Tuesday, December 26, 2006

I love my grandmother!

Ok this wasn't the heaviest column- but it was two days before Christmas!

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on December 23rd, 2006:

As I write this, I am watching "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," my favorite movie at holiday times. It was one of my grandfather's most-loved movies, one we frequently watched regardless of the time and season when I went to visit him and my grandmother.

I've probably seen the movie seven or eight times since he passed away, far too soon in the summer of 2000, but I still think of him every time Chevy Chase sends a Christmas tree flying through his neighbor's house or destroys the Chicago power supply with his light display.

Fifty years from now, when I'm watching that movie on channel 3,457, I will probably still think of him.

My grandmother probably doesn't quite share our enthusiasm for this holiday classic, but that's OK.

Today I will drive through the countryside of eastern North Carolina to Litchfield, S.C., to spend the Christmas holiday with her. It's always a toss-up whether I'd rather spend the break down here with my extended family or at home in Michigan, where we had a beautiful, white Christmas each of the last two times I was there on the big day.

There's definitely not going to be any snow at the beach this weekend, but being able to spend a significant chunk of time with my grandmother will make it worthwhile.

My grandmother is the most selfless person I know. She seems to worry about pretty much everyone except herself. She does everything from taking personal responsibility for loving and caring for senior citizens without family in the area, to driving the carpool for my young cousins.

Two-and-a-half years ago, she broke her hip and had to go around in a wheelchair for several months.

She never complained, never wavered from putting the interests of everyone else around her ahead of her own, and was back in perfect shape faster than anyone could have expected. I hope that quick recovery was a reward for someone who truly lives by the Golden Rule.

It's amazing to walk around the complex of condominiums where she lives in Greenville, S.C. Everyone she sees, across four generations, stops to say a friendly hello to "Mrs. Patton." I have never seen this kind of reaction to any other person in any other place my entire life. But then again, I've never seen anyone so kindhearted and caring as my grandmother, so I can't say I find it terribly surprising.

I'll always think of my grandmother when I think of UNC's championship run during the 2005 NCAA basketball tournament. We watched the first half of the Sweet 16 game against Villanova together while I was visiting for Easter. UNC didn't play very well. She went to bed. UNC came back and won.

Two days later, we watched the start of the Elite 8 game against Wisconsin. Again, UNC did not start off particularly well. I went to the airport to fly back to Raleigh and, while waiting for my flight, saw UNC get its act together to win.

When I got back I had a message on my cell phone. It was my grandmother informing me that clearly her watching our games was bad luck, because Carolina was playing well when she wasn't watching and badly when she was. So, she was not going to watch them anymore.

She held to her word the next weekend and took one for the team. We beat Michigan State and Illinois to win it all. Did the great success have any connection to my grandmother's selfless act? Maybe or maybe not, but I'm glad she was willing to make the sacrifice.

So today I will drive through Holly Springs, Buies Creek, Dunn, Clinton, Whiteville and Tabor City on the back roads to Litchfield, just south of Myrtle Beach. I am looking forward to seeing my uncle Pat, his fiancâ??©e Terri, my charming cousins Maggie, Annie and Walter, and their parents Garry and Margo, my brother Alec and my parents. We have a close-knit family and the glue that will hold it together with all of us in one house for a week will, as always, be my grandmother.

As all of you travel by road, plane, or just stay at home this weekend, I hope you will be surrounded by family members you love and hold in as high regard as I do my grandmother. We should all be so lucky to have close family members we can be so proud of. Happy Holidays, everybody!


Monday, December 18, 2006

Blogs keep us plugged in on politics in Chapel Hill and Orange County

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on December 16th, 2006:

You probably know Sally Greene, Mark Kleinschmidt and Laurin Easthom well as members of the Chapel Hill Town Council. You may not, though, know about another pastime that the three of them also share. They are among the ever-growing cadre of local bloggers.

Greene is one of the most intellectually well-rounded people I have ever met, and it comes through in her blog postings. She practices law, lectures and teaches about racial issues in the South and has edited an essay collection about the writings of Virginia Woolf. Her postings in the nearly two and a half years since she started her blog, titled GreeneSpace, have touched on all of those topics as well as her more public role as a member of the council.

Some of her more recent postings have included a preview of a panel that she will be moderating next month in relation to desegregation in Chapel Hill, a discussion of Barbies and advice on affordable Christmas gifts.

Of course she has also delved into the scale of buildings downtown and other more political stuff.

She does a good job of posting new material most every day, and her blog is definitely like Forrest Gump's box of chocolate -- you never know what you're going to get.

I feel smarter for reading her blog, and I think many readers would, too. Check it out at greenespace.blogspot.com.

Mark Kleinschmidt's focus is a little more narrow than that of Greene, but the topics he covers on his blog still go far beyond that of standard town business.

In his day job, Kleinschmidt works as the executive director of the Fair Trial Initiative, which works to recruit and train death penalty lawyers.

Considering his professional interests, it's not surprising that his blog has become just about the best source of up-to-the-minute information about pending executions in the state.

For folks concerned about the death penalty, Kleinschmidt's blog is one-stop shopping for information on things they can do to help fight against it. It is also a good place to go to read his thoughts about ongoing capital cases across North Carolina, as well as national trends.

Kleinschmidt also provides good coverage of LGBT issues locally and around the country. For instance, last month he provided detailed coverage of a conference he attended in Houston for gay and lesbian leaders across the country.

Kleinschmidt has a unique perspective as one of a very small handful of openly gay elected officials in North Carolina, and that comes through in his writings. You can read his blog at markforcouncil.org.

The most thorough coverage of local government on a council member's blog is provided by Laurin Easthom.

She has provided in depth coverage of her thoughts on the Lot 5 development plans, wireless internet in Chapel Hill and upcoming public hearings.

She also occasionally covers other topics of interest to her. For instance, she has expressed her displeasure at the outsourcing of job duties that many UNC dental technicians have recently faced, as well as her distaste with some of the final actions of the Republican Congress.

Easthom's blog is updated pretty sporadically, but I don't fault her for it because she gets very few comments.

It is very difficult to sustain the motivation to be an active blogger if you don't feel like anyone is listening.

So maybe if you go and read the posts and write some comments at laurineasthom.wordpress.com, she will start writing more frequently.

I don't think elected officials have any obligation to blog whatsoever. Their service to the community through the dozens upon dozens of meetings they attend every month, in addition to all the e-mails and phone calls they have to respond to, is more than enough. But I certainly do appreciate the ones who do take the time to communicate with constituents through this public forum.

Of course, in its fourth year, orangepolitics.org, the baby of Chapel Hill Planning Board chairwoman Ruby Sinreich, remains the best place to go for discussion of local politics. Many local officials who do not maintain their own blogs do a great job of keeping up with and participating in the discussion there. Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, Alderman Dan Coleman and Chapel Hill council member Cam Hill all post there regularly. Every member of the Board of Aldermen has chimed in at one time or another, as have Orange County commissioners Moses Carey and Mike Nelson, and Chapel Hill council member Ed Harrison.

I think there are very few communities around the country that match the level of connectedness our elected officials in Orange County have.

If you haven't already, you can gain a wider perspective about local politics and the folks you have elected by checking out these four blogs.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

We need more variety on licenses

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on December 9th, 2006:

When I went to get my North Carolina driver's license this week, I had no idea it would be such a thought-provoking experience. Where else can you go to sit around for 45 minutes while the employees decide whether or not you're a sex offender and be tested on your knowledge of driving farm equipment in the same day?

When I got to the mobile unit that sets up in the parking lot across the street from the legislature several days a month to provide convenient services to the elected officials and those like me who work near them, the first thing they did was look at all of my identification documents. Fair enough.

The next thing they did was put my name into some sort of national sex offender database, which had Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' picture on it.

When they typed in my name, not only did the one registered sex offender in the country named Tom Jensen pop up, but also those of the many Tom Johnsons across our land.

I'm not sure whether this was proper procedure or not but the folks running the office, who were exceptionally nice, felt they had to go through and look at the pictures of every sex offender named Tom Johnson in the country to make sure I wasn't any of them. The unit only had a dial up connection, so this took an eternity.

While they were looking at pictures of 47-year-old men from Missouri, I took the written driving test.

It had never occurred to me to bone up on the rules about driving tractors on the highway or what rules I would have to follow if I was driving a school bus, but common sense prevailed and I passed the test.

Unfortunately, at this point they still hadn't determined my status as a sex offender, so they told me to go to work and call back later to see if they had found me yet among the list of sex offenders named Tom Johnson who live in states I've never been to.

When I got to work, my co-worker and friend Meagan Honnold asked me whether I was going to get the state seal, a lighthouse or an airplane as the background for my license.

I said I would probably get the seal, but that I didn't find any of the options to be particularly compelling. Although I must say I like the airplane because it really ticks off people from Ohio, and if there's one thing I like as a Michigan native, it's ticking off people from Ohio.

But I digress. Meagan, a native of Hendersonville, told me that one thing she didn't like about the choices for license backgrounds was that none of them represented the western part of the state. She's absolutely right -- the airplane and lighthouse are certainly symbols primarily associated with eastern North Carolina. Maybe the bias in license choices harkens back to the days where the state was governed by the eastern gentry.

There's no shortage of symbols of the west that could be added -- Grandfather Mountain, a dogwood tree, Mt. Mitchell or even a generic tribute to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Adding some of those western choices would also solve another flaw with the current menu. Meagan and I, good Sierra Club employees that we are, also agreed it was strange that with North Carolina being one of the most physically beautiful states in the country all of the options reflected man-made structures.

Having some license designs that represent the physical diversity of the state would be a good thing.

There already are some good choices for the eastern part of the state, and we had come up with ideas for the western part of the state, but how to represent the Piedmont? A few ideas come to mind.

A race track would acknowledge the importance of places like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham as the birthplace of NASCAR.

You could also represent the region's beacons of higher education with the Old Well or N.C. State's bell tower.

Having identified potential solutions to the pressing issue of lack of diversity in driver's license background choices, I realized it was time to head back to the DMV to see if I had been cleared as a potential sex offender yet.

When I got there I was informed that, indeed, "none of the Tom Johnson sex offenders looked anything like you!" You don't say. And I'm sure the nation is that much safer for them having gone through that ever so extensive search.

The process may have been a little more time-consuming than I had hoped for, but it gave Meagan and me a good opportunity to have a discussion about what features of North Carolina we love that we probably otherwise would never have had. I hope someone from the N.C. Department of Transportation will read this column and take our ideas to heart.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at tjensen@email.unc.edu or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.


Monday, December 04, 2006

Town should move forward with Lot 5

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, December 2nd:

Monday's upcoming vote by the Chapel Hill Town Council on whether to authorize the manager to negotiate a contract for the redevelopment of Lot 5 has led to a high level of public dialogue about the project. A recent public hearing drew 22 speakers on the proposal, and the debate has continued in meetings, letters to the editor and the blogosphere.

The level of interest is not surprising considering the active citizenry we have in this community and the importance of the decision. Nonetheless it is always heartening to see so many people take an interest in the future of our town.

I think the project is exactly what downtown Chapel Hill needs.

Chapel Hill voters have repeatedly supported candidates who are averse to sprawl and support the rural buffer. You can count me in that camp. But the town still needs to grow.

That means dense housing needs to be built somewhere. But at the same time many neighborhoods close to downtown have recently sought protections to ensure that their character is preserved as the town grows larger. I sympathize with their concerns as well.

I was somewhat horrified to hear a speaker suggest at the public hearing two weeks ago that this project should be pushed back to Northside. That kind of gentrification could truly be disastrous to the neighborhood.

So downtown clearly is the most appropriate place for this kind of development. One of its key goals is to attract folks who are transit- and pedestrian-oriented, and will have less of an emphasis on the car.

Some folks have criticized this approach, saying that the lack of a downtown grocery store and the ability of other basic retail needs to be met downtown will make it futile.

But when it comes to businesses that meet folks' core daily needs locating downtown, the adage from "Field of Dreams" clearly applies -- if you build it, they will come.

Those kinds of businesses don't set up shop downtown because the level of population density is not enough to support their existence. But if this project was built, it, combined with the housing developments built or slated for Rosemary Street, would likely increase the population enough that it would become a desirable location for a grocery store and significant retail.

Some folks have criticized the financial aspects of the deal, but the voices I heard in favor of it at the recent public hearing put those concerns to rest for me.

One affirmative speaker was Anita Badrock, the chairwoman of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce (although she was speaking as an individual). Business leaders usually aren't inclined to support something if they think it's a potential boondoggle.

Another speaker in favor was my Planning Board colleague Gene Pease, who has been a citizen leader in fighting for responsible municipal budgeting. He's also a national expert in return on investment, and if he says this is a good one for the town he's probably right.

He was joined in support by Roger Perry, a UNC trustee and respected leader in the local business community. I'm no business major, but if these folks think it's a good deal, that's good enough for me.

Delaying the approval of the project is not a good idea, either. Bottom line, the longer you wait on things, the more expensive they get. We've been working on this project for years. It's time to move forward.

With all the bumps that have happened along the way, this project could have easily been abandoned, which would have been a big waste of time and money. Kudos to the negotiating team, chaired by Bill Strom with support from Sally Greene and Cam Hill, for their work to get the town the best deal possible. When the three of them ran in 2003, this was an issue they all promised to work on, and it's always nice to see elected leaders who keep their word.

On a personal note, one of the reasons I love this project is that I would like to live in it myself.

I don't own a car and I commute by TTA to work in Raleigh every day. Lot 5 is about two minutes away from where I pick up the bus. It would be great to be able to walk right out of my house, catch the bus, and then come home at night and meet my daily needs within walking distance of my condo.

Right now there's nowhere that meets both the niceness and affordability criteria I would need to see to live on Franklin or Rosemary Street.

Certainly the ability to buy any significant number of groceries downtown is not currently being met.

The Lot 5 development is a strong means toward that end. I hope that when the Chapel Hill Town Council takes up this issue Monday night, it moves forward with a unanimous vote to show its strong commitment to a more vibrant downtown.

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