All Abroad

It’s hard to believe that this time next week, I will (hopefully) be sweating my ass off in Tbilisi. I say hopefully because I have a one hour connection in Istanbul, and I can only hope the gates are not too far from one another. After my Turkish Airlines melodrama, fujiI decided I’m too old and impatient to spend 28h getting from Prague to JFK, so I coughed up another $1100 for a direct flight back to NY to catch my unlinked flight to Denver. I am never flying with Turkish Airlines again; while I still got a decent flight there, they’ve managed to pilfer enough money and time from me that I will avoid them in the future.

I’m hoping everything goes according to plan and Fuji doesn’t burn the house down or find a way to chew through the wall. I’ve waited for 3 years to get back there: we left a few things undone and I hired a private guide to take us to Abkhazia, the Black Sea and Armenia. I wish we had decided to spend more than ten days there, but it’ll be nice to get back to Prague as well, which is typically an annual pilgrimage. Quite a few bands we wanted to see have fallen off Brutal Assault thanks to a variety of logistical issues in Europe, but we decided this year that if we’re over it, we’ll split and go somewhere else. Maybe I can show Juan around Odessa before it’s leveled by missiles… that’s probably a hard nope for him.

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Unfortunately it’s been tough over the past two weeks to feel like I’ll be able to unplug: two of the three other managers in my peer group have given their notice and are leaving immediately, and now it’s me and one other manager over roughly 40 people, with many new people starting. Still worse, the other remaining manager told me weeks ago she’s planning on turning in her notice sooner than later, so I’m hoping she can hold out for a few weeks while I break out of here for a bit. Two of the three are transferring internally, which is cool: my company isn’t a total dumpster fire, but my org wears people out fast.

I’ve now inherited the co-located Dallas/Austin team, which is not the worst thing ever, and I happily accepted the challenge, although the timing is awful. I will return from Prague and then go to Chicago, return to Denver for my own team’s presentations, then to Dallas and Austin a week later, then return to Austin the following week for that team’s business reviews. I will probably have these two teams for the remainder of the year, and if the other (Atlanta team) manager quits, that will be interesting. The timing is bizarre considering I had recently shared with my boss that I need a bit more chaos, so I can’t complain about that.

The one saving grace here is that my own team is impressively productive at this point, and I can throw a lot at them and know they’ll manage. I told my boss today that when the opportunity arises, I will move onto a different line of business, but I think this will keep me busy for awhile. I’d also like to kick 2-3 top performers off my team by the end of the year, which is a rough ride for an over-stretched manager, but it’s time.

I’m working on three books right now, but I have finished two work-related books, and I loved both of them:

  • Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness | dohardthingsThe running analogies in this book were not relatable to me, but this book really made me think about the checks and balances I have in my own life, and how to inspire people to move faster and embrace the suck. I’ve had to have a few tough conversations at work over the past few months, and this book will help me choose even more effective words. Both these books gave me some good ideas related to efficiencies and empowering people to do better. It also made me reflect on the things I do to help myself suffer, and why it works: the rules that unfold in my head when I am dying at the gym, and refuse to quit until I hit a ten minute interval, at which time I end up feeling fine, only to dip into misery halfway to the next ten minute interval. This is a great book for many reasons, not least because it puts forth plenty of research around the complete worthlessness of calling people pussies and berating them until they do a better job. There’s a lot around planning for contingencies, breaking things down into measurable pieces, controlling your reactions to externalities, being self-aware enough to know that things will be hard, and setting yourself up for success. I’ve learned to do a lot of these things by trial and error (ie, smuggling my Caucasian rug down here to Denver so my empty-ass house felt a little familiar for the month before my belongings showed up), but a lot of people could skip a lot of fuck-ups and fails by just reading this and taking the advice.
  • How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be | howtochangeThis is a lot of the same kind of material, around setting yourself up to actually change permanently. This one also gave me some good ideas for work, and can be credited for some of the leaning I’m doing on my own team while I’m away. For many years I’ve managed my personal goals via spreadsheet, and I credit this book for helping me realize I am not actually insane: that people actually do think of their lives in terms of chapters, and my milestone updates actually make sense. I thought this book was going to be super boring, actually… but it wasn’t. High recommend on both.

In other news, it’s been so goddamn hot here that I finally gave up and submitted to the indignity of wearing shorts. The weather has only recently normalized to 80s after weeks of it being over 100 degrees… it super sucks. I am slowly acclimating, but I don’t think I will ever enjoy hot weather.

That’s about all I’ve got. My annual “am I circling the drain” medical checks went better than expected, although I ended up getting a second Moderna booster, which sucked and was probably unnecessary, but we’ll see. We’re approaching another surge, which means nothing to me apart from the surging hysteria and reimplementation of rules, particularly in Europe, but we will mostly be on the fringes of Europe proper. I’m pleased I decided to go back to Mexico and that will be a welcome respite from work.

I also booked tickets back to NY/NJ for November, and my parents are coming to visit shortly after. I have no intention of going anywhere for the holidays, and I am sure by that point I will be very happy to stay put and take in everything that has transpired in this very expensive and strange year. I thought hard about how to make this work for myself, how to acclimate to the city again, how to make this less than miserable, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job. I don’t even hate it here.

Until next time.

Month No. 2

I seem to have turned a significant corner over the past few weeks, and while I still feel like I am living in the Twilight Zone, I’m gradually getting more of a handle on different parts of my life and transitioning toward more of a routine.

I’ve accomplished a lot in February: my work goal is to have this job down entirely by the end of Q1, and I am pacing healthily toward that outcome (I was told it takes 6-12 months to figure it out, I think I can do it in ~4). I have already had to give someone a final warning (pre-termination), recruit and subsequently hire someone, split up my territory a second time to allocate a 9th portfolio, and complete many other processes that typically arise gradually, so the ‘baptism by fire’ continues within this role. Company-wide, we are also returning to the office via our hybrid work model as of April 4, so I have been transitioning to that by spending 1-2 days a week in the office. All things considered, I do feel like I am providing tangible value at this time, and the constant challenging of my peer group on how they do things (and whether they do things the way they do solely because that’s the way they’ve always done it) has at least at this point been buffered by other contributions that create less tension. Each of us have a strategic priority, mine is rapid upskilling and technical training, I’ve done some good shit in that realm in the last month.

My team is cool, though emotional (they are young); I admire the extent to which they want swift, direct feedback and are gunning for improvement. Occasionally their extreme extraversion and emotionality frustrates me, but overall I like each one of them and they have unique strengths. It’s been a challenge to build any kind of real team culture or deep cohesion with corporate COVID restrictions and everyone working from home, but I think this will change as we continue to spend more time together in person.

I’ve built some efficiencies into my schedule that have made my life less stressful as well, and now that I have a handle on how the weeks will unfold (though I still start each week aiming to survive through end-of-day Friday), I dragged myself to Planet Fitness yesterday for the first time in two months, and went back this morning. I really thought I’d be disappointed by how woefully out of shape I am, as the most I’ve done over the past months is move/lift stuff/move stuff/clean stuff and walk the dog, and I expected the altitude to blow more wind out of my sails, but I had no issues whatsoever. This week’s experiment will be hitting the gym on two week days. If I can find 3-4 days a week to go to the gym moving forward, I’ll be happy enough. After peeling the Butterfinger frosting off a cake donut in the office on Friday, I pledged to go 5 days before the end of February. 2 down, 3 to go.

I went to see Dark Tranquillity on the 10th and met a lot of people, so that was also a step in the right direction. Omnium Gatherum will play on March 8 and that’s the next show; I’m still shocked and amazed there’s a great venue within walking distance (especially because it was completely unintentional and I didn’t realize this when I signed the lease on this house); I’m also seeing Jordan Peterson in ~3 weeks, as well as Leprous/The Ocean Collective and I have a work friend visiting toward the end of March, and next month will start with a trip out to Mt. Princeton Hot Springs for a few days (I actually took two days off of work to make this happen for myself). I want to hit the art museums around the city, but I will get to that in time.

It will take time to fully integrate all of these things into my life: friends, shows, going out, fitness, exploring the area, reading, whatever else. I still don’t feel like I fully live here, but I imagine that will start to stick over time. I’ve been enjoying this house and having all of my stuff, particularly in the kitchen, and have been cooking a lot. Yesterday I woke up pretty early, went to the gym, then came back and updated all of my budget spreadsheets for a real idea of what my life will look like in finances as a standard (no idea presently since there have been so many extraneous purchases related to this move), and was pleasantly surprised: I’ve been tracking expenses for many years to prevent myself from wasting money on subscriptions and I thought I’d end up with a few bucks every month after paying for Denver and Alaska, but I have more spending power than I expected, so that’s encouraging. I changed my cost of living dynamic significantly moving here: I have much higher general operating expenses than I did previously, and I will not be doing anything exotic for some time: I want to tuck another few tens of grands away to buy another house.

Over the past few weeks I’ve also hammered out my travels for 2022: I had a Turkish Airlines voucher I could never manage to convert to a cash refund, so I finally redeemed it for a ticket from JFK-Tblisi and a ticket back to JFK from Prague. oranssiI had initially planned to start that trip in Romania at Dark Bombastic Evening, but it ends up being too much time off, so I am starting in Tblisi, continuing to Brutal Assault (where many Denver people will be as well), closing out with a few days in Prague, and then heading home. I also bought my tickets to Alaska on Delta credits, so my trips thus far in 2022 were essentially paid for in 2020. Not bad. If I play my cards right, the accommodations portions will also be covered under work benefits.

I notice here as well that I am in a lot less general pain at this altitude, and that was my experience years ago when I came here. There is a negligible amount of research surrounding this, so I am actually not sure why I am not creaking and cracking when I walk around. My right hip, which was killing me in the fall and forced me to go to a chiropractor, has not bothered me since I got here. Finding the right mix of environmental conditions is a challenge; I will suffer significantly in the summer, but the dry, thin air seems to put a lot less pressure on my body. We’ll see if it holds up, but a combination of the sunlight and the altitude are helping me far more than they’re hurting me.

I still have to find a dentist, a primary care doctor and a vet; I did find a dermatologist who hopefully can take my life’s worth of records and just give me the meds I ask for without giving me too much trouble. I do plan to eventually return to Mayo to see if they can figure out why I have had numerous bouts of reactive hypoglycemia, though based on what I can see it seems unlikely they’ll be able to tell me why this happens (I am not pre-diabetic, all my bloodwork is perfect, etc.) After 2-3 episodes in the past 18 months, it’s at least clear to me that I can never, ever drink on an empty stomach and then chase booze with carbs, as I would like to never experience the extremely unpleasant symptoms of low blood sugar ever again, thank you. Hopefully all in all the change of scenery and altitude will make me feel less like I am living my life in a piece of shit malfunctioning body, having lost the genetic lottery within my family in terms of hereditary diseases by somehow having every single one between both my parents bestowed on me. My siblings take the luxury of not having to deal with this shit for granted, and neither of them care much for their own health. I have to bust my ass to avoid any of these comorbidities getting worse or a new autoimmune disease awakening. I also sound to myself like a hypochondriac, but after years of neglecting whatever issues arose, it’s ultimately easier to just figure them out swiftly and learn to manage them instead of allowing them to disrupt my life when they finally boil over and incapacitate me.

That’s about it for February. I haven’t been particularly adventurous and am focusing on slowly getting comfortable here and building a routine, and not sucking at work. Still haven’t really read much, sadly, though I have purchased 2 more books, and have been keeping up on The Economist. Hoping to knock out 2-3 books in March at the very least, but we shall see.

Peak Summer: June & July

And just like that, summer is circling the drain up here. Weeks of nippy weather and rain seem to signal an early fall for us; and we haven’t had many “falls” to speak of since I moved to Alaska: it goes from being nice to being grey and cold, and a gust of wind blows all the leaves down, and voila! 6 months of winter. August 18 will be my 8th year anniversary in Alaska, and if I had to do it all over again, I would. I’ve made a lot of good choices in my life (and some bad ones, of course)… moving to Alaska was one of the best things I’ve ever done. In the years I’ve lived here, I’ve transitioned from survival to prosperity.

I had intended to hike more broadly, and move around the state more, having canceled all of my domestic and international travel plans. I hiked some; my best (and first) friend in Alaska moved to Idaho with her family last week. Another will likely depart in the fall. It’s been a sad few weeks, truthfully, especially the process of losing my close friend (and hiking partner) to Idaho. My roommate (and often the only other person I see for days at a time) returned to work abroad a month ago. It’s been just me and Fuji lately: at least the dog has been lavished with love and attention (and treats, and bones, and new toys). One of the few drawbacks of the low tourist volume (apart from the economic devastation) is that there are too many bears everywhere. Bears are jerks.

Lots of good, and productive things have happened. I’ve enjoyed my four-day work weeks immensely. I’ve remodeled a lot of my house (in doing so, I’ve learned how to do a lot of shit I didn’t know how to do before), and refinanced at a much lower rate. I registered as a notary after realizing there’s a shortage of them in town. I’ve saved a significant amount of money. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with the few friends I have up here. My sister and her husband are still coming to visit next week: it’ll be the first time I’ve seen anyone in my family since December, and likely the last time for many months. Despite the increasing sense that I am entirely alone up here, and despite the state’s grim economic outlook, my appreciation for Alaska has grown. There is still no place I’d rather be than here. A lot of people are leaving: the question for me has been, where would I rather live? And the answer has always been “nowhere.”

I’ve realized I am largely emotionally pandemic-proof: I can partially chalk it up to spending my adult life reading books about Arctic expeditions and the Gulag. My dark curiosities have given present life a richer context. I admit it’s bizarre to envision remaining for an entire winter up here, not going anywhere, existing in the dreary, grey fall: I regularly try to get out of here for the month of November, which is particularly slushy and dull. I miss New York, though I’d venture to say it’s not the same NYC I’ve visited for many weeks annually since I’ve relocated. I hope that when all of this finally fades out that my very deeply loved destinations are not leveled economically. I suppose I hope I am not leveled economically, either. This summer, I’ve missed out on returning to the Caucasus; Brutal Assault; Dead Can Dance in Seattle; numerous other trips, and a lot of work travel. I’ve eaten far fewer oysters and driven many fewer miles. I’ve been here for so long that I actually have begun to miss living out of a bag, but it took me a lot longer to get to this point.

Ultimately as I’ve said before, in the grand scheme of things I am incredibly fortunate: my living situation is wonderful. I live in a place I love. I’ve been able to easily afford keeping my second home vacant all summer so I can go hang out there. I have reliable, close friends, though they are shifting in location. I have an unbelievable level of physical, emotional and financial security that could only be fully appreciated by someone who has spent years with none of those things. I don’t take any of it for granted for a moment.

I’ve read a bit less than is typical, because I’ve been binge-watching stuff on TV and hanging out outside a lot. I watched Netflix’s Hannibal series, which was amazing, as well as Prime’s ZeroZeroZero which was so brutal and violent and well-done, I can’t wait for the next season. My roommate also got me hooked on The Bureau, a French series similar to Homeland. My favorite Netflix series, Dark, released their final season as well, which was incredible.

Leo Tolstoy (Critical Lives) | This is a short and wonderful read. I originally saw a review in The Economist after seeing a ton of copies in my local bookstore (there is a Russian lit fanatic that works there that is likely responsible). It shows Tolstoy as imperfect, but wildly moral, somewhat petulant, sexually troubled and fabulously talented. If any writer has earned the right to be so flawed and tormented, it is Tolstoy. His contribution to Russian literature is quite literally second to none. I don’t know that this would mean much to people who haven’t read him, but it may inspire them to do so. I’d recommend this to anyone interested in Russian lit; it paints a vivid portrait of the atmosphere of his lifetime, and the experiences that shaped and inspired some of the best books ever written.

The Body Keeps The Score | I enjoyed this as well — some parts more than others — and while I read many depressing books, this is one of the most depressing when we look to the future. The book touches on various topics, iterations of PTSD and incest and other things, and refers often to ACE scores, which unsurprisingly also can be used to forecast most peoples’ future outcomes (high ACE scores don’t bode well). I’m not sure there’s much in terms of broad solutions; CBT and EMDR are covered. Review in NY Times here.

The Face of War | This book has been on my list since I read that it was Marie Colvin‘s favorite book, and she carried a copy around with her when she was working on assignments (her story is amazing as well, and her biography was turned into a halfway-decent film, where this book is referred to and displayed on a number of occasions). Gellhorn’s articles and essays span multiple wars; she touches particularly on WWII and Vietnam. These days, and perhaps back then, war reporters, despite being there in the thick of it, were apt to develop not only progressive but simplistic views of war; that said, some are brilliant; many are tormented… all the best ones are deeply passionate, though one could argue passion makes for worse war reporting because it’s too emotional. I’d like to believe there was a time when reporters weren’t all peddling their own personal opinions, but I’m no longer sure that’s the case. Regardless, this was a decent read, I wouldn’t hold it in esteem as high as Colvin did in her life, but Gellhorn and Colvin were both obsessed with the human element of war, and that seems a worthy enough passion to me. Old LA Times review here.

The Other Side (Alfred Kubin) | I came across references to Kubin in Karl Ove’s My Struggle, and had purchased a book of his drawings and his only novel, The Other Side. His drawings are awesome; his book is Kafkaesque, which makes sense, considering I believe he and Kafka were friends. This is a totally bizarre story of a rich guy the main character went to school with who ends up building a whole different world somewhere in Central Asia where nothing “new” can exist (fashion, technology, etc.) People cast off their new-fangled belongings and go live in Victorian squalor… many of them happily, to some degree, though the series of events becomes increasingly dystopian and surreal. The story is very dark and entertaining; I ended up really loving Severin’s Journey into the Dark (another Kafkaesque tale) and this book is similar in style.

And Quiet Flows the Don | I’ve been reading some overlooked gems of Russian lit lately and I’m really happy this was one of them; this is pretty much the Cossack War and Peace. It’s the story of a family of Don Cossacks over a few generations, over a few wars (WWI, Russian Revolution, Russian Civil War) and many trials and tribulations. It’s beautifully written; I snagged a few paragraphs toward the end to share with a few people. I’m currently revisiting The Master and the Margarita, and after that I’ll probably finally read Hadji Murad. Reading and re-reading some of these Russian classics has been a huge comfort for me, and to some degree a welcome break from my Gulag books… that said, winter is Gulag-reading time, and I have a formidable stack of Soviet stuff to read.

Excerpt from And Quiet Flows the Don:

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism | Quillette just posted a review of this book here last week. The review gave a ton of props to her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag, which was incredible, though all of her books are unbelievably concise and well-researched (Gulag and Red Famine were definitely my favorites.) This is a very different kind of book, written perhaps more for someone who does not know her, and needs a lengthy explanation of her credentials and the guest-lists of her fancy parties. I became a bit tired of reading all of this stuff; she’s clearly well-connected through marriage and career. That said, I gradually began to appreciate the parallels between the life of someone like her, and one of an ordinary person: many of we ordinary people have relationships that have suffered the same fate (though I’ve lost many more to the far left than the far right, but I’ve definitely been disowned by friends who exist on either side). Applebaum covers personal accounts of reporting on/writing about and socializing in Poland; the UK; Hungary and the US. As the review rightfully says, there are few better-qualified people to cover this topic, and it’s a sad story. Twilight of Democracy is an easy read; there are a lot of familiar names if you have any familiarity with what has transpired in Poland and Hungary… not everyone cares much about Central Europe, but these are troubling times for those countries. Wasn’t as interesting of a read as her other stuff, but certainly timely. Anne Applebaum and Masha Gessen are two of my favorite contemporary writers on Eastern Europe/Russia, so I’m looking forward to Gessen’s latest (probably next post).

That’s all for now. Hopefully I’ll be able to crank out another post before summer ends for real, in September. Below, Portage Glacier.

Czechmate

Oh hi, me again. Just returned from my second year of Brutal Assault. Having sufficiently horrified my coworkers by attending such a festival (‘Brutal Assault? OMG’), and arriving in possession of one Forever 21 panda suit (I pledged to wear a panda suit if we went back for year 2), I’m sad it will be nearly impossible to convince anyone to attend for a third year.

I’ve been to a lot of metalfests; Brutal Assault is my favorite. The disappointment in Diablo Swing Orchestra and Ihsahn canceling was fresh in our minds, but despite the searing heat and smelly campers, it was great. The lineup wasn’t as good as last year, though Arkon Infaustus alone was worth the trip; I chose to fly 10,000 miles to see them without the fast food smelling smog and 100% humidity of Baltimore at Maryland Deathfest. I felt like there were too many people, but I would go again. Just ask. I’m in.

This festival overall is (a) cheap (b) well organized (c) seems to attract metalheads that have grown out of the puking and shoving phase of metal fandom. This year had a bit too many huge metal bands, though I will say even I was charmed by tens of thousands of people tribal-jigging and bellowing ‘rooooots…. bloody roooooots’ at the end of Sepultura’s set.

The venue, Fortress Josefov, is beautiful. 100 Euros, deposited onto your RFID bracelet at the beginning of the festival, will buy you four days of beer and food (and maybe even some merch). The lodging package comes with four-star Eastern bloc accommodations, complete with windows that don’t stay open, questionable carpet stains and shower heads that sear the first few layers off your skin, ensuring you are super clean and fresh for another day of fighting the bourgeoisie. The best thing this hotel has to offer is the incredible disparity between its online photo and real life.

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Overall, there is something special about this country. City-wise, Prague is different than the slowly reforming grey spiritual necropolis I remember from my youth (at 34, I’m a huge fan of acting like I’m as old as time, but what I mean is, this Prague is so different than the city I initially visited in the very early 00s). Albert Camus wrote a lot about Prague, and his portrait is in some ways more the city I think of, although in a more endearing way. Some of us just like to travel to ominous ‘Eastern Europe.’

I will keep my hipster ‘Prague is too touristy’ whining to myself, though friends echoed my complaints this year; more positively, it’s been a pleasure to watch the capital and much of the country grow and prosper. There are vacationers everywhere, although perhaps a few too many who complain that Czechs don’t smile enough (Slavenka Drakulić actually said some funny things about Westerners expecting people in Eastern European countries to smile for no reason). You can buy a beer for less than $2. Prague is rapidly approaching Western Europe for Eastern European prices. The expanding homogeneity of European capitals is pretty lame; the cost is not.

But what makes so-called Czechia different?  The country joined the EU in 2004, alongside the Baltics, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Many of the former Eastern bloc countries are prosperous (some are backsliding, like Poland and Hungary, though those two are regressing in different ways). After a fair amount of time spent in each of these countries, it’s tough to think of one that is doing better. What is it that makes this country so prosperous? Maybe location, sandwiched partly between Germany and Austria. Maybe they are just West enough that they’re better by osmosis. I asked this question to some other people I spoke with, and was told by one person that Czechs are never satisfied with their own performance, which was demonstrated later at the festival when the shuttle admin guy told me that he was happy I liked the festival, but ‘things could be better.’ Maybe it’s just that good ol’ Protestant work ethic seeping over the border.

This blog is not about serving up answers, because I don’t have any, so that’s what I spent some time thinking about. That, and where to get my next plate of schnitzel. I happened to tag along to Český Krumlov before flying home, as well, which was a pretty charming little medieval town, albeit crammed with tour groups for the day (at night, it empties out). The town reminded me in many ways of Salzburg, which will always be superior because they have the Sound of Music Tour. (I’m not kidding: I took that tour twice. In one day).

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And that’s a wrap. Next up on Post-Communist Adventure Travel for Entitled White People: Bosnia and most of the rest of those bloodsoaked, brutal Balkans in September.

Aaand… one finale-worthy meat plate for good measure. Schnitzel has its own tag in this blog, and I expect to utilize it.

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