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.

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.

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.

Czechmate

Oh hi, me again. Just returned from my second year of Brutal Assault. Having sufficiently horrified my coworkers by attending such a festival (‘Brutal Assault? OMG’), and arriving in possession of one Forever 21 panda suit (I pledged to wear a panda suit if we went back for year 2), I’m sad it will be nearly impossible to convince anyone to attend for a third year.

I’ve been to a lot of metalfests; Brutal Assault is my favorite. The disappointment in Diablo Swing Orchestra and Ihsahn canceling was fresh in our minds, but despite the searing heat and smelly campers, it was great. The lineup wasn’t as good as last year, though Arkon Infaustus alone was worth the trip; I chose to fly 10,000 miles to see them without the fast food smelling smog and 100% humidity of Baltimore at Maryland Deathfest. I felt like there were too many people, but I would go again. Just ask. I’m in.

This festival overall is (a) cheap (b) well organized (c) seems to attract metalheads that have grown out of the puking and shoving phase of metal fandom. This year had a bit too many huge metal bands, though I will say even I was charmed by tens of thousands of people tribal-jigging and bellowing ‘rooooots…. bloody roooooots’ at the end of Sepultura’s set.

The venue, Fortress Josefov, is beautiful. 100 Euros, deposited onto your RFID bracelet at the beginning of the festival, will buy you four days of beer and food (and maybe even some merch). The lodging package comes with four-star Eastern bloc accommodations, complete with windows that don’t stay open, questionable carpet stains and shower heads that sear the first few layers off your skin, ensuring you are super clean and fresh for another day of fighting the bourgeoisie. The best thing this hotel has to offer is the incredible disparity between its online photo and real life.

cernigov

Overall, there is something special about this country. City-wise, Prague is different than the slowly reforming grey spiritual necropolis I remember from my youth (at 34, I’m a huge fan of acting like I’m as old as time, but what I mean is, this Prague is so different than the city I initially visited in the very early 00s). Albert Camus wrote a lot about Prague, and his portrait is in some ways more the city I think of, although in a more endearing way. Some of us just like to travel to ominous ‘Eastern Europe.’

I will keep my hipster ‘Prague is too touristy’ whining to myself, though friends echoed my complaints this year; more positively, it’s been a pleasure to watch the capital and much of the country grow and prosper. There are vacationers everywhere, although perhaps a few too many who complain that Czechs don’t smile enough (Slavenka Drakulić actually said some funny things about Westerners expecting people in Eastern European countries to smile for no reason). You can buy a beer for less than $2. Prague is rapidly approaching Western Europe for Eastern European prices. The expanding homogeneity of European capitals is pretty lame; the cost is not.

But what makes so-called Czechia different?  The country joined the EU in 2004, alongside the Baltics, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Many of the former Eastern bloc countries are prosperous (some are backsliding, like Poland and Hungary, though those two are regressing in different ways). After a fair amount of time spent in each of these countries, it’s tough to think of one that is doing better. What is it that makes this country so prosperous? Maybe location, sandwiched partly between Germany and Austria. Maybe they are just West enough that they’re better by osmosis. I asked this question to some other people I spoke with, and was told by one person that Czechs are never satisfied with their own performance, which was demonstrated later at the festival when the shuttle admin guy told me that he was happy I liked the festival, but ‘things could be better.’ Maybe it’s just that good ol’ Protestant work ethic seeping over the border.

This blog is not about serving up answers, because I don’t have any, so that’s what I spent some time thinking about. That, and where to get my next plate of schnitzel. I happened to tag along to Český Krumlov before flying home, as well, which was a pretty charming little medieval town, albeit crammed with tour groups for the day (at night, it empties out). The town reminded me in many ways of Salzburg, which will always be superior because they have the Sound of Music Tour. (I’m not kidding: I took that tour twice. In one day).

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And that’s a wrap. Next up on Post-Communist Adventure Travel for Entitled White People: Bosnia and most of the rest of those bloodsoaked, brutal Balkans in September.

Aaand… one finale-worthy meat plate for good measure. Schnitzel has its own tag in this blog, and I expect to utilize it.

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