Thursday, July 22, 2010

Come talk about writing with me

I wanted to let y'all know about two workshops I'm teaching in September... they're both good chances to talk about writing and to hear my speaking voice, which can best be described as "obscene phone caller in training."

The first one is at Queens University -- it's a four-week class on Thursday nights starting Sept. 9 and ending Sept. 30. Here's the signup page. It's a repeat of a class called "Writing In 3-D" that I did last month -- but spread out a little, and held at night, to accommodate people on a different schedule. This workshop is heavy on writing tools -- lots of practical ways to get better.

The second one is a one-day workshop Sept. 11 at The Farm at Weathers Creek in Iredell County. Here's more information on that one, which is part of a writers' series they have up there. There's some overlap with the Queens class, but this workshop will have a little bit more focus on creativity -- building a creative life for yourself.

I leave lots of time for questions, comments, tangents, etc., and these classes always end up being lots of fun.

Holler in the comments or drop me an e-mail if you have any questions.

Now that you've read all that, you deserve a reward. Here's the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lindsey Graham, Shirley Sherrod, and the death of thoughtfulness

Today we give props to Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, who -- for this week at least -- appears to be the only thoughtful person in Washington.

Graham was the only member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to cross party lines in the vote to confirm Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court. All 12 Democrats voted with Graham to confirm; the other six Republicans all voted no.

It's fair to say Graham is no fan of President Obama. He stumped for John McCain in the 2008 campaign, and voted against Obama's stimulus package and health-care bill. But he has studied what the framers of the Constitution intended for the Supreme Court nomination process. And Graham believes that as long as the candidate is qualified, the president's choice should stand -- regardless of party.

That last paragraph might have sounded weird if you read a lot about politics. Because you don't often see a political story where someone makes a decision regardless of party -- much less that they'd studied it first.

Around the same time Tuesday that Graham was explaining why he supported Kagan, a more typical Washington story was breaking.

Shirley Sherrod, who ran a Department of Agriculture office in Georgia, gave a speech back in March at an NAACP banquet in Douglas, Ga., not far from where I grew up. A Web publisher named Andrew Breitbart put out a segment of video from the speech. In the segment, it sounds like Sherrod admits she deliberately didn't do her best to help a white farm family in trouble. Breitbart's cut features a special appearance at the end from Geraldo Rivera, so you know it's quality journalism.

Problem is, when the full video was released, it's clear that Sherrod did exactly the opposite. The whole thing is 45 minutes long -- you can also read the key parts of the transcript.

It turns out Sherrod did end up helping the family, and told the story as an example of how she struggled with her own prejudices and overcame them. That's exactly what we want in a leader, right? Someone honest enough to admit her flaws, and capable enough to learn and grow?

Um, no. What we really want, at least in Washington, is somebody who won't give a sound bite that will help the other side.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack asked for (and got) Sherrod's resignation Tuesday, after the short version of the speech had come out but before the long version. I've actually spent a little time with Vilsack; he was on a fellowship in Boston when my wife and I were up there. He seemed like a decent guy. But in this case it looks like he acted without knowing or caring about the context of the speech, just so the Obama team could salvage a bit of the 24-hour news cycle.

So let's try to sum up: A right-wing blogger clips a woman's words to twist them exactly backwards. (Breitbart, for his part, said this on Fox News: "I could care less about Shirley Sherrod, to be honest with you.")

And a Democratic official, instead of backing her up or even waiting for the full story, dumps her on the side of the road.

In other words, a woman who was humble and brave was run out of her job because of arrogance and cowardice. Nothing that happened was because a principle was at stake, or because it mattered to the business of America. No one involved thought about anything but winning.

And so, at least for today, let's appreciate Lindsey Graham. He took a difficult issue, thought about it for more than five seconds, and went against his own party to do what he thought was best for the country.

As Shirley Sherrod could tell you today, that's a rare thing.

UPDATE, 6:25 p.m.: Vilsack has apologized and offered Sherrod a new job with the USDA.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A little more on comments

My post yesterday on the comments on our Dean Smith story triggered an irony alert: I had to delete a couple comments in a post about the high quality of comments. (Just FYI, if you start comparing people to Hitler, your comment is not long for this world.)

While we're on the topic, here's two other things you should read:

The Buffalo News is doing away with anonymous comments. As you might imagine, there are a lot of comments about that.

And Gene Weingarten likens comments on some stories to a sirloin steak with a side of maggots. Although I suspect Gene would admit that some news stories resemble Salisbury steak instead. And I've written a couple of things more like that protein loaf they serve in prison.

Gene does say he generally likes comments. I do too. But we can, and ought to, make them better. Thanks for the ideas so far.

UPDATE: NYU's Jay Rosen tweets (@jayrosen_nyu) in response to the Buffalo News story: "Just so typical of newspaper thinking that the middle way—persistent identity using a pen name-is removed from the debate."

I think Rosen is talking about getting rid of the ability to post as Anonymous, but letting people post under an assumed name. This is how the Observer does it on our regular stories online, but not on blog posts, which run on different software. Do you think assumed names work?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dean Smith, comments, and you

On Saturday we published a story on Dean Smith that I'd been working on for a while with Robbi Pickeral, the great UNC basketball beat writer for the Raleigh News & Observer. Now that the story has been out in the world for a couple of days, the most gratifying thing about it is something I had nothing to do with: the quality of the online comments.

As I write this, there are 66 comments about the story on the Observer's page, and all but a couple are respectful, thoughtful and touching. Several Duke fans have written in to say that, even though UNC is their biggest rival, they still admired the way Smith coached and leads his life.

Comments often add a lot to the understanding of a story -- they can flesh out details in stories, pick out flaws, start debates, and even break news. Sometimes the comments are better than the story (and that includes a good number of my stories). I don't mind that it sometimes feels more like a saloon than a salon. The best answer to free speech is more free speech.

Having said all that, sometimes it's depressing to see how the comments turn out. Complicated thoughts can get reduced to political talking points. Vulnerable people can get pounded by personal attacks. A small group of posters can dominate the discussion, and drive out people who want to have a conversation instead of a shouting match.

The comments on the N&O's site about the Dean Smith story have more of an edge to them, although they're still mild compared to a lot of other stories we publish.

I'd love to hear any thoughts you have on how to make our comments better -- or your thoughts on why you like them the way they are.

And we really appreciate all of you who wrote in about this story. The comments really added to the discussion, and that's always our goal.

Friday, July 09, 2010

The Friday Wrap

Here's a recap of the last seven days here at the ol' paragraph factory.

A guy who grew up in Charlotte wrote a cool book about the vocoder. (Plus DVD extras!)

Now you have to remember if you're in the Orange Zone or the Green Zone. (Several readers made a smart suggestion: The recycling bins should've been orange or green, depending on what zone you're in. But you'd still have to remember which week you take out recycling. Maybe they could've stamped a calendar on the lid.)

LeBron chose away over home.

A quick follow-up on that... NOBODY looked good after The LeBron Show last night.

LeBron showed all the emotion of an insurance adjuster and seemed to have no idea how deeply he was crushing Cleveland fans by renting ESPN for an torture session of kissing them goodbye.

ESPN chucked its credibility and spent an hour kissing LeBron's ring. Well, he doesn't HAVE a ring, but you get the point.

Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wrote a letter hammering the guy he loved and coveted up until the very minute LeBron decided to go somewhere else. It must have been a blast to write, but conveniently fails to mention that Gilbert just finished getting rid of the Cavs' coach and general manager -- so much for loyalty -- and also fails to understand that he sounds like a ninth-grader who got dumped a week before the prom. Which, in a way, he is.

The only people who came out of the whole thing with unadulterated happiness are Miami Heat ticket scalpers. Good news, Junior, that college fund's back in play.

A few of the things I linked on Twitter (@tommytomlinson):

RT @Pogue Did the Jetsons predict the iPad, FaceTime, and streaming video news sites in 1962?

Alvin Greene's stimulus idea: Alvin Greene action figures. I'm beginning to think this is performance art.

Gator walks into a building at LSU. (Insert SEC joke here.)

Not sure I agree with all this from the great @williamfleitch... but damn, is it well-done.

Former co-worker @tTribble helped come up w/the awesome cover for the Cleveland P-D today.

Finally, some music. Smashing Pumpkins are coming to Charlotte next week. It's about a decade past their glory days in the post-Nirvana era, but I saw them when they were here in 1997, and they were really good. Here's a clip of Billy Corgan doing an AC/DC cover on the street in Italy. You'd never know from a Smashing Pumpkins show that Corgan can be charming and goofy... but he is here.

Enjoy the weekend, everybody.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

LeBron's choice

LeBron James is a father of two who lives in Bath Township, Ohio. It's about 10 miles from Akron, where he grew up, and less than 30 from Cleveland, where he works for a living. He makes as much in salary as the NBA allows, plus millions more in endorsements, and his home is a 33,000-square-foot mansion. But set aside the dollar signs and he's like thousands of others from his hometown. Grew up poor. Didn't go to college. Maybe dreamed that one day, if things broke right, he could load up the car and drive north on I-77 for a life in the big city.

Things broke right. Now, in this awful economy, LeBron James is a rare soul: a 25-year-old with multiple job offers. All he has to do is decide what he wants.

When you were 25, did you know what you wanted?

Because of the way we live now, when LeBron announces his new team tonight, it will be on an hourlong ESPN special, with the main interviewer (Jim Gray) chosen by LeBron himself, all tied into LeBron's new website and new Twitter feed. (This morning's reports -- unconfirmed -- say that LeBron will announce he's playing for the Miami Heat.) Even before the TV special happens, it's being ripped as a giant ego stunt, an overhyped me-fest for a player who, as great as he is, has yet to win an NBA title.

I'm sure LeBron has an ego. But I'm not sure this is about ego. Maybe it's about control.

When you were 25, did you feel like you were in control?

The choices among his suitors seem fairly clear. If basketball -- winning championships -- is the main thing, he has to go to Miami or Chicago. Miami re-signed its superstar, Dwyane Wade, and is adding top-flight forward Chris Bosh. Chicago has dazzling point guard Derrick Rose and just signed All-Star Carlos Boozer. Either of those teams, with LeBron, is an instant favorite to make the NBA Finals.

If glamor is the thing, he has to go to New York. The Knicks have been awful for years; even with LeBron and free-agent pickup Amar'e Stoudemire, they might not be great. But in New York, LeBron can go on Letterman anytime he wants, and get standing O's at the Yankees games, and have a shot at being the biggest guy in the biggest city.

If loyalty is the thing -- and LeBron has a LOYALTY tattoo along his rib cage -- he has to go back to Cleveland. I'm not sure what kind of team he could put together now. Nearly all the big free agents have already signed. Whatever he assembles there would probably be underdogs to Orlando, Chicago, Miami and maybe Boston -- and that's just in the Eastern Conference. A long-term deal with Cleveland might mean three or four years before he has a prime shot at a title. And after 10 or 11 years of NBA pounding, even the best bodies start to break down.

But if he does win it all in Cleveland... it becomes one of the best sports stories in history. Kid grows up rooting for the local team, ends up playing for the local team, and wins a title for the local team -- but not just any local team, CLEVELAND, the city wrecked by decades of epic sports heartbreak. Could LeBron make up for all those times Cleveland fans have wound up doubled over in grief? Maybe only LeBron could.

Here's the thing, though. LeBron got to play for the local team. But he didn't choose to. He ended up in Cleveland because the Cavaliers won the 2003 draft lottery. If the Cavs hadn't won, LeBron could've opted for college. But more than likely he would've stayed in the draft and ended up with Detroit or Denver or one of the other teams with a high draft pick. And now, as a free agent, he'd have a chance to come back home.

As it worked out, he never went away. He's never been away. Even though he's played all over the country as an NBA star and all over the world as an Olympian, he has always lived within a few miles of where he grew up, and from his house it's a half-hour drive to work. Just like all those kids from Akron who grew up dreaming of a big house in town and a good job up in Cleveland.

Those are fine dreams. But other kids dream other things. They get to be 25 and they start to wonder what it might be like to set down roots somewhere else, to unpack your bags in a fresh town, to see how starting over changes you. It's not about rejecting home. It's about forcing yourself to grow by reaching for something new.

LeBron James is still a young man, but he has experienced things most of us can barely imagine. He's already one of the best ever at what he does. Fans adore him. The biggest sports network in the country is handing him an hour tonight to say what he wants to say. Millions of people are waiting for his choice.

And what I keep wondering is: Does he really know what he wants?

Does he dream about it?

And if he does, when he dreams, is he home or away?

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Recycling, brain cramps, and overload

Clearly the best way to handle this Charlotte recycling bumfuzzle is Monty Python-style:

We need to create jobs, right? Just hire a guy in every neighborhood to walk the streets with a bullhorn. Bring out your recycling! Bring out your recycling! All plastic bottles except #6! No pizza boxes!

It might not be the most efficient idea. But the current plan isn't working so hot.

We're three days into the city's new recycling program, and apparently for some of us it's harder than Final Jeopardy. More than 1,200 people called the city with questions on Monday alone. People are putting out their bins on the wrong day, in the wrong week, with the wrong stuff inside.

This is despite the city attaching instructions to the new bins, sending out at least three notices in the mail, putting the information online, and discussing it at 200 community events.

There are several possible reasons we're still confused:

  • It turns out people throw away ALL their mail, not just the bills.
  • Nobody pays attention to public service announcements about the importance of blah blah blah.
  • Maybe some folks are going by Mayan calendars.
  • Collectively, we're as dumb as a sack of hammers.
You could make an argument for any of those. But here's the real reason: There's just too much junk floating around in our heads right now.

We're not stupid, we're overwhelmed.

Think about all the mental debris you tote around -- logins and passwords to computers and websites, PIN numbers to credit cards and debit cards and ATM cards, the schedule for the kids' ball games and dance lessons, what hours the library's open (hint: not as many hours as it used to be), the faces and names of all those people you see only at the grocery store or the barbershop or at church on Easter. Plus all that long division and high-school Spanish trying not to get sucked down the memory hole.

Not only that, every little device is its own galaxy of choices. I'm pretty sure my cell phone could launch a nuclear sub if I had the right app. The other day I toured a hangar that housed some vintage airplanes. The cockpits didn't look all that more complicated than a universal remote. And pilots don't have to worry about programming the DVR.

In our complicated lives, we need some things to be simple. In Charlotte, garbage and recycling were simple. You rolled out the garbage can and set out the recycling bin on the same day every week. You didn't even have to think about it -- your body did the work on autopilot.

Now there's a new recycling bin, and pickup for that is every OTHER week, even though garbage is still every week, although for most people it's now on a different DAY, and to get it all straight you have to figure out whether you live in the Green Zone or the Orange Zone.

That's not complicated, in and of itself. But piled on top of all the other numbers and maps and codes, it makes us crazy.

In the end, of course, we'll figure it out -- we'll clear out a little corner of our brains (bye-bye, Spanish!) to make room for the new schedule. We're also recycling more stuff, which is good for the planet, so we've got that going for us, which is nice.

But next time, before anybody else rolls out something else to complicate our lives, do us a favor. Spring for the bullhorns.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

DVD extras for Sunday vocoder column

Hope everybody had a good Fourth. For us it involved a trip to Oklahoma and a drive through the flatlands of Kansas on July 4 night -- fireworks in every direction and Conway Twitty on the radio. That's America, y'all.

Now that I'm back at work I wanted to share some supplemental material that goes with my Sunday column on Dave Tompkins, who grew up in Charlotte and just wrote a very cool book about the vocoder.

Buy a copy on the book's official page or on Amazon.

Here's a story from New York magazine.

And now to the music:

This is "Clear," the song that Dave fell for when it came on WPEG back in 1982.

Here's "Pack Jam" by the Jonzun Crew -- a glorious mix of Devo, Michael Jackson, the Oakland Raiders and "CHiPs."

This is Midnight Star's "Freak-a-Zoid," which you heard if you visited a dance club anytime in the mid-'80s.

And if you want to go all in, check out this 75-minute vocoder megamix from Dave's site.

I think it's fair to say that the vocoder changed Dave Tompkins' life. Is there a song, or a sound, that changed yours?