Bloom

I rolled back into Denver at 4:30pm yesterday after driving nearly 1,800 miles in 2 days. My father has told me in the past to not drive more than 600 miles in a day: it’s “too much.” The internet tells me it’s “not safe” to drive over 500 miles/8 hours in a day. fujiThe route from Myrtle Beach to Denver is 1,745 miles, and it would’ve been feasible to clock 1000 instead of 900, but 1000 is probably my limit. It’s not easy, but it’s doable. I realized on the way home I think I like these trips because (a) I love to plan, and the logistics of travel can be challenging, and (b) I am extremely goal oriented. Long drives require discipline and grit. 900+ miles in a day requires determination. I have all of those things, and I love to suffer to test my own endurance. I’d go so far as to say that’s why I’m here, in my life, in Colorado, in good health, why I haven’t crawled into a hole with booze or pills or God knows what else. Determination is also helpful in avoiding the descent into a homicidal rampage at the ineptitude of other drivers, who clearly have not heard of cruise control, and love to chill in the left lane driving under the speed limit.

The drive out, at least day one, was grim. I hate, hate, hate driving through farmland. Research indicates that humans experience a primitive appreciation for rolling hills: long a symbol of prosperity and sustenance. Me, I fucking can’t stand endless cows, I hate farmland, and driving through the pastures, wheat fields and cornfields of Kansas and Nebraska makes me want to slit my wrists. The smell of the big cattle and pig farms is overwhelming. There is no worse place to drive through than the “heartland”, although I lol’d a few times at the enormous Jesusy billboards (“Shackled to lust? Jesus saves”). You had better believe that enough years looking at fields of absolutely nothing, you’re going to need Jesus in your life. You’re going to need SOMETHING. The second day, through endless interchanges, weaving through traffic as I approached the East Coast, was better. I’d take hours of traffic and 6-lane highways over Kansas any day. It’s particularly amazing, the extent to which the pandemic has pushed people into previously pretty rural places: Tennessee. Missouri. The Great Smoky Mountains area, which used to be very sleepy and beautiful, is now just inundated with people. Goddamn city people.

Driving is also good reflection time for me, but it sucks when you’re a perfectionist and ruminate over how much you aren’t up to your own impossible standards: fresh off the annual convention in Vegas, I spent most of the day beating myself up for being so different from everyone else, for being so overwhelmed by 3,000 hotel partners and probably 1,000 employees and struggling to stay present in so many iterations of pleasantries and small talk. After three gin & sodas one night, I told my boss I don’t plan to stay in this job for any longer than it takes me to master it. While this seems like a stupid thing to tell your supervisor, my company is pretty devoted to helping people who have put in their time find somewhere better suited to their strengths. It will take time; I am in no rush and I need to feel confident I’m good at every aspect of this job before I leave. I explained this to him. Having descended from Carpathian coal miners, I wonder when things changed in the world – when it became a right to have a job you like. In any case, I refuse to move on until I feel content in my own performance. Again, determination, and a love for suffering. My entire focus in my life has been range, and I shared the famous Heinlein quote with my team when I first started:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I have no desire to be exemplary at any one thing; I am interested in improving in many areas of my life where I lack natural talent and/or ability. That single desire has remained a theme throughout my entire adult life. I continuously jump head-first into things I know I will have to struggle to learn and ultimately master, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s no better feeling than realizing you’ve become good at something you sucked at, or knew nothing about, and that extends to everything. People live their entire lives in the comfort of what they know, what they can excel at easily, I have never been able to live that way. It gives me nothing.

On paper I’d call this trip a wash – mbI only took Friday off after failing to swim M-Thu (riptides, rain and other trash weather disrupted my plans), and Friday was windy and cloudy, but I did end up in the ocean, thankfully. I had the mornings to myself (in EST, working on MST), and I loved chilling on the balcony reading: I finished four books (more on that in my next post), and got enough down-time to sustain me for awhile. I went out there to swim as much as possible, as whatever micro-creepy crawlies the ocean has to offer do wonders for my skin, but I loved my time down there anyway and I’m grateful to have access to a beachfront condo to visit any time I please. One of the two happiest moments of my life was as a young kid, lying awake on a twin bed in my grandparents’ house on Long Beach Island while my sister slept in the bed next to me, smelling the bay breeze waft in through the windows and thinking to myself, “let me hold onto this.” Even as a kid I knew life was fleeting, years pass in an instant. Every time I’ve eaten an oyster in its salty water or walked out onto a dock in Alaska I’ve remembered those nights, gratefully awake, the smell of the sea.

My other happiest memory was pulling out of the driveway of my parents’ house to leave for Alaska, and for these reasons I wonder often if the best years, and best moments, are behind me. I wonder if my hopes and dreams have already actualized, and I wonder what’s left that will fulfill me. Conversely, it’s all I’ve experienced in my life that allows me the freedom to be happy to bite the dust at any time, with no regrets. I’ve chased a lot of dreams and done what I’ve loved. I’ve sacrificed a lot: life is full of trade-offs. But in giving up Alaska and returning to the lower 48, I feel loved and am gradually feeling content in my life despite the mediocrity of the city life and my job. I’m honored to have collected such wonderful people. I can’t say that enough.

After driving BACK through goddamn Kansas, I was even overjoyed to get home, to my beautiful little home, and neighborhood full of huge trees that popped while I was away, and where all the sidewalks were sunny when I left, there are now tunnels of shade, and canopies of leaves I have not lived around in many years. fuji2I think I am fully out of whatever dark place I was trapped in for months, if not longer, feeling hopeless and empty and devoid of any direction, any value, any purpose. I took that trip to remind myself of who I was before the pandemic: a road warrior, a lone wolf, someone who just wanted to be out and immersed in the world, someone who rarely stopped moving, who wanted to see and experience everything. I have unbelievable appreciation for this country, for the different landscapes and people and histories of the different regions, and I have always been so fascinated by how other people live. One of the top pros of moving back down here was to be able to drive anywhere again, and I’m happy I prioritized that for myself: it’s still a huge part of who I am. I’m even grateful, seeing so many cars with blown out tires or broken down on the side of the road, to have a reliable vehicle, and a furry little derp to come along for the ride, and the funds to afford to take such a trip.

It’s taken many months to shake off the stress and sadness of the last two years. I worked really hard to do whatever I could to limit anxiety, afraid to trigger an existing or new autoimmune flare, or spend months shaking, insomniac, heart palpitating. I finally went in for a physical today in order to get a new primary care physician on the books here: I picked a guy with a Slavic last name (I thought he was Ukrainian, but he’s Polish, though I suspect he’s from Galicia by the spelling of his name); these people don’t sugarcoat shit or waste time with pleasantries, and in attempting to find some explanation for my heat syncope and my weird but rare hypoglycemic reactions, I was told I was simply dealt a bad hand, and to stop searching for answers and live my life. I have a drunk immune system, and it is what it is, so if something doesn’t work, or makes me sick, stop doing it. The end.

He’s not wrong; I wish I could amass a bit more information to further help myself live as healthily as possible (and continue my familial tradition of living past 90). He then referred me to an immunologist, I then asked him to reconcile telling me that doctors don’t understand autoimmunity with the recommendation to see a specialist, and he told me more insight is better than less, so fair enough. I appreciate his honesty, and I think I’m doing well given my losing the genetic lottery in my family and sprouting more autoimmune issues as I go through life. All to say, it’s easy to look at someone and say they’re lucky: I’ve busted my ass for every day I wake up feeling good. I work hard to compensate for extra annoying hurdles, and I’m doing quite well all said and done.

Life has checked me these past few years: self-care is a thing. Boundaries are a thing. PTO is a thing. Gratitude is a thing, but that has come more naturally to me than to others. It’s amazing the damage people can do to one another, toxicity can crush someone emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically, and I’ve learned some hard lessons over the past few years of my life. I wonder if the stubborn determination that has propelled me through life will ever be noteworthy to anyone but me, if anyone will ever scratch the surface of understanding what I have put myself through to be the person I am, but I at least think I am back in a place where I feel good about myself, where I am, my value in relation to myself and others, and all it took was months/years of struggle, moving across the country, crushing despair and hopelessness, and a 3500 mile drive. It took kindness and love from countless friends I’m grateful to have held onto throughout my many years in the hinterland, my sparse visits, e-mails, Zoom calls, all bringing me to this place and time where despite it all, the pandemic, the tragedy, the misfortune, the flakiness of people, I still can put my paltry struggles in a box and appreciate the world around me and the people who have traveled with me in time, and are still here.

The end.

April Showers

April has flown by. Time is moving much more quickly these days; my weekends have been spent primarily with visitors, events and local adventures, and I seem to careen pretty rapidly through the workweek now that I have my schedule nailed down. There’s a beautiful lake up the street from my house and I’ve loved walking the dog around it in the evenings, spotting so many birds I haven’t seen in years. lakeThe nicest things about moving back down here have been the small pleasures: how comfortable the weather is, the herons and cormorants, the constant sunshine, even the wind. I still would put sitting outside in the sun with a book and slamming cocktails as among my top 5 favorite things to do; my house is comfortable, my neighborhood is quiet, Fuji is happy. My gym routine is working out well for me, and I’ve got 4lbs more to shave off before I hit my target range. I still feel pangs of… something, when I think about what I left to be here, and what those things meant to me over a decade of my life. Alas, it could all be a lot shittier here, and it’s not. I spent $100 on a set of baller wind chimes that I can hear from inside and you’d think it’d take a lot more to make someone happy in the moment. Not so.

fujiIt seems that it was a long time ago I was thinking about driving to South Carolina, and flying back up to AK, and those trips are coming up fast. I still feel a deep sense of ‘what’s next?’ in my life, but it’s slowly dissipating as I ramp up socially and make more plans. I moved here, more than anything else, to be closer to people, to see familiar faces more often, to have more people to talk to, and I have in 4 months managed to turn that into a pretty excellent reality. Maybe it’s OK to not know what the future holds. Maybe things just need to not be lonely and depressing af first. Everything was so epically beautiful where I was (this is not ‘the grass is always greener’ rationale, because a lot of things sucked up there) – but in returning to the lower 48, I’ve become a willing participant in a kind of lifestyle I hate: 9-5, commute to the office, etc. This is not my long-term plan. I do not want this kind of life with any kind of permanence. I am making the best of it, for now.

I met up with a former boss earlier in the month and once again cried in public (this dude has a special talent for making me weepy in absolutely inconvenient situations), but he ended up sending me a book called Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents that gave some more concise explanation to this prevailing feeling that I am always alone, and I have no one to blame but myself. It’s a special kind of frustration to realize that despite many years of therapy you’re still fucked up, but somehow reading that book allowed me to add some context and to address some phantom threads of some of my core feelings and how I (often fail to) relate to the world around me. I’ve channeled some effort into building more training modules for work, specifically around curiosity and assertiveness and what they’re worth in terms of character traits, so I still don’t love my job, but I don’t hate it as much as I did in the beginning. I still sometimes feel like I am required to insert myself into a clique, which has pushed me more than once to start looking for other opportunities. I’m hard-wired to struggle through things and I committed to a year in this role, so I shan’t be giving up for now. I’ve received pretty glowing reviews from above and below, but if you asked me if I truly enjoyed this role, my answer would be mostly no.

Today and tomorrow are the calm before the storm this week, and early Wednesday I fly to Vegas for 37 hours for our annual convention. I have done my best to avoid attending over the years as it’s all just way too much for me in terms of fervent partying and drinking and the militant networking makes me cringe, but I decided to suck it up and go this year, though I will sneak out after my “look pretty and talk to people” responsibilities are over to hit a dive bar with a friend, preferably far away from my coworkers. I am departing a bit earlier than others to get back here, swap my luggage, throw the dog in the car and drive to Myrtle Beach via Kansas City & Nashville. This drive will suck in terms of scenery: driving through Kansas especially is the absolute worst (tied for #1 most visually boring US state with Nebraska), endless flat blandness, but I’m stocked up on podcasts and audiobooks and driving has always been a sort of meditation time for me, so I think it will do me good. The stairmill, planes and long drives are periods I deconstruct my life and process large swathes of information, so I think this is long overdue.

I am sure it will be bizarre to be crossing state lines; I’ve wondered many times how living in AK imprinted so heavily onto my life that everything afterwards has felt so unreal, but I think a lot of it is that I never thought I’d leave and I still feel some skepticism about being back down here. I told my mother a few weeks ago that while most people spend their 20s-30s finding a partner and settling down and I spent mine hurtling around in small planes, driving every dirt road in Alaska and vacationing in the Eastern Bloc, I’ve arrived in my late 30s as a single person with a particular richness of experience that sometimes makes it difficult for me to garner as much deep understanding/connection from others. This will be a lifelong challenge, and it will only grow as I become a weirder and weirder individual. I don’t feel better than anyone, but I do feel very different in many ways and the further you deviate from the mean, the harder it is to find multiple points of common ground.

I have, however, surprised myself once again in my ability to collect/attract good people.FB_IMG_1651417969249 I showed up here barely knowing anyone, and I’m charmed by how many solid people I’ve already collected, not to mention the many people who have already stopped in to spend time. My former roommate’s coworker relocated to Denver as well, shortly after I did, and we’ve been spending Sundays drinking Bloody Marys in my yard and I’m grateful one of my favorite people managed to gift me another quality friend.  I hosted a small-ish house party on Saturday to get to know some of the local metalheads, I’ve had a number of work and personal-life visitors, including my sister and her husband, and a close friend from the Catskills. Juan came in for the Amorphis show, a long-time friend from Albany is flying out for our other friend’s band’s show over Memorial Day weekend. There are many great bands coming through, and I love that aspect of being back down here.

sarah_mikeMy social life overall is pretty full… I cannot complain. I even have really enjoyed getting closer to the Ukrainian on my team, and we are navigating the fine line between professional and personal relationships. Before I know it, it’ll be July, I’ll be packing for Europe, and maybe… just maybe… this whole depressing pandemic ordeal is mostly over, and I’ve emerged from this pretty dark, fucked up period of my life. I even caught up on WhatsApp with some people we met last time we were in Georgia and we’ll be meeting up for drinks in Tbilisi. For a pretty introverted, private person, I somehow manage to connect deeply with certain people and keep them around for years. I don’t know why people go out of their way for me, or remember me, or put in the work, but I am always grateful and feel a lot of love in the social sphere after all this time. So thank you all.

I’ve forgotten how to pack multiple bags at once and string complex itineraries together, so I’m crossing my fingers for the muscle memory to return. It’s inconceivable to me that, before the pandemic, that was my lifestyle, and everything just stopped for a long time. baroloI’m signing over my condo to the heli-ski company full-time as of October, so this may be the first and last summer of remote coordinating vacation rentals. Depending on how my June trip shakes out, I may go back up there again before the end of the summer… we’ll see. I’m torn; I want to go to Jordan, I’d also really like to make an appearance in Sarajevo as it’s been a hot minute, so we’ll see. I’ve had some epic food adventures here in town over the months, and many more places to hit up, but all in good time.

I wrapped up two work books this past month for training/presentations: Never Split the Difference, which was awesome, and Cracking the Curiosity Code, which was also OK (the latter was more of a refresher, it’s very hard to turn this stuff into teachable content, so I have to spend long periods of time how to distill applicable pieces to convey to large groups.

I also finished re-reading (listening to, rather) The Gulag Archipelago: Vol I, which I’ve been chipping away at for a long time; I first read it when I was in high school. I can’t stand the audiobook reader’s voice, which is unfortunate as he also did Vol II and III. Gulag Archipelago is so twisted that it actually makes me laugh (I think I owe this to Solzhenitsyn’s dark sense of humor and sarcasm). This should really be required reading in high schools; I believe it is in some countries, sadly not the US. These books have helped me so many ways, they’ve added so much context and a sense of fortitude, they’ve helped me put my own bullshit in perspective. I remember reading Kolyma Tales as a kid and being amazed at just how tough humans can be, what they can survive.

I also finally read Vasily Grossman’s Forever Flowing, and I’m taking my hard copy of Life and Fate to Myrtle (what better place to read Soviet / WWII history than on a sunny beach?) Forever Flowing is incredible, another must-read, so fucking grim and depressing. There are some really beautiful passages I won’t soon forget:

He went through the Hermitage–to find that it left him cold and indifferent.  It was unbearable to think that those paintings had remained as beautiful as ever during the years in camp which has transformed him into a prematurely old man.  Why hadn’t the faces of the madonnas grown old too, and why hadn’t their eyes been blinded with tears?  Was not their immortality their failure rather than their strength?  Did not their changelessness reveal a betrayal by art of the humanity which had created it?

On that note, I’ll wrap this up. We are already into another month: Picketty’s new book is on my list, plus Douglas Murray’s War on the West (his interview on Rogan was excellent). I’m still not reading as much as I’d like, but I’m getting there.

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.

First & Second Snow

Parts of Anchorage received over a foot of snow yesterday: we tied our 1981 record for earliest accumulation. It’s tough to admit this given my passion for cold weather, but I am pissed.4runner September is too soon for this. I was hoping to get out of here (for vacation) before this happened; I’m grateful I managed to  at least put studded tires on my truck in time (my aesthetic improvements are looking good so far, speaking of, though the only two fun aspects of driving this thing are 1. the feeling that I can run over other vehicles and 2. the dog sticking her head out the back window, which rolls down).

There is no guarantee of an autumn season in Alaska; some years you get a beautiful Indian summer… the yellow leaves stay on the trees, rustling in the wind day after day, and the smell of wood smoke lingers in the air… some years you get a cold, slimy monsoon, and then it snows a shitload and that’s that. Welcome to winter 2021/22.

I spent the final pre-snow beautiful day driving to Girdwood, sewardhwyand each time I’ve been down there in the last month I have seen our Cook Inlet belugas swimming alongside the road.  Regardless of how much I feel that my time here is coming to an end, can you even imagine driving down a highway and seeing whales swimming alongside you? Misfortune, poor choices, bad luck, pandemics nor loneliness have diminished my love for this unbelievable, awesome place, and no part of me is wanting to leave because I’m tired of you, Alaska. It’s just time.

The first snow has always been exciting for me… I have been obsessed with winter my whole life. I feel the years’ tidal waves of nostalgia; I love the cold, clean water smell of snow; the melting drips the next day; the squeak under your feet when it’s below zero; the dead quiet, the bright moonlight reflections. I love everything about winter.  Despite not being much of a holiday person, even the emotional warmth of that time of year is pretty palpable as soon as there’s snow on the ground. I feel all of those things this year… but I also feel deep anxiety. And deja vu.

This time last year, I had crossed back into Alaska after heading up the Alcan, filled with hope for my future, despite the pandemic. A year later, I am so tired and burned out that most of my emotions are severely muted. I am approaching month 4 of interview loop limbo, a level of uncertainty that would drain virtually anyone, though I still have a very good chance of being relocated out of here before the end of the year. I’ve had less time than I expected to enjoy my condo and hike in the slice of time post-Labor Day and before my lease begins due to the dog unexpectedly needing surgery and being on rationed exercise.

Tomorrow I’ll turn my house over one last time before my tenant arrives, which makes me very sad; I wonder if I squandered possibly my last summer up here trying to make up for a shitty financial year. I wonder if I squandered most of this year, or the past two, or five, or ten, if I should have done things differently, if I could’ve somehow made my life better than I have, if I made different choices. That said, if things fall into place in the next few months the way I want/hope/expect them to, this will all have been worth it.

This year has been so grueling for me that I’ve been thinking a lot about myself circa 2003/4, living in Boston, spending my insomniac nights sitting on benches around campus listening to music, ruminating over how I could possibly turn the ship of my life around at that point in time while watching people walk by and leaves rustle along Commonwealth Ave and Bay State Road. It’s been good to think back to that, it provides context; I was so lost and devastated, totally incapable of seeing any good way out of my predicament. I do not feel either of those things at this juncture, and it’s pretty astounding how much confidence grows with age.

I have continued to be productive, despite said fatigue. I picked up vaping a few years back, overjoyed that there was a safer way to enjoy nicotine (I had been a non-smoker for years, and even when I smoked it was never consistent), and I subsequently quit (nicotine) Sept 1, then ditched the vape gear September 15, so that’s done. It was easier than I thought it would be and I’m surprised I haven’t slipped or had any overwhelming moments of weakness. I didn’t actually quit for any reason beyond feeling like I wondered where my vape was too often and the sense of dependency was annoying. The only consequence of quitting I’ve noticed is that my resting heart rate has dropped further to 53bpm. My daily hour on the stair mill is slightly less exhausting. I seem to sleep better, so that’s a plus. I expected to feel more… something about giving this shit up; I feel mostly apathy.

I’ve been pretty focused on maintaining/improving my health over the last year or two (to a more dramatic degree than usual), and no matter how shitty I sometimes feel, I have remained committed to this. Last year I planned to start lifting weights, I decided to wait until January, whether I’m here or elsewhere, particularly to continue to protect my hips: in the past few weeks/months I’ve started using collagen peptides, glucosamine/chondroitin and also visiting a chiropractor as a last-ditch effort to try to square up my right hip, which has been out of alignment for weeks and getting worse. I’m pretty skeptical about this medical profession, but I’ve seen some significant progress, so that’s been interesting. I think I will also ditch this Fitbit Charge 4 sooner than later, since it sucks at tracking high intensity exercise. This is a great device for walkers and hikers and people who aren’t sweating buckets every day… for higher intensity exercise, it’s worthless and incapable of consistently tracking heart rate.

I’m going to skip books for this post, though I may add them once I get to Myrtle Beach and have some down time. I haven’t read a ton, I’ve got 4-5 books down for September, none of which were overwhelmingly interesting (Cultish was pretty good, though). HBO just remade Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, one of my all-time favorite movies, so I’ll be watching that on my vacation as well… I do not suspect I will love the new one based on my deep affection for the original.

On a final note,carol one of my few remaining friends left this morning to move to Juneau, and I’m proud of him for making a change that will increase his quality of life. I will miss him. My aunt-in-law visited from NJ a few weeks ago, and my roommate got back from Iraq recently, so it’s been really nice to have some company after forever alone. I’ve tried to really assess what my social life situation is up here at this point, and it’s not getting any better (which makes sense, given my zero effort in making new friends); it’s something that will need to improve in the near future. In the meantime, hopefully the next few weeks will net me some ocean & beach time, sun, and sleep.

To be continued in another post, probably later this week. Alaska is a disaster on the COVID front right now on top of everything else, so I will be very happy to be on a plane out of here on Tuesday night.

Last days of year 36: May/June

It was easy to conceive of being able to post in this thing once monthly when life was moving at a COVID pace; it’s unbelievable how quickly some things have gone back to normal, and how my life has gone from chill af to a hectic hellscape of shit to do. In the past month, idahoI’ve visited friends in Los Angeles and Idaho, work has ramped up precipitously, my condo has again been relinquished by my tenant, and I’ve been otherwise overwhelmed with externalities. My trip to Idaho was one of the highlights of the past few months… I’ve really missed my close friend who moved there last July, and it was awesome to slam through some hikes with her. The Sandpoint / Coeur d’Alene area is awesome. Even took some frigid dips in multiple lakes.

It feels amazing to get out and do things. It feels amazing to not wear a mask everywhere and to be able to see peoples’ faces, to not have to maneuver around everyone’s anxiety. The fog of fear and paranoia is slowly lifting, and I am really pleasantly surprised; I expected this crisis to drag on for a few months longer than it has, at least up here (and in the US). 

It’s been a cold spring in AK, and only in the past few weeks has the weather warmed up to normal temperatures. My Anchorage plants haven’t exactly been thriving, and I’ve been hustling back and forth in an attempt to complete two renovation projects by the time my first batch of friends/family visit… unlikely to happen thanks to a long wait for materials. I chose to paint my ugly wood cabinets this summer, and I’m torn on whether it was a good choice or not. Painting cabinets is a famously challenging and tedious ordeal, even for people who love painting (not me. I hate painting). cabinetsThat said, as I slowly reassemble them, I’m reasonably happy with how they look. One of the reasons I’ve chosen to do these things myself is because I know they won’t be perfect and I have to learn to accept my own fuck-ups and not obsess over them forever. I’ve come a long way from being a control freak perfectionist to being (as I am now) mildly frustrated with the fact that the output isn’t professional-level quality. Also, a pro-level cabinet job costs around $5000. While my time is valuable, my materials cost has been approximately $200.

My life (and its locale) may be changing sooner than I expected, which is adding onto my pile of anxiety, but could potentially be really exciting and cool, and I feel ready in my head and otherwise emotionally to jump ship up here if the opportunity is offered to me. For the time being, the next few months will be filled with friends and family, and a lot of time outside in the sun. Managed to spurn a new side hustle or two, including listing my car on Turo for a surprising amount of money, thanks to the national rental car shortage.

The transition from managing a fair amount of down time to what was previously normal has been pretty draining, to be honest. I’ve been staring at this unfinished blog post for weeks now, and my book blips will be even shorter than usual, but I have read some great ones lately. I’ve done a lot of shit lately.

It’s my birthday next week: never a particularly exciting thing for me, but this year I truly feel like I’ve aged. I feel fucking old. It’s a strange dichotomy as I also like myself more every year as my confidence and wisdom grow. I’ve really enjoyed the experience of aging, which in this country is more often than not seen as a process of falling apart in a multitude of ways. I also somehow feel as though I’ve been through hell and back this year, and I suspect many people feel that way: it’s a year that I’m very glad has passed, filled with disappointment and bummers and even a few small disasters. I’ve made quite a lot of the collective misfortune of COVID, and I’ll be stepping away from the worst of this era with a lot of lessons learned.

2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything | 2030I feel like I read this book so long ago at this point that I don’t even remember all of the chapters, but it was a good one a friend and I read together. No particularly big surprises. I skipped the last chapter on crypto, because I am super tired of reading and hearing about cryptocurrency. Review in Publishers Weekly here.

Alone | aloneThis is a circumpolar classic that I began in the winter and then set down and lost track of; I love the writing style, and a lot of it is in the form of a journal, sometimes written while Byrd is sick from carbon monoxide poisoning. His experience underground in Antarctica taking instrument readings sounds horrible and definitely puts being stuck at home watching Netflix during COVID in perspective. After many, many years of reading Arctic and Antarctic expedition novels (and others, even stories of Everest climbers, explorers, etc) it’s crazy to really conceptualize how tough people were back then. There was simply no alternative.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know | thinkagainI’ve loved everything Adam Grant has written, particularly Give and Take, and Think Again is as good if not better than that one (his other book, Originals, was also OK. A good OK, but not as compelling, though I may reread it sometime soon). A lot of the source material and anecdotal information is worth following down the rabbit hole: I watched Accidental Courtesy as well, a documentary about a black guy who befriends white supremacists and ends up changing their opinions. I sent myself a few quotes to include, both for quality and to avoid having to write more, but I recommended this book to my work team, our leaders, many of my friends, etc. Further, I was pleased to see this book covered in Quillette, so linking to that here.

‘Who you are should be a question of what you value, not what you believe. Values are your core principles in life—they might be excellence and generosity, freedom and fairness, or security and integrity. Basing your identity on these kinds of principles enables you to remain open-minded about the best ways to advance them. You want the doctor whose identity is protecting health, the teacher whose identity is helping students learn, and the police chief whose identity is promoting safety and justice. When they define themselves by values rather than opinions, they buy themselves the flexibility to update their practices in light of new evidence.’

‘The ideal members of a challenge network are disagreeable, because they’re fearless about questioning the way things have always been done and holding us accountable for thinking again. There’s evidence that disagreeable people speak up more frequently—especially when leaders aren’t receptive—and foster more task conflict. They’re like the doctor in the show House or the boss in the film The Devil Wears Prada. They give the critical feedback we might not want to hear, but need to hear. Harnessing disagreeable people isn’t always easy. It helps if certain conditions are in place. Studies in oil drilling and tech companies suggest that dissatisfaction promotes creativity only when people feel committed and supported—and that cultural misfits are most likely to add value when they have strong bonds with their colleagues.’

The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago, and How We Can Do It Again | upswingI’m not completely finished with this book yet, but this also gets a standing ovation for the inclusion of data instead of just anecdotes and hypotheses with no hard backing. To be clear, this book does not offer solid answers, nor does it contain solutions to the decisiveness in modern American society; and some of the data (like searching Google’s book databases for uses of “we” vs “I” over time) is a bit dodgy. That said, for someone who constantly wonders why things happen and where we’re all heading together, this is well worth the time (his first book, Bowling Alone, is a prerequisite, only in the sense that if you haven’t read it and care about this kind of stuff, you should, and then read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities). Review of The Upswing in Harvard Magazine here.

The Fall of Hyperion | fallofhyperionMy Bolt Thrower software engineer buddy from NY and I are still chipping away at Hyperion, and we’re on book 2, though I am only about 1/3 of the way through, this one is far less appealing than the first. I suspect the rest of this series will be a let-down versus the first book, which injected all of the context and built the characters and plot. But I’m (slowly) enjoying it, for the most part.

Otherwise, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts from Jordan Peterson, Jocko Willink, Quillette. Have watched Sharp Objects (A-), Mare of Eastown (A+) and getting through The Night Of on streaming. Quiet Place 2 was great. While I was in LA, we saw the new Saw movie (solely to see something in the Chinese theatre), which was also surprisingly good, though Chris Rock isn’t really suited for serious roles. 

Up next in books will be Noise by Daniel Kahneman; Outline by Rachel Cusk (reading by request of someone else); The Frontlines of Peace, about the failures of UN peacekeeping missions; a biography of Gorbachev and some others. Also planning on reading Thomas Picketty’s latest; I read Capital in the 21st Century despite a lot of skepticism and feeling that it was largely against my values/beliefs. It gave me a lot to think about. I’m curious about his new one as well.

April into May: Great Expectations

T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land that April is the cruellest month, but I beg to differ. April 2021 has been pretty good to me. I landed back in Anchorage at 2am on Sunday after two weeks in the Northeast, suitcase chock full of crap I can’t buy here, feeling like a million bucks after seeing my friends and family for the first time in 1.5 and 2 years, respectively. catskillsI had really only gone back because I was concerned about my parents’ mental and physical health and wanted to check in on my people — most of my loved ones live in the Tri-State area, and months sitting here by myself left a void of conversation, advice and moral support. That void is now overflowing and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to get back there, despite the shitty weather (rain, snow, hail, the typical schizophrenic Northeast trifecta).

I wish I had same the sense of community and the loving friendships here in Alaska, but for the most part I don’t; I’m not sure what that means for the rest of my life, but I’m glad I have that depth somewhere, even 4,000 miles away. I always come back from that time back reminded of how valuable I am to people and how much people care for me, and that was a sentiment that has been lacking up here during a long winter of COVID solitude.

While I was in Albany, NY seeing friends, I drove past the hotel where a live-in boyfriend in my 20s had rendezvoused with escorts while I was visiting my sister in Florida… I’ve reflected many times on how that was a turning point in my life, because after the shock of that event it became apparent to me that it’s more fruitful to channel negativity into personal progress. And while I sometimes regret that I lacked (and still lack) the spite to have fully humiliated that guy at the time and ruined his reputation, I had enough foresight even in my 20s to play the long game: I decided to get hotter. And happier. And broaden my horizons. I started taking really long hikes with my dogs, I read more, I deepened my friendships by hosting amazing dinner parties with friends I will never forget (the friends and the dinners). I felt so awesome in almost no time.

Since then, over the last decade+, there have been many times I’ve felt hurt or angry… I’d even throw in depressed and aimless in a few instances. And every time I’ve reminded myself that living well is the best revenge. It takes a particular kind of person to be hurt and to pay him- or herself back positively.

The last 6 months have hurt me in many ways. Some people have let me down. I’ve been lonely, and sometimes devoid of the kinds of deep conversations I have always needed, about life, and purpose. I’ve realized I won’t get some things I want; I’ve realized some things I hoped would change never will. I’ve realized my job is even more a means to an end than I had accepted previously, and that I’ve sacrificed more to live here than I initially had expected.

COVID has also made me ruthless in a way that’s been difficult to wrap my head around: being here alone for so long and forcing myself to make the best of it has shown me how intolerant I find people who do nothing to better themselves, and how unsatisfying it is to interact with people who do not care to learn and grow as human beings. I’ve missed the experience of being pushed by my loved ones to improve, to broaden and fine-tune my opinions, to feel as though figuring out what life is all about is a shared experience instead of something that happens to us all. I’ve noticed over the past months that many people say they’ll do things and don’t; that destructive habits die hard and there has to be some kind of catalyst for a lot of people that drops on them like a ton of bricks before they choose to propel themselves forward, if they choose that at all. Even in the weeks before I went back to NY, still struggling to shake off some of the morbidity of the winter, I upped my fitness goals and dropped another 8 lbs; I ate really clean and drank very little; I got a lot of things done. I slept well. I was overjoyed to get back there and see many of my other close people had changed their lives for the better, despite the headwinds of the pandemic: my parents are back at the gym, and are happy, and feeling better. My friends all prospered in a variety of ways, and it made me look back at some of the people in my life up here and realize that the only gains made during COVID in their lives has been amassing more financial wealth. Otherwise, progress of any kind is nil.

My mentor at Google used to always tell me I needed to find “my people,” and I struggled with this idea. I have always been torn between many different worlds, but I think I finally realize the kind of people I want to be “my people,” and they’ve always been there: people who turn lemons into lemonade, as the saying goes, and persevere through dimensions of bullshit to come out the other end as better individuals, richer in character and self-awareness. When I visit my friends in New York, their homes and lives are so filled with the warmth of love and confidence… it always reminds me of what my priorities are. It reminds me that a long time ago I chose to take a path to be a better, more versatile, decent human over solely focusing on financial success, and it reminds me that especially recently, I’ve chosen to only associate with people on a similar path. “My people” aim for progress.

Jordan Peterson podcasts have also really helped me, and while most of his ideas are familiar, it’s helped me to putter around my house and listen to him talk through things that are important to me. I’m not discounting financial security — and that’s been even more of a concern to me lately — but money isn’t everything.

I don’t have much in terms of books for this month: I finished Hyperion and my audiobook buddy wants to complete the series, so I’ll be starting on The Fall of Hyperion in a few days. I can’t say I’m in love with this level of dorky science fiction, but the series is so revered and there are so many references back to it I’m noticing (even in modern life) that it’s worth the time. While I’m juggling many things this month in preparation for summer, I do hope to finish 2-3 other books this month as well.

The weather is warmer and the snow is melting fast up here… yesterday was my first sunny evening out on my back patio. There’s a lot to be done to prepare this house and my other house for the next 3-4 months, which will be filled with a lot of friends, family, hikes, road trips and oysters. I’m also dropping in on some friends in LA and Idaho later this month, so despite all the monotony of being here for months, there’s a lot to look forward to.

2020, A Retrospective

I’m a context person and a big fan of reflecting on the past, and 2020 hasn’t let me down in terms of a grim retrospective. It’s the time of year when large media outlets are also publishing reflective op-eds on the shitshow of 2020, and I’d say individually and collectively as a species we’re all happy to be proceeding into 2021.

This year has offered up some pleasant surprises in past weeks, namely the distribution of highly effective vaccines, which I certainly didn’t expect until well into 2021 or later (and many of us won’t be receiving them until then anyway). I was prepared for the collapse of life as we know it in March, but I was not expecting to rebound with an effective vaccine so fast, so this staves off the dystopian nightmare planted in my pre-teen brain now decades ago by Huxley, Orwell and Golding.

I’m also pleased our fucktard of a president will be out of office… he had a larger shot at re-election than most people wanted to believe, and it was likely COVID that sunk that ship. I’d love to say my friends and family have escaped emotionally unscathed from this, but that has not been the case; lately some of my people have really been suffering, and even I have felt pretty sad, more for the people I love than for myself. It seems counterproductive to fall prey to pandemic depression when the end is in sight, but feelings are difficult to control. I think back to a Jordan Peterson clip I saw a few weeks ago where he mentioned that depression is different than feeling sad — people have a right to feel sad when shit sucks, and he’s right. And shit sucks, and it’s reasonable to feel crappy about it. Deep loneliness takes years off people’s lives, and loneliness has been difficult to avoid this year.

While I have spent this year flexing my “shit could be worse” muscles, I admit it’s tough at times, even for me, in a nice house with a cute dog and plenty of creature comforts. I’m homesick, I miss my Outside people, I regularly beat back the temptation to believe no one really cares about me anymore: I am simply out of sight, out of mind. I mailed an envelope of photos to my grandmother a few days ago, who is in a nursing home in Pennsylvania, and I sat here and labeled each one with my name and my sister’s, because if anyone might’ve forgotten I exist this year, it’s her, and I guess understandably so… she is 88 years old after all. The days lately are long, even here in the Far North where they are also short.

I filled in my birthday check-in spreadsheet this week — every year since I turned 30 I populate the columns, beginning in December and ending in June: The Good / The Bad / Failures / Goals. 2020 still has more good than bad; if I click back in time, it has been years since there were more items in the Bad column than the Good. Even in the year of COVID, I have more things to be happy about than to reflect on with dismay. Further, I have accomplished every single one of my goals from last year’s sheet except for one: to teach myself how to play chess. This spreadsheet has been really helpful in warding off cognitive biases that distort my perception of the present.

Somehow all of the worst things that happened to me this year don’t seem as bad when I recognize that they were entirely out of my control, that I could have done absolutely nothing to prevent them, and I’d go so far as to say I’m glad everything unfolded the way it did because I’d rather see the truth sooner than later. I think I will pass into 2021 with less of an inclination to assume the best of people and take them at their word; talk is cheap and it’s taken me many years and a lot of misfortune to learn that lesson. That said, I’d be lying if I said I’m not angry about some things that happened this year. I think it will take a long time for that to dissipate. I wrote an e-mail to a friend (who I see as a kind of long-time mentor to me) yesterday asking him a question that has been plaguing me for years now: is this all there is?

In July I changed up my fasting regimen and switched to one meal a day, which has leveled out my mood and staved off a lot of the monotony of not eating for long periods, along with digestive and sleep issues caused by years of long fasts. I bought a cheap stair climber in the spring, which has served me well; last week I bought a pretty impressively affordable body composition scale, and yesterday I finally bit the bullet and got a newer FitBit (I used to use a small clip); I’ve been messing with it and am really impressed by the new features, so I’ve set some health goals for myself to prep for hiking season. Overall I’m ending 2020 8lbs lighter than I was when it began, and shooting for another 7-8lbs down over the next few months.

A friend and I booked our accommodations for the Brutal Assault Festival in August in CZ; personally I’m not holding my breath at life being that back to normal by then. I’d personally be grateful to go back to NY/NJ and eek out a week at the beach, though I dream of cheap Georgian wine and the simmering, radioactive Tblisian heat.

One of the biggest wins this year was using my extra day off to remodel my condo: despite the pay cut and canceling all of my plans, I was unbelievably fortunate to have two beautiful places to reside all summer, and I learned a lot working on that house. I have always hated remodeling, and I still hate it, but I learned some valuable skills, and upped my property value. I scrounged up enough money to buy a house less than a year after moving up here, after just turning 29. It has a ton of sentimental value to me, on top of the nearly $100K more it’s worth than what I paid after years of chipping away at renovations. I loved every moment I spent down there this past summer, I bought a house in one of the most beautiful places on earth (no exaggeration), and the time back from working was well worth the pay cut. I’ve learned the last few years that there is nothing more valuable than time… it sounds cliché, but it’s true. Time is the only thing you can’t get more of. These years up here have come with their challenges, but nature is awesome: I don’t think there is any better place to live than somewhere as beautiful as here.

Meanwhile in the present, I’ll be watching the snow melt, and then accumulate again, and then melt, for the next 4-5 months. I have always been the kind of person who has funneled misfortune into prosperity, so I wondered in November when I moved back into this house what I was going to do to compensate (outside of paying my savings account back the expense of moving twice and everything I had purchased to prepare for a different outcome). I’ve been slowly working on this house, and preparing for summer projects and our patio here in Anchorage; I have been reading a lot and doing well on my new work team. I’ve reinvested time into my far away friends; I’ve been heckling my family about their health. Curiously this time at home has inspired me to further thin out my core Alaska friends, as I have little interest in people who have questionable motives or don’t make the effort to connect. I’ve accepted over the past few years that people grow apart… and the friendships I spawned in the beginning here are not the same ones I’ve held onto. I need a lot of depth and introspection and get tired of pleasantries and drama and superficial bullshit.

Some days I wonder how much longer I can do this; I’ve made long lists of things to do to pass the time, but some days go by very slowly. Lately I’ve comforted myself with revisiting Arctic expedition novels (another reason I think I’ve weathered this with a decent mindset) and also began reading Giants of the Earth, a pretty grim tale of Norwegian-Americans settling in South Dakota. I’ve also been working my way through My Brilliant Friend on HBO, based on The Neapolitan Novels… the HBO series is really good so far.

Ultimately I hope everyone I care for (everyone in general, really) learns something from the experience of this year, and its at least assisted in realigning priorities and showing people what’s really important in life. I know for much of this time I’ve been grateful to have that I do, even when I have to beat back more depressive emotions.

Toward the Winter Solstice

We’re closing in on the darkest day of the year, and I’m chugging through books, house projects and (tasteful) Christmas decorations like it’s my job. This year I’ve been talked into a wreath, I initiated a flickering-light-lit fireplace (which looks awesome) and now look out onto a beautiful brightly lit patio with two classy af reindeer (seat cushions are en route). My parents think I’ve cracked up. Maybe I have. It was bound to happen eventually.

I’ve gotten through the Bergman films I’ve put off watching for many years: Fanny & Alexander; The Best Intentions and Sunday’s Children. All three were films I never got to because the plots sounded boring… turns out I was right. Didn’t love any of them. I liked Fanny & Alexander, it was just brutally long, on top of being a period piece.

I also watched the Netflix adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy, which received terrible reviews all around. The cast was amazing and it made for a decent movie if not being compared to the book, which told a much more comprehensive story. Glenn Close and Amy Adams were excellent… Glenn Close was a perfect fit for her character. This book was really pivotal for me during a really tough period of my life, so I felt like I’d hate the movie adaptation more after reading the reviews, but I didn’t. I’d still recommend the book to anyone half-listening. Even if it bears no resemblance to your life, it’ll probably help you understand someone around you.

I think I’ve largely survived the pandemic without anxiety or depression due to a pre-existing grim pragmatic outlook on life; channeling energy into being even more meticulously organized; focusing on work; fixing stuff in the house, reading, and last, the preposterous psycho-babble “being kind to myself,” which took me over 30 years to really fathom (and it still sounds ridiculous). I read something lately about how people who are less likely to be lonely have spent more time “grooming,” I would say that’s true for me: I’ve spent quite a bit of this time on “girl stuff,” and my hair and skin look pretty amazing for a hermit in the dead of winter in Alaska. I’ve lost a few lbs over this time instead of a “Quarantine 15,” and I’m curious about the body composition scale I ordered recently. I have made zero loaves of bread. I am still not on Pinterest. I still have infinite love and appreciation for Alaska, despite being sequestered here for nearly 100% of the past 9 months, with 3-6 more to go. I wrote a close friend lately and told him I feel like a ghost, and I do, but I think it’s affecting some of my friends much more than it’s affecting me. You’re nobody ’til somebody loves you, or so the song says, but all your somebodies are locked down just like you are, and that’s created a painful situation for many people. I have always believed that people aren’t worth jack shit on their own; your value is always relative to others, and COVID has really upset that balance.

Karl Ove’s Seasonal Quartet: Autumn, Winter & Summer | I didn’t love Autumn or Winter as much as I enjoyed parts of Spring and Summer, which have more of a story within instead of being broken up into random chapters on things ranging from frogs to vomit (seriously). Like all of his stuff, the monotony is worth it for the great parts and his many often beautifully written tangents. I came to the conclusion after finishing My Struggle that I often find him distasteful, selfish, self-absorbed, occasionally pathetic, as I’ve written in past posts…but after all of those words, endless details of his life, I somehow feel close to him, I admire him, and this series is in some ways such a wonderful gift to his daughter  (to all four of his children, actually) — all his work is — but this especially, being such an expansive (although random) collection of his thoughts on everyday things. I will continue to read/listen to anything he writes, because I can’t think of anyone who has expressed so much of himself, both the mundane and outrageous in the way he has. His unrelenting honesty and lack of much of a filter is so respectable. I’ve thought at a few junctures about whether he really knows himself, because people often portray themselves differently (often more positively) than they are in reality, but you get a sense of who he is and his flaws because his words explain the actions of his life, and he doesn’t skimp on the times he behaved poorly. That’s been a takeaway from my life over the past few years: that words are often pretty meaningless, especially when someone is speaking of him- or herself; his autobiography speaks to the actions within his life, and so it is so much more him. This was well-timed for many reasons, one of them being that so many people are losing their parents to COVID: his children will have an unbelievable collection of their father’s life and thoughts to reflect upon long after he is gone.

The Neapolitan Novels: My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave; The Story of the Lost Child | I didn’t expect to read over 1600 pages so quickly, but I couldn’t help myself, and will be passing this boxed set onto one of my closest friends. Worth noting the covers of the books are terrible: they look like sad middle aged cat lady romance novels. In reality each book is wonderful, also filled with horribly imperfect people, and the books revolve around a friendship between two girls growing up in Naples who proceed in completely different directions in their lives: the main character, whose voice the book is written in, goes to college and becomes an esteemed writer, travels abroad, marries an educated man. Her closest friend drops out after 5th grade, marries a local shopkeeper, has a kid, her life falls apart and she ends up clawing her way into relative stability. Both women are highly intelligent; the latter is brilliant, but troubled. Their lives start in the 1930s and proceed to the 90s, and at that time Naples was violent and shitty; it was commonplace to beat your wife and kids, and murder and domestic abuse abounds.

I think I loved this because I felt such sympathy for Lenu (who left to get an education and climb out of her lowly socioeconomic status): the people she grew up with treated her success with envy, bitterness, resentment, spite, but also support and respect. Her mother constantly accused her of abandoning the family; told her often that she thought she was better than everyone else, that she looked down on her roots and the people she grew up with, and yet she returned to Naples in mid-life to be with those people, allowed herself to be sucked back into their quarrels and drama because she loved them and couldn’t let them go, and loved Lila (her friend) most of all. I told my work team lately that the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with growing up is not what you’d think if you knew me or the details of my life very well, but instead it was trying to figure out where I fit in the world, and as was also a topic in Hillbilly Elegy, it’s true that once you leave to advance your own life, you’ll never be able to return to your origins and be the same person. From that point on, you are an outsider, and often be viewed with suspicion or resentment. And it’s strange, given that especially in the US we believe deeply in our rags to riches thematic: it is a heartbreaking, lonely, miserable endeavor to move up the socioeconomic ladder, and you never stop feeling alone, because you can never fully be like the people where you land, and you can never go back. That said, it is possible, and millions of people do it. There’s so much to say about all of these books: they tell a really unbelievable story of how turbulent female relationships can be, how hatred coexists with love.

Madame Bovary | I finished this awhile back and still am not sure what to say. I’m glad I read it. I hated the main character, but I felt some sympathy–some–for her in the end. I hated her baseless idealism and romanticism and all the disappointment that comes from having such great expectations. The story is tragic because at that period in time, women had no power and few rights, and were totally dependent upon men for any kind of stability or status. That said, knowing the time she lived in and the constraints on her freedom, why did she harbor such ridiculous hopes and dreams? I read some articles about this book after finishing it and it seems people often sympathized with her and found her dullard of a husband to be the one to despise, but I’m not sure I agree with this either. Emma Bovary, like many people today, are disappointed if not depressed because they have unrealistic expectations of love and of life. Emma slowly destroys her own morality chasing this pipe dream and in the end it destroys her, her husband and her child. For what? Quite frankly this book irritated me more than anything else; despite my acknowledgement that she lived in a shitty time for women (for everyone, really), I don’t know that the spoiled millennials of the modern age are much different: they may not expect so much of love, but they do of life. Life owes you nothing. It seems people needed to be reminded of that at any and all points in history. Instead of being annoyed to have read it, I’m grateful I did because it bothered me so much. It’s beautifully written: Flaubert was truly gifted, and he writes in such a way that he wants to flex your sympathy one way or another throughout the novel.  Despite my annoyance, this novel tells of a person’s unwillingness to accept the emptiness and disappointment of life: perhaps something I’ve done, and so can read this and scowl at someone else’s hopeless idealism. I believe I’m still here today and enjoying life for the most part because I accepted early on that life is meaningless and often disappointing, that everyone is alone forever no matter how many people one is surrounded by. I think that’s a harder pill to swallow for most, certainly for Emma Bovary, who swallowed arsenic instead.

The Master and the Margarita | I’m surprised by how much I didn’t like this book. I liked some of the characters, but it all became way too fantastical for me very quickly. I think the best part of the entire story is the way people talk to each other and how they react to one another: otherwise, this was a tedious not quite waste of time, but close. The constant nods to Faust in various reviews and other write-ups about The Master and the Margarita were also confusing to me; this book did not remind me of Faust at all, other than the devil character being present. All in all there was too much overt allegory, too much time travel, and a giant black cat (wtf?)… next.

(Reread) She’s Come Undone | I read this book at some point in middle- or high school, and when I began The Neapolitan Novels I kept returning to this, and some other coming of age stories. This book shares few parallels with Lenu and Lila; I actually found more similarities in another classic I had loved as a young kid, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but I returned to She’s Come Undone nonetheless. Rereading books I read as a kid has often been an entirely different experience than the first time around: this one is a bit cliché and contrived as an adult, but the concurrent sarcasm and shabby idealism made it a pleasant (re)read. Worth noting that I frequently come across people who want to return to their late teens or 20s, I would sooner drive into oncoming traffic. My late teens and early 20s were the worst time in my life, by a long shot (and trust me, my early teens were awful as well, so I have some stiff competition)… I read books from my youth sometimes and shudder to think of how awful my life was before I was in my mid-20s.

I also took note of the time in which this was released: AIDS was taboo, it was still not OK in many places to be gay, and rape was still a hushed affair. Nearly 30 years later, HIV is much better understood, the Western world is kinder to gay men and women… and very sadly rape is practically mainstream: 15-20% of women in the United States have experienced it first-hand in their lifetimes. Can you even fucking imagine?

Speaking of, one night a few weeks back I finally bit the bullet and watched The Lovely Bones, which I had avoided for years because the book creeped me out so deeply. I was surprised when years ago it was turned into a major motion picture; I still have a tough time understanding how this story was so widely marketable, and the movie had a Disney feel despite its subject matter. It’s a story of a 13- or 14-year old girl who is raped and murdered in a root cellar and ends up watching her family grieve for her and search for the man who killed her. The end was unbelievably stupid, but what bothered me so much about the book (and the idea, even) is that as a young kid I had a recurring nightmare that I was dead and hovering over my mourning family. I had this nightmare for years and years, and it probably resulted in an even more stubborn unwillingness to give up due to how miserable it was to see, even in dreams, people suffering as a result of my untimely end. The movie, all in all, was OK… the book was excellent.

I also made it through Jordan Peterson’s Biblical Series on YouTube, which was really interesting and as is typical of him, filled with tangential material on psychology and history and everything else. I’m sad to have gotten through it and may watch it again at some point for comfort as the last few were background noise to me multi-tasking, though I stopped and skipped back when he admitted to my horror that he enjoys Trailer Park Boys… I myself have watched approximately 50 too many episodes of this show, and have many more to go before I get through to the end, we built a Trailer Park Boys gingerbread (ok graham cracker) set in lieu of a house. I think we did a pretty killer job; I’ve never built a gingerbread house before, but I learn fast and my next gingerbread-graham cracker whatever will be 100x better.

Back to Peterson, I preordered his new book, as have many of my friends, and I hope the crying millennials of Penguin Random House aren’t able to interrupt its publication. If I could have an hour or two with a single living person on earth, I’d easily choose him.

That concludes this very long post. I’m unsure as to whether I’ll post again before the year ends… probably, as the end of the calendar year earns an entry in my the good / the bad / failures / goals spreadsheet and it may be good to reflect on 2020 as a whole. Happy Holidays, Christmas, Hanukkah, solstice, etc. Shalom to you all, and fuck 2020.

Time Regained: Reflections on Proust

I’ve been revisiting some literary favorites of my past lately, and I had considered reconvening with Proust for a few months (and frequently while reading the My Struggle series) when I stumbled upon How Proust Can Change Your Life. On first pass, these short and often superficial “self-help” books seem a bit stupid, but last year I happened to read How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (obviously different author). I enjoyed it. A younger me would have been annoyed by the ability, these days, for people to glean what I at the time found to be fairly hard-won knowledge (reading In Search of Lost Time in its entirety, or even Wealth of Nations is no easy feat). These days I’m as pleased that literature’s life lessons come easy as I am that some of my dorkier and more childish amusements: narwhals, unicorns, etc., are ever more popular, and nerdy unicorn shit is readily available everywhere. I want people to like the same shit I do; it increases my ease of access.

One might think it’s a waste of time to revisit books you’ve already read, but I read most classics in high school to stave off tremendous boredom and monotony (and to get a sense of the world outside of my own, having finished high school in rural New York). By the time I graduated, I had read hundreds of classics, many of which resonate on new frequencies nearly 20 years later. In Search of Lost Time was never a favorite in the way Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness have been favorites, but it is no less important, and Proust has likely contributed more to the outcome of my life thus far, and how I live, than have Melville or Conrad. I have never had a soft spot for French culture, and the social conventions of the 1900s gross me out, especially in Europe, which had a strict and petty class system. Proust himself, much like Karl Ove Knausgard (who has been called Norway’s Proust), is not entirely likeable, and his narrator Marcel even less so.  Proust (and Marcel) were completely helpless basket cases… Proust was exceptional in his sense of grace, his generosity to his friends, his refusal to be bitter as a result of his seemingly countless handicaps, whether they were real or he was just a self-indulgent hypochondriac, a spoiled metrosexual from a wealthy family who never needed to have a job to be comfortable. Like most French things, he contains zero masculinity. Somewhat predictably, he was gay. Marcel, his narrator, was not.

And yet, living in the shadow of his famous doctor father, it could easily be argued Proust’s life’s work provided as much benefit to the world: his seven-volume series is a timeless masterpiece. I thought this at sixteen, in my twenties, and now at 35. Proust is the only reason I would ever learn French (I never have, but to read In Search of Lost Time in French would be enough, as it is unbelievably beautiful even after being translated). And while I will probably not be revisiting the entire series, I just finished Swann’s Way, which is to me easily the best of the seven. There are many, many other things to be taken from this series (his reflections on love, on authenticity versus the representation of the ideal in art, essential truth and who people really are) and I am really only going down one road here in this post.

I sat in my kitchen and read How Proust Can Change Your Life in one afternoon last weekend (listening to Alcest, may as well keep everything as French as possible). This book is timely, considering what is happening in the world: something (a lot, actually) can be said for staying home and appreciating the little things — the comfort of your own bed, the meals you eat every day, the walks through the neighborhood. For me, also living in Alaska, a place I would have never dreamed of eeking out a prosperous existence in a million years. The experience of reading. The time you have to reflect on your life, and yourself. People don’t always make time for these things, and we have all regained it (time) in this pandemic.

How Proust Can Change Your Life is broken up into the following chapters:

  1. How to Love Life Today
  2. How to Read for Yourself
  3. How to Take Your Time
  4. How to Suffer Successfully
  5. How to Express Your Emotions
  6. How to Be a Good Friend
  7. How to Open Your Eyes
  8. How to be Happy in Love
  9. How to Put Books Down

Some of these chapters are more memorable than others, and #1-3 (and #7) are probably the most prevalent, and Proust’s largest claims to fame. The book is lighthearted but thoughtful. Returning to Proust has really helped me weather the world today: in a time when many of my colleagues and some of my friends are struggling feeling trapped, bored, confined, are unemployed, running out of money, depressed, I have been relishing very simple pleasures. I don’t know if this skill comes with age, if it comes with natural introversion, relative financial stability, or emotional stability. Books have always been among my top sources of comfort, and Proust’s love for literature made his work possible. There were some interesting takeaways in this book (among the more general Proustian lessons):

  • Through books, you encounter more people via characters, and develop a broader sense and understanding of the world, and of human nature. You build tolerance and empathy.
  • You recognize yourself, and learn about yourself through books, as who you are is reflected into your perception of what you’re reading.
  • People in past eras seem like aliens to us, but books show you that human nature has been fundamentally static through time.
  • Human experience is often vulnerable to abbreviation, and that abbreviation often detracts from what actually took place.
  • You can distill a long story into a headline, but you can pull a beautiful, lengthy narrative out of one as well: it’s almost unimportant what happens… what’s important is how you construct that narrative. The author made an example of Anna Karenina: “a young mother threw herself under a train and died in Russia after domestic problems.”
  • Seemingly superficial thoughts can inspire incredibly complex, deep ones that are barely if at all related to their origins.
  • Feeling things (painfully) is often linked to acquisition of knowledge: “we don’t really learn anything until there is a problem, until we are in pain, until something fails to go as we had hoped.”
    • We become properly inquisitive only when distressed.
    • Only when plunged into grief do we confront difficult truths.
  • Cliches are superficial articulations of very good ones (this sounds obvious but the lengthy part of this book that talks about cliches is actually pretty fascinating).
  • Happiness may emerge from taking a second look (I’ll stop here, you get the picture… this is from “How to Open Your Eyes”).

I’ve been reflecting on this last point over the past few weeks specifically. When the shutdown of the world began, I wondered how I would feel, having spent the last near-decade of my life traveling almost constantly. I wondered if I’d be able to revert to more of a homebody, to someone who could appreciate simple and domestic pleasures. I’ve slept in my own bed every night for over a month now: this is the longest I have consistently remained where I live in a very long time. I have weathered a few periods where I went into self-imposed hermit mode and immersed myself in books; to my surprise I don’t believe I’ve ever enjoyed it as much as I am enjoying it now, for a variety of reasons.

When I was a kid I wanted to see everything the world had to offer, and as I got older I grew to appreciate my immediate surroundings and the present instead of only hoping for what was to come, what I had on the books, what trips I had coming up, though travel plans have always motivated me. I find these days in the midst of what could be months of sleeping in my own bed and not being on an airplane, that I’ve begun to wring every bit of enjoyment out of some daily rituals: taking a searing hot shower after walking the dog a few miles out in the cold; switching out lotion and body wash to enjoy different smells daily; digging into the back of my tea cabinet for some more expensive stuff I’ve been saving for a rainy day. I think many of us have also found enjoyment in food: whereas my roommate has channeled some of his energy into cooking, I seem to have returned to extremely modest staples of my youth: steel cut oats; mac & cheese in a box; saltine crackers; honey (a food I typically hate). I was relieved yesterday to see that the Eastern European store in Anchorage is still open, as this weekend my family would typically be together eating pierogies for Easter. We will be convening on video chat instead. We (he and I) are also both originally from New Jersey, so we’ve returned to our Jersey roots: Taylor Ham, Italian food (my favorite is Italian wedding soup; his is eggplant parmesan). We have both, to some extent, been sustained and comforted by memories. Living a rich life insures your future against boredom, as you are unlikely to run out of nostalgic moments, opportunities to reflect on your experiences, big and small, pleasurable and not so.

Where this comes back to Proust is that really taking heed of some of these rituals has allowed me to reflect on my life: I told a friend recently that when I was a kid, my father would drag us out to ski on weekend mornings (I hated this as I wanted to sleep in like a normal kid after getting up at the ass-crack of dawn every morning during the week)… the liftlines became busy around 11-11:30am and we would turn in after freezing our asses off for a few hours on the heap of ice and rock we call “resorts” in the Northeast. I’d immediately take a burning hot shower afterwards. I loved that experience even more than I loved the hours before I had been burning laps on the mountain… the scalding water on my cold, red lobster-colored skin. I found a small tin of almond-scented lotion recently and was thinking about how that smell reminds me of eagerly awaiting, as a small kid, Stella D’oro almond toast at my grandparents’ house in New Jersey. Those little almond toasts were so exotic to me at that time in my life; my grandparents’ house was so peaceful, and they were so interesting. I always loved that smell: almond, amaretto, and also Sambuca (I have the same endless love for anise and fennel for this reason)… it always reminded me of them. And this — these moments in time unlocked by repeating them, by a smell or a sensation so many years later — is the Proustian experience, and so much of what gives life meaning. My grandfather died suddenly, shortly after I moved up here, and I could not go home for his funeral, but I found myself at times adding a splash of Sambuca to my coffee in the months after he was gone. That single smell, the mix of Sambuca and coffee, contained a childhood of memories. I could hold onto him. I still can.

I don’t know what value all of this has other than it puts my entire life in perspective. Who is anyone without all of these experiences? And as Proust says at times, the origin of the memory isn’t particularly special when it happens… until you remember it and realize how much it defines you and brings joy to your life. Many times earlier in my life I felt there was nothing worth remembering: when I moved up here and realized I would have to make my own traditional food on holidays… when I could not find a single good Italian restaurant… when there were Mormons and evangelical Christians instead of Jews… I gained a unique perspective on my life and the formative experiences I had earlier taken for granted, because even having finished high school in a rural area, I was born into and further exposed to so much culture; my family held onto a lot of tradition, from my mother’s Swedish and Italian parents, and my father’s Carpathian ones. They grew up in microcosms of their roots: Italian-American New Jersey, and heavily Carpatho-Rusyn Northeast PA. I’ve missed that diversity deeply living up here, as well as the passive, peaceful presence of Judaism, which to me is easily the least tyrannical Judeo-Christian group. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…or until you have to make your own golubtsi, or seeing an Orthodox Jew in the post office is a total aberration when it used to be ordinary.

I realize fully that on top of all of this, to have the brain space to consider these things is not so much a privilege, but it did require years of hard work, diligence and discipline (and luck… luck is important). To be a person who can really enjoy this time, to be unafraid of shelter in place because my home life is warm, comfortable, peaceful, is not a mental (or literal) space in which I have always lived. Proust had the same, though it was privilege — his parents were wealthy, he was doted on by his mother — the end result is the same. Without the mental, emotional, intellectual space to ponder these things, of course you’re unhappy, afraid, and miserable, as all of your energy is put forth into survival. I think, to some extent, people with plenty a-safety net are blind to these simple delights, though, and I am grateful to not be one.

This blog’s contents have become increasingly personal, and while I’ve avoided doing so in the past. No regrets.. for now.