A good old car

My goal was to drive to the moon. Sometime in the last year or two, as our 1999 Camry crossed 200,000 miles, I looked up how far it was. The distance varies from day to day, but the average is about 239,000 miles. That was the target. I thought we’d make it easily, until a couple months ago.

Then we drove to Atlanta for a weekend. Right as we got into heavy city traffic, at Friday rush hour, the CHECK ENGINE light started flashing. I didn’t even know it could flash. The engine started revving and ebbing on its own. We got lucky — there was a service station right at the bottom of the next exit. They fixed a cracked hose, changed out the spark plugs and wires. It ran like a dream all the way to our hotel.

The next day, the CHECK ENGINE light started flashing again. We limped into a Firestone place. They put in new fuel injectors. The car drove fine back to Charlotte, but by this time we were worried the whole way.

A few days later — yeah, the light came on again. But it didn’t flash, which by that point seemed like a blessing. Our local mechanic found another cracked hose.

A few nights after that, I went out to the car to pick up Alix from work. I reached down to open the door. The handle snapped off in my hand.

We started researching cars.

We bought the Camry 15 years ago. It was the first new car I’d ever owned. It was bottle green, which was the in color at the time and stopped being the in color about two weeks later. Before that I had a red Chrysler LeBaron convertible, which was like a crazy girlfriend: smoking hot and way too much trouble. Thieves cut the top open and stole my stereo. The seat back broke and I had to prop it up with a milk crate. On the day I planned to take Alix to Georgia for a surprise weekend together, the car misfired all the way to her house. Her car is a stick shift, and I haven’t driven a stick in 30 years, so she had to drive her car four hours in the rain to a bed and breakfast neither of us had ever seen. If it hadn’t turned out nice, I might still be a bachelor.

At the end, the convertible quit running every two weeks or so. So we went looking for something solid and reliable and trustworthy, and the Camry checked all those boxes. We bought it four months after we got married. It was a First Corinthians car: When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

It had a nice stereo with a CD player, which had just become standard. The cup holders were in a good spot. The trunk had plenty of room for long trips. We drove it down to Georgia and over to Tennessee to see family. We drove it to Boston and back when we lived there for a year. We spilled drinks on the console and propped our feet on the dash and filled the glove compartment with random fast-food napkins. Fred, our yellow Lab, rode in the back for thousands and thousands of miles, most of the time asleep with his head on the armrest. One time, coming back from the vet, he pooped on the back seat. BAD DOG.

Our car, like most cars, stacked up the miles on routine trips. Six miles to and from work. Thirteen to and from the movie theater. Eighteen to and from church on Sunday. Nineteen to and from the farmers’ market. The Camry took us to see friends get married and to bury loved ones. We argued in it and made up in it. Sometimes I sat in the driveway at night and cried at a song on the radio. Sometimes we got tickled at a dumb joke and laughed until we couldn’t breathe. Sometimes we just held hands as the miles ran underneath.

We always thought we’d have long conversations on our road trips, and sometimes we do, but a lot of times whichever one of us isn’t driving just falls asleep. I’ve driven many a mile with Alix dozing next to me and Fred curled up in the back. Those are some of the most peaceful and beautiful moments of my life.

My first car, a 1971 Buick LeSabre, could fit 11 people, as we found out one night on the way to a “Rocky Horror” midnight show in college. My Mercury Monarch took me and some friends to a 3 a.m. stoplight in Atlanta when we looked to the right and saw a tank in the street. (They were filming a Chuck Norris movie.) I’ve never loved a car. But I’ve loved the moments the cars have created. A good car gets you out in the world and moving around. That’s where life is.

The good thing about holding onto a car 15 years is, every new car feels like the Starship Enterprise. We traded in the Camry last week and got a black Honda Accord with cameras and Bluetooth and who knows what all. The owner’s manual is 500-some pages. The car is sharp and stylish and smells fantastic. But that’s not the point of a car. The point of a car is where it takes you.

When I handed over the keys to the Camry, it had 222,014 miles. I went back and checked the NASA figures. The average distance from Earth to the moon is 239,000 miles. But at the closest part of the orbit, it’s just over 225,000. I’m going to round up and say we made it. It was an amazing trip.

New in the bookstack, 3/18


The stack of great-looking new books is getting out of control. Here are three of the latest to come in the mail:

“Vice Versa” by Allen Cowan is about a Southern private eye who’s after a bad guy trying to blackmail a TV preacher … but it’s also funny and dark and (as you can tell from the cover) sexy. Cowan is a private eye himself, so he knows the game, and he’s a former reporter for the Charlotte Observer, so he knows how to write.

“A Man Called Destruction” by Holly George-Warren is the first major bio of Alex Chilton, who hit it big as the singer for the Box Tops, influenced a million bands as the leader of Big Star, and then carved out a space as the shambling god of indie rock. Plus he did my favorite Christmas song. So, yeah, I can’t wait to read this.

My buddy Inman Majors also sent along his 2009 novel “The Millionaires,” which traces the lives of two rich and powerful Tennessee brothers going hard in the fast lane, about to lose it in the turn. Inman’s novel “Love’s Winning Plays” is one of the best and funniest books about college football I’ve ever read. More Inman in my life is a wonderful thing.

Which of these sound good to you? And what are y’all reading?

The Dean Smith story

At this point I’ll never catch up with all the people who have said nice things in one place or another about my Dean Smith story. It’s a great problem to have. As a writer, the one thing you want more than anything is for people to read your work and respond to it. So to anyone I’ve missed, or I might miss as I try to get back to people: Thanks. Your thoughts mean the world to me.

It takes a village to do a story like this — design, layout, photos, video, editing and copyediting and factchecking. I was in the hands of some incredible people at ESPN — especially my longtime friend Jena Janovy, who pulled all this together, and my new friend Jay Lovinger, who pointed the story in the right direction. Thanks to everyone up in Bristol.

This next part is more for my personal archives than anything else, but if you’re interested, here are a few interviews I’ve done since the story came out:

Only a Game from NPR

The Paul Finebaum Show from ESPN Radio (I’m in hour 2 on March 6)

The David Glenn Show (I’m at the top of Hour 2)

Carolina Connection from the UNC J-school

The Mac Attack on WFNZ in Charlotte

Adam and Joe on 99.9 FM in Raleigh

Also: Thanks to Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated and the folks with The Atlantic for putting the story among their favorites of the week. And a special thanks to Mark Johnson, the brilliant journalist with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for highlighting the story on his blog.

There are so many great Dean stories that didn’t make the cut for this piece. While you’re here, let me share a couple.

Roy Williams told me this one: When Eddie Fogler, Dean’s longtime assistant, got his first head coaching job at Wichita State, Dean called a tailor in Wichita. (Yes, Dean somehow knew a tailor in Wichita.) Dean told the tailor to cut four or five new suits for Fogler so he’d look good on the sideline. But don’t tell him I’m paying for it, Dean said. Tell him you’re doing it as a welcome to Wichita. “I just happened to be in the room when he made the call,” Williams said. “Nobody would’ve ever known about it otherwise.”

One more quick one, from Barb Fordham, the widow of Dean’s close friend Chris Fordham: The Fordhams would sometimes drive Dean to games if they were close by. (He let the players be by themselves on the team bus.) One night they went to Raleigh to play N.C. State. The Wolfpack won. After the game, Dean got in the car, shrugged and said: “Well, at least we made some people happy tonight.”

The book stack, February 2014

ImageI haven’t read much so far this year except for work. I’ve been hip-deep in a project that (knocks knuckles on head) you’ll be seeing in the next week or so. When that’s done, this glorious stack of books awaits. Several were Christmas and birthday gifts (thanks, everyone) and a few I just picked up over the past couple of months. Reminds me of pancakes. Mmmmm, literary pancakes.

I’m especially looking forward to two written by friends of mine: “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk” by Ben Montgomery, and “Trapped Under the Sea” by Neil Swidey. They’re tops on the list. Although I admit, I’ve already dipped into “Show Your Work!” by the great Austin Kleon — it’s a worthy follow-up to his first book, “Steal Like an Artist,” which is one of my favorites of the last two or three years.

Anything here look really good to you? And what are y’all reading these days?

Marcus Smart, Michael Sam, The Boss

Late Sunday night, I wrote a piece for Forbes about Marcus Smart, the Oklahoma State basketball player who shoved a fan in the stands. Just as I filed that piece, the news broke that Missouri defensive lineman (and NFL prospect) Michael Sam had announced that he’s gay. So I decided to write a little something about why that matters.

It’s funny — I thought the Michael Sam story would knock the Marcus Smart story to the back of the line, and it has, based on the little bit of ESPN I’ve watched today. But for me, the Marcus Smart piece has about four times as many views as the Michael Sam piece. Not sure if that has something to do with the work, or the timing, or what. It’s just interesting.

More important, if you happen to live in the Charlotte area … Bruce Springsteen is coming! Just last night, I saw a YouTube of a cover song he played in Australia. I’m petitioning for him to play this in Charlotte, and at every show from here on out, really.



The Truth of Time


Last weekend I spoke at an event called Dazzle Gradually, sponsored by the very cool people with the Friday Arts Project in Rock Hill. There were poets, musicians, visual artists, and the world’s greatest novelist/peach farmer, Dori Sanders.

Here’s the text of my talk — as always, I changed it around a little in the telling. The Friday Arts Project folks recorded the talk, and if they ever put it online, I’ll share it. The poem at the end is published with permission of the great David Tucker.


I want to tell you a story.

Several years ago I spent a few months working on a piece for the Charlotte Observer about an old photograph. It was a picture of a young girl, wearing a dress her grandmother made for her, walking up to her new school on the first day of class. There’s a crowd around her. They are screaming at her and throwing things and somebody has spit on that dress her grandmother made. The girl’s name is Dorothy Counts, and on that day in 1957, she helped integrate the Charlotte schools. A great photographer named Don Sturkey took that photo of Dorothy, surrounded by those angry white kids, and the photo ran all over the world.

In the piece I was writing, I set out to tell Dorothy’s story, but also the stories of some of the white kids in that photo. I wanted to know how they felt 50 years later about what they had done. It took a long time to get some of them to talk to me. It took longer still to get a couple of them to meet with Dorothy and talk about how they felt about how they’d treated her. And then after that it took even more time to write the story and try to draw out what it meant. I looked at that photo a thousand times if I looked at it once. And then one day I looked at it and saw something new. Years after I first saw the photo, and months after I started writing about it, I finally saw something that felt like the truth. This is what I wrote at the end of the story.

But surely Dot, and all those others, opened the eyes of white people, too — the ones who saw the pictures, and read the stories, and maybe, over time, were able to see a different image of the world around them.

One last thing about pictures. You know how, when you take a picture of a group of people, somebody’s always got their eyes closed?

Go back to the picture one more time. See if you don’t find every pair of eyes open. And nearly all of them locked in on Dorothy Counts.

This was the gift she gave to the world, and especially to the kids in the picture, the kids at Harding High on the first day of school 50 years ago.

She made them look.

That little bit of insight came to me only after looking at that photo, and thinking about it, for a very long time. That’s what I want to talk about today: the truth of time.

The title of this weekend is Dazzle Gradually – thank you for that, Emily Dickinson. I think everybody in our culture these days is fine with the Dazzle part. It’s the Gradually that gets people all twitchy. Doing anything gradually cuts against every impulse of the way we live now. We can write a tweet in 10 seconds and broadcast it to the globe instantaneously. I’m gonna confess right here this afternoon to being a serial tweeter. I looked it up the other day and I’ve sent somewhere in the neighborhood of 16,000 tweets. That’s a couple hundred thousand words – the length of a very long, and very weird, book.

And I’m in the slow lane. I hear complaints all the time that young people don’t write anymore. Actually, they write more than any young people have ever written – it’s just in the form of tweets and texts and Instagram captions. As a writer, this is all to the good. I’m in favor of writing, no matter the form. I love the fast-twitch muscles of the Internet. It’s like shooting an endless series of flares into the night sky.

But at some point you might want to take all that light and focus it. You might want to shine it on something in particular. You might want to angle it a certain way. You might want to be able to see something clearly. The great novelist E.L. Doctorow said that writing a novel is like driving a car at night – you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

What he didn’t add was, that trip takes time.

For most of my working life I’ve been a columnist — what I heard someone refer to one time as a deadline poet. My job, many times, has been to plunge into a news story, talk to people, observe as much as I could, soak all that up, and make meaning of it – preferably by 5:30 or so. I did that for an execution in Raleigh and the shootings at Virginia Tech. I did that when the Panthers went to the Super Bowl and when Billy Graham made his last big speech. I did it for years and years, and the more I did it, the smaller my stories got – not in length, but in focus. Because I came to understand that a tiny bit of truth is all you can get in that short of time, and that even a tiny bit of truth is precious.

There’s an instinctive truth you can find when you parachute into a situation, same as how you can often size up a person by being around them 10 minutes. Through luck and experience, I’ve gotten to be pretty good at reading a room. But even as I grasped the surface truth, I often missed what was deeper. On those days, I always wished for the same thing: more time.

And the longer I thought about that, the more I realized I craved two types of time.

One is active time – the time you use to do things. In my line of work that’s doing a little more research, interviewing a few more people, following up on a few more leads. There’s a great journalist named Jon Franklin who says, “Meaning comes from reporting. The answer to every existential question in journalism is the same: Pick up the damn phone.”

But the other type of time is more important. That’s subconscious time. That’s the time when you might not be thinking directly about your art, but the back of your mind is working on it in the ways the front of your mind never could.

I think of my job as craft that can approach art on a good day. But whether you call it an art or a craft or whatever, I’ve come to realize that the creative life requires a two-way journey – from the conscious mind to the subconscious and back again. One of the best writing tips I got early in my career was this: If you’re struggling with a piece you’re writing, put it down for a minute. If you’re on a tight deadline, just walk away and go get a Coke or something. If you have more time, maybe set it aside for the night and go do something else. Make yourself not think about the work. When you do that, the work shifts to the subconscious. The back of your mind is like this amazing crock pot. You leave stuff back there long enough and it turns into something wonderful.

The problem is reconciling that crock-pot mind with a microwave world. For me, as a writer, I’ve decided it helps me to have two tracks going at once. One is the quick stuff, the tweetable stuff, that puts me in the regular flow and lets me play in the fast-twitch world I enjoy. But I also need to have a couple things simmering in crock pots, things with a faraway deadline or maybe no deadline at all, things that are ready when they’re ready.

I’ve come to think of it like looking out the side of the car while it’s moving. If you look straight down at the road, it feels like you’re going incredibly fast. But if you look way out at the horizon, the trees seem like they’re barely moving. You’re going the same speed either way. But your world moves faster or slower depending on where you’re looking. I think the creative mind works the same way, too. It needs the slow lane as much as the fast one.

Slowing down is hard. In this culture, it’s harder and harder to pick up your head and stare at the horizon. It’s hard to go the other way from where everybody else is going. It’s hard to do something different from what everybody else wants you to do. It’s hard to spend weeks and months on something that — let’s be honest — nobody might care about but you. But doing that seems to be the best way to make something that lasts. It seems like the best way to get at the truth. And the truth is what we’re here for. Truth is the long game.

So let’s be the ones to slow down. Let’s be the ones using the crock pots. Let’s be the ones to dazzle gradually.

I’d like to close with a poem. There’s a guy with the Newark Star-Ledger in New Jersey, David Tucker, who also writes poems about newsrooms — you talk about a niche. One of my favorite poems of his gets at the idea of seeing some of these slow things in a fast world. It’s called “And This Just In.”


By David Tucker

Those footfalls on the stairs when the night shift went home,
the sunlight fanning through the dinosaur’s rib cage,
the janitor’s sneeze – we’re asking questions,
we’d like to know more.

The moth in the clock tower at city hall,
the 200th generation to sleep there – we may banner the story
across page one. And in Metro we’re leading
with the yawn that traveled city council chambers
this morning, then slipped into the streets
and wound through the city. The editorial page
will decry the unaccountable boredom
that overtook everyone around three in the afternoon.
Features praises the slowness of moonlight
making its way around the house, staying
an hour in each chair, the inertia
of calendars not turned since winter.

A watchman humming in the parking lot
at Broad and Market – we have that –
with a sidebar on the bronze glass
of a whiskey bottle cracking into cheap jewels
under his boots. A boy walking across the ball field
an hour after the game – we’re covering that silence.
We have reporters working hard, we’re getting
to the bottom of all of it.

I hope all of you, no matter what you do, try your best to get to the bottom of all of it. Thanks for listening today.