Further Up & Further In

A scrapbook of things I am reading/thinking/writing/enjoying

On the spiritual value of learning French


When I started dating Abby again, she told me if I wanted to marry her I would have to be okay with living in France for a few years. I, of course, agreed. I like the United States just fine, but it’s a big world and there are sights that need to be seen, cheese that needs to be eaten, and wine that needs to be drunk. It’s hard for me to imagine a place that suits my personality better than France. If I’m honest though, I think I was subconsciously calling her bluff. Everyone wants to live in France at some point. Very few people actually do it.

I knew marrying Abby would lead to an adventurous life, but I underestimated how quickly those adventures would begin. She recently accepted a translating job for a foundation that owns property in the south of France. Starting in July, we’ll be spending 6 months of the year in a small town near the Pyrenees, and 6 months in Birmingham. This means, among other things, that learning French is at the top of my priority list.

The French language is not completely foreign to me. In high school I studied under an irresistibly charming, and occassionally surly, Frenchman named Reginald. I viewed Reginald as a wise grandfather figure, and I adored him; he often called me “lazy bastard” (a term of endearment in France, perhaps?). Clearly he reciprocated my affection. When I was unexpectedly accepted into the French Honor Society, Reginald shook my hand, pulled me in close and whispered, “You make a fool out of this organization.” He winked, smiled, and sent me on my way.

As I’ve started studying the French language again, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I actually learned in high school. I’m also rediscovering the joy of being challenged intellectually. I didn’t appreciate school enough growing up. School is literally 20+ years set aside to help you understand the world better. What a privilege! Since I’m no longer in class, it’s often tempting to forgo any sort of intellectual challenge and settle for mental junk food. Tackling a difficult subject is refreshing, and I can feel the gears turning in my brain once again.

In college I thought sitting through a 75-minute class was taxing, but it becomes even more arduous when no one is making you do it. I’ll set aside an hour to study French, and as soon as I sit down my mind finds a million things to think about besides verb conjugations and grammar rules. This has always been a problem for me. I’ll read a chapter of a novel before realizing I can’t recall what I just read because I was busy thinking about important things like which flavor of Sun Chips is the best. Sometimes, while I’m in the middle of a conversation, I notice my mind wandering away like a dull-witted sheep, and I have to catch it before my interlocutor asks a question and I’m put in the awkward situation of explaining that I have absolutely no idea what he or she just said.

My weak mind has spiritual implications, too. Some mornings I’ll read scripture before breakfast, but by the time I’m finished with my bowl of oatmeal I can’t remember if I spent time in the Old Testament or the New. I often find myself falling asleep in the middle of a prayer. I imagine God just shakes his head and thinks, “He makes a fool out of this organization.” That he accepts my haphazard attempts at faithfulness and allows the Spirit to intercede when my mind strays is nothing less than an act of grace.

In her essay Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God, French Christian mystic Simone Weil argues that academic learning has the potential to help us grow spiritually:

School Children and students who love God should never say: “For my part I like mathematics”; “I like French”; “I like Greek.” They should learn to like all these subjects, because all of them develop that faculty of attention which, directed toward God, is the very substance of prayer.

That is to say, there’s sacramental value in diligently practicing  French verb conjugations. There’s an app on my phone that tests me on vocabulary words, and if I haven’t touched it in a day or so, it sends me a gentle reminder: “Hi Cort! Learning a language requires practice every day.” In the same way, strengthening our ability to focus provides us with the tools to encounter God and experience his presence more richly. They are called spiritual disciplines for a reason, after all.

Weil also suggests this teaches us how to care for other people, too:

Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.

Learning a language is daunting. Every time I learn a new concept, I discover just how little I actually know. Sounds a lot like my spiritual life. The only thing to do is keep moving forward.

Au revoir!

Begin Again

I love the first day of a new year. Nothing really changes, but we’re all allowed a do-over, and no one is going to give you a hard time about it. As I write this, everyone else in the house is still asleep. 2015 is only a couple of hours old. An entire year lies ahead of us. I love waking up early on January 1 because these morning hours feel like an in between time. A year has just ended and a new one is about to begin, but not for a few more hours really. Everything is quiet.

When I was a little kid I wanted to be: a fireman, an astronaut, a professional dog walker, a marine, a mime, a teacher, a detective, a garbage man, a pastor, a scuba diving instructor, a master carpenter, a guest on Oprah, a musician, a producer, a record label owner, a roadie and a world-famous chef.

I used to imagine what my life would look like at 20, 25, 30, and so on. I didn’t know what I would be doing, but I knew I would be successful. People would value my thoughts and call me to get my advice on important matters. I was going to have stories to tell. I used to look up what my heroes were doing at certain ages so I knew the kind of trajectory I should probably be on as well. This proved to be an unhealthy habit. Knowing that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote This Side of Paradise when he was 22 is inspiring when you’re 15. Not so much when you’re 23. Then it’s just depressing as hell.

2015 is my first full year of adulthood, whatever that means. I had so many expectations for where I would be at this point in my life. In some ways I’ve met those expectations, in other ways I haven’t. It’s so easy to look around at other people and only see the ways in which they’re succeeding and we aren’t. But that’s no way to live. So my resolution for 2015 is simple: quit the comparison game. Everyone has a story to live, and we run the risk of missing out on our own if we get too preoccupied with someone else’s. If I thought I had to write The Great American novel at 22 like F. Scott Fitzgerald, then I would drink myself to death by 25. This year is about enjoying where I am, focusing on the tasks before me, and dreaming about where I plan to go next.

It’s going to be a big year. There are a lot of changes coming up, and that’s exciting and terrifying. I’m starting a new job (more on that later). I’m getting married in July. My fiancée recently accepted a job that will have us living in France half the year (more on that later, too). My life looks nothing like I wanted it to look when I was younger. Thank God for that.

These are a few of my favorite things: 2014

As 2014 winds down, I’ve been thinking about my favorite cultural experiences from the past year. I usually make top 10 lists, but this year I’m going to make this short and sweet by choosing just one answer for each category. These are all things that moved me or stuck out in my mind for one reason or another in 2014.

Favorite Movie:  Boyhood

Favorite Album:  Atlas: Year One by Sleeping At Last

If you don’t listen to Sleeping At Last, then you’re missing out. The heartbreaking “Uneven Odds” is as good a place to start as any, I guess.

Favorite Book: Every Day Is for The Thief by Teju Cole

Favorite Piece of Journalism: The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is the greatest opinion writer in America today. With this 16,000 word cover story for The Atlantic, Coates single-handedly kickstarted a national conversation about race in America, and he’ll almost certainly win a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts. This is something that everyone needs to read and wrestle with.

An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

Favorite Personal Essay: On Kindness by Cord Jefferson

Cord Jefferson wrote a beautiful, breathtaking essay about his sick mother and the importance of being kind. It’s an essay I keep learning from, both in terms of craft and what it means to be a good human being. If you read this essay and take it to heart, you will be a better person. I promise.

When I think of my mother’s life up to this point, what I find most revealing is how much of the abuse hurled at her throughout the years came about solely because she showed care and love to the wrong kinds of people. Time and again, it was her openness to others that found her shut off from her friends, her church, her colleagues, even her own family. We seem to reserve a special rage in this world for those whose ability to be unafraid in pursuit of something new extends beyond our own. We begrudge them their strange friends and strange experiences under the guise that we find those things to be dangerous or unclean. But really we resent those people because their courage reminds us of how common and terrified we feel inside. Bravery is a virtue people revere in dead soldiers and then turn to disparage in someone extending her hand to a weirdo.

The world takes from us relentlessly. It takes our friends and first loves. It takes our parents. It takes our faith. It takes our dignity. It takes our passion. It takes our health. It takes our honesty, and it takes our credulity. To lose so much and still hold onto yourself is perhaps the most complicated task human beings are asked to perform, which is why seeing it done with aplomb is as thrilling as looking at dinosaur bones or seeing a herd of elephants. It’s an honor to exist on Earth with these things.

Favorite TV Show: True Detective

Favorite Film/TV Scene: The six-minute tracking shot from True Detective

From 0:38 to 6:34, this scene is all one shot. And it’s incredible. Worth watching even if you haven’t seen the show. This is what masterful filmmaking looks like.

Favorite Pop Song: A tie between Shake It Off by Taylor Swift and Flawless (Remix) by Beyonce (ft. Nicki Minaj)

Also, read this: Mansplaining Beyoncé and Nicki and the “Flawless” Remix by Rembert Browne

Favorite Vine: “I want to be famous”

Favorite Museum: The Louvre

Selfie with my girl Mona Lisa.



Farewell, 2014. It’s been fun.*

*except for Ebola, disappearing planes, racial division, wars in Ukraine, Obama’s tan suit, the realization that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist, the Sochi Olympics, the beginning of what could end up being WWIII, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ISIS, the public beheadings of journalists and aid workers, the celebrity nude photo leaks, the recent school shooting in Pakistan that left over 100 children dead, the deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams, people complaining about the Ice Bucket Challenge, commercial airlines getting shot out of the sky, Kim Kardashian “breaking the internet,” Pharrell’s song “Happy,” etc.


“Unbroken” and the story that should have been told


First things first: this review includes spoilers—lots of them. If you’re one of the seven people on planet earth who hasn’t read Unbroken and doesn’t already know the story, then consider this your official spoiler alert.


Unbroken, inspired by Lauren Hillenbrand’s 2010 book by the same name, tells the true story of Louie Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic track star turned bombardier who joined the army during WWII and spent 47 days in a raft after his plane crashed in the Pacific, only to be captured by the Japanese and tortured as a POW for more than two years. It’s one of those stories that would never work as a piece of fiction because it’s just too darn unbelievable.

For a film with such rich source material (the book has spent nearly four years—FOUR YEARS!—on the New York Times best-seller list), Unbroken decidedly misses the mark. From a technical standpoint, it’s a fine film. Some seriously talented people worked on this flick. As a director, Angelina Jolie has a keen eye, and cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, Skyfall, The Shawshank Redemption) is one of the best in the business. As Louie Zamperini, Jack O’Connell carries the film with ease. The screenplay is credited to Joel and Ethan Cohen, along with the enormously talented William Nicholson (Gladiator, Les Miserables) and Richard LaGravenese (Water for Elephants, P.S. I Love You). All the right ingredients to make something special are in place, which is why it’s so disappointing to see Unbroken fall short.

It’s not a bad film, per se, it’s just an incomplete one. For two hours we see Zamperini experience unimaginable suffering—first while baking under the hot sun, stranded in a raft in the middle of the Pacific, and then from a sadistic Japanese commander (portrayed brilliantly and terrifyingly by Japanese pop star Miyavi) who beats the hell out of Zamperini every chance he gets. Facing horrific torture, Zamperini survives by sheer force of will. “If I can take it, I can make it,” a phrase borrowed from his brother, becomes his refrain.

And, as the film’s title suggests, he does indeed make it. The allies win the war and Zamperini returns to his family in America. That’s where the film ends. While his uncanny ability to endure suffering and never give up, regardless of the odds,  is awe-inspiring and impressive, the most compelling part of Zamperini’s story is what happens after he comes home from the concentration camp, and that’s the part the film all but leaves out.

After years of struggling with alcoholism and PTSD, Zamperini attends a Billy Graham crusade and becomes a Christian. With the help of his new-found faith, he forgives his captors and overcomes his inner demons,  even going so far as to visit Tokyo to meet and forgive his torturers face to face.

The most inspiring part of Zamperini’s story isn’t that he survived the unthinkable—it’s that he was able to turn such pure evil, such darkness, into light. By relegating this crucial part of the story to a few sentences on the screen at the end, the film becomes more about torture than healing. The larger story of forgiveness and redemption—the truly inspiring story—never gets told.

Thoughts on the final episode of Serial


It was a fun ride, but Serial is officially over.

Wednesday night I imagine Sarah Koenig poured herself one large nightcap and fell asleep praying she wouldn’t wake up as Lindelof 2.0. Have no fear, Miss Koenig. Serial’s ending was spot on. Here are some initial thoughts (spoiler alert!):

When talking about Serial, I’ve found that a lot of people seem to forget one crucial detail: this is non-fiction. While I’m fine with discussing Serial’s similarities to something like, say, True Detective, I think those conversations become unhelpful when we forget that Koenig’s creative control over the direction of the story is limited to the facts. You can’t hold Serial to the same standards as something like Lost. Koenig is a reporter who is reporting. Serial has to be appreciated for what it is: journalism.

Are you satisfied with Serial’s result? is the wrong question.  A better question is Was Sarah Koenig a clear, engaging, thought-provoking storyteller given the material she had to work with? And the answer is a resounding yes.

The fact that Koenig and her team couldn’t land on a definitive answer is exactly what made this case so interesting to begin with. The ambiguity is what captured our imaginations.

In fact, I think ambiguous endings are usually far more interesting than endings that provide all the answers. Sopranos ended in 2007, but people still talk about it because it left so many questions unanswered. Breaking Bad ended last year, but what’s left to talk about? Not much. Neat, tidy endings are overrated. And, most importantly, they rarely happen in real life. 

My favorite part about Serial–besides Koenig’s soothing voice, the catchy theme song, and Mail Kimp–is the way that listening to the podcast became a collective experience. After each episode I would get texts from friends wanting to discuss the newest pieces of information. I literally met people simply because I overheard them talking about Serial. It reminded me of the good ol’ days when the only thing anyone in America was talking about was the most recent episode of Lost. 

At the very least, I hope Serial’s success will stir up interest in long-form journalism and radio shows like This American Life. People are hungry for good stories,  and that’s exciting.

Oh, and what’s my read of the case?

Adnan is guilty.

Thirteenth day of Advent: Dying of thirst


Advent is beautiful and mysterious for many reasons, not the least of which is the way it reminds us that God often shows up in unexpected places, like, as a baby in a manger.

In 2012 I found God in Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. I was a junior in college with a penchant for Kanye West when I stumbled across Lamar’s masterpiece. More than a hip hop album, it’s an exercise in expert storytelling, complete with absurdly infectious beats and thoughtful theological reflections. It’s the creation of a man who is so clearly searching for something.

The album begins with Kendrick and his friends reciting a simple prayer. “I believe that Jesus is Lord. I receive Jesus to take control of my life, and that I may live for him from this day forth.” The prayer ends, and the listener is thrown into Kendrick’s world as he learns how to navigate the streets of Compton, wrestling with existential questions about faith, temptation and God along the way.

“I am a sinner, who’s probably gonna sin again,” he confesses near the beginning of the album. “Lord, forgive me the things I don’t understand.” Kendrick is trying to be a good kid, but his environment makes that exceedingly difficult. There’s tension between light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong.

Take “The Art of Peer Pressure” for example:

Smoking on the finest dope

Drank until I can’t no more

Really I’m a sober soul

But I’m with the homies right now.

And we ain’t asking for no favors

Rush a ni**a quick then laugh about it later

Really I’m a peacemaker

But I’m with the homies right now

I’m reminded of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans:

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.

Kendrick raps about everything from poverty to police brutality, lust to gang violence. A passive listener might remove a single song from its context and be offended by the harshness of it all, but it’s important to remember that Kendrick is weaving together a story, and each track is a new chapter. A listener willing to spend time wrestling with good kid, m.A.A.d city will discover a piece of art that reveals things not only about the creator, but the listener as well.

In the album’s climax–a relentless, violent track called “m.A.A.d city“–Lamar paints a brutal picture of what it was like to grow up in the environment he grew up in, and what sort of emotional, physical and mental stress that can put on a young man. He recalls the gang violence that surrounded him, seeing “bodies on top of bodies, IV’s on top of IV’s.” It’s a grim image, to say the least.

There’s a self-awareness here that’s rare. Kendrick knows this lifestyle will eventually kill him. “How many sins?” he asks in “I’m Dying of Thirst,” the album’s most explicitly spiritual track. “How many sins? I’ve lost count.”

He continues:

Money, p***y and greed; what’s my next crave

Whatever it is, know it’s my next grave

Tired of running, tired of running

Tired of tumbling, tired of running

Tired of tumbling

Back once my momma say

“See a pastor, give me a promise

What if today was the rapture, and you completely tarnished

The truth will set you free, so to me be completely honest

You dying of thirst, you dying of thirst

So hop in that water, and pray that it works.”

More often than not, this is when Christ shows up in our lives–when everything we’ve turned to for meaning, everything we thought could save us, has failed. And in a way, this is what Advent is about: Living in a world that draws us further into darkness, and the redeeming promises of a Savior who showed up in an unexpected way–as a baby–to save us from dying of thirst.

The song ends with a recording of Maya Angelou talking to Kendrick and his friends.

“Why are you so angry?” she asks. “You young men are dying of thirst. Do you know what that means? That means you need water–holy water. You need to be baptized with the Spirit of the Lord. Do you want to receive God as your personal savior?”

She leads them in a prayer of repentance, and tells them they’ve been saved.

“Remember this day,” she says. “The start of a new life–your real life. “

Fifth day of Advent: Tim Keller on Christmas and triumphant justice

Angels announcing the birth of Christ to the shepherds (1639) by Govert Flinck

Angels announcing the birth of Christ to the shepherds (1639) by Govert Flinck

I recently got into a discussion with someone who essentially said social justice causes don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things because this earth is temporary, so those causes don’t necessarily have eternal implications. I believe this is an incredibly narrow—and flawed—way to read the Bible and view creation. If your theology allows you to feel apathetic about Eric Garner, or any sort of brokenness for that matter, then you should probably reconsider the theology you’re choosing to believe.

The incarnation is a reminder that God cares deeply about the world and its brokenness—both spiritual and physical.

I’m reading through a book of collected readings for Advent this year. Today’s reading was adapted from an old Tim Keller sermon, and it seems particularly appropriate considering recent events:

But Christmas teaches that God is concerned not only with the spiritual, because he is not just a spirit anymore. He has a body. He knows what it’s like to be poor, to be a refugee, to face persecution and hunger, to be beaten and stabbed. He knows what it is like to be dead. Therefore, when we put together the incarnation and the resurrection, we see that God is not just concerned about the spirit, but he also cares about the body. He created the spirit and the body, and he will redeem the spirit and the body,

Christmas shows us that God is not just concerned about spiritual problems but physical problems too. So we can talk about redeeming people from guilt and unbelief, as well as creating safe streets and affordable housing for the poor, in the same breath. Because Jesus himself is not just a spirit but also has a body, the gift of Christmas is a passion for justice.

There are a lot of people in this world who have a passion for justice and a compassion for the poor but have absolutely no assurance that justice will one day triumph. They just believe that if we work hard enough long enough, we’ll pull ourselves together and bring some justice to this world. For these people, there’s no consolation when things don’t go well.

But Christians have not only a passion for justice but also the knowledge that, in the end, justice will triumph.

Fourth day of Advent: I can’t breathe

Tree of Life 03

Today I read a story in the New York Times about Somali militants who showed up at a Kenyan mine, separated the miners by their faith and then shot or beheaded 36 Christians on the side of a hill. Two weeks ago the same militant group stopped a bus in northeastern Kenya and killed 19 men and 9 women who couldn’t recite a Muslim  declaration of faith.

With that horror fresh on my mind, I read that the Staten Island grand jury had decided not to indict the officer who used a banned chokehold on Eric Garner, killing the unarmed father of six. Eric’s last words were “I can’t breathe,” a phrase he repeated 11 times before falling silent.

A bystander captured the incident on video, and it’s truly horrific. But I think it’s important to see. It will be a long time before I forget what it sounds like to hear a dying man pleading with police officers as life slowly drains out of him.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

The tension of Advent was tangible today. Darkness and light. Remembering the past and longing for the future. Seeing the evil in our world, but daring to hope. Life and death. Peace and violence. Joy and sorrow. I admit that I’m prone to despair, that some days the darkness just feels like too much.

We should celebrate the birth of Christ, but we should never overlook the fact that Jesus had to come to earth because the darkness is too much. The baby in the manger is a sign of hope, but also a reminder of the evil that made the Incarnation necessary.

And this is where we live today—between the “already” and the “not yet.”

I was reading Genesis 3 recently. It’s the story of the Fall. In verse 15 God is talking to the serpent, and he says this:

And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
    and you will strike his heel.

Genesis 3:15 is referred to as the protoevangelium, or the first proclamation of the gospel. Adam and Eve had just sinned and ruined everything. God sees that the world is not how it’s supposed to be, and his first response is, “I’m going to make everything right again! I’ll fix this! I’m going to save you!”

At the heart of Advent is this idea that the darkness is too much for us to bear on our own. It suffocates us. If left alone, we have no hope. When I think about the innocent men and women murdered on the side of a hill in Kenya, or Eric Garner gasping for air on the sidewalk, I sink into despair. Because this isn’t how the world is supposed to be. During Advent we remember Jesus and what He has already accomplished, but we also look forward to when He will come again, when all things will be made new, when the darkness will be no more.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly.

Second day of Advent: Shake the Dust

I’m thinking about what it means for God to dwell among us, coming in the form of a helpless baby born in a dirty barn to a teenage mom, identifying with the least of these. I’m thinking about the way Jesus often shows up in the most unexpected places, and I’m wondering how often I’ve overlooked Him.

First day of Advent

Today marks the beginning of Advent, that season of expectant waiting for Christ’s arrival, a time set aside to prepare our hearts for the coming Lord.

As you probably know, the teaser trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens was released a few days ago. Take a moment to watch it.

Did you catch that?

“There has been an awakening. Have you felt it? The Dark Side…and the Light.”

I’m thinking about light and dark again. Darkness surrounds us, and yet we wait for the light that will make all things new. Advent is about living with that tension. I’m wrestling with despair and hope. Some days it’s easy to forget that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. I’m trying to remember. I’ll be sharing meditations on Advent in this space during the next few weeks. Join the conversation if you’d like.

There has been an awakening. Have you felt it? I know I have.

Working Towards Fin


This is Don Ball and Sarah Allemann. Don is a friend of mine from my Michigan days. In 2012, Don had been dating Sarah, a photographer and artist, for about a year. Sarah had recently graduated from college, and she was presenting her senior thesis at an art festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan, called ArtPrize.

“We texted throughout the whole day,” Don says. “But then I stopped hearing from her.”

After a few hours, Don got a call he wasn’t expecting. “Her brother called me–it was around 11:30 at night–and he said there had been an accident.”

As Sarah was leaving ArtPrize, a drunken motorcyclist struck her while she was crossing an intersection. Don received another call that night saying Sarah had passed away.

Earlier that summer, Sarah had started working on a photography book called A Year of Adventures, My Dear. The goal was to photograph fun dates around Michigan that couples could recreate.

After the accident, Don decided the best way to honor and remember Sarah would be to finish the book for her. “This was something she started and was passionate about, but she was never given the chance to finish it,” he says.

Don bought a camera, scheduled photo shoots, traveled all over Michigan and edited nonstop. He also started blogging about the project.

“So many things were left undone because she passed away,” Don says. “This was one thing I could control. This is the last art work she ever made. Why not finish it for her so everyone can see it? I just decided to go for it.”

For the past two years, this project has consumed Don’s life. But now A Year of Adventures, My Dear is complete, and Don needs our help.

Printing a book is expensive. But there’s an Indiegogo campaign to help get this thing published. If you weren’t convinced that this is a worthy project to support, check this out: 100% of the profits will be donated to charity:water to help provide clean water to people in need. Sarah interned with Invisible Children, and humanitarian efforts were her passion. Donating the money is the only option that made sense to Don.

“Water is life-giving,” he says. “We’re going to build a well, and it’s going to give life to people. Out of our tragedy and loss, there’s hope.”

Don is truly a wonderful guy, and I want to do all I can to help this project succeed. Please watch the video below and consider purchasing a copy of A Year of Adventures, My Dear. Don’s response to losing someone he loved dearly is a beautiful reminder that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Check out the Indiegogo campaign here.

Read Don’s blog here.

Read more about Sarah and her extraordinary life here and here.

A Year of Adventure, My Dear from Don K. Ball on Vimeo.

Thanks in advance for donating or sharing Don’s story.

The next chapter

Last weekend I asked a girl named Abby McAtee to marry me.

On November 13, we drove from Birmingham to Atlanta and flew to New York City under the guise of spending a weekend celebrating my 23rd birthday with my parents, who live in Greenwich, Connecticut.

The next day, November 14, with Starbucks firmly in hand, we boarded the Metro-North train traveling from New Canaan to Grand Central Station, and spent the morning in lower Manhattan. In the afternoon we got on the subway at Rector Street, transferred to the A line at Columbus Circle and took it all the way up to the 190th Street station. A family across from us on the subway spoke french, and Abby fell asleep on my shoulder.

We exited onto Fort Washington Avenue and walked north through Fort Tryon Park along the Hudson River. About 10 minutes from the station is The Cloisters,  an extension of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that houses the museum’s religious and Medieval art. We spent an hour and a half exploring the old European chapels that had been shipped across the Atlantic and reassembled in New York City. We sat on a bench–exhausted from walking all day–and eavesdropped on a tour group, trying to decide if the guide was a Ph.D. art history student at Columbia, or just a volunteer.

Around 4 p.m., we started on the path back through the park. I found a secluded spot near a lamppost along the Hudson, and I asked Abby to be my wife.



Abby had a crush on me high school, but I was too self-absorbed to realize that the quiet bookworm I flirted with at church to boost my ego would one day be my wife. She was the friend I brought all my relationship problems to. Abby is a great listener and loves to give advice, which is to say she loves to fix people. It took me awhile, but eventually I noticed her.

It’s a classic story: Boy likes girl. Girl likes boy. Boy and girl start dating a month before boy leaves for college. Boy makes all sorts of promises. Boy goes to college and realizes he can’t keep those promises. Girl tries to make it work but ends up heartbroken.

We both moved on with our lives. Sort of. One summer, when we hadn’t talked for a year or so, I bumped into her at Covenant College during a church camp where we had both been counselors. We sat in the dining hall and she pulled all the books out of her backpack to show me what she was reading. I hadn’t talked to a girl about books in a long time.

When the dining hall closed we sat outside and navigated the delicate dance of not wanting to say too much or too little. After that conversation, Abby said she reached a point of closure, of healing. She walked away feeling better than before. I walked away realizing she still knew me better than anyone else.

The story of how we eventually got back together after 2 1/2 years apart is lengthy, and best told over a bottle of wine. And parts of that story are just for us to know. But if you ask, we’ll tell as much as we can.

We’ll tell you about the ways we hurt each other. We’ll tell you about forgiveness and healing. We’ll tell you about the slow, hard work that went into rebuilding trust. We’ll talk of redemption and grace. But most importantly, we’ll talk about Jesus, because our story is inseparable from the Gospel.

In July, Abby and I will marry each other, and the next chapter of our story will begin. In the mean time, we’ll be planning a wedding and dreaming of what’s next for us. Thanks for all the kind words and support. It means the world to us.

The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.

- Wendell Berry

Creating space

Last weekend I dreamt that I was verified on Twitter. In my dream, I was sitting at a coffee shop reading when I received an email from Twitter telling me that I was selected for verification. I clicked “accept” and that beautiful little blue and white check mark appeared next to my username. Elation.

And then I woke up and thought Cort what is wrong with you. 

A few weeks ago I read Jake Knapp’s essay about his year with a distraction-free iPhone. He found himself spending too much time on his phone, so he disabled Safari, removed email, deleted a bunch of apps and was careful about what he decided to keep.

“When we invest our time and energy in technology — as creators or consumers — we should invest in products that belong in ‘The Future’ and not those that make our lives disappear faster than they already do,” writes Knapp. “Personally, my life’s already going by at the speed of light. But this past year, it felt just the tiniest bit slower.”

I’ve been keenly aware of the lack of space in my life recently. I work. I take classes. I have about 15 books on my desk vying for my attention. There are relationships to maintain, words to be written, tasks to be completed. Life is good, but full.

With so many good and necessary things taking up my time and energy, I want to be mindful of what else I’m allowing in. I want to remove as much clutter from my life as possible.

With Knapp’s essay in mind, I decided to try my own iPhone experiment. I look at my phone more than any other object; if my iPhone is cluttered, my life might feel a little more cluttered too.

I started deleting and prioritizing. If I hadn’t opened an app within the past few weeks, I trashed it. I moved all the apps I don’t use on a daily basis off the home screen. I deleted Facebook, Instagram and, yes, even Twitter.

Saying farewell to the Twitter app was particularly difficult. If my dream about being verified didn’t give it away, I’m quite fond of Twitter. I think it’s an absurdly powerful tool and a fantastic way to interact with people I never would normally. But having it on my phone is too addictive for me. I check it while I drive, while I’m hanging out with my girlfriend and while I’m having conversations.

I let it take up too much space in my life.

So I deleted it. I still use Twitter on my computer, but not having it on my phone–even for a couple of days–has allowed me to feel more present. I’m not thinking in 140 characters or less. It’s healthy to remember that not every precious thought that passes through my head is worth sharing with the masses.

I de-cluttered my iPhone and left only the essentials. And it feels great–like cleaning off a workspace before starting a project. Here’s what my home screen looks like now:


 I don’t instinctively pull out my phone just to see what’s going on in the world nearly as much. Most emails can wait until later. Those “must read” articles can be read later, too. At night I pick up a book before falling asleep instead of just staring at my screen.

If I don’t take time to intentionally create space in my life, I’ll have no room for the things I truly want.

6 “non-Christian” films you should see instead of “Christian” films like Left Behind and God’s Not Dead

2014 has been dubbed the year of Christian movies. Unfortunately, Christian movies are, generally speaking, terrible.

Left Behind. God’s Not Dead. Heaven is for Real. The Song. Son of God. 

Just to name a few.

Most of these films have been critically panned. For example, check out this fantastic review from Christianity Today that destroys Left Behind.

If we believe in a creative God, a God who is an artist, A God who speaks worlds into existence, then Christians should have high standards for the art we create and consume. Don’t waste your money on bad art simply because it has the marketing term “Christian” in front of it. Demand more.

Here are 6 “non-Christian” films that explore the mystery and complexity of God, life, faith, death–and everything in between–with more nuance and honesty than most Christian films.

1) The Tree of Life

“Terrence Malick‘s new film is a form of prayer,” writes Roger Ebert. “It created within me a spiritual awareness, and made me more alert to the awe of existence.”  The Tree of Life is worth seeing for a lot of reasons, but this creation scene is particularly breathtaking.

And of course, the way of nature vs. grace.

2) The Grey

After a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness, a group of workers have to survive with little equipment while wolves hunt them. I didn’t have high hopes for this movie; I expected to see Liam Neeson as a gritty action hero. But The Grey ended up being a beautiful, sobering meditation on death and faith.

One scene in particular has stuck with me.

“Do something,” Neeson yells at God. “Come on. Prove it. Fuck faith. Earn it. Show me something real. I need it now, not later. Now. Show me and I’ll believe in you until the day I die. I swear. I’m calling on you.”

3) To The Wonder

Another film from Terrence Malick. Javier Bardem plays Father Quintana, a priest who is experiencing doubts. Here we see Father Quintana serving the poor and sick while he recites a variation of St. Patrick’s prayer. 

4) Changing Lanes

Two men get in a minor car wreck one morning and their lives spiral out of control.

In a crucial scene, Ben Affleck’s character talks to a priest about the meaning of life.

“Sometimes God likes to put two guys in a paper bag and just let ‘em rip.”

5) Signs

See, what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you?”

6) Magnolia

This is one of those rare films that genuinely altered something inside of me the first time I saw it. Magnolia tells the interconnected stories of a group of people in Los Angeles who are all searching for something. The synopsis on the DVD case says it well: Some will seek forgiveness, others escape.

A few performances in this film will leave you slack-jawed and in awe.

Maybe one day “Christian” films will reach this level of quality, but I’m not holding my breath. What other films thoughtfully and artistically explore big questions about God, faith, life, and death?



Grace for the doubter


I think we’re too hard on Thomas—or “Doubting Thomas,” as you might know him. Surely you’ve heard the story: After the resurrection, when the disciples were proclaiming they had seen the risen Lord, Thomas said he wouldn’t believe unless he touched the nail marks in Jesus’ hands and the wound in His side. A week later, Jesus appeared to Thomas and tells him to feel the wounds.

My Lord and my God!

Thomas is forever characterized by his doubt. But we overlook the fact that none of the disciples actually believed what they were hearing until they laid eyes on Jesus. They all had to see first.

Another story about Thomas–this one from John 11. When Jesus hears about Lazarus’ death, He tells the disciples he wants to go see him. The disciples are scared and don’t want to go, but Jesus goes anyway. And Thomas–yes, “Doubting Thomas”– says Let us also go, so that we may die with Him.

I’ve been thinking about Thomas a lot lately. I, too, find myself walking through seasons of doubt. I don’t doubt the central mystery of the Gospel–Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again–but sometimes I wonder if we’ve missed something along the way.

I’ve written about the feeling of absence before. When Christ seems hidden from plain view, when he remains silent for a time. I think about Thomas, and I wonder what it must have felt like when the risen Lord revealed himself to the 11 disciples, but for some reason Thomas had to wait one more week. When will it be my turn to see God? 

I find comfort in knowing there’s grace for the doubter, for the one who is seeking but has not yet found all the answers. In fact, I think we should be wary of anyone who claims to have all the questions figured out. On the other hand, I also want to be careful not to take this idea of searching too far and talk my way out of deciding what I believe. The goal of searching is to find, not to continue searching forever. When I hear a person confidently declare where he or she stands on a theological issue–whether it’s baptism or communion or whatever–I tend to assume they haven’t wrestled like I have. They haven’t really thought this one through yet; if they had, they wouldn’t speak so surely. They don’t feel the tension like I do. 

It’s important to remember that they’ve probably gone through seasons of doubt, too. Maybe they’ve searched and wrestled with this issue, and this is where they landed.

Derek Rishmawy has some nice thoughts on this:

When you go seeking for a spouse, the point is to find one, right? Now, once you find one, you’re not supposed to keep searching are you? That’s not to say you’re not still learning, or exploring–but it’s of a different character now. Before I was looking for a land to settle in, but now I’m exploring the land I have. Before I was searching to find a wife. Now I’m “exploring” my wife, looking to grow and learn in the context of an already settled relationship. This is no less stimulating, adventurous, or somehow closed-minded–it’s just the way relationships work. Depth and love are not the result of constant foundation-testing and tinkering, but in building once those things have been tinkered, tested, and settled on.

While doubt is a reality of this journey, I don’t want it to define my journey. I don’t want to search forever. I want to land somewhere.

Yesterday  I felt the urge to approach the Lord’s Table and experience the way  Christ is uniquely and mysteriously revealed through Communion. I looked online and found an Episcopal church close to my house. This morning, before going to the Presbyterian church I attend, I took part in the Holy Eucharist Rite II. I was reminded that we’re all part of one body. The Spirit isn’t confined to a single denomination. And, in the midst of my searching, I can approach the Table with confidence, knowing that Christ is revealing Himself to me, even if I don’t quite understand the particulars of what that means right now. I believe; help my unbelief. 

The name of the Episcopal church next to my house?

St. Thomas.

A letter to my first crush

Dear Rory,

Nothing can prepare you for the moment when your first love suddenly shows up in your life after years of being away. I’d heard rumors that you might be around these parts again, but I didn’t dare allow myself to believe it. And then today, I saw you:


Do you even remember me anymore?  Do you remember the evenings we spent together, years ago, when I couldn’t seem to stop myself from watching just one more episode?

They say your first love shapes how you view all future relationships, and I believe that now. Not many girls can talk about Sylvia Plath, Nick Horny, Shakespeare, Allen Ginsburg, Ernest Hemingway, and Virginia Woolf. You’re one of the few people I had ever met who owned more books than me.

I watched as you fell in love with so many men, knowing all along that if I could just make my way up to Stars Hollow, I would buy you a cup of coffee at Luke’s and charm you with my quips and knowledge of Russian literature. We would’ve been a journalism power couple.

Sometimes people fall in love but aren’t supposed to be together. I guess that’s our story. Now that you’re on Netflix, I’ll remember the good times we had, but I’ll move forward, I’ll be strong. You taught me how.


P.S. – Tell Lorelai that she would’ve been the perfect mother-in-law.


Derek Jeter and the hope of good endings


(Julie Jacobson/AP)

I could not care less about baseball. I don’t even know what RBI stands for. My favorite thing about attending baseball games is the BBQ nachos. So I was surprised when I found myself tuned into Derek Jeter’s final game at Yankee Stadium last Thursday. I wasn’t watching as a fan, it just seemed like an important moment culturally. One of the game’s most loved and successful players was stepping onto the game’s most legendary field one last time. I wanted to be able to say I saw it happen.

Jeter’s final moments in Yankee Stadium were cinematic. At the bottom of the ninth, the Yankees were tied 5-5 with the Orioles. Jeter stepped up to the plate, swung on the first pitch, hit the ball for the 3,463rd time in his career, and sent it screaming between first and second. Antoan Richardson slid into home, and the Yankees won the game. The stadium went nuts, and teammates ran out to celebrate with their Captain. That moment will forever be part of baseball lore.

“Derek Jeter: where fantasy becomes reality,” the announcer said. “Did you have any doubt?”

Alone, Jeter walked onto the diamond to get one last view from shortstop. He knelt and said a quick prayer while the crowd roared with gratitude and reverence. Even for this devout baseball antagonist, it was an emotional and moving moment.

There’s something about a well told story that captivates our attention. I couldn’t stop watching Jeter’s final home game because I knew something bigger than me was happening, and in some small way I wanted to be part of the story. Jeter’s entire existence had led up to this one at-bat, this walk-off single to win the game. He’s been training for a career in major league baseball his whole life, and here, at the end of all things, he won. He ended his story well.

Isn’t that what we all want?

It’s easy to feel like darkness is winning, like the story is going to end badly. But moments like these are subtle reminders that sometimes the ending is good. The promise of the Gospel is that there’s a story being told that’s bigger than us, and more importantly, it’s a story full of redemption and hope. A story with a good ending. A story that is already finished.

Where fantasy becomes reality. Did you have any doubt?


Fall 2014: My 5 Most Anticipated Albums

Yesterday I shared 5 movies that I’m looking forward to seeing in the next few months. Here are 5 albums coming out soon that I’m dying to hear.

1) Stars – “No One is Lost” – October 14

In 2005, Stars, a little band from Canada, released an album called Set Yourself on Fire, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Stars is my go to band to listen to when I’m driving home on a cool evening with the windows down. Here’s the first single from their new album.


2) Taylor Swift – “1989” – October 27

Absolutely no irony here. While I try to cultivate good taste, I will never stop loving quality pop music. And Taylor Swift writes a lot of quality pop music. If you think you’re too cool to appreciate some T-Swift, we probably have very little in common. (but that’s okay!) In case you haven’t heard it yet, here’s Shake It Off.

3) Damien Rice – “My Favourite Faded Fantasy” – November 3

It’s been 8 long years since the magnificent Damien Rice released an album, and it looks like we’re in for a treat. If you think your significant other might dump you soon, politely ask him or her to wait until this album is out so Damien can help get you through the heartache. Here’s our first taste of the new album. Subtle and haunting, everything I wanted it to be.


4) Kanye West – TBD – TBD

In a recent GQ interview, Kanye West said he hopes to release his follow-up to Yeezus sometime in September. Or maybe October. Or maybe November. Hopefully it’ll be sometime before the end of the year. Kanye’s body of work is entertaining/brilliant/challenging/contradictory/frustrating/nuts/interesting, and I’m excited to see what Ye has for us next. I’m sort of expecting this album to drop at any second. Or next summer. Who knows?

5) Kendrick Lamar – TBD – TBD

Kendrick’s first album,good kid, m.A.A.d City, was an album I spent a lot of time wrestling with, so I’m looking forward to hearing what Kendrick has been working on since 2012. There are rumors that he’s releasing a new single on Tuesday.

Bonus: Frank Ocean – TBD – TBD

Frank Ocean has been talking about his new album for a while now. He recently said he’s working with producers Hit-Boy, who worked on Watch the Throne, and Rodney Jerkins. I want to hear new music from Mr. Ocean more than any other artist alive, I think.

Fall 2014: My 5 Most Anticipated Films

Fall is my favorite season. If you look closely at the original Hebrew, you’ll discover that the Garden of Eden was eternally Autumn. While there are countless simple pleasures associated with fall, I’ve been thinking specifically about a handful of films I’m looking forward to seeing.

1) Gone Girl – October 3

The book didn’t floor me, but I can get behind an adaptation directed by David Fincher and starring Ben Affleck.

2) Men, Women & Children – October 17

Directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air), Men, Women & Children examines the impact the Internet has on a handful of characters’ lives. The trailer is heavy and brilliant.

3) Fury – October 17

Brad Pitt playing a character named Wardaddy and driving a tank in a WWII drama. Yup.

4) Interstellar – November 7

Christopher Nolan directing a science fiction drama about space/time travel. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, and Michael Caine. This trailer is giving me the chills.

5) Foxcatcher – November 14

Based on the true story of wrestling champion Mark Schultz and John DuPont. It will be interesting to see what Steve Carell does with this. I’ve had a big man crush on Mark Ruffalo since 13 going on 30. 


What movies are you excited about?

In which I (sort of reluctantly) start writing about faith, again

I haven’t written about faith in a long time. There are a million reasons why, some more legitimate than others. I was job searching last spring, and I didn’t want a potential employer to think I was one of those happy-clappy Christians who makes everyone pray before the meal at a restaurant. I wanted to distance myself from stereotypes. I felt myself being sucked into the Christian blogosphere, and I wanted out. Thinking that I always needed to share my opinion when an evangelical did something stupid left me feeling exhausted. I didn’t want to add to the echo chamber. I didn’t want to create noise.

But there’s more.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when it felt like God left, but I think it happened sometime in the winter. One day He went silent. And I kept it to myself. The absence of God isn’t an easy thing to talk about. It’s hard to explain to people that sometimes the promises found in Scripture feel more like taunts. When I was younger I heard someone say, “If you feel far away from God, who do you think moved?”

I don’t think the answer to that question is always simple. So I stopped writing.

I spent this past weekend on a wilderness retreat with 12 recent college graduates. Each person was given at least 30 minutes to share his or her story. I thought about how I would tell my story, how I could make it look pretty and inspiring. How I could add in the right amount of drama to make it compelling, to make me seem a bit more edgy or cultured.

But then I remembered what someone told me a few years ago: The people you care about deserve honesty from you.

I want to hear your story–all the messy parts, your lowest lows and the moments you felt triumphant, the times when you were the person you never want to be again–but I don’t want you to hear mine. Not the honest version at least. I’ll go to tremendous lengths to make sure you only know the story I want you to know. The story I can control.

You’ll probably see more thoughts about faith on here. My faith influences my writing and my writing influences my faith. They inform and shape each other. There’s no getting around that. If you visit this space, then you deserve honesty from me.

I’ve been thinking about how I can avoid being another loud, unnecessary voice bouncing around the echo chamber. Something I’ve always appreciated is the way I feel at home in different contexts. I love contradictions. One of my best friends is the definition of a sharp, put-together businessman, and the other is a folk musician who seems to never be wearing shoes and looks like Jesus Christ himself. I was born in the North, but I’ve found a way to make the South home. I believe in the ordination of women, but I work at a PCA church. In college, I often woke up early to attend an Anglican service alone before going to a Presbyterian church with my pals. I put hymns and Kanye on the same playlist. What I see is an opportunity to be a bridge, of sorts. I’m still not sure what that looks like, but it’s what I hope to do.

I’ll leave you with this:

“There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled. There is a void in your soul ready to be filled. You feel it, don’t you?” – Rumi

The time my dad met Justin Timberlake’s dad but didn’t know it

My father turns 60 years old today. In honor of him, here is a story that has become part of our family’s folklore:

When he lived in Memphis, my dad was on the Board of Directors for the local chapter of the Rotary Club. Being a personable man who has never met a stranger, he was in charge of welcoming new members. One day he noticed that a Randy Timberlake from Millington joined the club, so my dad asked him to lunch.

At lunch, he asked Randy about his life, genuinely enjoying the opportunity to make a new friend. Randy mentioned that he has a son named Justin.

“Oh, where does Justin live?” my dad asked.

“He’s out in Los Angeles,” Randy replied.

“Really? What brought Justin to Los Angeles?”

“Well…you know, the entertainment industry.”

“Wow. That must be incredibly hard to work in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles and have the same name as Justin Timberlake,” my dad said.

A pause.

“Mike, my son is Justin Timberlake.”


Happy Birthday, Pops.




Update: My dad has informed me that he was specifically told Randy was NOT related to Justin before they had lunch. 

Dancing Blue Ivy reminds us that Jay Z is just a regular ol’ dad

Last night, while Queen Beyoncé was dominating the VMAs with her 16-minute performance, Jay Z sat in the audience with Princess Blue Ivy on his lap and a silly hat on his head. And then this happened:

Right on cue, Blue dances to Flawless. Mr. Carter (“Mr. Beyoncé” is probably more appropriate at this point) seems surprised, and he looks at his daughter with all the love and affection in the world. His wife is on stage being a legend, but his daughter’s tiny dance moves capture his attention.

If that doesn’t make you want to be a father, nothing will.

Sub City Paris

Standing in Dr. King’s Symbolic Shadow: A Day at the Civil Rights Museum

The events taking place in Ferguson have me thinking a lot about justice, racism, oppression, and American history. What I’ve been confronting more than anything is my ignorance; I’m discovering how much I don’t know. With that in mind, I decided to spend a few hours at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis today. I’ve called Memphis home since 2007, but I’m ashamed to admit this was my first time visiting the museum. Located at the Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the museum traces the Civil Rights Movement from the 17th century to today.

One of the exhibits, “A Culture of Resistance: Slavery in America,” opens with this quotation from W.E.B. Du Bois.

There is in this world no such force as the force of a man determined to rise. The human soul cannot be permanently chained.

We see a woman and her baby being sold. There’s a model of a slave ship. Circling the room, in the midst of these terrible things, is the beginning of that famous line from the Declaration of Independence, the line that defines our nation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…

But in the same exhibit you learn that when the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, 20% of this nation–some 539,000 people–were enslaved.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that some men are created equal…

What I took away from the Civil Rights Museum is a better understanding of the way white supremacy has been deeply woven into the fabric of our nation since the beginning. America was built on the premise that not all men are created equal. Racism is a systematic issue. This is an ugly fact to acknowledge, but it must be acknowledged.

I could go into more detail about what I learned, but I think I’ll share some pictures instead. If you ever have the chance to visit this museum, please do take advantage of the opportunity.













When I left, I walked out behind an elderly black woman who was with her granddaughter. This woman was old enough to remember Jim Crow. She remembers James Meredith’s admittence to Ole Miss. She remembers the day Dr. King was murdered.

“Don’t you forget anything you saw here today,” she said to her granddaughter. “All of this was for you.”

How To Avoid Whitesplaining Ferguson: Quiet Down and Listen Up

I was going to write about what Ferguson means for America, but I decided not to because I’ve seen too many white writers try to make Ferguson about their own experience. I don’t know what Ferguson means for America because I’m white, and I don’t think a white person can fully understand what it’s like to be  black in America. Our privilege and ignorance limits our understanding. My private prep school, full of wealthy white kids, didn’t teach me how to think about race in a way that moves us toward justice. I’ve heard okay but slavery was a long time ago and black people have all the same rights as white people enough times to assume that a lot of white people are ill-prepared for some of these conversations.

Instead of being quick to talk, I think it’s important that we quiet down and listen up. Let’s acknowledge that maybe we don’t know as much as we think we do, and be willing to learn. Empathy goes a long way. We saw that last night when Capt. Ron Johnson had the radical idea of actually treating the people of Ferguson like human beings. There’s power in looking someone in the eyes and saying, “I hear you. I hurt with you. I support this fight against injustice.”

While our understanding is limited by our experience, we can, and should, always try to learn more.

Ta-Nehisi Coates knows (he always knows):

I don’t want to single anybody out in that but I’m just going to say: We don’t understand how much we don’t understand. A lot of people think they are equipped to have this conversation and they are not….It’s very, very important … it’s really, really important that, you know, if we’re going to have this fight, that folks educate themselves on the history. You can oppose reparations all you want, but you got to know the facts. You really, really do.

I don’t want to single anybody out in that but I’m just going to say: We don’t understand how much we don’t understand.


Listen and learn. Don’t surround yourself with white voices. Vary your media diet and expose yourself to journalists and writers who aren’t white. Read novels by authors who aren’t white. Listen to music by artists who aren’t white.

Some suggestions:

Read every single word Ta-Nehisi Coates has ever written.

Read James Baldwin. Please, for the love of God, read James Baldwin. Here’s a good place to start.

Read Cord Jefferson and his essay about covering the racism beat.

Learn about the injustice of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex by reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

Read The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois.

Listen to Kendrick Lamar’s album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City

Read authors like Zadie Smith and Junot Diaz and Haruki Murakami and Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou and Jesmyn Ward.

Actually read Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail.

Follow people like Rembert Browne, Tracy Clayton, Saeed Jones, Teju Cole, Joshua Bennett, and Joshua DuBois on Twitter.

Seek out new forms of art. Try spoken word poetry. This poem from Miles Hodges is a wonderful place to start:

But don’t stop there. These are just a few suggestions. Keep looking for new writers, new artists, new perspectives.  Quiet down. Listen up. Don’t settle for easy answers, because there are none. Learn how to consider the hard questions from a point of view different from your own. And when we do see injustices, let’s get loud. Very, very loud.

A Ferguson and Michael Brown required reading list

Bu8zwatIEAAvgfs.jpg-large(photo via Ryan J. Reilly)

Since a police officer shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Mo., a few days ago, the city has descended into chaos. Last night things seemed to reach a new level when police officers arrested a Huffington Post reporter, a Washington Post reporter, and an alderman (basically a city councilman). I’ve been getting a few texts from pals asking me what’s worth reading on the subject, so I quickly threw this list together. This list is not meant to be definitive.

You should read:

Outrage in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown

How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police

The Militarization of U.S. Police: Finally Dragged Into the Light by the Horrors of Ferguson

In Ferguson, Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery gives account of his arrest

America Is Not For Black People

Hands up, don’t shoot: The images that define Ferguson’s protest

What I Saw in Ferguson

In Defense of Black Rage: Michael Brown, Police, and the American Dream

The Night Social Media Exploded Over Ferguson

Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic’s deputy editor, had the brilliant idea of creating a wiki to put together information about the Ferguson Police. As he put it, “We need a sketch of the machinery of power here.”

And, of course, now is a fantastic time to revisit The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Let it be a history lesson on race in America.

Updated on August 15

This first hand account from Rembert Browne of Grantland is one of the best things I’ve read from Ferguson. Period.

A short profile of Antonio French, the alderman who has been reporting from Ferguson since this all started.

Hundreds demonstrate peacefully in embattled Ferguson, Mo. 

Updated on August 18

Racial History Behind Ferguson Protests

Black People Are Not Ignoring ‘Black on Black’ Crime (There is nothing worse than seeing someone change the conversation to this debate.)

Missouri Governor to Deploy National Guard to Ferguson

Photos of officer who shot and killed Michael Brown are published

View of #Ferguson Thrust Michael Brown Shooting to National Attention

Tear-gassing cops’ new opponent: Why Gun Owners of America wants reform

Autopsy Shows Michael Brown Was Struck at Least 6 Times

Is Race An Issue In Ferguson? Depends On Whom You Ask

Michael Brown was shot from the front, had marijuana in his system

Videos Killed Trust in Police Officers

Amnesty International sends team within US for first time as National Guard deployed

Reparations for Ferguson (Again, I can’t say this enough: Ta-Nehisi Coates is our nation’s most important writer.)

Be sure to follow reporters in Ferguson on Twitter. Here are a few: Joel D. Anderson with BuzzFeed. Ryan J. Reilly with Huffington Post. Alice Speri with Vice News. Robert Cohen with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (who might be earning himself a Pulitzer right now).

What did I miss? Send it my way.

An interview with BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner

Chris Geidner, BuzzFeed’s legal editor, is a journalist you should pay attention to. There’s no writer covering LGBT issues in America better than Chris. I had the pleasure of chatting with him about journalism, social media, and BuzzFeed a few months ago for a class project. With the announcement that BuzzFeed just landed a $50 million investment, it seems like a good time to revisit some of the insightful things Chris said.

This interview was conducted over the phone on February 26, 2014. 

How did you end up at BuzzFeed?

I had been at the Tribune Chronicle in Warren, Ohio, on the copy desk, and eventually an editorial writer back before I went to law school. Then I went to law school, and after the first year of law school I was sick of not being able to write every day, so I started blogging. That was way back in 2003, and it was still the beginning, the first generation of bloggers. That was Law Dork. I kept doing that through law school and my beginnings as a lawyer. I shut it down when I went to work for the state of Ohio. Two years later, when I left, I restarted Law Dork. By the time I had moved to D.C. later that year, I had been tracing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the beginning of the DOMA challenges and the Prop 8 challenge in California. I started working freelance for Metro Weekly. After a few months they asked me if I’d come on part-time. I was really enjoying the writing.  That year I had been covering “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal full time, and starting the next year I covered the DOMA effort more in earnest. Ben Smith, who had moved from Politico at the end of 2011 to BuzzFeed was in the process of starting a D.C. bureau and asked if I was interested in joining. We talked about it, I went up to New York and visited and joined BuzzFeed in the next month.

That must have seemed like an interesting choice. People didn’t really take BuzzFeed seriously at that time.

Whenever Ben’s move was announced, a lot of people were like, “I don’t know what this is.” Everybody in D.C. was like, “If Ben is doing that, let’s see what he’s doing.” That’s when he brought on Rosie Gray and McKay Coppins and Zeke Miller and Andrew Kaczynski. All of them just started at it. It has been the case, basically across the board, that we go in quietly with two, three, or four reporters who really understand a subject area and just start working. One of the more recent instances we’ve seen is when BuzzFeed hired a Books Editor. There was a nasty New York Times op-ed because Isaac Fitzgerald had talked about how negative reviews are silly. The funny thing is, you have this immediate backlash from him saying it, but it really started a discussion in the literature criticism circles about what the value is in attack pieces.

This is what people don’t get about BuzzFeed: our aim is not to be the only source of information you’re going to go to. Our aim is for everything we write to be something you care about and something people on the Internet want to share. It isn’t to take over all media companies. It isn’t to be the only place you go. The criticism solidifies the view we have that people still don’t even get what the web is.

What do you mean by that?

Journalism is not about finding one institution that will be the brand that is all of the media. When you are looking on your Twitter feed, when you click on a link, most of the time you don’t even know what publication you’re going to. You click on a link because of the person who tweeted the information and the way that they presented it on Twitter or Facebook. You then find out where it is. It is not an issue of picking one home page. I don’t know of anybody who has their homepage go to a media source and that’s all they focus on now.

It definitely used to be that way though. I remember my dad getting almost all of his news from Drudge Report when I was younger. I know Drudge is an aggregator, but it’s a similar idea.

Exactly. When people who are threatened by BuzzFeed, it reveals this understanding of media that represents the problems they’re having. When you criticize Isaac for saying we’re not writing negative reviews, that misses the entire point. You are not expected, under the understanding of what BuzzFeed is and what journalism is, to only be reading BuzzFeed. You can get your negative reviews still. You can read them. He didn’t say there is no place for negative reviews in all of literature. He said as the editor of BuzzFeed Books, he didn’t think BuzzFeed Books would be focused on that. And that’s his understanding of the way the Internet works. You choose what area you want to cover. Until recently, my work focused almost exclusively on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” marriage, and workplace protections more broadly. While I’ve published things in other areas, I’ve found a national platform and reputation for choosing basically three topics to write about. Twenty years ago that would be called a professor. That would not be somebody who is being promoted to bigger publications and getting better job offers. If you have somebody who is writing something that lots of people care about and lots of people are going to want to share, that is a successful journalist.

There’s a changing relationship between the media and the consumer. The lines can get pretty blurry sometimes. Some people call it citizen journalism, I guess. Where do you think BuzzFeed and social media fit into that discussion?

The phrase “citizen journalist” is silly.

What’s a better way to say it?

It comes down to what your aim is. If your aim is to advance an issue and you’re doing so intentionally, then you are an activist. That can be done well, and it can be done poorly. There is nothing wrong with having a point of view. That doesn’t automatically mean you can’t present accurate information. Nate Silver and Ezra Klein both have a point of view and don’t hide it, but they also know that they’re going to be held accountable. Having been reporting at an LGBT newspaper, I was definitely questioned at times by people who would ask, “Are you able to be objective? You’re gay.” I’m just like, read my stuff and make your own decision. I’ve been right these times on this information, and if you have a problem with that, get over it.

So how does social media and citizen journalism fit into this?

The artificial distinction between “citizen” and “journalist” has disappeared. If random Person X is at the scene of a shooting and gets a picture and tweets it, does that make them a citizen journalist? No. It means they took a picture of what happened around them. Does that make Abraham Zapruder a journalist? No. He was a citizen who captured a moment of public interest. If I see someone tweets something that I can’t immediately confirm, I have to make choices.  I want to confirm where they’re getting their information before I put it out to my followers. Because I have credibility built up with my followers. My followers trust me to present accurate information, or at the very least to accurately cite it. When people talk about being first, you have to decide if it’s worth risking your reputation for accuracy.

Have you ever regretted a tweet?

Yes. Of course. If I’m deleting something because of an error, there is always the chance someone manually retweeted, so I will normally say that I corrected it. “It was $10 million, not $12,” or whatever.

Does BuzzFeed have any formal social media guidelines for empoyees?

Social media guidelines are stupid. I will say that. Social media guidelines should just be, “this is your brand, this is your responsibility.” When newspapers or magazines or television stations have social media guidelines, that’s a sign that they’re going to fail at social media.


Because there’s no such thing. It’s the equivalent of guidelines for your friday night. Obviously there are jobs that have moral clauses and stuff like that, but it should be the same exact guidelines that you have in any situation if you’re a journalist. Your credibility is who you are. There should be no distinction between that. We probably have more freedom at BuzzFeed because we’re not stodgy, but that also comes down to the same sort of rule. It’s about your public perception.

If you’re going to be on social media, and you want to work at the Wall Street Journal, your persona should probably reflect somebody who works at the Wall Street Journal. Your public perception if you’re at the Wall Street Journal is going to be different than your public perception if you’re at BuzzFeed. They’ve chosen what their image is going to be. I think in general, social media guidelines are, “what would you do in your life?”

I’ve had editors run social media rules by me, and they all just seemed like common sense.

I think you’re exactly right there. The best rule for social media is just not to do anything online that you wouldn’t do in real life. Be smart. If someone needs to sit you down to explain what you should and shouldn’t do, you probably don’t need to be using social media.

The biggest thing that social media did is it completely eviscerated the easy lines between public and private lives. There is no way for somebody to be a journalist and say, “my tweeting has no impact on the way I’m seen as a journalist.” At the same time, the advantage is that people want to know who they’re reading. That has to do with readers being able to get a better idea of what is factoring into the views of the journalist covering the story. I don’t care about accusations of bias because people know who I am. If they are following my Twitter feed, which is completely public, then they have a very good idea of who I am. If someone wants to say “Oh, he likes musicals, so he’s clearly biased about gay marriage,” then they can make that assessment. And then they can read my article.

It also enables people who do care about stories to see that this is a story that I have a deep understanding of and that I follow from day to day. It shows that even when I’m not writing a story about something, I’m reading about it, I’m giving my thoughts on it, I’m giving my comments, I’m linking to other people’s writing. When it comes to me writing a story about that topic, they know that I’m informed because they’ve seen that I’ve been following it.

My favorite thing about following journalists on Twitter is it gives me a chance to see that they’re a real person rather than just a byline, I think.

Exactly. When stories break big and somebody new starts appearing on TV, it gives you the ability to find out more about that person and ask questions. It’s a big opportunity to interact. I get questions every day. I get news tips. I get other information. And then I also get crap that doesn’t matter to me, but that’s fine. It is a big opportunity—on both sides—to interact.

After something like the Boston Marathon bombing, for example, there were a lot of people saying social media would be the end of traditional news. Do you think there’s any truth to that?

It changes what the news is, that’s definitely true. It changes what value news has to add. The value of news is about being able to sort through information and being able to curate it and provide verification. Most people don’t have the ability to follow twitter feeds for 12 hours straight. Those things become what the role of journalists are in that moment.

One of the most important things on day one of the Boston Marathon coverage was finding who the good journalists are in Boston. We had like two people that we actually sent to Boston. Some of it is very traditional stuff. It’s getting feet on the ground and being at events and seeing what’s happening.

Recently there’s been a lot of pushback against sites like Upworthy and the use of so-called click bait. BuzzFeed also gets thrown around in that discussion a lot. How would you respond to that criticism?

There are plenty of problems with Upworthy. There are plenty of problems with BuzzFeed. But there are also plenty of problems with Politico. There are plenty of problems with the New York Times, plenty of problems with NBC, plenty of problems with the Wall Street Journal. Yeah, okay. Nobody’s perfect. The point is that different people are doing different things. It’s the equivalent of criticizing going to the moon because we spent less money exploring the Pacific Ocean. Yes, you are correct. But we wanted to explore the moon. It goes back to the BuzzFeed Books thing. It doesn’t mean no one can explore the ocean. it means we want to explore the moon.

When writing on the Internet, what is a good way to get noticed?

Write things that you care about. If I didn’t care about the marriage story I wouldn’t have been able to write about it for five years straight. You’re more likely to do well if you’re writing about something you care about. Doing well is what will get you noticed. If you’re not on Twitter and following the journalists who are leading in the field you care about, if you’re not following the journalists who have the entry level jobs in the field you care about, you should be. Engage with those people. Having no problem promoting yourself is essential to starting. It is essential. It’s writing things and sending them to people. Make sure people you care about see your writing. That is the key way to get ahead. Whenever a young journalist is engaging with me on twitter I’m more likely to read what they write. If it’s good, I’m more likely to send it out.

If you want to be a journalist, you need to journalism. You need to do it. It isn’t a profession in which you’ll prove yourself by meeting people. It’s a profession in which you’ll prove yourself by proving yourself. Rosie Gray was covering Occupy Wall Street for The Village Voice, and she kicked ass at it, and Ben Smith got to know her and brought her on. Now she’s covering foreign policy. She’s down here destroying it every day. She’s 24.

Keep writing. Keep promoting. Make sure to interact with people. You need to show people that you’re a writer they should care about.

Follow Chris Geidner on Twitter here

A simple idea that might help prevent suicides

What is there to say? You’ve already heard the news. Robin Williams had struggled with severe depression and addiction, and today we lost a colossal talent and a beautiful human being. I don’t know what demons Robin was battling, but I bet he felt alone. I bet he felt like he had no hope.

As the news hit Twitter and Facebook, I noticed a trend: people were posting the phone number to the suicide prevention lifeline, urging anyone who is hurting to call the number.

I think this is a wonderful thing, of course, but I think it’s important to remember that suicide occurs every day, not just when a celebrity takes his or her life. I saw the number for the suicide prevention lifeline probably two dozen times tonight, but the last time I saw it was when Philip Seymour Hoffman died.

In America, we lose around 30,000 people to suicide every year. If we believe that the suicide prevention lifeline might actually help save lives, then we should see this number more often.

Here’s my idea: social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have promoted content–usually advertisements–all the time. We see these tweets and these Facebook posts all day, every day. What if social media sites started sharing the suicide prevention lifeline number in promoted tweets or promoted Facebook posts? What if we became so familiar with this phone number that we all knew it by memory? What if whenever someone who is hurting got online they were simply reminded that This number is here for you?

Because I think a lot of us just need to know we aren’t alone. I don’t want to wait until another celebrity dies until I see this phone number again. I want my friends to see this number. I want everyone I love to see this number. I want the 13-year-old girl who is dreading going to school tomorrow because she’s afraid of the words that will be spoken to her to see this number. I want the veteran who is at the end of his rope to see this number. I want everyone who feels like hope is fading, everyone who is convinced they are unlovable or believe the lie that their life is meaningless to see this number and know it exists.

I don’t know if this would do anything. Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t. But if it reminds one person that they aren’t alone, that they matter, that there are options, then I think it would be worth it.

If you are hurting tonight, please know that you aren’t alone. Talk to someone or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. It’s confidential and free.

Life is heavy. Be kind and gracious to one another, y’all.

8 Mile vs. Hustle & Flow

I’ve talked about wanting to use this space as a place to discuss important questions. Questions about big topics like faith, life, death, and God. But there’s one question that keeps me up at night: 8 Mile vs. Hustle & Flow. 

Two Academy Award-winning films about burgeoning rap careers. One set in Detroit, one in Memphis. One epic showdown.

Wait, who does this white boy think he is? Why should we listen to him?

I belong to an exclusive group of people who have had the honor of calling both Detroit and Memphis home. I lived in Detroit for 10 years, and Memphis has been home for 7 years. For better or worse, the 313 and the 901 are in my blood. 

So without further ado, let’s do this.

8 Mile vs. Hustle & Flow

8 mile hustle and flow pic8 Mile vs. Hustle & Flow(All stats found on Wikipedia)

On the surface, 8 Mile and Hustle & Flow have the same storyline: a man is unhappy with his life, and he pursues a career in rap in order to find some sort of fulfillment. Tale as old as time. In fact, I’m actively living that story right now. (Rapper name = Supreme Cort. Watch out for my mixtape…should be dropping any day now.)

In 8 Mile, Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith Jr., played by Eminem, is a young blue-collar worker who recently moved back in with his mom (a hilariously miscast Kim Basinger) after his girlfriend left him.

Hustle & Flow tells the story of DJay, a Memphis pimp in a midlife crisis. DJay is the age his father was when he died, and now he’s beginning to wonder what his true purpose is.

Both of these characters have dreams and are willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish them. They’re held back by their circumstances, and they want to use music as a way to escape. Rabbit is afraid he’ll end up in the trailer park like his mom; DJay wants to find a way to survive besides pimping girls out of his car.

Detroit and Memphis play important roles in each film. Leaving represents success. Brittany Murphy’s character is trying to make it to New York because if she can just make it to New York everything will be better. DJay idolizes Skinny Black, a Memphis rapper who outgrew the city that supported him.

In order to determine which film comes out on top, let’s compare a couple of key categories.

Eminem vs. Terrence Howard

Admittedly, this is an unfair comparison. A rapper with no acting experience against a man whose acting landed him an Academy Award nomination. Game over, obviously. Terrence Howard for days.

8 Mile is basically a biopic. Eminem plays Eminem. Hustle & Flow is fiction. The reason Terrence Howard wins so decisively here is because he is more convincing when he plays a fictional pimp than Eminem is when he plays Eminem. Terrence Howard disappears and almost makes me forget that he’s that dude from Crash.


T-Howard, this one is all yours.

Lose Yourself  Vs. It’s Hard out here for a pimp

Both movies won Academy Awards for Best Original Song. Take a moment to familiarize yourself with these tunes:

Lose Yourself by Eminem (8 Mile)


It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp performed by Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson/written by DJ Paul, Juicy J, and Cedric Coleman (Hustle & Flow)


It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp makes me want to cruise around Memphis in my Honda Civic with the windows down on a hot summer day. That’s a success in my book. However, when you listen to it apart from the movie, it mostly serves as a reminder of how great the movie is. Alone, it’s a good song, but not a great song.

Lose Yourself, ladies and gentleman, is a great song. Lose Yourself transcends. It’s one of the best songs ever written about fighting for your dreams. You only get one shot. Eminem’s frustration, anger, and desire are palpable. Everything feels immediate. Right when you think it can’t get more intense, he goes in on the third verse and just destroys it. Absolutely relentless.


Lose Yourself, without question.

Best musical scene

8 Mile:

This is the final rap battle. Rabbit transforms weaknesses into strengths. Inspiring. What you don’t see in this video is Papa Doc choking and Rabbit winning the battle. (Fun fact: I played in a lacrosse tournament at Cranbrook, the private school that Rabbit raps about. That should make those of you who know me LOL.)

Hustle & Flow:

The scrawny white boy putting the beat together. Key (Anthony Anderson) drawing the song out of DJay, showing him how it’s done. The sense that DJay is finally starting to become who he has always dreamed of being. Shug and Nola joining in and enjoying the moment as much as everyone else. Too much fun.

best non-musical scene

8 Mile:

I chose this scene strictly because of the little girl. Those cries of desperation. Someone give her an Oscar.

Hustle & Flow:

One of Hustle & Flow’s strengths is the way it shows sides of characters we don’t usually see. Nola is a prostitute who wants something more out of life, but she doesn’t know what it is. Her job is to support DJay’s dream, but really she wants to pursue a dream of her own. She’s touching on an important truth: we all want our lives to mean something.

“Everybody’s got something important going on in their life but me, D. And I want something.”


As much as it hurts me to decide between the two, I think the answer is clear: While 8 Mile has a better song, Hustle & Flow is the superior movie. The characters are more compelling, the screenplay is tighter, and the story is more interesting.

Alright, Supreme Cort has to go work on his mixtape. And remember, in the words of DJay, “Everybody gotta have a dream.”



Read some poetry in honor of Wendell Berry’s birthday

Wendell Berry turns 80 years old today. I considered writing about how he has impacted me, but it seems more appropriate to let Wendell do the talking today. Enjoy.

The Peace of Wild things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Two of my best friends married each other last night


“Most humbling of all is to comprehend the lifesaving gift that your pit crew of people has been for you, and all the experiences you have shared, the journeys together, the collaborations, births and deaths, divorces, rehab, and vacations, the solidarity you have shown one another. Every so often you realize that without all of them, your life would be barren and pathetic. It would be Death of a Salesman, though with e-mail and texting.

The marvel is only partly that somehow you lured them into your web…and they totally stuck with you. The more astonishing thing is that these greatest of all possible people feel the same way about you–horrible, grim, self-obsessed you. They say–or maybe I said–that a good marriage is one in which each spouse secretly thinks he or she got the better deal, and this is true also of our bosom friendships. You could almost flush with appreciation. What a great scam, to have gotten people of such extreme quality and loyalty to think you are stuck with them. Oh my God. Thank you” 

– Anne Lamott

For some reason, years ago, these two started inviting me into their life. Spending time with them has taught me more about grace, love, and what it means to live a quietly faithful life than I could ever fully explain. They make me a better person. They’ve been my lifeboat countless times, and no one goes out of their way to love and encourage me more. Life is so heavy sometimes, but friends like Will and Mary help lighten the load. Of course, I’m reminded of Ram Dass’s words: “We’re all just walking each other home.” Grateful that I get to live life with these two.

The Kanye West Media Echo Chamber

Here are headlines that came up when I searched for Kanye West’s latest GQ interview on Google.

– “Kanye West is a blowfish, and other ridiculous things from his GQ interview”

– “15 Crazy Insights Into The Mind Of Yeezus”

– “Kanye West At His Finest: The Top 5 Craziest Quotes From GQ Interview”

– “The Most Lavishly WTF Moments From Kanye West’s GQ Cover Interview”

– “17 ‘Of Course He Said That’ Moments From Kanye West’s New GQ Interview”

– “7 Reasons Why Kanye West Is Totally Normal As Told By Kanye West”

– “Kanye West’s GQ Interview Reaches New Levels of Delusion”

– “Kanye West’s Most Outrageous Fashion Claims”

– “The 5 Most Ridiculous Quotes From GQ’s Blowfish-Heavy Profile of Kanye West”

– “Kim and I are like ‘two LeBrons': The most ridiculous quotes from Kanye West’s GQ Interview”

LOL look how insane this guy is! shouldn’t be an acceptable form of pop culture analysis.




Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

If you visit this space regularly, then you know that lately I’ve had a good time tweeting every line from The Parent Trap, getting published by The Atlantic, and listening to too much Iggy Azalea (as if that’s even possible). What you don’t know is what’s actually happening in my life. Maybe you don’t care about my life–I probably wouldn’t either if I were you–but when I created this space I hoped it would be a place for me to connect with people and work out the big questions tumbling around in my head.

I’m thinking a lot about authenticity–or more accurately, I’m thinking about my lack of authenticity in this space. It’s easy to share things about my life when my work is appearing in internationally read publications and I’m enjoying 19 hour Harry Potter marathons. It’s harder to open up about not getting a job I wanted or how my bank account seems to hemorrhage cash left and right. But these are the quotidian details of life that everyone can relate to, and having a way to say “hey, this is what’s going on, and it’s hard,” is one of the neatest things about blogs. I wish I had taken advantage of that more often.

With that being said, here’s a brief life update. If you had told me back in January that I’d be where I am today, I would’ve been less than thrilled. But that’s how life works sometimes; doors have to close before we can see the doors we actually needed to walk through. After spending the past two months being a nomad and living on friends’ couches, I finally have a plan. I’m living in Memphis for the next 5 weeks and working for a family friend who owns a wharf. I work on the river and wear steel toe boots. Being a longshoreman has always been a strange dream of mine, so it feels good to get my hands dirty for a few weeks and make some cash to boot. At the end of August I’m flying to Maine to celebrate my father’s 60th birthday at a beautiful house on the beach. In September I’m moving to Birmingham, Alabama, to be part of the Briarwood Fellows Program for the next 9 months or so. I’ll be working 3 days a week and taking seminary classes 2 days a week. As someone who is all over the place when it comes to determining exactly how I’m supposed to use my gifts and passions, I’m looking forward to receiving some guidance this year. I’m also dating a girl in Birmingham, which means we don’t have to do long distance anymore. An added bonus, to be sure. I’ll have some wonderful opportunities to sharpen my writing skills, too. So this is really an ideal situation for me. I can already see events set in motion long ago that brought me to this point, and I’m beginning to have an idea of where I’m going.

Life since graduation has been wild. I’ve learned a lot about myself–both good and bad things. My prayers have included more f-bombs than usual. I had to make what I believe is the single hardest decision of my short life when I turned down a job in Memphis. I discovered just how much I hate being separated from my books, which are sitting in a storage unit in Knoxville. But things have calmed down now, and I feel good about what’s next.

So that’s where I am in life. Big questions are tumbling around in my head again. I hope we can start some good conversations in this space. A big thanks to everyone who frequents this corner of the Internet. Be good to one another, y’all.



Harry Potter and the stories that will never be told

Last night I fell asleep in a world in which 7 Harry Potter books existed. This morning I woke up to the dawn of a new age: there are now 7 Harry Potter books AND one 1,500 word short story written by J.K. Rowling herself.

Yes, it’s true. Rowling published a short story about Harry Potter and his pals attending the 2014 Quidditch World Cup in Patagonia.

Anticipation–particularly anticipation of a new Harry Potter installment–is its own sort of pleasure, so I tried to enjoy waiting for the Pottermore website to load. But once the crashed site finally started working again, I read the story 2 or 3 times.

I used to think I would resent Rowling if she picked up her pen to write about Harry Potter ever again. I thought it would’ve been a betrayal. She had 7 books to tell the story, and anything else would’ve felt exploitive. But while entering into the magical world after all these years, I found myself wanting so much more than 1,500 words. I wanted books about Harry’s life as an adult. I wanted to hear more about the “threads of silver in the famous Auror’s black hair.” I wanted to read about how he got that “nasty cut over his right cheekbone.” I wanted to hear about Teddy Lupin and all of his adventures snogging girls at Hogwarts. I felt nostalgic for a fictional world.

The Harry Potter universe inhabits a unique emotional space for me. Those stories played such an important role in my transition from childhood to adulthood, and revisiting that world feels like coming home in many ways. Ultimately, this short story was nothing more than a tease. It was a reminder that these characters are still very much alive, and they’re living stories that will probably never be told.

31 Thoughts I Had While Tweeting Every Line of ‘The Parent Trap’

Earlier this year I was hanging out with some friends, and for some reason we were discussing how absurd it would be to tweet an entire movie script.

“You won’t do it,” one friend said.

“I absolutely will,” I replied.

And I absolutely did.

On January 13, 2014, I began tweeting every single line from Lindsay Lohan’s 1998 film The Parent Trap. I’m pleased to announce that 705 tweets and 170 days later, I finished on July 2, 2014.

Why The Parent Trap? Why not The Parent Trap? I wish I had a better reason, but this is just how things happened. College was strange.

It was long, slow, tedious work. Watch. Pause. Type. Watch. Pause. Type. Ad infinitum. I peaked at 31 followers and ended with 29. I’m thankful for everyone who joined me on this unforgettable, weird journey.

31 Thoughts I Had While Tweeting Every Line of The Parent Trap

1. Tie-dye girl is the unsung hero of this film.

2. Speaking of unsung heroes, I would love to know what happens to the boy who accidentally goes to the girls’ camp. That’s a narrative I could invest in. Oh, and that actor is Michael Lohan, as in Lindsay Lohan’s REAL LIFE BROTHER.

3. I was on the fencing team for a short period of time in high school. That sport is no joke. These girls are legit.

4. The nanny’s name is CHESSY. Not Jessie. Mind blown.

5. Annie is so obviously the superior twin. Hallie sort of has that spunky Cali girl thing going for her, but Annie truly has it all. She also turns trash talk into an art form.


6. Natasha Richardson’s death still weighs on me. She was a brilliant woman. And she was particularly charming as Elizabeth James.

7. I started out tweeting straight from the script, but I didn’t take into account the fact that actors and actresses often change things up on the fly and deviate from their lines. I also accidentally tweeted an entire camp scene that didn’t make it into the movie. From that point on I realized I needed to watch along while I tweet if I wanted to do this as accurately as possible.

8. Every man should aspire to be like Nick Parker.


9. Owning a vineyard one day is a huge dream of mine. And if I happen to have twin red-headed daughters as well, so be it.

10. If the isolation cabin had been a real thing, camp would’ve been awesome. But putting two preteen enemies in the same cabin without any adult supervision sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen.

11. The Concorde jet, the one that gets Nick and Hallie to London in half the time, no longer flies. If this movie had been made after 2003, they wouldn’t have been waiting in the study to surprise Elizabeth and Annie :(

12. Maybe I had a long-lost twin at the camps I went to when I was younger but I never met him or her because I was too busy complaining about how much I hate camp.

13. I’m 22 and I barely know how to play poker. These 11-year-old girls would’ve whipped my tush. I can’t say I support gambling at such a young age, but who am I to judge?

14. I may never trust a Meredith again.

15. In middle school I pierced my ear the same way Annie and Hallie do it in the movie. A friend from England was visiting my family in America, and for some reason we decided to pierce my ear with a needle. The summer after 7th grade I had an earring. LOL.

16. Meredith is the worst, but she has a pretty good point here.


17. Nick has the most legit wine cellar I’ve ever seen. 

18. And Hallie knows more about wine than I do :(

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19. I never understood what was happening when the statue waves at Hallie when she first arrives in London. I used to think it was an oddly placed bit of magical realism in a film firmly grounded in reality.

20. I always wanted to see more of the Martin and Chessy subplot. The American nanny. The English butler. Again, that’s a narrative I could invest in.

21. I’m always willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of a good story, but honestly, how did this happen?


22. Child actors are usually less than awesome, but this was Lindsay Lohan’s first movie, and she does a stellar job. I wonder how it would work if she were a method actor. Would she “become” Annie pretending to be Hallie or Hallie pretending to be Annie. Would it really even matter?

23. I’ve never been much of a hat-wearing guy, but Nick Parker is making me rethink that.


24. How many times do you think Lindsay Lohan has seen this movie? When is the last time she watched it? What goes through her mind when she watches it?

25. The Parent Trap would’ve been pretty wild if one of the twins had been a boy. That would require a lot more than just a haircut, an accent, and some pierced ears.

26. So true.


27. I can’t help but wonder how this experiment/project/thing will impact the way I watch the movie in the future. I’m sure I won’t watch it for a while, but eventually I’ll see it again. Will I feel nostalgic? Will I tell the people who are with me about my experience with this silly late 90s movie? Will it feel like coming home after a long trip?  Only time will tell.

28. I’ve never seen the original 1961 film. Maybe I’ll tweet every line of that movie one day. (Just kidding. I would rather die.)

29. The scenes with Elizabeth and Nick near the end are actually pretty heartbreaking. For example: When they’re eating dinner on the boat and Liz is talking about how Nick didn’t come after her when she packed up and left, and he says, “I didn’t know that you wanted me to.” There’s a lot of emotional baggage there. So much regret and pain. We see it again when they’re in the wine cellar and he pulls out the bottle of wine from their wedding and right before they kiss she slowly backs away with tear-filled eyes. Devastating.

30. I’m trying to figure out what I’ve learned through this whole experience, but I really don’t think I’ve learned anything. And that’s okay. Sometimes it’s good to finish things just because you said you would.

31. This will always be the best.


So I got inside my locked Yahoo account…

Read my follow-up story for The Atlantic here.

‘Sugar’ by Johnny Stimson

I have the privilege of being best pals with some of my favorite musicians/songwriters. Today my friend Johnny Stimson released this groovy new tune Sugar. He’s a wonderful dude making wonderful music. Before hitting play, make sure you’re in a place where you can dance. Cause you’re gonna wanna dance.

I Unfriended Bob Goff

I’m not sure how to tell this story because it’s not really a story. Nothing happens. There’s no character arc. There are no real lessons learned. At best, this is a mildly amusing anecdote that’s ultimately insignificant. You’ve been warned.

In 2010, I was biking across America with a friend and raising money to build water wells in Haiti. One night, I checked Facebook, and a man who looked close to my father’s age had sent me a friend request. His profile picture was a photo of him holding a child on his shoulders surrounded by colorful balloons. Our bike ride had received a small amount of media attention, so friend requests from strangers weren’t out of the ordinary. I clicked accept. His name was Bob Goff.

Each night, after a long day on the bike, I would check Facebook and see Bob’s status updates, which were almost exclusively short and insightful thoughts about faith.  “Well, that’s nice,” I thought.

A couple of weeks after finishing our journey, I decided to purge Facebook friends I didn’t personally know. I try to keep my life tidy, I guess. While going down my list of friends, I see Mr. Goff’s smiling face and his bundle of balloons staring back at me. I pause for a moment, and then unfriend him. Farewell, Bob. 

Fast-forward a few months. During my first semester of college I started reading Don Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. (Coincidentally, the book talks a lot about riding a bicycle across America. It’s a really wonderful book, and I would buy everyone a copy if I could.) In that book, Don tells the story of when he met a man while kayaking in the middle of nowhere. According to Don, this man is a man of ferocious faithfulness and love. This man would also go on to become one of the most influential people in Don Miller’s life, and the author of the New York Times Bestseller Love Does. His name was Bob Goff.

And all those years ago, I unfriended him.

If there’s a lesson to be learned here, I guess it’s not to unfriend people. But more than anything, I think it’s a reminder that the world is a very small, very strange place.

I wrote a story for The Atlantic…

And you can read it here.

Tweet volume in the US before and after scoring the second goal against Ghana

This is pretty neat.

Fancy by Iggy Azalea

Every summer some female pop star releases a ridiculously catchy tune that gets put on repeat for about two months. Last summer it was We Can’t Stop. The summer before it was Call Me Maybe. This is the one this year. Charli XCX forever. No further analysis needed.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to….love what you do. Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. Your time is limited. Don’t waste it living someone else’s life”

- Steve Jobs

Staring Into Oblivion: I Saw ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ at Midnight


A few months ago, on a particularly lonely Friday night, I borrowed The Fault in Our Stars from a friend. A few hours, some tears and one bottle of red wine later, I had read it cover to cover in one sitting. And I loved it. One of the defining characteristics of the teenage years is that every major emotional experience is probably a first, therefore it’s magnified and feels like the single most important event in human history. In The Fault in Our Stars, John Green captures the immediacy and intensity of being a teenager perfectly, and then throws terminal illnesses into the mix. Suddenly these firsts might also be lasts. Green’s book, while coming dangerously close to crossing into emotionally manipulative territory, rarely feels trite, and there’s not a whiff of condescension. He’s almost unbearably earnest.

So, of course, I’ve been looking forward to The Fault in Our Stars movie. And last Thursday night, I dragged my girlfriend to the midnight premier.

Indulging in cultural phenomenons mostly manufactured for the enjoyment of teenage girls is not out of character for me. I read the Twilight books and saw all the movies at midnight. I could write a dissertation comparing Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill and The O.C. My friend and I once spent an evening watching every Meg Ryan chick flick, an event we affectionately refer to as the Meg-athon. So seeing The Fault in Our Stars at midnight is pretty much par for the course.

We walk into the theater, and I quickly make two observations:

1) I’m one of four male human beings in attendance 

This is hard to verify, and there may have been a few more guys there than I counted, but my point stands: very few dudes.

2) I’m the oldest person in attendance

I didn’t go row by row and ask, but the audience was almost exclusively white girls born post-9/11, all clutching a wad of Kleenex as if Augustus Waters’ life depends on it.

The lights dim, and I turn my phone off. If I’m going to put myself through the emotional trauma that is The Fault in Our Stars, I want to feel everything there is to feel, sans distractions.

In a movie theater, there’s generally an unwritten agreement between audience members that everyone will be quiet and enjoy the film individually. No such agreement exists this night. Watching The Fault in Our Stars was a communal experience, one to be shared and discussed in real-time. Every sarcastic, insightful or delightfully awkward line from Hazel Grace is met with giggles and audible admiration from the audience. When Augustus appears on screen, there are squeals of excitement reminiscent of the first time Edward Cullen went shirtless in Twilight. The girls are swooning over this manic pixie dream boy, and they can’t help but talk about it.

There’s only one moment of absolute silence: [spoiler alert] the sex scene. Middle school girls are scandalized, fully aware of the fact that their parents wouldn’t be too happy about this particular scene. High school girls stare in wonder, wishing their boyfriends looked a little more like Augustus. You could heard a pin drop.

And then come the tears. If you don’t know the storyline, I won’t spoil it for you, but my God are there tears. Audible sobs. Sniffles for days. I’m not exempt. I came here to feel, and here I am, feeling more than I ever imaged. John Green is the Michael Jordan of writing beautiful, charming, adorable characters, and then completely annihilating their souls.

The final “Okay” is spoken, the movie ends and a sea of girls with puffy, red eyes hugging each other, clinging together for emotional support, floods into the lobby. One girl yells out, “Damn you, John Green!”

What I took away from this experience is an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I wasn’t in high school when The Fault in Our Stars was released. Back in my day, it was enough for a guy to be somewhat handsome, have a basic sense of chivalry and maybe a few interesting things to say. Every girl leaving that theater was mentally comparing her crush to Augustus Waters and realizing that he will never match up. Teenage boys now have to wear leather jackets, come up with an obscure and charming metaphor to live by and have an impossibly quirky view of the world if they want to measure up to Augustus. Good luck, fellas. I don’t envy you.

Okay? Okay.

The Unique Pleasure of Books and How I Fell Into ‘Mad Men’

In season 2 of Mad Men, one of the senior partners at Sterling Cooper buys a Rothko painting and hangs it in his office.


The employees are so fascinated by this painting that they sneak into his office just to steal a glance at it. Mesmerized, they stare. After a moment, the secretary loses interest.

“So it’s smudgy squares, huh? That’s interesting,” she says before walking off.

Harry, head of the television department, looks around the office for a brochure that will explain the piece of art.

“I don’t think it’s supposed to be explained,” says Ken, an account executive.

“I’m an artist,” says Sal. “It must mean something.”

“Maybe it doesn’t,” Ken says. “Maybe you’re just supposed to experience it. Cause when you look at it, you do feel something, right? It’s like looking into something very deep. You could fall in.

I used to take pride in keeping my television diet lean, but this past year I’ve watched a lot more TV than usual. I blame the 3 1/2 week Breaking Bad binge that I did with my roommates back in September.

It’s hard to avoid television-gluttony when there are so many impressive shows. House of Cards, True Detective, Breaking Bad, just to name a few. I’ve never seen it, but my old roommate would die for The Good Wife. When people say we’re in a “Golden Age” of television, they’re right.

But I prefer books. Always have, always will.

Reading gives me a distinct pleasure no other art form recreates. I listen to music every day, I probably watch more films than the average person and I rented the audio tour guide at The Louvre so I could fully appreciate the paintings. But as much as I enjoy these other mediums, books stand alone.

Reading a well-told story is like jet fuel for my mind. My brain is fully engaged. It stretches to make room for my imagination. I don’t just read stories, I inhabit them. I wander. Stories plant seeds that often don’t reach fruition until years later. For me, this is an experience unique to books.

Or so I thought.

I started watching Mad Men. I watched season 1 a few years ago, but a friend convinced to keep going, and now I’m on season 3. I’m enjoying it more than any other show in recent memory. I don’t necessarily like it better than shows like Breaking Bad or House of Cards, but I realized it was making me feel different things. It took me a little while to figure out why.

Mad Men replicates the feeling of getting slowly lost in a novel more than any other show I’ve watched.

My favorite novel is East of Eden. If you ask me what it’s about, I’ll try to explain the plot, but you won’t be any closer to understanding why that novel touches me. That’s personal, and I’m not sure I even have the answer. No matter how much I talk about it, you won’t understand the subtle wisdom of Samuel Hamilton or the evilness of Cathy or the power of the word timshel. You have to invest your time. You have to fall into the story.

Mad Men is similar. I could tell you it’s about Don Draper, the creative director at an advertising agency in Manhattan during the 1960s. But I could never explain the profound loneliness of Betty Draper that reveals itself through the way she looks at Don for just a moment too long. The plot turns are undramatic, generally speaking. Did they land that new account? Who got the promotion? It’s rarely a matter of life and death. The tension is hard to convey. Mad Men isn’t a show that is about things; it’s a show that considers things. And then it asks you to do the same.

Like the Sterling Cooper employees looking at the Rothko painting hanging on the wall in the office, everyone who watches will have a different reaction. It’s like looking into something very deep. Every show can inspire thoughtful conversations, of course. But Mad Men alone, like my favorite novels, invites me to wrestle with the questions asked rather than simply discuss the merits of the answers given.

I like how my friend puts it. “When I talk about TV shows, I end up talking about TV shows,” he says. “When I talk about Mad Men, I end up talking about life.”

Hard Knock Life

As far as traditions go, the Gatliff family doesn’t have many. But there’s one thing I can always count on during the holidays: an explosive fight about what movie to go see on Christmas Day.

But not this year.

I’ve already decided on a movie, and I will not be persuaded otherwise.

Starring Jamie Foxx and the flawless Quvenzhané Wallis?

Produced by Jay Z and Will Smith?

This is too much.

Happy Christmas, world.

THE PLOT THICKENS: What Is Cort’s Main Frequent Flier Number?

Wow. What a night. Earlier today I posted a call to action hoping that someone would be able to help me solve the mystery of my Yahoo account’s security question.

Here is the original question:

Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 2.36.00 AM

Ladies and gentleman, we have an answer:

Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 10.59.23 PM

paris. Not Paris, which I had tried plenty of times already. But paris, with a lowercase p. Such an amateur mistake on my part. Well done Becca Rinehart. You are a True Detective. Becca has chosen to receive the mail prize rather than the HOT-N-READY.

HOWEVER. There is now a second, even more challenging question:

Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 11.02.17 PM

This is the final question separating me from my old Yahoo email account. Here’s the problem: I didn’t have a frequent flier account until about a month and a half ago. So once again, I assume that when I was 18 I thought of an answer that was so clever or humorous that I would never forget it. I have already tried the obvious answers that an 18 year old might have chosen (123456789, my birthday, 69), but I am officially clueless.

So, same rules as before. Suggest an answer, and if it’s correct then I’ll give you a prize.

– If you live near me, I will buy a Little Caesers HOT-N-READY® and split it with you.

– If you live far away, I will send you something exciting in the mail. You have my word.

Alright True Detectives, get to work.



Where Would Cort Spend His Honeymoon?

I’ve gotten myself into an unfortunate situation. A few days ago I attempted to log in to my old Yahoo email account that I used throughout middle school and some of high school. I thought I remembered the password, but apparently not.

There’s a protocol for these situations, of course, so I wasn’t too worried. I clicked on the security question that would reveal my password upon being answered correctly, and this is what I saw:

Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 2.36.00 AM

This is confusing for several reasons. Mainly the fact that I’ve never been on a honeymoon.

Here’s what I assume happened: In 2009 I updated my security question and chose this one because I had an answer that I probably thought was hilarious or clever, an answer I would never forget.

Unfortunately, this is not the case.


I recently watched True Detective, and I’m feeling like it’s time for a nice little investigation.

What I need from you:

Leave a comment or find some other way to tell me what you think the correct answer is to this question. Your answer might be the key that unlocks this mystery.

Why should you help me:


If your honeymoon location is the correct answer, I will reward you.

– If you live near me, I will buy a Little Caesers HOT-N-READY® and split it with you.

– If you live far away, I will send you something exciting in the mail. You have my word.

Alright True Detectives, let’s crack this case.

True Detective

I’ve lost all faith in BuzzFeed

I don’t even know what to believe anymore.



Cereus Bright covers “Stayin’ Alive”

Two of my best pals are in a wonderful folk band called Cereus Bright. They released a fantastic new video today. It’s even featured on Paste. Pretty neat. They’ve got a big tour coming up, so go see if they’re playing near you.

Here’s the video. If you watch until the end you might see a familiar name!


A Decade Under the Influence: On Growing Up and Going to Rock Concerts

I pull up to The Tabernacle, an old Baptist church turned concert venue in Atlanta, and I feel like I’ve stepped into a time machine. The doors don’t open for another hour, but a line of people on the sidewalk stretches down the street and bends around the corner like a snake dressed in Hot Topic. Eight years ago, I would’ve been the first kid in line, but today I walk to a nearby Waffle House to kill some time.

I’m in Atlanta for a Taking Back Sunday concert, and The Used is the opening band. Most people I know were surprised to hear that Taking Back Sunday was still together, and even more surprised to find out I would drive three hours to see them. But I had to. They’ve been my favorite band since I was in 5th grade, and the day of this concert also happens to be the day I finish college. Perhaps I’m overthinking this one, but when your favorite band for the past decade is within driving distance on the same day you reach one of the biggest milestones of your short, sweet life, the universe is trying to tell you something. This is no cosmic coincidence; it’s fate. Our lives are circles. Maybe buying tickets to this show was an act of defiance against Father Time, a desperate attempt to relive my past, or maybe I thought I might learn something new about myself. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. Either way, I’m alone in a Waffle House, waiting for the doors to open at a Taking Back Sunday show.

It’s hard to explain exactly why this semi-well-known alternative rock band from Long Island is so important to me, but I guess we should start at the very beginning. Everyone remembers their first time.

Let’s go back to 2002. I’m 10 years old and trying hard to be cooler than I actually am. This is a habit that will plague me for the rest of my life, probably. An older friend messages me on AIM (my screen name was cortgatliff13, in case you ever want to chat), asking if I’ve heard a song called You’re So Last Summer by Taking Back Sunday. I haven’t, but I lie, of course, and then search for it on Yahoo. After listening, I ask my mom to drive me to the store, and for the first time in my life, I use my own money, hard-earned lawn mowing money, to buy a CD: Taking Back Sunday’s debut album Tell All Your Friends.

At home, I peel off the plastic, and place the disc in my stereo. I sit on the edge of my bed, waiting. A simple guitar riff starts flowing out of the speakers, followed by thunderous drums and Adam Lazzara’s voice.

So sick, so sick of being tired
And oh so tired of being sick.
We’re both such magnificent liars
So crush me baby, I’m all ears. 

I listen through the whole album in one sitting (another first), and it stays in my stereo for 10 months.

The doors open, and I get in the “21 and up” line to get my wristband that allows me to purchase alcohol. This is my 5th TBS show, and it’s the first time I’m old enough to receive a wristband.

As far as I can tell, I’m the only person here alone. This isn’t a plea for sympathy; I want to be here alone. There’s nothing worse than worrying about whether or not a friend is having fun. I head straight for the bar, where I discover that beers are $9. People watching is cheaper (it’s free, actually) and more enjoyable than a lukewarm 12 oz. Bud Light, so I settle for that instead.

I don’t know what sort of crowd I expected to show up, but it’s clear that nostalgia plays at least a minor role in everyone’s attendance. These are people who live like it’s perpetually 2005. Fedoras, unfortunate tattoos and Hollister shirts abound. Someone walked by wearing one of those “Jesus Is My Homeboy” t-shirts. I see five (five!) different Harry Potter tattoos.

I’m beginning to regret not spending the $9.

The Used takes the stage. If you’re not familiar with The Used, suffice it to say they’re chaotic. Actually, just go see for yourself.

See what I mean? They’re the sort of band that still talks about punk rock as a catalyst for revolution. I had a chance to see them in 8th grade but didn’t go because I was scared someone would force me to use heroin. (Looking back, this seems a little silly. Hindsight is 20/20.)

This music scene isn’t my thing anymore, but I find it oddly comforting that there are still dudes out there who buy band tees at Hot Topic and pay top dollar to see The Used. Bert McCracken, the lead singer, who could potentially be mistaken for a mental patient, starts screaming Fuck You! You don’t get to tell me what to do! to no one in particular, and the crowd dutifully joins in. I laugh to myself, thinking about how insane this all is. A decade ago, the members of this band were in their early 20s, and the anarchic, IDGAF attitude was so cool. But now they’re in their 30s, and I feel like I’m watching a child throw a tantrum. I want to pull Bert aside and say, “Excuse me sir, but who exactly is telling you what to do these days?”

Women throw their bras on stage, which is something I thought only happened at Led Zeppelin shows. I’m drowning in rock concert cliches.

One of my favorite quotations comes from Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The protagonist, 9-year-old Oskar Schell is on an adventure in New York City, and he brings his tambourine wherever he goes.

I shook my tambourine the whole time, because it helped me remember that even though I was going through different neighborhoods, I was still me.

When I turned 16 and got my license, the first band I listened to in my car was Taking Back Sunday. I’ve lost friends and made new ones, moved to different states, and slowly inched my way toward adulthood. During all of this, there was always a new Taking Back Sunday album to provide a soundtrack for growing up.

The lights go dark, and you can see each musician’s silhouette as he walks on stage. I force my way to the front, in the middle of the mosh pit, and there’s a palpable sense that everyone is trying to relive the past in some small way, even just for a moment. If you aren’t as familiar with Taking Back Sunday’s history as I am, all you need to know is that they released their first album in 2002, and then spent years changing members before reuniting with the original line up again about a decade later. So in some ways, it feels like the band is trying to relive the past too.

One thing has not changed since 2002: Adam Lazzara is still the most energetic and relentless frontman I’ve ever seen. He earned a reputation early on in his career for swinging his microphone. He swings his mic like a lasso, wraps it around his neck, rockets it 20 feet into the air and pulls it back down to his mouth just in time for the next verse. It’s his trademark routine. There’s even a fan-made video dedicated to it.

I’ve seen him climb scaffolding 50 feet into the air, crawl out above the stage and hang upside down from his feet, singing the entire time. One slip, and he would probably die. One time I watched him dive off a venue’s balcony, and then crowd surf back to the stage. It’s almost self-destructive, the way he throws his body around. He does what every great performer does: convinces you that this might be his last performance ever, so he’s not going to hold anything back.

It has been years since I’ve been in a true mosh pit, and all cliches aside, I really am getting too old for this. Taking Back Sunday starts playing, and the shoving begins. One song into the set, and I’m drenched in sweat. Almost none of it is mine. A drunk guy lobs his beer through the air like a grenade, and I watch it explode on the side of some unsuspecting girl’s face.

I’m straddling two different worlds right now. I’m done with college, but I’m not quite an adult yet. I’m supposed to be a man, but most days I’m still searching for exactly what that means. Perhaps the searching never ends. I graduate in a couple weeks, and life is going to look totally different than the past 22 years. Some days this is exciting, and some days it’s terrifying. But for an hour and a half, Adam swings his mic, and the crowd hangs on every word, singing along at the top of their lungs, and nothing else seems to matter.

The show ends, and I walk outside and enjoy oxygen that isn’t laced with beer and sweat. It’s still 2014, and I’m still facing adulthood. But taking one last look back seemed so necessary. Sometimes you need to remember where you’ve been so you can figure out where you’re going.

I get in my car and turn on my iPod. A familiar song starts to play.

That’s how it starts

Sorry I’ve been absent. Watching a whole lot of Friday Night Lights and trying to finish up school. Spring came, and then left, and then came back. Last week of college is next week. Heading to the beach today. This tune on repeat:



Hurling Crowbirds at Mockingbars by Buddy Wakefield

I wanted to share one of my favorite poems from the legendary Buddy Wakefield. Last year I had the chance to see Buddy perform at a grungy bar in Knoxville, and it was an unforgettable night. This guy leaves everything on the stage each time he performs. Never holds back. He’s taught me a lot about the power of vulnerability and honesty. Watch the video, but I’ve included the words too.

Hurling Crowbirds at Mockingbars

If we were created in God’s image
then when God was a child
he smushed fire ants with his fingertips
and avoided tough questions.
There are ways around being the go-to person
even for ourselves
even when the answer is clear
like the holy water Gentiles drank
before they realized Forgiveness
is the release of all hope for a better past.

I thought those were chime shells in your pocket
so I chucked a quarter at it
hoping to hear some part of you
respond on a high note.
You acted like I was hurling crowbirds at mockingbars
and abandoned me for not making sense.
Evidently, I don’t experience things as rationally as you do.

For example, I know mercy
when I have enough money to change the jukebox at a gay bar
(somebody’s gotta change that shit).
You understand mercy
whenever someone shoves a stick of morphine
straight up into your heart.
goddamn, it felt amazing
the days you were happy to see me

so I smashed a beehive against the ocean
to try and make our splash last longer.
Remember all the honey
had me lookin’ like a jellyfish ape
but you walked off the water in a porcupine of light
strands of gold
drizzling out to the tips of your wasps.
This is an apology letter to the both of us
for how long it took me to let things go.

It was not my intention to make such a
production of the emptiness between us
playing tuba on the tombstone of a soprano
to try and keep some dead singer’s perspective alive.
It’s just that I coulda swore you had sung me a love song back there
and that you meant it
but I guess some people just chew with their mouth open

so I ate ear plugs alive with my throat
hoping they’d get lodged deep enough inside the empty spots
that I wouldn’t have to hear you leaving
so I wouldn’t have to listen to my heart keep saying
all my eggs were in a basket of red flags
all my eyes to a bucket of blindfolds
in the cupboard with the muzzles and the gauze
ya know I didn’t mean to speed so far out and off
trying to drive all your nickels to the well
when you were happy to let them wishes drop

but I still show up for gentleman practice
in the company of lead dancers
hoping their grace will get stuck in my shoes.
Is that a handsome shadow on my breath, sweet woman
or is it a cattle call
in a school of fish? Still dance with me
less like a waltz for panic
more for the way we’d hoped to swing
the night we took off everything
and we were swingin’ for the fences

don’t hold it against
my love
you know I wanna breath deeper than this
you know I didn’t mean to look so serious
didn’t mean to act like a filthy floor
didn’t mean to turn us both into a cutting board
but there were knives s-stuck
in the words where I came from
too much time in the back of my words.
I pulled knives from my back and my words.
I cut trombones from the moment you slipped away

and I know it left me lookin’ like a knife fight, lady
yeah you know it left me feelin’ like a shotgun shell
you know I know I mighta gone and lost my breath
but I wanna show ya how I found my breath
to death
it was buried under all the wind instruments
hidden in your castanets
if ya ever wanna know how it felt when ya left
yeah if you ever wanna come inside

just knock on the spot

where I finally pressed STOP

playing musical chairs with exit signs.

I’m gonna cause you a miracle
when you see the way I kept God’s image alive.

is for anybody
who needs a safe passage through my mind.

If I was really created in God’s image
then when God was a boy
he wanted to grow up to be a man
a good man
and when God was a man
a good man
He started telling the truth in order to get honest responses.
He’d say,
“I know.
I really shoulda wore my cross
but I don’t wanna scare the gentiles off.”

Why you should read poetry

As some of you may know, April is National Poetry Month. I want to use this space to share poems that have meant something to me, and hopefully encourage those of you who are resistant to poetry to give it a try.

You should read poetry because, like life, you have to wrestle a little bit to understand it. It sharpens you. In the midst of politics and wars and heartbreaks and first loves and sunrises and dreams that will never come true, poetry is there to help you understand the complexities of being human. It asks questions without expecting an answer. Poetry challenges what you believe and refuses to let you get from birth to death without contemplating what this all means.

When you take a few minutes to read or listen to or write a poem, you learn something new about yourself. Some of the most memorable conversations I’ve had started with “hey, read this poem and tell me what you think.” Poetry will light your imagination on fire. It will teach you to see beauty in the ordinary. But most importantly, poetry will remind you that we’re all in this together.

So, give it a shot. I’ll start you off easy. Here’s one of my favorites:

Shake The Dust by Anis Mojgani

I would love to hear your thoughts. After all, this space is a place for conversations.


Which famous writer do you write like?

Earlier today I stumbled across a website that takes a sample of your writing and tells you which famous writer you write like. Intrigued, I submitted my recent post about Paris. My results:

I write like
Chuck Palahniuk

I Write Like. Analyze your writing!

If you don’t know who Chuck Palahniuk is, he’s the author of Fight Club and a handful of other books. He also wrote a very disturbing short story that has apparently caused 73 people to faint at his book readings. So there’s that. 

But I found this interesting because I first read one of Chuck Palahniuk’s books when I was in 7th grade. I loved the movie Fight Club, and I wanted to see what the book was all about. While I don’t think think my writing is all that similar to Palahniuk’s, it’s still interesting to consider the way things we consume when we are young might influence us as we get older. Food for thought.

(Side note: mom and dad, you definitely should not have let me read Palahniuk’s books in middle school.)

Anyway, go to the website and find out what famous author you write like. Let me know who you get.


Why you should see “Noah”


“Don’t equate being in the world but not of it with sticking your head in the sand.” – from Carolyn Weber’s memoir Surprised by Oxford


Some evangelical Christians have criticized Darren Aronofsky’s latest film Noah because they believe it is unbiblical. In a recent article for Time, Ken Ham (the creationist who debated Bill Nye the Science Guy) called Noah “an unbiblical, pagan film” and said it’s “an insult to Bible-believing Christians, an insult to the character of Noah, and most of all, an insult to the God of the Bible.”

Them’s fightin words.

I have a few issues with Ham’s overall assessment of the film. Mainly the fact that I think he’s completely wrong. When a debate like this one is stirred up, a lot of buzz words tend to get thrown around irresponsibly. Pagan. Heretical. Unbiblical. But the problem is words mean things, and we need to be careful about how we use them, lest we muddy the waters even further.

If by unbiblical, you mean Noah contains things that aren’t explicitly stated in the Biblical text, then yes, it’s unbiblical. But then so is The Passion of the Christ and The Prince of Egypt. How many pastors urged their congregations to stay away from movie theaters when those films were released?

If critics calling Noah unbiblical are claiming that Aronofsky is promoting themes and messages directly contradictory to those of the Bible, then I have to disagree. At its core, Noah is about a deeply flawed man (as the real Noah almost certainly was) struggling to reconcile his longing for justice and the existence of mercy and love.

And yes, Aronofsky makes some wild and imaginative artistic choices that are nothing like what you’ll find in the Bible. But that’s okay, because that’s not the point of the story. Have you ever read the account of The Flood in the Bible? Details are sparse, to say the least. We know very little about Noah. So Aronofsky, as an artist (and a damn good one at that), invents a narrative and fills in the gaps with his own imagination to tell the story that he wants to tell. This is what artists do. Just because his story does not have all of its theological i’s dotted and t’s crossed does not mean there are not gospel truths worth considering in Noah.

What I find most frustrating about the backlash Noah has received is the missed opportunity here. How often does a brilliant, critically-acclaimed director take on a story about faith and put it in front of mainstream audiences? Noah, while not a perfect movie by any means, is most likely a more nuanced, artistic, honest and thought-provoking look at faith than any movie that will ever be made by a Christian film studio. Aronofsky is an artist who is not afraid of asking big questions. Christians up in arms about this film need to learn to engage with culture rather than simply react to it.

In the film, Noah is an obedient man who seeks justice at all costs, but discovers the importance of love and mercy along the way. Noah does what all good art does: it requires you to think. It asks profound questions about the nature of faith, grace, mercy, justice and righteousness, and urges viewers to contemplate these themes long after the credits roll. This is a time for conversations, not boycotts.


How to Read an Ernest Hemingway Novel

First, you must go to Paris. To truly understand an author like Hemingway, you have to visit the places that shaped him. You know this because he told you, of course: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you.” Paris bleeds through Hemingway’s writing, and so you know you must go.

On the Left Bank of the Seine, a bookstore called Shakespeare and Company rests in the shadow of Notre Dame. In the 1920s, Shakespeare and Company was a bookstore and lending library frequented by writers like Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Ford Madox Ford. You walk through the doors and the ghosts of these giants, and all of the books they’ve written, welcome you.

Shakespeare and company front

It’s cramped inside, but you don’t mind because you’re surrounded by people who are on a pilgrimage much like yourself. You push past other customers until you reach the back corner, where you walk up a precarious wooden staircase that creaks with each step. At the top you’ll find more bookshelves, nooks and crannies to read in, and if you’re lucky, two people playing Bob Dylan songs on an old out of tune piano. You stop and listen for a few minutes.


You turn around and notice a doorway behind you with words painted above it.


You walk through the door, of course, and find a narrow hallway that leads to another room where books completely cover the walls. At the center of the room is a frail wooden desk with an elderly woman behind it who is reciting poetry. She points to the tea and pastries on the desk and you serve yourself. You ask a stranger what’s going on and he says they’re celebrating poetry. No one present is entirely sure how long this woman has been sharing her poetry and mentoring young writers, but everyone tells you she’s been there for as long as they’ve been visiting the shop. “Life is overall positive,” she says. “It’s a spiritual experience. It’s a tremendous adventure.”

It’s beginning to make sense, the reason that Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Joyce found a home here. Now you’re almost ready to actually start reading that Hemingway novel.

But first, go back downstairs. Find the fiction section and purchase one of his books. Walk out of the bookstore (don’t worry, you’ll be back one day) and go a little ways down the street until you find the right cafe. Be picky. This is crucial. You want to be able to see Notre Dame looming over you, as well as the Seine steadily flowing past you, as it has been for all these years.

Order red wine in broken French so as to show the waiter you appreciate the French language and culture. This is their home, after all. Open your new book and start to read. Every time you take a sip of wine, put the book down and appreciate your surroundings.

And then the sun starts to dip lower in the sky, and for a moment it disappears behind the towers of Notre Dame, giving the cathedral a golden outline. Don’t be surprised if Hemingway steps out of the pages, pulls up a chair, and has a conversation with you. “This notebook belongs to me,” he says. “And all of Paris belongs to me, and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”

And he’s right, you know. All of Paris belongs to you.

The Death of a Dream

I started playing guitar when I was in middle school, during that awkward time in life when you desperately look for a way to define yourself before someone else chooses a definition for you.

For most of my childhood I was taller than my classmates, and my jump shot wasn’t too bad, so I was the basketball player. In 5th grade I was starting point-guard, and it went to my head. Then one day some hot shot came along who could drain three-pointers more consistently than I could, and I knew I needed a backup plan.

I don’t know how or when or why, but somewhere along the way, I started listening to music. I used my lawn mowing money to buy the Linkin Park Live in Texas DVD (lol), and I imagined that one day I would sell out an arena.

But I had to learn to play an instrument first. So of course I picked up a guitar, because guitarists seemed like the coolest. I wasn’t the only one though; my pals all had the same idea, and suddenly there was 5 or 6 of us trying to learn various instruments. One day the pastor at church thought it would just be so wonderful if all of us lead worship at youth group together.

We were terrible. Instead of practicing worship songs, we played the opening riff to Ozzy Osborn’s Crazy Train in the sanctuary. (Looking back, this might be the most punk rock thing I’ve ever done.) But we only knew four worship songs, and we played the same ones every single week. I honestly have no idea how we kept that gig for 2 years, but we did. We were essentially rockstars.

Every Saturday, we set up our amps and a drum kit in our friend’s basement and “practiced.” We probably spent one hour playing music and six hours dreaming about the band we were going to start. We talked about the moment when it would all click. We were going to be the next Taking Back Sunday or The Early November or Dashboard Confessional. We talked through the logistics of the demo tape we were going to send to Drive-Thru Records that would guarantee us a record dealWe were going to headline Warped Tour.

I can’t tell you how many times I watched this video of Ace Enders (the brains behind The Early November) playing in his basement before his band was signed by a  record label. He embodied everything I wanted to be:

This was Detroit in the early 2000s, and the alternative music scene was huge. My parents would drop me and my friends off at the State Theatre (which apparently is now called The Fillmore Theatre? WTF.) downtown to see Death Cab for Cutie or Thursday or Lovedrug play on a school night. I wore black converse and band tees. I liked the idea of being a musician far more than I actually liked playing music. I was never great at guitar (I was okay), but I could fake it better than anyone.

Eventually, as Sister Hazel puts it, life got in the way. When I was a freshman, my dad was offered a job in Memphis and we moved South. My friends kept becoming better musicians (some of them are really fantastic now, actually), but for me, guitar took a backseat. I played in high school, but I plateaued and didn’t really care.

I slowly realized I would never sell out Madison Square Garden or even a coffee shop. Part of me hated that fact, and another part of me was okay with it. Every once in awhile I pulled out my guitar and would find some tabs online and learn how to play a Straylight Run song, but for the most part, I was done.

Today I sold my guitar.

I hadn’t played it since sophomore year, when my roommate accidentally knocked it over and broke part of the guitar’s neck.

Selling it wasn’t an emotional decision. It was simply a moment when pragmatism trumped sentimentality. Plain and simple. I’m graduating from college in a few weeks and I’ll be moving somewhere, and I don’t need to be lugging around a guitar I’ll never play.

So I posted an ad on Craigslist, and within a few minutes a guy said he was interested in buying it. I threw the guitar into the back of my car and drove to the Target down the street and met a man named Steve.

Steve is the salt of the earth. Steve is a UPS driver in his 40s who recently started playing guitar because he wants to learn a few worship songs to play at church.

Of course.

Steve said each night he tells his wife to make sure he’s read his Bible before he plays guitar. He loves guitar, but wants to put the Bible first. Every night, before he goes to sleep, he sits in his living room playing the five chords he knows while his wife listens. “She says watching me play is her favorite thing to do,” he told me.

I was about to give him the thing for free.

When I handed him the guitar, I felt an odd hesitation that I wasn’t expecting. And it wasn’t because I loved the guitar so much. Like most things in life, it was about what the guitar represented. It was about what I was losing. In that moment I realized I would probably never own another guitar again. I thought about all the times I listened to Copeland records, trying to play along with what I heard. I thought about the time I learned to play Damien Rice’s Cannonball just because a girl asked me to. And that part of me, the kid in the basement in Detroit who dreams of playing for sold out crowds, doesn’t exist anymore. Not in the same way, at least.

But this is part of growing up, isn’t it? Letting go of certain dreams in order to create space for new ones. Letting go of aspects of who you used to be. Life is often a series of concessions. But those dreams can define us in profound ways. Like water carving the Grand Canyon, they shape us. And the effect is permanent.

I called my girlfriend and told her I was selling the guitar.

“Oh sad,” she said. “I always loved hearing you play.”

“Well I can still play,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s true.” She paused for a moment. “I guess you can never sell that.”

Love Lust

Spring has arrived and allergens are in the air. Had a wonderful time roaming around Chattanooga yesterday, despite sneezing every few minutes. Got to see my pals in Cereus Bright put on a killer show at the Square Room on Friday night. Spending today studying on the porch. No complaints here. Only one more day of class separates me from Europe. My copy of The Moviegoer by Walker Percy came in the mail today. I think I’m going to save it for the flight to Charles de Gaulle.

This is the song today.

Happy Monday.

Monday Musings: Roll Jordan Roll

Cold, dreary morning here in Knoxville. My favorite kind of weather really. Currently sitting at Panera drinking coffee and trying to study for a test over 19th century British novels. But I just found out I’ll get to tour C.S. Lewis’ home in Oxford in a couple weeks, so my mind is setting sail to Cair Paravel and Lantern Waste.

Thinking about the Oscars last night. Couldn’t be happier about 12 Years a Slave winning best picture. Some movies you watch and forget. Others make you pause and look inward. This one was the latter for me. This scene is absolutely beautiful:

Thinking about freedom and what it means to seek justice in all aspects of life. This seems like one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves.



I’m sorry for slacking lately. I’ve received emails and texts asking me to post what I’m reading this week, and I need to apologize for neglecting this space a little bit. I’ve been preoccupied with writing some stories for magazines and playing with my roommate’s new puppy and starting a yoga class and searching for a job and fighting off the constant desire to take a nap and I’m trying to soak up and enjoy my last few weeks of college.

But I’ll be on a plane heading to Europe in less than two weeks and the sun is making the sky look gorgeous today, so things are looking up.

Go read everything about Ukraine and Russia. Get lost in a history lesson. Read The Atlantic’s cover story about fraternities, if only for the fantastic first sentence. And read about Mt. Gox and bitcoins, and be thankful that you aren’t my friend who put $1300 into Mt. Gox the day before it became insolvent. (“I wouldn’t have risked it if I wasn’t willing to lose it,” he told me last night at a bar. He’ll run Wall Street someday, and he’s not even studying finance.)

But most importantly, be charitable and gracious to someone today. We need more of that.


Fatherhood advice from Sandy Cohen

I was recently reminded of the best Twitter interaction I have ever had the pleasure of being a part of. If you’ve seen The O.C., then you know that Sandy Cohen, played by the wonderful Peter Gallagher, is everything we want in a father figure. Wise. Patient. Forgiving. Generous. Caring. Gracious. And a fighter when he needs to be.

But I was able to get just one more piece of fatherhood advice from the man who took in Ryan Atwood, and in a lot of ways, took in all of us.

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 8.43.40 PM















So wise. Thank you, Sandy Cohen. Thank you.

Paula Deen says she is “like that black football player who just came out”

I’ve had several conversations about race today. Most were in response to an unfortunate column that a college student (who is white, of course) wrote about why we should not celebrate Black History Month. So there’s that.

But then I read about Paula Deen, who recently has been at the center of a controversy because of her use of racial slurs, comparing herself to Michael Sam, the University of Missouri football player who recently came out as gay.

Today I am thankful that I am not Paula Deen’s PR manager. At least I have that going for me. Here’s what she said in an interview with People magazine:

I feel like ‘embattled’ or ‘disgraced’ will always follow my name,” Deen told People in an interview for the magazine’s March 10 issue. “It’s like that black football player who recently came out. He said, ‘I just want to be known as a football player. I don’t want to be known as a gay football player.’ I know exactly what he’s saying.

Paula Deen, an enormously wealthy  white woman who has acknowledged her use of the “n” word, thinks her situation is similar to a black, gay football player who is aiming to be the first openly gay athlete in a sport that might reject him completely.

Just think about that.



Tragedy Porn

During my 19th century British novel class today, I watched a video of Ukrainian special forces shooting unarmed protestors. I watched them hide behind their shields and dart for cover, and I watched as some of them were hit with bullets. Unsure of whether or not these very real human beings were going to live or die, I closed my laptop and immediately turned my attention back to class.

If you recall, the week following the Boston Marathon Bombing was mayhem. Cable news went into 24/7 disaster mode replaying images from the bombing, and at one point even showing the man whose leg was blown off. I remember turning to one of my friends and saying I feel like I’m watching a movie. That’s a disturbing thing to think when watching real human beings suffer unspeakable horrors.

I think it’s really important to be aware of the reality of what’s happening around the world. And those realities can be hard to stomach. But I also think one of the dangers of consuming large volumes of tragedy footage is that it’s easy to become desensitized to what we’re seeing. I don’t ever want to be able to watch protestors get shot and potentially killed by police officers, and then close my laptop totally unaffected. I feel like part of my humanity dies when I can do that. These people are brothers and fathers and sons, and there are people who love them desperately.

All eyes are on the terrible things happening in Ukraine. And they should be. The images of what’s happening over there are absolutely insane. But as the body count rises, I’ve been thinking a lot about our unspoken obsession with tragedy porn. As one of my classmates said to me on Twitter, “Do we really need to see people being mowed down by AK-47s to understand what’s going on?” And I think that’s a really fair question. 

So, where is the line between informative and voyeuristic?

Monday Musings: When Love Arrives

On Mondays I share something worth contemplating as the week begins.

Consider this your mental cup of coffee.

This week: Exorcisms, Philip Seymour Hoffman and the soul-crushing ‘House of Cards’

I’m heading to the mountains to enjoy friendship and nature and good food for the weekend, so this will be quick.

Good things:

– My roommates and I have rediscovered The Office. Jim is currently dating Karen and it is killing Pam. And Jim!

– I played with a 3D printer this week, and they’re as cool as every article says they are.

– I’m in the middle of Detroit: An American Autopsy by journalist Charlie LeDuff. Originally a native of Detroit, LeDuff worked at the New York Times for a few years before moving back to Michigan in 2007. I left Detroit in 2007, so it’s fascinating to get an inside glimpse into the city since then. Starting to feel like I’ll end up back there for a little at some point.

– Went to a karaoke bar and sang Total Eclipse of the Heart, the greatest (second greatest?) unrequited love song ever.

You Should Read:

The Post-Hope Politics of ‘House of Cards’ – Wonderful profile of Beau Willimon, the creator of Netflix’s fantastic political thriller House of Cards. Season 2 drops next Friday. The perfect way to spend Valentine’s Day. Published by the New York Times.

Strange events lead Indiana family to resort to exorcism – This is terrifying. A screenwriter in Los Angeles is probably drafting a script right this minute.

Who Killed the Jeff Davis 8? – A pretty riveting investigative reporting piece about prostitutes, murder, and corrupt police officers. Published by Medium.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Final Secret – Tom Junod writes about losing one of the greatest actors of all time. Published by Esquire.

How else was Philip Seymour Hoffman supposed to die? There was no actor, in our time, who more ably suggested that each of us is the sum of our secrets…no actor who better let us know what he knew, which is that when each of us returns alone to our room, all bets are off. He used his approachability to play people who are unacceptable, especially to themselves; indeed, his whole career might be construed as a pre-emptive plea for forgiveness to those with the unfortunate job of cleaning up what he — and we — might leave behind.


Here, Let Ezra Explain – Washing Post superstar Ezra Klein is taking his talents elsewhere. He’s hoping to pioneer a new way of reporting the news. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

Anything I missed this week?



Why everyone should journal

a prayer journal flannery o'connorWhen Flannery O’Connor was in her early 20s, she kept a prayer journal, and it was published a few months ago. I read it last week and enjoyed it immensely. It’s neat to get an intimate glimpse into the emotional and spiritual life of such an influential author.

I’ve always enjoyed journaling. I started keeping one when I was in middle school, and it has become a discipline that helps me stay sane and stimulates my creative process. It’s a way for me to organize my thoughts. There are plenty of other benefits.

After reading Flannery O’Connor’s journal, I’m more convinced than ever that everyone should always keep some sort of journal. Here are a few reasons why.

Journaling helps you understand yourself better

The human heart is a messy, complicated thing that is full of contradictions and ambiguities. Determining what you are actually feeling can be a tricky business. But few things help you organize your thoughts and emotions better than writing. Just get it all down on paper. You can write things that you would never say out loud. You might start with a problem that has no easy solution, but after spending some time writing it out, you might untangle the knot. Writing brings clarity of mind.

You’ll be surprised with what can happen if you sit down with an honest heart, a blank piece of paper, and a pen. 

Journaling helps put things in perspective

When I look through my old journals, it’s funny to see how the things that once consumed my life seem so trite and silly. But at the time, this stuff was devastating.

She doesn’t *like like* me? But I gave her a build-a-bear for Christmas! 


I find a lot of comfort in knowing that the things I worry about today will probably be things that I laugh at a decade from now.

Journaling provides a unique glimpse into the past

This seems obvious, but stick with me. When my parents moved to Connecticut not too long ago, and I spent some time going through stuff in the attic. I found a box that contained old journals from both of my parents. I sat up there for hours flipping through old pages and learning new things about people I’ve lived with my whole life. I read the most mundane and quotidian details about my parent’s lives, but it was riveting.

One day your children, or maybe your grandchildren, will go through a box in the attic, and the journals you kept will suddenly become precious glimpses into the past.

So at the very least, journal for your kids.

I’ve shared this before, but it seems more relevant than ever. I was going through an old journal of mine and found this ridiculous entry from 2006, which was the year I finished 8th grade and started freshman year of high school. I was such a weird kid.

I went into a bookstore and started looking at a section that contained old journals and private letters written by famous authors, thinkers, politicians, etc. Things that were never meant to be published. It got me thinking: what if one day, long after I die, this very journal is published, my heart and mind packaged nicely into a display between the fiction and photography sections of a Barnes & Noble. By saying this, I am assuming I will lead a life that will make people desperately desire to know my private thoughts. This type of arrogance is astounding; the height of hubris. The thought of anyone’s private journal being published makes me self-conscious. Are we really writing just for ourselves anymore? This makes me uneasy. How will this possibility, no matter how faint, change the way I think about the words in these pages. Surely, I won’t be as honest with myself. And if I’m not being honest, what’s the point of anything anymore. I think I’ll just crawl under the covers.

But now I’m getting a good laugh thinking about you, the reader. You get to witness me debate if I would want this published…while you’re holding a published copy! But I’m starting to see some larger implications here – implications about writing in general. If you’re reading a published copy, I’m assuming it is at least, at the very minimum, 50 years after I am writing this. If that’s the case, then right now I am putting thoughts in your head, my thoughts to be exact, even though they are thoughts that were thought 50 years ago. This brings me to an astounding conclusion: if my thoughts from years ago are entering your head, then I have achieved both time travel and telepathy. Think about it: you are thinking thoughts I thought decades ago. That’s pretty special. There’s a lot of power in that. This may have ruined journal writing for me forever.


Don’t miss out on gems like this one. Your life is a story, so write it.

Monday Musings: Paris in the Rain

Monday Musings is a series in which I share something worth contemplating as the week begins. Consider this your mental cup of coffee.

The world needs more spoken word poetry. Here’s a beautiful place to start.

Paris in the Rain by Alysia Harris

Some thoughts on Philip Seymour Hoffman

What I love about art is that it’s universal, and yet exceptionally intimate. We all consume art, often in groups, and yet we react to it individually. And no one has the exact same carbon copy reaction to it as you do. If you’re willing to engage with art, I mean really and truly engage with it, you enter into a relationship with it. Art changes you. In some ways, it becomes part of you


And I think that’s why we have emotional reactions when celebrities die. Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of my favorite actors. I was sitting in Starbucks working on some homework, and the Wall Street Journal article confirming his death popped up on my Twitter feed. I read about how police found him in his Greenwich Village apartment with a needle in his left forearm, and even though I’ve never met him, I felt real sadness. That speaks volumes about the power of art.

The first time I remember being impressed by Hoffman was in Almost Famous. He played Lester Bangs, and he was oddly profound and so human. I remember thinking, “well maybe I need to go be a music journalist.” Good art has a tangible impact on our lives.

When I watch movies, I never forget that I’m watching these very real human beings pretend to be characters. Not so with Hoffman. Hoffman had an incredible talent of making you forget he exists. When I watch Capote, I never think of it as watching Philip Seymour Hoffman pretending to be Truman Capote. I feel like I’m watching Truman Capote. When I watch Magnolia, I’m watching Phil Pharma. He breathed life into his characters in a way that almost no other actor does. I believed him.

I didn’t know Philip Seymour Hoffman. I didn’t know his vices or his demons. I know that he was a real man with real pain and real struggles. Today I was reminded how fragile life is. We interact with people every day who are carrying impossible burdens. Addiction is real and painful and the bravest thing anyone can do is ask for help. We are made to connect and to be there for each other. We have to remind each other that life is worth it, and that we are all in this thing together. I hope we never forget that. I wish someone had been there today to tell Philip Seymour Hoffman that he’s not alone. Because I think that’s really what we all need—to be reminded that we aren’t alone.

Thanks for everything, Mr. Hoffman.

WTF is going on in Ukraine?

If you’ve paid attention to the world you live in at all the past few weeks, then you’re aware of the fact that there are some serious riots going on in Ukraine. But you might not know what they’re rioting about. Here’s a very simplistic explanation. Take a minute and learn something new!

So where is Ukraine anyway?

It’s right here.

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What’s Ukraine’s capital?

Kiev. This is where the protests that you’re hearing about are taking place.

Who’s in charge?

The president of Ukraine is Viktor Yanukovych. He has been president since 2010. He beat a woman named Yulia Tymoshenko, who was one of the the leaders of the Orange Revolution. Yanukovych is pro-Russia.

Who’s rioting and why?

To understand this, it’s important to understand some basic things about the country’s political climate. Politically, Ukraine is starkly divided. Eastern Ukraine is generally pro-Russian and likes President Yanukovych. Western Ukraine…not so much. There are historical reasons for this, but I’m not going to get into that because you would probably stop reading.

The government has spent the past few years negotiating what was essentially a trade deal with the European Union, but President Yanukovych backed out of negotiations late last November, probably because he was pressured by Russia’s president Vladmir Putin to do so.

And this pissed off a lot of Ukrainians.

Because it was more than just a trade deal; it symbolized that Ukraine was going to ally itself with the EU rather than Russia.

So the protestors are the people who think that Ukraine is better off being part of the European Union. Many are calling for the resignation of President Yanukovych and members of his administration. Prime Minister Azarov resigned last Tuesday. 

The protests are centered in Kiev, and escalated when the government implemented some pretty strict anti-protest laws earlier this month. Protestors were getting ominous texts that said things like “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.”


The protests became brutally violent and people have been killed. On Tuesday, the government repealed the strict anti-protest laws, and Prime Minister Azarov resigned.

Here’s a video from the protests. Also, be sure to check out these insane photos. 

So what happens now?

Well, no one really knows. There are fears that a civil war will break out. Neither side really seems to be budging a whole lot. Only time will tell.

Tolkien and the tales we’ve fallen into

My dad sent me this passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings today. He included a simple question: Would you rather be bored or scared?

‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. ‘And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually — their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on — and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same — like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?’

Snowy day here in Knoxville. Bundled up and drinking tea and doing some writing. This tune is great company tonight.

“Depth over distance was all I asked of you
And everybody round here’s acting like a stone
Still there’s things I’d do, darling, I’d go blind for you
If you let grow sometimes, let it grow sometimes, let it grow
Just let it grow sometimes

Monday Musings: Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem

Monday Musings is a series in which I share something worth contemplating as the week begins. Consider this your mental cup of coffee.

Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem

by Matthew Olzmaan

Here’s what I’ve got, the reasons why our marriage
might work: Because you wear pink but write poems
about bullets and gravestones. Because you yell
at your keys when you lose them, and laugh,
loudly, at your own jokes. Because you can hold a pistol,
gut a pig. Because you memorize songs, even commercials
from thirty years back and sing them when vacuuming.
You have soft hands. Because when we moved, the contents
of what you packed were written inside the boxes.
Because you think swans are overrated.
Because you drove me to the train station. You drove me
to Minneapolis. You drove me to Providence.
Because you underline everything you read, and circle
the things you think are important, and put stars next
to the things you think I should think are important,
and write notes in the margins about all the people
you’re mad at and my name almost never appears there.
Because you make that pork recipe you found
in the Frida Khalo Cookbook. Because when you read
that essay about Rilke, you underlined the whole thing
except the part where Rilke says love means to deny the self
and to be consumed in flames. Because when the lights
are off, the curtains drawn, and an additional sheet is nailed
over the windows, you still believe someone outside
can see you. And one day five summers ago,
when you couldn’t put gas in your car, when your fridge
was so empty—not even leftovers or condiments—
there was a single twenty-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew,
which you paid for with your last damn dime
because you once overheard me say that I liked it.

This week: That’s what she said jokes, the accepted racism of calling someone a “thug,” geriatric call me maybe and the Eucharist

The Polar Vortex is showing no mercy. The cold weather has kept me inside, so I’ve been reading and applying for jobs and making fried egg sandwiches and cleaning.

Well, here’s what’s going on:

Good things:

– If you’re in the Knoxville area, go to Stock and Barrel in Market Square. Take someone you love. Order the bison burger with the duck confit fries, and enjoy it together.

– Charlie LeDuff’s book Detroit: An American Autopsy came in the mail yesterday. Excited to dive into that one soon.

– Ordered Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Thought it would be appropriate to read before visiting Paris.

You Should Read:

– Why I Bought A House In Detroit for $500 – This piece has been viewed over 1,000,000 times, which is impressive because it’s 6,000 words long. According to The Atlantic, people who viewed this on their phone spent an average of 25 minutes reading it. That’s pretty wild. There’s some wonderful storytelling and great history of Detroit here. As someone who lived in metro-Detroit for 11 years, this made me want to go back. Published by Buzzfeed.

University of Missouri officials did not pursue rape case – Pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Heartbreaking story.

–  Steve McQueen interviews Kanye West – Two visionaries chit-chatting. Not a bad conversation to eaves drop on. Published by Interview Magazine.

–  The Dr. V Story: A Letter from the Editor – So, Grantland recently published a piece about a golf putter, and while doing research for the story, the writer, Caleb Hannan, discovered that the creator of the putter was secretly a transgender woman. The subject of the story killed herself. These events may or may not be connected, who knows. But Grantland received an insane amount of criticism for being irresponsible enough to publish an insensitive story like this. Grantland founder and editor in chief Bill Simmons wrote an apology letter that makes me really want to work for him some day. A lot of editors would fire the writer and blame someone else. Simmons takes full responsible and admits his ignorance. As a writer, you want to work for editors who have your back.

As for Caleb, I continue to be disappointed that we failed him. It’s our responsibility to motivate our writers, put them in a position to succeed, improve their pieces as much as we possibly can, and most of all protect them from coming off badly. We didn’t do that here. Seeing so many people direct their outrage at one of our writers, and not our website as a whole, was profoundly upsetting for us. Our writers don’t post their stories themselves. It’s a team effort. We all failed. And ultimately, I failed the most because it’s my site and it was my call.


– How Richard Sherman Became America’s Newest Thug - Cord Jefferson weighs in on the Richard Sherman controversy. Sherman himself said in a press conference that calling someone a thug “seems like the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays.” And I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I’m always interested to read what Jefferson writes.

Here let’s pause to try and consider how much things like sportsmanship and decorum actually matter to diehard fans of a game in which men damage their brains and bodies for the public’s entertainment, in which “fans” throw food at badly injured players’ heads and cheer when players suffer, and in a league that has repeatedly and methodically attempted to pretend that some of its employees aren’t ruining themselves permanently in the name of sport.


– The Art of Presence – From David Brooks at the New York Times

When if the Eucharist is a symbol, to hell with it – Some thoughts on the Eucharist.

So what happens on the fourth Sunday of every month at the Baptist church with its crackers and grape juice is as much the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ as the wafer and wine is on the altar of the Roman Catholic church during the Mass as the store-bought leavened loaf with the tiny wines is in the field and on and on, world without end, in and across time, before and after us, by which Jesus has and is and ever shall be made known until the great close to the mighty symphony of this movement of created being.


– For the Love of Money – A real life wolf of Wall Street realizes money won’t fulfill you. Published by the New York Times.

– Inmate’s death called ‘horrific’ under new, 2-drug execution – Ohio tried out a new combination of 2 drugs to use for lethal injections. This is pretty chilling.

“To my children, I love you,” he said. “I’m going to heaven. I’ll see you when you get there.”

The chemicals began flowing about 10:29 a.m., and for a while, McGuire was quiet, closing his eyes and turning his face up and away from his family.

However, about 10:34 a.m., he began struggling. His body strained against the restraints around his body, and he repeatedly gasped for air, making snorting and choking sounds for about 10 minutes. His chest and stomach heaved; his left hand, which he had used minutes earlier to wave goodbye to his family, clenched in a fist.

McGuire eventually issued two final, silent gasps and became still. He was pronounced dead at 10:53 a.m.


– That’s What She Said: The Rise and Fall of the 2000s’ Best Bad Joke – An analysis of “that’s what she said jokes” provided by the Atlantic, of course.

This structure had an unexpectedly useful consequence. It forced us to listen to ourselves, to rethink our words and notice our own subtleties of phrase. It served as a reminder, however silly, that language is flexible, recyclable, and layered.


You Should Watch:

Old people + Call Me Maybe

Anything I missed this week?



Attaining your own personal bullshit detector

I’m reading a spiritual memoir called Surprised By Oxford. It’s written by a professor and writer named Carolyn Weber. She’s funny and sharp and I’m enjoying the book immensely. I picked it up because in March I am making the voyage across the Atlantic to visit a few cities in Europe, and Oxford just so happens to be one of them. Oxford is a special place for me, and I wanted to read about someone else’s experience there.

Anyway. When I was reading before bed a couple nights ago, I stumbled across this passage. One of Weber’s professors is telling her why he disagrees with how she analyzed a poem in class, and in the process explains what he thinks the point of life/education is:

The truth is in the paradox. Anything not done in submission to God, anything not done to the glory of God, is doomed to failure, frailty, and futility. This is the unholy trinity we humans fear most. And we should, for we entertain it all the time at the pain and expense of not knowing the real one.

The rest is all bullshit. It’s as simple as that. Your purpose here in life is to discern the real thing from the bullshit, and then to choose the non-bullshit. Think of the opportunity that God has given you to study as the means by which to attain your own personal bullshit detector. Sometimes this will be particularly difficult, because those who proclaim to know the truth, well intentioned or not, are spewing the most bullshit. But you will know when you have been properly ravished. And then you’ll see, then you’ll see, how the entire world is eyeball deep in it and that we choose it, and that we choose it every day. But the good news is that, although we struggle with it, there is a way out. Yes, there is a very worthy antidote and option to all the bullshit.

Here’s to learning to discern the real thing from the bullshit. I’ve discovered that this is often easier said than done.

Monday Musings: “I have a dream…”

Monday Musings is a series in which I share something worth contemplating as the week begins. Consider this your mental cup of coffee.

Today, we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Dr. King. The world needs more people like him–people willing to fight courageously and relentlessly for justice. If you’ve never watched Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety, I encourage you to do so today. No, seriously. Stop watching New Girl or Parks and Recreation or whatever is up next on your Netflix queue and watch this right now; I really can’t think of a more beneficial way to spend 17 minutes.

Our nation has come a long way since 1963, but there is still so much work to be done in the name of justice and equality. Five decades later, and this speech is still relevant and needed.

The arc bends toward justice.


Weekly Round-up: teenage girls, endless wars, French chefs and embracing the awkward phase

This is going to be a short list because this week has been busy.

Good things:

- It looks like I’ll soon be making the pilgrimage back to the place my favorite authors told their stories.

- After a brief scare, I am indeed graduating in May.

- I’m taking a class on 19th century British novels, and Jane Austen really is wonderful. Go read Persuasion. It was her last book and it’s all about nostalgia, basically.

- Watched Julie and Julia last night. About to drop out of school and become a chef.

What I’m reading:

1) 60 Words and a War Without End – An impressive piece about the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, and the way that document has been abused since 9/11. Written by Gregory D. Johnsen. Published by Buzzfeed.

“However difficult this vote may be,” she said, her voice steady once more, “some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, ‘Let’s step back for a moment, let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control.’” Lee closed her brief remarks with Baxter’s line, the one that had convinced her to vote her heart. “As we act,” she said. “Let us not become the evil we deplore.”


2) Heroic Measures – Bill Keller’s painfully tone deaf op-ed about a cancer patient who writes about her disease made a whole lot of noise this week. Keller’s piece is pretty distasteful and reeks of elitism. This week I’m thankful that I’m not Bill Keller. Published by the New York Times.

3) Super Heroine: An Interview with Lorde – 11 pages of Tavi Gevinson and Lorde picking apart each other’s beautiful, brilliant minds. Published by Rookie.

4) The Dark-Tinted, Truth-Filled Reading List We Owe Our Kids – Some thoughts on stories and how to expose children to the realities of darkness. Published by Christianity Today.

We do no one any favors when we pretend away darkness in the world. We’ve only neutered the need for grace. And we’ve neutered the glorious triumph on the other side of darkness…Our goal is to produce and consume truth, to feed, to be strengthened, and to rise up from our narrative sabbaths ready to live harder lives, ready to love and laugh more deeply.


5) Neal Brennan – White America’s Greatest Klingon Writer – This one is from Ta-Nehisi Coates, but I really just liked it for this last little gem of a paragraph here. Published by The Atlantic.

Never try to look cool and learn something at the same time. You must have an awkward phase. All of us would like to skip that awkward phase. That is not how it works. Here is how it works: Get your ass in the water. Swim like me.


Enjoy! Anything I need to be reading this week?

Editing my life

Something I love about writing is that good writing habits translate into good living habits. The best pieces of advice I’ve heard for strengthening my writing have also helped me live a better life.


One of the most helpful books about the craft of writing is William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Zinsser covers everything from style techniques to finding your voice. In one chapter, he talks about how clutter can ruin a perfectly good piece of writing.

“Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”

I had a professor who is a notoriously brutal editor. I brought her a story that was 600 words and she said, “This looks great. Now cut it down to 500 words.” I thought she was kidding. I assumed she would look over it and declare my masterful prose flawless. I didn’t know how to cut 100 words from a story, but I wrestled with it and handed her a revised copy that hovered around 500 words the next day. As she read, I patiently waited for my Pulitzer. She said, “Great job, Cort. Much better. Now cut this down to 375 words. There is still clutter here.”

My focus this year is on developing healthy habits. When I think about my life, I think about all of the unnecessary elements cluttering my prose; I think about the things–physical items, relationships, distractions–I need to edit out. By removing unnecessary things from my life, I’m making more room for what really needs to be there.

For me, this mainly involves determining what my true priorities are and then focusing on them. I complained a lot last year about not having time to read as much as I would like to. This is patently untrue; lack of time wasn’t my problem, it was the way I was spending the time I had.

So I’m learning to walk away from things. I’m discovering the joy of saying no sometimes.

Life clutter comes in many different forms. Sometimes it’s how you spend your time. Sometimes it’s a relationship. Sometimes it’s objects you need to let go of.

So I’m selling stuff on Craigslist and I’m throwing things away and I’m deleting apps and I’m walking away from relationships and creating the time and space for what matters most to me. I’m learning how to edit my life. I’m taking Zinsser’s advice and applying it to more than just my writing. “Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away.”


Monday Musings: A poem from Wendell Berry

Monday Musings is a series in which I share something worth contemplating as the week begins. Consider this your mental cup of coffee.

I stumbled across this Wendell Berry poem a few years ago in his poetry collection The Country of MarriageThis poem is a lot of different things to me. Sometimes it’s a prayer, sometimes it’s a sermon, sometimes it’s a declaration, sometimes it’s a manifesto for living well. Starting the week off here seems right.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

by Wendell berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Some plans for this space…

I spent the weekend in Savannah for a friend’s wedding. It’s always nice to get out of town and clear your head a little bit.

Some stuff I’ve been thinking about:

I want to say thank you to everyone who has shared this space with a friend or two. The readership here has been steadily increasing over the past few months, and that’s exciting and humbling for me. Nothing feels better than sharing something that means a lot to me and having other people connect with it.

If you visit here with any sort of frequency, you know how inconsistent I am with posting things. This generally stems from an obsession with perfection that I have when it comes to my work. This can be a good thing and a bad thing. If I’m working on something that is going to actually be published somewhere, it’s probably good for me to hold it to a higher standard. But I also found that I was hesitant to share things on this blog unless I thought they were really good. So I would start an essay and then half way through bail on it because I just didn’t think it was worthwhile. For a blog, that’s kind of silly. Perfectionism is often the enemy of creativity.

So I think I’m going to post with a little more regularity just so I can keep myself sharp. Here’s what I’ve decided on:

1) On Monday mornings I’m going to share something that is intellectually or creatively stimulating. It could be anything from a poem to a TED talk to a passage from a book I’m reading. But to be honest it will usually be a poem because we always need to be reading more poetry. The idea here is that the best way to start a new week is by engaging with something thought-provoking. Think of it as a morning cup of coffee for your mind.

2) During the week I’ll post at least once. This will probably just be something I’ve been thinking about lately. It could be anything. Maybe I’ll post more than once. Some weeks I might post every day. We’ll see.

3) On Fridays I’ll share what I’ve read, watched, and listened to during the past week. A lot of people ask me what articles or essays I’m reading and enjoying, so this will be a place for me to share links to those things. Think of it as a Cort-curated reading list.

So there you have it. Should be a good time for everyone. If there’s anything you want me to write about or share, just shoot me an email. Also, I’m always down for some guest posts. Thanks to those of you who keep coming around. Cheers!



Junot Diaz shares some thoughts on compassion, privilege and college

As I begin my final semester of college, I’ve been thinking a lot about what these four years have taught me and what I still need to learn before I leave.

I stumbled across a video of one of my favorite writers, Junot Diaz, doing a question and answer session at the University of Richmond. If you’re not familiar with Junot’s work, you’re missing out. He is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, and he is absolutely ferocious and relentless with his pen. A student asked him how to have a conversation with someone who is blind to their privilege.

He does more than answer the question; he lays out a philosophy of how to approach life: with compassion for others. We need to have compassion on everyone, including ourselves.

This was really interesting to me, so I wanted to share. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Student: “How do you have a conversation with someone who is blind to their privilege?”

Junot Diaz:

First, I start the conversation with me. Last time I checked, I’m the most fucking privileged person in this body. Part of what matters in these conversations is first being able to understand it’s not much of a conversation for you to point your finger at other people. For me, constantly keeping my privilege front and center, and understanding how blind I am to it, and understanding how often I make excuses for my blindness, helps you on the road to compassion. Because if you’re compassionate with yourself for your blind spots, you might be compassionate to other people.

It’s not a moral judgement, you guys, that we have blind spots. You’re not a bad person. If you’re in class being like, “there is no racism,”–even though, like, you know, every social scientist has proven that racism and white supremacy are totally active in the United States in phenomenal levels–even if this is what you think, it doesn’t make you a bad person. I just think the only way to approach someone like that is with compassion, not condescension. Compassion is like, ‘this is where you’re at, I can prove it to you if you’re open-minded, and if you’re not, I’m not going to hate you for it. You’re just a person. and I do things like this too, I’m sure. And if I draw the line at you, but not at me, then what’s the deal?’

Here he transitions into what he believes the point of college is:

I just know I am so fucking flawed. When I sit in front of my students, I’m like, there is nobody in worse shape than me. No, for real. No one has made more mistakes, no one has hurt more people, no one is going to drop the ball, come up short, disappoint people, lie to myself, use my privilege unfairly, And so I’m like, what the hell am I going to do? When I’m doing stuff for immigration rights, and there are people out there being like, “Fuck you, go home to Mexico,”…what can you do? You can get devoured, devoured, by forgetting that that person, but for the grace of God, is me. I remember being a young kid, I remember being in high school, and being like, “what’s up, faggot?” I remember it clearly. So who am I? We come up short, you guys. It’s difficult not to. The thing is, we’ve got to try not to. We are in college because this is an opportunity to transform yourself. They never give you a little booklet when you get in, they don’t tell you what this is really for… “This will help you get a job…this will help you go to med school.” That’s professional nonsense. That’s occupational nonsense. The actual ethos behind being at university is that university is an opportunity for you to transform yourself…you transform yourself for the better. There are few spaces, there are few civic institutions, that have that as their core mission. Because college has turned into big fucking corporate plantations, we forget that we’re supposed to come out of these fucking places absolutely unrecognizable. But you’ve got to be nice to the person who walked in here. Because, the person who walked out of here, if she’s mean to him, then what has she learned?


So here’s to growth. Here’s to using this final semester of college to transform myself.


Teju Cole’s Twitter short story

Writer Teju Cole orchestrated a neat narrative experiment on Twitter today. He used tweets to tell a poignant and compelling short story about a man having a heart attack. Each tweet was sent from a different account, and Cole retweeted each one so the story could be read in its entirety on his Twitter feed.

Teju Cole has a reputation for using Twitter in unique and thought-provoking ways. In October he posted pictures of names that were written down and then erased to represent children killed by American drones.

I put all the tweets in order so you can read the story here:













Screen Shot 2014-01-08 at 3.57.19 PM




I watched all 8 Harry Potter movies in one sitting

Yesterday I watched all 8 Harry Potter movies in a row. My roommates and I have been talking about doing it for well over a year now, and finally, on January 4, 2014, the stars aligned and we committed to spending over 19 straight hours in the magical world of Harry Potter. What follows are the notes I took throughout the day.

I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.

6: 30 a.m. Saturday morning – My alarm goes off and I’m immediately angry. My eyes won’t open and I briefly contemplate abandoning the mission altogether. Being the one put in charge of waking everyone up comes with a  lot of responsibility. If my strength fails me now, I let everyone down. What kind of man would I be if I let a few extra hours of shut-eye tempt me to abandon my dreams. I get up to take a shower because I want to start off clean.

6:41 – I wake up my roommates Kyle and Hunter by shouting “Happy Christmas, Harry!”

6:54 – Begin Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (“Philosopher’s Stone” if you’re reading across the pond.) 

7:09 – Hagrid utters those life-altering words that we all long to hear: “You’re a wizard, Harry.” This would be considered the “call to adventure” stage of Harry’s journey according to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth.

7:16 – It’s kind of an unfair dig at bankers for Rowling to make them goblins.

7:26 – If I were Harry I would be so frustrated with Hagrid for not explaining Platform 9 3/4. How is a wizard raised by a muggle family supposed to have any frame of reference for this.

7:35 – Ah, our first introduction to Draco Malfoy. Little does Harry know how much this boy’s existence will impact his life. What I love about this is how Harry immediately tells Malfoy off when he talks down to Ron. Fierce loyalty. No new friends.

7:52 – Kyle is asleep and I shake him to wake him up. My eyelids are heavy. Feel myself fading. Beginning to regret this.

8:07 – After the trio defeats the troll, Professor McGonagall awards them points. It seems a little unethical for a professor who is the head of a house to award members of their house points. Surely there are rules against this.

8:24 – It is Christmas! Harry opens up the invisibility cloak. Ron tells him that they are rare. But isn’t there only one? And it’s 1/3 of the deathly hallows. Does being this close to something that he grew up hearing about in fairytales not inspire him to tell Harry the tale of the three brothers? How can this be? These are the things I’ll ask God when I die.

8:30 – What would you see if you looked in the mirror or Erised? I would see myself in a cabin in Maine.

8:34 – Hunter is dead asleep. I’m talking REM cycle. Goodnight, sweet prince.

8:48 – “Neville. He turned into a good-looking bloke.”  – Hunter

I guess he woke up at some point.

9:15 – This is when they are announcing who won the House Cup. The Great Hall is decorated in Slytherin colors. But in a last minute display of blatant and unapologetic favoritism, Dumbledore awards Gryffindor enough points to just barely edge out Slytherin. He calls for a change of decorations. Now, I am in no way a Slytherin supporter. But I have to admit, that is extremely tacky of Dumbledore to allow the Hall to be decorated in their honor when he knows he is going to let Gryffindor win. That is some next level bullshit.

9:18 – The first movie finishes. My roommate Jay has made a small mountain of bacon and I’m grateful. I eat one of the best fried egg sandwiches I have ever eaten. We are gaining energy and remembering why we wanted to accept this challenge in the first place.

9:33 – Begin Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

9:35 - Daniel Radcliffe’s voice is noticeably deeper. Puberty: a magic unlike any other.

9:45 – I want my daughter to be just like the ultra-awkward redheaded preteen Ginny Weasley.

10:00 – Our DVD is scratched. Trying to switch to Apple TV.

10:03 – Disaster averted. Onward!

10:06 – Perhaps my favorite line in any Harry Potter movie:

10:30 - Temporary high from breakfast has faded. Reality sinking in. Having a difficult time keeping eyes open. Stella (our dog) is snuggling closer to me, almost taunting me while she sleeps peacefully.

11:08 - Kyle and I take these awful little espresso shots. The struggle is real.

11:16 – Hunter is diligently reading GQ :( feel betrayed.

11:31 – Kyle disappears to go “find some thread.” Part of me suspects that he is trying to quietly abort our mission.

11:36 – Kyle returns, and indeed, he has sewing materials. Trust restored.

11:45 - While Harry is saving Ginny in the Chamber of Secrets, he has no idea that he is saving his future wife/the mother of his children. This is one of those times that knowing the full story makes a moment even more meaningful.

11:53 – Stella sneezed in Hunter’s face, and he just giggled. Slowly losing our minds. 

11:58 – We are coming to the end of the second movie. I guess I’m confused because Lucius Malfoy is so obviously up to no good. Dumbledore even insinuates that he knows that Lucius is the one who gave Ginny the diary of Tom Riddle. Is this not against the wizarding laws? Is there no investigative wizard team that can produce enough evidence against this clearly evil man to throw him into Azkaban? I hate injustice. I don’t understand :(

12:01 - We are taking a quick break. I grab an apple and settle in for the long haul. Thankful to have the first two movies behind us.

12:05 – Begin Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

12:20 – Hunter made cinnamon rolls and everything about today immediately seems better.

12:26 – Every time someone says “Sirius Black” I think of my pal’s band Cereus Bright.

12:33 – This is the first film in which Michael Gambon plays Dumbledore. Richard Harris, the actor who plays Dumbledore in the first two films, sadly passed away. This is not a popular sentiment usually, but I actually prefer the new Dumbledore. The first one is perfect at playing the wise old wizard, but I could never picture him doing things like (SPOILER ALERT!) going to the cave to get the horcrux.

12:40 – “I don’t think any of us would actually be friends with Hermione. She’s like a nursing major. So many books.” – Kyle

I’m not sure what this means because I do indeed have friends who are nursing majors, but I think it’s funny so I agree.

12:53 – I get so frustrated with McGonagall when she won’t let Harry go to Hogsmeade because he doesn’t have the proper permission slip signed by his parents or guardian. She knows his parents are dead. And she knows his muggle guardians are awful. And she knows that Harry saved the school from the basilisk LAST YEAR. Yet she won’t budge. Bureaucracy.

1:31 – This just happened and everyone falls in love with Hermione:

1:42 – “Prisoner of Azkaban is almost over! We are moving right along. We will be done in no time!” – something I just thought before realizing we have 5 more movies after this one.

1:52 – Hunter has to go to work soon, but I’m trying desperately to get him to call in sick. “Hunter, in 4 months when we are graduated and going our separate ways, never to live together again, will you be thankful that you worked that extra shift, or will you wish you had stayed with us for this journey.” I think my logic is sound, but Hunter’s work ethic is unmovable. His will is strong as iron.

2:09 - One of the most epic scenes in any of the movies:

My patronus would probably be a moose or a duck.

2:20 – Begin Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I remember so clearly the first time I read this book. We were on vacation when it was released. I sat in the back seat of the car with a little reading light while we drove down the highway at night. I like how stories can help us recall the smallest most insignificant little details sometimes.

2:33 - Cho and Harry have that awkward encounter on the train to Hogwarts. This is the first clue that from here on out this story will deal with all of the conflicts normal teenagers feel as they navigate adolescence.

2:57 – This is the first time we see Rita Skeeter. As a journalism student, I can’t say I’m thrilled with how journalists are portrayed in Rowling’s world. Although I can’t say I totally disagree either.

Another thing: if the Triwizard Tournament includes other schools, are there any  American wizarding schools? Are there even American wizards? Is it my inflated sense of importance that makes me think that there should be some American schools out there? And if so, what do the American wizards think of Voldemort? (Yep, I said it. Because “fear of a name only increases fear of a thing itself”)

3:04 – lol, love this scene. Too much sass!

3:16 - I ate too many chips. I’m dying.

3:30 – The awkward scene when Harry asks Cho to the Yule Ball but gets turned  down makes me miss middle school.

3:33  – every boy my age will always remember the first time they saw this happen:

3:52 – It’s Cedric, but all I see is Edward.

Cedric is Edward


4:37 – The fourth movie is over and we take a short break. I’m feeling optimistic. We have now reached the half-way mark. Four movies behind us. Four movies ahead of us. There’s no turning back.

4:49 – Begin Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

4:58 - Two new friends just walked through the door to join us. They are named Cole and Davis. Wonderful pals and I’m thankful they are here to change things up a little bit.

5:01 – Davis just answered a phone call in the middle of the movie. He didn’t even get up. Starting to regret letting him in the house. (just kidding!)

5:15 – Kyle is pretending to speak parseltongue to me. (He is inadvertently providing more evidence for my theory that Kyle would definitely be in Slytherin.)

5:45 – “She’s so attractive.” – Davis, who has recently started a campaign on twitter to win a date with Emma Watson.

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6:54 – are godfathers still a thing? Are they all as wonderful as Sirius? Where do I get one?

7:22 – Begin Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

7:39  – “Let’s text Emma Watson.” – Davis

8:00 – “Cort, I want to be your Nagini.” -Kyle

8:23 – “I just feel like I need to comfort her” – Kyle talking about Hermione

8:26 – We noticed that Malfoy doesn’t have a love interest. Discussing an interesting theory that probably only seems reasonably possible because we have been watching Harry Potter for 13 hours now: what if Malfoy is in love with Harry? He knows he will never get with Harry, so like many a scorned lover, he focuses all of his energy on destroying him. Not likely, but not impossible I suppose. (Also, if by chance this is true, did Malfoy totally know Dumbledore is gay?)

8:55 – Sectumsempra is by far the most badass spell.

9:51 - Begin Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 1

This movie came out during my freshman year of college and holds a lot of special memories for me. My friends and I dressed up and went to the midnight premiere. This is a picture of me, Kyle, and Davis:


10:08 – Hedwig dies and suddenly everything begins to feel more real. RIP.

10:28 - “Hermione ordered a cappuccino! I had that this morning!” – Davis

11:14 – My eyes are having trouble staying open. We are in the final stretch, on the brink of glory.

11:47 – Almost all of Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s problems would be solved if they simply IMMEDIATELY APPARATED the second anything seemed out of place.

12:07 a.m. Sunday morning – Begin Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

12:25 – The magic is starting to seem inconsistent. If Gringotts is supposed to be so secure, then polyjuice potion and a simple charm shouldn’t be enough to break in.

1:34 – Too invested in the story to continue taking notes. The movie deserves my full attention. I have been watching this since 7 a.m. I’m going to enjoy the last few moments.

2:11 – And just like that, we are done. After a little over 19 hours, we have watched the entire Harry Potter saga. Watching them all in one sitting, it is clear to me that Severus Snape is easily the most interesting character and one of the most important heroes in the story.

Now it is time for bed. Accomplishing a goal (especially one you have talked about for over a year) is always a wonderful feeling. Goodnight.

Mischief managed.




#teens will enjoy Rob Delaney’s book because he is a #cool #dad

I joined Twitter in 2009. None of my friends were really tweeting yet, so I followed comedians. After awhile, I noticed there was a strange man in a green speedo that everyone kept retweeting. One day, probably because I was bored or lonely, I clicked “follow” and my on-again/off-again relationship with Rob Delaney began. At the time, Rob had under 100k followers, if I remember correctly. He is now probably days away from the impressive 1 million followers milestone.

Some days I just wasn’t in the mood for his particularly impolite brand of humor, and I would unfollow him. Also, a person can only feast their eyes upon his green speedo and pasty thighs so many times before it begins to take a toll on your mental faculties

But, inevitably, I would end up following him again. This happened several times. As he rose to comedic fame because of his twitter account, I started to read more about him, and I couldn’t help but like the guy.

His book came out last year, and my pal gave it to me for my birthday in November, but I just got around to reading it this morning. I read almost all of it in one sitting and giggled the whole time.

Like his tweets, Rob Delaney’s debut book Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. is ridiculously silly, irreverent, and at times, poignant and thoughtful.

The book is broken down into five different parts filled with stories from Rob’s life. He covers everything from his childhood to his year spent in France to his struggle with alcoholism. Rob writes like he’s talking to an old friend. You’ll sit down to read, and next thing you’ll know two hours will have passed.

At the very least, reading Rob’s book will give you a new appreciation for his tweets and style of humor. But if you’re willing to engage with his stories a little more, you’ll discover that Rob is a normal guy who has overcome some serious vices and is now using his experiences to create something wonderful.

Rob’s book educated me about mental health and addiction, renewed my desire to study the French language, instilled in me an excitement for fatherhood, and convinced me that staying sober is always the better option. Not a bad way to spend a few hours on a Friday morning.

P.S. – Rob, in case you read this: I would love to interview you. If you ever come to Knoxville I can take you to an abandoned mental hospital near my house and we can explore it while talking about Margaret Atwood. #terrific

You might also like:

1) Rob Delaney did an AMA on Reddit, and someone asked him about how he has helped “put feminism on the map in a way that is both amusingly refreshing and non-threatening.” I enjoyed his response.

The response is primarily very positive. I just want to show that you can be a blustery hairy “alpha” male and a feminist at the same time. Plus, I love affirmative action. Misogyny will almost definitely outlast homophobia and racism on this planet and it’s because of systems that were put in place forever ago and assiduously maintained and strengthened over the years. So we’ve got to tear those down. And when I say “we,” that includes men. And guess what? MY LOT, as a straight white man, IMPROVES when women’s lot improves. A rising tide raises all ships > there are more women then men on the planet > if we improve women’s lot, the world is BETTER FOR EVERYONE. HOW DO PEOPLE NOT REALIZE THIS? It infuriates me, then I turn that fury into jokes, essays, basic human kindness and hard work to try and make the world a better place for everyone. WOE unto the man who doesn’t actively try to make the world better for women.


2) A few days ago Rob wrote on his tumblr about fatherhood and, as usual, had some thoughtful things to say. (I edited out some of what he wrote to save space. Read the whole thing here.)

Here’s just one reason the way I raise my sons matters to the world at large: my sons will one day wander out into the world and meet your daughters. So one hopes I instill in them, and model for them, behavior that is rooted in kindness, compassion and fundamental respect of others. As well as a work ethic, strength, and the discipline to survive to adulthood in one piece.

Before I met him, I’d hoped our first son would be a daughter because I thought that would awaken a stronger parental, paternal urge in me. But the SECOND I met him, I was a blubbering fool (as I established in the introduction, I cry while I work out, so no surprise) and I felt every molecule in my body explode, reform and realign as a capital D Dad, whose sole purpose was to bludgeon this tiny person with love. And now I’m the dad of two boys I’d hoped were girls, but am leagues beyond happy that they are exactly who and what they are. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go kiss them until they yell at me.


3) Some of my favorite tweets from Rob Delaney:

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peter jackson

Gay people

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2014: A Year of Healthy Habits

I always feel hopeful at the start of a new year. I love the resolutions and the goals. The chance to start over. I love a blank slate. There is so much opportunity and possibility on January 1.

Each year I like to pick a word or phrase to help me set the tone for my year. Last year was “simplify.” That played itself out in a couple different ways. Sometimes it was literally simplifying my life by letting go of possessions, and sometimes it was stripping away parts of me I felt like I needed to get rid.

2014’s phrase is going to be healthy habits. I’ve been thinking about this one for awhile. 2014 is going to be a big year. Everything changes. I will be graduating in May, and from there who knows what will happen. It is clear to me though that this is the time in my life when I want to be building a solid foundation to grow from as I begin to enter into adulthood.

A pastor I know said this to me once: “You’ll never become what you aren’t becoming.”

So that’s the goal this year: start becoming who I want to be as an adult, and the best way to do that will be to get in the rhythm of practicing healthy habits. This will look different in each sphere of my life.

Healthy habits intellectually:

In May I will be graduating with a degree in journalism and electronic media, and a minor in English. I don’t really have the luxury of being lazy anymore. I don’t read enough. I don’t write enough. I don’t stretch myself enough. I live in a house with 4 other guys (who I love deeply and I will miss intensely when we all move out), and it is often easier to sit around watching TV than to sit at my desk and write 1000 words. And to be sure, I think there is a need for relaxation, but there’s never a need for laziness. I need to learn to balance discipline and relaxation.

I’ve started learning French again, and I plan on hitting it hard in 2014. There are a couple things at play here. First reason: one of my favorite writers has spent the past two years or so learning French, and reading about his experience has made me want to give it another shot. I love words and languages and I never want to stop developing my knowledge in that area. Second reason: there’s a girl. (There’s always a girl in these situations.) And she’s basically fluent. And we want to live in France. Because life is too short not to live in France.

Lovedrug, one of my favorite bands, has a lyric that says, “You’ve got to pull stars down to be someone.” Think about that one.

Healthy habits physically: 

I want to live past 50, so mainly I just need to start eating healthier. Luckily, my body feels like a nuclear wasteland when I eat too much junk food, so this shouldn’t be impossible. If you see me eating chick-fil-a multiple times a week, literally smack me on the face and remind me that I want to be the “hot dad” when I am in my 40s. Thanks in advance.

Healthy habits spiritually:

I’m in the middle of an interesting stage of my spiritual life. I’m in the process of figuring out exactly what I believe about God, and I’m discovering the practices and places that help me connect with Him the most. I have read through the bible in a year a few times, but I didn’t do it last year. I think this year I’m going to do that again. This goes back to learning how to practice discipline as well.

Healthy habits emotionally:

One of my favorite parts of college has been learning about who I am, what makes me tick, and how I can become the best version of Cort. I’m an introverted person. That’s just the way I am. I fought that for awhile because “introverted” often carries negative connotations (which is bogus, by the way). When you stop trying to be someone else, you free yourself up to be exactly who you are meant to be. Saint Catherine of Siena said, “Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.” So in 2014 I want to continue figuring myself out and learning how I work best in relationships with others and in relationship with myself. Journaling has helped me in this process of self-discovery. If you don’t journal, start journaling. The grown up version of you will be eternally grateful.

So here’s to a year of building foundations. This year will bring some of the most significant changes I’ve faced yet, and I’m excited to see what comes. I’ll leave you to think about these words from T.S. Eliot:

For last year's words belong to last year's language

And next year's words await another voice.



These Are a Few of My Favorite Things: 2013

2013 was a strange year, culturally speaking, and I can’t say I’m sad to see it go. A new year looms on the horizon. But before 2014 begins, allow me a moment to reflect on some of the things I loved most this year.

Favorite Film:

Before Midnight 

This is the third installment in what I consider an essentially perfect series. To experience the full emotional weight of Before Midnight, the first two films (1995’s Before Sunrise, and 2004’s Before Sunset) should be seen first. Before Midnight is a poignant reminder that sometimes love is hard and messy and painful. The writing is off-the-charts brilliant. I still find myself thinking about this one late at night sometimes. 

“Like sunlight, sunset, we appear, we disappear. We are so important to some, but we are just passing through.”

“I fucked up my whole life because of the way you sing.”

Too good, too good.

Favorite Album:

Yeezus – Kanye West

Kanye West is one of the most creative, interesting, and compelling artists making music today. There’s just no way around it. Admittedly, the way he presents himself often makes it easy to overlook this fact. People like to write Kanye off as crazy and refuse to engage with his art. There is a problem with this practice: it is intellectually lazy and makes for ignorant and passive consumers. So while Jay-Z decided he’s happy with his $$$ and put out a painfully mediocre album, Kanye pushed boundaries and released an album you have to wrestle with. I go back to Yeezus all the time because I learn something new each time I give it a spin.

Favorite Book:

TransAtlantic –  Colum McCann

I didn’t read nearly as much as I should have this year. But that happens sometimes and that’s okay. I got my hands on Colum McCann’s latest effort as soon as I could though. TransAtlantic tells the connected stories of characters from very different parts of the world. The plot is fine, but you really pick up a book by Colum McCann because of the way he puts sentences together. He could be writing instructions on how to assemble a desk and I’m sure it would be poetic and beautiful and move me to tears and cause me to reflect on my own existence.

Favorite Television show: 

Breaking Bad

Long live Jesse Pinkman.

A Letter to C.S. Lewis

(November 22, 2013, marks 50 years since C.S. Lewis passed away. He wrote many letters in his day, so I decided to write him one.)

Dear Clive,

Do I call you Clive? Or Mr. Lewis? Professor Lewis? Or maybe Jack, like all your close friends used to call you. I know we’ve never met, but you seem like an old friend to me.

It’s amazing how much one person who passed away 50 years ago can have such a monumental influence on my life. We never even lived at the same time, and yet I feel like I know you.

When I was a child, my father spent a great deal of time reading to me. We would sit down to eat dinner, and I knew if I was pleasant at the table then maybe I would get a story later that night before bed. I was probably unpleasant more often than I was pleasant, but my father read to me anyway. Grace.

You see, books you read as a child have a funny way of sticking with you. Sure, books you read as you get older are important. But books you read early on in life burrow deep into your heart. The stories are tattooed on your soul. What you read as a child becomes part of you forever.

And it just so happens that the first real books my father read to me were The Chronicles of Narnia. We started with The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and then slowly worked our way through the series. I remember listening to the adventures of Peter, Lucy, Susan, and Edmund and feeling something stir within me. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was falling in love with words and stories. I was learning the power of an honest and true narrative. I was discovering that words have the power to intoxicate more fully and enjoyably than any chemical ever could.

I’ve said it before, but I suppose this was my father’s version of the old “teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime” adage.

I discovered the power of stories and never looked back. I have you to thank for that. I became a reader with a voracious appetite. As I got older I discovered more of your books. I remember being in middle school and spending a cold saturday buried under a bed of blankets on the floor in front of the fireplace reading The Screwtape Letters for the first time. My mom wasn’t sure I would fully understand you because I was too young, but I stretched my mind so I could grasp what you were saying. In a lot of ways, you were teaching me how to grow up.

And then I was in high school and wrestling with my faith and experiencing doubts and trying to process who I was becoming, and you were there. Mere Christianity. The Problem of Pain. The Weight of Glory. Miracles. All of these books were lampposts guiding me on my journey, helping me see just a little farther up the path. You were teaching me how to wrestle and doubt and walk faithfully.

And then there was that night during the first few weeks of my freshman year of college when I couldn’t sleep so I pulled A Grief Observed off my bookshelf, sat on the floor in the hallway, and read it cover to cover. You were teaching me how to grieve.

But I always came back to Narnia. Because I met God in those pages. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”  Narnia is where my faith was born.

A few years ago I went to Oxford, England. I saw the university where you taught. I wandered through the Bodleian library and pictured you sitting at a table preparing a lecture. I stood behind a pulpit you preached from. I walked the streets and imagined you thinking to yourself while you hurried to class. I imagined you stopping to jot down a stray thought that would one day end up in one of your stories. He’s not a tame lion. 

When I visited The Eagle and Child–surely after all these years you remember the pub where you and the Inklings would meet–I pictured you and Tolkien in the back corner of the Rabbit Room discussing Narnia and Middle Earth over a pint or two. How I wish I could have joined you.

Your words have stayed true after all these years. They are words my father read to me, and they are words that I will read to my children. The world is a better place because you picked up your pen and stayed faithful to the Story.

One day we will meet. But until that day, I will continue to read your stories. And maybe I’ll tell some stories of my own, stories that come from deeper places like yours did.

And when my pilgrim days are done, I will join you on the other side. And I’ll thank you for guiding me along my journey. And then I’ll feel those words from my favorite book of yours deep in my chest and I’ll say to you:

I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…come further up! Come further in!

Until that day,


My Complete Interview with Elizabeth Gilbert

I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Gilbert (author of insanely successful Eat, Pray, Love ) for Cityview Magazine. That piece can be found here. The interview had to be edited down for the magazine, but Gilbert said some pretty insightful and interesting things so I’m going to post the whole interview in this space.

The interview was done over the phone. I dialed the number I was given and it rang.


“Hey, is this Liz?”

“It is! I’m sitting here at the airport eating cereal out of a plastic cup.”

We briefly exchanged pleasantries and then started the interview.

You’re on a book tour for your new novel, The Signature of All Things. How’s that going?

It’s been intense but it has been good. I was just saying to a friend that I’m tired but I’m not stressed. There is such a big difference between those two things. It is completely acceptable to be tired because it means you’re working hard. But it’s not acceptable to be stressed because that means things are going wrong or your head is broken. I’m just grateful that all I am is tired. I can manage that.

Knoxville is one of the stops on your tour, but you’ve lived in Knoxville before. How did you end up here?

I have a really dear friend named Michael Knight, who is the head of the writing department at the University of Tennessee. He and I were old friends. He’s a terrific writer. He contacted me when I was in my last week of my Eat, Pray, Love journey. He just sent me a random email and asked if I would come be the visiting writer at UT for a semester. This would have been the spring semester of 2005. I had literally nowhere to go so it was a fantastic godsend. I had sold everything because I was traveling for a year and I didn’t have anywhere to return to. I very happily accepted and went and stayed there for a semester and worked on my book. It was terrific. I loved it.

So you wrote some of Eat, Pray, Love in Knoxville?

I edited it. I wrote it at a writer’s residency and then I did all the edits in Knoxville.

It’s always fun to have a successful authors living in Knoxville.

Well I wasn’t successful when I went there, but I was successful when I came out. I just felt really grateful that they would even have me. I desperately needed a job and I was happy to have it. I really enjoyed it. I was amazed at the level of talent of some of the students. They were quite brilliant. I enjoyed it a lot.

You had had a pretty decent amount of success before coming to Knoxville though.

Yeah I was doing all right. I wasn’t a household name or anything. Maybe in literary geek circles. But nothing compared to what happened that year. But it was a much needed place to stay.

Where did you live in Knoxville?

I lived at the St. Oliver hotel. Apparently it’s super fancy now. It was an interesting place to live. I felt like I was living on the set of a Tennessee Williams play. It had this dark undertone to it that I really enjoyed. It was a really atmospheric place. And maybe a little haunted. I loved Hot Tomato. Is that what’s called?

Tomato Head. Close enough.

Yes! Tomato Head! I ate there a lot. And then there’s another place…I’m so sorry I can’t remember. You’re going to have to help me. It’s a super famous old school diner. It’s really great. It has been there since the dawn of time. Always super crowded on the weekends. I cannot remember the name. This might help you remember: they got in a dispute with their sugar distributor and they stopped serving sweet tea. They couldn’t settle on a price with their sugar distributor. It was this big scandal when I was down there. They only had iced tea with no sugar in it and it was the talk of Knoxville that year. They were drawing a line in the sand. They were like “we’re not paying more for this sugar, so we’re not going to have sweet tea.” I can’t remember the exact story but it was a terrific restaurant drama. Now I really wish I could remember the name of it.

Yeah, that’s about as dramatic as Knoxville gets.

Yeah, it was pretty hardcore. (long laugh)

In The Signature of All Things you must have done vast amounts of research. What was that experience like and where did your protagonist, Alma the botanist, come from?

The initial inception comes from the fact that I’ve become a passionate gardener. I was geeking out on plants and I know that whatever I wrote next would have to be about plants, which is the vaguest idea in the world. I had to narrow that down. I wanted to write the kind of book I liked reading: a big, sweeping epic. A birth to death story set against a family drama with stuff like adventure on the high seas. All that sort of stuff that I love, in the model of 19th century writers that I love. I’m in a position for the first time in my life, thanks to the success of Eat, Pray, Love, where I can self-fund a project like that. I felt like the only way to honor how lucky I am to be in that position is to aim really high. I didn’t want to waste this place that I’m in because I know how rare this is. I had never had it before and I know most writers never have it. I don’t have to go ask permission from anybody to do work. I can just make my own work. That’s where it kind of began. I had to try to figure out how to write a big, epic novel about plants. I had to find where in history the most interesting plant stories were, which seemed to be that moment between the Enlightenment and the beginning of the Industrial revolution. I wanted a female character so I had to figure out how to put her in the plant world. I discovered there had been quite a number of really prominent female botanists because botany was the only science that women were even allowed into a little bit because there was an implicit and inherent domesticity in the idea of studying plants and flowers. I did a lot of research on 19th century lady botanists. Alma started to grow out of the inspiration of their lives. But she’s not really any one of them directly.

There seems like there is a little bit of you in Alma too.

Yeah, there is. There always is in a novel. I was saying to a friend the other day that writing a novel is like a crime scene: it ends up being littered with your own DNA. Initially I didn’t think of her being at all like me. I was intending to write a character totally different from me. She’s an empirical scientist and I’m an arty-farty kind of person. Once my friends were reading it they kept saying, “You’re all over that thing.” It’s so unselfconscious that you don’t know what you’re revealing.

How long did it take you to create this book from research to finished novel?

Four years. It’s a joy though. It’s exactly the kind of work I’ve wanted to do. It’s not easy to do. I never could have written this book in my twenties. I couldn’t have written a book like this while I was bartending and waiting tables and working as a journalist. It’s a big luxury to say, “I’m going to take 4 years and do this really mythical quixotic thing.” I enjoyed it enormously.

Most people know you as a non-fiction writer. Your last novel was 13 years ago. What was it like transitioning back to writing fiction?

It was challenging and also intimidating. Not only had it been 13 years since I wrote a novel, but that experience of writing that first novel (Stern Men) had not been particularly pleasurable.

Why not?

I just didn’t know how to write a book yet. I didn’t have enough experience. I was intimidated and uncertain. I didn’t know how to prepare.

Anyway, I didn’t have terrific memories of writing fiction. I knew I was taking on something that was daunting. I think I just over-prepared to make myself feel as at ease as I could. Once I began I realized I only remembered the bad parts. It’s like the opposite of childbirth, how women forget how painful it was. I think I only remembered how painful it was. While I was writing I couldn’t believe I had been away from this for so long. There is so much delight in it.

When you sat down to start this novel, how did you handle the expectation that is placed on a writer who has sold over 10 million books?

You want to block it out, but you also don’t want to negate it. I am really pleased with how Eat, Pray, Love was received and what it became in people’s lives. It’s question of expansiveness, of keeping yourself expansive enough so you can hold these two contradictory ideas as the same time. One of them being “I have to forget about this thing, even though it was the biggest and greatest thing that ever happened to me.” And two “I can’t ever disregard or forget about this thing.” You just have to hold them both in the same space at the same time. Ultimately, I knew whatever I wrote after Eat, Pray, Love would disappoint people because it wouldn’t be Eat, Pray, Love. I’m so stubbornly committed, in a devotional way, to a life of writing. It doesn’t even really matter what the result is. People will love the book or they’ll hate the book. The result is insignificant. The important thing is to get it done and get it out there so that I could break the spell and continue being an author or else I never would. And that would be really sad for me because I really love what I do.

In your TED talk you admit that maybe your biggest success is behind you…

You have to redefine what success means I think. I don’t hate myself enough to say that every book I write has to sell more than the one that came before it. That would be crazy and would make for a miserable life for me because that’s simply not possible. You have to figure out some other way to decide that you’re doing okay. For me, ultimately, that means staying in the game and continuing to do the work you’ve always loved and following your curiosities as fiercely as you can. Make the very best work you can.

What were some lessons your learned from your success that prepared you to write The Signature of All Things?

The memory of youthful failure helped me more than the memory of recent success. I’ve determined that you almost need to have the same attitude about great success as you do about great failure: it doesn’t matter, keep working. For me I had to draw upon the same certainty I had when I was an unpublished writer and I had six years of rejection letters and nobody wanted anything that I was making. I just kept making stuff because I was so certain that was my path. When I was writing the book I felt a real kinship with my 23 year old self, because we’re sort of in the same position here. We just have to do this for our own reasons. The external results, rejection or acclaim, are kind of just a distraction. It doesn’t mean I’m immune to it or I don’t watch it or feel it, but that that can’t the motivation. It’s got to be something else.

What was the most interesting thing you came across while doing research for The Signature of All Things?

I felt sympathy for something I’ve never felt sympathetic about when I saw what the birth of evolution did to the souls of people who had comfortably called themselves both men of God and men of science. Those people were really torn up about that information in a way that cannot be dismissed lightly. It was an earthquake in their lives. They had to make a decision which side they were going to be on in the ugly war between religion and science. People’s families were divided by it, relationships were divided by it, and their souls were divided by it. They struggled and it was painful and tears were shed and lives were changed. I never had quite realized how devastating that was. I came away with a real sympathy for people who had to choose between the two things they loved most: reason and faith. People had never had to make that decision before. I feel like we are still feeling the reverb from that. I came away more sympathetic about how painful that question can be for people.

A lot of people will see “from the author of Eat pray love” on your new novel and—

Recoil from it like they’re afraid they’re going to catch something?

Right. What do you say to someone who is unsure whether or not this book is for them?

I don’t have any particularly hard feelings about it. (Pause)

Well, that’s not true. I get way more defensive of my readers than I do of myself. To dismiss Eat, Pray, Love entirely is to dismiss 10 million women who have a very sincere interaction and relationship with that book. Those women are really diverse and interesting. I think they’re lives matter and their intellects matter. I get defensive of seeing them being dismissed. That bothers me more on their behalf than my own. I don’t know if I’m in the business of convincing people to think about me differently than they do. I think that’s an unrewarding business. I don’t know whether I can concern myself with that. But I also get it. There is a lot of information we get assaulted with and the only way to manage it is to put it in convenient little packages. I do it too. I can certainly see how that would happen. “Oh, she wrote a self-help book for ladies.” The fact is, I did write a self-help book for ladies. I can’t really deny it. That’s what I did. It happened, but that’s not the only thing I do or am. It’s also my responsibility to remember everything that I am. It’s not the world’s responsibility to remember everthing I am. The world has a lot of other stuff on its mind. They may or may not come around. That’s up to them. But everyone is invited. But I make a big tent and everyone can come in.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Never let anybody talk you out of it. Never go into debt to become a writer. Always find other ways to support yourself so you can do the work you truly love for the right reasons. Never ask your art to support you. If you ask your art to support you it will either end up comprised or you’ll be disappointed with it. It’s a lot to ask of creativity for it to provide for you financially. Find a scrappy way to get by and then do the work you love for the reasons you love.

I Listened To Miley Cyrus’s New Album Bangerz So You Don’t Have To


America has been awaiting the new Miley Cyrus album Bangerz the same way I suspect a death row inmate anticipates the needle: obviously we would rather avoid it, but if it’s inevitable, let’s just do this thing and get it over with already.

I felt like it was my civic duty to listen through Bangerz so you don’t have to. I’m a humanitarian.

Well, here goes nothing.

(Note: when I say something is “good” here, I mean it is “good” in the context of the album and Miley’s career. I don’t mean it’s “good” in the same way Michelangelo’s sculpture of David is good. Context is king.)

1. Adore You

I have to admit, I didn’t see this album opening up with a piano driven love song, and one that isn’t a complete mess at that. It’s trite and boring, but forgivable.

I love lying next to you
I could do this for eternity
You and me were meant to be
In Holy matrimony
God knew exactly what he was doing
When he lead me to you

I have to assume this song is about Miley’s fiancé Liam Hemsworth, which is kind of sad considering they split. I’m not sure Miley is capable of a “holy matrimony.”  At this point, I’m almost feeling hopeful about this mess.

2. We Can’t Stop

I would estimate that I listened to this song 4 times every day this summer, and I’m still not totally sick of it. I like it more than summer 2012’s theme song, Call Me Maybe, but not nearly as much as summer 2011’s Super Bass.

(Aside: Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass is basically the gold-standard against which I judge every female pop song.)

This girl takes partying seriously.

3. SMS (Bangerz)

Britney Spears is featured in this song and at first I thought that might make this one a winner but instead my ears are bleeding. This is Miley trying very hard to be Ke$ha.

All the way in the back, with a tree on my lap
All the boys like to ask me, what you doing with that
If you say you love me, I ain’t fooling with that
They ask me how I keep a man, I keep a battery pack


4. 4×4

I immediately hate this song more than almost anything in the world, and yet there is this horrible feeling that it might eventually grow on me. Miley compares herself to a pit bull in heat, and that’s pretty much all you need to know about this one. Oh, and Nelly contributes a verse here. How the mighty have fallen.

Hoedown Throwdown is still her best country-infused tune.

5. My Darlin

I’ve listened to this song twice now. The first time it kind of worked. The second time it didn’t at all. Like most things, the truth is probably somewhere in between.

6. Wrecking Ball

This is the second single from the album and it’s okay. Kind of catchy but it has only been stuck in my head twice since it came out on August 25. You are probably well aware of the fact that Miley molests a wrecking ball in the music video, so that’s kind of whatever.

At this point, I’m already feeling a little fatigued, but I will continue.

7. Love Money Party

This song is addicting (but not good) and I listened to it 3 times and I probably need to go through detox or find a support group or go confess to a priest. Miley would most likely claim my reaction as a victory and deem this song a success.

Check out this lyrical gem:

Money ain’t nothing but money
When you get to the money, ain’t nothing but money
Love ain’t nothing but love, when you learn to love, ain’t nothing but love
Party ain’t nothing but a party when you party everyday, ain’t nothing but a party


Miley is so forgettable here that I can’t even remember the song well enough to think of something snarky to say about it.

9. Drive

If this song comes on shuffle one day while I’m driving, I won’t skip it right away. I  probably wouldn’t listen to the whole thing, but I might make it 2 minutes in. Again, I suspect Miley would consider this a success.

10. FU

“LOL” and “SMH” are actual lyrics here.

I could maybe see her doing an interesting version of this with just a piano. Or maybe I’m being too gracious.

Moving on.

11. Do My Thang

This song won me over. Kind of. It’s just so unapologetic. Which is actually a good way to sum up this entire album so far. Not good, but unapologetic. Maybe there is some merit in that. I don’t know.

Oh yeah I’m a southern belle
I told ya’ll once before I get crazier than hell

Dynamic rhyme, yeah?

12. Maybe You’re Right

Lots of 8th grade girls will claim this as their anthem after breaking up with their boyfriend. These lyrics were written to be subtweeted.

13. Someone Else

 Anticlimactic ending. I wouldn’t bother.

Just as quickly as it came, it’s over. Overall, Bangerz is a 13 car pile up on the nation’s busiest highway: it is a loud spectacle with plenty of carnage but everyone driving by can’t help but stop and stare, desperately hoping for signs of life, searching for meaning.

Articles About Syria



America is on the verge of entering into another military conflict in Syria. A lot of people have been asking me what is going on over there, so I put together a list of some of the things I have been reading on the topic that keep me up-to-date. This situation is a really, really big deal. I can’t emphasize that enough. If this goes poorly, this will most likely be Obama’s legacy. I highly recommend reading through some of this stuff and forming your opinion. Lots of intelligent people fall on completely opposite sides on whether or not we should intervene in Syria. This is a tough decision.

Let’s start with this one:

9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask – The Washington Post

Chemical Weapons in Syria: How Did We Get Here? – CNN

Key Questions on the Conflict in Syria – The New York Times

Full text of President Obama’s Remarks on Syria – The New York Times

Washington vs. The American People – Andrew Sullivan

The Moral Case for a Syria Strike – Clive Crook for Bloomberg

Full transcript of Kerry’s hearing on Syria with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – The Washington Post

Kerry at House Hearing: The World is Watching – Politico

Senate Committee Approves Use of Force in Syria: 5 Takeaways - David A. Graham for The Atlantic

The Press and the Syria Debate: Neither Neutral Nor Balanced – Conor Friedersdorf for The Atlantic (Conor has been a vocal and consistently interesting advocate of staying out of Syria for a long time. Read everything he writes on the topic)

Kerry, Hagel lay out military objectives during Senate hearing on Syria – The Washington Post

The Syria Mission is Risky – John Dickerson for Slate

Red Lines Matter – Roger Cohen for The New York Times

Obama’s True Intentions in Syria Become Clear – John B. Judis for The New Republic

Reinforce a Norm in Syria – Nicholas D. Kristof for The New York Times

This is just a small glimpse of what’s being written about Syria, and by no means is this a definitive list. If there is any article you think I should read, let me know.


I was going to start this by saying “It’s hard to believe junior year is over!” but that’s really not that hard to believe and it’s a lazy introduction for writing anything and it’s a tacky cliche and I’ve had it drilled into my head this year that I should always avoid cliches.

(“Drilled into my head” is a cliche, I suppose. Sigh.)

Anyway. Junior year is over. Every year of college has been the same–it feels like things are going well and I’m perfectly content, then the semester ends and I reflect and I think oh my god what was wrong with me everything was horrible. Maybe that’s just life, though.

I have been writing a lot, but not in this space. Which is kind of humorous because I vowed to post here every day during lent and that turned into me not posting for a few months.

So it goes.

I had a well-paying job in Knoxville but suddenly I’m living in Memphis for the summer working at my church as a jr. high intern. I couldn’t be happier.

I’m thinking a lot about the words wander and search.

I’ve finally decided to dedicate time to conquering David Foster Wallace’s massive novel Infinite Jest.

There is a song by Ben Howard called “The Fear” and it’s on repeat because of the lyrics “And I will become what I deserve.” Sit in that.

“The root of nostalgia is pain.” – Joshua Robbins

Someone once told me I would break my neck to keep my chin up and they were so right.



This is my contribution to a synchroblog called Fem Fest, a chance to have a conversation about an important topic. Learn more about it after my post.

She said, “Wait, you’re a feminist?

“Well, yeah, I guess so,” I replied.

Scrunching her nose she said, “Ew. Stop. Right now.”

And that’s when I knew we were lost in translation.

I don’t really have a singular moment when I was introduced to feminism. I grew up with it. It didn’t have a name because it was just a way of life.

Growing up, normative gender roles rarely had a place in my home. I’ve seen my mom mow the lawn and my dad plant flowers and clean the kitchen. Most of my memories growing up are of both my parents working full time; my dad as a pastor and my mom as a chaplain at a hospice and eventually as the director of the EPC Women in Ministry.

My mom didn’t work full-time because we needed two incomes to make ends meet. My mom is simply a brilliant, driven women who had things she wanted to do. My dad is a strong enough man to not feel intimidated by her fiery spirit. From the beginning, I viewed women as intelligent, strong and capable. It was a heavy dose of reality to realize that not everyone shared that understanding with me.

Everything around me is trying to tell me to stop viewing women as humans. I’m told that I’m supposed to treat them as objects instead. I went to an all-boys high school. You can imagine the jokes that filled those halls, demeaning women. Turning them into commodities.

Something struck me while watching the Oscars on Sunday. When it comes to the men, we care about what they say and do. When it comes to the women, we care about what they wear and how they look.

Seth MacFarlane’s boob song.


I’ve seen the church use theology to oppress women, too.

It’s just a different sort of commodification, but one no less easy to stomach.

Last year my mom took a leap of faith and quit her job to take up a new position as a photopastor at a church in Connecticut. I’ve never been more proud or excited for her. She was called, and she has answered that call.

My dad quit his job as a pastor and arguably took an even bigger leap of faith and followed my mom to Connecticut without a job. Almost as soon as he moved up there he was hired as the director of a non-profit that offers chaplaincy services.

When I asked my dad if it was awkward to tell people that he was leaving his job because his wife was going to be a pastor, he said

It’s a little weird. But your mom has followed me to churches plenty of times. Now it’s my turn to follow her.

I credit my mom’s boldness and faith for instilling me with such a high view of women, but in the same breath, I credit my dad’s gentleness and grace.

And that’s why I tell my girlfriend that her dreams and goals are just as important as mine.

And that’s why I refuse to view women as a commodity.

And that’s why when I have a family of my own I will plant gardens and cook and clean and do laundry.

And that’s why, yeah, I consider myself a feminist.


Also, read this. N.T. Wright discusses women serving in the church.



Prompts and links:

  • {Day 1} Feminism and Me: On Tuesday, February 26, link up at J.R. Goudeau’s blog, loveiswhatyoudo.com, and write about these questions: What is your experience with feminism? What’s a story or a memory or a person that you associate with that word? Why does it have negative or positive connotations for you? How do you define the term, either academically or personally? What writers have you read whose definitions you want to bring out? Or, if you don’t have a definition, what are some big questions you have?
  • {Day 2} Why It Matters: On Wednesday, February 27, link up at Danielle Vermeer’s blog, fromtwotoone.com, and write about these questions: What is at stake in this discussion? Why is feminism important to you? Are you thinking about your children or your sisters or the people that have come before you? Or, why do you not like the term? What are you concerned we’re not focusing on or we’re losing sight of when we talk about feminism? Why do you feel passionately about this topic?
  • {Day 3} What You Learned: On Thursday, February 28, link up at Preston Yancey’s blog, seeprestonblog.com, and write about these questions: What surprised you this week? What did you take away from the discussion? What blog posts did you find particularly helpful? What questions do you still have?

Palms Up

I’m excited to have a post from my dear friend Mallory Brooks today. I met Mallory my freshman year of college (I guess she would have been a junior) and we’ve been pals ever since. We worked together at a church last summer and usually talked about art or theology or how much we hate every single damn spider in Haiti. It’s been said that she’s the girl version of me. Enjoy!


i can’t tell you how many times i wake up with clenched teeth because… it happens almost every morning.

at first i thought this was just an overflow from stressful dreaming, which happens for me a lot. but, i have realized in the last year that is not the case. i live, far too often & both sleeping and awake, with clenched teeth.

 ever heard of bob goff? i had the privilege to meet and spend time with him a few years ago at malibu club in british columbia. he recently published a book called love does. in it is a series of practical stories on faith, love, and whimsy. it’s fun-loving faithfulness is contagious.

i read love does last summer, on the cusp of huge life transitions and hard times. one chapter in particular really jolted me. and still does, actually.

 it’s called palms up.

do it, right now.

 put your hands on your knees (i’m assuming you’re sitting down while reading this) and put your palms up. breathe deeply. repeat. repeat again. sit in silence and stillness.

 it changes things.

for me, it brings an overflow of Peace. Goodness. Renewal. the kind you have to work to make space for, not the kind that appears effortlessly. it is a relinquishing of control. a surrender to He who is almighty. i could do this perpetually and still want to do it more—that is, remind myself that i am not in control.

bob says it like this, “palms up means you have nothing to hide and nothing to gain or lose. palms up means you are strong enough to be vulnerable, even with your enemies. even when you have been tremendously wronged. jesus was palms up, to the end.”


i am trying to reconcile how much i love this palms up mentality and practice, yet i “clench my teeth” nonstop. life feels like it’s speeding by and i can’t catch up. i have whiplash from my own life. life is happening all around me. i make plans that never last. it’s exhausting. and i have been holding onto these things with white knuckles and clenched teeth. i’m basically telling jesus, ‘this is mine and you can’t have it.’

and, oh how i long to always tell him, ‘i give you this little thing and all the big things. my palms are up. you have control of it all, jesus.’ 

that ‘perfect living,’ however, doesn’t exist here on earth. i long to be Home, where that is the theme of my song always.


 the teeth clenching might not ever go away. the white-knuckling might never go away either. but i can always choose palms up. i can choose that surrender. and i do. i choose you, jesus


 mallory is a lover of all things birthed from love and labor: friendships, art, music, a good meal. she appreciates the smaller things in life: neutral color palettes, cool stamps, paper goods, small businesses, five-minute phone calls, a good cup of tea. most of the time you can find her reading magazines, newspapers, twitter, or novels; cleaning her room; singing in her car; or, cooking for friends.  mallory shares life alongside her bff at twogirlstwocities.com


When Spirituality Becomes a Chore


Today I decided to stop reading through the Bible in a year.

I read through the Bible a few years ago in 365 days and I grew deeply because of it. My roots made their way down into the soil and I found life.

In December, kind of on a whim, I decided I was going to spend 2013 doing the same thing. I stole a Bible from my mom’s bookshelf that was already split into daily readings to complete my journey in a year. It is broken up so each day you read part of the Old Testament, part of the New Testament, part of the Psalms, and part of Proverbs.

And so I set out. And at first it was fine. I was enjoying my time with Moses and the Israelites (Except let’s be honest, sometimes after reading pages and pages and pages of laws, it’s easy to relate to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years), and working my way through the Gospels. But soon the daily reading became a check-list. It became a chore.

Spending time with Scripture became something I dreaded.

I have been reading Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading by Eugene Peterson. My parents had to read it for their doctorate program, and knowing my affinity for books, they were gracious enough to send me a copy.

I’m still in the middle of the book, but I’ve been able to glean a lot of wisdom on how to read scripture. So often I approach the Word with expectations of reading one passage and immediately understanding the implications of that passage. So when I was reading through the Bible in a year, I was skimming these passages I have read before, noticing that nothing new immediately jumped out at me, and then moving on.

I wasn’t studying. I wasn’t searching. I wasn’t seeing what other authors had to say about certain passages. I wasn’t investigating. I wasn’t digging.

Peterson suggests that instead of reading the Bible with self-serving purposes and approaching it like we would the newspaper or any other book, we need to press into what God is saying, and live it out. We need to eat this book. We need to digest it. We need to get life from it.

There is a certain kind of writing that invites this kind of reading, soft purrs and low growls as we taste and savor, anticipate and take in the sweet and spicy, mouth-watering and soul-energizing morsel words.

People spend their entire existence studying and reading and teaching  and writing about these Words, and never seem to reach a point where there is no more to learn. I felt like I had seen it all. Everything felt like old news.

So it’s time for a new approach.

It’s time to put the check list and biblical chore chart away. It’s time to stop feeling guilty over accidentally missing one of the scheduled readings.

It’s time to ask the tough questions and seek answers. It’s time to put things in context. It’s time to chew on these words and swallow them and digest them and find life and vitality and wholeness in them–make these words become part of who we are.

It’s time to discover what life these ancient words are calling us into.

I like how Peterson puts it.

The biblical story invites us in as participants in something larger than our sin-defined needs, into something truer than our culture-stunted ambitions.

So let’s talk. Do you ever have the problem of turning spirituality into a chore? I know I do.




When it come to punctuation, I love the ellipsis. I hardly ever use those three dots, but I love what they stand for.

Intentional omission.

An ellipsis gets rid of the excess words and leaves only what’s relevant.

I’ve been learning lately that less is more. I spent today copy editing articles, cutting out anything that wasn’t a necessary part of the story.

And sometimes that is what lent feels like. Stripping away the extra stuff in life we’ve picked up along the way, the stuff that keeps us from seeing the point of the story.

I’m learning to speak only when it improves upon silence.

Because sometimes the words that aren’t said are more important than the words that are.


Ash Wednesday

Today marks the beginning of lent, a time set apart to intentionally draw closer to God. It is a time of walking closely in communion with our Lord.

What are you giving up for lent?

I’ve been hearing that question a lot today. Sometimes lent feels like it’s been reduced to nothing more than a Christian version of New Year’s resolutions.

Instead, I’ve been asking myself this question from a devotional my mom (jgirl) sent me.

Where in my life have I gotten away from God, and what are the disciplines that will enable me to find my way back?

And so this lent, I will be giving things up. But that’s between me and the Lord.

But I will also be taking things on. Because there are practices and disciplines that stir my affection for Christ, and those are things we should pursue. What stirs your affections for Christ? I’ve found God in these words, and so I will be writing a new post here every day of lent. They may be quiet meditations. They may be loud rants. They may have nothing to do with faith. They may have everything to do with faith. They may seem like they have nothing to do with faith but really they have everything to do with faith.

And I will be praying that prayer that can be so scary to pray, because it’s asking God to make us uncomfortable, to reveal who we really are:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

I heard in a poem that we should tell the truth to get honest responses. And so that’s what I’m going to be trying to do. Tell the whole messy complicated beautiful truth. And maybe we’ll be able to find some real conversation.

Join me?


Steinbeck on Love


I love John Steinbeck. I think his words are timeless and wise and powerful. His novel East of Eden is one of those books that I can’t stop coming back to. It moves me like few things do.

Steinbeck also wrote a ton of letters. This is a letter he wrote to his son about being in love.

New York

November 10, 1958

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.



Now go read East of Eden. 


I didn’t go to church this morning.


I didn’t go to church this morning.

I haven’t gone in a couple weeks, actually.

When I was in high school I was surrounded by people who made me feel guilty if I didn’t go to church every Sunday, but I don’t feel that guilt anymore. I found that the people who made me feel guilty also seemed to be the people who confine God to a building on a Sunday morning. He’s so much more than that.

I love the church. I really do. So many 20-somethings have been abused and hurt and feel so much anger towards the church, but I don’t. I’m not always proud of the church but I love her. But lately I haven’t felt at home in any pews. A year ago this may have scared me, but not today.

I’ve been listening to The Lord of the Rings audiobook. My father and I listened to them when I was little and it’s been fun rediscovering Tolkien on my drives to school in the morning. In The Fellowship of the Ring Tolkien writes

Not all who wander are lost.

I’ve been wandering lately. I realized that my theology had become a prison and not a home. I’ve realized that God is bigger than a building and bigger than a denomination and bigger than a style of worship and definitely bigger than any one pastor. And so I’m trying to discover.

The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.

And so this morning I did church at home.

I woke up and let the sound of brewing coffee be my call to worship.

The lengthy walk down my driveway to pick up the New York Times was my time of confession.

Jon Foreman led me in worship.

And then I read the Word and it was alive in a way it hasn’t been in awhile.

And then I played the songs I used to play in high school when I helped lead worship at church. Except I don’t have any callouses on my fingers anymore so the guitar strings are painful.

Somebody asked me recently if I’ve given up on the church.

Absolutely not. Far from it.

I’m reminded of words that my blog-friend Preston Yancey wrote: “How do I explain that it’s not because I think it’s wrong? That I love the Church, that I simply needed an experience with otherness to remind me of why I love Home.”

Not all who wander are lost.

The Lord has brought me to the wilderness and he will meet me in the wilderness.

Have I given up on the church?

Far, far from it.

But I will pour my coffee and go on my walks and read and listen.

And I will sing the doxology.

Because even in a quiet room by myself, those words stand true.


On Prayer (or, “Praying to Jay-Z”)

Sometimes I feel like I’m praying to Jay-Z.

I read a story about a man named David Johnson who came across Jay-Z’s email address 3c66842a020780cf8fde25de50c4ffe4oncpkpand has been sending him emails for several years now. He pours his heart out in these emails. Like a little boy casting a message in a bottle out into the sea, this man types out his hopes and dreams, hits send, and knows they’ll probably never be read.

Except, they’re being read.

Johnson put a tracker on all the emails he sends, and once he started getting the reports back he learned his emails were being read and reread, sometimes staying open for 20 minutes at a time. Not only that, but the locations of where the emails were being opened from corresponded with where Jay-Z was publicly known to be. If Jay was playing a show in France, the email was opened from an iPhone in Paris. On November 25, 2010, Jay-Z was scheduled to play a show with U2. Two days before, one of Johnson’s emails was opened in Auckland.

Johnson tried to have his emails published into book form, but the publisher had one requirement: He had to get Jay-Z to respond.

And so he continued sending emails, even explaining his situation. The emails were opened, but Jay, or whoever was reading the emails, stayed silent.

Johnson felt betrayed; when he needed Jay most, Jay stood silent.

Sometimes I feel like I’m praying to Jay-Z.

I say my prayers, but sometimes as far as I can tell, God stands silent.

I want growth and I want answers. I want them to happen on my terms. Like Johnson believing Jay-Z owes him a response, I find myself becoming bitter and feeling betrayed.

I don’t think the problem is God though. My perception of what prayer is and what prayer isn’t needs a paradigm shift.

A mentor recently reminded me of the four parts of prayer.

1. Us talking.

2. God listening.

3. God talking.

4. Us listening. 

When I think of prayer I think of the words I speak. I think of the things I ask for. I used to even think the more eloquent or clever my prayers were, the more God would be interested. Subconsciously, I probably still think this.

I never considered that maybe God wants to talk back.

Or even more, he wants us to listen.

And so now I turn my phone off. I close my laptop and put my books away. If I had a lock on my door I would lock it but unfortunately I don’t. I light candles because that’s just the kind of person I am. And I wait and I listen. And sometimes it’s easy. And then some days I wait and I wait and I wait and I fall asleep or I get distracted and I get frustrated about my lack of focus. I have a problem with being too hard on myself.

But that’s a different, longer story.

And so I will continue to wait because relationships aren’t easy. Because communicating with others can be a challenge. Why should I expect this to be any different?






Tyler S. Anthony.


This is a picture of one of my roommates, Tyler Anthony. Well, it’s a picture of his back. And my initials, which he got tattooed on his back last weekend. To make a strange story short, suffice it to say Tyler is a man of his word. And when he says he will get your initials tattooed on his back, he’s going to do it.

It’s a ridiculous tattoo, but I’m incredibly honored.

Because Tyler is the best gatherer of people I’ve ever met. He loves recklessly, dreams boldly, and pursues passions with abandon. His spirit is contagious.

Don Cheadle said, “I think it’s intoxicating when somebody is so unapologetically who they are.”

Tyler is Tyler, for better or worse. 95% of the time we love him. Sometimes we hate him, but that usually just has to do with the fact that his hair is outrageously long and unkempt and he tends to shed.

The concept of having my initials on someone like Tyler’s back made me feel a healthy pressure. This is his way of saying he believes in me, and I want to live up to that.

The idea of permanence is a powerful thing.

Tyler is living a great story right now. Check out some of the music he makes with his band Cereus Bright. Also, here’s a video my favorite song he has written:

All his tunes are pretty dang good. Do yourself a favor and listen.

Tyler, I’ve got nothing but love for you my man.

P.S. – if anyone else wants my initials tattooed on their body, I’ll pay for it! And say kind things about you! You won’t regret it.




This is my family at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. They gave me this picture from one of the trips we went on and wrote incredibly kind words on the frame after I interned there in 2011.

They are absolutely nuts.

In one summer at Covenant I met some of the greatest people I know, people I have massive amounts of respect for, people who have mentored me and shared their wisdom and invested in my life.

This weekend I got to crash Covenant’s winter retreat and it was just what I needed. This semester has started strong, but I can feel this sense of wandering that’s growing in me. Like every other college kid, I’m trying to figure out what’s next.

From the second I walked through the door I was being filled with encouragement and affirmation. The weekend was all about catching up with old friends and making some new ones. Also, I danced harder than I have in a long time. Covenant kids know how to throw a dance party. They’re the coolest group of middle schoolers and high schoolers I’ve ever met. I have learned way more from them than they have learned from me. No doubt.

The theme for the weekend was on Jonah and running from God, something I know more about than I am happy to admit. I felt like I was hearing the story fresh for the first time again.

After the dance party, after everyone went to bed, the men at the retreat congregated in one cabin and I got to experience what Proverbs 27:17 means when it talks about iron sharpening iron. There was about 10 of us, ranging from a couple college students to an elder in the church with 5 kids. The older guys shared their experiences with marriage and life and the nature of love. I got to sit there and soak in loads of wisdom like a sponge. I was hanging on every word being said. We closed with the doxology. A group of men sitting in a cabin in the woods, fighting this fight together, singing the doxology, is a beautiful thing that is hard to explain with words.

Covenant, you bless me eternally and significantly. I am beyond thankful for my family in Birmingham. I’ll see you real soon.


heroes die

What I think about the Armstrong doping scandal might be the most inconsequential thing I could write about. But many have asked my thoughts, so here they are:

In an interview with Oprah, Lance Armstrong admitted that he used performance enhancing drugs throughout his entire cycling career.

Sometimes, we watch our heroes die.

I don’t have much to say about Lance except that I’m disappointed and I would still argue that he’s the greatest cyclist who has ever lived. He’s also a narcissist with a god-complex. And he’s done more for the sport of cycling than anyone else before him. And for the cancer community.

And yeah, he cheated. He lied and hurt a lot of people. He needs Jesus. Just like I do. Because I know I’m capable of everything he did.

In his interview with Oprah, he hardly seemed contrite. There was very little remorse. He was giving off the vibe that he was simply out of options. If he hadn’t gotten caught, he wouldn’t have confessed.

Something I kept thinking about while watching the interview was how upset everyone is about one man’s moral failings. The uproar and hate directed at Lance is astounding. Yet children die every minute from hunger, genocides are carried out, people are murdered, and largely, we are silent. Just a thought.

I think Lance’s story is sad. And after this I probably won’t talk about it anymore because there’s really nothing worth saying. I have no respect for him. And I love him. I don’t know.

All I know is that “Go on a bike ride with Lance Armstrong” is still on my bucket list.

All I know is that if it hadn’t been for him, Christian and I never would have biked across America.

All I know is that there are about 20 clean-water wells in Haiti right now that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Lance Armstrong.



2013: The Year of Dreams

One of my favorite quotes is also one I really hate.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

- Annie Dillard

I love and hate this quote for the same reason: because of how true it rings. Days are parts of a whole, and that whole is our life. This is a call to use every day wisely, but it is also a scary reality because yesterday I didn’t get out of my pajamas. I thought about writing. I thought about going for a run. I thought about trying a new recipe. I thought about finally reading that book on my bookshelf. But in the end, I didn’t do anything. I spent the day sitting around in my pajamas, then drank a margarita and watched a movie.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Looking back on 2012, it was a fairly inconsequential year. I made a lot of excuses and wasted a lot of time.

2013 is going to be the year of dreams. It’s going to be the year of chasing dreams recklessly and risking vulnerability and failure.

One of my roommates is Tyler Anthony. He has long hair and a long beard and sometimes people mistake him for Jesus or think he’s homeless. He’s pursuing a music career and we’ve been talking a lot about dreams lately. We arrived at one question:

Why Not?

Why not put everything on the line and jump in. Everyone has passions, and everyone has excuses for letting those passions take the back seat. We’re determined to spend this year pursuing our own dreams, and encouraging and helping others to chase their dreams. 

Ask yourself this question: If you weren’t afraid of failing, what would you do? Once you’ve asked yourself that question, DO IT. Because the worst that can happen is you fail and you learn. It is time to name and claim what we want to be. I’ve found the best way to complete a goal is to make it public. Freshman year, when I started marathon training, I signed up for the marathon before training even started, then tweeted that I was running a marathon. I asked people to ask me how my training was going. Whenever I didn’t want to get off my futon to go run, all I had to do was remember that later that day someone was going to ask how my run was. Accountability.

So what does this look like for me? Well, you’ll be seeing a lot more posts on here. I won’t just save my words for the couple times a year when I am burning to write about a topic. Is there anything you want me to write about? Just let me know. I have also been working on a project with my pal Evan that we should be ready to reveal soon. This semester I will be the editorial intern at Cityview Magazine in Knoxville. There are still a lot of questions marks surrounding my summer plans, but there are some really cool possibilities that I’m working through. Also, I picked up my old hobby of knitting again today.

In 2013, ask yourself, why not? What’s holding you back? I hope that none of you get to the end of your life and have to ask, “What if?”

We are ships made to set sail. The sea may be dangerous and scary, but it can take us where we want to go.


light & dark

I’ve been thinking a lot about light and dark. I’ve been thinking a lot about juxtaposition.

Juxtaposition: 1) an act or instance of placing close together or side by side, especially to compare or contrast. 2) the state of being close together or side by side. 

On Christmas Eve, I woke up in the guest bedroom of my parent’s new home in Connecticut, and started my day with this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Light and dark. Some days it’s hard to believe that the darkness has not overcome the light.

On December 14 darkness invaded Newtown, Connecticut. Darkness forced its way into an elementary school, a place of innocence and safety and dreams and hope and light, and unleashed an unspeakable evil.

Newtown is a beautiful city. It is classic New England: winding roads, farmhouses, little inns. It’s serene. The street leading downtown, Church Hill Road, is the kind of place where you’d expect everyone to know your name.

Driving into Newtown is a surreal experience. The memorials start miles out. A “pray for
Newtown” sign on the highway. A ribbon on a tree. Groups of stuffed animals lining the roads. The streets are clogged with traffic, which would be normal on Christmas Eve, except these people are not out frantically finishing last minute shopping. They’re making their way to the memorials near Sandy Hook Elementary. Police officers are everywhere. Local diners hang signs reading “No Media” in their windows. The air literally gets heavier. A supreme sadness reigns and it’s tangible and it’s dark and it is hard to find a place to emotionally file it all.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

The road leading up to Sandy Hook Elementary is completely blocked off, but at the end of the street, next to the firehouse we heard so much about on the news, is a memorial–Christmas trees; one for each life lost. The Christmas trees are beautiful and decorated with ornaments and surrounded by stuffed animals and cards literally from all around the world. And so I’m thinking about juxtaposition. Beauty and light in the midst of pain and darkness.

It is crowded and there are lots of tears shed and people who are there for the same reason I am: to try to understand.

Darkness visited this community, and the world has responded with light. Someone bought coffee for the entire city; when you can’t be there to comfort someone, or when words fail, the next best thing is to buy them a cup of coffee. We overheard a police officer talking about how much food had been sent to the police station. People walk up and thank the officers. Newtown is a place of divine kindness.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

My journalistic curiosity gets the best of me and I drive to Adam Lanza’s home. The house is in an affluent neighborhood full of big homes and smiling young families going for walks together, passing the caution tape and police car blocking the driveway. The house is decorated for Christmas. There’s a wooden playground where Adam used to play.

I’m thinking about Christmas Eve and the meaning of it all, and I’m thinking about December 14 and the meaning of it all, and as I drive out of Newtown I pass a sign with a simple message: “Overcome evil with good today.”

As I sit in the Christmas Eve church service I think about this juxtaposition. I’m thinking about Christ, a beautiful savior, being born in a dirty manger. I’m thinking about the King’s death on a bloody cross. I’m listening to words of hope and healing and encouragement and light. And I’m hearing these words but I’m also watching the woman in front of me have seizures while her husband and teenage daughter hold her by the arms so she doesn’t fall over and hurt herself. I’m listening to her husband whisper her name in her ear, trying to call her back to herself, and I’m watching her daughter’s face–quiet tears rolling down her cheeks–and I’m reminded that this isn’t the way things are meant to be.

The service ends and as we walk outside into the darkness, snow begins to fall covering everything in white. My family goes home and we celebrate Christ’s birth and eat fondue and shrimp and drink wine and bourbon and I’m trying to make sense of it all and I can hear sirens off in the distance and I think about where those sirens are heading and I’m trying so hard to believe.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly.


Cort, Elsewhere

Some of my words showed up on Preston Yancey’s blog today. Check out the rest of his writing if you want to enjoy thoughtful and gracious writing on life and faith with a whole lot of searching.


Something I wrote for the good people at Relevant Magazine got published today. Check it out here.


When 8 guys watch Downton Abbey…

Downton Abbey season 3 has officially begun over in England. Everyone who lives in my house is hopelessly in love with this show. We introduced 2 of our new roommates to Downton Abbey about a week and a half ago and we blazed through the first two seasons so we could all be ready to watch season 3 together. 

I noticed that when 8 guys are watching Downton Abbey, the commentary gets a little ridiculous.

I thought some of the things being said were funny enough to write down, so I grabbed my laptop and began transcribing some of the comments, without their knowledge.

All quotes will be anonymous to protect the reputation of the speaker.

What happens when 8 guys watch Downton Abbey:

“So he’s at war the whole season? WAIT DON’T TELL ME.”

“Is that Bear Grylls?”

“Gosh, I just love this music.”

“I can feel the tension of this being another season, ya know?”

“What happened? That was a little too wordy for me.”

“What a stand up guy.”

“That was epic.”

“OH! Another sassy red head!”

“I’m glad the characters are all the same.”


Person 1: “I want to meet this fiance of Matthews…”

Person 2: “I bet she’s going to be great. Or terrible.”

Person 1: “We’ll find out. She might be amazing.”

“Oh, she is CUTE!”

“Is that Cereus Bright?”

“She puts on a face. A hot one.”

“Oh my gosh, my heart ya’ll, my heart.”

“I don’t like her as much as Mary. Sorry about it.”

“I want Matthew and Mary to bone so bad. And marriage.”

“Oh my gosh, that blindsided me.”

“you can tell man, they just want to rip into each other.”

“I love their jokes.”

“I’ve lost all respect. Respect and trust…out the window. He’s forgiven, but I’ve just lost trust.”

“I want someone to treat me like that. Cort?”

“That’s a BIG baby.”

“I would just NOT let her marry him.”

“Oh he is so for Mary.”

“There ya go smoking again. It’s all he does; he just smokes every scene.”

“Oh my gosh, I’ve waited for that kiss for like….oh my gosh.”

“That baby should be older based on how many months have passed.”

“She’s got a fire to her.”

“So many rooms bro!”

“That was just great acting.”

“That was so sweet.”

“I want to be their kids. Could you imagine them being your parents?”

“Man, that really makes me want to go to war.”

“Mary–at first I didn’t think she was that pretty, but now she’s become really pretty. I guess knowing her has changed that.”

“Ugh why is this so good? I just love it more and more.”

“Oh. Wow.”

“Is he married or is that his sister?”

“He had a crazy look in his eye.”


“She’s quality.”

“Those sad strings go to town on my heart.”

“Man, she spazzed out this episode.”

“Who’s that maid? like where did she come from?”

“Gosh, I just hate it, Mary, say what you need to say!”





Our friend David

A recent episode of This American Life featured stories from the late writer David Rakoff. The final act of the show was a story Rakoff wrote completely in rhyming couplets.

The story is about a scorpion trying to convince a tortoise to let him ride on the tortoise’s shell across the river. The tortoise refuses, knowing the scorpion will probably kill him with his poison. After some convincing, the tortoise agrees, and moments after they start to make their way across the river, the scorpion stings the tortoise, causing them both to sink to the bottom of the river and perish. The scorpion tells the tortoise that he just can’t help but sting.

The tortoise was wrong to ignore all his doubts —

Because in the end, friends, our natures win out.


When I listened to that I felt very hopeless. I was gripping the steering wheel of me car more tightly than usual. Rakoff goes on:

We’re creatures of contact, regardless of whether

we kiss or we wound. Still, we must come together.

Though it may spell destruction, we still ask for more —

since it beats staying dry but so lonely on shore.

So we make ourselves open while knowing full well

it’s essentially saying, “please, come pierce my shell.


People hurt each other. We can’t escape it. I have the tendency to want to retreat, to put up my walls, to avoid conflict. That’s a really sad way to live though. You can only protect yourself so much before you find yourself completely isolated. At some point we have to acknowledge that someone can hurt us, and in the face of that, look at them and say, “please, come pierce my shell.”

any thoughts on this?


You might also be interested in:


1) The full audio of the scorpion and the tortoise. 


2) “That old saying, how you always hurt the one you love, well, it works both ways.” – Fight Club

3) This song is brilliant and fitting.

What Anne Taught Me

Much of what I am about to say comes from Anne Lammott’s fantastic book “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” Even if you don’t want to write, read this book. It will make you a better human being.

Anne Lammott is my writing teacher. She doesn’t know she is, but she is. In my head we have reached an agreement: I get to read all of her books, pick up every ounce of writing wisdom I can glean from her, and she never has to know I exist. I will never set foot in her classroom, but nonetheless, she is my teacher.

I would love to share some of the things my favorite teacher has taught me over the years.

1) Being published is not all it’s cracked up to be. 

I can vouch for this one personally. At the beginning of my sophomore year I somehow stumbled my way into the position of being a freelance writer for Knoxville’s main newspaper. This was, at best, a low position; unenviable might even be the right word. But as a 19 year old journalism student, I was one step closer to being Bob Woodward. It was beautiful, really. I went to the newspaper’s office and met with a photographer to take my picture for my byline (I had a byline!), picked up my press badge (I had a press badge!), chatted with my editor (I had an editor!) and proudly began my role as a freelance writer.

(aside: there is something so wonderfully powerful about the word “freelance.”)

I wrote whatever my editor asked me to. Sometimes it was columns. Sometimes it was features. But it was always fluff. Nothing I’m proud of. I was racking up clippings at a fairly good rate, and for a journalism student, that is everything.

I got an issue of the first newspaper I was published in, brought it back to my car and searched through it with the same anticipation Charlie must have felt as he opened his chocolate bars.

There it was. My name. My picture. My words. Someone had paid me to do this. heaven opened up and divine light shone down on me. I stared at my phone waiting for Anderson Cooper to call insisting he needs me in New York to help him with AC360.

Later that night I saw a mildly unfavorable comment about what I wrote. I contemplated driving to my parent’s house and hiding in a closet, or at the very least going door to door collecting each and every issue throughout the city of Knoxville and instigating a newspaper burning bonfire in the middle of Market Square. The flames would be visible for miles. “Keep moving, nothing to see here,” I’d say, “just hopes and dreams being incinerated.”

Then a strange thing happened. I got my next assignment. It was even more lame than the previous one, but I sat down with pen and paper and began to write. I was going to willingly put myself through the complicated emotions of joy, horror and self-loathing that comes with being published.

The lesson I learned: it very quickly stopped being about getting published, but about actually writing.

Anne says it so eloquently: “I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part.”

2) Shitty first drafts

I used to think my favorite writers would sit down at their typewriters, start hammering away, and suddenly East of Eden pops out. This is not the case. There is nothing easy about producing a quality piece of work.

Anne tells a story about her friend, a writer, who sits down every day and says to himself, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do — you can either type or kill yourself.”

I once asked a journalism professor how to be successful in the industry. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Don’t get into writing unless you absolutely need to.”

It’s hard. It really is. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything great, but I think I’ve written some decent stuff. Every single thing I have ever written, every term paper or journal entry, has started out as a horrible first draft. There’s no way around it. It’s encouraging that this is the reality for pretty much every writer.

Anne says it like this: The first draft you write like a child. Just get everything down on paper, no matter how terrible. The second draft you write as an adult. You clean it up and make it okay. The third draft you write as a dentist. Go tooth by tooth, or word by word, cleaning up all of the details.

Show yourself some grace and write really terrible first drafts. No one ever has to see them.

3) The hardest part is just doing it.

It’s easy to read books about writing and talk about it; it’s really hard to sit your butt on the chair and actually do it. It takes time. It takes effort. It’s not always fun. No one is a writer until they declare themselves one and start to write.

Pablo Picasso said inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.

Your best ideas will happen when you are exercising your brain, just like any other muscle. You have to constantly be applying yourself and learn to master the tools you were given. I could read about building a table all day. I could even talk about it intelligently. But until I get my hands dirty and build myself a table, I am not a carpenter. It’s the same with writing. Claim it, and be it.

Possibly the most important thing Anne has done for me is point me towards this quotation from Ram Dass:

“We’re all just walking each other home.”

Let that one sit in your brain for awhile.

Thanks Anne.


Removing The Masks

I’ve heard that your writing doesn’t start until you begin to tell the truth. Let’s just consider this the first thing I’ve ever written, and move on from here.

He wakes up in the morning and gets ready for the day, being sure to carefully put on his mask. He hides behind his books, his brains, his words, his quick wit, and subtle sense of humor, hoping that none of his fears or insecurities will stick out like an oversized undershirt.

He’s not the only one wearing a mask — everyone is really — but he wears his exceptionally well. The transition between what’s real and fake is fluid and seamless.

You see, the mask makes things easier. It used to be a device to keep people at a distance. He’s aggressively opposed to being truly known, probably because he’s doubtful of whether he even truly knows himself. Lately the mask has transformed into something else entirely; something more dangerous. It’s no longer a way to hide from others, but a way to hide from himself. At night the room gets quiet and the mask falls off. Reality.

Is anyone out there?

Some nights he doesn’t think so.

He has faith. He always has. But lately his faith looks a lot less like a city on a hill and a lot more like a candle’s lone flame trying with all its might not to get blown out by the wind.

He’s a leader. Since preschool, he’s been hearing that all his life. “People look up to you.” He leads bible studies and has worked at churches. He gets asked for advice. There are expectations and a reputation. People ask what it’s like to have life figured out, but he has no idea what the hell they’re talking about.

Some days, he’s a nominal Christian and a practicing agnostic.

The performance has left him tired. He looked in the mirror once and thought he saw a grey hair, but it was probably just the light playing tricks — he’s only 20 after all, just old enough to begin to realize he doesn’t know everything. Making sure his theological I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed all the time has taken its toll; his beliefs have begun to feel more like a prison than a home; colorless concrete walls exist where a hearth and warm fireplace used to rest. He sees others outside, enjoying the sun and the joy. They come to the cellar door and invite him to come out and play, but sometimes he can’t seem to find the strength in his legs to walk out the door. If life is a novel, then purposeful disobedience is one of his motifs. Everything is intellectual in the worst possible way. He’s not sure how to articulate this while maintaining his image. God isn’t scared of his doubt, so why should he be?

Someone told him institutions can become shackles, and that’s starting to make a little sense.

He’s been far too reckless with people who have cared about him; “I’m sorry” is not an uncommon sentiment these days. That’s all behind him though. He read a book a long time ago about people who don’t have a conscience, and for awhile he was afraid he was one of them. It’s clear now that isn’t true.

He used to smoke cigarettes occasionally, but for the life of him he couldn’t tell you why. It must have been an image thing, or something equally immature.

His parents are moving to a different state, but he hasn’t lived at home in a couple years so that’s kind of whatever.

He wants to remove the mask and just be, but he’s not entirely sure what that would even look like. Honestly, he knows it’s time to start trying. Honesty. That’s an interesting idea. It’s worth a shot.

He believes healing is happening, and there’s relief in that.

He can’t wait to feel again — to recover the passion apathy slowly engulfed like a cigarette starting a house fire.

He wishes he could have written this in the first-person.





Frank Ocean

My favorite album this year, so far, has been Frank Ocean’s debut “Channel Orange.” The hype around this album was huge, and it blew my expectations out of the water. Mr. Ocean – who gained fame for lending his vocals on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s collaborative album “Watch the Throne,” writing for some of the biggest names in music, and being part of hip-hop collective Odd Future – is a young guy with loads of talent and something to say.

As this New York Times article says, it seems like Frank Ocean is creating his own gravity.

A few days before his album came out, he wrote a blog post describing a time in his life when he fell in love with a man and experienced unrequited love. That’s a pretty bold thing to do in the hip-hop industry right before your debut album is scheduled to drop. The post was so beautifully written that I have to insist you read it right now.

My favorite song on the album is called “Bad Religion.” My boy Andrew Owens showed me this video of him performing it live, and I think everyone should watch it. His voice. His lyrics. It’s all gold.


Writing advice from Sally Lloyd-Jones

My friend Mallory brought this article by Sally Lloyd-Jones to my attention, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that. It’s too good not to share.

I used to think my self-doubt and insecurity about writing were signs of my profound humility. It felt noble and heroic to be this full of agonizing self-doubt. It felt lowly and meek to be so tortured about whether or not I could write. I could almost hear the soundtrack and the violins. If there’d been open, windswept moors nearby, I’d have been on them.

But that’s the thing about pride. It hides itself.

The more I go on, the more I realize, it’s entirely the other way round. Our self-doubt and insecurity don’t reveal our humility; they mask our pride.

When you’re doubting whether you can do it, whether you’re a good writer, you’re looking to yourself, what you can do, what resources you have. You’re focused entirely inwardly, on yourself.

It’s pride because it means you think it’s all about you.

But if you realize it’s not about you — that whatever you have is a gift from God — if, in other words, you get out of the way — then you can be fearless. There is no vision too great, nothing too outrageous to dream, nothing too impossible to dare.

Peter looked at Jesus and walked on water; he looked down at his feet, at the waves and sank.

God conscious. Or self-conscious?

Or what about that little boy and his too-small lunch: he could look at his lunch (not nearly enough) and worry (how on earth will it feed 5,000?). Or he could look up at Jesus and give him what he had.

Which takes more humility?

If you believe, as Madeleine L’Engle believed, that your writing is not so much about control as it is about trust, you will be bolder, braver, more able to take risks — and your writing will become more like faith.

It’s no longer about you and what you can do. You do the hard work of writing, you practice your craft, you show up. But you become servant to the story. And the story is cleverer and bigger than you are. Your job is to get out of the way and let the story through.

I’m learning that God wants his children to operate out of freedom and joy. Martin Luther said: “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger.”

So I continue showing up at my desk every day, a sinner struggling with self-doubt. But I’m learning to call it what it is — pride.

And I’m learning that my job is to simply give what little I have to God — my not nearly enough — and let him do The Impossible Thing. I’m learning to keep my eyes off the waves and fix them on him.

And I’m learning to ask not, “Am I a good writer?” but instead ask, “Am I telling a good story?”

The first is pride.

The second is just good storytelling.


Let’s trust, and start to tell some good stories.



Me too, Charlie, me too.

The Newsroom

Regardless of how you feel about Aaron Sorkin’s (The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, The Social Network) new HBO show The Newsroom, this is pretty awesome.


Telepathy and Time Travel

I recently moved to a new house. As I was packing my books, I stumbled across an old journal of mine from a few years ago. I found some pretty silly things hidden in its pages, but I thought one thing in particular was pretty funny, so I thought I’d share.

A glimpse into the Cort Gatliff of 2006, my freshman year of high school.

I went into a bookstore and started looking at a section that contained old journals and private letters written by famous authors, thinkers, politicians, etc. Things that were never meant to be published. It got me thinking: what if one day, long after I die, this very journal is published, my heart and mind packaged nicely into a display between the fiction and photography sections of a Barnes & Noble. By saying this, I am assuming I will lead a life that will make people desperately desire to know my private thoughts. This type of arrogance is astounding; the height of hubris. The thought of anyone’s private journal being published makes me self-conscious. Are we really writing just for ourselves anymore? This makes me uneasy. How will this possibility, no matter how faint, change the way I think about the words in these pages. Surely, I won’t be as honest with myself. And if I’m not being honest, what’s the point of anything anymore. I think I’ll just crawl under the covers.

But now I’m getting a good laugh thinking about you, the reader. You get to witness me debate if I would want this published…while you’re holding a published copy! But I’m starting to see some larger implications here – implications about writing in general. If you’re reading a published copy, I’m assuming it is at least, at the very minimum, 50 years after I am writing this. If that’s the case, then right now I am putting thoughts in your head, my thoughts to be exact, even though they are thoughts that were thought 50 years ago. This brings me to an astounding conclusion: if my thoughts from years ago are entering your head, then I have achieved both time travel and telepathy. Think about it: you are thinking thoughts I thought decades ago. That’s pretty special. There’s a lot of power in that. This may have ruined journal writing for me forever.

I was so damn weird.


Thou Shalt Instagram

The rise of social media in the past decade has done a lot of things, both negative and positive, for society. Social media has a terrifying amount of power; it can ruin careers, and it can create celebrities overnight.

Christians quickly realized that social media could be used as a ministry tool. Sharing God’s love from afar used to be as simple as posting a verse (something uncontroversial, like John 3:16) as a facebook status. A relatively new form of social media has created an entirely new way to share your faith.


This photo-sharing application was created in 2010 and recently purchased for a cool $1 billion by facebook. It has become the way to share pictures of where you’ve been and what you’re doing, all while filtering the image to make you appear to be a better photographer than you actually are.

A new trend I have noticed is people posting a picture of their “quiet time.” Now, I fully support getting into the Word, so I am going to give you some tips on how to take the best instagram of your time with Jesus; one that will prove your holiness and spread the good news of the Gospel!

How to effectively instagram your quiet time

1) This may seem obvious, but every quiet time instagram photo must have a bible in it. This is non-negotiable. When it comes to bibles, the bigger the better. The number of footnotes and ancient Greek translations visible in the shot is directly proportional to how far along you are in your process of sanctification. Almost as important as the bible itself is to make sure that multiple verses are either underlined or highlighted. (For best results, make sure the verse is underlined and highlighted.) Everyone needs to know just how seriously you take your bible reading.

2) Besides the bible, what’s the second most important book to a Christian? If you guessed a journal, then you are correct! The placement of a journal in a photo is a precise art with several steps.

  • Open up your journal (preferably Moleskin) to pages that are completely filled with words; it helps if the ink is slightly smudged. This ensures everyone will see your cup is overflowing so aggressively you can barely get the words onto the page.
  • Place your journal next to your bible. Never let your journal be the center of the shot. You may be smart, but your words are not more important than the Word of God, so don’t give off that impression, you Pharisee.
  • Remove the cap from your favorite pen (personally, I usually use Sharpie pens) and lay the pen diagonal across the page. As a prayer warrior, your pen is your sword. Having it uncapped indicates you are ready to do battle with the spiritual forces of darkness by journaling a prayer at a moments notice.

If you’re bold enough, you may even choose a filter that doesn’t blur the words, so if one were determined to do so, they could zoom in and read the wisdom that has been pouring out of you onto the page. 

3) If you really want to seem literary you will have another book in your photo. Only the spine of this book should be visible. You may even find your spouse this way:

Member of the opposite sex: “Hey, I saw on your instagram that you’re reading that new Tim Keller book.”

You: “The Meaning of Marriage? I am indeed! would you like to get coffee and talk about reformed theology?”

Member of the opposite sex: “Of course! Then let’s get married.”

You: “No I’m sorry, not right away. True love waits!”

Whatever you do, do not include a controversial book, or your conversation will probably go like this:

Member of the opposite sex: “Hey, I saw on your instagram that you’re reading Love Wins by Rob Bell. You’re a heretic. John Piper said so.”

You: “I just wanted to check it out, see what all the fuss was about.”

Member of the opposite sex: “I can’t even talk to you until you read The Meaning of Marriage. Reread Wild at Heart too, just for safe measure. Thanks. Goodbye.”

4) If spending time in fellowship with the Holy Spirit isn’t enough to jolt you awake in those early hours of the morning, you probably need a shot of espresso. Coffee is the equivalent of cocaine for Christians. Significant portions of church budgets are diverted to create coffee shops right there in the church; you don’t ever have to come in contact with the heathens at the coffee shop down the street again!

Put a trendy mug in your instagram photo to take it to the next level. Everyone will know that you just can’t function in the morning without your cup of coffee (maybe 2 cups?). There is something endearing about that. Try to capture the steam coming off the coffee to conjure images of the Holy Spirit visiting the apostles in the form of fire on their heads during Pentacost.

Next to the mug, it might be a good idea to have your french press. The french press will show just how serious you are about coffee. You choose quality over convenience. You have higher standards.

5) Have you found a place outside to pray that rivals Jesus’ favorite venue, the Garden of Gathsemane? It’s always nice to show off the secret spot you go to spend time with the Lord, so take advantage of your instagram and try to work some nature into the background. If he has made you lie down in green pastures, or led you beside still waters, show us! Or give us a glimpse of the sunrise to show the beauty of God’s creation and reveal how early you arose for your quiet time.

6) If you’re feeling really confident, you can always turn on the backlight of your ipod for the photo, illuminating to the entire world what you listen to while you spend time with Jesus. Of course, it shouldn’t be worship music. That would be alittle too much of a Jesus overdose. It will probably be something like Mumford and Sons or U2 – music full of faith-based themes, yet secular enough (they use bad words sometimes!) to prove that you have freedom in Christ to enjoy art that isn’t explicitly “Christian.”


There you have it. Follow these basic steps and you’ll be converting so many of your friends you won’t know what to do!


You might also be interested in:

Matthew 6:1-6 (The Message)

The World is not a Stage

1 “Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding. 2-4“When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—’playactors’ I call them— treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.

Pray with Simplicity

5“And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?

6“Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.



Eulogy To A Hell Of A Dame

a beautiful poem by the magnificent Charles Bukowski. The last line is especially powerful.

some dogs who sleep At night
must dream of bones
and I remember your bones
in flesh
and best
in that dark green dress
and those high-heeled bright
black shoes,
you always cursed when you drank,
your hair coming down you
wanted to explode out of
what was holding you:
rotten memories of a
past, and
you finally got
by dying,
leaving me with the
you’ve been dead
28 years
yet I remember you
better than any of
the rest;
you were the only one
who understood
the futility of the
arrangement of
all the others were only
displeased with
trivial segments,
nonsensically about
Jane, you were
killed by
knowing too much.
here’s a drink 
to your bones 
this dog 
dreams about.


On Story

On Story (or, “How The Bachelorette pointed me towards the meta-narrative of scripture”)

I love The Bachelorette.

 I don’t “like” it ironically. I don’t watch it to make fun of it. I watch it because I legitimately enjoy it. I can name all of the men currently still in the running to win Emily Maynard’s heart. I can tell you who has no shot, and I can tell you who will probably win. Let me make something clear:

I am not proud of this. 

Watching men “compete” for a woman while she indulges in glorified, television-sanctioned infidelity goes against everything I believe about love.

And yet every monday night I watch – even worse, I have gotten my friends hooked too – and try to predict how the drama will unfold. I am ashamed of this. The Bachelorette may very well be the thorn in my side, my cross to bear.

I had to get to the bottom of why I enjoy this show. I had a feeling that understanding why I like this show would reveal a lot about who I am.

I have a friend in medical school named Evan. (He actually graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering, but decided he wanted to be a doctor. My boy is wicked smart. He will literally be a rocket scientist/brain surgeon. He’s not a doctor yet, but from this point on I will refer to him as Dr. Evan.) I was trying to explain to him why he should give The Bachelorette a fair shot. He made it clear that he simply would never like it. Wanting to better understand the strange affinity I have for a degrading television show, he and I entered into a dialogue about why I might like it. I had my theories, he had his. Then Dr. Evan said something that I believe reveals an important truth about who I am as a human being:

I was drinking coffee at Panera and had to put my phone down and think as soon as I read this because I sensed that Dr. Evan was catching on to something huge.This little dollop of truth blew me away and has been rattling around in my brain for a few days now. First, let me give you a good definition of empathy.

So what Dr. Evan was saying (keep in my mind that this is a guy who knows me very well), is that I have a tendency to allow myself to connect with characters of all sorts. I don’t observe characters; I feel what they feel. I allow myself to mentally go all in with characters. I dive in head first, holding nothing back (many of you may notice this is also how I tend to live my life). Sometimes this tendency gets misdirected, and I end up emotionally involved with trash entertainment like The Bachelorette. (I also read all 4 books in the Twilight series. Again, I am NOT arguing for quality here, but I did find myself sucked into the story, unfortunately. This revelation of being indiscriminately empathetic explains why though, which is a relief – finally I have something to blame!)

So what does this mean exactly? My mind connects things and searches for meaning. I have always known that. I am constantly looking for symbols and metaphors. When I drive by a car crash on the highway I am incapable of passing by and forgetting about it; it sticks with me all day. I want to know what happened. I want to know who was involved. I want to know about their lives. I want to know who they love. I want to know who got the call to come to the hospital. I begin to invent stories in my head.


I realized the truth Dr. Evan stumbled upon really boiled down to one thing:

I am ferociously hungry for stories. 

I have been delving in the study of “story” for about a year now. My brain desperately searches for narratives to understand and process the way the world works, often times inventing a story where one does not exist. I am fascinated with what is really going on, or even what might be going on. For example: I drove by a veteran’s memorial cemetery near my house and saw a young woman sprawled out on the grass in front of a headstone. I couldn’t stop thinking about her all day. I wanted to know more about her and whose grave she was visiting. I saw a Starbucks barista come into Panera to get coffee and, with no indication that this was the scenario, began to imagine that he had recently gotten into an argument with his boss and this was his quiet rebellion (because don’t we all need to rebel sometimes?). I invent stories.

But what is a story really?

Donald Miller defines story this way:

“Story: When a character wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”

This definition can be applied to every single story.

Whether it’s Frodo wanting to destroy the ring, Harry wanting to rid the wizarding world of Voldemort, or Emily Maynard wanting to find “love” on a mostly-scripted reality show, every story has a character who wants something and has to overcome conflict to get it.

I have always enjoyed sports, but never really cared. My day has never been ruined because my team lost. This year’s NBA finals have been a little different though because I started to view it as more than a sporting event; it’s a story.

Characters like LeBron James and Kevin Durant fighting to win the title creates unscripted drama that is fascinating to watch. It’s so much more than what happens on the court –  it’s the personalities involved, it’s the history of the teams and players, it’s the fans. It’s dramatic. It’s real.

I began to think about how the concept of story might be applied to scripture, and what I stumbled in to has revolutionized the way I read and study the Bible. I used to view the Bible as a collection of individual books, telling stories that are vaguely related. This is not the case. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is telling one story: the story of Jesus coming to save us.

A character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.

Every book in the Old Testament, every book in the New Testament, is part of a grand story that includes all of creation. When your eyes are opened to this truth you begin to see how everything in the Bible is pointing towards the meta-narritive. God is the master storyteller. Every part of creation echoes the overarching story of a broken world longing for redemption, longing for the wrong to be made right. We like happy endings because we sense, deep within us, that is the way it should be.

Look around you. Every person you meet, every person you see, is telling a story with their lives. Every wrinkle on a face is a novel. Every heartache a chapter. Every scar a tale worth telling.

We are all characters who want something and are overcoming conflict to get it.

You might be telling an exciting story or a boring story, a comedy or a tragedy, a story of hope or a story of fear; maybe you think your story is unimportant or small; maybe your story is one of love, maybe it’s one of hate. Whether you like it or not, we are all telling beautiful, messy stories that have the ability to impact the world in massive ways.

We are all storytellers. The trick is finding out what kind of story you want to tell.


related things:

1. “We all — in the end — die in medias res. In the middle of a story. Of many stories.” – Mona Simpson, during the eulogy she delivered at her brother Steve Job’s funeral.

2. “stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.” – Madeleine L’Engle

3. “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” – Maya Angelou

4. “Listen to your life. All moments are key moments.” – Frederick Buechner

5. “It takes the whole Bible to tell this Story.  And at the center of the Story, there is a baby.  Every Story in the Bible whispers his name.  He is like the missing piece in a puzzle–the piece that makes all the other pieces fit together, and suddenly you can see a beautiful picture.” – Jesus Storybook Bible (I can’t sing this books praises loudly enough. Buy one.)


The Head and the Heart

Funny how a song can become the song.

“Momma once told me
You’re already home where you feel loved”

Humanity isn’t so bad.


Father’s Day

My father is a great man.

When he dies, his passing will not be a trending topic on twitter. There will be no CNN special coverage. Candle light vigils will not be held in the streets in front of his house. There will be no books written about him. But my father is a great man.

If I have children of my own one day, I will not have the luxury of pointing the blame at my father if I am a bad parent. He is not a perfect parent, but he is as good as he possibly can be. He shows me what it means to be a man.

He filled me with the intrigue of standing tall. He taught me that it’s okay for a man to cry. He used words like “beautiful” and demonstrated forgiveness. He loved me when I was unlovable (roughly ages 7-18).

He introduced me to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis – this is my equivalent of the old “teach a man how to fish” saying.

He bought me a book about being a mime when I wanted to be a mime (don’t ask), a guitar when I wanted to be a rockstar, and now he doesn’t stop sending me books in the mail. He took me to U2 concerts and Oxford, England – two things that have greatly shaped me.

And he’ll always be able to out-ride me on our bicycles.

Happy Father’s Day.


This Is Water

David Foster Wallace is an author best known for his novel Infinite Jest. In 2005 he gave a graduation commencement speech at Kenyon College. I can not encourage you enough to take the time to give this a listen – it blew me away.

This is a man who was asking some serious questions.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

The speech is short and rich.

Unfortunately, Wallace suffered from extreme depression throughout most of his life and committed suicide in 2008. I still remember turning on the news and seeing that he had died. He was a brilliant mind that has influenced me greatly.

I’m not going to write any thoughts about this speech; I’ll let you think through this one on your own.

related things:

1. Check out this fantastic story on David Foster Wallace that appeared in The New Yorker after he died

2. “Fiction is about what it is to be a human being” – David Foster Wallace

3. “We all have our little solipsistic delusions, ghastly intuitions of utter singularity: that we are the only one in the house who ever fills the ice-cube tray, who unloads the clean dishwasher, who occasionally pees in the shower, whose eyelid twitches on first dates; that only we take casualness terribly seriously; that only we fashion supplication into courtesy; that only we hear the whiny pathos in a dog’s yawn, the timeless sigh in the opening of the hermetically-sealed jar, the splattered laugh in the frying egg, the minor-D lament in the vacuum’s scream; that only we feel the panic at sunset the rookie kindergartner feels at his mother’s retreat. That only we love the only-we. That only we need the only-we. Solipsism binds us together, J.D. knows. That we feel lonely in a crowd; stop not to dwell on what’s brought the crowd into being. That we are, always, faces in a crowd.” – David Foster Wallace


Lose Face

My generation has traded dreams for formulas, poetry for practicality, and love for fear.

So when I say I am studying journalism and want to write I am usually met with a quick “oh that’s really cool” but if I look in their eyes it’s almost as if they feel bad for me – “does he know he might not make a lot of money doing that?”

Yes, I’m aware.

And yet the Lord has given me these desires and passions and dreams; it’s my responsibility to be a faithful steward of them.

I recently had a conversation with a friend about the future. Like me, he is a dreamer who has no tangible plans, career wise at least. We both know that when people ask, “what are you studying?” they are really asking, “what’s your plan? How are you going to make money?”

I said to my friend, okay, so what’s your dream? He responded with something that has been stirring within me for quite some time now.

“Honestly, I just want to go all out for something. I’ve never had to put it all on the line for anything.”

He found the words to articulate the frustration I’ve been having recently.

I have never had to put everything on the line for something I believe in – I’ve never had to stare failure in the face and jump in regardless. Everything has always fallen into my lap with a minimal amount of effort.

I picture myself as a tightrope walker: I want the experience, thrill, and glory of living a life of reckless abandon for the things I am passionate about, but I have never taken away the safety net. I’m walking across a chasm with protection right underneath me, which is safe, but in the end, pointless.  I think a lot of us live this way.

I’m starting to think that God wants us to remove the safety net. How many people want to go see a tightrope walker complete a daring feet when he has a back up plan the entire time to save himself? Where’s the thrill in that? The excitement comes from the risk of failure.

I have always had a backup, an abort button, a way out. I think through every contingency and plan accordingly to make sure I don’t fail.

However, my role models are people who passionately believes in a dream and are doing everything they can to make it happen. They know they have one chance.

I think God is calling us to cut the safety the nets and let our faith in Him be enough. He wants us to walk out onto the tightrope with only Him by our side. The worst part: we still might fall.

I have lived 20 years paralyzed by fear – the fear of failure. I was feeling pretty good about myself, because honestly, I’ve never really failed in a serious way. I began to realize the reason I have never failed is because I have never taken true risks. I let the fear of failure control my life. I am learning that failing is not always a bad thing though.

Nike caught on to this. They have an ad campaign based around the idea that everyone who is successful experienced moments of failure. If you’re afraid to fail, confront your fear by failing: Fail Harder.

My fears consume me: What if I’m a terrible writer? What if I’m not successful? What if I can’t support a family?  What if the Lord’s plan for me is terrifyingly outrageous? Or worse, what if it’s mediocre? All of these fears show a supreme lack of trust in the Lord.

I don’t want to live a life full of fear. I don’t want to live in reaction to the things that happen to me; I want to live aggressively, boldly, and chase my dreams with no remorse. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

Jon Acuff tweeted this a few months ago and I think it’s very profound. It’s time to go all in. It’s time to find something bigger than ourselves and give everything to it. It’s time to stop letting the fear of failure be in control.

It’s time to lose some face.


summer update

I just wanted to take a minute to share what I’m doing this summer, because I keep getting that question.

My original plan for this summer was to get out of Knoxville. I didn’t want to go back to Memphis, but I also didn’t want to stick around Knoxville. To be sure, I didn’t want to work at a church again either. You should have learned by now to accept and expect that God’s plans almost always differ from my own.

A friend convinced me to apply for an internship, and I ended up being 1 of 7 college students selected to participate in the Leadership Training Program at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church in Knoxville.

This program involves a ton of time spent studying scripture and serving the city of Knoxville in various ways. The other students in the program are incredible people who have taught me an enormous amount already. It’s amazing what you can learn from people if you simply shut up and listen. Iron sharpening iron.

A lot of the things I’ll be writing about will be inspired by these people and the conversations I have with them throughout the summer.

Walking through life in an intentional community is a blessing. Being exposed to perspectives drastically different than your own makes you grow. We are all different; we are all telling a story.

Also, we got attacked by a bear.

Looking forward to a summer of growth and friendship.





It’s been a long semester. learned a lot. grew a lot.

One of my professors told to me it’s time to get professional, time to get serious.

Here we go.

water cycle: 2 years ago

Two years ago today I completed a bike ride across America with my best friend Christian Kauffman. We started in Santa Monica, California and ended in Savannah, Georgia. Partnering with an organization called Living Water International, our purpose was to create awareness about the global water crisis, and raise funds to build clean water wells in Haiti.

The adventure was easily the wildest thing that has ever happened to me. Reflecting back on the bike ride, and all that has happened in the past two years, leaves me feeling both blessed and nostalgic. God is writing a better story for me than I could ever write for myself. He always has been.

At the end of the bike ride we were lucky enough to be part of a Haiti benefit concert with Passion City Church (Louie Giglio’s church.) It was a surreal experience that I’ll never forget. After the concert, our trip was done. The adventure of a lifetime was finished. We were going home. At 1 a.m. I took the time to write one final message to everyone who supported us throughout our journey. I was rereading it and decided to post it again, because the things that are in it are still relevant and true and beautiful. I was mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted at this point. It is terribly written and I’m almost embarrassed by it, but I think there’s something honest in it.  I hope it means something to you like it does to me.

The Water Cycle – The Final Update

Well, I had plans to reward all of our great supporters with a video update but I am currently in a hotel room with my sisters boyfriend who is asleep so making a video would not be easy. It’s been a crazy few days so I apologize ahead of time if this is lengthy, but it’s probably worth it. God has been doing some incredible things. Also, keep in mind that it is 1 am here in Atlanta, and I am very tired.

Anyway, we entered into our final week and were lacking motivation but somehow we made it through. The last few days were tough but we just powered through and we quickly found ourselves waking up to our final day of riding. It was an absolutely gorgeous day. We had a 50 mile ride into Savannah which we finished in record time. Once we got into Savannah we met with two news channels who interviewed us and filmed us riding around.

Let me take this oppurtunity to say that Savannah is a ridiculously gorgeous city. If you ever get a chance to go there, please do. You won’t regret it. And if you’re ever there look up Aaron Adams and he’ll show you a good time. Anyway, I digress.

After the interviews we were treated with the special VIP service at Paula Deen’s restaurant “The Lady and Sons.” They had an awesome buffet and we got free meals and all the staff there was awesome and tons of fun. Paula Deen wasn’t there unfortunately, but she made a personal donation. woo hoo!

We finished our fantastic lunch and hopped on the bikes for one last ride. It was a gorgeous ride through the streets of Savannah and it was one of the first times that I didn’t really want to stop riding. Our finish line was on Tybee Island, which is like 15 miles outside of Savannah. A bunch of Christian’s relatives showed up and our families and our dear friend Aaron Adams. It was crazy to think about that just 29 days before, our bikes were at the Pacific and now they were at the Atlantic.

We went to our hotel and cleaned up and went out to this awesome sea food place called AJ’s for our celebratory dinner. If you’re ever at AJ’s, split the 2 pounds of crab legs with someone. You won’t regret it.

That evening Christian and I hung out with Aaron and he showed us around Savannah and we hung out on the beach and just chatted. Catching up with old friends is one of my favorite things to do.

We had to wake up early this morning to drive to Atlanta. See, a few weeks ago we got a call from Brad Jones, a guy who works with the Passion conferences, which is where we learned about Living Water International. They were having a huge Good Friday service/benefit concert for Haiti and they wanted us to come and bring us on stage and kind of have a final celebration for our ending.

Traffic into Atlanta was awful as always but eventually we made it to the Verizon Wireless Ampitheater, which is where the good friday service was going to take place. Brad showed us to our dressing room (yes, we had a dressing room. And yes, it had the mirror with lights around it and drinks and couches. Legit). We did a run through of what was going to happen then Christian and I came back to our hotel and got cleaned up. At the hotel we met up with Henry. Henry is the man. He is this guy who recently graduated college and now works for Living Water. He took us out to dinner and basically just chilled with us all night. After dinner we went back to the ampitheater and hung out in our dressing room and got introduced to Louie Giglio, Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, and some other really awesome people.

Louie came into our dressing room and said he wanted us to come to there pre-show prayer meeting. We walked into this room and everyone involved with Passion was there and Louie introduced us and everyone clapped. It was weird being in a room with basically every person who is responsible for christian music today. We all prayed (Chris Tomlin put his hands on me and prayed for me!) and it was just an incredible moment. really powerful.

We went back to our dressing room and changed into our biking clothes and Brad gave us a cue and we rode our bikes through the crowd in front of like 13,000 people. It was just crazy. Louie brought us on stage and introduced us and it was so overwhelming but awesome. Then the really crazy stuff happened. Louie brought us out some shirts and stuff and then he brought out a $10,000 CHECK! Passion has helped us reach our goal of $50,000. It was an incredibly beautiful moment and it was just awesome. I really can’t think of another word to describe it.

We went back to our dressing room and got back into our normal clothes then went and watched the rest of the service with Henry. The service was awesome. It was such a great reminder of God’s power and the worship was incredible and it was one of those moments where you realize your perspective has been slightly off lately.

Once the service ended we got to hang out with everyone a little bit longer then we went to eat with our families.

This trip has been an unbelievably incredible life changing adventure. I want to thank everyone for supporting us and encouraging us and having your hearts broken over the fact that there are people out there who are dying because they don’t have clean water. You all are really incredible and Christian and I really can’t tell you thank you enough.

This whole trip has taught me one thing: God is good all the time. No exceptions. The same God who made the grand canyon and all of the mountains and valleys that we rode through watched over us and made this journey what it was. The fact that we ended easter weekend is so appropriate and such an amazing reminder of Jesus’ resurrection and the fact that God is love and that God is always in control.

Can’t wait to be home in Memphis.

and remember,

He is risen!

After I wrote that, I closed my laptop, shut my eyes, played Damien Rice on my ipod and for the first time in a month slept with the peace of knowing that the next day I would be going home instead of riding 100 miles on my bike.

These adventures are what we were made for.

Thoughts on Trayvon Martin

By now almost everyone has heard of the truly tragic case of Trayvon Martin. I haven’t been able to get this one out of my head the past few weeks.

For those of you who don’t know about the case I’ll fill you in briefly: On February 26, Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old black kid, was visiting his father’s girlfriend in a gated community. During halftime of the NBA all-star game, Trayvon went to a nearby 7-Eleven to buy skittles and iced tea. While he was walking back, a 28 year old resident of the gated community, and self-appointed captain of the neighborhood watch program, named George Zimmerman saw him and called the police, claiming that there was a suspicious looking person in the neighborhood. Zimmerman followed Trayvon, after the police specifically told him not to. An altercation occurred and Zimmerman shot Trayvon in the chest, killing him on the spot. George Zimmerman claimed self-defense and has not been arrested.

If there is one thing that gets me fired up faster than anything else, it’s injustice. When I first heard about this I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it.

It is clear that race played a part in this. I am not willing to make the leap and say that Zimmerman is a racist who wanted to kill a black kid as soon as the opportunity arose, but I am 100% convinced that the fact that Trayvon was black and wearing a hooded sweatshirt is the reason that Zimmerman thought he was “suspicious.” I am an upper middle class white kid, and I know that if I had been walking down the street I never would have attracted any attention. Because I “belong” in gated communities, and in Zimmerman’s eyes, Trayvon didn’t.

I went to high school in Detroit and Memphis. In Detroit I went to a small Christian school that was actually fairly multiethnic. In Memphis I went to an all-boys private school that has a student body that is overwhelmingly white and wealthy. Memphis is a city that has been burdened with racial tension (Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis) for many years. I can say that I have witnessed racial reconciliation in the city of Memphis, but not nearly as much as I would like. The tension is still palpable. This makes me sad.

So cases like this one, and reflecting on my high school experiences, have me thinking: If I am a white, Christian, upper middle class guy, what can I possibly do to help fix this problem that has plagued our country for hundreds of years. Where do I start? I am guilty of profiling in the past, and that is something I am not proud of. How do I help get some of these conversations started and begin to create real solutions? What’s my role supposed to be in all of this? What can I do to actively and effectively promote equality?

I was talking to my mom about this and she said that she realized she’s never had to worry about something like this happening to me. My heart breaks over the fact that some mothers do have to worry about this, simply because of their son’s skin color. We are so far from equality.

There is still a lot of work to be done.

a million steps

I wrote this quite some time ago and it’s still relevant to me.

“The truth is there are a million steps, and we don’t even know what the steps are, and worse, at any given moment we may not be willing or even able to take them; and still worse, they are different for you and me and they are always changing. I have come to believe the sooner we find this truth beautiful, the sooner we will fall in love with the God who keeps shaking things up, keeps changing the path, keeps rocking the boat to test our faith in Him, teaching us not to rely on easy answers, bullet points, magic mantras, or genies in lamps, but rather in His guidance, His existence, His mercy, and His love.

-Donald Miller

There are so many books written claiming to give you the simple steps that you need to follow to have a healthier spiritual life. I don’t think this is how God wants it. I don’t think having a relationship with an all knowing creator can be simplified down to an equation. I think there is mystery in it.

This passage from Donald Miller’s Searching For God Knows What rocks my world every time I read it. It reminds me that I have to let go of my constant need to be in control and let myself get swept away in God’s love. God doesn’t promise us an easy life. If we agree to follow God wherever he takes us I think we will find challenges that we never thought we would face, but in this place of uncertainty we will also be filled with the knowledge that God is there with us.

His guidance is reliable, His existence is sovereign, His mercy is great, and His love is everlasting.

Ira Glass On Being Creative

Ira Glass, creator of the wildly popular radio show This American Life, is a master storyteller and had some interesting thoughts on the creative process. For your sake, watch this short video.

I think this is where I am now. Instead of being frustrated with this process, I have decided to enjoy learning about myself and discovering how to articulate what I want to say.

Mr. Glass, you are a legend.



David Ramirez

Last night, my house (affectionately referred to as spare oom), was lucky enough to host David Ramirez as he played an acoustic show in our living room. Hailing from Austin, Texas, Ramirez has been called “the best damn songwriter you don’t know yet” by Paste Magazine. His song Fires was featured in Grey’s Anatomy.

He was playing a show at a bar that was 21+, but he agreed to play a free acoustic set at my house for his fans that might not be able to see him otherwise. Surrounded by candles and christmas lights, Ramirez played an intimate set for about 3o college kids. Real cool guy. Live music is something special.

(photo courtesy of my talented roommate Kyle Anthony)

You can download some of his music for free here.

Here’s a video of Ramirez playing his song “Stick Around,” my personal favorite.

Dream Often

Vulnerability and Nick Kristof

I have a tendency to be emotionally closed off. I don’t like to be vulnerable. It’s something I’m working on.

In the spirit of vulnerability, I am going to post a short essay I wrote for a contest that the New York Times has every year.

Nick Kristof is a legendary New York Times columnist and human rights advocate. He’s the reason we knew about what was going on in Darfur. Desmond Tutu has described Kristof as an “honorary African” for shining a light on neglected conflicts. Basically, he has the job I want.

Every year he offers a college student the chance to accompany him on a reporting trip. This is the essay I wrote for the Win a Trip with Nick Kristof 2012 contest. I’m not expecting to win at all, but it was a good way to think through some things that had been rattling around in my head lately and really think about why I am a journalism student.


I grew up in Detroit and Memphis, two cities that have been rocked by racial tension, and where inequality is prevalent. In Memphis, it is not uncommon to see a multi-million dollar mansion occupied by a family of 3 directly across the railroad tracks from a shanty housing 3 generations of a family. Since I was a little kid, I remember thinking that there was something wrong with this inequality. I didn’t understand it, but I knew it was unjust.

These suspicions were strengthened when I attended an all-boy college-preparatory high school. Every day I attended school with the wealthiest people that I have ever met. I had an overwhelming sense of entitlement and was given everything I needed to be successful. Down the street from my school people were worried about whether they would be able to feed their families, but for me, life was easy. I tried to ignore the homeless as I drove to school because it’s uncomfortable to think that it might be my responsibility to help, but I couldn’t ignore them forever. The images of child soldiers on television, and the little boy down the street, were tattooed on the backs of my eyelids; they were all I could see when I closed my eyes. I was in high school. How could I help undo years of injustice across the globe? The answer: I couldn’t. No one can. But I could do my part to help.

I began tutoring African refugee students who were relocated to Memphis and thrown into the public school system without being able to speak English. I tutored a student in 8th grade who read at a 1st grade level. Seeing the students’ eyes light up when they finally read the word “cat” correctly was enough to convince me that I wanted to spend my life helping others in any way I can.

I took a class that focused on social justice issues and practical ways that private school students from Memphis could help solve global crises.  Our final project was to make a video to raise awareness for a non-profit organization, but my friend and I decided to take it further.

It was not enough to make a video filled with shocking statistics and get an A+ in the class. I was tired of wearing rubber bracelets to support a cause. I wanted to do something.

One of the most important things I learned in high school is that statistics and numbers will not inspire my generation to stand up against social injustices; stories will. Stories take the statistics and give them faces. Stories provide voices for the voiceless. Stories humanize the malnourished child that we see on commercials. To get someone’s attention and stir enough excitement in them to be motivated to act on their feelings, you have to give someone a story to tell.

I decided to give people a story to tell.

My friend and I created a project called The Water Cycle (thewatercycle.org). The goal was to bike from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean over the course of a month during senior year to raise money to build clean water wells in a recently earthquake-rocked Haiti and to raise awareness for the global water crisis. The response from people throughout the country was more than I could have ever imagined. We raised over $60,000, and most importantly, got people excited about solving the water crisis.

Throughout my journey I fell in love with journalism. I realized that studying journalism in college was a way to use my passion for social justice and to tell the stories of those who are marginalized by society. I want to dedicate my life to this cause, and who better to learn from than Nick Kristof?

I approach this trip as an apprentice. I want to learn to do what Kristof does so I can be a voice for my generation. My goal is that I will be able to learn how to be an effective change agent through journalism. My dream is that I will be able to tell the stories of the people who are kept silent.

Where I belong.

Music is really powerful. It affects me in ways that nothing else on earth can. I wish I could write songs like my friends do because songs are something deeper than we can understand. Songs give words and sounds to the stirrings deep in our soul that we sometimes don’t even know exist.

In 2011, one of those songs that I kept coming back to was one called “Where I Belong” from Switchfoot’s latest album Vice Verses. It was the soundtrack to a very tough semester that taught me a lot.

And as a new year begins I find myself drawn back to it. It’s been on repeat for two days.

Give it a listen. I’m putting the lyrics too, because they are arguably the best lyrics that Jon Foreman has ever written.

Feeling like a refugee
Like it don’t belong to me
The colors flash across the sky

This air feels strange to me
Feeling like a tragedy
Take a deep breath and close my eyes
One last time

Storms on the wasteland
Dark clouds on the plains again
We were born into the fight

But I’m not sentimental
This skin and bones is a rental
And no one makes it out alive

Until I die, I’ll sing these songs
On the shores of Babylon
Still looking for a home
In a world where I belong

Where the weak are finally strong
Where the righteous right the wrongs
Still looking for a home
In a world where I belong

Feels like we’re just waiting, waiting
While our hearts are just breaking, breaking
Feels like we’re fighting against the tide

I wanna see the earth start shaking
I wanna see a generation
Finally waking up inside

Until I die I’ll sing these songs
Still looking for a home
In a world where I belong

This body’s not my own
This world is not my own
But I can still hear the sound
Of my heart beating out
So let’s go boys, play it loud

On the final day I die
I want to hold my head up high
I want to tell you that I tried
To live it like a song

And when I reach the other side
I want to look you in the eye
And know that I’ve arrived
In a world where I belong

Where I belong

I still believe we can live forever
You and I, we begin forever now
Forever now
I still believe in us together
You and I, we’re here together now
Together now
Together now
Forever now
Forever now


To me this is more than a song. It’s therapy. It’s counseling. It’s a cup of coffee with a friend you haven’t seen in entirely too long. It’s saying goodbye to someone you love and not knowing when you’ll see them again, but being confident that you will.

It’s a song about not knowing where you belong. That is something that was on my mind a lot this past fall. Where do I belong?

And I think on a larger scale, that question is in the back of everyone’s mind. Where do I belong? We all feel out of place. We all feel like refugees.

As a Christian this is even more true. We are placed on this earth, but it’s not our true home. We aren’t home. Not yet.

We can look around and see that things are not the way they should be.

Where the weak are finally strong

Where the righteous right the wrongs

This is what we are all longing for.

So this song is about tension.

It’s about the already but not yet aspect of the gospel, and the lives that we live.

Jon Foreman has a way of taking the things we can’t articulate and turning those thoughts into a song.

I don’t want to ruin this song with anymore of my thoughts because I want you to experience the beauty of it without any preconceived notions. Turn off the lights, turn the speakers up, and listen.

One verse in particular stands out:

On the final day I die

I want to look you in the eye

I want to tell you that I tried

To live it like a song

Isn’t that what we all want?

Tonight, I’m betting it all that Jon Foreman has this one right.


Thoughts on 2011

2011 was a very strange year indeed. I was recently talking to someone about an email that I sent them a year ago today discussing my hopes and dreams for 2011, and it is strange to look back and realize that I had no idea what was in store for me. God has a habit of sending us curveballs.

What follows will be various thoughts on 2011 – some vague, some specific. Enjoy.

Favorite Films

(let me make myself clear: I am not saying these were the best films 0f 2011. These are the ones that I enjoyed the most. The ones that had me lost in their story. The ones that inspired and challenged me. My criteria is ambiguous at best. I might not even  be able to explain why a film is my favorite. Some things you just have to accept.)

1. Midnight in Paris - written/directed by Woody Allen

A wonderful dissertation on nostalgia, art, and Paris. Can’t put my                               finger on exactly why I enjoyed this one so much, but I left the theater inspired and introspective.

2. 50/50 – directed by Jonathan Levine

Hilarious and heartbreaking story about a young adult who finds out he has cancer. Brilliantly written. I felt like I was watching how my life would be if I got diagnosed with cancer. For optimum enjoyment, see with a bestfriend. This could be the best movie of the year.

3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - directed by David Fincher

Lisbeth Salander (played by Rooney Mara) is easily the greatest character to come out of this year. Absolutely iconic. A dark, disturbing tale told by master storyteller David Fincher. The feel bad movie of the year.

4. The Ides of March – directed by George Clooney

Shakespearean political thriller with fantastic performances by George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, and this year’s favorite, Ryan Gosling. What’s not to like?

5. Drive – directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

A western set in present day L.A. Ryan Gosling plays a quiet yet confident film stunt driver moonlighting as a getaway driver. This movie sucks you in and doesn’t let you go until the very end. Did I mention Ryan Gosling was in it?

Favorite Memory

This one is easy. The U2 concert at Vanderbilt Stadium. I know what you are thinking, and yes, you are right. It is entirely too predictable for Cort Gatliff to choose a U2 concert as his favorite memory, but I have no other choice. It was all so perfect. Staying up all night and waiting on the streets of Nashville on perhaps the hottest day that the world has ever seen was well worth it once Bono walked onto the stage. U2 had not played in Nashville in 30 years and they gave the best show that I have ever seen. Being feet away from Bono as he is singing my favorite U2 song, Stay (faraway, so close!), is something that I will never forget. Or when they pulled the blind guitar player out of the audience so he could play All I Want is You for his wife. The perfect day.

Favorite Album

Bon Iver – Bon Iver

honorable mentions: Watch the Throne – Jay-Z and Kanye West. Burst Apart – The Antlers.

I grew up a lot this year. I learned that relationships (with parents, siblings, friends, roommates etc.) are hard. I discovered some things about myself that I dislike and some things I am happy about. I had my first real ministry job and learned that it’s not nearly as simple as it looks. I was humbled through my inadequacy. I moved into my first house. I learned the importance of beingdeliberate. I learned the importance of being honest. I discovered (the hard way) that when I try to follow my own plans I end up getting hurt and hurting those around me. I had people invest their lives in me, and I tried to invest my life into others. I wrote a lot, but not enough. I uncovered the things that I usually find my identity in.

Above all, I made a lot of mistakes.

Here’s to growing up and maturing.

I’m ready to see what adventures 2012 has in store.

Life In A Day

I tend to wait awhile after I see a movie to write about it. The reason for this is because I like to ruminate about what I saw. I would like to think that I am not a passive consumer. I try to make connections and think deeply about what I am observing.

Earlier today I watched the documentary Life In A Day and I have to write something about it. It was one of the most fascinating films that I have ever seen.

The concept is simple: collect thousands of hours of video footage submitted by normal people all around the globe, all filmed on July 24, 2010, living their everyday life and combine it all together into one coherent mosaic of mankind.

The fact that this is even possible shows just how insane technology has become. People from 192 countries submitted 4,500 hours of footage, all on YouTube. This project let a farm boy in Afghanistan, a wife of a soldier in Afghanistan, a man recovering from surgery, and hundreds of other people collaborate in the same artistic endeavor, united under the goal of attempting to show what life all over the planet is like on a given day.

People submitting video footage were also asked to answer three questions: 1) What do you have in your pocket? 2) What do you love most? 3) What do you fear most? I thought I’d answer those myself really quickly.

  1. Right now in my pocket I have Dobby (my iphone). I pretend that I am not addicted to it, but honestly, I am. In my other pocket is my wallet. I also have the keys to my 2010 Honda Civic. I got it brand new, but was still frustrated when I couldn’t get the one with the GPS navigation touch screen. I am convinced that if I met myself, I would hate myself. The contents of my pockets are worth more than what many people will make in their entire life, and that makes me feel awful.
  2. I hate to sound preachy, but I really do love Jesus. Every day I realize that I am more sinful than I previously thought, and every day I am more thankful for Christ. My friends are the backbone of my life. Without them I would be very lost indeed. Also, a good book.
  3. I am afraid of living a mediocre life. I think about death an irrational amount. I’m not sure if I’m scared of it, but maybe I am.

Obviously, since it is a film made by thousands of different people, Life In A Day  lacks a typical narrative. The film starts at midnight and ends at midnight. We are shown how people all around the world wake up. How they get ready for the day. As the day goes on we see more and more of how people live.

I think at its core, this movie is about the human experience.

What does it mean to be human?

What is the meaning of life?

How are we all connected?

I started this film with this vague idea that I would see how different everyone is. Maybe see something interesting. I thought I was going to be moderately entertained.

What quickly shocked me was that across the globe, we aren’t that different at all. We live in different contexts. Different environments. Different socio-economic classes. Different beliefs. Some of us have plumbing, some don’t. Some of us have homes, some don’t. But what Life In A Day quickly proves is that despite all of these differences, we have the same hopes, same fears, same dreams. We are all human. We can all relate. We are all connected by our humanity.

It was humbling to realize, honestly.

The most memorable parts of Life In A Day were the intimate scenes.

We see a soldier’s wife dressing up. Putting on makeup. We watch her have a date with her husband in Iraq via video chat. We get to see, unlike her husband, what happens when they end their video-chat date; she cries. She can put on a tough face for her husband who is risking his life for our country, but as soon as her computer screen went black she was a young girl missing someone she loves.

And that is something we can all relate to, no matter what part of the world you live.

The last scene in the movie is a woman sitting in her car. It’s almost midnight. She is trying to record her last words of the day. She’s not crying, but something is off. Almost a hopeless feeling. I think some of her words help sum up exactly what this project is all about, why there were 80,000 submissions, and why I so easily connected with this film.

“I want people to know I’m here. I don’t want to cease to exist.”

I think deep down this is what all of us want. We are tiny specks on a massive planet. We all want our lives to mean something. The people who sent in submissions are now immortalized in this film, and for some, that is the most they will ever accomplish.

When I am in bed at night wide awake staring at my ceiling in the dark I am almost always thinking the same thing as this woman sitting in her car. The day is over. There are no more distractions. I can’t lie to myself.

I want people to know I’m here.

I don’t want to cease to exist.





The Descendants

On the surface, Alexander Payne’s  The Descendants has all the right ingredients to make one fantastic movie. A great director, great cast, and an intriguing story to tell. Unfortunately, this movie falls short in a lot of ways.

The Descendants tells the story of Matt King (George Clooney), an absent father forced to reconnect with his two daughters after his estranged wife gets into a boating accident, putting her into a permanent coma. This family tragedy is made even more complicated when it is revealed by Matt’s oldest daughter (played by Shailene Woodley, who delivers a killer performance. Also, my birthday is two days before hers. Perhaps cupid is at work) that his comatose wife had been cheating on him before the boating accident. The rest of the film is spent following the journey of Matt, his two daughters Alex and Scottie, and Alex’s obnoxious stoner/wise friend Sid as they attempt to track down the man that made Matt a cuckold. It’s a healing journey that attempts to pack an emotional punch, but falls short.

The Descendants could have been greatly improved with a tighter script. You never would have guessed that Alexander Payne won an Academy Award for best screenplay (Sideways) by watching The Descendants. Dialogue is awkward, clumsy. Forced. Not even Clooney can save it at points. This movie can’t decide if it wants to be a dark comedy or not.

Along with the drama surrounding his dying wife, Matt also has to deal with a real-estate deal. Matt is part of a long-line of Hawaiians who have a major plot of untouched paradise that is about to be sold. The film does a terrible job of tying in this subplot and refuses to explore the idea of the importance of family history and let it come into fruition through the narrative.

I am not one to hold back tears in a movie. I get emotionally involved extremely easily with film characters, but with The Descendants it just wasn’t there. It’s forced. It doesn’t work.

The Descendants comes across as a soap opera given a George Clooney makeover. It is getting a whole lot of Oscar hype, and honestly, that is baffling me. Clooney is good, but not his best. The script has potential, but just never quite gets there. I left the theater thoroughly disappointed.



                                  Alan, we share sentiments. 

The Importance of Paying Attention

I eavesdrop a lot. I don’t necessarily mean to. It usually happens when I am in line or in some other public place listening to my iPod. A song finishes and there is that 2-3 second pause before the next song begins. During this time I don’t hear much; maybe a word or a phrase from people around me. However, sometimes it is just enough to make me intensely curious about what the rest of their conversation will entail, so I reach down and hit pause and listen.

Earlier this week almost the exact situation happened and I heard something that kind of shocked me to be honest. I overheard a conversation between a guy and a girl who happened to be Christians who apparently attend a campus ministry at UT (I’m not sure which one it was, but even if I did know I probably wouldn’t say.)

The conversation, or at least the parts that I heard, went a little something like this (for convenience sake we will call these two unknowing students Debra and Douglas, and keep in mind, this is paraphrased):

Debra: *says something about the state of the Middle East conflicts*

Douglas: Nah I haven’t really been paying attention to that. I don’t really keep up with pop-culture or news and stuff.

Debra: Really? Why not?

Douglas: Honestly? I think paying attention to that sort of stuff distracts from the gospel. We aren’t here to get mixed up in current affairs are we? We are here to tell others about Jesus. So I don’t really care about what’s going on out there.

Debra: *obviously taken aback by the unexpectedly honest and intense answer* “Oh. well. I guess that makes sense.”

When I heard that I wanted to take my headphones off and say something snarky like, “Come on Douglas you can’t be that naive. Tell me you don’t really believe what is going on in the world doesn’t matter. Please redeem yourself by recanting your previous statement.”

Luckily, I have a filter that keeps me from inappropriate public outbursts. Sometimes. (Anyone remember my verbal condemnation of Shutter Island and anyone who stands by that movie? I’m sure my roommate Hunter does.)

ANYWAY. After I heard this snippet of conversation I hit play on my iPod and walked away deep in thought. That conversation stuck with my for the rest of the day. Do a lot of Christians really believe that what goes on in the world doesn’t matter to the gospel or to our faith? Is that why Christianity is so often viewed as out-of-touch with reality, anachronistic, or regressive?

I was reminded by a quote I once heard that is attributed to theologian Karl Barth.

We have to read the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.

As a journalism major and self-proclaimed current events/pop-culture junkie, this quote obviously resonates with me. I think it is a quote that is profound and has a lot of truth to it.

Christians are not called to hide out in their holy huddles until Jesus comes back. We are called to be in the world, but not of the world. We are not called to ignore the brokenness and injustice of our world, but called to respond by loving and proclaiming the Gospel. We can’t respond to the hurt in this world if we isolate ourselves.

How are Christians supposed to engage with the broken world we live in if we are out of touch with it? How can we aid those who are in need if we don’t know what’s going on? How can we intelligently dialogue about the relevance of the Gospel and the grace and mercy of Christ if we aren’t paying attention to ways that it is tangibly being played out in the world?

Turn on the news. Read the newspaper. Pay attention. The Gospel, and opportunities to proclaim it are everywhere.

God cares about the things that happen in this world, and so should we.

Also, I should probably stop eavesdropping.

Why a website?

I’ve been wrestling with the idea of making a website for quite some time now. Most of you who know me will probably think to yourselves “Is Cort really so narcissistic and inflated with unwarranted feelings of self-importance that he thought he had to make a website to convey his thoughts?”

The short answer: yes.

The long answer: Since I am a journalism student it made sense to build a site where I can have a resume, portfolio, and a general place to write. This is mostly for me to hone my skills and have a little fun, but I hope anyone who reads this will enjoy what they see.

If I really like something there is a good chance it will find its way on here. Or if I really dislike something. This will be stories and thoughts on God, music, film, relationships, the general state of our world etc.

I am a college student trying to make sense out of life. We’ll see how this goes.