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The Greatest View on Earth

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This new year promises to feel a little newer than in most years past as sometime in the next three or so weeks, our little family of three will become a family of four. Before our first son was born, I wrote at length my thoughts about the whole situation. The person that he is, his interests, his humor, his stubbornness, the way he looks, the way he behaves—all of it was a surprise, and I can barely fathom the reality that another little boy, just as surprising and just as unique, is about to appear in our arms forever.

I could fill many a book with observations about fatherhood and all its surprises, but I would be remiss if I did not start at the beginning. At the source of all this parenting business. For the greatest surprise of fatherhood was also my greatest expectation, and that is my wife.

Her name is Sarah, and before I go on, there are a few things you should know about her. She is a woman of beautiful contrasts. She has a sharp wit and loves life yet treats every situation with respectful presence. She loves romantic comedies, but isn’t sentimental about objects; instead, she stores her affections in the memory of those people and moments who matter most to her. She finds comfort in order yet knows how to relax when the opportunity is presented—not to mention she can sleep anywhere. She thrives on the energy of people, but finds comfort in solitude. She is an extraordinary cook who savors the craft of good food, yet loves a good bowl of ramen noodles about as much as anything. She loves 80s power ballads and the emotional songcraft of people like Patty Griffin equally. And most surprisingly of all, she knows me better than anyone on planet earth and still loves me like no one else. 

When we first met, that Sunday morning in the movie theater where we had church, I learned that she was a nanny, that she moved to Nashville from Memphis to care for two little girls. As I got to know her, I heard her gush over Bailey and Brynn. I listened to the grief in her voice the day she called to tell me she was no longer their caretaker. I watched for the three years we dated as she loved on other people’s children with a care and thoughtfulness like I had never seen before. I knew that when we got married that Sarah would make an extraordinary mother. Fast forward to today and we are now nearly three years into this journey of parenthood, and I can safely say that I was right. She is extraordinary.

But in a way, I was wrong, too. My expectations were rooted purely in what I understood to be true of parenting—which was very little at that stage of life (and possibly still now). I had no way of understanding the depth of emotions and meaning and responsibility that accompanies something like parenthood. And the greatest surprise of it all is that what I understood to be true about Sarah, which was entirely accurate, was also an incomplete portrait of what was to come; the tip of the iceberg on the surface of something much, much deeper.

A wise man once told me that parenthood reveals a truest version of your self. All your hidden selfishness, all your suppressed fears, the sum total of your character is pressed by the presence of a child in your home who depends on you completely for their very survival. This is certainly one of the scariest aspects of parenting. I spent the first 6 months with Oliver slipping into his bedroom to check on his breathing and twitched nervously in my seat every time I thought he had too much food in his mouth. But Sarah? She played it cool. In every situation, she was the calm center, the soothing voice that assured me everything was okay and that nothing was going to happen. Parenting has certainly revealed my many strongholds of selfishness and fear; barely a day goes by where I don’t bump up against something that reminds me. And while Sarah would probably agree, parenthood has revealed something different in her. Something true. Something beautiful.

The simple truth of Sarah the mother is that she possesses a love for our sons I simply did not understand was possible. A love that I have watched bloom like a flower, unfolding with each passing day as the purest, most holy expression of love I have ever witnessed on earth. It’s a phenomenon I can’t begin to explain, but every day I see it. In every word, every smile, every gift of gracious patience, and every response when patience fails. I see it in the way she engages temper tantrums with the full presence of everything with in her. I see it in the way she joyfully says “Good morning” every day. I see it in the way she selfless pursues the very best for him at all times, from the food she makes to the clothes on his back to the way they pass the time together. The humanity of our son is always fully seen, fully respected, and loved utterly and completely.

For proof, look no further than our son. Oliver. He’s hysterical, a little walking bundle of joyful contradiction who bears the imprint of his mother in countless ways. From the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to sleep, he longs for her presence, to be held and kissed, to climb all over her, to play with her for hour after hour. She can barely stand up off the floor without him asking her to come back—not because he wants to control her but because there’s nothing he wants me than to be with her. In so many ways her love has marked him like fingerprints on glass, leaving behind trait after trait that define them both. The quick wit, the emotional presence, the cautious extroversion. I could go on and on and on.

So as we prepare to welcome our second son in the next few weeks, I thank God for Sarah, my wife and my partner. Every day she models a deeper love, and I cannot wait to see how that love grows in the presence of little August. I know this is just the beginning.

Sarah, thank you for giving me a front seat to the greatest view in the world. I love you.

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Top 10 Albums of 2014

Top 10 Albums of 2014

Try as I might, I cannot crack the critic’s code. Even the critics I trust are all over the map. For example, Greg Kot of WBEZ’s Sound Opinions hammered Damon Albarn’s “Everyday Robots” this year for not having the energy of Albarn’s old work with Blur, but has on many occasions criticized other artists for sounding too much like their back catalog.

Another critical oddity I often encounter is the self-righteous or insecure critic who wants us to know how smart they are. To this point, a recent review of TV on the Radio’s “Seeds” by Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker found the author spending a majority of the review comparing the band to Radiohead; so much, in fact, the only real impression of this great album Frere-Jones left was that he thinks he knows a lot about Radiohead and wants us to think that, too.

But the greatest oddity of music criticism, in my book, is not a method but an absence: pleasure. The joy of music. Greg and Jim from Sound Opinions aside, I seldom read or hear a review of a record in which I get any real sense of joy, and this bothers me. Why? Because I love music way more than I care about being right about music.

So here I am, at the end of 2014, making my list of the records I enjoyed the most this year. In years past this has been a list of 5 in a larger year-end blog but this year I loved too much. It’s got to be 10. And, as usual, I’m noting my favorite song of each album in case you want to sample. Please leave your comments on your favorite records below.

  1. Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything: If patience is, indeed, a virtue, Elbow dwells in holy territory. Their latest effort is no exception, slowly waking like a winter sunrise and soaring through some of the finest melodic anthems of their career. This band represents everything I love about music in spades—talent, craft, and the simple joy of creation. I didn’t see a single list this year that included this album, which makes me wonder if a lot of people missed it. So so good. Download:New York Morning

  2. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream: Singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer Adam Granduciel’s third LP is awash with vintage, peak Don Henley-era vibe but without a hint of irony—and that’s why it works. From a nearly nine-minute opener filled with extended guitar solos to the piano-driven folk rock conclusion, every track is sonically stunning, lyrically evocative, and, to this guitarist, utterly inspiring. I wore this record out. Download:Under the Pressure

  3. Neil Finn – Dizzy Heights: When one of your top five songwriters of all time releases a new record, it might be cause to worry, but never with Neil Finn. The New Zealand native’s mastery of songcraft has never wavered over his 30 year career, and his skill as a musician and arranger continues to grow with each Crowded House and solo release. Dizzy Heights is a melting pot of clever pop, etherial soundscapes, guitar and vocal style for days, and the trademark lyrical insight into the human condition he’s always been known for. I will be listening to this album for years to come. Download:White Lies and Alibis

  4. Spoon – They Want My Soul: This Austin quintet’s previous record, Transference, seemed to be an effort to buck the band’s rising popularity and re-stake their claim on lo-fi garage rock, and while it was a good record, it was far from their best. They Want My Soul, however, finds Britt Daniel and crew living up to every drop of pop potential they’ve shown over the years. Soulful, gritty, and diverse, this is the best record in a decade from one of the best indie bands in the world. Download:Rainy Taxi

  5. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams: Once a gifted troubadour hell bent on killing himself, the now sober and happily married Adams seems to have found a new stride, more mature and introspective than his earlier, albeit terrific work, but, in the instance of his most recent two albums, every bit as enduring. This self-titled LP continues in Adam’s long tradition of shifting musical style album to album, currently embracing a garage rock sound not unlike his Love is Hell EPs but with an extra dose of surf-rock reverb washing over the mix. It works, and there’s plenty here for old and new fans alike. Download:Feels Like Fire

  6. Damien Rice – My Favorite Faded Fantasy: I liked Damien Rice until I saw him live; in the seven years since, I’ve loved him and have patiently waited for him to break his silence. In ways, it is what I expected, a brooding, if not brief, retrospective of his life during his hiatus—and they were pretty rough years, apparently. But it is also what I hoped for. As you roll into the B-side, the tone shifts, and Rice transitions from grieving to accepting to the triumphant, gospel-laden victory of “Trusty and True”. The gloomy Irishman wants us to know he has made his peace and is ready to move on. I can’t wait to hear what’s next. Download:Trusty and True

  7. Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots: Blur was a in heavy rotation during the years I truly learned to love music with Albarn and crew contributing some of my favorite songs and albums of all time. I’ve tried to follow Gorillaz with mixed results, but finally, a now middle-aged Albarn has put something great, and entirely different, back on the table. This collection largely down- to mid-tempo songs finds Albarn looking back on his life through his trademark ability to document the seemingly insignificant details of daily life and turn them into something useful to the listener—specifically, his apparent belief that in this digital age we are more disconnected than ever. Cleverly wrapped with a mix of live, electronic, and sampled instrumentation, Albarn casts his melancholy line into the void, and I’ve found ample cause to answer. Download:Lonely Press Play

  8. Snarky Puppy – We Like It Here: This post-modern big band—yes, this is a jazz record—was a new discovery of mine this year, but what an inspiring discovery! It reminds me of early fusion from large ensembles like Weather Report, but this is clearly the product of a generation raised on grunge and R&B—made clear by the fact that there are three electric guitar players in the ensemble, in addition to a full horn section, two key players, bass, percussion, and drums. Recorded live in front of a small studio audience, this collection of fabulous compositions travels across a world of rhythm and harmony to create a diverse and engage song cycle even non-jazz fans will find interesting. Plus, I like the way they tastefully showcase a single soloist each piece, giving space to let their improv breathe while still keeping the compositions tight. Download: What About Me?” (watch this video and see what I mean)

  9. TV on the Radio – Seeds: Definitely the most interesting, if not the best, band to come out of the Brooklyn indie explosion in the ‘00s, TVOTR has served up a surprisingly upbeat record that is more “pop” than anything else I’ve heard from the band. Some critics have docked the record for this very reason, but that’s a big part of why I love it. In a year largely devoid of great live-band pop/rock, Seeds delivers, a perfectly timed year-end release to help you get all that Christmas music out of your head. Download:Quartz

  10. The Both – The Both: Prior to The Both, I had never heard of Ted Leo. Aimee Mann, however, is one of my favorite artists on the planet, so this new duo was a no brainer from the start. The real genius of the record, however, lies in the fact that this is a true collaboration; every song was written together and lead vocal duties are passed back and forth multiple times on each track. The result is a garage-friendly rock sound that allows The Both to stand apart from both Mann and Leo’s personal catalogs while giving old fans plenty to love. I really hope they get make another. Download:Volunteers of America

Honorable Mention goes to Tweedy’s Sukierae, an interesting and thoroughly enjoyable effort from Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, one of my favorite frontmen in the world, and his son Spencer.

What about you? What were your favorite records this year? 

fall is for (music) lovers

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In an effort to get the endless refrain of my son’s favorite show, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, out of my head (“Friends help each other, yes they do!”), I’ve decided to put on some headphones and make a calculated effort to reconnect with some tunes. I’ve always used music as a means of augmenting my mood rather than altering it. Seasons add their own layer to this emotional filter; even some of my favorite albums of all time only find favor at certain times of the year.  But fall, in particular, has this way of making music sound a little sweeter, the amber afternoon facade glow a little warmer, and the night breeze a little more imminent.

Most years I make a fall playlist for my wife and I to share. I’ve been reviewing the lists and notice some interesting variations, which prompts me to ask the question: what are my favorite fall records? I could easily over-think this so I will (giving you unwanted audience into my neurosis) and split the list into two categories: traditionally fall-sounding records (folk, americana, etc.) and non-traditionally fall-sounding records (mostly European pop, for some reason) that I can’t help but listen to when the air gets cool. So here we go in no particular order:

Traditionally Fall-ish Records:
– The Jayhawks: Rainy Day Music
– Wilco: Summerteeth
– HEM: Rabbit Songs
– Son Volt: Trace
– Neil Young: Harvest Moon
– Over the Rhine: Ohio

Less Traditional Fall-ish Records:
– Kent: Isola
– Radiohead: OK Computer
– Rogue Wave: Descended Like Vultures
– Ryan Adams: Love is Hell
– Efterklang: Piramida

How about you, what are your favorite “fall” records?

Okay, so I don’t really have a punchline. Par for this course, I guess.

I get the feeling that Jesus’ feelings on all this Hobby Lobby business could be summed up by something along the lines of:

Oh, we’re still talking about this?”

DISCLAIMER: Before I continue, I want to say that this post is directed at people who claim the teachings of Jesus. If you want political commentary, read another blog; if you’re curious, I welcome the conversation.

I’m going to venture a guess that not a single conservative who has passionately commented on this argument has ever truly experienced life without a freedom that isn’t exponentially greater than anything anyone else has ever experienced in the history of the world. The religious right’s obsession with politics in this country is the direct result of a safe, entertaining “gospel” that asks no greater sacrifices than occasionally looking a homeless person in the eyes. Okay, that was rather hyperbolic of me, but I believe it to be true. We are suffering from a tremendous lack of perspective.

Jesus, himself, and the faith that followed him was born in direct, life-threatening persecution and continued in it for hundred of years. Jesus never once directed his followers to do something about the political climate, to petition hearts and minds to revolt against the tyranny over them. Instead, he said to “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”, told all his followers to become fishers of men, and even took the actual militant political fanatic in his camp, a guy named Simon, and transformed him from someone who wanted to kill his oppressors into someone who was willing to die at their hands for his faith. The gospel is in every respect indifferent to the laws of the countries in which it is practiced and preached, and for most people worldwide who have claimed the faith, quite a dangerous belief to hold.

Yes, we are citizens of this country, and all this unprecedented freedom comes with a civic responsibility. If we do not appreciate and participate in this system that makes things so good for us, no matter which side you fall on (as if there are two neat sides anyway), we will eventually undo it all with our apathy. But I’m not particularly interested in dissecting the political ramifications of this ruling. Many smarter people than myself have made their analyses available in your feed and you can read and comment there.

But I do want to say this. Christians, political engagement is not our mission, and definitely not angry, reactionary, fear-based engagement of the sort that has surrounded this case for the last 18 months. Hobby Lobby’s victory is not a victory for our faith. Our faith needed no political victory, our gospel no ruling from a high court. It never has, and it never will. This comfort we enjoy is an incredibly rare blessing in the history of our faith and ultimately, our faith is indifferent to that comfort; it defies it, even. Please don’t let these kinds of cases and political issues become the focus of your energy, the robbers of your peace and the computational capacity of your intellect. The reason the gospel survived hundreds of years of violent persecution and more than a millennia of vicious, hypocritical in-fighting and misguided, well-documented forays into government is because Jesus’ true gospel was never about power, money, or ambition; it was about loving people, meeting their physical and spiritual needs, turning existing conventions of elitism and privilege on its head, and ultimately, doing the one thing no person on earth could ever possibly do. “Behold, I have come to make all things new.”

Let’s find something new to concern ourselves with, shall we?

The Cold Silence

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For many years I have found great comfort in winter. To brave the cold is to walk alone; to breathe it in is to remember that you are never alone. The cold air and low sky, as if by some magic, turn down the world and amplify rustling leaves and snapping twigs under foot. The low afternoon sun, when present, pierces bare branches like a flaming sword, cutting elaborate shadows into the fabric of ground decay. Walk an hour in the cold, hands planted deep in your pockets and collar pulled high, and you will find your mind sharp and bright and full of wonder. The earth’s long slumber is littered with life and a song of creation eager to be heard, and we are blessed to linger. 

It is with this in mind that winter plays its cruelest trick and foreshadows the coming spring. Walk outside on an unseasonably warm winter’s day and you will find people everywhere. Today, my coveted solitude is full of life, not the patient and delicate reminders I crave, but the brash rumbling of a motorcycle pacing the street and a half dozen kids running, yelling, and singing “Jingle Bells” at the top of their lungs. Yes, “Jingle Bells”. Spring is glorious and warm days are a precious blessing, but not today. Not in January. Kids, please don’t yell and run and play all over my silence. 

I came outside to write, but now I am agitated by the impromptu family reunion across the street; this winter’s afternoon I must work a little harder to find that precious solitude. So I surround myself with inspiration, every eventuality to chase the spark for which I so desperately wait: three books—fiction, poetry, and sacred; journal; pen with smooth, deliberate ink; vice in the form of coffee and pipe, both cold. 

There are days when writing is romantic and words flow like a song in my heart. Other days the labor of writing offers romance enough, and I feel like Hemingway, locked away in his drafty Parisian apartment tossing wood on the fire with bravado. And some days, today, I am a restless hitchhiker waiting on a ride, shifting my weight from foot to foot, the question of where I should go and what I should be doing resting on the shoulders of someone else. 

There in lies the greatest need for solitude. While great council lies in the experience and presence of people you trust, the door of self-examination is shut to all but yourself and vision in the darkness beyond requires the keenest state of the heart. But to engage the heart, you must first tame the mind, and my, how the mind wanders. 

One of the books at my side is The Return of the King. Every year in late December, I crave Tolkien’s writing. Certainly, love for these books brings me back year after year, but also the pace of the world within, the words and songs of its inhabitants, seem the perfect companion for the season of cold silence that follows Christmas. Great wisdom is born of great patience, and Tolkien’s creation is a timely testament to the discipline of patience and the urgent need for the wisdom it yields. 

Currently, my book is earmarked at the break between Books V and VI. This is the point in which Aragorn, to whom the title refers, finally leads the armies of men openly as their king to the gates of Mordor, an errand of almost certain death, in the hope they can divert the enemy’s wrath long enough for Frodo to complete his mission. King and company are just as uncertain of the fate of the ringbearer as is the reader, and Tolkien, in a masterful turn of storytelling, breaks from the drums of war and reminds us to be patient. 

These books are full of choices, both big and small, wise and foolish. People faced with the reality that their world is changing in dramatic and terrifying ways. People not only having to choose between the right and wrong way forward, but having to choose between the person they thought they were and the person life is asking them to be. I am particularly drawn to Aragorn, a man who has spent decades wandering, if not hiding, in the wild parts of the world, wondering if the bloodline of a long-lost noble race is strong enough to overcome the sins of his forefathers. He knows the role he must play, but he delays it as long as he possibly can. 

It may seem trite, but I really resonate with this. Every time I sit down to write, I cannot help but feel I am avoiding something that I know will one day be required of me. That’s a lot of pressure, not to create something people will read, but to create something true. Is that not what art requires of any writer—musician, painter, photographer—to do battle with oneself and the infringing world and offer up something personal and true? Is that not the charge of the Creator—to not settle for what you’ve been told, to test consensus, to dig deeper? 

So often the blank page is a cacophony. Too many voices. Too much to think about and second guess. Focus is bought only by a battle of the will yet that is the challenge; that’s why the end result is so rewarding. 

I am not afraid of being alone, but the cold makes it easier for the mind to rest. For that, I covet winter and its quiet, sense-bruising moments, and hold on to every last day. One day, I hope that this whole routine will get a little more natural, that the voices swirling in my head will shape up and march out single file in an orderly fashion. Or maybe I don’t want that at all. Maybe the hitchhiker is not waiting for someone to give direction. Perhaps simply showing up to wait is direction enough. I’m waiting. 

The Best of 2013

As we close out 2013, it is time again for me to undertake my semi-annual “Best Of” list for music, movies, books, and whatever else I think of before I finish writing this. This is not your traditional list. I do not consume enough media to make me an authority or provide any validity from a critical perspective. For this reason, think of the lists below as my favorite music, movies, books, and more of 2013*.

*Not all listings were released in 2013. I did my best but I’ve got a toddler, full time job, and a guitar habit so if I discovered it this year, it’s fair game. If you want a critical list, you’re on the wrong site.

The Best Music of 2013:

I know I missed some great records so please leave your recommendations in the comments. For each selection, I’ve recommended a track to download that I feel is a solid representation of the record as a whole.

1. Piramida – Efterklang: I have to thank NPR for this one. When the Danish indie trio heard the story of Piramida, a Soviet mining colony on a polar bear-infested island near in the Arctic Sea abandoned with nearly every building and amenity in tact, they grabbed their recording equipment and headed north. The captured sounds—foot steps, empty oil drums, glass windows, even an old grand piano—were taken back to Copenhagen where the band wrote an album’s worth of music around it. The result is a stunning, vibe-soaked masterpiece that goes as deep as your imagination will allow. Buy this record, put on some headphones, and just close your eyes. Download: Dreams Today

2. Wolf’s Law – The Joy Formidable: I discovered this Welsh trio through a Facebook post and by the time the song was over, I had bought both of their records. Start with Muse, strip away the spectacle, and put a petite, guitar-slaying woman with a blond bob at the front and you’ve got the idea. Ritzy Bryan and company mix a cocktail of pop, hard rock, and shoegaze into a dazzling wall of sound that’s the biggest I’ve heard from a trio since Rush (and that’s a high compliment from this author). This was the album my rock-starved heart didn’t know it was craving. Download: Little Blimp

3. Reflektor – Arcade Fire: The Suburbs was as good a record as any band could hope to make and the Toronto sextet certainly had their work cut out for them this time around. Drawing on (vocalist/drummer/wife of frontman Winn Butler) Régine Chassange’s Haitian roots and beat-savvy producer James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem), Reflektor explores some interesting rhythmic and electronic territory while still delivering a handful of their trademark restless anthems. It’s not their best album, but when a band is this good, such ranking is irrelevant. Download: It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)

4. Promises – The Boxer Rebellion: this London-based quartet, fronted by a guy from Maryville, Tennessee, continues to deliver some of my favorite indie pop in the world. Loaded with heart, drama, and gorgeous melodies, Promises is as wide and clear as a cold, blue winter sky. Download: Promises

5. Kveikur – Sigur Rós: the Icelandic post-rockers returned with a dramatic, powerful, and even, at times, poppy tour-de-force (and some creepy album art to boot). From apocalyptic war drums to lush, modern pop, this is the band’s most sweeping release since their timeless Takk almost 10 years ago. Download: Rafstraumur

Honorable Mention:

…Like Clockwork – Queens of the Stone Age: Some critics complained about the, at times, down-tempo sixth release from Josh Homme and company, but I want to ask, Are we listening to the same record?! This album is a rock and roll slap in the face, raw yet tight as a drum, and utterly satisfying to the very end. Download: My God Is The Sun

The Blessed Unrest – Sara Bareilles: My favorite mainstream pop record of the year. Bareilles is the real deal in a sea of over-hyped, dressed-up, auto-tuned drivel. Download: Satellite Call

The Best Books of 2013:

I can’t remember a year in which I’ve read as much—or as much worth reading. I’m excluding the re-reads and for each, I’ll recommend whether it’s worth buying or borrowing from a library or friend (or me, if you like).

1. The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling: I didn’t hear much in the way of positive press about this extraordinary book, but I think Rowling’s fame was working against her. The truth is that The Casual Vacancy is one of the most potent, compelling, and devastating studies in humanity I have ever encountered. This story haunted me for weeks; even now, like salt in the oats, this novel creates an insatiable thirst for gospel. Rowling has an incredible gift for character development, and this book indicates the post-Potter phase of her career will stand entirely on its own. Buy it.

2. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway: Read mostly at the beach, Papa’s trademark terse, direct narrative managed to shut out the warm sun and breeze and replace them the rain-soaked Alps and wind-tossed border lakes. I believed it, and that made it all the more bitter a pill to swallow. This was my first Hemingway, I’m ashamed to say, but it will certainly not be my last. Buy it.

3. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: Essential to our humanity or mere sick curiosity, true crime provides compelling insight in the heart of man and this masterpiece is one of the most engrossing tales I’ve read in years. I’m far from the first person to extol its virtue (or question his methods), but the way Capote explores the humanity of the murderers and unravels the final hours of the Clutter family was groundbreaking then and every bit as shocking, heartbreaking, and horrifying today. Buy it.

4. The Double Game by Dan Fesperman: Another NPR recommendation, Fesperman simultaneously gives homage to and revives the Cold War-era spy novel with this crackling scavenger hunt across eastern Europe. A former journalist, disgraced twenty years ago for accusing a best-selling novelist of being a double agent during the Cold War, comes home to find a cryptic note written on his typewriter imploring him to look again. The ensuing chase across Germany, Austria, and Poland finds ghosts of the Soviet age at every turn and blurs fiction and fact in the perfect summer read. Borrow it. 

5. Manage Your Day-to-Day by Jocelyn K. Glei: By far and away the most practical, useful book about the day-to-day life of the professional creative I have ever read. No self-righteous waxing about “creativity”; just good, essential advice from people who know how to get down to work. This is a must have for any writer, designer, or musician. Buy it.

Honorable Mention:

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith/J. K. Rowling: If The Casual Vacancy proved Rowling’s chops as a serious novelist, this crime thriller, penned under a pseudonym, proves her Potter-era knack for engaging story lives on, as well. It’s an exciting read with a not-too-preachy commentary of today’s celebrity culture. I hope Robert Galbraith writes another.

Inferno by Dan Brown: After reading a string of heavy books, the latest Robert Langdon novel was just the thing. Brown isn’t a great writer, but his clever mix of fiction, historical research, and real-world detail make his books as binge-worthy as a new season of LOST.

The Best Movies of 2013 (that I saw):

This list feels hollow as two of my very favorite film makers, the Coen Brothers and Spike Jonze, both have new films I’ve yet to see. These were the best I did see:

1. Much Ado About Nothing: What did Joss Whedon do to detox after making The Avengers? He invited his closest actor and actress friends to his home in Santa Monica and filmed a black-and-white, modern-day take on this Shakespeare comedy classic. The simplicity of it all was refreshing—Whedon didn’t even bother to remove the stuffed animals from his daughter’s bedroom—and the cast’s natural chemistry and love for their craft shown through in every scene. This was pure joy from start to finish.

2. Saving Mr. Banks: I cried. It’s true. Despite the fact I have never seen Mary Poppins and have no emotional attachment to it, this movie had my heart on a string from the first scene. Emma Thompson is such a wonderfully expressive actress, Colin Farrell absolutely shines, and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney is, well…I just wanted to give him a hug. One of the least cynical films I’ve seen in years.

3. American Hustle: David O. Russell makes smart movies that in the hands of a lesser talent would feel frantic and sloppy. Opening with the hilarious disclaimer, “Some of this actually happened,” this account of the FBI’s ABSCAM sting in the late 1970s manages to be both hilarious and stressful, thanks to great performances, some absurd fashion and set pieces, and a plot rife with peril for every player.

4. Iron Man 3: Several years ago, I wrote a long post about the surprisingly deep and heartfelt Iron Man. It was and remains, in my opinion, one of the best examples of the superhero genre Hollywood has to offer. The sequel was high on excitement but failed to deliver on an emotional level so I was anxious to see what Shane Black would do with this one. Much to my delight, Iron Man 3 included the brave choice of depriving Tony Stark of his signature suit for well over a third of the movie. Vulnerable and no longer able to go it alone, we once again see that something much deeper than science powers that iron heart.

The Best of Everything Else:

Fatherhood: My baby boy is a toddler now. He talks, he runs, he laughs. He plays games and loves when his mama reads to him. He tells us what music he wants to listen to (especially Blur, Rubber Soul, and Zooey Deschanel/She & Him) and wants to be outside even if it’s cold and raining. Despite my best efforts to screw things up, he is a joy and blossoms with every passing day.

The Village Chapel: The hardest thing we did in 2013 was move to a new church home. It’s a longer story than would be appropriate here, but we stepped out in faith and God, in turn, has been faithful to us. We are grateful for this church community.

No More Twitter: I hoped 2013 would be a year of intentional interaction with people and as a start, I gave up Twitter. The idea was to reduce noise and eliminate the illusion of community the constant stream of information provides. This was just a first step, but so far, I’m encouraged.

The Newsroom: This is the age of the anti-hero, and compelling as the Walter White and Don Drapers of the TV world are, it’s refreshing to see a little good will here and there. I’m not sure why more people don’t love this show—maybe it’s not cynical enough—but Aaron Sorkin’s take on what might happen if a news show quit trying to sell advertising and started reporting what matters was the most refreshing television we watched this year. (Though Homeland was probably the most entertaining. No season 3 spoilers, please!)

So how about you? What did you love in 2013? Cheers and a Happy New Year!

A blog about blogging…

I should be working. That’s what I sat down to do. It’s 9:30 P.M. on a Wednesday so that’s not exactly what I want to be doing…which explains why I’ve been noodling on my Strat and watching YouTube videos of The Joy Formidable. What a great band.

Writing for a living is a double-edged sword, especially when you believe in the work you do. While the infrequency of posts on this blog is no indication, I actually write every day. Specifically, I write marketing and advertising collateral for a large, non-profit publisher (I’m like Peggy on Mad Men, except totally not like her at all). There are a lot of exciting things happening, new visions and initiatives, and I’m getting to work on some great stuff with some really talented people. The volume of work we’re doing is actually the primary reason why I rarely ever post a blog any more. Except that’s not entirely true.

This blog (and it’s predecessor) have always been a place for my mind to wander, a place to hash out the ideas and feelings I can’t put words to (and to occasionally geek out about F1 and my guitar heroes). Sometimes it’s been fluff, but I’ve had some pretty significant “A Ha” moments just trying to make sense of a feeling. And I miss that.

It’s not my work that keeps me from blogging. I just rarely take the time to do it anymore. Sure, there are nights like tonight where I really need to spend some time catching up during a busy week, but mostly, I sit down, I type a few sentences, delete them, type a few more, and close my computer. My documents folder is slowly becoming like Guy Pierce’s tattoos in Momento— lots of little fragments to make sense of every time I want to write; the more time that passes, the harder it is to put them together. The longer I go without posting, the more pressure I put on myself to write something good. And the more I think about who’s reading—as grateful as I am for you—the less I want to write.

But tonight I’m feeling encouraged. I got a letter in the mail today completely out of the blue. A real letter, written with a fountain pen, six pages long. SIX PAGES. While I intend to fill my fountain pen with fresh ink and reply like a man, I feel inclined here to express my gratitude for some very kind words from a very authentic man. My friend’s letter has reminded me how much I miss this—that what matters most is actually saying what you want to say, not thinking about how people are going to react to it.

If I’ve learned anything during these last three years as a copywriter, it’s that writing isn’t something you do because you feel like it. This is hard work without a hint of the glamour I once believed all writers relished (we can’t all pull off the white suit, Tom Wolfe). But when I put my butt in the chair and fight through the chaff, man…it never lets me down.

So…I’m not making any promises about what’s going to happen here. I might write 2,000 rambling words about frost on dead leaves, try to persuade you that Neil Finn deserves a seat at Simon and McCartney’s table, or create a critically irrelevant “Best Of” list just because I feel like it. But I know that if I do, I’ll discover something new in the process.

Thank you, Hamilton. I’ll be back.