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Longreads Blog

We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in specific categories. Here, the best in arts and culture writing.

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Shannon Proudfoot
Senior writer with Sportsnet magazine

The Late, Great Stephen Colbert (Joel Lovell, GQ)

Stephen Colbert has pulled off the rare feat of being a public figure for the better part of a decade while keeping his true self almost entirely obscured behind a braying façade. Here, with such uncommon intelligence, sensitivity and nuance, Joel Lovell shows us who’s been under there the whole time. The writer is very present in the story, sifting through the meaning of what he finds and tugging us along behind him through reporting and writing that starts out rollicking and then turns surprisingly raw and emotional. But Lovell never gets in his own way or turns self-indulgent; that’s a tough thing to…

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I wrote a longform story about the Sacramento instrumental band the Tiki Men. They came up in the 1990s, during the West Coast surf music revival, and they recorded two of the best 45s in the genre I’ve ever heard, just pure, powerful, catchy. The guitar tone is epic.

Below are the opening graphs. You can read the rest of the story, and see previously unpublished photos, here at Medium.

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In 1958, when guitarist Link Wray poked pencil holes in his amplifier to record the song “Rumble,” he was only trying to muddy his guitar tone. Link’s impromptu modification ended up creating a distortion-heavy brand of rock and roll that not only paved the way for punk rock, heavy metal, the Who, you name it, but also lifted the lowly rock instrumental, or “instro,” into the popular consciousness, fueling a style that thrives to this day. What Coltrane is to jazz and Howlin’ Wolf is to blues, Link is to rock in general, and so-called surf instrumentals in particular.

Bob Dylan knew this when he called “Rumble” “the greatest instrumental ever.” John Lennon went further and said, “Gene Vincent and Link Wray are the two great unknowns of rock and roll.” The irony? “The only reason I was doing instrumentals,” Link once said, “was because I couldn’t sing.” He’d lost a lung to tuberculosis contracted during the Korean War, which made it hard to catch his breath.

In early 1993, Scott Miller, Micah Kennedy, and Pete Husing, three friends in Sacramento, CA, went to see the Phantom Surfers play Old Ironsides, a small down- town club that was also the center of what little garage scene then existed in California’s capital. Pete, a guitar player, had suggested the show. Even though Scott and Micah were longtime music obsessives whose broad tastes included everything from pop to the Kinks, John Fahey to Blue Cheer, Pete was the sole surf music fan of the group. For Scott, a drummer, the show proved revolutionary.

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SaturdaysNYC-StripeTee-05

the classic

I was riding my bike home last summer when a homeless man laying down at a bus stop yelled, “Nice surfer shirt!”

I flashed a thumbs up as I passed and howled, “Thanks!”

 

Hang Ten

I have a closet full of striped tees like the one I was wearing, some vintage 1960s and ’70s, some reproductions. I’ve worn this style shirt, off and on, for nearly half of my thirty-seven years. I discovered them while thrifting in early high school in my native Arizona, yet I’d never stopped to consider: who invented them? How did they evolve over time? And what makes a striped tee a “surfer shirt,” anyway?

Vintage Rusty Surf Skate T

The Hang Ten clothing company set the surf tee standard. The produced the first surf wear clothing line, and were the first to popularize the striped tee in the gaudy colors and color combinations we associate with the 1960s and early ’70s: orange against lime green; brown paired with mustard yellow; yellow paired with turquoise; purple cut with white and pink bands. Along with classic beach culture icons such as Dick Dale, Gidget, Rat Fink and The Beach Boys, the tacky striped patterns helped define the look of the era. The Brady kids wore the shirts on The Brady Bunch. Brothers Kevin and Wayne Arnold wore them on the period piece The Wonder Years. Depending on your age, your parents probably wore them. (Check your family photos.) According to a 1992 LA Times article, the Hang Ten company kept their original, iconic, eye-catching shirt patterns on file.

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Contrary to reason, the guiding design principle seemed to be: the gaudier the better. And somehow that approach worked. The best shirts possess the quality that Thelonious Monk references in his song “Ugly Beauty.” Op and Hobie made them. Striped surfer tees were so popular that mainstream companies such as JC Penny, Sears and Montgomery Ward evenmade them, along with a litany of forgotten off-brands like Wentworth. (I have a Wentworth shirt that is a work of freak art.)

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Ugly Beauty: Vintage Hang Ten

Although they eventually fell out of fashion by the late-70s, in some ways, these shirts never completely went away. Any longtime thrifter has run into at least one on a resale rack. There was a brief revival in the early ’90s, when Hang Ten released a line of reproductions after company executives noticed kids in Newport Beach, California sporting vintage Hang Ten shirts with a particular zeal. The bold stripe pattern, both collared and pocket tees, have been experiencing a bit of a moment during the last year, worn by people in the beach pop and garage-pyshe set, some of whom style themselves after ’70s Bowery punks like The Ramones; examples include Nobunny, The Mean Jeans, Jeff The Brotherhood. And Russell Quan, drummer for the legendary Mummies as well as a billion other San Fran garage bands, seems to have been born in one: (See here and here.)

Vintage Hang Ten

FURTHER READING:

Here’s a cool history of the Hang Ten brand: http://surfcrazy.com/stanleys/hangtenhistory/HangTHistory7080%5B1%5D.htm

And a 2008 article about how Kohl’s was going to revive the Hang Ten brand: http://www.jsonline.com/business/29461529.html

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Vintage JC Penney’s Towncraft shirt

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Korean tea and traditional snacks

Korean tea and traditional snacks

Talk of tea usually revolves around China or Japan. These countries boast innumerable varieties and ancient tea-making traditions. South Korea does, too, yet you hear less if anything about them. What you also don’t hear about are their tisanes.

For a nation the size of Portugal, Korea produces a staggering number of herbal and fruit teas. Pine pollen and honey tea. Ginseng, ginger and jujube tea. Infusions made from roasted corn and Job’s Tears. Such variety makes sense when you consider the richness of their landscape: both hardwood deciduous and coniferous forests filled with fruits, roots, nuts, seeds, blossoms, leaves, herbs and berries. All make appearances in their teas. Occasionally I set aside the sencha and mao feng in order to indulge in Hanguk’s overlooked beverage pleasure dome. To spread the word, I wanted to tell other tea drinkers about Korea’s incredible tisanes and suggest Seoul teashops where travelers can try them. Seoul’s Insadong district offers the best place to start an exploration, because of the neighborhood’s central location, subway service, and the density of teashops and cafés.

As a passionate, daily tea drinker of over twenty years, I’ve tried many of Korea’s tisanes, even though I’ve not yet visited the country. I buy imported bagged and powdered versions, and I’ve made a number myself using fresh ingredients. Here are five different tisanes and a list of Seoul teashops where I’ve never been, but which do serve these teas. One day I’ll hopefully get to drink some of these in Seoul, too.

1) Five Flavors Tea

Omijacha, image from koreajjang.wordpress.com

Omijacha, image from Koreajjang.wordpress.com

Omijacha (오미자 차), or “five flavors” tea, at Jidaebang (지대방)

(2F 196-6 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu. Phone: 02-738-5379)

In Korean, cha means ‘tea.’ Although English-speakers frequently use the term ‘tea’ to describe any hot beverage, tea is technically derived from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. A tisane is an herbal beverage containing no tea. Koreans drink green and black teas, yet the term ‘Korean tea’ usually refers to uncaffeinated, native tisanes as well.

Omijacha is brewed from the berries of the Chinese Schisandra chinensis vine. In traditional Chinese medicine, Schizandra is considered an adaptogen, like ginseng, and restorative, believed to help the heart and kidneys. It’s also said to contain all of the five distinct flavors central to Chinese medicine: salty, sour, pungent, bitter and sweet. Opened in 1982, Jidaebang is one of Insadong’s oldest teashops. They serve omijacha hot on cold days and iced during Seoul’s sweltering summers, sprinkling a few pine nuts on top, which float in an appealing contrast to the bold red tea.

2) Quince Tea

Mogwacha, image from irenefranseda.blogspot.com

Mogwacha, image from irenefranseda.blogspot.com

Mogwacha (모과차), or quince tea, at Yetchatjip (옛찻집)

(2F, 196-5 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu. Phone: 02-722-5019, or 02-722-5332)

Mogwa is a Chinese quince which yields a tart, sweet brew reminiscent of citrus. ‘Jip’ means house in Korean, and Yetchajip translates as ‘Old Tea House.’ Insadong has been Seoul’s arts district since the Joseon Dynasty. Hidden within the neighborhood’s maze of bustling streets and alleys, Yetchajip’s building – a hanok, or “traditional house” – was built over 125 years ago, making it Insadong’s oldest teahouse. Although it’s a bit difficult to find, many people considerthis quiet, cluttered shop one of the most peaceful places in Seoul. Light is low. Fountains trickle and candles flicker. Birds chirp from a cage. Tea selection is limited (nine hot and seven cold), but ingredients are high-grade, and. The quince tea might be one of their best sellers. Tea comes with a small plate of traditional snacks, many made from glutinous, sweetened rice.

Here are a few interior photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/68558939@N00/4245023786/

3) Citron Tea

Yujacha

Yujacha

Yujacha (유자차), or citron tea, at Star Miss Lee Café (별다방 미스리)

(Address TK. Phone: 02-739-0939)

Yuja is a tangy citrus fruit popular in Japan and China. Korean grocers sell this tea in jars, where the fruit is preserved in honey or sugar like marmalade. When people start to develop a cold or sore throat, they often spoon a bit into a mug to treat the symptoms, but nothing compares to fresh versions made in a teahouse.

Star Miss Lee Café sells yujacha and nostalgia. Located on the second floor above a convenience store, it offers games, toys, childhood comfort foods such as dosirak boxed lunches, and tea snacks such as yakgwa, a fried cookie dipped in honey. Patrons can also hang notes from nearly any surface, including an indoor tree. Here is the menu: http://www.missleecafe.com/menu.php Also, some photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/seoulkorea/4946926893/in/photostream/

4) Jujube Tea

Daechucha (대추차), or jujube tea

Daechucha, image from CNN

Daechucha, image from CNN

Westerners might be shocked to find so much stuff floating in their tea. Blossoms, pine needles, sliced jujube fruit – with so much plant matter floating in the cup, they could mistake it as soup. It’s a problem of texture rather than taste. Western palates are accustomed to clear beverages; we’re only still getting used to tapioca pearls in tea. But the same ingredients that commonly appear in many Korean porridges and desserts also decorate teas such as daechucha.

Daechucha is believed to stimulate your appetite and help you fall asleep. You’ll commonly find jujube teas blended with ginseng, ginger and honey. Fans of herbal liquors such as Chartreuse will enjoy this classic combination. Herby and earthy without being medicinal, it carries a rich taste of earth similar to a roasted beet. Despite how that sounds, it’s surprisingly appealing.

Jujube tea is so popular that it’s sold at most teahouses, so you shouldn’t have much trouble finding a standout version.

5) Persimmon Punch

Sujeonggwa, image from My Korean Kitchen

Sujeonggwa, image from My Korean Kitchen

Sujeonggwa (수정과), or dessert punch, at Banjjakbanjjak Binnaneun

(6 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu. Phone: 02-738-4525)

Koreans drink tisanes for health, but they also drink them for taste. Fortunately, even their healthiest teas are delicious. Sujeonggwa is a dark red brew, sweet enough that it’s called punch. Made from cinnamon, dried persimmons, ginger and peppercorn, it’s commonly garnished with pine nuts and served as dessert. Each ingredient boasts a number of healthful properties, from aiding digestion to increasing circulation. Sujeonggwa is sold commercially in cans, such as the Paldo brand’s popular 8.4oz version. As with jujube tea, sugeonggwa is so widespread that travelers who ask around should easily find a solid teahouse version. From what I can tell, though, there’s a teahouse named Banjjakbanjjak Binnaneun that brews their own sujeonggwa and sells tea serving sets. Another place to get good homemade sujeonggwa is Su Yo Il (수요일).

Perched on the second floor above the main road through Insadong, Su Yo Il means ‘Wednesday.’ Although this café is bit on the pricey side, they often throw a whole persimmon into their sujeonggwa. With such a great view from the window seats, high prices seem worthwhile.

Read-to-drink teas, just stir into water

Ready-to-drink teas, just stir into water

Further info:

For more info, you can also check out the book Korean Tea Classics, written by Hong Kyeong-Hee (a native Korean, he teaches the Way of Tea at a wing of the Panyaro Institute for the Way of Tea, outside Seoul), and Steven D. Owyoung. Also, check out this this food-focused blog by a vegan named Mipa.

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The city of Portland, where I live, is the urban center of a county with more than fifteen thousand homeless people. That figure includes not only people who sleep on the street and in shelters, but also those who sleep on friends’ couches, in cars, and in transitional housing. People often offer various explanations for why this is: the abundance of social services, the minimum wage, the way the Northwest’s moderate climate enables people to live outside for most of the year. In 2009, Oregon ranked first in the nation for homelessness per capita. I wanted to investigate this; to see who these people are, and how they get by. So I spent the summer of 2011 talking to some of the homeless population here in town.Here are most of the interviews in the series, posted by two literary magazines:

Just Wander Around: Eddie.” Audio/text interview, Better: Culture & Lit, Issue 1 Fall/Winter 2012.

“Josh: I Like Free Things, Part I and Part II.” Curbside Splendor, August 2012.

We Have a lot of Resources, and a lot of Drag Queens:  Kevin, Shelly, and Greg.” Curbside Splendor, September 2012.

You Know, Like–I Don’t Know: Casper.” Curbside Splendor, September 2012.

My Face Is a Mirror.  Look At it.  You Will See Yourself: Terry.” Curbside Splendor, September 2012.

Just Stuck on This Corner for the Time Being:  Elizabeth.” Curbside Splendor, September 2012.

That Got Totaled, and That Was the End of That: 25-Year Old Addict.” Curbside Splendor, October 2012.

Climb That Mountain.” Audio interview of a hitchhiking kid, The Collagist, October 2011.

Also: The Portland Mercury mentioned the series in September, which was nice of them.

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While doing research for an essay about a strange type of meat, I stumbled onto a collection of photos from Life magazine, published under the heading “A Squirrel’s Guide to Fashion.” I can imagine few phrases more enticing than that. According to the text, a Washington DC woman found a baby squirrel in the early 1940s and spent her time dressing him up in little outfits that she stitched specifically for him. His name: Tommy Tucker. I have no idea why. This might have foretold our post-post-modern era of trans-everything and pet-obsessives, an era of increasingly pliable and public gender orientation that I can only hope becomes more inclusive and open, even if it means we spare our pets the gingham humiliation. In honor of California’s ruling against Prop 8, here’s the link to the photos and the magazine’s accompanying text, where a squirrel can dress however he wants to dress:

In the early 1940s, LIFE magazine reported that a woman named Mrs. Mark Bullis of Washington, D.C., had adopted a squirrel “before his eyes were open, when his mother died and left him in a tree” in the Bullis’ back yard.

“Most squirrels,” LIFE noted (with a striking lack of evidence), “are lively and inquisitive animals who like to do tricks when they have an audience.” They do? At any rate, LIFE went on to observe that the squirrel, dubbed Tommy Tucker by the Bullis family, “is a very subdued little animal who has never had a chance to jump around in a big tree.”

“Mrs. Bullis’ main interest in Tommy,” LIFE continued, “is in dressing him up in 30 specially made costumes. Tommy has a coat and hat for going to market, a silk pleated dress for company, a Red Cross uniform for visiting the hospital.”

And so it begins … a series of at-once touching and eerie photographs by LIFE’s Nina Leen, chronicling the quiet adventures and sartorial splendor of one Tommy the squirrel.

“Tommy never seems to complain,” LIFE concluded, “although sometimes he bites Mrs. Bullis. Mrs. Bullis never complains about being bitten.” And as the saying goes: Who would listen to her, anyway, if she did?

Read more: http://life.time.com/curiosities/a-squirrels-guide-to-fashion/#ixzz1litrjBg5

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Hello, Stranger

This new blog post goes out to my blog’s one subscriber. Hello One Subscriber, we are brothers/sisters. Our fates intertwined. You probably like Obi-Won quotes and references to Bocce, one of many languages that C-3PO speaks, as well as slow jams. This, sir or madam, is for you:
Happy New Year, on Tatooine and beyond.

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