More “times that try men’s souls”

As Thomas Paine wrote in The American Crisis in 1776: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” And women’s and children’s souls as well, he might have added. Those of us whose souls will be tried are a cross-section of our country and will become more numerous as the next few years unfold.

But this country, which was just coming into existence in Paine’s time, has been through much worse than Donald Trump. Buck up, Americans!

The Battle of the Brandywine (that other 9/11 disaster), Valley Forge, the Civil War, the great 20th-century depression, Pearl Harbor–those names will continue to awe and challenge us long after we have survived one disturbed individual in a position of leadership, whose unpredictable impulses will soon have to be restrained by men and women of good will and of all political persuasions who honor our national traditions.

We must resist Trumpism in our personal and political lives, but we must never despair or doubt the future. Our democracy has always been an ongoing creation, the quest for a “more perfect union.” We are all part of that effort, every day, whether we realize it or not.

In Abraham Lincoln’s words spoken in our own state in 1863, we are still today “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”; and we are still “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”

The next few years can give us a new consciousness of what we are and what we can be. We know what Liberty is; we proclaim that all people are created equal. We can act more in accordance with our principles when we see the contrary beliefs, the long delusional undercurrent of our history, openly held up in public life.

Beginning January 20, it will be time to start to take our country back, in the historical sense of becoming truer to our origins and founding principles, extrapolated over time, than we ever have been before.

Declaration_independenceOf course this newish nation can still endure. On July 4, 1776, our Founders declared: “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” That is the real American exceptionalism: that ordinary people step forward to take responsibility for the common welfare.

We have done it before and we can do it again. But it does mean we all have to do more than complain to our friends, read and write  blogs, and boycott Trump-affiliated brands and stores.

[From Wikimedia Commons: John Trumbull’s painting, “Declaration of Independence,” depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. The painting can be found on the back of the U.S. $2 bill. The original hangs in the US Capitol rotunda.]

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Yes, Children, there is a Congress but…

December 24, 2016, evening

Dear Children,

It has come to our attention that you may be wondering if there is a United States Congress.

“Why,” some of you are asking, “Should we believe in you when you don’t bring us any presents or do anything nice for us?”

Some of you are wondering if we really exist when you or children just like you go hungry at night, fall sick and can’t see a doctor,  aren’t getting the education you need, and are even being shot at by deranged people in malls and movie theaters.

Please, dear Children, be patient. Some day, you will understand how difficult it is to change anything where we work. We need to run everything by our donors and sponsors, and look at public opinion polls, and see what our party leaders say.

Those of you who, some day, become politicians and millionaires like us will understand better when you are our age.

And then, there are two of us, the House and the Senate, like your Mommy and Daddy, for those of you who have them. We need to agree with each other before we can do anything. You know how that is, not easy. Can’t you just go to your rooms and let us work on it?

You know how it is when you go to the playground and kids start quarreling about their toys and throwing sand at each other. Please believe us, it isn’t easy to play nice in the sandbox. The other guy is going to have to spend more at the eye doctor’s than we are, so there!

Although we aren’t giving you much of anything this year, or any year for that matter, we want you to know that we’ll always be there for you, and our thoughts and prayers are with you. And as soon as you turn 18, we’ll be sending you lots of mail.

With love,

Your Adults in the US Congress

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Media and politics

Who said this and when?

“Today television news is watched more often than people read
newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or
gather any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy.
With television you just sit – watch – listen. The thinking is done
for you.”

That was Roger Ailes, till recently president of Fox News Channel,
way back when he was working for the Nixon administration.

Since then, conventional wisdom has been that television ads were the
prime way to influence pre-election audiences, at least in a larger district such as the presidency.

Accordingly, television was the focus of big Clinton campaign expenditures–a good example of fighting the previous battle.

Meanwhile, Trump was preparing his Facebook game, and putting Clinton on the defensive by tweeting insults and spreading revelations with the cooperation of James Comey, Julian Assange, and the Russian team.

Trump was jumping on the Palin bus by attacking the mainstream media and the Clinton team was standing in middle of the road.

Trump made the George Bush II administration look like amateurs in the creation of an alternate media reality.

Will 2020 candidates still be relying on inventiveness, Facebook and Twitter? Or will some whole new strategy and vehicle be conveying the successful candidate’s message?

And the weightiest question is: will voters learn how to see through news hoaxes and unfulfillable promises? Without better political literacy, our future will be greatly diminished.

On the positive side, perhaps Americans aren’t as lazy as Roger Ailes thought; voters will have a good opportunity to get an education in political realities over the months and years to come.

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Philadelphia’s Big Green Block and why it’s important

On my block in West Chester, last month, workers were boring test holes in the street to discover the best depth for surface water to drain into the subsoil. I said: “But isn’t it all clay down there?” and they said: “No, we are hitting sand and loam at about 5 feet.”

The Borough plans to install, at strategic points, “bumpouts” to absorb storm runoff into garden-like areas and from there into underground holding tanks and into the subsoil. The chief goal is to reduce runoff into streams and consequently reduce erosion and water-borne pollution.

On November 19 I found out more background through a walking tour sponsored by the SE PA Sierra Club in Philadelphia’s “Big Green Block.” My notes from the very interesting tour conducted by Sandy of the Fairmount Water Works show that…

About 60% of Philadelphia has a combined storm and sewage water system, as is common on many older cities. This works fine in dry weather, because in those areas water runoff goes through the sewage processing system and many street pollutants, like drippage from cars and pet wastes, are cleaned out of the water before it goes into the Delaware River. But it is bad in wet weather, when the combined system is overwhelmed and untreated sewage goes into the river from 164 separate overflow points.

Now, along with over 800 other cities, Philadelphia is under federal order to cure the overflow problem. They could do that by separating sewage and storm flow. But that would be extremely expensive and intrusive. So, the city is aiming to cut down on storm runoff into the combined system. This solution has the added benefits of restoring water to underground aquifers, favoring tree growth, and naturally filtering street pollutants.

bumpout-norris-aveSo as a demonstration project, Philadelphia committed some money, got some grants, and reappropriated a very large, basically abandoned block in Fishtown that had been a rail yard. This fits into the city’s comprehensive Green Waters, Clean Streams plan, now in action for over 5 years.

The Big Green Block now houses the Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School (the first LEED platinum high school in the whole country), a park for people and one for dogs, a rec center, and facilities specially designed to retain and absorb water: green roofs, playing fields (including underlying geothermal energy fields), rain gardens, tree trenches, a stormwater rain-garden-streetbumpout, infiltration basins, a rainwater cistern, and porous parking pavement.

The special feature that we notice most readily is the rain gardens, which create pleasant habitats for trees, flowers, grasses, and animals like insects and possibly amphibians and reptiles. Rain gardens, fortunately, are engineered not to hold standing water more than a couple of days, to be sure that they do not breed mosquitoes.

We also note that what was once a somewhat rundown area is now a flourishing neighborhood where people meet, walk, study, and play, with many new and refurbished buildings.

Meanwhile, West Chester is working on its own green infrastructure. You can see a rain garden on Dean St. and a series of catchment basins east of New St. on the WCU campus where Plum Run once flowed (a concern if the proposed new building there diverts additional drainage water into the stream). And demonstration features are planned in the Borough Hall grounds.

The Borough now has a Stream Management Program designed to control rapid runoff, including (as of January) a Stream Protection Fee that impacts property owners (including ones that otherwise are untaxable) in proportion to their amount of impermeable surface or, in other words, the amount of precipitation that potentially flows away without being absorbed. Proceeds will be used to upgrade the aging storm water drainage system and install features like rain gardens and bumpouts.

This is all to the good. Cities like Philadelphia and municipalities like those in Chester County need to be good citizens by reducing runoff, thus improving stream quality and the lives of downstream communities that drink that same water.

Could a Big Green Block be good overall element in the Borough’s still-undeveloped Wyeth property? One can dream….

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Eight election epigrams

1024px-white_house_06-02-08Half the country hopes he meant what he said and half hopes he didn’t. Just like 8 years ago, but not the same halves.

There’s right, wrong, and politics. When questions have only two answers to most voters—right and wrong—politicians beware!

The Democrats’ hoped-for version of 2010: if it doesn’t come in 2018, will it ever?

A white woman to follow a black man? That was asking more than many Americans could handle.

Workers white, black, Latino, female, male, undocumented: what do they have in common and how can men of ill will pit them against each other? US history—from the beginning to last week—shows how: it’s not the worker part. Divide et impera, as the ancients said.

All things to all people: enough people believe that a candidate is listening, hears their needs, and will work for them in office. A track record can be too long. Then, all things to all people quickly turns into some things to some people, and the equation becomes: “all minus some = disenchantment.”

If the only thing to fear is fear itself, what is the only thing to hate?

Logic 101:”A includes B” does not prove that “B includes A.” Thus: white supremacists may support X, but not all X supporters are white supremacists. Fortunately.

Offer a 70-year-old man the chance to become a good, empathetic, rational person? The triumph of hope over developmental psychology.

(Photo: public domain, from Wikimedia Commons)

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The triumph of global warming?

The day after the election, an azalea bush in full bloom momentarily distracted me from what happened in Pennsylvania and the country the day before.


Because of the fall colors in the leaves, you need to look a bit closely, but the bush bears dozens of purple blossoms. I’ve seen older azaleas here tricked into putting out a couple of blooms on one branch, but never a whole array in mid-November. The hot weather of most of the fall must have seemed like spring to the plants… as well as to us.

People here sometimes say at times like this: and what’s so bad about global warming? Actually, here in Chester County we are pretty lucky. Not only are we a beautiful county with a lot of preserved open space, but we don’t have big rivers and dams or low-lying sea coasts. We will need to manage our storm runoff better, as West Chester is starting to do and probably other municipalities as well; but we don’t have huge forces of nature arrayed against us. Global warming will make us hotter in summer but we can probably deal with it, and so far at least, droughts have been rare here.

The irony of this year’s election is that people who voted for the national winner are more likely than we are (he lost Chester County by 25,000 more votes) to suffer the consequences as time goes on. His most ardent supporters will see declines in health care, public education, and employment options (it will turn out that “reform” unfortunately does not mean “recreate and improve”). Meanwhile, those who live along the Mississippi and the Gulf and East Coasts will see the storm waters rising around them.

From the Delmarva peninsula south to just short of Miami, and then around the Gulf Coast almost to Mexico, the man who called global warming a hoax predominated in voting. People there will not be any more immune to megastorms and tidal surges than those in the endangered Pacific islands. But in West Chester, we’ll continue to enjoy our gardens into what used to be thought of as late fall.

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Now what do I do with those political signs and wickets?

Winners exult, losers lament, and all of us wonder what to do with our growing collection of political signs and their metal support rods (AKA wickets).

They were so important to sway voters’ minds… maybe… and now??

If your candidate might ever run again for the same office, 6 months or 2 or 4 years from now, save the sign in garage or basement. A little rust won’t hurt; in fact, it makes them more secure in the ground and less easy for evil-doers to pull out.

256px-2008-08-03_White_German_Shepherd_supporting_Barack_ObamaPhoto by Ildar Sagdejev from Wikimedia Commons

You might wish  to keep one sign as a memento of each campaign of historic importance… for a future collage on your garage wall, maybe?


• The sign, perched on its wicket and slanted at a judicious angle, is great for shading delicate plants and transplants from hot summer sun.

• A sign can also temporarily block holes in picket fences where rabbits and rodents might otherwise enter your back yard (e.g., while you’ve removed pickets for repainting).

• The paper or plastic part of signs makes a good paint drop cloth. Add more signs to cover more area. Or cut the plastic signs at the sides and fold them out to be twice as large.

• Lay plastic signs on the ground under your eaves to prevent water infiltration, and cover them with dirt or stones.

• In messy weather, use signs to protect carpet underfoot in your car (just be sure not to give a ride to the candidate in question during that time).

• The wicket is excellent for propping up floppy bushes and flowers.

For lower plants, cut or bend the wicket supports. For really tall ones, straighten the metal out.

The collapsible type of wickets, whose two legs are separate, with no link across the top, are a terrible pain in political use (because the legs keep falling off), but the components serve well as individual plant supports (with ties or string).

The type of wicket that looks like a ladder with two prongs extending up into a corrugated sign are great for supporting plants, which are held in place by the arms.

• Here’s a remedy for those clothes hangers that dry cleaners send back pants hanging on, and whose sticky cardboard crosspiece tends to sag on reuse: cut a piece of wicket to the right length and insert it inside the cardboard. That one won’t ever sag again!

• Use a wicket segment to stick between a window sash and the frame above (e.g., above an air conditioner) to prevent it from being raised from the outside.

• Insert wicket lengths between studs to hold up wall insulation and prevent sagging.

• I’ve used a wicket folded triple ply to insert inside a bamboo pole and then into a flag holder whose opening was too small for the bamboo. The metal made a strong link where wood and thinner bamboo had collapsed under the strain.

• To stitch together segments of chicken wire or garden netting to keep off birds and rodents, whether vertically or horizontally: straighten out a wicket (they are surprisingly long in a straight line) and thread the resulting steel rod through the two adjoining segments.

• In art works. No kidding, I’ve seen in museums what looked to me like vertical clumps of campaign wickets with pieces of wood or corks jammed onto them. Adaptive reuse at its most esthetic.

How to cut regular metal wickets by repeated bending? Some wickets are thinner and much more bendable than others. Be careful; use gloves and eye protection. It can be done by brute hand strength, or by pliers, to bend repeatedly until the metal fatigues and breaks. Hack saws take too long; this is tough metal! I guess a bolt cutter would work.

If all adaptive reuse fails, an enterprising person or organization can collect wickets and sell them to the scrap yard for a few pennies a pound and the satisfaction of recycling metal and thereby reducing carbon emissions.

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