Environmental Nirvana is Unattainable

I am killing the planet.

You are too, don’t worry. We’re in this together. Despite the fact that I campaigned door-to-door to fight fracking, repurpose plastic bags, and use public transportation—let’s be honest: I am punching Mother Nature in the junk.

I don’t buy organic. Those eggs? They’re factory farmed. My facial scrub has microbeads. I order Chinese takeout and it comes in styrofoam boxes. I threw a hot dog bun in the trash yesterday. It didn’t have mold on it, but it looked kinda stale and I couldn’t remember when I bought it.

I’m ready to inspire outrage with my mediocrity, if only to point out that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to have empathy.

But what about the chickens, the hordes cry, who will have empathy for the chickens? Yes, environmental stewardship is important, and like most I do what I can while always knowing that I could be doing better. But when the demand for total devotion to environmental purity turns away the casual recycler (i.e., the majority of Americans) the movement is doing more harm than good.

The trouble is balancing a desire to be sustainable with the practical realities of the country we live in—a society that drives us to consume because more Things will make us likable, happier, sexier. But having those Things is also necessary in order to be a functioning member of that very society.

I’m not putting down environmentalists, because we need empathy on both sides. It too infuriates me when the easiest and laziest attacks on activists are “Did you drive your car to this rally?” and “How much oil did it take to make your Nikes? How many Cambodian wage slaves toiled over your H&M t-shirt?” as if perceived individual hypocrisy invalidates the argument that we should take better care of our planet. “You hate big banks, well maybe you should stop having money.”

Unfortunately, I have neither a cotton farm nor the ability to spin cotton into thread or weave it into a piece of cloth to make into clothing. Our industrialized society has outsourced those tasks to machines or less developed economies, for better or worse allowing us to develop service skills and become more highly educated so that we have the time to rally around causes like conservation.

Yet in the face of Capitalism 101, we demand sainthood from people advocating change. Reprimanding the activist whose shoes have rubber soles to me is not that different from telling the woman fighting to keep abortion legal that if she can’t afford children she should just stop having sex. It’s like if we can’t all be the girl who produces zero trash, we should stop trying.

Empathy, people, empathy.

I grapple with the tradeoffs of reality and environmental stewardship. If I buy a compost bin for my backyard, will it offset the carbon emissions of the Amazon truck that brought it here, and the plight of the warehouse pickers? Am I literally strangling baby seals when I buy a plastic water bottle on a hot day because I forgot my reusable one at home? I’d love to buy organic, but right now it’s really important to me to pay off my student loans and build a nest-egg, while organic food is a great way to jack up my grocery budget.

Even the efforts we make feel hopeless when the system is stacked against us.

Take recycling, which is supposed to keep greenhouse gas-producing waste out of landfills. As of 2015, single-stream recycling is a huge mess. A recent Washington Post feature reports that recycling is becoming less cost-effective as recyclables lose value. District recycling officials lamented that because blue bins are getting bigger, people are tossing in more nonrecyclables and contaminating entire batches.

Some months ago, in an attempt to be a smarter consumer, I scoured D.C.’s recycling website for guidelines and found that all but four items can be recycled: styrofoam, “clamshell” packaging, foam packaging, and pizza boxes.

But what does that mean for those bags that shredded cheese comes in? Metal and plastic bottle caps? Deli meat containers? If something has the triangle with a number inside it, does that mean it’s recyclable? Are egg cartons that aren’t made of styrofoam allowed?

We’re not too dumb to recycle, we just don’t know the right way to do it because no one’s bothered to explain it to us.

But for a few people who have achieved carbon neutral-nirvana, life can’t revolve around the pursuit of environmental enlightenment. We should certainly reduce our consumption of packaged, processed, disposable goods, but an abstinence-only approach will fail. One person living a zero-waste life won’t force Kraft to use recyclable packing. Change has to happen outside of us too.

Prejudice is always “In” on Project Runway

The finale of Project Runway season 13 airs on Thursday. However, for a show that manages to be so racially diverse each season, the latest episodes of Project Runway expose some ugly prejudices. This is particularly shown in the racism around how Indian designer Sandhya Garg was treated by fellow contestants, and the classist language used to describe self-taught designers like Charketa Glover, an African American designer from Detroit.

On the air since 2004, Runway is one of the best competition reality shows on television. It gives an immensely talented group of people timed challenges to show off the extent of their craftsmanship and creativity. But while the show often has had people of color make it to the finals, only one African American has won the competition.

Runway is also a show that doesn’t leave its contestants much time to get under each others’ skin outside the workroom. It operates on a tight timeline with no breathing room between challenges to devolve into Real World or Top Model-esque house drama. Instead the producers throw in as many team challenges as possible, to create and milk turmoil.

Sandhya vs. (Almost) Everybody

Sandhya Garg, 28, is an Indian immigrant who intrigued the judges with subversive, modern twists on traditional Indian looks and designs that were subtle political statements about the treatment of women in India. She is also the first person of Indian descent to compete on Project Runway.

People aren’t used to seeing brown faces in fashion. There are many immensely talented Indian fashion designers, just not in the US. Fashion is Ralph Lauren, Alexander McQueen, Diane von Furstenberg–not Payal Singhal or Manish Malhotra.

When Nina Davuluri became Miss America last year, the Twitter sphere called her a terrorist, saying that “this is America…not India.” Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani models are also speaking out about their lack of representation on the runway–even in their home countries. South Asians in the fashion industry continue to be told they do not represent Western ideas of beauty.

On Runway, Sandhya made an early impression, winning both the first and third challenges for looks that the judges loved but other contestants thought were “weird” and pegged to send her home.

“Sandhya’s look looks like a stained curtain,” said designer Korina about Sandhya’s first winning look, adding, “It’s not high fashion. . . I’m just really lost.” The judges felt differently.

Sandhya's winning looks episode 1 (left; credit Lifetime) and episode 3 (right; credit AL.com)

Sandhya’s winning looks: episode 1 (left; credit Lifetime) and episode 3 (right; credit AL.com)

HEIDI: I haven’t seen anything like this before. You surprised me.

ZAC: It feels personal, all those little details, and that makes clothing special.

NINA: I think with you, you took something and made it into a fantasy. . . I have full confidence you have the creativity to make it in this show.

HEIDI: I love it when someone surprises us and shows us something different, and I feel like Sandhya did that today.

It was a little sad to see her go back to the other designers after just having won, only to be greeted with confusion and an incredulous, “You didn’t win, did you?” (Plus she is SO SWEET. She considers her time management skills her biggest competition.)

Things got real dramatic in episode two when designers were put in teams and asked to create looks out of materials you’d find in a movie theater. Sandhya, who had won the previous challenge, had immunity and could not be eliminated.

Episode 3 losing looks. (c) Lifetime

Episode 3 losing looks. (c) Lifetime

During judging, she was told that her look was the worst, and if she didn’t have immunity, she would be going home. Her teammates, Carrie Sleutskaya and Hernan Lander, did not impress the judges either and unfortunately, it was Carrie’s time to go.

Carrie, however, did not think so.

CARRIE: [after being eliminated, in designers lounge] This is fucked up. I’m sorry, but it’s fucked up. It’s straight up how I feel. I’m supposed to be going to Fashion Week. And no offense but we know who would have been going home and that’s what I think is unfair.

[In confessional] Because one person wasn’t allowed to be eliminated, I didn’t get to show myself at all. And that’s just what I can’t get over. I can’t help but cry, so whatever, shoot me.

TIM GUNN: [enters] Well this is a quiet room. Any words?

HERNAN: She didn’t deserve that.

CARRIE: [In exit interview] Had Sandhya not gotten lucky and gotten immunity, she would have been going home. Just like, hands down.

In a competitive reality show, there’s always talk about who deserves to win and lose. But on Runway, eliminations have rarely become this confrontational.

My critique is how Sandhya was treated up to this point and in subsequent episodes. The designers, who have known each other for about 72 hours, were bullying her, which led her to privately ask Tim if she won the first challenge fairly. Other designers chimed in on the lack of team dynamics:

SAM: [in confessional] Sandhya stepped out and Carrie and Hernan are like, “We don’t like what she’s making!” They’re right behind us so we’re hearing all the “No! No this!”

HERNAN: [in workroom. to SANDHYA, while taking apart her dress] I told you so many times it didn’t work. I told you like four times. You are safe.

SANDHYA: [in confessional] I had no say in what happened.

In the next episode, many contestants act suspicious of her and accuse her of sabotaging them on purpose when she has to pair designers with questionable vintage materials for the challenge. They feared, I imagine, that she would use her power to take revenge on them for making fun of her.

However, of what is seen on-camera in and out of confessional, Sandhya, like every other designer on the show, is confident in her design aesthetic, but she also appears to be one of the most professional, courteous, and willing to compromise. Given what we know about the lack of representation of Indian designers in the fashion industry, Sandhya’s point of view chafed with traditional beliefs in the design community.

After her second win, a web exclusive titled “The Winning Look Everyone Hated” showed the contestants’ catty sides. “Everyone was shocked Sandhya won again,” said designer Mitchell. “Everyone hated it. I didn’t get it.”

But designer Sean pointed out, “We forgot that the judges have seen so much and to see something fresh and different, they reacted positively.” Another designer, Amanda, added, “I would rather be in a competition where really out-there stuff is winning, rather than little black dresses.”

The judges’ ability to see that Sandhya had a unique point of view as a designer is encouraging for Indian Americans in fashion design–but it’s time for the other designers and audiences at home to realize the same thing. As Sean concluded, “In this competition you can get really mixed up between liking people as a person and liking people as a designer.”

Char vs. Korina

Each season, there are a few self-taught designers among the fashion school graduates, and more than once, someone will say “He/she is nice, but he/she can’t sew.” So when they win the whole competition, there’s some poetic justice.

Korina Emmerich, 28, graduated with a BA in Apparel Design from the Art Institute of Portland. Like Sandhya, she incorporates her ethnic background into her work. Korina is part-American Indian and adores bold, Southwestern patterns and motorcycle jackets. Also like Sandhya, she won two challenges and was on the bottom twice before being eliminated.

Charketa Glover, 37, is a self-taught designer from Detroit, Michigan. Eliminated in episode six, she received the Tim Gunn Save, a one-time opportunity for Tim Gunn to bring back a designer he believes was eliminated too early. To date, Char has been in the top twice and bottom three times, but has not won a challenge.

Prejudice against self-taught designers often comes out in team challenges, when the self-taught combine their unorthodox processes with a teammate who is classically taught, to mixed results. On Runway, contestants are often quick to point out when they think fellow (often self-taught) designers can’t sew. Even Sean, Char’s assigned partner in episode 11, says, “I love Char’s design ideas. . .The only problem is, she can’t sew as well as the rest of us.”

It appears to be easier to dismiss someone by saying they can’t sew rather than confront the fact that they got to the same point you did without professional training. Often when contestants accuse their partners of being unable to sew, they’re accusing them of not understanding fashion school terminology.

In episode 11, when Korina and Char were both on the bottom, Char admitted she didn’t do her best work, but Korina vehemently disagreed with the judges.

Char (left, center), Korina (right) episode 11 losing looks.

Char (left, center), Korina (right) episode 11 losing looks. (credit: TomandLorenzo.com, democracydiva.wordpress.com)

The judges gave Korina and Char a rare tiebreaker: one hour to make an entirely new dress. Char won, receiving praise for creating something chic and simple in the time limit. Korina’s dress, in her own words, was “awful.”

Korina's (left) and Char's (right) one-hour tiebreaker looks. (credit: TomandLorenzo.com)

Korina’s (left) and Char’s (right) one-hour tiebreaker looks. (credit: TomandLorenzo.com)

“I have to make a dress against somebody I don’t have the utmost respect for, as a designer, and then lose against them. It’s kind of an awful feeling,” Korina said in confessional, missing the fact that sometimes in a reality competition show, you need to compete against people you dislike.

She also accused Char of not making her own clothes. It’s easy to “stretch knit fabric over a dressform…and have someone else do it, I guess,” she said, referencing the fact that they each got to work with their teammate from their previous challenge. Meanwhile, the judges complimented Char’s “smart choices” in choosing an easy fabric to work with.

KORINA: Who called that one? Anybody? Anybody? Who thought that I was going home today? You were out, you were eliminated.

CHAR: And Tim brought me back. . . Here we are five challenges later and I’m still here. Don’t point fingers at me, I have never pointed a finger at you.

KORINA: Char, this is not about you.

CHAR: [in confessional] I was a designer before this competition and I will be one after. Regardless of whether she believes she’s a better designer, I’m still here.

When the Tim Gunn Save was introduced in season 12, it was granted to Justin, the show’s first-ever deaf contestant. Like Char, Justin had never won a challenge all season, although he did go to design school, and went on to show at Fashion Week with the final four. On Thursday, Char will be doing the same.

Comparing Justin's (top) and Char's (bottom) track records throughout their respective seasons. (credit: Wikipedia)

Comparing Justin’s and Char’s track records throughout their respective seasons. (credit: Wikipedia)

We know Char works as a cosmetologist. We don’t know her whole life story, finances, if and where she went to college, or what for. We do know she lives in Detroit, where the average salary is just over $25,000 a year. Parsons The New School for Design, which has hosted Runway for most of its seasons, is the eighth most expensive school in the US–annual tuition approaches $60,000. When every other column about art school says the debt is not worth it, it’s conceivable that someone living in one of the harshest economies in the country could not justify that burden for a low-income career that might not even pan out. As Sean said in episode 11, Char is not like “the rest of us.”

Char is also one of only two self-taught designers this season. The fact that she was selected for the show, won Tim Gunn’s confidence, and has made it this far only to be told by other designers that she doesn’t belong and isn’t respected, is unfair. It implies that because she couldn’t afford fashion school, she is less talented than those who could, when in fact her fresh designs are the result of her real-world experiences.

Let’s not forget how in season 8, self-taught finalist Michael Costello endured episode after episode of vitriol from other contestants because they not only alleged that he “couldn’t sew” but also that he was stealing their ideas. Now his portfolio includes Beyoncé.

Beyonce wears Michael Costello to 2014 Grammys. (Credit: necolebitchie.com)

Beyonce wears Michael Costello to 2014 Grammys. (Credit: necolebitchie.com)

Similar accusations were levied against season 7 winner Anya Ayoung Chee, who said she learned to sew about four months before appearing on Runway.

The common thread in both Char’s and Sandhya’s stories is they were both told they did not deserve to be in the competition, and they were held to double standards for reasons that ultimately stemmed from their race or class.

In a reality show, it is impossible to know exactly what happens behind the scenes. The judging is anonymous, but to what extent? The show’s producers edit the footage for the most compelling, dramatic story, and ask myriad questions in confessional only to use the most inflammatory soundbyte. They use these techniques to create heroes and villains, making us cheer when their chosen villain, Korina, is sent home.

They do not, however, manufacture prejudices.

Development or just gentrification?

Like so many people in DC, I moved over Labor Day weekend.

While I didn’t shed any tears for my old apartment (thanks to memories of bedbugs, shootings, and cockroaches) I missed watching the rapid development on the right arm of the Red Line.

For two years, I commuted downtown on the Red Line. Half of it was aboveground, a perk to living in the northern part of the District. I now travel from Eastern Market, which means that while my commute is shorter, it is also now entirely underground.

The perks of an aboveground commute go beyond exposure to sunlight and cell service–you get to watch the city grow around you.

Here’s some of the development I saw between Union Station and Fort Totten in just two years:

NoMa/Gallaudet University

NoMa has undergone such rapid development in the past few years that many of its high-rise apartments are still vacant. The station opened in 2004 amid warehouses and industrial parks. Then named New York Avenue, it didn’t take long for high-profile tenants like the Justice Department, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Securities and Exchange Commission, CNN, and NPR to draw development to the area, and the neighborhood’s eventual rebranding to NoMa – “North of Massachusetts Ave.” According to The Washington Post, as of March 2014 NoMa was 50 percent built out, with “16 million feet of office space, two hotels, almost 5,000 residential units and 200,000 square feet of retail space.”

I’m unsurprised by NoMa’s boom because opening new transportation options to previously less-accessible areas creates the kind of demand that leads to widespread development. Check out a brief history of NoMa’s development in Smart Growth America and the Urban Land Institute for more.

Rhode Island Ave. (I moved to DC in 2012, but don’t forget about the big construction project in 2011 to build Rhode Island Row, a new set of shops and apartment buildings adjacent to the Metro.)

Watching the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School go up was a staple of my morning commute. The building went up so quickly that even Google Maps still shows anempty, overgrown lot.

carlos rosario before

Now it’s this cool, modern building overlooking the Metro Branch Trail.

Carlos Rosario 2014

Today you can watch construction start on a long-awaited pedestrian bridge that givescommuters on the west side of the station safe, easy access to the platform.

Ped Bridge


Brookland’s trumpeted development project, Monroe Street Market, surged to life last year. The mixed-use development was intended to create a “college main street experience,” according to UrbanTurf. Within the last year, several boutique shops have opened and a large Barnes & Noble now draws CUA students shopping for textbooks.

Last month, MRP won a bid to develop nearly 300 additional apartment units and a new Kiss & Ride lot just east of the Metro. This has some, including the president of the local civic association, up in arms, accusing Metro of being more concerned with their bottom line than the health of the community. Construction will begin in 2016.

Fort Totten

Speaking with long-time neighborhood residents, development in Fort Totten was stalled in the talking phase. While the luxury apartment complex that now surrounds the station was completed in 2012, the neighborhood is still a food desert — grocery stores had been promised for decades without being delivered. My cheap rent on the other side of the tracks made sense.

Fort Totten, 2014

However, recent reports say my former neighborhood is becoming a hot item for developers. Construction has finally begun on Art Place, a $116 million mixed-use complex with 500 residential units and a children’s museum. Fort Totten Square is another planned development, a four-story apartment complex anchored by a Walmart on the first floor.

The Walmart has obvious benefits (jobs, no more driving to Maryland for groceries) and the children’s museum would hopefully provide cultural benefit or fun activities for the many young immigrant families in the neighborhood. But will the “market rate yet competitive” apartment rents promised by Totten Square be affordable for the people pushed farther and farther from downtown DC to find places to live?

From Columbia Heights, Brookland, and Petworth, development approaches Fort Totten from all angles. What that means for the current residents is unclear.

There’s no way Stars Hollow could ever be a real town

When did American television become obsessed with small towns? Back in the 90s and early 00s, you couldn’t swing a Bop It without hitting one of primetime TV’s Main Street-obsessed shows like Northern Exposure, Dawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Smallville.

In recent years, we’ve seen the growing urbanization of television, as the housing crisis made American suburbs less attractive and small town life seemed less rosy. Across networks, the 2014-15 primetime lineup is pushing towards more shows set in vibrant urban centers like Washington, DC,  New York, and – I guess – Orlando? (Check out the lineups here CBS, NBC, ABC). Media has made the small town into a cultural ideal. In his book How Cities Work about urban politics and city planning, Alex Marshall says:

Even though the traditional “place” has died, it remains embedded in our collective memory. It’s fascinating how many standard television shows and movies still organize characters and plots around a Main Street, with a corner store or bar, even though those things don’t exist in most people’s lives. A standard television show, like Beverly Hills 90210, still has its pretty teenagers Jason and Kelly hang out at an urban-style soda shop, which wouldn’t exist in the automobile-oriented Beverly Hills. . .the show gets away with it by stylizing the retro soda-and-hamburger joint as one that is being consciously nostalgic.

How inaccurate are the cities and towns we see on TV week after week and what do they say about our nostalgia for a sense of place? Gilmore Girls, which was still in its earliest seasons at the time Marshall’s book was first published, is a more modern example of the 90210 phenomenon, but few things have changed.

Stars Hollow is the fictional home of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, the mother and daughter at the heart of Gilmore Girls. You probably remember Gilmore Girls as the long-running, fast-talking family show on WB that ran in the early to mid-00s. It’s an idyllic New England town, with sweet neighbors and colorful festivals. The kind you still dream of moving to when you get tired of city life. It also can’t exist.

Stars Hollow from above / source: WB Studio Tour Site

Stars Hollow from above / Source: WB Studio Tour Site

“There are twelve stores in this town devoted entirely to selling porcelain unicorns.” – Luke Danes

Stars Hollow is a fictional small town located about 30 minutes outside Hartford. It’s roughly based on the Connecticut towns of Essex (pop. 6,605), Wallingford (18,210), and Washington Depot (3,578). Though the population of Stars Hollow is never given, based on what we see of the town, we can assume that its population is closer to the city centers of Essex or Washington Depot than the more urbanized Wallingford.

Essex, whose town motto is “Best Small Town in America” has a roads named Partridge Hill Lane and Sunset Terrace. The median age is 44. It has a riverfront museum and a yacht club on the shore of the Connecticut River, a stone’s throw from Long Island Sound. People there probably use words like “stone’s throw” when giving directions.

I took a virtual walk down Main Street of Essex Village, the closest approximation of where most of the action takes place in Stars Hollow. In How Cities Work, Marshall argues that many modern American towns no longer have a functioning downtown, since cars have enabled us to drive to big box stores for less expensive toiletries and basic necessities. Left behind are the artisanal soap boutiques, the mom n’ pop fudge shops you visit once a year, the new age jewelry emporiums, etc. So how does Essex Village compare?

essex 1

Aegean Treasures, corner of Ferry and Main St. / Source: Google Maps

In my virtual walking tour, I came across at least three specialty clothing stores (Aegean Treasures, Scensibles, and The Silkworm), a jeweler, Selene’s Sweet Shoppe, and an antique store. Those half-circle red, white and blue flags are as ubiquitous as the extra P’s and E’s. Surprisingly, there was also a Talbots in the heart of town – an odd location for an older womens’ clothing store you usually see in shopping malls.

Essex Main Street / Source: Google Maps

Essex Main Street / Source: Google Maps

Unsurprisingly, Essex Village lacks many of your basic amenities. For groceries, you can go to Sam’s Food Stores, a convenience store on the corner of Main and Ferry Street, but it seems like the New England  equivalent of a 7-11. Essex Village residents (villagers?) need to drive – no sidewalks to speak of – two miles past farms and construction companies to reach the nearest bastion of civilization: a strip mall complete with a supermarket, pharmacy, liquor store, dry cleaners, Hong Kong Kitchen, and kung fu studio.

Essex Strip Mall / Source: Google Maps

Essex Strip Mall / Source: Google Maps

By contrast, Stars Hollow has a surprisingly vibrant business district, despite Mr. Danes’ quote about porcelain unicorns. You barely need to leave town to buy what you need, whether its purple hair dye or school supplies. It has a small thriving grocery store in the town square – Doose’s Market, named for owner and town magistrate Taylor Doose.

The fact that these stores exist and are doing as well as they appear to be is all very improbable. In season three, we learn that Jess, resident Holden Caulfield and boyfriend of Rory Gilmore, begins picking up extra shifts at the nearby Walmart. He works there nearly 40 hours a week on top of going to high school (sometimes), seeing his girlfriend, and working at Luke’s Diner. Although he has a car, we have to assume that in order to maintain that type of schedule, he is not driving very far to work.

Let us note now that there is a Walmart just 10 minutes outside Essex Village.

The effects a Walmart has on small businesses are well-documented.A 2008 study found a net decline of 150 retail jobs at the county level following a Walmart opening, meaning that each Walmart employee displaced 1.4 retail workers. A study conducted in 2012 looked specifically at the impact of a Walmart on small towns and found that while towns with a Walmart saw their retail sales stabilize and increase, most of the increase went to Walmart.

Unsurprisingly, specialty stores that don’t need to compete with Walmart often stay in business, which is antiques, goldsmiths, and specialty clothing boutiques continue to thrive on Main Street. Stars Hollow lists among its establishments, a dance school, an antique shop, a music store, two bookstores, five restaurants, an office supply store, and a store for cat-themed gifts. Like Essex, some of these are your typical kitschy attractions that the locals might visit once or twice a year to buy a gift for Mother’s Day or a baby shower, but others, like the office supply store, are curiously useful.

Lukes Diner / Source: Warner Bros.

Lukes Diner / Source: Warner Bros.

One would have to reason that with 28 named businesses in Stars Hollow, there is some off-screen turnover, as places like Stars Hollow Baby and Stars Hollow Party Supply go under, unable to compete with the behemoth selling diapers and birthday balloons just a short drive away.

Stars Hollow is the sort of neighborhood that followers of New Urbanism fetishize – somewhere with a nostalgic sense of place and community,  large, pedestrian-friendly spaces and a variety of shops you can walk to while still accommodating automobiles and gargantuan homes. But New Urbanism is an aesthetic solution to a functional problem. Stars Hollow has no internal economic engine, other than perhaps an active tourism industry given the popularity of inns.It would be the tourists, not the quirky Stars Hollow residents, who are keeping the cat-themed gift shops and porcelain unicorn emporiums alive.

I will give Gilmore Girls credit for its inclusion of public transportation in the series, though only Rory seems to take advantage of it to travel to her grandparents house and school. But the problem remains that a town like Stars Hollow would not exist the way it does, where it is, with its local businesses when you consider external economic forces. Doose’s Market would eventually be run out of business by Walmart or some other chain grocery store outside of town and might be replaced by a Sam’s Food Stores. Rather than spending more money on hair products at the downtown beauty boutique, you would rather drive to the CVS less than a mile away.

Ultimately, there is no actual incentive to shop in downtown Stars Hollow, yet people keep doing it.

This is Stars Hollow. You take three left turns and you’re back in the center of town.” – Luke Danes

The small towns we see in shows like Gilmore Girls, Beverly Hills 90210, and even Sunnydale from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which despite its minor vampire problem also falls into this category) all portray the small, close-knit, liberal, walkable community that we yearn for in the real world.

Springfield / Source: ??

Springfield / Source: ??

Marshall notes that even in The Simpsons, a show that satirizes modern suburbia, can’t do without Main Street.

The Simpsons live in the the prototypical two-story-with-attached-garage suburban home, and shop at the Quiki-Mart run by the Indian clerk. Bart skateboards to school, almost surely an impossibility in the suburban community that the Simpsons live in . . .  The town of Springfield is seen as possessing a classic city hall and square, rather than a faceless office complex on a parking lot, which is the style in so many suburban cities. It’s as if a town were impossible to construct conceptually without a Main Street, even though Bart’s counterpart in real life almost surely does not know one.

Stars Hollow doesn’t seem like a fantasy first, but it is. Straddling fiction and reality, it gives the impression that somewhere, a place like this could and does exist, and can be replicated.

“Drive west, make a left at the haystacks and follow the cows.” – Paris Geller

Today there are a lot of places that look like Stars Hollow, some built by New Urbanists and some of them legitimate survivors of the pre-automobile era. I grew up in Farmington/Farmington Hills, Michigan, an affluent suburb just northwest of Detroit. Along with being the 30th Safest City in America, it was ranked 27th Best Place to Live by CNNMoney in a 2013 list of America’s Best Small Towns, citing affordable homes and a historic downtown with modern shops and restaurants.

Downtown Farmington / Source: Google Maps

Downtown Farmington / Source: Google Maps

Farmington has a lovely downtown area on Grand River Avenue, thanks to the millions of dollars invested in redevelopment, now featuring a weekly summer farmers’ market. For about two city blocks surrounding the town public library, you can buy jewelry, visit a Celtic goods store, a handful of neighborhood restaurants, and a vintage second-run movie theater. The roads and parking lots close down for the annual Founders Festival, where you can buy art, handmade clothing, and scrap metal yard sculptures.

But behind those vintage stores and redesigned sidewalks is a strip mall/plaza with a rotating cast of characters – a bargain bookstore that was once a Borders Express and Halloween store and  JoAnn Fabrics. A gym that used to be a shoe store and bookstore. Stores that went out of business and have been vacant for years because people are driving to Kroger or Busch’s instead. Across the street from the Celtic giftshop, there’s a small, cozy restaurant space where tenants never seem to last more than a year.

The plaza behind the curtain. / Source: Google Maps

The plaza behind the curtain. / Source: Google Maps

Drive just one mile west on Grand River and you hit another strip mall – sorry – plaza. This one has been empty for at least the last five years. I remember when I was in middle school (just over ten years ago) it was home to a family-owned grocery story, a hobby shop where I bought and painted a model airplane with my dad, and a diner my parents visited every weekend.

Drakeshire Plaza before / Source: Google Maps

Drakeshire Plaza about seven years ago / Source: Google Maps

Today, Drakeshire Plaza, still in view of the historic downtown homes near the redeveloped sidewalks and farmer’s market, remains empty despite promises of an incoming Walgreens and other stores promoting walkability that have been discussed on and off since 2008.

Drakeshire Plaza today. / Source: Google Maps

Drakeshire Plaza today. / Source: Google Maps

Farmington is still ranked one of the best small towns in the country if CNN is any authority in the matter, and Stars Hollow would assuredly make the list too.

But the point is, a historic downtown is often window dressing covering up decaying strip malls struggling to lure residents. Suburban teens are driving to shopping malls to congregate, not patronizing the local diner. Stars Hollow is supposed to be a fantasy town where we all wish we could live. It represents not just Hollywood’s fabrication of a Main Street to create story, but also our collective desire for a place where business and community are one and the same. Where the places we go to work are like second homes, not meaningless office blocks.

My call is not for complete realism in television – we get enough of that day to day – but I would love to see a storyline where Taylor struggles to compete with Walmart. I’d be thrilled if there was a plot around trying to save the unicorn-vending gift shop from going out of business. Can you imagine watching Stars Hollow struggle through the 2008 recession? Now that would be drama.

The book that fundamentalists warn your parents about

I was an avid reader growing up. Like, super avid. The avidest. Part of it was because my parents thought the library was a fitting substitute for day care. Growing up, my babysitters were Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia, and Stacey. But you know how sometimes you find this book and it completely alters your reality, so that for months and maybe subconsciously years later, you are convinced that dragons and unicorns are absolutely real.

The Farmington Public Library was awesome. It was small, with the children’s section in the basement. I think they remodeled it when I was in middle school, putting a mural in the hallway by the stairs with this awesome three-dimensional leafy tree made of I don’t know what but a motion-activated owl hooted at you from the branches when you walked downstairs and that was pretty great. I attended a book club for precocious young geeks in that basement, and spent a lot of summers on the floor of the YA corner reading the latest Tamora Pierce novel.

Dragons and Unicorns: A Natural History

Dragons and Unicorns: A Natural History

I think I was nine when I found Dragons and Unicorns: A Natural History. Written by Swedish duo Karin and Paul Johnsgard, the book “describes the anatomy, characteristics, and behavior of these two elusive creatures, traces their relationship with humans, and provides a field identification guide.” I distinctly remember picking it out of the nonfiction section, where it was probably next to something like “How Volcanoes Work” or “Explore the Solar System.”

Being, as I was, in awe of the infallibility of the librarian – I took that nonfiction label very seriously.

Dragons and Unicorns was neither thick nor thin. It was printed on this rough, parchment-like paper, charmingly yellow. The drawings were minimal but detailed, like something you’d find in Darwin’s Origin of Species. It was decidedly not the oversized, Dragonology: The Complete Book of Dragonsbook that included on every page a pop-up picture, or shiny touchable “dragon scale” and read “WARNING: for true believers only.” The Johnsgards’ book didn’t beg a nine-year-old to read it.

However, I had just finished C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, was deep into the Unicorns of Balinor series, and was still anxiously anticipating the long delayed sequel in Bruce Coville’s Unicorn Chronicles. I had a framed poster of a rearing unicorn above my bed. I. Lost. My. Shit.


I’ve never found a book that more closely resembled an 18th century text and that utterly convinces you of its authenticity. There are evolutionary trees that show how unicorns evolved from two horns to one. There’s an entire section devoted to explaining why flying dragons actually don’t have forearms. (It would be ridiculous! That’s like having two sets of arms!) And did you know that unicorns become sexually active in the fall, at about three years of age? They have a gestation period of about nine months, similar to humans.

fanny berg askag/flickr

fanny berg askag/flickr

Let me assure you, there is no foreword to this book that says “Just so you know, guys, this book is fiction and dragons and unicorns aren’t real.” There’s no disclaimer written by a well-meaning editor on the copyright page saying “This is a work of fiction and you shouldn’t actually go to the frozen tundras of Canada searching for dragons.”

I actually don’t remember a lot about reading the book, other than I think I renewed it three times and one time read it in the bathtub, where I accidentally tore off a tiny corner of the front cover. The book inspired some elementary fanfiction and more than a few imaginary unicorn rides. I fashioned a horn out of a cheap party hat and put it on my stuffed pony. I sat in my backyard and waited for a unicorn to find me and lay its head in my lap.

Like a lot of things that you obsess over when you’re nine, I eventually forgot about the book. I stopped going down to the children’s section, because no self-respecting preteen would be caught dead in the children’s section. The one time I remembered it, sometime in high school, I went back to look for it but the book was gone, reported missing.

I bought a copy of Dragons and Unicorns off Amazon about a year ago to see if it was as serious as I remembered. Though not disappointed by the content, I was a little disappointed by the fact that I didn’t really believe it anymore. I mean, right, ok, unicorns don’t actually exist, dragons are not roaming northern Siberia, etc. But for a moment – for one really, really long moment – I really wanted to believe that it had all been true. The detailed anatomy, the maps of natural habitats and single sightings…the thing is, a big part of me still wants to be sitting on the rough carpet in the warm light of the children’s basement, with a bookcase to my back, thumbing through Bruce Coville’s latest novel.

Seeing my parents last weekend made me feel like a kid again, for better or for worse. Having a “big girl” job has made it hard for me to read for pleasure and make time for myself. I’m realizing that I’m at the age of the protective bubble of college and temporary internships and being on mom’s health insurance is over. The age of professional responsibilities and long-term consequences and out-of-pocket premiums is beginning. I’m not a “maiden” and the unicorn won’t find me in my third-floor walkup, and that’s the way it is sometimes.

But…sometimes. Sometimes you’ve got to keep believing. And if I ever have kids, you better know that if they ask me if dragons are real, I’m going to say yes.

A year in objects

A new year and a new blog design! New Years Resolution number one: will stop talking about how terrible I am at updating this blog, because everyone hates it when people who post content talk about how inconsistent they are at posting content.


I’ve learned a lot about myself over the past year because a lot of stuff has happened. It’s my first year out of Michigan, first year in DC, first job. Making things has always been a coping mechanism, so it’s no surprise that over the past year I’ve done a lot with my hands, though I haven’t incorporated it into my TV-marathon-blogging. So here it is:

A Year in DIY Objects

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Final Fantasy VII: Aren’t we getting away from the point, here?

Yeah so it’s been a while since I’ve actually done what I promised I’d do in this blog. i.e. Finish things and then write about finishing them and crocheting. The reason is – bed bugs!

[IMAGE REDACTED] (No seriously you should look up what they look like so when you have them, you know that you have them.)

In the interim, while 90% of my possessions are either in plastic bags or being fumigated, I’ve been staying with my boyfriend and playing Final Fantasy VII.

FFVII cast

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Reality TV: An Interlude

It’s been a difficult month for completing things. Well, actually I’ve finished a lot of big stuff. A lot! My job hunt is over for the immediate future (hurray!), I’m rooming with one of my best friends (uraa!), and I’ve made great strides in combating my apartment’s cockroach infestation (…yay?).  But ever since I got this new job it’s been hard to focus on finishing stuff. I’ve barely touched any of my books, and forget marathoning TV shows.

That is…except for Project Runway.

I've watched three seasons of this show over the last two months.

I’ve watched three seasons of this show over the last two months.

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Strangers telling stories

I love listening to people tell stories. In fact I often wish people would just stop expecting me to say things at parties, and talk about themselves instead. This is probably why I feel closer to podcast hosts than to actual humans.

Many of you know how much I love  the radio show This American Life, which recently aired its 500th episode. Hosted by public radio heartthrob Ira Glass, each hour-long episode explores a topic, often through reporting, personal stories, or readings of short fiction. The investigative reporting on the show has exposed arbitrary drug court sentences, Mike Daisy’s lies about what he allegedly saw at Chinese Apple plants, and how shady groups are using patents to shake down tech companies.

My affinity for podcasts (I’m subscribed to twelve, and I regularly listen to four or five) probably comes from being raised by audiobooks, many of which bordered on radiodramas with full voice casts. Over and over, I played Russian cassettes of Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, and a Swedish series about a fat man named Karlsson who lived on the roof and flew around using a tiny propeller.

And their many adventures.

And their many adventures.

This fits into the “completism” theme of this blog because of my tendency to listen through the backlog of shows once I find a new one I really enjoy. Not usually from beginning to end, but keeping up with current episodes while simultaneously listening to older shows. (I’m currently on episode 413 of This American Life…) But while I’m not writing this having recently completed any shows, a number of the shows I listen to have hit milestones. Slice of SciFi also recently celebrated its 500th episode – which they hit after eight years, rather than TAL’s 20.

Over the years, I’ve gotten to know podcast hosts even better than some of my close friends, seen shows breed spinoffs, podfade, and even cried when a favorite host passed away. There’s something intimate about the audio format. Something special about feeling like a person is sitting with you and telling you stories, or feeling like you’re hanging out with a group of nerdy friends talking about the latest in sci-fi television while you crochet something new.

The Geologic Podcast, a weekly skeptical one-man-show, this week aired episode 324. I’ve been listening since episode 20. It’s weird and comforting to me how these shows have stayed with me through thick and thin. They’ve been there for me when I was in high school, on a long, boring flight to Europe, and while our tour bus drove through the Irish countryside. They’ve been there for me when I drove to college every day. There for me through all of my major relationships. I feel like I’ll never be able to stop listening to strangers tell me stories.

Favorite shows, through the ages.

Favorite shows, through the ages.