Everything in its Right Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

On Sameness

This opinion piece was shared with me yesterday, and it’s one worth a few more words. Its author could have said a lot more about how short-sighted the original article is, and it’s been awhile since I have written anything here.

The original article: The Unbearable Sameness of Cities
Commentary op-ed: Tragically Hipster

Without sounding like too much of a jerk, I’m mildly surprised NY Magazine published Schwindt’s article, even online. I consider myself judgmental to a flaw (it’s something I’ve tried hard to change over the years, but progress is slow, and I think I will always have a Northeastern chip on my shoulder)… but this article is astounding in its lazy judgment and generalization of strangers.

I found the Commentary piece especially charming because one of the books I read (and loved) this past summer was Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. American cities as we know them today have come full circle, with incredible revival especially in downtown districts. And on a more simplistic level, Schwindt might have had less time to focus on the Ikea light fixtures if she had taken time to speak to business owners, chefs or even the ‘young and tattooed and bespectacled’ people behind the counters. What she might have found is that today’s cities, from Nashville to Portland to Austin to Milwaukee to Sacramento, are home to people who love those places and through their commitment to their cities, add many individual pieces of passion that the cities in Jacob’s books had lost through urban planning. Anyone looking into the past at cities like Atlanta, Austin, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Seattle and even Los Angeles and New York would see vastly different human landscapes, and it’s tough to think of many things more authentic than these cities having grown into what they are today.

Reading the original article made me wonder what its writer is really looking for, as I’m not sure what is more authentic than breweries popping up everywhere with their own unique offerings (I think back to being in Denver years ago and stopping into Trve Brewing, a metal brewery erected and much loved thanks to the city’s burgeoning metal scene). Jacobs hated that people couldn’t dine out where they lived; they couldn’t buy groceries in the same block they drank a beer or did their laundry. She explained in Death and Life that restaurant traffic at night, when people were home in the neighborhood, put feet on the ground and added extra vigilance, and crime was less likely when that foot traffic existed in residential spaces where people lived.

In the Western world, prosperity has a sort of look; I mentioned this regarding Prague, and the way it’s begun to look like any other Western European capital. I’ve wondered myself if this is a bad thing, or a dull thing, or a vapid one. Overall, it’s probably a wonderful thing. The sameness Schwindt saw was prosperity, and the ease of doing business: the social capital and societal wealth of the cities and communities within them. What you read in her words is the high level of societal wealth you need to be born into to bitch about having too many restaurants to choose from, and to take the history of cities in America for granted.

More than anything, her exposé on sameness is a display of how easy it is to accumulate hypotheses based on sight alone, and how moronic it is to simply look at someone and pass judgment. Not once in this article was the content of a conversation conveyed. She did not stop once to talk to anyone, to ask important questions: ‘what are you trying to do here?’ to someone who owns a restaurant; not ‘what makes this city special?’ or ‘why here?’ to practically anyone. The real tragedy of articles like this is that there is no expression of curiosity, no desire for a depth of understanding. She wants to see authenticity, without having any real understanding of what she’s looking for.

As someone who finds myself defending New York on a fairly regular basis, I understand this constant search for authenticity. I’ve said many times I prefer New York to Boston, which always felt small and sterile and overbearing to me. I like a city with some garbage on the street here and there, some traces of flawed, impulsive humanity. When I lived in Boston, I found the emptying of its downtown at night creepy and unnatural; as though it was closed for cleaning and would reopen for regular business hours. I think the disarray of many neighborhoods in New York are beautiful and convenient, and comforting to me: everything is chaotically smashed together, and operations churn eternally. I remember moving to Boston for college and thinking it was bullshit that last call at the bar was so early; Massachusetts felt like a nanny state to me, where New York you could get a vodka tonic at 4am and a breakfast sandwich at 11pm if that’s what you wanted. These differences in culture are largely explained in a very cool book I came across, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America: New York/New Jersey’s mercantile beginnings are at odds with the Puritan “community first” underpinnings of New England. In New York, enough people want eggs at midnight to have a diner open and serving. By contrast, in Boston it seemed to me someone decided me ordering a drink at 2am was not acceptable.

But I digress. The two books in this post are well worth the read, if you’re into that sort of thing. And the NY Magazine piece is a great example of how not to live your life steeped in superiority but lacking any desire to really connect or learn. It’s hard to dispute that Jacobs (who died in 2006) would be pleased by the beautiful public spaces that have popped up in Portland; the incredible path from grunge to tech hub that Seattle has taken; the dramatic drop in crime in New York, and growing vibrancy in cities like Minneapolis, Kansas City, Nashville and Austin, which were nondescript blips on a map when she wrote Life and Death. In my lifetime, we will likely see Detroit, Pittsburgh and others rise to those same heights; it’s a shame people in my generation will bitch and moan every step of the way, too caught up with their own supposed uniqueness and authenticity to bother to delve into anyone else’s.