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Communion…

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The clamor has ceased. Silence has settled throughout the house, save the occasional creak and pop brought by the warming afternoon sun. Long shadows paint art deco studies in shape across the nearly century-old floors of my childhood home. Upstairs two boys sleep, my own sweet son, and Charlie, the bright-eyed second-born of my sister, golden hair of wired curls. My family is scattered, most at a ballgame, and the rest shopping. All the remains now is the ringing in my ears, the constant reminder of my foolish obsession with loud headphones and amplifiers, and the muted ticks of my keyboard.

A teacher I admire once wrote, “All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God.” Life is sacrament. I believe this. I am reminded every time I stop long enough to acknowledge that something is good. I feel the longing for God in the absence of good, in the heartache and devastation so prevalent in life. In all things, if we allow it, if we pause for it, if we simply learn to rest, lies the beating pulse of a divine presence. When we acknowledge it, we break the bread and drink from the cup of our inner awareness, and into solemn gratitude we descend. We breathe deep and commune with our Father who loves us and who longs to make himself known to us.

In this quietude I pause and give thanks for these and many other blessed gifts.

  • A wife who lives and loves with such transparency the only mystery that remains is how I could possibly deserve her.
  • A son who smiles and squeals and babbles and drips drool across the floor as he crawls. Every moment fills my heart.
  • A family who, on every side, at every turn, loves and celebrates life with my own growing family.
  • The reverberant hum of wood and steel in my hands.
  • The alchemy of voltage, vacuum tubes, resistors, and paper-coned magnets that speak it to life.
  • The unexpected word or question from an interested friend.
  • The pulpy smell of pencil on paper.
  • Crunching leaves under foot.
  • Books with words and tales that meddle within.
  • The gift of language and words that command respect yet bend and bow to our needs, our desires, our hopes, and our fears.
  • The privilege to use language in service of greater ideals.
  • The opportunity to call it work.
  • The endless complexity and goodness of something so simple as a cup of coffee.
  • The silver refraction of light in a spider’s web.
  • The supple conformity of a pair of well-worn ankle boots.
  • Music, from sparse to tumultuous, consonant to dissonant, in all its color and harmony.
  • The regular arrival of magazines that inspire and give voice and form to life.
  • The stunning show of mortal struggle called Fall.
  • A Father who loves us enough to forgive us and who sings his gospel song over us in so many known and unknown ways.

As this long weekend draws to a close, may your thoughts and reflections of thanksgiving lead you into a life of communion. Grace and peace to you.

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Are you a fan? You should be.

Tuesdays are good days at our local indie record shop. Today was a particularly good Tuesday. I nearly ran to my car, zigged and zagged through construction downtown, and hastily parked across the better part of two spaces at the business next door. Fingers and thumbs parted the new release rack like Moses’ staff and in no time, I was standing at the register with my new copy of Charmer—it even came with a nice 7” single.

Charmer is the eighth album by L.A.-based singer-songwriter Aimee Mann. While she’s not exactly a household name, you film buffs know Aimee for her soundtrack work on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (Anderson actually claims the entire movie was written around her music), including the absolutely stunning “Save Me”, played in its entirety under one of my very favorite scenes in all of cinema. Big Lebowski fans, you’ll know Aimee as the pancake-loving German nihilist girlfriend who sacrificed her little toe in the name of blackmail. She also appeared on a recent episode of Portlandia, playing herself as a cleaning lady taking odd jobs to compensate for a struggling recording industry. She’s even Sean Penn’s sister-in-law, married to the tremendously talented and under-rated singer-songwriter Michael Penn.

But however you do or don’t know her, the simple fact remains that Aimee Mann is one of the most gifted songwriters alive and one of my very favorite artists. This is why:

Aimee Mann is a master lyricist. You don’t have to spend a lot of time with Aimee’s music to figure this out. Equal parts dazzling poetics and heartbreaking meditation of life’s more complicated issues, Mann crafts words with all the technical prowess of Paul Simon and all the clever wit of Ben Gibbard. One personal favorite is “The Moth”:

The moth don’t care if the flame is real. ‘Cause flame and moth have a sweetheart deal. And nothing fuels a good flirtation like pain and anger and desperation.

I find I’m just as likely to laugh at the skill of a lyric as I am to wince at the bitter reality lurking under the surface. Jason Gray wrote a fabulous essay about Mann’s music called “Salt in the Oats”. If you want to dig deeper, I’d start there.

No other songwriter inhabits their subjects better. Aimee Mann is either extremely compassionate or hopelessly cynical. Either way, she has an incredible knack for getting into the mind of her subjects. Her 2002 masterpiece, Lost in Space, is an exploration of the L.A. drug culture. For someone who is, herself, not a drug user, Mann paints a devastating picture of addiction: This is how it goes. You’ll get angry with yourself and think you can think of something else and I’ll hear the clanging of the bells cause I can’t stop you baby.

The Forgotten Arm is a remarkably human concept album about a down-and-out boxer working on a comeback—both at home and in the ring. Consider “Going Through the Motions”:  Life just kind of empties out, less a deluge than a drought, less a giant mushroom cloud than an unexploded shell. And her latest, Charmer, examines social and relational dynamics, including the false self we present in the name of being liked: But when you’re weak it’s the Holy Grail, you’re two for one, it’s a fire sale, and that’s a wall that you cannot scale so you’re forced to burrow under.

Ouch. And this is pop music, people.

No other songwriter dives so deeply into these kinds of subjects, and Aimee Mann makes it look easy.

Aimee Mann defies industry convention. Let’s be honest, she’s not exactly a great singer, and she doesn’t look like your conventional pop star. But underneath there’s a confidence, humor, and artistic conviction that throws mud in the face of every dressed up wanna-bee courting the labels in L.A.. Plus, she’s been indie since before indie was cool, launching her own Super Ego records in 1999.

Her records are a glorious displays of production and musicianship. Mann writes interesting songs, full of interesting chord changes. But she also surrounds herself with remarkable musicians. Her early work with the incomparable Jon Brion (I’m With Stupid and Whatever) is some of the most interesting power pop I’ve ever heard. Brion’s guitar work is shockingly, even laughably good. And their voices. Made for each other.

Her creative partnership with Michael Lockwood yielded some of the best songs of her career, including much of the Magnolia soundtrack, and completely changed the way I play the guitar. The Lockwood-produced Lost in Space is a masterclass is space and texture, pitting Mann’s dark and muted vocals against glassy slide guitar and orchestral horns. The result is a lo-fi drive through the bitter, shimmering veins of L.A. County. Put this on my desert island.

Her more recent work with bassist/producer Paul Bryan finds Mann in new territory, including the vibey and nearly perfect Christmas record One More Drifter in the Snow, the entirely electric guitar-less @#%&*! Smilers, and, of course, the new Charmer. I’m just getting started here, but I’m three listens through, and I’m already hooked.

In short, Aimee Mann is the best kind of artist. Her appeal is learned but lasting, and her talent rewards years of careful listening. In other words, the more you put in, the more you’ll get out. It’s a promise few artist can back, but then again, it’s a skill few artists possess. Are you fan? I sure am.

Horizon

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Imagine a horizon. Close your eyes. Go ahead. I’ll wait. 

What did you see? Was it a spectacular sunset? Or was it a sunrise? Were there trees and hills? Or maybe the ocean? Whenever I imagine a horizon, I see the desert, a long road to nowhere disappearing over the horizon. I don’t know where the road goes, and the sun is usually setting. I’m going to wager a guess that you pictured a sunset, too. We like sunsets. We like to post pictures of sunsets we take with tiny cameras embedded in phones that were built in factories cleaner than most hospitals—the setting sun, disappearing behind a line on the horizon, immortalized as 0s and 1s forever destined to wander server farms and airwaves, never to be held, never to be seen for what it really is. 

What is a horizon? It is the place where two things come together. Not just any two things. It is where the earth and the sky come together. No matter where in the world you are, that’s always what it is. Other things that come together, what they are depends on where you are. Streets make an intersection. Highways make a junction. Two boards make a joint. Two walls a corner. 

People don’t like to feel cornered. No child wants to be relegated to the corner. No adult wants to feel stuck between two decisions. Two undesirable options. Two different worlds. 

Isn’t that what a horizon really is? Just a corner where the earth and sky come together, the intersection of those things subject to gravity and those things that are not. Sure, birds fly. So do airplanes, and satellites. But all according to the terms of the earth. And we’re stuck in the middle, in the corner. Scientifically, that last statement appears problematic. Then again, it’s hot in my house, and I’m listening to Pink Floyd in the dark. 

Imagine the sky. Space. The heavens. Close your eyes. Go ahead. I’ll wait. 

Is it humbling? If it’s not, you need to work on your imagination. Consider us, bound to a giant rock, hurtling through space at a million miles an hour. Now think back to the sky. I see two alternatives. Either what lies beyond is meaningless, and this is all that matters. Or everything beyond, in all its shocking, mysterious expanse houses all the answers to why any and everything could possibly matter and everything here on this rock is just meaningless by comparison. And here we are in the middle, trying to decide. Cornered.

Imagine your horizon again. Is it beautiful? Of course it is. That’s why you remember it. What makes it beautiful? In a life full of complicated, grey matters a horizon is certain. The line, no matter how jagged, is always there. For something caught between two states of existence, a horizon is a terribly confident thing. And if we’re caught in the middle, are we not entitled, then, to share in its confidence? That all depends on what we believe about either side. 

We love certainty. We look for the most convenient explanation to cancel out any lingering uncertainty. We see people as angry, bigoted, drunk, or dysfunctional when in reality they are deeply hurt and wounded. We view art in definite terms defined by our personal taste when every other person on the planet has their own taste and definition of what art is. We set science against spirituality, as if every person who believes in something bigger than themselves is ignorant and everyone who doesn’t is an enemy of those who do (to be fair, self-righteous, religious behavior brings this on itself). 

But what if we choose to embrace uncertainty? What if we invest ourselves in the people who are not like us? What if we let go our definitions and see the old as new? What if science and spirituality are not at odds, and we’re all too defensive to see it? After all, wouldn’t anything truly worth devoting a life to be bigger than explanation? And wouldn’t the exploration of such a mystery give deeper meaning to those things we can explain? In turn, the things we could explain would give us a glimpse of the character of that which we cannot. Instead, we arrogantly believe that because anything can be explained with certainty, then it is not possible for anything truly unexplainable to exist. And what kind of sense does that make?

I’m still sitting in the dark, but now I’m listening to Sigúr Ros. It’s so beautiful it hurts. But why is it beautiful? Is it because I am psychologically predisposed to find certain frequency intervals appealing? Or is it because it moves me to dream and imagine other beautiful things like snow in a field or the line of a horizon? Why can’t both things be true? I believe it is this tension that gives both order and meaning to life, that the more we understand, the more we discover there is that we do not. It is the immensity of what we do not understand that forces us to acknowledge that we are not as significant as we think we are. And it is what we learn along the way that reminds us it is good any way. 

We are not cornered, we are in between. We are becoming. And that is what I choose to remember every time I see the horizon. 

On having a son.

When I was 9 years old, my dad took me to the Grand Canyon. I had a yellow jacket from L.L. Bean with a small thermometer attached to the zipper by a key ring. We walked to the edge, patchy snow among the evergreens, and he asked me something like, “Can you hear the Canyon speaking? What is it saying?”

“I’m big and I’m scary,” was my reply, a fitting response for a 9 year old perched on the edge of the most godlike natural feature on earth. My dad wrote an article about it, which was published in a travel magazine with a nice watercolor painting of me in my yellow jacket on the Canyon’s edge; my mom framed a copy to hang on his office wall. There, on the wall in a cherry frame and covered in glass is timeless testimony to a simple fact: my dad enjoyed being my dad.

Fast-forward twenty years and I’m perched on another ledge. The great mystery in front of me is every bit as vast and mysterious as before, only this time it’s not a canyon—it’s a son. My son. Assuming all goes according to plan, sometime in the next 2-3 weeks I will become a dad.

The simple fact that you are far from the first person to become a father doesn’t mean that you are any more prepared to become a father yourself. When it comes to most everything else you do for the first time over the span of your life, you can read, prepare, educate, and train yourself for the moment in which you put all that knowledge into use; with equal measures of faith and confidence the moment passes and the doubt fades. There are a few exceptions, I believe: the death of a loved one, which I have experienced, and the birth of a child, your own child. How can anyone possibly prepare you for what it’s like to grow another heart?

As feelings of joy and fear swirl in this jumbled brain of mine, I try to imagine the day to day. He wakes up, hopefully after I do. He loses patience while I fumble with his diaper, trying not to get poop on my hands—I fail. He sits and plays in the floor while I drink coffee and try to make him laugh. The laughter is the best sound in the world, I’m convinced. Inevitably, I’ll have to go to work and his mother will take over. Sarah, by the way, is already an expert on the matter, and the next 9 hours pass without incident. I come home to find him in the middle of something, another world in his little head, and I try to join the adventure. Then comes dinner with vegetable puree streaking down his chin, another fidgety diaper removal, and he’s in the bathtub. Stories and songs will follow, the lights go out, and after a moment of crying, he’s asleep. Whew.

I’d be a fool to think it will actually all happen like that, but routine gives order to the uncertainty. And that’s what I’m looking for: certainty. Reassurance that I wont screw it up. Of course I’ll eventually put a diaper on crooked and then somewhere in the middle of Costco he’ll start crying, poop dripping from his pants. Diapers can be changed; that’s not what I’m worried about. My fears run to a deeper uncertainty. How will I shape who he is as a man?

There is a man in there. One that will go to school, pick a college, a major, a career, then maybe a different career. He’ll pick a wife. He’ll make decisions about whether or not he’s going to get trashed with his friends, see if his first car will do 100 miles per hour (mine did), look at pornography, or listen to his mom and dad. He’ll have children of his own, a temper all his own, his own tastes in art and music. He might hate to read, though I hope not. He’ll contemplate the existence of God and Jesus and, I pray, develop a faith of his own. There’s a whole life to be lived gestating inside my wife’s womb, and I don’t know the first thing about how any of it will turn out. Yet somehow I’m supposed to raise him like I do.

A friend of mine once said, “It’s not a matter of whether or not you’ll mess your kids up, but how much.” How’s that for scary? I may not know, but I can hope and allow that hope to become an intentional presence in my son’s life. When we play in the floor, I can leave my phone in another room. I can make up stupid songs or ramble ad-nauseum on the ins and outs of British tube amplifiers. When he is a teenager and desperately wishes to avoid his parent’s inquisition, I can maintain my presence without allowing my feelings to be hurt or wondering what has happened to my son. Wherever he is and whoever he becomes, I can be proud because he is my son.

His presence already surrounds me. Sitting on our couch, I am no more than three feet from a pile of his freshly folded laundry. Down the hall, I can see the doorway to his room where his bed awaits, sheets and all. Toys and books stand at attention for the day he can grab them, knock them over, and laugh in joy for their presence. People keep telling us to make the most of these last few weeks before he comes, to catch up on our sleep. Parents of screaming children will pass us and say, “See what you have to look forward to?” What kind of outlook is that? The parents of the world seem to view parenthood as a sentencing. I know that I will be tired and that there will be tantrums and that it will be hard. But if my only goal in the course of a day is to figure out how to make my kids as quiet as possible so I can play with my iPhone in peace, then I have failed.

No, I want to be the kind of parent that looks for opportunities to spend time with my son. I want to have the presence of mind to ask him questions about life’s wonders and mysteries. I want to be constantly reminded of my selfishness and to fight against it with a pure and God-given love for my child I cannot begin to understand. And like my dad—and mom—who spent my entire childhood finding different ways to spend our time together, I will enjoy my son.

2011: A Year in Review

It is time once again for me to think back on my favorite things of 2011. I am no critic, and this list is by no means definitive. If you think this list sucks, you’re welcome to read Rolling Stone. This is, simply, the music, books, movies, and events I enjoyed most this year.

Now, a couple of quick notes. While all the records below were released in 2011, the books are just ones that I read in 2011; I’m not that current with literature. We also didn’t get to the movies much this year so I’m only listing three of those. I’ve also added some recommendation fields, including suggested tracks to download or whether a book is worth buying or borrowing. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

The Best Music of 2011:

1. The Whole Love – Wilco: The Chicago Sextet’s 8th studio release marks a return to their Summerteeth-era pop roots, straying (mostly) away from the frantic, post-rock jams of their last few records. I lost track of time humming and tapping my foot along with The Whole Love, now one of my favorite release from one of my favorite bands. Download: Dawned on Me

2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver: In an era where the indie cutting edge prefers the erratic to the beautiful, Bon Iver managed to make the genre’s best of the year the most beautiful, as well. I dare you to find another record this side of 1990 that uses electric piano and soprano sax without the faintest sense of irony. Download: Holocene

3. So Beautiful or So What – Paul Simon: When you’ve written as many songs as Paul Simon, the fact that he has enough material to do a new record is remarkable enough. The fact is, Paul Simon is experiencing a bloom in late life creativity. His last two records are stunning masterpieces of lyric and texture, and this album is proof that unlike most of his old singer/songwriter peers, he’s still got it. Download: Dazzling Blue

4. Build a Rocket Boys!  – Elbow: While the rest of British rock has spent the last 10 years trying to out-art Radiohead or tap into Coldplay’s anthemic success, Elbow has managed to thrive swimming upstream, writing gorgeous pop music better suited to a concert hall than a rock club and owning the radio anyway—at least in Britain. Not only is it my favorite album title of the year, but it also features my favorite track. Download: Lippy Kids

5. The King of Limbs – Radiohead: I make no effort to hide that Radiohead is my favorite band so a new record, even one as short and confusing as this one, is a very big deal. With each listen, order has emerged in the chaos and Limbs holds its own with the best of their catalog. Download: Give Up The Ghost

Honorable Mention:

21 – Adele: The best mainstream pop album of the year, hands-down. Download: Rolling in the Deep

The Cold Still – The Boxer Rebellion: A perfect winter record. I love this band. Download: The Runner

The Best Books of 2011:

1. The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene: This story of a disgraced, alcoholic priest is not only the best book I read this year, but probably one of the best I’ve ever read. Greene’s stunning storytelling and poetic use of prose left me speechless and moved me to tears. Buy it.

2. The War of Art – Steven Pressfield: The best book on writing I’ve ever read. If you’ve ever struggled with any discipline, this book is a must read. Buy it.

3. Where Men Win Glory – Jon Krakauer: I reviewed this on the blog a few weeks back, but I’ll recap by saying that there’s no writer of non-fiction I enjoy more than Krakauer. He managed to tell a story to which we all know the ending in a way that sucked me in and broke my heart just the same. Pat Tillman was quite a man. Borrow it.

4. The Dogs of Riga – Henning Mankell: This Kurt Wallander mystery is a captivating tale of civil unrest in the former Soviet republic of Latvia that I couldn’t put down. Contrary to what the bestseller list says, Mankell is Sweden’s best mystery writer, thanks to the deep social and cultural awareness of his stories, and his use of a fragile, human hero that defies hard-nosed noir stereotypes. Borrow it.

5. The Girl Who Played with Fire – Stieg Larrsen: I read the whole series this year, but the second installment is definitely the best. These are brutal stories, but not for brutality’s sake. Instead, they shed a light on abuse and sex trafficking, and manage to make a journalist and a computer hacker into believable action heros. Borrow it.

The Best Movies (I saw) of 2011:

1. Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen’s latest inspired so many good feelings in me that I still can’t stop gushing over it, nearly 8 months later. I wrote about it at length when it came out so instead I’ll just say, watch it, then watch it again.

2. Senna: To a motor racing fan, the name Ayrton Senna invokes the same sort of feeling that Muhammad Ali might a boxing fan, or Jackie Robinson a baseball fan. This extraordinary documentary is the first of its kind, using nothing but archive footage to tell the story—no present-day narration—most of it from Senna, himself. This man of deep faith was a hero to his native Brazilians, and a reckless, brilliant talent behind the wheel of an F1 car. This is worth more than one viewing, whether you like racing or not, and the telling of the great Senna/Prost rivalry is up there with the best in all of sports history. As one review stated, Senna was, “The best superhero movie of the year.”

3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2: It’s a rare gift to experience a series of stories that actually rewards the effort in the end. I love these stories, and the cinematic conclusion was everything I go to the movies for. If you read and saw them, you’ll agree. If you’re on the fence about whether or not its worth your time, it is. The movies let us live in the stories just a little bit longer, and I’m sad to see Harry, Hermoine, Ron, and the gang go.

The Best of Everything Else:

1. Pregnancy – Did I mention we’re having a baby? The roller coaster ride of finding out your wife is pregnant is a rare and exceptional joy.

2. California – Sometimes I think the coast of Central and Northern California is some sort of spiritual home to me. Sarah and I’s last pre-parent vacation was simply sublime.

3. A New Job – I always wanted to be a professional writer. 2011 is the year that became a reality. It’s harder than I thought, but worth every second.

4. The 2011 Formula One Season – This season saw more overtaking and better competition in the mid-field teams than any season in history. I actually managed to watch every single race. So good.

5. Kairos – I started playing guitar at this young adult ministry over the summer, and have found a musical outlet I didn’t even realize I needed.

Look to the Sky

I have to write this; it is a matter of urgency. You see, there is this trend around Christmas. I wasn’t sensitive to it until after college when the three weeks of lazy, James Bond marathon watching was no longer a viable way to pass the time. For the last 5 years, my Christmas break has been as short as two days but never longer than four and always chaotic. At first, I dubbed it annoying. This year, it’s subversive at best.

No doubt this is a special time of the year. Music sounds happier, lights look prettier, and good will has a way of pouring out of even the most sour of lips. Any other time of year, these sort of things would be downright miraculous. At Christmas, they’re the norm. I like the way Christmas makes me feel.

But Christmas is also the busiest time of year. As Ray Charles sang, “Christmas is the time of year to be with the ones you love.” This is true, and my wife and I are fortunate to love and be loved by many. Getting all of these people into our lives, however, is no easy task. Add to it gifts that need bought, work that needs done by year’s end, parties that need planning, and so on, then tie it all together, and you’re left with one hot mess of a holiday with a month’s worth of activity crammed into a week. Don’t get me wrong, these are all very good things, but I’m sick of what Christmas has become.

I can’t blame anyone. it’s not the stores’ fault, putting out their decorations in September. We support them with our money—it’s an expectation we’ve set. It’s not the fault of people who say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. I can’t expect people who don’t believe in the Christian origins of Christmas to uphold its sanctity. And it’s not the giving of gifts. In fact, if we give gifts the right way, we should be reminded of God’s gift to us—Jesus.

The blame, it seems, is entirely my own. I commit to too much. I worry too much about buying the right gifts without overdrafting. I spend too much time thinking about what I want. While we Christians are quick to remind people that Christmas is really about Jesus, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we will see that this holiday is really all about us.

Jesus…just saying it out loud as I type feels like a breath of fresh air.

Next Christmas will be different; we’re already talking about it and what we will do differently. A plan is in place and we’re excited—there will be a time to talk about that later. This is the last year I think about Christmas and wonder what in the world happened. Even still, there are three days left, and this much is clear: Christmas is not about me. When I make it about me, I stress and run myself ragged, wondering where the season went.

This year, with the time we have left, may we be like the magi. They didn’t miss Jesus because they were looking for his sign in the stars. Rather than buckling down and trying to find the path of least resistance through these next three days, I’m going to look to the sky.

Where Men Win Glory: A Review

The writing of Jon Krakauer, whose work illuminates the motives—and fate—of those who live on the ragged edge of humanity, has long been among my favorite. As a writer of non-fiction, I hold him in esteem with the most eloquent and compelling writers of contemporary fiction. It is this principle reason, not the subject, that led me to first open his most recent work, Where Men When Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. But is the subject, not the writing, that haunts me now that it is finished.

Like most every other person in this country, I heard a great deal about Pat Tillman, the undersized, star defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals who turned down a career in the NFL to enlist in the army after 9/11. I knew that he had died in Afghanistan. I knew that he detested celebrity and did not want his career in the Army documented. I knew that he was an atheist, a point noted with sadness, disappointment, and even disdain in some Christian cultures after his death.

But there were things that I didn’t know. For instance, prior to 9/11 and his last season in the NFL, Tillman, who was making league minimum playing for the pitiful Cardinals, was offered $9 million to go play for the St. Louis Rams. He turned it down, saying that he owed his career to the good faith of the Cardinal’s franchise and the people of Arizona. It was the later, multi-million dollar contract extension by the Cardinals he turned down to become an Army Ranger most of us know about. I was unaware of Tillman the philosophy-loving intellectual, or the fiercely loyal friend, or the man who genuinely regarded doing the right thing to be the most important thing and actually did it—a belief that led him to enlist, despite his disapproval of the war. And finally, prior to reading Krakauer’s book, I also did not know that Tillman was killed by friendly fire, nor that the details of his death were covered up by the Pentagon.

After his death, Tillman was paraded through the news as a hero. While his actions were certainly heroic, the reality in which he died, and my unawareness of it, is just the first glimpse of one of the most nauseating, infuriating accounts of cover-up and propaganda I have ever encountered. Not only was the truth hidden from the Tillman family, Rangers present at the incident were ordered by superiors to lie, orders that can be traced—and documented—all the way to White House. The various accounts, testimonies, letters, and emails found by Krakauer and the Tillman family bear witness to the length people are willing to go to cover their own butts. It’s a conspiracy more fascinating than fiction.

Krakauer is a remarkable writer, and Where Men Win Glory is a remarkable book. The combination of biography, Southern Asian history, descriptions of battle, and investigative journalism is second to none.

But more than that, I am humbled by Pat Tillman, the man. On the surface, he is the very ideal of the sort of hero boys dream of becoming. Below the surface, it is Tillman’s reality, his humility, reckless temper, unbridled passion, and desire to respect and understand others that makes him endearing to readers. It is the Pat I did not hear about on TV that made this book worth reading—and the reality of his death all the more disturbing to read.

I highly recommend it.