High Desert Summer

I’ve put this post off long enough that the prospect of chopping up the past few months seems like a huge commitment, but I fear if I wait any longer I won’t post until the fall. I’ve also noticed this blog’s visitor count has increased dramatically, which is bizarre: I don’t find my own life particularly interesting, and I mostly write in here because it auto-sends to close friends I don’t speak to or see as often as I’d like, and writing has always been pretty therapeutic for me. I threw in some food porn that is completely irrelevant to the content, but props to Barolo Grill and Fifth String for many amazing meals in the past few months. I’ve also explored a lot of nearby Tennyson Street and found a few places I really like.

I set aside some time to post about Myrtle Beach & Alaska, but I’ve been all over outside of that as well, most recently Dallas last week. I’m hoping July is mostly uneventful for me as I will be away for most of August and some of September, October and November. baroloI was surprisingly invigorated by my Texas trip: it was a pretty quick trip, but it reminded me of my old life, Life Before COVID, always en route, packing or unpacking. I shared with my boss that I’d like to find a way to get more of that back; I have never been the settling type and I’d like to ping-pong around more in the fall (and I will, starting in Chicago in August, 3 days after I return from Prague). My road warrior life — the life I lived for many years without complaint — was exhausting, but so rewarding. Sometimes I feel like I’ve lost more than I realized initially, the free-wheeling that has collected this cloud of COVID doom in these past few years: what if I test positive? What if I get sick? What if I get stuck? What if the hospital is full?

Ironically, perhaps, while I picked up salmonella last fall, I have yet to test positive for COVID, and I’m unsure of how or why, though it’s improbable that I’ve never caught it, and I don’t own a thermometer, so I wouldn’t have bothered to do anything if I felt like shit anyway. I have not worn a mask since the mandate dropped here, and I’ve been to a ton of concerts, parties, Costco, restaurants, and the office. My phone dings at least once a week with exposure alerts, and I calmly test, wait for the result, and move on with my life. I have not caught so much as a cold despite my many travels and social events, nor have I managed to pick up the flu everyone else had. I am the kind of person who, after a streak of luck, I’m waiting for lightning to strike, so I imagine it’s only a matter of time before this winning streak comes to a probably very inconvenient and ill-timed end.

My friends from New York hidivecame to visit in May, and that has been one of the highlights of the past 7 months: first, virtually all of my favorite pre-AK life people live in New York. These two guys came in to see our other friend’s band one night (they are based in San Francisco). I talk frequently to another friend here about how thus far, Colorado people aren’t really my cup of tea (or his), but it was glorious to have more friends in town: we ate amazing food, watched sci-fi movies, listened to metal and drank on my porch. We managed to get into In-n-Out 5 minutes before they closed at 1:30am the morning they left, and the entire trip was amazing. Apparently there are dirt cheap Frontier flights from Albany to Denver, and I’m hoping my people keep taking advantage of the relatively inexpensive airfare. Bonus round, the headliner for this show was a Canadian post-hardcore/metalcore band that gave me massive throwback vibes.

Otherwise, this settled down, in-the-office-twice-a-week life is not without its hectic parts: fujiI beat myself up for being pretty introverted, but I’ve built a fairly robust community here in a short period of time, and while I’m spread thin, it’s nice to have the option to do things. Today was the first day in awhile that felt like what a weekend day should feel like: yesterday I hustled to hit the gym and walk the dog before making a giant broccoli salad and heading up to a BBQ in the mountains. I spent today cooking a week+ of food to save myself the hassle next week, and I’ve been taking Fuji on 2 long walks a day (1 with a 16lb weighted vest, which I thought would be heavier and challenge me more than it has). The dog spectacularly failed her boarding interview a few weeks back; I figured I’d at least see if she’d be happy hanging out with other dogs and the answer is hell no, she was having none of that, so I finally gave up and found pet care on Rover for my lengthy trip. She’s turning 9 this year and has not slowed down at all. I am thankful. Having a dog and wanting to be on the go all the time is a pain in the ass, but she has been an anchor for me and it has been more than worth the trouble and expense.

July also seems to be maintenance month for my autoimmune stuff: in transferring my Mayo Clinic records to a local rheumatologist, I realized that it was three years ago that I ended up there essentially being told it was only a matter of time before my thyroid burned itself out, and my only options were irradiating it preemptively or just waiting for it to die on its own (I chose option #2). 1655610622963It’s actually pretty incredible to me that I survived this brutal move and all of the suffering that went along with it without having another hyperthyroid episode, but my most recent labs came back perfect and it’s difficult to express how grateful I am that this hasn’t gotten worse. For the most part, even with the heat, I seem to be acclimating fairly well here; the summer temperatures are horrible and I feel hot all the time, but my July goal is to shave off another 10lbs or so before I go to to Tbilisi, which is derived from an Old Georgian word that means “warm place.” Every pound I can drop is less I’ll be sweating through my damn clothes, in the land where “air conditioning” usually means a dirty old fan or a window that you can prop open with a water bottle. I also noticed today that Turkish Airlines once again fucked up my return flight with their schedule changes, so hopefully I can figure that out this week: Turkish is the only airline I’ve ever flown on where you almost never get the flights you pay for, because they constantly change shit and don’t even send you a courtesy e-mail.

My Achilles heel is stress, unfortunately, and based on my scale weight over the past week, I’m holding too much water, which means my cortisol levels are f’ed, which means I need to sequester myself at home and submit to my routine for a few weeks. I am not a great sleeper and an even worse relaxer, and I spent awhile poking around yesterday for new side hustle opportunities today before talking myself out of it. I’ll end up making about half what I did last year with my Airbnb gig, which is depressing, but it’s not easy to manage from 3,000 miles away nor is it ideal to cut someone in on the cleaning portion. I do pretty well and shouldn’t complain, but the looming fear of being older and digging half-eaten tuna sandwiches out of dumpsters is constantly hanging over my head. Is this totally irrational? Perhaps.

My birthday was last week as well, and for the past number of years I have been filling out a spreadsheet to track my annual wins and losses, travels, and goals. It’s been a bizarre stretch, I wanted to give myself a bit more time and take this trip abroad to really get away from my new life and enjoy myself before I hang myself out to dry in Microsoft Excel; I will complete in September.

Ultimately rainbowI am never satisfied with myself, and I think that is a blessing and a curse; people either drive themselves into the ground or are lazy as shit and don’t care about progression… I still believe I am somewhere in the middle (maybe a bit more driven than I need to be, but violently turned off by people’s lack of motivation). I did very little on my actual birthday; a friend from work decided it was unacceptable for me to spend it alone (she is young, she’ll understand someday), so she came over for tacos, a shitty grocery store lemon meringue pie (the only kind of pie I wanted, and could not find a better one on short notice, and I refuse to bake anything beyond keto muffins and key lime pies) and Netflix’s new FLDS documentary, and we had hit up a classical music outdoor thing the night before following a little BBQ at her building. This huge rainbow was a bonus.

In years past I’d make a point to do something crazy on my birthday (which shares the day with Swedish Midsummer): the northern tip of Newfoundland; Salzburg, Austria; Finnish Karelia; Swedish Lapland; off-the-beaten-path Alaska destinations… fifth_stringI’ll maybe pick that tradition up again by 40. I took the day off work and ran a bunch of errands, and that was enough of a gift for me. All in all it was awesome to not be working and have a second of three 3-day weekends in a row.

I was disappointed the first few months here that I couldn’t get into the swing of things with reading, but I’ve gotten through quite a few books, and I’m going to group them together by theme instead of yapping through each of them. I’d still like to be moving through books at a faster clip, but I have a huge pile I’m chipping away at, and I’m making some progress. I am currently reading Letters from an American Farmer, and I could not have started a more appropriate book for 4th of July. What an incredible read. More on that to come.

Work-related: Dare to Lead | Can’t Hurt Me | The Honest Truth About Dishonesty | The Dumbest Generation Grows Up | arielyI ended up grudgingly agreeing to read Brene Brown’s latest book, and it wasn’t bad, to be honest. I realized in refining my business/self-improvement book Excel sheet (yep. I have one of those) that I had read her previous book and enjoyed it. She says the same thing over and over again, which is annoying, but what she says is not untrue. David Goggins’ book Can’t Hurt Me was also not bad: a guy on my team loved it and I traded him for Jocko’s Extreme Ownership, which I definitely like much more, but it was enjoyable. The guy basically grew up in a dumpster and became a Navy SEAL+++, an ultramarathoner, etc etc. He has incredibly strong will and determination and also has beaten the shit out of his body, which will catch up with him sooner or later. As I said before you’re either lazy or you drive yourself into the ground, this dude is all the way at the “needs to hurt himself physically or he is depressed” end of the spectrum. Dan Ariely’s Honest Truth About Dishonesty was OK as well, it was suggested to me by another person at work, and I had read his others, I actually liked Predictably Irrational a lot more, and was already familiar with most of the studies in Dishonesty.

The biggest win in this category is The Dumbest Generation Grows Up. dumbest_generationI had not read this guy’s precursor, but I feel well versed enough having a team of millennials. The title is misleading in that it implies he blames millennials for being stupid, ultimately he puts a lot of blame on educators. I’m not even “dumb” is the appropriate word: I’d use “dull.” The Dullest Generation Grows Up. This book better-articulated a lot of my struggles than I could and has allowed me to outline more of a problem statement at work, which is that the people I’m managing lack a lot of history and knowledge, and as a result their daily lives, struggles and challenges are not placed in any context. It is a really, really, really hard problem to solve when you’re trying to develop young people who do not have the attention spans to read a single KB article in its entirety. I don’t want to be too general in grouping people by generation, and I am an older millennial myself, but there seems to be a distinction, and I see it every day at work: a lack of curiosity, an inability to connect the dots and link concepts together, a completely missing sense of imagination. It is very sad, and my company, and I’d imagine many other companies, are not equipped to upskill because they do not understand the entirety of the problem. Very strong recommend, although it’s quite depressing to see some of the results: the gradual plunge of SAT, ACT, ASVAB scores over time, the declining reading comprehension, the complete failure in STEM subjects. IQ increased over time for many decades, and it is now declining precipitously. Even worse from my perspective, people have lost their interest in the world, the awe of experiencing even the smallest joys, the ability to persevere through hardship by anchoring themselves to history. It is a tragedy.

Russian Classics: The Gulag Archipelago, Vol II | One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich | Darkness at Noon | darknessatnoonI’m not sure whether or not I had mentioned that I finished Vol 2 of Gulag Archipelago, but I did. I am patiently waiting my next Audible credit so I can pick up Vol 3. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Gulag Archipelago is the most brutal, horrifying book I’ve ever read, and this is my second time through this series. While I’ve been waiting, I started and finished One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which was good, but had nowhere near the breadth. Darkness at Noon was another classic I had not bothered to read and finished it in about two days: it was good, but not high on my recommend list: it is too much like 1984, and not nearly as harrowing as many others. There were some memorable passages, though.

Misc.: A Brief History of Inequality | Hooked: Food, Free Will and How the Food Giants Exploit our Addictions | picketty2I somehow managed to make it all the way through Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century years ago, and while a lot of his data ended up being disputed, I actually really enjoyed the anecdotal material, and his ideas. A Brief History of Inequality was a lot shorter, obviously, and easier to digest. Quillette reviewed it and has a lot more text than I’m willing to type out, so that review is here. I actually liked Capital in the 21st Century more, despite all its 800+ pages. Hooked was also good, if you’re into that kind of thing: I have a morbid curiosity with how the agro-industrial complex fucks us all over, and this book was well researched and had a bit of everything. Ironically reading books about the food system or dubious marketing practices to sell people garbage is my junk food.

Is this the longest blog post I’ve ever written? Not sure, but 6am will come early, and I’m off. I’m hoping to post a July roundup before I depart, but we shall see. I also plan to drag my heavy and inconvenience Canon 5D to take photos of Tbilisi’s Old Town and an abandoned sanatorium in Abkhazia, so photos to come.

Leaving Entropia

It seems appropriate that I throw one more post into the mix before the year ends. It’s Dec 31, and while I’ve gained a couch and a TV, PXL_20211230_180514496my belongings are still sitting in Seattle due to bad weather. I’ve been wearing the same 10 items of clothing for roughly 2 months now, and I am super tired of eating off of paper plates and drinking wine out of a jar I shoved into my bag before I left my parents’ house. I’m disappointed but not surprised, and my compartmentalization-friendly brain is very sad at the prospect of finishing this move in the new year instead of coming into the new year with the process completed. Since the moving company has not fulfilled their contractual obligation, I’m going to begin processing delay claims on Monday and squeeze them for every penny they’ll reimburse for. All said and done, my stuff is scheduled for delivery on Jan 8. I can only hope these pussies can find some snowflake-free days to get moving. I’m not a materialistic person, but it’d be nice to put my stuff in my house and have the rest of my clothes and real dinner plates ffs.

I could complain about the experience of being here alone for the entire holiday period, but in the grand scheme of things, I only have first-world problems at this point. I’ve spent many holidays alone, and this is just another one; the fact that I’m waiting on someone else is what is the most frustrating part. houseofbreadI wake up every morning and take the dog for a long walk iN tHe SuNsHiNe which blows my mind. After all the hassle of getting her paperwork in order, we walked out of her breed evaluation with a “mixed breed” categorization, which will save me a lot of trouble in the long run (she is not a “mixed breed,” but if they say she is, I’ll take it). I’ve hit Costco twice, which is only a few miles from me, and despite not being an electronics-oriented person, I marveled at the prospect of owning what to me is a giant (58″) TV for under $500. I bought patio furniture, since it’s sit-outside weather 90% of the year. I bought morning glory seeds for the spring, since that will come sooner than I am accustomed to. I spent some time browsing European delis in Aurora, and I made it to House of Bread, where I found some OK Adjarian khachapuri and some meat-stuffed khinkali. I learned a hard lesson in Anchorage: that I am woefully homesick without a deli where I can get the weird shit I grew up eating (primarily golubtsi), and I’ve hit half my list already, with excellent results. One of the girls at the second one I stopped at (Black Sea Market) told me to just call her and ask for what I want: each employee is from a different country and they’ll make whatever I need. I nearly burst into tears.

The flight cancelations forced my former roommate from Anchorage to be stuck here overnight last night, and we spent the afternoon and evening together, and in typical fashion had an amazing — foodtruly amazing — meal right down the street. It also was a good excuse to drive around a bit: for whatever reason, every time I come back down here I feel anxiety about driving, which is absurd after spending the first 28 years of my life in NJ, NY and Boston. It was good to get out on the road, though the 4Runner will mostly stay parked until I can swap my tires.matt

I’m very grateful that he was laid over here, and another long-time friend of mine has been in town for the holidays visiting his family; he’s helped me put some shit together and fix my washing machine and it’s kind of amazing the extent to which a small bit of familiarity can be so comforting. I’m lucky to have had both of these guys here: the latter has been working in a remote area in Alaska for the past few years and I have not seen him nearly as much as I used to (he, my friend who moved to Idaho and I were inseparable when we were all living in the same town). I feel very loved. One thing I noticed about Alaska is especially in the past few years, it takes a trip down here to realize what kind, loving people I have in my life; people who truly make me feel special. Now I am “down here” to stay.

Maybe it’s that aspect of this week — how much just having a small amount of human company is worth — that has forced me to reflect on 2021, which has been the loneliest year of my life. It took me some time to really evaluate that designation as I have come up on some seriously hard times over the years. I think I could draw a parallel between being lonely and being poor (I hate that word, “poor,” so we’ll use “growing up modestly”). We didn’t have much when I was a kid; for whatever reason it was totally fine because that’s all we knew, and everyone else around us was in the same boat. We were happy with what we had. And maybe it’s that when I think back to the other lonely periods of my life, I didn’t know how much better it would get for me: I didn’t know that in my 20s and 30s I’d develop friendships with people who were closer to me than my own family. I didn’t know that I would meet people I would want to call when I was hurt or sad or afraid; I had no idea what it was like to be close to people, to want people around, to ask people for help, to want anyone near me for comfort. I learned that much later than is typical. And I think the lack of comparison took the edge off those hard times.

2021 was a brutal year. The end of 2020 was horrible, too. You can really only find so much silver lining without contending with how horribly depressing life is at times. On paper, everything was fine; I kept myself entertained with projects, I held onto my job, and I channeled all of my grief and suffering into being exemplary at work, which certainly paid off. None of those things lessened the emotional toll of being as isolated as I was; I worked from home, I did not see another human for days and sometimes weeks at a time. Last winter was so cold I could not even walk the dog regularly. I developed horrible insomnia that doubled my waking hours, and every day was the same. That kind of routine, being home all the time, not being able to go anywhere, feeling trapped, being cut off from my close friends (most of whom lived thousands of miles away) was hell for someone like me. My roommate, who became one of my closest friends over the past few years, was in Iraq for months at a time, and only came home for a few weeks before he was recalled. I was afraid for my parents’ health, as well, and felt helpless.

It doesn’t help that I’ve been told many times in my life that I make hard things look easy: I am a pragmatic person, and rarely show much emotion to people I don’t know. This has cursed me with a lack of empathy and consideration from other people, as it’s easy to forget I have feelings when I don’t express them. I think many people — even people who truly care for me — just assumed I was OK and would get through it. I am not sure how to address this or to resolve it in the future. I tried to articulate this issue with my new leadership team peers at my company, and despite expressing this meticulously, they still made the same mistake, and in I went to the meat grinder during this move, with zero concern for my feelings or what emotional toll it takes to conduct this kind of move alone in such a short period of time.

I didn’t start my adulthood as someone who forged strong bonds with other people. In fact, I would say it took a lot of energy and effort to become the kind of person who could be vulnerable enough to let other people in. But given my challenging relationship with my family, it occurred to me that I needed to build some kind of support system of people who truly loved me for who I was. I found that in college and afterwards.

My father told me when I was visiting that he believes the pandemic was the nail in the coffin of my Alaska life. I would say that’s maybe partially true: I could not reconcile the isolation I chose and the additional isolation the pandemic foisted onto me. I will never forget the weeks and months I spent up there last winter wondering if anyone would even realize if I were dead, gone forever, and that wasn’t due to anyone’s dubious intent… I was just too far away. I felt like a ghost. I felt like the bus left and I was still standing at the station. Everyone else was gone.

In some ways the pandemic presented a lot of truth: some people I had maintained faith and trust in completely failed to materialize in any way whatsoever, or even reach back out to me when I reached out to them. Some others who should have shown up to be present in my life found more entertaining, fulfilling ways to pass the time. It reminded me of how resilient I can be, as I had a plan before it even got bad, and I managed to get through that first winter without getting fat or drinking too much or making life choices that would’ve made my suffering worse. I hearkened back to my childhood and drew a lot of comfort from books; I planned out my future. I saved a lot of money.

I realized I have a flaw that has created a whole world of suffering for me: I see people for their potential, not who they are, and as a good friend has said many times, “people will always let you down.” They will let you down a lot more if you see them as better than they are. This one flaw of mine has created so much suffering in my life, and the time I have spent waiting for some people to show up for me could have been invested in good people who already do. I am a pretty skeptical and discerning person, but I take people at their word and am excessively idealistic and it has led to such immense hurt and disappointment, and all of that has been needless. For that reason, one of my top priorities here is to recreate the strong bonds I had in my life prior to Alaska, which is not exactly a hub of the socially inclined.

I took a huge loss when my one friend moved to Idaho as well: moreso than the pandemic, that might’ve been the actual nail in the proverbial coffin for me, especially with all that followed after she had relocated. And most recently, after being so deathly ill (I was so sick, I shared with someone recently, that my fingernails all peeled off… I have not ever encountered such extensive physical degradation in my life, even during prolonged hyperthyroidism, I actually thought I might die and I was so delirious I didn’t even care… I played through the entire Game of Thrones series on my TV 24h a day just to feel like I wasn’t going to die alone in the dark), then accepting this job and doing this entire move alone have made this year so harrowingly, unprecedentedly lonely, I don’t even think I am capable of fully articulating it.

I am also sad to lose all of the PTO I didn’t use in 2021; I barely took any time off. I took a few days when my wonderful friends from New York were visiting for my birthday, and I took a week and change off to go to Myrtle Beach and Mexico… but I should have carved out more time to prioritize myself over my job. Instead I’ve squandered the holiday week waiting, and in lieu of any real vacation, I’ve committed to drive out to Myrtle Beach with the dog in March or April to enjoy my reclaimed privilege of driving to other states. Ironically I did what I hate in 2021: I surrendered personal time for money. If I hadn’t moved and needed that money to make my new situation exceedingly comfortable, I would feel more regret.

In any case, while this move hasn’t been quite as emotional as I might have hoped, and I feel neither triumph nor regret, I think I am moving in the right direction. I already feel I have more of a support network here than I did in Anchorage. As the days and weeks pass and I fully move in and get settled I believe I will be very happy here. I feel little beyond “I made the right choice,” and that’s good enough at this point; I think it’s important to recognize my mistakes as the year ends, and the instances where I’ve dragged things out hoping for better outcomes when I should have let them die. And maybe it’s important to assume some of the blame for my own loneliness: when my friend moved to Idaho, I gave up on forging new bonds, and I devoted too much time to trying to breathe life into things that were hopeless, and I feel I’m ready to excel in 2022 in my life in its entirety, at work, at home, socially, alone, intellectually, emotionally, etc.

Thanks to those of you who read this and have been here for me. The ones who truly care for me, who have gone out of your way to foster our friendship. I think no one will ever know how little I had at the beginning of all of this, but I know. Will & Hannah, I hope your little IGA repairs its roof soon… yikes. Alaska has been getting slammed with bad weather (real, legitimate bad weather), especially the Interior.

This is the post the end of this process deserved. I still wonder at what point I am totally going to break down and sob through the hardship of all of this… maybe when I am unpacking my own shit and it fully hits me that I just moved back across the country, and closed a hugely formative chapter of my life to begin another.

Return to the World

Well, this morning my 7-day course of ciprofloxacin ended without one single hurling episode (thank you, Zofran), and I am happy this experience is now behind me. I will be spending the next however-long-it-takes recolonizing the mausoleum of my digestive system with friendly bacteria: antibiotics are amazing triumphs of science to be used in extreme moderation, and I have not used a broad-spectrum antibiotic since I was in college. Yesterday, feeling a bit nauseous, I decided to chance the gym (I chose the machine with a garbage can within barfing distance); I ate solid food for the first time in 10 days and even had a few cocktails. Today I survived my full hour on the stair mill. It feels good to be healthy again, friends. That was a close one. 

Given I no longer feel as though my days are numbered, I am ecstatic that I am wrapping my life up and transporting myself and my dog (I hope) to Denver in a few short months. It’s only Tuesday and it’s already been a hellacious week; I’ve already been added to my new team’s channels, boards, calendars and meetings, and I still have a few days left with my former team, which is not really how this was supposed to go, but it is what it is, and I appreciate their eagerness to have me on board. 

The next two weeks are filled with travel, and when I get back I expect to start figuring out my timeline for getting my stuff moved out of here. I am grateful for the months I have to find a place to live, though I will probably have to head to Denver for a few days after Thanksgiving regardless. I am anxious about this piece, but I am sure it will work out. 01My dog’s bully breed is a major struggle, as it always has been, which is tragic and ridiculous, and it will cost me thousands of dollars on top of my own costs to situate her. I’m torn, to be honest, on taking her with me, as she has a family she knows well that would happily adopt her here, and she’d have far more frequent company with a family than she’ll have with me working from the office half the week. It is extremely taboo to say things like this, I realized months ago, as people anthropomorphize their pets and think they’re crying themselves to sleep at night when they’re apart, which is not typically the case, and certainly not the case for mine. That said, I’ve had this dog for 6 of her 8 years of life, and she’s bonded to me, so she will probably be coming with me at my expense anyway. I can’t imagine parting with an animal that was my sole companion through the pandemic, and if you can be proud of a dog for what it has become character-wise in the time you’ve owned it, I am proud of her. This dog would not even let people near her when I took her in; she loves everyone now, and everyone loves her.

Regardless of how that transpires, I am fairly sure Fuji will be my last pit bull; my years of trying to do the right thing and taking in behaviorally fucked-up adult shelter dogs to turn their attitudes around and make them normal are probably over and I am tired of the price I’ve had to pay over the years for reforming the lives of these animals. A few months ago I came across a breed that will probably end up being perfect for me in the long run, and asked my sister to find me a breeder in the next 3-5 years so I can get on a wait list: the dogs look like huge muppets but are extremely protective and powerful, and excellent for security training.

Alas, we’ll see how it goes. There’s a lot to do.

Rewinding a bit, my vacation was fantastic. I spent a week in Myrtle Beach with my parents, and a week in Mexico at an all-inclusive resort. dadMy family has been traveling to Myrtle Beach since I was born, though I have only very vague memories of the place. A bunch of years ago my parents purchased a condo in the building we always used to stay in, which was a huge deal for them, and it has pretty much become their Shangri-La. I was skeptical at first, as MB is known as the “Redneck Riviera,” but the area has changed unbelievably since we were kids, and is now one of the fastest growing metro areas in the country. My parents’ building is well operated and maintained, and the ocean is so loud you can hear it inside, which I love.

My relationship with my parents has improved markedly over time, due to various factors, and I actually enjoy spending time with them, which was almost never the case until 2-3 years ago. I also just love their condo, I was over the moon at the prospect of swimming in the ocean every day, and I had an amazing time. (Yes, I blurred out my dad’s nipples. Ya welcome.)

My experience at my first all-inclusive resort in Mexico was also surprisingly good. mexicoSome things could have been better, especially the food, but given their typical audience I think the quality was acceptable, and they had a buffet, which was great. Despite not even being a pool person, the first three days there, we barely made it past the quiet, lazy river-ish pool outside our building. The beach was beautiful; the ocean was warm and amazing and there were huge fish swimming with us. I could’ve stayed for longer… a lot longer. cochinitaI had intended to spend a day or two off-property, so one day we went to Rio Secreto, which was mind-blowingly cool. The second day we went out to Chichen Itza, we swam in a beautiful cenote, which we inexplicably had entirely to ourselves. Dug up some cochinita pibil on the long drive back. I would go back to this resort in a hot second, though the 60% sale I booked with would have to be available… there is no way I’d pay full price for what we got. We got a killer deal at $370 or so a night… I wouldn’t pay $500. All in all total kick ass experience, no regrets. 

Quick rundown of what I’ve read this month, no summaries, just links to Amazon. Most of this stuff was good, nothing was great except for Cultish, which I really enjoyed. Woke, Inc. is worth a read, too. Age of Addiction was not really what I expected, but there was a lot of interesting history, which made it unique.

Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History | The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business | Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism | Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life | Woke, Inc.: Inside America’s Corporate Social Justice Scam

I also watched the HBO remake of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage, which I decided I didn’t hate as much as I thought initially. I do hate some of the modernizing efforts, particularly the open marriage that is their friends’ relationship in the beginning, but I am skeptical of this trend in society, which isn’t really a sufficient reason to disparage its presence in the remake. I also don’t love that they switched the genders in the original plot, but I could’ve gone either way I suppose. It’s as complex and emotional as the original, though I find the original to be timeless and not in any need of modernizing whatsoever. I still prefer the original, which is one of my favorite films of all time, but I think the remake was a good effort.

That’s all for now, but I imagine I’ll be writing again soon as things continue to develop.

Shots! Shots! Shots!

February tends to be an upswing month in the far north, and this year didn’t disappoint. While the Lower 48 is still reeling in pandemic turmoil, Alaska is nearing 30% of its age-eligible population vaccinated, and we’re moving quickly through the eligibility tiers. I decided over the past few days to participate in the vaccine Hunger Games, hoping to catch a shot on its way to the trash, as many of my friends have. I even called our state hotline to ask them if this was an acceptable thing to do, and they said yes. So, here’s hoping. All in all, my parents have received their second shots and my siblings caught COVID early on, so I’d say everyone else is in a good place. Here in Anchorage, our positivity rate is hovering around 2%, which isn’t half bad and has made it seem somewhat reasonable to occasionally have dinner at a restaurant and see a friend or two regularly. At around 30 degrees, my cold-wimp of a dog can run happily outside as well, so I’d say the past month has been a win. 

I won’t gain much from an earlier shot; I’ve surrendered to not traveling extensively for some time. My parents are visiting this summer, and I don’t want to go back to the Northeast until most of everyone I’d want to see has been vaccinated and thus comfortable socializing. My company’s travel ban still stands; so whether I am vaccinated today or a month or two from now changes very little if anything for me. After a year of not seeing my closest friends or my family, the only real source of any value in my life has been whatever I do alone: working out, reading, etc, and the very brief periods of time I spend with a very small handful of other people. Maybe somehow it doesn’t feel all that horrible full-time because I’ve been here before; feeling like I have very little other than myself is more of a normal feeling than an abnormal one. Some days, like today, I wake up and wonder if the way I’ve structured my life has been a massive error in judgment… but generally, I am just chugging along. Nothing meant anything prior to the pandemic and I’m not sure that has changed for better or for worse.

The insomnia and “blah” feeling that punctuated my winter seems to have largely passed, though I haven’t quite been able to pinpoint its cause. While a lot of people up here struggle with some level of seasonal affective disorder, I’ve always enjoyed the dark days of winter, and the ensuing excitement of spring. The sun is strong, and the days are growing longer rapidly; we’ll be getting tans in no time (I typed this up yesterday, and as I hit “publish” it’s pukin’ outside, brah). The vaccination timeline doesn’t leave much room to travel before it’s summer up here, and I plan to stay put for most of it and bounce around the state; I’ve spent too many Alaskan summers careening through other countries. Sadly, most of the countries on my to-do list will not be open or vaccinated for some time regardless, so I expect to not go far until 2022. And New York is too hot in the summer to be bothered; my pilgrimage to the homeland will take place in the fall or winter. While our tourism industry will take another huge hit this summer, the state of Alaska will be wide open to Alaskans and people who DIY their trips, and I’m looking forward to that. What money I (continue) to save on international travel will be pumped into the remaining upgrades to my house.

Further, in an increased effort to help myself feel better, I’ve been using my FitBit to help me sleep (did you know caffeine stays in your system for hours and hours and you should probably cut that shit out by 3pm? Well, I didn’t, but it’s made a huge difference); I added the oh-so-popular 10,000 steps to my daily regimen (tough when you barely leave your house); I tried kencko, which isn’t bad but I’m not sure evaporated fruit and vegetable flakes are worth the money… and a friend and I jotted down a bunch of food ideas on scraps of paper and put them in a jar, and we draw one a week for our Saturday dinner & movie night. This very simple thing has been a lot of fun and given me something to look forward to and provided a small outlet for much-underutilized creativity. I haven’t been much for cooking this entire time, as it’s been just me, but the small spurts of company I have have given me a reason to do so. 

Fathers and Sons | I’ve been working through some Russian classics I had missed as a teenager, and this was a great one. I found the theme pretty timely given how polarized everyone is, although in Fathers and Sons it’s between generations, with the backdrop of significant social and political change in Russia. This novel is the birthplace of “nihilism,” at least in the context it’s used today, and you watch the characters marry and separate from their chosen beliefs; the rifts those beliefs cause in their families and in themselves and the friction toward one another. It of course ends in relative tragedy, after love challenges the belief systems of both the “sons” and they proceed in different directions. This is the first more contemporary novel I’ve enjoyed (contemporary in its subject matter) — of the somewhat-recently read Russian classics, I didn’t love The Master and the Margarita, but I have really deeply loved And Quiet Flows the Don and A Hero of Our Time. Bazarov is a Byronic hero, as well, which is one of the many reasons this book was so enjoyable; it’s an easy read in a way versus something like A Hero of Our Time because so much of Fathers and Sons is about characters who outwardly explain their belief systems.

Big White Ghetto | My mother saw this author on the news, told me this sounded “right up my alley,” and she wasn’t wrong. This book is an informed rampage through what to me (and the author) are often well intentioned and nonetheless stupid ideas. The title is to some degree misleading, as he also talks about inner-city blacks, but his focus is on how policies have allowed people to retain their victim mentalities and foster poor health and often poorer financial decisions. I was particularly pleased by the chapter about casinos, which have become an absurd “solution” to Alaska’s budget deficits recently (and I’ll be writing a lengthy op-ed for one of our local outlets about that sooner than later). This is not an insane right-winger read: he can’t stand the tail end of either party. It is more than worth a read, and his solutions aren’t warm and fuzzy by any means. His own backstory gives this book special credence; he’s not someone who hasn’t lived in the world of learned helplessness. On top of offering a ton of variable content and subject matter, he’s a gifted (and often darkly funny) writer. Review in Forbes here.

Oblomov | I was sure I wouldn’t like this, but I ended up loving it. I initially hated the slothful, worthless Oblomov, but he becomes an incredibly sympathetic character really rapidly — when his friend arrives to dress him down about wasting his life taking naps — and he explains that participating in the trivialities of society seem utterly worthless and he doesn’t want to spend his life pretending and talking about stupid shit to people who don’t really care about one another. Some parts of the book are really long and tiresome, particularly the part about his childhood, which gave more context to why Oblomov became the person he was but was also a bit boring. I actually loved the way the ending wrapped up with basically “and there lies Oblomov, and I wanted to tell the story of his life, and it’s the story I just told you.” Goncharov is probably the easiest Russian writer to read; he writes totally matter-of-factly, and most of the book happens in dialog, which makes it super easy to follow. I found a lot of it to be about picking your battles; grappling with meaninglessness versus ambition and purpose; tradition versus modernity. As much as I really detested his character, his laziness, his indifference, his lack of motivation, I found him to be one of the most sympathetic lazy characters I’ve encountered.

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error | I heard a lot of mixed reviews on this book — mostly that it was good but had a lot of fluff — I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. She offers a ton of historical and biological context; she paints a picture with a lot of different but all entirely interesting information. There’s some behavioral econ, some evolutionary biology, some anthropology, some philosophy. I’d say it’s more of a mish-mash than a book that concludes somewhere, but the material presented adds a lot of context for anyone and she does a good job of fleshing out why it’s difficult to accept being wrong, and why humans try to avoid it at all costs, and how we do so, whether consciously or not. NY Times review here.

March’s audiobook project is Ulysses, which is hard for me not because it’s hard but because I don’t love stream-of-consciousness writing at all, though I will take this opportunity to plug probably the best modern SOC book I’ve read that was never included in this blog: Ducks, Newburyport. It’s tough to even call Ducks, Newburyport a book, when it reads like more of a project, an entire book in a single sentence, but it is unbelievable in its style and imagery and the sheer volume of emotion the author can cram into a single sentence. I will not finish this book for a very long time; I read bits and pieces here and there, but it is pretty extraordinary and well worth the read even if this narrative style is not your thing. My plan is to finish Ulysses and take another pass at Infinite Jest before the summer, thanks to two contemporary SOC works I’ve loved: Ducks, Newburyport and many years ago Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (I loved this book so much I’ve read every single one of his other books, and found that very sadly none of them are even remotely as good). Jonathan Safran-Foer’s Everything is Illuminated was pretty OK, too. Not my favorite, but not bad. New Yorker review of Ducks, Newburyport here.

That’s all for February. We’re now comping over COVID-19; so the next 12 months in comparison should be better than the last, month:month. 

The Gulag Diet: 2 Years of IF

I meant to publish this post in May, and then completely forgot, so I deleted it and started it all over. I feel a bit weird sharing this, but it’s been an interesting series of lessons and people have asked me over the years, so I figured I’d share.

I embarked on an experiment a few years ago in an effort to dodge some genetic curses:

  • I developed plaque psoriasis at 13. Before I was 20, I developed early onset psoriatic arthritis in my small joints, namely my fingers.
  • Psoriasis is super inconvenient, especially when you’re an insecure teenager.  Developing autoimmune arthritis at such a young age doesn’t bode well for the future.
  • I spent quite a few years working with a brilliant dermatologist to figure out what treatment(s) would work, and found a topical steroid combo that, to this day, is worth its weight in gold (or money, as the retail cost of this medication is nearly $1400 per bottle). In my 30s, I developed a secondary form of skin psoriasis, which requires a different topical solution. I spent years trying all kinds of wild shit to manage this disease, and most therapies were not effective (for me).
    • My options after this medication’s efficacy wears off are grim, to say the least: methotrexate, then biologics. This has been a huge motivator.
  • At 30, I had my first bout of autoimmune thyroiditis. At 34, I had my second one. There is no treatment. My immune system will eventually kill off my thyroid. Key word being “eventually.”
  • Autoimmune diseases have high comorbidity, so if I have a few of them by 35, there will probably be more to come.
  • Apart from this, I have great genes: I have no diabetes, heart disease or cancer in my family. However, my parents and siblings are all overweight to various degrees, and we all have big bones and athletic builds (my father, formerly a college football player, looks like the Slavic Sgt. Slaughter). I’d say my immediate family members are strong and pretty fat. I’d like to be strong, and not fat.

Autoimmune diseases are aggravated my stress. My teenage and college years were horribly stressful for me, and my first thyroid issue arose during a crushingly stressful situation at my last job; my second one, while caused by a viral infection, was aggravated/prolonged by an unstable relationship. Last summer when I was struggling with hyperthyroidism, I felt like I was going to stroke out at times during arguments. As I’ve grown older and learned these things the hard way, I’ve managed to remove any and all work, financial and interpersonal drama from my life. Eating healthily and exercising are also important. Not using tobacco is probably a plus, and I’m sad to say drinking is probably not ideal, though anyone who knows me knows it’ll be a cold day in hell before I am 24/7 sober. My doctor last year told me the best natural treatment was to lead a boring, consistent life… in other words, a life that sounds nothing like the one I have or intend to. However, fostering universal security in your own life goes a long way: unstable partner? Dump him or her. Shitty friends? Say goodbye. Dramatic family? Minimize interaction. Crazy living situation? Move. Find supportive people who can be reliable and help to mitigate stress instead of add to it. The greatest curse of these diseases is that your emotional problems convert to physical pain: people who aren’t good for your life are dead weight. Let them go.

Even so, what else could I do, other than pity myself for being in my 30s and occasionally feeling like a busted piece of shit? I decided to try intermittent fasting, as it has shown some promising results with controlling immune response. I conveniently began this at a time when I had chunked up after a long winter in Fairbanks; I disappeared 25 lbs in the first two months, and have largely hovered around the same weight for most of the rest of this time, minus the hypothyroid phase of my last incident, and the beginning of this pandemic: I’m currently a few lbs outside of my ideal threshold right now. It’s a fight, as your body becomes increasingly efficient and it learns to live on much less food. I take breaks for vacations and trips on occasion so I can blitz my metabolism when I resume. I harbor no delusions… I will never be thin, but I feel pretty amazing nearly every day.

The more miraculous outcome is that I barely use any medication anymore, and the affected skin patches have shrunk by about 1/5th: I’ve cut topical application on the remainder by 50% or more. I have zero joint pain, 99% of the time (I track this all, and my weight, and alcohol consumption, and exercise in a trusty Excel spreadsheet… nerd life). This obviously changes in stressful times; at the front of this pandemic, my skin was a mess. My joints hurt. I was afraid my thyroid was going to crap out again. I doubled down and got my shit together. I will likely continue some iteration of fasting for the rest of my life; I don’t lift weights (currently), but I do cardio regularly, hike a lot and am pretty active. I don’t eat much red meat, and I’ve never been much of a processed food person. Moreover, 2 to 3- 36-hour fasts per week are enjoyable, and I believe it’s because I chose a very loose set of rules:

  • Eat whatever you want on eating days. This was super important. I can’t see myself spending my eating days on Oreos and Doritos, but if I wanted to, I could. There is no deprivation in this lifestyle; just delayed gratification. I have shamelessly eaten mac & cheese pizza on my eat days. You feel a lot less guilty about what you eat when you know you’ll not be eating the next day.
  • Do not do this every other day (not for 36h at least). I tried this and it was too much. It makes you too weak, no matter what you eat on your eating days. Besides, weekends should be weekends. 2-3- 36 hour days is enough, with an occasional prolonged fast (I do one 60h fast every month or two) thrown in to see what I’m made of.
  • I struggled initially to balance mineral intake. I started with drinking a cup of broth (mostly salt and flavoring), sometimes ate a can of “healthy” soup (220 cal) and bone broth, and I’ve graduated to drinking Yassentuki mineral water, which is absolutely disgusting but certainly tastes like it has the sodium I need. Magnesium staves off brutal headaches. Take vitamin D. Always, always, always take vitamin D, every day of your life.
  • It is virtually impossible to sleep after you don’t eat for this long. Your body will not let you go to bed. You might get sleepy in the afternoon, but I’ve taken to dosing myself with CBD/melatonin gummies on fast nights. They work perfectly.
  • If you eat too much the next morning, you will probably shit yourself. You will feel terrible. Start with something probiotic. I eat a yogurt with almond butter mixed in usually, and go from there. You’ll be surprised to see you’re not that hungry the next day. In fact, during a longer fast, the first day is typically the hardest. The second day your body seems to quietly eat itself.
  • Do not drink too much on nights before fast days, or your stomach will burn ALL day. You obviously lose more weight when you don’t drink; this is not rocket science, as much as the Internet is full of convenient articles about how drinking is good for weight loss. I’m a big fan of drinking; I still drink 2 nights or so a week. Sometimes more. Mostly wine.
  • You’ll be hungrier on your fast days if you fill up on starch when you can eat. This also is obvious. I’ve recently swapped all of my crackers out for tasteless cardboard Scandinavian bran crackers, which has helped. Expect to be hungrier if your eating days are filled with bread and spaghetti.
  • Working out is a thing, even on days you don’t eat. Will you be hungrier? Yeah, duh. My typical workout is 50min on the stair climber or alternating between 35 min/climber and 2 miles on the treadmill in the winter / outside stuff in the summer. Your body will work just fine with no food in it. The fact that people think this is impossible shows how brainwashed people are by constant food advertising.
  • You’ll laugh when people talk about how they’re “starving” when dinner is late. Western people know nothing about starving. We avoid hunger pangs like the plague. It’s quite comical when you spend a few years powering through hunger and realize that feeling subsides.
  • Fasting saves money, obviously. People eat a LOT of food. Take 3 days of food out of the equation, and you’re buying a lot less shit. Pretty cool.
  • I was surprised to see that my concentration and focus are just as strong if not better on days I don’t eat. A lot of energy goes into digestion; when you don’t use it, it goes to other places… like your brain and cognition. Hunger made people good hunters, not only due to the result. A fair amount of research points to greater awareness and better cognition in a fasted state.
  • I never bothered with macros or anything. I don’t want to be one of those annoying people preaching about keto, Crossfit, whatever else. I never counted shit. The beauty of fasting is that it’s so straightforward and simple. Eat / don’t eat. That’s it. I enjoyed keeping it that way. You will lose weight faster with keto, if you choose to do that.
  • Fasting is a pretty historically relevant tradition that encompasses many religions and ethnic groups, not to mention our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Powering through a long fast with the right mentality is a good skill to have. You never know when you’ll be caught without food; it’s good to know how you’d deal. The clarity you gain and the things you realize (the power of food advertising, the way we waste food, the indifference we typically have to the act of eating) are amazing byproducts of the process.
  • Even at 3 days a week, I’ve been able to flex. Sometimes I shift days. Sometimes I’ll double the time and do one more, but you need to give your body time without food. I’ve been lax lately, but I’ve been more active. I use how I feel as my primary cue, not the scale.

Anyway, that’s it, I guess. I started this post before summer arrived here, and between the remodeling of my house and hiking up a mountain a few days a week, I’m pleased by how well my body has dealt with world events as of late. One of my larger internal struggles has been trying to figure out how to remove stressors that hurt my health, as I have a more sensitive connection between the two than most people do.

All in all, IF has become a trend, and I’m surprised companies are able to make money on a diet plan that requires one to eat LESS, but this is America after all. Part of this has doubtless been changing my lifestyle in terms of removing things that stress me out; my life, as a whole, is higher quality, happier, and better than it was one year, two years or five years ago. I do believe despite all of that, that fasting has added another dimension of (a) control (or the perception of), (b) clarity and (c) physical health. As I’ve aged, I’ve wanted to take more time back from things that waste it, and 2-3 days a week, I don’t think about food. This has also given me a lot of time back.

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

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).

cesky

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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