Everything in its Right Place

Just over eight years ago, I moved to Alaska. It seems like yesterday, and it’s felt that way the entire time. Yet, in these eight years, I’ve lived in 4 different houses in 3 different cities/towns, and two distinctly different neighborhoods in Anchorage. I bought a condo in Girdwood my second year here, and I’ve gained some pretty valuable experience being a landlord, vacation rental manager, and homeowner. I spent a winter in balls-ass cold North Pole, and then spent a year living in a spare bedroom of my friends’ place. I spent one entire summer with no residence and just bummed around with the dog. Most recently, in 2019, I relocated to the Eastside of Anchorage, which has a pretty unsavory reputation. As shocked as I am to say this, I’ll be moving out of this glorious house sooner than later, and I’ve been looking for where to live next: I recently found a huge new townhouse down the street off Muldoon, 2 miles from where I live now, and yet as is common in Anchorage, 2 miles is enough to see vast demographic changes around you. One of the most endearing things about this very aesthetically ugly city is that in most places, people of all socioeconomic walks of life are smashed together, and that is especially true in this part of town.

I was initially skeptical about moving here, though I had really disliked living on the Southside (I chose this, and my friends were kind to let me crash there, as I really didn’t need much more at the time than a bed to occasionally sleep in between travels). I also moved there out of curiosity; I felt I was becoming too spoiled with bourgie accommodations and should slum it for a bit with regard to interior amenities… the dog and I pretty much lived entirely in a bedroom for a year. The house was in a nearly all-white suburban neighborhood where all the houses looked (to me) exactly the same, and I got lost constantly, right up until the day I moved out. I had never lived in a place like this before, and there was something deeply unsettling about an area where people only reside, but can’t really do anything else (there are no stores, no bars, no nothing right there, just houses and houses and houses). It reminded me of learning about Levittown, NY in elementary school.

I didn’t think much about this for most of my adult life: I lived in rural (though diverse) downstate New York, and during that time I lived both “in the woods” and also in the heart of the town centers, where everything could be reached via walking. I also lived in Allston-Brighton, in Boston, which is the same; and even tiny Girdwood is completely walkable, and people commonly choose to walk instead of drive: to the store, to the post office, to the bar or restaurants. South Anchorage is not a walking part of the city, unless you are walking your dog. You can’t get anywhere to get anything; you can just go for a stroll (and hopefully not get lost, as I did also managed on foot, embarrassingly).

I came across this phenomenon in Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which explained that urban planning in the 60s destroyed what were neighborhoods of people fully living their lives (laundromat, grocery store, bar, hardware store, etc) by separating retail and business establishments from where people lived and slept. She explained (speaking of the North End, in Boston, a historically Italian neighborhood) that people used to linger where they lived, because things were there, and now people have to travel to run errands and accomplish the minutiae of living, which causes them to be less invested in the well-being of the community. This book and her critique of these policies and the resulting damage they did to communities blew my mind at the time. It suddenly all made sense.

I told my younger sister when she was visiting last month about a time that a woman called the cops in South Anchorage on two Latino kids riding their bikes in the neighborhood; they also reported a guy with a neck tattoo who wasn’t bothering anyone (they thought he was casing houses). She was has horrified as I was at the time, and told me she also would hate to live in a neighborhood like that, where people are up each other’s asses. She and her husband live in Belleville, an outskirt of Newark, and operate their business in a high-end zip code where they can cater to wealthy people. I asked her if she still likes living where she does, and she said absolutely yes: people leave each other alone, everyone is friendly, it feels like a level and non-judgmental neighborhood. For whatever reason, our preferences run parallel despite different experiences in our adult lives. Given the opportunity (financially) to live in “nicer” neighborhoods, we’ve both chosen to not. All said and done, Anchorage has high crime everywhere, and cars on the Southside were regularly rifled through at night and/or stolen.

Here on the Eastside, we can walk to multiple grocery stores, to food outlets, to the post office. Such is the case with Anchorage’s other “higher crime” neighborhoods: Spenard, Mountain View, Downtown, Fairview. In fact, the safest neighborhoods are ones where you can’t get to a whole lot of other places: Rabbit Creek, Hillside, Bayshore/Klatt, Oceanview. There are doubtless many reasons for this: affordability, welfare and public assistance, transportation, the eternal debate over whether cultural diversity will always cause conflict because people have competing values. Many parts of Anchorage run the gamut, with a shitty house next to a nice one, and then a trailer park and then high rise condos. There are pockets of wealth and poverty everywhere. I love this. I love that many wealthy people don’t flaunt, that you never know who has money, that people all live together in these neighborhoods. It’s certainly way more pronounced here, and of course inequality in and of itself opens up opportunity for crime.

They say people always revert to what they know, and this preference likely traces at least partially back to our childhood: we spent a majority of it in a (rural) town in one of the poorest counties in New York State… but everyone was roughly socioeconomically equal, so it didn’t feel like anyone was suffering. Everyone had the same experience. At a friend’s wedding years ago, another attendee spoke of growing up poor among rich people, and how hard it was for her– we had no such experience. I’m not sure that not having money is what causes the problem, it’s not having money when other people have a lot of it. I had no sense of having a modest upbringing until I went to a private university and had to rip dollars in half and quarters to ride the subway. I never saw a rich person’s house when I was a kid. Going to a fancy college and having this realization at 17, 18 years old was the beginning of one of the most brutal reality checks of my life. For many years I agonized over where I’d end up, how far it should be from where I came from, and how far it should be. I read about this many years later in Hillbilly Elegy, and that book was a huge comfort to me (though somewhat demonized in the media): it wasn’t the societal reflections in the book that resonated with me, but the very personal experience of feeling completely lost while moving up in life (it even makes me uncomfortable to call it “moving up,” because it seems disparaging to people who choose to stay put).

It’s been interesting to intersect with so many different kinds of people and their preferences as I grow older and move around (and move “up” in my career): a good friend of mine told me recently he’d love to live in South Anchorage because people look out for themselves and that’s how he grew up in Oklahoma. I have other friends who have also admitted they’re more much more comfortable living around like-minded people. I’m actually not entirely sure what this means, to be honest. I’m not sure I ever felt like I lived around like-minded people, nor wanted to/should. Based on my life choices, I seem to have a somewhat contentious relationship with familiarity. When I was a kid, I wanted to bail out of our one-horse town and live a cool and interesting life; when I lived in the city I missed the woods. I now live in a grubby city hub in the most sparsely populated state in the country, I’d say I’ve finally found a good balance and the grass is no longer greener on the other side.

As I see people self-sort in my life, my aversion to the ‘burbs has found a bit of a moral stronghold. I’m no champion of the poor, nor am I on board with excessive public assistance, housing vouchers or affirmative action, but I do believe sequestering ourselves with people who look like us and act like us has helped create more microtears in the American identity. And maybe it’s just that life was always this way in America, and I never really lived in a place like that, but I’d always choose an immigrant neighborhood over a suburban one. And I don’t know much about the culture of the South; I can’t speak to ingrained racism and segregation as I never have been exposed to anything like that. I told my roommate recently that the diversity I saw even just walking through the next house I’ll live in and its immediate neighborhood warmed my heart and reminded me of New Jersey. It’s certainly not as “safe” as the ‘burbs, but as someone on the Anchorage subreddit said, if a “nice place to live” is living in a homogenous, white neighborhood, move to the Southside. If it’s diversity you want, come to our neck of the woods. There has been quite a lot released over the past handful of years about the surprisingly diverse demographics of some Anchorage neighborhoods.

I’m not sure how people make peace with one another in the long run. If you look at a place like the Balkans, you see that divisions are not always ethnic: they come from propaganda and belief systems that pit people against one another. Whether it’s being from a very plural part of the country (plural on all accounts: ethnicity, religion, race, socioeconomic status) or having a litany of competing experiences growing up is unknown. Perhaps part of it is feeling like an alien having done fairly well in my life while my siblings have stayed on the same (equally respectable) rung of the ladder. I think a lot about familiarity and difference and I’ve always tried to check myself when I feel I’m snubbing my roots. Further, in a time where the political climate is getting crazier and crazier, and people are becoming angrier and more suspicious, I’m pretty pleased to be staying on the humble Eastside, and eternally grateful to continue to eek out a life up here in Alaska when a lot of people are leaving / going home / returning to the familiar in times of unbelievable uncertainty.

April, May and into June

And so, the pandemic rolls on, and here in Alaska it’s a mixed bag. I’ve found myself excessively grateful to be living up here, as summer is approaching here, and almost no tourists will be crowding us out of our parks, trails, lakes, rivers and roads in peak season. GirdwoodThe solace we’ll all find as Alaskan residents in peak season comes at a steep price: it will be a seemingly endless bloodbath for small businesses and operators up here, as many businesses live on their summer proceeds all year. My travel plans, including a much-anticipated return to the Caucasus, have all been canceled, as have any summer concerts/festivals I had planned on attending. I’ve done a good job in my life with managing my expectations, so I find I feel less disappointment than many others whose lives have been completely disrupted by this.

I began this post in early May, and we’re well into June now. It’s taken me forever to finish the last two books in this list, and it’s primarily because I’ve been adulting hard over the past few months; I’m in the middle of refinancing, I’ve been remodeling my awesome ski condo, and hiking season has begun. I made the unfortunate decision years ago to join my Homeowners Association Board, so I will be increasingly inundated with horribly boring tasks there as well.

For someone who has spent the last decade flying all over the place and spending tons of time and money traveling and moving around (further, visiting many far-flung friends), I’m closing in on three straight months here in Southcentral Alaska, which is pretty unprecedented. Somehow I thought this would be harder — more crippling to my identity — it hasn’t been. In fact, I’ve used some of this time to further scrutinize some of my priorities and friendships, and really pare my life down to people who pull their weight. Reliability didn’t used to matter so much to me; I’m surprised by how much it’s taken a priority, likely due to such incredible (and prolonged) uncertainty, also I think partially because I am alone in a lot of ways up here. I still have yet to dine in a restaurant, despite the Municipality having been open again for weeks, which is definitely a personal record for me. I just don’t feel any desire. I don’t particularly miss flying all over the place; currently it just seems like an enormous hassle. I typically go back to New York a few times a year… I won’t be heading back that way until probably Christmas at the soonest.

And yet, I’m oddly pleased with my life: I took a 20% paycut, I work 4 days a week (I may opt to extend this if given the option… why did I ever think working 5 days a week was ideal?), having all of my summer plans quashed cuts my expenditures by a much greater percentage than the pay I’m losing. I’ve spent my weekends sanding, painting, cleaning, scrubbing, sealing, caulking. I’ve hated it, but I’ve made huge progress, among other things, I’ve eradicated all of the 70s ugly from my living room, including screwing up the mantle the first time and having to sand it down and do it all over again:

Our little Anchorage patio is also coming along nicely, despite a lengthy (cold) spring and a very sudden burst into summer. I admit I am exceptionally fortunate to have anywhere to go beyond where I live most of the time: I typically Airbnb my other place in the summer and have chosen (thus far) to spend my weekends there instead, basking in my own good fortune. Given the current state of the world, anyone who lives in peaceful quarters is fortunate, considering the amount of time people are spending cooped up in their homes. And while I would have probably never embarked upon home repairs if I weren’t stuck up here until further notice, it’s made me feel productive.

Many of my friends have spent this time reflecting on their lives and “looking at themselves,” as the saying goes, and I have as well. These opportunities are some of the silver linings of being holed up alone for so long. I’ve realized I have no desire to leave this state, despite years of waffling; I’ve acknowledged the sheer amount of time and effort I’ve squandered waiting for a few people in my life to wake the fuck up and show up for me; I’ve learned a fair amount of handy shit and it’s been a nice reminder that sometimes I’m a bit lazy and I shouldn’t be, because I can learn really fast. I had set sail my Northeastern-mindset career ambitions a few years back, which was oddly freeing. My life doesn’t have much purpose (at least not in the way workaholic Americans see ‘purpose’). Sounds grim, but it’s actually amazing to just accept it, make good choices and enjoy what you have. I like my job, I like the company I work for. I think an important turning point in my life was realizing one decent job is as good as another; what I do isn’t really any part of my identity. I would work at a sewage treatment plant or on an oil platform if it were the right kind of challenging and kept me interested.

I think over the past few months I’ve stopped striving for some things in my life: stopped waiting for other people, stopped waiting for things to change when I know deep down they won’t, stopped making an effort when it’s clear it gets me nowhere and I will only be disappointed again in the end. I’ve channeled virtually all of my time and effort into things (and people) that will work and pay dividends, and it sounds like a cold and calculating way to live, but it has made me feel a lot more secure and even less reliant on others (wasn’t sure that was possible, but it is). My birthday is around the corner, and last year I was grateful that despite having to cancel my birthday trip to Peru, I could afford to be seen by amazing doctors and obtain relevant information without going broke… this year, 3+ months into a global pandemic, I still feel a lot of gratitude for the life I have. I’d venture to say I even feel some mild pride: I don’t know that there has ever been a time when I’ve felt like the many bizarre decisions I’ve made in my life have paid off so well, and so broadly, and set the stage for a really comfortable, pleasant, mostly un-emotionally-strained experience. We, up here, are watching the rest of the world from very far away; we are an outpost… one that feels incredibly safe considering what is happening in the world’s cities. That doesn’t mean stress doesn’t creep in: many people with autoimmune diseases are having issues with flaring right now, whether they feel emotionally stressed or not, that anxiety manifests in their bodies. It does for me, as well.

Who knows what will happen in the future, and things will surely get worse before they get better, but to an astounding degree I’ve realized that nearly everything I want in my life is here already, or en route, and I’m thankful to be able to give up a lot of extraneous shit (at least, for the time being) I thought was really important to me and still be pretty fulfilled. Our Turkish Airlines tickets will be turned into vouchers, so I’m not about to wander off into the woods and never travel again… for now, I’ll wait. Happily.

And so, the shamefully few books I’ve managed to read lately:

With Their Backs to the Mountains: A History of the Carpathians and Carpatho-Rusyns | This is an unbelievable read. I don’t know that there is any more comprehensive collection of the history of Carpatho-Rusyns than the one in this book, complete with detailed maps for each period and after every border change. It has taken me YEARS to track down all of the information for my own family (my great grandparents emigrated from Kul’chytsi (now in Western Ukraine) in 1913 (good timing, amirite?). My grandparents almost never spoke about it (my grandmother is the Lithuanian Livia Soprano and my grandfather was quiet, kind and died when I was in college). I spent years searching for all of our records; this book definitely filled in the gaps: it’s additionally annoying to track down information as Carpatho-Rusyns are not Ukrainians, and they’ve been absorbed by a slew of empires and borders over the centuries.

Kul'chytsi, approximate

Journey to the End of the Night | This incredible book is filled with loathsome, miserable characters and yet the story is worth reading. From WWI to Africa to factoryland USA, this grotesque journey is somehow both grim and amusing. I laughed out loud at many points… this is a great quarantine book, to be honest. You think your life sucks? Check out this guy. Wikipedia here (it’s a classic). Would definitely recommend.

When: The Secrets of Perfect Timing | I actually loved this guy’s book To Sell is Human, so I decided to throw a business-focused book into the mix. I actually thought this would be more about coincidental good timing and “why” versus doing things at a certain time for better results (pro tip: if you’re having surgery, do it in the morning). This one was not nearly as interesting, but I read it in a few hours so I’m not sure it was a total waste of time. If you’re about living life efficiently, it has some cool pointers, but not his best work. NPR review here.

The Border Trilogy | Jury’s still out on Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy. He has a very distinct style; I loved the first part of the second book in the series, with the wolf. The rest was good; none of them would rank among my favorites of all time (I think culturally this landscape, the people, the values and lifestyles are too far from my own), but I don’t regret reading them for a moment. They’re all unbelievably tragic in different ways. There are some sentences and phrases in these books I’ll never forget… I can’t understate how beautifully he can churn out prose. The section of the second book about the wolf could have been its own separate book. He can paint incredible pictures if you have any kind of imagination, and his books are steeped in beauty and really horrible, soul-crushing solitude.

Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine | This is the second Robert Conquest book I’ve read, and Harvest of Sorrow is no more exciting of a read than his one on resettlement (he’s incredibly dry), but his information is so meticulous I have a ton of respect for him and especially the numbers he managed to compile at the time these books were written. I would only not recommend this book to someone because there are a number of others on the holodomor that are easier to digest (Anne Appelbaum’s Red Famine is by far the best). Conquest has a lot of personal accounts and also a shitload of numbers to look at, which makes it worth diving into if you’re wondering about the sheer scale by region or time period. There are all kinds of numbers in here and it’s pretty astounding he managed to piece it all together at a time when the information was not readily available. Wikipedia here.

I’ve been watching a bit on streaming lately and reading less than is typical for me. I revisited an oldie but goodie (Black Mirror) and while no show for me will top Netflix’s German series Dark, I’ve found a few random things I’ve really enjoyed (these are things I watched at the front of the pandemic, I haven’t been watching anything special lately… mostly revisiting old movies I love).

Red Queen (Prime) | I started watching this on a whim because Amazon kept pushing it on me, and I actually loved it. A lot of the show is made up, as there is not sufficient real information about the main character, Regina Zbarskaya, probably the most famous Soviet model of all time. Because it takes place in the ~60s in the USSR it’s a pretty amazing period piece, and it’s really well-done. Her life was, no surprise, totally tragic. This show is entirely in Russian and TOTALLY worth it.

Manhunt: Unabomber (Netflix) | I actually really liked this, too. I watched another Unabomber documentary (In His Own Words) and that one was pretty lame, but this one was worth it.

Waco (Netflix) | This was another incredible watch; I didn’t get into it at first, but after a few episodes I was hooked. Every American should watch this; for people who aren’t politically inclined, it explains a lot about the bipolar disorder America has in its politics.

Westworld, S01 (HBO) | I was surprised by how much I loved the first season of this show as well; I always considered watching it and never got around to it. Unfortunately I heard the next seasons sucked, so I probably won’t be continuing.

My next post will actually be about intermittent fasting for autoimmune disease, which is a bit boring I suppose, but I started it awhile back and I’ll wrap it up sometime this week.

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.

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.

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.

Q1 2019 in Books

It’s been a long few months, and quite honestly, my reading pace has been a bit slow. I’ve at this point read all of Charles Murray‘s books, none of which I plan to include in this roundup: I am wrapping up The Bell Curve presently. Murray, like Jordan Petersen and many of the other so-called villains of our time, are among some of my favorite contemporary personalities. Related, I’ve also been bingeing on Quillette, my now ultimate favorite literary site.

The hustle is real in my life, and I have lots of fly time in Q2 and Q3. I am excited to return to beautiful Sarajevo in June; as well as continue onto Tbilisi, then onto Wave Gotik Treffen… and if I survive the Choquequariao to Machu Picchu hike at the end of June, I’m sure there will be at least a handful of llama sacrifice photos to post from Inti Raymi in Cusco. I am blessed to have been born on traditional Swedish midsummer, among other things, as June 24 is full of bizarre celebrations around the world. So, turn 35, and then probably die on this hike. Can’t wait.

Moving on…

Blood and Vengeance: One Family’s Story of the War in Bosnia. I will probably never stop reading Bosnia books. I have certainly not stopped watching Balkans documentaries and films; clearly weeks in the region has done nothing to quell my infatuation. This story is long and complex; it takes place in a small village near Višegrad, and ends as many do in Srebrenica. These stories are never boring because they are all so different and have so many individual histories interwoven throughout. The author is talented and writes with a lot of passion (he is also married to a Serb), but it takes a long time to read (this is not a detriment). Good review in The Independent here.

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. This is one of the best books I’ve read in the last year. It reminded me to some degree of another very long book of which I have only scratched the surface, Children of the Arbat, only in the way there are many different characters built out and they proceed in their lives and in the time they’re constructed in many different directions. The Future is History is essentially a run-down of 90s Russia, and how Putin’s rise affected people at different levels of society (with those people skewed toward people connected to some prominent figures of the time). The way the book is constructed allows you to amass pretty detailed portraits of each of them, which made it impossible to stop reading. New York Times review (written by Francis Fukuyama, interesting) here.

My Struggle: Book 4. I’m losing a bit of interest in Karl Ove’s endless autobiography. Perhaps the point of this exercise is that I’ve come to realize as I like myself more as I have aged, I also like other people more as they have aged, and at the points in this sweeping tale where he is an adult, I tend to find him less boring and more existentially explosive. That said, I think one of the qualities of this series is intended to be boredom, as anyone’s life when deconstructed into tiny subjugates is actually really tedious and even more irrelevant. Book 4 is mostly about him teaching in northern Norway and trying to get laid, beset by premature ejaculation, overdrinking and the awkwardness that looms over his head for what seems like his entire existence (this is true for virtually all Norwegians, they are born awkward and die awkward… it’s part of their charm). I’m a few chapters into Book 5 now, and am charmed thus far by his return to Bergen. New York Times review here (the reviewer was more impressed than I was by this book, though I think ‘airy’ is a good description).

Book 1 blew me away, and I enjoyed Book 2 as well; I have every intention to complete the series in my waking moments on airplanes, when I am not actually reading or sleeping to Mary Beard’s SPQR, which is so incredible that after listening to the audiobook while conscious, I now turn it on to sleep to… the woman narrator is like the British grandmother I never had. I chose to listen to My Struggle on audiobook, and I cannot say enough incredible things about Edoardo Ballerini’s reading of this massive volume. It is perfect. As an aside, I’ve always struggled with audiobooks; I am much more of an actual reader, but I’ve had some incredibly good experiences, and the $10 a month or whatever I pay Audible subscription has been a really great deal.

Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us. I found this book to be a little dry and neverending, but it was an interesting (and especially historical) take on the narcissism epidemic afflicting virtually everyone on social media… but much moreso, it is about the origins of the idea of self esteem, perfectionism, etc. A lot of the history and anecdotes in this book were completely new to me, and aside from the sections on philosophy and early Western thought, I was pretty unfamiliar with the rest of this content. A lot of these kinds of critiques tell the same stories in different ways; this one is not like the others. Two links for this, first a review, and second an interview with the author in Quillette.

In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin. I loved this book, this story, this woman, despite the fact that her idealism eventually resulted in her death in Homs. I also saw the movie, A Private War, which was good, though it omitted quite a lot (like her hiking over the mountains out of Chechnya, huffing and puffing from an adulthood of chain smoking, what a badass). I have always admired war reporters: you have to be a special kind of fucked up to be one, and their stories and lives are always both interesting and tragic. Colvin was no different. This women was beloved by Yasser Arafat; Muammar Gaddafi; quite a few other inaccessible and often evil people. She earned peoples’ trust and it was likely because she was genuine. She was a real person, and she maintained that real-ness until the day she died.

Side note, I watched a film recently called Single Frame about a man from Texas who happens upon a photo of a young boy taken during the Kosovo war in the late 90s, and the film is about him tracking down the boy. He meets a man at a cafe while in Kosovo, who tells him pretty gruffly that essentially to give a shit about some boy in a photograph is such an American thing, that it’s a privilege to have a life so nice you can care about a stranger you see in a photo somewhere and have the resources (not to mention the emotional space, the stability in your own life) to track him down. I think this is the kind of thing Americans don’t want to hear… it is so true.  Westerners give a shit because we are safe, and that’s the only reason we are able to do so. With that said, this kind of Western concern is not a detriment to the world, and has likely saved millions of lives. These war reporters are no different, and many of them have risked their own prosperous lives in stable countries to carry concerns of the less fortunate. Colvin was the perfect combination of interesting-tragic, long tormented by the death of her father, heavy drinker and likely anorexic, terrible man-picker, brooding with passion and courage. She lived hard and she died early and she’d probably do it all over again… which makes the story of her life (and death) worth a read and a watch.

Bowling Alone. I can’t believe I had never read this before. I also thought it had been made into a documentary, which it has not been. I’m not sure any of the content was a surprise to me: it is very much about civic engagement’s decline over time, and ultimately it seems as though television and the internet are very much to blame, which I suppose makes sense. There is no sign of this turning around, and it is likely to only get worse; I would recommend The Big Sort over Bowling Alone, but I think both these books are thought provoking. Wikipedia article on the book here.

Salt on Your Tongue: Women and The Sea. Let’s close with a book I really was not a fan of at all. I had high hopes after reading a very positive Economist review… which was a reminder I shouldn’t believe every (review) I read. I found this short book dreadfully boring and filled with only the most widely known mythological anecdotes. The review is quite honestly better than the book… boo hiss. I hate admitting I don’t like I book; this is the first one I’ve read in a long time I thoroughly did not enjoy.

Sometime this week I’ll follow up with random shit I’ve been watching on Netflix/etc. 

The Instant Gratification Age

There was an interesting article in the Washington Post this week on OKCupid and Tinder optimizing for hookups instead of romance. For obvious reasons, repeat customers are the chronically single kind, and in the same way Apple’s first generations of iPods were discontinued because they don’t break fast enough, you obviously see waning profits in a place where people pair off and close their accounts.

I have a bit of a different experience with OKCupid, and after a weekend of ruminating over it, I decided to shut down my account for the final time, despite meeting some of my closest friends through the platform (some as much as a decade ago). The functionality and format have changed, and it seems as though the audience has, too. Gone are the days people had long profiles and you could search anywhere, for anything, and messages would fly around with no pre-approval swipes. Part of the cause conveniently left out of the WP article was the #metoo movement and the growing preference for institutionally suppressing instead of ignoring unwanted messages… part of it is that social media has a whole has likely made people more fickle. Where a conversation fails or a person isn’t perfect (at least in the dating realm), why stick around? There are thousands more candidates. And despite all that, people seem lonelier, and more defeated in that loneliness.

Most of my closest friends have been de-Googling or have never (or only very lightly) joined the ranks of social media: I have a stern set of rules for myself, and limit myself to Facebook and LinkedIn. Some of the rationale is the quality of the content. Some of it is the narcissism it spurns in people, and the way social media has caused peoples’ desperate attention and validation to fester in unbelievable ways. For all the options we have, it seems harder to relate to each other, not easier.

I admit I have used dating sites very infrequently for actual dating, but it’s impossible to ignore the changing attitudes and the way people interact in general. It took some time to come to the conclusion that although this platform had assisted in finding excellent activity partners who became close friends (I have always been very mobile and like to meet people all over), that due to the platform changes I would be limited in what I could get from it moving forward.

I suppose in some ways I feel as though the world is leaving me behind, and I know some others feel that way as well. I suppose if I really had wanted to be a living microcosm of my generation, I wouldn’t live in Anchorage, where cosmopolitan glamour goes to die. That said, living up here has changed me so fundamentally that I’d struggle to make higher quality connections if I lived in a metro area full-time again instead of here.

I’ve never been fully convinced of the supremacy of meeting people to date online: most of my favorite ex-partners have been people I’ve met in real life, and they weren’t people who liked all the same things as me (I think this actually has very little to do with relationship quality). There was a time, though, when these sites provided a quality of access that they no longer do, because expectations have become so empty and unreasonable.

One of my favorite researchers of this topic, Sherry Turkle of the MIT Media Lab, writes and speaks (below) a lot about this, and it’s something that’s always been interesting to me. It’s also been a fascinating time to live in Alaska, where cultural values are extremely different and there is much more emphasis on real life (more on this to come). I’m grateful I moved here: for all its deficits, Alaska is about real, actual experience, and I have leaned on those pillars more and more over the years as my generation has morphed into something somewhat unrecognizable.