Story envy, courtesy of the New York Times

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I’ll just come out and say it: I wish I had written this story.

Well done, New York Times, from the headline to the ending. Readers, pour yourself a glass of milk, grab a chocolate-chip cookie (trust me, it’s vital to the enjoyment and proper digestion of this piece) and prepare to be satisfied in a way few first-person stories on Christian adoption are able to please.

Back? OK, good. Let’s review good journalism, the craft of complete storytelling and the art of making a long story seem short.

Misty and her husband, Jon, arrived at a house near Denver one day several years ago to pick up the two boys who would become their sons. A dirt yard led to a screen door dangling from its hinges. Inside, grime coated the linoleum steps to the living room, where a kind, if overwhelmed, single foster mother introduced Misty and Jon to Shon, 2 ½ years old, and his 9-month-old brother, Cory. She gave the couple a tiny suitcase with a broken zipper, a few borrowed clothes — some too big, others too small — and a piece of advice: Don’t touch Shon’s head or lift your hands near him. He will cower. Then she handed Jon a huge bag of frozen fish sticks. The kids love them, she said.

In weaving together a story on adoption through foster care, practicality demands that children be the centerpiece. Sensitivity, however, insists on delicacy. The balance is struck in the details, which are so rich and varied that I feel as though I’m walking with the four benevolent parents featured through the peaks and valleys of their journey to fulfill a calling from God.

Yes, the Times says it: A calling from God. And they back it up:

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BBC probes Johnny Cash’s vague interest in redemption

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The late Johnny Cash was a lot of things at the same time, which has often left journalists a bit confused about the sources of his remarkable passion and creativity. For starters, the man ended up in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. I think that covers most of the bases. Did I miss a hall of fame or two?

Anyway, I think Cash did a great job of covering the essentials when he was asked to describe his tastes in music:

“I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And mother. And God.”

That has to be one of the Top 10 music quotes of all time. That says it all. That’s Johnny Cash, right there — saint, sinner, whiskey, anger, grace and all.

Anyway, the venerable BBC took a shot, the other day, at a truly newsworthy subject — trying to describe the legacy of Cash and his art in terms of his impact on the movement to reform U.S. prisons. The goal was to get past the legendary concerts at Folsom Prison and San Quentin and look for the roots of Cash’s activism. Here’s one of the summary passages:

Fitting the gigs in around his relentless touring schedule, the “Man in Black” performed for inmates all over the US, always unpaid, and in the process, became a passionate and vocal spokesman for prisoners’ rights. …

The roots of Cash’s empathy lie as far back as 1953, when as a 21-year-old radio operator in the US Air Force, he saw the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison and was inspired to write a song. Folsom Prison Blues, released two years later, after Cash had signed to Sun Records, turned the young singer into a star.

The song, and in particular the now-notorious line “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die,” was sung with such raw menace that many assumed Cash knew what he was talking about. …

This is one of the ironies of Cash’s prison reform crusade. The very thing that made convicts connect with him, and US senators hang on his every word — the air of authenticity that stemmed from the belief he had served hard time himself — was in reality a misconception.

This story captures the rough and flawed side of Cash’s story, the grim realities that stuck him in quite a few jails for overnight visits following rampages linked to alcohol, rage, drugs and a variety of other weaknesses. For the BBC team, that seemed to be the heart of the Cash story.

Well, it’s half the story. Want to guess the side of Cash’s life that didn’t make it into the story, other than one or two timely hints?

Cash, you see, was seeking more than prison reform. He was shooting at a bigger spiritual target. Here’s the chunk of this story that comes the closest to hitting the mark. The key voice is that of biographer Michael Streissguth.

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