Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My Favorite Things of 2010

So here's the stuff I liked the most this year. I wanted a little more than a top-10 list -- I had 20 things on here at one point -- but I settled on 11, because 11 is my favorite number, beautiful and symmetrical. Also, of course, 11 is one louder.

You have your own favorite things of the year, right? Drop 'em in the comments.

11. Hungover Owls (Warning: foul language. Also: fowl language.)

It turns out that owls, when you take their picture in the daytime, all look like they're coming off a three-day bender in Vegas. The photos are spectacular. The captions are almost as good. It's one joke, but the joke never gets old.

(Honorable mention: Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things.)

10. "Toy Story 3"

How good is Pixar? This ranks fourth on my list of favorite Pixar movies -- behind "Wall-E," "The Incredibles" and "Up" -- but it probably also makes my list of the top 50 movies of all time. This kids' movie about a bunch of talking toys ends up really being about life, loss, sacrifice, and the pain and joy of growing up. You forget about the skill of the technology because you're so caught up in the story.

9. Super Bowl 44

We watched this year's Super Bowl with a couple of lifelong New Orleans Saints fans. Being a Saints fan has meant the occasional island of hope surrounded by swamps of misery. When you compare histories, Panthers fans have lived like kings compared to Saints fans. Not to mention that Katrina almost destroyed the Superdome and left fans wondering if the team would ever come back.

But last year the Saints had their best team ever, and they made to the Super Bowl for the first time, against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. The Saints sprung an onside kick to start the second half, and led by a touchdown late, but the Colts got the ball and started driving. You could almost feel all that history rising up like a raw tide, waiting to drown the Saints one more time.

And then this happened.

I wish I could replicate the sound in our friend Greg's living room right at that moment, as he and his buddies all of a sudden realized that this time fate broke their way, and the freaking New Orleans Saints -- the Saints! -- were about to be world champions.

That sound still rolls around in my bones.

8. Richard Thompson / Loudon Wainwright III (Knight Theater, April 19)

Two of the best singer-songwriters on the planet, in a beautiful new theater with a top-shelf sound system. I saw some other fine shows this year -- Drive-By Truckers, John Hiatt, Marshall Crenshaw -- but this show reminded me why live music moves me more than any other art. And Thompson played "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," maybe the greatest story song of the last 30 years.

(I wrote a longer review of the show over on my personal site.)

7. "Next," James Hynes

I can't remember how I heard about this novel -- a review in Entertainment Weekly, maybe? -- but I picked it up and read it in two long nights. An academic type flies to Texas for a job interview, but becomes obsessed with the beautiful woman next to him on the plane. He follows her around Austin. He remembers old girlfriends. And while all this is happening, something else is happening, just at the edge of the frame.

I won't spoil it any more than that, except to say that once you figure out what's going on, and you ask yourself Is this what I think it is?, you're already hurtling toward the finish, and one of the best last lines you'll ever read.

6. "Oceans"

Nature films have to do one of two things: Tell a compelling story (as in "March of the Penguins"), or show me something I've never seen before. "Oceans" showed me so many things I'd never seen, it was like looking at the sea for the first time. We saw this on a weeknight, and there weren't 10 people in the whole theater, but you could hear all of us gasping, over and over, at the beauty and drama. The scene with the circling dolphins and dive-bombing birds alone is worth the DVD rental. See this with the family, on a hi-def TV, and prepare to be awed.

5. "The House That Built Me," Miranda Lambert
Country radio was better than any other radio this year, and this was the best song on country radio. (Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now" is almost as good -- if Fleetwood Mac made a country album, this would be the first single, even though the melody cribs from the Alan Parsons Project.)

"House That Built Me" has got all the pieces: A beautiful lyric built around a play on words, a simple and powerful story, a singer who knows that sometimes pulling back is better. I can hang in there pretty well through most of it, but my bottom lip starts to quiver on the bridge:

You leave home, you move on / And you do the best you can / I got lost in this old world /And forgot who I am...

Sing it, Miranda.

4. "Lonely, stressed and frustrated: Inside the mind of the Pinellas monkey," Michael Kruse (St. Petersburg Times, May 16)

I did a post a couple of weeks ago listing my five favorite stories of the year, but I saved this one for this list, because it stuck with me in a different way. It's not the writing that moves me so much (although the writing is fine). It's the thought behind the writing, and the feeling behind the thought.

A young rhesus macaque monkey has been on the loose in the Tampa-St. Pete area for the better part of two years now. On one level, it's fun -- the monkey has a Web page, and apparently it's now running for mayor of Tampa. But Kruse gets to the universal truth of the monkey on the loose: He's lonely, and we're not meant to be lonely. That idea, and this story, is going to stay with me a long time.

3. The sports-bar videos on Landon Donovan's goal

All of us -- OK, nearly all of us -- fell in love with soccer a little this summer when Landon Donovan netted a last-minute goal to beat Algeria in the World Cup. Just as a sports moment, it was brilliant enough -- goalie Tim Howard's outlet pass, Donovan's shot off a rebound, the USA dogpile in the corner. If you like sports at all, you have to enjoy this.

But in some ways that wasn't the best part. Later that day and into the night, videos started popping up on YouTube of fans reacting to the goal in sports bars around the country. In most of the videos you can't see the TV; you just see the fans going wide-eyed as the USA races down the field, then the agony as the first shot misses, then the screams as Donovan's follow goes in. I posted some of the videos back then, and I'm sure there are plenty more by now. As a sports fan there's no better moment: Your team does something amazing and wonderful, and you're right in the middle of a bunch of people who feel the same way.

Go watch them all, really, but for now, here's Seattle:

2. "(Bleep) You," Cee-Lo Green (WARNING WARNING PROFANITY ALERT... I'll just link this one instead of embedding)

This is the first song in years that made me feel like when I was 12, and a GREAT new song came on the radio, and I would beg my mama to take me to J.M. Fields the next day so I could buy the 45 because even when the radio played it every hour, that wasn't enough. At one point early on the video hit 2 million views on YouTube, and I'm pretty sure that 1.8 million were just me and my friend Joe Posnanski.

You can knock the language, I guess (and there's a clean version if you can't get past the bad words). But this song is so funny, so sweet, so full of joy -- from the guitar lick to the background Ooo-ooo-ooos to that amazing high note Cee-Lo hits coming out of the bridge -- that every time I play it, it makes me laugh, and dance, and try to hit that high note. And when it's done I play it over again.

1. The last shot in Butler-Duke

Sports highlights tend to land in two categories: A brilliant success, or a miserable failure. What you don't see much, as highlights linger over the years, is the near-miss. But the near-miss is the most human thing in sports. All of us have so many moments when we try hard, give our best, but don't quite get there. Those moments stick in our personal highlight reels. Sometimes I think our lives play out based on our near-misses, and what we decided to make of them.

This was one of the best sports years I can remember, from the Super Bowl, to Landon Donovan's goal, to Zenyatta flying from the back of the pack, to the John Isner-Nicolas Mahut ultramarathon at Wimbledon. But the best moment for me was the last 3.6 seconds of the last game of the college basketball season.

Duke -- the best college program of the last 20 years -- played Butler in the final. Butler is a small school from Indianapolis that has beaten some good teams over the past few years, but never got close to a title. But this time they made it to the Final Four (which also happened to be in Indianapolis), then beat Michigan State to make the title game, then played Duke close all the way to the end.

With 3.6 seconds left, and Duke up one, Duke's Brian Zoubek made one free throw but deliberately missed the second, so Butler would have to eat up time to take a shot. Butler's star player, Gordon Heyward, grabbed the rebound. Four dribbles and three seconds later he was at halfcourt. And then he let the shot go.

You can see the CBS broadcast of the last two minutes -- the whole thing is great drama, but you can skip ahead to about 5:00 if you want to see those last few seconds. But somehow a fan video, even though it's blurry and shaky, is what touches me the most.

ESPN did a scientific study of the shot a few days after the game, calculating the angle of release and the speed of the ball, and if I remember right, three inches to the left and it would have gone in. Because of the two teams, and because of the moment, it clearly would've been the greatest shot in basketball history, and probably one of the all-time sports highlights.

Three inches away.

But I've noticed something. They're playing the highlight anyway. I've seen it at least two dozen times in this new basketball season, and when March Madness comes back around we'll see it a lot more. I think we're going to end up holding onto that 3.6 seconds for years and years, because what we saw there was the greatest near-miss in sports history.

Not all of us get to raise the trophy. But all of us have a time when we just missed. Those last few seconds of Butler-Duke were some of the most human moments of 2010. And when I'm too old to remember who won the Super Bowl this year, or what books I loved, I think I'm going to remember that last shot.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Coming to Terms, Ornamentation, and you

Just a quick note to remind y'all about a couple of reader projects I'll be wrapping up this week:

-- For Ornamentation, I'm looking for stories about an object that resonates with you at the holidays. The deadline on this one is Tuesday night.

-- For Coming To Terms, I'm looking for stories from those of you who have lost your job recently... I'm interested in whether you've taken the moment to think about the things you've always dreamed of doing. The deadline on this one is Thursday night.

(This project is linked my story "The Accountant's Song," which ran online and in the paper Saturday.)

We've already got some great stories for these projects but I'm always looking for more. Please add yours.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Project #9: Coming to Terms

Today I've got a story about Cindy Thomson, who got laid off at age 62 and decided to pursue her dream -- becoming a jazz singer.

In some ways, Cindy is lucky. She didn't have quite the same financial pressures as other people who have lost their jobs in this economy. She has a spouse who works. She was able to borrow money from her mother to cut a CD.

But what drew me to her story was the choice she faced, the same choice so many others have faced over these past few years: You've lost your job. Now what do you do with your life?

That's the idea behind my latest reader project, Coming to Terms.

I want to hear from those of you who have lost your job in the past couple of years. Have you been able to find work again? Is it the kind of work you hoped for? Do you dream of doing something else with your life? Have you ever reached out and tried to do it?

Tell your stories in the comments below, or e-mail them to me at ttomlinson@charlotteobserver.com. If pictures or video help tell your story, send those along, too.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Friday Wrap

First of all, thanks to everyone who sent kind words on my column in today's paper about the young couple in love. Go down in the comments and you'll find a lot of people predicting that the marriage won't last. Maybe so. But I also heard from the other side... here's an e-mail from a reader named Carolyn:

When my future husband and I began dating, I was a senior at Carolina. He graduated three years earlier, through the Navy ROTC program, and lived in Pensacola. We dated for two years, while he was in Pensacola, in Washington State, and during an 8-month overseas deployment. He was overseas for our entire engagement, returning just in time for our rehearsal and wedding. During the two years we dated and were engaged, we’d guess we spent about a month and a half together, in total. It was mentioned more than once by well-meaning relatives that we barely knew each other when we married.

Our wedding was twenty years ago this past October. We have two beautiful little boys and have built a wonderful life together. You have to make it work, but it can, and it does – we’re living proof.

"You have to make it work." True of every marriage, no?

On to the wrapup:

On the blog and in the paper

We started a new reader project. There's still time to tell your story -- I'll put together the stories early next week sometime.

They played bagpipes for the copy desk.

Links from Twitter

Here's some stuff I flagged on my Twitter feed, @tommytomlinson:

I haven't had a chance to see any of "The Sing-Off." But this is just great.

Want to know how to be a writer? This interview with the great @ (a/k/a Esquire's Chris Jones) tells you about all you need. http://www.rrj.ca/m11742/

My bud @ on Bob Feller, and believing.

I'd love to know what Michael and Dean said to each other on this little walk.

Mama says it's a rainy night in Georgia. Just so happens I've been listening to this a lot lately.

Coming up

My story on the woman who got laid off and decided to become a singer is running... sometime soon. I'll also have a piece wrapping up all our Gift of Giving stories from the past few weeks. And on Tuesday (I think) I'll be unveiling my picks for the Best Stuff of 2010. Be thinking of yours, for the comments.

Have a great weekend, everybody.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Bagpipes for the copy desk

(A quick reminder: Take a minute to contribute to my latest reader project, Ornamentation. And there's a new poll over to the right... pick your most annoying person of 2010. Probably should've been a longer list.)

Copy editors are the umpires of the newsroom -- they've done a great job if you barely notice they've been there.

Most everything that goes into our paper is edited at least twice. The first editor is what we call a "line" editor -- usually the reporter's boss. The second layer is the copy editor. The copy editor usually writes the headline, and always does the fine-tooth-comb editing to make sure street names are spelled right, dates match up, we're not saying DUI when we mean DWI. Copy editors know more about the city, state, region and world than anyone else in the newsroom. Copy editors have saved me so many times I lost count long ago. All reporters make mistakes -- it's inevitable on a constant deadline -- but a good copy editor is an All-Star catcher, snagging every wild pitch.

See, that's two baseball metaphors already. A copy editor would say we should cut it to one.

I say all this to set up this video from the Winston-Salem Journal. As newsrooms (like a lot of other businesses) have cut staff, copy editors at many papers -- including the Observer -- have taken the hardest hit. (Full disclosure: My wife works on our copy desk, which we call the universal desk -- our folks also design and lay out pages.)

Last Friday was to be the last day of work for the 18 people on the Journal's copy desk. So they brought in the funeral pipes.

As you see from the video, the reality in Winston-Salem turned out to be more complicated. The reality is complicated these days for every newspaper -- and every other business trying to survive and thrive in these strange times. That's not news anymore, I guess.

Mainly I just wanted to let you know about the greatness of copy editors. We don't notice them much. They deserve to be noticed.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Project #8: Ornamentation

This week's reader project -- called Ornamentation -- is simple. Maybe, as you and your family have built up holiday traditions over the years, some object from those traditions has built up a special meaning.

It might be a Christmas ornament, but it doesn't have to be. I find myself thinking of my dad's old pocketknife, and how he'd get it out to cut open the tape on his presents so we could use the boxes over again.

Whatever it is, I'd like you to tell the story of that one special object that you think of at the holidays.

If you have a photo that helps the story, even better.

Send whatever you've got to ttomlinson@charlotteobserver.com, or you can just tell your story in the comments.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Friday Wrap

It was a busy week around here... put a lot of words through the old paragraph factory (although you won't see all of them until this weekend). Here's what I've been up to:

On the blog and in the paper

There's still a couple of days to take the poll there to the right... looks like the top three choices for Movie of the Year are "Inception," "Toy Story 3" and Other.

I came up with a reader project on the Panthers that turned out to be a total dud (not unlike the Panthers, I guess). Didn't get a single question, and you can see in the comments that several readers weren't fond of the whole idea. That happens sometimes! Failure is good! And either way, I'm glad to see Jerry Richardson speak to fans, at least a little.

Louis C.K. brought the funny.

Elizabeth Edwards led a fascinating life. (Note the anonymous comment at 7:35 a.m., and the discussion that followed... we deal with sketchy comments all the time, and I've always felt the best way to deal with it is to let commenters police themselves.)

I picked my reads of the year.

What's the deal with that photo? Y'all had some ideas.

Links from Twitter

Here's some stuff I flagged on my Twitter feed, @tommytomlinson:

Via many others: Unbelievably powerful WashPost story, told through Facebook updates.

This story has pretty much everything: Meth, a GED, mac and cheese. (via @)

Casting call in CLT for pilot of possible Showtime series starring Claire Danes. via @

Your thoughts to the Queen. Aretha reportedly has pancreatic cancer. (via @)

Sarah Palin, a fake hunter? Say it ain't so!

The great @ comes through again: Jimmy Breslin on John Lennon.

Yep, Urban's gone. Wow.

The great @ (a Gator fan) has the proper, measured response:

Mr. @ said this was great stuff from the "Sing-Off." Always listen to Mr. @.

Zombie killing is philosophically similar to reading and deleting 400 work e-mails on a Monday morning. @.

Coming up

Lord willing and the creek don't rise, I'll have a story in the paper on Sunday about a woman who got laid off and decided to chase her dream. It'll have a reader project attached to it so some of you can tell your own stories. Holler and let me know what you think. UPDATE: I should always wait until the Friday-afternoon meeting to post this thing. The story's holding, probably until next Sunday. I'm hoping it'll age like a fine wine, as opposed to, you know, skim milk or something.

Other stuff in the pipeline: A Christmas story from the vault, maybe something on Billy Graham, and my favorite stuff of the year. That started out as a top-10 list, but now I'm thinking it's going to be a top-20. It's been an interesting year.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Photo in need of a story

I took this photo at the Plaza-Midwood post office.

What's going on here? I have no idea. That's your job. Write a little story to go with this photo and drop it in the comments.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Reads of the year

Sometime in the next couple of weeks I'll post a list of my favorite things of 2010 -- a mix of sports, music, books, movies and other stuff. But for now I want to break out a separate category -- magazine and newspaper stories, the work dearest to my heart.

Those of us who care about the well-done newspaper or magazine story have fallen in love with a Web site called Longreads. It takes great work from around the world and gathers it in one place. You can even search by how much time you have to read. I could stroll around in there forever.

A bunch of people in the writing field have been posting their favorite long reads of the year, so I thought I'd add mine to the stack. These stories aren't all beautifully written or doggedly reported. They're just the pieces that have stuck with me long after I read the last word.

5. "Please Allow Me To Correct a Few Things," by Bill Wyman (Slate, Nov. 5). This fooled some people -- including me -- when it came out. It's supposedly a letter from Mick Jagger responding to Keith Richards' autobiography, sent to Stones bassist Bill Wyman, but accidentally arriving at the home of the rock writer with the same name. It's a fake -- the writer Wyman made the whole thing up. But it's so good -- so spot-on in every detail we know about the tension between Mick and Keith, the waste, the compromises, the musical miracles that got made anyway -- that I can believe it's what Mick WOULD write, if he had the guts.

4. "The Mess He Made," by Michael S. Rosenwald (Washington Post, June 13). A first-person piece from a hoarder trying to understand what he does, why he does it and why he can't stop. So raw and true and painful that I can't Google him to see what happened next, because I'm afraid to find out.

3. "It Happens," by David Fleming (ESPN the Magazine, Oct. 7). The degree of difficulty on this one was incredible -- write a funny, humane, moving story about athletes who defecated on themselves during competition. Fleming (who lives in Davidson) pulls it off -- even if you think you can't possibly enjoy this story, you will. Although the headline really should've been "The Tao of Poo."

2. "Bill Murray Is Ready To See You Now," by Dan Fierman (GQ, August). This is normally my least-favorite type of story -- the celebrity Q&A. But this time the Q's are insightful, the A's are brilliant, and by the end I felt like I knew Bill Murray 10 times better than I did before. The sequence about the "Garfield" movie alone is worth it. God, would I love to have a drink with that guy.

1. "Roger Ebert: The Essential Man," by Chris Jones (Esquire, March). Many others have this story on their lists, and as much as I wanted to do something different, keeping this off is like leaving Cam Newton off your Heisman ballot. A profile tries to answer two questions: What is this person's life like? And what does it mean? A great profile does both. A brilliant profile adds rich detail, beautiful writing and a universal message. A transcendent profile has something else on top of all that -- something that reaches in and shakes your bones. That's this story right here.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Elizabeth Edwards and the rebuilt life

What pops to mind first, strangely enough, is Elizabeth Edwards playing with her kids.

It was at some campaign event back in 2004, when her husband was trying to be vice president, and Elizabeth was out there playing the good wife, even though everybody involved, including John and Elizabeth, knew she was the smart one, the one who in a just world might have been the face on the ticket.

Instead she stood a little off to the side and a little in back, and her two small children were crawling all over her. She tried to keep them still but after a while she gave in and turned all her attention to them. She clapped for John when everybody else did. But her eyes stayed on the kids.

She died Tuesday at age 61.

From one angle this is perfect evidence that life is not fair. The husband cheated. The mistress had his baby. The aide told their secrets. And the one person worth rooting for in the whole depressing story suffered the most.

Before we drape her in white, we must be honest. She knew about the cheating husband by the time he ran for president in 2008 and still asked people to vote for him. She wrote a book that profited from the whole mess. And if another book on the ’08 campaign is to be believed, she was hard to deal with and sometimes a little nuts.

Balance that against these two facts:

1. Her husband humiliated her in front of the entire world.

2. She was living with cancer, and dying from it.

The cancer came first in 2004, at the tail end of that losing campaign. It returned in 2007, this time digging into her bones, and the doctors said they could treat it but not stop it. Imagine knowing that, on top of all the other things she knew.

More unfairness. In their wedding photos she’s as good-looking as he is. But as often happens, over the years his good looks hung on a little longer, and hers rounded and wrinkled.

But her eyes still glowed and she could still crack a joke, and there was no question who’d be better company over drinks.

They met at the UNC law school, and she became a bankruptcy lawyer while he went after personal-injury cases. Early in their marriage, they had two children, Wade and Cate. But in 1996, Wade died in a one-car wreck on the way to the family’s beach house. He was 16. After that John and Elizabeth quit life for a while.

Then they got up and faced the sun. They decided they wanted more children. And so she took fertility drugs, and she had Emma Claire when she was 48, and Jack when she was 50.

It happened over and over. Her life crumbled, and she made herself a new one. When you do that enough times, the pieces don’t all fit right anymore. But she pressed them together and moved on.

What does someone like Elizabeth Edwards live for? She must have thought she’d be First Lady, even though she knew she could’ve been more. Later she must have felt like a fool, even though she knew how many people still loved her.

Life is not fair, and Elizabeth Edwards is dead at 61. But she had four children, and she lived a fascinating life, and in the end she rose higher than the small people around her. If she had a chance to live that life again, I bet she’d take it.

What's so funny about Louis C.K.

One thing that changes as we get older is the idea of what makes us laugh. The only thing I laughed at when I was a kid that I still laugh at now is Warner Bros. cartoons. I didn't know back then that the opera singer in "Long-Haired Hare" is rehearsing a part from "The Barber of Seville." Or that Bugs Bunny does a spot-on impression of the conductor Leopold Stokowski. All I knew is that Bugs drives that fat opera singer crazy*, and the opera singer beats him up, and Bugs gets his revenge by making the guy sing one long note until he turns purple.

*What do they do in Mississippi... when skies are drippy...

That was funny when I was 6, and it's even funnier now, knowing what I know, understanding the little details as an adult. But most of the time, what's funny changes. You grow up, and you go through things, and you learn a few hard lessons, and maybe you start to understand Dave Barry's definition of a sense of humor: "A measurement of the extent to which we realize that we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason. Laughter is how we express the anxiety we feel at this knowledge."

Which brings me to Louis C.K., who, at the moment, is the funniest person on the planet.

Last week he was on with Jay Leno. Here are three clips. They get better as they go.

If you go on YouTube you can find dozens of Louis C.K. clips. You should be warned of two things: One, they're full of extremely bad language, and two, if you start watching it might be hours before you stop.

Louis loves his kids but a lot of the time he doesn't like them. He understands exactly how lucky he is but he still complains. He longs for just a little real human connection but he's too awkward, or too lazy, or too numb, to make it.

Of course, in one sense, it's an act*. I don't know if any of the stories are true. It felt a little weird when I read an interview with him about this clip that went viral last year, and it turned out the guy complaining about wi-fi on the airplane wasn't another passenger -- it was Louis himself. That's a small thing, and I'm sure there's a good comedic reason for telling the story that way, but it makes him feel a touch less authentic.

*Speaking of an act -- go back and watch Jay Leno in those clips. Part of his job, of course, is to make the guest look good. But Jay is so awkward here -- he's got a really funny guy right next to him and he barely knows how to have a conversation. "So, hey, you're out on the road, right?" Jay Leno, when he was a regular guest on Letterman, was a great comedian. I don't know what part of himself he sold to get the Tonight Show and hold onto it. But it was too big a price.

The older I get, the more honesty matters. I don't want to get schmoozed by somebody who just wants to sell me something. I don't want people to tiptoe around what they're trying to say. I don't want melodrama or artifice. Just be real. What strikes me the most about Louis C.K. is that I'd still want to hang out with him even if he wasn't funny. He seems like a regular guy, in dumpy clothes, who has some interesting things to say about his life, and maybe yours.

What's funny as you get older, I think, depends on what you need. We watched "The Hangover" last night. Parts of it were really funny. But it wasn't as great as I'd heard. Probably because it wasn't the kind of funny I needed. Maybe you need something over-the-top and outrageous if you need to forget yourself awhile.

And maybe you need something like Louis C.K. if you need to remember -- remember that life sometimes sucks at the same time it's great, and everybody struggles with love and family and figuring out your place in the world, and it's OK to be honest about that, and laugh about it.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Project #7: Question the Panthers

(FYI: There's a new poll over there to the right about the best movie of 2010. The list is sort of off the top of my head, and I have the memory of a sand gnat, so your favorite might not be on there... drop a comment if there's one I missed.)

This probably makes me a bad fan, but I'll admit it: I haven't watched the Panthers since Week 1. Most weeks, by the time we get home from church and maybe lunch with friends, they're already down 28-3, and I can find something better to do. But this week was the Panthers' only West Coast start -- 4:15 -- and so I checked in just before halftime. Miracle of miracles, the good guys were up 14-0. I settled in to watch.

So yeah, this was my fault.

One of the many frustrating things about the Panthers this year is that the team isn't responsive to fans. Coach John Fox's favorite answer is "It is what it is." But at least he says something. Owner Jerry Richardson hasn't said a word all year, except for a brief phone call with our Tom Sorensen.

Fans might not get any answers this year. But at least they should get a chance to ask some questions. So here's a reader project I call Question the Panthers.

Here's what I want you to do:

1. Make a sign with a question you'd like to ask about the team. It should look like one of those signs people hold up at games:

(I don't know how long ago that photo was taken... but a beat-up, 41-year-old Brett Favre might still be our best QB. Sigh.)

The idea, for these signs, is to make it in the form of a question -- something the team might legitimately answer if they ever get in the mood again. So be tough if you want, but make it something you're honestly curious about.

2. Take a photo of yourself with the sign.

3. E-mail it to me, ttomlinson@charlotteobserver.com, and ID yourself (or whoever's in the photo).

Send them in by midnight Thursday, and if we end up with a good gallery, we'll put some online Friday, and then maybe in the paper this weekend.

In the meantime, let's end on a good note. This, I think, was the Panthers' play of the year, and I don't mean that with any sarcasm:

That's the punter, on a 1-10 team, giving every bit of effort to stop a touchdown. It was worth watching another loss just to see that.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Friday Wrap

As most of you did over Thanksgiving, we'll use this Wrap to cover some leftovers -- I wasn't here last Friday, so we'll catch up on the last couple of weeks this time.

On the blog and in the paper

Thanksgiving as a security blanket.

Come write with me at Queens University. (There's still time to sign up!)

Life is a WikiLeak, old friend. (Here's a letter of objection.)

On SEC Expats: We recapped the Auburn-Alabama epic. We noted that Cam Newton is still eligible. And we picked the winner of the SEC title game.

Links from Twitter

Here's some stuff I flagged on my Twitter feed, @tommytomlinson:

An Economist writer says what I was trying to say about @, but much better.

Sad, beautiful, moving story on "Seabiscuit" author Laura Hillenbrand's chronic fatigue.

Never seen these words in a high-school football story: "Chekhov wouldn't be pleased." First-rate work from @.

Do you need a laugh? I need a laugh. Here's Kim Jong-Il looking at things.

Halfway down in this piece is a Leslie Nielsen fart story... set in Charlotte.

TSA ALERT: Dave Barry has a blurred groin.

Craziest weather photo in, well, forever. (via @)

Mark Packer (Billy's son) leaves CLT sports talk radio. via @

NYT's @, new to the ATL, making me want to drive over for a Ghetto Burger.

Sort of embarrassed @ didn't think to do this.

This Jordan/LeBron mashup is wonderful, and 100% accurate. (via @)


I've also got a story in the new issue of Our State magazine -- it's about a Western Carolina University production of "A Christmas Carol."

Next week

If things go as scheduled, I'll have a story running next weekend on a woman who lost her job and decided to follow her dream. I think I'm going to launch a reader project involving the Panthers. Plus whatever else comes up! Have a great weekend, everybody.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Come write with me at Queens

A quick reminder: I'm teaching another session of my "Writing in 3-D" class starting Saturday at Queens University. It's broken up into two 3-hour sessions, one this Saturday and one on Dec. 11. Here's some more details. (If you want to sign up, click the "Availability/Register" button on that page.)

I've taught this class a few times now; nobody has fallen asleep, and everybody seems to have had fun. It's designed for people at all levels of writing skill, so if you're a beginner or you're trying to finish up that masterpiece, I think you'll learn a little something.

Holler if you have any questions, and I hope to see you Saturday.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

On Thanksgiving, a moment of security

We live in an insecure time.

At the airport we submit to full-body scans or humiliating pat-downs because we're scared to death of terrorists.

In our city we struggle with how to get things going again. Charlotte has always been based on people moving money around -- banks making loans, businesses expanding, new residents buying new houses. Now the money has stopped moving, and our city is in a rare standstill moment, not sure what to do next.

And at home we worry about losing our jobs, or finding jobs to replace the ones we've lost.

We're anxious and frazzled and worn out. We need time off and a safe house.

Thanksgiving is here at just the right moment.

I should say right here that not everyone finds solace in Thanksgiving. Some families spend the holidays picking at old scabs. Other people find it a lonely time. One of the nicest things you can do at Thanksgiving is to find room at the table for folks who don't have a place to go.

But for most of us, home and family are the two most secure things in our lives, and Thanksgiving draws us back their way.

Nobody I know has a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving, with a white tablecloth and a turkey on a silver dish. Lots of families don't have Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving -- everybody's so scattered, and people have to work, and you end up having the big meal on Friday or Saturday. Even on the proper day, people sprawl on the couch or sit on the floor or perch in front of the TV watching the Detroit Lions lose. When my family gathers at my mama's house down in Georgia, we eat off paper plates. If nobody feels like cooking, we hit the buffet at the Western Sizzler.

None of that matters in the least.

What matters is seeing how big the kids have grown. What matters is catching up with the ones who went off to college. What matters is retelling the family stories, and laughing in the same old places. What matters is that quiet moment when everyone is together and we hold hands and say grace.

Thanksgiving isn't about the good china. It's about gathering under one roof, the survivors of another year, safe in one another.

Sometimes I think we overrate security. If you live your life to minimize risk, you're never going to get much of a reward. We have to get out in the world, mix it up a little, pick up a few scars, squeeze the full joy out of this short life.

But in hard times we all need something to lean up against. And if you're lucky, the people you love and the home you treasure are strong enough to hold you.

On Thanksgiving morning, people across this country wake up in their childhood bedrooms. They hug cousins they see only once a year. Maybe they go out on the porch to have a quiet chat with a family member, to get some advice on a problem, to figure out life.

If you're one of those people, give thanks for that.

Give thanks for safe travel, even though it might have been irritating. Give thanks for the food, even though you might not like cranberries. Give thanks for your family, even though some of them drive you crazy. If nothing else, give thanks for the day off.

There is security in thankfulness, if only to remind us that the world is not all bad, and there are some safe places left. Be thankful for yours.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Back in the saddle

Real working people come back from vacation and start turning wrenches or toting trays or whatever it is they do to make a living. Guys like me come back and delete e-mails.

There were more than 800 waiting for me when I got to work this morning, including about 100 automatically generated e-mails telling me my e-mail basket was too full. Of course it would not be quite as full if I didn't have A HUNDRED FREAKING E-MAILS TELLING ME I HAVE TOO MANY E-MAILS.

The good news is, killing 800 e-mails (minus the three or four I actually want to read) has a wonderful... cleansing... effect, along the lines of eating a bushel of prunes.

So let's catch up. Since the last day I was at work:

-- The Panthers have lost three times with four different quarterbacks.
-- The American Music Award for artist of the year went to Justin Bieber.
-- And it appears that if you want to fly on an airplane now, you have to be inspected in a way formerly reserved for new inmates in federal prison.

Clearly, I should never take vacation again.

I'll see if I can get all this stuff fixed before Thanksgiving. In the meantime, it's good to be back. What's up with you? And have you seen the Harry Potter movie yet?

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Friday Wrap

I'm headed out the door soon for two weeks off -- one of those stay-at-home, don't-spend-much-money vacations. Much walking, reading and DVD-watching ahead... if there's a recent book or movie you really liked, drop me a tip in the comments.

A quick reminder before we get to the wrapup: I'm teaching a class in December at Queens University and doing a reading next Friday at StorySlam! Here's more info on both.

So here's what I was up to this week:

On the paper and in the blog

A hawk rode the wind.

We had some great responses to the Why I Vote project.

I wrote an early column on the John Spratt v. Mick Mulvaney congressional race...

Then a later version as the votes came in.

A chance meeting on that story brought out one from the vault.

Finally, we talked a little SEC football.

Links from Twitter

Here's some stuff I flagged on my Twitter feed, @tommytomlinson:

Jagger responds to Keith Richards' book. Almost can't believe this is true. But what a piece of writing.
I think my Spidey Sense was right... that Mick Jagger letter is (probably) fake.

RIP Catfish Collins: James Brown guitarist, player of the lick on "Flash Light," and brother of Bootsy.

There's only one guy you need to read on Sparky Anderson. Here's @.

From @: "29 TDs, nine victories and zero losses is worth a great deal more than tuition, room and board."

My buddy Dan Huntley cooking 'cue today at Ellis Island (!) as part of this:

Borders, Joseph-Beth closing in CLT. They were near each other AND Barnes/Noble. Never understood how all 3 wd survive.

I was thinking this same thing, but the NYT's Ross Douthat said it better.

Outside polling place in York, SC. Never noticed one of these before.

A paper in 3 parts: Debes Saber (What you must know); Debes Leer (What you must read); Debes Hacer (What you must do).

A musical interlude

From the great kottke.org, here's AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" -- on bagpipes.

Coming up

After my time off, I'm going to make some tweaks in this storytelling gig... one thing I'm definitely going to do is put things on more of a schedule, so it'll be easier to know when I'm writing and what it's going to be on a particular day. Holler, as always, with thoughts, questions and ideas. Have a great weekend, everybody.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

From the archives: The promise of Thi Le

On election night I ran into an old friend, the subject of one of my favorite stories.

Thi Le was catering John Spratt's election-night party. If you've ever been to a social event in Rock Hill, chances are Thi cooked for it. Her food is great. Her story -- and the story of her children -- is even better. I was honored to get to tell it in a piece that ran five years ago. Here's the story... I'll add a little update at the end.

The promise of Thi Le

Oct. 29, 2005

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — She twisted in her chair on the floor of the arena, looking at the others in the seats above. She had been through this four times now but she still worried.

Had she done enough?

A lot of these other parents, they drove BMWs and belonged to country clubs. They sent their kids to Europe.

Thi Le sent her kids to work.

Thi (say it tee ) marked the results with the pennants on the wall. At Pho 98, her restaurant in Charlotte, she pinned the pennants right up front.


Notre Dame.


Her first three children — Chau ( choh ), Michael and Linh ( leeng ) — had graduated from three of America’s finest universities.

And now her youngest, VyVy ( vee-vee ), was about to start Notre Dame as a freshman. Thi had come along to help VyVy move into her dorm. She was living downstairs from football legend Joe Montana’s daughter.

Customers back in Charlotte saw the pennants on the wall. But they did not see Thi and VyVy waking early that last day at home, driving to Thi’s new restaurant in Rock Hill, doing prep work for lunch because Notre Dame was gaining a student but Thi was losing a waitress.

At 7:30 on her last morning in town, VyVy made five gallons of sweet tea.

Now they sat together in Notre Dame’s basketball arena, waiting with other students and parents gathered for freshman orientation. Thi felt that empty feeling coming, the feeling of a child leaving home.

Four times now. This time the last.

Had she done enough?

Thi remembered a time — not that long ago — when she had never heard of Notre Dame, or Harvard, or Duke.

She had not understood what her kids would have to do to get there. She had not known what she would have to do to make it happen.

But she had known one thing.

She had promised.

Taking chances
  • They were riding home from a family trip. Chau was maybe 12 and Michael was maybe 9 and they had picked at each other the whole way.They were bragging about their favorite schools. Chau said Harvard was the best. Michael said Notre Dame was better.
Bet you a thousand dollars you don’t go to Notre Dame, Chau said. Bet you a thousand dollars YOU don’t go to Harvard, Michael said.

Later, Chau came to her mother and asked: Can I go to Harvard one day?

And Thi said: Honey, you come up with the grades and I come up with the dough.

Thi had learned as a child to do what she promised.

She grew up Thi Nguyen ( wen ) in a village in South Vietnam. Eight children in all. Thi and four sisters sleeping in one bed.

Her father gambled and so her mother supported the family. Every morning Thi’s mom woke at 4 a.m. and walked two miles to the trucks unloading produce. She bought bananas and cabbage and sweet potatoes to resell at the village market.

Thi’s mother counted on her to help. But one morning Thi wanted to stay in bed. Her mom pulled on her leg but Thi didn’t budge. Her mother went to the market alone. Only so many vegetables she could carry. Only so much money she could make.

Her mother came back with hurt in her eyes and Thi never slept late again.

In 1975, with the Vietnam War grinding to its end, Thi’s aunt came to the family with an offer. She worked for the U.S. government and could get Thi’s family to America.

But Thi’s oldest brother — a soldier — had been captured by the North Vietnamese. Thi’s parents would not leave until he was released. And her brothers and sisters didn’t want to leave home.

Thi took the chance. She boarded a plane out of Vietnam with her aunt, her grandparents and a cousin. She was 16.

A connection in America found them a sponsor in Lawndale, near Shelby. They worked on a farm. Thi cut grass and fed cattle. She carried a dictionary and asked people to show her every new word she heard.

Sometimes Thi went to Charlotte to shop at an Asian market. One day she met another South Vietnamese refugee, a man named Xuan ( swon ) Le. In Vietnam he had been on a special military police force; now he was a janitor at the Celanese plant in Rock Hill.

There were not many Vietnamese in the Charlotte area then. Xuan and Thi married in February 1978. Xuan’s family had one request before the wedding — they were Catholic and asked Thi to convert.

She soaked up her new faith. She came to believe you could do anything with God’s help and hard work.

Thi and Xuan had studied America. No matter where you came from, you could get ahead. All you needed was an education.

“Some people, they invest money in the bank, they invest money in the stock,” Xuan says. “We invest our money into our children.”

By 1987, they had four.

Thi and a partner had started a company that made furniture for restaurants. The partner knew the business. Thi knew how to work.

She did office jobs in Charlotte until it was time to pick the kids up from school. She got them home and got them fed and then got back on the road at night, driving as far as Winston-Salem, trying to make a sale.

They took in other family members who needed help. Sometimes there were nine or 10 people in their little trailer.

But still they paid hundreds of dollars a month for tuition at St. Anne Catholic School in Rock Hill. Thi had decided it was the best school for the kids.

And she had promised that her kids would get the best.

Working harder
  • The children were succeeding. The marriage was failing.

The kids almost never brought home a B. They moved to public schools (St. Anne only goes up to eighth grade) and fit right in. They lived rounded-out lives — soccer and basketball and track and student council.

They studied for hours but they shared a goofy streak. They watched pro wrestling and practiced the moves. Thi kept having to tell Michael not to put the “torture rack” on his sisters.

Thi and Xuan worked. In the moments in between, they no longer got along. She left twice and came back. The third time she stayed gone.

It was 1992. She was a single mom with three kids in private school and a fourth about to start.

The five of them moved into a 700-square-foot house. They had no beds. Two slept on couches and three slept on the floor.

She worked harder, calling on restaurants to buy her furniture. She bought a Volvo station wagon with 170,000 miles on it. She put on 180,000 more.

She pushed herself and she pushed the kids. Over and over she told them: If you stop and rest, you’ll never be the best.

When they rebelled, she made them kneel in the corner for an hour.

When they fought each other, she hit them on the arms with sticks she made them gather from the yard.

That was how it was done in Vietnam. That was the only way Thi knew. It seemed to work. Her kids excelled in school. They stayed out of trouble.

Thi knew other parents in town. They disciplined their kids in similar ways. But Thi noticed something. When their kids went off to college, they never came back.

Chau would be ready for college soon.

Thi had been in Rock Hill long enough to make friends she could trust. They helped her find family counselors.

She learned how to discipline her kids without hitting them. She learned that some children grow faster when you don’t hold on so tight.

As she loosened her grip, the kids bloomed even more. Chau got a perfect score on the verbal part of the SAT; Michael got a perfect score on the math part. Linh was senior class president at Northwestern High. VyVy was student of the year at Rawlinson Road Middle.

Still, Thi worried.

Had she done enough?

Most parents swallowed their darkest thoughts. Thi blurted them out.

When Chau ran cross-country for Northwestern High School, she threw up during a tough race. Thi ran up, panic in her eyes, and said: Are you expecting?

Chau sneaked off to a movie with a boy, and Thi grounded her on the night of a big dance. Michael roughhoused with his sisters, and Thi took away his New Year’s money.

Two years ago she got a bad feeling about VyVy. She was making good grades, she had done nothing wrong, but Thi watched her friends and thought they might get her in trouble.

So Thi sent her youngest child to Massachusetts for boarding school.

Milton Academy cost $30,000 a year. The school took care of some of it, but Thi was already paying off Michael’s loans from Notre Dame and Linh’s tuition at Duke. Her children had gone to some of the most expensive universities in the nation with little financial aid. Thi paid nearly all the expenses herself. She had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars already.

She would work harder.

By now she had three businesses. She was still a partner in Laminated Industries, the furniture business. She owned Windsor Cleaners, a dry cleaner in Rock Hill. And she had opened Pho 98 on South Boulevard in Charlotte. (Pho is a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup; the restaurant opened in 1998.)

She went to bed at 2 a.m. and woke up at 6. It was amazing how much time you had when you didn’t sleep. She served on half the boards in Rock Hill — the Red Cross, the Human Relations Committee, the Cultural Heritage Commission, the hospice advisory board. She built custom furniture for St. Anne. She flew to Missouri to cook for 500 priests who worked with Vietnamese families.

This summer she opened her new restaurant, Thi’s Place on Main in Rock Hill.

Along the way she went to soccer practice and basketball camp and all the other things her kids were involved in.

She banned TV and junk food for Lent. But when Lent was over they gorged at Denny’s and watched the tube all night and laughed until they fell asleep.

She had raised four children who worked nearly as hard as she did. But she had also backed off just enough to let them be themselves.

Michael had bet that Chau wouldn’t make it to Harvard. Chau had bet that Michael wouldn’t make it to Notre Dame.

They both lost.

The pennants went up on the wall.

Letting go
  • The kids’ faces say Vietnam. Their lives say South Carolina.

Linh won this year’s Miss Lancaster pageant — contestants aren’t required to live there — and at the Miss South Carolina pageant, she got out her guitar and played a Creedence Clearwater Revival medley.

VyVy still talks about the time she touched country singer Kenny Chesney.

Michael works in finance in Chicago but dreams of Bojangles’ chicken. He wrote a letter to the CEO of Bojangles’, begging him to open a franchise in the Windy City.

They keep in touch with their father, who is now a production planner at a corporate offshoot of Celanese. He goes to the kids’ graduations, takes them deep-sea fishing.

They come home to their mom all the time.

“No matter what we kids accomplish, her journey was so much harder,” says Chau, who works in Tanzania at a radio station for African refugees. “We’ll probably never understand all that she did for us.”

Still, the kids have perfected the Le eyeroll — that look they give their mom when she gives them a lecture.

Look, here comes the eyeroll now. It is Thi’s last day at Notre Dame. They sit at a table outside VyVy’s dorm. Michael has come down to visit. He lives two hours away. This means it is his job to watch VyVy.

“If she’s drinking, she ain’t my daughter anymore,” Thi says. “If she’s drinking, she’s your sister.”


“Your little girl’s in good hands,” Michael says. Then he slips in the needle: “… But I guess we’ll see. This is college. You’re supposed to have fun.”

Thi punches his knee: “You’re not supposed to tell her things like that!”

Thi has told Michael to look out for VyVy. She has told VyVy’s roommates to look out for VyVy. She called VyVy’s room at 8 in the morning to make sure she would be ready for orientation.

“How did you know the number?” VyVy says. " I don’t even know the number!"

“I memorize it last night,” Thi says. “I’m telling you, I know things.”

All weekend VyVy has gravitated to her roommates, her new friends, away from her mom. Thi has tried not to hover. As a Catholic, Notre Dame is Thi’s favorite university. But it is also a place where the child stays and the parent goes home.

Just the day before, the dean of first-year students gave a speech and asked parents not to linger on campus:

“You will become your children’s first college professor by modeling for them the great power, the tremendous love, in the act of letting go.”

The Grotto is Thi’s favorite place at Notre Dame. It’s a small cave filled with candles, modeled after the famous grotto at Lourdes. People come all day long to light the candles and say quiet prayers.

Thi knows that VyVy will cry when she leaves. She tries not to think about that. She tries to remember that this is a happy day.

She raised four good kids.

She kept her promise.

Thi has many things to thank God for. The Grotto is not far from VyVy’s dorm. Thi still has a little time, before she has to go.

She gets up from the table and turns to her daughter and points down the path.

“Come on,” she says. “One last walk, baby girl.”

She rode from South Bend through the Chicago traffic to the airport. She had hauled VyVy’s extra luggage on the trip to Notre Dame. Now all she had was her own.

It was after midnight by the time she got in her car in Charlotte. She had another half-hour to Rock Hill. But she could not go straight home. There were things left undone at Pho 98. Papers she had to deal with so the place would run smoothly that day.

One day, maybe after VyVy graduated, she would take a vacation. She would love to see Hawaii. But not now.

She had not yet done enough.

She drove through the sleeping city to the shopping center on South Boulevard. She pulled into the empty parking lot and stopped in front of the restaurant door. It was almost 1 in the morning.

She unlocked the door and went to work.


OK, that's the story. Now here's the update:

Chau is a lawyer in Boston. Michael is still in finance in Chicago. Linh works with the National Geographic Channel. VyVy graduated from Notre Dame, got her master's, and is now an accountant with Price Waterhouse.

Yeah, they're doing OK.

"They're all coming home for Chau's engagement party," Thi says.

"Chau's engaged?" I say.

"Yes! The young man called to ask me for permission to propose. I told him no. I said they were too young."

"How old is Chau again?"

Thi dips her head. "Thirty-two."

(She called him back and gave her blessing. That's Thi.)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

John Spratt goes one more round

Readers: I'm writing about the John Spratt-Mick Mulvaney race in South Carolina... I'll have more tonight as the results come in. For now, here's a little bit from earlier in the day. -- TT

A black Prius pulled up to Cotton Belt Elementary in York, S.C., and John Spratt got out, hunched over against the chill.

Spratt woke up at 4:45 a.m. Tuesday so he could make it to the shift change at the Bowater paper plant. He had breakfast at Ebenezer Grill in Rock Hill to meet some more voters. And now he was out at the elementary school to cast his own vote, and campaign a little bit, and try to squeeze out a win with the political world tilted against him.

He and his wife, Jane, headed for the cafeteria to vote, and he gave a quick prediction: "It's a tossup."

Of all today's political face-offs in the Carolinas, Spratt's race against Mick Mulvaney feels like the one most closely tied to the country at large -- a Democrat in trouble, a Republican riding the hot issues, a veteran politician pushed to the edge.

Spratt was first elected to Congress in South Carolina's 5th District in 1982. Ronald Reagan was in his first term and Barack Obama was a college student. Spratt made friends, and built seniority, and now he is in a powerful role -- chairman of the House Budget Committee. Over the years he gained a reputation as a fiscal conservative, as a Democrat who could work with Republicans, and as a rare congressman known more for what he does than what he says.

But Spratt voted for the TARP bailout, and he voted for the stimulus package, and he voted for Obama's health-care plan, and now he's in political trouble. Mulvaney, a Republican state senator, has made a smart and unusual argument: He admits that Spratt has been good at his job, but he says that's not the case anymore. "Those times have changed," Mulvaney says, "and it's time for us to change congressmen."

Spratt wasn't helped by a terrible TV ad run in his behalf by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The ad portrayed Mulvaney as a villain who would make Social Security illegal and put your grandma in jail. No, really -- there was a picture of an elderly woman behind bars. The ad didn't come directly from his campaign, but either way, it was an un-Spratt way of doing business.

So now, as Spratt and his wife rode up to the school, they had to pass not just Mulvaney signs but red-and-yellow signs that say SACK SPRATT.

Spratt is South Carolina's last white Democrat in Congress. He's in a state that historically trends conservative, with a Republican (Nikki Haley) favored for governor, and a Republican lock (Jim DeMint) for the U.S. Senate. He's running in a year when Republicans expect to gain seats nationwide.

He's also fighting other battles. He's showing the early symptoms of Parkinson's disease; as he talks, his right hand shakes. He turned 68 on Monday, and he wears a hearing aid, and he has never been much of a grip-and-grin guy. He's earnest and he looks you in the eye when he talks. It's impressive face-to-face, but maybe it loses a little under the bright lights.

"You'll need a picture ID or your voter card," the guy at the polling place said, and everybody laughed because they all knew who it was. But he got out his ID anyway, and he and Jane cast their votes, and then he went around saying hey to everybody and asking about turnout. (At 11 a.m., in a precinct with 1,600 voters, more than 200 had voted and another 200 had voted absentee.)

"We've had good turnout so far, but I hope we get more, for democracy's sake and for my sake," he said. "It looks like it's going to be a pretty day. I remember some Election Days that looked a lot rougher than this."

Fourteen times in a row, Spratt has come away from Election Day a winner. What does he think about this time?

He looks away. Then looks back.

"I won't be surprised at anything."

Why I Vote

It's Election Day, and this morning we reveal the results of the Why I Vote project. I asked readers to send photos of themselves with a description of why they vote. We didn't get as many responses as I'd hoped, but what we got is top-quality. Thanks to everyone who participated. And if you haven't voted yet, get thee to the polls.

David Bayer:

Jimmy Locke:

Jessica Eiden Smedley:

If you're not sure what that means, this will help.

Mike Lynch:

Edwin Walter:

To me, it is very simple. I do because they can’t. They can’t because in the simplest terms, they gave their lives to defend my ability to do so. It isn’t about silly ads or stupid pundits. It is about our bedrock responsibility as citizens. Bicker we may about MANY things, but nowhere else in the world should this simple act be taken any more seriously than right here, right now. It is our duty, sanctified by their blood. Can anyone really argue for an excuse not to? The recurring examples of pettiness and yes, apathy, make MY blood boil.

Neca Bennett:

Full disclosure: The guy in the chair is my brother, Ronald. And he really was asleep.

UPDATE: Here's one more, from Larry Bumgarner... for some reason this got caught in my spam filter, and I didn't see it until Larry called to check. My apologies.

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.


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.