>It seemed it couldn't. I flew out of the Russian capital two weeks ago for Paris, where I had a speaking engagement, and was grateful to be spared what I assumed would be the peak of the then already month-old heat wave (with temperatures in the high nineties). I fully expected it to end in my absence. After all, Russians have a saying, which is most often accurate: "Summer was short but at least not very snowy." The mercury only mounted, however. Flying back to Moscow the other day, the plane descended into what resembled a fog -- actually smoke from 520 wildfires burning across 465,656 acres of land, mostly south of the capital. (On August 2, as a result of the fires, President Dmitry Medvedev declared a state of emergency in seven regions.) The temperature below, the pilot informed us in an unsympathetic monotone, was now just under 100 degrees, which drew groans up and down the air-conditioned aisles.
It doesn't get worse than that. Or so I thought as we landed: up north in Saint Petersburg, it was in the seventies -- traditionally a sure sign that the heat would end in the capital within a couple of days. That air-conditioners, fans, and, in places, even soft drinks had sold out across Moscow would soon hardly matter.
Then my wife Tatyana and I awoke yesterday to discover that a shift in wind had sunk Moscow in smoke so thick that our apartment smelled like an ashtray (we don't smoke), and the trees in the park outside stood peering through our windows like spectral villains in a horror flick. We don't have air-conditioning (nor do most Muscovites), so we sleep with the windows open. Luckily, our apartment faces north, but the temperature inside has nevertheless hovered around 94 degrees for weeks now. A government monitoring agency reported that, overnight, pollution -- smoke from the fires, that is -- had risen to ten times above safety levels. The authorities urged Muscovites to don gauze masks, which quickly went on sale across the city for the ruble equivalent of twenty-seven cents apiece.
Vladimir Mayakovsky monument, Triumfalnaya Square
Smoke even filtered down into the metro system. The wind rose and fell and rose again. By evening, when I made my usual trip to the nearby grocery store, the smoke had thickened so much that it burned my eyes and scratched my throat. Rain would have done a lot to alleviate this situation, but the worst drought in possibly 130 years has accompanied the heat, drying up nearly half Russia's wheat crops, and presaging a disastrous year for its struggling farmers.
Really, what could be worse? Why, the latest weather forecast, which predicts temperatures of 104 this weekend, with, over the next ten days, a "cooling down" to around ninety. I told Tatyana the "good news" and she responded as most Russians would: "Our weather station is wrong only once. Every day. In its only forecast."
"That's being too pessimistic," I responded.
"You know the difference between a pessimist and an optimist?" she asked. "A pessimist says, 'Everything is rotten. Nothing can get worse.' The optimist answers, 'Oh, yes it can!'"
I'm beginning to think she's right. In the first five days of August, four record high temperatures have been registered in Moscow; in July, ten. This, in a city where entire summers slip by unnoticed as such, with interludes of eighty-degree days followed by cool showery weeks, if without much snow. Come to think of it, I've seen it snow here in June. Russians take justifiable pride in how they face the rigors of their extreme climate -- but every extreme they know relates to cold, not heat. A Siberian adage has it that, "Forty degrees below zero is not a frost, and forty-proof vodka is not real vodka." But is forty-degree-centigrade (104 Fahrenheit) heat not real heat? No one has bothered to devise a proverb for it, because in northern or central Russia it almost never happens. Heat waves and even smoke from wildfires (often from burning peat bogs) have engulfed the city before, but never like this.
Smog fills Tverskaya Street
Another Russian saying has it that, "Heat isn't vodka, but we feel drunk from it all the same." Which hasn't stopped a good number of metaphorically heat-wasted Muscovites from turning literal and tippling their way through this interminable zharishcha. I walked outside this morning to find a gang of bare-chested fellows, with shaved heads, sweaty snouts, and stretchmarked potbellies, sitting on the guardrail near our doorway, guzzling beer and smoking, and for good measure, belching and swearing about the heat. Any walk around town reveals similar scenes: men have at times dispensed with much of their clothing, and carrying a beer (plus lit cigarette) is now de rigueur. This is legal: there's no law banning open containers of alcohol in Russia. Except that in Russia, beer hardly qualifies as alcohol. (Unless possibly it's that 12-proof brew marked krepkoye.) Beer is more like a training beverage. But vodka is considered alcohol, and thus possesses, many would point out, curative properties for whatever ails you. So fighting noxious heat with medicinal doses of vodka makes perfect sense. And I don't mean some dainty cocktail, like, say, a vodka collins. The idea of mixing vodka with anything except more vodka is an abomination. Why dilute the healing fun?
The problem is, drinking vodka and, say, simultaneously swimming or boating to cool off, greatly adds to the heat wave's lethality. In the first three weeks of July alone, 1,244 people had drowned in Russia, most of them drunk, and often swimming in the country's multitudinous rivers and lakes where no lifeguards were to be had. Children of parents too smashed to see straight were also among the victims, going under as their seniors obliviously imbibed ashore. But perhaps the most horrific event occurred at Pirogovskoye Reservoir, north of Moscow, where intoxicated yachters apparently decided to scare up a few waves for bathers, and in the process ran over a twenty-five-year old woman, shredding her with their vessel's propellers.
Yet for most people, the zharishcha has not proved so tragic. In our building's courtyard, neighbors who would never socialize under other circumstance have been gathering during the long waning evenings to play chess, down vodka, eat refreshing bowls of okroshka (a cold, hangover-curing soup made with, among other ingredients, cucumbers, sour cream, kvas, radishes, and dill), and chat and play chess. A sort of pleasant lethargy has invaded many Moscow workplaces (or so I hear), with employees taking it easy, having a beer or two on the job, and commiserating about, what else, the heat.
This morning, the wind changed, and cleared away some of the smoke. After perhaps the hottest weekend yet, when it finally cools down, things will go back to normal. When exactly will that be? I don't know. But I'm an optimist. In the Russian sense.
The aftermath of Charlottesville has brought up important questions about who should be speaking, and who should be listening.
In a 2012 article published in the Public Opinion Quarterly, a group of researchers shared the results of a study they had done in the aftermath of the 2008 U.S. presidential election. The researchers, based on panels with young voters, found that the impression of Sarah Palin that Tina Fey had made famous on Saturday Night Live—“I can see Russia from my house!”—had changed the public’s feeling about the actual vice-presidential candidate. Fey’s jokes, the researchers suggested, had proven comedy’s power, especially in times of question and perhaps also in times of crisis, to shape people’s sense of the world. The jokes had woven themselves into the workings of American democracy. The researchers called it the Fey Effect.
The scientists are all talking like it’s a sure thing.
On August 21, the “moon” will pass between the Earth and the sun, obscuring the light of the latter. The government agency NASA says this will result in “one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights.” The astronomers there claim to have calculated down to the minute exactly when and where this will happen, and for how long. They have reportedly known about this eclipse for years, just by virtue of some sort of complex math.
This seems extremely unlikely. I can’t even find these eclipse calculations on their website to check them for myself.
Meanwhile the scientists tell us we can’t look at it without special glasses because “looking directly at the sun is unsafe.”
The overwhelmingly male crowd at the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville shouldn’t be seen as an absence of women in the movement overall.
Last Friday night, the white nationalists who marched on Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park all looked strikingly similar. They were almost exclusively white, of course. But they were also relatively young. And with a handful of exceptions, they were men.
While the “Unite the Right” rally brought together white nationalists of all stripes, including traditional white supremacists like Neo-Nazis and the KKK, and other racist groups that have united under the banner of the new, internet-oriented “alt-right.” The rally was violent and bloody—one of the white supremacist attendees is being charged with deliberately ramming his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring more than a dozen others.
The legend of the Confederate leader’s heroism and decency is based in the fiction of a person who never existed.
The strangest part about the continued personality cult of Robert E. Lee is how few of the qualities his admirers profess to see in him he actually possessed.
Memorial Day has the tendency to conjure up old arguments about the Civil War. That’s understandable; it was created to mourn the dead of a war in which the Union was nearly destroyed, when half the country rose up in rebellion in defense of slavery. This year, the removal of Lee’s statue in New Orleans has inspired a new round of commentary about Lee, not to mention protests on his behalf by white supremacists.
The myth of Lee goes something like this: He was a brilliant strategist and devoted Christian man who abhorred slavery and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together.
Trump has again recirculated a debunked history about terrorism. But what the general was really doing in the Philippines can tell us something more important about America.
Another day, another sputtering orgy of confusion following a cryptic Donald Trump tweet. This one came Thursday, a few hours after a van plowed into a crowd on the Barcelona pedestrian mall of Las Ramblas, an attack claimed by the reeling Islamic State. The president replied, via iPhone:
Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!
It seemed to be a reference to a story Trump told at campaign rallies during the 2016 primaries, which in turn was a garbled version of an Islamophobic meme that has made its way around the internet for years. In the fable, the legendary U.S. General John J. Pershing once ended a wave of Muslim terrorism in the Philippines by executing prisoners with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood. Other superstitious fighters were so terrified by the prospect of being killed while touching part of a forbidden animal, the story goes, that fighting immediately stopped, for some period of time. (For 25 years, Trump said at a North Charleston, South Carolina, rally in February 2016; a few weeks later, in Costa Mesa, California, it had jumped up to 42.)
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
President Trump is meeting with his aides on Friday at Camp David—and some unorthodox ideas are on the table.
Erik Prince thinks he can turn around the war in Afghanistan, and he’s got a PowerPoint deck to explain the whole thing. The Blackwater founder brought it with him to the Corner Bakery on North Capitol Street in Washington last Thursday, printed out and placed in a presentation binder. He’s been shopping it around D.C. And on Friday, when President Trump huddles with his advisers at Camp David to plot a way forward, it will be in the mix.
The 16-year-old war in Afghanistan has become a central point of conflict in the White House as the administration passes the half-year mark without having settled on a new strategy. Trump has so far rejected the proposals brought to his desk. The troop increases favored by his generals, Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, are strongly opposed by his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and the president himself is skeptical of such approaches.
Antifa’s activists say they’re battling burgeoning authoritarianism on the American right. Are they fueling it instead?
Since 1907, Portland, Oregon, has hosted an annual Rose Festival. Since 2007, the festival had included a parade down 82nd Avenue. Since 2013, the Republican Party of Multnomah County, which includes Portland, had taken part. This April, all of that changed.
In the days leading up to the planned parade, a group called the Direct Action Alliance declared, “Fascists plan to march through the streets,” and warned, “Nazis will not march through Portland unopposed.” The alliance said it didn’t object to the Multnomah GOP itself, but to “fascists” who planned to infiltrate its ranks. Yet it also denounced marchers with “Trump flags” and “red maga hats” who could “normalize support for an orange man who bragged about sexually harassing women and who is waging a war of hate, racism and prejudice.” A second group, Oregon Students Empowered, created a Facebook page called “Shut down fascism! No nazis in Portland!”
The tendency to converse with dogs, cats, and hamsters ultimately says more about people than it does about their pets.
“Do you think it’s weird that I tell Nermal I love her multiple times a day?”
My sister’s question was muffled, her face stuffed in the fur of her six-month-old kitten (named for the cat from Garfield). We were sitting in the living room of her apartment and, as always, Nermal was vying for our attention—pawing at our hair, walking along the couch behind us, spreading across our laps and looking up at us with her big, bright eyes. She’s almost aggressively cute, and inspires the kind of love that demands to be vocalized. I’d find it weirder if my sister weren’t doing so.
The question made me think about my own two cats, and our many and varied interactions throughout the day. I work from home and find myself narrating my tasks to them (“Okay, Martin, no more Twitter”) or singing impromptu songs (“It’s treat time / Time-to-eat time”). I tell them I love them; sometimes I ask them if they know how much I love them. On days spent away from my apartment, I return home and greet them by asking how their day was. It’s not like I expect them to understand or respond; it just sort of happens. I’d never really given it much thought. I don’t think I’m weird for talking to my pets like they’re human beings, if only because so many other pet-owners do the same. But why do we do it? I got the anthrozoologist and professor of psychology at Western Carolina University Hal Herzog on the phone to talk it out.
Just seven months into his presidency, Trump appears to have achieved a status usually reserved for the final months of a term.
In many ways, the Trump presidency never got off the ground: The president’s legislative agenda is going nowhere, his relations with foreign leaders are frayed, and his approval rating with the American people never enjoyed the honeymoon period most newly elected presidents do. Pundits who are sympathetic toward, or even neutral on, the president keep hoping that the next personnel move—the appointment of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, say, or the long-rumored-but-never-delivered departure of Steve Bannon—will finally get the White House in gear.
But what if they, and many other people, are thinking about it wrong? Maybe the reality is not that the Trump presidency has never gotten started. It’s that he’s already reached his lame-duck period. For most presidents, that comes in the last few months of a term. For Trump, it appears to have arrived early, just a few months into his term. The president did always brag that he was a fast learner.