Monthly Archives: August 2010

Tough Times at the Hill


Now Playing: Willin’ by Little Feat. “I’ve been kicked by the wind, robbed by the sleet, Had my head stoved in, but I’m still on my feet, And I’m still… willin.'”

I love football. It might be my favorite sport these days. I haven’t missed more than a handful of Panthers games either in person (I covered the team for its first two seasons) or on television. And I’m the kind of fan who is always wildly optimistic about his team’s chances. Even this year, I think the Panthers could surprise and make the playoffs, despite all the veterans they’ve jettisoned (frankly, I agreed with all the moves except cutting Damione Lewis and trading Chris Harris).

But I’m not feeling so good about my beloved Tar Heels right now.

It didn’t start out that way. With all the talent we had coming back, particularly on defense, I thought this would be a watershed season – particularly if we had some luck with injuries and got a break or two along the way.

But now it looks like a watershed season for a different reason. My university’s reputation is on the line.

First off, I strongly believe in innocent until proven guilty. And no one apparently has been proven guilty yet. But there are allegations of academic fraud, apparently involving a tutor who worked for coach Butch Davis.

I’ll be honest. I haven’t been bothered too much by the initial investigation of the Carolina program. Worried about losing players, certainly. But not angered or saddened. The initial NCAA investigation apparently – if the leaks and rumors are to be believed – around plane trips taken by a couple of players that were paid for by former players who now play professionally. If that’s a violation, it’s a pretty lame one. The guys who got the tickets turned down millions to return to school this year. For that, they’ve been the subject of seemingly never-ending speculation by the NCAA and its goons. (This is the same NCAA that licenses images of players to video-game makers and makes a ton of money off of it, with not a cent of it going back to the athletes.) At worst, it’s a technical violation of a stupid rule, especially when you consider that a Nebraska player who just turned pro bought iPads for every member of the team this year. And to great praise. Kinda hard to see the difference, frankly.

I’m much more upset about the potential academic fraud. Any player who participated should be punished. Any coaches that knew about it should be fired.

I’d rather lose every game with legit students than go 12-0 with a buncha cheaters. Actually, I’d rather go 2-10 (kinda like to beat the dookies and the Wolpfack (this misspelling is on purpose and if you’re a true fan, you’ll know why). But you get the picture.

Nobody’s guilty yet, of course, on either part of the investigation. And if just a handful of players are involved, we can still have a good season. I think we’ve got pretty good backups at every position.

*****

Normally, basketball provides a refuge for any concerns about UNC sports. We had a subpar year last year, compounded by the dookies winning it all with the easiest path to the championship ever. But we’ve got some reinforcements coming in this year, and I think we’ll be very good.

But there’s a shadow over UNC hoops, too. That shadow is the declining health of Dean Smith, one of my personal heroes. I’ve talked before about my admiration for him as a coach and a man.

And it has really hurt this year as reports of his diminished mental capacity have leaked out. I think we all knew Dean was declining. He has been silent on so many occasions that it didn’t seem right. It wasn’t.

And it hurts.

But I’ll always remember Dean and how he did the right thing. And never got too down because of a loss. Or too high because of a win. And had his own personal flaws (smoking). He’ll always be one of my heroes, and he’s the base of what I think UNC sports should be. And once was. And hopefully will be again.

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Odds and Ends


Now Playing: This is Us, by Mark Knopfler and EmmyLou Harris. Seems appropriate given today’s blog subject material: “This is us down at the Mardi Gras, This is us In your Daddy’s Car, You and the missing link, Yeah, I’d had a little too much to drink,now, Too long in the sun, Having too much fun, You and me and our memories, This is us.”

I’m doing something odd for me this weekend. I’m going to the reunion of the Halifax County High School Class of 1975, my graduating class.

Doesn’t seem so odd, you say? Well, it is for me.

I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen anyone who’ll be there since 1977, which was the last summer I spent in South Boston, Va. The next year I stayed in Chapel Hill for the summer. After I graduated from the University of the People in 1979, I spent about a month in SoBo while I found a job. Since then, I’ve spent the occasional long weekend, sometimes maybe a day or two longer there. Those short trips were devoted to family – I never saw any of the old gang during them and rarely left the house.

Late last year, I got on Facebook, and I started reconnecting with some of my high school friends. It was really good to hear from them, look at where they’d been and what they were doing and how they’d changed.

So when the invite came for the reunion, I talked about it with Karen and we decided to take the plunge.

It’s Saturday night. I can’t truthfully say I recognize every name on the list of people who are coming. But then if you knew me in high school, you wouldn’t be too surprised at that. I remember none of my senior prom, for example (which might be for the best). Too drunk to even get photos taken, though I somehow escaped the attention of teachers who busted a bunch of my friends there. (Or maybe not. At least two teachers teased me later about it – so they knew but let me slide. That wasn’t unusual, either.)

But there are a lot of folks I’m really excited about seeing. And I’m excited about something else.

You know I love my wife, Karen. She’s a lot of things I’m not – charming, outgoing, at ease with people. She never met a stranger. Well, she’ll meet a bunch of ’em Saturday night. And she’s a little nervous. (The more normal course for us is to go somewhere where she knows people and I don’t.) So it’ll be interesting to see how she adapts. She needn’t worry. She’ll know ’em all in no time, probably better than I do.

Sadly, there are a lot of folks I’d love to see who won’t be there. I heard that one friend since elementary school had died, I’m sure there have been others. Neither of my two best friends from high school, Tommy and Howard, are coming. I think Tommy moved back to SoBo recently. I may try to look him up if I have a spare minute. My best friend growing up, Mike, also won’t be there. I think he lives in Norfolk now, but we’d drifted apart some even in high school.

How will it go? I don’t know. I’m even getting a little nervous as the day draws near. Will anybody remember me? Or care that I’m there?

So the fact that I’m going is the Odd. Next week I’ll tell you how it Ends.

“Maybe one day I can have a reunion with myself.” _ Sebastian Bach

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Justice … and Justice Lost


Now Playing: Lucinda Williams’ version of the great Bob Dylan song Positively 4th Street: “You see me on the street, You always act surprised, You say, ‘How are you?’ ‘Good luck,’ But you don’t mean it.”

The papers today are full with the results of a review of the State Bureau of Investigation crime lab in North Carolina. The articles are distressing, backing up a recent series in the Raleigh News & Observer on the lab’s failings.

The review was conducted by two former FBI officials. It’s important to realize that these are not liberal, criminal-loving analysts. These are FBI agents. FBI.

They found 230 cases during 16 years in which the SBI lab either manipulated evidence to bolster prosecution cases or hid their findings so that the defense couldn’t benefit. This is an outrage.

Some of friends on Facebook have defended N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper and lauded him for calling for the probe by the FBI agents.

Meh. To me, it seems like Cooper was “shocked, shocked to find gambling” at Rick’s. He’s been AG since 2000. He wants to be governor. He needs the support of the state’s sheriffs to make it. And sheriffs like to see the people they catch get convicted.

We all want to see real criminals convicted. But we should also want to see justice. And that can mean letting a few guilty people go so we don’t convict innocent ones. Like Greg Taylor, imprisoned for 17 years for a murder he didn’t commit. The SBI crime lab knew that a stain on his SUV wasn’t blood. Not the victim’s. Not anybody’s. But they never told. Jurors said the blood was the main reason they convicted Taylor.

He got Justice Delayed earlier this year when he was ordered freed by the state Supreme Court, then pardoned by Gov. Beverly Perdue.

My friends point out that Taylor’s case occurred while Mike Easley was AG. You remember Easley, who did parlay the job into the governorship and is now under investigation by a federal grand jury. I guess he hopes the SBI crime lab isn’t handling the evidence.

But the policies that tainted 230 cases remained in effect during at least portions of Cooper’s tenure. It’s hard to see him as anything but a recent convert to the cause of Justice. I’m not so willing to give him a pass (while acknowledging that he apparently gave the FBI guys complete access to the SBI lab records).

If there’s a real hero in this mess, it’s the lead investigator in the review, Chris Swecker. I’ve long been a fan, he’s a straight-talking former assistant FBI director who was pretty high profile in his time in Charlotte as special agent for North Carolina. He later took a job heading up corporate security at Bank of America before starting his own security company. He’s always been one to listen to when he talked. He recommends further review of the 230 tainted cases by the SBI and prosecutors.

No doubt defense attorneys will egg that recommendation on.

So there is hope for justice in the cases. And concern that some guilty people may be freed. That’s the price of true Justice.

But for some of the defendants, there won’t be justice.

Three have been executed, at least in part on cooked evidence.

I’m not a Pollyanna, I know there’s a pretty high chance that those folks were guilty.

But doesn’t it make you wonder. And cringe. That there’s a small chance that they weren’t guilty.

I’ve always opposed the death penalty. Now I oppose it even more.

“Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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A Dose of Humility


Now Playing: White Stripes’ outstanding version of Dolly Parton’s Jolene. It’ll raise the hairs on your arm. Followed up by Johnny Cash singing Heart of Gold. If I played the lottery, I’d go buy a ticket. But I don’t. And won’t.

Those of you readers who know me personally are well aware that I don’t lack for self confidence. Karen calls it arrogance.

Suffice to say, I nearly always consider myself the smartest person in the room, as I’ve written about previously.

Tuesday, not so much.

I was at a meeting with the deans of nuclear engineering (or the equivalent) at UNC Charlotte, N.C. State, Clemson, the U of South Carolina — and I got to say, I bristled every time they called it Carolina — and S.C. State, along with management of a couple of utilities in South Carolina. It was part of a project I’m part of.

Anyway, after about 30 seconds it was obvious. I wasn’t the smartest person in the room. In fact, I was the dumbest. By a fairly large margin.

Still, it was an interesting discussion. I pretty much only listened as they described what they do and how they keep students and what their students need to be successful. The thing is, most of them were really interesting folks as well, particularly the guy from N.C. State, whom I sat with at lunch.

After lunch, I thought I’d get a break. Lonnie Carter, CEO of Santee Cooper, the host utility for the round table, showed up to talk with us. No, I didn’t think I was smarter than he is (he’s a pretty smart guy who is president of the national industry group this year). But he’d brought his teen daughter with him. Turns out she was going to college the next day. So, I thought, she’s just a kid. I’m not feeling so low here.

Turns out she was No. 1 in her high school class (I wasn’t). And she was going to Wofford on a full scholarship.

Crap.

Someone pass me the dunce cap.

“I wanna see what’s never been seen, I wanna live that age old dream. Come on, lads, we can go together. Let’s take the best right now, Take the best right now.” _ Neil Young, Love is a Rose. (Which I can’t help but singing, “Love is a nose, but you better not pick it …)

“Humility is like underwear, essential, but indecent if it shows.” _ Helen Nielsen (she’s a mystery writer)

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Adventures in Bad Parenting


Now Playing: Keep On Smilin’, by Wet Willie. “Keep on smilin’ through the rain, laughin’ at the pain, Just flowin’ with the changes, till the sun comes out again.”

I’ve blogged before about my life being a song. I met a real-life Beauty School Dropout. I’ve lived a song from West Side Story. And one by Skynyrd. (More about West Side Story another time. Not sure I’ll ever tell the Skynyrd one, though. Maybe in the memoirs.) And one from Led Zeppelin.

That one would be Dancing Days, from Houses of the Holy, a really underrated album (and that’s how I bought it back in the day, on vinyl). Here’s the key verse: “I told your mamma I’d get you home, but I didn’t tell her I had no car. I saw a lion he was standing alone with a tadpole in a jar.”

Nope. Never saw a lion with a jarred tadpole. But back in the day at the University of the People (I think this was over Labor Day in 1976, but the old memory isn’t too clear on the details of all this, which might be for the best), I did tell a gullible mom (whom I’d met all of about 30 minutes earlier) that I’d get her daughter home to Rocky Mount if she’d let her stay with her friend in my dorm. I didn’t have a car. But her friend and I did manage to get her home Monday night, thanks to another mutual friend – who wasn’t crazy about making the trip but did it anyway.

At any rate, it was perhaps the worst example of Bad Parenting I’d ever seen – until I became a parent. Disclaimer: Nothing that follows should be considered disparaging to the parenting abilities of my wonderful and supportive wife, who is a tremendous mom. The incidents were without question my responsibility.

One instance of my Bad Parenting came last week, when I allowed the kids, and myself, and Karen, to get so sunburned at the beach. It wasn’t that we didn’t use sunscreen. We used the spray kind and got all blotchy. Then we kinda had to even it all out (I know it was stupid, especially for someone who has been cut more than a dozen times for skin cancer – all the most benign kind.)

But I can top that with two incidents that also occurred at the beach. A few days ago, I talked about our trip to Rehobeth Beach, Delaware, 11 years ago. But I didn’t talk about the incidents that landed me in the Bad Parenting Hall of Fame (which I’ve got to believe would have a broader base of fans than the NASCAR Hall languishing these days in Charlotte. Maybe it needs some more members of the France family in it to draw those fans).

Incident No. 1 happened within the first five minutes of our arrival. There was me, Karen, the boys and Lauren and Nicki. Austin was 4, Garrett was 1, Lauren was 11 and Nicki was 8. So you can see – I hope – that I might have gotten a tad distracted. Distracted enough to close the automatically locking door behind me after taking the first suitcase in. With the keys on the kitchen cabinet. And Garrett in his infant seat on the kitchen floor.

Yikes. Now I’m a pretty fair lock picker and door opener. But I couldn’t budge this one. We got lucky though. Karen went to the realtor’s office. No one was there but they’d left a number, and they had a spare. So we got in with little damage – except to my nerves and ears.

So you’d think I’d be extra alert from then on. Really careful. Leaving nothing to chance. But you’d be wrong. About three days later, we were down at the beach on a typically busy day. The towels and chairs were five or six rows deep that day. We took Austin and Garrett down to the breakers so Garrett could cool off. We got him settled and headed back to our quilt. The girls said they’d keep an eye on Austin. And they did. For a couple of minutes anyway. Then he said he was going back to the blanket, too.

Only he didn’t. And when Lauren and Nicki came back about 20 minutes later without him, we were frantic.

Karen went in one direction down the beach, I went in the other – all the while getting more worried. It finally occurred to someone in our group to check at the lifeguard station. And there he was, sitting in the chair with David Hasselhof. Safe and sound, having an adventure.

We made it through the rest of the week without incident. And despite how hard I looked, without any sightings of Pam Anderson.

“It behooves a father to be blameless if he expects his child to be.” _ Homer

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No Saul-itude for Us


Other than getting sunburned despite the sunscreen we used, Tuesday was pretty uneventful on our little piece of Ocean Isle Beach. Except for the Swiss woman I met at the Tiki Bar (I helped translate the bartender’s grunts to her into regular English) and the man and kids from Reidsville who were telling me about their dirt bikes and the older couple on the other side of us with the dog that looked like the title character in the kids’ book Walter the Farting Dog (and if you haven’t read it, don’t knock it) and the cougar down the line from us with the three guys who kept sashaying down the strand, nothing much happened.

And then there was the guy on the other side of us in the blue portable cabana. He had three kids and a wife and really resembled my old friend Barry Karesh, whom I miss very much. Except he had more hair than Barry does these days. Anyway, this “Barry” and his family stayed near us pretty much all day.

Which reminded me of our trip 11 years ago to Rehobeth Beach, Delaware.

As I mentioned the other day, we like beaches of all kinds, but I always have had a soft spot for Rehobeth. We ended up there because we were going to Pennsylvania for Karen’s sister Sherri’s wedding  to Darryl. After the wedding, we drove over to Delaware for a week at the beach. (We’ll discuss this trip further in a future post, Adventures in Bad Parenting.)

Anyway, we had a little guest house about a block and a half from the beach, which was really great.

What we didn’t count on was a family that we encountered the first or second day there. They were nice enough, but they talked constantly. And loudly. And did I say constantly. And most of the conversation was directed at one of the members of the family, named Saul. They must have called his named 10 times a minute. And did I mention they talked constantly.

The next day, we went back to the strand. It started innocently enough. We went to get fries on the boardwalk, then hurried to eat them before the seagulls came for their cut. We dipped our toes in the surf. Then we looked up and there he was.

Saul and his entourage were back. In full force. And in full voice.

We saw – and heard – them at least one other time that week.

So when people ask what we like about Ocean Isle Beach, we always say the solitude. Not to mention the lack of Saul-itude.

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Footprints in the Sand, or Deja Vu at the IHOP


Now Playing: Old Folk’s Boogie, by Little Feat. “And you know that you’re over the hill , When your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill, Doin’ the old folks boogie, And boogie we will, ‘Cause to us the thought’s as good as a thrill.”

I’m writing this Sunday night, because we’ll be headed to the beach this morning for a few days. We like all beaches, but we’ve lately been partial to Ocean Isle Beach. What’s there? Not much of nuthin’ – and I love it. We’ll soak up the rays. Swim, read – I’m taking the first two books in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, I’ve heard great things about them – and we’ll of course eat. And Eat. And EAT.

Which brings to mind a story from the last time we were at Ocean Isle, which I think was during a weekend in 2007.

On Saturday night, we decided to go to a restaurant we really liked in Carolina Beach. They had this huge platter of oysters and clams and crab legs and shrimp and stuff. It was always great. We got there, and it was going to be a long wait. No prob. We got one of the light-up thingees from the hostess and found a bench on the grounds. Hey, it was Saturday night. If the restaurant didn’t have a wait, that was probably a bad sign.

So while we were patient, others weren’t. In particular, a group near us.

(Before I go any further, I need to say a couple of things: Karen and I drink and cuss. More than we should. Karen and I drink and cuss around the boys. More than we should. We’re not prudes. Keep this in mind as you continue.)

One of the guys in the group was wearing a Carolina hat and t-shirt, so I noticed him off the bat. The other guys and girls had on assorted motorcycle-y gear. Some leathers, some t-shirts, jeans, boots. They’d been drinking. And they started bitching immediately – and loudly – about the wait. Carolina guy offered to go get them something from the bar while they waited. Unfortunately, it took him awhile. Which didn’t improve any of his friends’ attitudes. Especially the one I dubbed Willie Nelson. He was older than most of the group, and maybe looked a little rougher. His graying hair was in braids, and he was grizzled. He started cussing and griping and eventually one of his friends told him to pipe down because of the kids.

He’d stop for a bit, then get pissed again. Even when Carolina guy got back, he was mad.

A short while later, they decided to leave. As luck would have it, we were called almost immediately.

Sadly, the meal was only OK – nothing wrong with it, but it just wasn’t as good as we remembered.

But I think we might have gotten ice cream or frozen custard or something on the way back to the hotel at Ocean Isle. So it was all good. We were happy. It had been a good trip.

When we got up Sunday, we checked out of the hotel and decided to head to Wilmington for some breakfast. We didn’t exactly know where we wanted to stop. Not Fast Food was about the only requirement. We pulled in to an IHOP, which I wasn’t crazy about but was willing to accept for the greater good. It was packed. With a line. Which gave me an opening to suggest the Perkins up the road (where I wanted to go in the first place). Only it wasn’t there anymore. In fact, we weren’t seeing anything breakfasty, so I made the call. We’d go back to the IHOP and take our medicine and wait.

It wasn’t going to be long, the hostess said. So once again, we got a light-up thingee and took up residence in the parking lot.

About 10 minutes later, a big red truck drove by, and one of its passengers got out to go in and check out the wait. I saw it first. The Carolina hat. It couldn’t be. We were 14 miles away from that restaurant in Carolina Beach.

But it was. There was Willie Nelson in the truck. He was unmistakable. The truck parked, and they got out. One the kids said, “Hey, Dad, isn’t that …” “Yep,” I replied. But they’re behind us, I said. No problem at all.

Sure enough, we got seated a couple of minutes later.

And before we even started looking at the menus, Willie, Carolina guy and the rest were seated at the table right beside us.

They were more subdued – probably after a fairly hard night, and I’m not sure they recognized us.

But I’m not sure they didn’t either. Willie started sliding his false teeth in and out of his mouth (like my grandfather used to do when I was a kid – only it was endearing then). And finally one of the women with the group told him to stop, he was scaring the kids.

We finished up breakfast and got back on the road quickly. We’ve never forgotten Willie and his cronies, who turned out to be not-so-bad folks, after all.

But you can rest assured that we won’t be eating breakfast at the IHOP in Wilmington this week. ‘Cause Willie, You Were Always on Our Minds. You Were Always on Our Minds.

Shalom. I’ll post as I get the opportunity – and inspiration – this week.

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