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Fifth Street

October 29, 2020

In this issue: Remembering Reid and Angle | Driveway Lifeline | Media Sommelier | Your Brain on Zoom


BECAUSE WE’RE TRAPPED in an election cycle that approximates riding a barrel over Niagara Falls, it might be hard to yank your attention back to a previous election (except maybe the one that got us here, 2016’s). But November 2 marks the 10th anniversary of a Nevada race that, while lacking the heavy stakes of an end-times POTUS tiff, was plenty seismic — and perhaps foreshadowing — in its own way: the race for U.S. Senate between incumbent Democrat Harry Reid and Tea Party darling Sharron Angle.

On paper, it should have been a lopsided laugher: the incumbent, who, as Senate majority leader, was (and remains) the highest-ranking, most powerful Nevadan ever to hold office in Washington, D.C. — a politician some describe as a chess master — versus a hard-right, gaffe-prone, mostly unimpressive challenger.

But this is Nevada, so it was close. 

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Always unpopular in the cow counties, Reid was seen by many as having “gone Washington” (despite being staunchly pro-Second Amendment and fending off talk of federal mining-tax reform, which would have hurt the rurals). “I’ve known Harry my entire life,” a Searchlight resident told me at the time, “and I just disrespect the man. I don’t believe he gives a rat’s ass about us.” That attitude, typical of the state’s libertarian undercurrent — one not always particularly under — lent credence to the impression that Reid was in trouble.

MICHAEL GREEN, UNLV history professor: “Angle both fit in with the Nevada's supposedly libertarian traditions and represented a different direction. ... We Nevadans are believers in our rugged individualism, and Angle appealed to that. That said, she reflected a right turn in the party nationally and locally, fueled in part by the Tea Party, in part by a long-term movement that had to do with another Republican from Nevada, Paul Laxalt, and a friend of his from Arizona, Barry Goldwater. They all moved the Republican Party into a distinct ideological silo.”

STEVE SEBELIUS, Review-Journal politics editor: “I think (Reid) was very vulnerable. Some would argue he was the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent that entire year. I think some of that was hyped by the fact that he was the most desirable target of that year. If the Republicans could have taken him out, they would’ve scored a very big victory.”

Those Nevadans who viewed Reid as their “quintessential devil,” as Sebelius puts it, were feeling giddily empowered in 2010. That spring, about 7,000 boisterous Tea Partiers gathered near Searchlight, Reid’s hometown, to pin their target onto the incumbent, cheer on Sarah Palin’s lib-owning rhetoric, and wave baroque signage (“Make Your Harry Ass Reid the Constitution”). 2010 also brought us Arizona’s infamous show-us-your-papers immigration law, which appealed to Nevada’s arch-conservatives. Even if the leading traditional GOP challenger, Sue Lowden, hadn’t doomed herself in the primary by talking about bartering chickens for healthcare — once those words left her lips, it hardly mattered what point she was making — it’s hard, in retrospect, to imagine the confrontational spirit of that moment churning up anyone but a Te Partier like Angle.

GEORGE McCABE (on Facebook): “Harry was fortunate to draw Angle in the general since polls showed he may have lost to her more moderate foes in the GOP primary.”

Of course, those who consider Reid a several-moves-ahead player of political chess chalk up Angle’s nomination less to good fortune than to his crafty use of incumbency’s superpowers. Ten years later, there’s a feeling among many that he, in a sense, selected Angle. Well before the race, as the Las Vegas Sun noted, he doled out federal appointments to significant potential rivals — a judgeship for Brian Sandoval, a committee chairmanship for Dean Heller — to move them off the board. In the primary, Reid’s campaign attacked frontrunner Lowden, weakening her chances. 

GREEN: “Shelley Berkley told the story of asking Reid early in 2009 what he thought his chances were the next year. He said something like, ‘It'll be rough, but my opponent is going to be Sharron Angle, and I can beat her.’ ... He had read the tea leaves and knew: The Republican base was going to go for the farther right-wing candidate, and they would dominate the turnout in a primary.”

In a way that seems quaint now, when most GOP pols toe the Trump line no matter where it leads, some prominent Republicans not only didn’t endorse Angle, they publicly backed Reid. Pragmatists like Sig Rogich and the late Bill Raggio saw no benefit in trading Reid’s stature and seniority for a freshman backbencher. Plenty of mainstream GOP voters reluctantly concluded the same: “Harry needs to go, but there’s no one on the ballot to replace him,” a Las Vegas Republican who voted for Reid told one reporter.

During the general, Angle did all she could to assist Reid, committing a spectacular series of missteps: She claimed that proponents of Sharia Law had taken over a town in Michigan. More ominously, she hinted that her supporters might seek “Second Amendment remedies” to their grievances. Rape victims, Angle suggested, should take that “lemon situation” and make lemonade. Prefiguring Trump, she ran ads that depicted Hispanics as gang members and illegals bent on mayhem.

SEBELIUS: “I don’t think Reid in his wildest dreams ever fantasized that Sharron Angle would go to a classroom of Hispanic students (at Rancho High school) and say, “Some of you look a little bit Asian to me.”

GREEN: “To some of us, that's horrible, but to too many people, that's being honest and refreshing and saying what's on your mind. The mistaken belief that that's true of Trump is a big part of his appeal.”

Angle’s only real campaign high point came in their sole debate, in which she unleashed the zinger she’d clearly prepared for the occasion: “Man up, Harry Reid!” Her supporters reveled in her pugnacity, but she was too awkward a campaigner to fully capitalize on the moment.

CHUCK MUTH, conservative activist: “If I recall correctly, she was generally considered the winner of the ‘man up’ debate but declined to do a second debate with the Senate majority leader (!) because it was four days after early voting started. Absolutely stupid strategically.”

But for all those negatives, she not only kept pace with Reid in the polls, she often outpaced him, buoyed by Tea Party's hatred of the majority leader; the Review-Journal’s numbers consistently showed him lagging. Angle raised eye-popping amounts of out-of-state money. As Election Day approached, the punditry, including revered stat guru Nate Silver, gave her the edge.

KEVIN FRACE (on Facebook): The first door my kid knocked on during trick-or-treat that year was answered by Harry Reid, visiting one of his sons’ home that night. The election was the next day or so. I said to him, ‘I don't care what you do, but please beat her.’” 

ESQUIRE MAGAZINE (describing Election Day): “Now up in Reid’s suite, the polls are closing on the East Coast and the networks are starting to call races. But the main narrative is clear: Harry Reid is dead. As Chuck Todd once again delivers the last rites on MSNBC, the senator walks over to the television and turns it off. ‘That’s enough of that,’ he says. Then the four sit in a pensive silence and stare at the blank TV for half an hour ... “

Spoiler alert: Reid won. Handily, too. His finely tuned political machine had turned out the voters. “I told everyone who would listen that I had the best campaign operation in the history of Nevada,” Esquire quoted him as saying.

SEBELIUS: Now, every time I see a Nate Silver prediction I say to myself, Let’s ask Senator Angle about that.

Following her defeat, Angle formed, then folded, a political action committee; flirted with a 2012 House bid; and lost in the primaries of elections in 2016 and 2018. In 2011 she self-published Right Angle: One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim the Constitution. In the forward she touts her bona fides: “Even my political detractors, like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have said, ‘She’s quite a campaigner.’”

MUTH: “I believe the problem wasn’t that she was too conservative but that she was a bad candidate who ran a bad campaign in the general. She was lousy at dealing with the press, and internally there was constant conflict between her local ‘kitchen cabinet’ advisers and the professionals sent in from D.C. after she won the primary. So I think either Sue Lowden or Danny Tarkanian could have won that race, but not because they were more moderate. They would have run better campaigns in the general.”

The postmortem narrative that stuck to this race — that the GOP candidate was too brined in Tea Party ideology, too prone to bizarre statements and race-baiting, to be broadly acceptable — seems, ah, ruefully ironic in a period of *gestures at Trump’s Twitter feed.* The 2010 campaign was a way station on the path that Michael Green could draw for you, between, say, the upstart candidacy of 1992 novelty candidate Ross Perot — who garnered 26 percent in Nevada — and Trump. Since then, of course, everything’s gotten more vicious, more divisive, more ... is carnivalesque the word I’m looking for here?

JOHN CURTAS (on Facebook): “An election that presaged the idiocy (writ large) we were in for.”

SAM McMACKIN (on Facebook): “What seemed ‘nuts’ then would be a welcome ‘normal’ now.”

Personal disclosure: In the latter months of 2010, I was a metro columnist for the Las Vegas Sun, where I had a bit of sport with some of Angle’s behavior. Not everyone thought I was funny.

ANONYMOUS POST-ELECTION VOICEMAIL (female, elderly, angry): “Well, if you think there’s a God, and most of us do, then you must know there’s also a devil — and believe me, he was working with Harry Reid all the way. They put a choice in front of us, between good and bad, and unfortunately, the Teamsters, the people of color, and a few others put Harry right back to do more damage.”

You can unpack that comment all the way from 2010 to next Tuesday.

Sources: Las Vegas Sun archives, Facebook comments, Esquire, Politico, Ballotpedia, the Nevada secretary of state’s website

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“THIS IS MY pandemic view,” says a friend who’s lying face-up on a yoga mat in my driveway. “Whenever I remember the pandemic, I’ll think of looking up at the sky through your trees.”

She’s one of four people who’ve come to do yoga with me on a Saturday morning in October, our third class this way. But she’s also referring to the view she had from a camp chair she’d set up in a nearby spot a few weeks earlier on a Friday night. That was for what we call “drinks in the driveway” — an impromptu mini-block party of sorts. My husband first had the idea several years ago as part of his socialist plot to get people out of their homes and mingling in the street. The idea was, anybody could just grab a six pack or bottle of wine, a folding chair, and come meet the neighbors, minus the pressure and expense of a formal party. The vast concrete slab in front of our house (the previous owners must’ve had a lot of cars), shaded by huge mulberry trees, provided the perfect venue.

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Like everything, drinks in the driveway has taken on new significance. For one thing, it’s the only way most people in my close circle feel safe getting together: outside, with their stuff (it’s bring-your-own everything now), six feet apart. The first time we did it, there was a lot of talk about how weird and wonderful it was to see each other this way — in person, but with no hugging. As we parted, people said, “Thank you so much for being here.”

That’s the other thing that’s different about drinks in the driveway now. It feels critical, at least to me, like an element of my health regimen that I dare not skip lest I get in some trouble that’s exponentially riskier than it used to be: floss teeth, get mammogram, find some way to be with friends.

Though research indicates meaningful interactions with other people are a necessary component of everyone’s good mental health, I sense that it’s even truer for me. I’m an extrovert, whose emotional batteries rely on those interactions for recharging. Isolation tends to nudge me toward depression, an escape cocoon made even more enticing by 2020’s relentless shit storm. Without my friends and family, I might have sunk into that deathly warm pod for good.

Which is why, less than two weeks after the pandemic lockdown started, I moved to Skype the small-group, private yoga classes that I had previously been holding in my home studio. For 15 years, teaching yoga has been a way for me to stay grounded and in shape, but this year it became something else, too: guaranteed twice-weekly communication with my yoga friends. When one of them — the same one who noted the view through my trees, actually — suggested we try practicing together in person on my back porch or driveway, I jumped at the chance. The back porch was out due to the likelihood of dog and chicken harassment, but as soon as both the weather and COVID-19 infection rate had cooled off enough, we started “down-dog in the driveway.” For the first time in six months, I could see my students’ goddess poses and Warrior Twos firsthand. I was delighted by the seamless flow between my words and their movements, an exchange that can’t really be re-created online, no matter how good the technology is.

As my friends assume Corpse Pose, the supine rest that often concludes a yoga class, I lower my voice and invite them to take in the sounds of the morning — birds chirping above us, neighbors chatting down the street, a lawn mower on the next block. These sounds connect us to the world and, through our common perception of them, each other. We share the sunlight on our skin, the warmth of tired muscles, the gift of time for all this. 

Soon, we’ll rustle ourselves out of meditation, finish class, and loiter in the driveway talking. How’s the job going, or job hunt, who’s sick, and who’s well? But for an hour and a half, we’ve set aside fear and loneliness together, communing in the middle of an unsettled city. I, for one, am grateful for the big concrete slab beneath us.

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1. WHAT DOES IT mean to write about food as a living nexus of social issues, cultural traditions, and human activity rather than in terms of food porn, chef idolatry, or Yelp stars? That’s the starting point for this lively panel discussion from last week’s Las Vegas Book Festival. Great lineup: Moderated by frequent Desert Companioncontributor Sonja Swanson, it also features Beard Award-winning author Kim Foster, another DC regular, as well as L.A.-based writer Andy Wang, and Jocelyn Jackson, founder of Justus Kitchen, who has an essay about food justice in the November-December issue of the magazine. That’s a lot of brain power, and they put it to excellent use.

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2. Nicholas Russell is watching an anonymous customer in the local bookstore in which he works. A white guy who has been looking through books about America’s racial woes. He’s nearby when a group of white women all buy the same book on anti-racism; they want to start a book club on the subject. “You appear to stifle a laugh as they chat loudly about the importance of frank conversation right now,” Russell writes, rhetorically addressing the customer, in his essay “Inside the Birdcage,” published on Nevada Humanities’ “Heart to Heart” site. It’s a wide-ranging, thoughtful meditation through the lens of his experiences as a Las Vegas bookseller. The piece’s intelligence and unflinching candor will come as no surprise to DC readers. “There is a philosophy that those who don’t learn from history will have no idea they’re repeating it,” he concludes in “Birdcage,” now addressing many more of us than one unnamed customer. “You think history is going to prepare you, but you only ever take it at face value. There is a ‘we’ that doesn’t include you. We have an idea of what could happen next. You’re simply not brave enough to imagine it.”

3. Born and raised in Las Vegas, writer-editor Foster Kamer has spun through some of the more elite pages and newsrooms of high-end media: EsquireThe New York TimesThe Washington Post. But he hasn’t forgotten where he came from — specifically the Vegas suburbs — as he demonstrates in this Vox.com piece about the meaning of home in the pandemic era:

And as a kid, it mystified me to no end that homeownership was a key ingredient in the American dream, given how absolutely dystopian and shitty it looked from where I stood — in a house that looked like everyone else’s, houses that turned out to be as reliable a version of ‘home’ as the fields of slot machines that pocked the city.

Notwithstanding that elbow to the city’s ribs, Kamer is sharp enough on the changing meaning of home (if from a subtle but unmistakable Manhattan POV) as we spend most of our time there now. “In any fantasy, at any scale, one building — ultimately, just four foundational walls — will never be enough to host what we know to be a full life.”

4. This one’s gonna hurt, at least if you’re among the many who want to make a living as an artist, writer, musician. Chances are slim and trending toward holy shit. Grok this: “Only about 2,000 U.S. Kindle Store authors earn more than $25,000 per year. Spotify features roughly 2 million artists worldwide, but less than four percent of them garner 95 percent of the streams.” Those are just two depressing factoids from this dispiriting review of The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, by William Deresiewicz. There are a lot of factors eroding the viability of a career in art, but the big one, as the subtitle makes clear, is Silicon Valley. All the technologies that were supposed to liberate artists into an entrepreneurial future of direct, profitable engagement with fans? Turns out — why, hello, capitalism! —they mostly fatten the already fat. “In the 1980s, 80 percent of music album revenue went to the top 20 percent of content. Now it goes to the top one percent.” It’s bad in the visual arts, too: In 2018, “just twenty individuals accounted for 64 percent of total sales by living artists.” That “twenty” falls like a guillotine. The point here is that the viability of making a living doing what you love is waning. “All but the most popular creators, (Deresiewicz) makes clear, face new and daunting obstacles, pointing to a future in which more artists will do more of their work as part-time amateurs.” Somewhere, my father (“Why do you get a real job and write on the side?”) is smiling.

5. Let’s end this on a lighter note. Just trust me on this one: a GQ longread that flies by in a manner appropriate to its subject, the fabled Cannonball Run cross-country car race. It's a fifth-gear, top-down road trip through the subculture of lunatics attracted to the idea, and how, thanks to this year’s COVID-cleared roadways, they were able to achieve some truly remarkable, record-setting craziness (26 hours from Manhattan to L.A.). Great piece. Here’s a sample:

Finally, there was the question of bathroom stops. Ashmore wouldn't take any. He bought a cache of Pringles, beef jerky, Cheez-Its, and other salty foods and a few bottles of Powerade and lemon water. The emptied Powerade bottles would become his urinals, for use on the road. “It's a project,” he said. “You have to focus the entire time. Nothing else matters.”

 

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STEPHEN BENNING, a UNLV psychology professor, directs the school’s Psychophysiology of Emotion and Personality laboratory, which looks at the intersection of emotional processes and bodily responses. Who better to query about the fluctuating satisfaction of online togetherness during quarantine?

Has modern communications technology, like Zoom, been a useful substitute for face-to-face interaction?

I would say it may have helped people maintain some kinds of social connections. However, it is unlikely to replace the satisfaction of physical presence in a lot of interactions.

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One of the things that we have shown in our lab is that having your friends put their hand on your shoulder while you’re doing a stressful task makes people’s positive emotion go up and negative emotion go down. So there really is something about physical touch that helps people regulate their emotional states in a way that’s just not available at a distance.

There are basic perceptual reasons for this, too. When you think about how large a visual angle a person occupies when they’re sitting in front of you, it’s much larger than when they’re in a Zoom window, even at full screen. They take up more perceptual space. You can see more of their bodies and more of their fine movements than you might be able to discern over Zoom.

The other thing about making connections online is the different latency in response that often comes up, especially when people are using wireless connections. The amount of lag between when someone says something, it gets transmitted, it gets represented on the computer, then transmitted through the speakers is not even constant. So our brains can’t really adjust to that technological lag. Whereas when people are sitting in front of us, it’s relatively easy to process what they’re saying. I think a lot of this differential lag that we can’t predict or compensate for is part of what underlies Zoom fatigue.

The way I like to think about this is: Technically, we should be seeing the world upside down, based on how the optics of our eyes work. But through development our brains know that if we flip the picture, we’ll get a great representation of how the world works. And we are always seeing the world in exactly the same way, and our brain just knows, yes, I just do one flip. The auditory equivalent now is, you can’t just do one correction. The brain’s gotta be figuring out how many milliseconds something is delayed from when it is said to being received, and that delay can change. Imagine that in the visual domain, how your brain would just be flippin’ and floppin’ and get all staticky. You can see why Zoom fatigue challenges our brain’s ability to adapt to these dynamic and laggy connections.

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Photos and art: Reid: AP Photos/Julie Jacobson; Yoga: Christopher Smith; Benning: courtesy UNLV; parsley: Jenn Jpeg/Unsplash

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