Category Archives: U.S. Culture

Hoops’ fans rule!

Winning WizardsThis is a fabulous time of year for basketball fans. The annual “March Madness” tournament involving the top 64 teams in Division 1 men’s college basketball has just started, with the top 64 teams in Division 1 on the women’s side due to begin competing too this weekend. Meanwhile, the professional National Basketball Association (NBA) league continues, seemingly undeterred by its spotlight briefly being stolen by unpaid amateur college players. Basketball is deliciously ubiquitous on television right now.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) March Madness competitions are very popular. This may be partly because they symbolize the arrival of spring—which is extra welcome this year after an unrelenting winter. But the tournaments are mainly well received because of the way they showcase the health of, and depth of talent in, basketball. Even though only a few of those playing college ball will actually make it into the NBA.

The tournaments also attract the attention and interest of non-basketball fans due to the fun that can be had putting together a “bracket”. Once the March Madness roster and seeds are announced on “Selection Sunday”, the obscure but all-American science of “bracketology” becomes widely practiced. Keen followers of the game and novices alike immediately began filling in their “bracket”, or choice of likely winner of each game in the elimination competitions, culminating in the declaration of the eventual winners. Pre-tournament predicting of the outcomes of the matchups happened all over the country this week, with friendly and not so friendly wagers being commonplace. Investor Warren Buffett and the company Quicken Loans raised the stakes this year by offering $1 billion to anyone who correctly called the winner of every single one of the 63 games in the men’s tournament. After the first two days of play, amazingly enough, not one of the 11 million brackets submitted to the ESPN Sports Channel correctly predicted the state of affairs. Such has been the extent of upsets.

An avid basketball player and devoted fan, President Barack Obama gets into it too. He took time out this week from placing sanctions on Russians for their government’s actions in Crimea and trying to recruit younger Americans for his signature healthcare plan to explain his bracket choices on the men’s side. Only once in the past five years of him making a bracket as president has he successfully anticipated the winner. For the record, this sixth time, Obama declares Michigan State will be the ultimate victor.

Another fun dimension to observe is the mostly good-natured bantering and trash talking that goes on as people get behind their favourite team or college alma mater. Is there also an identifiable hike in beer sales accompanying the present spike in television watching? There must be!

While being wrapped up in the NCAA competitions, I also want to give a shout out to the NBA and especially our hometown team, the Washington Wizards. My family attended the Wizards home game against the Brooklyn Nets last Saturday at the Verizon Center in downtown Washington. We all had a magnificent evening. Yes, the home team won 101-94, but that was only part of what made the outing memorable.

The evening was a total entertainment package. From the robust National Anthem sung solo by a talented young girl at the start of the game to the pulsating rhythms accompanying the cheerleading “Wizard girls” performing their dance moves, it was a complete sensory experience. Loud participation from the sold-out crowd was critical—both to the Wizards’ victory and the atmosphere around the game. Any timeouts during the game provided opportunities for further visual stimulation, mainly by the cheerleaders. Although the “dance cam[era]” scanning the crowd also caught some wonderful action. Half-time entertainment included a local dance troupe and a dunking spectacle.

Egged on by an announcer, the crowd became extra noisy at critical junctures. This included delicate moments, such as when Net players were trying to make baskets with free throws. Reflecting one of the many advantages of playing at home, the crowd was, of course, respectfully quiet when any Wizard similarly took free throws. A crowd-pleasing and rather hilarious moment was when a Brooklyn player missed two free throws in a row—whereby the crowd then knew each ticket holder could claim a free chicken fillet sandwich at any Chic-Fil-A fast food restaurant.

There were, of course, other advertising and merchandising pitches. A “t-shirt toss” saw dozens of t-shirts being spread throughout the crowd. The Wizards’ victory and the fact that they scored over 100 points in winning also meant that anyone could get fifty percent off pizza purchases at Papa John’s pizza outlets.

Sports purists might question all the distracting but amusing add-ons that seem expected as part of the fan experience at live sporting events these days. They might ask, “Isn’t the majesty of the game well played enough?” For passionate basketball fans who want to experience the game less adorned, there’s happily March Madness to feast on for the next couple of weeks.

A risk-averse society?

This isn't treacherous, is it?A significant snowstorm this past Tuesday, followed by days of atypical sub-zero temperatures, resulted in schools being closed across the Washington metro area. In Northern Virginia, officials of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) cancelled school from Tuesday to Thursday, and delayed the start by two hours on Friday. This was welcome news for those in FCPS wanting a respite from the routine of school. But it was controversial for others, including this FCPS parent. Monday had also been a day off from school; it was the public holiday honouring Martin Luther King, Jr.

Officials in neighbouring counties reacted differently to the snow and subsequent deep freeze: further west in Loudoun County, school was cancelled for all four weekdays, reflecting the higher quantity of fallen snow there and the difficulty of clearing snow off its more rural, sometimes hilly roads. In Montgomery County to the north and Alexandria and Arlington Counties to the east, as well as in the District of Columbia itself, schools were closed for Tuesday and Wednesday, and delayed for two hours on Thursday.

Some in our county were incredulous when FCPS cancelled school the third day. A delayed start seemed a more appropriate response. The usual two-hour delay would have ensured that school goers walked to school or bus stops in daylight, not the usual darkness of January mornings, and would thus have been able to see most icy patches or other obstacles en route. Cancelling school entirely was an over-reaction—albeit a revealing one.

Sensitive to criticism of their decision on Thursday’s closure, when announcing Friday’s delayed start, FCPS officials noted, a little defensively, “FCPS’ primary concern is always student safety when making a decision about opening or delaying schools. In addition to considering information from a range of public safety sources, FCPS transportation supervisors travel the routes our buses would traverse and inspect bus stops and the pathways that will be used by walkers. When there are areas in the county that are considered unsafe or treacherous, schools are closed.”

Friday’s delayed start was not incident free. FCPS acknowledged in an email sent to parents shortly after 9 a.m. that it was “experiencing significant mechanical problems with a number of buses across the county … due to the freezing temperatures. Some of these buses will be late picking up students; some may be very late. Parents are advised to take precautions to ensure that their children are not standing outside in the cold for extended periods of time. Mechanics, transportation supervisors, and drivers are working to the best of their ability to get the buses running and on time”.

Undoubtedly there are people who will criticize FCPS for Friday’s delayed start and suggest that schools should have remained closed on Friday too. They might say that so many buses with mechanical issues due to the low temperatures prove the decision to have school, albeit delayed, unwise.

I am definitely one of those who felt resuming an as-regular-as-possible school schedule should have been attempted, with a delayed start, on the Thursday already. Certainly, it was extremely cold. One is reminded of the expression, “There’s no such thing as bad weather; there’s only bad clothing”. Most living in this region would have adequate protective clothing; winter here typically does include really chilly days, although temperatures as consistently low as they’ve been over the last days are unusual. The curious unwillingness of teenagers to wear jackets is obviously not a reason to cancel school.

The over-cautious decisions from FCPS reflect a broader tendency in U.S. society—the general widespread adoption of risk aversion policies and processes. FCPS officials are terrified of the possibility of being sued. Whether this could be for an accident involving a FCPS student falling on an icy sidewalk or pavement at a school, or, heaven forbid, being hit by a car sliding on ice, or, I hate to suggest it, a bus accident with elementary school children on board, or some other horrible scenario. FCPS officials cannot entertain the possibility of being liable. So instead hyper-conservative decisions are made.

Risk avoidance is endemic in the United States. There are signs everywhere disclaiming responsibility for this or that—or warning that use of whatever is at people’s own discretion. One is forever signing indemnity forms absolving others of any responsibility for anything. Lawyers predicate far too much behaviour in this society.

There are, of course, profound anomalies to this society-wide aversion to risk. Promiscuous gun laws in the United States are, to my mind, the most baffling contradiction to this excessive concern with safety. The ease with which guns can be purchased, plus the way in which they can be concealed and carried in everyday life, are aspects of U.S. society I struggle to understand. The presence of a firearm by definition always escalates the chance of any situation spiralling out of control and compromising people’s safety.

Life is full of freak, random events. It is impossible to control for everything. Surely school children would be better served by not being too sheltered but by being exposed to some risks and learning coping mechanisms? More exposure to adversity and less cossetting would help childrens’ coping and social skills.

N.I.M.B.Y.

Communities in Fairfax County have earned the “Not In My Back Yard” label. A county proposal to facilitate—through rezoning or a special exception process—the building of residential studio housing for low-income earners in nearly all types of zoning in the county has elicited controversy. That low-density suburban residential areas are included in the proposed zoning ordinance is the source of much of the contention.

The goal of the zoning change is enabling construction of buildings of studio or efficiency apartments only for rent by those with low incomes. It is an attempt to address the long-term countywide need to “enable a pool of mixed labour” against a scarcity of affordable housing for low-income people.

The root of the problem is that commercial developers have erected little housing for lower-income groups in the county. Fairfax County, it should be noted, has the second highest median household income of any local U.S. jurisdiction, after its neighbor Loudoun County. So this county initiative is an attempt to fill a perceived gap in the housing pool, one that the market hasn’t provided. Seven different lots around the county are currently being suggested as possible locations for such housing.

At least 80 percent of the units in such buildings are envisaged to be rent-controlled. The target market would be folk earning less than 60 percent of area median income, namely less than around $45,000 per annum for a single-person household. The other 20 percent could be for higher income levels and the rent would not be controlled. The aim is to attract lower-income earners such as nurses, first-year teachers, and non-teaching staff at local schools such as cafeteria workers. Targeted tenants are also those “just starting out”, like recent college graduates.

Such housing could potentially also be a stepping stone for those presently homeless. This type of single-room housing, coupled with support services like job counseling and substance abuse or mental health treatment, has been shown to help the homeless transition into durable living arrangements.

The zoning amendment permits up to 75 units per lot, while individual units can be no larger than 500 square feet. Although intended for single occupancy, each unit could accommodate up to three people, including two children. Each unit has to include a kitchen and a bathroom, and be allocated at least one parking bay. One washer and dryer has to be available per ten units—if these amenities are not included in the individual units. Additionally, there has to be either a resident or on-site manager, or off-site management that the county’s Board of Supervisors approved.

The owner of property where such a building is being considered for construction would have to appear in public hearings before both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors to have a special exception granted to current zoning. In this process, consideration would be given to: compatibility with the neighbouring area, as well as location by a major thoroughfare to ensure the likely availability of public transport options. Adding yet other criteria for consideration, such as pedestrian access to shopping and other services, is still under discussion. Also still being debated is whether or not to allow the conversion of single-family homes into apartments, and the effect of such a decision on illegal boarding houses.

In recent weeks, I have attended two public meetings on the residential studio issue: the McLean Community Association hosted the first; the second was a Fairfax County Planning Commission hearing on the proposed amendment. I learnt much at both meetings and came away with some strong impressions.

The vocal and noisy majority of attendees at both gatherings were firm opponents of the proposed zoning ordinance amendment to encourage construction of low-income housing.

There is merit to homeowners’ unhappiness that this type of housing is being contemplated for low-density, single-family-home residential neighbourhoods. Typically, exceptions to present zoning limits in such neighbourhoods are granted for entities benefitting the general community, such as petrol or “gas” stations, churches, preschools, assisted living facilities, and so on. Supervisor John Foust, who was sitting in the audience at the first meeting, agreed that residential studio units made more sense in higher-density areas, saying, “this is a good product in the right zoning category, but I don’t think it’s the right product for low-density residential”.

The other worthy point is that no market research or feasibility studies have been conducted to test the county’s vision—apart from a George Mason University study published in 2006 at the height of the housing bubble and before the 2008 crash in the housing market. Would, for example, young professionals “starting out” even be interested in such studio accommodation? Might there not be more interest in one-bedroom apartments? Also, how would young professionals feel about living in buildings with many lower-income tenants, including formerly homeless individuals? All of these questions should be researched. The county is perhaps trying to target too many different types of tenants with one product. And, however well intentioned, it is not clear that there is market demand for this type of housing.

But these aspects seemed to be only a small part of the public’s negative reaction to the potential zoning change. There appeared to be an overall perception of buildings with such units and tenants leading to reduced property prices and a diminished quality of life for those currently living in areas where they might be located. Concerns were raised about the impact on already overcrowded schools and already acute traffic congestion; the perceived lack of enforcement of present occupancy restrictions; and fear of spikes in vandalism, crime, and general lawlessness around such multi-family, low-income dwellings. At the second gathering, a former owner of buildings in the District of Columbia, spoke—to loud applause—about the “negative synergy” that develops around buildings with a “preponderance of low-income people”.

A courageous woman stood up to address all near the meeting’s conclusion, knowing her opinion was in the minority. She was appalled at the tenor of people’s comments. She warned, very emotionally, about the slippery slope shown by history of thinking about fellow humans as being the “other”. It is hard to disagree with her heartfelt statement, but most present apparently did.

Local government still works

community awareness effortAmericans’ present despair and disgust with the federal government does not extend to local government. Opinion polls by Gallup and the Pew Research Center underscore that Americans consistently view local government more positively than the federal government. In a hierarchy of favourability, local government comes out on top, followed by state government, with the federal government coming last—and less than half as popular as both local and state government.

Local government is better regarded because it truly responds to people’s needs. Local representatives are close to the people they serve; indeed, they live among them. Local officials are pragmatic and flexible; they focus on “getting things done” rather than ideological purity. They also have to provide the desired services within budget—unlike their federal counterparts—so they are seen as better guardians of people’s money.

Local government is government “for the people, by the people, of the people”. The local governing process can be influenced very directly by community activism, with committed people in the community really able to impact an outcome. Countering and even overriding “legal capture” by vested and special interests is possible in the local realm. No wonder local government is regarded more positively.

Two current campaigns in our area illustrate key aspects of local government’s openness to those it serves. The lack of pavements or “sidewalks” along some key arterial roads in our neighbourhood is dangerous for pedestrians. Fairfax County is receptive to concerns about pedestrian safety, and has added requests for sidewalks on these busy roads to the long list of presently unfunded transportation projects in the county. This list is available on the Internet. Very transparently, the county asks for community input to help prioritize the desired tasks. There is now a concerted neighbourhood effort to have stakeholders fill in the online survey to help escalate the prioritization of providing these long-coveted sidewalks. There will also be public meetings to discuss county priorities, with members of the public encouraged to attend to offer their viewpoints. Of course, the activists in our community are urging as many as possible to participate in these meetings. Many living along the two busy streets have also placed signs on their lawns to draw attention to the campaign.

The other initiative being pushed locally is a perennial issue in Fairfax County Public Schools. This is the campaign for later high school start times. Nearby Arlington and Loudoun Counties have already made the shift, while Montgomery County across the Potomac River in Maryland is also considering the adjustment.

Pushing the present FCPS high school start time of 7:20 a.m. to after 8 a.m. is the goal. The research is quite clear on the benefits of later school starting times for teenagers, given their natural circadian or biologically driven body-clock rhythms. The apparent benefits of more morning sleep and less sleep deprivation include increased academic achievement, improved performance in tests (especially in those held at the start of the school day), better school attendance, improved punctuality in arriving at school, reduced drop out rates, fewer car accidents, less reported depression, fewer health center visits, and less daytime sleepiness in class. Research seems to suggest that bed times do not shift to later if school start times are pushed back (one could be cynical about this finding, knowing teenagers’ approach to bedtime…). It is suggested that sleep appears to increase by the amount that school start time is delayed.

Resistance to implementing later high school start times is mainly due to the impact on bus transport to and from school. These transportation costs are why the change has not been made previously, despite attempts to do so. Presently, the same buses are used for at least three shifts: to transport high school, then middle school, and lastly elementary school children to their respective schools. Adjusting high school start times might mean modifying all schools’ start times (this is the approach Montgomery County’s superintendent recommends), particularly if the same number of buses and drivers are to be used. Other school districts have accomplished later high school start times by “flipping” the sequence of pick up, with elementary school children, for example, being switched to the earliest shift. Yet dislike of little children waiting in the morning dark for buses is apparently why rare school districts revert to earlier high school start times if they switched. Increased transportation costs—for more buses and drivers—appear to be the biggest impediments to changing school start times, especially in this era of reduced budgets.

Other constraints include leaving enough time for extracurricular athletic activities, especially considering after-hours use of school facilities by community groups; after-school employment of students; childcare of younger siblings; overall adjustments in family schedules; and the impact on commuting traffic.

Giving families time to prepare for such profound schedule changes is key. Providing details about the possible changes is essential, with information meetings being one important and necessary tool. Earlier this year, a meeting was held at the local high school and, more recently, at a community center for members of the public. The speaker at both events was Dr. Judith Owens of the Children’s National Medical Center Division of Sleep Medicine. The FCPS School Board has commissioned the Children’s National Medical Center to submit recommendations on how the board could start high schools after 8 a.m. Many of the earlier comments here are based on my notes from these two meetings. The latter meeting was well attended by local luminaries, including the district supervisor, our local school board member, plus one of the candidates running for the state House of Delegates. I was impressed that they all attended. Clearly, they wanted to hear the presentation and gauge community reactions to it.

SLEEP in Fairfax (Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal) is a committed group of volunteers who have been working since 2004 for later FCPS high school start times. One has to admire their fortitude and perseverance. The momentum now somehow suggests that, this time round, their hard work toward this long-sought goal will have the desired outcome.

Local activists have an encouraging track record. A success in 2011, for example, was the extension of kindergarten to full day from half day in the last FCPS schools that didn’t yet have it.

So if you want to make a difference in your community, try influencing local government. Your odds are better here than at the federal level.

Listserving the people

Digital communication replacing the village green is such a cliché. But our neighbourhood listserv really proves the point. This is especially so for relative newbies to the area like us.

One learns all sorts of personal details about people in the neighbourhood from our local listserv, including their names and often their addresses too. One learns, for example, who has car trouble, whose child wants to take ballet lessons, who runs a landscaping design business, who needs eldercare for a relative, and who took down a big tree and subsequently offered free firewood for weeks on end. I recognize many names from the listserv by association (“her kids are the ones still chopping away at the tree carcass in their yard, providing free wood to any who want it”), but if I were queuing behind the majority of these people at a till in a nearby supermarket, I would not know them.

Our local digital community bulletin board is a remarkable resource for all in the area. Post a query to it and you are bound to get a host of responses. Need a pediatrician? A plumber? A piano teacher who is willing to come to your home? Write to the listserv asking for ideas and at least a handful of kindly neighbours will usually answer with suggestions about the best (or worst) dentist, electrician, or roofer, you name it. Digital word of mouth is so powerful. All who live in the area are able to sign up for this treasure trove of handy information. A volunteer system administrator facilitates access through referrals.

As in all human interaction, there is unstated etiquette to the listserv. The good-natured, patient manner with which repeat appeals are typically handled amazes me. Persistent requests include recommendations for pediatricians and house- cleaning or lawn-mowing services. It is incredible how often these come up—and how responses are repeatedly yet generously offered. Only once do I remember someone writing in and pointedly suggesting the archives be searched as that subject had come up too recently. The supply of and demand for childcare services also features regularly on the listserv. Helpers looking for additional hours are often from Central or Latin American countries, or they are high school or college-age children living in the area. Additionally, there are frequent anxious appeals for child minders when arrangements with sitters fall through.

There are also explicitly stated protocols. Our system administrator is strict about the listserv remaining nonpartisan and nonpolitical. A posting last year letting folk know about a D.C. march supporting gun violence prevention resulted in an admonishment. Likewise promotion of a particular candidate in a recent school board election elicited a strong rebuke. Our area reflects the partisan fracturing of U.S. society, so it is no doubt wise to keep more divisive issues from the listserv if it is to continue playing its constructive, helpful role for all. Certainly, there are many other channels for digital partisan politicking.

Everyone can agree though that child predators casing the neighbourhood are a problem. Not long ago, the listserv was awash with descriptions of strange incidents in random locations involving an older male behaving threateningly around children and young teens. His physical attributes and those of a possible partner, as well as the vehicle he/they were driving, were widely circulated, along with pleas for extra vigilance.

Another event resulting in a series of postings recently was when a child threw a water-filled balloon at a passing car. The first post was from a person connected to the car that the balloon struck. She requested all abstain from such conduct, especially as it could be unnerving for novice or elderly drivers. The next posting on the subject was a gracious mea culpa from the parents of the balloon thrower. They expressed regret at the incident, as well as noting their negligence in providing adequate supervision of the children playing with water. Subsequent entries complemented the parents for admitting their child’s role in the incident and acknowledging their own culpability. An awkward situation was thus handled and stylishly resolved—completely digitally—in front of the whole community.

A previous “digital confession” to the community is also noteworthy. This was the incident, described in a previous blog, where a neighbor accidently locked himself out of his own home and was then “caught” breaking in. The embarrassed neighbor explained to the listserv what had happened and then apologized for the disruptions and inconvenience due to all the police activity.

The listserv really does enhance people’s ability to look out for one another. It is useful for evaluating how widespread a power outage might be during their too-frequent occurrence due to bad storms. Thanks to the ubiquity of smart phones, even during power failures, one can quickly learn their extent and coordinate calls for technical assistance. The listserv is also a tool for obtaining assessments of driving conditions during severe weather. Folk working, say, in downtown Washington can write in after a storm to ask about area road conditions.

The listserv is so much more than finding a highly recommended local orthodontist, giving away outgrown children’s toys, or flogging no-longer-needed baseball mitts. It really does foster good neighbourliness. An entry from a couple of years ago that touched me was from the desperate mother of a two month old who screamed every time he ate. The empathetic, idea-laden responses from the community were quite moving. I have no doubt that one of the reactions, or a combination of them, resolved the situation for the mother and her baby. We never heard back from her to know.

The area listserv is an incredibly effective way to help one another in the digital age. It is a microcosm of the global village.

“How am I doin’?”

Americans are obsessed with performance measures and evaluation. Giving and receiving feedback is a vital component of today’s competitive, meritocratic America. It is, of course, also essential in a services-oriented economy. The quality of an experience with a company, at a restaurant, or in a shop is critical to the success of that enterprise. All hope for a positive, affirming experience—especially one that is then commended to others.

In some countries, concern about the quality of an experience or engagement is nonexistent. In others, like Japan, excellence is assumed. In the United States, concern about performance is persistent.

A simple verbal exchange with a cashier at a shop often results in the person, for example, mentioning their name, circling a website or phone number printed at the bottom of the receipt, and requesting that one connects with that site or calls the number to volunteer information about one’s experience that day. This person would also note that a discount or some other kind of financial incentive would be made available if one did this.

Interaction with cashiers or others in retail that result in this patterned behaviour can make one cynical. People here are hyper aware of being perceived as friendly, even though it is obvious when interaction is disingenuous “sales speak”. I always cringe at the rhetorical, pro forma “Did you find everything you were looking for today?” or “Do you need help out to your car?”

When we moved to Washington nearly three years ago, acquiring a car was an early necessity. A visit to a dealership that carried the car in which we were interested turned out to be rather efficient. The car salesman appeared incredibly happy at the quick, seemingly effortless sale. Upon our leaving, he noted we would be asked later about our experience with him and he hoped our response would be favourable. A couple of weeks later, we received two requests for an evaluation of our experience. One was a phone call, the other a written survey, and I responded to both. I was amazed when the salesman called not once, but twice, to check whether I had responded. He was desperate to get his commission or bonus.

An experience last weekend partly motivated this blog post. I needed to make an airline reservation, was unable to get the job done through the airline’s website, and hence called the company’s toll-free customer service number. The usual long series of automated questions had to be answered, the last of which was whether I would be willing to answer a customer survey after speaking to an agent. I heartlessly answered “no”. And then waited for an agent to come on the call. And waited. And waited. After fifty minutes of holding, I put down the phone in utter disgust. A couple of days later, I endured the whole rigmarole again, only this time I answered that I would be willing to respond to a survey. Guess what: an agent answered my call within eight minutes! Was this a coincidence? I don’t think so.

The American education system also reflects this obsession with evaluation. Indeed, many complain that the testing craze has gone too far. It’s “SOL” time now for many school-going children across America. These “standards of learning” tests assess core competencies and are fundamental to all evaluations of students, teachers, and schools. How well students do in these subject-based, state-wide tests has a significant bearing on teacher evaluations. Student performance in these tests also affects states’ assessment of schools. The federal government too considers these test outcomes in rewarding schools and states with federal money as part of President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative.

Belief in key performance indicators (KPI), feedback loops, and accountability permeates American society. Compensation is then based on the data.

Wall Street is the epitome and distorted extreme of this data-driven society, where quarterly reviews and results are the only name of the game.

The ultimate assessment tool in American culture is, of course, its electoral system, while the Constitution itself enshrines a balance of power between government functions.

Overall, the performance-driven and results-oriented culture of America is invigorating—even if the constant requests for assessment can be irritating and draining. The compulsion here to quantify so much interaction is also of concern though. Sometimes there seems too much emphasis on quantifying and meeting targets, as apposed to the quality and depth of encounters. One could also ask whether the right things are being quantified. And isn’t the system too often being gamed? Are the unaware and uneducated able to participate?

And yet a results-based culture is probably “the worst form for [society] except for all the others that have been tried”—with apologies to Winston Churchill.

In an in-between season

DSC_0047America is in transition. As with the 9/11 attacks, the jarring, life-sapping bomb blasts at the Boston Marathon finish line on Monday are likely to change America. Unlike the predictable giving way of blooms on flowering trees and shrubs to green foliage in spring, what the past week’s events will herald in American society is not clear. The impact on President Barack Obama’s second-term agenda is also uncertain.

For the most part, the initial response has been a vigorous and aggressive re-assertion of America’s values and most fundamental beliefs. Speaking in Boston on Thursday, President Obama, who lived in Boston himself as a student, noted, “We may be momentarily knocked off our feet, but we’ll pick ourselves up.” While it was impossible for Bostonians to continue as normal much of the week, affirmations of normality could be observed here in the D.C. metro area—although security was tightened around public buildings, especially after the unsettling news of ricin-tainted letters being sent to the president and a senator. Friday was a bizarre day for all, even for those not in Boston or directly affected by the shutdown and “sheltering in place”. One could follow, in real time, the hunt for the remaining bomber. Some media halted regular programming to provide ongoing coverage, making for surreal, unsettling juxtapositions. One continued one’s scheduled activities while listening to and following media to learn the latest developments. Perhaps it was my imagination, but people seemed extra friendly, polite, and civil in their interactions with others on Friday. Life felt so fragile and delicate.

As the wife of a marathoner, my children and I have stood at the finish lines of many marathons. I know and appreciate the mood and emotions of people waiting at the end of these races: anticipation to see your special runner; joy (and utter relief) when you do see him/her; pride and marvel as you consider what all the runners have endured to reach that point; and enjoyment of the self-evident camaraderie among the runners who have all challenged themselves. The horrendous end to this year’s Boston Marathon has affected me in an intimate way. The death of the eight-year-old boy waiting for his dad to finish the race—with his sister, who subsequently lost a leg, and mother, who was also severely injured—is especially gutting. It could easily have been my family waiting at that marathon close.

The end of a marathon always involves such a complex flash of emotions. It is difficult to comprehend adding Boston’s horror, panic, and fear to the mix. One can only be impressed by the incredible bravery, compassion, and empathy that so many showed in Boston to their fellow runners and spectators when confronted with such gratuitous and unexpected mayhem.

One wonders whether some will now urge the adoption of further security measures for public gatherings such as marathons. Yet taking steps to scrutinize people before allowing access to public events could provoke a backlash and resistance to further intrusions on people’s freedoms. More security measures for such events might not be either cost effective or workable. It will be fascinating to watch how the public debate about this unfolds.

It is always said that America is a society of immigrants and laws. That the bombers were naturalized Americans of Chechen ethnicity and Moslem faith who arrived here on asylum visas is fodder for those campaigning against immigration reform. Quite coincidentally, comprehensive legislation on reforming U.S. immigration policies was presented to the American public this week (before the identities of the Boston bombers became known). A bipartisan group of eight senators has worked on this package for months, and their proposals for a way forward were eagerly awaited. Awareness of demographic trends in U.S. society and the present tendency of Hispanic communities to support the Democratic Party over the Republican Party make both parties more favourably disposed to tackling immigration reform.

Yet for both parties, immigration reform has profound implications. Not succeeding in getting immigration reform adopted would be disastrous for President Obama’s second administration. Indeed, passage of such reforms is a centerpiece of his second-term agenda. For the Republican Party, immigration reform is the quintessential wedge issue. There is no other issue that could splinter the party like immigration reform. The Boston bombers not being native-born Americans is a new complicating factor, with some already suggesting that all immigration should be stopped while immigration reform is debated.

The other political complication from the week was the rejection on Wednesday of a procedural step that would have allowed consideration of a bipartisan measure in the Senate to expand background checks on gun purchasers. It is noteworthy that expanding background checks has majority support in the Senate (54 to 46), the categorical backing of the White House, and the emphatic support of the majority of Americans according to public opinion polls. The procedural measure needed a “super majority” of 60 votes to pass, yet the National Rifle Association was able to prevent the measure from getting the six additional votes it needed for the background check measure even to be considered. Ironically, the majority vote would have been sufficient to pass the measure had the Senate actually been voting on the bill.

Will the minority that rejected even considering background checks for gun purchasers be the same minority that coalesces around rejecting immigration reform? Will those of this minority also stand in the way of progress on tax reform and reducing the budget imbalance, the other big issue of Obama’s second-term agenda? If so, what will be the verdict of American voters in the 2014 mid-term elections, the campaigns for which are effectively already underway?

Right after Boston, Obama declared that, “There are no Republicans or Democrats; we are Americans united in concern.” As the innocence of spring blossoms gives way to the grimy humidity of a Washington summer, one has to expect the ideological and political battles will heat up too.

Go take a hike

Potomac Overlook Regional ParkPotomac Overlook Regional Park is soul food for this African. Walking in the park’s forests gives a smidgeon of the sensation of being in untrammeled nature and away from it all—despite being in a densely populated area close to the heartbeat of one of the world’s most powerful cities. I try to go there as often as possible, and always emerge refreshed and energized. I’ve blogged about it previously: it’s one of the places where observing deer is exhilarating rather than exasperating. Seeing them there transforms us humans from beleaguered gardeners into awestruck visitors. Park woodlands are where deer belong.

Apart from wildlife and the trees, the other appealing aspect of Potomac Overlook Regional Park is the gradient. I enjoy the way the forests slope down to the Potomac River. So it was perhaps inevitable that someone would hatch a plan to develop the park’s forested bluffs along the Potomac into a commercial zip line venture.

The suggested plans also included “expansion of the park entrance and additional parking, construction of a new amphitheater/stage area, an urban agriculture plot, a youth group camping area, and improvements to the birds of prey shelter”.

Having two thrill-loving teenagers and having experienced myself the pleasure of such canopy tours—in South Africa’s Magaliesberg—I’m not averse to zip lining. It’s great fun! However, the notion of developing so dramatically one of the remaining, relatively untouched woodlands in the metro area is simply horrifying. Washington residents, human and animal alike, need a place such as Potomac Overlook Regional Park to help stay sane. The idea of tampering with it reminded me of Joni Mitchell’s “pav[ing] paradise to put up a parking lot”.

Happily, many in the community were similarly appalled at the idea of changing so many aspects of this treasure of a park.

A meeting on March 19, this past Tuesday, in a church hall adjoining the park was overflowing with indignant, vocal, and very organized park lovers. They had flooded the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority with emails, letters, and phone calls since the NVRPA authorized “planning and implantation” of the projects at a November 15, 2012 meeting and then presented revised plans at a February 26, 2013 public meeting.

At the outset of Tuesday’s meeting, NVRPA officials announced that they rescinded their November 15, 2012 authorization to plan and implement the projects. They admitted to “eating a big slice of humble pie”, and noted the “force of the community” and the “power of public opinion”. Using a buzz phrase that the Obama administration has contributed to Washington lexicon, they promised to “hit reset”.

It is a remarkable turnaround and a breath of fresh air to hear officials admitting to miscalculation and error. Oh that all public officials or managers were so responsive to those whose interests they ostensibly serve.

In their campaign to get NVRPA board members to change their mind, the activist park users reminded all that the NVRPA itself had declared “the mission of Potomac Overlook Regional Park is to provide a protected woodland sanctuary, in order to preserve environmental quality and species diversity; to provide environmental and cultural education, stressing the relationship between all living organisms and to provide a natural setting in which to enjoy low impact recreational activities and physical exercise.”

Beware any entity that tries to implement a measure in a community such as this that doesn’t have broad-based support. In a fair generalization, many Washington area residents are over-educated, overachieving, incredibly determined people who know how to organize and get their opinion across. Don’t mess with them, or cross them. A well-informed and highly opinionated citizenry lives here.

As usual, the source of the problem was a search for revenue. Potomac Overlook Regional Park, the largest park in Arlington County, is clearly not a moneymaking enterprise. Indeed, it is documented to be one of the revenue drains for the NVRPA, although it is not the biggest money loser among the parks.

NVRPA officials acknowledged it was a mistake to pursue turning such a nature education park into a revenue stream without better community outreach and engaging earlier with the public.

The furor around Potomac Overlook Regional Park is an instructive example of the weight that public opinion should be play in policymaking. Policymakers ignore the views of those they serve at their peril. If only this type of pragmatic, consensual politics could be practiced at the federal and state level as well as it was this past week in Arlington County.

But it is not enough to merely solicit public opinion. Government officials must also listen to that public opinion and react accordingly. Public officials’ contrite apologies can be even more refreshing than a walk in the woods.

 

Tech tools: Paths to participation?

This past Valentine’s Day at my daughter’s school led me to thinking about whether all the technology tools now available really do–or do not–increase participation.

The PTA organizes staff appreciation lunches throughout the school year, one of which is traditionally on Valentine’s Day. Well before these lunches, an email from the PTA goes out to parents soliciting suggested contributions. This is linked to an electronic sign-up site, where folk can add their names to the categories of needs for the event. And then the promised items should be delivered on the appropriate day.

Do these broad appeals elicit different people participating each time? Or do the same “usual suspects” respond and contribute each time? I surveyed the current PTA school directory of family names and contact details: Nearly all families provided an email address as a contact point (only a small minority opt out of being in the directory), so the universe of potential participants in an event such as the Valentine’s Day staff appreciation lunch is very large. It would be revealing to know if the same families are repeat participants in these events or if different families step forward to contribute.

Two other experiences that same week reinforced this interest in who is engaging and who is not. Our landline rang about an hour and a half before President Barack Obama was to deliver his State of the Union address. Caller ID showed the incoming call to be from “U S Captl”. We usually ignore phone calls when it is unclear who is calling, but you can’t blame me for being curious that night. Who would be calling us at that time on that particular night—from the U.S. Capitol?

The call was from our congressman’s office. It was completely unexpected and unsolicited. A recording by an aide to Congressman Jim Moran invited immediate participation in a live telephone discussion with the congressman on various issues. I decided to stay on the line, intrigued by how something like this would work. Congressman Moran first addressed themes thought likely to be in President Obama’s State of the Union speech. And then he took about six to eight questions. Constituents who wished to ask a question were instructed to punch in a code. When they asked their question, they became audible to all, while the rest of us remained mute.

The most surprising part of this technology experience was that the outreach was routed through our landline, yesteryear’s technology.

Minutes after he had finished delivering the State of Union address to a national television audience, President Obama spoke to supporters through an online conference call. To connect to this online opportunity with the president, you had to have signed up beforehand with Organizing for Action, the nonprofit organization derived from Obama’s reelection campaign that is trying to mobilize community (and financial) support for his legislative priorities. President Obama had participated in a similar massive conference call with supporters a few days after his reelection last November.

President Obama and Congressman Moran targeted different audiences and used different tools to reach them. Nevertheless, I do wonder how many people were caught in the intersection of both these outreach efforts. How many engaged American voters participated in both of those opportunities? The congressman’s initiative was unsolicited (yes, I could have put the phone down) and participation in the president’s was self-selecting. But it would be fascinating to know who took part in both? Same old, same old? Or were people new to the political process drawn in by either outreach effort?

Since landlines were the way Congressman Moran’s office could identify who lived in his constituency, this was a feasible way to go. Yet many are now choosing to discontinue having a landline and depending exclusively on smart or cell phones.

A question about the Obama team’s outreach reflects broader concern about the digital divide. Nowadays, wealthy and middle-class urban residents take for granted Internet access and rely on the technologies that allow it. The assumption of almost universal Internet connectivity in the Washington D.C. metro area is alarming. But how many are not included? Here the digital divide may reinforce existing socio-economic inequities, with the well-connected, excuse the pun, always being favored. And the more Internet-enabled technology one has at one’s fingertips, the better and wider one’s choices.

Public libraries are critical to bridging the digital divide. They are a mainstay for those with limited or no other Internet access. Observing the rows of computer users at the terminals in libraries here is always such a pleasure (and a painful reminder of how South Africa has neglected and underfunded its public libraries in recent years). Many of the public libraries around here are hives of activity and engines of digital integration.

Notwithstanding the hustle and bustle at nearby libraries, is all this online activity really expanding opportunities for true political participation? Is political participation narrowing or broadening with the ubiquity of Internet access? Or is the noise only the reverberations of the echo chamber of the “well-connected”?

A quintessential Washington night

It was the first time for me. Never before had I attended an inaugural party, never mind an official inaugural ball, around a U.S. presidential inauguration.

Aspects of last night will stay with me forever, but the subway ride back to our car at the end of the evening provided some memorable moments. The juxtaposition of riders reflected the assorted diversity of America in snapshot form. The bejeweled, glamorously clad attendees of inaugural celebrations contrasted with other riders. Some were journalists in jeans pushing carts laden with equipment. Others too had clearly put in an extra-long day’s work and seemed drained, relieved to be finally heading home. Some already seated on the train when we boarded had the dazed, weary look of folk who had been on the job all day. Perhaps they had worked since sunrise, preparing to cater to throngs of inauguration viewers? Or maybe they were cleaners who had just finished a shift dealing with the aftermath of the day’s revelry? They looked with seeming indifference at the black-tie folk in their midst. Or was it with bemusement? Disgust? Or even envy? It was hard to read their minds as they surveyed the groups of loud, fancily dressed partygoers standing in the train.

The eclectic combination of people thrown together in our subway carriage included a statuesque woman with an incredibly tall and dramatic gold hat. She seemed Nigerian—or at least her hat did. Perhaps she had attended the widely promoted charity ball that ambassadors from various countries had put together? This lady with the imposing hat didn’t look at all tired. She looked ready for a regal procession or to be part of a family wedding photo.

Men in formal military dress wear, with all kinds of medals filling their lapels, also stood out. They and their wives or dates were clearly fresh from the “Commander-in-Chief’s Ball”, one of two official inaugural balls. One such gentleman, in a splendid Southern drawl, had immediately offered me his seat when we boarded. Such gallantry is not generally expected at that late hour on Washington public transportation.

Like the passengers on the subway last night, Washington encapsulates diversity. The powerful coexist with the relatively powerless, the haves with the have-nots, the chivalrous with the rude. The scene had me thinking about the inaugural speech President Barack Obama delivered earlier that day. He had observed, “For we the people understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it… We do not believe in this country that freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few.”

D.C.’s Metro system was the great leveler last night. The subway was definitely the most efficient way to get around. The gridlock was as bad as forewarned. Unless you were the president or vice president and travel with police escorts in a motorcade, you were foolish to be wedded to a car. I’m not sure if other chauffeured, limousine-riding VIPs were able to beat the traffic odds. The many road closures around the National Mall where President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were publicly inaugurated earlier in the day were partly to blame. Backups were also due to the sheer volume of vehicles on the road, especially around the Washington Convention Center where the two official inaugural balls were held.

Walking was also extremely popular—despite the frigid weather. A regular sight earlier in the evening was people walking hand-in-hand, bundled in coats, heading toward the Convention Center. Surprisingly often, a man might have been carrying a woman’s pair of impressively high-heeled shoes, with a woman ambling alongside in a pair of flats, holding a clutch bag. Guess the flat shoes were going to be stuffed into coat pockets at the coat check, and the showy, sexy, high pair then given the chance to strut their stuff. Trust ever-practical Americans! Have to get to the event comfortably, but then look good when there!

An inaugural ball myth was exploded for me: Most people DID wear coats, given the fearsome, wind-chilled cold. One is warned about the long coat-check queues at the end of such events, so the recommendation is not to bring a coat to check. The chilliness of the evening showed most to be sensible though. Only a minority seemed to be “underdressed” despite being in black-tie and ball-gown finery.

We attended two events: A sponsored party at one of the Smithsonian Museums, plus one of the two official inaugural balls at the Convention Center. The former was a cocktail party, with delicious food, a wide-ranging bar, quiet music so conversation with fellow attendees was possible, and, most remarkably, the possibility to sit down. The latter was not exactly an intimate affair—we were part of the reputed 40,000 who attended the two official balls. We missed the fleeting appearance and dance of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, but it really didn’t matter. With so many people present, I doubt we would have been able to get close enough to actually witness the moment with the naked eye. Giant video screens provided a sense of what was happening on stage. That was how we were able to enjoy Stevie Wonder giving his all, belting out his familiar songs while weaving characteristically to the rhythms. No food was available at this event, but champagne, wine, and other sundries could be purchased for a princely sum.

People watching and celebrity spotting were most rewarding. The whole kaleidoscope that is America was present. Local Washingtonians danced in delight to honour Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday it was yesterday, plus to celebrate the re-inaugurated Obama. Many of those filling the expansive dance floor were grassroots activists from out of town who had worked to reelect Obama. Seasoned, older political operatives mingled with young activists. Pride and joy were palpable.

That is the overriding impression: Folk really had fun and enjoyed themselves. And the buzz of happy people was infectious. Even when they were outside in the mind-numbing cold, traipsing from one event to another, they were laughing, smiling, and full of joy. People in Washington are typically intense and usually take themselves too seriously. Last night was different. There was an appealing lightness to the mood.