Friday, May 04, 2012

One last post

This is the 300th, and final, post on this blog. I've had a ball doing it.

If you missed the announcement the first time around, I'm leaving the Observer, and today is my last day. I'll have one last column in the paper on Sunday -- it might pop up earlier online -- but this is it for the blog.

The great thing about writing online is that you get to try more things -- stuff that's really short, or really long, or dependent on links, works better on a blog than it does on paper. So we could debate the worst movies ever, or discuss our scars, or just talk about the passion of R.E.M., and it all sort of fit.

After today, you can find me on Twitter or Facebook. In a week or two, I'll also restart the personal blog I created a few years ago.

I'm not good at goodbyes. I always thought the last scene of M*A*S*H did it about as well as it could be done. But the more I think about it, especially now, the more I appreciate the last Calvin and Hobbes. (You can click to enlarge.)

See you on the next adventure.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Well... I have an announcement

I've written somewhere around 1,700 columns for the
Charlotte Observer. This is the hardest one.

I'm leaving the paper and taking a new job.

I'll be writing about sports for a new website. It's part of a
joint venture between The USA Today Sports Media Group and
Major League Baseball Advanced Media. I'll be writing about
all sports -- in particular, I think, college football. More details
are coming next month, and the site should launch sometime
this summer.

I'll be here at the Observer two more weeks.

Let me stop for a second and try to breathe.

This is hard. I still love the Observer, and always will. My wife, Alix Felsing, will still be working
for the paper. We’re staying in Charlotte. I'm not running away from the Observer. I'm running  toward this new thing, with the hope that one day it'll make me as proud as I've been to work 23 years for this great newspaper.

Y’all – meaning everyone who has taken the time to read
something of mine over the years – have been such a
pleasure to write for, and talk to, and figure out the world
with. We've shared some of our most profound thoughts,
and some of the deepest places in our hearts. As long as I’m
alive, you’ll be a part of me.

All of you know that things have been tough for newspapers
the past few years. Some days haven’t been much fun. But
most days still are, because we still have the biggest and
best news operation in the Carolinas, and we still have gifted
journalists who work their tails off to get you the news every

I'll miss a lot of things, but maybe what I'll miss the most is those days when a big story happens and all the brainpower and hustle in this newsroom focuses on doing the story right. Nobody can beat us on those days. Nobody.

The Observer will be here long after all of us are gone. And it's still the best deal in town.

So the fair question is, why am I leaving all this?

Part of it is that lately I've felt a pull toward writing sports. I've dabbled in it for the paper, but I've wondered what it would be like to write sports full-time. There's a built-in joy to sports -- at the end of every game at least half the fans are happy, and that's more than you can say about a lot of things in life. More than that, sports gives a writer access to all the big issues -- love, loss, the desire to connect with other people, the longing for something larger than yourself.

My bosses at the Observer, as we were talking all this out, offered me a chance to write a lot about sports. But there was something more in my head.

Let me try to describe it.

Sometimes, when you’re going down the highway, you can
look over and see another road running beside the one
you’re on. I’ve spent a lot of time on the highway, and I've often wondered
about those people on the other road, how the world might
look from over there, how our journeys might be
different even though the direction is the same.

The thing is, you can’t know unless you take the other road.

This road I’ve been on with the Observer, and with you, has
been the trip of a lifetime.

This paper gave me a chance at the greatest job I've ever had. And it only worked out because so many of you gave me a chance and let me into your lives, a few hundred words at a time.

I'll have some more to say over these next couple of weeks. For now, let me say thank you. And let me also say that thank you isn't nearly enough.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Virginia Tech, five years later

Today is the fifth anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech. I was at lunch uptown that day when my editor called. He said I probably needed to get up to Blacksburg. Why? I asked. All I'd heard at that point was that there'd been a shooting on campus, and one person had died.

There's more, he said. A lot more.

J. Freedom du Lac of the Washington Post has a great piece on the survivors (one in particular) and other people who lived that day up close. Make sure to look at the photos and video, too.

I wrote two columns from Blacksburg. Here are those pieces.


The cold wind blew in overnight, it brought snow to the Virginia Tech campus Monday morning, around the time the early risers heard the first shots.

The wind blew harder at midmorning, when the people on the upper floors of Norris Hall heard the guns firing again and again from down below.

It blew in the news that was impossible. Thirty-three dead. Another score wounded. A campus with its heart cut out.

Two students waited to get a table for supper at Shakey's, right across from campus, and pieced together the day.

"My dad called, " said senior Joe Lemanski, 24. "It woke me up. He said something was going on."

"I heard at work, " said senior Brian Snyder, 22. "The first report said there was one dead. We couldn't believe it. Then the next report, there were 20."

By the time the full reckoning was complete, it had become the worst mass shooting in American history. You could not imagine it anywhere. But especially not here, among these gorgeous stone buildings, across the flat green lawn of the Drillfield in the middle of campus.

You do notice one thing. No buds on the trees. Spring never got here.

Two died early from the shots fired at Ambler Johnston Hall, a dorm on the south side of campus. Then 31 more two hours later at Norris Hall, a classroom building on the northside.

So many questions and so few answers.

Some news report said the gunman was a nonstudent, possibly with a girlfriend on campus. Police did not name him but said he used his last bullet on himself.

No one released the names of those who died.

The morning was chaos. Cell phones couldn't get through because so many people were trying to call. Police locked down the campus. Students watched from buildings across the way as people inside Norris jumped from second-story windows to escape.

By evening, as the wind blew even harder, the campus felt empty. A few students ventured from their dorms, walking in silence. Up at the War Memorial Chapel, a solitary student waited with a camera until the sun sank to the top edge of Norris Hall. He stood up, took one picture, and left.

We will sit down and have a discussion soon about guns, about campus security, about what happened in those hours between the first group of shots and the second.

Not now.

For now, think about what it's like to be in college, walking the bridge between child and grown-up, wearing old sweatshirts and drinking cheap beer, and dreaming up schemes that would let you always live this way.

Just after the sun set, a student named Shannon Turner set out candles on the lawn next to Henderson Hall.

She picked that spot because that's where people gather on sunny days to walk their dogs and throw Frisbees and work their bare feet into the grass.

She puts the candles in a Mason jar, a jelly jar, a flower vase. Pretty soon, some friends stopped by. She pinched off the blooms from a store-bought bouquet and handed them out.

Somebody asked her what kind of place Blacksburg is.

"It's not the kind of place where something like this can happen, " she said.

But, of course, it did.

And so the kids hugged each other close and lit candles against the bitter wind.

That's the first column. You can find the second one over here at my website.

I still think about those two days a lot.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My NCAA picks, and a few thoughts about brackets

My friend Michael Kruse, a Davidson grad who wrote a great book on the Wildcats' 2008 run to the Final Eight, isn't fond of March Madness brackets. "The thing is the thing. Your brackets are not," he says, meaning we should watch the games and enjoy them for what they are, not for whether some last-second shot means you rise or fall in the office pool.

Michael is almost always right, and he's right about this, too.


I'd just make two small observations:

1) For a lot of people, the brackets are the ONLY reason they watch. The St. Mary's-Purdue game is not naturally gripping to them because sports aren't naturally gripping to them. The brackets give them a reason to care. And maybe, along the way, the grip takes hold.

2) For a lot of other people, the brackets are a way to catch up on a regular season they've missed. I keep up with the major conferences, but don't watch nearly much college hoops as I used to. Is Wichita State really that good? Can Harvard make a run? The brackets start to organize the stories in our heads.

As I've said many times, the first two days of the tournament are my favorite days of the sports year, and maybe 10 percent of that is because of the brackets. I don't know many true fans who care more about their brackets than the games. I'll take a great finish over my pick anytime.

Having said that, I'd be fine with going 63-0.

I think you can find my full bracket under my name over at the Observer's contest, but I'll put the picks here, too. Upsets are marked with an exclamation point.

First round: Kentucky over W. Kentucky, UConn over Iowa State (!), Wichita State over VCU, Indiana over New Mexico State, UNLV over Colorado, Baylor over South Dakota St., Xavier over Notre Dame (!), Duke over Lehigh.

Second round: Kentucky over UConn, Wichita State over Indiana (!), Baylor over UNLV, Duke over Xavier.

Sweet 16: Kentucky over Wichita State, Baylor over Duke (!).

Elite 8: Baylor over Kentucky (!). Kentucky is the big favorite to win the whole thing, but Baylor is just as athletic and a little deeper. Baylor is one of those teams that could, on a given night, either beat an NBA team or lose in the first round. I've got a weak spot for those kinds of teams. Which means my bracket could be blown to bits by the weekend.

First round: Michigan St. over LIU-Brooklyn, St. Louis over Memphis (!), Long Beach State over New Mexico (!), Louisville over Davidson (I thought hard about this one, but couldn't pull the trigger...), Murray St. over Colorado St., Marquette over BYU, Florida over Virginia, Missouri over Norfolk State.

Second round: Michigan St. over St. Louis, Long Beach over Louisville (!), Marquette over Murray St., Missouri over Florida.

Sweet 16: Michigan St. over Long Beach, Missouri over Marquette.

Regional final: Missouri over Michigan St. (!)

First round: Syracuse over UNC-Asheville, Southern Miss over Kansas St. (!), Vandy over Harvard, Montana over Wisconsin (!), Cincinnati over Texas, FSU over St. Bonaventure, West Virginia over Gonzaga (!), Ohio State over Loyola (Md.).

Second round: Syracuse over Southern Miss, Vandy over Montana, FSU over Cincy, Ohio State over West Virginia.

Sweet 16: Vandy over Syracuse (!), Ohio State over FSU.

Regional final: Ohio State over Vandy.

First round: UNC over Lamar/Vermont winner, Alabama over Creighton (!), Cal/South Florida winner (I'm thinking Cal) over Temple (!), Ohio over Michigan (!), San Diego State over NC State, Georgetown over Belmont, Purdue over St. Mary's (!), Kansas over Detroit. Lots of upsets here.

Second round: UNC over Alabama, Ohio over Cal/South Florida winner (!), G'town over San Diego St., Kansas over Purdue. Ohio is my other big sleeper. I just want ONE team named the Bobcats to win a couple of games.

Sweet 16: UNC over Ohio, Kansas over G'town.

Regional final: UNC over Kansas in the Roy Williams Invitational.


Missouri over Baylor
Ohio State over UNC


Missouri 73, Ohio State 62

Let the mocking begin!

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Bookshelf Project: Drew Magary's "The Postmortal"

So I started this Bookshelf Project thing this year to force me to read some of the good books I bought and then set aside over the past year or two. I picked out 25 books, which comes out to a little more than two a month. It's March, and I've finished two and have started a third. So, yeah, I'm already behind. Which I expected.

The first book I've finished is Drew Magary's "The Postmortal" -- which, as you can see above, has a fantastic cover.

The book lives up to it.

If you like sports you've probably seen Magary's stuff over at Deadspin, where he writes (profanely -- you've been warned) about everything from hating LeBron James to the agonies of being a dad to his desire for cheap horrendous beer. HE ALSO LIKES GOING ALL CAPS.

But there's an interesting mind underneath all the poop stories. And in "The Postmortal" his mind goes here: What if you could take a drug that would cure aging? You could live forever -- as long as you didn't get hit by a truck or something -- and your body would always be the age it is right now.

It sounds like paradise. But as "The Postmortal" reveals, it's not. God, no, it's not.

Magary tells the story through the eyes of John Farrell, a New Yorker who gets the cure in 2019 at age 29. He takes his roommate, Katy, to the rogue doctor who gave him the cure. Farrell spots a beautiful blonde he had seen the first time he was there. He leaves Katy at the office to track the mystery woman.

And from that point, on page 43, terrible things start to happen.

As you read you'll start to think about all the terrible things that COULD happen if people could stop aging. Would the population explode? Yep. Would some people refuse the cure because it's not part of the natural order of things? Yep. Would they wreak havoc on the people who DID get the cure? Oh, yeah.

And what about a sweet little baby? Would a doting but insane mother...?

The deeper I got into "The Postmortal," the more of these nightmare scenarios I started thinking of -- and I swear, every time I thought of one, there it'd be in the book 10 pages later.

Farrell ends up becoming an "end specialist" -- someone who euthanizes people who've decided they don't want to live forever after all -- and that brings its own set of problems. There's a lot of violence and anger and heartbreak -- and some humor, although not as much as you might expect from Magary's blogwork.

By the end, Magary drags you toward some hard questions: How will we treat one another when things go really bad? What's worth living for? And if you think of life as a story, what's the point of a story without an ending?

I zipped through this book -- it's a fast read, even at 365 pages -- but I'll be thinking about it a long time. And if the cure ever comes, I hope I'll have the guts to pass.

Next on the list: "Pulphead," by John Jeremiah Sullivan.

(Of course, one reason I'm doing this is to hear about what y'all are reading. So the lines are open in the comment section.)

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

President Obama in Mount Holly (or, The Fainting Economy)

-- The woman had waited for President Obama too long.

The workers invited to see the president here at the Daimler truck plant got herded in early because of security. They’d been standing around a couple of hours. It was warm inside the plant. And so, partway through the president’s speech, she fell out.

“It looks like somebody might have fainted up here,” Obama said, calling for the EMTs. He rescued it with a laugh line: “Folks do this all the time in my meetings.”

The woman was fine. It was just hard to wait so long like that.

Hold that thought.

The president came to Mount Holly to tout clean energy. The Freightliner trucks made at the plant made a nice backdrop, seeing as how some of them are built to burn cleaner and cheaper natural gas.

But this is an election year, so it was also a campaign stop, and Obama had fun with it. He teased the Freightliner employee who introduced him for sounding like a preacher. He joked about his tie having Carolina blue and the Duke shade, too. He said he loves North Carolina: “Even the folks who don’t vote for me, they’re nice to me. They usually wave five fingers.”

He acted loose and confident. With good reason.

Over on the Republican side, primary voters keep trying to run the whole campaign off a cliff like in one of those Indiana Jones chase scenes. Mitt Romney won Super Tuesday, sort of, but he still can’t shed Rick Santorum, who is running one of the finest political campaigns of the 1950s. And Newt Gingrich won Georgia, even though in a general election he couldn’t beat Gen. Sherman.

All those polls you see about Obama being unpopular? They’re true – until you put him next to one of the Republicans. Then he looks like Reagan vs. Mondale.

But there’s a real weak spot – Obama knows it, his opponents know it, and voters know it. It’s the same weak spot you see in the story of this sparkling plant building these massive trucks.

Underneath, the economy is unstable.

One of the reasons Obama came to Mount Holly was so he could mention that the Freightliner plant added more than 1,000 workers last year. Daimler also announced in January that it’s hiring 1,100 people at its plant in Cleveland in Rowan County. That’s all great news.

But back in 2009, the company laid off more than 2,600 workers at those two plants and one in Gastonia. Many of the new hires are workers who got laid off three years ago and are now coming back.

Alan Herrin’s story is a little different. Herrin, who’s 50, was one of the workers who got an invitation to hear Obama speak. He’s been with Freightliner for eight months. He used to work for a company that helped make the doors for Freightliner trucks. What happened to that job?

“Mexico,” he says.

At Freightliner, Herrin inspects trucks as they come down the line to make sure they’re put together correctly. He’s on his feet or under a truck eight hours a day. When I ask him what he uses for a crawler, he smiles and says “these,” pointing to his knees.

But he’s glad to have the job. Freightliner feels like a family to him.

“I hope I’m here ‘til I’m 75,” he says. “But who knows these days?”

Who Knows These Days? could be the theme of this campaign. The unemployment rate is dropping, but millions of people are still without work. The housing market is rebounding a little, but neighborhoods are still dotted with foreclosures.

President Obama can make a case that the economy is growing again after a deep recession. He can also tick off a list of other accomplishments – he saved the car companies, passed a health-care plan, got rid of Osama. But when you’ve been laid off or furloughed or had your pay cut or lost your benefits, none of that other stuff matters so much.

To extend that image from way up at the beginning, people can only wait so long for things to get stable. Then they start dropping out.

It’s March; lots of weird stuff can happen between now and November. (This time four years ago, candidate Obama had just been trounced in Ohio by Hillary Clinton.) But right now, no GOP candidate looks to be much of a match for the president.

Unless the economy dives downward again. There’s no telling what people will do when they start to feel faint.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Two appearances at the library

I've got a couple of events coming up at Charlotte-Mecklenburg libraries, if you're interested:

-- This Saturday (March 10), my pal John Grooms and I are co-hosting a showing of "Page One," a really good documentary about The New York Times and the future of journalism. That's at the Morrison Regional branch starting at 1:30 p.m.

Here's the trailer for "Page One":

-- On April 10, I'll be at the Matthews Branch at 6:30 p.m. to talk about my job as a writer and to pass along some advice about writing as a career. Here's the event listing.

Both events are free and open to the public. And here's the real bonus: You'll get a trip to the library out of it. Come see me.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Monkees and Jimi Hendrix in Charlotte

The death of Monkees singer Davy Jones on Wednesday reminded me again of one of the bizarre and wonderful moments in Charlotte history.

On July 11, 1967, the Monkees played at the Charlotte Coliseum on Independence Boulevard (now Bojangles Coliseum).

The Jimi Hendrix Experience was the opening act.

Forty-five years later this sounds crazy for at least two reasons: one, that Hendrix was opening for the Monkees instead of the other way around, and two, that they ended up on the same bill in the first place.

The first reason wasn't quite as crazy back then. The Monkees were at their popular peak -- "Last Train to Clarksville," "I'm a Believer" and "Pleasant Valley Sunday" were all huge hits by the summer of '67. Hendrix, meanwhile, had scored hits in England but wasn't well-known over here.

The background on how the two acts got together isn't totally clear, but by all accounts everybody got along on stage and backstage. The problem was the crowds. The teenage girls (and some boys) who showed up to scream for the Monkees had no idea what to do with the wild-haired black guy playing the guitar with his teeth. I'm trying to imagine a double bill today that would be that different. Maybe Mastodon opening for Taylor Swift. (Actually, hell, I'd go to that show.)

Charlotte was the third show on the Monkees/Hendrix double bill. Hendrix lasted just four more shows after that. He got tired of the boos and the girls screaming for Davy and Micky. At a show in Forest Hills, N.Y., he flipped off the crowd, and that was that.

Obviously, he ended up doing just fine for himself.

(That's 11 minutes, but it might be your favorite 11 minutes today.)

Over the years I've heard from lots of people about that Charlotte show. I have a feeling it's like that Wilt Chamberlain 100-point game -- the arena held 10,000 but 100,000 people say they were there. I've never seen one shred of memorabilia from the concert -- not a ticket stub or poster or photo or anything. If you're out there, and you've got something -- even just your story -- share it with us.

In the meantime, we played some Hendrix, so it's only fair to play some Monkees. "Clarksville," "I'm a Believer," "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone"... those are some fun songs. Not Jimi, but not bad.

Take us home, Davy.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Bookshelf Project

I bring home books like a cat lady brings home strays. Most, I read. Some, I give up on after a chapter or two. (I used to suffer through books I hated, but the great Nick Hornby wrote an essay convincing me that life's too short to read stuff you don't enjoy).

Then there's the third category -- books I really want to read but haven't gotten around to yet.

So I cleared off one of the shelves in the bookcase in our living room. Then I went around the house collecting the books at the top of my to-read list.

I ended up with 25 on the shelf. That's roughly one every two weeks for the year. I'm already behind -- I have to read a lot for work, I love newspapers and magazines, and there's always some shiny bauble on the Internet. But I'm going to try not to bring home any new books until I get all these read.*

*Yeah, that's not going to happen.

As I finish each one, I'll post a review here. In general, I'll talk a lot more about the books I like than the ones I don't. If you never see a review of one of these, you can assume I put it down quietly and we won't speak of it again.

Here's what landed on the shelf (all links are to Amazon):

"Pulphead," by John Jeremiah Sullivan -- Collection of journalism by a Wilmington writer I just discovered. I have no idea how I missed out on this guy. "Upon This Rock," his piece (included in the book) on a Christian-rock festival for GQ, went in about nine different directions, none of which I expected.

"The Postmortal," by Drew Magary -- You might know Magary as the fearless and pottymouthed (OFTEN IN ALL CAPS) writer for Deadspin. But this novel is something different -- a sci-fi story about what would happen if people discovered a way to stop the aging process. (Never grow older! Sounds great. It's not.)

I just finished this one and I'll have the review up shortly.

"Long, Last, Happy" by Barry Hannah -- I have two huge holes in my swing when it comes to Southern literature. Barry Hannah is one -- I know him as the wild and brilliant Mississippi crazyman who died two years ago, but I've only read dribs and drabs of his stuff. This story collection will help me get caught up.

"Norwood" by Charles Portis -- Here's the other hole -- I've never read anything by Portis, who's most famous for writing "True Grit" (although I've seen both movie versions). "Norwood," Portis' first novel, was a recent gift from a friend. The jacket promises a story involving the second-shortest midget in show business, and a chicken with a college education. I can't wait.

"Rin Tin Tin" by Susan Orlean -- The latest book by one of the starters on my journalistic All-Star team.

"Best American Sports Writing 2011" and "Best American Essays 2011" -- Part of my annual EnvyFest, where I look at all the great journalism of the past year written by someone other than me. (Yeah, probably shouldn't have said that out loud.)

"Out of Orbit" by Chris Jones -- We've become buddies over the last year, so take this plug for what it's worth: Chris' is the current heavyweight champion of the world in magazine writing. (For proof, check out this piece on the Zanesville, Ohio, exotic-animal massacre.) "Out of Orbit" centers on the three astronauts (one Russian, two American) who were stranded at the international space station when the space shuttle Columbia blew up in 2003. This book is about how they got home.

"Lowboy" by John Wray -- I picked this up at an Observer book sale a year or two ago. To be honest, I don't know much about it except that it's supposed to be well-written and disturbing. If you've read it, don't spoil it for me. I'm rolling the dice here.

"The Imperfectionists" by Tom Rachman -- A novel about the tangled private lives of a group of newspaper reporters and editors. In other words, right in my wheelhouse.

"The Unnamed" by Joshua Ferris -- A novel about a man who can't stop walking. Not in my wheelhouse. But I'm intrigued.

"Ten Letters" by Eli Saslow -- This gets the Forehead-Slap Award for the great idea I can't believe no one thought of before now. Saslow looks at letters that ordinary Americans write to the president, then finds the stories behind those letters.

"The Big Short" and "Boomerang" by Michael Lewis -- The guy who wrote "Moneyball" and "The Blind Side" started out in finance. These two books bracket the current financial crisis, first here, then abroad.

"Stiff" by Mary Roach -- Subtitled "The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers." That's all I needed to know.

"The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabel Wilkerson -- One slice of black life in America: an epic telling of the black Southerners who migrated North over the course of decades, looking for better lives.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot -- Another slice of black life in America: A black woman's cells are taken without her knowledge for medical experiments -- and they become some of the most important cells in scientific history.

"Complications" by Atul Gawande -- This Boston doctor is smart and perceptive as a writer exploring medical issues.

"The Ledge" by Jim Davidson and Kevin Vaughan -- Kevin is Buddy #2 on this list. This story about Davidson's ordeal after a cave-in on Mount Rainier gave me chills just reading the dust jacket.

"House of Stone" by Anthony Shadid -- The brilliant Middle East correspondent writes about that region through the lens of his life and his family's history. I got an advance copy, but it's not due out until March 27, so I'll wait until then to write a review.

"South of Broad" by Pat Conroy -- I have a love-hate thing with the Carolinas' most famous writer. Love his nonfiction, love his storytelling... but I've had a hard time getting past his dialog. No one in real life talks the way they do in Pat Conroy novels. But this book has been lying around the house awhile -- my wife read it for her book club -- so I'm going to give him another shot.

"Mountains Beyond Mountains" by Tracy Kidder -- Another starter on the journalistic All-Star team. This book is about Dr. Paul Farmer, who has spent his life trying to cure infectious diseases around the world.

"Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson -- A friend who knows these things says this book has sold more than 2 million copies in hardcover, not counting e-books and Kindle copies and that sort of thing. That's a blockbuster, y'all.

"Hard Work" by Roy Williams with Tim Crothers -- I bought this a couple years ago when I was working on a story about Dean Smith, and wanted to see what Roy wrote about him. What I read was good, so I figured I'd go ahead and finish it off. (If there's a good Coach K book out there, let me know.)

"The Happiness Project" by Gretchen Rubin -- The author spends a year trying out old-fashioned and modern ideas of what makes people happy.

Which is sort of what I'm doing here, trying to read all these books I've been wanting to read.

"Postmortal" review coming soon. Others throughout the year. Keep reading, y'all.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Valentine's line of love

It's 3 p.m. on Valentine's Day. There are 17 of us in line at the flower stand at Third and Tryon. The wind is freezing. But we are men. Romantic men. We are willing to suffer for love.

Yes, women walk by and snicker. Yes, some dude jogs by and yells out: "Waited a little late, didn't you, boys?" We hate that dude. But the hate subsides. Love endures.

Love, and pain.

"It's painful out here," one man says. "But if you come home empty-handed..."

He does not finish the sentence. He does not need to.

The man at the front of the line takes his bouquet and gets into a cab that has been waiting for him. How long did the meter run? How much did the ride cost? These things do not matter on Valentine's Day. The bouquets cost $20. They could cost $200 and we would pay. It is a testament to the fullness of our love.

The men in line do not want to give their names. It is understandable. Love does not boast. It is not proud.

But we are men of all kinds, young and old, in three-piece suits and washed-out jeans, and we will wait here forever for love, except for the two men who leave and decide to come back at 4.

The line is shorter. This is good.

A man gets to the front of the line and orders four bouquets. This is bad.

Love does not boast, it is not proud, but sometimes, at the back of the line, it grumbles. The man smiles. "We'll make a trade," he says. "You deal with my wife and daughters, and I'll deal with yours."

We meditate on this. Then we leave him to his four bouquets.

It takes about half an hour to get to the front of the line. The flowers are beautiful. There are roses, and daisies, and some smaller yellow flowers, and, you know, some lavender things.

The flower sellers have free Life Savers on the table. Other people might point out that the flowers are the real life savers. But they are not men, romantic men, suffering for love.

My bouquet is wrapped, my $20 gladly paid. There are 14 men behind me in line at 3:30 p.m. on Valentine's Day.

The flowers are almost gone.

Tonight, some men will truly suffer.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Whitney, joy, death, and pleasure

New Orleans, 1987. A buddy had lucked into tickets to the Final Four and we spent a long boozy weekend on Bourbon Street. Late one night I went for a walk and came up on a sax player who had drawn a good-sized crowd. He was taking requests. Somebody hollered out, not a song, but a name: Whitney Houston.

The sax man started to play, and we locked arms and swayed, and at 4 in the morning we made the most beautiful alcohol choir, Syracuse basketball fans and Japanese tourists and maybe a hooker or two, singing one of those great pop songs that there's no point in resisting and why would you want to:

But each time I try, I just break down and cry
Cause I'd rather be home feeling blue
So I'm saving all my love for you...

Up until last weekend that was a memory of pleasure. Now I wonder who in that crowd was drunk for the eighth night in a row, who in the crowd had a worried spouse and a crying baby at home, who in the crowd was just starting to feel the addiction lock in like a grappling hook.

Whitney might be the last singer we could all agree on. When her first record came out in 1985, I was mostly listening to rap and indie rock -- I remember a summer of Run-D.M.C. and the Smithereens -- but I had the Whitney cassette, too, because no amount of street cred could deny that voice. It melted you.

For the next few years you could count on a good-to-great Whitney single every few months, "How Will I Know" to "So Emotional" to "All the Man That I Need." (Really, check out that last clip. It's from a concert she did in 1991 for troops coming home from the Gulf War. My favorite shot is at 3:23, where a group of guys in the front row stare up at her in unvarnished awe. As in, yeah, THIS is what we were fighting for.)

"I Will Always Love You" was the biggest hit of all, part of the "Bodyguard" movie with Kevin Costner, and right around here was where I jumped off the bandwagon. Part of it was that the song was everywhere, and even the best ice cream starts to lose something after 27 helpings. But also the song felt like a technical exercise, more a gymnastics routine set to soul than soul itself. It spent 14 weeks at Number One.

She had more hits after that, made a couple of movies, made a ton of money... but by my account we got eight years of great music from Whitney. That's a lot more than most singers give us. But that voice was built for more. That voice was made for comeback hits and sold-out tours and a jazz record in her 60s.

That voice made a hit record out of the national anthem. Twice. Look at her as she belts that last verse -- that power, that control, that confidence. She raises her arms at the end. Champion of the world.

Drugs suck. They suck for every too-young addict who ends up in the obits, everyone shivering in rehab or sitting on another folding chair in another meeting, fingernails dug in, trying to hold on. But imagine having more money than you could ever spend and unlimited free time. It's a junkie's dream.

We don't know yet, of course, if drugs killed Whitney Houston. But there's no doubt that drugs ruined her. The last 15 years added up to ashes: canceled concerts, odd interviews, disheveled tabloid photos, and that heartbreaking show with Bobby Brown where, apparently, they sat around and talked about poop. That's what I heard, anyway. I could never bring myself to watch it.

She fell so far that it soured me on the music. It was hard to listen to the songs I loved; all I could see was her coming out of some club dead-eyed and cackling. But now her death has cleansed her life, and you can choose to remember the parts you want to remember. She can't ruin herself any more.

It's a comforting thought, for about two seconds, until you remember that she died at 48.

You can reduce everything we do as human beings into two or three deep desires -- the need to chase pleasure, the longing to create, the search for something bigger than ourselves. Not many people in this world provided more pleasure than Whitney Houston. She built towers with her voice. That voice, in a lot of ways, was bigger than she was. Now I wonder if that was too hard for her to take.

It's cruel, isn't it, how so many things bring us joy right up to the point where they start killing us.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Teaching a workshop at Queens, jabbering about politics at Wingate

A couple of things I'm doing over the next few weeks:

-- I'm teaching my "Writing In 3-D" workshop at Queens University on Feb. 18 and 25. More information and details about signing up are here on Queens' site. This is a good introduction to writing for people just starting out, but it also has some advanced tips for writers looking to get better.

-- On Feb. 9, I'll be part of an election roundtable at Wingate University -- it's free, and it starts at 6:30 p.m. at the McGee Theatre in the Batte Center. I'll be there along with Tony Nownes, a political-science professor at the University of Tennessee, and Scott Huffmon, a poli-sci professor at Winthrop University and director of the Winthrop Poll. So at least two of the people on stage will know what they're talking about.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Newt, Reagan and a Clemson joke: Notes from the campaign trail

I'm down in South Carolina this week, talking to voters and following candidates as we head for the Republican primary on Saturday. Some odds and ends from the road:

-- Candidates generally don't announce their vice-presidential picks this early, but Newt Gingrich has already made his selection: Ronald Reagan. With the former president being deceased and all, I'm not sure what federal laws might apply here, but I'm pretty sure Gingrich wants the Gipper on the ticket.

In his commercials you see him sitting next to Reagan, deep in conversation. In his speeches this week he's referred time and again to "the Reagan-Gingrich textbook" for turning around the country. He shared a Reagan bit on Jimmy Carter: If your brother-in-law is unemployed, it's a recession. If you're unemployed, it's a depression. If Jimmy Carter is unemployed, that's a recovery.

When the laughter died down, Gingrich said: "I may change the name but keep the story."

It can't hurt a Republican to align himself with the most popular Republican of our lifetimes. Of course, Reagan also (for Republicans, at least) projected warmth. Gingrich is still working on that warmth part.

-- It's hard to talk about how candidate spouses look and dress without sounding weird. So let me be delicate here. In person, Callista Gingrich doesn't look as... lacquered... as she does on TV. She sounded interested and engaged talking to voters one-on-one. Maybe she should spend a little time at the microphone.

-- It's early, but today is already showing how absurd the primary process is -- and how fast things can change. Mitt Romney became the prohibitive front-runner based on wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. Except it turns out Romney didn't really win Iowa -- Rick Santorum did. And it also turns out that Rick Perry is dropping out of the race and throwing in with Gingrich. Perry didn't have a lot of support in South Carolina, but Gingrich doesn't need all that much to push out in front.

So basically, a few dozen votes in Iowa swung the race in one direction, and a couple thousand in South Carolina could swing it the opposite way.

Good thing that we don't have an ex-wife scandal to throw the whole race into a blender. Wait, what?

-- And in case you've missed it: Stephen Colbert wants to run in South Carolina but it's too late to get on the ballot. Herman Cain dropped out but it's too late to get his name OFF the ballot. So Colbert wants people to vote for Cain as a way to vote for Colbert. And to drive all this home, they're doing a rally together in Charleston on Friday.

Which is a long way of saying, I know where I'm going to be on Friday.

-- As important as this primary is, folks in South Carolina are still talking college football -- especially West Virginia's 70-33 beatdown of Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

Up in Pickens County, where Clemson is located, county GOP chairman Phillip Bowers is a Clemson grad. We were talking at Yank's Place in Liberty when his buddy Dan Crosby came over to chat. Crosby mentioned hearing that a friend was in Columbia the other day and remarked on how nice the weather was. "It's 70 here," Crosby said his friend told him. "But I hear it's 33 in Clemson."

Yeah, that bruise is gonna linger a while.