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.