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 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!