I still hate it, but I learned some valuable skills, and upped my property value. I scrounged up enough money to buy a house less than a year after moving up here, after just turning 29. It has a ton of sentimental value to me, on top of the nearly $100K more it’s worth than what I paid after years of chipping away at renovations. I loved every moment I spent down there this past summer, I bought a house in one of the most beautiful places on earth (no exaggeration), and the time back from working was well worth the pay cut. I’ve learned the last few years that there is nothing more valuable than time… it sounds cliché, but it’s true. Time is the only thing you can’t get more of. These years up here have come with their challenges, but nature is awesome: I don’t think there is any better place to live than somewhere as beautiful as here.

Meanwhile in the present, I’ll be watching the snow melt, and then accumulate again, and then melt, for the next 4-5 months. I have always been the kind of person who has funneled misfortune into prosperity, so I wondered in November when I moved back into this house what I was going to do to compensate (outside of paying my savings account back the expense of moving twice and everything I had purchased to prepare for a different outcome). I’ve been slowly working on this house, and preparing for summer projects and our patio here in Anchorage; I have been reading a lot and doing well on my new work team. I’ve reinvested time into my far away friends; I’ve been heckling my family about their health. Curiously this time at home has inspired me to further thin out my core Alaska friends, as I have little interest in people who have questionable motives or don’t make the effort to connect. I’ve accepted over the past few years that people grow apart… and the friendships I spawned in the beginning here are not the same ones I’ve held onto. I need a lot of depth and introspection and get tired of pleasantries and drama and superficial bullshit.

Some days I wonder how much longer I can do this; I’ve made long lists of things to do to pass the time, but some days go by very slowly. Lately I’ve comforted myself with revisiting Arctic expedition novels (another reason I think I’ve weathered this with a decent mindset) and also began reading Giants of the Earth, a pretty grim tale of Norwegian-Americans settling in South Dakota. I’ve also been working my way through My Brilliant Friend on HBO, based on The Neapolitan Novels… the HBO series is really good so far.

Ultimately I hope everyone I care for (everyone in general, really) learns something from the experience of this year, and its at least assisted in realigning priorities and showing people what’s really important in life. I know for much of this time I’ve been grateful to have that I do, even when I have to beat back more depressive emotions.

Toward the Winter Solstice

We’re closing in on the darkest day of the year, and I’m chugging through books, house projects and (tasteful) Christmas decorations like it’s my job. This year I’ve been talked into a wreath, I initiated a flickering-light-lit fireplace (which looks awesome) and now look out onto a beautiful brightly lit patio with two classy af reindeer (seat cushions are en route). My parents think I’ve cracked up. Maybe I have. It was bound to happen eventually.

I’ve gotten through the Bergman films I’ve put off watching for many years: Fanny & Alexander; The Best Intentions and Sunday’s Children. All three were films I never got to because the plots sounded boring… turns out I was right. Didn’t love any of them. I liked Fanny & Alexander, it was just brutally long, on top of being a period piece.

I also watched the Netflix adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy, which received terrible reviews all around. The cast was amazing and it made for a decent movie if not being compared to the book, which told a much more comprehensive story. Glenn Close and Amy Adams were excellent… Glenn Close was a perfect fit for her character. This book was really pivotal for me during a really tough period of my life, so I felt like I’d hate the movie adaptation more after reading the reviews, but I didn’t. I’d still recommend the book to anyone half-listening. Even if it bears no resemblance to your life, it’ll probably help you understand someone around you.

I think I’ve largely survived the pandemic without anxiety or depression due to a pre-existing grim pragmatic outlook on life; channeling energy into being even more meticulously organized; focusing on work; fixing stuff in the house, reading, and last, the preposterous psycho-babble “being kind to myself,” which took me over 30 years to really fathom (and it still sounds ridiculous). I read something lately about how people who are less likely to be lonely have spent more time “grooming,” I would say that’s true for me: I’ve spent quite a bit of this time on “girl stuff,” and my hair and skin look pretty amazing for a hermit in the dead of winter in Alaska. I’ve lost a few lbs over this time instead of a “Quarantine 15,” and I’m curious about the body composition scale I ordered recently. I have made zero loaves of bread. I am still not on Pinterest. I still have infinite love and appreciation for Alaska, despite being sequestered here for nearly 100% of the past 9 months, with 3-6 more to go. I wrote a close friend lately and told him I feel like a ghost, and I do, but I think it’s affecting some of my friends much more than it’s affecting me. You’re nobody ’til somebody loves you, or so the song says, but all your somebodies are locked down just like you are, and that’s created a painful situation for many people. I have always believed that people aren’t worth jack shit on their own; your value is always relative to others, and COVID has really upset that balance.

Karl Ove’s Seasonal Quartet: Autumn, Winter & Summer | I didn’t love Autumn or Winter as much as I enjoyed parts of Spring and Summer, which have more of a story within instead of being broken up into random chapters on things ranging from frogs to vomit (seriously). Like all of his stuff, the monotony is worth it for the great parts and his many often beautifully written tangents. I came to the conclusion after finishing My Struggle that I often find him distasteful, selfish, self-absorbed, occasionally pathetic, as I’ve written in past posts…but after all of those words, endless details of his life, I somehow feel close to him, I admire him, and this series is in some ways such a wonderful gift to his daughter  (to all four of his children, actually) — all his work is — but this especially, being such an expansive (although random) collection of his thoughts on everyday things. I will continue to read/listen to anything he writes, because I can’t think of anyone who has expressed so much of himself, both the mundane and outrageous in the way he has. His unrelenting honesty and lack of much of a filter is so respectable. I’ve thought at a few junctures about whether he really knows himself, because people often portray themselves differently (often more positively) than they are in reality, but you get a sense of who he is and his flaws because his words explain the actions of his life, and he doesn’t skimp on the times he behaved poorly. That’s been a takeaway from my life over the past few years: that words are often pretty meaningless, especially when someone is speaking of him- or herself; his autobiography speaks to the actions within his life, and so it is so much more him. This was well-timed for many reasons, one of them being that so many people are losing their parents to COVID: his children will have an unbelievable collection of their father’s life and thoughts to reflect upon long after he is gone.

The Neapolitan Novels: My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave; The Story of the Lost Child | I didn’t expect to read over 1600 pages so quickly, but I couldn’t help myself, and will be passing this boxed set onto one of my closest friends. Worth noting the covers of the books are terrible: they look like sad middle aged cat lady romance novels. In reality each book is wonderful, also filled with horribly imperfect people, and the books revolve around a friendship between two girls growing up in Naples who proceed in completely different directions in their lives: the main character, whose voice the book is written in, goes to college and becomes an esteemed writer, travels abroad, marries an educated man. Her closest friend drops out after 5th grade, marries a local shopkeeper, has a kid, her life falls apart and she ends up clawing her way into relative stability. Both women are highly intelligent; the latter is brilliant, but troubled. Their lives start in the 1930s and proceed to the 90s, and at that time Naples was violent and shitty; it was commonplace to beat your wife and kids, and murder and domestic abuse abounds.

I think I loved this because I felt such sympathy for Lenu (who left to get an education and climb out of her lowly socioeconomic status): the people she grew up with treated her success with envy, bitterness, resentment, spite, but also support and respect. Her mother constantly accused her of abandoning the family; told her often that she thought she was better than everyone else, that she looked down on her roots and the people she grew up with, and yet she returned to Naples in mid-life to be with those people, allowed herself to be sucked back into their quarrels and drama because she loved them and couldn’t let them go, and loved Lila (her friend) most of all. I told my work team lately that the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with growing up is not what you’d think if you knew me or the details of my life very well, but instead it was trying to figure out where I fit in the world, and as was also a topic in Hillbilly Elegy, it’s true that once you leave to advance your own life, you’ll never be able to return to your origins and be the same person. From that point on, you are an outsider, and often be viewed with suspicion or resentment. And it’s strange, given that especially in the US we believe deeply in our rags to riches thematic: it is a heartbreaking, lonely, miserable endeavor to move up the socioeconomic ladder, and you never stop feeling alone, because you can never fully be like the people where you land, and you can never go back. That said, it is possible, and millions of people do it. There’s so much to say about all of these books: they tell a really unbelievable story of how turbulent female relationships can be, how hatred coexists with love.

Madame Bovary | I finished this awhile back and still am not sure what to say. I’m glad I read it. I hated the main character, but I felt some sympathy–some–for her in the end. I hated her baseless idealism and romanticism and all the disappointment that comes from having such great expectations. The story is tragic because at that period in time, women had no power and few rights, and were totally dependent upon men for any kind of stability or status. That said, knowing the time she lived in and the constraints on her freedom, why did she harbor such ridiculous hopes and dreams? I read some articles about this book after finishing it and it seems people often sympathized with her and found her dullard of a husband to be the one to despise, but I’m not sure I agree with this either. Emma Bovary, like many people today, are disappointed if not depressed because they have unrealistic expectations of love and of life. Emma slowly destroys her own morality chasing this pipe dream and in the end it destroys her, her husband and her child. For what? Quite frankly this book irritated me more than anything else; despite my acknowledgement that she lived in a shitty time for women (for everyone, really), I don’t know that the spoiled millennials of the modern age are much different: they may not expect so much of love, but they do of life. Life owes you nothing. It seems people needed to be reminded of that at any and all points in history. Instead of being annoyed to have read it, I’m grateful I did because it bothered me so much. It’s beautifully written: Flaubert was truly gifted, and he writes in such a way that he wants to flex your sympathy one way or another throughout the novel.  Despite my annoyance, this novel tells of a person’s unwillingness to accept the emptiness and disappointment of life: perhaps something I’ve done, and so can read this and scowl at someone else’s hopeless idealism. I believe I’m still here today and enjoying life for the most part because I accepted early on that life is meaningless and often disappointing, that everyone is alone forever no matter how many people one is surrounded by. I think that’s a harder pill to swallow for most, certainly for Emma Bovary, who swallowed arsenic instead.

The Master and the Margarita | I’m surprised by how much I didn’t like this book. I liked some of the characters, but it all became way too fantastical for me very quickly. I think the best part of the entire story is the way people talk to each other and how they react to one another: otherwise, this was a tedious not quite waste of time, but close. The constant nods to Faust in various reviews and other write-ups about The Master and the Margarita were also confusing to me; this book did not remind me of Faust at all, other than the devil character being present. All in all there was too much overt allegory, too much time travel, and a giant black cat (wtf?)… next.

(Reread) She’s Come Undone | I read this book at some point in middle- or high school, and when I began The Neapolitan Novels I kept returning to this, and some other coming of age stories. This book shares few parallels with Lenu and Lila; I actually found more similarities in another classic I had loved as a young kid, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but I returned to She’s Come Undone nonetheless. Rereading books I read as a kid has often been an entirely different experience than the first time around: this one is a bit cliché and contrived as an adult, but the concurrent sarcasm and shabby idealism made it a pleasant (re)read. Worth noting that I frequently come across people who want to return to their late teens or 20s, I would sooner drive into oncoming traffic. My late teens and early 20s were the worst time in my life, by a long shot (and trust me, my early teens were awful as well, so I have some stiff competition)… I read books from my youth sometimes and shudder to think of how awful my life was before I was in my mid-20s.

I also took note of the time in which this was released: AIDS was taboo, it was still not OK in many places to be gay, and rape was still a hushed affair. Nearly 30 years later, HIV is much better understood, the Western world is kinder to gay men and women… and very sadly rape is practically mainstream: 15-20% of women in the United States have experienced it first-hand in their lifetimes. Can you even fucking imagine?

Speaking of, one night a few weeks back I finally bit the bullet and watched The Lovely Bones, which I had avoided for years because the book creeped me out so deeply. I was surprised when years ago it was turned into a major motion picture; I still have a tough time understanding how this story was so widely marketable, and the movie had a Disney feel despite its subject matter. It’s a story of a 13- or 14-year old girl who is raped and murdered in a root cellar and ends up watching her family grieve for her and search for the man who killed her. The end was unbelievably stupid, but what bothered me so much about the book (and the idea, even) is that as a young kid I had a recurring nightmare that I was dead and hovering over my mourning family. I had this nightmare for years and years, and it probably resulted in an even more stubborn unwillingness to give up due to how miserable it was to see, even in dreams, people suffering as a result of my untimely end. The movie, all in all, was OK… the book was excellent.

I also made it through Jordan Peterson’s Biblical Series on YouTube, which was really interesting and as is typical of him, filled with tangential material on psychology and history and everything else. I’m sad to have gotten through it and may watch it again at some point for comfort as the last few were background noise to me multi-tasking, though I stopped and skipped back when he admitted to my horror that he enjoys Trailer Park Boys… I myself have watched approximately 50 too many episodes of this show, and have many more to go before I get through to the end, we built a Trailer Park Boys gingerbread (ok graham cracker) set in lieu of a house. I think we did a pretty killer job; I’ve never built a gingerbread house before, but I learn fast and my next gingerbread-graham cracker whatever will be 100x better.

Back to Peterson, I preordered his new book, as have many of my friends, and I hope the crying millennials of Penguin Random House aren’t able to interrupt its publication. If I could have an hour or two with a single living person on earth, I’d easily choose him.

That concludes this very long post. I’m unsure as to whether I’ll post again before the year ends… probably, as the end of the calendar year earns an entry in my the good / the bad / failures / goals spreadsheet and it may be good to reflect on 2020 as a whole. Happy Holidays, Christmas, Hanukkah, solstice, etc. Shalom to you all, and fuck 2020.

Viva Emptiness

Last time I posted was 10 weeks ago, and I was preparing to move into a huge house down the street and begin another stage of my life. Somewhat bewilderingly, I find myself here and now moved back into my former abode (I moved out, got completely settled in, and then moved again… fun). Some of my former aspirations have been dwindling for some time (weeks, if not months), so I feel less devastated than I expected. If I’m being completely honest, I don’t feel a whole lot of anything these days other than a stubborn enduring to keep myself occupied churning out anything worth something.

I’ve thought often of the book Alone, by Richard E. Byrd, chronicling 6 months alone in a bunker in Antarctica, and if another lockdown comes (almost guaranteed at this point), I don’t imagine I’ll feel too differently. I at least have a cute dog and the Internet, amirite? I quietly entertained myself this summer and slowly tucked money away, which turned out saving my skin during this most recent set of unforeseen circumstances. The truth is, I find I’ve become a person who amasses more strength and calm after every hardship; as Albert Camus wrote, “blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken.” Is it that, though? Or are people like rubber bands, stretching and stretching, becoming ever more brittle over time before their inevitable snaps?

I’m pretty committed to personal growth and enjoy learning things (even hard lessons), and this moving and moving again drama has been a difficult situation for me because I don’t feel I caused this very unexpected outcome in any way whatsoever. Where I find other people wanting to deflect blame, it’s always seemed easier to me to accept responsibility and move on.

I am, at least, moving on. Again I find myself fortunate to have a nice house to move back into; the wherewithal to negotiate out of an expensive and lengthy lease; and a strong sense of resilience punctuated by already-tepid expectations of people (and life, to a somewhat lesser extent). I’ve also ducked yet another round of layoffs at my company; I’ve switched teams and regional hubs.  Perhaps most importantly, or at least top of mind during the holidays, I haven’t seen my parents, brother or any of my out-of-state friends in soon to be one year. Hell, I’ve barely seen my in-state friends in the past year; and I know many people are in the same boat. I still remain pretty overwhelmed with gratitude for how nice my life is, even when it sucks, too. Shit has been a lot worse for me, and I won’t ever forget that. That said, when it rains it pours, that’s for sure.

And so I’ve begun my winter reading marathon. I’m still moving a bit slowly due to work and life, and I’ve had more of a hankering for fiction than non-, so there will be a pretty solid mix in the months to come. The skills I’ve acquired over the summer remodeling will suit me well as I slowly patch all the earthquake cracks in the walls of this house. My survival strategy is to channel my frustration into making things beautiful/better, and it’s this house’s turn to receive its dividend. 

I’ve never been much of a holiday person, but seeing as how I will be spending the upcoming ones alone, I figure as the winter drags on I should figure out how else to healthily entertain myself (the pantry is already stocked with wine and gin, for less-healthy entertainment purposes). I’ve contemplated beginning to write in a real journal again… not quite sure I’m there yet, but I have sent a few cards to friends whose faces I haven’t seen in what feels like forever. Nearly a year after last returning to New Jersey and New York, I miss it, the feeling of having a foot in each world. My feet have been immersed in Alaska all summer, and lately, a shitload of snow. Watching the incredibly cheesy Smithsonian special Ice Airport Alaska, a guy on the show mentioned that there are two kinds of people who live up here: those who love winter and those who don’t, and the latter should probably leave. I’m inclined to agree… this winter will likely be a long, cold one. 

As someone who spent a lot of time flying for hang-time with friends prior to this pandemic, I’d say a lot has changed for me. I wonder why I’m not faring worse, or if I am and it’s just bubbling under the surface and I can’t feel it yet. More likely, my life has been so chaotic and unpredictable over its duration that I simply feel there’s no alternative to pressing on and making the best of all of this. As I told my work team recently (we do a lot of psychometric stuff), my #1 Strengthsfinder is Context, and I think a lot about the much worse things others have been through in the past: I told my manager recently that when I think about how hard life is for me/us all currently, I immediately feel that it could be worse: I could be hammering railroad spikes in Siberia at -60 in felt slippers. All of the morbid literature I’ve read over my life has paved a reasonably smooth road through 2020.

I feel for people who are deeply hurting after all these months; or the people who, in ignoring it due to COVID fatigue, will get sick. People who are developing real depression and anxiety. People without health insurance. Me, I’ve been alone for a long time, and it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon. I graduated from the Acceptance stage on this one many years ago.

And so, let’s close out November with a few recent reads:

The Erratics: A Memoir | This memoir of return trips home to Alberta to deal with the author’s narcissistic whacko mother and starving, despairing father made for a grim but wonderful tale that will definitely hit home with anyone who has a screwed up family (possibly anyone who has to deal with ailing parents and the squabbles that come with). The winter weather and the dread made it all the more appropriate for this time of year in Alaska. NY Times review here.

Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town | This book has been all over the internet lately, often with a lot of praise. Part of the reason is due to there not being a whole lot of visibility into Tibet (thanks China). I actually found the human interest stories throughout to be below my expectations based on what I had read online, though it gets progressively better (especially when you get into self-immolation). The Tibetans have been fighting China for a long time, as many marginalized people have been fighting their evil Communist overlords for decades; a lot of this book seemed somewhat tame compared to most of the stuff I read, and perhaps that’s why it lacked the gut-punch its given to many others. I would go so far as to say I was even discouraged having bought two of her books at once, though amassing this information and the set of experiences that led her to write this is pretty amazing considering how tightly China controls this fledgling territory. Much more positive NY Times review here.

Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood | Eat the Buddha ended up letting me down, but Logavina Street was far beyond what I expected could be fit in 250 or so pages. I further was skeptical about how well anyone can explain much of what happened there in any cohesive way. I love the way this book is constructed, detailing the lives of the families who live on one street in Sarajevo through the four-year siege. There is a lot of explanation in here without too much confusion, and she manages to wrap it all in the complete identity crisis that was suffered individually and collectively during this war. She touches on the UN’s failure in Srebrenica and Žepa; the partitioning in the Dayton Accords; the complex circumstances that beset Sarajevo’s ethnically mixed populace. You can go in a lot of directions with the war; it remains overwhelmingly complex to most. Unfortunately she draws the same conclusion I’ve come to myself after many years deep-diving through Bosnia’s history and people… that another war, someday, is a likely outcome. While I wouldn’t rank this among my favorite books on the topic, I’d pass this first to anyone who wanted to learn more in simplistic terms (I would also pass along a copy of Sarajevo Daily, which she cited in this book). This was a really spectacular read, even for someone who has read 382398723842384 books about the Balkans already. LA Times review here.

My next read will occupy December and beyond… I’m diving into The Neapolitan Novels, which have apparently been turned into an HBO series.

Everything in its Right Place

Just over eight years ago, I moved to Alaska. It seems like yesterday, and it’s felt that way the entire time. Yet, in these eight years, I’ve lived in 4 different houses in 3 different cities/towns, and two distinctly different neighborhoods in Anchorage. I bought a condo in Girdwood my second year here, and I’ve gained some pretty valuable experience being a landlord, vacation rental manager, and homeowner. I spent a winter in balls-ass cold North Pole, and then spent a year living in a spare bedroom of my friends’ place. I spent one entire summer with no residence and just bummed around with the dog. Most recently, in 2019, I relocated to the Eastside of Anchorage, which has a pretty unsavory reputation. As shocked as I am to say this, I’ll be moving out of this glorious house sooner than later, and I’ve been looking for where to live next: I recently found a huge new townhouse down the street off Muldoon, 2 miles from where I live now, and yet as is common in Anchorage, 2 miles is enough to see vast demographic changes around you. One of the most endearing things about this very aesthetically ugly city is that in most places, people of all socioeconomic walks of life are smashed together, and that is especially true in this part of town.

I was initially skeptical about moving here, though I had really disliked living on the Southside (I chose this, and my friends were kind to let me crash there, as I really didn’t need much more at the time than a bed to occasionally sleep in between travels). I also moved there out of curiosity; I felt I was becoming too spoiled with bourgie accommodations and should slum it for a bit with regard to interior amenities… the dog and I pretty much lived entirely in a bedroom for a year. The house was in a nearly all-white suburban neighborhood where all the houses looked (to me) exactly the same, and I got lost constantly, right up until the day I moved out. I had never lived in a place like this before, and there was something deeply unsettling about an area where people only reside, but can’t really do anything else (there are no stores, no bars, no nothing right there, just houses and houses and houses). It reminded me of learning about Levittown, NY in elementary school.

I didn’t think much about this for most of my adult life: I lived in rural (though diverse) downstate New York, and during that time I lived both “in the woods” and also in the heart of the town centers, where everything could be reached via walking. I also lived in Allston-Brighton, in Boston, which is the same; and even tiny Girdwood is completely walkable, and people commonly choose to walk instead of drive: to the store, to the post office, to the bar or restaurants. South Anchorage is not a walking part of the city, unless you are walking your dog. You can’t get anywhere to get anything; you can just go for a stroll (and hopefully not get lost, as I did also managed on foot, embarrassingly).

I came across this phenomenon in Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which explained that urban planning in the 60s destroyed what were neighborhoods of people fully living their lives (laundromat, grocery store, bar, hardware store, etc) by separating retail and business establishments from where people lived and slept. She explained (speaking of the North End, in Boston, a historically Italian neighborhood) that people used to linger where they lived, because things were there, and now people have to travel to run errands and accomplish the minutiae of living, which causes them to be less invested in the well-being of the community. This book and her critique of these policies and the resulting damage they did to communities blew my mind at the time. It suddenly all made sense.

I told my younger sister when she was visiting last month about a time that a woman called the cops in South Anchorage on two Latino kids riding their bikes in the neighborhood; they also reported a guy with a neck tattoo who wasn’t bothering anyone (they thought he was casing houses). She was has horrified as I was at the time, and told me she also would hate to live in a neighborhood like that, where people are up each other’s asses. She and her husband live in Belleville, an outskirt of Newark, and operate their business in a high-end zip code where they can cater to wealthy people. I asked her if she still likes living where she does, and she said absolutely yes: people leave each other alone, everyone is friendly, it feels like a level and non-judgmental neighborhood. For whatever reason, our preferences run parallel despite different experiences in our adult lives. Given the opportunity (financially) to live in “nicer” neighborhoods, we’ve both chosen to not. All said and done, Anchorage has high crime everywhere, and cars on the Southside were regularly rifled through at night and/or stolen.

Here on the Eastside, we can walk to multiple grocery stores, to food outlets, to the post office. Such is the case with Anchorage’s other “higher crime” neighborhoods: Spenard, Mountain View, Downtown, Fairview. In fact, the safest neighborhoods are ones where you can’t get to a whole lot of other places: Rabbit Creek, Hillside, Bayshore/Klatt, Oceanview. There are doubtless many reasons for this: affordability, welfare and public assistance, transportation, the eternal debate over whether cultural diversity will always cause conflict because people have competing values. Many parts of Anchorage run the gamut, with a shitty house next to a nice one, and then a trailer park and then high rise condos. There are pockets of wealth and poverty everywhere. I love this. I love that many wealthy people don’t flaunt, that you never know who has money, that people all live together in these neighborhoods. It’s certainly way more pronounced here, and of course inequality in and of itself opens up opportunity for crime.

They say people always revert to what they know, and this preference likely traces at least partially back to our childhood: we spent a majority of it in a (rural) town in one of the poorest counties in New York State… but everyone was roughly socioeconomically equal, so it didn’t feel like anyone was suffering. Everyone had the same experience. At a friend’s wedding years ago, another attendee spoke of growing up poor among rich people, and how hard it was for her– we had no such experience. I’m not sure that not having money is what causes the problem, it’s not having money when other people have a lot of it. I had no sense of having a modest upbringing until I went to a private university and had to rip dollars in half and quarters to ride the subway. I never saw a rich person’s house when I was a kid. Going to a fancy college and having this realization at 17, 18 years old was the beginning of one of the most brutal reality checks of my life. For many years I agonized over where I’d end up, how far it should be from where I came from, and how far it should be. I read about this many years later in Hillbilly Elegy, and that book was a huge comfort to me (though somewhat demonized in the media): it wasn’t the societal reflections in the book that resonated with me, but the very personal experience of feeling completely lost while moving up in life (it even makes me uncomfortable to call it “moving up,” because it seems disparaging to people who choose to stay put).

It’s been interesting to intersect with so many different kinds of people and their preferences as I grow older and move around (and move “up” in my career): a good friend of mine told me recently he’d love to live in South Anchorage because people look out for themselves and that’s how he grew up in Oklahoma. I have other friends who have also admitted they’re more much more comfortable living around like-minded people. I’m actually not entirely sure what this means, to be honest. I’m not sure I ever felt like I lived around like-minded people, nor wanted to/should. Based on my life choices, I seem to have a somewhat contentious relationship with familiarity. When I was a kid, I wanted to bail out of our one-horse town and live a cool and interesting life; when I lived in the city I missed the woods. I now live in a grubby city hub in the most sparsely populated state in the country, I’d say I’ve finally found a good balance and the grass is no longer greener on the other side.

As I see people self-sort in my life, my aversion to the ‘burbs has found a bit of a moral stronghold. I’m no champion of the poor, nor am I on board with excessive public assistance, housing vouchers or affirmative action, but I do believe sequestering ourselves with people who look like us and act like us has helped create more microtears in the American identity. And maybe it’s just that life was always this way in America, and I never really lived in a place like that, but I’d always choose an immigrant neighborhood over a suburban one. And I don’t know much about the culture of the South; I can’t speak to ingrained racism and segregation as I never have been exposed to anything like that. I told my roommate recently that the diversity I saw even just walking through the next house I’ll live in and its immediate neighborhood warmed my heart and reminded me of New Jersey. It’s certainly not as “safe” as the ‘burbs, but as someone on the Anchorage subreddit said, if a “nice place to live” is living in a homogenous, white neighborhood, move to the Southside. If it’s diversity you want, come to our neck of the woods. There has been quite a lot released over the past handful of years about the surprisingly diverse demographics of some Anchorage neighborhoods.

I’m not sure how people make peace with one another in the long run. If you look at a place like the Balkans, you see that divisions are not always ethnic: they come from propaganda and belief systems that pit people against one another. Whether it’s being from a very plural part of the country (plural on all accounts: ethnicity, religion, race, socioeconomic status) or having a litany of competing experiences growing up is unknown. Perhaps part of it is feeling like an alien having done fairly well in my life while my siblings have stayed on the same (equally respectable) rung of the ladder. I think a lot about familiarity and difference and I’ve always tried to check myself when I feel I’m snubbing my roots. Further, in a time where the political climate is getting crazier and crazier, and people are becoming angrier and more suspicious, I’m pretty pleased to be staying on the humble Eastside, and eternally grateful to continue to eek out a life up here in Alaska when a lot of people are leaving / going home / returning to the familiar in times of unbelievable uncertainty.

Peak Summer: June & July

And just like that, summer is circling the drain up here. Weeks of nippy weather and rain seem to signal an early fall for us; and we haven’t had many “falls” to speak of since I moved to Alaska: it goes from being nice to being grey and cold, and a gust of wind blows all the leaves down, and voila! 6 months of winter. August 18 will be my 8th year anniversary in Alaska, and if I had to do it all over again, I would. I’ve made a lot of good choices in my life (and some bad ones, of course)… moving to Alaska was one of the best things I’ve ever done. In the years I’ve lived here, I’ve transitioned from survival to prosperity.

I had intended to hike more broadly, and move around the state more, having canceled all of my domestic and international travel plans. I hiked some; my best (and first) friend in Alaska moved to Idaho with her family last week. Another will likely depart in the fall. It’s been a sad few weeks, truthfully, especially the process of losing my close friend (and hiking partner) to Idaho. My roommate (and often the only other person I see for days at a time) returned to work abroad a month ago. It’s been just me and Fuji lately: at least the dog has been lavished with love and attention (and treats, and bones, and new toys). One of the few drawbacks of the low tourist volume (apart from the economic devastation) is that there are too many bears everywhere. Bears are jerks.

Lots of good, and productive things have happened. I’ve enjoyed my four-day work weeks immensely. I’ve remodeled a lot of my house (in doing so, I’ve learned how to do a lot of shit I didn’t know how to do before), and refinanced at a much lower rate. I registered as a notary after realizing there’s a shortage of them in town. I’ve saved a significant amount of money. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with the few friends I have up here. My sister and her husband are still coming to visit next week: it’ll be the first time I’ve seen anyone in my family since December, and likely the last time for many months. Despite the increasing sense that I am entirely alone up here, and despite the state’s grim economic outlook, my appreciation for Alaska has grown. There is still no place I’d rather be than here. A lot of people are leaving: the question for me has been, where would I rather live? And the answer has always been “nowhere.”

I’ve realized I am largely emotionally pandemic-proof: I can partially chalk it up to spending my adult life reading books about Arctic expeditions and the Gulag. My dark curiosities have given present life a richer context. I admit it’s bizarre to envision remaining for an entire winter up here, not going anywhere, existing in the dreary, grey fall: I regularly try to get out of here for the month of November, which is particularly slushy and dull. I miss New York, though I’d venture to say it’s not the same NYC I’ve visited for many weeks annually since I’ve relocated. I hope that when all of this finally fades out that my very deeply loved destinations are not leveled economically. I suppose I hope I am not leveled economically, either. This summer, I’ve missed out on returning to the Caucasus; Brutal Assault; Dead Can Dance in Seattle; numerous other trips, and a lot of work travel. I’ve eaten far fewer oysters and driven many fewer miles. I’ve been here for so long that I actually have begun to miss living out of a bag, but it took me a lot longer to get to this point.

Ultimately as I’ve said before, in the grand scheme of things I am incredibly fortunate: my living situation is wonderful. I live in a place I love. I’ve been able to easily afford keeping my second home vacant all summer so I can go hang out there. I have reliable, close friends, though they are shifting in location. I have an unbelievable level of physical, emotional and financial security that could only be fully appreciated by someone who has spent years with none of those things. I don’t take any of it for granted for a moment.

I’ve read a bit less than is typical, because I’ve been binge-watching stuff on TV and hanging out outside a lot. I watched Netflix’s Hannibal series, which was amazing, as well as Prime’s ZeroZeroZero which was so brutal and violent and well-done, I can’t wait for the next season. My roommate also got me hooked on The Bureau, a French series similar to Homeland. My favorite Netflix series, Dark, released their final season as well, which was incredible.

Leo Tolstoy (Critical Lives) | This is a short and wonderful read. I originally saw a review in The Economist after seeing a ton of copies in my local bookstore (there is a Russian lit fanatic that works there that is likely responsible). It shows Tolstoy as imperfect, but wildly moral, somewhat petulant, sexually troubled and fabulously talented. If any writer has earned the right to be so flawed and tormented, it is Tolstoy. His contribution to Russian literature is quite literally second to none. I don’t know that this would mean much to people who haven’t read him, but it may inspire them to do so. I’d recommend this to anyone interested in Russian lit; it paints a vivid portrait of the atmosphere of his lifetime, and the experiences that shaped and inspired some of the best books ever written.

The Body Keeps The Score | I enjoyed this as well — some parts more than others — and while I read many depressing books, this is one of the most depressing when we look to the future. The book touches on various topics, iterations of PTSD and incest and other things, and refers often to ACE scores, which unsurprisingly also can be used to forecast most peoples’ future outcomes (high ACE scores don’t bode well). I’m not sure there’s much in terms of broad solutions; CBT and EMDR are covered. Review in NY Times here.

The Face of War | This book has been on my list since I read that it was Marie Colvin‘s favorite book, and she carried a copy around with her when she was working on assignments (her story is amazing as well, and her biography was turned into a halfway-decent film, where this book is referred to and displayed on a number of occasions). Gellhorn’s articles and essays span multiple wars; she touches particularly on WWII and Vietnam. These days, and perhaps back then, war reporters, despite being there in the thick of it, were apt to develop not only progressive but simplistic views of war; that said, some are brilliant; many are tormented… all the best ones are deeply passionate, though one could argue passion makes for worse war reporting because it’s too emotional. I’d like to believe there was a time when reporters weren’t all peddling their own personal opinions, but I’m no longer sure that’s the case. Regardless, this was a decent read, I wouldn’t hold it in esteem as high as Colvin did in her life, but Gellhorn and Colvin were both obsessed with the human element of war, and that seems a worthy enough passion to me. Old LA Times review here.

The Other Side (Alfred Kubin) | I came across references to Kubin in Karl Ove’s My Struggle, and had purchased a book of his drawings and his only novel, The Other Side. His drawings are awesome; his book is Kafkaesque, which makes sense, considering I believe he and Kafka were friends. This is a totally bizarre story of a rich guy the main character went to school with who ends up building a whole different world somewhere in Central Asia where nothing “new” can exist (fashion, technology, etc.) People cast off their new-fangled belongings and go live in Victorian squalor… many of them happily, to some degree, though the series of events becomes increasingly dystopian and surreal. The story is very dark and entertaining; I ended up really loving Severin’s Journey into the Dark (another Kafkaesque tale) and this book is similar in style.

And Quiet Flows the Don | I’ve been reading some overlooked gems of Russian lit lately and I’m really happy this was one of them; this is pretty much the Cossack War and Peace. It’s the story of a family of Don Cossacks over a few generations, over a few wars (WWI, Russian Revolution, Russian Civil War) and many trials and tribulations. It’s beautifully written; I snagged a few paragraphs toward the end to share with a few people. I’m currently revisiting The Master and the Margarita, and after that I’ll probably finally read Hadji Murad. Reading and re-reading some of these Russian classics has been a huge comfort for me, and to some degree a welcome break from my Gulag books… that said, winter is Gulag-reading time, and I have a formidable stack of Soviet stuff to read.

Excerpt from And Quiet Flows the Don:

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism | Quillette just posted a review of this book here last week. The review gave a ton of props to her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag, which was incredible, though all of her books are unbelievably concise and well-researched (Gulag and Red Famine were definitely my favorites.) This is a very different kind of book, written perhaps more for someone who does not know her, and needs a lengthy explanation of her credentials and the guest-lists of her fancy parties. I became a bit tired of reading all of this stuff; she’s clearly well-connected through marriage and career. That said, I gradually began to appreciate the parallels between the life of someone like her, and one of an ordinary person: many of we ordinary people have relationships that have suffered the same fate (though I’ve lost many more to the far left than the far right, but I’ve definitely been disowned by friends who exist on either side). Applebaum covers personal accounts of reporting on/writing about and socializing in Poland; the UK; Hungary and the US. As the review rightfully says, there are few better-qualified people to cover this topic, and it’s a sad story. Twilight of Democracy is an easy read; there are a lot of familiar names if you have any familiarity with what has transpired in Poland and Hungary… not everyone cares much about Central Europe, but these are troubling times for those countries. Wasn’t as interesting of a read as her other stuff, but certainly timely. Anne Applebaum and Masha Gessen are two of my favorite contemporary writers on Eastern Europe/Russia, so I’m looking forward to Gessen’s latest (probably next post).

That’s all for now. Hopefully I’ll be able to crank out another post before summer ends for real, in September. Below, Portage Glacier.

April, May and into June

And so, the pandemic rolls on, and here in Alaska it’s a mixed bag. I’ve found myself excessively grateful to be living up here, as summer is approaching here, and almost no tourists will be crowding us out of our parks, trails, lakes, rivers and roads in peak season. GirdwoodThe solace we’ll all find as Alaskan residents in peak season comes at a steep price: it will be a seemingly endless bloodbath for small businesses and operators up here, as many businesses live on their summer proceeds all year. My travel plans, including a much-anticipated return to the Caucasus, have all been canceled, as have any summer concerts/festivals I had planned on attending. I’ve done a good job in my life with managing my expectations, so I find I feel less disappointment than many others whose lives have been completely disrupted by this.

I began this post in early May, and we’re well into June now. It’s taken me forever to finish the last two books in this list, and it’s primarily because I’ve been adulting hard over the past few months; I’m in the middle of refinancing, I’ve been remodeling my awesome ski condo, and hiking season has begun. I made the unfortunate decision years ago to join my Homeowners Association Board, so I will be increasingly inundated with horribly boring tasks there as well.

For someone who has spent the last decade flying all over the place and spending tons of time and money traveling and moving around (further, visiting many far-flung friends), I’m closing in on three straight months here in Southcentral Alaska, which is pretty unprecedented. Somehow I thought this would be harder — more crippling to my identity — it hasn’t been. In fact, I’ve used some of this time to further scrutinize some of my priorities and friendships, and really pare my life down to people who pull their weight. Reliability didn’t used to matter so much to me; I’m surprised by how much it’s taken a priority, likely due to such incredible (and prolonged) uncertainty, also I think partially because I am alone in a lot of ways up here. I still have yet to dine in a restaurant, despite the Municipality having been open again for weeks, which is definitely a personal record for me. I just don’t feel any desire. I don’t particularly miss flying all over the place; currently it just seems like an enormous hassle. I typically go back to New York a few times a year… I won’t be heading back that way until probably Christmas at the soonest.

And yet, I’m oddly pleased with my life: I took a 20% paycut, I work 4 days a week (I may opt to extend this if given the option… why did I ever think working 5 days a week was ideal?), having all of my summer plans quashed cuts my expenditures by a much greater percentage than the pay I’m losing. I’ve spent my weekends sanding, painting, cleaning, scrubbing, sealing, caulking. I’ve hated it, but I’ve made huge progress, among other things, I’ve eradicated all of the 70s ugly from my living room, including screwing up the mantle the first time and having to sand it down and do it all over again:

Our little Anchorage patio is also coming along nicely, despite a lengthy (cold) spring and a very sudden burst into summer. I admit I am exceptionally fortunate to have anywhere to go beyond where I live most of the time: I typically Airbnb my other place in the summer and have chosen (thus far) to spend my weekends there instead, basking in my own good fortune. Given the current state of the world, anyone who lives in peaceful quarters is fortunate, considering the amount of time people are spending cooped up in their homes. And while I would have probably never embarked upon home repairs if I weren’t stuck up here until further notice, it’s made me feel productive.

Many of my friends have spent this time reflecting on their lives and “looking at themselves,” as the saying goes, and I have as well. These opportunities are some of the silver linings of being holed up alone for so long. I’ve realized I have no desire to leave this state, despite years of waffling; I’ve acknowledged the sheer amount of time and effort I’ve squandered waiting for a few people in my life to wake the fuck up and show up for me; I’ve learned a fair amount of handy shit and it’s been a nice reminder that sometimes I’m a bit lazy and I shouldn’t be, because I can learn really fast. I had set sail my Northeastern-mindset career ambitions a few years back, which was oddly freeing. My life doesn’t have much purpose (at least not in the way workaholic Americans see ‘purpose’). Sounds grim, but it’s actually amazing to just accept it, make good choices and enjoy what you have. I like my job, I like the company I work for. I think an important turning point in my life was realizing one decent job is as good as another; what I do isn’t really any part of my identity. I would work at a sewage treatment plant or on an oil platform if it were the right kind of challenging and kept me interested.

I think over the past few months I’ve stopped striving for some things in my life: stopped waiting for other people, stopped waiting for things to change when I know deep down they won’t, stopped making an effort when it’s clear it gets me nowhere and I will only be disappointed again in the end. I’ve channeled virtually all of my time and effort into things (and people) that will work and pay dividends, and it sounds like a cold and calculating way to live, but it has made me feel a lot more secure and even less reliant on others (wasn’t sure that was possible, but it is). My birthday is around the corner, and last year I was grateful that despite having to cancel my birthday trip to Peru, I could afford to be seen by amazing doctors and obtain relevant information without going broke… this year, 3+ months into a global pandemic, I still feel a lot of gratitude for the life I have. I’d venture to say I even feel some mild pride: I don’t know that there has ever been a time when I’ve felt like the many bizarre decisions I’ve made in my life have paid off so well, and so broadly, and set the stage for a really comfortable, pleasant, mostly un-emotionally-strained experience. We, up here, are watching the rest of the world from very far away; we are an outpost… one that feels incredibly safe considering what is happening in the world’s cities. That doesn’t mean stress doesn’t creep in: many people with autoimmune diseases are having issues with flaring right now, whether they feel emotionally stressed or not, that anxiety manifests in their bodies. It does for me, as well.

Who knows what will happen in the future, and things will surely get worse before they get better, but to an astounding degree I’ve realized that nearly everything I want in my life is here already, or en route, and I’m thankful to be able to give up a lot of extraneous shit (at least, for the time being) I thought was really important to me and still be pretty fulfilled. Our Turkish Airlines tickets will be turned into vouchers, so I’m not about to wander off into the woods and never travel again… for now, I’ll wait. Happily.

And so, the shamefully few books I’ve managed to read lately:

With Their Backs to the Mountains: A History of the Carpathians and Carpatho-Rusyns | This is an unbelievable read. I don’t know that there is any more comprehensive collection of the history of Carpatho-Rusyns than the one in this book, complete with detailed maps for each period and after every border change. It has taken me YEARS to track down all of the information for my own family (my great grandparents emigrated from Kul’chytsi (now in Western Ukraine) in 1913 (good timing, amirite?). My grandparents almost never spoke about it (my grandmother is the Lithuanian Livia Soprano and my grandfather was quiet, kind and died when I was in college). I spent years searching for all of our records; this book definitely filled in the gaps: it’s additionally annoying to track down information as Carpatho-Rusyns are not Ukrainians, and they’ve been absorbed by a slew of empires and borders over the centuries.

Kul'chytsi, approximate

Journey to the End of the Night | This incredible book is filled with loathsome, miserable characters and yet the story is worth reading. From WWI to Africa to factoryland USA, this grotesque journey is somehow both grim and amusing. I laughed out loud at many points… this is a great quarantine book, to be honest. You think your life sucks? Check out this guy. Wikipedia here (it’s a classic). Would definitely recommend.

When: The Secrets of Perfect Timing | I actually loved this guy’s book To Sell is Human, so I decided to throw a business-focused book into the mix. I actually thought this would be more about coincidental good timing and “why” versus doing things at a certain time for better results (pro tip: if you’re having surgery, do it in the morning). This one was not nearly as interesting, but I read it in a few hours so I’m not sure it was a total waste of time. If you’re about living life efficiently, it has some cool pointers, but not his best work. NPR review here.

The Border Trilogy | Jury’s still out on Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy. He has a very distinct style; I loved the first part of the second book in the series, with the wolf. The rest was good; none of them would rank among my favorites of all time (I think culturally this landscape, the people, the values and lifestyles are too far from my own), but I don’t regret reading them for a moment. They’re all unbelievably tragic in different ways. There are some sentences and phrases in these books I’ll never forget… I can’t understate how beautifully he can churn out prose. The section of the second book about the wolf could have been its own separate book. He can paint incredible pictures if you have any kind of imagination, and his books are steeped in beauty and really horrible, soul-crushing solitude.

Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine | This is the second Robert Conquest book I’ve read, and Harvest of Sorrow is no more exciting of a read than his one on resettlement (he’s incredibly dry), but his information is so meticulous I have a ton of respect for him and especially the numbers he managed to compile at the time these books were written. I would only not recommend this book to someone because there are a number of others on the holodomor that are easier to digest (Anne Appelbaum’s Red Famine is by far the best). Conquest has a lot of personal accounts and also a shitload of numbers to look at, which makes it worth diving into if you’re wondering about the sheer scale by region or time period. There are all kinds of numbers in here and it’s pretty astounding he managed to piece it all together at a time when the information was not readily available. Wikipedia here.

I’ve been watching a bit on streaming lately and reading less than is typical for me. I revisited an oldie but goodie (Black Mirror) and while no show for me will top Netflix’s German series Dark, I’ve found a few random things I’ve really enjoyed (these are things I watched at the front of the pandemic, I haven’t been watching anything special lately… mostly revisiting old movies I love).

Red Queen (Prime) | I started watching this on a whim because Amazon kept pushing it on me, and I actually loved it. A lot of the show is made up, as there is not sufficient real information about the main character, Regina Zbarskaya, probably the most famous Soviet model of all time. Because it takes place in the ~60s in the USSR it’s a pretty amazing period piece, and it’s really well-done. Her life was, no surprise, totally tragic. This show is entirely in Russian and TOTALLY worth it.

Manhunt: Unabomber (Netflix) | I actually really liked this, too. I watched another Unabomber documentary (In His Own Words) and that one was pretty lame, but this one was worth it.

Waco (Netflix) | This was another incredible watch; I didn’t get into it at first, but after a few episodes I was hooked. Every American should watch this; for people who aren’t politically inclined, it explains a lot about the bipolar disorder America has in its politics.

Westworld, S01 (HBO) | I was surprised by how much I loved the first season of this show as well; I always considered watching it and never got around to it. Unfortunately I heard the next seasons sucked, so I probably won’t be continuing.

My next post will actually be about intermittent fasting for autoimmune disease, which is a bit boring I suppose, but I started it awhile back and I’ll wrap it up sometime this week.

Pandemic Spring: February & March

I’ve had this WordPress window open for over a month, and daily life is changing so rapidly for so many people that it’s been difficult to nail down a good time to get cracking on this. I’m still unsure of my take on the pandemic unfolding across the world: on one hand, a grotesque curiosity of mine has become a reality in my lifetime, and I watch daily with deep (and admittedly morbid) interest, even as my brother, sister, brother in law and many of my closest friends reside in/near what is currently COVID-19 Ground Zero, NY Metro. Many of my friends have lost their jobs, or are furloughed with more uncertainty than savings. I am quite curious as to how long I will have a job, as I also work in the hospitality/service industry, which is the most grim sector in which to be employed currently. Further, my beloved state will certainly have some deep scars from the double-whammy of COVID-19 and the crash of oil. Alaska is fucked, at least in the short term, and I have no doubt the tourism industry will lose 30% or more of its operators by the time this is over. I actually think this will depopulate the state a fair amount; I am unsure we are capable of recovering from so many consecutive catastrophes… earthquakes… forest fires… government shutdowns… and now a pandemic. I think this kind of chaos will bring some long-term positive change, though, some of which are mentioned in this NY Post article.

As for me, I’ve spent most of my adolescence and adult life fascinated by infectious disease. The single newsletter I read with any regularly is CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases. I’m not surprised this has happened… it was only a matter of time. And even early on, as people poo-poo’ed news out of China of a new virus, I was pretty sure this would be a months-long shit show, upending most of the world, at least temporarily. Lo and behold, here we are. I’m actually not sure life will resume as it was, when this is over. People will act differently. And feel differently. I think a prolonged period punctuated by fear of other people will have deleterious effects on how we function socially, which is already severely stunted in the modern age.

On the positive side (for me), presently, apart from having to cancel a few months of travel plans and not being able to log an hour on the stair machine every day, I’m largely unaffected. I quite like being home, I have an enormous stack of books, I live in a big house in a cool neighborhood (one of Anchorage’s urban moose up the street in the photo on the left) with someone I don’t hate, and I have a cute dog who is enjoying extra exercise. Spring is around the corner, and I eagerly await a snow and ice-free patio so I can reconstruct my Eastside Shangri-la. If we are still on lockdown in the actual summer, I’ll have my ski condo to hang at, at the very least. Life could be a lot worse… there has never been a better time to be an introvert.

That said, I think a part of me has decided I don’t, for the time being, care much for the future. This may be a good skill to have. I only mean that insofar as I am not crippled by anxiety and uncertainty. I had said in the beginning of the year that 2020 would be my year… which will certainly not be the case. I try to balance the sadness I feel for my friends and my industry and the uncertainty I feel for my loved ones’ safety with a sense of gratitude that I’d be pretty OK if I lost my job, I’m not dying of boredom and not particularly miserable as a result of any of these mandated pandemic rules. I do not think the end of this is near. I am not convinced I will remain employed. But, eh. There has always been a silver lining to choosing to bypass my chosen career path for something more versatile… during uncertain times, the field of possibility is much more vast.

In the meantime… I’ve read a ton of random shit over the past two months, and obviously there’s a lot more to come. Reminder that I feel it’s a complete waste of time to write full reviews; I’d sooner expound briefly on whether I liked a book or did not (with some exceptions where I’m inspired to ramble), and link to someone whose job it is to review books. These posts take long enough as it is ffs.

The Price We Pay: What Broke American Healthcare — and How to Fix It | This was a pretty interesting book, and definitely relevant today, in a period of time when tens of thousands of Americans will not only become critically ill, but then be bankrupted by our healthcare system. The author takes a pretty ambitious trip around the country and covers a lot of subject areas — obviously price (and hospital billing) is a big part of it. Our healthcare system is as confusing as it is unfair, and this book was oddly hopeful. Here’s an NPR review/interview. Sounds like a boring topic, no? It’s actually written in a pretty casual tone and the author keeps it interesting.

The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy | Financial Times review here; Economist review here; Foreign Affairs review here. This is one of the most brilliant books I’ve read in years, and that says a lot — I read a lot of excellent stuff. Many of the points in this book are insane in their obviousness, and yet there’s so much in here I had not ever fully constructed in my own head. I will very likely read this again at some point (or at least peruse); I could not get over how many times reading this book I was completely floored by how much sense the authors made. Truly incredible book with a really ambitious topic.

The Elementary Particles | I quite enjoyed this. I had never read anything by Houellebecq before; I don’t think he’s a particularly talented writer, but there were some memorable pieces of this often very depraved story of two brothers. I definitely want to read Whatever, one of his other well-known novels. Quillette has published alternating views of him, but they did cover Elementary Particles here. There’s a more recent article on him here.

The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol | I’m just going to come out and say that I’m not a huge fan of Gogol. This stories are a bit too folksy for me, though in a way I find difficult to describe. There’s something grotesque and surreal about his style I really enjoy… that said I had a really difficult time getting through some of these stories, which often unfold at a very slow pace. Probably worth reading some of his more famous ones if you’re into Russian literature; the entire Collected Tales was a bit too much for me.

The Nation Killers: The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities | I acquired two books by Robert Conquest over the winter: The Nation Killers and Harvest of Sorrow (about the Holodomor). For whatever reason I found this book profoundly depressing; the resettlement campaigns in the USSR were unbelievably cruel. I’m not sure if this strikes me as awful because so many people died living in mud holes in Kazakhstan or if the calculated way people were stripped of their sense of homeland is what is so sad about this… further, that this happened is by no means widely known, and like everything else in Soviet times, countless people died as ghosts, unrecorded… the lucky ones ended up in the death count.

Few books have been written about this, and it’s dry reading for sure, but sometimes reality is more morbid than anything concocted in the imagination. Such is the case here. I took a photo of a map that shows to a small extent the absurdity. The book goes so far as to explain why they did this, which makes sense (in a sick way, of course), though I am somewhat sympathetic to their wariness of nationalism. So many things that transpired in this country are so mind-blowingly cruel and were also so successful in destroying millions of people, literally and figuratively. There’s some disjointed information on Wikipedia about these resettlements. Much, much moreso than dark classics like Kolyma Tales, this deportation — the scale of horror that was never fully uncovered and is now lost in history — is nightmare material for me.

My Struggle, Book 6 | I can’t fully express how it feels to have finally finished this series, after beginning it over two years ago while living in Fairbanks. I have listened to the Audible version of this book all over the world, on a lot of airplanes, while living in different houses, in different parts of Alaska. As this is an autobiography of sorts, I’d say it is much like a person: there are good parts, bad parts, boring parts, annoying parts. Book 6 returned to a lot of the thoughts the author had in the beginning of this series; Book 6’s lengthy part on Hitler was not good… even if it were, I don’t find Hitler (or Mein Kampf) nearly as interesting as he does: Mein Kampf is one of the shittiest books by one of history’s villains I’ve ever read… even Stalin is better, and Stalin was also a dreadful writer. I was struck by a sort of irony with Hitler with regard to the importance of the individual — this entire series revolved around the immensity of a single person, the sheer multitude of thought wrapped up in one person’s life, his experience, his actions… to end the book focusing on a man who only valued some individuals with the right racial makeup is strange indeed. Further, Karl Ove, despite writing this and many other books, has accomplished little in his life, though he has ‘done’ a lot (otherwise what would he fill 3600 pages with?) and that I suppose is part of the story as well… to what extent is someone expected to provide any kind of value to the world?

Ultimately I’m pleased I managed to claw my way through this gargantuan series: my feelings for this author run the gamut. You get to the end and you feel as though you know him; I also came away with a feeling that I would love to have a conversation with him, but I’m unsure I would say I “like” him. I admire his ability to expose himself, his cowardice, his poor decisions, the monotony and selfishness that overwhelms him at times. This was an impressive series, though Book 6 received tepid reviews: New York Times here and Slate here. I felt the entire series was hit or miss, but it was much more hit than miss, and the boring parts were worth the struggle for the nights I, lying in bed, sat straight up and said “WHAT??” and hit the 30-sec rewind to listen to a beautiful thought, or an incredible passage, 2, 3, 4 times. Last note, the Audible version of this is incredible… so incredible in fact that I already purchased all 4 of his recent seasons books (which are much shorter) just to continue to listen to Edoardo Ballerini.

Transparent Things | This is another book I really just did not get into. It’s short, so I finished it, but I found it pretty boring. None of the characters were particularly likable. The New York Times’ archive has a great review; it seems they saw a lot more in it than I did. Most of the reviews end in general admiration for Nabokov (this Guardian review is one); I concur, but this book was nowhere near his best work.

Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia | The author of this book was a correspondent for NPR, apparently, and the book is interesting because her material comes out of her experiences in Chelyabinsk. The book is mostly a series of human interest stories with characters she meets in the city; post-Soviet identity (or lack thereof) is I think really difficult for Western people to understand; she does a really good job of explaining the roots of conflict. There are a lot of kinds of books people write to explain Russia: books about what happened, and books about what people feel about what happened, and this is the latter. Easy, quick read, super insightful. Would recommend. Foreign Affairs review here; YaleGlobal Online here; CS Monitor here.

Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs | I saw an interview with this guy on Joe Rogan and decided to read his book, seeing as how there’s pretty much no better time in history to do so. I’ve read some awesome pandemic books over the years; my favorite is probably Spillover, which features a cornucopia of diseases… this one primarily focuses on influenza and whatever is coming next, though he talks about HIV, TB, malaria and others briefly as well. Definitely a good read for anyone living in coronavirus times. Here’s a review from NIH… didn’t know that was a thing.

Marina Abramović: Walk Through Walls | I was pleased to see this on a shelf facing me at Powell’s in Portland a few months back; I’ve encountered her work throughout my life and having been somewhat familiar with her, I was still taken aback by the end of this book, by her ability to put her pain and suffering in the forefront in a way it for whatever reason really resonated with me. I read this and A Hero of Our Time simultaneously, and by the time I finished both books I was depressed af. Her work is incredible; the trajectory of her life is pretty interesting as well, and her romantic endeavors add so much depth to her (particularly in terms of suffering). I didn’t find this memoir to be particularly well-written, but she’s an artist, not a writer, and it was definitely worth the time. Truly fascinating person.

A Hero of Our Time | This is me, saving the best for last. How has it taken me 35 years to read this unbelievable book? The odd organization of events was difficult at first (the end of the book is really the beginning, and then it flashes back in diary entries)… I was completely amazed by the depth of the main character and how (especially these days) I identify so deeply with his feelings on life, namely in it being completely meaningless, endeavors often completely pointless, with the lack of reconciliation between how he acts and how he feels, with his deeply conflicted nature overall. I will never forget the part, toward the end, where his horse collapses as he is riding after Vera, and has this incredible opportunity to make a difference in his life, a grand gesture (maybe) and asks himself, “for what?” And lies down and sobs. He wanders off and eventually dies. All of this emptiness against the backdrop of the Caucasus, which are so vividly and incredibly developed in this book. I think something I also found interesting is how much the ethnic groups of the region all hate each other (Cossacks, Ossetians, Tatars, Circassians / Kabardians, Georgians, etc.), how diverse and strange (and beautiful) that part of the world is. I think this may be one of my favorite books of all time. I rewound, re-listened, and I’m grateful to have found a little copy recently that I can tuck into a bag if I choose to peruse it; I’ve realized other people rarely re-read books, but I go back to ones I love regularly. I loved some parts of this book so much that I screenshot passages from Google Books while lying in bed listening. This is a really unbelievable read.

Re-reads:

Heart of Darkness | I had forgotten until I nearly completed this post that en route to Hawaii, I listened to Heart of Darkness in its entirety. It had been a long time; and I often expect to not be as enamored by a book the second time around as the first; that is rarely if ever the case. Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim are both brilliant — Conrad seems to be difficult for people to digest, or too dry, or something. It has always been disappointing to read about his supposed racism, which I never saw in the book: to me this was always about the fear of the unknown, the evolutionary fear of darkness (not blackness, but darkness) and the fear of things different than you. The way it’s written paints a nightmarish but often beautiful and mysterious portrait of the Congo, and the narrator in the end is forever changed by his experience, and his perception of civilization as he knew it prior to his trip is forever changed. Both books: Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim have bizarre analyses — I saw Lord Jim as much more about shame than free will and determinism. Heart of Darkness scarcely seemed racist to me at all: it was a product of colonialism, and if anything the narrator was more sympathetic to the natives (he had much more curiosity than contempt) than anyone else in the novel. I noticed many years ago that someone used an excerpt (one of the better known ones) in a tourism video for Malaysia. Pretty cool. Vimeo link here.

That’s all for now. Trying to keep these monthly moving forward (or more frequent) since there’s not much else going on.

Post-publish addition, I’m incredibly grateful to have squeezed in a beautiful week on Maui before this all transpired. At the very least the travel ban took place for me immediately after a very active early 2020… one of countless reasons for a lot of gratitude, despite present circumstances.

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