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.

The Rise of Jordan Peterson

This is not a review. We all know by now that I can’t — or perhaps, won’t — write actual reviews. I pre-ordered The Rise and Fall of Jordan Peterson weeks ago (for whatever reason I thought it would be a good idea to order a hard copy, which makes no sense to me presently), and immediately watched it.

We live in a day and age where you lose friends over admiration of this man, which says more about the cultural atmosphere than Jordan Peterson himself. I’ve read his books, watched a few (though not many) of his YouTube lectures and read quite a few of his articles. The documentary is pretty fairly filmed: there’s a somewhat fair balance between his fans and detractors. Quite a lot of it is focused on his trans verbiage stuff in Canada, which is essentially what made him mainstream-level famous.

I don’t care much about this particular event (with the trans crowd): more than anything else, he embodies qualities I find highly valuable and increasingly rare, namely curiosity and defiance. Not the kind of moral righteousness megaphone yammering defiance… but a real unwillingness to buy into ignorance or intellectual laziness because it’s an unsavory way to live. I was entertained by the inside of his house, as we seem to also share an affinity for USSR-period literature and art (I noticed a copy of Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine on his shelf, along with countless other books I’ve read over the years). I imagine to him (and certainly to me), an obsession with authoritarianism is a lesson in how not to live, how not to be, a reminder to not be rolled over upon at any cost. By the way, this post is mostly about me. I know, you’re shocked.

As I spend another early Alaskan winter gorging on stories of the gulag; Srebrenica and other large-scale atrocities (reading roundup to come within the next week or two), I’ve been reflecting on how I got here, to where I am in my life, and why. The explanation is truly absurd in its simplicity.

The year(s) were the early 90s. Enter young me, in elementary school, bored out of my gourd and reading well above my grade level. There were 38 kids in my class by the time I graduated from high school: I would say at least 1/3 of my classmates were special ed/remedial, half rarely bothered to show up for class.  Fewer than 5 kids were what I would call “high achievers.” I can’t remember a single time in grades 1-12 I had to harness more than 25% of my brainpower, even during my AP Calculus exam, which I passed despite teaching it to myself because we watched Lord of the Rings during our 2-person classes. Unsurprisingly, my classmate failed. Not her fault: Tolkein is just a bad calculus teacher.

I would have fully hated public school altogether if I hadn’t mastered the art of finding any sort of random thing interesting at all times, and had a handful of teachers who, even in my early years, took pity on me and allowed me to (a) blow things up (b) create hydroponic vegetable gardens (c) order dead animals from mail order catalogs. It could have been worse. And, what I did have time to do as a kid was read. I read everything, and even shitty public schools have OK libraries. There’s almost nothing else to do in the Catskills that’s not outside, especially when you’re a 12 year old girl.

In the early 90s, I read Lord of the Flies. I read Animal Farm and 1984. These three books stuck with me my entire life. Brave New World, later on, as well. They are so central to my life, character and personality that I even cited them recently in a letter to my local newspaper. I’ve noticed as I’ve watched my siblings grow up that there’s a strong defiant streak in my family in general (I attribute this mostly to our Slavic genes), which has conveniently been combined with a deep revulsion for groupthink and the so-called wisdom of crowds. Our grandparents were acutely aware of what they were running from when their parents arrived in the US from what is now Ukraine. I’ve long been obsessed with what their pre-America world looked like, and what happened after they left (they would not talk about it, and stopped speaking anything but English when my father was a kid): they missed WWI by 1 year: the formation of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic by 6. They then missed the Holodomor, which likely killed everyone else that didn’t die in the former two events. By the time my father was born in 1949, anyone who hadn’t starved 15 years earlier had been steamrolled by the Red Army, the Nazis, then another famine, forced deportations…just another day in Eastern Europe, amirite?

Back to Lord of the Flies… reading a bunch of books as a young kid in rural New York is one thing… to really drive home the theme — the mental weakness of humans — you really need a catalyst: some kind of event that shows you, even better if in real-time, that these ideas are much more than a series of dystopian nightmares. What else happened in the 90s, at the very time young Jessica was horrified, reading about those snot-nose British kids turning on each other in Lord of the Flies? Cue the Bosnian War, people! There is no better example of people who frequently were neighbors, whose children grew up together, whose fathers had fought together in the same army, only to murder each other in cold blood while the world looked on. That this happened among people who were racially, ethnically, culturally near-identical murdered each other was an outrageous achievement in propaganda, and it had happened countless times before, and will happen again over and over in the future (probably not as interestingly as this particular war, as it was the restoration of individuality post-Tito that really revved up the ethnic strife).

But really, how did this happen? How did Milošević so effectively blast this idea out to people? How did Stalin and Hitler make all that totalitarian magic happen? And, perhaps more importantly, why did people fall for it time and time again? Didn’t anyone say “man, this is pretty messed up…” — and why didn’t more?

What Orwell, Huxley and William Golding wrote about is as authentic as it gets, and it’s this unbelievable cognitive and intellectual laziness that has truly horrified me my entire life. Whether it’s a result of this or completely independent, I have always seemed to lack this intense desire to cooperate with everyone around me to feel like people like me. I have always ranked very low on people-pleasing, especially when it comes to people who are not “my people.” Some people would say this makes me a jerk. Others would say this makes me a libertarian. I say, who cares, pretending to agree with people is no way to live.

While there were other factors at play, I majored in whatever “the science of getting people to believe your probably dumb ideas” is at college (this is called Mass Communication Theory); my independent research projects focused on it; it has been an underlying feature of my job and career: simply put, persuasion. In recent years, I’ve become fascinated by behavioral economics, and lately, our very polarized political environment, and a tale as old as time: people saying whatever the popular thing is to say, and believing whatever is trendy, and not bothering to really consider much of anything because social ties mean more than truth or logic or discourse.

I have always wanted to know what’s real, and what’s true, and to repeatedly separate logic from emotion, which people increasingly fail to do. There’s a sequence in The Rise and Fall where Peterson is talking about high heels at work and it is so unbelievably obvious that people can no longer separate emotionally charged concepts like sexual harassment and feminism and sexism from what is actually happening. Over the past half-decade or so I have felt more and more like I live in the Twilight Zone in the modern world, and Peterson’s refusal to submit to ridiculous ideas is probably more inspiring than it should be, if for no other reason than people are excessively sheepy these days. Further, it’s this quest for actual truth despite the consequences that creates the only kind of authenticity that seems worth anything.

Wrapping this up now. All in all, Peterson is a fascinating person. The documentary is great. He and Quillette, for me, are oases in an endless desert of stupidity and laziness these days. Perhaps it was always the way it is now… some of my friends would say as much: that people have not actually changed, for better or worse. And maybe 20 years after my first Orwellian nightmares and Srebrenica’s genocide, I haven’t either.