Longreads Best of 2012: Howard Riefs

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Howard Riefs is a prolific Longreader and a communications consultant in Chicago.  


Best Series

This Land, Dan Barry, The New York Times   

“The dateline is Elyria, Ohio, a city of 55,000 about 30 miles southwest of Cleveland. You know this town, even if you have never been here. A place buffeted by time and the economy, a place where the expectations have been lowered, but not hopes for better days to come. A place where politicians, in this election year, say the American dream is still possible.”  


Best Profile

“We Are Alive,” David Remnick, The New Yorker 

“A bunch of songs later, after a run-through of the set-ending ‘Thunder Road,’ Springsteen hops off the stage, drapes a towel around his neck, and sits down in the folding chair next to me. “ ‘The top of the show, see, is a kind of welcoming, and you are getting everyone comfortable and challenging them at the same time,’ he says. ‘You’re setting out your themes. You’re getting them comfortable, because, remember, people haven’t seen this band. There are absences that are hanging there. That’s what we’re about right now, the communication between the living and the gone. Those currents even run through the dream world of pop music!’ ”    


Best Collection of Stories From a Writer in 2012

Thomas Lake, Sports Illustrated

“The Boy They Couldn’t Kill”

 “On Feb. 17, 2000, Rae Carruth’s attorney filed an answer to Saundra Adams in Mecklenburg District Court. It was one of the more brazen counterclaims in the annals of U.S. jurisprudence: a demand for permanent custody of Chancellor Lee Adams. ‘The Defendant,’ the filing read, ‘is a fit and proper person to exercise care, custody and control of the minor child and it is in the best interest and welfare of the minor child that his care, custody and control be vested with the Defendant at the conclusion of the Defendant’s legal proceedings.’

“No, it wasn’t enough that Saundra Adams had to spend 28 days watching her only child die. Had to watch her grandson spend the first six weeks of his life in a tangle of wires and machines. Had to become a single mother again at age 42. Had to hide from reporters day and night. Had to worry about more than $400,000 in medical bills that her descendants had racked up while fighting for their lives. None of that was enough. Now she would have to draw from the little time and energy and money she had left and fight to keep the sole remaining heir to the Adams name away from the man who had wanted him dead.”  

“The Legacy Of Wes Leonard”  

“After the autopsy, when the doctor found white blossoms of scar tissue on Wes Leonard’s heart, he guessed they had been secretly building there for several months. That would mean Wes’s heart was slowly breaking throughout the Fennville Blackhawks’ 2010—11 regular season, when he led them in scoring and the team won 20 games without a loss. It would mean his heart was already moving toward electrical meltdown in December, when he scored 26 on Decatur with that big left shoulder clearing a path to the hoop. It would mean his heart swelled and weakened all through January (25 against Hopkins, 33 against Martin) even as it pumped enough blood to fill at least 10 swimming pools.”

“Did This Man Really Cut Michael Jordan?”

“The most infamous roster decision in high school basketball history came down 33 years ago on the edge of tobacco country, between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, in an old town full of white wooden rocking chairs. The decision took physical form in two handwritten lists on a gymnasium door, simultaneously beautiful for the names they carried and crushing for the names they did not. A parade of fragile teenage boys passed by, stopping to read the lists, studying them like inscriptions in stone. Imagine these boys in the time of their sorting, their personal value distilled to a binary question, yes or no, and they breathe deeply, unseen storms gathering behind their ribs, below their hearts, in the hollows of fear and exhilaration.

The chief decision-maker loved those boys, which made his choice all the harder. He gave them his time seven days a week, whether they needed shooting practice at six in the morning or a slice of his wife’s sweet-potato pie. His house was their house and his old green Ford Maverick was their car and his daughter was their baby sister, and he liked the arrangement. He was tall and slender, like the longleaf pines that covered Cape Fear, and when he smiled in pictures, his dark eyes were narrow, hazy, as if he’d just awakened from a pleasant dream. His nickname, Pop, evoked some withered old patriarch, but Clifton Herring was only 26, one of the youngest varsity coaches in North Carolina, more older brother than father to his boys, still a better player than most of them. They’d never seen a shooter so pure. One day during practice he made 78 straight free throws.”  


Best Election Story

“Obama’s Way,” Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair

There are no wide-open spaces in presidential life, only nooks and crannies, and the front of Air Force One is one of them. When he’s on his plane, small gaps of time sometimes open in his schedule, and there are fewer people around to leap in and consume them. In this case, Obama had just found himself with 30 free minutes.

“What you got for me?” He asked and plopped down in the chair beside his desk. His desk is designed to tilt down when the plane is on the ground so that it might be perfectly flat when the plane is nose up, in flight. It was now perfectly flat. “I want to play that game again,” I said. “Assume that in 30 minutes you will stop being president. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me how to be president.”  


Best New Writer Discovery

“The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever,” Michael J. Mooney, D Magazine   

“Most people think perfection in bowling is a 300 game, but it isn’t. Any reasonably good recreational bowler can get lucky one night and roll 12 consecutive strikes. If you count all the bowling alleys all over America, somebody somewhere bowls a 300 every night. But only a human robot can roll three 300s in a row—36 straight strikes—for what’s called a ‘perfect series.’ More than 95 million Americans go bowling, but, according to the United States Bowling Congress, there have been only 21 certified 900s since anyone started keeping track.

“Bill Fong’s run at perfection started as most of his nights do, with practice at around 5:30 pm. He bowls in four active leagues and he rolls at least 20 games a week, every week. That night, January 18, 2010, he wanted to focus on his timing.”  


Best Business Story

How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” Charles Duhigg, New York Times Magazine
 

“There are, however, some brief periods in a person’s life when old routines fall apart and buying habits are suddenly in flux. One of those moments — the moment, really — is right around the birth of a child, when parents are exhausted and overwhelmed and their shopping patterns and brand loyalties are up for grabs. But as Target’s marketers explained to Pole, timing is everything. Because birth records are usually public, the moment a couple have a new baby, they are almost instantaneously barraged with offers and incentives and advertisements from all sorts of companies. Which means that the key is to reach them earlier, before any other retailers know a baby is on the way. Specifically, the marketers said they wanted to send specially designed ads to women in their second trimester, which is when most expectant mothers begin buying all sorts of new things, like prenatal vitamins and maternity clothing. ‘Can you give us a list?’ the marketers asked.”  


Best Obligatory Stories from David Grann and Chris Jones

“The Yankee Comandante,” David Grann, The New Yorker

 “One day in the spring of 1958, while Morgan was visiting a guerrilla camp for a meeting of the Second Front’s chiefs of staff, he encountered a rebel he had never seen before: small and slender, with a face shielded by a cap. Only up close was it evident that the rebel was a woman. She was in her early twenties, with dark eyes and tawny skin, and, to conceal her identity, she had cut her curly light-brown hair short and dyed it black. Though she had a delicate beauty, she locked and loaded a gun with the ease of a bank robber. Morgan later said of a pistol that she carried, ‘She knows how to use it.’

“Her name was Olga Rodríguez.”  


“Animals,” Chris Jones, Esquire

“(Sargent Steve) Blake was parked near downtown Zanesville, sipping his coffee, when his radio crackled shortly after five o’clock, two hours into just another shift. ‘I had no idea that was going to be one of the worst calls of my life,’ he says. He flicked on his lights and sirens. Maybe ten minutes after five he was at the start of Thompson’s driveway, where the fence narrowed into a pipe gate, still locked in place. Deputy Jonathan Merry, an open-faced twenty-five-year-old, arrived only a minute or two after him. They stood at the bottom of the driveway and saw the bear, now circling down by the gate. The lion was farther up and to their right. Blake told Merry to go to the Kopchak house, the second house down the road, and take a statement from Dolores Kopchak. She might help them form a clearer picture of what they now faced, and clarity was important in a situation like this. He also told Merry that if the bear or the lion pushed its way through the fence, he should shoot it.

“Sam Kopchak could see across to the bottom of the driveway from the little window in the door to his tack room, tucked away in a corner of his barn. He saw the officers talking to each other and thought, They’re going to need more than two.”


Best Food Story

“Chicken of the trees,” Mike Sula, Chicago Reader 

“ ‘The favor of your company is requested,’ read the invitation, ‘for the most local of harvest meals.’ I sent this to a healthy mix of 30 eaters both adventurous and particular, and set a date. On the menu: juleps made with the mint growing from my compost pile, coconut curry simmered with the mysterious squash that had taken over the backyard, dinosaur kale, cornbread, and the main event: a thick burgoo, featuring ‘heirloom tomato, tree nut, and alley-fattened wild caught game.’

“I didn’t expect nearly all of the invitees to accept, but evidently curiosity about urban squirrel’s viability as a protein source isn’t merely a weird, solitary obsession. A few days before the event I defrosted and cut up the legs and saddles, seared them off in a pot, and deglazed it with Madeira, a la James Beard. I sauteed diced bacon, onions, and garlic, added homemade chicken stock and the squirrel pieces, and braised them slowly.”    

Best Stunt Story

“What Happens When A 35-Year-Old Man Retakes The SAT?” Drew Magary, Deadspin

“Many times, I had to skip a question because I couldn’t figure out the answer, and then I got that paranoia that’s unique to someone taking a standardized test. I became fearful that I had failed to skip over the question on my answer sheet. So every five seconds, I’d double-check my sheet to make sure I didn’t fill out my answers in the wrong slots. One time I did this, and so I had to erase the answers and move them all forward. Only I had a shitty eraser, which failed to erase my mark and instead smeared the mark all over the rest of my sheet.”

Read more guest picks from Longreads Best of 2012.

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