Arctic Dreams

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

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

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

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

And so I reached.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

October Roundup: Matinee

I’m so old and boring that I’ve been on a matinee movie binge. Unless they are blockbusters*, they appear in Anchorage a few weeks or months behind their actual release dates, thus the reason for the delay.

2018-10-25_10-00-44A Star is Born. I don’t typically see these kinds of movies, though I admit when something is wildly popular, my curiosity tends to get the best of me. Capitalism tends to allow people to express their beliefs via consumption, so it’s always interesting to see what people are avidly purchasing at any given time and take it as a reflection of current societal values.

I am going to partially defer to my Facebook post for this. I am willing to admit that Hollywood perpetuates a lot of social/societal degeneracy; I think I was taken aback by the steady stream of people exiting the theater with stifled sobs. Everyone has pet peeves, one of mine is the way addiction is portrayed: in this case, as ‘a rite of passage for rockstars’ and, often, a sort of requirement for a talented artist, musician or the like. I linked to an article on Vox, and though I am typically averse to sharing feminazi rants, this article does mirror the reasons for my disgust and contempt for the message(s). Without yammering on for too long, I’ll simply say it’s disturbing to think that young people, especially girls who look up to Gaga, may see this codependent-narcissist relationship as one to emanate. This movie did an amazing job of glossing over major red flags and deep toxicity, not to mention the Vox article is largely right about a lack of consent. Gaga is a really talented musician (and an overall interesting person); I was disappointed in the role she chose to take in this film.

Fallout. This movie was fucking stupid. The action sequences weren’t even that good. My roommate told me if I loved The Fast and the Furious movies (I did) I would love this. No, this was lame.

MV5BMDBhOTMxN2UtYjllYS00NWNiLWE1MzAtZjg3NmExODliMDQ0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjMxOTE0ODA@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_The First Man. Slow to start, but ultimately good, not so much for the story line (which was OK at best), but because this is the first film I’ve seen that did not hesitate to show the sheer terror that comes with an astronaut’s job. On top of it being an extremely dangerous career in the 60s, leaving and reentering the atmosphere are awful experiences. There are plenty of of g-force losses of consciousness and vomit-stained helmets in this movie, and I appreciated that.

I, like many other young kids, was obsessed with space in my childhood and teenage years. I wanted nothing more than a career in the space industry (I think back to being in Huntsville at ASA, deeply annoyed that two hours of my short week there was spent watching Spaceballs. I was a very serious kid), so apart from feeling anxious nostalgia for the US Space and Rocket Center‘s centrifuge, I was enamored by how frightening the movie was in terms of the astronauts’ experiences. I was talking to a friend lately about hopes and dreams, I think we all have to make peace with the fact that you win some, you lose some: I look back and think about how much I wanted that life in my past, and what a different one I have now, and I think on a personal level it’s been an interesting transition over the last ten years, of transforming a feeling of loss into a feeling I have gained many other unexpected things. Long story short, for a combination of personal feelings and some realistic elements of the film, I really enjoyed this.

*I always wondered what the etymology of this term was, and my guess was completely wrong.

TL;DR

One of the items on my current to-do list was to create a recommended reading list for my colleagues. I’m a part of a high performing team (I don’t dole out compliments like this; we consistently beat our numbers and we have no interpersonal drama, which combined is a monumental achievement), and twice a year or so we go through our so-called ‘Group Norms’ in order to ensure we are all on the same page, and we properly integrate newcomers and keep the bar high. It has been a brilliant strategy for us to maintain ‘synergy,’ a buzz word I hate but a concept that is integral to consistent performance. On top of that, I am the team bookworm weirdo, and I am fairly sure they did not expect this long of a list. But I want to ‘keep it 100,’ as the young people say.

I think it’s safe to say I’m obsessed with reading. I spent three years of my life in a ‘good school’, Boston University. Otherwise, I don’t consider myself well educated in the way a lot of people mean it. I am well self-educated, and my glory years at a private college were wedged between primary education at a crap public high school in upstate New York and a tediously boring online MBA program I completed as quickly as possible (7 months) to stave off prolonged torture. Watching paint dry is more interesting than getting an MBA. If given the option of doing it again or a shotgun shell to the knee cap, I might honestly choose the latter.

I read all kinds of books. One category of many is what I guess you’d loosely call ‘business books’. I’d venture to call some of them ‘self help’ books (aren’t all books self help books? Books help you to learn, by yourself). Mostly they are books about being a part of the world and functioning in different segments of society.

In any case, below is the list I posted for my team. I left off the few I read that were wholly unimpressive. Most of these are very good, some are better than others.

Top 10 with asterisks.

If you’re ambling around here and think I’ve missed one (or ten, or fifty), leave them in my comments.

Free to Choose

The following is an abridged version of an e-mail sent to my siblings yesterday.

I wanted to drop you both a line (or around 500) before I leave for Prague, I know you are both feeling sort of disenchanted with your lives (for very different reasons). Not saying you need to listen to me but I wanted to mention some things about so-called ‘passion’ and money.

I think people do a really good job of telling you when you’re a kid to ‘follow your heart’ and ‘follow your dreams’ and whatever and I think in some respects that is total bullshit. Life in the US is about individual liberty… but most jobs are not ideal. Work is a part of life and I think very often the best you can do is find a job you don’t necessarily hate. Do it well and find a silver lining, with the intention of doing what you want in your free time and achieving financial stability so that one misstep doesn’t cost you everything.

My whole life people have told me that I have an ‘awesome job,’ but each job I had came with a lot of features I hated. What these jobs all had in common is that as much as some parts of them sucked, I found silver linings and capitalized on unique opportunities. In those [first] 6 years [of my career], the only short term material goal I achieved: I bought a freaking car. Big whoop, right? But to me it was a symbol of what I could do if I kept working hard.

I still wouldn’t say I have a ‘dream job’. What I do have is important things that I wanted — I don’t have to worry about breaking my leg and not being able to afford it. I don’t have to work 24/7 because I have a lot of vacation time. This past year I decided my house costs too much and to rent it out, since being in one place continuously is not really my thing, so I live with my friends and pay 1/3 of what I was paying to my mortgage. Is it [as] awesome to live with my friends [as living in my own house]? No. It’s definitely not ideal, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make to save money so that I [have fewer sources of short- and long-term stress].

If you remember what I was like when I was a kid, I wanted to work in the space industry. The sad reality is, while that is a totally reasonable career path, I wanted freedom more than anything else. I have a strong work ethic because I didn’t want to end up being a bartender or a construction worker or whatever like many, many people we all went to high school with. My passion is having lots of options. I wanted to pick wherever I wanted to live on a map and decide I could live there and have the qualifications to get a good job.

I think you guys sometimes both look at this stuff in the wrong way. You might have a lot of experience or you might want to go a certain way, but there are always going to be shitty things about any situation in your life… the key is to just focus on where you can go from wherever you are and how to use what you have. I very easily feel trapped, and I have spent most of my life avoiding that feeling by building financial security and self sufficiency. In today’s world, the road to freedom is paved with money, so whether or not you are materialistic, you need to save and make sacrifices, and plan to slowly get to where you want to be over time. I graduated in 2005; moved to ■ in 2006. That was twelve years ago! It took me twelve years of busting my ass, but my goals were always consistent: I just wanted the freedom to choose.

My life looks very fun and cool, and many parts of it are. But keep in mind that everyone’s life is shitty and boring sometimes. I don’t post pictures of myself toiling over Excel spreadsheets, sending reports and arguing on the phone (which is pretty much what I do every day), or waking up [early] to go consult on the side before I start my regular job. I don’t post about cleaning up dog poop all week because I live with two asshole dogs that don’t belong to me, or washing other peoples’ dishes. I don’t post about the fact that I spend about half of every Sunday working so I am ahead of the game on Mondays. Literally everyone’s life is annoying in different ways: you just have to figure out what you want to accept and what you don’t.

Long story short, life is not about working in a dream job. That is a giant lie. A job is a job! Count yourself lucky if you don’t hate going to work every day. Life is about acquiring enough financial stability to dig yourself out of whatever challenges arise, and being able to have autonomy and freedom to choose: what to do, where to live, to take a vacation, to buy something you want. Freedom is what makes people happy… not money. People want choices and liberty, and the way that you get that is with money. Money is just a tool, but one you need to get what you want.

M told me today when I talked to her that today is the day I pulled out of the driveway to move to Alaska. That was definitely one of the happiest days of my life, because I wanted so badly to keep working toward my goals. But it was just a step! There are always more steps, and every one has been challenging in its own ways. S, as far as you’re concerned, think carefully about [selling your] business. You have more freedom than most people do — I think you guys just need to figure out how to align saving money with [the rest of] your goals. D, you don’t need to find some phantom ‘passion’ — you just need to want to have a better life. That is really all I wanted. It takes time and effort and commitment. Every step of the way people told me I was stupid and crazy… for moving back to ■, for moving to Alaska, for taking a huge pay cut, etc. Life sucks for everyone sometimes and I really don’t think there’s any such thing as a dream job. A job is ultimately something you ‘have to’ do — who the hell wants to ‘have to’ do anything at all?

I know this is a long email but I think it’s something worth considering. You should never look at other peoples’ lives and use that as a standard. You don’t need to be passionate about whatever you are doing: just do it well enough and use it as a step toward whatever your big picture goals are. If S wants to move out of [state], there will be a lot of steps between where she is now and moving. D, you have a lot of steps between where you are now and wherever you want to go. You should both be striving not to be millionaires in the sense of being rich people, but being rich in options. That is what makes people happy, and you need money to have that kind of wealth. It’s just that it’s not the money that makes you rich — it’s the freedom it buys you. That’s why it’s important to save, and plan, and have goals, and use every position you’re in as an opportunity.

I will shut up now. But I wanted to tell you all of this, I hope it’s at least something to think about. I don’t know if anyone has explained money to you in this way, but this is how I see money. D1 talks a lot about saving, but maybe different words will help. I’m not saying you have to want the same things as me, either, I am sure they are different, but I wanted to share my perspective.