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    Archive (chronological)


    America by the Yard

    HARPER'S - 21 AUGUST 2013

    For half a decade, I’ve been away from the United States, following my wife, a foreign correspondent, across the Middle East. In Baghdad, in Beirut, we saw some of the worst things people can do to one another. But as Americans, it was impossible not to be preoccupied with the various ways our own country seemed from abroad to be in decline: obesity in the schools, gun violence in Chicago, financial trouble in Detroit, soldiers returning to homelessness and suicide. We knew that eventually these problems would be ours, too.

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    The Hipster Brewmeister of ... Beirut


    LAST spring, at a public square in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, about 1,000 revelers attended a rock festival sponsored by 961 Beer, a very rare Middle East microbrewery. Acts included the Wanton Bishops, a band that would have been at home in Austin, Tex. In the front row were stylish women in sundresses beside men who showed a strong preference for black T-shirts and trendy eyewear.

    Forget the idea that religion or the effects of war might preclude the success of a Lebanese brewery. It’s true that many Muslims abstain from alcohol. But plenty of people in the Middle East love to drink, and this is especially true in Lebanon, where the religious plurality includes a thriving Christian population — and besides, people seek alcohol during hard times, said Mazen Hajjar, a former investment banker and airline executive who started 961 Beer.

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    Senior Poetry


    In Beirut, there’s a shovel-faced gremlin sitting in front of the whorehouse. I’m just passing by, and he eyes me from his perch on a coffee can, where he rocks back and forth, opening and closing his fists, one bloodshot fish-eye firmly closed, the other spinning wildly. He barks out suddenly, a sharp noise like the backfire of an old Mercedes, and I turn to see his massive feet slap the pavement in black sneakers, his chest splattered in wet cigarette ash. Checking my watch, I still have ample time before I meet Marilyn Hacker, the eminent poet, who’s agreed to an audience with my class of elderly writing students. The gremlin smacks his lips, the size and shape of small fish, and I’m happy to be rounding a corner.

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    Life in Beirut


    NOBODY DIED. But Beirut is engulfed in flames, cars are mangled, glass is under foot, dozens are bleeding, and a faction of rebels claims responsibility. Shopkeepers roll gates; kids are yanked out of school. A day later, however, traffic is so thick and life so normal that it can take an hour to get across town.

    It's Monday, and I am barreling on foot through the thick funk of morning commuter traffic, crossing the spine of Hamra. My wife is a foreign correspondent, and I was at one point an editor in New York, but then we moved to Riyadh and had a little girl. To keep the family together, we stayed together — first in Saudi Arabia, then shuttling between bases in Istanbul and Baghdad and Erbil, and finally this vision of semi-normality in Lebanon. But last spring there was a shootout on our street and then a rather significant bomb-assassination across town, and this latest Monday the car bomb. I did my part to remain, through a winter and another spring but then everything was heating up — gunfights and snipers and radical clerics to the north and south and then the darkness from Syria spilling across the border to the east, and then, one week, the beginning of a new season of explosions downtown. Another hot, crazy summer — but as the rockets go back and forth overhead and the snipers grease their guns and everyone waits for what happens next, I have to admit: I still care about my teeth. I still arrange a trip to the dentist.

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    Expat lives: from Canberra to Phnom Penh


    On occasion, Australian interior designer Bronwyn Blue likes to get up early and watch the sun rise over the Mekong river. On these mornings, she leaves her apartment in Phnom Penh before the streets become a sea of slow-moving scooters, cars and SUVs, and takes an early morning stroll, perhaps buying coffee or fruit on the way back, or stopping to watch old men and women practise tai chi under a tree.

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    How to Succeed — in a Van, and Otherwise


    IN THE EARLY 2000s, an otherwise unremarkable student named Ken Ilgunas was half-heartedly working as a Home Depot clerk and attending class in upstate New York. He floated through life, playing video games, racking up debt. Then, one day, his mom said they needed to talk. About money:

    I was soon going to enter the real world with an unmarketable degree (a B.A. in history and English) and because I had absolutely no idea how I was going to pay it off, the debt, to me, was more than a mere dollar amount. It was a life sentence. And soon enough, I'd be behind the bars of the great American debtor's prison, alongside the other 36 million Americans.

    Awakened to what would grow to be a $32,000 yoke — and his rank among those other strapped millions — Ilgunas begins to have dark thoughts, including the stirring image of his lifeless body, tied by his neck to the Christmas train, circling the lumberyard, where he earned a minimum wage.

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    Turkey Before the Crackdown


    Three years ago, I lived in Turkey, on one of the cobble-stone blocks not far from Istanbul's Taksim Square. Downstairs, at all hours, it seemed the taxis and compact cars honked, parting a crowd of sun-drenched tourists gawking at shops selling instruments and trinkets, or buying juice from the conservative guy downstairs, who I'd once seen winding up to yell at his head-scarved wife. During the day, from our balcony, I could reliably watch a dog or two scratching itself in the shade. At night, a Joni Mitchell impersonator warbled for coins, keeping me up, and I wished upon her—and all the drunken revelers, streaming from bars that would one day be closed, and all the illegal construction workers changing the city day and night—a series of incurable lung cancers or some kind of persistent laryngitis. In countries and cities all around us, there was a quiet war going on. 

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    ROADS & KINGDOMS - 31 MAY 2013

    On a cold weekend this winter, I flew to Edinburgh for what turned out to be a more posh wedding than I expected. The bride and groom were diplomats; we’d met them in Riyadh back in 2008, treasuring every chance we had to drink their imported diplomatic hooch, and in general enjoyed their well-informed, widely read companionship. In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it was almost too easy to detect class, lumped as we were into a broad category of non-Saudis. But visiting them for nuptials in the United Kingdom, I found such matters to be more finely tuned, at a register I couldn’t handle, and having failed to wear the proper costume, or perhaps to adequately trim my beard, I stood before St. Giles Cathedral—as grand as St. Patrick’s in New York City—while a scowling guard in a skirt blocked my path with a “stop there” gesture. So I stood in the rain, assuring him I was invited, and when he finally relented, I confronted pew after pew of blond hair and blue eyes, men taller than I, all these centuries of nutrition and good breeding, and it became all but certain that I’d drink too much at the 15th-century manor and risk remembering nothing of how I got home.

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    Sandwich Man

    THE PARIS REVIEW - 28 MAY 2013

    Managing this chain of Subway sandwich shops in Aleppo totally blows. I’m ensuring the bread gets baked, the cheeses displayed properly, that the tomatoes are freshly sliced and that the discs of various kinds of meat do not smell strange and that all the dispensers of condiments are filled. We ran out of napkins during the last bombardment and that was fucked up, but honestly I don’t even know if the home office even knows we are still open, let alone whether we are keeping customers hands clean. They don’t seem to care! But what is worse is that my BEST assistant manager quit in order to start working as a sniper in that old hospital building—she is a total fucking saint, with a quick finger that once punched out subtotals and now rips out bullets, I guess—and all I’m trying to do is hold it together, which is why I was so relieved when I had a little time off this weekend and had the chance to take our girl to a birthday party in Beirut.

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    The Noise


    It's such a bummer for me, the way in which my dad was incinerated last week, along with our mule, the bad guys, and Aunt L.

    The noise had been there for a month, making everybody nervous. Especially Aunt L, who was having a devil of a time folding laundry and cutting pieces of newspaper to line her shoes and making soup out of rocks and asphalt and that can of tomatoes we found in the store the next town over, where they had heard the noise last spring and then the explosion and the leftover rubble was not yet completely picked over by our starving neighbors in this miserable, struggling set of hill towns in Yemen we call home. 

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    Flood-Tide Below Me

    THE MORNING NEWS - 24 MAY 2013

    Five hundred years ago, when you crossed the East River into Brooklyn, passing through the encampments of what would become Bushwick and Williamsburg, you’d eventually make your way to the ocean, where you’d begin to find clams the size of dinner plates, and where—late last summer—I spent what seemed like a perfect week with my family. 

    We lived in the Middle East, where we had a little girl, and where my wife was a reluctant war reporter and where it felt like we might not make it another year. Times were strange, because among other things, we’d just sold—after seven years of ownership—our tiny apartment on the Lower East Side.

    The place we’d rented in August? We half-seriously thought about buying it. Untethered and reeling and searching for something, maybe we thought this was finally the way to come back, if ever we could. We’d tried and in some ways we’d failed and then we’d found something new and then maybe we were ready for something old and everything seemed to be falling into place, and then the rains came.

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    Expat lives: Los Angeles to Ramallah


    Thomas Hill, a native of Sacramento, California, lived in Russia on and off for nearly a decade, spending his final years in the beleaguered republic of Chechnya, where he was a country director for the International Rescue Committee. The opportunity to return to the US was hard to pass up. So when the IRC offered him a job as executive director in Los Angeles, he jumped.

    “On the surface it would seem to be a big smog-laden, gun-fighting, traffic kind of place,” says Hill of LA, who bounced between neighbourhoods before settling down in West Hollywood. “You get [the neighbourhood] right, it’s awesome.” It was there that he met actor and writer Genevieve Parker, whom he married in 2012.

    But last spring, just a month after their wedding, Hill and Parker moved to the Middle East, settling in the Palestinian territories via Israel. “We decided to become very minimalist . . . we got here with two bags and my camera gear,” he says. “If we get something new, we have to throw something out.”

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    House-Hunting After the Bomb


    Imagine my displeasure when I found myself, last November, hung-over and haggard, pushing a stroller through the security cordon at the Beirut airport. It was eight in the morning, a car bomb three weeks earlier had killed three and injured 100 in downtown Beirut, and I was in line for a flight to Istanbul, engaged in something not unlike fleeing for our lives.

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    Finding Words For What Is Horrible: Nathan Deuel on Aleksandar Hemon's "The Book of My Lives"


    "I WAS A NIHILIST," writes Aleksander Hemon, "and lived with my parents. I even started thinking up an Anthology of Irrelevant Poetry, sensing that it was my only hope of ever getting anthologized." He adds, "Nothing came of it, although there was a world of irrelevant poetry everywhere around us. There was nothing to do, and we were running out of ways to do it." Hemon's slim new collection of essays, The Book of My Lives, elicits admiration and joy, and we forgive the expat any moments of arrogance or cruelty because, though his youth in Sarajevo might be said to have been peculiarly comfortable, it also obscured a growing avalanche of darkness.

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    Fear is Fun: Nathaniel Rich's "Odds Against Tomorrow"


    A COLLEGE CLASSROOM STRUGGLES to focus on a lecture as, behind the tweed shoulders of the professor, an overhead projector streams live TV news, with images unspooling of Seattle disappearing: roads buckling, the Space Needle toppling, and amidst this chaos and destruction we meet Mitchell Zukor, math whiz. “The reporter’s voice was loud and hoarse in the speakers. We saw incoherent flashes of flame, glass, metal, sea. No one spoke. We were trying to understand what we were watching.”

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    Green Green Grass


    Many years later, as he faced the death penalty at the Lawton Chiles correctional facility in Fancy Pine, Florida, Robert M. Donaldio was to remember the clear and sunny afternoon when he and Edward P. Rafferty decided to kill the professor in Plant Hall.

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    Expat lives: from New Jersey to Jordan


    Preparations for the football World Cup in South Africa brought US engineer Trevor Liddle, then 55, out of an early retirement. Liddle’s wife, Laurie Balbo, wasn’t at all surprised: “I knew he had another airport in him.”

    It was January 2008, and Liddle was being asked to move from Little Falls, New Jersey, to Johannesburg to help engineer a new airport terminal. Balbo wasn’t sure about the move, and the more she read, the more South Africa didn’t seem like the right place to go – especially with a 10-year-old daughter in tow.

    “There was no way in hell I was taking this free-spirited kid over there, to a walled community where you’re afraid of everyone that doesn’t look like you,” she says. “It was tough, because it was my husband’s dream.”

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    A review of 'Public Apology,' by Dave Bry

    BOOKFORUM - 13 MARCH 2013

    Dave Bry is sorry. For several years, mostly for the New York website The Awl, he's reached back into a sordid, New Jersey/New York past, unearthing misdeeds big and small. If you imagined each of these stories as a moral sustenance, Bry has for years now been serving up dark and funny snacks. Assembled rather expertly for his book Public Apology, they now qualify as something more satisfying, like a turkey dinner on how (not) to live.

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    Getting Out of the Picture: On Being Nick Flynn, a Review of 'The Enactments'


    A SINGLE MOTHER in Massachusetts reads through her son’s notebook and shoots herself. Still grieving, the son ends up working in a Boston homeless shelter, where one day his alcoholic father seeks refuge. The father is a bad drunk, as many are, and after a while the clinic votes to bar his reentry. The father spends his first night on the streets, sleeping on exhaust vents behind a library. During the vote that sent him outside, the son either does or does not raise his hand. Then the son writes an entire book about his mom’s suicide and the booze and the homeless shelter and that vote. The writer later stands onstage with the likes of James Frey, and this man, Nick Flynn, makes Frey’s semi-real book about semi-real addiction pretty much disintegrate into oblivion by comparison. Flynn leaves Boston and marries and has a daughter, and his father eventually makes it into a subsidized apartment and then to a hospice and then gets to meet Robert De Niro, who will be playing him in a movie about his son’s book. It’s all Nick Flynn’s doing and the result is Flynn’s third memoir, The Reenactments, a poetic and probing diary of writing, memory, and filmmaking.

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    Password Requirements

    TIN HOUSE - 23 MARCH 2013

    Your password must contain at least one number.

    It’s a bad idea to put a 1 after a typical word or phrase. Awesome1, for instance, is not awesome, nor is it accurate. Killme2 is a weak password.

    Password should contain at least one lower case letter.

    Password should be between 6 and 20 characters, which is long, or much longer, we suppose, than some of us can imagine, or that many of us need. Perhaps your version of safety requires even more characters? We do not yet know.

    Password should not include your phone number, an email address, the same as your user name, or a name you use only with your closest friends, or indeed, the name of your child, or the child you do not yet have, or perhaps the child you will never have, nor the name of that girlfriend you can’t quite find yet on Facebook, perhaps she has a new last name? In any case, don’t use her name either — or that cutesy thing she used to call you in Chicago — you should just move on. It’s over.

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