Fly Fishing Trip

A short story dedicated to a friend, Jonathan

The fly was an olive green color, and in the grey cloudlight you could see a golden shimmer from the tinsel-like thread that wrapped around its fat inch-long body as it danced feet above the clear blue waters of the Watauga River. 

The fisherman stood waist deep in the ripples whipping the fly above him four, five, six times. With every forward motion he shot out a little more of the heavy orange line with his left hand. His right forearm moved in sync with his torso. He brought the line behind his body one final time, and when it laid out flat he cast it forward and released. The line shot through the guides of his rod and fell 15 yards upstream into a deep pool.

After it settled at the bottom, the man stripped in line a few inches at a time until it was close enough that he could pick it up and go directly into a back cast. The dance continued every time he brought in the line.

“There’s a hundred things that can go wrong when you’re fly fishing,” the fisherman told his companions outside his truck that morning while assembling his rods beside the river. “Trout are damn smart.”

The sky had darkened since morning. The wind was strong, but the water was calm enough in the pool. His eyes hidden behind black polarized sunglasses, the fisherman tracked any changes in the conditions. The fly he threw was heavy, unlike the nymphs he kept in the fly box in the left breast pocket of his fishing vest. 

“Big flies catch big fish,” he said. “A big fish sitting in a hole ain’t gonna swim out for what ain’t a full meal.”

Time passed unnoticeably as dying leaves rustled in the trees and fell to the river’s edges. Braced in the fast-moving water, the fisherman cast until he felt a strike. His reaction was sudden and instinctive. He lifted the rod tip to the sky. The line tightened, bending the top half of the rod as the fish tugged heavy on the other end of the line.

“Fish on!” he yelled. His friends, who had fanned out along the river, turned and watched. 

The fish fought furiously, turning the fisherman left and right. The tension in the line was the same as in his body; his jaw clenched, eyes focused on the fight beneath the water. He stripped in line a wrist’s length at a time, trying to bring the fish closer to him so he could bring down his net. It gave little, bending the rod tip downward. The fisherman had no choice but to release the line slightly so it wouldn’t snap.

“Don’t break off,” he repeated under his breath, his drag clicking. “Steady, boy. Steady.”

Minutes passed: five, ten. The tugging was relentless. The fish endured like a boxer in the late rounds of a championship bout. The fisherman was patient like a painter careful not to smudge the colors and ruin the canvas. Very slowly, the trout relented. When the fish was at an arm’s length, the fisherman brought down the net hanging from his vest and scooped it inside.

Releasing a breath, he shut his eyes then opened them to admire the fish. A brown, nearly two feet long. The trout was tawny green in some places, in others more like the olive green of the woolly bugger hanging from the side of its upper jaw. Its belly was fat and yellowish. Along its sides were brown, black, and dark red spots with pale blue halos encircling them. A heavenly fish. 

He kept its body partly in the water and watched its breathing.

“Well, you put up a fight,” the fisherman said to the fish. He wet his hands, then grabbed it and took out the hook. One of his companions had come up river watching the fight. He stood beside him with his phone out to snap a picture.

The fish was too heavy to hold with one hand. The fisherman let his net drop into the water, then brought the fish up near his chest.

“This one’s a beauty,” he said, kneeling in the river while his friend took his picture. “Man, I thought I was gonna lose him.”

They examined the fish together for a moment. The sun was setting, and the wind struck their chests through their shirts.

“Now this is how you release a fish,” the fisherman said, holding the fish in the water by its tail. “This one put up a strong fight, so he’s tired. You move him back and forth, and you’ll feel when he’s ready to go.”

After a few months, the fisherman removed his hand and the fish slowly disappeared underneath the water into the ripples beyond him. 

“Well, I’m satisfied,” he said, then shouted downstream. “You finished over there?” The third friend gave a thumbs up.

They all walked to the car, broke down their rods and packed up. They got in the car and drove home.

About Gabriel Batistuta, Heroes, and Getting Older

I was in eighth grade at PS 14. In Mrs. Squittieri’s history class we had been reading excerpts from The Odyssey and talking about heroes. I remember where I sat and the cover of the book of Greek mythologies we read from, which would become one of my childhood favorites. One day, in the way of all great teachers, she had connected the heroes of literature to the real-life heroes in our 13-year-old lives. I knew exactly who she was talking about.

Our big assignment was to write a report about one of our heroes. I wrote about Gabriel Batistuta—the Jesus-looking striker from the late ’90s and early ’00s who was Argentina’s leading goal scorer until 2014, when he was passed up by Lionel Messi.

Why Batistuta?

I imagine, from birth, our first heroes must be our parents. It only makes sense. They feed us, clothe us. They put a roof over our heads. Every father in history has said when the teenage outbursts come, “If it wasn’t for your mother and I….” 

But there comes a point in all of our lives when something changes. It happens once we come into an understanding of who we are in the world—before we rebel as teenagers or, years later, realize our parents may have actually known more than we thought and find ourselves calling home every week to ask for advice about buying homes, selling cars, and getting babies to sleep. 

My parents watched it happen with me in much the same way I’ll watch it happen with my six-week-old daughter in the years to come. At some point in childhood, we hit a point where our needs extend beyond the immediate. Our parents are left in the dust as we search for heroes who can provide us something they cannot: meaning, ambition, the fulfillment of some intricate longing that we may only be able to untangle years later.

Batistuta was always special to me. For the cover of my eighth-grade report I proudly enlarged his picture—the one that appears here, the same one I naturally chose for my first Facebook cover image six years ago. I must’ve first come into contact with Batistuta during the 1994 World Cup. My grandmother, my nona, taped the games for my grandfather while he was at work, then he’d come home and watch them in the kitchen while he ate dinner. I was five years old. If there was anything I knew about sports back then, it was Argentina and soccer. Although I have always been stocky and of average height, made to play along the backline or in central midfield, I loved watching Batistuta. He was towering and muscular, and he hit the ball so hard it looked like a camera trick where the play was sped up for TV. In 1994, he scored a hat trick in Argentina’s opening game against Greece, then scored once more from the penalty spot as the team was eliminated by Romania in the Round of 16.

Four years later, my obsession peaked. 

At the 1998 World Cup in France, Batistuta scored the winning goal in the opening match against Japan, then added a hat trick in a 5–0 destruction of Jamaica. In that game, his third goal, a penalty kick, was probably the most powerfully hit shot I’ve ever seen. He scored once more in a second-round win over England, a game best remembered for its controversial red card to David Beckham for kicking out at Diego Simeone. Then came the quarterfinal against the Netherlands. I remember exactly where I sat as Argentina was eliminated 2–1 thanks to a 90th-minute Dennis Bergkamp goal scored three minutes after Ariel Ortega was sent off for head-butting goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar after failing to trick the referee into awarding him a penalty kick: I was three feet from the old wood-console television set at our vacation home in the Pocono Mountains where my dad had invited his Portuguese friends to spend the day watching soccer with us. It was July 4, the day we celebrate US independence with fireworks and barbecue. I held my head in my hands and cried. 

It was harder to watch international club soccer games back then. Batistuta had played in Italy, for both Fiorentina and Roma, and I saw him only by luck. For me, it was the Argentinian national team and little else. Because he wore number 9, I always asked for the same number on my recreational and travel soccer teams. My American coaches didn’t care for the traditional numbering system that says 9s are center forwards, so it didn’t matter that I was a defender.

By then I had already been going to the park behind my parents’ house after school to play pick-up with the old Mexican and Central and South American guys. I was shyer then, but when one of the older men—an Ecuadorian named Armando, nicknamed Rossi because he usually wore the legendary Italian striker’s jersey—asked my name, I said, “You can call me Batistuta.” 

The name stuck until I left Bayonne nine years ago for Knoxville. Three years ago, my mom was in an Italian bakery owned by a Mexican named Lupe when she called me and asked if I knew him, because he’d talked about once playing soccer at 16th Street Park with an Argentinian guy, but he couldn’t recall his name. I said, “You have to say Batistuta, mom. No one knew my real name.” The next time, Lupe remembered. (One of my favorite memories of Lupe is when his wife asked him to spend the afternoon with their two kids, so he brought them to the park and made them sit by one of the makeshift goals while we played soccer for two hours. He later gave me his card and asked me to call him if I ever needed a DJ for a party.)

Batistuta’s last game for Argentina was a 1–1 tie with Sweden that eliminated them from the 2002 World Cup in Japan. The game was broadcast at 2:30 a.m. our time. I watched from my grandparents’ spare bedroom as my nono watched from the kitchen. I hated to go to school that day, but I had to. American kids weren’t yet as obsessed with soccer as they’d become eight years later, after Landon Donovan’s last-minute goal against Algeria at Africa’s first World Cup. By then, the English Premier League had made its entrance into most American households, and suddenly nearly every American soccer fan knew Aguero, Tevez, and Coloccini. But for a long time, I felt nearly alone in my obsession.

My book report came a year after Batistuta said goodbye to international soccer. He was preparing to make his last professional move, to a club team in Qatar where he broke the record for most goals scored in a season—25 in 18 games. 

That was 17 years ago. I’ve lived a lifetime since then. I’ve been to college, married, moved away from home, divorced, gone back to college, changed careers, remarried, and become a father. I’ve watched thousands of hours of soccer. I’ve spoken with my grandfather about “El Conejo” Saviola on car rides where he wouldn’t let me listen to the radio, bought custom Argentina jerseys with my last name on the back from a Colombian at the Meadowlands Flea Market, spent $1500 to fly home and watch Argentina lose a goalless Copa America final in penalty kicks to Chile, and spoken face-to-face with Mario Kempes—the player who led Argentina to its first World Cup victory in 1978. 

I’ve watched Argentina crash out of World Cups from TVs in Bayonne, in Bristol, Connecticut, and at a Bolivian friend’s house five minutes down the road from my home in Knoxville. That last time, I wasn’t as angry as I was when I said goodbye to “Batigol.” We ate Spanish paella afterward with others in the neighborhood who popped in for the food and not the soccer. Back in 2009, I had decided Argentina didn’t need me as a fan as much as the US does, and much more of my soccer pain this past decade has been associated with watching the American men fail while being paid millions more than the American women who just won our second consecutive World Cup. Soccer is cruel. 

But even as time keeps passing there is still and will always be Batistuta. I think of him nearly every day—mostly because many of my passwords include some reference to him, but also because I instinctively compare every tall, stone-footed, long-haired striker galloping into the penalty area to crash into a cross or an opponent to him. I even compare female soccer players to him. I loved Abby Wambach because I first loved Batistuta. And I expect it to be this way even as my heroes are replaced by the people I see every day who meet the longings Batistuta did for me as a kid. My wife. My daughter, who one day will hear my stories of Batistuta. And she will ask, “Daddy, is that like Alex Morgan is for me?” or “You mean like Rose Lavelle? She scores some pretty cool goals.” And I’ll say: “Yes, sweetheart. Just like them.”

The American Offensive

Franc-Earle Schoonover’s Belleau Wood. Art Collection of the National Museum of the Marine Corps

I wrote a draft of this short story as a final project for an English elective my senior year of college in 2010. I had loved reading Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, a collection of short stories where he first introduces his iconic character, Nick Adams. I hoped to imitate Hemingway’s minimalist writing style, while also filling a gap I thought existed in the stories (I hadn’t yet read “Now I Lay Me,” a story from Hemingway’s Men Without Women collection, and wanted to make my own attempt at explaining why Adams returns from war so distraught and detached).

In Our Time is heavy. The stories are full of grief. They are told in an emotionless way (Hemingway was famous for his iceberg theory, where he kept the deeper meaning of a story under the surface). Thanks to two good friends and editors, I’ve made several improvements to the prelude and story, which I’ve titled “The American Offensive.” I hope you enjoy it.

Chapter XIV

The women cried when we got back from Europe. They said they missed us, but we couldn’t hear them. Our minds were still in Cantigny, Marne and Argonne. Jimmy’s mother and father held him so tightly it made me wish my folks had been there. Mom died from cancer after I left and dad drank himself to death in the old home across from the reservation. The scene at the dock reminded me of when we got to Paris and the women yelled and threw flowers. I will never forget the women in France. Mrs. Gaven was there in the crowd after we got off the boat. Her son was shot twice in the back and died in a hospital in Rouen. 

 The American Offensive

The soldiers hardly spoke after the fighting ended in Belleau Wood. For 25 days, they had fought off five German divisions in the thick forest. Nearly two thousand had died. The ones who made it were numb from the sound of bullets hitting the trees and the bodies of their friends who were now scattered in makeshift graves beneath the ravaged oaks.

The newspapers commended the 5th Marines for clearing the forest, and Major Mark Johnson told a few of the soldiers outside Jim Harris’s tent they should be proud of what they had done.

“You’ve earned your trip home, boys,” Johnson said. “You made your country proud here.” 

Harris, who was 24 years old,  stared at his boots while Johnson spoke. He had been stabbed with a bayonet in the left shoulder and was wrapped in bandages. In the forest, he had killed more Germans than anyone. He had come so close to them that when he closed his eyes he could still make out their faces. 

“Look at your brothers beside you,” Johnson continued, “and know you wouldn’t be here without them.”

On the first day of battle, the Germans had broken straight through the French lines. The Marines quickly filled the gap, fighting fearlessly, as if it was their own country they were protecting. The French commanders wanted them to fall back, but Major Wise ignored them and told his soldiers to keep their lines until the German offensive was repelled.

On June 6, over a thousand Americans died in a few hours. But, the survivors turned the tide and pushed forward until the Germans were beat. In the end, more Marines died in Belleau Wood than in any other battle in the war.

When the fighting stopped, able-bodied soldiers like Harris moved fast to bury the dead. Shell cases covered the floor an inch deep in some places, and all the Americans felt sad when they found someone they knew well or who had been deformed by the bullets. 

Johnson was still talking to a soldier outside Harris’s tent when Harris got up and walked out of camp into the forest. The oak trees were taller here than the ones behind his parents’ house in upstate New York, though the leaves weren’t as green. When he was a kid, Harris had played in those woods until dark. He watched the deer and chased them sometimes. He found snakes under rocks where he collected worms for fishing with his dad. In France, he guessed all the worms were gone from the bombs and the way they exploded when they hit the dirt. 

Johnson approached slowly.

“Harris, you should get back to the tent and rest,” he said.

Johnson was three years older than Harris. The two of them had talked about hunting pheasant together at Johnson’s parent’s farm when they got back to the States. Neither of them felt like hunting anymore, but they never said a word about it.

“I’m thinking about home,” Harris said. “These woods remind me of the ones I played in when I was a kid. Sometimes you get so used to killing in these woods that you forget people probably played in them too when they were young.”

Johnson didn’t answer. They walked back into camp.

“You were brave out there,” said Johnson. He patted Harris on the back and paused for a moment.

“You’re going to be home soon, Harris. Then we can get on with things the way they were supposed to be.”

“When are we going home, Johnson?” Harris asked. 

“Soon, Harris,” Johnson said. “I know it.”

The other soldiers in the camp had set up logs around wooden crates of ammunition and used them as chairs as they played chess or checkers. They nodded to Harris and Johnson as they passed. Harris’s shoulder wound had bled through the bandage and he sat down on the hardened ground near the tent where he had laid his rifle.

“Why don’t you try to doze off for a bit?” said Johnson, leaning against a stack of crates and looking down at Harris.

“We should’ve died,” Harris responded.“I was supposed to die.”

“Don’t say that nonsense. We’re lucky to be alive after what we’ve been through in these woods.”

Harris shook his head abruptly and stared Johnson in the eyes.

“I killed a boy, Mark” he said. “On Tuesday morning when we charged them, I killed a boy like Timmy. I watched him die.”

Harris stared at the dried blood stains on the wooden forestock of his rifle and thought about his little brother, who he hadn’t seen since he left for boot camp. Timmy had blonde hair like the Germans. Even though Harris had a son back home, he always talked to the other soldiers about Timmy and how when he was 10 or 11 years old, they would go out with their dad’s .410 and shoot squirrels from tree branches in the Adirondacks. One time in the woods Timmy tripped on a rock and fell hard against his arm. He thought he had broken it. Harris was still a kid then and he cried because he saw Timmy bleeding. “You’re gonna die, Timmy,” Harris had said, crying. “I don’t want you to die.” Every time they shot a squirrel and it bled too much it would die, so Harris thought Timmy would die, too. He picked him up and took him home and their mother called the doctor who came and wrapped Timmy’s arm and told him it wasn’t broken.

Timmy wanted to be a soldier, but he died in an accident before the war. Harris’s parents never told him how he died, only that it was no one’s fault. Harris used to joke with Timmy that if he was a soldier the Germans would like him and not shoot him because he looked like them. 

Harris killed many Germans that looked like Timmy.

“I hate looking at them, Mark,” Harris said. 

“We all killed people,” Johnson said. “It’s war. You kill them or they kill you.”

In the woods, Johnson had always closed his eyes when he pulled the trigger. He never saw a soldier who reminded him of his brothers.

“I’ll let you alone now until I have more news for the boys,” Johnson said.

Harris nodded at Johnson and picked at the dirt caked onto the callouses of his hands.

The clouds hadn’t opened since the battle ended and now it began raining on the camp.

“All this damn mud everywhere,” a soldier yelled. “I’m sick of this damn mud.”

All the soldiers went into their tents to wait for the rain to pass except Harris, who shook as the cold water struck his body and ran down his uniform. No one told him to go inside his tent.

After 20 minutes, the rain stopped. But Harris didn’t lift his head.

“I’m glad you weren’t a soldier, Timmy,” he muttered. Then he got up and walked back into the woods. Johnson saw him going but didn’t follow him.

Harris kicked aside the shell cases, threw his pack against the stump of a tree, and laid down against it. Because the trees were very tall, Harris could only see part of the sky, and the way the light shone through the leaves reminded him of when his family would go to church on Christmas and Easter. He hated to say the Lord’s Prayer, but they were Catholic and his mom always made him say it.

“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And deliver us from evil. Amen.”

Harris watched the leaves on the branches rustle and fell asleep thinking about the last time he and Timmy and his parents were at Christmas service before the war.

A few months later, Harris went back to New York along with Johnson and a few of the other men in their battalion. Nobody in Harris’s family ever got the chance to hear his war stories, and he and Johnson never went pheasant hunting together or saw each other at reunions. Harris remembered Belleau Wood and the dead boys underneath the oak trees until the day he died of tuberculosis at 44. 


This short story is inspired by the song “Elephant” by Jason Isbell. 

Emily’s long porcelain legs shivered in the drafty cold of the sleepy Tennessee bar room. Above her, two dusty speakers rang out Clay Pigeons. She sat stoically in a short dark blue dress that clung tightly to her body. One of her hands tickled the chicken skin forming along her thigh.

“Take my sweater, Em,” Andy said to her. 

“It’s Emily, Andy,” she replied with a smile. 

Andy shook his head. For six months, they’d met at the same bar every Thursday night to watch singers with beards and sweat-stained hats play songs for middle-aged couples and a few yuppies, like Andy, who lived in the neighborhood and were bored with other bars where college kids hung out. 

The first Thursday, Andy noticed Emily, blonde and skinny, sitting by herself. She had big blue eyes and her arms were pale and muscled. He approached and stood beside her to order a beer. She did not turn to face him, even when he spoke to her.

“I didn’t know anyone else under the age of 30 came here,” he said. 

“I don’t come for conversation,” Emily replied, her eyes never moving from the bar top.

Andy laughed it off. “So, is it for the music? I think my cat can hold a better melody.”

Emily smiled softly and finally looked up at him. “You’re a cat person?”

They spoke for four hours that first night. Andy told her about how he had moved to Nashville from Clarksville after college. He took a few classes at Belmont. He tried to make it as a folk singer, but stayed instead for a job in advertising. His boss is a fan and lets him take time off to play a few small shows on the road every summer.

It would be a few more weeks before Emily told Andy about her cancer. The doctors had found it in April. She told Andy about her timeline. How her family had moved from Oklahoma to Franklin to be close to her.

“They’re one of those big Baptist families,” she said. “They think they’ll pray my cancer away.”

Now, Emily and Andy sat at the same bar stools again talking. It was late November, as the fall crept to winter. They looked like old lovers half the time the way they sat close but rarely touching. They talked ceaselessly. At midnight, Andy closed their tabs.

“Do you still want to sleep with me, Andy?” Emily asked him, woozy from Jack Daniels.

Andy’s shoulders fell. 

“It’s alright, Andy. You can take me home,” she said.

He walked Emily two streets over to her apartment and helped her up the stairs, both of them sleepy and unsteady from the booze. She laid down in her bed and they spoke until she fell asleep. He felt her skinny body beside him. Soon he got up and washed the dishes in her sink, threw away the old mail on her desk, and swept the floor where strands of her hair had fallen. Then he left.

Andy and Emily spent the nights they could together under the dim light of a barroom or her bedroom. On her bed post, they kept a tally they scratched off after every time she was readmitted to the hospital. He met her family there on one of the hard days. She had been sick to her stomach the night before.

“It’s a blessing Emily’s found you,” her dad told him. He grabbed Andy’s forearm and gripped it, as he stared kindly at him.

Emily laughed. In his other hand, Andy held a cup of coffee he shared with her.

“Can I get you another cup?” her dad asked him. Andy politely nodded no. Emily’s parents left for a few hours to meet her cousins who were in town to spend the weekend.

“Seagrams?” she said when they were out of sight. “Really, Andy? You crack me up.”

In the hospital, Andy sat beside her bed. He brought his guitar some nights and played her old country songs. The blue veins in her skin were rivers throbbing under the harsh fluorescent lighting. High from the medicine, she sang shamelessly. 

“Play Hank Jr. next,” she said. “Family Tradition.”

It hurt to play the songs. It hurt to watch her die. But Andy stayed until the end. He loved her completely and irrationally in a way he never did the others who came before her.

Emily died on a Tuesday morning. Two days later, Andy returned to the bar two blocks from her apartment and sat at the stool where he first saw her. He listened to a guitar player on stage sing a love song that ended with a happy-ending line he hated deep inside himself. Then he ordered Jack Daniels until he was blazingly drunk.

Sunday Game

Soccer goalie in net

Seated on hot aluminum bleachers,
I watch them on green-yellow grass.

Sweat soaked Sunday warriors,
their heads craning toward the blue sky,
panting like race horses,
chasing a once-white ball,
falling to the ground,
and rising again;
a pattern stitched in ninety minutes.

Whispering past,
the ball is a note
in a measure to a song
written in spontaneity
by an orchestra of twenty-two.

A whistle.
A water-bottle shower.
They start again:
Cleats striking synthetic leather,
as the heat rises.

I watch them quietly.

On hot bleachers,
wives, brothers, friends
shout as their warriors
dance in and out of rhythm.

A goal—just one.
A whistle.
All done.

Her Limbs The Sea

A poem I wrote for my wife in 2017 when we were newly dating and I was on a trip to Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic

She was the breeze
on a Dominican beach,
palm trees swaying softly,
cool air kissing my red-pink cheeks.

Her voice a melody
of dark blue waves crashing on the shoreline,
toes deep in sand
like her hands moving up
my back to my shoulders,
wrapping me in a sea of
long, muscly limbs.

She was a bright light hanging from a palm tree,
above a hammock where we’d hold each other,
as she does,
more than a thousand miles away,
yet, somehow, always here beside me.

Dogwood Tree

Dogwood tree

A love poem about my wife for the springtime

Blooming along a walkway
on Sequoyah Drive,
you are a dogwood tree,
flushed cheeks,
lip-pink flowers blooming,
hypnotic in the breeze;
You are thin and steady,
limbs veiny, reaching to the sky,
your flowers dancing to a native beat,
while I admire you on a sunny April day.

You are pleasant and lovely, dogwood tree,
and here is what I learned,
about you
as I wrote this poem today:

In springtime, you erupt—alive!
announcing winter’s end with blooming pinks and whites,
in June, your dim green leaves are welcome shade
from blistering summer heat;
by autumn, you deepen, flaming red,
before you lay your flowers to sleep until
the warm air comes again.

In every season,
dogwood tree,
I lay beside you.
As the cool night air comes,
I nuzzle your smooth-supple skin,
contemplate you,
all that is underneath your surface,
and I am happy.

My Favorite Longform Journalism of 2018

At least since 2016, good journalism has been under attack. Despite what you may have heard, however, there are hardworking reporters at newspapers, magazines, and web outlets across the country who are digging into issues that matter to us: crime, politics, sports, technology, arts and culture, healthcare, nature (and more). These are trained reporters—not television and radio talking heads or bloggers—who use editorial insight, interviews with key figures, weeks and months of in-depth research including scouring material and historical sources, and smooth, accessible writing styles to shed light on things we cannot fully understand without their work.

I read a lot of what is called “longform journalism”: the most in-depth form of journalism, which means articles usually read more like short books than what you’d typically find online. These are some of my favorite stories from 2018, across genres. I highly recommend you read them.

If you enjoy these stories, subscribe to these serious outlets (and simultaneously quit your Facebook scroll and turn off your TV news networks). And use sources like Longform and Longreads to find curated lists of the best reporting happening out there in the world right now.

“Blood Will Tell,” ProPublica/New York Times Magazine

Joe Bryan, convicted of the murder of his wife

This is a multi-part story of a murder in a small Texas town. A quiet fourth grade teacher, Mickey Bryan, was fatally shot in 1985, and the subsequent investigation led to the arrest of her husband, Joe, a beloved high school principal. The crime seemed unbelievable based on the history of their marriage, Joe’s contributions to the community, and the complete lack of forensic evidence tying him to the crime. This incredible report from Pamela Colloff led the Texas criminal justice system to reevaluate Joe’s once (and in many ways still) hopeless case. Highly recommended for those interested in crime and murder controversy (e.g. “Making of a Murderer,” the first season of the Serial podcast).

ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, and NY Times Magazine also published other fascinating pieces this year: one about the gang MS-13 and its attacks on fellow Central American and Mexican immigrants and their children in Long Island, New York (you can read “The Disappeared” here), and another about Liberty University Online and Christian fundamentalists connections to the political right and controversial issues, including prosperity gospel teachings (you can read “Billion Dollar Blessings” here)

“Iraq’s Post-ISIS Campaign of Revenge,” The New Yorker

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Issues are rarely, if ever, as simple as we desire them to be. This is the case in the Iraqi criminal justice system’s handling of  law and order in the unraveling of ISIS.

For years, the militant Islamic State has terrorized hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Its crimes are endless and horrifying. Now, as the Iraqi government wrestles back control of the country, thousands of men and boys have been convicted of ISIS affiliation, and hundreds have been hanged. Thousands of families have been sent to camps in the desert, cast out from society.

In this incredible in-depth article by Ben Taub, we learn the full story of how ISIS came to be, the corruption of the Iraqi government, the impacts of ISIS and the government’s campaigns of terror on communities, and how the seeds future militant movements are being planted in what will likely be an endless cycle of violence and tragedy in Iraq.

“The White Darkness,” The New Yorker

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Initially published as a New Yorker cover story last February, “The White Darkness” tells the story of Henry Worsley, a family man and decorated British special forces officer, who spent his life idolizing Ernest Shackleton, the 19th century polar explorer who tried to become the first person to reach the South Pole and later sought to cross Antarctica on foot. Shackleton never completed his journeys, but he repeatedly rescued his men from certain death, and emerged as one of the greatest leaders in history.

In 2008, Worsley set out across Antarctica with two other descendants of Shackleton’s crew, battling the freezing landscape, life-threatening exhaustion, and hidden crevasses. On November 13, 2015, at age 55, Worsley bid farewell to his family and embarked on his most perilous quest: to walk across Antarctica alone.

This story was reported by the incredible David Grann, a longtime New Yorker reporter who wrote The Lost City of Z and The Old Man and the Gun, which eventually became Blockbuster films. Unsurprisingly, this story was also transformed into a book published in October.

“The Country’s First Climate Change Casualties?” The Pacific Standard

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Climate change science remains controversial, despite the overwhelming research by scientists who have measured, among other things, continually rising sea levels. Potentially the first victim of these rising sea levels is Tangier Island, a small island in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay, which is predicted to be underwater within 25 years. What is fascinating about the increasingly dire situation is that the island’s inhabitants largely support President Donald Trump and others who cast disbelief on whether the rising waters will destroy the island.

“The story of Tangier has largely been limited to the inevitability of an island going down—the science behind it, the politics around it. And without new infrastructure, fast, Tangier is indeed going down. What’s been left out, however, is why its people are willing to go down with it—and why they’ve risked it all on Trump to keep them afloat.”

The story was reported by Elaina Plott for The Pacific Standard, an American magazine focusing on issues of social and environmental justice.

“Alt-Right Troll To Father Killer: The Unraveling Of Lane Davis,” Buzzfeed News

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This is the incredible, frightening, and tragic story of a father stabbed to death by his live-in son, a far-right, pro-Trump media figure looking for his big break.

Lane Davis, under the name “Seattle4Truth,” was a culture warrior and conspiracy theorist. He left a footprint online as wide and weird as his imprint on the physical world was small and sad: hundreds of YouTube videos, thousands of tweets, hundreds of blog posts, hundreds of Reddit comments. But none of the people who called him Seattle had met Lane in person. None of them knew, nor would most of them know for months, what he had done to his father. And none of them had any idea what this man they spent all day online with was capable of.

This story is a culmination of a nightmare: what happens when online trolls act on their digital threat. It was reported by Joseph Bernstein for Buzzfeed News, founded in 2011 and a winner of national and international reporting and magazine awards for its investigative journalism.

“The Last Days of Blockbuster Video,” The Ringer

I remember with fondness the days of roaming the aisles of my local Blockbuster Video in Bayonne, New Jersey looking for a movie to rent. For many of us, that experience has been gone for nearly a decade. In its place has come Netflix and chill, Redbox rentals, and other steaming services such as Hulu, Amazon Video, and YouTube.

In Alaska, however, three Blockbuster stores remained after all the others closed across the U.S.

This article by Justin Heckert for The Ringer tells of what is lost when a beloved tradition withers and eventually disappears. It talks of the balance between new technologies and keeping alive relics that become essential to our memories. It talks of nostalgia and people (and late fees). Compared with all of the other hard reads, this is a good change of direction and pace.

“The Story of a Face,” National Geographic

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Katie Stubblefield was very much an average teenage girl from Mississippi when, in a moment of horror, she put a shotgun to her face and pulled the trigger. Afterward, she could not remember the suicide attempt. But, she bore the marks of it on her face, which was left utterly disfigured

What comes after  years of recovery is a highly-experimental 31-hour surgery aimed at giving Stubblefield back a semblance of life. At 22 years old, she became the youngest person to successfully receive a face transplant.

The story, reported in incredible detail by Joanna Connors, is terrifyingly relatable. It includes photographs, interviews, and videos done over the course of multiple years as Connors and Nat Geo sought to cover a moment of medical history.

Other highly-recommended stories:

  • “The Redemption of MS-13,” by Danny Gold for Longreads, tells of how the gang allows only three ways out for its members: hospital, jail, and Christian conversion. It follows former members turned pastors and includes interviews with those currently in jail, their family members, their victims, government figures, and members of the community who no longer know what to do about the gangs destroying their countries.
  • “Could an Ex-Convict Become an Attorney? I Intended to Find Out,” by Reginald Dwayne Betts for The New York Times, tells the writer’s story of time spent in jail for a crime committed as a teenager and the difficulty he faced in turning his life around even after attending Yale Law School and finding national acclaim for his poetry and advocacy for youth and juvenile-justice reform.
  • “The FBI of the National Park Service,” by Rachel Monroe for Outside Magazine, tells of the Investigative Services Branch of the National Park Service, a minuscule collection of 33 agents across the United States tasked with investigating crimes that happen in the park. This story spotlights the way the branch comes together in one specific crime in the Rocky Mountains: a murder of a wife by a husband with a hidden past.
  • “Own Goal: The Inside Story of How the USMNT Missed the World Cup,” by Andrew Helms and Matt Pentz for The Ringer, tells the behind-the-scenes story of how nearly a decade of mismanagement by top soccer figures, including directors and coaches, led to the U.S. men’s national soccer team failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. It also paints a depressing picture of who really controls sports; not players and coaches, but powerful men and women in suits (and pantsuits).
  • “The Nastiest Feud in Science,” by Bianca Bosker for The Atlantic, discusses the debate behind what really killed the dinosaurs. While the story of a giant asteroid crashing into the earth is accepted as fact, Bosker digs into how scientists put together this claim, its still controversial aspects, and how a Princeton geologist and her colleagues  are gathering support for an alternate theory involving volcanic eruptions.

The Penalty Kick

Jacob picked up the ball and walked it twelve paces to the spot in the dirt he had marked off with his foot. He dug the toe of his boot into the dirt and beat it down enough to fit the old ball so it wouldn’t move. He set it down and then lifted it a foot off the ground, spinning it carefully in his hands, before placing it firmly in the spot again. Jacob’s dad had taught him to always set the ball down this way: “Never let the referee do it for you. It’s your penalty kick—not theirs,” he had told him.

It was mid-July and the summer heat was stifling. For three weeks, Jacob had spent hours in the little park behind his parents’ house in New Jersey. During the day, he would take his old ball and hop the yellow brick wall at the end of their street, shortcutting his way to the soccer fields. He kicked the ball around until the floodlights came on. That was his sign for when the adults would come out to play and he knew he had to head home for dinner. After dinner, he’d sit on porch with his ball. He watched the older men walk down the dead-end street and hop the wall on their way to play soccer with their friends. They were mostly laborers from Mexico and Central America, and sometimes they wore jerseys familiar to Jacob from the television broadcasts of the professionals: the dark green of Mexico, luminescent yellow of Brazil, orange-red of Spain.

The sun was setting.

After Jacob set the ball down, he stood up and looked toward the old goal. The once-white net was a dusty gray and hung sadly, full of holes. He took a few deep breaths and closed his eyes, lifting his head to the sky. Jacob was in his imagination now.

“It all comes down to this,” he heard the voice of Ian Darke say. “Jacob Costa is going to be the last player to take it for Argentina.” (In his head, he always played for Argentina. It was the only team he’d ever watch with his dad).

Jacob stood to the left of the ball. He opened his eyes and took three steps back and one more step to the left. He was transported to the Maracanã Stadium in Rio. Jacob turned his back and stared into the distance, breathing in through his nose and exhaling deeply. He imagined there were 100,000 people in the stands like the day Uruguay beat Brazil in the 1950 World Cup Final. His grandfather had told him the story many times. The Brazilians supposedly threw themselves to their deaths after they lost the final.

“Costa has been Argentina’s most consistent penalty taker. He hasn’t missed from the spot all year. But, can he do it on the big stage here? Millions are watching all over the world as he steps up to take it. Will Jacob Costa be the hero for Argentina?”

Jacob turned back around and stared ferociously at the goal. He was staring at the biggest goalkeeper he could’ve imagined. He picked his corner, like his dad had always taught him. “This one’s going in the top right,” he muttered under his breath.

Jacob took another deep breath, stared at the ball, and stared again at the goalkeeper he imagined in his mind. The goalkeeper was jumping around, ready for the kick. Jacob smirked. He took two steps toward the old ball, planted his left foot beside it, and drove a shot that curved into the top right corner through a hole in the net.

Jacob Costa jumped into the air celebrating. He fell to the ground and grabbed his head with his hands. “He’s done it! Jacob Costa has done it! He’s won the World Cup for Argentina with the very last kick of the game!”

The floodlights came on as he kneeled in the dirt, imagining his teammates surrounding him. The ball was twenty yards away in a ditch beside the trees. It was time to go home.

This is a short story about a moment, as many of my stories and poems are because of their short nature. Moments are powerful. We can all connect to moments.

When I was a boy, I spent a lot of time in the park behind my parents’ house in Bayonne. It was in that park my dad taught me how to play soccer (it’s the same park from “My Dad and the Soccer Ball”). For years, starting in eighth grade, I’d head to that park alone or with my friends to play soccer. A lot of the time, it was alone. I wasn’t a very good soccer player, but I was obsessed with it. I would watch for hours on TV, and when me and my  grandpa drove in the car together he’d never let me listen to the radio so instead I just asked him about what was going on with Argentina’s national team. It was on one of those car rides to the pet cemetery in Old Bridge, where his dog had been buried, that he told me all about Riquelme and El Conejo Saviola.

I remember sitting in my parent’s old vacation home in the Pocono Mountains with my head in my hands as Holland eliminated Argentina from the 1998 World Cup. I remember exactly where I sat—five feet in front of the television, adjacent to the couch where my dad watched with his Portuguese friend—and how I felt: devastated. Even though I was born in the United States, I never watched U.S. soccer growing up. My dad, grandpa, uncles and everyone else in my family watched Argentina, so I did, too. My first hero was Gabriel Batistuta, who I wrote a report on for Ms. Squittieri’s class in eighth grade. The assignment was to write about one of our role models. Many of the other students thought it was Jesus when they saw the picture on the cover (to be fair, this is Batistuta).

I imagine there are millions of boys and girls around the world—maybe even every boy and girl who has ever touched a soccer ball—who imagine themselves as Messi, Cristiano, Zlatan, Mia, Marta, Alex Morgan when they’re playing with the ball. It is what drives us to keep playing. We want to be like the players we admire. We want to celebrate. We want to be loved and idolized. And, for many of us, it doesn’t start in some rigid club system on perfectly manicured turf. It starts in our backyard. It starts in a vacant lot across the street. It starts on a dusty soccer field where no one is watching. Or, maybe, everyone in the world is watching. It all depends on how you see it.

I’m Marrying My Best Friend

On July 21, I’m marrying my best friend. She is the most special woman I’ve ever met. She inspires feelings in me that only great literature and film, and beautiful goals, have inspired before her. As a Christmas gift, I put together a book of original poetry for her. The poem below is one of originals I included in that book. While it is a love poem, it is also a poem about a very special, unmatched love I am fortunate to share with her. I cannot wait to be Haley Miller’s husband.

If You Only Knew

If you only knew the way you make my heart skip
like drummers beating to a different tune,
eyes closed, soaking in the sound,
and it is still beautiful.

I cannot keep in step with you
quickly gliding across the surface
as if it were ice and you were skating away
from the cold,
not quite in rhythm
(I remember to never make you dance).

But you never skate away for long
before my cell phone blinks
and I see the name pop up:
“Haley Miller,”
with a text message asking if it’s still on silent
after a missed call,
one of dozens.

When you run
I beat for you,
chasing from behind,
even as I huff—
and you smirk—
as if bodies built for plumbers
could ever keep up with you, gazelle.

I like the music we make,
even if no one else can hear it,
if it’s silent like cell phones blinking,
if it’s loud like the TV screen blaring in the background,
as you roll your eyes;
if you only knew
how much I love the sound of your footsteps
on my front porch,
the way you still knock every time
even if the door is unlocked,
as my doors will always be for you.