Friday, October 29, 2010

The Friday Wrap

Let me just start by saying a fond goodbye to October, the best month of the year. College football and the NFL are in full swing, the NBA begins, the baseball playoffs and World Series... and, oh yeah, the leaves and the autumn winds and all that stuff.

Here's what I was up to this week:

In the paper and on the blog

This political season as the Year of Amateur Status.

Sausage-making and Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.

Last call for the Why I Vote project. (Thanks to those of you who sent something in; there's still time.)

An invitation to join me for a writing class, or come see a reading.

Links on Twitter

Here are some links I posted during the week from my Twitter account, @tommytomlinson:

Steve Perry singing along... with himself. Hang with the video -- it'll kick in.

Some of these are fake. But still: People are awesome.

Honus Wagner: the world's rarest baseball card. Who ends up with one? Some nuns in Baltimore.

Amazingly, Landon Donovan predicted this would happen today.

OK, I know what I want for Christmas. MINI-CANNON!

A musical interlude

My friend Andrea Pitzer of Nieman Storyboard linked to this great Tom Petty live clip the other day. There's one four-letter word, if you care about that sort of thing. But here's how Andrea set it up: "Love the tension he sets up here--The off-rhythm vocals! The injured hand! Where's the band?"

This one won't embed, but go take a look. It's worth it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpG09PenZt8

Coming up

A (very late) Avett Brothers album review, maybe some thoughts on the World Series, I'll have a column in the paper on Sunday, and of course Tuesday is Election Day -- I'll be columnizing on that, too. Go vote, por favor. Enjoy your Halloween weekend.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Teaching a class, reading at StorySlam!

Just wanted to let everybody know about a couple of events coming up:

-- I'm teaching another writing class at Queens University... it's the "Writing in 3-D" class that I've done a couple times already this year. I'll be teaching it over two Saturday mornings, Dec. 4 and Dec. 11. We've had good crowds for this class so far, and I think people have learned a little bit. I've definitely had fun. Here's how to sign up. Holler if you have questions.

-- I'm also reading some of my work at StorySlam! Charlotte at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 12. The other guests that night are poet/novelist/raconteur John Hartness and lawyer/writer/rock 'n' roll demon David Childers. I had a ball reading with John the last time I did StorySlam!, and I've admired David pretty much ever since I set foot in Charlotte. Here's some info about StorySlam! -- we're not on the calendar for some reason, but I'm told it's a go. Come check it out.

Last call for Why I Vote

We've gotten a few good submissions for the Why I Vote project, but I'd love to see some more before Election Day next Tuesday. The idea is to send me a photo of yourself, with a card or caption or something explaining why you vote.

Here's a great example from David Bayer:


You can e-mail the photo to me, ttomlinson@charlotteobserver.com. If you have any questions about how to do that, holler.

As we all know, voting increases your sex appeal, makes hair grow back and causes your stocks to increase in value. But you probably have your own reasons. Let's hear 'em.



Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sausage-making and CMS

In one sense, this is exactly how government is supposed to work. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system put forth plans, citizens spoke out, the plans changed, people reacted to the changes. Yes, protesters disrupted the school board meeting Tuesday night. But they left quietly, and then they were let back in, and the meeting finished up.

CMS could have handled this better. They could have given the public more time to digest the ideas. But the problem is not the process. The problem is the product. There are no good solutions that come out of closing schools and moving kids around. There are just various versions of awful.

Everything has collided. Charlotte's growth has slowed, so some schools haven't filled up as expected. The economy is still limping, so government has to cut. All that is overlaid on the long-term problem of underachieving schools. And all THAT is overlaid on race, class, the role of parents, the role of government, merit, fairness, justice: basically, the history of America.

The old line says you don't want to see the making of laws or sausages. But this is more like scrapple. We're watching lips and snouts and hooves fly into the grinder, and nobody wants to taste what comes out the other side.

Few people grasp the big picture, or want to. Parents, naturally, fight for their kids' schools -- even if those schools are failing. You always think that with a few more good teachers, a little extra attention, a school can turn around. Some charter schools (but not all) have shown that poor and minority kids can do just as well as other kids in the right environment. CMS has even had some success at places such as Harding University High.

But Harding is now scheduled to close because of the brutal math that faces CMS: Every open school must be filled to the brim to make sure the money's not wasted. Harding is only about half full. So other students have to come fill it up, or Harding's kids have to go somewhere else.

This is the bill the poorest kids in our schools have always paid. They've always had the longest bus rides, the fewest good teachers, the least support from their parents. (As many have pointed out, those crowds at the CMS meetings would be something nice to see at PTA meetings.)

But the moves also affect middle-class families who can't afford private schools, and magnet-school kids who might show some special talent, and gifted kids in International Baccalaureate programs.

Why not spread the pain into all public schools? Two reasons, one academic and one political. Most of the schools in Charlotte's wealthiest neighborhoods are doing fine. And if they take any major cuts, parents have the means to pull their kids out and put them in private schools. They're a mousetrap CMS can't touch.

So here's the bottom line: Too much space, not enough money, lots of parents motivated by change, not enough parents motivated before the change was necessary, the kids who need stability most will get the least.

Put yourself in the chair of a school board member. Try to make that work. See how long before your head explodes.

Blanche Penn, one of the protesters Tuesday night, said this afterward: "It's like they're playing some kind of game with us, like we're all just pieces of a puzzle."

She was half right. It's a puzzle. But it's no game.



Friday, October 22, 2010

The Friday Wrap

I've got a story scheduled for Sunday's paper on how the lack of political experience might be a virtue in this election season. Look for it in the Big Picture section. Here's some of the other stuff I was up to this week:

Projects for you

This week I launched a new project, Why I Vote. Send in your photo with a sign saying why you vote. Here's an example from David Bayer:


David did a fancy-schmancy computer caption, but all you really need to do is hold up a sign. Get your photos in and we'll put up a gallery.

I'm also still taking entries for the At First Sight project -- tell me a story about when you knew something at first sight.

On the blog and in the paper

I let you know I was going to be on TV.

Then, surprisingly, they actually put me on TV.

Links on Twitter

Here are some links I posted during the week from my Twitter account, @tommytomlinson:

Man eats half-stick of butter every day, solves problems faster. So shouldn't Paula Deen be Stephen Hawking by now?

Very cool CNN project: 50 choirs, 1 song.

A great gambling story that makes me not want to gamble ever again.

Thinking about moving to France. Worst comes to worst, would still get to retire at 62. via @

New York has its own Alvin Greene, except even more awesome. The rent is too damn high!

Coming up

If you've been interested in the writing classes I've been teaching at Queens University, but you haven't had a chance to take one yet... I hope to have some news for you next week.

And the Panthers are playing! Against a team almost as bad as they are! If the home team does end up going 1-15, you really don't want to miss the 1.

(By the way, not to brag or anything, but my Panthers' season pick looks like a better bet than the ones by either of our official sports columnists. Although I'd be thrilled to be wrong.)

Have a great weekend, everybody.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

TV clip from "Charlotte Today"

So here's my segment on "Charlotte Today" this morning. Should have gone with better shoes... didn't know my sneakers were gonna make it on TV.

When you hit play you'll see a commercial... after it's over, hit pause and then hit play again to get the clip. At least that's how it worked for me.

Thanks to Colleen Odegaard, Rob Tanner, all the crew, and the kids from Pinewood Elementary who were in the studio and stayed quiet the whole time.




FYI, here's the project I mentioned in the segment... and here's that wedding column.

Project #6: Why I Vote

Our new project is tied to Election Day. We hear every year about how people are more disillusioned about politics than ever. This project is designed as an antidote. It's called Why I Vote, and the idea is simple:

Send in a photo of yourself with a sign that answers this question: Why do you vote?

What we're looking for in the photo is kind of a Bob Dylan "Subterranean Homesick Blues" feel:

Except you can smile. Smiling is encouraged.

It doesn't have to look exactly like that, either. Be creative! Although your answer also needs to be brief.

BECAUSE IT IS A CORNERSTONE OF THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC FORM OF GOVERNMENT WE HAVE CHOSEN IN THIS COUNTRY might not work.

BECAUSE I COLLECT THOSE 'I VOTED' STICKERS probably would.

Be funny, be serious, be sarcastic, be heartfelt... be whatever you like. Make sure your face is in the photo. And be partisan if you want, but just know that I'm more inclined toward nonpartisan answers. (You could write in red or blue marker to show your colors.)

E-mail me your photo (with your name and town) to ttomlinson@charlotteobserver.com. (You can also mail it to PO Box 30308, Charlotte, NC 28230... but if you don't know how to e-mail a photo, just ask the nearest 12-year-old.)

I'm hoping we'll end up with a motivational slideshow for these last few weeks before Election Day.

Thanks for contributing!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On TV tomorrow

DVR alert: If you have a DVR, you should probably unplug it so you don't accidentally record my appearance on WCNC's Charlotte Today at 11 a.m. Wednesday. If you do decide to watch, I'll do my best to make lovely host Colleen Odegaard glad she asked me to come, instead of bringing on a monkey juggler or something. Although I would totally watch a monkey juggler. By which I mean a monkey that juggles, instead of a guy juggling monkeys. Although, come to think of it, that would be even more cool.

This is the kind of stuff that runs through my head. Let's all just hope I don't ramble like that on the air.

By the way: New project coming tomorrow. It requires cameras. So make sure your batteries are good, and get ready.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Friday Wrap

Y'all are busy people, so I'm going to take this spot on Fridays to collect all the reportage, bloggage, tweetage and other blurtage I put out during the week.

Projects for you

There's a new reader project called At First Sight -- I'd really like to hear your stories about one of those moments.

I'm also thinking about doing a local version of this very cool CNN video project where people send in videos of their favorite walk. Would y'all do something like this if I put out the call?

On the blog and in the paper

Here's a few thoughts on the Chilean miners.

I watched the documentary "Waiting for 'Superman'" with four people invested in education in Charlotte; if you're interested in the future of our public schools, go see it.

There was a little NFL talk on the Gold Rush bus, and the home team didn't come off well.

Speaking of that, you can still take the Panthers QB poll. Here's how bad it is: We want Jake back. (And my bad for not putting Armanti Edwards in there.)

My links on Twitter

This showed up in the paper right after Dylan came to town. I'm just sayin'.

Gene Payne, longtime Observer editorial cartoonist, died today (Thursday). He made this list in 1968.

The Alvin Greene Performance Art Project continues. Makes Joaquin Phoenix look like an amateur.

Mike Harden, a great columnist I'd never known, remembered by @.

RIP, General Johnson. via @ Here's the brilliant "Give Me Just a Little More Time":

My bud @ on the 32 greatest calls in sports. Brilliant stuff, altho Larry Munson is WAY too low :)

Diamonds aren't really forever. But Happy Meals apparently are.

My favorite new correction ever. (via @ )

Hey, I'm quoted in an ESPN story on Julius Peppers.

Very cool crowdsourced video by the great @.

Coming up

Unless they come to their senses, I'm supposed to be on WCNC's Charlotte Today on Wednesday. Just remember, the cameras add 100 pounds.

Have a great weekend, everybody.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Project #5: At first sight

I ran across a beautiful little movie the other day. It was one of the finalists in the narrative division of the Vimeo Awards for short films. Go to the site and you can get lost in there for hours -- I did -- but one film, less than 5 minutes long, has stuck with me ever since.

It's called "Nuit Blanche" (literally "white night," but the French use it to mean "sleepless night") by Arev Manoukian. Watch it first, and then I have a project for you.

What this film made me think about, as you might imagine, is the idea of love at first sight. But love isn't the only thing we feel at first sight... sometimes you know a house is the place you want to live when you pull into the driveway, or you know one dog in the litter is the one meant for you. And we also feel the opposite of those things -- sometimes we DON'T like or DON'T want something as soon as you give it a glance.

So here's the assignment: Tell me a story about a moment when you knew something at first sight.

You can leave it here in the comments or send me an email at ttomlinson@charlotteobserver.com. I'll also post this on my Facebook page. If you have photos or anything else that helps tell your story, send those along too.

We'll compile the best and publish them. So let's hear your story.




Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Chilean miners

It looked like giving birth. The miner rose from the belly of the cave, and came up through the tunnel, and when he finally emerged there were tears, because we had seen a miracle.

And then another came. And then another.

Seventy days ago the copper mine in Chile had collapsed, leaving 33 men trapped 2,000 feet down. For more than two weeks most experts assumed they were dead. But no one knew for sure, and one day a drill made it into an open area, and when the drill bit came back up there was a note attached, written in red.

Estamos bien en el refugio los 33. The 33 of us are fine in the shelter.

The challenge became how to get them out. Drilling experts from a dozen countries pitched in. NASA designed the escape pod. It took nearly two more months to drill a hole big enough and safe enough. In the meantime crews sent down food and water and a video camera.

And that is how the world got to watch from inside the mine on Tuesday night as the first miner rode to the surface, a slow rocket to heaven.

His name is Florencio Ávalos. He hugged his family and the Chilean president. The next one to surface, Mario SepĂșlveda, threw up his arms and roared as if he had just scored the goal to win the World Cup.

The third one got me.

His name is Juan Illanes. He's in his early '50s, with a thick mustache, and in the dark shades he wore to help his eyes adjust, he looked a little like Richard Petty.

He got out of the pod, and his wife was standing a few feet away, but they couldn't embrace just yet -- workers were removing some of his gear. While that happened, the CNN camera showed her face. She wasn't crying. She wasn't beaming with joy. She had this little half-smile that every spouse in the world has seen on the back side of hard times, that look of Thank God, and I love you, and we just barely dodged that one.

(As I post this 12 miners have made it out, and if the plan continues to work, they should be all on the surface in the next day or two.)

We live in such an angry and fearful time. But sometimes it all falls away, and for a brief moment you can believe like a child, because at 1 in the morning on an ordinary weekday, we make miracles: A man rises from the tomb, steps out into the world, hugs his wife, and they are born again.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Watching "Waiting for 'Superman'"

They gathered in a row at the Manor Theatre, talking about a movie that hurts your heart and makes you think.

It's a documentary called "Waiting for 'Superman,'" and it's causing buzz in education circles nationwide. It tracks five kids who are trying to get out of the public school system and into charter schools -- publicly funded schools that don't report to local districts and have freedom to try different approaches.

The people in the audience are invested in education. Nancy Guzman, principal of Sterling Elementary in Charlotte, has a history of turning around troubled schools. Randolph Frierson is a counselor who works with kids in high-poverty schools. Keith Burnam founded KIPP Academy Charlotte, part of a national network of successful charters. Marvin Hamilton is president of the parents' organization at KIPP Academy; his daughter, Rebekah, is in eighth grade there.

We get together Tuesday for a press screening (the movie officially opens at the Manor on Friday). Together we watch. The kids flounder in struggling public schools. Their families fight to help. Statistics show how bad schools defeat bright children, and how bad teachers are almost impossible to get rid of. Finally, the kids apply to charter schools, where so many people apply that the schools hold lotteries to get in. The movie implies that winning the school lottery might be the best chance these kids have to make it.

There was sniffling in the theater.

Afterward, the group talked about what they saw -- and didn't see.

"I thought it was powerfully moving, and extremely accurate," Guzman said. "One thing that impressed me was the passion those parents had. I wish we had that for all our children."

"All those kids (in the movie) had an involved parent," Frierson said. "That's just not the reality in the populations that we serve. In a lot of cases, that natural support isn't there. In those cases we have to beat the bushes -- volunteers, extra teacher help, trying to get some community support. It's hard to count on that."

"What jumped out at me was the importance of teachers," Burnam said. "At our school 70 percent of our staff is Teach for America. But with a lot of work and coaching and support, we've been able to create a setting where teachers are motivated to get better. And then they motivate the students."

"When Rebekah was in public school, one time she had 50 students in one class," Hamilton said. "She always wanted to just go to school and learn. But all this other stuff got in the way."

The movie is hardest on teachers' organizations; it shows a battle in Washington, D.C., over a plan to reward high-performing teachers and deny rewards to the worst teachers. The union wouldn't even let it come to a vote.

In Charlotte, Supt. Peter Gorman gives incentives to teachers who transfer to academically suffering schools, and he is installing a pay-for-performance plan for all teachers. But Frierson said that can cause resentment at schools.

"You get a teacher coming into your school making $5,000 more than you're making, and you're teaching the most difficult students..." he said. "In this economy, that's a hard pill to swallow."

"But if it's done correctly --" Guzman said.

"Sure, if it's done correctly," Frierson said. "But that doesn't always happen. I've seen it go wrong."

Everybody agreed on some fundamentals. Teachers ought to be paid more. Parents need to be more involved. The community as a whole needs to see education as an investment -- one that's a lot cheaper than supporting uneducated adults, or building jails.

The movie describes giving kids a great education as a series of simple steps that are hard to take.

"Great teachers, coming from great principals, can accomplish almost anything in a classroom," Burnam said. "Every child can learn if we provide the right setting."

"We know what works," Guzman said. "Why are we not doing it?"

Monday, October 11, 2010

CLT snapshot: Football talk

On the Gold Rush bus uptown, 1:30 p.m. Three banker types get on. Two guys in the back, Dallas Cowboys fans, are ripping their (1-3) team. The bankers start laughing.

GUY IN BACK: Who's your team, then?

BANKER #1 (sheepishly): The 49ers. (That would be the 0-5 49ers.)

BANKER #2: That's not MY team! My team is across the bay.

GUY IN BACK: San Diego? No, wait... Oakland?

BANKER #2 (sheepishly): Yeah. (That would be the 2-3 Raiders.)

It's quiet for a second. The bus stops and the bankers start to get off.

GUY IN BACK: Well, at least we ain't Panthers fans!

Everybody laughs.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Ray Charles, John Wayne, and America

Years ago -- at least five addresses and six computers ago -- my buddy Joe and I got the idea to write a book about the 100 greatest things in America. They could be places (Mount Rushmore, Key West) or events (the Kentucky Derby, the ringing of the bell on Wall Street). We'd take the giant advance that we would (obviously) get for the idea, and go around the country to see or do all these things. We really got into it -- we made up separate lists, argued about it over the phone, e-mailed revisions that took several hours to send (at least it seemed) on our dial-up connections.

Somewhere along the way the idea faded. I don't even have my list anymore. It's probably on a floppy disk in a landfill. But I remember we were certain about one thing: Ray Charles singing "America the Beautiful" was one of the 100 greatest things in America.

We figured we'd end the book by going to see him somewhere on July 4 with Ray swaying and stomping his feet and fireworks going off. We couldn't imagine anything more American.

So on Thursday I went to a rally in North Charleston for Nikki Haley, the Republican candidate for governor in South Carolina. (As I mentioned the other day, I'm working on a profile of her and I'm interested in your ideas.) This rally had a sound system playing patriotic songs while everyone waited for Haley to arrive. Most of it was the same playlist I've heard at all of these things -- Toby Keith, Billy Ray Cyrus' "Some Gave All," stuff like that.

But then, out of nowhere, John Wayne started saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

I vaguely remembered hearing it before, as part of a track where he goes on to riff a little bit about what each line means. But I don't think they played that part at the rally. It was just John Wayne and the Pledge of Allegiance. It could not have been more American if he had popped out of an apple pie.

Ray Charles had a challenger.

And to hammer the point home, the very next thing that came up on the sound system was Ray's "America the Beautiful."

So maybe this is for we the people to decide, in the Saturday Night Live "Quien es mas macho?" tradition. (I couldn't find that SNL clip online... help out if you know where it is.)

Here's John (with the extra stuff after the pledge):



And here's Ray (from the Dick Cavett Show in the '70s):



My fellow Americans, we can be proud of either one. But you have to pick. Who you got? Or is there some other performance even more American than these? If there is, I'm not sure we can take it... but throw it out there anyway.

UPDATE: Joe comes back with a poll about the most quintessentially American recording. Go see what you think.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Thoughts on Nikki Haley?

So I'm getting ready to spend a few days on the road, in preparation for a profile on Nikki Haley (the Republican candidate for governor in South Carolina, and the favorite to win).

Sometimes I go into this type of story with a particular angle in mind -- although often the reporting in the field leads me in another direction. This time, though, I'm pretty wide open. So I'd love to hear your thoughts.

What have you read about Haley (or the governor's race) that you'd like to know more about? What would like to know LESS about? And what do you think her candidacy says about politics in general, and South Carolina politics in particular?

Let me know what you think. And if you're interested in seeing Haley for yourself, she'll be at a rally in Rock Hill on Friday.

Photo in need of a caption

Taken at the Habitat ReStore on Wendover Road. Only $1 apiece (assuming you still have a VCR).

Sorry for the lack of posting... I've had a bad case of the crud for the last week, and it hasn't quite gone away yet. I'm stumbling through on orange juice and CVS cold medicine. But I've got a bunch of posts in the hopper -- and I think I'm going to be hitting the road soon for a profile of a Carolinas politician. I'll be asking for your help if that turns out to be a go.

I've also got a poll up there in the top right corner... I'll have new polls up there every few days, but this first one is about Twitter and Facebook. Just curious as to which one(s) you use. I'm trying to figure out how to use both a little better.

In the meantime, add your photo caption in the comments...