All through December, we’ve been featuring Longreads’ Best of 2022. Today, we close out this year’s Best of Longreads package with a list of every story that was chosen as No. 5 in our weekly Top 5 email. Number five stories often have a special quality; sometimes light, sometimes humorous, often poignant, each number five story is a welcome distraction and a very important part of our weekly mix. Enjoy!


Fall Risk

Madeleine Watts | The Believer | March 25, 2020 | 5746 words

Madeleine Watts’ essay was published in March 2020, but the dis-ease she describes from unexplained fainting episodes is very relatable as the pandemic endures. As she examines her life and experiences leading up to and after being declared “weak with no known cause,” Watts suggests that “Our bodies are the containers for our thoughts…” It’s only by considering life stresses in hindsight (terminal family illnesses, immigration concerns, and fear for her own health) that it becomes easy to see why her body would suddenly shut down from sheer overload: “…the body sometimes articulates things that the mind cannot.” —KS

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The Secret MVP of Sports? The Port-a-Potty

Ryan Hockensmith | ESPN | January 5, 2022 | 4,311 words

There’s nothing quite like it. You’re out an outdoor event when nature calls; looking around, your heart sinks when see that your only option is a flimsy plastic shed, behind the door of which untold horrors lurk. Odd as it is, though, you might fear that prospect a bit less after reading Hockensmith’s breezy tour through the history and importance of port-o-potties (and, crucially, the professional maintenance thereof). Whether following a crew of Buffalo sanitation workers undertaking a frenzied early-game half-suck in the parking lots around the Bills’ stadium or speaking with academics about the future of equitable sanitation, the piece never strays from its founding charm. By the time you’re finished, you may not be ready to leave indoor plumbing behind, but you’ll have a newfound equanimity the next time you do have to hazard a trip to the Box of Uncertainty. (Not always, though; as Hockensmith knowingly writes, Sometimes the cost of having to hold it isn’t as bad as the price of getting to go.) And no matter how much pre-gaming you’ve done, I promise you this: you’ll never try to run across the roof of one. —PR

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The Undoing of Joss Whedon

Lila Shapiro | Vulture | January 17, 2022 | 8,989 words

The ’90s were a different era — a time before Netflix binging — when a whole agonizing week passed between each episode of your favorite show. Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired on Fridays at 7 p.m., and I was either ready on the sofa or scrambling to record it on VHS tape. I loved it! To me, Buffy was a symbol of “girl power” (a beloved ’90s phrase), a young blonde woman finally playing the hero rather than the victim. Lila Shapiro, however, writes that the show can be interpreted differently: “the titillating tale of a woman in leather pants who is brutalized by monsters.” Disconcerting for me to consider, but in line with the recent revelations about Joss Whedon, Buffy‘s creator.

Shapiro has carried out extraordinary research for this article, interviewing Whedon’s former colleagues and lovers, as well as Whedon himself. Once a god to his fans, public revelations from his ex-wife and former cast detailing affairs with young actresses and casual cruelty have led to his fall. People are conflicted about whether he was merely difficult or crossed the line into abuse, and Shapiro finds no clear answers. Whedon is keen to deflect blame, claiming that, with regard to affairs with cast members, “He felt he ‘had’ to sleep with them, that he was ‘powerless’ to resist.” An uncomfortable and frustrating read — which may tarnish some childhood memories — but a brilliant exploration into the ruin of Whedon’s reputation. —CW

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Mementos Mori

Sophie Haigney | The Baffler | January 27, 2022 | 1,851 words

When was the last time you saw an ashtray? I don’t recall, but I do remember the heavy, green glass ashtrays my parents used every day. Growing up, my brother and I had to do the dishes. I refused to wash those ashtrays, my only form of protest against their pack-a-day habit. Ashtrays are among the objects that Sophie Haigney discusses in her review of Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects at The Baffler. The book’s essays cover objects that, for one reason or another, failed or fell out of fashion. It asks: “What was it that has disappeared and why? And then, what was the significance of this loss?” The loss of some things, such as ashtrays — for some — is nostalgic. There’s less nostalgia for zeppelins, all-plastic houses, and flying boats. What I enjoyed most about Haigney’s review is that it got me thinking about a social change that seemed to happen instantly, but in reality took place over decades. As Haigney responds to Catherine Slessor’s essay: “Ashtrays are no longer status symbols, displayed waist-high in suburban living rooms. Now, there is something illicit about possessing an ashtray, associated as it is with the mild rebellion of smoking cigarettes.” Slessor writes, “The ashtray is not only an adjunct to social pleasure, but a memento mori, a reminder that you are dancing with death.” —KS

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What Was the TED Talk?

Oscar Schwartz | The Drift | January 31, 2022 | 4,757 words

Even at the height of the TED era, I’d never bought into the idea of a TED Talk — I could never get past the ridiculousness of it all: the thought leader du jour under a spotlight, pacing back and forth on stage, taking each step, serving up each line, even delivering each pause with emotion and passion. Their aim? To disseminate knowledge about the future of our world with other hungry minds, but also to share their bold ideas for how to be better, superior humans. (“The TED philosophy encouraged boldness of vision, but also denial of reality,” writes Schwartz. “As such, it was a magnet for narcissistic, recognition-seeking characters and their Theranos-like projects.”) I enjoyed Schwartz’s exploration of TED’s history and approach, and the rise and fall of the TED Talk, which had a very distinct format fusing interestingness with storytelling to create “inspiresting” content. —CLR

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Suzanne Takes You Down to Her Place Near the River

Lacy Warner | Guernica | February 7, 2022 | 5,082 words

Suzanne Verdal, the infamous muse and subject of the Leonard Cohen song that bears her name, is a real person. And unlike Cohen who passed away in 2016, she’s still alive. Because she’s a human being, we know that Suzanne is much more than simply a muse, but did she have artistic aspirations of her own? At Guernica, writer Lacy Warner is surprised by what she finds out about Suzanne’s true super power: “In Suzanne, I saw the possibility not only of reckoning with what muses might be owed, but the chance to strike a blow for all the women who have inspired men’s art while struggling to be recognized for their own.” —KS

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On Winter

Matt Dinan | The Hedgehog Review | February 1, 2020 | 1,771 words

I was born and have lived all my life in a place known for the harshest winters outside Siberia. When people in other places say it’s cold out, I try to stay quiet. (After all, cold is relative and it’s all about what you’re used to.) The radio announcer declared yesterday a beautiful day. (It was -20 Celsius / -4 Fahrenheit. It was a lovely day.) But at this point in February, when winter is well ensconced and spring is still a distant dream, we start to think of moving somewhere, anywhere warmer. Matt Dinan, in his piece at The Hedgehog Review, understands reality in a winter community and my thinking around this time of year: “But if we are being honest, it really is quite hard to sustain the illusion that there is anything good about winter after the hundredth day or so of temperatures below freezing.” This terrific essay looks at cold through the lens of poetry and literature, as Dinan collects winter reflections from Henry Miller, Emily Dickinson, and others, and of how the people of winter communities regularly faced with heavy snow and dangerous conditions help one another to get through it: “When a snowstorm is coming, we’re called on, in a relatively low-stakes way, to evaluate, deliberate, and decide—together…Schools, businesses, government offices, sports teams, choirs, volunteer groups, families, friends—every part of civil society needs to decide whether it’s worth staying open, going out, or hunkering down at home…The edifying character of winter, then, has less to do with heroic individualism than with its capacity to force us into something less common: community.” —KS

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— March —

Getaway Driver

Lauren Hough | Texas Highways | March 1, 2022 | 3,135 words

Initially, I thought this beautiful essay would be about Bonnie and Clyde, but it turns out they are just a side note. Hough resists any temptation to glamorize her story with the famous crime gang — instead, it is the small yet compelling details about her grandpa and the community of Shamrock that drew me in. I could envision the scene as Hough describes chatting to her grandpa on the porch, smelling his pipe tobacco as he blew “smoke rings for me to slap apart before they floated to the ceiling.” The stories her grandpa relays are pulled from the haze of the Alzheimer’s that is gradually consuming his thoughts. He is particularly animated telling his childhood tale of Bonnie and Clyde hiding in the family barn and giving him a box of chocolate bars. It could be true. Hough visits the scene in Shamrock and finds out the gang was indeed there at one point. Hough vividly paints the characters she meets in the community, who question her doubting her grandpa’s story: “‘Why wouldn’t it be true?’ Hazel responds. ‘It’s his story.’” And so is this essay — it is a touching homage to her grandpa, no one else. —CW

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The Great American Antler Boom

Abe Streep | The New Yorker | March 7, 2022 | 5,307 words

I found myself engrossed in Abe Streep’s account of a subculture I knew very little about — didn’t know existed, in fact — the world of the shed hunter. Initially, I suspected a shed hunter was someone who ambles into the woods to take a casual glance about to see if a deer antler catches their eye. I was wrong. Streep illuminates me with vivid descriptions of shedder social media stars, furious bidding wars, and the May hunt — which sounds more like an intense endurance race. At 6:00 a.m. on May 1st, public lands in Jackson are opened up to antler seekers, and Streep describes the ensuing mad scramble, where people “raced across the water and ascended into tawny meadows. One rider was bucked off his horse and injured himself. A teen-ager from Montana alleged that someone stole an antler he had spotted first.” This story made me consider both the foibles and ingenuity of the human race; it was fascinating to learn of the obsessions and livelihoods formed around a bone that another animal discards as waste. It is very human of us. —CW

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Under The Big Sky

Drew Magary | Defector | March 7, 2022 | 2,443 words

As a teenager, I loved the Baz Luhrmann song “Everyone’s Free to Wear Sunscreen,” but it was not until much later that I learned to appreciate the line, “Be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they are gone.” A couple of ski accidents and a knee surgery later, I sure do miss those springy youthful knees. These lyrics were in my head reading this beautiful essay. Like the song, it is a lesson on how to get the most out of life — even when your body does not work in the way it once did. It’s a gentle piece — Drew Magary simply reminiscing about skiing with his Dad, his friends, and his family — but the writing draws you in, letting you share his happiness. Over the years, this joy becomes peppered with frustrations as new limitations appear: “I could feel my thighs and spine ready to burst as I held crucial turns. When I felt myself going too fast, I reflexively dragged my poles behind me, as if that would slow me down any. Skiing will expose you like that.” But, even while dragging his poles, Magary is still awed by simply being on a mountain and declares he will keep skiing even as his body and ability deteriorate, “It’s not about conquering the mountain. It’s simply about going there. A mountain is a god.” A sentiment with which I concur — even with my dodgy knees, I also still ski. —CW

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Nicolas Cage Can Explain It All

Gabriella Paiella | GQ Magazine | March 22, 2022 | 6,673 words

As someone who’s been on the journalist side of plenty of celebrity profiles, believe me when I tell you that it’s not easy to break people out of autopilot press mode. Just because you sat in Jennifer Lopez’s house or walked around with Shia LeBeouf or enjoyed a cordial but stilted breakfast with Eric Bana (all real examples) doesn’t mean you’re going to leave having gotten a single milligram of candor from them. But not every celebrity is Nicolas Cage. And not every writer is Gabriella Paiella. Paiella, whose GQ profiles of Diplo and Lil Dicky have already cemented her as the magazine’s preeminent anthropologist of White Dudes, captures Cage at the perfect moment: coming off a tear of 46 movies to pull himself out of bankruptcy, and looking to the future. Yes, as a subject he delivers everything you hope he might — the guy opens the door in a goddamn kung fu suit — but it’s Paiella’s assiduous secondary reporting and lovely arm’s-length affection that makes the piece a gem. “Nothing about him feels like an affectation,” she writes. “Not the kung fu suit, not the talking crow. He is a true eccentric holdout in the increasingly banal landscape of American celebrity. You never see him posting on social media, flashing his veneers above a faux self-deprecating or inspirational caption, or giving pithy sound bites on a red carpet. The man is physically incapable of pith.” You already knew Cage was in National Treasure; now you’ll know he’s one himself. —PR

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— April —

My Friend Goo

Deb Olin Unferth | The Paris Review | March 28, 2022 | 3,463 words

“In March 2020 the entire human world was out walking,” begins Deb Olin Unferth’s charming, tender essay. We all remember that time; in those earliest days of terrifying mystery, the only thing we could do was find whatever unoccupied bit of the planet we could, and move through it. While most of us did so to avoid anyone and everyone, however, the writer found connection — with a massive goose she names Goo. There’s more to this story, as she reminds us throughout: a long-dead older brother, a strained relationship, the hostile vagaries of the natural world. Above all, as she recounts her growing intimacy with Goo, the essay serves as a paean to the idea of difficult friendship. There’s less of a wallop here than a prolonged, low-grade emotional ache; Unferth draws you through her life and loss with an unerring sense of pace, and from the very beginning you sense that there’s only one place this path can end. It does, of course, at least in a way. But that doesn’t mean you won’t hold your breath waiting for the punch to the gut. —PR

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The Legend of The Music Tree

Ellen Ruppel Shell | Smithsonian Magazine | April 4, 2022 | 5282 words

I had never heard of “The Tree” until reading Ellen Ruppel Shell’s fascinating essay, but in certain circles, The Tree is not only famous, it is magical. A mahogany tree originating from the Chiquibul jungle in Belize, its beautiful wood is prized by carpenters and luthiers — with musicians claiming guitars made from The Tree produce an extraordinary sound. Shell wanted to discover more about this Tolkienesque-sounding entity and immerses herself in its story: from being cut down in 1965 to the hunt for any remaining stashes of the precious (and finite) material today. A cross between an adventure story and a collector’s tale, Shell throws in some psychology for good measure: Does this wood actually create a unique sound, or is its coveted nature influencing what people hear? This detailed exploration made me sit down and consider the use of rarity to define prestige. —CW

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Too Much Vino and Project Veritas: My Extremely Weird Evening with James O’Keefe

Laura Jedeed | Rolling Stone | February 1, 2022 | 3,768 words

This story recounts one event — but what an event it was. Laura Jedeed details the launch of James O’Keefe’s latest book, American Muckraker, and her incredulity at what takes place oozes from her words. She describes “a 50-minute musical-theater production dedicated to telling O’Keefe’s story in song, dance, and strobe light.” Jedeed uses the visual prompts on stage (“A telephone repairman. Osama Bin Laden. A suit-and-tie journalist who interviews whistleblowers on YouTube”) to explain in detail the story they refer to, minus the reverence afforded the stage version. Jedeed admits to not thinking much of James O’Keefe’s work — his alt-right group, Project Veritas, attempts to discredit mainstream media and progressive groups — and, while still recognizing the problems with objective journalism, declares this “self-styled anti-elite crusader a lot like his musical theater: flashy, sometimes entertaining, and entirely pretend.” This essay aims to uncover O’Keefe’s end game — something I doubted would be revealed through a book launch — but in fact, the bizarre show O’Keefe dedicates to himself (and stars in) demonstrates a lot: “It isn’t about journalism. It isn’t even about fame. It’s about a boy who loves to dance and wanted to be part of a club that would not have him even as he railed against it.” —CW

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I Lived the #VanLife. It Wasn’t Pretty.

Caity Weaver | The New York Times Magazine | April 20, 2022 | 4,410 words

Sometimes it is fun to read about someone having a terrible time. Before I am judged too harshly for this, I offer you Caity Weaver’s diverting and self-deprecating essay in defense. She spends nearly 5,000 words whinging about just how much she hated living #VanLife for a few days. (Her editor made her do it. I am glad he did.) There is something pure about such things as Weaver eating fistfuls of cheese-its in the dark when figuring out the camp stove is just too much. Her descriptions — coated in cheesy crumbs rather than sugar — are wholly relatable and throw two fingers up to the Instagram illusion. I am thankful for this, being guilty of falling into the thrall of the #VanLife tag myself, endlessly scrolling through pictures of beautiful people looking wistfully at beautiful things — all through flung-open-van-doors. I have even found myself on Craigslist looking for camper vans for sale (expensive as it turns out, I blame the tag). Fortunately, this van exposé has given me another reason to stick to my tent. —CW

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— May —

In the Court of the Liver King

Madeleine Aggeler | GQ | May 5, 2022 | 3,054 words

At the nexus of Influencer and Extreme Fitness Bro lies Brian Johnson, a man who drags unholy amounts of weight through the Texas woods. A man who does burpees on crowded New York subway cars. A man who, along with his family, sleeps without mattresses in order to better mimic the behavior of his primal ancestors. A man who eats a pound of raw liver a day — yes, a day. It’s hard for me to type these words without laughing, yet the joy is nothing compared to that derived from reading Madeleine Aggeler’s rollicking profile of the man known to millions only as The Liver King. Will you leave feeling sorry for his poor kids, sparring in their mansion’s living room and taking a fork to pigs’ heads in some Lord of the Flies fever dream of prepubescence? For sure. But if a magazine is going to give multiple pages to a bearded madman and his paleolithic worldview, you could do a lot worse than this vivid (but still humanizing) portrait. And a word of warning to my vegetarian friends: maybe look for a text-only version, lest the many photos of glistening organs and animal parts drive you to apoplexy. —PR

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The Untold Story of the White House’s Weirdly Hip Record Collection

Rob Brunner | Washingtonian | May 3, 2022 | 2,022 words

Did you know that the White House has an official record collection? Can you imagine Ronald and Nancy Reagan doing the Electric Slide on music night? (Apparently that never happened as the records were put in storage not long after Reagan took office. Sorry for creating that image / nightmare in your mind.) Although the collection includes everything from Perry Como to the Clash, the vast majority of the albums have never been played and the last time it was expanded was in 1981. If you had the chance to update the collection with records from the previous 40 years, what would you choose? What would you want to put into the ears of the sitting president, their administration, and all the administrations to come? John Chuldenko, President Jimmy Carter’s grandson, once shot footage for a documentary about the White House’s record collection and is keen to add to it. “…it would be a blast to bring the collection into the 21st century. The White House record library ‘is a treasure, and people need to know about it,’ Chuldenko says. ‘We need to update this. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.’” “And there, finally, was the collection: record-filled boxes stacked up in front of the movie screen. The LPs had been kept in their original sleeves, which were inserted into color-coded binders (light blue for pop, yellow for classical, etc.). Each was adorned with the presidential seal and a foil stamp that read WHITE HOUSE RECORD LIBRARY. The whole thing reeked of gravitas and respectability—except that inside a binder, rather than some speech delivered by FDR in the ’40s, you might find a mint-condition copy of Macho Man by the Village People.” —KS

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The Bronc-busting, Cow-punching, Death-defying Legend of Boots O’Neal

Christian Wallace | Texas Monthly | May 11, 2022 | 6,139 words

“This morning’s chore: Boots and three of his Stetsoned coworkers must round up some two dozen bulls scattered across a vast grazing pasture, drive them to a set of pens about a mile away, and load the one-ton beeves into a livestock trailer so they can be hauled to another division of the Four Sixes, the legendary West Texas ranch that sprawls across 260,000 acres…To an outsider, this might feel like a scene straight out of Lonesome Dove. For Boots, this is Tuesday morning. He’s repeated this task countless times—his career began during the Truman administration and has now spanned seven decades—but if given the chance to be doing anything on earth, this is what he would choose every time.” Now is probably a good time to mention that this particular Boots, out on a horse rounding up Angus bulls in rural Texas, is 89-years-old. While Boots (a.k.a Billy Milton O’Neal) has decades on me, I am at the age where I’m starting to think more about aging not just with grace, but also vitality and a side of sass. What are the keys to aging well? If you take some pointers from Boots in this superlative profile by Christian Wallace at Texas Monthly, aging well means not just doing what you love, but being intentional, and becoming part of a community of people who share your joy. Oh, and let’s not forget the dancing. “Boots and Nelda were happy together. Perhaps more than anywhere else, they found common ground on the dance floor. They would dance to country music, waltzes, and rags, and they loved to two-step.” —KS

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How The “Mother Of Yoda” Conquered Hollywood — And Why She Disappeared

Falene Nurse | Inverse | May 3, 2022 | 2,767 words

Growing up, two of my favorite films were The Dark Crystal and The Labyrinth. The worlds they created enthralled me — filled with magic, weirdness, and ethereal beauty. Iconic to this day, they were pulled from the impressive imagination of Jim Henson, but, behind the scenes, there were other magicians at work — the puppeteers. In this profile of Wendy Froud, Falene Nurse explains how she sculpted The Dark Crystal’s puppet leads, Kira and Jen (her first job out of art school, no less). In The Labyrinth, she lent not just her talent to the production; her baby, Toby Froud, played the child kidnapped by the Goblin King (a.k.a David Bowie in leggings so tight they came with a free anatomy lesson). Froud was even part of the force that created a certain little Jedi, earning her the nickname “the Mother of Yoda.” Yet, after this gluttony of ’80s icons, Froud seemingly disappeared for many years; Nurse reveals how CGI gradually destroyed the art of the puppet and Froud’s disdain for the Hollywood scene. Then in 2019, some new magic happened: Netflix commissioned a prequel series, The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance. Froud was brought back on board to help recreate the elegance of that world — real puppets and all. And guess what? Baby Froud, now all grown-up and freed from David Bowie, worked with his parents on The Age of Resistance as the Design Supervisor. Now that’s a Hollywood ending. —CW

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— June —

It’s 10 P.M. Do You Know Where Your Cat Is?

Egill Bjarnason | Hakai Magazine | May 17, 2022 / 3,900 words

I am writing this blurb with my cat, Trouble, sitting on my lap, as is her wont lately during work hours. Once upon a time she preferred to nestle between my husband’s arms while he typed on his laptop. What changed? Who knows. Cats are fickle. They are wonderful. They are also, as this essay details, murderous. With equal doses of love, humor, and scientific data, Egill Bjarnason illuminates the danger that free-roaming (aka outdoor) cats pose to other species they see as prey — birds, namely, which are especially vulnerable on islands like Iceland, where Bjarnason lives. In cultures accustomed to letting cats prowl in yards and alleys, coming inside only when they please, the notion of keeping them indoors at all times or, as some towns in Iceland are making a matter of policy, after an evening curfew can feel like a betrayal. How to navigate this conundrum? Bjarnason offers some suggestions. I for one am happy to keep Trouble in our apartment, where she routinely directs her killer instinct at the mice that sometimes take up residence under our stove. My husband once claimed, his eyes wide in horror, that he witnessed her swallow one of them whole. RIP Mr. Mouse, but better you than a rare bird. —SD

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Just How Important Is Eye Contact Between Musicians? And What Does It Signal?

Ariane Todes | Classical Music | May 27, 2022 | 2,015 words

I play bass in a band. When my lead guitarist and I lock eyes, it’s because a) we’re counting up to make sure we both hit the chorus of Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” correctly b) our singer decided to sing an additional verse before the guitar solo usually starts, or c) our singer accidentally skipped a verse and we’re taking the song home early. It’s these quick glances and smiles — camaraderie across the stage — that averts disaster mid-song and helps us stay in the moment with our singer, who is often deep in the thrall of the Blues. This is why I was fascinated by Ariane Todes’ dive into orchestral eye contact at Classical Music. While the members of the orchestra outnumber our little four-piece by dozens, the purpose of eye contact from the conductor to various musicians and sections conveys something quite a bit different: “Basically, a conductor only has six things to tell the orchestra: it’s either faster or slower, longer or shorter, or louder or softer, and everything else is based on that. The eyes and face are what communicates all the other things.” And, while the Blues and classical music differ vastly in style, strong eye contact among the musicians pays off in good vibes on-stage and off. “But occasionally there are fleeting moments where something passes wordlessly – friendship, encouragement, solidarity, shared endeavour, perhaps even love – and maybe that makes eye contact the very essence of music.” —KS

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The Google Engineer Who Thinks the Company’s AI Has Come to Life

Nitasha Tiku | The Washington Post | June 11, 2022 | 2,621 words

Could it be? After conversations with Google’s artificially intelligent chatbot LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications), engineer Blake Lemoine maintains that the bot has achieved sentience. Google vice president Blaise Aguera y Arcas has dismissed Lemoine’s claims, despite the fact he has “argued that neural networks — a type of architecture that mimics the human brain — were striding toward consciousness.” Lemoine’s on administrative leave from Google and decided to go public. While the story sounds like it comes straight out of science fiction, Lemoine is not alone. “Lemoine is not the only engineer who claims to have seen a ghost in the machine recently. The chorus of technologists who believe AI models may not be far off from achieving consciousness is getting bolder.” Detractors, though, say that making sense is far from sentience: “Most academics and AI practitioners, however, say the words and images generated by artificial intelligence systems such as LaMDA produce responses based on what humans have already posted on Wikipedia, Reddit, message boards, and every other corner of the internet. And that doesn’t signify that the model understands meaning.” Stories like this, as well as “Ghosts,” Vauhini Vara’s incredible essay about feeding the linguistic engine GPT-3 prompts about her late sister (highlighted in Longreads’ Best of 2021), would make any skeptic think again. —KS

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A Marriage Story

Alan Siegel | The Ringer | June 14, 2022 | 2,330 words

“It is, without a doubt, one of the most moving film sequences of the past 20 years.” I saw Up a long time ago, in a part of my life I’d like to forget. I don’t remember much about that time in my life (thankfully!) or much about the movie itself, other than what it reduced me to: a sobbing heap on the couch. I don’t think the term “ugly cry” had been invented yet, but that’s an accurate description of my response. How could two animated film characters conjure such a powerful emotional response in a hapless viewer in a mere 10 minutes? At The RingerUp director Pete Docter and codirector Bob Peterson reflect on the care and craft that went into making Carl and Ellie, as well as the specifics of imprinting them and their shared history on the hearts of an unsuspecting audience in that seminal first part of the film. —KS

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— July —

The Confessions of a Conscious Rap Fan

Mychal Denzel Smith  | Pitchfork | June 28, 2022 | 2,287 words

Hip-hop has had subgenres nearly as long as it’s had the spine of a breakbeat, but at some point it was riven by a more seismic distinction: mainstream vs. underground, and specifically the rise of “conscious” rap. Mychal Denzel Smith was one of the many people who internalized that stance, who viewed hip-hop as a vessel of liberation and awakening to a degree that became an identity of its own. That was then, though. Now, with the 2022 return of Black Star and Kendrick Lamar — both avatars and resurrectors of conscious rap — Smith interrogates his onetime fandom, as well as the evolution (or lack thereof) of the music itself. “I was artificially limiting my perspective,” he writes, “in the name of some grand vision of consciousness that never cohered into anything other than my own sense of intellectual superiority.” This isn’t a discussion about art vs. artist. It’s a coming to grips with our own reductive tendencies, our willingness to flatten ourselves in the name of aesthetic belonging. If you’ve found that the backpack fits a little bit differently these days, this piece will help you notice where the straps are chafing. —PR

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‘No Aliens, No Spaceship, No Invasion of Earth’

Rachel Handler | Vulture | June 29, 2022 | 13,400 words

I love the movie Contact, which for the uninitiated is about a female scientist who makes contact with aliens that provide schematics for building a machine that eventually carries said scientist through a wormhole to encounter said aliens. The movie came out when I was 11, and I saw it twice in theaters. I’m pretty sure I forced it on friends at sleepovers. Later, for a high school project in which we had to compile scenes from movies that helped explain our worldview — I think we were learning about the concept of zeitgeist, and in retrospect the assignment doesn’t make much sense, but I digress — I chose at least one scene from Contact. All this is to say: I’ve been waiting 25 years for an oral history of the movie, and here. it. is. I gobbled it up. I came back for seconds. My only complaint? Not enough John Hurt. “Wanna take a ride??” Trust me, you do. —SD

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The Weird, Analog Delight of Foley Sound Effects

Anna Wiener | The New Yorker | June 27, 2022 | 6,185 words

There is something lovely about an essay that includes the phrase, “I need more ka-chunkers,” and Anna Wiener’s dive into the bizarre world of Foley sound effects is endlessly delightful. I love learning about things that I never even knew were a thing. I assumed that sound effects were always added post-production in some soulless studio. I was wrong: The sound of E.T.’s movements — just one example — is raw liver sliding around in a packet and “jello wrapped in a damp T-shirt.” Wiener finds that although “technology has changed the process of recording, editing, and engineering sounds … the techniques of Foley have remained stubbornly analog.” Wiener spends time with the Foley artists at Skywalker Sound, and their passion is infectious. As I read, I found myself starting to listen differently: Could slurping this cup of tea be an alien slug sliding off his chair in his intergalactic spaceship? Could munching this packet of crisps be centaurs rustling through the forest? Our soundscape is truly amazing, and this vivid, information-rich article will truly make you hear. —CW

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The 50 Greatest Fictional Deaths of All Time

Dan Kois (and Other Contributors) | Slate | July 20, 2022 | 8,250 words

This list is so damn fun. Starting in 431 B.C. and progressing chronologically, it levels the cultural playing field, quoting passages from Beowulf and Macbeth while also reveling in the transgressive lyrics of “Goodbye Earl.” It reminded me of at least one brilliant cinematic death that I’d somehow forgotten — before using an inhaler, make sure it’s not a gun! — and made me tear up at its description of a groundbreaking storyline in Doonesbury. Like all the best GOAT lists, it also made me consider what I would include: one of the gruesome deaths in The Omen, Mr. Jingles’ demise and resurrection in The Green Mile, Alec’s murder in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (ooooh — or the raising of the black flag at the end!?). “We’ve made this list during a pandemic, as real-life death has stalked us all, more tangible than ever,” Dan Kois writes. “One of the many things art can do is to help us navigate the pitfalls of life, and there’s no deeper pitfall than the final one.” —SD

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I Woke Up With an Allergy to Cold

Alison Espach | Outside | July 12, 2022 | 3,687 words

“Sure,” you think. “I’m allergic to cold, too.” But this isn’t the always-need-a-sweater type of thing. It’s not that you feel cold; it’s that your body rebels against it. Itching. Swelling. Hives. And that’s just the beginning. When Alison Espach began experiencing the symptoms of what she later learned was cold urticaria, she doubted it too. Yet, the more she confronted the rare autoimmune response, the more she was forced to confront the long-past familial tragedy that may have been at its root. “Some people thought they were cured and woke up one day to find that they weren’t,” she writes. “When they least expected it, when they were out walking and a cold wind blew, their throat closed. I think of these people when I am packing for a hike, when I am headed by myself to the ocean. I wonder if I will become one of them. I wonder when tragedy will strike again.” A searching, confidently paced chronicle of a situation that’s somehow both unbelievable and all too relatable. —PR

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— August —

Sam Taggart’s Hard Sell

Tad Friend | The New Yorker | August 1, 2022 | 9,497 words

Where do I even begin to endorse Tad Friend’s safari into the world of modern-day door-to-door salespeople? First, I guess, would be the disclaimer that this sort of subculture piece is catnip for me. I’m a sucker for industry argot, from “bageling” to “tie-downs” to the BOLT system. I’m a sucker for play-by-play annotations, as when Friend details the conversations that Taggart — would-be king of the “knockers” — has with the folks unlucky enough to answer the door and expose themselves to his white-toothed psychological siege. I’m a sucker for anything that plumbs the depths of alpha-bro “performance” thinking, foreign as it is to my character. But that’s only the starting point. What Friend delivers here is a portrait of the want that plagues so many of us, a want for success that’s really a want for redemption. It fuels the cold calls, the seminars, the mind games. “Failure is abhorrent because it can induce a contagious loss of faith in the whole enterprise,” he writes. That was likely the case in the days of Fuller brushes and vacuum cleaners, and it’s certainly the case today, with the knockers peddling home-security systems and high-commission solar panels. Somehow as devastating as it is entertaining. —PR

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The Unlikely Rise of Slim Pickins, the First Black-Owned Outdoors Retailer in the Country

Ian Dille | Texas Monthly | August 10, 2022 | 3,938 words

Recent years have seen an explosion of discussion around racial gaps in outdoor recreation — finally. Despite rapidly proliferating groups like Outdoor Afro and the Major Taylor Cycling Club, retail brands and shops seemed almost inertially resistant to reaching beyond their assumed audience. (“I love Patagonia products, but their marketing materials make the luxury of intentionally living in your van seem admirable, even altruistic,” Nicholas Russell wrote in 2020. “The activities that outdoor companies present, whether climbing or running or snowboarding, isn’t correlated to what’s possible; it’s more about who fits the concept of that activity, who is likely to afford to buy into it.”) It’s that pattern that Jahmichah Dawes has sought to disrupt, opening an outdoors shop in small-town Texas. As such, Dawes has found himself a poster child of sorts, a symbol of something far bigger than just a man and his dream — whether he wanted to be or not. But as Ian Dille’s Texas Monthly profile makes clear, it’s a challenge he’s met with perseverance and mission clarity. And outdoor enthusiasts everywhere are better for it. —PR

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An Essay About Watching Brad Pitt Eat That Is Really About My Own Shit

Lucas Mann Hobart | August 16, 2022 | 8,227 words

Meet Joe Black is a bad movie. It’s long, and slow, and pretentious. But it has one thing going for it, and that is Brad Pitt eating. Specifically, Brad Pitt licking peanut butter off a spoon, considering it with his tongue, and then asking for more. Watching this scene in the theater in middle school was a seminal moment in my sexual awakening. Needless to say, I clicked fast when I saw the headline of this essay. And I wasn’t disappointed: Lucas Mann uses Brad Pitt eating — in a number of films, but starting, rightly, with MJB — as a lens through which to consider his relationship to his own body and to the bodies of others, some of which he knows intimately, others of which he knows only from watching them on screen. It’s a lovely, surprising piece that makes me crave peanut butter, straight out of the jar. —SD

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I Loved Bike Touring—Until I Got Paid to Do It

Caitlin Giddings| Outside | December 30, 2019 | 2,997 words

Full disclosure, this is an older story, from the age before COVID, no less — that distant year of 2019. I came across it this month when Outside made it into a podcast, a wise decision: It’s a fun, witty tale that bounces along at pace. Grabbing you from the start, it places you in the middle of a bike chase with “a middle-aged psychopath in high-vis spandex.” The psychopath in question is a disgruntled client kicked off one of the bike tours led by the writer, Caitlin Giddings. Giddings relays her time as a tour guide with candor, and with just a few words manages to paint a visceral picture of dirty, sweaty trail life, and leave you giggling at the characters sharing it. It’s a snapshot of the broad spectrum of humanity, from how we deal with tragedy to how we allocate who washes the group spatula. Luckily Giddings stuck out this grueling profession long enough to gather these stories, although sadly left before discovering the identity of the mysterious tent urinator. —CW

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— September —

How Many Errorrs Are in This Essay?

Ed Simon | The Millions | August 24, 2022 | 6,525 words

I spend a lot of time deliberating over words, so reading Ed Simon’s delightful essay on “when copy goes wrong” was a guilty pleasure. When Simon points out “Theodor Dreiser’s An American Tragedy describes a pair of lovers as being ‘like two small chips being tossed about on a rough but friendly sea,’” I was rooting for those star-crossed potatoes. A fan of a well-set table, I concurred “Blessed are the placemakers,” rather than “peacemakers” — as suggested in a 1562 printing of the Geneva Bible — and I chuckled that a few decades later, the “Wicked Bible” urged that you “shalt commit adultery.” There is a particularly joyful flaw in a 15th-century Croatian manuscript, where “splayed across the pages are the inky pawprints of the scribe’s cat” — the modern-day equivalent of your pet presenting its rear end in a Zoom meeting. After having his fun, Simon deftly moves on to the darker side of copy mistakes: In the U.S. Constitution, “commas are placed between nouns and verbs, errant commas in the Second Amendment make it unclear as to whether the right to bear arms is reserved for individuals or only ‘well regulated militias.’” Simon likes to make you think, and after dwelling on the potential damage of a wayward comma, he moves on to our very existence: Why did the Big Bang happen? It was probably just a mistake as well. —CW

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The Mushrooms That Ate Luke Perry

Casey Lyons | Orion Magazine | September 6, 2022 | 2,869 words

I confess, it was the headline that drew me in. I wasn’t a Beverly Hills, 90210 fan, never got suckered by Luke Perry’s squint-smirk combo. But I couldn’t resist that monster-movie construction, so I read it — and I’d urge the same of you, regardless of your feelings about Aaron Spelling primetime soaps. This piece starts with Perry’s death, but Casey Lyons uses the actor’s green burial as a springboard to trace the remarkable arc of his life as well, and in doing so to explore what we seek from our corporeal end. “Luke Perry knew about desire, having been buried in a laundry hamper to escape it,” Lyons writes. “He also knew it as the holder of a notion about physical erasure from the planet, that our bodies don’t have to harm the earth when we die. We all know desire. Death is a muse, but desire is a blunter sort of thing.” Regardless of whether the mushrooms feasted the way they were supposed to (spoiler: they didn’t!), you’ll walk away with a fuller sense of the man inside the suit, and maybe even of your own plans for that inescapable day. —PR

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The Number Ones: Crazy Town’s “Butterfly”

Tom Breihan | Stereogum | September 14, 2022 | 3,306 words

There was some stellar longform journalism published this week — Eliza Shapiro and Brian M. Rosenthal’s groundbreaking investigation of Hasidic yeshivas, for instance, and Casey Cep’s damning look at how Johnson & Johnson is eschewing responsibility for consumer protection — but for this newsletter, I’m going to recommend a deep dive into one of the worst pop songs ever composed. I was 15 when “Butterfly” hit the airwaves. You probably know it; you might even be able to hum the hook or “rap” along to the chorus. It is not a good song. It might be a crime against art. But as part of his effort to review every #1 single in the history of the Billboard‘s Hot 100, Tom Breihan traces how “Butterfly” came to be, illuminating the currents of rap, rock, pop, and fan culture that led to the utterance of the lyrics, “Hey sugar mama, come and dance with me / The smartest thing you ever did was take a chance with me.” There are moments of deadpan humor and cameos by Paul Ryan and Nancy Meyers. Breihan makes the case that “Butterfly” manages to tip from bad into something else — “the kind of silly bullshit hit song that makes the world just slightly more fun.” I buy it. —SD

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Loren Grush | The Verge | September 13, 2022 | 7,100 words

I dislike Elon Musk. Like, a lot. I know I’m not alone in this. So it was admittedly with horrified curiosity that I embarked on reading Loren Grush’s feature about people who’ve uprooted their lives, moved to middle-of-nowhere Texas, and dedicated their time, energy, even money to waiting for Musk’s SpaceX to bring humankind closer to setting foot on Mars. Grush quickly set me straight: The horror that colored my curiosity was wrong. She encounters a community of seekers, believers, dreamers. There’s nothing else like it on earth, and in that there’s poignancy, even hope. “Maybe inhabiting Mars will happen in our lifetimes. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it will never happen at all,” Grush writes. “In the end, you just have to have a little faith. And in this dry, flat patch of Texas, you’ll find no shortage of that.” —SD

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I Do Not Keep a Diary

Will Rees | Astra Magazine | September 15, 2022 | 3,051 words

Will Rees doesn’t yet keep a diary, but he aspires to. Maybe. He carries a notebook and pen, ready for the precise set of planting conditions that would allow him to sow his thoughts and ideas. The notebook is well traveled. The cover is worn, yet the inside remains blank as he struggles with how to portray himself on the page, asking “How would I like to appear when it is only myself who is looking?” I loved this piece because I find it wholly relatable. Have you ever felt those sweet yet rare moments when you’re infused with possibility, that desire to make sense of your life and your experiences, to uncover meaning in how you spend your days? Have you ever aspired to get thoughts down before they evaporate, before that drop of inspiration or insight is gone forever? To take pride in yourself as a thinking person who makes reflection a habit? Don’t we all? —KS

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— October —

Inside One Of The World’s First Human Composting Facilities

Eleanor Cummins | The Verge | October 3, 2022 | 2,457 words

We all die, though when someone you love passes and you’re mired in grief, reducing the environmental impact of your loved one’s body isn’t generally top of mind. Burial and cremation are standard options, but both pollute the environment. Embalming fluids can leach through a casket and contaminate the soil. Cremation requires a lot of fuel and releases carbon dioxide into the air. But, what if we could actually give back to the earth after we die to help trees, plants, and flowers to flourish? Enter natural organic reduction (NOR), or human composting, which is now legal in four states and counting. In this insightful piece at The Verge, Eleanor Cummins reports on how NOR started off as an idea in Katrina Spade’s 2013 graduate thesis and has since become a cost effective and environmentally friendly way for families to say goodbye to their loved ones. —KS

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The Haunting of a Dream House

Reeves Wiedeman | The Cut | November 12, 2018 | 9,365 words

Netflix loves a true crime miniseries and yesterday released yet another one: The Watcher. Yet to see it, I am hopeful it will be more nuanced than the endless parade of horrific murders dominating this genre. After all, the story it is based on is more spooky than gory. First detailed in 2018 by Reeves Wiedeman in his essay for The Cut, it is classic “idyllic suburbia turns creepy,” with the Broaddus family buying their dream home, only to begin receiving alarming letters to “The New Owner.” With a strong horror vibe, these letters explain the writer has “been put in charge of watching” the house and asking questions about “the young blood” living there. Wiedeman deftly builds up the suspense but also focuses on something more mundane: neighborhood politics. Fearing for their children, the Broadduses never move into the house, but this does not stop them from investigating their neighbors to find out who “The Watcher” may be. Suspicions run high, with tensions overspilling in lawsuits and town council meetings. Managing to combine mystery with paperwork, Wiedeman creates a compelling story that you won’t be able to stop reading. I hope Netflix does it justice. —CW

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Inside Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney’s Great Wrexham Gambit

Tom Lamont | GQ | August 17, 2022 | 6,715 words

I once lived very close to Fulham football club. On Saturdays, when there was a home game, the streets would swell with fans, their faces shiny with sweat and blue shirts stretched tight over bellies expanded from an afternoon’s beer intake. They would happily shout chants — never deviating far from the classic “Ful-HAM, Ful-HAM!” The chanting shifted up a notch if they won, but whatever the outcome they seemed delighted to be out supporting their club. It looked fun, and covers the extent of my football knowledge, making it on par with what Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney knew when they decided to purchase Wrexham AFC. Fascinated by, if not fully comprehending, football leagues (where a team can freely move up and down different tiers depending on their performance), this glitzy pair was drawn to the rundown Welsh club, determined to boost it up. Tom Lamont explores the takeover in this lovely piece, conjuring some memorable visuals along the way. (I particularly enjoyed the image of the owner’s lounge, when, despite some valiant improvement efforts, the Hollywood stars arrive to find a broken toilet and beer pumps that are “only cut-out photographs of pumps.”) It’s a feel-good read, with Reynolds and McElhenney making up for their lack of knowledge with a pure enthusiasm that extends beyond the club to the town itself, a place so invested in the team that “it might be lifted, wholesale, by that team’s improving results.” The purchase has also inspired some more creative singing, and a new favorite has a rousing chorus of “Bring on the Deadpool and Rob Mc – El – Henney!“  —CW

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What Was Brangelina?

Angelica Jade Bastién | Vulture | October 24, 2022 | 5,067 words

There have been a lot of words written about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie — most of them with a tinge of hysteria. Magazines have long reveled in the drama of their love story (remember “Team Jolie” and “Team Aniston?”). This essay is refreshing, with Angelica Jade Bastién taking a calm, measured look at how the Brangelina story has played out over the years. I was never particularly enthralled by either of them, but still enjoyed this thoughtful analysis, along with the beautifully vivid descriptions of their iconic photos: “She’s unconsciously supine, made to appear in a pill-addled haze, wearing a magenta Narciso Rodriguez wool and silk crêpe dress as he, in a suit sans jacket — as if he just got home and is not quite eager to clean her mess — kneels to scoop her up.” Bastién also addresses the complicated issue of how Pitt has managed to maintain a reputation for being the good guy, despite Jolie leveling accusations of abuse against him. Their story is far from over. —CW

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— November —

A Touch of Moss

Nikita Arora | Aeon | September 8, 2022 | 4,549 words

This beautiful essay is a letter of recommendation to go out and touch moss. Yes, the soft green stuff growing on walls and rocks and trees, patches and carpets that grow at a glacial pace, that harken back to an ancient, pre-human world. But Nikita Arora isn’t recommending that readers commune with moss because it’s good for the soul to connect with nature — that’s too pat, too easy. Rather, Arora urges a reimagining of what it means for humans to touch the world around us. “Touch” comes from toche, French for “blow” or “attack,” and as Arora elucidates, the ability to touch has often been an extension of power and its attendant violence. “Perhaps the apparent superficiality of touch is the fiction,” Arora writes. “The histories (colonial, racial, elitist) of human relationships with the nonhuman may have whitewashed and pigeonholed touch and its potential for radical reciprocity and for reckoning with the past and the present.” —SD

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The Sweet and Sticky History of the Date

Matti Friedman | Smithsonian | November 7, 2022 5,377 words

I love visiting supermarkets while traveling, perusing aisles of foods both familiar and not. An Armenian grocery in the San Fernando Valley introduced me to pinecone jam. A store in Bishkek surprised me with its wide array of ketchup options. Then there was the supermarket in Abu Dhabi that boasted a bar filled with nothing but dates: big ones, small ones, stuffed ones, fresh ones — and in a rainbow of brown or orange hues. Until then, I’d had no clue there were so many varieties. Matti Friedman’s feature about the sumptuous fruit is equally surprising and instructive. It traces the date’s history from ancient times to the present and posits that the fruit tells the long, complicated story of the Middle East. Friedman takes readers on a tour of mythology, architecture, and empire; inside a Jurassic Park-style genetic experiment involving “resurrected” date palms; and into the halls of an agricultural conference about the future of the date in a fraught world and changing climate. By the end of reading this piece I felt enriched — and hungry. —SD

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Constraints: A Hometown Ode

Anne P. Beatty | The Rumpus | October 18, 2022 | 3,165 words

Anne P. Beatty never planned to move back to her hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina. But at 33, she did. In these lovely musings, Beatty reflects on ambition, becoming a writer and an English teacher, and the fear of stasis when a person returns to the place they grew up. She also writes beautifully about adolescence and adulthood — what we hope for ourselves, and simply what is. “As a kid, I was constantly looking beyond myself, beyond my world. What’s out there to see? To write about?” she asks. “Now, I just want one more hour, thirty minutes even, to work from within.” I’ve been thinking deeply recently about where I am in my life — struggling as a mother, trying to be a writer — and I appreciate these refreshingly honest reflections about life and growing up. —CLR

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— December —

Nicolas Cage and John Carpenter are Cinema’s Most Studious Eccentrics

Hannah Ongley | Document | November 28, 2022 | 3,752 words

In my house, we worship at several artistic altars, two of which are Nicolas Cage and horror movies. My husband is a devotee of the former, I of the latter. So I can’t help but feel that this conversation between Cage and horror auteur John Carpenter was made specially for us. Situated here as two of the weirdest, most talented figures in modern Hollywood — no arguments from me — the pair talk about James Dean’s “perfect” career, how to know if your child is an actor, some very discomfiting alpacas, and doing charades with Anthony Perkins. Their dialogue is a delight. Time to rewatch Halloween and Mandy. —SD

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The Great Canadian Baking Show Is a Pile of Wet Dough

Alex Tesar | The Walrus | September 29, 2022 | 2,238 words

While not the weightiest story in the world, this essay debating the merits of The Great British Bake Off compared to The Great Canadian Baking Show was the soul-soothing read I needed as we stumble toward the end of the year. Besides, Alex Tesar is right: The Great Canadian Baking Show just isn’t as good. As a British expat currently living in Canada, I consider myself in a lofty position to judge this issue, and I nodded along, self-importantly, as I read Tesar’s delicious arguments. While I have devoured all the offerings from the British side of the Atlantic, I limped through one season of the Canadian version and, with Dan Levy no longer presenting, could make it no further. Tesar explains that the “bucolic village fete,” which provides the setting for both shows, makes sense against the backdrop of English history (although dwelling on a tweeness that does not always exist), but not for Canada. He continues that trying to emulate British culture, rather than “showing us what Canada is and what it could become … reveals profound insecurities about what sticks us together besides maple syrup.” I also have something to say about (most) North American versions of British shows: No. Tesar offers a more nuanced perspective. It may be as light as whipped cream, but what a fun read. —CW

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Secrets of the Christmas Tree Trade

Owen Long | Curbed in partnership with Epic Magazine | December 7, 2022 | 6,374 words

Who knew the business of Christmas trees could be completely wild? Just read Owen Long’s entertaining story about the Christmas tree industry in New York City. Here, there are no quaint family tree farms or small neighborhood pop-ups — this ruthless industry is run by a few eccentric businessmen, called “tree men,” who spend most of the year preparing for the holiday season. There’s George Nash, an old hippie who sells trees to much of Harlem; Kevin Hammer, known as the “Keyser Söze of Christmas” and the man responsible for shaping NYC’s industry into what it is today; and Greg Walsh, who is Long’s boss (and looks exactly like Santa Claus). I don’t want to say too much — just sit down with a hot drink and dive into this festive and fascinating piece. There are some pretty hilarious lines, so be careful not to spit out your eggnog. —CLR

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