Friday, October 19, 2012

Jean Jennings and ME


I can't believe I typed those words. I can't believe I'm on this adventure. I can't believe that any of this is happening at all.

It is, though. Really and truly, without a doubt, I am spending the day with a woman I've admired from afar since 1985. Turns out, she is as excited to meet me as I am to meet her. Even better, she wants to hear what you have to say, too. So read, think, and join the conversation. The Burrow is going big time, denizens.

What am I nattering on about? Read on and share the joy.

TBG and I became charter subscribers to Automobile Magazine when the first issue was announced in 1985. David E. Davis, Jr was the publisher of this glossy monthly picture book of upscale vehicles and travels-in-a-great-car-with-a-writer-and-a-photographer articles. There were techy, geek filled paragraphs, for sure. There were also dream-like sequences describing fast drives in fabulous cars on empty roads. For a girl married to a car guy, it was heaven.

While the husband oohed and aahed over all that torque at the low end, I could admire the interior finishes and relate to the less mechanical details. How the cars felt while they were being driven was front and center of the magazine. Did they hold up over a Four Seasons Test Drive? Were the bells and whistles more than fanciful and unnecessary additions to the driving experience? Was the design innovative or derivative? Did the air scoops, the foils, the odd new shape make a difference when one got behind the wheel? Was it a driver's car? These were details on which I could hang my hat, even when the something-to-something-else-ratio conversations were going on way above my head.

And then there was Vile Gossip.

I always look at the back page of a magazine before I look at the table of contents. Meg Greenfield in Newsweek, The Final Word in Sports Illustrated..... I know the editorial staff took great pains to create a full body of work in the middle of the magazine, but I am interested, first and foremost, in a personal connection. Is that a girly thing to admit? Perhaps. It's also the truth. Automobile Magazine added a new author to my pantheon of back page first-reads and her name was Jean Lindamood.

She posted an almost goofy picture of herself beside the masthead. Her articles focused on the food and the conversation as well as the mechanical details of the cars she was describing, when she was describing cars at all. Often, she focused on the personalities in the automotive world, the professional drivers, the photographers, the designers. She shared the time she spent with them... and made me lust for an opportunity to join her on an adventure.

I loved having a woman in my automotive space.

Over the years, she married Tim Jenninngs and changed her name... but not her style. She was promoted to Executive Editor when DEDjr retired in 2000, and I felt a frisson of wonder at the thought of a woman running a car mag. At the time, I had no idea just how unusual that was. Though Car and Driver and Road and Track also came to our mailbox, I was rarely tempted to open them. They didn't feel friendly to a woman who was reading in an ongoing effort to keep up with her husband's passion but who wasn't ready to get down and dirty and change her own oil.

Which is not to say that I couldn't have changed my own oil. Unlike Ms Jennings, whose father taught her cars along with her ABC's as they ate breakfast, Daddooooo thought that girls should wear short skirts and flag down a helpful man when car trouble arose. If that failed, there was always AAA. What I learned, I learned on my own. I changed the distributor cap and wires on my 1967 Bonneville all by myself one sunny spring day..... though I wish someone had told me to let the engine cool down before I began the project. Singed skin aside, I saved myself some money and had a great story to tell.

While I have a vague understanding of the workings of the internal combustion engine, for the most part I like to sit back and enjoy the ride. I like the short quick strokes of my VW GTI's manual transmission even though I don't really understand the intricacies of how they translate into movement over pavement. I like the way the Porsche sits lower as the speed increases and we shift into 6th gear.... like the woman who is being teased in a current advertisement, I feel like it is grounded to the ground as it goes over the road.

I could feel the turbo lag in the NSX's and the heaviness of driving a Mercedes vs a BMW; 40some cars in 37 years of marriage is a lot of cars, denizens. I didn't know why they felt that way, but I knew that they did. Jean Jennings knew, too.

At times, it felt as if she and I were the only women who were interested in the subject. I don't remember an article (in any of the car mags) written by a woman other than Ms Jennings. I never thought about it as an issue. There weren't boys writing for Seventeen, after all. Why would girls do cars?

That disconnect is something to be explored, and I credit the last installment of Vile Gossip for making it obvious to me. Sitting on Douglas, TBG engrossed in Thursday night football, I picked up the November issue of Automobile and, as usual, turned to the back for Vile Gossip.

Lo and behold, Jean's going on-line. Next to the Magliozzi brothers of Car Talk I can't think of anyone else I would rather talk to on the subject. She pegged it exactly right when she described the site as bringing "the love to everyone who doesn't know the secret car-guy handshake and vocabulary but really likes cars?" That's me.

I was tooling along, enjoying her joy in the creation of the site, when I was brought up short by this sentence: "In thirty years, I have done exactly jack to foster women in this business." 

If that's not the bravest admission ever to appear in print, please send me some other contenders. For me, it struck a nerve... the nerve that is still pissed at Daddooooo for keeping the details of changing a tire to himself.... the nerve that regrets the times I shied away from something because it wasn't what girls did... the nerve that cringes every time I think of Mitt Romney needing a binder full of women to staff his Massachusetts cabinet. Women are out there. Women have a variety of interests. Women need role models.

My idol had feet of clay and I never knew it.

Without thinking too hard about it, I got off the couch and headed to the computer. I emailed the editors at BlogHer, the publishing network which reaches 50 million women world wide and on which The Burrow has a small but important (to me, at least) presence. Would they be interested in a piece on JeanKnowsCars.com? We could offer Ms Jennings a place to atone.

Yes! They thought it was a great idea and NO!, no one else had pitched the idea. That was the easy part. 

I was on the hook. I had the gig. I just had to make it happen. I made some phone calls, I sent some emails, I filled in a few Contact Us Here forms. I was stabbing in the dark. Princess Myrtle, who writes for the Financial Times after her stint as editor of the Yale Daily News, gave me some practical tips on making the connection happen. Little Cuter cheered me on, loudly and proudly. TBG wasn't surprised at all; he knew I had it in me to do this... and more. I was the only one who was freaking out... quivering in my boots...quaking... shivering... worrying and wondering.

At lunch with TBG a few days later, my phone rang.

"Is this Ashleigh?" came from the new-to-me phone number on caller id.
"This is she," I said, with a slight tingle rising from my belly to my heart.
"This is Jean Jennings," and I squealed. Loudly. Not very professional, but totally honest and from the heart. After thirty years of reading her work, Jean Jennings was talking in my ear, inviting me to Ann Arbor to share the love.

Fifty million BlogHer readers was wet my pants exciting for her.... and I knew I was in the presence of someone who is totally comfortable in her own skin. How she manages that while surrounded by men and manly things while carrying her girl parts along, too, is one of the many questions I'll be asking her today as I spend the day following her around at work.

Oh, did I mention that she is taking me to see The Barber of Seville tonight? Did I tell you that she invited me to sleep over at her farmhouse with her hubby and her hunting dogs? Did I tell you that she wears funky hats and laughs outrageously and made me feel as if she had known me for years, even though we spoke on the phone for only five minutes?

Did I tell you that she did all this before she knew my back story? She took me on merit, not from pity. She agreed to talk to the BlogHer community before she knew that her interviewer had once had her picture on the front page of USA Today. She's moved and touched and a little bit teary over what happened to Christina-Taylor and me, but that's not why she invited me to visit. She really does want to reach out and touch some bodies.... female bodies.... non-car-geek bodies... and she agreed to let me help.

Who knew that The Burrow would be hitting the big time? Who could have imagined that I'd be flying to Michigan on a business trip today? Who thought that I would actually get to have one of the conversations on my life list?

Only my husband, it seems. Oh, yes, Jean Jennings did, too.

So, denizens, as you are reading this I will be spending the day at the offices of JeanKnowsCars.com and Automobile Magazine with a woman who makes me laugh every time she emails or calls. She's at the top of her game, at the pinnacle of success, and she's looking to reach out to those she's ignored in her rise to the top. What do you have to say to that?

I'll be tweeting during the day (@ AbattheBurrow) as wonderful things happen. If you want to ask Ms Jennings a question, send me a direct message on Twitter or leave a comment here in The Burrow. I will keep my Kindle close and will check to see what you are interested in hearing. I'll try to ask it all.

There will be more – much much more – on my adventure here in The Burrow and on BlogHer. While you're waiting, why not cruise over to JeanKnowsCars.com and see what all the fuss is about. If you're not into cars, go for the video on Mr. Songs's hats.
I hope she lets me try some on tonight.

.

3 comments:

  1. OMG, I was raised around cars. My dad has his own mechanical business and my mother a race car driver. I have to think of a question and will tweet it to you.

    I didn't even know about the Web site; so excited to check it out.

    Congrats on the story. I'm so excited for you too.

    Have a good time.


    Megan xxx

    ReplyDelete
  2. As a girlchild of the 50's who grew up one block from Detroit's first 6 lane highway and fell in love with the smell of car exhaust, I feel your joy. The year I spent every single dime I made on my little red ragtop TR4-A IRS was one of my happiest. "Heart Like A Wheel", the film about Shirley Muldowney, car racer, is a fave. I will be watching Twitter today and am extra thrilled for you!! And autumn in Michigan, extra lovely.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Okay, I don't really have much of a "car" background per se. But I love the sexy lines of a Lamborghini and the purr of a Lotus. I can identify a lot of cars by sight (and probably get them right about 75% of the time). My father was famous for tinkering with cars and I still remember handing him the appropriate tools while he either crawled down the throat of a 55 Chevy truck or sidled under the belly of an El Camino. But I get the feeling of meeting someone you have admired from afar. I met an author for lunch once who was just so gracious and kind and invited me back to her house after lunch! It was life-changing and affirming all at the same time.

    You go girl! And let us know the details as they come.

    ReplyDelete

So.... what did you think? I'm interested.....

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