High Desert Summer

I’ve put this post off long enough that the prospect of chopping up the past few months seems like a huge commitment, but I fear if I wait any longer I won’t post until the fall. I’ve also noticed this blog’s visitor count has increased dramatically, which is bizarre: I don’t find my own life particularly interesting, and I mostly write in here because it auto-sends to close friends I don’t speak to or see as often as I’d like, and writing has always been pretty therapeutic for me. I threw in some food porn that is completely irrelevant to the content, but props to Barolo Grill and Fifth String for many amazing meals in the past few months. I’ve also explored a lot of nearby Tennyson Street and found a few places I really like.

I set aside some time to post about Myrtle Beach & Alaska, but I’ve been all over outside of that as well, most recently Dallas last week. I’m hoping July is mostly uneventful for me as I will be away for most of August and some of September, October and November. baroloI was surprisingly invigorated by my Texas trip: it was a pretty quick trip, but it reminded me of my old life, Life Before COVID, always en route, packing or unpacking. I shared with my boss that I’d like to find a way to get more of that back; I have never been the settling type and I’d like to ping-pong around more in the fall (and I will, starting in Chicago in August, 3 days after I return from Prague). My road warrior life — the life I lived for many years without complaint — was exhausting, but so rewarding. Sometimes I feel like I’ve lost more than I realized initially, the free-wheeling that has collected this cloud of COVID doom in these past few years: what if I test positive? What if I get sick? What if I get stuck? What if the hospital is full?

Ironically, perhaps, while I picked up salmonella last fall, I have yet to test positive for COVID, and I’m unsure of how or why, though it’s improbable that I’ve never caught it, and I don’t own a thermometer, so I wouldn’t have bothered to do anything if I felt like shit anyway. I have not worn a mask since the mandate dropped here, and I’ve been to a ton of concerts, parties, Costco, restaurants, and the office. My phone dings at least once a week with exposure alerts, and I calmly test, wait for the result, and move on with my life. I have not caught so much as a cold despite my many travels and social events, nor have I managed to pick up the flu everyone else had. I am the kind of person who, after a streak of luck, I’m waiting for lightning to strike, so I imagine it’s only a matter of time before this winning streak comes to a probably very inconvenient and ill-timed end.

My friends from New York hidivecame to visit in May, and that has been one of the highlights of the past 7 months: first, virtually all of my favorite pre-AK life people live in New York. These two guys came in to see our other friend’s band one night (they are based in San Francisco). I talk frequently to another friend here about how thus far, Colorado people aren’t really my cup of tea (or his), but it was glorious to have more friends in town: we ate amazing food, watched sci-fi movies, listened to metal and drank on my porch. We managed to get into In-n-Out 5 minutes before they closed at 1:30am the morning they left, and the entire trip was amazing. Apparently there are dirt cheap Frontier flights from Albany to Denver, and I’m hoping my people keep taking advantage of the relatively inexpensive airfare. Bonus round, the headliner for this show was a Canadian post-hardcore/metalcore band that gave me massive throwback vibes.

Otherwise, this settled down, in-the-office-twice-a-week life is not without its hectic parts: fujiI beat myself up for being pretty introverted, but I’ve built a fairly robust community here in a short period of time, and while I’m spread thin, it’s nice to have the option to do things. Today was the first day in awhile that felt like what a weekend day should feel like: yesterday I hustled to hit the gym and walk the dog before making a giant broccoli salad and heading up to a BBQ in the mountains. I spent today cooking a week+ of food to save myself the hassle next week, and I’ve been taking Fuji on 2 long walks a day (1 with a 16lb weighted vest, which I thought would be heavier and challenge me more than it has). The dog spectacularly failed her boarding interview a few weeks back; I figured I’d at least see if she’d be happy hanging out with other dogs and the answer is hell no, she was having none of that, so I finally gave up and found pet care on Rover for my lengthy trip. She’s turning 9 this year and has not slowed down at all. I am thankful. Having a dog and wanting to be on the go all the time is a pain in the ass, but she has been an anchor for me and it has been more than worth the trouble and expense.

July also seems to be maintenance month for my autoimmune stuff: in transferring my Mayo Clinic records to a local rheumatologist, I realized that it was three years ago that I ended up there essentially being told it was only a matter of time before my thyroid burned itself out, and my only options were irradiating it preemptively or just waiting for it to die on its own (I chose option #2). 1655610622963It’s actually pretty incredible to me that I survived this brutal move and all of the suffering that went along with it without having another hyperthyroid episode, but my most recent labs came back perfect and it’s difficult to express how grateful I am that this hasn’t gotten worse. For the most part, even with the heat, I seem to be acclimating fairly well here; the summer temperatures are horrible and I feel hot all the time, but my July goal is to shave off another 10lbs or so before I go to to Tbilisi, which is derived from an Old Georgian word that means “warm place.” Every pound I can drop is less I’ll be sweating through my damn clothes, in the land where “air conditioning” usually means a dirty old fan or a window that you can prop open with a water bottle. I also noticed today that Turkish Airlines once again fucked up my return flight with their schedule changes, so hopefully I can figure that out this week: Turkish is the only airline I’ve ever flown on where you almost never get the flights you pay for, because they constantly change shit and don’t even send you a courtesy e-mail.

My Achilles heel is stress, unfortunately, and based on my scale weight over the past week, I’m holding too much water, which means my cortisol levels are f’ed, which means I need to sequester myself at home and submit to my routine for a few weeks. I am not a great sleeper and an even worse relaxer, and I spent awhile poking around yesterday for new side hustle opportunities today before talking myself out of it. I’ll end up making about half what I did last year with my Airbnb gig, which is depressing, but it’s not easy to manage from 3,000 miles away nor is it ideal to cut someone in on the cleaning portion. I do pretty well and shouldn’t complain, but the looming fear of being older and digging half-eaten tuna sandwiches out of dumpsters is constantly hanging over my head. Is this totally irrational? Perhaps.

My birthday was last week as well, and for the past number of years I have been filling out a spreadsheet to track my annual wins and losses, travels, and goals. It’s been a bizarre stretch, I wanted to give myself a bit more time and take this trip abroad to really get away from my new life and enjoy myself before I hang myself out to dry in Microsoft Excel; I will complete in September.

Ultimately rainbowI am never satisfied with myself, and I think that is a blessing and a curse; people either drive themselves into the ground or are lazy as shit and don’t care about progression… I still believe I am somewhere in the middle (maybe a bit more driven than I need to be, but violently turned off by people’s lack of motivation). I did very little on my actual birthday; a friend from work decided it was unacceptable for me to spend it alone (she is young, she’ll understand someday), so she came over for tacos, a shitty grocery store lemon meringue pie (the only kind of pie I wanted, and could not find a better one on short notice, and I refuse to bake anything beyond keto muffins and key lime pies) and Netflix’s new FLDS documentary, and we had hit up a classical music outdoor thing the night before following a little BBQ at her building. This huge rainbow was a bonus.

In years past I’d make a point to do something crazy on my birthday (which shares the day with Swedish Midsummer): the northern tip of Newfoundland; Salzburg, Austria; Finnish Karelia; Swedish Lapland; off-the-beaten-path Alaska destinations… fifth_stringI’ll maybe pick that tradition up again by 40. I took the day off work and ran a bunch of errands, and that was enough of a gift for me. All in all it was awesome to not be working and have a second of three 3-day weekends in a row.

I was disappointed the first few months here that I couldn’t get into the swing of things with reading, but I’ve gotten through quite a few books, and I’m going to group them together by theme instead of yapping through each of them. I’d still like to be moving through books at a faster clip, but I have a huge pile I’m chipping away at, and I’m making some progress. I am currently reading Letters from an American Farmer, and I could not have started a more appropriate book for 4th of July. What an incredible read. More on that to come.

Work-related: Dare to Lead | Can’t Hurt Me | The Honest Truth About Dishonesty | The Dumbest Generation Grows Up | arielyI ended up grudgingly agreeing to read Brene Brown’s latest book, and it wasn’t bad, to be honest. I realized in refining my business/self-improvement book Excel sheet (yep. I have one of those) that I had read her previous book and enjoyed it. She says the same thing over and over again, which is annoying, but what she says is not untrue. David Goggins’ book Can’t Hurt Me was also not bad: a guy on my team loved it and I traded him for Jocko’s Extreme Ownership, which I definitely like much more, but it was enjoyable. The guy basically grew up in a dumpster and became a Navy SEAL+++, an ultramarathoner, etc etc. He has incredibly strong will and determination and also has beaten the shit out of his body, which will catch up with him sooner or later. As I said before you’re either lazy or you drive yourself into the ground, this dude is all the way at the “needs to hurt himself physically or he is depressed” end of the spectrum. Dan Ariely’s Honest Truth About Dishonesty was OK as well, it was suggested to me by another person at work, and I had read his others, I actually liked Predictably Irrational a lot more, and was already familiar with most of the studies in Dishonesty.

The biggest win in this category is The Dumbest Generation Grows Up. dumbest_generationI had not read this guy’s precursor, but I feel well versed enough having a team of millennials. The title is misleading in that it implies he blames millennials for being stupid, ultimately he puts a lot of blame on educators. I’m not even “dumb” is the appropriate word: I’d use “dull.” The Dullest Generation Grows Up. This book better-articulated a lot of my struggles than I could and has allowed me to outline more of a problem statement at work, which is that the people I’m managing lack a lot of history and knowledge, and as a result their daily lives, struggles and challenges are not placed in any context. It is a really, really, really hard problem to solve when you’re trying to develop young people who do not have the attention spans to read a single KB article in its entirety. I don’t want to be too general in grouping people by generation, and I am an older millennial myself, but there seems to be a distinction, and I see it every day at work: a lack of curiosity, an inability to connect the dots and link concepts together, a completely missing sense of imagination. It is very sad, and my company, and I’d imagine many other companies, are not equipped to upskill because they do not understand the entirety of the problem. Very strong recommend, although it’s quite depressing to see some of the results: the gradual plunge of SAT, ACT, ASVAB scores over time, the declining reading comprehension, the complete failure in STEM subjects. IQ increased over time for many decades, and it is now declining precipitously. Even worse from my perspective, people have lost their interest in the world, the awe of experiencing even the smallest joys, the ability to persevere through hardship by anchoring themselves to history. It is a tragedy.

Russian Classics: The Gulag Archipelago, Vol II | One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich | Darkness at Noon | darknessatnoonI’m not sure whether or not I had mentioned that I finished Vol 2 of Gulag Archipelago, but I did. I am patiently waiting my next Audible credit so I can pick up Vol 3. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Gulag Archipelago is the most brutal, horrifying book I’ve ever read, and this is my second time through this series. While I’ve been waiting, I started and finished One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which was good, but had nowhere near the breadth. Darkness at Noon was another classic I had not bothered to read and finished it in about two days: it was good, but not high on my recommend list: it is too much like 1984, and not nearly as harrowing as many others. There were some memorable passages, though.

Misc.: A Brief History of Inequality | Hooked: Food, Free Will and How the Food Giants Exploit our Addictions | picketty2I somehow managed to make it all the way through Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century years ago, and while a lot of his data ended up being disputed, I actually really enjoyed the anecdotal material, and his ideas. A Brief History of Inequality was a lot shorter, obviously, and easier to digest. Quillette reviewed it and has a lot more text than I’m willing to type out, so that review is here. I actually liked Capital in the 21st Century more, despite all its 800+ pages. Hooked was also good, if you’re into that kind of thing: I have a morbid curiosity with how the agro-industrial complex fucks us all over, and this book was well researched and had a bit of everything. Ironically reading books about the food system or dubious marketing practices to sell people garbage is my junk food.

Is this the longest blog post I’ve ever written? Not sure, but 6am will come early, and I’m off. I’m hoping to post a July roundup before I depart, but we shall see. I also plan to drag my heavy and inconvenience Canon 5D to take photos of Tbilisi’s Old Town and an abandoned sanatorium in Abkhazia, so photos to come.

Slava Ukraini (II)

I had grand visions for the second part of my rambling about Ukraine, but as time drags on, that vision becomes increasingly blurred. Quillette has been publishing some excellent content, particularly an article out today about Russian literature. I’ve shared many of their articles with many people. The US news is minimum 24h behind, and I’ve had better luck with Telegram, Reddit and WhatsApp group texts.

On the positive side, the world has not yet lost interest in this conflict, which absolutely blows my mind. At best I assumed people would care about some faraway country most Americans would be hard-pressed to point out on a map for a maximum of two weeks. The impeccable marketing prowess of the Ukrainians doesn’t hurt their cause; I have never seen advertising and social media used as such a robust component of war in my life. I suspect this skill is a result of two things: 1) a recent history as a democracy and adoption of Western values (and along with it, media) and 2) a lengthy history of exposure to propaganda, which they have used to their benefit as well. Probably an additional element is that the private sector has mobilized to help, Elon Musk finally becoming the savior he has always yearned to be. Of course, there is some imbalance: internet has been unreliable in the East for weeks, so there are a lot of people completely isolated.

The second aspect of their “help us” ad campaign — propaganda experience — is ethically dubious, as it’s questionable to use half-truths even for what we deem as a ‘good’ cause, and if they are caught in deeper lies, it will surely backfire. I further suspect that most Americans with little historical knowledge of this neck of the woods are drawn to the story arc, and the Ukrainians are the underdogs — the heroes fighting off an evil repressor, the David to the Russian Goliath — which is not incorrect, but also is far too simplistic. That story arc resonates deeply with Americans, and as far as that idea is concerned, I’m happy to accept whatever works to keep the West engaged. Another softer source of power here is that there are an awful lot of Ukrainian-Americans: their diaspora is enormous, particularly in the US and Canada. Even so, it’s important to note that a huge factor in how plugged in we are to Ukraine can be linked back to the classic hero’s journey and good vs. evil story arc that has shaped civilization as a whole, and secondarily to our national identity of overcoming our own oppressors during the formation of our own country.

I’ve also seen a lot of woke bullshit about how no one is standing for Yemen, no one stood for Iraqis (not true), no one was issuing sanctions for Afghans (Ethiopia comes to mind as well, though their civil war is not equivalent to Russia’s invasion of a sovereign nation). These vague comparisons are not only ignorant, but patently absurd: Ukrainians have the same values, the reside in Europe, and have been striving to join the West since the fall of the USSR. They have been thwarted repeatedly by Russian-backed leaders and Russia’s threats. A more contentious truth is that they mobilized to fight, where training troops who have been tribally organized for centuries was a constant uphill battle. There is not an Inclusion & Diversity angle here, and it’s annoying to see it so prevalently in the news (Q also featured a great article about this, this past week).

The West has failed to accept the threat of Putin, and Ukraine is paying in blood and guts. That includes America, although Germany shoulders a disproportionate amount of blame, for turning a blind eye to Putin’s agenda and squaring itself up to buy even more energy from Russia. This is a typical Western thing: to hold such a narrow view of the world that it is assumed all people think the same way we do, and possess the same values, and this ignorant approach to existence has backfired in many ways: prior to this war, a good example is the refugee camps that have sprouted up in Sweden particularly, and the shock of European citizens in the face of refugees self-sorting into ghettos and living off the welfare system for generations. This is a huge generalization, of course, but it is a persistent problem in Western countries that have taken tens of thousands of refugees with different cultural norms. By contrast, it is culturally and politically a much smoother transition to accept other people from within Europe who already understand how society works in the West. Finally, for all their Law & Justice bullshit in the past ten years, the Poles have been particularly kind to refugees, despite long-standing disputes over land between the two countries.

Nordstream II was a nail in the coffin of a (relatively) peaceful Ukraine, and Russia using its additional leverage to blast Ukraine into oblivion was predictable. The West also did almost nothing when Putin began chipping off pieces Georgia, followed by Crimea (where Crimean Tatars were all shipped out to Uzbekistan in the 40s and the region was resettled by ethnic Russians) and Donbas. (Meskhetian Turks were deported from Georgia to Uzbekistan in the 40s as well… seeing a theme here?) Watching the laziness and ineptitude of the West over the years has made me unbelievably resentful toward Europe especially; I am sure this has played into my transition from traveling in Western Europe to my primarily traveling to the former Eastern Bloc, Balkans and Caucasus over the past decade+. I had said from the beginning of the Nordstream II construction that once it was up and running, I would never go back to Germany, and that may happen anyway, unless Putin provokes NATO and is subsequently crushed by the West. For years and years, the warnings of Poland, the Baltics and other former Soviet countries has been scorned as “paranoid”… not so much.

The West has also been terrified forever by Russia’s military might, and their power lies only in their nuclear arsenal and their leader’s sociopathic delusion: Russia’s military is a rusted, non-functioning piece of crap, like everything else made in the USSR. Totalitarian regimes capitalize on creating a façade of terrifying might, and they have done that well all these years. The Chechens have done this well too, though the fear they inspire originates in the sheer brutality they exert on innocent civilians. If Kadyrov could bite the dust soon too, that would truly be a gift from God.

What has also surprised and depressed me is the portrait of Zelenskyy as a leader possessing near-superhero status, and I think that says a lot about the low standard of governmental leadership we’ve come to expect. I was ashamed that he was offered an escort out: it cemented even more how goddamn pathetic life has become in terms of politics in the US and Western Europe: it is now assumed you will govern in exile and not stay on the ground with your shelled citizens: you will scurry out and hide. If nothing else comes of this on a domestic level, I hope it’s at least obvious that we should stop electing cowards, that you do not need an Ivy League education and a career in politics shaking hands with the right people to be a leader. That anyone can be brave and courageous, even a comedian-turned-president. I have been long-surprised by the scorn his experience has received, even well before this: Vaclav Havel, one of the most prominent politicians during the fall of the USSR, was a playwright. Courage and integrity are not taught at Yale, nor do they naturally occur in the wealthy or aristocratic. In a world of inequality, those traits are likely evenly distributed.

In some ways, watching this unfold is like living in an advent calendar, waking up every day to a new gift of dissent: separatists from other repressed parts of Russia have joined in the common struggle to knock down the world’s biggest bully. Belorussians, Georgians, Chechens, Dagestanis, Azerbaijanis, Bashkirs from the Urals, not to mention other Eastern Europeans have joined in what is already a proxy war, as much as people do not want to admit it, unified by their common hatred of Russian oppression. The sanctions, the contempt, the shaming of companies still doing business in Russia, the repossessing of oligarch yachts are all music to my ears: in my perfect world, Putin is dead, and whenever that comes to pass in my lifetime, it will be one of the happiest days of my life. Putin is playing the long game that Lenin and particularly Stalin set the groundwork for: where Stalin ripped ethnic minorities out of their ancestral homes to crush their sense of identity, Putin continues to capitalize on this by using the democratic framework to hold elections, in which ethnic Russians vote: hence Crimea voting to break away from Ukraine. This has always troubled the Baltic countries: it’s not paranoia. It’s history and, to be fair, brilliant manipulation of said history to show the West in their own language that Russia stretches beyond its current borders. In that sense, his misstep here is incredible: he clearly chose the echo chamber over history.

None of the good deeds completely cancel out the mistakes the West has made: sheltering oligarchs, buying cheap energy, politicians assuring themselves and their people that this will never come to pass. As much as Putin miscalculated how much we would rally around Ukraine, the West has amassed years if not decades of grave miscalculation that has brought us here. I’ve been alternating between wrapping up my Gorbachev biography with Zbignew Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard and it’s been interesting to see that he projected that by 2010 Ukraine would be a member of NATO and/or the EU, and yet here we are.

The West has failed Ukraine, and I hope we make it right.

That’s all for now. Next post, soon to come, will be a standard one.

Slava Ukraini (I)

Stepping out of my “one post a month” routine, as there is certainly plenty going on in the world to warrant some additional thoughts and words. You wouldn’t necessarily think so in some circles, given Americans’ penchant for whining about gas prices instead of having much geopolitical interest. Considering fewer than 40% of Americans have passports, it’s not entirely surprising.

This statistic used to fill me with scorn for my fellow Americans, although the US is so enormous it’s somewhat easy to find many destinations within our borders before leaving them. I’m not sure if that’s a valid excuse over the term of someone’s entire adult life, though: traveling is often fairly inexpensive and takes courage and more importantly some level of curiosity, which seems to occur at roughly the same rate as passport issuance does in this country. It’s taken some time abroad to realize these things:

  • Americans idolize multilingual people, but most of those people speak multiple languages because they live closer to other countries than we do, or had to learn English secondarily.
  • Western Europeans are not exotic by any means, they can barely function outside of cities, for the most part, and have little survival instinct. Their entire lives are built around civilization: American life is not.
  • Many Europeans are better-traveled than Americans solely due to planes, trains and sharing of borders with multiple other countries.

These are, of course, not excuses to not travel, but when looking at Americans vs Europeans, it’s not exactly apples to apples. That said, I had a minor meltdown yesterday seeing my parents’ friends whining about the cost of gas to drive from one of their homes to the other on Facebook: my mother told me I “need to understand that not everyone is as lucky to be so well traveled,” which is not helpful and also completely absurd. My parents’ friends vacation to Disney and own a second home in a beach community, so that strikes me as more of a personal choice than “luck.” In fact, I did not travel abroad until I was 18, and no one in my family went farther than Canada until I dragged them overseas. The first ten years or so I spent going abroad, I made almost no money (seriously, my paycheck was around $400 a week for my first job out of college). So not being wealthy is not an excuse, especially not all these years later when affordable travel is even more accessible than it was back then.

As for my own good fortune, I totally imploded my first semester in college and happened upon a study abroad program through Harvard, to which I was accepted and subsequently took out a few thousand dollars in student loans to make ends meet overseas in 2003. I stretched my paltry $6,000 pretty far: completed two semesters in Sweden, and also went to Copenhagen, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn, Vilnius, Riga, Warsaw, Prague and Kiev (now Kyiv). I returned multiple times per year, winding my way through Scandi-land, Eastern Europe and Russia, and I never stopped pushing further East.

I enjoyed Scandinavia and spent many, many months there. Sweden is OK… Norway is better. Finland is awesome (I have a tattoo of the view from a cabin window in a birch forest in Karelia on my back), but I became bored with the Nordic area: life in terms of people and culture is too tame, to contained, to orderly. I originally went there as an homage to my mother’s mother, who grew up in Ekerö, in the Stockholm archipelago. We still have family in Stockholm, and we continue to keep in touch to this day. I could talk forever about Scandinavian cultures, and I say cultures because those countries have surprisingly different cultural norms, and I dislike Swedish ones the most. Karl Ove’s My Struggle series actually covers a lot of this, and his observations are perfectly symmetrical to mine. I will return to Iceland sooner than later, and have taken many friends around the island — the rest, probably not. Very yawn.

I knocked out every (other) country in Western Europe except for Greece over the years as well, and most recently I’ve traversed the Balkans and the Caucasus. My plan was to push into Chechnya, Dagestan and the Don region of Russia in late 2022, as that is now delayed for obvious reasons. It occurred to me yesterday that I have spent most of my free time over the past 20 years either in the Far North or among Slavs, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. For a little more context and some indication of how little people change, I’ve spent my entire adolescence and adulthood steeped in Arctic expedition novels/accounts, and Russian literature. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky have kept me company over the years, beginning when I was a teenager. As a kid I was horrified by the Bosnian war, and it gave me a deep disgust and also appreciation for the power of propaganda (essentially the route I took with my undergraduate degree)… that interest is very much alive today, and has motivated me to read probably thousands of books at this juncture about the USSR, the Caucasus, the Eastern bloc, the Balkans, the World Wars.

I’ve mentioned in the past that all of this reading has helped bring these countries to life for me, and there is no better example than being in the Balkans a few years back having read probably 100 books on the region, including all of the folklore and epic poems, including Montenegro’s The Mountain Wreath (I did the same for Finland with The Kalevala, Iceland with their sagas). I was flipping out in the Caucasus having read Tolstoy and Lermontov over the years. I make fast friends abroad, and part of it is because I go in armed with reference material and have taken the time to think about their experiences and the history and folklore that has shaped their countries. Most recently, it was And Quiet Flows the Don that sealed the deal on finally moving Rostov-on-Don up my list, in addition to currently reading a lengthy biography of Gorbachev, which makes me want to visit Stravropol. They are not far apart.

I have always so deeply loved the disarray of Eastern Europe, and the nostalgia I feel there, especially when it comes to food, decor and culture; I remember blogging years ago about the way Prague was beginning to look like any other Western European capital, which I found troubling, as it’s traded some of its Eastern Bloc character for the prosperity of department store billboards and too many H&Ms and magnet vendors. Life is a series of trade-offs: Prague was an epicenter of resistance from the Prague Spring to the Velvet Revolution, I hope it retains its importance in terms of struggling to break free of the USSR (I’m too lazy to link all of these references, but Wikipedia has all the answers).

I’ve persuaded many friends over the years to head to these glorious countries, and they’ve all hopped on board as well. Some countries are more frequented than others, namely the Baltic countries and Poland. Bulgaria and Romania less-so, though we had a blast in Bulgaria years ago and the Carpathian wooden villages and Transylvania are worth a trip to Romania. I’ve been pleased to hear my friends are enjoying Riga, Bucharest and Dubrovnik over the years rather than toiling in line at the Louvre.

Which brings me to Ukraine, an unfortunately non-EU country that has been fighting for its right to exist peacefully for longer than people realize. Ukraine is particularly interesting, even for Eastern Europe: it resides at a convergence of cultures between Europe and Russia; settled by Vikings en route to Byzantium, who blended with Slavic tribes and the Kievan Rus was born. The area has been partitioned, crushed, rebuilt, trampled, starved, collectivized and been reborn as independent over the last few hundred years. Despite what you see on the news, Ukraine has rarely been unified as a country throughout time: particularly over the last 100 years, parts of it fell under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then the USSR. The country is split in religion as well, with swathes of Western Ukraine belonging to the Eastern Rite Catholic Church (aka Greek Catholic aka Byzantine Catholic Church) and the rest being Ukrainian Orthodox (which also split off from the Russian Orthodox church recently, not without a fight from Putin). This country has been home to Crimean Tatars, Cossacks, Carpatho-Rusyns, Volga Germans, Russians, Jews and many others. It is home to three particularly historically significant and completely contrasting cities: Kiev, the ancestral home of Ukraine and the Kievan Rus; Lviv, the Byzantine Catholic center of the Carpatho-Rusyns and capital of the old provinces of Galicia and Volhynia; and Odessa, on the Black Sea coast, home to many Crimean Tatars, Jews, Greeks, Bulgarians and others. Ukraine also has black soil, and as we (maybe) all learn in Elementary School, it is the “bread basket” of Europe. The land is extremely fertile; it is worth invading for its natural spoils. And it has been.

Worth noting perhaps that my grandmother is Lithuanian, and my grandfather was Carpatho-Rusyn. My father grew up speaking Lithuanian in heavily-Slavic Northeastern PA, and my family went to Byzantine Catholic Church; my deceased family members are all buried in a Byzantine Catholic cemetery. These were curiosities to me as a kid, and I only really began digging into our history when I was in my 20s. While I find Scranton to be bleak and ugly, I admire its roots, and how much it’s kept alive even to this day: so much so that when I moved to Alaska, I was horrified that I could not find the food I grew up eating, as even as an adult I thought it existed more commonly everywhere. My grandfather died when I was in college, but I wanted to track down our entire family history before my grandmother died (she is still alive, gratefully). I found a Carpatho-Rusyn scholar who assisted me in putting my records together, and like anyone who came over from that part of the world, our records are a wreck: my grandfather’s family all came from Lviv Oblast, but it says Czechoslovakia on our documents (many Carpatho-Rusyns ended up in modern-day Slovakia after borders were redrawn). Our name was Americanized, yet still manages to confuse people. I don’t know if I believe in being “proud” of your heritage, as you do nothing to earn what you get, but I do know that as an adult I cherish my multifaceted childhood: I had one grandmother who spoke Swedish, one who spoke Lithuanian, my siblings and I went to Lutheran, Byzantine & Roman Catholic mass, as well as Ukrainian Orthodox church, and the town I went to high school in was and still is heavily Jewish, with a lot of Hasidic Jews at that, who live (mostly) peacefully alongside everyone else (the Catskills were actually called the Jewish Alps at one point in time). My parents are also members of two different political groups, so I’d like to think that’s contributed to me growing into a fairly open-minded person.

All this to say we have roots in this part of the world, though arguably my love and admiration has more weight: though admittedly if Putin had invaded Latvia I would be equivalently enraged. My loyalty lies with the Eastern bloc and the Caucasus, some, like Chechnya, which have yet to break free of Soviet shackles. I often feel more alignment with this part of the world than I do with my own country full of countless spoiled idiots, and I have little intention of living out the rest of my life in the US: for the most part I’m here for the higher base salary and tax benefits of being an American, and if I hear one more person bitch about gas prices I’m going to accelerate my plans to disappear permanently. I don’t know that my own heritage has anything to do with anything beyond what growing up in that culture gave me in terms of familiarity with Slavic countries. I’ve spent my whole life reading about their tortured history under the Soviet Union. It is probably one of my most significant obsessions, and has been from the beginning.

I’ll skip the part where I yap about Ukraine and how it has changed before my eyes in the past 20 years: it seems disingenuous, and I’ve spent a shitload of time in all of these countries except Belarus (my choice). But what is happening here and now in the world is unbelievable in many ways.

What I told people prior to this invasion is that Ukraine will never roll over, Slavs always go down swinging, and I have not been wrong. During the Holodomor in the 1930s, Stalin starved over 7m Ukrainians to death during collectivization. Ukrainian Jews died in droves during the second World War, most famously in Babi Yar. The Western part of the country has been home to resistance movements since that time, particularly the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, and Russian forces have gotten nowhere near Lviv yet. Ukraine’s Maidan revolution in 2014 was a clear cultural end of their time as a Russian satellite, and they have paid dearly for it over the years while the west has done absolutely nothing.

I’m not sure where to go from here, as I never plan these blog posts and I just let them take me on whatever inspired tangent I wish. That said, I’ve run out of steam today and this all means a lot to me, so I’m going to post this with a “stay tuned.” I’ve laid a foundation of love and respect for these unbelievable people, and a very brief history of Ukraine. Next up, how the world reacted.

I haven’t said much about this to most people outside a few close friends and a Ukrainian from Transnistria I manage (I have a Russian starting on my team in a week as well); I also have a group of friends who live in Kharkiv, Odessa and Kyiv, and none of them have any intention of leaving their country, so if you’re into prayers, say a few for them: they are as of today all still alive and staunchly remaining in Ukraine (my friends in Kharkiv have relocated to Lviv for the time being). Odessa is next up on the shelling list. Fuck Putin, to be continued.