“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.

Hopeful hints of change

When Barack Obama is re-inaugurated as president of the United States this long weekend, the weather is expected to be chilly, bright, and clear. This forecast is symbolically appropriate, as President Obama is beginning to articulate his vision for America with greater clarity, vigor, and purpose.

The team President Obama is assembling around him for his second term suggests an agenda stressing domestic priorities. World events will always compel a U.S. president’s attention, but Obama is signaling clearly that his focus will be on domestic issues. As he emphasized during his reelection campaign, “It’s time for nation building at home”. This is true. The world needs a strengthened America. The world needs an America that has reprioritized and balanced its budget, and bolstered its economy to create more jobs. The world needs an America that has rededicated itself to supporting its citizens with better education, improved infrastructure, accessible healthcare, and other tools to get ahead and provide for themselves and their families into the future.

The administration’s battles with Congress have acquired a different hue lately, hinting at a new dynamic. Despite itself, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives voted for that anathema—tax increases—for those Americans with annual incomes over $400,000.00. Wary of authorizing further spending, Republicans reluctantly also agreed to extend $50 billion in aid to those devastated by Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey last November.

A slim minority of House Republicans breaking with their party and supporting the Democrats to provide the winning votes was essential to passage of these two bills. This is the formula Obama and his team will have to use repeatedly in coming months to get measures through the House of Representatives. Obama will have to keep coaxing such splits in the Republican monolith to enable passage of his legislative priorities. This type of bipartisan behaviour is, of course, how effective democracies should operate.

There is yet another new approach from House Republicans: They announced yesterday they will support extending the government’s borrowing authority for three months, rather than force another fabricated crisis now. This action will give more time to craft agreement on budgets for the new fiscal year, including possible tangible deficit reduction. This extension of the debt ceiling is a most positive and practical concession from the Republican side.

President Obama is also a more seasoned politician and strategist this time round. This past week, he showed how much he has learned from past battles with Congress when he presented very particular proposals for executive and legislative action to curb gun violence. The horrific murders of twenty first-grade students and six adult staff members at their Newtown, Connecticut elementary school in mid-December have galvanized opposition to America’s loose gun laws. Newtown has created the opportunity for changes to America’s permissive gun culture like no other recent mass tragedy involving a gun—and there have, unfortunately, been too many. Shifts in public opinion show majorities of Americans now support, in differing degrees, various specific measures to curb guns.

Since the day of the massacre, which he has described as the “most difficult day” of his presidency, President Obama has appealed for action in common sense, reasonable, and nonpartisan terms. He says Americans will have failed in their duty as parents to keep children safe if they do not act to curtail gun violence.

In making his very specific recommendations for action this week—derived from Vice President Joe Biden’s task force—Obama promised he will “put everything [he’s] got” into getting the announced measures adopted. Having been criticized for “leading from behind” on other issues, his fast, impassioned, and firm response to the gun control challenge is the essence of presidential leadership.

Obama has thrown down the gauntlet to members of Congress and the National Rifle Association. He challenged the American public to put pressure on members of Congress to state their position on the measures “on record” and “…[I]f they say no, ask them why not. Ask them what’s more important: Doing whatever it takes to get an ‘A’ grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns, or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off to first grade?” He added, “There will be pundits and politicians and special-interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical, all-out assault on liberty—not because that’s true, but because they want to gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves. And behind the scenes, they’ll do everything they can to block any common-sense reform and make sure nothing changes whatsoever.” He has urged members of Congress to “examine their own conscience.”

The NRA’s capture of the legislative process concerning guns at federal, state, and local levels of government has been alarmingly successful until now. Its disturbingly effective modus operandi is to bully legislators to do its bidding. In elections, it spends millions to bolster proponents and, far more importantly, oppose those who reject its viewpoint. The NRA ferociously pursues those who vote against its narrowly defined interests. Republican members of Congress who oppose it have been vulnerable to primary challenges by NRA-sponsored candidates, while Democrats have been vulnerable to general election challenges. Gerrymandered voting districts across America that limit diversity in opinion have further strengthened the hand of the NRA and other special interest groups.

Until now, the NRA has been ruthlessly effective in furthering its agenda. Might the debate about gun control be different after Newtown, especially with such strong presidential sponsorship? How the gun violence prevention debate plays out in Congress could have an enormous impact on President Obama’s second term.

Deer oh deer

The surrogatesWashingtonians do not feel or behave very kindly toward the deer living in their midst. They do try to make nice with reindeer, the close cousins of deer, at this time of year. But the decorative, illuminated Christmas reindeer now offered as peace tokens in neighbourhood yards do not make up for the lack of love extended to real, wild deer most of the year.

The free-roaming sika deer of the Todaiji temple complex in Nara, Japan, are venerated in Shinto belief as “messengers of the gods”. There is, however, nothing sacred or sentimental in how most Washingtonians regard the deer so ubiquitous to these parts. White-tailed deer here are described as “scourge” or “rodents with legs”. This is a bit harsh, to my mind, since deer are certainly more thrilling to encounter than, for example, the rats often seen scurrying in urban environments anywhere in the world. Yet deer too are bearers of disease. Lyme’s disease, a debilitating illness caused by a bite from infected deer tick, is treatable, fortunately. The bulkiness of deer makes them deadly for drivers, especially those traveling fast on area roads. These collisions, of course, also always end very badly for the deer.

My family has journeyed the usual trajectory of most area residents in their feelings toward deer. It was initially quite charming to observe deer in our garden. Especially when the grazing gang included little Bambi-like family members. This pleasure faded somewhat when noticing how much foliage could disappear during visits from deer. I did not mind too much when the leaves munched were from big, settled trees or bushes. But now that I’m mutating into a novice gardener, I’m very much minding the deer.

Virginia’s hot, humid summers and its heavy clay soil present enough gardening challenge. Trying to garden with hungry, wild deer is an obstacle of a different order. I’m learning, most painfully, some of the tricks of the business: I’ve learned about breaking up mothballs and scattering the pieces generously around the base of the plant one is trying to protect. It’s not easy to remember to renew sprayed deterrents on time, so physical barriers ultimately work best. I’ve learned about plumbers’ piping, and how it can be sectioned to protect the trunks of trees. Some young male deer apparently went on a rave in our garden one night and repeatedly rubbed their antlers against numerous tree trunks (apparently to try to get rid of the velvet on the antlers), in between hearty feasting. The remedy this time was fencing with poles. But we’ll see if these trees survive winter and rebound in the spring. Unfortunately, the bark plus waxy coating was removed in some areas.

Deer like to eat bulbs, so I’ve learned that deer-resistant bulbs are essential. Actually, one needs bulbs to be squirrel resistant too since squirrels are always hungry and also rather partial to them. I have to admit to thinking that these athletic little creatures seem to get particular joy digging up bulbs in places—like a raised “deck” or stoep—where they have no competition from deer and the bulb planter naively thinks the bulbs might be “safe”…

Recently, there was an unusual request on our neighbourhood listserv, with a neighbour asking for help with a problem I hadn’t previously considered. Her children had discovered a dead deer in their garden. Northern Virginia Critter Control was unavailable for a couple of days. She had also called the county, but they would not come unless the deer was road kill. What to do? A respondent rather brilliantly suggested dragging the deer into the road!

The happiest place to see deer is when walking in the many wooded parks in Arlington and Fairfax Counties that abut the creeks feeding into the Potomac River. Discovering and enjoying these parks is one of my favourite parts to living in Washington. And the amount of wildlife one can experience is quite surprising, considering how populated the area is. I’ve seen lots of deer, tortoises, quite a few snakes, a raccoon, a coyote, and even a fox. The bird life is impressive too.

And that’s the rub of the problem. It’s we humans who have intruded on these animals’ habitats. The more construction there is, the more squeezed these animals are. No wonder they come to feed in our gardens.

Deer are rampant in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Without traditional predators to keep the deer population in check, culling or hunting deer is definitely one solution. Such efforts do exist and are highly controversial. They vary from controlled urban archery to regulated public hunts using firearms. There are also hunts conducted by police sharp-shooters. Reintroducing wolves and mountain lion is another possibility, but not for solving a suburban problem.