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The Dangerous Beauty of Russian

A Russian stamp from 1992 showing children's book character Cipollino, a little onion who fights the unjust treatment of the his vegetable friends and neighbors at the hands of the upper-class -- Prince Lemon and Lord Tomato.

Keith Gessen‘s parents left the Soviet Union when he was six, young enough that he speaks unaccented English but old enough that he still knows Russian — which he’s now teaching his son Raffi. In a lovely essay in The New Yorker, he reflects on bilingualism, child development, and why he’s teaching Raffi the language of a country he won’t even take him to visit.

When we started reading books to Raffi, I included some Russian ones. A friend had handed down a beautiful book of Daniil Kharms poems for children; they were not nonsense verse, but they were pretty close, and Raffi enjoyed them. One was a song about a man who went into the forest with a club and a bag, and never returned. Kharms himself was arrested in Leningrad, in 1941, for expressing “seditious” sentiments and died, of starvation, in a psychiatric hospital the following year; the great Soviet bard Alexander Galich would eventually call the song about the man in the forest “prophetic” and write his own song, embedding the forest lyrics into a story of the Gulag. Raffi really liked the Kharms song; when he got a little older, he would request it and then dance.

It’s difficult to encourage bilingualism when life is lived overwhelmingly in English, but eventually, the songs and stories and conversations begin to pay off — but to what end?

Raffi hummed the Nautilus Pompilus song on the way home. A few days later I heard him singing it to himself as he played with some Legos.

Ya hochu byt’ s toboy
Ya hochu byt’ s toboy
Ya hochu byt’ s toboy

And a few days after that, he said his first Russian sentence. “Ya gippopotam,” he said. I am a hippopotamus.

I was deeply, stupidly, indescribably moved. What had I done? How could I not have done it? What a brilliant, stubborn, adorable child. My son. I love him so much. I hope he never goes to Russia. I know that eventually he will.

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Looking for a Greener Death

An aquamation unit. Photo via

Aquamation, a method of body disposal that uses lye to dissolve muscles and organs — basically, anything that isn’t bone or tooth — is more environmentally-friendly than cremation and has a growing number of supporters who want it for themselves or their loved ones. Right now, though, it’s difficult to access and is only legal in a handful of states. As Emily Atkin’s story in The New Republic reveals, there are several groups with a vested interest in keeping it largely illegal, and they’re not afraid to use inflammatory rhetoric to get their way.

Representative Dick Hamm’s speech made national news that day, and not only because of his business interest in keeping human aquamation illegal in Indiana. “We’re going to put [dead bodies] in acid and just let them dissolve away and then we’re going to let them run down the drain out into the sewers and whatever,” Hamm said, comparing the process to “flushing” a loved one. This wasn’t accurate. Aquamation uses lye, not acid, and similar fluids are flushed down the drain during the embalming process. But Hamm’s hyperbole was effective. Though he was the only lawmaker to speak against the bill, it failed in a 34-59 vote.

The idea that aquamation is unnatural or gross or even immoral has impeded its adoption in other states. A bill to re-legalize it in New Hampshire, where it had been legal for two years before being repealed, was rejected in 2009 after lawmakers gave speeches similar to Hamm’s. “I don’t want to send a loved one to be used as fertilizer or sent down the drain to a sewer treatment plant,” Republican John Cebrowski said. His Republican colleague Mike Kappler added that “he didn’t want to drive by a sewage lagoon where a relative’s liquid remains would wind up.”

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Standing in the Buffer Zone

Clinic escorts, in orange, in front of a group of anti-abortion protestors outside a Planned Parenthood clinic. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

In MEL Magazine, merritt k has an interview with Jeff, a 30-year-old man from Indiana who’s volunteered as a Planned Parenthood clinic escort for almost a decade. Patients trying to access healthcare services at Planned Parenthood clinics are often forced to make their way through a vocal gauntlet of anti-choice protestors; escorts serve as both a physical and emotional buffer. And as Jeff notes, male escorts are particularly good at redirecting protestor ire.

They prefer to yell at dude escorts, which I guess is the best case scenario for everybody — they get it out on us. What you learn quickly is that they don’t have a lot of space for women’s agency in all the ways you’d expect. Like, when they yell stuff at me, it’s particularly targeted at how “men are supposed to protect women.” The idea that women have choices isn’t involved at all. Certainly that’s the case with patient guests too. Like if you’re a girl coming in with her boyfriend, they’ll usually target him and tell him that it’s his job to be a father. You see that kind of erasure of agency happening in real time in ways that are both strange and instructive.

But it’s not all helping patients avoid the negative — Jeff is also able to offer some emotional labor to women who might have other sources of support.

But the other side of clinic escorting that I really like comes from interacting with patients or their guests. It’s just a hard day for some people, and sometimes people just want to go outside and smoke a cigarette and shoot the shit with somebody. There are times when people will disclose to you things about their lives or situations that are heavy and hard, but are born of that beautiful interaction you can have with someone where you know you’re probably never going to see them again. There’s an honesty that comes out of it that’s really cool. What you learn after a while is that on a day like that, people just need someone to vent to. Because all of this stuff has been so stigmatized that a lot of them don’t have people who aren’t going to judge them.

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You’re Putting My Brain Where, Exactly?

"Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer," Michiel and Pieter van Mierevelt, 1617.

When you donate your body to science, you don’t get a whole lot of say over what happens to your parts. You might end up as a teaching tool for medical students or as part of scientific study, or your brain could be illegally handed off to a forensic experimenter — in a bucket! — while the rest of you is sold for a discount. In D Magazine, Jessica Pishko investigates the Mark Lundy murder trial and re-trial, the scientific evidence on which his convictions hinged, and the possibly dodgy provenance of the human body parts that evidence required.

Although UT Southwestern has an established system to divvy up body parts for research between various internal departments and other universities, there were exceptions. According to internal emails, Dr. Marlene Corton, a researcher at UT Southwestern who, according to her website, focuses on the female anatomy, was able to get donor tissue free of charge and without going through the official tracking system. On Tuesday, January 14, 2014, she made an email request for “fresh specimens, preferably within 12 hours” for a histology study. She also asked for a “spinal cord OR brain” for her colleague, Dr. Word. Claudia Yellott, the manager of the Willed Body Program, forwarded Corton’s requests to staff, adding that they should find one “that we know we are not able to use for much.”

The next morning at 8:20, an embalmer notified Corton and the rest of the Willed Body staff that donor 64039 was ready. “This donor can be used for the vagina sample, rectum sample, and brain without spinal cord sample.” Emails indicate that by the afternoon of January 15, Sue’s brain had been removed for Word. The vagina and rectum samples were sent to Corton, and by midnight of January 16, the cadaver was back in the cooler, where the C-1 spine was removed and placed in a blue bin for the University of Toledo, which purchased it for $800, minus a bulk discount.

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Just Another Bugout Behind Bars

Attica Correctional Facility, New York. Photo by Jayu via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In New York state, 10 out of every 11 psychiatric patients in the government’s care are actually in prison, not hospitals or rehab centers. In Esquire, writer and current Attica inmate John L. Lennon — whose brother Eugene struggled to find appropriate treatment for his bipolar disorder and ended up dead of a heroin overdose — tries to understand why a maximum-security prison is the right place for someone like fellow inmate Joe:

One morning, he woke up believing that a creature had caused him to lose nearly fifty pounds overnight. It was his first full-fledged psychotic episode. In the months and years that followed, his symptoms worsened: A mole on his arm contained a hidden message; he thought he could shoot white energy orbs out of his palms; he showed anyone who’d listen a grainy video on his flip phone, footage, he claimed, of UFOs, angels, and demons.

Nevertheless, he scraped by. Around 2009, at Maria’s prompting, he saw a county psychiatrist. He was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and began taking a motley regimen of medications. He also began receiving a monthly disability check.

Then, in 2014, broke, evicted, and nearly blacked out on Klonopin, he pulled a ski mask over his face, palmed a BB gun, and entered a Smokers Choice. Seven months and one plea bargain later, Joe was just another Attica bugout.

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Russian River Roulette

Canoes lined upon Johnson Beach on California's Russian River. Photo by Gerry la Londe-Berg via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

In the course of writing his Outside story on public access to beaches bordering private property along California’s Russian River, Chris Colin tried canoeing down the river and landing on contested pieces of shoreline to see what would happen. Among the more unexpected encounters with irate landowners? Violent golfing.

Two-thirds of the way into our trip, we came upon a pirate flag flapping above a small spit of sand. I hollered up a guileless hello to the two men standing nearby. In response, one disappeared into some trees. He returned with two large dogs, which he led down to us.

Clearly we were meant to be frightened away. But I wasn’t ready to leave, so I tried to de-escalate the situation with chatter: a mindless remark about dog breeds, then an explanation of what the hell we were doing there.

“I know about the goddamn high-water mark,” the man spat at us.

All this time, his friend had been holding something. I saw now that it was a golf club. He stepped up to a makeshift tee and squared his shoulders. Before I could register it, he was winding up and blasting a ball in our direction.

He missed us by a good 15 feet. But now he was teeing up again, clobbering another poor Titleist at us. This one came close enough that we heard a ffffffttt as it shot over our heads. Five minutes after pulling up on this beach, we were hauling away at top speed. Already I was thinking about the next leg of my expedition, where the locals were said to be far less friendly.

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Maybe We’ll Finally Figure It All Out in Third Life

Image by Jin Zan via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

For Digg, Joe Veix logged back in to Second Life, 15 years after its creation and a decade after its heyday. He learned that there are still 800,000 active users but they’re hard to come by, that it’s still possible to fly while on horseback, and that abandoned physical spaces and abandoned digital spaces share a common grimness.

I couldn’t find the Edwards HQ, or Laguna Beach. Nothing showed up in the game’s search engine. I tried asking around. I visited an ’80s-themed night club and asked anyone if they knew where Laguna Beach was. I was immediately warped to a dance podium, where I started dancing, against my will.

I warped to another nude beach. I was greeted by a sign explicitly stating that no erections were permitted on the beach.

There were actually a few people at the beach, but none of them seemed active and were most likely AFK. How long had computers been running, with their ghost avatars waiting in suspended silence?

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When the Answers Wash Out with the Tide

Swampscott, Massachusetts, in happier times. Image from the Boston Public Library via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Police eventually figured out who killed Jaimee Mendez, but not how or why — making it that much more difficult for her family to grieve. In the Boston Globe, Evan Allen traces the story of Jaimee’s disappearance, the search for her body, and the plea deal that sent her killer to prison for manslaughter but denied her family the fact-finding of a trial.

Jaimee’s father, Steven, tore down the highway from Fryeburg, Maine, where he had moved for work more than a decade before, headed for the Salem office park where his daughter’s jacket had been found. He was big and gruff and covered in tattoos, a man used to knowing what to do. Now, he was baffled and silent.

When he arrived, he watched the beginnings of what would grow into a massive police search that would criss-cross the ponds and swamps and woods and sky of the North Shore. That morning, a handful of officers and their K9s assembled and dispersed into the trees beyond the parking lots and drab, low-slung buildings.

The police knew more than they were saying, Steven thought. They weren’t calling anyone or putting up fliers — they were searching the forest floor with dogs.

This was not how police searched for a person, Steven thought. This was how they searched for a body.

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Anthony Bourdain: 1956-2018

American Chef Anthony Bourdain in the Liberdade area of Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Paulo Fridman/Corbis via Getty Images)

Forget about four-star hotels or luxury spa treatments: Bourdain is on a mission to illuminate underappreciated and misunderstood cultures, whether it’s Myanmar or Detroit. He regularly takes viewers to the sorts of places–Libya, Gaza, Congo–that most Americans know only from grim headlines about political strife and body counts. Bourdain does all of this with vivid narrative reporting, stunning visuals, palpable empathy, and a relentlessly open mind.

As with Bourdain’s previous programs, A Cook’s Tour and the long-running No Reservations, the premise is simple: he goes somewhere interesting and hangs out with the locals. “We show up and say, ‘What’s to eat? What makes you happy?’” Bourdain says. “You’re going to get very Technicolor, very deep, very complicated answers to those questions. I’m not a Middle East expert. I’m not an Africa expert. I’m not a foreign-policy wonk. But I see aspects of these countries that regular journalists don’t. If we have a role, it’s to put a face on people who you might not otherwise have seen or cared about.”

— “Anthony Bourdain Has Become The Future Of Cable News, And He Couldn’t Care Less,” by Rob Brunner, Fast Company, September 24, 2014.

What do I like to eat after hours? Strange things. Oysters are my favorite, especially at three in the morning, in the company of my crew. Focaccia pizza with robiola cheese and white truffle oil is good, especially at Le Madri on a summer afternoon in the outdoor patio. Frozen vodka at Siberia Bar is also good, particularly if a cook from one of the big hotels shows up with beluga. At Indigo, on Tenth Street, I love the mushroom strudel and the daube of beef. At my own place, I love a spicy boudin noir that squirts blood in your mouth; the braised fennel the way my sous-chef makes it; scraps from duck confit; and fresh cockles steamed with greasy Portuguese sausage.

I love the sheer weirdness of the kitchen life: the dreamers, the crackpots, the refugees, and the sociopaths with whom I continue to work; the ever-present smells of roasting bones, searing fish, and simmering liquids; the noise and clatter, the hiss and spray, the flames, the smoke, and the steam. Admittedly, it’s a life that grinds you down. Most of us who live and operate in the culinary underworld are in some fundamental way dysfunctional. We’ve all chosen to turn our backs on the nine-to-five, on ever having a Friday or Saturday night off, on ever having a normal relationship with a non-cook.

In America, the professional kitchen is the last refuge of the misfit. It’s a place for people with bad pasts to find a new family. It’s a haven for foreigners—Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Chinese, Senegalese, Egyptians, Poles. In New York, the main linguistic spice is Spanish. “Hey, maricón! chupa mis huevos” means, roughly, “How are you, valued comrade? I hope all is well.” And you hear “Hey, baboso! Put some more brown jiz on the fire and check your meez before the sous comes back there and fucks you in the culo!,” which means “Please reduce some additional demi-glace, brother, and reëxamine your mise en place, because the sous-chef is concerned about your state of readiness.”

— “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” by Anthony Bourdain, The New Yorker, April 19, 1999.

Anthony Bourdain, an influential American chef, author, and television host, died in Strasbourg, France, on Friday June 8, at age 61. Bourdain, whose rise to fame started with his book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, used his influence to campaign for kitchen workers’ rights and for the marginalized communities he encountered as part of his television show travels. While he was best known for his nonfiction, Bourdain also wrote crime and graphic novels.

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In Just 40 Hours, You Too Can Be an Expert

A blood spatter expert shows the jury a blood-spattered sneaker during the Michael Peterson murder trial in December 2001. (AP PHOTO/CHUCK LIDDY/POOL)

For part two of “Blood Will Tell,” her New York Times Magazine/ProPublica investigation into Joe Bryan’s murder conviction and the use of blood spatter analysis as a forensic tool, Pamela Colloff took the same 40-hour course that is the sum total of the training many blood spatter experts can claim. It did not inspire confidence in the precision or reliability of the experts’ testimony.

On the last day of class, I was given my “certificate of training” after receiving a 97 on my final exam. Everyone in my class passed. Griffin had told us that even if we failed the final, we would still receive a certificate of completion, but rarely, he added, did anyone fail. Our scores on our final exams were not recorded, he assured us, nor were the exams preserved. “Don’t worry that an attorney is going to come back and say, ‘You missed Question 14,’ ” he explained.

From time to time that week, Griffin cautioned us: “You won’t be walking out of here an expert. You’ll know just enough to be dangerous.” It was a startling statement, because judges across the nation have allowed police officers with no more training than we received — 40 hours — to testify as experts. Griffin reminded us that our class was merely an introduction to bloodstain-pattern analysis, and that we would need to complete an advanced class and a mentorship program before we would be proficient enough to call ourselves experts. Yet he advised us on what to say if we were called to testify in court. On the stand, he suggested, we should avoid saying what “probably” happened, because that would give an attorney who cross-examined us an opening. “You’ll be asked: ‘How probable? Eighty-five percent? Seventy-five percent?’ And you can’t say,” he told us, alluding to the fact that an analyst’s theory of a crime often cannot be substantiated with hard numbers. It was less risky, he said, to state, “The best explanation is…”

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