Pandemic Spring: February & March

I’ve had this WordPress window open for over a month, and daily life is changing so rapidly for so many people that it’s been difficult to nail down a good time to get cracking on this. I’m still unsure of my take on the pandemic unfolding across the world: on one hand, a grotesque curiosity of mine has become a reality in my lifetime, and I watch daily with deep (and admittedly morbid) interest, even as my brother, sister, brother in law and many of my closest friends reside in/near what is currently COVID-19 Ground Zero, NY Metro. Many of my friends have lost their jobs, or are furloughed with more uncertainty than savings. I am quite curious as to how long I will have a job, as I also work in the hospitality/service industry, which is the most grim sector in which to be employed currently. Further, my beloved state will certainly have some deep scars from the double-whammy of COVID-19 and the crash of oil. Alaska is fucked, at least in the short term, and I have no doubt the tourism industry will lose 30% or more of its operators by the time this is over. I actually think this will depopulate the state a fair amount; I am unsure we are capable of recovering from so many consecutive catastrophes… earthquakes… forest fires… government shutdowns… and now a pandemic. I think this kind of chaos will bring some long-term positive change, though, some of which are mentioned in this NY Post article.

As for me, I’ve spent most of my adolescence and adult life fascinated by infectious disease. The single newsletter I read with any regularly is CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases. I’m not surprised this has happened… it was only a matter of time. And even early on, as people poo-poo’ed news out of China of a new virus, I was pretty sure this would be a months-long shit show, upending most of the world, at least temporarily. Lo and behold, here we are. I’m actually not sure life will resume as it was, when this is over. People will act differently. And feel differently. I think a prolonged period punctuated by fear of other people will have deleterious effects on how we function socially, which is already severely stunted in the modern age.

On the positive side (for me), presently, apart from having to cancel a few months of travel plans and not being able to log an hour on the stair machine every day, I’m largely unaffected. I quite like being home, I have an enormous stack of books, I live in a big house in a cool neighborhood (one of Anchorage’s urban moose up the street in the photo on the left) with someone I don’t hate, and I have a cute dog who is enjoying extra exercise. Spring is around the corner, and I eagerly await a snow and ice-free patio so I can reconstruct my Eastside Shangri-la. If we are still on lockdown in the actual summer, I’ll have my ski condo to hang at, at the very least. Life could be a lot worse… there has never been a better time to be an introvert.

That said, I think a part of me has decided I don’t, for the time being, care much for the future. This may be a good skill to have. I only mean that insofar as I am not crippled by anxiety and uncertainty. I had said in the beginning of the year that 2020 would be my year… which will certainly not be the case. I try to balance the sadness I feel for my friends and my industry and the uncertainty I feel for my loved ones’ safety with a sense of gratitude that I’d be pretty OK if I lost my job, I’m not dying of boredom and not particularly miserable as a result of any of these mandated pandemic rules. I do not think the end of this is near. I am not convinced I will remain employed. But, eh. There has always been a silver lining to choosing to bypass my chosen career path for something more versatile… during uncertain times, the field of possibility is much more vast.

In the meantime… I’ve read a ton of random shit over the past two months, and obviously there’s a lot more to come. Reminder that I feel it’s a complete waste of time to write full reviews; I’d sooner expound briefly on whether I liked a book or did not (with some exceptions where I’m inspired to ramble), and link to someone whose job it is to review books. These posts take long enough as it is ffs.

The Price We Pay: What Broke American Healthcare — and How to Fix It | This was a pretty interesting book, and definitely relevant today, in a period of time when tens of thousands of Americans will not only become critically ill, but then be bankrupted by our healthcare system. The author takes a pretty ambitious trip around the country and covers a lot of subject areas — obviously price (and hospital billing) is a big part of it. Our healthcare system is as confusing as it is unfair, and this book was oddly hopeful. Here’s an NPR review/interview. Sounds like a boring topic, no? It’s actually written in a pretty casual tone and the author keeps it interesting.

The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy | Financial Times review here; Economist review here; Foreign Affairs review here. This is one of the most brilliant books I’ve read in years, and that says a lot — I read a lot of excellent stuff. Many of the points in this book are insane in their obviousness, and yet there’s so much in here I had not ever fully constructed in my own head. I will very likely read this again at some point (or at least peruse); I could not get over how many times reading this book I was completely floored by how much sense the authors made. Truly incredible book with a really ambitious topic.

The Elementary Particles | I quite enjoyed this. I had never read anything by Houellebecq before; I don’t think he’s a particularly talented writer, but there were some memorable pieces of this often very depraved story of two brothers. I definitely want to read Whatever, one of his other well-known novels. Quillette has published alternating views of him, but they did cover Elementary Particles here. There’s a more recent article on him here.

The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol | I’m just going to come out and say that I’m not a huge fan of Gogol. This stories are a bit too folksy for me, though in a way I find difficult to describe. There’s something grotesque and surreal about his style I really enjoy… that said I had a really difficult time getting through some of these stories, which often unfold at a very slow pace. Probably worth reading some of his more famous ones if you’re into Russian literature; the entire Collected Tales was a bit too much for me.

The Nation Killers: The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities | I acquired two books by Robert Conquest over the winter: The Nation Killers and Harvest of Sorrow (about the Holodomor). For whatever reason I found this book profoundly depressing; the resettlement campaigns in the USSR were unbelievably cruel. I’m not sure if this strikes me as awful because so many people died living in mud holes in Kazakhstan or if the calculated way people were stripped of their sense of homeland is what is so sad about this… further, that this happened is by no means widely known, and like everything else in Soviet times, countless people died as ghosts, unrecorded… the lucky ones ended up in the death count.

Few books have been written about this, and it’s dry reading for sure, but sometimes reality is more morbid than anything concocted in the imagination. Such is the case here. I took a photo of a map that shows to a small extent the absurdity. The book goes so far as to explain why they did this, which makes sense (in a sick way, of course), though I am somewhat sympathetic to their wariness of nationalism. So many things that transpired in this country are so mind-blowingly cruel and were also so successful in destroying millions of people, literally and figuratively. There’s some disjointed information on Wikipedia about these resettlements. Much, much moreso than dark classics like Kolyma Tales, this deportation — the scale of horror that was never fully uncovered and is now lost in history — is nightmare material for me.

My Struggle, Book 6 | I can’t fully express how it feels to have finally finished this series, after beginning it over two years ago while living in Fairbanks. I have listened to the Audible version of this book all over the world, on a lot of airplanes, while living in different houses, in different parts of Alaska. As this is an autobiography of sorts, I’d say it is much like a person: there are good parts, bad parts, boring parts, annoying parts. Book 6 returned to a lot of the thoughts the author had in the beginning of this series; Book 6’s lengthy part on Hitler was not good… even if it were, I don’t find Hitler (or Mein Kampf) nearly as interesting as he does: Mein Kampf is one of the shittiest books by one of history’s villains I’ve ever read… even Stalin is better, and Stalin was also a dreadful writer. I was struck by a sort of irony with Hitler with regard to the importance of the individual — this entire series revolved around the immensity of a single person, the sheer multitude of thought wrapped up in one person’s life, his experience, his actions… to end the book focusing on a man who only valued some individuals with the right racial makeup is strange indeed. Further, Karl Ove, despite writing this and many other books, has accomplished little in his life, though he has ‘done’ a lot (otherwise what would he fill 3600 pages with?) and that I suppose is part of the story as well… to what extent is someone expected to provide any kind of value to the world?

Ultimately I’m pleased I managed to claw my way through this gargantuan series: my feelings for this author run the gamut. You get to the end and you feel as though you know him; I also came away with a feeling that I would love to have a conversation with him, but I’m unsure I would say I “like” him. I admire his ability to expose himself, his cowardice, his poor decisions, the monotony and selfishness that overwhelms him at times. This was an impressive series, though Book 6 received tepid reviews: New York Times here and Slate here. I felt the entire series was hit or miss, but it was much more hit than miss, and the boring parts were worth the struggle for the nights I, lying in bed, sat straight up and said “WHAT??” and hit the 30-sec rewind to listen to a beautiful thought, or an incredible passage, 2, 3, 4 times. Last note, the Audible version of this is incredible… so incredible in fact that I already purchased all 4 of his recent seasons books (which are much shorter) just to continue to listen to Edoardo Ballerini.

Transparent Things | This is another book I really just did not get into. It’s short, so I finished it, but I found it pretty boring. None of the characters were particularly likable. The New York Times’ archive has a great review; it seems they saw a lot more in it than I did. Most of the reviews end in general admiration for Nabokov (this Guardian review is one); I concur, but this book was nowhere near his best work.

Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia | The author of this book was a correspondent for NPR, apparently, and the book is interesting because her material comes out of her experiences in Chelyabinsk. The book is mostly a series of human interest stories with characters she meets in the city; post-Soviet identity (or lack thereof) is I think really difficult for Western people to understand; she does a really good job of explaining the roots of conflict. There are a lot of kinds of books people write to explain Russia: books about what happened, and books about what people feel about what happened, and this is the latter. Easy, quick read, super insightful. Would recommend. Foreign Affairs review here; YaleGlobal Online here; CS Monitor here.

Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs | I saw an interview with this guy on Joe Rogan and decided to read his book, seeing as how there’s pretty much no better time in history to do so. I’ve read some awesome pandemic books over the years; my favorite is probably Spillover, which features a cornucopia of diseases… this one primarily focuses on influenza and whatever is coming next, though he talks about HIV, TB, malaria and others briefly as well. Definitely a good read for anyone living in coronavirus times. Here’s a review from NIH… didn’t know that was a thing.

Marina Abramović: Walk Through Walls | I was pleased to see this on a shelf facing me at Powell’s in Portland a few months back; I’ve encountered her work throughout my life and having been somewhat familiar with her, I was still taken aback by the end of this book, by her ability to put her pain and suffering in the forefront in a way it for whatever reason really resonated with me. I read this and A Hero of Our Time simultaneously, and by the time I finished both books I was depressed af. Her work is incredible; the trajectory of her life is pretty interesting as well, and her romantic endeavors add so much depth to her (particularly in terms of suffering). I didn’t find this memoir to be particularly well-written, but she’s an artist, not a writer, and it was definitely worth the time. Truly fascinating person.

A Hero of Our Time | This is me, saving the best for last. How has it taken me 35 years to read this unbelievable book? The odd organization of events was difficult at first (the end of the book is really the beginning, and then it flashes back in diary entries)… I was completely amazed by the depth of the main character and how (especially these days) I identify so deeply with his feelings on life, namely in it being completely meaningless, endeavors often completely pointless, with the lack of reconciliation between how he acts and how he feels, with his deeply conflicted nature overall. I will never forget the part, toward the end, where his horse collapses as he is riding after Vera, and has this incredible opportunity to make a difference in his life, a grand gesture (maybe) and asks himself, “for what?” And lies down and sobs. He wanders off and eventually dies. All of this emptiness against the backdrop of the Caucasus, which are so vividly and incredibly developed in this book. I think something I also found interesting is how much the ethnic groups of the region all hate each other (Cossacks, Ossetians, Tatars, Circassians / Kabardians, Georgians, etc.), how diverse and strange (and beautiful) that part of the world is. I think this may be one of my favorite books of all time. I rewound, re-listened, and I’m grateful to have found a little copy recently that I can tuck into a bag if I choose to peruse it; I’ve realized other people rarely re-read books, but I go back to ones I love regularly. I loved some parts of this book so much that I screenshot passages from Google Books while lying in bed listening. This is a really unbelievable read.

Re-reads:

Heart of Darkness | I had forgotten until I nearly completed this post that en route to Hawaii, I listened to Heart of Darkness in its entirety. It had been a long time; and I often expect to not be as enamored by a book the second time around as the first; that is rarely if ever the case. Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim are both brilliant — Conrad seems to be difficult for people to digest, or too dry, or something. It has always been disappointing to read about his supposed racism, which I never saw in the book: to me this was always about the fear of the unknown, the evolutionary fear of darkness (not blackness, but darkness) and the fear of things different than you. The way it’s written paints a nightmarish but often beautiful and mysterious portrait of the Congo, and the narrator in the end is forever changed by his experience, and his perception of civilization as he knew it prior to his trip is forever changed. Both books: Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim have bizarre analyses — I saw Lord Jim as much more about shame than free will and determinism. Heart of Darkness scarcely seemed racist to me at all: it was a product of colonialism, and if anything the narrator was more sympathetic to the natives (he had much more curiosity than contempt) than anyone else in the novel. I noticed many years ago that someone used an excerpt (one of the better known ones) in a tourism video for Malaysia. Pretty cool. Vimeo link here.

That’s all for now. Trying to keep these monthly moving forward (or more frequent) since there’s not much else going on.

Post-publish addition, I’m incredibly grateful to have squeezed in a beautiful week on Maui before this all transpired. At the very least the travel ban took place for me immediately after a very active early 2020… one of countless reasons for a lot of gratitude, despite present circumstances.

There’s a subscribe via e-mail field on the sidebar; I can’t seem to get it to show more prominently, despite request(s), sorry.

January 2020 in Books

It’s been a productive month in books! I also have a pretty random assortment here (probably more random than is typical, even for me). I’ve been a devoted reader since I was a kid, and I’ve enjoyed the past few weeks of deep-diving into another human being through literature. So in addition to my normal book-load, I’ve wrapped up Severin’s Journey Into the Dark (amazing); Straw Dogs (entertaining but I disagree with most of the ideas) and All The Pretty Horses and then The Crossing (interesting and totally atypical for me; I’ll be finishing Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy over the next few months and moving onto some of his other stuff). I loved The Crossing.

I’ve also revisited a few books I’ve loved very deeply for a long time, namely Camus’ Lyrical & Critical Essays. I also recently re-read my favorite contemporary novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I think I would be an entirely different person if I had not spent my entire life thus far obsessed with books. There is no better way to learn about, to really come to know another person than to read each other’s favorites. It is really uniquely intimate. It’s uniquely flattering, as well; someone else can choose to inhabit your world, even briefly. It’s an underrated experience, especially given (a) people don’t read like they used to (last year, I saw that over a quarter of Americans haven’t read a book or even a part of one in a year) and (b) we are living in a culture of extreme narcissism, where people star in their own social media novellas and could care less about anyone but themselves.

But I digress. Onto the rest.

The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness | I read about this book in the New York Times Sunday Edition and read it on a whim, because I like the idea and I’ve seen some bizarre things in my personal life that correlate. While it’s a bit touchy-feely (and a bit preachy at times), it’s well-cited and there’s a ton of research in the notes. I actually find the title to be a bit misleading: the premise of the book is basically that the mind-body connection is under-emphasized by the medical profession, and people who have loving relationships / social connections / solid communities are more physically resilient (and recover faster). Essentially that having people who give a shit about you is paramount to your physical health. Total rocket science, right? Not so much, but it’s surprising how much this element of people’s lives is ignored when there’s something wrong physically with them; further, how much loneliness can foster illness. There are a ton of studies that relay this point, but this book is a pretty well-organized summary of the sort of mental/emotional hierarchy of needs that contribute to your physical well-being.

Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America | This was an incredible read. Books about poverty tend to be extremely politicized; this one was not. The author was a Wall Street trader who began taking walks through various neighborhoods in NYC and eventually quit his job to learn more about the way people live. This is one of the few books that manages to feature a sense of humanity alongside common sense: he answered, for himself, many of the questions I’ve asked myself over the duration of my life. This book and Hillbilly Elegy are probably two of my favorite books on this topic, and they are both written from entirely different perspectives, with largely different opinions, and they attribute some of the issues of our time to different things. I will never forget this short excerpt in this book, which does a good job of showcasing how much this author really focused on telling fair stories of other people with no judgement:

Over the next half hour, she told me her life story. She told me how her mother’s pimp had put her on the streets at twelve. How she had had her first child at thirteen. How she was addicted to heroin. I ended by asking her the question I asked everyone I ­photographed: How do you want to be described? She replied without a pause, “As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.”

People who grow up in tremendous comfort, in stable, healthy families think they know and understand how all of this works; they just don’t. And I say that as someone who does not buy the conservative “get a job” trope, nor the bleeding heart “give them more public assistance” remedy. Reality is so much more nuanced, complex, often impossible. This book is really thought provoking, reasonable and open-minded. So pleased I read it.

The Lion’s Den | I’m a huge Anthony Marra fan; I’ve read all of his other stuff with extreme immediacy, and this was no different. The Lion’s Den is a short story about a guy who lost his father; it was good, but I didn’t love it, probably because his Eastern Europe / Russia stuff resonates much more with me. He is an incredible writer and this took me almost no time, so it was worth reading, but it was nowhere near as amazing as his other short, The Wolves of Bilaya Forest.

Talking to Strangers | Malcolm Gladwell is another author whose books I’ve read in their entirety, and I’m surprised to say I really was bored out of my mind with this one. The premise is actually brilliant: he basically talks about instances where people talked past one another and thought they knew more than they did; it’s largely anecdotes of cognitive bias. It’s rare I stop reading a book (in this case it was an audiobook), but I got about halfway through and found it too boring, though the theme was interesting. I actually really like Gladwell; his style is often criticized, but I find his quirky stories give me a lot to think about in a short period of time, and his books are easy ways to find interesting ideas with virtually no effort. The New York Times published a great article on him and his work here, and despite not loving this particular book, I’d read his next one as I’ve read all his previous ones.

Wilderness | This was another surprisingly disappointing, dry read. I am a huge, huge fan of Rockwell Kent: I own some of his other books (Greenland Journal is on my rare book wishlist). This artwork has always really impressed me; I recently acquired a copy of Moby Dick with his illustrations, which I will definitely cherish forever and have wanted for a long time (Moby Dick is one of my all-time favorites). I thought Wilderness would score more points because it’s based a mere two hours and a boat ride from my house, on Fox Island in Resurrection Bay, but his diary entries are dull and underwhelming, and the drawings are not great either. N by E and Salamina are far better reads. To be fair, his other books are in more interesting settings than boring af Fox Island in the winter. He loved the North, was completely captivated by Newfoundland; Greenland; Alaska and the Adirondacks and for that he will always have my undying love.

Re-reads:

Coming Into the Country | This is the third time I’ve traversed this book in its entirety in my life; I started listening to the audiobook version a year or two ago, and recently finished. I cannot express how unbelievable it is that a book written 44 years ago is still so spot-on, with regard to the people of Alaska, the culture, the “story” of Alaska in its entirety. For 7.5 years of my life I have lived here and loved this state, have chased all kinds of stories, anecdotes, histories, driven all kinds of roads in every direction, flown a bazillion air miles to far flung toiletless towns in the Bush, met some of the most interesting characters of my life, and I am mystified by how McPhee captured Alaska in a book that is still somehow so relevant. I would hands down recommend this book to anyone who moved here, or wanted to really know or understand this state, its traditions and legacy. This won’t be the last time I read Coming Into The Country, and a Fairbanks-based writer wrote an incredible follow-up to the Yukon-Charley Rivers section of Coming Into The Country called A Land Gone Lonesome which is also incredible and worth reading (and perhaps re-reading).

Lyrical & Critical Essays | I have a beat-up copy of this book I’ve had since college, with 100 different scribbles and highlights in it. I’ve re-read these lyrical essays countless times over my adult life, wondering if they will ever cease to resonate with me, and thus far they have not. At 35, I have read everything Camus has written/published; these lyrical essays are the best, in my opinion. These essays are a full-spectrum foundation of his values, his belief system, and much of what he stood for in his life, and are a perfect precursor to anything else one might read from him. Skip the critical essays; they’re not nearly as good. Linking to Goodreads reviews, as this is an old book, but much loved by virtually everyone who reads it.

Upcoming for February: Gogol’s Collected Tales; Cities of the Plain (Border Trilogy 3); Vaclav Havel’s Open Letters; The Nation Killers, on Soviet resettlement to Kazakhstan; a bunch of others.

2019, A Year in Summary

My last post regarding reflecting on my life was on the 7th anniversary of moving to Alaska, and I figured it’d be good to sum up my year, which ended spectacularly, despite a few wrong turns and some unfortunate luck (which I also addressed around my 35th birthday).

I had mentioned I keep an Excel sheet of essentially: travel; “the good” (things to essentially be grateful for that stand out); “the bad” (misfortune, bad luck, broad negatives) and “failures” (things I myself did wrong; ways I misstepped, made crappy choices or didn’t live up to my own standards). I was sure this year sucked more than the handful of previous ones by June, but I was wrong. And while the year, for me, at least emotionally, got worse, it was largely due to my own failures. And to someone who possesses a strong internal locus of control, that means resolution(s) are usually in reach. When I was young, and just starting out in my career, and had no money or general wherewithal, life spun out of control much more violently. Absent full-scale tragedies like my friend’s death in last January, the struggles of my life these days are merely a series of annoying hiccups: this to me is the ultimate prosperity.

The end of 2019 was a welcome close to many things for me: I knew my job was evolving and I’d be changing teams, which is the best thing for me for a variety of reasons. I had also been waffling for a few months in an unproductive relationship I was hesitant to close the doors on indefinitely: sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate how much dissatisfaction you can feel from something like that until you look at it in full hindsight. Perhaps much more importantly, though, the person I am closest to up here was having a litany of his own personal issues, none of which I could improve in any way (for someone who likes to take charge and fix things, this is a frustrating and demotivating situation to be in, to be unable to help someone you love). I decided sometime in the fall that things were so bad, and I was becoming so unhappy that I had to leave for a few weeks and definitely come back with my shit together, or else. Feeling like shit every day is not my status quo, and I felt for months as though I was amassing problems I could do nothing to resolve. This sucked. Big time.

That said, I realized many years ago that sometimes the only thing you can do is control the way you perceive things, and I know I am naturally inclined to be cynical, which is where this spreadsheet comes in. If I really look at what has transpired this year without a chip on my shoulder, I can see that despite an annoying health setback, I possessed the resources to resolve it to the best of my ability without being buried in medical bills (not to mention my employer and friends were all extremely supportive); that while I spent some time mired in a relationship that was a struggle from the start, it wasn’t for the wrong reasons, and it wasn’t with a bad person, and I really tried to make it work while advocating for myself, which is not something I have always been good at; that within the bounds of my job I often felt unappreciated and misunderstood for most of this year, but still rendered a lot of value to a company I actually really enjoy working for.

I think the top level view is that I rarely see any single (or even group of) event(s) as be-all, end-alls, and with age comes the realization that even tidal waves of combined problems eventually pass. As I mentioned, I’ve put so much effort into providing myself with layers of security — financial, emotional, intellectual, professional — that moreso now than ever before, I feel as though if life kicks a leg out from the table of my life, there will scarcely be much of a wobble. It’s easy to lose sight of this when you ruminate on the negative: it took some real time to see the light at the end of the tunnel this year.

So, I headed back to New York a few weeks ago feeling pretty beaten down, but I knew the friends I’d see along the way would remind me of the fact that despite ending up here years ago for reasons I still can’t entirely explain other than “it was what I had to do,” 2019, the last 6 months, my current life, Alaska, my job, whatever else is not the whole story: that you need other people to put your life, your view, your experience and your value into perspective. You can also be independent to a fault, but to ignore how important your relationships are to your general well-being is not only ignorant but damaging: there are few indicators of longevity more vital than human relationships, even if you’re a weird girl who works from home in the great white north. You never know who you’ll cross paths with by being open to the world, and so many people over the span of my life have shown me that. There were some bright spots: a lot of travel, particularly a wildly amazing time in the Caucasus and Bosnia; a fall trip to Mexico City to cross Day of the Dead off my list; and a mellow winter, where my withdrawal from everyone at least coincided with hiding in books, which has never been a bad way to pass even bad times for me. There’s a quote I always loved: “sometimes you win, sometimes you learn,” and 2019 for sure was a learning year more than a winning one.

I’ve been going to Vegas for many years to sleep off my emotional ills and relax/reorient myself (seems like an odd place to do so, I’ve been told, but that’s how I roll), and the last few days of this year were the best trip there I have ever experienced. I live in a place where we think of life, and nature, as apathetic and unforgiving, but I ended this year feeling as though life has given me something. And so, that’s how 2020 has begun: with a glance back at a year filled with things that could’ve gone better, though one that also showed me that with careful life choices and a lot of reflection (and maybe a list or two), life is rarely as bad at any given time as I may think or feel.

Quite a few of my real life friends read this blog, so if you’re one of them, thank you.

Closing out the Year: Books, Q4 2019

It’s probably time to do one of these, though the books below will have summaries even shorter than is typical because I’m blowing through books at such a rapid pace; this post is a day late as I arrived back in Anchorage last night on NYE too tired to pound this out. I had squandered the remainder of my leisure time pre-Christmas holiday period watching Jordan Peterson’s Personality and Its Transformation lectures, and I’m almost finished with them. I highly recommend most of them, particularly the first 10-15 (and even more particularly, Heroic & Shamanistic Initiations, and Solzhenitsyn & The Gulag) . The Big Five ones became a little tiresome, but they’re ultimately worth watching anyway. He recorded a lengthy lecture series on the Bible which I will be watching soon. Trying to teach myself to enjoy YouTube lectures, and it’s working.

Either way, this winter is largely the same as any other, lots of dark, grim and often authoritarian stuff; some management books and social science as well. It seems sort of stupid to me that I publish these, but I’m always surprised by how many people write me or comment or mention they saw I read this or that, so it’s not for nothing.

The Lone Wolf And the Bear: Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule | This is a pretty good run-down of Chechnya and its history of unwillingness to be folded into Russia, though it reads very dryly/academically. I’ve had this book forever and I started reading it years ago only to be really bored, so this time I plugged away and got through it: it’s the kind of book that has endless details you know will be forgotten sooner than later, but I would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand why this country has struggled the way it has.

Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, and Why | This was brilliant and I’d recommend it to anyone and everyone working at a corporation (and probably many, many other people). Strangely I can’t find a good review of this book (probably because 30 seconds of looking is sometimes insufficient), but it’s chock full of interesting information and insight. Short but decent review here. I find most people who are obsessed with behavioral economics read all of these books naturally, and I’m unsure of who else reads them, but this one is much more applicable to a normal person looking to improve his or her life than many of the others.

Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall | I can’t express how much I loved this book. This, and Night of Stone are two of the best books I’ve read on contemporary Russia, and they’re written from two completely different perspectives and with wholly different underlying themes. The author traverses through Moscow, St. Petersburg, and then some far-flung places: Norilsk, Rostov-on-Don, Chechnya, Sakhalin. NYT seems to have reviewed this somewhat unfavorably; I disagree. This book captures a lot of the mystery and awe, especially in the Caucasus region, and is definitely going to be a part of my permanent collection. A blurb from Foreign Affairs:

“Dark and wondrous as ever” are the words that conclude Meier’s odyssey through the killing fields of Chechnya, up the Yenisey River to Norilsk in the far north — once part of Stalin’s gulag — to the wild east of Sakhalin, where oil substitutes for gold. A journalist advantaged by fluent Russian and a youth’s readiness for adventure, he probes deeply into the lives of everyone he meets, from the poor to the potentate, while traveling by road and river. Meier’s passion is for the victims, for those who survived the camps and those caught in the Chechen “meatgrinder,” and he works hard to get their stories, sometimes at great risk to himself. The result is a compassionate glimpse into the extremes where the new Russia meets the old, written with verve and humor.

The Great Big Book Of Horrible Things | A friend of mine asked me if I ever watched/read anything humorous a few months ago and I sent him a photo of this book… unsurprisingly, on the surface this did not qualify as comedy. Surprisingly, this book is actually extremely funny, as the author has a super dark sense of humor and is pretty cynical throughout. This is in fact a “great, big book,” though I read all 500 pages and change in one long night. Its writer is a statistician of death, essentially, and he explains in depth how and why he came to the conclusions he has numbers-wise. Also a part of my permanent collection, as this is an awesome reference material for many of the most gruesome things in history.

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win & The Dichotomy of Leadership: Balancing the Challenges of Extreme Ownership to Lead and Win | I actually really enjoyed both of these reads, Extreme Ownership being the better of the two. Absolutely everything the authors express seem to be common sense, though they use a ton of anecdotes to make their point(s). I live in a place with a lot of military presence, and I’ve met some interesting characters over the years (I’ve also met some real goddamn idiots in this population, but idiots are everywhere): SEALs and EOD techs and sometimes Rangers are some of the more interesting people, as especially EOD guys are very cerebral and they all need to learn how to work in teams as effectively as possible. Not sure these books would be as easy to read if I were as bored with military analogies as many people are, but at a time in my life when I was struggling at work I think it was illuminating and I’d recommend these to new managers for sure.

Why Is Sex Fun?: The Evolution of Human Sexuality | I thought I’d enjoy this a lot more than I did; I think Jared Diamond needed an influx of cash at the time. I found most of the chapters pretty boring, though I’m not sure if this is because I’ve already read about a lot of this stuff or if his topics just weren’t that fascinating. It is pretty short so it didn’t steal too many hours from my life. I would absolutely never recommend this book to anyone: the best book on sexuality and human nature IMO is The Red Queen.

Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica | At this point I’ve read an embarrassing amount of books about the Bosnian War; this one is particularly interesting in its lack of extreme bias, and it breaks down the way the Dutch fucked up into a series of misunderstandings that almost gives you a blip of empathy for soldiers struggling in layers and layers of bureaucracy. It also sheds a lot of light on the magnitude of confusion that existed in real-time in Srebrenica. I think the fact that this book is stripped of one human’s experience makes it one of the most reliable references for what happened in this enclave during the war. 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind | Another book that was lent to me with rants and raves on it being amazing, and by the end I felt like I learned nothing; however, this is because I read way too much of the same shit over and over. Worth noting I would’ve never read this had it not been given to me to read. I think this is a great and easy summation of human history, and due to the fact that the world is filled with endless information on everything, I have deep appreciation for people who make things simple. This is probably something that should be mandatory reading in schools; it has that much information, broadly, in the correct order and with the most reasonable interpretations. Great gift for someone who wants to learn broadly about human history without getting sucked into one hole or another.

A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia | I have to say, I thought this would be a lot more offensive than it ended up being. This is a rare book, a copy of which inexplicably exists in the Kodiak library (a copy for purchase is over $500). Handke won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, which caused outcries in many countries, Bosnia and Kosovo being two of them. I certainly don’t agree with some of this opinions, but I do agree that all of these countries have been victims of one another, which is largely what he is saying. He rails against journalists, who a long time ago used to report without bias, and he blames bias for a lot of the way people feel about Serbia, which I actually also think is true. He doesn’t absolve Serbia of all guilt, and he perhaps goes a bit too far sometimes, but I read this book to find out the extent to which I’d disagree with it (also because everyone is outraged by everything these days): the Serbs suffered some serious losses at the hands of the Ustashe, and in Kosovo, and to pin all the blame on one ethnic group in the Balkans is tantamount to having zero understanding of their unique history. Worth reading, even if you disagree with him, would recommend. Strangely, as I’m on the last book of Karl Ove’s My Struggle series, he actually speaks a bit about Handke, and I find this often happens with books I’m reading; they overlap in one way or another.

The Last Kings of Thule | Another book that has been taking up space on my shelf forever, and I’m glad I finally finished it. A long time ago, I became e-mail penpals with Malaurie’s grandson, who was a teacher in the Canadian High Arctic (I can’t remember how we ended up emailing back and forth in the first place). Malaurie spent a long time living among the Thule Inuit, before the air base was built there, and the book hearkens back to a time prior to much Western Civilization. He conveys a lot of stories passed down among these people, from Peary and Cook’s visits, Matthew Henson, Knud Rasmussen, about Peary dragging Minik and his family to the Museum of Natural History as a living exhibit, all kinds of stuff. There are many books written by random white guys living among the Inuit all throughout the North, but this one and Kabloona are probably my two favorites (Rasmussen’s books are all required reading in this subject area as well). I was taken aback by the end, as he returns to Thule and sees them building what would eventually be Thule AFB, realizing that Inuit history in the High Arctic was continuing to be erased by civilization. I could go on for a very, very, very long time about all of this, but I’ll leave it at that. A copy of this book is $2.39 on Amazon, I’d say it’s worth a whole lot more than that, if you’re into reading about the Inuit.

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 | Everything Anne Appelbaum writes is amazing. She writes in an absurd level of detail; I’ve now read all of her books. There’s a good review here, so I’m going to keep chugging through this post and let someone else’s review speak for me. With regard to all of her work, I like Red Famine and Gulag the most, but this is definitely #3.

How To Be A Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century | This book got overwhelmingly positive reviews, I think again I struggled with it being monotonous because I’ve read too much about the same topics. I think, much like Sapiens, this is a great high-level view of dictatorship and totalitarianism. I don’t think there’s much else to it at all. And, this is why I don’t write reviews for a living. A review of this book was featured in Quillette, which is likely why I pre-ordered it at the time. Read that. Important to note I knew literally zero about Duvalier, so I did learn some stuff. And I think Ceausescu is left out of a lot of dictatorship literature, which is unfortunate as he was a real monster (for more on Romania and Ceausescu, I’d read Balkan Ghosts, which comes with free nightmares).

The 48 Laws of Power | I don’t remember why I bought this book, but I still haven’t decided how I feel about it. The truth is, I don’t think one is supposed to “feel” anything when reading this book; most of these “laws” are likely true, but they’re not ones to live by if you want to be what you might define as a “good person.” I found (a) a short interview with the author here, and (b) this interesting post which shows some of the examples of the Laws. Yes, many of these “laws” of power are ways to live if you want to dominate everyone in your life; they are not the way I choose to live my life. I felt sort of like I was reading a book on how to accomplish a task I have no desire or need to accomplish; I don’t regret reading it, though I skipped a lot of the historical anecdotes and just read the laws themselves. All of these laws, in theory, will work. Will you hate yourself by employing them? TBD.

Resistance, Rebellion and Death | This was one of the books I took with me to the East Coast to read while home and I barely finished it before I returned, but it’s incredible. Camus writes about occupied France; Hungary; Algeria; Spain. Most or all of these were featured in Combat. Much is on the nature of freedom, love and morality (as is all of his stuff). This book also includes his essay opposing capital punishment, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” which is a must-read, and an essay in here has been re-made famous again recently, I noticed, in Quillette (his “Create Dangerously” speech). I’ve read most of everything Camus has written/published, and this is one of the best (why it took me so many years to read it, I don’t know). 

On that note, here closes 2019 in books. I left a lot of other stuff in 2019, and I’ll write about that soon. For now, I’m pretty tired of staring at this computer screen.

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.

The buds draw in before the cold.

September 7, Books, Pt. 2.

Generation Me – Revised and Updated: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before | I’m an older millennial, and most of my friends are as well: we have solid jobs/careers, we don’t die for social media (and we don’t post selfies, I still can’t really seem to figure out exactly how Snapchat works), at least within my friend circle, the sense of entitlement is severely limited when compared to what you see in the tail end of the generation. I still harbored some curiosity about the striking differences between the generation overall and Gen X, and this book was pretty interesting, mostly when it comes to talking about feelings / expecting to be happy and Gen X’s sense of duty. There is a huge disparity in expectations, some significant differences in parenting styles and a disturbing assumption that one should always be happy that has clearly negatively afflicted the millennial generation. It seems as though quite a bit of this work has been found unsound, but I think some of these ideas are still fairly thought provoking. We definitely live in a ‘look at me’ culture where people expect things to be great all the time, and everyone is positive he or she is special and deserves consequent special treatment. Review here in the NY Times which also mentions The Narcissism Epidemic, which I believe I may have also posted in here at some point.

My Struggle: Book 5: Some Rain Must Fall | Book 5 took me forever to get through. And, much like books 3 and 4, it becomes a bit boring and monotonous at times. I liked Books 2 and 3 more than the other middle volumes in this expansive autobiography, and I have high hopes for Book 6. Book 5 details his foray into writing for a publication in Bergen and doing a writer’s program, traipsing around and banging a bunch of broads and so forth. This honesty is overwhelming, to the point that at times when you’re going through his recounting of his life and actions you sort of can’t stand him at many points: he is a complete coward on many occasions, though virtually everyone has amassed a cache of cowardice in his or her formative years. That said, Book 1 came on so strong, and to me it set a lot of the rest of these periods of his life up for failure. Perhaps, as I’ve said before, it’s that being young is simply not as interesting as being older, because you don’t have all of the insight. You don’t have the depth, or the breadth. And when you’re recounting the dumb shit you’ve done, it’s just that: dumb shit. I think of the books in the middle of this series, Books 2 and 3 were my favorite; Book 3 gave me an immense amount of sympathy (even empathy) for him, perhaps because we share some experiences, and I think those years of your life (when you are a really little kid) are more formative than teenage/20s. Falling in love (Book 2) is also extremely formative; moreso than a lot of the other clutter of your early life. I don’t remember anything I deeply loved about Book 5, other than the outward expression of shame, which is ugly no matter whose it is; 4 and 5 are a means to an end, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s all wrapped up. Book 5 review here.

Black Deeds of the Kremlin, Vol I: Book of Testimonies | One of the most grotesque things I’ve ever heard in my entire life was an account from the Holodomor: a woman spoke of officers showing up to her house screaming at her dying family for not dying fast enough. I have no idea how or why I found this to be 1000x more horrifying than anything I’ve read or heard from the Bosnian war; from Kolyma Tales; from the Bataan Death March; from Nanking, Chechnya, the White Sea Canal. I searched high and low for these two volumes of Black Deeds of the Kremlin; I found Volume I for peanuts on eBay, sold by a man who clearly did not know what it was worth (about $75 more than I bought it for); I found an incredible copy of Volume II in Minnesota (complete with dust jacket), and a friend sent me an even more astoundingly nice copy. I told myself I couldn’t buy VII until I read all of VI, so I did. The testimonies in Volume I were meticulously compiled from (what I can understand) survivors then residing in Canada. There is nothing more to this book than people telling of their experiences, and in true Slavic form, much of it is matter-of-fact. It is a brilliantly simple book: what makes it special is that fairly limited number of accounts of what actually happened, and much of Ukraine was closed off (when foreigners came into Kharkiv or Kiev, everyone was cleaned up and forced to act normal).  If you can’t imagine that an entire country was starved in two years, I can understand that: it seems insane to be able to murder millions of people in such a short period of time: more Ukrainians died in their own country in Holodomor in two years than Jews died in the Holocaust in 4 years. The way that these people died, and the way their houses were scoured by the authorities for anything edible, is mind-blowing. Further mind-blowing is that everyone can tell you what the Holocaust is; Holodomor was widely overlooked/forgotten. This is an incredible book (if you’re into reading about testimonies of slow and torturous death by collective farming) and I’m beyond excited to have both volumes in my permanent collection. I have no idea what is in Volume II, but I’ll be finding out soon.

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Connection | I told someone recently in passing that I had asked my roommate in the past to join me if I moved out of state, and the person’s response was a sarcastic “that’s not weird or anything.” I chuckle at the occasional comments I’ve received regarding my living situation: I can easily afford to live alone, and own a house, which I rent out… why would I opt to live with someone when I can live completely alone? The answer to that, and what many people take far more years and suffering to learn than I have, is that the cheesy song lyrics are true: “you’re nobody ’til somebody loves you,” except not exclusively in a romantic sense. Loneliness is a pretty sweeping account of the modern epidemic of loneliness, and cites many other incredible books relating back to the collapse of communal life: Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone among them. One it didn’t mention was The Longevity Project, which largely found that relationships are central to long life. And not romantic relationships… but friendships. There are many books about our growing reliance on technology and the way it takes more than it gives to us emotionally: I am positive my many years of emotional investment in my friends has paved the road to happiness for me. MIT Media Lab’s Sherry Turkle has also written about this, and the way that technology has helped in many ways but deprived us of a sense of real community. For that reason, people are both more and less connected these days. This book should be required reading for anyone aged between 18 and 45; the modern landscape has caused a great deal of suffering especially in this arena (which is why it’s fairly common to scoff at two single adults choosing to live together when they can both afford to live alone). My life would be worthless if not for my relationships; I only wish people realized this earlier in their own lives. This is an expansive and wonderful book, as depressing as its content is.

Lucky Number Seven

If you had told me at any point in time that I would last over 7 years in Alaska, I would not have believed you. I’ve always wanted to (start to) write about the unique experience of living in Alaska as someone who grew up in the Northeast, and the day after the seventh anniversary of my move to this state seems as good a time as any. It’s taken me at least this long to come around on some of the quirks of this strange place, and to accept it for what it is.

It’s fairly rare to find many residents from a Northeast metro area who have lasted as long as I have, though I do not think my transition would have been fruitful were it not for my many years in the Northern Catskills; I had already put in years in a rural area, complete with bears breaking into my house, long drives to the grocery store (or any civilization whatsoever), psychotic weather, blizzards, power outages and scorn for Arcteryx-clad city tourists using trekking poles on road shoulders. That said, I arrived here naively expecting to find no high-end food; no cosmopolitanism (note: there’s not much); locals clad in Carhartt overalls and not much to do other than fish, camp and backcountry ski.

Why did I move here? I still struggle to explain, and if I had a dollar for every person who told me before my move that I wouldn’t last more than a few months, I’d have moved to Alaska with enough money to not have a job at all. It was surprisingly easy for me to load up and move 4,500 miles from everything I had ever known; I even drove, and every day was an explosion of excitement. Nonetheless, my first 6 months were lonely and difficult, but still filled with the feeling of starting over and being completely anonymous — a stranger in a completely strange land. I had fantasized about (and traveled through) the northern latitudes and Arctic my entire life, and I had never dreamed I would be able to eek out a living in this region and also have a successful career and future prospects. Moving north with a high-paying, flashy job waiting was beyond my wildest dreams, and the day I pulled out of my parents’ driveway is still the happiest day of my entire life.

Seven years later, Alaska has certainly had its ups and downs. I’ve since bought a house, lived in it, renovated it, rented it out both on Airbnb and to long-term tenants; I’ve lived in the freezing-ass Interior in North Pole, lived in South and East Anchorage, I’ve traveled more widely throughout the state than most lifelong residents I know. I’ve changed jobs. I’ve started and ended multiple romantic relationships. I’ve weathered multiple car accidents and personal tragedies. I’ve watched a few friends succumb to depression and alcoholism and drug abuse, I’ve said goodbye to many other friends who had had enough of Alaska. I’ve agonized over these years about what it would look like to move away, and finally decided after a lot of fine-tuning my life that I’ve hit a perfect “sweet spot” and have no desire to leave. I have the ideal combination of incredible friends, swank living situation and an autonomous work arrangement.

I think the biggest takeaway, and the best thing Alaska has done for me was cement my lack of interest in social or career climbing. Like everyone else I want general success and financial security; but after many years of agonizing over how to balance my ambition with my desire to travel, learn and explore, I think at least for the time being I’ve found a way to keep my job interesting while filling the rest of my time with things that make me happy and residing in this arrestingly beautiful place.

Alaskans are interesting people. Strip away their small-town inferiority complexes, which manifest in bro-ing out, adrenaline-seeking and occasional antisocial behavior, and you have a population of people who care very little what anyone else thinks and have chosen their own priorities: primarily recreation and enjoying the outdoors. I remain somewhat mortified by how people dress up here, mostly in dirty yoga pants and Xtratufs, oversized flannel, etc… but I find there’s a certain charm in freeing yourself of expectations. These people have access to some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth, and that alone is worth more than many advantages you may reap living in the city. There is no commuting traffic. There is little pressure to overwork. Anchorage itself is a fairly grimy, ugly city, but it has always served as more of a resupply base than somewhere people stick around.

In my time here, I’ve defended people who clung to city life, and I’ve repeatedly called out Alaskans’ hypocrisy of labeling themselves as “independent” while relying widely on government handouts. If you were to read John McPhee’s Coming Into The Country, a seminal book on Alaskan culture written in the 70s, you’d find that not much has changed between then and now, and that’s not such a bad thing. Further, despite the very human need to place each other into buckets, it’s difficult to group Alaskan people. One of the most charming features of these people is that you don’t know who is rich and who is poor; there is little flaunting, because financial wealth is not a status symbol in the 49th state… in fact, if there is a status symbol, it’s freedom: freedom to pass your time as you wish.

I think back to when I was a kid watching Star Wars, believing the ideal situation would be to be able to walk into that bar on Tatooine and have no one look twice at you; this exercise in blending has fulfilled my desire to camouflage myself into any crowd; to fit in with any group of people. Alaska is frequently referred to as ‘the island of misfit toys,’ and I don’t think that is an unfair description. It takes confidence and open-mindedness to live and prosper here if you are not born here. There is deep loneliness, and a long dark season. The environment, the people and animals who populate it may try to kill you (and sometimes eat you). But ultimate freedom takes confidence and self-reliance. While I scoff at Alaskan fashion, there is no one I’d rather be on a sinking boat or downed plane with than a group of Alaskans, who have a natural ability to figure things out and survive, born out of necessity in the environment and far-flung geographic location of this place. People lose themselves up here entirely, and you have to hold onto yourself and who you are to survive happily.

There is no lack of challenges to living so far away: long flights just to Seattle; a very high cost of living; the daily danger of driving with so many drunks on the road, and the heavily armed population. Our state is currently in crisis, with a double-whamming homeless and opioid problem. Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend, a core tenet of the culture up here, has caused a deep dependency on handouts and an expectation of free money. The boom and bust history of this place shows itself in the spending habits of its residents, many of whom make a killing on the Slope and in the Bering Sea only to spend it on hookers and blow on their weeks off: there is little sense of saving for the future ingrained into the residents, and this is a very reactive-minded place on the individual, corporate and government level. The male-dominated industries here create other social problems. People live “on the edge” up here in many ways.

I remember riding up the Alyeska Aerial Tram with a friend who told me early on my “Pollyanna crap” would eventually fade… he was wrong. I am still mystified by this incredible place, and I can’t imagine myself moving onto somewhere else without deep regret.  I’ve been blessed with countless time in small planes and helicopters and boats all over this state, surrounded by natural wonder people pay tens of thousands of dollars to see. Flying around Lake Clark National Park, hiking the Aleutian Chain, or the 40-minute drive to Girdwood are to feel what it’s like to really live. And for those many moments in time up here, it seems all the challenges are worth it. When I talk to my friends about their high city rents, or their commutes, or the any number of annoyances of living in a crowded, high-demand metro area (not least the fact that my high-earning college friends almost never go on vacation), I’m reminded of the way my seemingly odd life choices have converged to keep me here, and I’m curious to see whether anything is worth leaving Alaska for.

34, Redux

This post was supposed to be a reading roundup, but when I logged into my Kindle I realized the only books I’ve read lately are what a kind person would call “personal development” and what an asshole would call “self-help.” I’ve sort of challenged myself to infuse some personal items into this blog, though I don’t share it widely among people who actually know me.  I’ve learned some lessons over the past few weeks, and as is often the case, these lessons were spurned by personal challenges. So, a few takeaways from 2019 so far, and then a brief list of loosely related reading.

Side note, I wrote a reflective post when I quit my last job and I received quite a lot of feedback, so this is sort of in the same style. It makes me uncomfortable to post this kind of stuff here, but it’s probably a good kind of discomfort.

  • I lost one of my close friends in the beginning of this year. It hit me surprisingly hard, and I think it punctuated the next few months of reflection on how the year was going. I will probably never look at 2019 without the sting of this happening; I cherish my close people, my friends especially, living 5,000 miles from where I spent the first 28 years of my life. Suicide is additionally difficult to deal with; it’s tough to stop yourself from wondering what you could’ve done (the answer is always “nothing”). This friend was also from New Jersey; he grew up a few miles from where my mother did. He was one of the two human links I have to home, here in Alaska. I was crushed. For a long time.
  • Alaska’s 7.1 earthquake in November created tremendous challenges for me work-wise and set the tone for how I spent my working time to present day. I rely on a lot of data sets; most of my vital tools were broken or unreliable as a result of what this earthquake did to hotel inventory across Anchorage. I’ll come out of Q2 at the top of my team, again, but the real-time stress was grinding and part of the struggle was knowing I would fail in certain measures and trying to compensate elsewhere.
  • Every single time I have tried to get away this year, it has been foiled by primary or secondary life responsibilities: work, schedule changes, board meetings and most recently, health. Work-life balance is important, and I have made a huge effort to figure out how to make that happen; this year, not so much. Part of it is on me, part of it is just how the cards have fallen. My life in 2019 is pretty much one I can’t escape. My life isn’t hard by any means, but it’s important to be able to check out at times. I have thus far not had this opportunity to the desired extent.
  • 5 days ago, I turned 35. I was supposed to be at Inti Raymi in Peru, followed by a brutal hike through the Andes. Neither of these things happened: the thyroid function test I had taken before I left for Bosnia and Georgia was ominous, and I went into total thyroid meltdown about halfway through my June itinerary. I called it before I got back to the US, canceled my Peru trip, somehow survived a few long work days in Seattle before I came home to figure out how to play this round. Plus sides: my intuition has been incredibly good my entire life and has failed me fewer times than my shitty thyroid has; also, the Mayo Clinic accepted my case and I’ll be delaying a(nother) trip to instead go there in July to figure out why every few years I am saddled with a few frightening weeks of feeling as though I’ve smoked a pound of meth. Womp womp.
    • This short breakdown will go full-circle; I actually had a kick ass birthday in Anchorage, thanks to (no surprise) my friends, namely my other fellow New Jerseyan, cementing something I haven’t ignored for a single moment of my life: the infinite value of my people.

When I think of the year so far, this is what I think of: the most significant, and the most recent. I am a cynical person. I tend to focus on things that are (a) wrong or (b) broken in order to figure them out and turn them around. This is the lesson, though: I spent the first 6 months of this year thinking this was the shittiest year I’ve had in a long time… which turned out to be patently false.

How do I know this? Mostly thanks to Microsoft Excel. I think I experienced the most nerve-wracking minute and a half in my career recently when I explained to my colleagues during a working session on “best practices” that one of my personal best practices is that I have an actual failure tracker and I use it to give myself a full personal performance review every year on my birthday. So when I did the run-down for this year, there was way more in the The Good column than The Bad and Failures columns. For people interested in behavioral economics, this is the Availability heuristic: I was thinking about these big things, and this recent health stuff, and that’s what I recalled.

So, due to the time of year, I’ve read some interesting books on a variety of topics: growing up, personality forming, etc. Here’s a short list (the books are long and somewhat complex, save the last one, so they’ve taken a fair amount of time):

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do | I wish I had read this long before I did. I’m not sure if I find it completely plausible, but it is interesting. There is a Wikipedia page, as well as a full breakdown of many of her points and examples. I would like to believe this is true, at least to a large extent, and I think it could be. It’s encouraging to think that people can outshine their parents when it comes to behavior and positive character traits; that people are not necessarily as constrained by the ills of their home lives, as many of us are led to believe.

Personality Shaping Through Positive Disintegration | This book is a pretty dry read, but if you can get past the boring language, the concepts are pretty great. This guy also has a Wikipedia page, and there is a summary in PDF. In some ways his general idea is similar to Viktor Frankl: suffering gives life meaning (and, to a large degree, builds character), and people who are developmentally inclined tend to flail an awful lot, but it’s good for them and it helps them grow into themselves while shedding unsavory parts. The author is a pretty tormented individual himself, which makes his theory extra interesting. Again, like anyone I find I tend to gravitate to theories with high confirmation bias; that said, I’ve never quite read anything as meticulously drawn out as this particular development theory. This is one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year, by far.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success | Pretty basic but also thoughtful book; I was told about this by one of my newer colleagues, and while the TEDTalk by this woman is dreadfully boring, her book is an easy read, and worth considering. It’s something that seems to have gained wide adoption in the corporate sphere these days, which means very little other than I now hear “growth mindset” all the time and I can know what it means instead of assuming.

How To Win Friends and Influence People | I read this book when I was a kid, and I recently re-read it, truly mystified by how simple advice written in 1936 is still so relevant. Not a huge surprise, I guess, but some of Carnegie’s points are so simple you actually feel stupid not knowing them all before you read them. The Wikipedia page breaks it down, but reading the entire book is definitely worthwhile, if for no other reason than to marvel at the fact that advice that was pertinent in the 19-frickin’ 30s is still so legit today.

And that’s about it. My next reading roundup will surely not be this stuff. Long story short, sometimes life isn’t as shitty as it seems. Time will tell, I’m sure, but apart from my friend’s death, most of my struggles are what you’d call first-world problems; for perspective’s sake, five years ago when I had my first unfortunate thyroid experience, I had terrible insurance and was strapped with a bill for $10,000 (and no real answers). I was determined to change my life around so (a) I didn’t hate my job and (b) had excellent healthcare… and this time will be different.

I remember Jordan Petersen’s advice about bench-marking against yourself, and through that lens, I am moving in the right direction… at times, more slowly than others.

Back to Bosnia

I’ve found as I’ve grown older, I have come to appreciate some of the previously ignored yet formative experiences of my life. For whatever reason the Bosnian War and the Siege of Sarajevo (during which I was in grade school) both cemented my then extremely limited awareness of the world outside my own, and fully horrified me to the core. Over time, the horror turned to curiosity, and I took a deep dive into the black water that is the history of the Balkans.

Many years and hundreds of books later, my lifelong appreciation of this unique country and wider region is still on full blast. And after spending last September winding through the Balkans over a period of weeks, I was very pleased to return to BiH for a few days. I again ran out of time in Mostar… but there will always be a next time for Bosnia. The country lies at many crossroads, and has over many periods in time, not least leading up to WWI.

The photos below are all places I had been previously, minus Jablanica, where my friend polished off an entire kilo of lamb (I was so personally enthused about this lamb, I’m breaking a self-imposed rule and posting a photo of myself).

Bosnia, of all the countries in the Balkan region, is a particularly mysterious and exotic place seething with tension, its ground soaked in generations of blood. Based on its bloody history and still-palpable religious tensions, I would say it’s unlikely to last as a country for many more. So, you know, get moving.

Tourism is largely an untapped market here, and it shouldn’t be. They barely have 1 million tourists a year (by contrast, Georgia has 8 million, and they have roughly the same population). There are excellent tour companies to do all the heavy lifting, and every part of the country is steeped in rich albeit often brutal human history.

The people are wild but kind, and the food is incredible. Shortly before we arrived, The New York Times published this: A Journey to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Where Sleeping Beauty Awakens

Some other recent travel articles: Lonely Planet | CNN
Bonus Reading
: Poetry and War, Eurozine | Sarajevo, by Peter Balakian

Arctic Dreams

When I was a kid, I counted down to winter. I was fortunate to have spent much of my adolescence in New York state, where those winters are long; and I can’t ever remember being excited for spring. I learned to ski shortly after I could walk, and as an adult, currently taking a hiatus from skiing, the whoosh of skis on hard pack will always hearken back to my youth and young adulthood. Like language fluency, when you learn to ski young, it is as natural as breathing. I loved skiing most on the coldest days, when the trees moaned in the wind chill and my eyes watered if the seal of my goggles was broken… the kind of Northeastern wind that turns your legs lobster red under your ski pants and lets loose a primordial scream from deep in your bone marrow.

After an emotionally trying first year in college, I escaped to Uppsala to earn some cheap credits and visit my mother’s Swedish family. I felt I had grown up in many different worlds: the world of open, kind and adventurous Scandinavians and Italians having entered the US via Paterson, New Jersey; and my father’s coal mining Carpatho-Rusyns, who settled in Northeastern Pennsylvania with the rest of their kind. Slavic people, in my experience, were more fearful; neurotic; insular and wary of the outside world. Their culture was no less rich, and my travels through the former Eastern Bloc are a story for another day. I was also trapped between city and country, born in urban New Jersey but raised in the Catskill Mountains.

It was my mother’s parents who infected me with a travel obsession; the postcards in Swedish and the dinner table prayers; the stories of summers on Lake Mälaren and broader Nordic world; the elephants that adorned my grandparents’ home, many of them brought back from travels abroad, especially from Southeast Asia, where my mother’s father served in WWII. My grandfather died unexpectedly shortly after I arrived in Alaska, and my sister read my eulogy to him in New Jersey. An excerpt,

The shelves of elephants were more significant to my hopes and dreams than any other material possessions I encountered in my youth. Your trinkets from afar—the elephants, the Dala horses, the wicker dragon from Vietnam, all of which rest on shelves of mine here in Girdwood—paved the roads I have traveled in my life, far away and often solo. I loved your adventures, alone and together, around the world. To be a child and to think of India and Vietnam and Germany—to be able to see and touch pieces of those faraway places, to listen to stories—made them real, and within reach.

And so I reached.

Each item, marked with yours and Nana’s human history, gave me hope in traversing the earth for the same knowledge and understanding, to find my place in the world, the same way you had found yours, with each other. Many of these items, tucked away in bags and backpacks and luggage, through wars and business trips and vacations, were brought back with unflagging devotion, over years and decades. I became unsure at times, reflecting on your journeys, which was more important: the departure toward the unknown, or the return to what you really loved.

My years wandering through Scandinavia changed me, as did the Danish and Icelandic professors at BU who took me under their wing and helped me get to where I needed to be, who traded research projects for teaching assistance in their graduate classes. I felt as though I gained some glimpse of who I was, of where I belonged, and all the errant dots slowly connected over the following years. And, down the road, I found myself back in my adolescent hometown, looking north while being whipped by wind chill. Traveling to Ottawa & Toronto, to Newfoundland, to Iceland, Finnish Karelia, to the Yukon. Long weekends I would drive up to Dartmouth College and spend entire days looking through hundreds and thousands of Arctic expedition letters and lantern slides, housed in their incredible Stefansson Collection. I read hundreds of books on the Arctic, on polar expeditions, survival stories, creation myths, Icelandic sagas. I made online penpals of Nenets people in Archangelsk, of archaeologists in Oulu, of Arctic teachers across Canada and Hudson Bay Company historians.

I slowly began accumulating lithographs from Cape Dorset, which cushioned the doubt I felt in ever being able to eek out a life at the right latitude… and I continued to return to the north. I dragged my entire family up the coast of Norway in 2009. Two years earlier, in 2007, I brought my mother to Alaska, and I remember sitting on a boat in Prince William Sound wondering what it would take to live here. I did not believe it was possible. I wanted too many things.

Fast forward to July 2012, the month of thus far the happiest day of my life, pulling out of my parents’ driveway in Pennsylvania to drive to Alaska, car full of whatever I needed for the first few months until the rest of my stuff showed up. I had pretty much shed tears of joy every night before I even flew up for the interview process, knowing full well this was it, I was moving, and this was happening… feeling slightly as though I was being released from a nice enough prison, and my life was about to begin. I’ve been sure of very few things in my life: this was one of those moments. It was time.

I drove to my new home via a slight detour: via Dawson City, ferry across the Yukon River and over the dusty Top of the World Highway into Alaska, to Valdez and across Prince William Sound, crossing the very place I had doubted myself years prior. I thought, car tucked into a little ferry over the Yukon, about the countless stories I had read, in John McPhee’s Coming Into The Country, in the follow-up by Fairbanks writer Dan O’Neill, A Land Gone Lonesome, and have spent these years with a sense of personal triumph punctuated by loving something with so much depth I want to know everything, even all its worst, ugliest parts. Some days here, in Alaska, I wonder what I am doing here after these years, and sometimes daily life is so grim and frustrating… and then I remember all of this.

There is a painting hanging in the Anchorage Museum by Rockwell Kent that sucks me in every time I walk through their Art of the North gallery. And I think back to his work, his books with illustrations which have accompanied my travels: Salamina; North by Northeast; the reproductions of women standing on the Greenlandic shore that hang in my home. I dove into a book today I have been lugging around for a few years and have hesitated to read: Jean Malaurie’s The Last Kings of Thule, and the preface ends with,

When, [with friends] certain scenes that we lived through together were evoked twenty years later, they were relived with infinitely greater intensity than when recalled after only a few months; as if time were needed for “the little sensation”–smell, color, emotion, astonishment–which is inscribed in the groove of memory, to protect one’s recollection of the event.

It was too early for me to have written this book in 1951, but I did not know that then. Curiously enough, great travelers–Humboldt, Jack London, Pere Huc–lived with their memories for years, publishing some of them only late or not at all. One lives with one’s memories–in the proper sense of that phrase–in order to grasp their internal order. The weakness of big travel narratives and reportages very likely derives from the writer’s haste to preserve vivacity at the expense of the deeper internal experience. It is the search for time newly refound that I offer the reader.

I came across this book because Malaurie’s relative was an internet penpal of mine, and a teacher in the Canadian High Arctic. Beginning this book triggered an immense tidal wave of all of these memories. It’s a distinctly human experience to be completely swept up in a long-dormant love and obsession. But as I look around and see stacks of Arctic books; Cape Dorset art and other traces of the north, I realize this obsession has been completely unwavering all these years, and my years in Alaska are years of my life I am the most grateful for. In my time here, I have been to Lake Clark, to Prudhoe Bay; to Dutch Harbor; to Nome and Sitka and so many other beautiful places. I have traveled this state more widely than most people I know, and I fully intend, despite likely having to depart for some time, to rest here indefinitely. I think these days it’s easy to generate content for Instagram, but that simplistic style of travel will never garner today’s feelings. This unflagging curiosity and deep love for high latitudes is a ridiculously large part of who I am, and it’s an overwhelming reality sometimes… and maybe it’s broader than that: the right way to love something, to dive so deep into it it becomes intertwined with your identity and chokes you up intermittently throughout your life. This is just one deep love of mine.

I remember reading in an Arctic novel ages ago that many explorers felt as though once they had crossed over the Arctic Circle, a piece of them was left there in the north forever. A close friend asked me to post, and so this is what I have today. It’s an appropriate post, as he spent a chunk of his own youth exploring the coast of the Hudson Bay, and landed squarely on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, another high latitude wanderer… we seem to find each other here.

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
   The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
   The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
   The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
   I’ve bade ’em good-by—but I can’t.
RWS