The Cheating Culture

I read an article in the New York Times recently about the experience of being single in the pandemic. The article itself was unexceptional, except for one small paragraph:

Mr. Fein, who lives by himself, said he had learned he was “a lot more resilient than I thought I was,” but all the time he spent alone invited uncomfortable questions: What decisions led him there? What could he have done differently? When will things change?

I have thought this many times over the past months (not the last question, because who the fuck knows) but I have not asked myself this question as it relates to my relationship status. Mine is a broader question, about how I arrived here, where I am, morally. Mine is a question of values, and if anything my reflections on the topic have led me to believe that, at least for me, relationship status is the least of my worries.

I came across a Washington Post article recently as well about the pandemic forcing people to reevaluate their friendships. And I think this is largely true, for many people. But beyond that, I’d say the combination of Trump’s departure, the numerous stimulus payments and the pandemic have presented an amazing opportunity to see people for who they are. And while I’m caught in the now-daily dichotomy of seeing people post anti-“rich people” memes on Facebook and hearing about how those who received stimulus checks squandered them on vacations and electronics, something more interesting unfolded recently, for me, that has bothered me so immensely that I figured I’d blog about it. In fact it pissed me off so much that I talked to my parents about it… and I’m not a “talk to my parents about what’s bothering me” kind of person, but given their long history of witnessing my stubbornness I figured they might assuage my displeasure by telling me I’m wrong, or it’s not that bad. I was raised by brutally honest people, and there were no platitudes for me. As a kid, I hated this; I always felt they could have been nicer. As an adult, I appreciate and have inherited their pragmatism and disinterest in bullshitting.

I have a very small friend group here in Alaska. It’s not that I don’t like people; I do, or more specifically I am very interested in people. But anywhere I have ever lived I have maintained a small, close circle, because to put it plainly I have always had a hard time choking down other people’s often-shitty values. I have been — I would say, at this point — cursed by an inability to roll over when I feel like someone else is in the (morally) wrong. It explains so much of my life: my career trajectory, my other friends pursuing work in finance and big pharma and me going to work in hospitality (not to say there isn’t corruption everywhere). I have kept working for the same corporation for six years now, not because I am afraid to be unemployed or I could not find another job, but because they have not done anything shitty enough for me to not be a part of their enterprise, and I still believe in their mission statement. I could never work for anyone whose purpose I did not believe in; I could not peddle pharmaceuticals as part of an industry I despise; I could not marry a person for the wrong reasons no matter how much financial security I stood to gain. And I could never keep friends with shady morals around… and people are fucking shady these days, everywhere, all the time, so I have few friends. I cherish the people who have remained my friends for many years and have never crossed the line, and I have so pared down my social interactions that I did not expect to have to toss one of my few friends out of my life recently, but it happened anyway. Few things in my life are black and white, but I have nearly abandoned decade-long friendships over people crossing this one line. No one has immunity.

This person lied in a fantastical way, and will be paid handsomely for it for the rest of his life. Worse, he called me to gloat. And I am a big picture person: I don’t so much care about his individual choices as I care about the “why” — why is this behavior acceptable? (I also care about the fact that I invested time and effort into our friendship over many years only to be shocked by this, and it undermines my confidence in people as a whole). But I feel a more pressing need to make sense of the world I live in… and in talking to numerous other people, it seems like this behavior is far from surprising. In fact, it’s almost completely normalized. I for one am horrified by this, despite the rampant cheating and lying I’ve seen in my 36 years. And over the past week I’ve oscillated between wishing I were different and wondering how the fuck we got here, where it’s okay to lie and cheat and get paid for it. And brag about it.

I am an incredibly stubborn person. I have only ever met one other person as stubborn as I am, and I love him for it as much as we argue regularly. Many of my closest friends and my siblings are unbelievably stubborn as well. Stubbornness is a turnoff to a lot of people; I find it endearing more often than not, likely because I understand it. At any point in my life I would’ve rather lost everything than compromised my core values, and I have lost plenty for this: but I have always told myself that what I gain from being like this is that I like myself, and I respect myself. I hold myself accountable for being totally judgmental and unreasonable and sometimes totally insane at times, because I am just as fucked up as anyone else. I’ve lived my entire life the way I have to answer one question: how far can someone get if they are brutally honest, if they don’t lie, cheat or cut corners, if they are just as genuine as possible? I have gotten pretty far: not millionaire mansion far, but everything I have in my life I’ve earned myself and I have built my entire life on my own. Maybe more importantly, I truly like who I’ve become, which is a pipe dream for a lot of people these days, sadly. I have a lot of quality in my life. And I think that’s what’s most important.

I am where I am despite the unbelievable dishonesty and cheating surrounding me every step of the way: I still remember my classmates’ parents turning in fake doctors’ notes to get them more time to take the SAT. I remember being beaten out for valedictorian at my very small high school because someone else’s parents’ cried foul at weighted grading… so she graduated first in my class because her 100 in ceramics trumped my 96 in AP Calc (I had to teach myself the material, then pass the AP exam, because the teacher was not qualified and we spent our classes watching Lord of the Rings). This single episode in my life bothered me for so many years, it’s almost embarrassing to admit, because it was a day in my life I realized how fucking unfair life is even when you follow the rules… a bitter truth to choke down at 17 on the cusp of college. I won nearly every scholarship my modest high school offered that day, including an enormous annual award that paid most of my tuition… but I could not be #1 because I chose harder courses. Fucked up. 

I remember showing up at my shiny private university, one that I had sacrificed equally attractive and much more affordable options to attend, and my roommate telling me her father had called in a favor for her to get in despite her shitty grades; he was an alum and had sent a hefty donation. She spent her weekends at her family’s beach house in Gloucester: I stayed in Boston, ripping dollars in half to take the T to work and trying to figure out how to graduate early because I could not afford to do all four years (spoiler alert, I graduated a year early, ironically thanks to Harvard). I always tell people that no one will admit this, but we’re all flailing through life with no idea what we are doing, and so many times throughout my own I’ve just stopped and asked myself, “WTF am I doing?” Most act like they always knew what they were doing… they didn’t. No one does.

College was followed by years of supervisors stealing credit for my work to move up the ladder, or undermining me because they were threatened; attempts further down the road at being plied with money and bonuses and heliski trips to turn the other cheek all foiled because I just could not roll over or submit; fast forward over a decade, and I remember being passed over for the promotion I was up for, after grueling years for this company, because I didn’t kiss enough ass or play the game the way the girl who got promoted did. I was the much stronger performer, the better technical expert. But she pretended… and I just can’t. That’s not to mention the multiple relationships ending in cheating and outright lies, men who I believed I knew only to realize I had always seen people as better than they were. I expected people to be honest, because I am. They rarely are. 

Perhaps that’s why I feel so let down when I realize one of my own — one of my carefully chosen friends — resorts to this behavior. And living in a world ripe with cheaters and liars is lonely to say the least. But if nothing else, this recent episode has shown me that I am still who I am, and I still refuse to waste time on shitty people, no matter how many months I have spent alone in this house. My mother had mentioned a book to me months ago that I actually read in its entirety today, The Cheating Culture, and I’d say after reading it I feel better but I also feel worse, because this is simply the world we live in. We live in an age of dishonesty, and those who participate reap huge rewards. 

I always felt that it’d be better to live surrounded by truth, no matter how shitty the truth can be at times: I have always desperately needed things to be real. It gets harder and harder as I get older to find where that truth exists. I shared with someone else that when I was talking to a therapist, he said something interesting — something I think about regularly — that he couldn’t find much of a pattern in my interactions with people and was stumped overall clinically, but that in every friendship or relationship I had been in, if the other person broke a certain rule, I was done and never looked back. It took me until the end of 2020 to figure out what that rule is: it’s an assumed alignment between who you portray yourself as and who you really are. If there is a disparity, goodbye forever. And so, goodbye forever to a friend of many years. Sorry not sorry.  

January 2021

January is a shitty month. I haven’t felt that way about this particular month prior to this year: I always hated grey, cold, soggy November more than brittle, dark January… but January 2021 seems to have earned discontent from nearly everyone I know. I’d imagine fresh off the pandemic-fueled loneliness of the holidays, January has felt as much like forever for many others as it has for me… days feel like weeks. Weeks feel like months. Add a brushstroke of insomnia and every day feels month-long. This month is also odd because I and two other friends have had parents in the hospital for complications of congestive heart failure… not a fun thing to go through when your hands are tied by a pandemic and your parents are old and unvaccinated. It has been nearly a year of being home-bound… and I am grateful for my friends and the comforts of my life, but holy fuck this just feels neverending at times. 

I’ve been pretty focused on work lately, and more attuned to streaming television than books, which is not ideal. In an effort to turn that around, I bit the bullet and bought an awesome reading chair, and restarted my habit of listening to audiobooks prior to falling asleep. Over the past months, only classics and non-fiction were interesting to me, but I am a hard reset person and the turning of the year and individual months helps… in 2021, I resumed reading business, political & personal growth stuff, which people roll their eyes at, and yet I often find pretty insightful. My little derp face dog has had a long procrastinated surgery, I’ve checked many items off my to-do list, and all said and done it has been a productive but difficult month.

I’m actually going to keep this post fairly short as I have a different one wholly dedicated to one book coming up later, but here’s January lite in “stuff.” One theme stands out among the books below: all four have incredibly high ratings and 5/5 reviews, and I disliked all four. How did I pick four unlikeable books in one month? January. 

The Interpretation of Dreams & A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis | I’m not sure what inspired me to listen to these two books, but I had never read any Freud before and now is as good a time as any. Unfortunately, I found them both somewhat boring: Interpretation of Dreams, despite being groundbreaking in its time, was mostly dull; you can learn more in a Wikipedia article at this point. The General Introduction to Psychoanalysis audiobook I listened to was a series of 30 lectures on the unconscious, dreams and neuroses, some interesting and some not so much. I wouldn’t discount Freud as much as I just am not particularly interested in this stuff; I am actually interested in neuroses in general (I see a lot of them in others) but I don’t feel like these lectures dove in as deeply as I would’ve preferred. Both books have near-perfect ratings across the web; I think this was more a matter of preference. 

Giants in the Earth | This was another book I had heard many good things about and found very boring: a story of Norwegian settlers pushing their way across the Dakota Territory to settle in the 1800s. Nothing particularly interesting happened minus a locust swarm toward the very end; reading about the Gulag and the Bosnian War has really raised my bar for suffering and tragedy: this was not that grim. Comparatively, these guys did alright, though it was a lonely and arduous journey and the locusts ate all their wheat. Boo hiss. I’m actually surprised I didn’t like this more as I will always remember reading Grapes of Wrath and thinking that was a hell of a horrible story.

Principles | Yet another let-down, though Ray Dalio’s advice is good, the dude spends WAY too much time talking about how brilliant he is. Probably just skip the entire first 1/3 of the book or find a YouTube lecture on what the actual principles are… no one needs to read a bio of another hedge fund guy. I downloaded this because it was in a list that contained other books I loved, namely Thinking Fast and Slow, How to Win Friends & Influence People and The Power of Habit. Principles was not 10% as good as any of those.

HBO: My Brilliant Friend & In Treatment | I indulged in seasons 1 and 2 of My Brilliant Friend after reading the Neapolitan Novels last month, both seasons of which are incredible, and I can’t wait for the remaining two. I would never tell a man to watch this show… I honestly don’t think men can possibly understand or identify with 90% of what happens in this long story. Everyone is amazingly well-cast, the story is near-perfect and all around the television rendition of this series is about 100x better than I had hoped. In Treatment I found browsing through HBO series (most of which is trash these days)… I’ve somehow been sucked in, despite the fact that I find all of the characters so brutally flawed. The episodes are short but the first few seasons are pretty interesting, as you watch a series of people go to therapy and speak with a guy whose own life is falling apart while he’s trying to help others. I’m taking a break from In Treatment because it depressed the fuck out of me to watch people sabotage their own lives over and over… but I do plan to finish it.

Fitbit Charge 4 | A little over a month using this FitBit Charge 4 and I’m mostly impressed by how much data this thing can churn out. I’m not wholly convinced on the sleep metrics; I notice if I fall asleep, then wake up and then go back to sleep, it seems to change the entire night of sleep data, which is odd; I also noticed that a common problem with this device (and all FitBits it seems, based on hundreds of complaints) is that it does not read your heart rate consistently during strenuous activity, which I noticed early on. I had initially ordered another HRM, but then managed to mostly solve the problem by taping the band of my watch to my arm about 3″ from my wrist bone. I have gotten fairly consistent readings during strenuous exercise since. I am a big fan of its Active Minutes, which was not a feature of the last FitBit I had. Being home nearly all the time, I rarely cross the 10K steps a day threshold; but I do clock 80-100 active minutes daily.

 

I have a large pile of books for February, and I’m setting the bar fairly low, at 5. So we will see. 

2020, A Retrospective

I’m a context person and a big fan of reflecting on the past, and 2020 hasn’t let me down in terms of a grim retrospective. It’s the time of year when large media outlets are also publishing reflective op-eds on the shitshow of 2020, and I’d say individually and collectively as a species we’re all happy to be proceeding into 2021.

This year has offered up some pleasant surprises in past weeks, namely the distribution of highly effective vaccines, which I certainly didn’t expect until well into 2021 or later (and many of us won’t be receiving them until then anyway). I was prepared for the collapse of life as we know it in March, but I was not expecting to rebound with an effective vaccine so fast, so this staves off the dystopian nightmare planted in my pre-teen brain now decades ago by Huxley, Orwell and Golding.

I’m also pleased our fucktard of a president will be out of office… he had a larger shot at re-election than most people wanted to believe, and it was likely COVID that sunk that ship. I’d love to say my friends and family have escaped emotionally unscathed from this, but that has not been the case; lately some of my people have really been suffering, and even I have felt pretty sad, more for the people I love than for myself. It seems counterproductive to fall prey to pandemic depression when the end is in sight, but feelings are difficult to control. I think back to a Jordan Peterson clip I saw a few weeks ago where he mentioned that depression is different than feeling sad — people have a right to feel sad when shit sucks, and he’s right. And shit sucks, and it’s reasonable to feel crappy about it. Deep loneliness takes years off people’s lives, and loneliness has been difficult to avoid this year.

While I have spent this year flexing my “shit could be worse” muscles, I admit it’s tough at times, even for me, in a nice house with a cute dog and plenty of creature comforts. I’m homesick, I miss my Outside people, I regularly beat back the temptation to believe no one really cares about me anymore: I am simply out of sight, out of mind. I mailed an envelope of photos to my grandmother a few days ago, who is in a nursing home in Pennsylvania, and I sat here and labeled each one with my name and my sister’s, because if anyone might’ve forgotten I exist this year, it’s her, and I guess understandably so… she is 88 years old after all. The days lately are long, even here in the Far North where they are also short.

I filled in my birthday check-in spreadsheet this week — every year since I turned 30 I populate the columns, beginning in December and ending in June: The Good / The Bad / Failures / Goals. 2020 still has more good than bad; if I click back in time, it has been years since there were more items in the Bad column than the Good. Even in the year of COVID, I have more things to be happy about than to reflect on with dismay. Further, I have accomplished every single one of my goals from last year’s sheet except for one: to teach myself how to play chess. This spreadsheet has been really helpful in warding off cognitive biases that distort my perception of the present.

Somehow all of the worst things that happened to me this year don’t seem as bad when I recognize that they were entirely out of my control, that I could have done absolutely nothing to prevent them, and I’d go so far as to say I’m glad everything unfolded the way it did because I’d rather see the truth sooner than later. I think I will pass into 2021 with less of an inclination to assume the best of people and take them at their word; talk is cheap and it’s taken me many years and a lot of misfortune to learn that lesson. That said, I’d be lying if I said I’m not angry about some things that happened this year. I think it will take a long time for that to dissipate. I wrote an e-mail to a friend (who I see as a kind of long-time mentor to me) yesterday asking him a question that has been plaguing me for years now: is this all there is?

In July I changed up my fasting regimen and switched to one meal a day, which has leveled out my mood and staved off a lot of the monotony of not eating for long periods, along with digestive and sleep issues caused by years of long fasts. I bought a cheap stair climber in the spring, which has served me well; last week I bought a pretty impressively affordable body composition scale, and yesterday I finally bit the bullet and got a newer FitBit (I used to use a small clip); I’ve been messing with it and am really impressed by the new features, so I’ve set some health goals for myself to prep for hiking season. Overall I’m ending 2020 8lbs lighter than I was when it began, and shooting for another 7-8lbs down over the next few months.

A friend and I booked our accommodations for the Brutal Assault Festival in August in CZ; personally I’m not holding my breath at life being that back to normal by then. I’d personally be grateful to go back to NY/NJ and eek out a week at the beach, though I dream of cheap Georgian wine and the simmering, radioactive Tblisian heat.

One of the biggest wins this year was using my extra day off to remodel my condo: despite the pay cut and canceling all of my plans, I was unbelievably fortunate to have two beautiful places to reside all summer, and I learned a lot working on that house. I have always hated remodeling, and I still hate it, but I learned some valuable skills, and upped my property value. I scrounged up enough money to buy a house less than a year after moving up here, after just turning 29. It has a ton of sentimental value to me, on top of the nearly $100K more it’s worth than what I paid after years of chipping away at renovations. I loved every moment I spent down there this past summer, I bought a house in one of the most beautiful places on earth (no exaggeration), and the time back from working was well worth the pay cut. I’ve learned the last few years that there is nothing more valuable than time… it sounds cliché, but it’s true. Time is the only thing you can’t get more of. These years up here have come with their challenges, but nature is awesome: I don’t think there is any better place to live than somewhere as beautiful as here.

Meanwhile in the present, I’ll be watching the snow melt, and then accumulate again, and then melt, for the next 4-5 months. I have always been the kind of person who has funneled misfortune into prosperity, so I wondered in November when I moved back into this house what I was going to do to compensate (outside of paying my savings account back the expense of moving twice and everything I had purchased to prepare for a different outcome). I’ve been slowly working on this house, and preparing for summer projects and our patio here in Anchorage; I have been reading a lot and doing well on my new work team. I’ve reinvested time into my far away friends; I’ve been heckling my family about their health. Curiously this time at home has inspired me to further thin out my core Alaska friends, as I have little interest in people who have questionable motives or don’t make the effort to connect. I’ve accepted over the past few years that people grow apart… and the friendships I spawned in the beginning here are not the same ones I’ve held onto. I need a lot of depth and introspection and get tired of pleasantries and drama and superficial bullshit.

Some days I wonder how much longer I can do this; I’ve made long lists of things to do to pass the time, but some days go by very slowly. Lately I’ve comforted myself with revisiting Arctic expedition novels (another reason I think I’ve weathered this with a decent mindset) and also began reading Giants of the Earth, a pretty grim tale of Norwegian-Americans settling in South Dakota. I’ve also been working my way through My Brilliant Friend on HBO, based on The Neapolitan Novels… the HBO series is really good so far.

Ultimately I hope everyone I care for (everyone in general, really) learns something from the experience of this year, and its at least assisted in realigning priorities and showing people what’s really important in life. I know for much of this time I’ve been grateful to have that I do, even when I have to beat back more depressive emotions.

Toward the Winter Solstice

We’re closing in on the darkest day of the year, and I’m chugging through books, house projects and (tasteful) Christmas decorations like it’s my job. This year I’ve been talked into a wreath, I initiated a flickering-light-lit fireplace (which looks awesome) and now look out onto a beautiful brightly lit patio with two classy af reindeer (seat cushions are en route). My parents think I’ve cracked up. Maybe I have. It was bound to happen eventually.

I’ve gotten through the Bergman films I’ve put off watching for many years: Fanny & Alexander; The Best Intentions and Sunday’s Children. All three were films I never got to because the plots sounded boring… turns out I was right. Didn’t love any of them. I liked Fanny & Alexander, it was just brutally long, on top of being a period piece.

I also watched the Netflix adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy, which received terrible reviews all around. The cast was amazing and it made for a decent movie if not being compared to the book, which told a much more comprehensive story. Glenn Close and Amy Adams were excellent… Glenn Close was a perfect fit for her character. This book was really pivotal for me during a really tough period of my life, so I felt like I’d hate the movie adaptation more after reading the reviews, but I didn’t. I’d still recommend the book to anyone half-listening. Even if it bears no resemblance to your life, it’ll probably help you understand someone around you.

I think I’ve largely survived the pandemic without anxiety or depression due to a pre-existing grim pragmatic outlook on life; channeling energy into being even more meticulously organized; focusing on work; fixing stuff in the house, reading, and last, the preposterous psycho-babble “being kind to myself,” which took me over 30 years to really fathom (and it still sounds ridiculous). I read something lately about how people who are less likely to be lonely have spent more time “grooming,” I would say that’s true for me: I’ve spent quite a bit of this time on “girl stuff,” and my hair and skin look pretty amazing for a hermit in the dead of winter in Alaska. I’ve lost a few lbs over this time instead of a “Quarantine 15,” and I’m curious about the body composition scale I ordered recently. I have made zero loaves of bread. I am still not on Pinterest. I still have infinite love and appreciation for Alaska, despite being sequestered here for nearly 100% of the past 9 months, with 3-6 more to go. I wrote a close friend lately and told him I feel like a ghost, and I do, but I think it’s affecting some of my friends much more than it’s affecting me. You’re nobody ’til somebody loves you, or so the song says, but all your somebodies are locked down just like you are, and that’s created a painful situation for many people. I have always believed that people aren’t worth jack shit on their own; your value is always relative to others, and COVID has really upset that balance.

Karl Ove’s Seasonal Quartet: Autumn, Winter & Summer | I didn’t love Autumn or Winter as much as I enjoyed parts of Spring and Summer, which have more of a story within instead of being broken up into random chapters on things ranging from frogs to vomit (seriously). Like all of his stuff, the monotony is worth it for the great parts and his many often beautifully written tangents. I came to the conclusion after finishing My Struggle that I often find him distasteful, selfish, self-absorbed, occasionally pathetic, as I’ve written in past posts…but after all of those words, endless details of his life, I somehow feel close to him, I admire him, and this series is in some ways such a wonderful gift to his daughter  (to all four of his children, actually) — all his work is — but this especially, being such an expansive (although random) collection of his thoughts on everyday things. I will continue to read/listen to anything he writes, because I can’t think of anyone who has expressed so much of himself, both the mundane and outrageous in the way he has. His unrelenting honesty and lack of much of a filter is so respectable. I’ve thought at a few junctures about whether he really knows himself, because people often portray themselves differently (often more positively) than they are in reality, but you get a sense of who he is and his flaws because his words explain the actions of his life, and he doesn’t skimp on the times he behaved poorly. That’s been a takeaway from my life over the past few years: that words are often pretty meaningless, especially when someone is speaking of him- or herself; his autobiography speaks to the actions within his life, and so it is so much more him. This was well-timed for many reasons, one of them being that so many people are losing their parents to COVID: his children will have an unbelievable collection of their father’s life and thoughts to reflect upon long after he is gone.

The Neapolitan Novels: My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave; The Story of the Lost Child | I didn’t expect to read over 1600 pages so quickly, but I couldn’t help myself, and will be passing this boxed set onto one of my closest friends. Worth noting the covers of the books are terrible: they look like sad middle aged cat lady romance novels. In reality each book is wonderful, also filled with horribly imperfect people, and the books revolve around a friendship between two girls growing up in Naples who proceed in completely different directions in their lives: the main character, whose voice the book is written in, goes to college and becomes an esteemed writer, travels abroad, marries an educated man. Her closest friend drops out after 5th grade, marries a local shopkeeper, has a kid, her life falls apart and she ends up clawing her way into relative stability. Both women are highly intelligent; the latter is brilliant, but troubled. Their lives start in the 1930s and proceed to the 90s, and at that time Naples was violent and shitty; it was commonplace to beat your wife and kids, and murder and domestic abuse abounds.

I think I loved this because I felt such sympathy for Lenu (who left to get an education and climb out of her lowly socioeconomic status): the people she grew up with treated her success with envy, bitterness, resentment, spite, but also support and respect. Her mother constantly accused her of abandoning the family; told her often that she thought she was better than everyone else, that she looked down on her roots and the people she grew up with, and yet she returned to Naples in mid-life to be with those people, allowed herself to be sucked back into their quarrels and drama because she loved them and couldn’t let them go, and loved Lila (her friend) most of all. I told my work team lately that the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with growing up is not what you’d think if you knew me or the details of my life very well, but instead it was trying to figure out where I fit in the world, and as was also a topic in Hillbilly Elegy, it’s true that once you leave to advance your own life, you’ll never be able to return to your origins and be the same person. From that point on, you are an outsider, and often be viewed with suspicion or resentment. And it’s strange, given that especially in the US we believe deeply in our rags to riches thematic: it is a heartbreaking, lonely, miserable endeavor to move up the socioeconomic ladder, and you never stop feeling alone, because you can never fully be like the people where you land, and you can never go back. That said, it is possible, and millions of people do it. There’s so much to say about all of these books: they tell a really unbelievable story of how turbulent female relationships can be, how hatred coexists with love.

Madame Bovary | I finished this awhile back and still am not sure what to say. I’m glad I read it. I hated the main character, but I felt some sympathy–some–for her in the end. I hated her baseless idealism and romanticism and all the disappointment that comes from having such great expectations. The story is tragic because at that period in time, women had no power and few rights, and were totally dependent upon men for any kind of stability or status. That said, knowing the time she lived in and the constraints on her freedom, why did she harbor such ridiculous hopes and dreams? I read some articles about this book after finishing it and it seems people often sympathized with her and found her dullard of a husband to be the one to despise, but I’m not sure I agree with this either. Emma Bovary, like many people today, are disappointed if not depressed because they have unrealistic expectations of love and of life. Emma slowly destroys her own morality chasing this pipe dream and in the end it destroys her, her husband and her child. For what? Quite frankly this book irritated me more than anything else; despite my acknowledgement that she lived in a shitty time for women (for everyone, really), I don’t know that the spoiled millennials of the modern age are much different: they may not expect so much of love, but they do of life. Life owes you nothing. It seems people needed to be reminded of that at any and all points in history. Instead of being annoyed to have read it, I’m grateful I did because it bothered me so much. It’s beautifully written: Flaubert was truly gifted, and he writes in such a way that he wants to flex your sympathy one way or another throughout the novel.  Despite my annoyance, this novel tells of a person’s unwillingness to accept the emptiness and disappointment of life: perhaps something I’ve done, and so can read this and scowl at someone else’s hopeless idealism. I believe I’m still here today and enjoying life for the most part because I accepted early on that life is meaningless and often disappointing, that everyone is alone forever no matter how many people one is surrounded by. I think that’s a harder pill to swallow for most, certainly for Emma Bovary, who swallowed arsenic instead.

The Master and the Margarita | I’m surprised by how much I didn’t like this book. I liked some of the characters, but it all became way too fantastical for me very quickly. I think the best part of the entire story is the way people talk to each other and how they react to one another: otherwise, this was a tedious not quite waste of time, but close. The constant nods to Faust in various reviews and other write-ups about The Master and the Margarita were also confusing to me; this book did not remind me of Faust at all, other than the devil character being present. All in all there was too much overt allegory, too much time travel, and a giant black cat (wtf?)… next.

(Reread) She’s Come Undone | I read this book at some point in middle- or high school, and when I began The Neapolitan Novels I kept returning to this, and some other coming of age stories. This book shares few parallels with Lenu and Lila; I actually found more similarities in another classic I had loved as a young kid, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but I returned to She’s Come Undone nonetheless. Rereading books I read as a kid has often been an entirely different experience than the first time around: this one is a bit cliché and contrived as an adult, but the concurrent sarcasm and shabby idealism made it a pleasant (re)read. Worth noting that I frequently come across people who want to return to their late teens or 20s, I would sooner drive into oncoming traffic. My late teens and early 20s were the worst time in my life, by a long shot (and trust me, my early teens were awful as well, so I have some stiff competition)… I read books from my youth sometimes and shudder to think of how awful my life was before I was in my mid-20s.

I also took note of the time in which this was released: AIDS was taboo, it was still not OK in many places to be gay, and rape was still a hushed affair. Nearly 30 years later, HIV is much better understood, the Western world is kinder to gay men and women… and very sadly rape is practically mainstream: 15-20% of women in the United States have experienced it first-hand in their lifetimes. Can you even fucking imagine?

Speaking of, one night a few weeks back I finally bit the bullet and watched The Lovely Bones, which I had avoided for years because the book creeped me out so deeply. I was surprised when years ago it was turned into a major motion picture; I still have a tough time understanding how this story was so widely marketable, and the movie had a Disney feel despite its subject matter. It’s a story of a 13- or 14-year old girl who is raped and murdered in a root cellar and ends up watching her family grieve for her and search for the man who killed her. The end was unbelievably stupid, but what bothered me so much about the book (and the idea, even) is that as a young kid I had a recurring nightmare that I was dead and hovering over my mourning family. I had this nightmare for years and years, and it probably resulted in an even more stubborn unwillingness to give up due to how miserable it was to see, even in dreams, people suffering as a result of my untimely end. The movie, all in all, was OK… the book was excellent.

I also made it through Jordan Peterson’s Biblical Series on YouTube, which was really interesting and as is typical of him, filled with tangential material on psychology and history and everything else. I’m sad to have gotten through it and may watch it again at some point for comfort as the last few were background noise to me multi-tasking, though I stopped and skipped back when he admitted to my horror that he enjoys Trailer Park Boys… I myself have watched approximately 50 too many episodes of this show, and have many more to go before I get through to the end, we built a Trailer Park Boys gingerbread (ok graham cracker) set in lieu of a house. I think we did a pretty killer job; I’ve never built a gingerbread house before, but I learn fast and my next gingerbread-graham cracker whatever will be 100x better.

Back to Peterson, I preordered his new book, as have many of my friends, and I hope the crying millennials of Penguin Random House aren’t able to interrupt its publication. If I could have an hour or two with a single living person on earth, I’d easily choose him.

That concludes this very long post. I’m unsure as to whether I’ll post again before the year ends… probably, as the end of the calendar year earns an entry in my the good / the bad / failures / goals spreadsheet and it may be good to reflect on 2020 as a whole. Happy Holidays, Christmas, Hanukkah, solstice, etc. Shalom to you all, and fuck 2020.

Viva Emptiness

Last time I posted was 10 weeks ago, and I was preparing to move into a huge house down the street and begin another stage of my life. Somewhat bewilderingly, I find myself here and now moved back into my former abode (I moved out, got completely settled in, and then moved again… fun). Some of my former aspirations have been dwindling for some time (weeks, if not months), so I feel less devastated than I expected. If I’m being completely honest, I don’t feel a whole lot of anything these days other than a stubborn enduring to keep myself occupied churning out anything worth something.

I’ve thought often of the book Alone, by Richard E. Byrd, chronicling 6 months alone in a bunker in Antarctica, and if another lockdown comes (almost guaranteed at this point), I don’t imagine I’ll feel too differently. I at least have a cute dog and the Internet, amirite? I quietly entertained myself this summer and slowly tucked money away, which turned out saving my skin during this most recent set of unforeseen circumstances. The truth is, I find I’ve become a person who amasses more strength and calm after every hardship; as Albert Camus wrote, “blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken.” Is it that, though? Or are people like rubber bands, stretching and stretching, becoming ever more brittle over time before their inevitable snaps?

I’m pretty committed to personal growth and enjoy learning things (even hard lessons), and this moving and moving again drama has been a difficult situation for me because I don’t feel I caused this very unexpected outcome in any way whatsoever. Where I find other people wanting to deflect blame, it’s always seemed easier to me to accept responsibility and move on.

I am, at least, moving on. Again I find myself fortunate to have a nice house to move back into; the wherewithal to negotiate out of an expensive and lengthy lease; and a strong sense of resilience punctuated by already-tepid expectations of people (and life, to a somewhat lesser extent). I’ve also ducked yet another round of layoffs at my company; I’ve switched teams and regional hubs.  Perhaps most importantly, or at least top of mind during the holidays, I haven’t seen my parents, brother or any of my out-of-state friends in soon to be one year. Hell, I’ve barely seen my in-state friends in the past year; and I know many people are in the same boat. I still remain pretty overwhelmed with gratitude for how nice my life is, even when it sucks, too. Shit has been a lot worse for me, and I won’t ever forget that. That said, when it rains it pours, that’s for sure.

And so I’ve begun my winter reading marathon. I’m still moving a bit slowly due to work and life, and I’ve had more of a hankering for fiction than non-, so there will be a pretty solid mix in the months to come. The skills I’ve acquired over the summer remodeling will suit me well as I slowly patch all the earthquake cracks in the walls of this house. My survival strategy is to channel my frustration into making things beautiful/better, and it’s this house’s turn to receive its dividend. 

I’ve never been much of a holiday person, but seeing as how I will be spending the upcoming ones alone, I figure as the winter drags on I should figure out how else to healthily entertain myself (the pantry is already stocked with wine and gin, for less-healthy entertainment purposes). I’ve contemplated beginning to write in a real journal again… not quite sure I’m there yet, but I have sent a few cards to friends whose faces I haven’t seen in what feels like forever. Nearly a year after last returning to New Jersey and New York, I miss it, the feeling of having a foot in each world. My feet have been immersed in Alaska all summer, and lately, a shitload of snow. Watching the incredibly cheesy Smithsonian special Ice Airport Alaska, a guy on the show mentioned that there are two kinds of people who live up here: those who love winter and those who don’t, and the latter should probably leave. I’m inclined to agree… this winter will likely be a long, cold one. 

As someone who spent a lot of time flying for hang-time with friends prior to this pandemic, I’d say a lot has changed for me. I wonder why I’m not faring worse, or if I am and it’s just bubbling under the surface and I can’t feel it yet. More likely, my life has been so chaotic and unpredictable over its duration that I simply feel there’s no alternative to pressing on and making the best of all of this. As I told my work team recently (we do a lot of psychometric stuff), my #1 Strengthsfinder is Context, and I think a lot about the much worse things others have been through in the past: I told my manager recently that when I think about how hard life is for me/us all currently, I immediately feel that it could be worse: I could be hammering railroad spikes in Siberia at -60 in felt slippers. All of the morbid literature I’ve read over my life has paved a reasonably smooth road through 2020.

I feel for people who are deeply hurting after all these months; or the people who, in ignoring it due to COVID fatigue, will get sick. People who are developing real depression and anxiety. People without health insurance. Me, I’ve been alone for a long time, and it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon. I graduated from the Acceptance stage on this one many years ago.

And so, let’s close out November with a few recent reads:

The Erratics: A Memoir | This memoir of return trips home to Alberta to deal with the author’s narcissistic whacko mother and starving, despairing father made for a grim but wonderful tale that will definitely hit home with anyone who has a screwed up family (possibly anyone who has to deal with ailing parents and the squabbles that come with). The winter weather and the dread made it all the more appropriate for this time of year in Alaska. NY Times review here.

Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town | This book has been all over the internet lately, often with a lot of praise. Part of the reason is due to there not being a whole lot of visibility into Tibet (thanks China). I actually found the human interest stories throughout to be below my expectations based on what I had read online, though it gets progressively better (especially when you get into self-immolation). The Tibetans have been fighting China for a long time, as many marginalized people have been fighting their evil Communist overlords for decades; a lot of this book seemed somewhat tame compared to most of the stuff I read, and perhaps that’s why it lacked the gut-punch its given to many others. I would go so far as to say I was even discouraged having bought two of her books at once, though amassing this information and the set of experiences that led her to write this is pretty amazing considering how tightly China controls this fledgling territory. Much more positive NY Times review here.

Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood | Eat the Buddha ended up letting me down, but Logavina Street was far beyond what I expected could be fit in 250 or so pages. I further was skeptical about how well anyone can explain much of what happened there in any cohesive way. I love the way this book is constructed, detailing the lives of the families who live on one street in Sarajevo through the four-year siege. There is a lot of explanation in here without too much confusion, and she manages to wrap it all in the complete identity crisis that was suffered individually and collectively during this war. She touches on the UN’s failure in Srebrenica and Žepa; the partitioning in the Dayton Accords; the complex circumstances that beset Sarajevo’s ethnically mixed populace. You can go in a lot of directions with the war; it remains overwhelmingly complex to most. Unfortunately she draws the same conclusion I’ve come to myself after many years deep-diving through Bosnia’s history and people… that another war, someday, is a likely outcome. While I wouldn’t rank this among my favorite books on the topic, I’d pass this first to anyone who wanted to learn more in simplistic terms (I would also pass along a copy of Sarajevo Daily, which she cited in this book). This was a really spectacular read, even for someone who has read 382398723842384 books about the Balkans already. LA Times review here.

My next read will occupy December and beyond… I’m diving into The Neapolitan Novels, which have apparently been turned into an HBO series.

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.

Peak Summer: June & July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt from And Quiet Flows the Don:

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

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

The Gulag Diet: 2 Years of IF

I meant to publish this post in May, and then completely forgot, so I deleted it and started it all over. I feel a bit weird sharing this, but it’s been an interesting series of lessons and people have asked me over the years, so I figured I’d share.

I embarked on an experiment a few years ago in an effort to dodge some genetic curses:

  • I developed plaque psoriasis at 13. Before I was 20, I developed early onset psoriatic arthritis in my small joints, namely my fingers.
  • Psoriasis is super inconvenient, especially when you’re an insecure teenager.  Developing autoimmune arthritis at such a young age doesn’t bode well for the future.
  • I spent quite a few years working with a brilliant dermatologist to figure out what treatment(s) would work, and found a topical steroid combo that, to this day, is worth its weight in gold (or money, as the retail cost of this medication is nearly $1400 per bottle). In my 30s, I developed a secondary form of skin psoriasis, which requires a different topical solution. I spent years trying all kinds of wild shit to manage this disease, and most therapies were not effective (for me).
    • My options after this medication’s efficacy wears off are grim, to say the least: methotrexate, then biologics. This has been a huge motivator.
  • At 30, I had my first bout of autoimmune thyroiditis. At 34, I had my second one. There is no treatment. My immune system will eventually kill off my thyroid. Key word being “eventually.”
  • Autoimmune diseases have high comorbidity, so if I have a few of them by 35, there will probably be more to come.
  • Apart from this, I have great genes: I have no diabetes, heart disease or cancer in my family. However, my parents and siblings are all overweight to various degrees, and we all have big bones and athletic builds (my father, formerly a college football player, looks like the Slavic Sgt. Slaughter). I’d say my immediate family members are strong and pretty fat. I’d like to be strong, and not fat.

Autoimmune diseases are aggravated my stress. My teenage and college years were horribly stressful for me, and my first thyroid issue arose during a crushingly stressful situation at my last job; my second one, while caused by a viral infection, was aggravated/prolonged by an unstable relationship. Last summer when I was struggling with hyperthyroidism, I felt like I was going to stroke out at times during arguments. As I’ve grown older and learned these things the hard way, I’ve managed to remove any and all work, financial and interpersonal drama from my life. Eating healthily and exercising are also important. Not using tobacco is probably a plus, and I’m sad to say drinking is probably not ideal, though anyone who knows me knows it’ll be a cold day in hell before I am 24/7 sober. My doctor last year told me the best natural treatment was to lead a boring, consistent life… in other words, a life that sounds nothing like the one I have or intend to. However, fostering universal security in your own life goes a long way: unstable partner? Dump him or her. Shitty friends? Say goodbye. Dramatic family? Minimize interaction. Crazy living situation? Move. Find supportive people who can be reliable and help to mitigate stress instead of add to it. The greatest curse of these diseases is that your emotional problems convert to physical pain: people who aren’t good for your life are dead weight. Let them go.

Even so, what else could I do, other than pity myself for being in my 30s and occasionally feeling like a busted piece of shit? I decided to try intermittent fasting, as it has shown some promising results with controlling immune response. I conveniently began this at a time when I had chunked up after a long winter in Fairbanks; I disappeared 25 lbs in the first two months, and have largely hovered around the same weight for most of the rest of this time, minus the hypothyroid phase of my last incident, and the beginning of this pandemic: I’m currently a few lbs outside of my ideal threshold right now. It’s a fight, as your body becomes increasingly efficient and it learns to live on much less food. I take breaks for vacations and trips on occasion so I can blitz my metabolism when I resume. I harbor no delusions… I will never be thin, but I feel pretty amazing nearly every day.

The more miraculous outcome is that I barely use any medication anymore, and the affected skin patches have shrunk by about 1/5th: I’ve cut topical application on the remainder by 50% or more. I have zero joint pain, 99% of the time (I track this all, and my weight, and alcohol consumption, and exercise in a trusty Excel spreadsheet… nerd life). This obviously changes in stressful times; at the front of this pandemic, my skin was a mess. My joints hurt. I was afraid my thyroid was going to crap out again. I doubled down and got my shit together. I will likely continue some iteration of fasting for the rest of my life; I don’t lift weights (currently), but I do cardio regularly, hike a lot and am pretty active. I don’t eat much red meat, and I’ve never been much of a processed food person. Moreover, 2 to 3- 36-hour fasts per week are enjoyable, and I believe it’s because I chose a very loose set of rules:

  • Eat whatever you want on eating days. This was super important. I can’t see myself spending my eating days on Oreos and Doritos, but if I wanted to, I could. There is no deprivation in this lifestyle; just delayed gratification. I have shamelessly eaten mac & cheese pizza on my eat days. You feel a lot less guilty about what you eat when you know you’ll not be eating the next day.
  • Do not do this every other day (not for 36h at least). I tried this and it was too much. It makes you too weak, no matter what you eat on your eating days. Besides, weekends should be weekends. 2-3- 36 hour days is enough, with an occasional prolonged fast (I do one 60h fast every month or two) thrown in to see what I’m made of.
  • I struggled initially to balance mineral intake. I started with drinking a cup of broth (mostly salt and flavoring), sometimes ate a can of “healthy” soup (220 cal) and bone broth, and I’ve graduated to drinking Yassentuki mineral water, which is absolutely disgusting but certainly tastes like it has the sodium I need. Magnesium staves off brutal headaches. Take vitamin D. Always, always, always take vitamin D, every day of your life.
  • It is virtually impossible to sleep after you don’t eat for this long. Your body will not let you go to bed. You might get sleepy in the afternoon, but I’ve taken to dosing myself with CBD/melatonin gummies on fast nights. They work perfectly.
  • If you eat too much the next morning, you will probably shit yourself. You will feel terrible. Start with something probiotic. I eat a yogurt with almond butter mixed in usually, and go from there. You’ll be surprised to see you’re not that hungry the next day. In fact, during a longer fast, the first day is typically the hardest. The second day your body seems to quietly eat itself.
  • Do not drink too much on nights before fast days, or your stomach will burn ALL day. You obviously lose more weight when you don’t drink; this is not rocket science, as much as the Internet is full of convenient articles about how drinking is good for weight loss. I’m a big fan of drinking; I still drink 2 nights or so a week. Sometimes more. Mostly wine.
  • You’ll be hungrier on your fast days if you fill up on starch when you can eat. This also is obvious. I’ve recently swapped all of my crackers out for tasteless cardboard Scandinavian bran crackers, which has helped. Expect to be hungrier if your eating days are filled with bread and spaghetti.
  • Working out is a thing, even on days you don’t eat. Will you be hungrier? Yeah, duh. My typical workout is 50min on the stair climber or alternating between 35 min/climber and 2 miles on the treadmill in the winter / outside stuff in the summer. Your body will work just fine with no food in it. The fact that people think this is impossible shows how brainwashed people are by constant food advertising.
  • You’ll laugh when people talk about how they’re “starving” when dinner is late. Western people know nothing about starving. We avoid hunger pangs like the plague. It’s quite comical when you spend a few years powering through hunger and realize that feeling subsides.
  • Fasting saves money, obviously. People eat a LOT of food. Take 3 days of food out of the equation, and you’re buying a lot less shit. Pretty cool.
  • I was surprised to see that my concentration and focus are just as strong if not better on days I don’t eat. A lot of energy goes into digestion; when you don’t use it, it goes to other places… like your brain and cognition. Hunger made people good hunters, not only due to the result. A fair amount of research points to greater awareness and better cognition in a fasted state.
  • I never bothered with macros or anything. I don’t want to be one of those annoying people preaching about keto, Crossfit, whatever else. I never counted shit. The beauty of fasting is that it’s so straightforward and simple. Eat / don’t eat. That’s it. I enjoyed keeping it that way. You will lose weight faster with keto, if you choose to do that.
  • Fasting is a pretty historically relevant tradition that encompasses many religions and ethnic groups, not to mention our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Powering through a long fast with the right mentality is a good skill to have. You never know when you’ll be caught without food; it’s good to know how you’d deal. The clarity you gain and the things you realize (the power of food advertising, the way we waste food, the indifference we typically have to the act of eating) are amazing byproducts of the process.
  • Even at 3 days a week, I’ve been able to flex. Sometimes I shift days. Sometimes I’ll double the time and do one more, but you need to give your body time without food. I’ve been lax lately, but I’ve been more active. I use how I feel as my primary cue, not the scale.

Anyway, that’s it, I guess. I started this post before summer arrived here, and between the remodeling of my house and hiking up a mountain a few days a week, I’m pleased by how well my body has dealt with world events as of late. One of my larger internal struggles has been trying to figure out how to remove stressors that hurt my health, as I have a more sensitive connection between the two than most people do.

All in all, IF has become a trend, and I’m surprised companies are able to make money on a diet plan that requires one to eat LESS, but this is America after all. Part of this has doubtless been changing my lifestyle in terms of removing things that stress me out; my life, as a whole, is higher quality, happier, and better than it was one year, two years or five years ago. I do believe despite all of that, that fasting has added another dimension of (a) control (or the perception of), (b) clarity and (c) physical health. As I’ve aged, I’ve wanted to take more time back from things that waste it, and 2-3 days a week, I don’t think about food. This has also given me a lot of time back.

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.

Time Regained: Reflections on Proust

I’ve been revisiting some literary favorites of my past lately, and I had considered reconvening with Proust for a few months (and frequently while reading the My Struggle series) when I stumbled upon How Proust Can Change Your Life. On first pass, these short and often superficial “self-help” books seem a bit stupid, but last year I happened to read How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (obviously different author). I enjoyed it. A younger me would have been annoyed by the ability, these days, for people to glean what I at the time found to be fairly hard-won knowledge (reading In Search of Lost Time in its entirety, or even Wealth of Nations is no easy feat). These days I’m as pleased that literature’s life lessons come easy as I am that some of my dorkier and more childish amusements: narwhals, unicorns, etc., are ever more popular, and nerdy unicorn shit is readily available everywhere. I want people to like the same shit I do; it increases my ease of access.

One might think it’s a waste of time to revisit books you’ve already read, but I read most classics in high school to stave off tremendous boredom and monotony (and to get a sense of the world outside of my own, having finished high school in rural New York). By the time I graduated, I had read hundreds of classics, many of which resonate on new frequencies nearly 20 years later. In Search of Lost Time was never a favorite in the way Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness have been favorites, but it is no less important, and Proust has likely contributed more to the outcome of my life thus far, and how I live, than have Melville or Conrad. I have never had a soft spot for French culture, and the social conventions of the 1900s gross me out, especially in Europe, which had a strict and petty class system. Proust himself, much like Karl Ove Knausgard (who has been called Norway’s Proust), is not entirely likeable, and his narrator Marcel even less so.  Proust (and Marcel) were completely helpless basket cases… Proust was exceptional in his sense of grace, his generosity to his friends, his refusal to be bitter as a result of his seemingly countless handicaps, whether they were real or he was just a self-indulgent hypochondriac, a spoiled metrosexual from a wealthy family who never needed to have a job to be comfortable. Like most French things, he contains zero masculinity. Somewhat predictably, he was gay. Marcel, his narrator, was not.

And yet, living in the shadow of his famous doctor father, it could easily be argued Proust’s life’s work provided as much benefit to the world: his seven-volume series is a timeless masterpiece. I thought this at sixteen, in my twenties, and now at 35. Proust is the only reason I would ever learn French (I never have, but to read In Search of Lost Time in French would be enough, as it is unbelievably beautiful even after being translated). And while I will probably not be revisiting the entire series, I just finished Swann’s Way, which is to me easily the best of the seven. There are many, many other things to be taken from this series (his reflections on love, on authenticity versus the representation of the ideal in art, essential truth and who people really are) and I am really only going down one road here in this post.

I sat in my kitchen and read How Proust Can Change Your Life in one afternoon last weekend (listening to Alcest, may as well keep everything as French as possible). This book is timely, considering what is happening in the world: something (a lot, actually) can be said for staying home and appreciating the little things — the comfort of your own bed, the meals you eat every day, the walks through the neighborhood. For me, also living in Alaska, a place I would have never dreamed of eeking out a prosperous existence in a million years. The experience of reading. The time you have to reflect on your life, and yourself. People don’t always make time for these things, and we have all regained it (time) in this pandemic.

How Proust Can Change Your Life is broken up into the following chapters:

  1. How to Love Life Today
  2. How to Read for Yourself
  3. How to Take Your Time
  4. How to Suffer Successfully
  5. How to Express Your Emotions
  6. How to Be a Good Friend
  7. How to Open Your Eyes
  8. How to be Happy in Love
  9. How to Put Books Down

Some of these chapters are more memorable than others, and #1-3 (and #7) are probably the most prevalent, and Proust’s largest claims to fame. The book is lighthearted but thoughtful. Returning to Proust has really helped me weather the world today: in a time when many of my colleagues and some of my friends are struggling feeling trapped, bored, confined, are unemployed, running out of money, depressed, I have been relishing very simple pleasures. I don’t know if this skill comes with age, if it comes with natural introversion, relative financial stability, or emotional stability. Books have always been among my top sources of comfort, and Proust’s love for literature made his work possible. There were some interesting takeaways in this book (among the more general Proustian lessons):

  • Through books, you encounter more people via characters, and develop a broader sense and understanding of the world, and of human nature. You build tolerance and empathy.
  • You recognize yourself, and learn about yourself through books, as who you are is reflected into your perception of what you’re reading.
  • People in past eras seem like aliens to us, but books show you that human nature has been fundamentally static through time.
  • Human experience is often vulnerable to abbreviation, and that abbreviation often detracts from what actually took place.
  • You can distill a long story into a headline, but you can pull a beautiful, lengthy narrative out of one as well: it’s almost unimportant what happens… what’s important is how you construct that narrative. The author made an example of Anna Karenina: “a young mother threw herself under a train and died in Russia after domestic problems.”
  • Seemingly superficial thoughts can inspire incredibly complex, deep ones that are barely if at all related to their origins.
  • Feeling things (painfully) is often linked to acquisition of knowledge: “we don’t really learn anything until there is a problem, until we are in pain, until something fails to go as we had hoped.”
    • We become properly inquisitive only when distressed.
    • Only when plunged into grief do we confront difficult truths.
  • Cliches are superficial articulations of very good ones (this sounds obvious but the lengthy part of this book that talks about cliches is actually pretty fascinating).
  • Happiness may emerge from taking a second look (I’ll stop here, you get the picture… this is from “How to Open Your Eyes”).

I’ve been reflecting on this last point over the past few weeks specifically. When the shutdown of the world began, I wondered how I would feel, having spent the last near-decade of my life traveling almost constantly. I wondered if I’d be able to revert to more of a homebody, to someone who could appreciate simple and domestic pleasures. I’ve slept in my own bed every night for over a month now: this is the longest I have consistently remained where I live in a very long time. I have weathered a few periods where I went into self-imposed hermit mode and immersed myself in books; to my surprise I don’t believe I’ve ever enjoyed it as much as I am enjoying it now, for a variety of reasons.

When I was a kid I wanted to see everything the world had to offer, and as I got older I grew to appreciate my immediate surroundings and the present instead of only hoping for what was to come, what I had on the books, what trips I had coming up, though travel plans have always motivated me. I find these days in the midst of what could be months of sleeping in my own bed and not being on an airplane, that I’ve begun to wring every bit of enjoyment out of some daily rituals: taking a searing hot shower after walking the dog a few miles out in the cold; switching out lotion and body wash to enjoy different smells daily; digging into the back of my tea cabinet for some more expensive stuff I’ve been saving for a rainy day. I think many of us have also found enjoyment in food: whereas my roommate has channeled some of his energy into cooking, I seem to have returned to extremely modest staples of my youth: steel cut oats; mac & cheese in a box; saltine crackers; honey (a food I typically hate). I was relieved yesterday to see that the Eastern European store in Anchorage is still open, as this weekend my family would typically be together eating pierogies for Easter. We will be convening on video chat instead. We (he and I) are also both originally from New Jersey, so we’ve returned to our Jersey roots: Taylor Ham, Italian food (my favorite is Italian wedding soup; his is eggplant parmesan). We have both, to some extent, been sustained and comforted by memories. Living a rich life insures your future against boredom, as you are unlikely to run out of nostalgic moments, opportunities to reflect on your experiences, big and small, pleasurable and not so.

Where this comes back to Proust is that really taking heed of some of these rituals has allowed me to reflect on my life: I told a friend recently that when I was a kid, my father would drag us out to ski on weekend mornings (I hated this as I wanted to sleep in like a normal kid after getting up at the ass-crack of dawn every morning during the week)… the liftlines became busy around 11-11:30am and we would turn in after freezing our asses off for a few hours on the heap of ice and rock we call “resorts” in the Northeast. I’d immediately take a burning hot shower afterwards. I loved that experience even more than I loved the hours before I had been burning laps on the mountain… the scalding water on my cold, red lobster-colored skin. I found a small tin of almond-scented lotion recently and was thinking about how that smell reminds me of eagerly awaiting, as a small kid, Stella D’oro almond toast at my grandparents’ house in New Jersey. Those little almond toasts were so exotic to me at that time in my life; my grandparents’ house was so peaceful, and they were so interesting. I always loved that smell: almond, amaretto, and also Sambuca (I have the same endless love for anise and fennel for this reason)… it always reminded me of them. And this — these moments in time unlocked by repeating them, by a smell or a sensation so many years later — is the Proustian experience, and so much of what gives life meaning. My grandfather died suddenly, shortly after I moved up here, and I could not go home for his funeral, but I found myself at times adding a splash of Sambuca to my coffee in the months after he was gone. That single smell, the mix of Sambuca and coffee, contained a childhood of memories. I could hold onto him. I still can.

I don’t know what value all of this has other than it puts my entire life in perspective. Who is anyone without all of these experiences? And as Proust says at times, the origin of the memory isn’t particularly special when it happens… until you remember it and realize how much it defines you and brings joy to your life. Many times earlier in my life I felt there was nothing worth remembering: when I moved up here and realized I would have to make my own traditional food on holidays… when I could not find a single good Italian restaurant… when there were Mormons and evangelical Christians instead of Jews… I gained a unique perspective on my life and the formative experiences I had earlier taken for granted, because even having finished high school in a rural area, I was born into and further exposed to so much culture; my family held onto a lot of tradition, from my mother’s Swedish and Italian parents, and my father’s Carpathian ones. They grew up in microcosms of their roots: Italian-American New Jersey, and heavily Carpatho-Rusyn Northeast PA. I’ve missed that diversity deeply living up here, as well as the passive, peaceful presence of Judaism, which to me is easily the least tyrannical Judeo-Christian group. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…or until you have to make your own golubtsi, or seeing an Orthodox Jew in the post office is a total aberration when it used to be ordinary.

I realize fully that on top of all of this, to have the brain space to consider these things is not so much a privilege, but it did require years of hard work, diligence and discipline (and luck… luck is important). To be a person who can really enjoy this time, to be unafraid of shelter in place because my home life is warm, comfortable, peaceful, is not a mental (or literal) space in which I have always lived. Proust had the same, though it was privilege — his parents were wealthy, he was doted on by his mother — the end result is the same. Without the mental, emotional, intellectual space to ponder these things, of course you’re unhappy, afraid, and miserable, as all of your energy is put forth into survival. I think, to some extent, people with plenty a-safety net are blind to these simple delights, though, and I am grateful to not be one.

This blog’s contents have become increasingly personal, and while I’ve avoided doing so in the past. No regrets.. for now.