Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Project #3: Your Toy Story

This has happened now at the last three or four Pixar movies. They get to a certain point -- in "Up," it's that sequence about the old couple, and if you've seen it you know what I'm talking about -- and all the adults in the theater start crying. Most of the kids aren't crying -- a few are, because they see their parents doing it -- but it's the adults who are just walloped with emotion.

The same thing happened this year, at the end of "Toy Story 3." We saw the movie months ago and I still think about the last few minutes. It's the reason Pixar is the current heavyweight champion of storytelling -- their movies balance on that pivot point where kids start to learn what it means to be grown up, and grown-ups remember what it was like to be a kid.

The "Toy Story" movies have a perfect vehicle to get the audience to that pivot point. They're about toys. A favorite toy might be the first thing you really took care of as a child. And it's probably one of your fondest childhood memories as an adult.

That's the basis for my new project: Your Toy Story.

I want you to tell me a story about your single favorite toy. (One toy only, please.) Keep it as brief as you can.

You can either post your story in the comments below, or you can e-mail me at ttomlinson@charlotteobserver.com.

We'd love to have photos and video to go with this project. If you have a photo of you with your toy, send it in an e-mail. If you have video, the easiest thing to do is upload it to YouTube and let me know. If those methods don't work for you, e-mail me and we'll figure something out.

If you happen to still have the toy, and you have a photo of you with it now, we'd love that too.

Here's a quick story before you go off to write. I had a G.I. Joe when I was little. My mom tells a story about how my dad took me to J.M. Fields department store one day, I begged him to buy the G.I. Joe, and he just about fell over when he found out how much it cost. We didn't have much money. But he swallowed hard and paid.

At some point the G.I. Joe lost one hand (even though it had the dreaded Kung Fu Grip) and the hair on one side of his head had been shaved off. I have no memory of how either of those things happened. But Joe took me along on hundreds of adventures, into river gorges (ditches) and through jungles (bamboo patches) and across enemy lines (the fence between our house and the neighbors').

At some point, of course, I quit playing with Joe and started watching "Saturday Night Live" and listening to Molly Hatchet records. But for years after, kids who came to our house would find Joe in the back of a closet and have their own adventures.

It makes me wish toys could talk, like the ones in "Toy Story." I would love to hear G.I. Joe tell he how he lost half his hair. But for now we'll have to settle for our stories about our toys. Sit down and tell me yours.

Monday, August 30, 2010

12to1, Queens workshop, Ben Folds, and other good things

Coming later this week: One new project about childhood; another new project based on a remarkable photo story; some thoughts on Alvin Greene as performance artist; maybe a little Panthers preview (short version: I think they're gonna be bad this year, but really good next year.)

Here's what's going on right now.

-- I've heard from a bunch of people already about the 12 to 1 project... Several students have written in, and I've heard from three teachers who are having their senior students take it on as an assignment. If you're a high-school senior who'd like to give some advice to new first-graders, e-mail me at ttomlinson@charlottobserver.com. We'll be taking entries for several more days.

-- If you're interested in some in-depth talk about writing, there are still a few spots left in the workshop I'm teaching at Queens University starting next week. It runs four Thursday nights from Sept. 9 to Sept. 30. We'll be talking about reporting, interviewing, writing, creativity and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." (Love of Gordon Lightfoot not required.)

-- Keep checking for more comments on the One Good Thing project and the Scars project... I'm getting some late e-mail that I'm going to stick into the comment threads. And if you haven't added your own, the door's still open.

-- Three of my favorite things came together this week. For years I've loved Ben Folds, the North Carolina piano man, and Nick Hornby, the British novelist. They've collaborated on a record that comes out in a few weeks. But as a teaser, they've released a cut they did with Pomplamoose, the duo that specializes in "video songs," where you see how each song is put together. (My favorite is their cover of Beyonce's "Single Ladies.")

Here's the result. (It might help a little to know that Nick Hornby is a hugely successful writer. Four of his works -- "Fever Pitch," "High Fidelity," "About a Boy" and "An Education" -- have been turned into movies. So don't feel too sorry for him.)

Friday, August 27, 2010

The difficulty of One Good Thing

On Sunday I put out a request to readers -- a little project called One Good Thing. I wanted people to say one good thing about some group they oppose. The idea was simple.

But simple doesn't mean easy.

"Perhaps I can find something good to say about lawyers," said a reader named Greg. "I'll work on it."

"I have been wracking my brain and I still can't find a positive thing to say about the Dems other than I will love them when they leave," said my Facebook friend Tom.

Other people gave it a try, but couldn't quite hand over an unadulterated compliment. There was always a catch.

"As much as I dislike..."

"Even though they are completely wrong..."

"Despite the fact that I choose to spend my life as far away from them as possible..."

It took a day and a half before I got the first pure compliment, from a reader named Jessica:

"I admire the Tea Party for actively using their Right to Assembly as I don't know if I would ever have the guts to attend a political protest."

But by the time Jessica weighed in, it was clear that the story wasn't about how people could find ways to say one good thing. The story was how hard it is to do it at all.

Why is that?

Maybe it's the way we've turned life into sports. We argue a lot of issues now the same way crazy basketball fans argue Carolina vs. Duke -- there's nothing bad about our guys, there's nothing good about the other guys, no quarter, no surrender. Giving an inch, or conceding the other person might have a point, doesn't show that you're reasonable; it shows that you're weak.

Maybe it's that we're overwhelmed. The more information that we need to process, the more we need filters. It takes time and effort to think about some group you oppose and try to find some common ground. It's a lot easier to just filter them out as bad guys.

Maybe it's just that it feels good, in a frustrating world, to have a nice soft pillow to punch.

"I don't mean to undermine your attempt at creating a bridge to understanding, but I don't think the bridge will withstand the weight of fear and anger that is growing," a reader named Tim said back on Sunday.

He could be right.

But as the week went by, other voices stepped in.

Brendan said, "I respect those who frequent the Epicentre for their energy and zest for life."

Doc B said, "I am impressed with the attitude and courtesy I've seen from high school age students."

Bonnie said, "One good thing about Rush Limbaugh is he has saved AM talk radio."

And Tom said, "The Board of Education for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System deserves a pat on the back. They have a daunting job that requires commitment, passion, and understanding. I am not sure I could deal with all of the criticism, pressures, and issues they face daily."

Tom wrote in a little later to say he had been a high-school teacher but had decided to resign: "Believe me, it was a tough task to say something positive about the school board."

So it turns out it's really hard to say one good thing about a group you don't like. But it's possible.

And, I believe, it's necessary.

Here are more attempts at One Good Thing... some of these didn't quite qualify as unadulterated compliments, but take a look. -- Tommy

Republicans: I admire their commitment to national security. -- Esther

One good thing about Atlanta: you do not have to travel far when you decide to move to Charlotte. -- Fori

I admire the Muslims' uncompromising dedication to moral purity. A lot of Christians, myself included, should pay more attention to that.-- Rod

One good thing about the Panthers is that they are located here in Charlotte.-- Tawanya

I really get annoyed at panhandlers. When necessary, I look the other way, cross the street or turn around. My radar is up and I can sense when I am going to be approached. After capturing the scene below, I have been thinking I spend a whole lot of time and money of stuff that may seem important; it's not really. I should at least speak to the person. An urban camper has no less standing than me.
-- Scott (who also took the photo)

People who want to be sure I’m constantly aware of who they know and where they’ve been and what they have drive me crazy. But those things make them happy and I like happy people.
-- Kathy

I believe that the Republican Tea Partiers are right in their belief that something is wrong.
-- Roy

Far-right radio and TV talk show commentators surely love their families as much as I love mine. -- Sandy

I think Nancy Pelosi sticks with her convictions through thick and thin... no matter how wrong they may be! -- anonymous

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Status report

We've got three projects in the mix... you can still contribute to them all. To catch you up:

Scar Stories: We published some of the best in the paper today. But people are still adding their stories to the original post.

One Good Thing: We'll publish a best-of in the next day or two -- here's an example of a good entry. I'll be writing a column-ish piece to go with it. So if you've been thinking about this, now's the time to speak up.

12 to 1: A couple of teachers wrote in saying they've got students working on this... so we'll hold this open until next week sometime. If you're a high-school senior -- or an adult with some influence over a high-school senior :) -- jump in.

OK, you've endured all that... Check out this dude and his yo-yo.

(via kottke.org)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Project #2: 12 to 1

Today's the first day of school in Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools, which means thousands of first-graders are starting the long journey to 12th grade -- the last year of high school. That thought led to my new interactive project, 12 to 1.

I'm looking for incoming high-school seniors to participate.

Here's the idea: If you're an incoming senior, what advice would you give to incoming first-graders?

What would you tell them about what the next 12 years will be like? What would you tell them about how to make it through? How have you changed since you were in their shoes? What stories do you have that might help them understand?

Incoming seniors: Send your thoughts to me at ttomlinson@charlotteobserver.com with the phrase "12 to 1" in the subject line. Make sure you say on there who you are and what school you're going to.

And if you happen to have pictures of yourself now AND when you were in first grade, send them along, too.

Teachers and parents: If you want to nudge your seniors to do this, it won't hurt my feelings a bit :)

We'll collect these over the next few days... in the meantime, if you're NOT an incoming senior, but you have advice for first-graders, well, that's what the comments are for.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Story lunch: Scars

So as part of this new gig, I'm going to send out a story around lunchtime a few times a week... just a little something that might entertain you or make you think. I'll be showcasing storytellers from all over the Web. If you run across something good, let me know.

Today's story is part of a series The Human Project did about people with scars, and how they got them.

the human project - matty from the human project on Vimeo.

I've got a few scars myself... I suspect you do, too. Where did yours come from? And what do you think about when you look at them?

Monday, August 23, 2010

One Good Thing: Now we're talkin'

Got the best response so far to my One Good Thing project -- it's a model of how I hoped people would jump in. This is from Jessica:

I admire the Tea Party for actively using their Right to Assembly as I don't know if I would ever have the guts to attend a political protest.

That's the idea. Short, sincere, meaningful. It's fine if you want to talk politics, but I'd also love to hear from you about other stuff.

Now... what have YOU got?

(Here's some more on what One Good Thing is about, and how to contribute.)

One Good Thing, and some other things

Good morning. If you were out having a life and missed the news this weekend, there's a bit of a change around these parts. So let's get caught up.

I've gotten a bunch of responses to my first interactive project, called One Good Thing... but y'all aren't really in the spirit of it yet. Here's a fairly typical example:

“I believe that the Republican Tea Partiers are right in their belief that something is wrong even though they are completely wrong about what is wrong.”

I appreciate the effort, but that pretty much defines the phrase "backhanded compliment."

My idea -- and my hope -- is that you can find one unadulterated nice thing to say about a group that you don't like. For example... I don't enjoy seeing the Jehovah's Witnesses who make regular visits to our neighborhood. But I admire the courage of their faith.

Of course I have an agenda here. I've always thought, at our core, we are more alike than different. But when we look at other people, we often define them by the ways they're different than us -- and then, over time, we can't see anything but the differences. I suspect that's not good for humanity in the long run.

So... let's keep trying. One good thing. Sincere and pure. And brief! There are lots of ways to contribute:

-- Email ttomlinson@charlotteobserver.com. (You can also send photos that way.)

-- Send me a message on Twitter (@tommytomlinson), or post a tweet with the hashtag #onegoodthing.

-- Send me a Facebook message.

-- Leave a voicemail at 704-358-5227.

-- Upload a video to YouTube and send me a link.

Whatever format you use, put "One Good Thing" in the subject line or label it some other way. If you want, let me know who you are and how to get in touch. I wasn't clear on this last time, but it's OK with me if you're anonymous... you just have to be sincere and anonymous.

Before I go, I want to share a few inspirations for what I'm trying to do here. I'll be putting these and some others in a blogroll shortly.

I've been fascinated with PostSecret for years... I could scroll through the cards for hours. We all have secrets we want to tell, if the circumstances are right.

The Moth is an amazing little storytelling event that started in New York. Go here and listen to some great stories, in front of an audience, no notes.

And StoryCorps, which came through Charlotte not long ago, has unearthed some brilliant stories from ordinary people. I'll leave you this morning with the true story of Danny and Annie. Keep tissues nearby. And when you get a chance... tell me a story.

Danny & Annie from StoryCorps on Vimeo.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Project #1: One Good Thing

So if you're here you've probably seen that I'm trying out a new job, and part of what I'm going to do is create projects with readers. The first one we're going to try is something I call One Good Thing.

The idea is simple: I want you to say one good thing about a group you don't like.

If you're a Democrat, think of one good thing about Republicans. If you're an atheist, one good thing about people of faith. If you're a Carolina fan, one good thing about Dukies.

Those aren't the only categories, of course. Think about the one crowd you most complain about, the one club you'd never join. Now: Come up with one good thing to say about them. We'll be rejecting all sarcasm, cynicism, and backhanded compliments. You have to be sincere.

My inspiration for this is Ze Frank's 52/48 project, done just after the '08 election. Here's what it ended up looking like.

You're welcome to just write. But I'd also love photos, audio, video -- however you want to make your point.

Here's how to contribute:

If you write something, email ttomlinson@charlotteobserver.com. (You can also send photos that way.)

To leave it as a voicemail, call me at 704-358-5227.

If you want to put your response on video, upload it to YouTube and send me a link.

Whatever format you use, put "One Good Thing" in the subject line or say it right up front. Also, let me know who you are and how to get in touch. You should assume that whatever you send could go online and/or in the paper. We'll take contributions until we've got a good batch, then publish them.

We've got a lot more projects coming up -- including one in the next couple of days exclusively for high-school seniors. In the meantime, think of one good thing. And send it on.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Steven Slater , taking the slide

Of course the best way to start this Steven Slater story is the Taiwanese animated re-enactment. For many more Slater updates, check here (some NSFW language, it probably goes without saying).

Steven Slater is a hero. The JetBlue flight attendant acted out the fantasy of millions of working people. He told off the jerk who had cussed him out, then he quit his job in style -- in his case, by grabbing a beer, popping the emergency slide on the plane, and gliding off to freedom. Take this job and shove it, I ain't working here no more.

Steven Slater is a jackass. He overreacted to a rude passenger, made it all about himself, got arrested, and became instantly unemployable anywhere except for reality TV.

Steven Slater is a symbol -- a symbol of disgruntled workers, a symbol of our in-your-face society, a symbol of the everyday torture that comes with riding the airlines, and working for one.

To me, more than anything, Steven Slater is a warning. Because he did the kind of work most people will end up doing in this country. He wasn't a maker, he was a server. And not everybody is cut out to serve.

You know the score, but here's a couple of details. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Carolinas lost 460,000 manufacturing jobs between June 2000 and June of this year. Over the same period, the Carolinas gained more than 93,000 jobs in the leisure and hospitality field.

That's a lot fewer working in mills and factories, and a lot more people working at customer service desks.

That's not a knock on service jobs -- my mama was a waitress for 20 years. It's just reality. People are doing different kinds of work in different settings that require different attitudes.

Here's the main difference. If you work in a manufacturing plant, you have one or two bosses. You might grumble about them -- everybody grumbles about the boss -- but you probably learn to deal with it.

In a service job, you have those bosses, too. But the real bosses are your customers -- hundreds of them, maybe thousands. And in a group that big, somebody's bound to set you off.

Steven Slater didn't flip out at a supervisor. He flipped out at a passenger who had been involved in a preflight dispute about the overhead bin. There are several versions of the story, but two parts are consistent: Slater took a shot to the head when he tried to break it up, and after the flight landed, when he approached the woman, she four-lettered him.

No doubt it was a bad scene. But lots of service workers put up with worse, every day, and hold their tongues.

The customer is not always right, and lots of times the customer is flat-out wrong. Customers leave popcorn boxes on the floor of the theater. Customers stiff waiters making $2 an hour. Customers return pants they've worn 10 times. Customers do all sorts of crazy things, and then rant when they don't get immediate satisfaction.

A professional in the service business has to take that junk, swallow it, and figure out a way to make the customer happy. Most customers are good ones, and if all you do is focus on the bad ones, you'll drive yourself crazy. Which Steven Slater, at least temporarily, did.

Steven Slater isn't a hero or a jackass. He's an ordinary American worker who was faced with what's becoming a more and more ordinary situation.

What happened makes you wish that, when we're in customer mode, we have a little more appreciation for the people on the other side.

And it makes you hope that, when somebody feels the need to pop the emergency slide, we can provide the kind of job that's a good place to land.