Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Freedom, fireworks, and Twilight Zone? Yes, Twilight Zone

I love a good ol’ Independence Day BBQ, but for me, one of the highlights of the holiday is the SyFy Channel’s Twilight Zone marathon. Yes, I was raised on a steady diet of TZone—I’ve seen most, if not all, of the episodes, and I’ve seen many of them more times than I can count. There aren’t too many modern TV shows that can match its stories and characters. Some episodes still give me chills, even if I’ve seen them many times before.  And its plot twists are really second to none. (Like in “The Eye of the Beholder,” in which a horribly disfigured woman’s face is about to be revealed following a last-ditch surgery to make her look normal. I saw it for the first time as a kid, and I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the big reveal. My mother kept giving me this devilish, knowing smile, which just scared me more. Well, if you know what happens, things don’t turn out as expected—and young me might have freaked out. But let’s not turn this into a therapy session… :-))

Having sat through the TZone in its entirety, I have a few favorite episodes which MUSTBEWATCHED whenever they’re on TV.  Here’s a short list of recommendations (in alphabetical order), along with when they first ran and when they’ll be run during this year’s marathon. Hey, you never know: it might rain on Thursday and you might need some quality television to pass the time.

1.) Deaths-Head Revisited (first aired November 10, 1961; alas, not part of this year’s marathon! Definitely Netflix this one.)—While this episode will unfortunately not be included in the Fourth of July marathon, I have to have it on this list, because this one just grabs you by the throat. Perhaps the most obscure episode in my top five, Season 3’s “Deaths-Head Revisited” deals with the demons of recent history—namely, Nazi atrocities. World War II had occurred less than two decades prior to the making of this episode; as difficult as it can be to watch this episode today, it’s hard to imagine watching this when World War II was just a recent memory.

The villainous main character, Captain Gunther Lutze, living in post-war exile in South America, is returning to Dachau for a visit fifteen years after the end of WWII. He wishes to see the now-abandoned concentration camp in which he was personally responsible for the torture and execution of countless prisoners. But he is not returning with any sense of remorse; instead, he misses the “good old days,” when he was a powerful man who held the fate of many in his hands. Shortly after his arrival at Dachau, he comes upon the camp’s “caretaker,” whom he ultimately recognizes as a former prisoner—one he had executed.  Suffice it to say, justice is meted out in major doses. It is both painful and riveting to watch.

As haunting as the entire episode is, the part that stays with me is TZone creator Rod Serling’s closing narration. After a minor character rhetorically asks why Dachau still stands, Serling’s voice responds: “All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes – all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in the Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God's Earth.” Serling often had striking narrations at the end of TZone episodes, but I think this one might be his best. It’s especially affecting to modern ears—there’s no moral relativism in this narration. It’s not afraid to identify evil, to distinguish between right and wrong—and to hold onto memories of atrocities in order to prevent them from happening again.

The Twilight Zone is usually thought of primarily as a sci-fi series, but make no mistake: it often wades into political and historical lessons as well. “Deaths-Head Revisited” is a great example of that.

2.) A Hundred Yards Over the Rim (first aired April 7, 1961; airing July 4 at 11am)—This one has a happy ending—yay!  There are a number of TZone episodes that include time travel (“The Odyssey of Flight 33,” “Back There,” “No Time Like the Past”), but “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim” is my favorite of these. The year is 1847, and Chris Horn is leading a wagon train out to California. The group left Ohio more than a year earlier, and it’s now decimated. To make matters worse, Horn’s young son is ill and on the verge of death. Horn goes off by himself to try to find water, and upon scaling a hill, he sees (bum bum BUM!) telephone lines. He enters a roadside cafĂ© and meets a helpful and (not surprisingly) confused couple, and he eventually discovers that it’s 1961. Will Chris be able to return to his own time and get the wagon train the aid it needs? I won’t ruin it, but since I already said there’s a happy ending, you can just guess.

The time travel episodes of The Twilight Zone tend to have a similar theme: the events of the past were inevitable, and one can’t change what’s happened—at least without major unforeseen consequences. In “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” the inevitability of the past is a good thing, the reason why the episode ends on a positive note. Other time travel episodes have a somewhat darker turn—“Back There,” which deals with the Lincoln assassination, is an example. If you’ve ever read Ray Bradbury’s excellent short story “A Sound of Thunder,” you know what I’m talking about. As an aside, here's an interesting, though not exactly shocking, fact: Bradbury was supposed to be deeply involved with making The Twilight Zone and contributed a few scripts.  However, the only script of his which made it to production was “I Sing the Body Electric,” based on his short story of the same name. But the time travel episodes—and in particular, the creative portrayal of time travel in “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim”—show how influential Bradbury was on the show.

3.) The Night of the Meek (first aired December 23, 1960; airing July 5 at 2am)—The Christmas Episode. Yup, even The Twilight Zone has a Christmas episode. And of course, there’s more than a little of the supernatural involved. Art Carney (the same guy who played Ed Norton on The Honeymooners) plays Henry Corwin, a drunk department store Santa Claus who lives in a dirty tenement surrounded by poverty. The only thing he wants for Christmas is to “see the meek inherit the earth.” On Christmas Eve, he wanders into an alley and comes upon a bag—a magic bag which supplies whatever gifts he asks for. Again, I won’t ruin the ending, but I’ll tell you, this is an episode which makes me cry every time I see it. Every. Time.

This is a really, really great Christmas episode, which manages to walk the line between the religious and the secular in telling a heartwarming tale. It’s unique in that it focuses on the poor, on those who have next to nothing. The images of elderly men celebrating Christmas mass in a shabby mission house, and of a young girl who wants a job for her father for Christmas, will have you choking back tears. And the juxtaposition of these images with the avarice that is often part of contemporary celebrations of the holidays is extremely noticeable. Corwin’s life seems especially seedy and squalid, for example, when he tells off his boss in the department store. Greed and commercialism often seem pervasive around the holidays, while Corwin feels for those “where the only thing to come down the chimney on Christmas Eve is more poverty.” This one’s a must-watch, all year round.

4.) The Obsolete Man (first aired June 2, 1961; airing July 4 at 7pm)—Hoo boy, this is a good one. It’s important to remember that The Twilight Zone was made at the height of the Cold War, and this is one of the episodes in which Cold War fears were the most overtly expressed.  This is the story of librarian Romney Wordsworth (best librarian name ever!), who lives a totalitarian state of the future. Books and reading have been outlawed, and so Wordsworth is deemed to be obsolete and is sentenced to death; furthermore, he is also a believer in God, also illegal in this society (and an important plot point—wink, wink). He is allowed to determine his own method of execution, and he chooses to tell his executioner how he wants to die while keeping the method a secret from “The State.”  Let’s just say all that fancy book learnin’ paid off—he’s got a big surprise in store for The State.

As I said, “The Obsolete Man” has the stink of the Cold War all over it, showing that a society in which art, religion, and individualism are stifled is doomed. But it also tries to take lessons from the fascist states of World War II. The episode’s Chancellor, the personification of The State, commends the methods of Hitler and Stalin, but says that they did not go far enough in eliminating undesirables. By the end of the episode, however, the failures of totalitarianism are more than clear. Also: watch it for the scary, moaning mob at the end. Freaky! If you twisted my arm and forced me to pick my one favorite TZone episode, this would be it.

5.) Walking Distance (first aired October 30, 1959; airing July 4 at 8am)—This gem from Season 1 had it all: great acting, a fantastic score, and a wistful, beautiful story. Martin Sloan, an advertising executive who’s disillusioned with the modern world and tired of its fast pace, takes a drive through the country and winds up in his boyhood hometown. He finds to his happy surprise that nothing has really changed since he was a kid. Turns out nothing has at all—it’s 1934 there. His efforts to recapture the past show that it’s impossible to go back, and that he must seek happiness and contentment in his own time.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, listen to J.J. Abrams, the director who’s probably best known for creating Lost: “[‘Walking Distance’ is] a beautiful demonstration of the burden of adulthood, told in The Twilight Zone, which everyone thinks is a scary show, but it’s actually a beautiful show. The Twilight Zone at its best is better than anything else I’ve ever seen on television.” The pressures of adulthood and modern life is another big theme in the series. Another one of my favorite episodes, “A Stop at Willoughby,” is extremely similar to “Walking Distance,” except the main character in “Willoughby” finds that suicide is his path to happiness. Yeah…not exactly the happiest of endings. Oddly enough, though, the conclusion of “Walking Distance” is a sadder one, perhaps because it is so inconclusive. But it’s easy to relate to Sloan: who hasn’t longed to return to the happiness and security of their youth, at least for a short time?  Hard to believe that Sloan would want to leave the late 1950s, though.  If only he knew how much worse it would get…

Well, enough of my opinions. Here’s the full marathon schedule. Even if marathon watching isn’t in the cards, any of these episodes would make a great addition to a Netflix queue. Happy Fourth!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Carlisle, culture shock and bursting bubbles

How far do you have to go to get outside your own bubble, and how much does that have to do with physical distance? For someone who lives in a city, is going to another country necessary? Or could it be that simply getting out into “the country” is just as helpful in broadening one’s experiences?

Last week, I had the chance to attend an event with Charles Murray, author (most recently) of the best-selling Coming Apart, fellow AEIer, and all-around brilliant guy. The topic of discussion at the event, which was attended by young folks in the first few years in the job market, was career and life stuff. Heavy.

One of Charles’ central recommendations was that you should travel while you’re young—to learn about different cultures and ways of life. Buy a one-way ticket to somewhere you’ve never been and try to make your own way for a year or two. Take time off from college to do so, or if you’ve already graduated, don’t go right into the job market.

The rationale makes sense: in order to make better career decisions, it helps to understand who you are and what you like before jumping into something that makes you less than super-satisfied. Indeed, Charles spent several years in the Peace Corps in Thailand after college before returning to the states to get his Ph.D. in political science and embark on his career as a well-known social scientist and author.  And also indeed, his thesis in Coming Apart is that the American upper class is becoming ever more insulated from experiences outside their own little bubble.

Well, if you read my last post (or if you’ve ever met me), you’ll know I am not an adventurer.  I value safety and security over risk. When I imagine myself in Charles’ life in Thailand, I can only think that I would be incredibly unhappy.  Not just unhappy, but I would be forever concerned that I would be doing great damage to my nascent career. I look at enough resumes to know that “gap years” are not appreciated, no matter the reason. Maybe this is unfortunate, but it is the truth.

So when Charles reached the end of his remarks, I raised my hand. The gist of what I asked was that everyone in that room had likely been on “the treadmill” in pursuit of success our entire lives, so how could we convince potential employers that getting off the treadmill was the right decision? Charles said that we should stop thinking about what others thought and instead chase the adventures that would add to our character and self-awareness.

That wasn’t enough for me. I proceeded, perhaps a bit more timidly. “What if you’re not a risk-taker?”
How would I know for sure if I didn’t try?, he asked. Good question. The only thing I could do is project myself into potential overseas adventures, and I instinctively knew that such a life would not be for me. So I wasn’t really interested in adventure?. he wondered.

I paused and felt a wave of embarrassment. “Not really.”

This elicited some laughs from those around me, but I was serious. I like being a three-hour train ride from my family, I hate moving, and darn it, I love indoor plumbing. So why did my words suddenly seem so blasphemous, even to me?

Charles did his best to be helpful—perhaps I could move to another city? Well, after pursuing undergraduate and graduate political science degrees (quite happily, I might add), DC is the ideal place to be, at least at this time in my life.  When the event was done, I walked out of the room pretty feeling low.

Fortunately, I was on my way out of town and off to Carlisle, Pennsylvania—or, more exactly, to the Carlisle Fairgrounds for the Spring Carlisle swap meet.

Swap meet? Swap meet. This:

For those not in the know, swap meet means “sea of stuff for sale,” and in Carlisle’s case, it is largely automotive-related. However, there are plenty of sights to take in that range far from the car realm:

(Biggest regret of the day: I did not get a picture of the bulldog getting pushed around in a stroller. Cutest. Thing. Ever.)

Well, you know how they say it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt? They might as well say it’s all fun and games until someone finds something large and bulky to buy. And as it happened, my father located the object of his affection in row number one:

The front end of a 1971 Thunderbird. My father owns a 1970 T-Bird, which has been in the family since new. So why the interest in the ’71 front clip? Without getting too much into the weeds, there are no reproduction parts being made for this vintage, so if something ever happened to the delicate grille of his own car, he’d have a suitable replacement.  In all of his years of combing swap meets all over the Northeast, he’d only seen one grille before—and it cost $300. This front end came with a much more respectable price tag of $50 (my father, ever the king of haggling, got it down to $40).

Major score, right? Perhaps so, until you realize that we are at the bottom of a big hill and our car is at the top of said hill. A two-door 1971 Thunderbird weighs about 4300 pounds total, so you can guess that this front clip was not exactly light. Fortunately, the two guys who sold it to my father lent us a handtruck to get it up the hill.  Even then, the trip was arduous, to say the least, but we could muster a smile once we got it to the top.

And yes, it did fit in the back of the station wagon—albeit just barely.

So what does all of this have to do with anything? Going to Carlisle and places like it are a good reminder of what much of this country is actually like. When you look around, there is nary a smartphone, Starbucks cup, or ironic t-shirt to be found (I did see some “Duck Dynasty” t-shirts, but they were entirely sincere). Those who come to Carlisle swap meets are largely working-class, and many are quite religious (indeed, the swap meet weekend includes a non-denominational service on Sunday morning).

It’s a different world from DC, to say the least. It may be in the same country, but the beliefs of Americans in DC and Americans who come to Carlisle seem worlds apart.  To go to Carlisle, even for one day, is a reality check—an important reminder that this is truly a land of contrasts, and we can never stop learning from it.  It’s not often that I am attaching a front clip to a handtruck, taking great pains to ensure that it will not get damaged or fall off in the midst of transport, while avoiding cuts from jagged and rusty metal edges.

And I couldn’t help but think about Charles’ talk from the previous week while I was doing this. A day at the swap meet might not be exotic, but you can’t argue that it’s, well, different from the normal DC woman’s day. Could such experiences expand my own horizons, make me a more well-rounded and, ultimately, happy person? I don’t know, but I’d like to think so. I daresay that perhaps there is too much emphasis on the potential adventures and learning opportunities far from home, at the expense of those right under our noses.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Known Unknowns

With the arrival of spring, a young woman’s fancy turns to Expedia in the hope of finding cheap flights…or, more accurately, dreaming about them.

At least that’s the way it’s been for me this spring. I am always a daydreamer, but the tendency has been especially strong in recent days. As I contemplate and search for a new job (which explains my recent absence from TLJ), the fight or flight instinct kicks in. Sometimes I am super-motivated to seek out new people to get advice, or apply for another fellowship, or give my resume yet another update—you know, fight for the next step in my career. And other times, well, I just want to take a flight.

Where to? Anywhere. Just away. Away from my own disappointment, away from colleagues with exciting new opportunities and my stupid jealousy about their happiness and seeming self-assuredness. Away from not knowing what my own future could or should hold.

OK, wow, I just read that last paragraph back, and I am making it sound much worse than it really is. Of course, I am aware that I am incredibly lucky, with a great support system and a job that fulfills me more often than not. But as they say, it’s all relative, and seeing folks experiencing great successes all around you…yes, you’re happy for them, but it makes you feel like more of a screw-up. (Lesson: never look at your news feed on Facebook if you want a pick-me-up.)

Say what you will about Donald Rumsfeld, but that whole thing about the “known unknowns”? He was really on to something there. OK, not on the weapons of mass destruction stuff, at least for my own purposes here. When you’re seeking the next step, you know you want to be happy, safe, comfortable, and successful. But what happens when the path is unclear? Or when it’s obstructed by lack of opportunities? You know what you want, but you don’t know how to get there, or you don’t even know whether such a path exists. Despite constant assurances that I’ll figure it out, I’m not sure right now how I will.

Well, at least I know in all likelihood, that someday I’ll look back at this post and laugh, wondering how I could have been so angst-y when things indeed would fall into place, how I worried for nothing. But naturally, it’s hard to understand that when you’re right in the middle of the storm.

And so it’s nice to think of flying out of the storm, I suppose. Perhaps you read this Converge magazine piece from a few months ago—“Why You Should Travel Young.” While I am not exactly the adventurous sort (before Pat and I made it out to California in 2011, I had not set foot on an airplane in more than 15 years), the argument that “traveling allows you to feel more connected to your fellow human beings in a deep and lasting way” is one that resonates with me—especially given my concerns about my future prospects. More and deeper connections allow for greater clarity and perspective, I believe.

And yet when I daydream about travel these days, it’s not so much about the connections as the escape.  As I look at Expedia right now for flights, the whole country seems open to me (the budget doesn’t exactly allow the world to be open to me quite yet).  So many destinations—so many I have not been to and would like to see. Fort Lauderdale? For sure! Buffalo? Why not! Little Rock? Sure thing! Kansas City? Absolutely!

I often think about roaming the streets of a city I’ve never seen before, or driving through a stretch of country that had been previously just a picture in my mind. It’s not like I need a journey of self-discovery, a la Homer Simpson and the Johnny Cash coyote. But in the same way I believe that connections can bring clarity, I think that a temporary distance from your own cares can bring it as well.

In the meantime, though, the search continues for that next career step. And if it comes soon, maybe I’ll treat myself to one of those flights. Until then, I’ll keep that Expedia tab open—just in case.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Things a'doing

My apologies for an extended absence, but there is exciting career news: in addition to my work at AEI, I am joining the Independent Women's Forum as a Visiting Fellow!  I'll be writing all sorts of fun stuff over there.  For instance, my most recent piece on their Inkwell blog was on Danica Patrick and how her oversexualized portrayal of herself was hurting the cause of women in NASCAR.  Anyhoo, I am super-excited to be joining them.  I've had the chance to attend a bunch of their events over the past year or so, and they are a super-cool, super-smart, and super-accomplished group of women with whom I am honored to be able to work.  Please look for my pieces over there, though I'll still be writing here, too.

Monday, February 25, 2013

On CPAC, Christie, and GOProud

So it looks like Chris Christie, governor of my beloved Garden State, is being denied an invite to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this March.  What gives?

For a little background, CPAC is the biggest yearly gathering of conservatives—political leaders give speeches, conservative organizations raise awareness for their work in an exhibit hall, and there are people everywhere.  I mean, this thing is HUGE. The conference taken place within DC for decades, but it’s been moved to the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland this year since no hotel in DC is big enough to hold it. How many people attend? More than 10,000.  

So, yeah, this is a major platform for conservative/Republican politicians, and those who speak there tend to speak for the conservative movement.  This year’s theme is “America’s Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives. New Challenges, Timeless Principles.”  When this theme was first announced, I was initially excited, thinking that this meant that conservatives/Republicans were coming to realize that their message had not been working and so welcomed the infusion of young blood.

Well, then. Among the speakers this year are Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Sarah Palin.  Yup, they’ve all spoken at CPAC in recent years. It’s good to see younger leaders like Marco Rubio, Kelly Ayotte, and Mia Love get speaking spots, but I don’t really get an overwhelming feeling of youth looking at this year’s agenda. Most of the speakers have made many an appearance at CPAC over the years.

Where is Christie, one of the most popular governors in the country? (Not one of the most popular Republican governor—one of the most popular governors regardless of party. He’s currently got a 74 percent approval rating, according to Quinnipiac.) The conventional wisdom is that his cordial relationship with President Obama regarding the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Well, let’s say that’s the reason why—that’s still not a valid reason for being less than welcome at CPAC. I’ve seen many a verbal altercation at CPAC—libertarians vs. social conservatives, neocons vs. isolationists, etc.—so it’s not like there haven’t been differences of opinion in the past.

Unfortunately, this Christie news is consistent with the direction CPAC’s been going over the last couple of years: rather than welcoming those of varying viewpoints into the conservative fold, CPAC has been limiting their access.  The most well-known example is the exclusion of GOProud, a gay conservative group, as a co-sponsor of the conference.  GOProud is fiscally conservative, pro-life, and believes that the question of gay marriage should be left to the states. Hmm.  Sounds like many of the conservatives I know!

I just don’t see any good reason why GOProud should be shut out of CPAC.  In fact, if CPAC’s goal this year is to get young conservatives and Republicans more active and more represented, it’s actually counterintuitive to keep the group out. A 2012 Pew poll showed that nearly 4 in 10 Republicans between the ages of 18 and 29 support same-sex marriage.  Eight years ago (back around the time when I first attended CPAC—yes, I am old), only 28 percent supported it.  Young people are clearly shifting on this issue, but CPAC doesn’t seem to recognize that.

Back to Christie: it’s clear that the many young conservatives who attend CPAC would love to see him speak.  I could point to the fact that he is blunt and charismatic, but let’s have the public opinion numbers speak for themselves.  In the same Quinnipiac poll I noted above, Christie’s approval among voters aged 18 to 34 stands at 53 percent.  That’s among all young voters—not just Republicans.  He would be treated like a rock star at CPAC, and again, I just can’t see why he wouldn’t score an invite.

With major national and statewide Republican losses just in the rear view mirror, and with the waning influence of the Tea Party, this would really be a great time to make the conservative tent bigger.  In my opinion, sharing the “timeless principles” of conservatism doesn’t mean that the biggest conservative gathering of the year should exclude those who have complimented the President for helping his own constituents, or those who believe the government should stay out of certain private decisions.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Wiping away Ray's Heck Sauce, but not memories

Dear Lord, do I love food.

And as much as I like a nice, classy restaurant with fancy food, I’m just as happy with a slice of pizza or a hot dog at the ballpark.  (In fact, as I write this, I am eating cake batter-flavored fro yo out of a paper cup.  Awesome.) Yes, I love eating, but I think one of the greatest things about food is its ability to bring people together and create some great stories and lasting memories.

That’s why the news of Ray’s Hell Burger’s permanent closing is especially tough to take—more than most restaurants in the DC area, it embodied all the things that make food so awesome.  Of course, the burgers at this Arlington institution were other-worldly—there was nothing much better on this earth than a grilled Little Devil with tons of toppings and lots of Ray’s Heck Sauce (obvi).  A huge line always greeted you as soon as you came in the front door, but you knew that the wait for your burger would be worth it—and it always was.

But while I of course think about the great burgers when I think of Ray’s, I first think of the great times I had there with great friends.  That time we sat at the same table Barack Obama and Joe Biden had dined at? (I’m pretty sure that this is true—let’s just pretend that it definitely is.) The impromptu walk to Ray’s on the 75-degree St. Patrick’s Day last year?  Eating Ray’s takeout around a friend’s coffee table before an epic birthday night out?  It’s hard not to think of a Ray’s memory that doesn’t put a smile on my face.

You see, places like Ray’s take us back to certain times in our lives—certain memories we carry with us long after the last bites of burger are taken.  There’s just something about sharing good food with people we care about that makes a great meal taste even better.  And ever since I came to DC, Ray’s has been one of those places for me—a place where new acquaintances started to turn to friends who then turned into a second family.  We came from different states, and even different countries, but the great food was something to bond over as we learned more about each other and evolved into the tight group we ultimately became. 

But dang, one of those Little Devils would be good right about now!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"J-Bird" and the NASCAR obsession

As I noted in my previous post, I come from a car-obsessed family.  While this is mostly the work of my dad, I must take part of the credit (or blame)—and that is in the area of NASCAR. From the time I was about nine years old, watching NASCAR races became a non-negotiable part of every Sunday afternoon between February and November.

Really, it started as a father-daughter bonding thing.  Every Sunday without fail, my dad and I would sit in front of the TV, turn on TNN (anyone remember TNN? Apparently, it's back.), and check out the latest action from Daytona, Darlington, or wherever the NASCAR boys happened to be that weekend. And for the three hours the race was on, there’d be nothing else—no work for him, no homework for me. Just fun times talking about the cars, the drivers, and the action on the track. For the first time, really, I wasn’t just a little kid—I was my dad’s buddy, and that made me feel really special.  My dad, ever the Thunderbird guy, would call me “J-Bird,” like the T-Birds we watched on the track.

When he suggested that we go to Dover, Delaware for a race in mid-1995, I think I might have been the happiest kid in the world.  I will never forget the first time walking into the racetrack, standing up against the catchfence, and feeling the force of the cars going by at nearly 200 mph. Still have the tickets from that day in a scrapbook. With the exception of one year, we’ve gone to at least one race in person every year since then.  I still love the feeling of those cars going by, but since my dad and I live far apart these days, I really love the ability to go to a race with him.  I feel like I’m my dad’s buddy again.

What keeps me a NASCAR fan is that it is a sport that incites deep passion.  Because there are 43 cars on the track, with differing levels of driver skill and equipment quality, victories are hard to come by.  A little anecdote: when I was 12, my favorite driver was Bill Elliott, and with fewer than ten laps to go in the Daytona 500, he was leading. This was 1997, and he had not won a race since 1994.


So I freaked out, to put it mildly. After three years, my guy was finally going to win a race, and the biggest race of the year to boot!  Well, sadly, this story did not end well for me. He got passed by three other drivers with just a few laps remaining and finished fourth. I was disconsolate and showed my displeasure by locking myself in the bathroom and refusing to come out of a decent period of time.  (Was I prone to melodramatic gestures? Maybe.  Do I regret doing this? Absolutely not.)

The real kicker? Bill didn’t win another race until 2001. Yup, seven years between victories. There were many happy tears cried the day he finally broke that streak.

And while the victories are so much sweeter in NASCAR than they are in other sports, the losses are especially tough to take.  Unfortunately, the potential for great tragedy is always there, and the pain of those losses is amplified by the passion one feels for the sport and its competitors.  Having gone through the loss of one of my favorite drivers to an on-track accident, I can tell you it makes you all the more appreciative of the days where the action is intense but everyone stays safe.

Well, when those engines fire up again this weekend for the first time since last November, you better believe that I’ll be calling up my dad to talk racing.  It’ll feel good to kick off another NASCAR season.

Monday, February 11, 2013

How do you solve a problem like Detroit?

You may have caught Mark Binelli’s recent NY Times op/ed on the sad state the city of Detroit is in; if not, definitely check it out here. Binelli (who’s a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and the author of a book on Detroit) notes that while the Big Three automakers are recovering nicely since the GM and Chrysler bailouts four years ago, that has absolutely not translated into recovery for the city itself.  In fact, the city may be mere days away from bankruptcy. 

According to the most recent US Census, the population of Detroit has shrunk by more than a quarter in the last ten years.  More than 237,000 people left Detroit in that time--far more than the 140,000 who left New Orleans. 

Coming from a car-obsessed, Tigers-loving family, many a family vacation has been spent in Detroit and its environs.  If you haven’t been there, all I can say is that all the things you’ve heard about it are true. There really are entire city blocks that are empty.  There really are plants growing on top of old houses and abandoned buildings.  Going to many parts of Detroit is like being in the midst of a post-apocalyptic film.  Even the parts of downtown that have signs of life feel like they’re stuck in a time warp.

And one of the saddest things about it is that there is still so much that remains of its successful past and of the potential the city still has.  Due to the dearth of recent investment in the city, there are many buildings whose original early 20th century architecture is still present.  And the Detroit Institute of Arts is among my favorite art museums in the country; its prestigious collection is clearly a remnant of a time in which the city had significant cash. (If you happen to be there, definitely check out the huge Diego Rivera mural, a tribute to American innovation. It’s really a sight to behold.)

So Binelli talks about three recent suggestions that have been made to bring Detroit out of its economic funk. Among them: Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposal to turn Belle Isle (a city park in the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario) into a state park.  However, after the Detroit city council postponed a vote on the proposal (as Binelli puts it, “under pressure from a vocal minority suspicious of ‘outsiders’ looting Detroit’s few remaining assets”), Snyder withdrew the proposal last summer.  Yes, the Detroit city council is so entrenched, so resistant to change, that the Michigan governor is viewed as an outsider…

Binelli really boils the problem down to its essence in this one sentence: “Detroiters who are worried about ceding local power to Michigan’s Republican governor shouldn’t forget the ways in which power has already been ceded to an unelected oligarchy, whose members might, no matter how ostensibly well intentioned, possess questionable ideas about urban renewal.”  How could the city perhaps most traditionally associated with American ingenuity have ended up in such an ossified position today? Binelli hits the nail on the head: Detroit’s leadership is an oligarchy whose inaction to save the city goes largely unquestioned by the ever-shrinking populace.  If the members of the city council really care about the city’s recovery, they have a hell of a way of showing it. They may verbalize support for Detroit, but when it comes to making life better for the people who live there and attracting new residents, their actions (or inactions) often say the opposite

And while I do think that their resistance to new ideas comes from a partisan place, I also believe that they’re ignoring some good ideas from the left side of the aisle. Urban farming is a great example of this—parts of Detroit are in such a sorry state that urban agriculture projects may be the best way to use land that is currently uninhabited.  Not only would such projects create jobs for many Detroiters, but they offer the prospect of profit for those who start such enterprises.  Good for the environment, good for residents, and good for investors? Can’t get much better than that.

Well, it’s not so clear-cut to the Detroit city council.  Back in December, they narrowly approved the sale of land for the Hantz Woodlands project in Hamtramck (a bit north of downtown), which promised to be the “world’s largest urban farm.” Though the sale was approved, it met with oodles of opposition (check out this article for the details)—mostly on the grounds that the city government made it nearly impossible for individuals interested in smaller-scale urban farming to purchase land.

OK, let’s get this straight: on the table is a proposal to potentially transform Detroit’s landscape, put people to work, and get on the road to recovery.  But since the CITY ITSELF makes it hard for everyone to do so, no one should get to do so? Great idea—let’s keep moving down the same road and see what that does for us.

Kudos to the five city council members (and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing) who support the Hantz proposal. But seriously, what are the four other members thinking? Your city’s survival could depend on this, and because you think of this as a “land grab” by a big company, you are willing to set aside practicality for some greater “principle.” I just don’t get it.

The city will have to take extreme measures if it hopes to recover.   Yup, Detroit will have to go back to its roots of innovation to save itself. And at this point, all ideas should be on the table.  As Binelli writes, the “tragicomic” nature of recent proposals underlines the fact that Detroit is in dire straits, and that big, perhaps radical changes are needed.  Unfortunately, I won’t be holding my breath on this one…

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

All hail the fiber arts

Now, I am no Marxist (unless we’re talking about Groucho), but I think Karl really was on to something when he talked about the dignity of work and the alienation that many people feel from the work they do and what they produce.  In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx decried “the fact that labour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his essential being”—this resulted in the “alienation of labour.”

A couple of years ago, I read a really fantastic book, Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft. (If you haven’t read it yet, you really owe it to yourself to do so.)  Crawford is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University in Virginia, but just as importantly, he runs a small motorcycle repair business.   Prior to writing his book and starting his business, he was the executive director of a Washington-based think tank, and to be blunt, he hated it.  It didn’t offer him fulfillment or satisfaction—instead, he found much more happiness in working with his hands.

The motorcycle business may have paid a lot less than his think tank job, but the motorcycles were far more rewarding. As Crawford writes, he feels “a greater sense of agency and competence …doing manual work, compared to other jobs that were officially recognized as ‘knowledge work.’” This knowledge-based economy is quite different from the 19th century manual labor economy Marx talked about, but even now when knowledge work dominates, it’s hard to refute that we all feel “alienated” from the work we do sometimes.  Can anyone who sits behind a computer for eight-plus hours a day really feel entirely engaged with what they “produce” all the time?

So where do the fiber arts (or any craft involving yarn or thread) come in? I’m glad you asked! You may know that I am a long-time knitter (or “knit-wit,” as my dear boyfriend likes to call me).  It is something that I do for relaxation, but more than anything else, I love the process of creating something tangible.  I, like Crawford, love to work with my hands.  (I would have loved a home economics and a shop class when I was in school, but neither was offered.  I’ll come back to this another post, when I can give it the time and complaining it deserves.)

Although Crawford goes out his way to say that his description of the intrinsic rewards of manual labor do not translate to manual hobbies, I actually think that at least parts of his book are applicable to them. In fact, knitting is a perfect example.  Yes, it can be repetitive, but it also often presents problem solving challenges, whether they are in pattern design or in fixing mistakes.  (This is consistent with Crawford’s contention that manual work is often more intellectually stimulating than knowledge work.)  And the result, when the process is completed correctly, grants a nice sense of accomplishment and pride. It fills a void that knowledge work alone cannot fill.

Crawford maintains that “crafts” are not the same as manual labor, or “trades,” and this belief springs from the reason for the onset of the modern appreciation of crafts.  The Arts and Crafts movement which arose during the Progressive Era was largely “a form of protest against modernity.” Those who embraced arts and crafts did because they had the luxury to do so: “such spiritualized, symbolic modes of craft practice and craft consumption represented a kind of compensation for, and therefore an accommodation to, new modes of routinized, bureaucratic work.”  Translation: like Marx said, the new knowledge economy bites, and crafts make your life more bearable and remind you of the joy of human creativity. (Maybe the folks at Initech could have used some knitting needles and yarn.)

But here’s where I differ with Crawford: knitting is not only a leisure activity and something to be enjoyed among those who have the luxury of free time.  Its roots are in necessity—people knitted clothing to keep warm.  Yes, it is more a hobby these days than anything, but the skill is a valuable and a useful one, in my opinion. Furthermore, as someone who enjoys manual and non-manual work, I find I need to be engaged in both pursuits, and having the former as a hobby enriches my life, even if it is not how I make money.

For Marx, part of the reason why manual labor was alienating because workers were just cogs in the wheel—by only being part of the production process, you’re not really “in touch” with what’s being made. But the process of making something from start to finish is much more rewarding and fulfilling, because it is much more an expression of one’s self.  In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx has a line that really strikes me: “the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated life.” He may be talking about estrangement from work, but I think it applies to a manual hobby just as much.  Wearing a sweater I made is much different from wearing one I bought at a store. However, it’s not just because I appreciate the art of a handmade piece; it is also the reflection of a skill I possess.  For me, at least, that is where most of the pride comes from.

As I said above, I’ll return to this topic, because oddly enough, it’s a rather political one (the growing separation between “thinking” and “doing,” and what that means for how we are educated and what skills we value as a culture). But for now, the latest expression of my own life:

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The GOP needs to learn how to talk to girls

My friend Sabrina Schaeffer, who’s the executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, was just interviewed for Glamour magazine’s website, all about women and conservatism. This is always one of those topics that really grabs my attention—not only do I belong to both the “woman” and “conservative” categories, women’s voting behavior is something that I’ve spent a lot of time researching of late.

It’s no secret that the GOP has been nothing short of abysmal in reaching out to women recently.  There are the obvious things: Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment, and Richard Mourdock’s controversial rape comments.  But there’s a deeper problem than just embarrassingly bad remarks. Much like an awkward 13-year-old with no moves, the GOP just doesn’t seem to know how to talk to girls.

My apologies if you’ve heard me tell this story already, but I came across a piece on Buzzfeed a few months before the 2012 election that really summed up the Republican “woman problem.” The article looked at the online stores for the Obama and Romney campaigns—more specifically, the women’s sections of the respective stores. Obama’s store offered three pages worth of merchandise for women, from Obama t-shirts to “Our Health, Our Vote” tote bags.  Romney’s store offered exactly three items for women: an Ann Romney button, and two bumper stickers—one proclaiming “Moms Drive the Economy” and the other “I’m a Mom for Mitt.”

Welp, I’m not a mom AND I’m car-less, so that knocks out two-thirds of the items for me.  And, to tell you the truth, walking around wearing a large Ann Romney button doesn’t really do it for me. So pretty much, for a young, single gal with (I like to think) a semblance of fashion sense, the Romney campaign really didn’t offer any women’s items worth considering.

In a way, I can see where Republicans are coming from—after all, the gender gap may be large (8 points), but the marriage gap is even bigger (21 points).  However, I don’t believe that the GOP should be waving the surrender flag when it comes to winning the votes of other women.  Many voters of both genders did not come of age in a time when a single political philosophy dominated, and so they were less likely to forge a lifelong devotion to one or the other party.  Their voting habits are more subject to fluctuation.

Back to Glamour: there are two things in Schaeffer’s interview to which I want to draw particular attention.  First, how should the GOP talk about the big elephants in the room (no pun intended) having to do with women—abortion and contraception. Honestly, these are really tough topics for the GOP, ones that highlight a fissure in the party that has to do with the very role of government.  While many Republicans oppose abortion (either entirely or in most cases), those who lean more to the libertarian side of things question whether the government should be involved with such private decisions.

For contraception, it’s more about who pays for it. This should be somewhat easier for conservatives and Republicans to argue: if the government should be kept out of the bedroom, then government should not pay for birth control. But instead, some have used name-calling, which only serves to undermine what could be a strong argument.

Schaeffer (correctly, I think) points out that “both parties are so focused on talking to women about so-called ‘women’s issues’ that they forget about the real issues facing women.” As a female, I find it more than a little bit demeaning that the parties think that all my “demographic” seems to care about is issues affecting our bodies.   Schaeffer says that just like men, women are thinking about the economy and jobs.  To say that women are concerned mainly with the politics of “lady parts” is not only insulting, it’s just plain incorrect.

And guess what? The stats back us up.  Take a look at this October 2012 Gallup poll.  About 4 in 10 of female registered voters believed that abortion was “the most important issue for women” in the 2012 election.  But when these same female voters were asked about which issues were most important in influencing their vote for president, “government policies concerning birth control” lagged behind unemployment, internal issues, healthcare, and the federal budget deficit and national debt.  Now, to be sure, 6 in 10 female voters said that the candidates’ respective positions on birth control were either “extremely important” or “very important” in influencing their vote, but that’s compared to 9 out of 10 female voters for the other issues I just listed.  In short, female voters seem to think that women care more about abortion and birth control as election issues than they actually do.

That takes me to the second point. I think Schaeffer is dead-on in her prescription for the GOP: “I think that Republicans don’t simply need to tweak their message, they need to really rethink the way they’re talking about everything.” Women’s lives have significantly changed since the days of June Cleaver, but the GOP doesn’t seem to realize that we’re not living in a Leave It to Beaver world anymore.  The percentage of unmarried women with kids is growing, especially among white women under the age of 30 with some college.  While the conservative ideal may be a stable, two-parent household, that’s just not the case for millions of women.  The GOP must learn to communicate with this growing audience—or it can write off their votes for good.

Phew, time to take a breath!  I’ll return to the topic soon.  Until then, please take the time to read the full Glamour interview—it’s really good stuff.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

In praise of mentors

Having a great mentor is a really wonderful thing.  I think most of us would say we’ve had a good mentor along the way—maybe even several—who helped us figure out important things about our lives and careers, providing friendship in addition to guidance. It’s an amazing gift when we start to fulfill the promise of the faith they have in us—our successes are their successes as well.

I’ve been thinking a good deal about one of my greatest mentors lately, who passed away ten years ago last week.  Dr. Schatz was the first person who really made me feel like writing could be a possible career path.

When I was about 10, I began writing some NASCAR race reports for the monthly newsletter of the local chapter of the International Thunderbird Club, a group of Ford Thunderbird enthusiasts from the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia. A couple of years later, my parents and I ran into Dr. Schatz at the huge annual car show-palooza in Hershey, PA.   A chiropractor by day, he was the editor of the ITC’s Thunderbird Script bimonthly mag, and was single-handedly responsible for much of its content and its publication.  He told me how much he enjoyed reading my articles and asked if he could republish them in the Script!  An internationally-published writer at age 12? Yes, please.

For a club that didn’t have many young folks involved, Dr. Schatz made me feel that I had a valid opinion and always treated me as a writer instead of a dumb kid.  In fact, at the ITC’s 2000 convention, he gave me the club’s “Editor’s Award” for my contributions to the mag.

And did I mention that he played guitar?  Like seriously.  I have never seen anyone fingerpick like that in my life.  When he first heard that I played the guitar, he said that we had to play together at the next national convention.  And we did—at that convention and every subsequent one we both attended.  And it scared the heck out of me!  He was so good at playing, and I was so…MEH. But he was always very helpful and would show me new techniques to improve my playing.  Keep in mind: as a member of the ITC’s leadership, he would be super-busy at these conventions, and yet he still went out of his way to make time for me.

In short, for him, the club wasn’t about the cars, really. It was about the people; as much as he loved T-Birds, he treated them as a common interest that bonded a group of people together, across state and country lines. He made time for everyone in the club even though he had a full-time job.

When we got the call that he had died suddenly during my senior year of high school, I was devastated. He would never know how much I appreciated his help, how good of a mentor he had been to me.  In the days and weeks that followed, I wondered how best I could make good on the faith he had in me.  What I did was throw myself into my writing.  In addition to race reporting, I started to do interviews with NASCAR drivers whenever I got the opportunity and write feature articles for the magazine. The best way to pay tribute to him, I figured, was to not only keep on writing, but add to my skills.

Dr. Schatz has been gone more than a decade now, but I still think about how fortunate I was to have him as a mentor, especially at that point in my life.  I hope he is proud of me. If you’ve got a mentor, please do yourself a favor: send a little e-mail to him or her to say thanks.  Mentors are truly a blessing—we have to remember that and tell them while we have the chance.  RIP.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Does country singer Dwight Yoakam favor gun violence? Piers Morgan seems to think so.

One of the most fantastic bits of news to come out in the last couple of weeks is that the New York City radio market again has a country music station, after being without one for more than a decade.  The last one, Y-107, was a constant companion in the days when my deep and abiding love of the genre was just germinating, and it introduced me to many a great song and artist. Here’s hoping that NYC’s new country music foray will do the same for a new generation.

While I’m on the country music topic, permit me to step up on the soapbox to talk about a segment from CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight” from earlier this week.  Why the heck was I watching?, you might be thinking. Well, the guest for said segment was none other than Dwight Yoakam, whose music has been among my favorite since about the time I discovered country music in the mid-1990s. His style of retro country-rock and superlative songwriting were so darn COOL—I quickly amassed all of his albums and wore them out. (For a little taste, check out the first Yoakam video I ever saw, back in about 1996. SO. DARN. COOL.)

Anyway, a bit of backstory to the Piers Morgan appearance: In 2012, Yoakam released his first album of new material in seven years (3 Pears), which quickly racked up oodles of critical acclaim and ended up on many “best-of” lists at the end of the year.  So it was not exactly a big leap to expect a discussion of the album’s success so far, maybe even a little performance, right?

No.  The topic of the interview was GUNS.

Now, Yoakam is not a political artist whatsoever.  I have no idea which party he supports (if any), nor do I care. He has never been outspoken on any policy topic as far as I know.  No, he is instead a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter with a brand-new album, which should have provided plenty of material for a five-minute TV interview. Instead, Morgan led off by asking his opinion on guns and gun control (a favorite and controversial discussion topic of Morgan's for the past month).  Yoakam replied that he owns guns and is a Second Amendment supporter, but that guns are weapons and need to be treated with care.  The Sandy Hook shooting was an “anomalous horror,” Yoakam said, and that guns are “dangerous weapons.  And you got to be very cautious with them, around them, about them.”  In response, Morgan gave a reasoned defense of how greater control of firearms and ammunition could prevent the occurrence of such tragedies.

Actually, of course not! He decided to make some unfair attacks instead!  Morgan maintained that Yoakam’s 1988 song “Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room” (in which the narrator shoots his sleeping ex-girlfriend in the head for cheating on him) glorified gun violence.  Additionally, Morgan played a short clip from the movie Panic Room, in which Yoakam (an actor as well) appeared as a violent burglar brandishing a gun.  In short, Morgan was trying to place blame on Yoakam for helping to perpetuate a culture of gun violence. (You can judge for yourself by checking out the video of the segment here.)

Well, then. I suppose violent movies, violent songs, violent video games, violent TV programs, etc. are all out the window now.  I mean, if you have a hand in the production of such entertainment, that’s just as bad as pulling the trigger, right?

Look, I consider myself a supporter of the Second Amendment, but I’m also a supporter of the First Amendment.  And there seems to be a disturbing trend in the entertainment world of conflating the showing of an action with support for said action. I’ve got a piece up today on National Review Online about this trend and how it relates to criticism of Zero Dark Thirty (yes, shameless self-promotion: check it out here).  ZDT director Kathryn Bigelow, who has faced heaps of criticism about torture scenes in the film, responded in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed: “[C]onfusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist's ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds.”

I love that line—“confusing depiction with endorsement.” And that takes me back to the Piers Morgan interview: does Morgan truly think that Yoakam is okay with gun violence simply because he has appeared in violent movies and sung a song with a line about shooting someone?  The whole “depiction equals endorsement” idea is a pretty frightening one—and a pretty lazy conclusion to come to, I think.  Had Morgan and/or his researchers at CNN assessed Yoakam’s body of work as a singer, writer, and actor, they would have seen that arguing that Yoakam is okay with such violence is pretty ridiculous.  I don’t expect much from Morgan, but I do expect better than this from CNN.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Frankiln goes to Yelta

A recent study out of UCLA showed that DC is the best-educated of America's big cities. This picture might put a little wrinkle in that argument:

Let's just let this sink in for a minute.  This is from the "Dressing the Presidents" window display at the Brooks Brothers on Connecticut Ave.  Apparently, Brooks Brothers has been responsible for dressing 39 of 44 presidents. I suppose dressing the presidents doesn't mean you have to know how to spell their names correctly...

AND. If you look closely, you'll see that that's not the only misspelling on FDR's window! Excuse me, the "historic Yelta conference"?  Really?  At least Churchill, FDR, and Stalin would be able to agree on one thing: Brooks Brothers' English and history skills are in major need of some post-war reconstruction.

Perhaps Brooks Brothers should spend a little less time on suits, shirts, and sweaters, and a little more on spelling.

In the beginning...

Welcome to The Letter Jen! I've been looking forward to getting this blog started up for a while now, and it's good to finally make it happen.

So, to dispense with the obvious questions: who am I and what am I doing here?  I am among the great big sea of 20-somethings in Washington, DC trying to forge a career in the crazy world of politics and policy.  Making a mark in this city can sometimes feel like whispering in the middle of a hurricane, but it is truly a vibrant and inspiring place.  I hope to be able to share some of my own thoughts as shaped by my experiences here, both on life in the District and on the politics that pumps through my veins.  As a self-described "Jersey conservative," I've often got strong opinions, but I'm happy to debate and, hopefully, find some common ground. I love to write and think opinions through, and I hope this blog will be a great way to do just that.

At the same time, though DC is a city of fast-movers and ever-changing storylines, I am a lover of all things retro (and no, that does not mean I long for the days of dial-up Internet       :-)). Love old music, old movies, old neon signs...you get the idea.  So look for me to take a vintage turn every once in a while...or perhaps a bit more often.  And I will often work in posts about my, ahem, eclectic interests--everything from NASCAR and baseball to my latest foray into the fiber arts.

All in all, I can ensure you a view of life in the District through anachronistic eyes, all expressed with my inherent Jersey sass.

So let's get started!