August+

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

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

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

A few shots from Old Town Tbilisi:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random photos from wherever (+Armenia, Czech)

Until next time.

August I: There and back again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Abroad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time.

Slava Ukraini (II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slava Ukraini (I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Month No. 2

I seem to have turned a significant corner over the past few weeks, and while I still feel like I am living in the Twilight Zone, I’m gradually getting more of a handle on different parts of my life and transitioning toward more of a routine.

I’ve accomplished a lot in February: my work goal is to have this job down entirely by the end of Q1, and I am pacing healthily toward that outcome (I was told it takes 6-12 months to figure it out, I think I can do it in ~4). I have already had to give someone a final warning (pre-termination), recruit and subsequently hire someone, split up my territory a second time to allocate a 9th portfolio, and complete many other processes that typically arise gradually, so the ‘baptism by fire’ continues within this role. Company-wide, we are also returning to the office via our hybrid work model as of April 4, so I have been transitioning to that by spending 1-2 days a week in the office. All things considered, I do feel like I am providing tangible value at this time, and the constant challenging of my peer group on how they do things (and whether they do things the way they do solely because that’s the way they’ve always done it) has at least at this point been buffered by other contributions that create less tension. Each of us have a strategic priority, mine is rapid upskilling and technical training, I’ve done some good shit in that realm in the last month.

My team is cool, though emotional (they are young); I admire the extent to which they want swift, direct feedback and are gunning for improvement. Occasionally their extreme extraversion and emotionality frustrates me, but overall I like each one of them and they have unique strengths. It’s been a challenge to build any kind of real team culture or deep cohesion with corporate COVID restrictions and everyone working from home, but I think this will change as we continue to spend more time together in person.

I’ve built some efficiencies into my schedule that have made my life less stressful as well, and now that I have a handle on how the weeks will unfold (though I still start each week aiming to survive through end-of-day Friday), I dragged myself to Planet Fitness yesterday for the first time in two months, and went back this morning. I really thought I’d be disappointed by how woefully out of shape I am, as the most I’ve done over the past months is move/lift stuff/move stuff/clean stuff and walk the dog, and I expected the altitude to blow more wind out of my sails, but I had no issues whatsoever. This week’s experiment will be hitting the gym on two week days. If I can find 3-4 days a week to go to the gym moving forward, I’ll be happy enough. After peeling the Butterfinger frosting off a cake donut in the office on Friday, I pledged to go 5 days before the end of February. 2 down, 3 to go.

I went to see Dark Tranquillity on the 10th and met a lot of people, so that was also a step in the right direction. Omnium Gatherum will play on March 8 and that’s the next show; I’m still shocked and amazed there’s a great venue within walking distance (especially because it was completely unintentional and I didn’t realize this when I signed the lease on this house); I’m also seeing Jordan Peterson in ~3 weeks, as well as Leprous/The Ocean Collective and I have a work friend visiting toward the end of March, and next month will start with a trip out to Mt. Princeton Hot Springs for a few days (I actually took two days off of work to make this happen for myself). I want to hit the art museums around the city, but I will get to that in time.

It will take time to fully integrate all of these things into my life: friends, shows, going out, fitness, exploring the area, reading, whatever else. I still don’t feel like I fully live here, but I imagine that will start to stick over time. I’ve been enjoying this house and having all of my stuff, particularly in the kitchen, and have been cooking a lot. Yesterday I woke up pretty early, went to the gym, then came back and updated all of my budget spreadsheets for a real idea of what my life will look like in finances as a standard (no idea presently since there have been so many extraneous purchases related to this move), and was pleasantly surprised: I’ve been tracking expenses for many years to prevent myself from wasting money on subscriptions and I thought I’d end up with a few bucks every month after paying for Denver and Alaska, but I have more spending power than I expected, so that’s encouraging. I changed my cost of living dynamic significantly moving here: I have much higher general operating expenses than I did previously, and I will not be doing anything exotic for some time: I want to tuck another few tens of grands away to buy another house.

Over the past few weeks I’ve also hammered out my travels for 2022: I had a Turkish Airlines voucher I could never manage to convert to a cash refund, so I finally redeemed it for a ticket from JFK-Tblisi and a ticket back to JFK from Prague. oranssiI had initially planned to start that trip in Romania at Dark Bombastic Evening, but it ends up being too much time off, so I am starting in Tblisi, continuing to Brutal Assault (where many Denver people will be as well), closing out with a few days in Prague, and then heading home. I also bought my tickets to Alaska on Delta credits, so my trips thus far in 2022 were essentially paid for in 2020. Not bad. If I play my cards right, the accommodations portions will also be covered under work benefits.

I notice here as well that I am in a lot less general pain at this altitude, and that was my experience years ago when I came here. There is a negligible amount of research surrounding this, so I am actually not sure why I am not creaking and cracking when I walk around. My right hip, which was killing me in the fall and forced me to go to a chiropractor, has not bothered me since I got here. Finding the right mix of environmental conditions is a challenge; I will suffer significantly in the summer, but the dry, thin air seems to put a lot less pressure on my body. We’ll see if it holds up, but a combination of the sunlight and the altitude are helping me far more than they’re hurting me.

I still have to find a dentist, a primary care doctor and a vet; I did find a dermatologist who hopefully can take my life’s worth of records and just give me the meds I ask for without giving me too much trouble. I do plan to eventually return to Mayo to see if they can figure out why I have had numerous bouts of reactive hypoglycemia, though based on what I can see it seems unlikely they’ll be able to tell me why this happens (I am not pre-diabetic, all my bloodwork is perfect, etc.) After 2-3 episodes in the past 18 months, it’s at least clear to me that I can never, ever drink on an empty stomach and then chase booze with carbs, as I would like to never experience the extremely unpleasant symptoms of low blood sugar ever again, thank you. Hopefully all in all the change of scenery and altitude will make me feel less like I am living my life in a piece of shit malfunctioning body, having lost the genetic lottery within my family in terms of hereditary diseases by somehow having every single one between both my parents bestowed on me. My siblings take the luxury of not having to deal with this shit for granted, and neither of them care much for their own health. I have to bust my ass to avoid any of these comorbidities getting worse or a new autoimmune disease awakening. I also sound to myself like a hypochondriac, but after years of neglecting whatever issues arose, it’s ultimately easier to just figure them out swiftly and learn to manage them instead of allowing them to disrupt my life when they finally boil over and incapacitate me.

That’s about it for February. I haven’t been particularly adventurous and am focusing on slowly getting comfortable here and building a routine, and not sucking at work. Still haven’t really read much, sadly, though I have purchased 2 more books, and have been keeping up on The Economist. Hoping to knock out 2-3 books in March at the very least, but we shall see.

Peak Summer: June & July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt from And Quiet Flows the Don:

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

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

April, May and into June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kul'chytsi, approximate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pandemic Spring: February & March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-reads:

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

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

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

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Closing out the Year: Books, Q4 2019

It’s probably time to do one of these, though the books below will have summaries even shorter than is typical because I’m blowing through books at such a rapid pace; this post is a day late as I arrived back in Anchorage last night on NYE too tired to pound this out. I had squandered the remainder of my leisure time pre-Christmas holiday period watching Jordan Peterson’s Personality and Its Transformation lectures, and I’m almost finished with them. I highly recommend most of them, particularly the first 10-15 (and even more particularly, Heroic & Shamanistic Initiations, and Solzhenitsyn & The Gulag) . The Big Five ones became a little tiresome, but they’re ultimately worth watching anyway. He recorded a lengthy lecture series on the Bible which I will be watching soon. Trying to teach myself to enjoy YouTube lectures, and it’s working.

Either way, this winter is largely the same as any other, lots of dark, grim and often authoritarian stuff; some management books and social science as well. It seems sort of stupid to me that I publish these, but I’m always surprised by how many people write me or comment or mention they saw I read this or that, so it’s not for nothing.

The Lone Wolf And the Bear: Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule | This is a pretty good run-down of Chechnya and its history of unwillingness to be folded into Russia, though it reads very dryly/academically. I’ve had this book forever and I started reading it years ago only to be really bored, so this time I plugged away and got through it: it’s the kind of book that has endless details you know will be forgotten sooner than later, but I would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand why this country has struggled the way it has.

Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, and Why | This was brilliant and I’d recommend it to anyone and everyone working at a corporation (and probably many, many other people). Strangely I can’t find a good review of this book (probably because 30 seconds of looking is sometimes insufficient), but it’s chock full of interesting information and insight. Short but decent review here. I find most people who are obsessed with behavioral economics read all of these books naturally, and I’m unsure of who else reads them, but this one is much more applicable to a normal person looking to improve his or her life than many of the others.

Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall | I can’t express how much I loved this book. This, and Night of Stone are two of the best books I’ve read on contemporary Russia, and they’re written from two completely different perspectives and with wholly different underlying themes. The author traverses through Moscow, St. Petersburg, and then some far-flung places: Norilsk, Rostov-on-Don, Chechnya, Sakhalin. NYT seems to have reviewed this somewhat unfavorably; I disagree. This book captures a lot of the mystery and awe, especially in the Caucasus region, and is definitely going to be a part of my permanent collection. A blurb from Foreign Affairs:

“Dark and wondrous as ever” are the words that conclude Meier’s odyssey through the killing fields of Chechnya, up the Yenisey River to Norilsk in the far north — once part of Stalin’s gulag — to the wild east of Sakhalin, where oil substitutes for gold. A journalist advantaged by fluent Russian and a youth’s readiness for adventure, he probes deeply into the lives of everyone he meets, from the poor to the potentate, while traveling by road and river. Meier’s passion is for the victims, for those who survived the camps and those caught in the Chechen “meatgrinder,” and he works hard to get their stories, sometimes at great risk to himself. The result is a compassionate glimpse into the extremes where the new Russia meets the old, written with verve and humor.

The Great Big Book Of Horrible Things | A friend of mine asked me if I ever watched/read anything humorous a few months ago and I sent him a photo of this book… unsurprisingly, on the surface this did not qualify as comedy. Surprisingly, this book is actually extremely funny, as the author has a super dark sense of humor and is pretty cynical throughout. This is in fact a “great, big book,” though I read all 500 pages and change in one long night. Its writer is a statistician of death, essentially, and he explains in depth how and why he came to the conclusions he has numbers-wise. Also a part of my permanent collection, as this is an awesome reference material for many of the most gruesome things in history.

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win & The Dichotomy of Leadership: Balancing the Challenges of Extreme Ownership to Lead and Win | I actually really enjoyed both of these reads, Extreme Ownership being the better of the two. Absolutely everything the authors express seem to be common sense, though they use a ton of anecdotes to make their point(s). I live in a place with a lot of military presence, and I’ve met some interesting characters over the years (I’ve also met some real goddamn idiots in this population, but idiots are everywhere): SEALs and EOD techs and sometimes Rangers are some of the more interesting people, as especially EOD guys are very cerebral and they all need to learn how to work in teams as effectively as possible. Not sure these books would be as easy to read if I were as bored with military analogies as many people are, but at a time in my life when I was struggling at work I think it was illuminating and I’d recommend these to new managers for sure.

Why Is Sex Fun?: The Evolution of Human Sexuality | I thought I’d enjoy this a lot more than I did; I think Jared Diamond needed an influx of cash at the time. I found most of the chapters pretty boring, though I’m not sure if this is because I’ve already read about a lot of this stuff or if his topics just weren’t that fascinating. It is pretty short so it didn’t steal too many hours from my life. I would absolutely never recommend this book to anyone: the best book on sexuality and human nature IMO is The Red Queen.

Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica | At this point I’ve read an embarrassing amount of books about the Bosnian War; this one is particularly interesting in its lack of extreme bias, and it breaks down the way the Dutch fucked up into a series of misunderstandings that almost gives you a blip of empathy for soldiers struggling in layers and layers of bureaucracy. It also sheds a lot of light on the magnitude of confusion that existed in real-time in Srebrenica. I think the fact that this book is stripped of one human’s experience makes it one of the most reliable references for what happened in this enclave during the war. 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind | Another book that was lent to me with rants and raves on it being amazing, and by the end I felt like I learned nothing; however, this is because I read way too much of the same shit over and over. Worth noting I would’ve never read this had it not been given to me to read. I think this is a great and easy summation of human history, and due to the fact that the world is filled with endless information on everything, I have deep appreciation for people who make things simple. This is probably something that should be mandatory reading in schools; it has that much information, broadly, in the correct order and with the most reasonable interpretations. Great gift for someone who wants to learn broadly about human history without getting sucked into one hole or another.

A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia | I have to say, I thought this would be a lot more offensive than it ended up being. This is a rare book, a copy of which inexplicably exists in the Kodiak library (a copy for purchase is over $500). Handke won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, which caused outcries in many countries, Bosnia and Kosovo being two of them. I certainly don’t agree with some of this opinions, but I do agree that all of these countries have been victims of one another, which is largely what he is saying. He rails against journalists, who a long time ago used to report without bias, and he blames bias for a lot of the way people feel about Serbia, which I actually also think is true. He doesn’t absolve Serbia of all guilt, and he perhaps goes a bit too far sometimes, but I read this book to find out the extent to which I’d disagree with it (also because everyone is outraged by everything these days): the Serbs suffered some serious losses at the hands of the Ustashe, and in Kosovo, and to pin all the blame on one ethnic group in the Balkans is tantamount to having zero understanding of their unique history. Worth reading, even if you disagree with him, would recommend. Strangely, as I’m on the last book of Karl Ove’s My Struggle series, he actually speaks a bit about Handke, and I find this often happens with books I’m reading; they overlap in one way or another.

The Last Kings of Thule | Another book that has been taking up space on my shelf forever, and I’m glad I finally finished it. A long time ago, I became e-mail penpals with Malaurie’s grandson, who was a teacher in the Canadian High Arctic (I can’t remember how we ended up emailing back and forth in the first place). Malaurie spent a long time living among the Thule Inuit, before the air base was built there, and the book hearkens back to a time prior to much Western Civilization. He conveys a lot of stories passed down among these people, from Peary and Cook’s visits, Matthew Henson, Knud Rasmussen, about Peary dragging Minik and his family to the Museum of Natural History as a living exhibit, all kinds of stuff. There are many books written by random white guys living among the Inuit all throughout the North, but this one and Kabloona are probably my two favorites (Rasmussen’s books are all required reading in this subject area as well). I was taken aback by the end, as he returns to Thule and sees them building what would eventually be Thule AFB, realizing that Inuit history in the High Arctic was continuing to be erased by civilization. I could go on for a very, very, very long time about all of this, but I’ll leave it at that. A copy of this book is $2.39 on Amazon, I’d say it’s worth a whole lot more than that, if you’re into reading about the Inuit.

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 | Everything Anne Appelbaum writes is amazing. She writes in an absurd level of detail; I’ve now read all of her books. There’s a good review here, so I’m going to keep chugging through this post and let someone else’s review speak for me. With regard to all of her work, I like Red Famine and Gulag the most, but this is definitely #3.

How To Be A Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century | This book got overwhelmingly positive reviews, I think again I struggled with it being monotonous because I’ve read too much about the same topics. I think, much like Sapiens, this is a great high-level view of dictatorship and totalitarianism. I don’t think there’s much else to it at all. And, this is why I don’t write reviews for a living. A review of this book was featured in Quillette, which is likely why I pre-ordered it at the time. Read that. Important to note I knew literally zero about Duvalier, so I did learn some stuff. And I think Ceausescu is left out of a lot of dictatorship literature, which is unfortunate as he was a real monster (for more on Romania and Ceausescu, I’d read Balkan Ghosts, which comes with free nightmares).

The 48 Laws of Power | I don’t remember why I bought this book, but I still haven’t decided how I feel about it. The truth is, I don’t think one is supposed to “feel” anything when reading this book; most of these “laws” are likely true, but they’re not ones to live by if you want to be what you might define as a “good person.” I found (a) a short interview with the author here, and (b) this interesting post which shows some of the examples of the Laws. Yes, many of these “laws” of power are ways to live if you want to dominate everyone in your life; they are not the way I choose to live my life. I felt sort of like I was reading a book on how to accomplish a task I have no desire or need to accomplish; I don’t regret reading it, though I skipped a lot of the historical anecdotes and just read the laws themselves. All of these laws, in theory, will work. Will you hate yourself by employing them? TBD.

Resistance, Rebellion and Death | This was one of the books I took with me to the East Coast to read while home and I barely finished it before I returned, but it’s incredible. Camus writes about occupied France; Hungary; Algeria; Spain. Most or all of these were featured in Combat. Much is on the nature of freedom, love and morality (as is all of his stuff). This book also includes his essay opposing capital punishment, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” which is a must-read, and an essay in here has been re-made famous again recently, I noticed, in Quillette (his “Create Dangerously” speech). I’ve read most of everything Camus has written/published, and this is one of the best (why it took me so many years to read it, I don’t know). 

On that note, here closes 2019 in books. I left a lot of other stuff in 2019, and I’ll write about that soon. For now, I’m pretty tired of staring at this computer screen.