Monday, October 31, 2011

The cloth of memories

The cotton’s coming in.

I saw it the other day driving up I-85, in the countryside around Kannapolis and Salisbury. We’re a top-10 cotton-producing state – nearly a million bales last year – but most of the farms are way out East. Around here you mostly see little patches off the side of the road, looking like snowfields.

This area has such a tangled history with thread and string and yarn. Our towns and cities grew because of the cotton mills – shoot, Kannapolis was created from scratch as a mill town. Hundreds of thousands of Carolinians made a living in the mills. Then synthetic fibers took out a lot of the farmers. Later on, most of the textile companies went off overseas. We got left with beautiful old brick buildings with broken windows.

To so many families around here, cotton was a personal thing. They got the lint in their hair and the dust in their lungs. They dried themselves with Carolina towels and clothed themselves in Carolina denim. As the mills died out, so did the idea that you could get on with one company and work there the rest of your life. People still love the mills, and hate them, often both at the same time.

Cotton was personal in my family, too.

My mom and dad grew up in Georgia as sharecroppers. Both their families picked cotton in fields other people owned. My mom had to quit school in fourth grade and my dad in sixth. They spent every dry day in the fields. They dragged the heavy sacks of cotton down the rows. They picked until dark.

To this day, when we drive by a cotton field, my mama turns her head away.

But my folks climbed the ladder like so many others. They made it off the cotton field and into factory work. My dad went out on his own as a carpenter. We have always had those possibilities in this country for people who work with their hands. You could make your way through ever-better blue-collar jobs. You could set things up so your children wouldn’t have to work so hard.

That progression is so much different now.

It’s a combination of the economy and evolution. The world is evolving toward more high-tech jobs – jobs that require skill in math, science, computers, electronics. At the same time, our sagging economy is hitting blue-collar workers hardest. Jobs have been washed out from under them like sand around a piling.

A cotton field is a beautiful sight on an October drive. These days, it’s good to see a crop that will help a farmer put food on the table. And cotton belongs here, as part of our history. They even have machines to strip the fields now.

But I still get a little shudder when I look at a cotton field. It’s part of my inheritance.

Cotton is deceptive. It looks like you can just pluck the bolls like flowers. But the plants are low, and cotton hulls are as sharp as thorns. My folks, like so many others who picked cotton by hand, ended up with torn-up hands and bent-over backs.

It was awful work. The only thing worse would have been not having it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Music Wednesday: The Black Keys

Here's a new song by one of my favorite bands, the Black Keys. This dude is not the band's real lead singer. But I think he should be EVERY band's lead singer.

So what are y'all listening to? Send links, reviews, etc.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A candidate for Worst Movie Ever?

If you've watched the NFL or the baseball playoffs lately, you've seen the trailer for this new Adam Sandler movie called "Jack and Jill." If you haven't, stop for a second and watch. You really need to see this.

Let's start with the possibility that any movie could be a five-star movie, but various aspects of the movie could cause it to lose stars. So, based on the trailer:

-- It's an Adam Sandler movie. (Minus 1 star.)

-- It's an Adam Sandler movie where he dresses in drag to play his own twin sister. (Minus 3 stars.)

-- It's an Adam Sandler movie where he dresses in drag to play his own twin sister, and Al Pacino (playing himself) has the hots for the twin sister. (Minus 37 stars, and Pacino has to give back his Oscar.)

Somehow poor sweet Katie Holmes ends up in the middle of it all. We can only assume that Tom Cruise was at home jumping around on the couches, and she said yes just to get away for a few weeks.

Now... it's possible that the rest of the movie could be full of uproarious gags and tender reflections on the duality of the human spirit. But you'd think that if they had any of that, they would have put some in the trailer. Maybe in place of the "Twister with your sister" line.

The truth is, this trailer leaves me a little giddy. Because we might have a new candidate for Worst Movie of All Time.

There are lots of bad movies out there, of course. But to make a run at Worst Movie of All Time, you have to be special. B-movies don't count. Some of them are good, some are terrible*, but they're playing under different rules -- you can't count Arena League records in the NFL.

*I worked at a drive-in theater in high school and a couple of summers in college... we specialized in three types of movies: first-run movies after the indoor theaters got tired of them; X-rated movies with all the X-rated parts cut out; and random B-movies. Having seen hundreds of B-movies, I can state without a doubt that the best bad movie of all time is "Gymkata." A spy is sent to a distant country to run through the woods in a game to the death. His special survival skill? Gymnastics. Which comes in handy when he arrives in a village of crazed killers -- and there, in the middle of the town square, is a pommel horse. All I can say about this clip is, well, you're welcome.

So, to have a shot at Worst Movie of All Time, you have to have the money and stars to make a good movie; you have to be trying to make a good movie; and you have to fail totally, utterly, miserably.

About 20 years ago, my friend Matt Brunson had a couple of extra passes for a screening. So I went with Matt and our buddy Joe Posnanski to see a comedy called "Hudson Hawk." It starred Bruce Willis (coming off the first two "Die Hard" movies), Danny Aiello (so good in "Moonstruck" and "Do the Right Thing") and Andie MacDowell (not long after "Sex, Lies & Videotape"). Willis and Aiello were master burglars, MacDowell the love interest... we figured it had a chance to be good.

Instead, for the next two hours, we watched a trainwreck on the screen. What was this movie not? Let me count the ways: Not funny, not smart, not clever, not well-acted, not interesting, not compelling, did I mention not funny? The main thing I remember, 20 years down the road, is that the villainous mobsters were called the Mario Brothers. Like the video games. I had forgotten, until I read the Wikipedia entry, that the other bad guys (there were lots of bad guys) were named for candy bars. Here's part of the plot synopsis:

Kit Kat and Butterfinger take Anna to the castle. Tommy trips Snickers, causing his bomb launcher to shoot a bomb onto his head. Hudson and Tommy escape while Snickers and Almond Joy are killed when the bomb goes off.

Sorry for the spoilers.

Afterward we stood outside in the parking lot, and we could barely talk about it -- it was like trying to review somebody belching the national anthem. To this day no bad movie I've seen has topped it, by which I mean, bottomed it.

But "Jack and Jill" has real potential. There's a moment in the trailer when you see Adam Sandler, in drag, wearing a trenchcoat. I'm guessing, at some point, the trenchcoat comes off. And when it does, Worst Movie of All Time might be in play.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Wednesday tunes -- a little Zeppelin, a little Alabama

I'm a little bummed out that the Civil Wars show scheduled for tonight got postponed... so I went looking for some music. Maybe I'll just post a couple of things up here every Wednesday. I'm always running across new stuff.

Neither of these clips are new, exactly -- they're old tunes done in new ways. First up is Michael Winslow, who you might remember as Sound Effects Guy from the "Police Academy" movies and various commercials during the '80s and '90s. I have no idea what he's been up to, but apparently it involves learning the Led Zeppelin catalog. This is pretty amazing.

(Thanks to for putting this out there.)

This other YouTube clip isn't much of a video at all -- it was shot from so far away you can barely see the musicians. But the audio is enough. Here's Ryan Adams (formerly of the great N.C. band Whiskeytown) and Jason Isbell (formerly of the Drive-By Truckers) covering Alabama's "Love in the First Degree." If you look closely enough, you can see Adams sporting a Buck Owens guitar.

So what are y'all listening to these days?

Monday, October 17, 2011

A day at the fair

We went to the N.C. State Fair on Saturday, along with (and this is an unofficial crowd estimate) 42 million other people. The state fair is one of the great sensory feasts in all of America -- so much to see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Here are a few of the sights -- and a couple of little stories I imagined along the way.

It's a blast to just check out the artwork on the rides... they pay great attention to detail on the art (I hope they pay as much attention to making sure the rides don't fling people halfway to Durham). If we knew aliens would be this comely, I think we'd all welcome our new alien overlords.

Gilding the Lily Dept.: They had deep-fried Oreos, deep-fried Snickers, deep-fried Twinkies, deep-fried cheesecake, deep-fried butter, deep-fried Kool-Aid... which, it turns out, is just Kool-Aid mixed into funnel-cake batter. We tried the deep-fried Reese's Cups. I'm ashamed to say, they were really good.

We found the Great Pumpkin.

"Do not feed your fingers to the donkeys" is such an odd way to say "Don't stick your fingers through the donkey cage, dunce." Maybe somebody was inspired by the first-ever "Saturday Night Live" sketch.

It goes without saying that "Toggenburg Goats" would be a great name for a rock band.

What a downer -- to get all the way to the state fair and find out you're only the second-best meat goat.

We ended up outside one of the livestock buildings as they brought lambs in and out. I'm not sure how you get a coat that shiny. Fried Kool-Aid, maybe.

The crab shrimp were better than I expected -- even though you had to devein them AND crack the claws.

My wife tried to cleanse her palate with vegetables. Yeah, those were fried too.

"The World's Largest Gummi Bear sat still and silent. Those puny ropes would never hold it. It waited for the right time. And then it would punish all those people who ate all his little chewy friends..."

"Angie knew her child was... different. He insisted on that Batman costume. And he always rode upside-down in the stroller. But he was a happy boy, as long as she caught him enough mosquitoes to eat."