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    Reading These 5 Writers Will Make You a Better Person 


    Peter Matthiessen

    In Saudi Arabia, I was still trying to make sense of the insane thing I'd done in America. Which was to quit a perfectly good job at Rolling Stone, pack a bag, and walk from New York City to New Orleans. My wife and I had given that Louisiana city a try, staying for a few months in a rambling shotgun house by the race track, drinking and eating and walking around, but in the end it had made sense, I suppose, to move to Riyadh, capital of the world's most Islamic country, itself a custodian of the religion's two holiest sites. 10 thousand miles from anything I knew well, I'd wander the dirt paths of the sprawling compound we called home, dark and windy on the city's western edge, and I felt as disconnected as I ever had been before. I was trying to be a good husband. And an American. And soon enough, I'd be a dad.

    The book that resonated with me most then was Snow Leopard, the late Peter Matthiessen legendary account of trekking through the Himalayas to find the reclusive cat. More than a record of physical hardship, the book is a long mediation on pain and suffering and perseverance. Why do we do hard things? It's not just about the steps he takes through the snow, but about all the moves he's made in his life up to that point -- the choices big and small that found him alone, away from his children and with a dying wife, trekking in search of something that didn't want to be found. The copy I had was a friend's, illegally photocopied in some stall in Nepal. The cover was fraying but the writing inside was gorgeous, subtle, and much better than anything I could do. I still haven't written about that walk to New Orleans. But when I do, a copy of that book will be on my shelf.

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    On our leafy terrace in Lebanon, beside the civil war in Syria, my wife Kelly and I were entertaining an old friend, the new Beirut bureau chief for a major news organization. This woman was moving to town to cover the battle and was scouting houses before she brought her husband and young children. I swirled a large glass of wine, a father myself, and recounted how just a few weeks earlier, a massive, seven-hour shootout had raged just below our balcony, shell-casings bouncing off the asphalt. How I had cowered in our bedroom, checking periodically to ensure our three-year-old daughter was still asleep, listening as thousands of additional rounds of machine gun fire bounced off the walls outside. How Lebanese soldiers arrived in camouflaged armored personnel carriers, and how seven or eight grenades exploded when the bad guys down the block determined that they would fight to the death. How, instead of cowering beside me, my wife Kelly had put down her wine glass, grabbed a notebook and a flak jacket, and walked off into the night.

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    VICE - 13 MAY 2014

    I was having lunch at the swan near Hyde Park and some son of a bitch took my bag with all my documents, the email began. It was June of 2009 and I was sitting at a desk in Riyadh. Assuming this was spam, I was about to press delete, when something made me reconsider.

    Outside, it was summer in Saudi Arabia, where temperatures could exceed one hundred and thirty degrees. My wife Kelly and I had lived in the country for nearly a year. We’d spent much of our lives in foreign countries or in strange corners of North America. We’d met in Cambodia, spent years in Southeast Asia, got to know Russia and the former Soviet Union, and I proposed to her on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska. This time, however, the Middle East in general seemed a little beyond my talent set. Maybe it was the heat making me feel weak? By this time of year everyone was spending entire days indoors, emerging only to drive air-conditioned cars, in which metal could be so hot it might burn your skin. Streets buckled, the wind howled in from the desert, and meanwhile booze was still illegal, women were forbidden from consorting with men they weren’t related to, and it was hard to imagine why anyone would ever choose to settle here. Considering all this, we—the swashbuckling couple who had never shied away from doing something insane—were about to bring a new baby into the world.

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    6 Books That Helped Nathan Deuel Make Sense of War and Exile 

    FLAVORWIRE - 15 MAY 2014


    Since he does a much better job explaining it than we would, we’ll just preface his piece by saying that Nathan Deuel’s Friday Was the Bomb is one of the most fascinating accounts we’ve read of an American in the Middle East during the last tumultuous decade. During his time abroad, Deuel not only wrote about his experiences, but also did a lot of reading. Below, the author tells us, in his own words, about the books that helped him make meaning out of his years of exile.

    In December 2011, I moved to Beirut with my wife — a foreign correspondent — and our two year-old daughter. We were coming off a few hard years, first in Riyadh, the fearsome capital of Saudi Arabia, where we’d dodged the religious police and had a little girl. Then Kelly got a job in Iraq, so I moved with our diaper-clad daughter to Istanbul. Spend a few days in Turkey’s capital and I admit, it will blow your mind. Move there in the wake of your dad’s abrupt death from cancer, with your daughter — while your wife dodges mortars in Baghdad — and you might find yourself, as I did, smothered as much by the demands of fatherhood as by an impenetrable language, a society trending toward the darker sides of nationalism, and a flood of new money.

    So after three years, when we got the go-ahead to move to beautiful, broken Beirut — with its beaches and wine and convivial crew of fellow correspondents, many of whom had children — it felt like everything was coming together. We rented an airy, light-filled apartment, bought a bunch of plants, and thought about hosting a party. But the uprising in neighboring Syria was turning into all-out war.

    Kelly worked long hours and we did our best but as friends or colleagues died and a car bomb exploded and then a seven-hour shoot-out rocked and rolled right outside our bedroom windows, I began to lose focus. What was the point? How to be a parent beside this? A husband? What about the fact we were Americans?

    Seeking guidance, or at least the half-shine of potential answers, I turned to books. From Graham Greene to Shiva Naipaul, from Leigh Newman to Nick Flynn, I found various blueprints for how to think about the horror around me and how to turn a time of often indescribable cruelty into something meaningful — or at least semi-comprehensible.

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    In Defense of National Airlines

    ROADS & KINGDOMS - 23 APRIL 2014

    Malaysian Airlines Flight 370: How can 239 people just disappear? I fantasize about the plane itself: What it looked like, the color of the seats, the food. Will I ever fly on Malaysian Airlines? Will anyone ever want to again?

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    Let’s Go Ride a Bike


    Last fall, I moved from Beirut to Los Angeles with my wife, Kelly, a journalist, and our 4-year-old daughter, Loretta, who one evening was ready to get back on her bike.

    The sidewalk stretched out before us. We could hear the steady pulse of traffic on Lincoln and Venice Boulevards. The timing seemed perfect: just before dinner, no chill in the air — a moment to show Loretta how to enjoy her new life in America. Look, honey, you’re safe now!

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    Anthony Is Dead

    GAWKER - 18 JANUARY 2014

    It was one of the first warm evenings of spring when my new neighbor Steve—leaning over his balcony and through the bougainvillea—suggested we should take the kids to Faraya, a ski town a few hours from what was starting to look like a war in Syria.

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    LA Story


    I have just moved to Los Angeles from the Middle East, and everyone keeps asking me if the city is too quiet—Am I bored? Is it safe?—and the answer is, No, I am not bored; yes, it seems safe, and yes, that’s fine by me. Mostly I am in a state of awe, blown away by a grocery store, the knock of the mailman at the door, the speed of the Internet; the easy friends you can make on the sidewalk or on the bus or while watching your kids play soccer or walking down Venice Boulevard, waiting for a light to change, en route to the University of Southern California, where I found myself the other day, seeking out the next thing I might do with my life, right before things went wrong again.

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    Once Upon a Time in the Middle East


     There was one day near the end, when I took a taxi up a hill, to see a man. We sliced through canyons, making our way into the mountains north of Beirut, riding a black strip of asphalt upon which no lines were drawn. The span of tar was sometimes wide enough for two cars, sometimes one. We drove fast, nearly hitting someone when the road narrowed, nearly hit by another car ourselves when we bisected a second road—no stop signs, no stoplight—and then I realized: Nowhere at any point had a sign indicated a sharp curve or steep drop-off. We were on our own. When we finally stopped, four black dogs came running. 

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    One man's journey from the Middle East to the Midwest 


    Ten thousand miles from the chaos of Lebanon and Syria, I'm riding a dead man’s bike along Illinois’s Sangamon River, where, some years, floodwaters cover everything, sending black fingers searching among dirt and oaks and cottonwood trees. They say you can't really live in the flood plain, that it's unsafe. But here I am, having fled the Middle East, wondering, “What's the point of being safe if you don't feel fully alive?”

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    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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    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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    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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    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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    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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    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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    Into the Steam


    An attendant gave us two striped towels and we repaired to a room, where we removed everything we owned. Naked under the cloth, we followed a stooped old man, who showed us to a domed room filled with steam.

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    Going Soft


    In Rome, I was cocky and competitive and altogether my usual self because the apartment we’d rented for the night was completely white—sheets, pillows, towels—and much bigger than expected, with a cow’s head mounted on a wall and great, familiar coffee and I might as well have been in Istanbul or Moscow or New York or the many other places I had lived and worked, and I was thinking, after all that, how hard could Italy be? What’s the big deal? Yet that concern about experience or mastery or difficulty was to miss an essential point. That a good thing doesn’t have to be hard.

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