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.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Monkees and Jimi Hendrix in Charlotte

The death of Monkees singer Davy Jones on Wednesday reminded me again of one of the bizarre and wonderful moments in Charlotte history.

On July 11, 1967, the Monkees played at the Charlotte Coliseum on Independence Boulevard (now Bojangles Coliseum).

The Jimi Hendrix Experience was the opening act.

Forty-five years later this sounds crazy for at least two reasons: one, that Hendrix was opening for the Monkees instead of the other way around, and two, that they ended up on the same bill in the first place.

The first reason wasn't quite as crazy back then. The Monkees were at their popular peak -- "Last Train to Clarksville," "I'm a Believer" and "Pleasant Valley Sunday" were all huge hits by the summer of '67. Hendrix, meanwhile, had scored hits in England but wasn't well-known over here.

The background on how the two acts got together isn't totally clear, but by all accounts everybody got along on stage and backstage. The problem was the crowds. The teenage girls (and some boys) who showed up to scream for the Monkees had no idea what to do with the wild-haired black guy playing the guitar with his teeth. I'm trying to imagine a double bill today that would be that different. Maybe Mastodon opening for Taylor Swift. (Actually, hell, I'd go to that show.)

Charlotte was the third show on the Monkees/Hendrix double bill. Hendrix lasted just four more shows after that. He got tired of the boos and the girls screaming for Davy and Micky. At a show in Forest Hills, N.Y., he flipped off the crowd, and that was that.

Obviously, he ended up doing just fine for himself.

(That's 11 minutes, but it might be your favorite 11 minutes today.)

Over the years I've heard from lots of people about that Charlotte show. I have a feeling it's like that Wilt Chamberlain 100-point game -- the arena held 10,000 but 100,000 people say they were there. I've never seen one shred of memorabilia from the concert -- not a ticket stub or poster or photo or anything. If you're out there, and you've got something -- even just your story -- share it with us.

In the meantime, we played some Hendrix, so it's only fair to play some Monkees. "Clarksville," "I'm a Believer," "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone"... those are some fun songs. Not Jimi, but not bad.

Take us home, Davy.