First & Second Snow

Parts of Anchorage received over a foot of snow yesterday: we tied our 1981 record for earliest accumulation. It’s tough to admit this given my passion for cold weather, but I am pissed.4runner September is too soon for this. I was hoping to get out of here (for vacation) before this happened; I’m grateful I managed to  at least put studded tires on my truck in time (my aesthetic improvements are looking good so far, speaking of, though the only two fun aspects of driving this thing are 1. the feeling that I can run over other vehicles and 2. the dog sticking her head out the back window, which rolls down).

There is no guarantee of an autumn season in Alaska; some years you get a beautiful Indian summer… the yellow leaves stay on the trees, rustling in the wind day after day, and the smell of wood smoke lingers in the air… some years you get a cold, slimy monsoon, and then it snows a shitload and that’s that. Welcome to winter 2021/22.

I spent the final pre-snow beautiful day driving to Girdwood, sewardhwyand each time I’ve been down there in the last month I have seen our Cook Inlet belugas swimming alongside the road.  Regardless of how much I feel that my time here is coming to an end, can you even imagine driving down a highway and seeing whales swimming alongside you? Misfortune, poor choices, bad luck, pandemics nor loneliness have diminished my love for this unbelievable, awesome place, and no part of me is wanting to leave because I’m tired of you, Alaska. It’s just time.

The first snow has always been exciting for me… I have been obsessed with winter my whole life. I feel the years’ tidal waves of nostalgia; I love the cold, clean water smell of snow; the melting drips the next day; the squeak under your feet when it’s below zero; the dead quiet, the bright moonlight reflections. I love everything about winter.  Despite not being much of a holiday person, even the emotional warmth of that time of year is pretty palpable as soon as there’s snow on the ground. I feel all of those things this year… but I also feel deep anxiety. And deja vu.

This time last year, I had crossed back into Alaska after heading up the Alcan, filled with hope for my future, despite the pandemic. A year later, I am so tired and burned out that most of my emotions are severely muted. I am approaching month 4 of interview loop limbo, a level of uncertainty that would drain virtually anyone, though I still have a very good chance of being relocated out of here before the end of the year. I’ve had less time than I expected to enjoy my condo and hike in the slice of time post-Labor Day and before my lease begins due to the dog unexpectedly needing surgery and being on rationed exercise.

Tomorrow I’ll turn my house over one last time before my tenant arrives, which makes me very sad; I wonder if I squandered possibly my last summer up here trying to make up for a shitty financial year. I wonder if I squandered most of this year, or the past two, or five, or ten, if I should have done things differently, if I could’ve somehow made my life better than I have, if I made different choices. That said, if things fall into place in the next few months the way I want/hope/expect them to, this will all have been worth it.

This year has been so grueling for me that I’ve been thinking a lot about myself circa 2003/4, living in Boston, spending my insomniac nights sitting on benches around campus listening to music, ruminating over how I could possibly turn the ship of my life around at that point in time while watching people walk by and leaves rustle along Commonwealth Ave and Bay State Road. It’s been good to think back to that, it provides context; I was so lost and devastated, totally incapable of seeing any good way out of my predicament. I do not feel either of those things at this juncture, and it’s pretty astounding how much confidence grows with age.

I have continued to be productive, despite said fatigue. I picked up vaping a few years back, overjoyed that there was a safer way to enjoy nicotine (I had been a non-smoker for years, and even when I smoked it was never consistent), and I subsequently quit (nicotine) Sept 1, then ditched the vape gear September 15, so that’s done. It was easier than I thought it would be and I’m surprised I haven’t slipped or had any overwhelming moments of weakness. I didn’t actually quit for any reason beyond feeling like I wondered where my vape was too often and the sense of dependency was annoying. The only consequence of quitting I’ve noticed is that my resting heart rate has dropped further to 53bpm. My daily hour on the stair mill is slightly less exhausting. I seem to sleep better, so that’s a plus. I expected to feel more… something about giving this shit up; I feel mostly apathy.

I’ve been pretty focused on maintaining/improving my health over the last year or two (to a more dramatic degree than usual), and no matter how shitty I sometimes feel, I have remained committed to this. Last year I planned to start lifting weights, I decided to wait until January, whether I’m here or elsewhere, particularly to continue to protect my hips: in the past few weeks/months I’ve started using collagen peptides, glucosamine/chondroitin and also visiting a chiropractor as a last-ditch effort to try to square up my right hip, which has been out of alignment for weeks and getting worse. I’m pretty skeptical about this medical profession, but I’ve seen some significant progress, so that’s been interesting. I think I will also ditch this Fitbit Charge 4 sooner than later, since it sucks at tracking high intensity exercise. This is a great device for walkers and hikers and people who aren’t sweating buckets every day… for higher intensity exercise, it’s worthless and incapable of consistently tracking heart rate.

I’m going to skip books for this post, though I may add them once I get to Myrtle Beach and have some down time. I haven’t read a ton, I’ve got 4-5 books down for September, none of which were overwhelmingly interesting (Cultish was pretty good, though). HBO just remade Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, one of my all-time favorite movies, so I’ll be watching that on my vacation as well… I do not suspect I will love the new one based on my deep affection for the original.

On a final note,carol one of my few remaining friends left this morning to move to Juneau, and I’m proud of him for making a change that will increase his quality of life. I will miss him. My aunt-in-law visited from NJ a few weeks ago, and my roommate got back from Iraq recently, so it’s been really nice to have some company after forever alone. I’ve tried to really assess what my social life situation is up here at this point, and it’s not getting any better (which makes sense, given my zero effort in making new friends); it’s something that will need to improve in the near future. In the meantime, hopefully the next few weeks will net me some ocean & beach time, sun, and sleep.

To be continued in another post, probably later this week. Alaska is a disaster on the COVID front right now on top of everything else, so I will be very happy to be on a plane out of here on Tuesday night.

soon cold rain and frost come in: September

We’re on the last legs of summer up here in Alaska, and I’m grateful. Labor Day is traditionally the end of peak season, though tourism will slowly taper off through the month rather than stopping dramatically. Peak season 2021 has been insane, with huge volumes and not enough operational support. We have no available ICU beds, a pretty low vaccination rate, and no one seems to care up here… they are tired enough to take their chances. The one thing I looked forward to toward the end of this summer — the Denali Road Lottery — was canceled due to part of the road eroding too much to safely traverse, so that’s been disappointing as well.

It’s been a good summer for me on paper, but I’m pretty ambivalent about the overall experience of this year’s season. I made a shitload of extra money, my close friends and parents visited, I got out of Anchorage a bit, but not much. I did very little hiking, I did not travel, I mostly hustled all summer managing my Airbnb rental, Turo and my job. I also spent this entire summer, from late June until this past Friday, in an interview loop for a role in Denver, which I didn’t end up getting (I was informed on Friday, and was not surprised given how long I had been in limbo, which led me to believe I was a backup candidate). I don’t feel particularly bitter about not having been chosen; I knew it was an extremely competitive role with a huge candidate pool. I also knew that in being honest about my personality in the interview, it would be reasonable for someone more submissive to authority to be chosen. I am bitter about how long this process took; I’m now at the end of the season where moving would be the least challenging. I have never been part of such a lengthy interview process in my professional life and I’ve lost some faith in my employer as a result of them taking forever in a time where there is so much attrition in tech already.

That said, I’m considering applying for a second open role in Denver, and also eyeing some other opportunities outside of my existing company. Ultimately I’d like to relocate with my existing employer; I’ve invested nearly 7 years with them and I do enjoy working for them, but I’ve made it a goal to exit Alaska in the next year… on someone else’s dime. My life is such that I can’t really lose either way: I actually make and save more money living here, and work fully remote, but COVID has forced me to reconcile some things, especially how little of a social network I have here. I had little intention of leaving Alaska prior to COVID, and while we are past the worst of it (the lockdowns, the travel restrictions, etc) it’s still difficult for me to envision myself being overjoyed to be here through another winter with virus surges. Thankfully, at the very least, my roommate is home, so there is some life in my house beyond me and the dog. I’m not married to Denver, either, it is just one our hub cities in which I wouldn’t hate living — I don’t love the idea of going back to the lower 48, but at this juncture it’s better for my career and would ultimately make my life easier. After spending so long in a single loop, I’m hesitant to jump back into another one, but I will figure out what to do with that in the next few days.

My extracurricular revenue generation forced me to stay in or near town all summer, which mostly sucked and was super boring, but while I proceed with exploring some new opportunities I do plan to travel in the fall as well. I’m not much of a tropical island/beach/hot weather person, but I am planning to head to Mexico in October, after stopping in Myrtle Beach to see my parents. I’d ordinarily go to Hawaii, but their restrictions are growing by the week, so I’m a few days from pulling the trigger on an all-inclusive option in Riviera Maya. I’m tired and swimming in the ocean is on the top of my wishlist.

I know I’m experiencing something I’ve been through on a few occasions in the past: that my life is garbage, when it’s really not. I think more than anything, I need a break. I was never built for this level of routine, and I am not a person who enjoys being in the same place every day, or doing the same thing, so this has been a bit of a nightmare for me, and I am deeply bored with the rote quality of my current life. For the past few months, I at least got a lot of extra money out of it… as we get into October and my winter tenant is back in my condo, my life will become even more boring, so it’ll probably help me to get the fresh hell out of here for awhile. I have a ton of PTO to burn through, due to not having done anything for most of the year. I’m looking forward to cashing it out.

I funneled a lot of effort into work as well, and I’ve been rewarded in ways outside of being promoted. Despite the monotony I have accomplished a lot in the past few months. It’s been raining for weeks now, and it’s time to prep for winter, whether I’ll be here for all of another one or not.

I’ll post again re: books, but I haven’t read too many in the past month. For now, onward and upward.

Last days of year 36: May/June

It was easy to conceive of being able to post in this thing once monthly when life was moving at a COVID pace; it’s unbelievable how quickly some things have gone back to normal, and how my life has gone from chill af to a hectic hellscape of shit to do. In the past month, idahoI’ve visited friends in Los Angeles and Idaho, work has ramped up precipitously, my condo has again been relinquished by my tenant, and I’ve been otherwise overwhelmed with externalities. My trip to Idaho was one of the highlights of the past few months… I’ve really missed my close friend who moved there last July, and it was awesome to slam through some hikes with her. The Sandpoint / Coeur d’Alene area is awesome. Even took some frigid dips in multiple lakes.

It feels amazing to get out and do things. It feels amazing to not wear a mask everywhere and to be able to see peoples’ faces, to not have to maneuver around everyone’s anxiety. The fog of fear and paranoia is slowly lifting, and I am really pleasantly surprised; I expected this crisis to drag on for a few months longer than it has, at least up here (and in the US). 

It’s been a cold spring in AK, and only in the past few weeks has the weather warmed up to normal temperatures. My Anchorage plants haven’t exactly been thriving, and I’ve been hustling back and forth in an attempt to complete two renovation projects by the time my first batch of friends/family visit… unlikely to happen thanks to a long wait for materials. I chose to paint my ugly wood cabinets this summer, and I’m torn on whether it was a good choice or not. Painting cabinets is a famously challenging and tedious ordeal, even for people who love painting (not me. I hate painting). cabinetsThat said, as I slowly reassemble them, I’m reasonably happy with how they look. One of the reasons I’ve chosen to do these things myself is because I know they won’t be perfect and I have to learn to accept my own fuck-ups and not obsess over them forever. I’ve come a long way from being a control freak perfectionist to being (as I am now) mildly frustrated with the fact that the output isn’t professional-level quality. Also, a pro-level cabinet job costs around $5000. While my time is valuable, my materials cost has been approximately $200.

My life (and its locale) may be changing sooner than I expected, which is adding onto my pile of anxiety, but could potentially be really exciting and cool, and I feel ready in my head and otherwise emotionally to jump ship up here if the opportunity is offered to me. For the time being, the next few months will be filled with friends and family, and a lot of time outside in the sun. Managed to spurn a new side hustle or two, including listing my car on Turo for a surprising amount of money, thanks to the national rental car shortage.

The transition from managing a fair amount of down time to what was previously normal has been pretty draining, to be honest. I’ve been staring at this unfinished blog post for weeks now, and my book blips will be even shorter than usual, but I have read some great ones lately. I’ve done a lot of shit lately.

It’s my birthday next week: never a particularly exciting thing for me, but this year I truly feel like I’ve aged. I feel fucking old. It’s a strange dichotomy as I also like myself more every year as my confidence and wisdom grow. I’ve really enjoyed the experience of aging, which in this country is more often than not seen as a process of falling apart in a multitude of ways. I also somehow feel as though I’ve been through hell and back this year, and I suspect many people feel that way: it’s a year that I’m very glad has passed, filled with disappointment and bummers and even a few small disasters. I’ve made quite a lot of the collective misfortune of COVID, and I’ll be stepping away from the worst of this era with a lot of lessons learned.

2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything | 2030I feel like I read this book so long ago at this point that I don’t even remember all of the chapters, but it was a good one a friend and I read together. No particularly big surprises. I skipped the last chapter on crypto, because I am super tired of reading and hearing about cryptocurrency. Review in Publishers Weekly here.

Alone | aloneThis is a circumpolar classic that I began in the winter and then set down and lost track of; I love the writing style, and a lot of it is in the form of a journal, sometimes written while Byrd is sick from carbon monoxide poisoning. His experience underground in Antarctica taking instrument readings sounds horrible and definitely puts being stuck at home watching Netflix during COVID in perspective. After many, many years of reading Arctic and Antarctic expedition novels (and others, even stories of Everest climbers, explorers, etc) it’s crazy to really conceptualize how tough people were back then. There was simply no alternative.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know | thinkagainI’ve loved everything Adam Grant has written, particularly Give and Take, and Think Again is as good if not better than that one (his other book, Originals, was also OK. A good OK, but not as compelling, though I may reread it sometime soon). A lot of the source material and anecdotal information is worth following down the rabbit hole: I watched Accidental Courtesy as well, a documentary about a black guy who befriends white supremacists and ends up changing their opinions. I sent myself a few quotes to include, both for quality and to avoid having to write more, but I recommended this book to my work team, our leaders, many of my friends, etc. Further, I was pleased to see this book covered in Quillette, so linking to that here.

‘Who you are should be a question of what you value, not what you believe. Values are your core principles in life—they might be excellence and generosity, freedom and fairness, or security and integrity. Basing your identity on these kinds of principles enables you to remain open-minded about the best ways to advance them. You want the doctor whose identity is protecting health, the teacher whose identity is helping students learn, and the police chief whose identity is promoting safety and justice. When they define themselves by values rather than opinions, they buy themselves the flexibility to update their practices in light of new evidence.’

‘The ideal members of a challenge network are disagreeable, because they’re fearless about questioning the way things have always been done and holding us accountable for thinking again. There’s evidence that disagreeable people speak up more frequently—especially when leaders aren’t receptive—and foster more task conflict. They’re like the doctor in the show House or the boss in the film The Devil Wears Prada. They give the critical feedback we might not want to hear, but need to hear. Harnessing disagreeable people isn’t always easy. It helps if certain conditions are in place. Studies in oil drilling and tech companies suggest that dissatisfaction promotes creativity only when people feel committed and supported—and that cultural misfits are most likely to add value when they have strong bonds with their colleagues.’

The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago, and How We Can Do It Again | upswingI’m not completely finished with this book yet, but this also gets a standing ovation for the inclusion of data instead of just anecdotes and hypotheses with no hard backing. To be clear, this book does not offer solid answers, nor does it contain solutions to the decisiveness in modern American society; and some of the data (like searching Google’s book databases for uses of “we” vs “I” over time) is a bit dodgy. That said, for someone who constantly wonders why things happen and where we’re all heading together, this is well worth the time (his first book, Bowling Alone, is a prerequisite, only in the sense that if you haven’t read it and care about this kind of stuff, you should, and then read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities). Review of The Upswing in Harvard Magazine here.

The Fall of Hyperion | fallofhyperionMy Bolt Thrower software engineer buddy from NY and I are still chipping away at Hyperion, and we’re on book 2, though I am only about 1/3 of the way through, this one is far less appealing than the first. I suspect the rest of this series will be a let-down versus the first book, which injected all of the context and built the characters and plot. But I’m (slowly) enjoying it, for the most part.

Otherwise, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts from Jordan Peterson, Jocko Willink, Quillette. Have watched Sharp Objects (A-), Mare of Eastown (A+) and getting through The Night Of on streaming. Quiet Place 2 was great. While I was in LA, we saw the new Saw movie (solely to see something in the Chinese theatre), which was also surprisingly good, though Chris Rock isn’t really suited for serious roles. 

Up next in books will be Noise by Daniel Kahneman; Outline by Rachel Cusk (reading by request of someone else); The Frontlines of Peace, about the failures of UN peacekeeping missions; a biography of Gorbachev and some others. Also planning on reading Thomas Picketty’s latest; I read Capital in the 21st Century despite a lot of skepticism and feeling that it was largely against my values/beliefs. It gave me a lot to think about. I’m curious about his new one as well.

Comping over COVID-19: March

Amusingly enough, one day after my personal campaign to catch a leftover shot commenced, I received a call from a little hole-in-the-wall clinic down the street from my house, and on March 2, I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine. I’m relieved to have managed to grab an mRNA vaccine; the mRNA vaccines seem to be the least risky with regard to autoimmune bullshit.

There are risks, of course, anyway, and there are a lot of unknowns; I received my second dose on Tuesday at 10am; by midnight or so, I woke up in the fetal position, teeth chattering under my heavy down comforter. A few hours later I woke up marinating in my own sweat (I preemptively slept on a towel… wise choice). The next day I remembered how much the flu can suck… I thought, many years ago, that people who had the flu were being giant babies: then I got it, one year in New York, and could barely walk (I actually fell down the concrete stairs trying to take my dog out when my legs decided to mutiny). I woke up every morning in a puddle of sweat. The flu is awful. The reaction to the second shot is more like a bad drug trip: you know it’s ending sooner than later and just have to ride it out. Wednesday I was completely useless; I’m glad I took a sick day.

But, that has passed. And a week from now I’ll be home for two weeks to see friends and family, so what I said about getting an earlier shot not influencing my plans turned out to not be true: I need to check in on my parents, see my sister, and I deeply miss my friends in NY. I can’t wait for all of those things (and Marshall’s, and Aldi, and Wegmans, and we’re even dipping into the Jersey Shore for a night). I further booked a long weekend in LA with my work husband in May, and Memorial Day weekend with one of my bffs who moved to Idaho last summer. Maybe… just maybe… my life will feel a little more normal. I’d like to get a few trips under my belt before I sequester myself up here for the majority of the summer.

Things are looking up either way: the days are growing longer. springThe snow is melting. This is break-up, a season of mud, grime and pot holes, but evening sunshine. It doesn’t get dark until after 9pm. COVID winter is coming to an end, and while the media is determined to stick to a solid rotation of doom and gloom on a daily basis, there is a lot to be hopeful for. Unfortunately, spring brings some real bummers in the ski world: with all the snow we’ve received this winter, some of our heliski operators have suffered tragic losses (last week, an avalanche killed a woman in the Talkeetna Mountains), and I was particularly horrified by last weekend’s heli crash near Knik Glacier; one of the people who died was someone I’ve known for years, and was a world-renowned guide and just an all around awesome dude. Helicopter crashes like this almost never happen in this industry, so this has been a tough one to choke down.

I’ve spent the past month shoveling (of course), cooking baller Saturday night dinners with a friend of mine… watching trash television… exercising, sleeping well, cleaning like a psycho, putting in a lot of extra hours at work, walking my dog, and reading. And trying to resolve (or, at least, conceal) my eye allergies, to no avail. I’m not sure how or why this has happened; I’ve never really had this issue before last spring (or any allergies, ever), but whatever is melting with the snow has given me a months-long bout of allergic conjunctivitis and extremely puffy, shitty looking eyes.

This is already a wordy post, so I am going to ramble about a few books here and there and then save the rest for April.

jp_2Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life | I preordered this book months ago, and was concerned that all of the SJW outrage was going to disrupt its publication. That did not happen, and after his trip to hell (and Russia, and Serbia) and back, Jordan Peterson’s new book might even be better than his last. Or, maybe not — maybe some chapters just resonated so deeply with me because I have really, really, really been struggling with the pandering, disruptive, often absurd inclusion & diversity initiatives at my workplace. I actually (professionally, and tactfully) lost my shit a few weeks ago and sent my litany of complaints up the chain in a thoughtful enough way that it seems to have stopped the constant barrage of woke bullshit that is teetering on becoming compulsory. This has occupied a lot of my headspace in the past few months; and because I am a rational person, I have often wondered if I am insane, or if I have just become more conservative as a result of living in Alaska, but I’ve come to discover that that is not true at all: my friends from college and elsewhere, who live and work in East Coast cities or in California or the Pacific Northwest feel exactly the same about their companies’ I&D policies; further, many of my colleagues feel the same and are afraid to say so. This has been a really challenging ordeal for me; I am avidly against virtue signaling, or talking about any of these things in any capacity whatsoever at work. I don’t want to be involved in any of these conversations, and thus far I have refused to do so, and will continue to do so. The amount of lip service and utter hypocrisy I’ve witnessed in the past few months has been revolting. I keep hearing that these “ideas” are “good intentions.” As was Communism. Hitler would tell you he had good intentions, too. Good intentions are relative. “Good” is relative. My plan at this point is to ride this out for the time being and continue pushing back against these shenanigans becoming required conversations; I have no qualms whatsoever with other people passionately trading their thoughts and ideas regarding these topics, but the creeping sense of it being required is deeply troubling. Further, I would say I’m old school: I just want to show up and do my job. Why is that so hard these days? I have observed, to my frustration, that “inclusion and diversity” does not include diversity of opinions on this matter.

But, I digress. JP’s new book is wonderful; I bought the Kindle version originally, and then opted to buy the Audible version so I could hear him read it. 12rulesThen I bought a copy of his first book, 12 Rules for Life, which I am revisiting at night. I also spent a better part of March listening to his podcasts; in one of them he mentioned that he’s been overwhelmed by how many people grew up with no encouragement and found that in him, and I am one of those people. If anything happened to this guy, I really don’t know who could fill these shoes. He is just such a brilliant, thoughtful, insightful person and such an unbelievable role model for people who don’t drink the woke Kool-Aid. What I love above all is that in some sense, he ignores all of that in a sense — the monster people make him out to be — and continues to push people to push themselves to be better. These are his next 12 rules (and his first 12 are here, on his Wikipedia page). I recommend both his books to anyone and everyone who will listen; his first one has many more Biblical references, but it is worth the trouble even if you don’t (yet) appreciate what you can pluck out of the Bible:

beyondorder

The only chapter I was a bit disappointed in was 10. Romance — I thought he could’ve said a lot more. This book seemed a much more abridged than his first one. And 12. Be grateful is probably the most appropriate considering everything that’s transpired in the world over the past 12 months. I love that I have both Audible versions, and can listen to them whenever I want to. If I had to make a list of the things that have kept me striving over the past few years, Jordan Peterson would be one of them. It’s surprising how much you can feel a little less alone in the world as a result of someone you don’t know personally, and never will.

richdad_poordadRich Dad Poor Dad | I’ve been looking for some easily digestible books to pass along to my sister and her husband to help them better manage their finances, and this one was OK. The first chapter was completely lost on me — I have no idea what he was trying to say — but the rest of it is good. A lot of it is about making your money work for you; investing wisely; paying yourself first. The author took significant financial risk in some cases and many of them paid off… he lost money too, of course. I think the other important takeaway was the way you should really look at assets and liabilities; in the US buying a house is still very much a cultural aspiration (less so than it was in past decades); not necessarily a wise choice for everyone. I don’t think all of these things are universally applicable, but his perspective on cash flow and visualizing the flow of money in and out could be very useful to a lot of people. I bought a second book to check out on the same topic that I’m eager to read. I appreciate the general premise of this book: that this guy had two dads giving him financial advice, and many people grow up with none. It’s difficult to teach yourself how to manage money when no one guides you or sets an example, so this is a good resource.

howdowelookHow Do We Look | For years now, Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome has been my sleep-to audiobook for long plane rides and insomnia (I didn’t sleep through the first pass, but I so love the book and the narrator’s voice that I’ve probably listened to it 10 or 15 times by now). I’ve also enjoyed How Do We Look: The Body, The Divine, and the Question of Civilization, though I wish I had bought a hard copy instead of listening to it. While I’m familiar with most of the works of art she addresses in this pretty short book (I think most if not all of them are in the new Civilizations series, which was excellent), it’s a pain for a visual person if you’re listening to this in the dark and you don’t want to look at stuff on your phone alongside the reading. Anyone interested in what art meant to its viewers and its creators over vast periods of time should grab this (a hard copy); it’s no SPQR but it’s a short and thoughtful read. Short Kirkus review here.

orwellWhy Orwell Matters | I traded How Proust Can Change Your Life to a friend for his copy of Hitchens’ Why Orwell Matters and this was a really great find as well; I’ve read a lot of Hitchens’ other stuff, though long ago, and was not aware he had written a book specifically about Orwell. There’s a ton of detail in here about Orwell’s experiences in Burma, the formation of his ideas and opinions, and the life of skepticism and ire he endured as a result of both ends of the political spectrum thinking he was stupid and/or insane. Orwell has been the most influential writer in my lifetime: reading his books in middle school truly changed my life and my perspective on the world, and reading his others later in life have only added to my admiration. Despite all of that I learned a lot from this book, and Hitchens was a gifted voice in his own right. Publishers Weekly blurb here.

hyperionI’ve taken a break from the exhausting Ulysses to read Hyperion with a good friend of mine in New York. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything cheesier in my entire life, but I’m actually surprised by how much I like it (it’s become a daily ritual for me to walk around my house finishing my 15,000 steps listening to one of the very long chapters. Apart from laughing out loud at some of the content, there are layers and layers of literary and historical references, and the book touches on some really interesting concepts. I actually told someone years ago that I hate sci-fi, which was probably the dumbest, most wrong thing I’ve ever said about myself… I love a lot of sci-fi. I don’t know that I love Hyperion, but I’m intrigued. And I’m happy to have a 2-person nerd book club for this one, since I read virtually everything else alone.

Everything else that has been occupying my time is boring and dull; I’ve amused myself and my close inner circle by buying one shitty food item at Walmart every week and reviewing it on Snapchat with the big mouth filter: I’ve gone through strawberry frosted donut Oreos, Cheetos mac & cheese, and various flavors of pudding and Jello (I can’t stand Jello, and pudding is pretty gross as well). I’ve also been reviewing the stupid beauty devices I’ve found on Amazon to help smooth out my raccoon eyes, including 24k gold gel eye patches and this hilarious rose quartz roller.

I also have fully taught myself how to “dry clean,” or, rather, to clean delicates by hand with the correct detergents. I decided to stop going to the dry cleaner out of laziness and pick up a new skill (which will be especially useful someday in the future when I start wearing my nice clothes again). I’ve managed to successfully wash and clean cashmere, silk, hand-painted silk, wool, suede and leather so far and I am pretty stoked on this. I’ve always been pretty interested in textiles (and fashion), but learning how to care for these fabrics has been really fun and interesting for me.

Last, I’m down nearly 15 lbs from this time last year, mostly due to drinking less, sleeping more, counting steps and sticking to one meal a day. After this pandemic year and a handful of other misfortunes, I feel pretty good, and I’m stoked to get back on a plane and get the fresh hell out of here for a hot minute.

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.  

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.

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.

Pandemic Spring: February & March

I’ve had this WordPress window open for over a month, and daily life is changing so rapidly for so many people that it’s been difficult to nail down a good time to get cracking on this. I’m still unsure of my take on the pandemic unfolding across the world: on one hand, a grotesque curiosity of mine has become a reality in my lifetime, and I watch daily with deep (and admittedly morbid) interest, even as my brother, sister, brother in law and many of my closest friends reside in/near what is currently COVID-19 Ground Zero, NY Metro. Many of my friends have lost their jobs, or are furloughed with more uncertainty than savings. I am quite curious as to how long I will have a job, as I also work in the hospitality/service industry, which is the most grim sector in which to be employed currently. Further, my beloved state will certainly have some deep scars from the double-whammy of COVID-19 and the crash of oil. Alaska is fucked, at least in the short term, and I have no doubt the tourism industry will lose 30% or more of its operators by the time this is over. I actually think this will depopulate the state a fair amount; I am unsure we are capable of recovering from so many consecutive catastrophes… earthquakes… forest fires… government shutdowns… and now a pandemic. I think this kind of chaos will bring some long-term positive change, though, some of which are mentioned in this NY Post article.

As for me, I’ve spent most of my adolescence and adult life fascinated by infectious disease. The single newsletter I read with any regularly is CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases. I’m not surprised this has happened… it was only a matter of time. And even early on, as people poo-poo’ed news out of China of a new virus, I was pretty sure this would be a months-long shit show, upending most of the world, at least temporarily. Lo and behold, here we are. I’m actually not sure life will resume as it was, when this is over. People will act differently. And feel differently. I think a prolonged period punctuated by fear of other people will have deleterious effects on how we function socially, which is already severely stunted in the modern age.

On the positive side (for me), presently, apart from having to cancel a few months of travel plans and not being able to log an hour on the stair machine every day, I’m largely unaffected. I quite like being home, I have an enormous stack of books, I live in a big house in a cool neighborhood (one of Anchorage’s urban moose up the street in the photo on the left) with someone I don’t hate, and I have a cute dog who is enjoying extra exercise. Spring is around the corner, and I eagerly await a snow and ice-free patio so I can reconstruct my Eastside Shangri-la. If we are still on lockdown in the actual summer, I’ll have my ski condo to hang at, at the very least. Life could be a lot worse… there has never been a better time to be an introvert.

That said, I think a part of me has decided I don’t, for the time being, care much for the future. This may be a good skill to have. I only mean that insofar as I am not crippled by anxiety and uncertainty. I had said in the beginning of the year that 2020 would be my year… which will certainly not be the case. I try to balance the sadness I feel for my friends and my industry and the uncertainty I feel for my loved ones’ safety with a sense of gratitude that I’d be pretty OK if I lost my job, I’m not dying of boredom and not particularly miserable as a result of any of these mandated pandemic rules. I do not think the end of this is near. I am not convinced I will remain employed. But, eh. There has always been a silver lining to choosing to bypass my chosen career path for something more versatile… during uncertain times, the field of possibility is much more vast.

In the meantime… I’ve read a ton of random shit over the past two months, and obviously there’s a lot more to come. Reminder that I feel it’s a complete waste of time to write full reviews; I’d sooner expound briefly on whether I liked a book or did not (with some exceptions where I’m inspired to ramble), and link to someone whose job it is to review books. These posts take long enough as it is ffs.

The Price We Pay: What Broke American Healthcare — and How to Fix It | This was a pretty interesting book, and definitely relevant today, in a period of time when tens of thousands of Americans will not only become critically ill, but then be bankrupted by our healthcare system. The author takes a pretty ambitious trip around the country and covers a lot of subject areas — obviously price (and hospital billing) is a big part of it. Our healthcare system is as confusing as it is unfair, and this book was oddly hopeful. Here’s an NPR review/interview. Sounds like a boring topic, no? It’s actually written in a pretty casual tone and the author keeps it interesting.

The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy | Financial Times review here; Economist review here; Foreign Affairs review here. This is one of the most brilliant books I’ve read in years, and that says a lot — I read a lot of excellent stuff. Many of the points in this book are insane in their obviousness, and yet there’s so much in here I had not ever fully constructed in my own head. I will very likely read this again at some point (or at least peruse); I could not get over how many times reading this book I was completely floored by how much sense the authors made. Truly incredible book with a really ambitious topic.

The Elementary Particles | I quite enjoyed this. I had never read anything by Houellebecq before; I don’t think he’s a particularly talented writer, but there were some memorable pieces of this often very depraved story of two brothers. I definitely want to read Whatever, one of his other well-known novels. Quillette has published alternating views of him, but they did cover Elementary Particles here. There’s a more recent article on him here.

The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol | I’m just going to come out and say that I’m not a huge fan of Gogol. This stories are a bit too folksy for me, though in a way I find difficult to describe. There’s something grotesque and surreal about his style I really enjoy… that said I had a really difficult time getting through some of these stories, which often unfold at a very slow pace. Probably worth reading some of his more famous ones if you’re into Russian literature; the entire Collected Tales was a bit too much for me.

The Nation Killers: The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities | I acquired two books by Robert Conquest over the winter: The Nation Killers and Harvest of Sorrow (about the Holodomor). For whatever reason I found this book profoundly depressing; the resettlement campaigns in the USSR were unbelievably cruel. I’m not sure if this strikes me as awful because so many people died living in mud holes in Kazakhstan or if the calculated way people were stripped of their sense of homeland is what is so sad about this… further, that this happened is by no means widely known, and like everything else in Soviet times, countless people died as ghosts, unrecorded… the lucky ones ended up in the death count.

Few books have been written about this, and it’s dry reading for sure, but sometimes reality is more morbid than anything concocted in the imagination. Such is the case here. I took a photo of a map that shows to a small extent the absurdity. The book goes so far as to explain why they did this, which makes sense (in a sick way, of course), though I am somewhat sympathetic to their wariness of nationalism. So many things that transpired in this country are so mind-blowingly cruel and were also so successful in destroying millions of people, literally and figuratively. There’s some disjointed information on Wikipedia about these resettlements. Much, much moreso than dark classics like Kolyma Tales, this deportation — the scale of horror that was never fully uncovered and is now lost in history — is nightmare material for me.

My Struggle, Book 6 | I can’t fully express how it feels to have finally finished this series, after beginning it over two years ago while living in Fairbanks. I have listened to the Audible version of this book all over the world, on a lot of airplanes, while living in different houses, in different parts of Alaska. As this is an autobiography of sorts, I’d say it is much like a person: there are good parts, bad parts, boring parts, annoying parts. Book 6 returned to a lot of the thoughts the author had in the beginning of this series; Book 6’s lengthy part on Hitler was not good… even if it were, I don’t find Hitler (or Mein Kampf) nearly as interesting as he does: Mein Kampf is one of the shittiest books by one of history’s villains I’ve ever read… even Stalin is better, and Stalin was also a dreadful writer. I was struck by a sort of irony with Hitler with regard to the importance of the individual — this entire series revolved around the immensity of a single person, the sheer multitude of thought wrapped up in one person’s life, his experience, his actions… to end the book focusing on a man who only valued some individuals with the right racial makeup is strange indeed. Further, Karl Ove, despite writing this and many other books, has accomplished little in his life, though he has ‘done’ a lot (otherwise what would he fill 3600 pages with?) and that I suppose is part of the story as well… to what extent is someone expected to provide any kind of value to the world?

Ultimately I’m pleased I managed to claw my way through this gargantuan series: my feelings for this author run the gamut. You get to the end and you feel as though you know him; I also came away with a feeling that I would love to have a conversation with him, but I’m unsure I would say I “like” him. I admire his ability to expose himself, his cowardice, his poor decisions, the monotony and selfishness that overwhelms him at times. This was an impressive series, though Book 6 received tepid reviews: New York Times here and Slate here. I felt the entire series was hit or miss, but it was much more hit than miss, and the boring parts were worth the struggle for the nights I, lying in bed, sat straight up and said “WHAT??” and hit the 30-sec rewind to listen to a beautiful thought, or an incredible passage, 2, 3, 4 times. Last note, the Audible version of this is incredible… so incredible in fact that I already purchased all 4 of his recent seasons books (which are much shorter) just to continue to listen to Edoardo Ballerini.

Transparent Things | This is another book I really just did not get into. It’s short, so I finished it, but I found it pretty boring. None of the characters were particularly likable. The New York Times’ archive has a great review; it seems they saw a lot more in it than I did. Most of the reviews end in general admiration for Nabokov (this Guardian review is one); I concur, but this book was nowhere near his best work.

Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia | The author of this book was a correspondent for NPR, apparently, and the book is interesting because her material comes out of her experiences in Chelyabinsk. The book is mostly a series of human interest stories with characters she meets in the city; post-Soviet identity (or lack thereof) is I think really difficult for Western people to understand; she does a really good job of explaining the roots of conflict. There are a lot of kinds of books people write to explain Russia: books about what happened, and books about what people feel about what happened, and this is the latter. Easy, quick read, super insightful. Would recommend. Foreign Affairs review here; YaleGlobal Online here; CS Monitor here.

Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs | I saw an interview with this guy on Joe Rogan and decided to read his book, seeing as how there’s pretty much no better time in history to do so. I’ve read some awesome pandemic books over the years; my favorite is probably Spillover, which features a cornucopia of diseases… this one primarily focuses on influenza and whatever is coming next, though he talks about HIV, TB, malaria and others briefly as well. Definitely a good read for anyone living in coronavirus times. Here’s a review from NIH… didn’t know that was a thing.

Marina Abramović: Walk Through Walls | I was pleased to see this on a shelf facing me at Powell’s in Portland a few months back; I’ve encountered her work throughout my life and having been somewhat familiar with her, I was still taken aback by the end of this book, by her ability to put her pain and suffering in the forefront in a way it for whatever reason really resonated with me. I read this and A Hero of Our Time simultaneously, and by the time I finished both books I was depressed af. Her work is incredible; the trajectory of her life is pretty interesting as well, and her romantic endeavors add so much depth to her (particularly in terms of suffering). I didn’t find this memoir to be particularly well-written, but she’s an artist, not a writer, and it was definitely worth the time. Truly fascinating person.

A Hero of Our Time | This is me, saving the best for last. How has it taken me 35 years to read this unbelievable book? The odd organization of events was difficult at first (the end of the book is really the beginning, and then it flashes back in diary entries)… I was completely amazed by the depth of the main character and how (especially these days) I identify so deeply with his feelings on life, namely in it being completely meaningless, endeavors often completely pointless, with the lack of reconciliation between how he acts and how he feels, with his deeply conflicted nature overall. I will never forget the part, toward the end, where his horse collapses as he is riding after Vera, and has this incredible opportunity to make a difference in his life, a grand gesture (maybe) and asks himself, “for what?” And lies down and sobs. He wanders off and eventually dies. All of this emptiness against the backdrop of the Caucasus, which are so vividly and incredibly developed in this book. I think something I also found interesting is how much the ethnic groups of the region all hate each other (Cossacks, Ossetians, Tatars, Circassians / Kabardians, Georgians, etc.), how diverse and strange (and beautiful) that part of the world is. I think this may be one of my favorite books of all time. I rewound, re-listened, and I’m grateful to have found a little copy recently that I can tuck into a bag if I choose to peruse it; I’ve realized other people rarely re-read books, but I go back to ones I love regularly. I loved some parts of this book so much that I screenshot passages from Google Books while lying in bed listening. This is a really unbelievable read.

Re-reads:

Heart of Darkness | I had forgotten until I nearly completed this post that en route to Hawaii, I listened to Heart of Darkness in its entirety. It had been a long time; and I often expect to not be as enamored by a book the second time around as the first; that is rarely if ever the case. Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim are both brilliant — Conrad seems to be difficult for people to digest, or too dry, or something. It has always been disappointing to read about his supposed racism, which I never saw in the book: to me this was always about the fear of the unknown, the evolutionary fear of darkness (not blackness, but darkness) and the fear of things different than you. The way it’s written paints a nightmarish but often beautiful and mysterious portrait of the Congo, and the narrator in the end is forever changed by his experience, and his perception of civilization as he knew it prior to his trip is forever changed. Both books: Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim have bizarre analyses — I saw Lord Jim as much more about shame than free will and determinism. Heart of Darkness scarcely seemed racist to me at all: it was a product of colonialism, and if anything the narrator was more sympathetic to the natives (he had much more curiosity than contempt) than anyone else in the novel. I noticed many years ago that someone used an excerpt (one of the better known ones) in a tourism video for Malaysia. Pretty cool. Vimeo link here.

That’s all for now. Trying to keep these monthly moving forward (or more frequent) since there’s not much else going on.

Post-publish addition, I’m incredibly grateful to have squeezed in a beautiful week on Maui before this all transpired. At the very least the travel ban took place for me immediately after a very active early 2020… one of countless reasons for a lot of gratitude, despite present circumstances.

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