Author Archives

Aaron Gilbreath
Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for Harper's, The New York Times, Paris Review, Tin House, Kenyon Review, Vice, and The Morning News. Curbside Splendor published his essay collection, "Everything We Don't Know," in 2016. @AaronGilbreath

Our Understanding of Sun Exposure and Health Keeps Evolving

Myung Jung Kim/PA Wire

Controversial new research is upending the narrative about sun exposure and vitamin D: that the most reliable way to avoid skin cancer is to avoid excess sunlight, always wear sunscreen, and to offset these measures by taking vitamin D supplements. As Rowan Jacobsen reports in Outside, D supplements are not very effective, and a group of scientists have discovered that the relationship between sun exposure and skin cancer is far more complex than we thought. One Journal of Internal Medicine article phrased it this way: “Avoidance of sun exposure is a risk factor of a similar magnitude as smoking, in terms of life expectancy.” But don’t call this all counterintuitive.

When I spoke with Weller, I made the mistake of characterizing this notion as counterintuitive. “It’s entirely intuitive,” he responded. “Homo sapiens have been around for 200,000 years. Until the industrial revolution, we lived outside. How did we get through the Neolithic Era without sunscreen? Actually, perfectly well. What’s counterintuitive is that dermatologists run around saying, ‘Don’t go outside, you might die.’”

When you spend much of your day treating patients with terrible melanomas, it’s natural to focus on preventing them, but you need to keep the big picture in mind. Orthopedic surgeons, after all, don’t advise their patients to avoid exercise in order to reduce the risk of knee injuries.

Meanwhile, that big picture just keeps getting more interesting. Vitamin D now looks like the tip of the solar iceberg. Sunlight triggers the release of a number of other important compounds in the body, not only nitric oxide but also serotonin and endorphins. It reduces the risk of prostate, breast, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers. It improves circadian rhythms. It reduces inflammation and dampens autoimmune responses. It improves virtually every mental condition you can think of. And it’s free.

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Where Have All the Music Magazines Gone?

Getty / Collage by Katie Kosma

Aaron Gilbreath| Longreads | December 2018 | 25 minutes (6,357 words)

When other writers and I get together, we sometimes mourn the state of music writing. Not its quality — the music section of any good indie bookstore offers proof of its vigor — but what seems like the reduced number of publications running longer music stories. Read more…

Piecing Together the Story of an Oregon Serial Killer

Oregon Highway 20 at dusk. Photo by Beth Nakamura, Oregonian Staff

Before Oregonian reporter Les Zaitz retired, he and his colleague Noelle Crombie examined some cold cases that seemed linked to one incarcerated killer. After two years of reporting, research, and field work, Crombie and photographers Beth Nakamura and Dave Killen found the link: between the late 1970s and early 1990s, one man raped and killed multiple women along Highway 20, which crosses all of Oregon state. The team starts their five-part story with the one woman who survived her violent encounter with killer John Ackroyd. And for the first time, she tells the story of these other missing women.

Filled with photographs, maps, and documentary footage, this is incredible, necessary reporting. It’s also heart-wrenching. Reading about the young lives this man ended, the pain survivors endured: the mother who couldn’t discuss her daughter’s disappearance; the husband who imagined the great things his wife would have done had she not disappeared during a jog; the brother who laid in the spot in the forest where his sister’s body was found and imagined the last thing she saw. As one widow told the team, “These are important stories to be told.” Unfortunately, with Ackroyd dead, this is as close to justice as these women will get.

Despite all the tantalizing coincidences and Ackroyd’s apparent eagerness to place himself at the scene of the crime, investigators could find no physical evidence definitively linking him to the killing. He steadfastly maintained his innocence, admitting only that he had seen Kaye that morning and found her remains.

Then a confession by a convicted murderer sidetracked detectives before they determined he was lying.

Eventually, the investigation stalled. Ackroyd returned to the periphery.

It seems remarkable in hindsight that he managed to elude police despite such compelling circumstantial evidence and his rape a year earlier of another woman off Highway 20.

Yet Ackroyd went on working for the state, responding to broken down cars, clearing wrecks and fixing state rigs along the highway, alone.

He married a local woman named Linda and they lived with her young kids, Byron and Rachanda.

Beck left Oregon. He was convicted of a sex crime in Minnesota, served seven months in prison, and moved to California.

Kaye Turner’s killing became a faded memory. Her case remained unsolved. Detectives moved on.

Then Rachanda Pickle, Ackroyd’s 13-year-old stepdaughter, disappeared.

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The Secrets We Keep Amid All the Sweets

Ken Ross/VWPics via AP Images

Like so many American boys, Alex McElroy grew up thinking that only women worried openly about being thin. And yet, as an overweight kid, he also learned to use his obesity as a comic prop to charm people, control who and why people laughed at him, and he learned to secretly purge his food.

For Tin House, McElroy writes about his experience with dieting, bulimia, gender norms, and fat-shaming as a young man. During his teens, he worked at a Dairy Queen, which exacerbated his struggles but also helped him see them more clearly. Surrounded by sweets in what he called the “Zone of Hazardous Cravings,” his need to control his cravings was endless. Fortunately, he found a kindred spirit in a self-described meathead coworker with whom he could commiserate and compete, and speak candidly about his issues. Still, their candor only went so far.

Boots washed down two pills with a long swallow of Red Bull. “I don’t even need to work out. Just sitting here, Al, I’m burning fat. Take one,” he said. He patted the pooch on my tummy.

Again I declined. I was terrified that the pills would work. Taking one would become taking them regularly, then obsessively, until they snuffed my heart like fingers pinching a flame. But I couldn’t confess this to Boots. Perhaps we weren’t, as I’d liked to believe, enacting some vulnerable version of masculinity but applying its worst expectations—sacrificing our bodies, refusing to care for ourselves—to a traditionally feminine project: becoming thinner. Because as open as we were with each other, we nevertheless refused to acknowledge the damage we caused to ourselves. We couldn’t. We lacked the language to see our sickness as sickness. He could not be “anorexic,” just as I could not be “bulimic.” For men, those words were locked houses.

After taking the pills, Boots loaded a spoon with vanilla, then threw it away. “Stasia doesn’t like me taking them, but I gotta. My girl needs me hot. I don’t have enough to keep her around if I’m fat.” Like me, he defined himself exclusively in terms of his body. He couldn’t fathom his girlfriend liking anything about him but his thinness.

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How One Alabama Sherriff Worked Openly to Oppress People of Color

AP Photo/Horace Cort

In Wilcox County, Alabama, in one of the country’s poorest counties, a supposedly unarmed sheriff dispensed justice for thirty years using his psychological skills and magnetic personality. His complimentary biography was composed by his granddaughter, from white sources. Wilcox County is, and was, predominantly black. Naturally, people of color remember Lummie differently.

For Topic, Alexandra Marvar looks beyond the Sheriff’s inaccurate legend and gets to the facts: Lummie was one more racist in an era ruled by racists, and he used violence, power, and intimidation to keep black residents from exercising their right to vote and from participating in the Civil Rights movement.

I ask him if it’s true that Lummie didn’t carry a gun. “Didn’t carry a gun?” Gragg sounds amused. “He carried a gun and a nightstick.”

“He had his snitches,” Gragg continues, “and they would tell him what he want to know.” As I continued to ask around the area, people told me about how Lummie would ride through and break up folks’ whiskey stills when Wilcox was a dry county. Or how, if he was in a mood and caught you on the wrong side of the river after Camden’s eight o’clock curfew, he’d make you swim home, even in the winter.

They remember in 1962, as the push for black voter registration began 40 miles away in Selma, how the county shut down the Gee’s Bend ferry, turning what had been a short passage across the Alabama River into an all-but-unmanageable journey. “We didn’t close the ferry because they were black,” Lummie supposedly said. “We closed it because they forgot they were black.”

Gee’s Bend residents also remember Dr. King’s visits in 1965, the rallies in Camden, and the march on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. They remember marching to Camden as children and teenagers, being blockaded by Lummie and Mayor F. R. Albritton at the town’s edge, being pummeled with tear gas and smoke bombs, getting arrested, reaching the courthouse, kneeling in the street, and refusing to leave. They remember the songs they sang. Some remember what happened to David Colston, what happened to Della McDuffie. Some would rather not remember that time at all.

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Selling Vintage Records in Tokyo

All photos by Aaron Gilbreath

Aaron Gilbreath | Reprinted from the Fall 2015 issue of Kyoto Journal | December 2018 | 14 minutes (3,623 words)


Koya Abe spent most of the six minute long, 2011 Tōhoku earthquake keeping his 78rpm records from falling off the shelves. The delicate collectibles are stored in open-mouth crates mounted on the wall of his Tokyo record shop. As the Earth shifted four inches on its axis, Koya moved back and forth in front of the crates, pressing his hands to hundreds of wobbling, shellacked disks. “Instead of running away,” he told me, “I stayed here.” The 9.0 magnitude quake was the worst in Japan’s history. Nearly 16,000 people died, yet only two of Abe’s 78s fell. Despite his luck, he installed wooden beams across the racks to hold his discs in place during the next quake.

Named after an early 20th century black American harmonica player, Noah Lewis’ Records sits on the second floor of the kind of small, bland, white building that Americans would describe as suburban office park architecture. In urban Japan, commercial buildings’ exteriors don’t matter as much as what’s inside. Noah Lewis’ Records specializes in early jazz, blues, country, doo wop, R&B and rock and roll dating from the 1920s to the 1960s, a mix of American roots music that Abe devilishly calls “pre-Beatles.” He built his business around his musical tastes, instead of the indie pop and electronica that sells at Tower Records in Shibuya or at Jet Set down the street. In his “Rockin’ Instrumentals” section, you’ll find ’60s seven-inches like The Virtues’ “Blues in the Cellar,” The Marketts’ “Out of Limits” and the String-A-Longs’ “Twist Watch.” In the “50s-60s R&R Rockabilly” section, seven-inches like Johnny Dee & The Bluenotes’ “Teenage Queen.” (Lyrics: “Teenage queen, you’re everything that my heart ever dreamed.”) Albums by Decca, Capital and Sun are everywhere.

An average day finds Koya sipping a late-afternoon beer and playing Charlie Parker. The smell of cigarette smoke hangs in the air. He hunches behind the counter, entering new items into his website. The store is barely the size of a bedroom. The only open window is a narrow slit on the front door. The walls are covered with records and posters, sheet music and display cases. Koya’s work station is wedged in back, far from any trace of sunlight. An ashtray sits by the cash register. Nearby, a dusty VCR sits stacked atop a crate holding a broken record player.

Japan contains one of the world’s highest concentrations of jazz fans per capita. The famous Blue Note and Prestige labels keep many albums in print in Japan that they’ve let lapse in America. Used record stores are filled with original period vinyl, so jazz collectors from all over the world travel to Tokyo to score rarities. “People who go to other stores who cannot find what they are looking for come here,” Abe said. “Many Japanese musicians buy here. Many, many collectors. They are mostly men in their forties.” In his experience, Japan’s most ardent jazz fans were men ranging from their forties and eighties, though a surprising number of young men and young women were into the music, too, far more than in America.

He listed stock online, but web business wasn’t his main one. Customers preferred to come to the store. His many regulars used the website to browse before visiting or calling in their order.
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Building Parks on Antiquities Sites Is Not OK

AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca, File

The site of proposed Rockin’ River Ranch State Park sits on a beautiful wooded stretch of Arizona’s Verde River. The land is believed to contain a Hohokam village site dating back to 750 AD, with important archaeological material underground. Yet to avoid delays in the park’s construction, Arizona State Parks and Trails Director Sue Black asked her archaeologist to lie about these historic materials. He did not. Instead, he helped get Black fired for violating the Arizona Antiquities Act.

For the Phoenix New Times, reporter Steven Hsieh tells the whole infuriating saga of Black and her staff favoring development over the Parks Department’s mission. It’s one more capitalist insult to the long and rich cultural history of North America’s Indigenous people. Rockin’ Ranch wasn’t the first park whose artifacts the agency didn’t mind damaging. But it would be the last one Black disregarded.

Not long after he was hired, it became clear to him that Black and her allies, especially Keegan, did not value his role as a compliance officer. Parks leaders pressured Russell to treat antiquities sites not as cultural resources in need of protection, but as obstacles to development.

Records obtained by Phoenix New Times show Arizona Parks built gardens, trails, campgrounds, picnic areas, and cabins on several archaeological sites without following procedures intended to protect Arizona’s cultural resources.

At Tonto National Bridge State Park, parks personnel cut a traditional indigenous structure known as a gowah ring in half while developing a cottage. Parks also reportedly built a garden on a site believed to be the only remaining example of Apache cultivation in the Southwest.

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Preserving Human Life Requires Preserving Insect Life

Mark Rogers/Odessa American via AP

I get it. No one want gnats swarming their face while camping. They don’t want some many-legged thing scurrying around anywhere near them. But insects serve an essential ecological function despite their occasional irritations. For The New York Times Magazine, Brooke Jarvis explains insects’ shocking disappearance around the world and the dire consequences.

Even though science has identified a million insect species, millions more species likely remain undiscovered, though we may never find them before they go extinct. What that means is we have only a thin baseline by which to measure current changes to insect populations, and the generational reduction of life’s sheer quantity gives human beings an erroneous sense of normalcy. This is called “shifting baseline syndrome,” the sense that our depauperate world is how the world has always been. It is not. Disappearing insects are about so much more than insects.

In addition to extinction (the complete loss of a species) and extirpation (a localized extinction), scientists now speak of defaunation: the loss of individuals, the loss of abundance, the loss of a place’s absolute animalness. In a 2014 article in Science, researchers argued that the word should become as familiar, and influential, as the concept of deforestation. In 2017 another paper reported that major population and range losses extended even to species considered to be at low risk for extinction. They predicted “negative cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustaining civilization” and the authors offered another term for the widespread loss of the world’s wild fauna: “biological annihilation.”

It is estimated that, since 1970, Earth’s various populations of wild land animals have lost, on average, 60 percent of their members. Zeroing in on the category we most relate to, mammals, scientists believe that for every six wild creatures that once ate and burrowed and raised young, only one remains. What we have instead is ourselves. A study published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that if you look at the world’s mammals by weight, 96 percent of that biomass is humans and livestock; just 4 percent is wild animals.

We’ve begun to talk about living in the Anthropocene, a world shaped by humans. But E.O. Wilson, the naturalist and prophet of environmental degradation, has suggested another name: the Eremocine, the age of loneliness.

Wilson began his career as a taxonomic entomologist, studying ants. Insects — about as far as you can get from charismatic megafauna — are not what we’re usually imagining when we talk about biodiversity. Yet they are, in Wilson’s words, “the little things that run the natural world.” He means it literally. Insects are a case study in the invisible importance of the common.

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Finding Grace Between Love and Loss

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

After leaving her husband, one young adventurous woman met a man whose deep troubles revealed themselves after she’d already fallen in love with him. In The Sun magazine, Piper Vignette writes about how she starts to find herself. In transition and on the move with her daughter, she confronts the ways her identity had been shaped by illness and the expectations people placed on her, and ponders the person she might have been and person she could still become.

It didn’t matter that I could intellectualize his brokenness. After Luke I was not OK, not for months. But I’m not sure anyone noticed, which scared me more than anything. He was just a boy. He might as well have been every boy I’d ever had, then lost. It was about more than that. It was about failure and the poverty of single motherhood. It was about what I was supposed to be, in contrast to what I was. How to explain that our wilderness felt like an extension of my own body? But in leaving Luke I’d abandoned pieces of myself: The wet-nosed black bear with her cubs. The marsh and scented redwood fog. His arms around me all night. I ached. It was about sickness, and those reasons I’d first begun writing as a child. It was: What next? After Luke I tried to deconstruct belonging: What it meant. How you got it.

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Link Wray’s Rustic Masterpieces

Rock'n'roll guitarist Link Wray (1929 - 2005) performs on stage at The Venue in London, 2nd June 1979. (Photo by David Warner Ellis/Redferns)

Like a musical missing link, guitarist Link Wray played instrumental music that had no antecedent, yet it signaled the end of the old staid pre-WWII America and ushered in rock and roll, metal, and punk rock. His 1958 hit “Rumble” remains his best known song, though not quite a claim to fame. Mention Wray’s name and many people stare blankly at you, even though they’ve likely heard his songs like “Rumble” and “Ace of Spades” in films like Pulp Fiction.

For the Oxford American, John O’Connor writes a much-deserved portrait of Link and the trio of under-appreciated vocal albums he recorded in the early 1970s inside his family’s chicken shack. O’Connor writes the definitive story of what are called the shack sessions, talking with a lone surviving relative and with the man who produced the recordings and has a complete unreleased fourth shack album. So how did these sessions come about?

Verroca was intrigued and, before returning to New York, asking Link to record an album with him. “What attracted me was how pitiful the whole situation was: this guy who did so much for rock & roll and doesn’t know it. It broke my heart.”

Link must’ve felt himself to be at a turning point. The pain and frustration of the years, a desire to be heard again, came bubbling up. Two days later, he phoned Verroca with a list of demands: no more fucking clubs; you pay the expenses (groceries, utilities, all that); and I want an advance. Verroca agreed to the first two. A serious collector of southwest Native American jewelry and artifacts (“It was the sixties,” he explained), Verroca sold most of it off, including a belt that had belonged to Cochise, the Apache leader, to finance the recording.

The notion to record in the Shack was a no-brainer. Link was comfortable there. Verroca thought it might yield something strange and loose. Again, it was the sixties. A return to simplicity was in the air. But the Shack was also an acoustic fish tank: maddeningly percussive and clunky. Link’s guitar was so loud it bled into the drum and piano mics. Verroca came up with an idea of placing Link’s amp out in the yard and miking it from the window, which had the odd result of broadening the guitar’s range while also effecting a sonic down-surge.

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