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.

Tskaltubo
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.

article-321-1658393292_thumb

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.

Caucasian Tales

So long is liberty oppressed by laws,
so will the tribes resist until they’re free:
at length the smoldering Caucasus will be
unburdened by this monstrous foreign cause
Pushkin

Our Free City Tour guide in Tbilisi, the lone local guide who was not an actual local but a Dutch guy who fell in love with a Georgian girl and relocated, warned us toward the end of our lengthy walk around the city to be careful: crazy things happen in this country. He meant this not in a “jihad in the mountains” kind of way, but in a “you might wander through and stay here forever” kind of way.

And so, a strange thing or two did happen in this unique and rugged country, and I left with a long to-do list of things I did not have time to fully explore.

The day we drove out into the mountains to Kazbegi, I felt as though I was on a time-warp road paved with nostalgia. To explain it would be to fail immediately. I spent my week in this country floored by the experience of being surrounded by others with strikingly similar facial features (I had never experienced this before to this degree, Georgian people are unique genetically and I am not one, though we share a diverse yet heavily Slavic contemporary blend); being out in the mountains forces you to fully appreciate the incredible falsehood of the word “Caucasian” listed on American documents. Caucasians are pale, with light eyes and dramatic features; often large aquiline noses and dark hair. This is the land of white exotics.

I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone in this place; a beautiful albeit steaming hot one (Tbilisi means “warm place” for its natural hot springs) filled with bread and cheese and dumplings stuffed with mushrooms you know someone picked with his or her bare hands. The ruggedness of the Caucasus reminded me in many ways of Alaska: the primitive individuality of the land and the people. Over 300 kinds of wine call Georgia their home; and much like Bosnia, I could have happily stayed forever… except with Georgia, I would be a face the same as everyone else’s. I have always loved the idea of absolute anonymity, of no one looking twice. Of being a ghost. I thanked my bizarre good fortune every time a street hawker harassed my Mexican companions while ignoring me entirely.

I remember reading Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them and chuckling often at her commentary on the ‘Stans. I’ve spoken many times with a friend of mine often about our diverging ideas of beauty: mine is crumbling, decrepit buildings and stray dogs, bright clothing strung over errant clotheslines. His is more the clean lines and what to me has always been overwhelming orderliness and sanitized existence of a city like Boston. Boston always felt like a sterile cage to me; at night, it seemed as though no one lived there, especially downtown. Tbilisi is its opposite.

Tbilisi’s old town is what is supremely beautiful to me: periods of time and style built atop one another… the Eurasian-Persian-Byzantine-Soviet aesthetics all smashed together into a hot decrepit mess, though a mess that is cared for with tremendous love… winding streets with the odd can or bottle, dust flying around in the breeze, and panting dogs and lazy cats lounging in the shade. I would come back here again, with my DSLR.

With all the rugged landscapes and the country’s oppressive history (the Russians most recently invaded and reclaimed South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008), Georgians are incredibly kind, gregarious and welcoming people. They have a cultural tradition of sharing homemade wine on their beautiful balconies with neighbors and strangers alike and helping visitors and newcomers get around and learn about their country. The protective but individualistic culture that is so well-known in Alaska exists here as well: live and let live, but always lend a helping hand. The country is extraordinarily safe. My friends commented that Bosnia (we had flown to Tbilisi from Sarajevo) was a lot more questionable comparatively. I initially scoffed, though by the end of the trip I concluded they were probably right.

Georgia has built a robust tourism industry, though their tourists are primarily Russians. And their food is to die for; one of my regrets (other than not staying longer) was not eating more. I had wanted to try legit khachapuri for a long time. Life can be a real let-down sometimes when you have great expectations… khachapuri is not, nor is their homemade wine, which has a sort of thick, mead-meets-raw apple cider taste and costs practically nothing (even their “good” wine is a few dollars a bottle at the most).

We found a bizarre tour of the old mining town of Chiatura, which has fully in-tact cable cars from the 1950s and ventured out to ride them. The country is riddled with monasteries and Orthodox churches (the country is 90% Orthodox, so they lack the kind of internal friction you can feel in every waking breath in Bosnia). The Stalin Museum in Gori (Stalin’s hometown) eluded me, and I was sad to hear it will likely close as the tone of the museum is a bit gauche for what they’re going for tourism-wise. As our guide said, “There’s no Hitler Museum, so there probably shouldn’t be one for Stalin.”

I don’t love every country I venture to; I wouldn’t return to Macedonia and definitely not to Albania. I could leave Serbia, Western Ukraine and Romania indefinitely off my re-visit list as well. I’ve long grown bored of Western Europe. Georgia, I will go back to. The Caucasus are wild, and real: an amalgam of familiar things from different stages of my own life.

In these past two years, two countries have far exceeded my high expectations: Bosnia, and Georgia, for entirely different reasons. It took a long flight on a vintage-upholstered plane and one in my party being detained for awhile for having a terrorist-looking neckbeard. He swears he won’t go back, but I surely will.

Bonus: they’re big on importing cars, and there’s a pretty solid rally culture, so there were quite a few WRX and STI spottings throughout the country.

Bonus reading: How Russia’s writers saw the Caucasus, Financial Times
Up next: back to Bosnia