The Poet and His Postcards


i ask only that you treat my postcards as you would a frayed string of rosary beads…

David J. Thompson has been sending me four or five postcards a week since I was eighteen. I was beginning my undergrad at Purdue, obsessed with small-press poetry the way a child gets obsessed with dinosaurs or construction equipment. He didn’t know me at all, but I knew and loved his poems; they appeared regularly in the little fold-and-staple journals I devoured at the time, magazines like Nerve Cowboy and Staplegun and Barbaric Yawp.

While most writers in that scene were doing bad Bukowski impressions, bumbling around drunken esoteries and humble-bragging about adventures in casual misogyny, Thompson, who lived and taught in a small town near Detroit, wrote poems that were more indebted to William Stafford or Raymond Carver or James Wright. The pieces were rural, domestic, and ribbed with an almost ecstatic desolation. His speakers were down-on-their-luck divorcees, paunchy factory men at their high school reunions, drunk friends marveling over Mexican death masks. I sent him a note saying how much I loved his work; the postcards started arriving soon after, and they’ve never stopped.

“New research suggests a strong link between being disenchanted by work and depression. City College of New York psychology professor Dr. Irvin Schonfeld studied more than 5,500 school teachers to estimate the prevalence of depressive disorders in workers with burnout. He discovered 90 percent of the subjects identified as burned out met diagnostic criteria for depression.”#

Dollar Guilt in the Land of the Collapsing Ruble

I’ve gotten a 100 percent raise. Not as a reward for hard work or long-term loyalty to my employer, but as a gift of timing. This windfall isn’t a one-off like a bonus, nor is it evenly spaced like paychecks after a promotion. I get richer at random. Almost every time I visit the ATM, what I take out is a smaller slice of what I make than it was the time before. I’m paid in dollars, but I live in Russia, where the currency is currently collapsing; as the ruble loses value, I effectively get a raise. This week alone, at the time of this writing, my salary’s worth has increased by 20%. It’d be a gross simplification, but you could say my raise comes courtesy of Vladimir Putin.

As the ruble falls, I think back on a night in late autumn of 2007 when Moscow’s streets were windswept, but not swept clean of ice, and I decided to spring for a taxi. The gypsy cab I hailed was an old car of Russian make, not rickety, but the kind you can feel laboring at getting you where you’re going. Its fenders were obscured by a rich paste of chemical salt and mud, as were the peripheral views from the rear window, which were covered by the gathered pleats of burgundy polyester curtains. These, the smell of the car’s interior suggested, were sometimes drawn so that the driver could stretch out for a nap in the back seat.

That year, 2007, Moscow had been named the world’s most expensive city for expatriates to live in for the second year running by a cost-of-living survey produced yearly by American consulting firm Mercer, which provides websites like the Huffington Post reliable slideshow fodder.

My driver heard my foreignness in the way I pronounced my address. He inquired, and I told him where I was from. He spoke heatedly, then, about terrorists and democracy and empires and fate. Mainly, though, he laughed. All the way home, he was taken with a scary hilarity, and as he sped along the 10-lane highway that crawls with traffic during the daytime and forms a racecourse around Moscow’s center at night, I wondered if my Americanness would be both our downfalls. Russians’ savings had repeatedly been reduced to nothing by economic calamity during the 1990s; if my driver himself had not been impoverished by capricious shifts in the currency’s value, surely many he loved had. Now that the tables were turned—or shifted—he had every reason to relish the moment.

“Americans, what do they think in America now that it’s 25 rubles to the dollar!” he demanded.

Petite Noir feat. Yasiin Bey, "Till We Ghosts"

A relieving stylistic mismatch for 2014, this song was originally recorded two years ago. Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def, joins this time around.

Wow I Can't Believe That Guy Killed That Woman

New York City, December 16, 2014

weather review sky 121614★★★ Heavy dampness or a thin mist was on the air, fading the colors of distant buildings. The gray morning clouds thinned out to blue patches in the early afternoon, and the sun cast shadows. Mourning doves perched on looping razor wire overlooking the edge of the roof deck. Lower Manhattan had flattened into a whitewashed silhouette. Beer cans floated in a tub of still water, innocent of ice. By commuting time, a shower had come and gone, leaving puddles to reflect the overhead fixtures of the shops. Water clung to the sides of the D train. Up between 66th and 67th, where scaffolding had darkened the sidewalk for long months, the lingering damp on the air caught the light from the decorated street trees and created a luminous corridor.

Dog Versus Baby

penny is coolI have owned a dog for my entire adult life—more properly, a Chihuahua. First, there was Sal. Then, for a brief period, there was Sal and Penny. Since 2007, it’s just been Penny. (RIP Sal.) Both Sal and Penny, despite their temperamental differences, have always been treated like actual family members. We rarely leave Penny at home while we vacation or visit family. And, like family, we have made great allowances, and often, excuses, for her misbehavior.

Anyone who knows Chihuahuas will be unsurprised to hear that Penny is abnormal for a dog but fairly standard for a Chihuahua. She is sweet and cuddly and playful. She doesn’t even mind strangers, once it’s clear they are staying for a while. She easily adapts to hotels and new houses and new people. But, her list of dislikes, or, more properly, things she cannot tolerate, is long: other dogs, birds, squirrels, loud noises, strollers of any sort, doorbells, delivery people of any sort, and of course, babies and small children.

The Triumphant Rise of the Shitpic

In the first chapter of his book, After Photography, digital photography theorist Fred Ritchin explains the central selling point of digital over analog:

Digital is based on an architecture of infinitely repeatable abstractions in which the original and its copy are the same; analog ages and rots, diminishing over generations, changing its sound, its look, its smell. In the analog world the photograph of the photograph is always one generation removed, fuzzier, not the same; the digital copy of the digital photograph is indistinguishable so that “original” loses its meaning.

Put differently, the common perception is that digital files can’t decay. The grooves in a record are eventually worn down by the needle, while an MP3 file retains its data structure. If you open a JPEG today and then again 20 years down the line, the photo will not have changed at all; it won’t have yellowed or faded or have developed frayed edges. This guarantee of digital preservation is why I spent hours scanning family photos at high resolutions and transferring home movies from 8mm magnetic tape onto a hard drive for my parents. When you transmute something into digital, the assumption is that you preserve its fidelity forever.

Ritchin first published After Photography in 1999. Digital photography was becoming more popular, but we hadn’t yet started to put all of our photographs online. Since then, as files are put through a myriad of compression algorithms and Instagram filters, a new aesthetic of digital decay has started to emerge.

Let’s call them Shitpics. Because they look like shit.

Bodies Uncounted

There are perhaps other weeks of the year that the New York Times could have chosen to lay off more than twenty reporters and editors, weeks that are not so deep into the holidays. And yet, why not this week? In the end, is it so different from slow, quiet purge, a few people, one publication, one budget at a time at Conde Nast over the last couple of months? Or the five hundred bodies wordlessly thrown from the building as Time Inc. was tossed off from Time Warner? A certain kind of media reporting—which is to say, much of it that is not about BuzzFeeᴅ or Vice—has become more like writing autopsy reports, grim and technical and inevitable. Through that lens, it’s little wonder that the Times‘ media desk suffered the most; it could not be any other way, even at a time when it feels like so much loss is left unreckoned.

That Girl Is Poison: A Brief, Incomplete History of Female Poisoners

The idea that “poison is a woman’s weapon” is an old, made-up sawhorse. The concept has been invoked in works like Game of Thrones and Sherlock Holmes (not the Cumberbatch version, you didn’t miss anything), and bolstered by popular fiction: the terrifying grandmother from Flowers in the Attic, the adorable little old ladies from Arsenic and Old Lace, very nearly Marie from Breaking Bad, and the evil queen/gnarled old witch from Snow White. It’s a classic conceit: the femme fatale slipping a mickey into a glass of rye, the psychotic nana sprinkling arsenic on her grandchildren’s donuts, the jealous older woman offing her young competitionr, the cherubic nurse who is secretly an angel of death. But as Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, points out: 60.5% of poisoners are dudes, leaving only 39.5% of poisonings to the ladies.

Still, compared to other methods for murder, 39.5% of poisoners being female is fairly high – from 2006 to 2010, women represented 21% of arson cases, and only 7.9% of gun murders. There are still many more female arsonists and shooters because those are more popular crimes—in the sample years there were only 49 poisonings total—but it’s still notable. Basically, if someone was poisoned, it’s not particularly likely that the murder was committed by a woman—but if a woman murders someone, it’s somewhat likely it was by poison.

The myth persists, in part, because it makes so much sense. Poison is uniquely available to and administerable by women. Ladies have long been tasked with cooking, cleaning, and nursing, and poison can be drizzled into coffee, applied to the inside of freshly laundered shirts, or administered as an “accidental” overdose. As a recent Vice article showed, even grandmothers can do it; in Japan, a woman is accused of collecting about $8 million from poisoning six boyfriends and one husband. Poison is a hands-off, elegant means to someone’s end; it’s not showy or vainglorious, like stabbing or shooting. It doesn’t require muscle like, say, beating a human to death. Poison is a weapon for people who just need a job done. It’s very practical that way—practical and cold-blooded. So who were some of the heartless, real life ladies who have helped cement this idea in the popular imagination?