Friday, January 28, 2011


Now we would all know within seconds. Thousands of people would tweet it at once. Your cell phone would pick up that insistent buzz that never means good news. But this was before all that, and I made it out of class and across campus and almost all the way to work before somebody on the street said that Challenger had broken in the sky.

I laughed. It had to be the punch line to some absurd joke, and I had just missed the setup. I kept walking, toward the college newspaper where I worked, and then I saw another one of the editors. As soon as I saw her eyes, I knew. She grabbed my arm and said: "Call everybody."

College can be a wonderful bubble. Tragedy is getting dumped by your girlfriend. Terror is a test you didn't study for. On Jan. 28, 1986, I was a senior at the University of Georgia and nothing really bad had ever happened to me. I was 22 but I was still a boy.

We had to put out a paper. I remember ripping updates off the old wire machine, thinking maybe this version would say it was all a mistake. The photos showed a corkscrew of smoke, like something a pilot would do to show off. But at the top of the plume, where the space shuttle was supposed to be, there was nothing.

It's weird, the things that turn you from boy to man, from girl to woman. By the time my 20s were over I was on my fourth town in my third job, had gone through a couple of hard breakups, my dad had died, and I got cancer and got rid of it. I was a grown man.

And when I trace it back I think I started feeling grown on that day 25 years ago, when all of a sudden my little college newspaper job was important, because something terrible had happened, and people were expecting us to help make sense of it, and give them something to hold on to and remember it by.

That's still, basically, my job today.

All of this is really just a way to open the door for you. If you remember that day, step in and tell your story.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Have Photo, Need Story

Here's the latest installment in an occasional feature we're going to call Have Photo, Need Story. The message below was in a box I got recently from McSweeney's, which produces all sorts of strange and interesting things. It would take to long to explain WHY this message was in the box... but it made sense at the time.

Here's what I want you to do: Assume that this sentence is the first sentence of a story, and take it from there. This blogging software doesn't give you a whole lot of space in the comments -- something like 4,000 characters, including spaces -- so we're not looking for "War and Peace" here. But see where your mind takes you. My head feels more sifted already.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Beauty in timelapse

The great Chris Jones of Esquire magazine shared this on Twitter yesterday... I doubt you'll see anything more beautiful all day. It's done by Josh Owens -- according to his Facebook page, he's originally from Columbia, S.C.

I've seen lots of timelapse photography, but I don't remember seeing any this gorgeous. Maybe it's the slow pans and scrolls within each timelapse. I wonder what a Charlotte version of this would look like.

NYC - Mindrelic Timelapse from Mindrelic on Vimeo.

By the way... does anybody know this song? UPDATE: It's "Down in the Cellar" by Dredg. Great tune.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Friday Wrap

An icy week. Let's go straight to the videotape.

On the blog and in the paper

We walked around in the snow.

There's a great undiscovered artist, finally being discovered in Chicago.

The snow (and ice) put us in two worlds. (Note the spirited discussion in the comments. To be honest, this piece was a little too similar to the first snow piece this week. The great thing about this job is, there's always another deadline coming up. Fail better next time!)

A guy delivered his old paper route.

Stuff in other places

Forgot to mention this over the holidays, but I've got a piece in the latest issue of Our State magazine. It's on a great breakfast place in Maggie Valley.

Links on Twitter

Here's the latest from my Twitter feed, @tommytomlinson:

Bill Murray with one of the all-time great speeches. (A little raw language, but worth it.) (via @)

You might recognize the guys on the cover of the latest Garden & Gun. @

The crowd in Tucson tonight reminded me of VaTech 4 years ago. Here's my piece from back then.

She won by clogging to "Soul Man." via @

Been thinking about what to say on Arizona shootings. Found out Tom Junod already said it.

Charlotte Hornets fans remember Larry Johnson as Grandmama. Now there's Grandmama sweet tea. (via @)

Please, somebody in Alabama, create a photo gallery from this. (via @)

The rapture's coming in May. Not that you can do much about it. (via @)

Just realized that CLT's first 2011 murder victim is a guy I knew a little: Chris Radok. Damn.

Used to run into Radok when I was music writer (93-97). Interesting guy. Here's a Facebook page:

Coming up

Off Monday. Back Tuesday, completely thawed out, to tell some more stories. Have a great weekend, everyone.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Paper route

I found this on the amazing Gangrey. It's a video of a San Francisco Chronicle reporter going back to the paper route he had when he was a kid.

(I had that "Ice Cream Castles" cassette, too. Still got the CD somewhere.)

A few years ago, when the Observer's power went out and the backup power failed, the paper came out late. Most of our carriers work other jobs and they couldn't deliver the paper that day, so some of us volunteered to run the routes. I went out with our sports editor, Gary Schwab, to a couple of neighborhoods in University City. Gary rolled the papers, I drove, and along the way we met a bunch of people who cared deeply about the paper, the news, and the city. There are a lot worse ways to learn about a place than by delivering the paper every day.

The original Gangrey post has a few comments from writers who had paper routes. If any of y'all had routes, in Charlotte or elsewhere, I'd love to hear your stories.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

One day, two worlds

We live in two worlds right now. The world of sunshine. The world of shade.

In the world of sunshine, it hit the mid-30s. In the world of shade, it felt like the teens.

In the world of sunshine, the ice and snow have melted away. In the world of shade, it's still thick and crusted.

In the world of sunshine, you can walk around in sneakers. In the world of shade, you need waterproof boots.

In the world of sunshine, you can take long strides. In the world of shade, every step is a nibble.

In the world of sunshine, your windshield just needs a quick brush. In the world of shade, it needs a scraper and two strong hands.

In the world of sunshine, you can hit the gas on the highway. In the world of shade, your car crawls down the side streets.

In the world of sunshine, fresh water drains down the gutters. In the world of shade, icicles hang from the eaves.

In the world of sunshine, tree branches sling snow like catapults. In the world of shade, limbs hang low and heavy.

In the world of sunshine, you can go with the light jacket. In the world of shade, you still need gloves.

In the world of sunshine, birds peck for fresh meals in the grass. In the world of shade, they huddle tight and live on yesterday's seed.

In the world of sunshine, it's Kodachrome. In the world of shade, it's monochrome.

In the world of sunshine, you hang around and talk to the neighbors. In the world of shade, you give a quick wave and duck inside.

In the world of sunshine, you stay out late. In the world of shade, you try to get home before dark.

In the world of sunshine, you think about baseball. In the world of shade, you think about luge.

In the world of sunshine, you hear dripping. In the world of shade, you hear crashing.

In the world of sunshine, the wind is brisk. In the world of shade, the wind is biting.

In the world of sunshine, there's a southern exposure. In the world of shade, there's a north face.

In the world of sunshine, you jog for exercise. In the world of shade, you might have to walk to work.

In the world of sunshine, it's time to fertilize the daffodils. In the world of shade, it's time to de-ice the sidewalk.

In the world of sunshine, skateboards. In the world of shade, skates.

Six months from now, the sun will beat us down and the shade will be our rescue. But we're used to that. Snow days like this are still rare enough to be special.

And now, as it thaws, you can witness how the world can change in just a few steps. Warm's not far from cold. Light's right next to dark. And the balance shifts and swirls, every day, every moment, as we spin around in space.

A nanny, a photog, a genius

This story was bouncing around Facebook last night... It originally aired a couple of weeks ago on WTTW-TV in Chicago. I watched it and can't stop thinking about it. Makes me wonder how much undiscovered brilliance is all around us.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Let's hear your ice stories

Hey everybody, today we're looking to collect a bunch of stories about how people are dealing with the ice.

We're looking for neighborhood heroes, street scenes, any kind of little vignette that would help tell the story of this day.

You can drop the story in the comments to this post, email me at, or call 704-358-5227. We might have some follow-up questions, so leave some way we can get in touch.

Thanks for the help. Stay safe and stay warm.


Monday, January 10, 2011

A stroll in the snow

We wake up to a changed world. Then we go outside and walk in it.

Here's the old Christmas tree, lying at the curb, redecorated in white.

Here's a set of fresh animal tracks, a pair of little feet side by side, something with a hop instead of a stride.

Here's the neighbor's toddler, bundled up and waddling down the driveway. You wonder if she'll remember.

Here's the old snow shovel, up from the basement, brought out of retirement.

Here's a woman in her yard, measuring with a T-square. "It says 2 (inches)," she says, "but I think it's wrong. I think it must be 12."

Here's a giant magnolia, wide green leaves cupping the snow like a handful of sugar.

Here's a single woodpecker, thock-thocking at a tree, echoing in the soft silence.

Here's a streetlight, lit up, confused.

Here's the dog, having the best day ever, prancing down the street, plowing his nose into the drifts, panting and pulling and chasing down every stray scent with jets of steam coming from his mouth.

Here's our boots, every step scrunching in the powder, and all of a sudden here's a memory of flip-flops in the white Gulf sand down at Panama City Beach.

Here's a flock of birds, holed up in a tree, sending out sentries to bring back a weather report.

Here's a woman on a bike, eyes lit like stars, wishing us good morning and leaving a wobbly track down the sidewalk.

Here's the snow itself, the drifts flat as a tabletop on unbroken front lawns, the clumps plunging from branches like cliff divers, the flakes brushing your jacket with a soft psssh like a lover's lips.

Here's gray slush going down the storm drain, a reminder that all things must pass.

And here's a statue in a front yard, a concrete goddess holding up one of those shiny gazing balls, glowing blue and gold. The gazing ball is covered with snow, and so is the fence, and so are the roofs of the houses and the tops of the trees and everything we can see.

Here's an amazing day, a world changed overnight, a moment that whispers: Look at this.


Photo by Alix Felsing

Thursday, January 06, 2011

My talk with Jerry Richardson

Jerry Richardson called Thursday to apologize.

“It was not my intention to be rude, or disrespectful, or not answer questions,” he said.

He was referring to his uncomfortable-to-watch news conference back on Tuesday. But the Panthers’ owner ended up talking about a lot more – including a new direction for the team, and how he plans to reach out more to fans.

I had a column in Thursday’s paper saying that in the news conference, Richardson came off as “irritable, cheap, confused, obstinate and a bit of a bully.” He called to respond. He wasn’t mad. We ended up talking three separate times – he had to hang up twice to take calls from other NFL owners (Jerry Jones in Dallas and Robert Kraft in New England).

All of this happened a couple hours before Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck – the Panthers’ likely choice with the no. 1 pick in the draft – announced he’s staying in school. I’m not sure Richardson would’ve been so calm then.

He’s planning to change the Panthers’ philosophy. For years the team leaned on a tough defense. But now he says the NFL is so offense-oriented that offensive coordinators and quarterback coaches are nearly as important as head coaches. Richardson said the Panthers will hire a new head coach first, but then go hard at offensive assistants. And no matter the coaches, he says the Panthers are going to open up.

“The NFL has changed, in the last five years, dramatically,” he said. “We would be foolish not to stay in sync with that… We didn’t score enough points. First thing, they (fans) want us to win. But after that, they want us to score points and they want excitement.”

I asked Richardson if he heard from fans after the news conference. This was his answer: “I had 11 e-mails this morning, and 10 were glowing.”

(Clearly his e-mail address is not well-publicized. Either that or he’s got an extremely effective Glow Filter.)

He said he understands fans are frustrated with the Panthers’ 2-14 season: “When they drive up here from Wilmington and Georgetown and Myrtle Beach (and the Panthers lose), that’s a long ride home.”

But he also said fans should take a longer view.

“We’ve only been in (the NFL) a short while,” he said. “We haven’t been in the league 75 years like the Pittsburgh Steelers. Our fan base is young. They don’t know the up-and-down cycles.”

Fans also complained about ticket prices. The Panthers won’t raise prices next season, but last season prices went up between $1 and $9 per seat. It was the team’s eighth price hike in 11 years.

“They’re ticked off about the ticket price,” Richardson said. “The ticket price increase was so modest, it surprised me.”

I mentioned in the column Thursday that we get our hair cut at the same place. Richardson compared the ticket hike to the hairspray he buys when he gets his trim. For years it was $10 a can. Now it’s $12. He doesn’t like it, but he understands the cost of business.

Two years ago, in a business decision, Richardson fired his sons, Jon and Mark. I asked him about that as part of a question about general turnover with the Panthers.

“Sometimes it’s difficult for families to operate well in business together,” he said. “I have other partners. I can’t run the business the way I’d run it if it was a father-and-son business.”

Richardson said that, despite last season, he thinks the Panthers are in “an exceptional place.” He listed a dozen of the Panthers’ “good young players,” and said other teams constantly call him trying to get them in trades. He’s got the first pick in the draft (even if it’s not Andrew Luck). He’s got a new head coach coming. And he says he’s got a lot of energy, despite a heart transplant not quite two years ago.

He sounded a lot sharper on the telephone than he did on the microphone a couple days ago. He also sounded sincere in his apology – although it’s clearly a smart thing to do when your image takes a hit.

At the end, we were talking about communicating with fans, and he asked me for suggestions. I didn’t have anything brilliant, but I said it might be good to have a news conference more often than every nine years.

He says it’s not his style to step out in public, but he knows he needs to let fans know what he’s thinking and what the team is up to.

We talked about being a sports fan, and how upset you get when your team’s going bad.

“That’s good!” he said – the point being, at least they care. And then he added this:

“I can tell you… I will care.”

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Big Cat, acting small

(Hey everybody, I know I'm a little late on this... you can see other smart comments on this from Cedar Posts, The Meck Deck, and our Rick Bonnell.)

In 1993, on the day NFL owners voted to bring the Carolina Panthers into the league, Jerry Richardson stood on the stage in Chicago and looked for a camera from back home.

The man who worked so hard to get the team here stared straight into the lens said he had a message for the fans: “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Now it sounds like he has a couple other words in mind.

The Panthers’ owner had a news conference Tuesday – his first in nine years – where he simultaneously came off as irritable, cheap, confused, obstinate and a bit of a creep.

Here’s part of his opening statement. Take a deep breath before you dive in.

“I think if we think about a number of things, and we look back over time – and time for me is a long time – I guess I would want to start by saying that, I think it was the Meineke Bowl that we went to… What’s your name? Young lady. Nicole? Who are you with? OK. Welcome, Nicole, I don’t know you. In fact, I don’t know a lot of people. It has been awhile since I’ve been here.”

It didn’t improve after that.

He directed Fox reporter Morgan Fogarty – who happens to be blond and beautiful – to come sit right in front of him. He batted away legitimate questions like blowflies.

But those are misdemeanors. The bigger problem is that what he said about his team made no sense.

Try to square these ideas:

1. Richardson said it was a positive that the Panthers let go several key veterans, because young players need to be on the field.

2. He said he knew John Fox preferred to play veterans.

3. He kept Fox as coach anyway.

The only logical explanation is financial. The Panthers saved money on players this season and might save money on coaches next season, especially if there’s a players’ strike or lockout. (Richardson is one of the key owners in those negotiations.)

Sometimes it does make sense to start over. Nobody expected the Panthers to go 2-14, but it’s clear that the team hit some version of the reset button. Then why not fire a coach who didn’t want to start over? Because he was still under contract, and you’d have to pay the old coach and the new one.

Other owners, in all sports, have been willing to take that hit to get better. Richardson wasn’t.

Look, I admire Jerry Richardson. He made himself a rich man, then willed the Panthers into existence when few others believed. We get our hair cut at the same place. It’s not a fancy place. We’ve crossed paths a couple of times, and he’s always been nice.

But he’s not the only one with a stake in the Panthers.

Part of the reason this team is here is because tens of thousands of fans bought personal seat licenses, giving the Panthers millions in upfront money before they ever sold a ticket. That’s a risky investment. The deal with sports is that you never know what value you’re going to get. You pay the same whether your team wins by three or loses by 30.

As a fan, in the end, you can ask only a couple of things of your team. They ought to do their best. And they need to have some kind of plan.

I don’t think Richardson did his best for the Panthers this year. And after watching him, it’s still not clear if he has much of a plan -- or much concern for what anybody else thinks.

Richardson had a heart transplant not quite two years ago. Nobody should expect him to be the same man he was on that great day back in 1993. But back then, he acted like we were in this together.

On Tuesday, he acted like we all work for him.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011


Today's my 47th birthday. Isaac Newton was born on Jan. 4, and so was Louis Braille. It's a good birthday for music -- R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, and Deana "Strawberry Wine" Carter, and the great soul singer Arthur Conley, who was born in McIntosh County, Ga., one county north of where I grew up.

A couple of years ago I wrote about turning 45 -- to me, that was the year I figured I was at least halfway done with this long and winding road. I've promised myself again to lose weight and get in shape -- I have a lot more I want to say about that later on, once I've had a little streak of success. Like everyone else, I see lots of flaws in myself that I'd like to correct on this trip around the sun.

But really, what I'd like to do this year is fail more.

The other day I was listening to an NPR show on video games. They were talking about the lessons that games teach us, and one of those lessons is how to fail. In any new game you might die 100 times before you reach the next level, but every time you learn a little more about the game, and you adapt, and finally you break through. Failure is a natural byproduct of trying something hard.

This year I plan to try harder things, and fail at them, until I don't.

So, right in the middle of writing all this, my friend Joe called with birthday wishes, and we started talking about what years are the BEST birthdays.

Ages 1-3: Meh. You don't really know what's going on.

4-5: It's mostly about cake.

6-10: The prime birthday years. As Joe said, when you're a little kid your birthday is better than Christmas because it's ALL ABOUT YOU -- all the presents are for you, and maybe your friends come over, and you get the biggest slice of cake. We decided that 9 is the prime birthday age -- old enough to enjoy everything, young enough to not be cynical about it.

11-15: Not that big a deal. You probably just want to stay in your room.

16: BIG deal. Drivin' time.

18: You can't drink at 18 anymore (at least in most states). But you can vote, and you're probably getting out of high school and starting the next part of your life. Big year.

21: You can drink legally now. At which point, for most of us, drinking becomes not as much fun.

25: Joe thought 25 was a big year -- he felt grown up then. I was 25 when I came to the Observer, and still felt like a kid in a lot of ways.

29: This was the year I became an adult -- came to the Observer's main office, moved to Charlotte, survived throat cancer.

30, 40, 50, 60: Taking-stock years.

65: Retirement (maybe).

75: For some people, this is when birthdays start to get exciting again. At some point, maybe you start to feel like you're stealing years: Ha! Made it to 82! Bite me, Grim Reaper!

The terrifying, and wonderful, thing is that none of us know until we get there.

Today I'm 47. Some days I feel a lot older, and some days I feel like a little kid. Time bends and stretches, sometimes by our own hands, sometimes by hands we never see.