Friday, May 04, 2012

One last post

This is the 300th, and final, post on this blog. I've had a ball doing it.

If you missed the announcement the first time around, I'm leaving the Observer, and today is my last day. I'll have one last column in the paper on Sunday -- it might pop up earlier online -- but this is it for the blog.

The great thing about writing online is that you get to try more things -- stuff that's really short, or really long, or dependent on links, works better on a blog than it does on paper. So we could debate the worst movies ever, or discuss our scars, or just talk about the passion of R.E.M., and it all sort of fit.

After today, you can find me on Twitter or Facebook. In a week or two, I'll also restart the personal blog I created a few years ago.

I'm not good at goodbyes. I always thought the last scene of M*A*S*H did it about as well as it could be done. But the more I think about it, especially now, the more I appreciate the last Calvin and Hobbes. (You can click to enlarge.)

See you on the next adventure.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Well... I have an announcement

I've written somewhere around 1,700 columns for the
Charlotte Observer. This is the hardest one.

I'm leaving the paper and taking a new job.

I'll be writing about sports for a new website. It's part of a
joint venture between The USA Today Sports Media Group and
Major League Baseball Advanced Media. I'll be writing about
all sports -- in particular, I think, college football. More details
are coming next month, and the site should launch sometime
this summer.

I'll be here at the Observer two more weeks.

Let me stop for a second and try to breathe.

This is hard. I still love the Observer, and always will. My wife, Alix Felsing, will still be working
for the paper. We’re staying in Charlotte. I'm not running away from the Observer. I'm running  toward this new thing, with the hope that one day it'll make me as proud as I've been to work 23 years for this great newspaper.

Y’all – meaning everyone who has taken the time to read
something of mine over the years – have been such a
pleasure to write for, and talk to, and figure out the world
with. We've shared some of our most profound thoughts,
and some of the deepest places in our hearts. As long as I’m
alive, you’ll be a part of me.

All of you know that things have been tough for newspapers
the past few years. Some days haven’t been much fun. But
most days still are, because we still have the biggest and
best news operation in the Carolinas, and we still have gifted
journalists who work their tails off to get you the news every

I'll miss a lot of things, but maybe what I'll miss the most is those days when a big story happens and all the brainpower and hustle in this newsroom focuses on doing the story right. Nobody can beat us on those days. Nobody.

The Observer will be here long after all of us are gone. And it's still the best deal in town.

So the fair question is, why am I leaving all this?

Part of it is that lately I've felt a pull toward writing sports. I've dabbled in it for the paper, but I've wondered what it would be like to write sports full-time. There's a built-in joy to sports -- at the end of every game at least half the fans are happy, and that's more than you can say about a lot of things in life. More than that, sports gives a writer access to all the big issues -- love, loss, the desire to connect with other people, the longing for something larger than yourself.

My bosses at the Observer, as we were talking all this out, offered me a chance to write a lot about sports. But there was something more in my head.

Let me try to describe it.

Sometimes, when you’re going down the highway, you can
look over and see another road running beside the one
you’re on. I’ve spent a lot of time on the highway, and I've often wondered
about those people on the other road, how the world might
look from over there, how our journeys might be
different even though the direction is the same.

The thing is, you can’t know unless you take the other road.

This road I’ve been on with the Observer, and with you, has
been the trip of a lifetime.

This paper gave me a chance at the greatest job I've ever had. And it only worked out because so many of you gave me a chance and let me into your lives, a few hundred words at a time.

I'll have some more to say over these next couple of weeks. For now, let me say thank you. And let me also say that thank you isn't nearly enough.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Virginia Tech, five years later

Today is the fifth anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech. I was at lunch uptown that day when my editor called. He said I probably needed to get up to Blacksburg. Why? I asked. All I'd heard at that point was that there'd been a shooting on campus, and one person had died.

There's more, he said. A lot more.

J. Freedom du Lac of the Washington Post has a great piece on the survivors (one in particular) and other people who lived that day up close. Make sure to look at the photos and video, too.

I wrote two columns from Blacksburg. Here are those pieces.


The cold wind blew in overnight, it brought snow to the Virginia Tech campus Monday morning, around the time the early risers heard the first shots.

The wind blew harder at midmorning, when the people on the upper floors of Norris Hall heard the guns firing again and again from down below.

It blew in the news that was impossible. Thirty-three dead. Another score wounded. A campus with its heart cut out.

Two students waited to get a table for supper at Shakey's, right across from campus, and pieced together the day.

"My dad called, " said senior Joe Lemanski, 24. "It woke me up. He said something was going on."

"I heard at work, " said senior Brian Snyder, 22. "The first report said there was one dead. We couldn't believe it. Then the next report, there were 20."

By the time the full reckoning was complete, it had become the worst mass shooting in American history. You could not imagine it anywhere. But especially not here, among these gorgeous stone buildings, across the flat green lawn of the Drillfield in the middle of campus.

You do notice one thing. No buds on the trees. Spring never got here.

Two died early from the shots fired at Ambler Johnston Hall, a dorm on the south side of campus. Then 31 more two hours later at Norris Hall, a classroom building on the northside.

So many questions and so few answers.

Some news report said the gunman was a nonstudent, possibly with a girlfriend on campus. Police did not name him but said he used his last bullet on himself.

No one released the names of those who died.

The morning was chaos. Cell phones couldn't get through because so many people were trying to call. Police locked down the campus. Students watched from buildings across the way as people inside Norris jumped from second-story windows to escape.

By evening, as the wind blew even harder, the campus felt empty. A few students ventured from their dorms, walking in silence. Up at the War Memorial Chapel, a solitary student waited with a camera until the sun sank to the top edge of Norris Hall. He stood up, took one picture, and left.

We will sit down and have a discussion soon about guns, about campus security, about what happened in those hours between the first group of shots and the second.

Not now.

For now, think about what it's like to be in college, walking the bridge between child and grown-up, wearing old sweatshirts and drinking cheap beer, and dreaming up schemes that would let you always live this way.

Just after the sun set, a student named Shannon Turner set out candles on the lawn next to Henderson Hall.

She picked that spot because that's where people gather on sunny days to walk their dogs and throw Frisbees and work their bare feet into the grass.

She puts the candles in a Mason jar, a jelly jar, a flower vase. Pretty soon, some friends stopped by. She pinched off the blooms from a store-bought bouquet and handed them out.

Somebody asked her what kind of place Blacksburg is.

"It's not the kind of place where something like this can happen, " she said.

But, of course, it did.

And so the kids hugged each other close and lit candles against the bitter wind.

That's the first column. You can find the second one over here at my website.

I still think about those two days a lot.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My NCAA picks, and a few thoughts about brackets

My friend Michael Kruse, a Davidson grad who wrote a great book on the Wildcats' 2008 run to the Final Eight, isn't fond of March Madness brackets. "The thing is the thing. Your brackets are not," he says, meaning we should watch the games and enjoy them for what they are, not for whether some last-second shot means you rise or fall in the office pool.

Michael is almost always right, and he's right about this, too.


I'd just make two small observations:

1) For a lot of people, the brackets are the ONLY reason they watch. The St. Mary's-Purdue game is not naturally gripping to them because sports aren't naturally gripping to them. The brackets give them a reason to care. And maybe, along the way, the grip takes hold.

2) For a lot of other people, the brackets are a way to catch up on a regular season they've missed. I keep up with the major conferences, but don't watch nearly much college hoops as I used to. Is Wichita State really that good? Can Harvard make a run? The brackets start to organize the stories in our heads.

As I've said many times, the first two days of the tournament are my favorite days of the sports year, and maybe 10 percent of that is because of the brackets. I don't know many true fans who care more about their brackets than the games. I'll take a great finish over my pick anytime.

Having said that, I'd be fine with going 63-0.

I think you can find my full bracket under my name over at the Observer's contest, but I'll put the picks here, too. Upsets are marked with an exclamation point.

First round: Kentucky over W. Kentucky, UConn over Iowa State (!), Wichita State over VCU, Indiana over New Mexico State, UNLV over Colorado, Baylor over South Dakota St., Xavier over Notre Dame (!), Duke over Lehigh.

Second round: Kentucky over UConn, Wichita State over Indiana (!), Baylor over UNLV, Duke over Xavier.

Sweet 16: Kentucky over Wichita State, Baylor over Duke (!).

Elite 8: Baylor over Kentucky (!). Kentucky is the big favorite to win the whole thing, but Baylor is just as athletic and a little deeper. Baylor is one of those teams that could, on a given night, either beat an NBA team or lose in the first round. I've got a weak spot for those kinds of teams. Which means my bracket could be blown to bits by the weekend.

First round: Michigan St. over LIU-Brooklyn, St. Louis over Memphis (!), Long Beach State over New Mexico (!), Louisville over Davidson (I thought hard about this one, but couldn't pull the trigger...), Murray St. over Colorado St., Marquette over BYU, Florida over Virginia, Missouri over Norfolk State.

Second round: Michigan St. over St. Louis, Long Beach over Louisville (!), Marquette over Murray St., Missouri over Florida.

Sweet 16: Michigan St. over Long Beach, Missouri over Marquette.

Regional final: Missouri over Michigan St. (!)

First round: Syracuse over UNC-Asheville, Southern Miss over Kansas St. (!), Vandy over Harvard, Montana over Wisconsin (!), Cincinnati over Texas, FSU over St. Bonaventure, West Virginia over Gonzaga (!), Ohio State over Loyola (Md.).

Second round: Syracuse over Southern Miss, Vandy over Montana, FSU over Cincy, Ohio State over West Virginia.

Sweet 16: Vandy over Syracuse (!), Ohio State over FSU.

Regional final: Ohio State over Vandy.

First round: UNC over Lamar/Vermont winner, Alabama over Creighton (!), Cal/South Florida winner (I'm thinking Cal) over Temple (!), Ohio over Michigan (!), San Diego State over NC State, Georgetown over Belmont, Purdue over St. Mary's (!), Kansas over Detroit. Lots of upsets here.

Second round: UNC over Alabama, Ohio over Cal/South Florida winner (!), G'town over San Diego St., Kansas over Purdue. Ohio is my other big sleeper. I just want ONE team named the Bobcats to win a couple of games.

Sweet 16: UNC over Ohio, Kansas over G'town.

Regional final: UNC over Kansas in the Roy Williams Invitational.


Missouri over Baylor
Ohio State over UNC


Missouri 73, Ohio State 62

Let the mocking begin!

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Bookshelf Project: Drew Magary's "The Postmortal"

So I started this Bookshelf Project thing this year to force me to read some of the good books I bought and then set aside over the past year or two. I picked out 25 books, which comes out to a little more than two a month. It's March, and I've finished two and have started a third. So, yeah, I'm already behind. Which I expected.

The first book I've finished is Drew Magary's "The Postmortal" -- which, as you can see above, has a fantastic cover.

The book lives up to it.

If you like sports you've probably seen Magary's stuff over at Deadspin, where he writes (profanely -- you've been warned) about everything from hating LeBron James to the agonies of being a dad to his desire for cheap horrendous beer. HE ALSO LIKES GOING ALL CAPS.

But there's an interesting mind underneath all the poop stories. And in "The Postmortal" his mind goes here: What if you could take a drug that would cure aging? You could live forever -- as long as you didn't get hit by a truck or something -- and your body would always be the age it is right now.

It sounds like paradise. But as "The Postmortal" reveals, it's not. God, no, it's not.

Magary tells the story through the eyes of John Farrell, a New Yorker who gets the cure in 2019 at age 29. He takes his roommate, Katy, to the rogue doctor who gave him the cure. Farrell spots a beautiful blonde he had seen the first time he was there. He leaves Katy at the office to track the mystery woman.

And from that point, on page 43, terrible things start to happen.

As you read you'll start to think about all the terrible things that COULD happen if people could stop aging. Would the population explode? Yep. Would some people refuse the cure because it's not part of the natural order of things? Yep. Would they wreak havoc on the people who DID get the cure? Oh, yeah.

And what about a sweet little baby? Would a doting but insane mother...?

The deeper I got into "The Postmortal," the more of these nightmare scenarios I started thinking of -- and I swear, every time I thought of one, there it'd be in the book 10 pages later.

Farrell ends up becoming an "end specialist" -- someone who euthanizes people who've decided they don't want to live forever after all -- and that brings its own set of problems. There's a lot of violence and anger and heartbreak -- and some humor, although not as much as you might expect from Magary's blogwork.

By the end, Magary drags you toward some hard questions: How will we treat one another when things go really bad? What's worth living for? And if you think of life as a story, what's the point of a story without an ending?

I zipped through this book -- it's a fast read, even at 365 pages -- but I'll be thinking about it a long time. And if the cure ever comes, I hope I'll have the guts to pass.

Next on the list: "Pulphead," by John Jeremiah Sullivan.

(Of course, one reason I'm doing this is to hear about what y'all are reading. So the lines are open in the comment section.)

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

President Obama in Mount Holly (or, The Fainting Economy)

-- The woman had waited for President Obama too long.

The workers invited to see the president here at the Daimler truck plant got herded in early because of security. They’d been standing around a couple of hours. It was warm inside the plant. And so, partway through the president’s speech, she fell out.

“It looks like somebody might have fainted up here,” Obama said, calling for the EMTs. He rescued it with a laugh line: “Folks do this all the time in my meetings.”

The woman was fine. It was just hard to wait so long like that.

Hold that thought.

The president came to Mount Holly to tout clean energy. The Freightliner trucks made at the plant made a nice backdrop, seeing as how some of them are built to burn cleaner and cheaper natural gas.

But this is an election year, so it was also a campaign stop, and Obama had fun with it. He teased the Freightliner employee who introduced him for sounding like a preacher. He joked about his tie having Carolina blue and the Duke shade, too. He said he loves North Carolina: “Even the folks who don’t vote for me, they’re nice to me. They usually wave five fingers.”

He acted loose and confident. With good reason.

Over on the Republican side, primary voters keep trying to run the whole campaign off a cliff like in one of those Indiana Jones chase scenes. Mitt Romney won Super Tuesday, sort of, but he still can’t shed Rick Santorum, who is running one of the finest political campaigns of the 1950s. And Newt Gingrich won Georgia, even though in a general election he couldn’t beat Gen. Sherman.

All those polls you see about Obama being unpopular? They’re true – until you put him next to one of the Republicans. Then he looks like Reagan vs. Mondale.

But there’s a real weak spot – Obama knows it, his opponents know it, and voters know it. It’s the same weak spot you see in the story of this sparkling plant building these massive trucks.

Underneath, the economy is unstable.

One of the reasons Obama came to Mount Holly was so he could mention that the Freightliner plant added more than 1,000 workers last year. Daimler also announced in January that it’s hiring 1,100 people at its plant in Cleveland in Rowan County. That’s all great news.

But back in 2009, the company laid off more than 2,600 workers at those two plants and one in Gastonia. Many of the new hires are workers who got laid off three years ago and are now coming back.

Alan Herrin’s story is a little different. Herrin, who’s 50, was one of the workers who got an invitation to hear Obama speak. He’s been with Freightliner for eight months. He used to work for a company that helped make the doors for Freightliner trucks. What happened to that job?

“Mexico,” he says.

At Freightliner, Herrin inspects trucks as they come down the line to make sure they’re put together correctly. He’s on his feet or under a truck eight hours a day. When I ask him what he uses for a crawler, he smiles and says “these,” pointing to his knees.

But he’s glad to have the job. Freightliner feels like a family to him.

“I hope I’m here ‘til I’m 75,” he says. “But who knows these days?”

Who Knows These Days? could be the theme of this campaign. The unemployment rate is dropping, but millions of people are still without work. The housing market is rebounding a little, but neighborhoods are still dotted with foreclosures.

President Obama can make a case that the economy is growing again after a deep recession. He can also tick off a list of other accomplishments – he saved the car companies, passed a health-care plan, got rid of Osama. But when you’ve been laid off or furloughed or had your pay cut or lost your benefits, none of that other stuff matters so much.

To extend that image from way up at the beginning, people can only wait so long for things to get stable. Then they start dropping out.

It’s March; lots of weird stuff can happen between now and November. (This time four years ago, candidate Obama had just been trounced in Ohio by Hillary Clinton.) But right now, no GOP candidate looks to be much of a match for the president.

Unless the economy dives downward again. There’s no telling what people will do when they start to feel faint.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Two appearances at the library

I've got a couple of events coming up at Charlotte-Mecklenburg libraries, if you're interested:

-- This Saturday (March 10), my pal John Grooms and I are co-hosting a showing of "Page One," a really good documentary about The New York Times and the future of journalism. That's at the Morrison Regional branch starting at 1:30 p.m.

Here's the trailer for "Page One":

-- On April 10, I'll be at the Matthews Branch at 6:30 p.m. to talk about my job as a writer and to pass along some advice about writing as a career. Here's the event listing.

Both events are free and open to the public. And here's the real bonus: You'll get a trip to the library out of it. Come see me.