Reading to remember, 2013

I’ve tried to put together some of the best stories I read from this year. It’s by no means authoritative, objective or exhaustive, but I think it will point you toward some powerful writing.

Into the Lonely Quiet by Eli Saslow, The Washington Post: Months after the Newtown shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Eli Saslow burrowed into the life of the Barden family, which lost a young son. Deploying restrained but searing snapshots of the mourning parents desperately trying to go about their daily lives, the story transcended its role as a follow-up to a tragic mass shooting. For all of the year’s stories, none captured a more visceral human experience.

“There were no memories here,” Saslow writes when the mourning parents try a new diner, just before the thoughts of their son come bouncing through the door in the form of one of his peers — one who had been in another classroom that day, one who was at the diner to celebrate a birthday.

Excuse Us While We Kiss the Sky by Matthew Power, GQ: In case the topic, urban exploration (or place-hacking), wasn’t interesting enough, the story starts off with an immediate jolt, like a good roller-coaster. Diving into the exploits of a band of daredevils,  hybrids between history buffs and BASE jumpers, the reading experience can feel physical — a testament to the enthralling nature of the story.

The Prophet by Luke Dittrich, Esquire: Published with a price tag, the story was Esquire’s first dip into charging for an online reading experience. So, it’s not accessible without the fee or a subscription, but it’s worth it. For my money, the deeply reported investigation of Dr. Eben Alexander is the year’s most intricately constructed piece. Slowly building its case while also revealing the inner workings of Alexander’s character, Dittrich’s story culminates with a conclusion that is exceptional in its clarity and force.

Have You Heard the One About President Joe Biden? by Jeanne Marie Laskas, GQ: In the most fascinating political profile in recent memory, Laskas gets a tour of the ever-spontaneous Vice President’s hometown from the man himself. With a full account of the Biden charm, the story mirrors his habit of delivering substance in more entertaining clothing: The man is more than one-liners and surprises.

The Prophets of Oak Ridge by Dan Zak, The Washington Post: A dazzling tale of three peace activists, including a nun, breaking into a U.S. nuclear facility. Beautifully presented, it wouldn’t seem out of place in a short story collection probing the absurdities of our national security apparatus. Of course, this story is true.

Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend is a Hoax by Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, Deadspin: It’s hard to overstate the shock waves created when this story dropped. Between the all-world levels of absurdity and the complete nature of the initial story, it was an incredible, blindside scoop for Deadspin.

The Legend of Chris Kyle, by Michael J. Mooney, D Magazine: There were two prominent stories published about the famed sniper shortly after his death (the other was a New Yorker examination by Nicolas Schmidle focusing on the PTSD-stricken veteran who killed Kyle). Mooney’s exploration of the persona in which Kyle was shrouded was framed by a great bit of storytelling magic that lends the piece its name.

‘Stay open, forever, so open it hurts‘ by Joel Lovell, The New York Times Magazine: Lovell, typically the editor behind the Times magazine’s best stories, took on a profile of George Saunders, the masterful short story writer. Perhaps Saunders’ eloquence and openness accounted for some of the moments, but it’s tough to find a profile that cuts deeper into its subject.

Others that stuck with me:

The Master by Marc Fisher, The New Yorker

Michael Jordan Has Not Left The Building by Wright Thompson, ESPN

Why Did Jodon Romero Kill Himself on Live Television? by Jessica Testa, Buzzfeed

Stranger in a Strange Land by Rany Jazayerli, Grantland

For more, the ever-helpful folks at Longform have lists of the year’s best stories broken down into a variety of categories. Enjoy.

Stop for a story

Boones Mill from above, with U.S. 220 slicing through the middle and carrying most visitors right by the town. Photo by Stephanie Klein-Davis, The Roanoke Times

There’s a billboard facing traffic leaving Roanoke on U.S. 220. It’s just over the line into Franklin County, first thing you see coming out of a turn between thick walls of forest.

“Bojangles” is coming up.

And it must have been there forever, or at least for a while, because it became the entirety of “Boones Mill” for me, and also the signifier of having entered Franklin County.

Now, I began covering the county for the paper here about a month ago, so those impressions have changed. The town of Boones Mill, especially, has become much more.

I heard from a few people that there was something going on in the town, a change.

And as it turned out, many people associate Boones Mill with many things, but very few of them went much deeper than my recollection of that fading Bojangles billboard — which, by the way, advertises a chicken restaurant that is not even in Boones Mill since the town is a whopping mile-and-a-half long.

Even the newspaper’s archives return monotone impressions of the little town. And those snapshots just show a consistently dysfunctional government. It turns out that is what is changing, and that’s what got me off U.S. 220.

I went into the town, which you reach not by the stoplight next to the convenience store but at the quick left hand turn just after it, and met the mayor and town council members who expelled a source of strife and are doing virtually everything for the town themselves.

Their long-term goals include the renovation of a historic train depot and an overall more present community that allows for more life and less commuting to larger nearby towns.

But the story was in the people who have, no doubt, watched thousands upon thousands of cars zip through without ever taking stock of the town they care so much about. The story I wrote, I hope, shows what can be found in the blur outside the car window.

Read: Little town rolls up its sleeves

What I’ll be covering: Something new, as always

After almost exactly a year of covering police and public safety here at The Roanoke Times, I’m moving to an exciting new assignment at the paper — following the people and local governments of Franklin County.

The transition will occur over the next week, as I immerse myself in the ongoing threads and institutions that make the county one of the most fascinating places in the region. But the police beat reminded me of something this morning — while I was looking through the arraignments, as I do every morning.

It’s silly and wrong to think I am a grizzled veteran of covering crime, but after a year I felt fairly comfortable in saying I dealt with most of the crimes and everyday arrests that happen in a city. Then I saw the first case on the docket in the Roanoke’s general district court this morning. A man was charged with “simulated masturbation,” a crime that is named with enough absurdity to speak for itself.

As it turns out, the code section that creates that violation of the law says that “explicitly simulated” masturbation is just as illegal as actually performing the act in public. All of that is hopefully more information than anyone needed to know, but it is a sign that you never really know a topic or a newspaper beat.

We don’t become experts, we become attached to the many people and threads that together form the flow of a community. It’s an important thing to remember as I try to dig up the stories of a patch of land — known both for its history as a moonshine capital and its very different hopes for the future — that can never be fully understood, only explored.

A character turns into a story

In January, I went to an elementary school in Roanoke to cover a routine event for my beat (the police).

The city’s department was rolling out the second iteration of its program that offers to send non-violent drug offenders to a life college and mentor them toward sound citizenship instead of charging them with crimes.

photo from The Roanoke Times, by Stephanie Klein-Davis

In the middle of this event, when the eligible offenders are brought before a panel of officials and community leaders, the man explaining the life college went seemingly off script and started explaining that he had been to prison for more than seven years. The redemption theme has always been an attractive story for me, so after the event I asked the man, Sam Coles, if he would sit down and tell me more.

He didn’t really seem to think his story was all that extraordinary, but he wanted to talk to me in hopes I could shed light on the problems ex-offenders face while trying to secure steady employment and keep themselves on the right side of the law.

And his story was a case study in how to do just that. He has taken his experiences and turned them into a job, where he helps convicted felons re-entering society find work.

His story and the problems he helps combat were the subject of my Sunday centerpiece for The Roanoke Times this past weekend.

Take a read: Second Chances

Link

What it takes to change the rural habit of driving unbelted

I’ve been working on a special project at the paper since mid-November, and it is out today. Joining in on a project begun by reporter Jeff Sturgeon, I was tasked with explaining, in narrative form, the reasons rural Virginians buckle their seat belts less often than other drivers, and the steep cost that changes some of their minds.

The story is told through Alex Havens, a Franklin County man who, in the past few years has gone from habitually ignoring the seat belts to religiously buckling up. But he didn’t learn from the little light on his dashboard, and he didn’t learn from the signs along the road. Those things that have made buckling up routine in many communities go overlooked for many rural drivers — until the potential impact of the seat belts becomes painfully clear.

The story: Traditions, old habits die hard on country roads

Reporting from Nowhere, USA

I was dispatched to a rural outpost in nearby Franklin County Tuesday when two people were found dead in a car along a back-country road.

penhookPenhook is, in technical terms, a “census-designated place.” That essentially means there are some mailing addresses that include “Penhook, VA,” but it isn’t a town, or a city or even some sort of village. According to a quick Wikipedia search, Penhook consists of 12.6 square miles and 726 people.

On the way, an editor and a reporter here at the paper who are more familiar with Franklin County told me there was a Minute Market there that locals frequented, using as a general store and knowledge center.

After checking to see if police would give me any information at the scene where two people were found shot to death — they wouldn’t at that point — I made my way to the Minute Market, where the clerks probably noticed me while I was still parking my car.

They know their customers, and they probably knew I wasn’t one of them. But they also knew something strange was going on that day, and they weren’t surprised when I told them I was a reporter.

The clerks, who were rightfully disturbed by the violent event that had apparently occurred just down the road from the store, already had an idea what had happened. In fact, they already knew who called 911 and what the caller had seen.

Going to a small town, or a place like Penhook that isn’t even big enough to be a “town,” is an inherently different experience as an outsider. But many rural areas, like this one, will welcome outsiders into the fold if they come bearing some sort of help.

In this case, I was attempting to find out what had happened down the road, just like them.

And it’s general stores and communities like the Minute Market and Penhook that make small towns extremely rewarding to report from.

In larger areas, the magnitude of any one event — even the violent deaths of two people — is diluted by the simple fact that only so many people can feel affected by it. What happened Tuesday night in Penhook — when every person who walked into the store began talking about the shooting — simply doesn’t happen in large communities.

I was standing with the clerks when one of them received a text message. We had heard from the 911 caller that the victims had been found in a metallic Jeep. The clerks and customers had been wracking their brains to come up with an idea of who could be involved. The text message brought the answer.

It was only a rumor at that point, but it spread like wildfire through the night, and it turned out to be true. When the clerks read the message, saw the names of the supposed dead, the light bulbs went on. They drove a metallic Jeep.

And then the pain and disbelief set in. They were regulars, like most customers, and they were local business owners, and they loved their dog, and they were such a nice couple. Everything there was to know, seemingly, was known in this store.

In that rural outpost, everyone is connected. The people feel these connections deeply and when one or two are lost, it resonates.

Below I’ve got some recommended reading: Stories set in these hyper-connected small communities.

The Hanging by Rich Schapiro, The Atlantic: This great piece is in the new issue of the magazine and debuted this week. Along with my experience, it sparked the idea for this post. This tale, however, shows the part of the story that comes after the big news: When some violent event happens, no one can believe so-and-so would do such a thing. And that’s when you realize that no community, no matter how tightly bound, can completely know and understand a person.

The Ballad of Johnny France by Richard Ben Cramer, Esquire (1985): A classic on a sheriff’s search for two mountain men. (Link is to the excellent Bronx Banter blog.)

Finally, I have a big piece coming out as part of a special report in tomorrow’s paper. It is also, coincidentally, about rural life. Stay tuned.

Epilogue: Phillip Wellman and The Fake Grenade Toss Heard ‘Round the World

It was summer while I was in Missouri working for Stry.us. We realized early on that the Springfield Cardinals, the major league team’s Double-A club, was often the best show in town.

I don’t remember exactly how many games we attended before realizing that one of minor league baseball’s icons was right there in the stadium. But somehow, we figured it out.

Now, you don’t become iconic in minor league baseball for superior play. For better or worse, minor league baseball is more often memorable for bizarre team names, or out-of-left-field promotion nights. And on some summer nights, it steals the spotlight with showstopping manager tirades.

The man anonymously coaching the Cardinals’ young hitters, we discovered, was also the man who threw the most famous baseball tantrum of the YouTube-era — Phillip Wellman. I contacted the team and Wellman, who was manager of the Mississippi Braves when he became a viral video legend, agreed to talk to me. And I wrote the story of his life as an anonymous Internet sensation, The Fake Grenade Toss Heard ‘Round the World.

At the time, Wellman was perfectly content to talk about it or taking ribbing from his players, but didn’t have any plans to trumpet his 2007 star turn to the masses any more than necessary.

That is usually SportsCenter’s role, or BuzzFeed’s. But he agreed to a planned cameo for a Super Bowl commercial. He appears in a Volkswagon commercial alongside other viral video stars distinguished by their anger, and the idea is that Volkswagon makes Wellman and the others happy.

So happy they sing together atop a hill on a sunny day.

According to the Springfield News-Leader, Wellman actually owns a Volkswagon and received some payment for the appearance. At least this time, his appearance on TV was intentional.

The ad:

Photo by Dan Oshinsky/Stry.us

When police officers and firefighters face off, the public cheers for firefighters, and other recent news

The cop beat took me to a hockey arena last week. And considering the number of officers and fire personnel on scene, you’d have assumed there was an explosion.

Instead, they were all off duty. It was the 10th annual hockey game between “guns” and “hoses” for a muscular dystrophy charity organization.

But there was nothing charitable about the rivalry between the two sides. Many of them play in rec leagues year-round, some just to get ready for this game. Pretty fascinating show of camaraderie:

Roanoke County firefighter Kenny Mallock had a large purple bruise under his left eye Friday night, and that was before he took the ice against his former police brethren.

What he calls a friendly rivalry had even been stewing Thursday in a scrimmage for Friday’s 10th annual Guns & Hoses Charity Hockey Game between local firefighters and police officers. Mallock had been in a hockey fight. He said the shiner came from the hit that led to the fight.

Mallock, one of a few players who have switched sides over the decade of playing the game, said he has often been a target since he moved over to the Hoses three years ago.

Read the full story: Guns and Hoses hockey game showcases friendly rivalry

I’ve also had a few other featured stories in the paper in the past couple months. Enjoy a selection of those, and know I’ve got a big piece in the works:

No ‘bad guys’ in SPCA, pound flap

Virginia Tech students dies of injuries sustained in Christmas Day crash

Atheist group’s billboard draw a strong reaction

Reading to remember from 2012

It is, of course, tremendously difficult to narrow down an entire year in the increasingly vast world of great narrative journalism into a Top 5 list, but I am a sucker for lists, so I did it again this year after enjoying the process last year.

It was meant to be a quick reflection where I just wrote down the most memorable pieces I read this year. When I ended up with 26 stories in a list, I realized my process was probably flawed. But anyway, I managed to narrow it down to my top five and then some honorable mentions. Obviously, these are just the pieces that I read/loved/envied/imagined myself writing. There were many other great pieces I simply haven’t gotten around to reading yet.

My five favorite stories of 2012:

Portrait of the Artist as Postman, By Jason Sheeler, Texas Monthly: The headline and teasers for this story make it interesting enough. But they give nothing away about the head-spinning, gut-wrenching twist that makes it one of the most memorable character explorations I’ve ever seen.

The Honor System, By Chris Jones, Esquire: Perhaps the best part about this story is that it, in itself, participates in some misdirection. Until the end, when it asks you to open your eyes — if you really want to.

Marathon Man, By Mark Singer, The New Yorker: A story that gradually morphs from a mystery into a psychological study, with the marathon looming as the societal symbol of striving. “The marathon, no matter where it takes place, remains, as ever, a solitary pursuit in which every runner ultimately competes against himself or herself.”

The Norway Massacre Story, By Sean Flynn, GQ: There are few truly definitive stories of any given event these days (look no further than GQ and Esquire’s dueling coverage of the Zanesville animal escape). Flynn’s story is the story of this horrific tragedy. With the fate of nearly every character on that island in jeopardy, the story navigates the terror of the shootings with both a compelling sense of drama and a compassionate eye toward the victims.

The Yankee Commandante, By David Grann, The New Yorker: It’s becoming unfair at this point — very few writers can pull off this type of epic historical yarn. Within the context of a story that has a well-known ending, Grann finds a fresh, original story that stands strong on its own.

Honorable mentions:

The Long, Strange Trip of Dock Ellis, By Patrick Hruby, ESPN: A great story that is a revelation because of the design. If this is how stories can look on the Web, there are great things ahead.

The Consequences of Caring, By Bill Simmons, Grantland: A revelation from Bill Simmons as he continues to narrate the lives of sports fans — capturing the power sports hold in our lives even though they are just games.

We Are Alive, By David Remnick, The New Yorker: A rare glimpse into Bruce Springsteen, in a year where he somehow stole even more of the music spotlight a decade after his creative resurgence.

Malice at the Palace, By Jonathan Abrams, Grantland: Oral histories, especially those written by Abrams, made for some seriously good reading this year. Look forward to more of these tremendously detailed accounts.

Big Med, By Atul Gawande, The New Yorker: Gawande takes the nebulous world of medicine and gives people a parallel they can understand as he discusses how to improve medical efficiency. The parallel? The Cheesecake Factory.

I wrote a story about a resilient boy’s trip to Sesame Street

Kenji Knight, a 2-year-old who has overcome dwarfism and the Japanese earthquake disaster, got to meet some of his favorite TV characters last night. When Sesame Street Live came to the area, he was in line early to meet some of the characters and play some games.

Waiting in his mother’s arms to meet Elmo and Cookie Monster, Kenji Knight was wearing a red shirt that read, “Hug Me!”

Kenji has taken to Sesame Street as one of his favorite American entertainment options. Born in Japan with a form of dwarfism, he was adopted by Jessica and Kevin Knight during their five-year missionary trip to Japan.

But when the characters appeared before Thursday night’s “Sesame Street Live” show at the Salem Civic Center, the 2-year-old waved his arms, pointing and imploring his mother to keep the furry, adult-sized figures at arm’s length. As he pointed to a much more familiar Elmo doll, Kenji reminded his adoptive mother that the brightly colored characters from the TV show were a bit more intimidating in this setting.

“To him, that’s Elmo with gigantism,” Jessica Knight said.

 

Read the whole story here: Adopted boy meets some friendly giants