April Showers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life at 5279′

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slava Ukraini (I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Countdown

I rolled back into town around 2:30am on Friday after two weeks of sheer insanity. Two delayed flights, and sitting on the tarmac for nearly 30 minutes in Anchorage (for the first time ever, actually), I was simmering with frustration and fatigue until I opened the back door of my roommate’s truck and my dog popped out to greet me.

I have roughly two weeks to figure out the rest of the logistics of this move. While in Chicago, I signed an 18-month lease on an awesomely perfect place in the northeast-of-downtown Berkeley neighborhood. The exorbitant rent at least includes lawn care, trash, recycling, a sizable fenced yard for the dog, and a garage. It’s a 28 min bus ride to downtown, which will probably be my primary go-to option to spare myself the annoyance of paying for parking and sitting in traffic. Given that the corporate office policy is “work from the office roughly half the time,” I’m committed to creating a really nice space for myself at home as well. While many of my coworkers are bitching and moaning about being recalled to the office a few days a week beginning in mid-January, it’s amusing to me that I’m giving up my remote life to willingly do so. I did decide after a week or two of this new job that living with a roommate should be a backup plan at most; I will need a lot of quiet time to buffer the constant Zoom calls and social interaction required.

I’m still waffling on what to do with Fuji’s transport, though I’ve priced out doing the trip myself via road and road-ferry, and the upcharge for paying someone else to make this journey in my truck with her is not actually much. My moving quotes are coming in under my expectations, and every step of this that I knock out alleviates my anxiety. Arranging for my furniture, vehicle, dog and myself to arrive in Denver in the same 6 day period between two holidays is a pain in the ass, but I’m pretty sure I can (mostly) pull it off.

My first stop of the past two weeks was San Diego, where I got out and about less than I intended. Save the first night there, the trip wasn’t really worth the time or effort: I hate California, especially its cities’ downtown areas, which are full of hobos and crazy people, even in San Diego at this point. sfsickoI can understand the appeal of living in CA if you can live somewhere that allows you to conveniently ignore the gross mismanagement of the homeless, but I think this is one of the most poorly managed places in the country, filled to the brim with hypocrites who will lecture anyone about how to live and yet allow people to shit on sidewalks in broad daylight. California seems to operate on the assumption that homeless people have more rights than people who have housing, jobs and lack drug problems, and I find this both insane and revolting. I admit my perception is heavily influenced by trips to downtown San Francisco and LA. I find myself increasingly disgusted by the entire West Coast in terms of cities, and these downtown plights have spread to Seattle and most notably Portland, OR in recent years. Not going to say much more about the books I’ve been reading, but I started and finished Michael Shellenberger’s San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities while there, and it was a great read, albeit probably woefully unpopular with the progressive crowd. After all these years, I don’t see myself as a particularly political person, but I am a person who asks myself if things work, and what these cities are doing and have been doing for many years is not working. It is complete madness to me that this kind of wokeness broadly robs many groups of their agency with its victimology, and yet awards seemingly infinite rights to people who very often have little if any agency whatsoever (namely people with addictions and serious mental illnesses).

I continued to Vegas, which was absolutely overrun with people. You wouldn’t know the world was in the long-tail of a global pandemic. I did not expect it to be as insanely busy as it was, though it was awesome to be there. We stayed at the new Resorts World, which was way too far from the Strip in my opinion, but it was nice to stay in a brand new hotel. innoutI don’t do a whole lot of typical Vegas stuff; I like to wander around and watch people, dabble on the slot machines, eat good food. Unfortunately all of this travel quickly following being as sick as I was has created some annoying challenges over the past two weeks, and I unfortunately had a (somewhat rare at this point) syncope episode and hit the floor on day 2. I seem to be predisposed to passing out, especially from heat, so that was fucking embarrassing. It hasn’t happened for many years, so I am a bit rusty on catching myself; I was horrified at the prospect of people thinking I was drunk, when I was actually just hot and dehydrated, and as soon as I hit the floor I wake back up, so… oops. Unfortunately the consequence of that beyond having to explain to paramedics that no, I don’t need an ambulance, thank you, is that I’m afraid of it happening again, so I’m happy I was with my roommate and my other friend there. I think I still may have a bit of an electrolyte imbalance. It did not happen a second time, and I had a lot of fun regardless.

I had a quick ~24h turnaround in Anchorage, and then left for Chicago, which was awesome. chicagoWhen I started at this company, I had to go to a conference shortly after onboarding, and it was overwhelming (but fun). Virtually every role change is baptism by fire, and after being up here in AK alone for so long I was starting to doubt the breadth of my social skills leading up to a week in one of our giant metro offices. I was shocked by how stoked I was to be there and around other people, though there’s a limit to how much socializing I can take: I left our very large happy hour the last night a bit earlier than my peers after the volume and the sheer amount of people there started to feel exhausting. I’m grateful for my social muscle memory, and I think the week went well considering it was three long, long days of planning meetings and interacting with entirely new people. Especially after this past week (and signing my lease) I’m over the moon to press on with my life and my career. I can definitely do this, and cope with all of these changes. I love my new peer group: they are all extremely competent and, perhaps more importantly, different from each other, and from me. I feel like I am on an equivalent level of competence, and many of the challenges we have to solve together in 2022 are difficult ones. I will learn a lot, and will have to do so quickly.

This time next month, I’ll be in New York, with only tentative plans to return to Alaska after Christmas: I’d prefer to fly straight to Denver. I have in reality less than 3 weeks here, as I plan to also spend 4-5 days in Denver in the beginning of December. I genuinely hope my entire plan is buttoned up by the end of this coming week. The level of excitement I feel to move on is unexpected, but I am sure at times I will feel a lot more melancholy about this decision.

That’s all for now… I’m currently chugging through Steven Pinker’s Rationality, which is long-winded but good, though I’m familiar with most of this material already.

July, so far.

I’ve amassed so much content for July that I’m posting this before the end of the month; my parents are flying in on Tuesday night, and it’ll be only the second time this summer I’ve gone out and done any Alaska things, particularly the first trip up to Denali, which in previous years has always been in May/June.  Today was also the first hike up Alyeska, which used to be a daily affair… I’m surprised by my fitness level; while I spend nearly an hour on the stair mill most days of the week, it’s usually not sufficient training for hiking up an actual mountain. Surprisingly, today my heart rate barely rose enough for me to earn any Fitbit active minutes: a good and bad problem to have, good because you’re in decent physical shape, bad because you need to push yourself harder. It’s been raining a lot up here, and the humidity fucks with my joints, as much as I appreciate rain over wildfires. patio

It’s been a generally challenging summer for a number of reasons: we have no help in the hospitality industry, and anyone who is working in this industry is working twice+ as hard. Restaurants require reservations or have long wait times; everywhere is overcrowded. Alaska is crowded already in the summer, and over-tourism has become more of a struggle every year. That, combined with inadequate staffing levels and an unbelievable lack of patience of people visiting has created really unpleasant working conditions.

After opening my condo up on Airbnb, I’m sold out for most of the summer season; I’m grateful for the opportunity to compensate for lost wages during COVID, but because I manage, clean and maintain it myself, I now have even less free time than I usually do. I’ve made a few thousand dollars on Turo as well, though I don’t expect to continue that at this time… after weeks of mulling, 10986964_10103331468477270_2700687044414104837_o_10103331468477270I sold my beloved STI and bought a Toyota 4Runner, if for no other reason than to (a) capitalize on the high resale value of my car before the odometer was too high and (b) because my Alaska exit strategy will require a larger turbo-free vehicle that won’t blow a (literal) gasket on me on the Alcan.

I’m surprised by how unemotional the entire process was; I bought my first WRX in 2008 in New Hampshire, and bought my STI in 2015 up here. They are the only two cars I have ever outright owned, both manual transmission, and I have loved every moment of driving each of them. I nearly cried when I turned in my WRX for the STI; that car had been with me longer at that point in time than any person had; I had driven it to the easternmost tip of the continent (St. John’s, Newfoundland; photo to the right is the Bonavista Peninsula, where John Cabot landed in 1497) and then drove it to Alaska. It had 140,000 miles on it. I still see it on the road in Anchorage. I have covered virtually the entire road system of this state with those two vehicles, and the STI was a wonderful companion for my years as a road warrior. It is truly the end of an era. But it feels like the end of a lot of things is on the horizon.

Another reason I switched vehicles is that I’m not convinced this microchip shortage will end anytime soon, despite what we’re told by the media. I had originally planned to hold out for the 2022 STI, which I do not believe will be released anywhere near its target date. So, that’s done. I wish I felt more enthusiasm about it, but meh. I am making some modest changes to the 4Runner that will get it to where I want it to be aesthetically so that may help. I tell myself if I feel too much FOMO in the future, I can go buy another STI… and tow it with the 4Runner if need be. Win win.

I think this is also part of a continuing process of divorcing myself from material possessions with any meaning; it happened naturally with my condo, and I think is largely a consequence of my closest friend up here moving to Idaho… it does not feel the same to be there anymore. I think to some degree I also stopped caring about the car, at least to the level I had in the past; I hit a point where it became more of a source of anxiety than a pleasure. I realize this is something suicidal people do (give away all their worldly possessions): that is definitely not the case with me. I shared how emotionally dissociative I’ve been lately with a friend of mine in Fairbanks and he suggested that I may have transcended in a way, and as absurd and funny as that sounds, I think there is some truth in that. I have been in the zone 24/7 lately. I feel mostly nothing but the process itself, the accomplishment of individual tasks that are part of a larger series, and that might not be such a bad thing.

And so, alongside the juggling of various endeavors, I have been chugging through books, podcasts and even some good video content. I have struggled to get into podcasts, and it’s taken months of forcing myself to listen to them to really adapt, but I think I am finally there.

Continue reading

Year 37

It’s been a whirlwind week and change up here, and July came up quickly. It’ll be a busy month; I decided to add another level of challenge for myself and make it a dry month. I haven’t been drinking much in general, but figured I could use a month to focus on other things, read more, further increase my productivity, spare myself some calories, etc. Thanks to the sharing economy, Turo and Airbnb will net me a few thousand dollars extra this July… I finished both major house projects on time and have a few weeks vacant, I ended up deciding to turn on that revenue stream too. I don’t love vacation-renting my condo, and I exclusively list on Airbnb despite working for its competitor, but I have found Airbnb guests to be ridiculously clean and respectful.

I had a pretty great birthday / weekend. halibut_coveMy friends wanted to head out to Halibut Cove the following day, and I’m glad I went… my first trip there 5 years ago was underwhelming but we had a great experience and really good weather. I’ve spent quite a few birthdays down in Homer, and it never disappoints. Alaska is also overrun with tourists, which is frustrating for residents who have to jockey for meals and hotel rooms and deal with traffic, but much-needed here economically. It’s hard to believe we’re nearly halfway through the summer (July 15 is about the median). Much like every summer up here, it’ll be over before we all know it.

bathroomI’ll skip the retrospective on the past year of my life; it’s been a long and challenging one, but I’m on a gradual upswing. I am pretty pleased with the amount of tasks accomplished thus far this summer; my bathroom was completed before my friends got to my place and that was truly a miracle. Things are slowly falling into place, and hopefully that continues. My company unveiled some much-needed changes to our workflow that will guarantee a better experience in my present position if I don’t end up relocating.

It was nice to have people visiting who give a shit about things other than fishing and coasting through life… every so often I’ll reach an oasis of deep conversations in this existential and intellectual desert. It’s bothered me for some time that the shock of Trump has yet to wear off. I’ve reflected a lot over the past few years, watching my own family fall prey to this ‘us vs. them’ stuff blaring on the news… I think I’ve largely been spared because I gave up on fitting in early in life, and I completely reject ideology and really resist the urge to stereotype people. I regularly give a girl on my work team a bunch of shit for generalizing “Republicans” as the overarching enemy… I do the same with my conservative friends who bitch about every Democrat being woke. People are unbelievably tribal (for good evolutionary reasons) and we’re hard-wired to draw lines in the sand and think this way about each other — especially people who are different in some measurable way — I really hate it. I am even more resistant to this stuff after living in Alaska, a place deemed a major Trump-land which in reality is probably the most tolerant place I’ve encountered in my life, perhaps because most people up here have realized that life is for living, not arguing about politics. What’s happening across society makes me particularly sad for younger people, who seem to have so little sense of personal identity that they’ve adopted these political affiliations as the core of who they are. The amount of progressive ex-friends I’ve collected simply by disagreeing is pretty astounding and disappointing (this is a pretty well researched phenomenon: article here). Thankfully most of my closest friends are still in my life, I’d imagine because we’ve all come to the same conclusion — that political views are not a be-all, end-all, that a vote cast for another candidate or party is still a vote cast by a human being, and it’s absurd to try to peel complex, multifaceted and often confusing humans down which lever they pull in a voting booth. My juxtaposing interests and hobbies seem to have set me up to not fall prey to this to the same extent it seems to hit a lot of other people, and I like listening to contrarian points of view, whether they’re woke af or ultra conservative. I especially appreciated an apparently oddly timed birthday conversation about diversity and inclusion and what seem to be two separate generations of women in the corporate world, so I felt like that really shed some light on some of the stuff I struggle with presently (I tend to agree on the problem statements, but not so much the solutions chosen). I’m also really blown away by their experience living in the Catskills/Hudson Valley; and maybe I should accept growing up there I was just totally blind to whatever racism existed in that region, because I never heard or saw a damn thing, despite the fairly diverse makeup of my own school. If there was any kind of skepticism about diversity where I lived that I witnessed, it was toward the Hasidic Jews, who often left garbage out for the bears instead of taking it to the transfer station, resulting in constant frustration for everyone who lived there full time. That’s the full extent of anything even close to racism I ever encountered, though I also admit that I grew up with parents with two different religious and political affiliations. As kids we had to figure out what to believe 100% of the time. I often think about the clip in one of the Indiana Jones movies where he’s separated from his group and he stops and says “everyone’s lost but me!” Maybe that’s more relatable than I realized years ago.

I did knock out an extra book over the last week and I also dream_poolfinally pulled the trigger and bought 5 prints from Jared Pike’s Dream Pool series which I can’t wait to receive and hang up… I saw these online months ago and have been totally obsessed with them. I want to stare at them all day.

Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement | noiseI don’t have much good to say about this book, to be honest… I was surprised by how bored I was with the material, possibly because I’ve read a lot about this before. The Economist reviewer was equally unimpressed, but it got a good review in the NY Times. I loved Thinking Fast & Slow, and am a huge Kahneman admirer overall… I also loved Nudge and Conformity (Cass Sunstein) and will probably listen to his Audible lectures at some point. They put forward a ton of interesting examples of noise and decision making in different disciplines and there’s a lot of info in this surprisingly long book for what is really a pretty simple idea. The book just seemed very long and overly detailed, but completely devoid of mind-blowing moments.

That’s about it for the time being.

Last days of year 36: May/June

It was easy to conceive of being able to post in this thing once monthly when life was moving at a COVID pace; it’s unbelievable how quickly some things have gone back to normal, and how my life has gone from chill af to a hectic hellscape of shit to do. In the past month, idahoI’ve visited friends in Los Angeles and Idaho, work has ramped up precipitously, my condo has again been relinquished by my tenant, and I’ve been otherwise overwhelmed with externalities. My trip to Idaho was one of the highlights of the past few months… I’ve really missed my close friend who moved there last July, and it was awesome to slam through some hikes with her. The Sandpoint / Coeur d’Alene area is awesome. Even took some frigid dips in multiple lakes.

It feels amazing to get out and do things. It feels amazing to not wear a mask everywhere and to be able to see peoples’ faces, to not have to maneuver around everyone’s anxiety. The fog of fear and paranoia is slowly lifting, and I am really pleasantly surprised; I expected this crisis to drag on for a few months longer than it has, at least up here (and in the US). 

It’s been a cold spring in AK, and only in the past few weeks has the weather warmed up to normal temperatures. My Anchorage plants haven’t exactly been thriving, and I’ve been hustling back and forth in an attempt to complete two renovation projects by the time my first batch of friends/family visit… unlikely to happen thanks to a long wait for materials. I chose to paint my ugly wood cabinets this summer, and I’m torn on whether it was a good choice or not. Painting cabinets is a famously challenging and tedious ordeal, even for people who love painting (not me. I hate painting). cabinetsThat said, as I slowly reassemble them, I’m reasonably happy with how they look. One of the reasons I’ve chosen to do these things myself is because I know they won’t be perfect and I have to learn to accept my own fuck-ups and not obsess over them forever. I’ve come a long way from being a control freak perfectionist to being (as I am now) mildly frustrated with the fact that the output isn’t professional-level quality. Also, a pro-level cabinet job costs around $5000. While my time is valuable, my materials cost has been approximately $200.

My life (and its locale) may be changing sooner than I expected, which is adding onto my pile of anxiety, but could potentially be really exciting and cool, and I feel ready in my head and otherwise emotionally to jump ship up here if the opportunity is offered to me. For the time being, the next few months will be filled with friends and family, and a lot of time outside in the sun. Managed to spurn a new side hustle or two, including listing my car on Turo for a surprising amount of money, thanks to the national rental car shortage.

The transition from managing a fair amount of down time to what was previously normal has been pretty draining, to be honest. I’ve been staring at this unfinished blog post for weeks now, and my book blips will be even shorter than usual, but I have read some great ones lately. I’ve done a lot of shit lately.

It’s my birthday next week: never a particularly exciting thing for me, but this year I truly feel like I’ve aged. I feel fucking old. It’s a strange dichotomy as I also like myself more every year as my confidence and wisdom grow. I’ve really enjoyed the experience of aging, which in this country is more often than not seen as a process of falling apart in a multitude of ways. I also somehow feel as though I’ve been through hell and back this year, and I suspect many people feel that way: it’s a year that I’m very glad has passed, filled with disappointment and bummers and even a few small disasters. I’ve made quite a lot of the collective misfortune of COVID, and I’ll be stepping away from the worst of this era with a lot of lessons learned.

2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything | 2030I feel like I read this book so long ago at this point that I don’t even remember all of the chapters, but it was a good one a friend and I read together. No particularly big surprises. I skipped the last chapter on crypto, because I am super tired of reading and hearing about cryptocurrency. Review in Publishers Weekly here.

Alone | aloneThis is a circumpolar classic that I began in the winter and then set down and lost track of; I love the writing style, and a lot of it is in the form of a journal, sometimes written while Byrd is sick from carbon monoxide poisoning. His experience underground in Antarctica taking instrument readings sounds horrible and definitely puts being stuck at home watching Netflix during COVID in perspective. After many, many years of reading Arctic and Antarctic expedition novels (and others, even stories of Everest climbers, explorers, etc) it’s crazy to really conceptualize how tough people were back then. There was simply no alternative.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know | thinkagainI’ve loved everything Adam Grant has written, particularly Give and Take, and Think Again is as good if not better than that one (his other book, Originals, was also OK. A good OK, but not as compelling, though I may reread it sometime soon). A lot of the source material and anecdotal information is worth following down the rabbit hole: I watched Accidental Courtesy as well, a documentary about a black guy who befriends white supremacists and ends up changing their opinions. I sent myself a few quotes to include, both for quality and to avoid having to write more, but I recommended this book to my work team, our leaders, many of my friends, etc. Further, I was pleased to see this book covered in Quillette, so linking to that here.

‘Who you are should be a question of what you value, not what you believe. Values are your core principles in life—they might be excellence and generosity, freedom and fairness, or security and integrity. Basing your identity on these kinds of principles enables you to remain open-minded about the best ways to advance them. You want the doctor whose identity is protecting health, the teacher whose identity is helping students learn, and the police chief whose identity is promoting safety and justice. When they define themselves by values rather than opinions, they buy themselves the flexibility to update their practices in light of new evidence.’

‘The ideal members of a challenge network are disagreeable, because they’re fearless about questioning the way things have always been done and holding us accountable for thinking again. There’s evidence that disagreeable people speak up more frequently—especially when leaders aren’t receptive—and foster more task conflict. They’re like the doctor in the show House or the boss in the film The Devil Wears Prada. They give the critical feedback we might not want to hear, but need to hear. Harnessing disagreeable people isn’t always easy. It helps if certain conditions are in place. Studies in oil drilling and tech companies suggest that dissatisfaction promotes creativity only when people feel committed and supported—and that cultural misfits are most likely to add value when they have strong bonds with their colleagues.’

The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago, and How We Can Do It Again | upswingI’m not completely finished with this book yet, but this also gets a standing ovation for the inclusion of data instead of just anecdotes and hypotheses with no hard backing. To be clear, this book does not offer solid answers, nor does it contain solutions to the decisiveness in modern American society; and some of the data (like searching Google’s book databases for uses of “we” vs “I” over time) is a bit dodgy. That said, for someone who constantly wonders why things happen and where we’re all heading together, this is well worth the time (his first book, Bowling Alone, is a prerequisite, only in the sense that if you haven’t read it and care about this kind of stuff, you should, and then read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities). Review of The Upswing in Harvard Magazine here.

The Fall of Hyperion | fallofhyperionMy Bolt Thrower software engineer buddy from NY and I are still chipping away at Hyperion, and we’re on book 2, though I am only about 1/3 of the way through, this one is far less appealing than the first. I suspect the rest of this series will be a let-down versus the first book, which injected all of the context and built the characters and plot. But I’m (slowly) enjoying it, for the most part.

Otherwise, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts from Jordan Peterson, Jocko Willink, Quillette. Have watched Sharp Objects (A-), Mare of Eastown (A+) and getting through The Night Of on streaming. Quiet Place 2 was great. While I was in LA, we saw the new Saw movie (solely to see something in the Chinese theatre), which was also surprisingly good, though Chris Rock isn’t really suited for serious roles. 

Up next in books will be Noise by Daniel Kahneman; Outline by Rachel Cusk (reading by request of someone else); The Frontlines of Peace, about the failures of UN peacekeeping missions; a biography of Gorbachev and some others. Also planning on reading Thomas Picketty’s latest; I read Capital in the 21st Century despite a lot of skepticism and feeling that it was largely against my values/beliefs. It gave me a lot to think about. I’m curious about his new one as well.

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. 

The Cheating Culture

I read an article in the New York Times recently about the experience of being single in the pandemic. The article itself was unexceptional, except for one small paragraph:

Mr. Fein, who lives by himself, said he had learned he was “a lot more resilient than I thought I was,” but all the time he spent alone invited uncomfortable questions: What decisions led him there? What could he have done differently? When will things change?

I have thought this many times over the past months (not the last question, because who the fuck knows) but I have not asked myself this question as it relates to my relationship status. Mine is a broader question, about how I arrived here, where I am, morally. Mine is a question of values, and if anything my reflections on the topic have led me to believe that, at least for me, relationship status is the least of my worries.

I came across a Washington Post article recently as well about the pandemic forcing people to reevaluate their friendships. And I think this is largely true, for many people. But beyond that, I’d say the combination of Trump’s departure, the numerous stimulus payments and the pandemic have presented an amazing opportunity to see people for who they are. And while I’m caught in the now-daily dichotomy of seeing people post anti-“rich people” memes on Facebook and hearing about how those who received stimulus checks squandered them on vacations and electronics, something more interesting unfolded recently, for me, that has bothered me so immensely that I figured I’d blog about it. In fact it pissed me off so much that I talked to my parents about it… and I’m not a “talk to my parents about what’s bothering me” kind of person, but given their long history of witnessing my stubbornness I figured they might assuage my displeasure by telling me I’m wrong, or it’s not that bad. I was raised by brutally honest people, and there were no platitudes for me. As a kid, I hated this; I always felt they could have been nicer. As an adult, I appreciate and have inherited their pragmatism and disinterest in bullshitting.

I have a very small friend group here in Alaska. It’s not that I don’t like people; I do, or more specifically I am very interested in people. But anywhere I have ever lived I have maintained a small, close circle, because to put it plainly I have always had a hard time choking down other people’s often-shitty values. I have been — I would say, at this point — cursed by an inability to roll over when I feel like someone else is in the (morally) wrong. It explains so much of my life: my career trajectory, my other friends pursuing work in finance and big pharma and me going to work in hospitality (not to say there isn’t corruption everywhere). I have kept working for the same corporation for six years now, not because I am afraid to be unemployed or I could not find another job, but because they have not done anything shitty enough for me to not be a part of their enterprise, and I still believe in their mission statement. I could never work for anyone whose purpose I did not believe in; I could not peddle pharmaceuticals as part of an industry I despise; I could not marry a person for the wrong reasons no matter how much financial security I stood to gain. And I could never keep friends with shady morals around… and people are fucking shady these days, everywhere, all the time, so I have few friends. I cherish the people who have remained my friends for many years and have never crossed the line, and I have so pared down my social interactions that I did not expect to have to toss one of my few friends out of my life recently, but it happened anyway. Few things in my life are black and white, but I have nearly abandoned decade-long friendships over people crossing this one line. No one has immunity.

This person lied in a fantastical way, and will be paid handsomely for it for the rest of his life. Worse, he called me to gloat. And I am a big picture person: I don’t so much care about his individual choices as I care about the “why” — why is this behavior acceptable? (I also care about the fact that I invested time and effort into our friendship over many years only to be shocked by this, and it undermines my confidence in people as a whole). But I feel a more pressing need to make sense of the world I live in… and in talking to numerous other people, it seems like this behavior is far from surprising. In fact, it’s almost completely normalized. I for one am horrified by this, despite the rampant cheating and lying I’ve seen in my 36 years. And over the past week I’ve oscillated between wishing I were different and wondering how the fuck we got here, where it’s okay to lie and cheat and get paid for it. And brag about it.

I am an incredibly stubborn person. I have only ever met one other person as stubborn as I am, and I love him for it as much as we argue regularly. Many of my closest friends and my siblings are unbelievably stubborn as well. Stubbornness is a turnoff to a lot of people; I find it endearing more often than not, likely because I understand it. At any point in my life I would’ve rather lost everything than compromised my core values, and I have lost plenty for this: but I have always told myself that what I gain from being like this is that I like myself, and I respect myself. I hold myself accountable for being totally judgmental and unreasonable and sometimes totally insane at times, because I am just as fucked up as anyone else. I’ve lived my entire life the way I have to answer one question: how far can someone get if they are brutally honest, if they don’t lie, cheat or cut corners, if they are just as genuine as possible? I have gotten pretty far: not millionaire mansion far, but everything I have in my life I’ve earned myself and I have built my entire life on my own. Maybe more importantly, I truly like who I’ve become, which is a pipe dream for a lot of people these days, sadly. I have a lot of quality in my life. And I think that’s what’s most important.

I am where I am despite the unbelievable dishonesty and cheating surrounding me every step of the way: I still remember my classmates’ parents turning in fake doctors’ notes to get them more time to take the SAT. I remember being beaten out for valedictorian at my very small high school because someone else’s parents’ cried foul at weighted grading… so she graduated first in my class because her 100 in ceramics trumped my 96 in AP Calc (I had to teach myself the material, then pass the AP exam, because the teacher was not qualified and we spent our classes watching Lord of the Rings). This single episode in my life bothered me for so many years, it’s almost embarrassing to admit, because it was a day in my life I realized how fucking unfair life is even when you follow the rules… a bitter truth to choke down at 17 on the cusp of college. I won nearly every scholarship my modest high school offered that day, including an enormous annual award that paid most of my tuition… but I could not be #1 because I chose harder courses. Fucked up. 

I remember showing up at my shiny private university, one that I had sacrificed equally attractive and much more affordable options to attend, and my roommate telling me her father had called in a favor for her to get in despite her shitty grades; he was an alum and had sent a hefty donation. She spent her weekends at her family’s beach house in Gloucester: I stayed in Boston, ripping dollars in half to take the T to work and trying to figure out how to graduate early because I could not afford to do all four years (spoiler alert, I graduated a year early, ironically thanks to Harvard). I always tell people that no one will admit this, but we’re all flailing through life with no idea what we are doing, and so many times throughout my own I’ve just stopped and asked myself, “WTF am I doing?” Most act like they always knew what they were doing… they didn’t. No one does.

College was followed by years of supervisors stealing credit for my work to move up the ladder, or undermining me because they were threatened; attempts further down the road at being plied with money and bonuses and heliski trips to turn the other cheek all foiled because I just could not roll over or submit; fast forward over a decade, and I remember being passed over for the promotion I was up for, after grueling years for this company, because I didn’t kiss enough ass or play the game the way the girl who got promoted did. I was the much stronger performer, the better technical expert. But she pretended… and I just can’t. That’s not to mention the multiple relationships ending in cheating and outright lies, men who I believed I knew only to realize I had always seen people as better than they were. I expected people to be honest, because I am. They rarely are. 

Perhaps that’s why I feel so let down when I realize one of my own — one of my carefully chosen friends — resorts to this behavior. And living in a world ripe with cheaters and liars is lonely to say the least. But if nothing else, this recent episode has shown me that I am still who I am, and I still refuse to waste time on shitty people, no matter how many months I have spent alone in this house. My mother had mentioned a book to me months ago that I actually read in its entirety today, The Cheating Culture, and I’d say after reading it I feel better but I also feel worse, because this is simply the world we live in. We live in an age of dishonesty, and those who participate reap huge rewards. 

I always felt that it’d be better to live surrounded by truth, no matter how shitty the truth can be at times: I have always desperately needed things to be real. It gets harder and harder as I get older to find where that truth exists. I shared with someone else that when I was talking to a therapist, he said something interesting — something I think about regularly — that he couldn’t find much of a pattern in my interactions with people and was stumped overall clinically, but that in every friendship or relationship I had been in, if the other person broke a certain rule, I was done and never looked back. It took me until the end of 2020 to figure out what that rule is: it’s an assumed alignment between who you portray yourself as and who you really are. If there is a disparity, goodbye forever. And so, goodbye forever to a friend of many years. Sorry not sorry.  

January 2021

January is a shitty month. I haven’t felt that way about this particular month prior to this year: I always hated grey, cold, soggy November more than brittle, dark January… but January 2021 seems to have earned discontent from nearly everyone I know. I’d imagine fresh off the pandemic-fueled loneliness of the holidays, January has felt as much like forever for many others as it has for me… days feel like weeks. Weeks feel like months. Add a brushstroke of insomnia and every day feels month-long. This month is also odd because I and two other friends have had parents in the hospital for complications of congestive heart failure… not a fun thing to go through when your hands are tied by a pandemic and your parents are old and unvaccinated. It has been nearly a year of being home-bound… and I am grateful for my friends and the comforts of my life, but holy fuck this just feels neverending at times. 

I’ve been pretty focused on work lately, and more attuned to streaming television than books, which is not ideal. In an effort to turn that around, I bit the bullet and bought an awesome reading chair, and restarted my habit of listening to audiobooks prior to falling asleep. Over the past months, only classics and non-fiction were interesting to me, but I am a hard reset person and the turning of the year and individual months helps… in 2021, I resumed reading business, political & personal growth stuff, which people roll their eyes at, and yet I often find pretty insightful. My little derp face dog has had a long procrastinated surgery, I’ve checked many items off my to-do list, and all said and done it has been a productive but difficult month.

I’m actually going to keep this post fairly short as I have a different one wholly dedicated to one book coming up later, but here’s January lite in “stuff.” One theme stands out among the books below: all four have incredibly high ratings and 5/5 reviews, and I disliked all four. How did I pick four unlikeable books in one month? January. 

The Interpretation of Dreams & A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis | I’m not sure what inspired me to listen to these two books, but I had never read any Freud before and now is as good a time as any. Unfortunately, I found them both somewhat boring: Interpretation of Dreams, despite being groundbreaking in its time, was mostly dull; you can learn more in a Wikipedia article at this point. The General Introduction to Psychoanalysis audiobook I listened to was a series of 30 lectures on the unconscious, dreams and neuroses, some interesting and some not so much. I wouldn’t discount Freud as much as I just am not particularly interested in this stuff; I am actually interested in neuroses in general (I see a lot of them in others) but I don’t feel like these lectures dove in as deeply as I would’ve preferred. Both books have near-perfect ratings across the web; I think this was more a matter of preference. 

Giants in the Earth | This was another book I had heard many good things about and found very boring: a story of Norwegian settlers pushing their way across the Dakota Territory to settle in the 1800s. Nothing particularly interesting happened minus a locust swarm toward the very end; reading about the Gulag and the Bosnian War has really raised my bar for suffering and tragedy: this was not that grim. Comparatively, these guys did alright, though it was a lonely and arduous journey and the locusts ate all their wheat. Boo hiss. I’m actually surprised I didn’t like this more as I will always remember reading Grapes of Wrath and thinking that was a hell of a horrible story.

Principles | Yet another let-down, though Ray Dalio’s advice is good, the dude spends WAY too much time talking about how brilliant he is. Probably just skip the entire first 1/3 of the book or find a YouTube lecture on what the actual principles are… no one needs to read a bio of another hedge fund guy. I downloaded this because it was in a list that contained other books I loved, namely Thinking Fast and Slow, How to Win Friends & Influence People and The Power of Habit. Principles was not 10% as good as any of those.

HBO: My Brilliant Friend & In Treatment | I indulged in seasons 1 and 2 of My Brilliant Friend after reading the Neapolitan Novels last month, both seasons of which are incredible, and I can’t wait for the remaining two. I would never tell a man to watch this show… I honestly don’t think men can possibly understand or identify with 90% of what happens in this long story. Everyone is amazingly well-cast, the story is near-perfect and all around the television rendition of this series is about 100x better than I had hoped. In Treatment I found browsing through HBO series (most of which is trash these days)… I’ve somehow been sucked in, despite the fact that I find all of the characters so brutally flawed. The episodes are short but the first few seasons are pretty interesting, as you watch a series of people go to therapy and speak with a guy whose own life is falling apart while he’s trying to help others. I’m taking a break from In Treatment because it depressed the fuck out of me to watch people sabotage their own lives over and over… but I do plan to finish it.

Fitbit Charge 4 | A little over a month using this FitBit Charge 4 and I’m mostly impressed by how much data this thing can churn out. I’m not wholly convinced on the sleep metrics; I notice if I fall asleep, then wake up and then go back to sleep, it seems to change the entire night of sleep data, which is odd; I also noticed that a common problem with this device (and all FitBits it seems, based on hundreds of complaints) is that it does not read your heart rate consistently during strenuous activity, which I noticed early on. I had initially ordered another HRM, but then managed to mostly solve the problem by taping the band of my watch to my arm about 3″ from my wrist bone. I have gotten fairly consistent readings during strenuous exercise since. I am a big fan of its Active Minutes, which was not a feature of the last FitBit I had. Being home nearly all the time, I rarely cross the 10K steps a day threshold; but I do clock 80-100 active minutes daily.

 

I have a large pile of books for February, and I’m setting the bar fairly low, at 5. So we will see.