Monday, March 31, 2014

The Absence of Grace

This is a post that I do not want to write.
This is a post that I should not have to write.
I sat with this all weekend, wrestling with whether my involvement would shed any light on the darkness. When I awoke this morning, these words spurred me to action. "She existed. She mattered."
So let's talk about Grace.
simple elegance or refinement of movement.
courteous goodwill.
an attractively polite manner of behaving.
a divinely given talent or blessing
do honor or credit to (someone or something) by one's presence.
Postings on Facebook alerted me to the issue. This piece by Susan Reimer filled in the blanks.

Friends directed me to the Grace McComas Memorial Webpage on Facebook.

In brief--friends of Grace McComas, who committed suicide in response to horrific trauma and subsequent bullying, requested that they be permitted to wear blue ribbons at graduation to remember her. This would have been her graduation year. The principal refused their request, citing schools system policies, and direction from Central Office as well.

In regard to the policies cited for denying the request, this piece by Board member Brian Meshkin and this open letter by Damon Krometis make it clear that precedent does not support that claim
Take the time to read the Susan Reimer piece. Why? Because it shone a very public light on what was going on. After it appeared, this happened:

While it now seems that Grace will be remembered at graduation (thanks to you!), we should all be seriously concerned at the less-than-candid public responses from the school system, which suggested that they were waiting to discuss plans with our family before making decisions.

This is simply FALSE.

What follows is my response to the supportive board member who shared this link which contains the good news:

"As yesterday’s Baltimore Sun commentary suggests, Principal Schindler had absolutely NO intention of mentioning, remembering or honoring Grace in any way whatsoever.
That was clear before my post of 3/24. My first ever call from anyone from the school system since her death was on the afternoon of 3/25. In a sly attempt to avoid controversy and transparency, calls to our family were made only AFTER it was clear people were upset by hearing of the issue and that the press had gotten wind of it. Grace’s friends had already met with him, and EVERY SINGLE SUGGESTION they made to remember her LIFE was met with a firm negative response, supposedly because of his erroneous belief that it would 'glorify' suicide. This week he told parents that he was ‘not a psychologist’, but that his attitude about this was formed by those higher up in the school system. Please kindly 'educate' HCPSS personnel that this stigmatizing, deeply insulting, and hurtful response to suicide (much less BULLIED suicide) is out of date and grossly unacceptable! Is there no set way planned to deal with the tragedy of student loss within the system?? There should be. Future loved ones and friends should be spared this compounded agony....--Christine Pfister McComas

What I am seeing here is a clear disparity between what the school system said and did before the Baltimore Sun piece came out, and afterwards. Suddenly, when given a chance to respond in a subsequent article in the Sun, Superintendent Foose said,"If wearing the blue ribbon offers the McComas family and students and staff at Glenelg even one moment of peace in their grief, then I will honor that request," (she said at Thursday's school board meeting.)
One of the greatest lessons we teach our children is that honesty and integrity are more than being good when someone is watching you. The true measure of a moral life is choosing the right and telling the truth even when your actions may be covered by darkness. It is not too much expect our school system to live out that lesson in our community.
No one has more right than Grace's mother to call out this failure, and she adds,
Why is it so difficult to admit mistakes? Honesty, integrity and accountability are what true leadership is about. Kids are watching, and I am so very proud of the fledgling adults who stood up and spoke out against an injustice at Glenelg.
I have been wondering whether I, as an adult, should participate in the #bluepinkyproject which has been launched in Howard County by Jaki Ulman to address bullying. Now I know I will, because blue = blue for Grace . We should all stand up to bullying, wherever it occurs.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Shameless Commerce Shout-Out

It is Saturday. It is rainy. Get yourself out of the house and over to Oakland Mills Middle School for their Indoor Yard Sale. Entrance is free, you can browse and buy at great prices and there's even a bake sale table and coffee.

It starts at 9 and runs until 12:00, so don't dilly-dally!




Friday, March 28, 2014

Apples and Oranges?

I got a lot of great feedback about Wal-mart vs. Wegmans yesterday. What I learned was:

1. Putting the two head-to-head is a rather specious comparison, and

2. Amongst my circle of Facebook friends, Wegmans is the clear winner.

But, although there were some confirmed lovers of Wegmans, overall the tone was set by people who, like me, loathe Wal-mart. So that was the deciding factor for them. They mentioned poor service, poor shopping experience, objection to Wal-mart policies. So some chose Wegmans as a means of spurning Wal-mart, even though they actually preferred other groceries. (Trader Joe's, MOM's, and Center Park Giant were mentioned)

Remember that this all started with information from the Village Center Market Study, which stated: People will drive 10 miles to get to a Wal-Mart versus 3-6 miles for a Wegmans. So, it is about how far you are willing to drive. Then I started to wonder. Are the people who are driving to Wal-mart the kind of folks who rely more on driving? Are the people who drive to Wegmans the type who are concerned about burning too much fossil fuel?

The larger the store, the more limited the options for where you can put one. The average Wal-Mart supercenter is 200,000+ square foot sitting on 20 to 30 acres of land. The Columbia Wegmans is 135,000 square feet. On the other hand, for comparison, the Long Reach Village Center is listed at 84,000 square feet. (Not sure if this is the whole space, or just available retail space.) The difference in scale is mind-boggling. So, in all likelihood, in order to go to a Wal-mart, you would have to drive farther.

So many variables. So many ways to spin it. So little benefit to humankind to take the time to analyze it.

I remember a game of sorts that we played in high school youth group called "values clarification." The leader put a line down the center of the room, and would call out two choices, starting with simple things like chocolate or vanilla, indicating which side of the room was which. Everyone would run to the side of the room they identified with. It was fun, and quite edifying. As you progressed from ice cream flavors to music styles to personality traits to controversial issues, you looked around to see who was on your side of the room. And who wasn't.

Something about the Wal-mart vs. Wegmans debate reminded me of that. It is obvious that my own circle of friends would be completely useless as a representative cross-section of the general population. It made me realize that most of them were all standing on the same side of the room with me.

There are many ways in which American life is one continuous game of values clarification these days. The topic is called out and we line up on our respective sides. What I learned from this particular discussion is that the reasons people have for making their choices are far more interesting than which side of the line they are standing on.

I hope I can remember that the next time I am trying to communicate with someone on the other side of the room.



Thursday, March 27, 2014

Walmart vs. Wegmans

The following Twitter conversation was prompted by the Village Center Market Study meeting on Tuesday evening.



@iankennedy7: People will drive 10 miles to get to a Wal-Mart versus 3-6 miles for a Wegmans. My head hurts. #vcmarketstudy

@AlisonDHickman: @iankennedy7 did they cover how far people will drive to avoid Wal Mart? Hypothesis is that distance would be impressive.

@iankennedy7: @AlisonDHickman ha! No but that's a stat I would like to see.

@macsmom: @iankennedy7 It's not the same people, for heavens sake.

@iankennedy7: @macsmom well, yes and no. It's a population-level analysis, so it's kind of all of us. But, certainly, different customer bases.

@macsmom: I just want to go on record that I would do without rather than go to Walmart. I wonder if people like me are included in the statistics?

@urbanbushwoman9: @macsmom I'm sure you're not the only one. Could be worth blogging about. Knock it out!!

@ee_Jayne: @urbanbushwoman9 @macsmom same here.


What do you think? I am throwing this out there today in preparation for writing about it tomorrow. (No time for a comprehensive post today.) I'd love some feedback.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Heritage, or: My Grandmother the Birth Control Activist

We called her Gaga, because one of my older sisters couldn't say Grandma. She wore very colorful suits and sparkly costume jewelry. She was a pretty terrible cook. She didn't bake cookies and she wasn't very snuggly. She was, as my mother put it, a "career woman."

Here you see a mention of her passing in the newsletter of the National Council for Family Relations.

Maternal Health. I grew up knowing that's where Gaga worked, but I had absolutely no idea what went on there. I only truly came to understand when she died, in 1978. I was almost twenty. The magnitude of what she had done began to hit me as I read her obituary. We had submitted one to the Cleveland Papers, along with a photo. When it showed up in the paper it had actually been augmented and the photo was one from their own files.

So, what was Maternal Health?

You can see a mention of my grandmother, Hazel Cornell Jackson, in the clip above from 1938. Look to the right. A victory for birth control: books and pamphlets on birth control may now be sent through the mail and received by "persons other than physicians".

What ever you may think the fight at the Supreme Court is about right now, just stop for one minute and remember where we come from. Remember our foremothers. Yes, mothers. Women who sometimes ended up with four children in as many years and had no choice. Women whose health was broken by multiple pregnancies and childbirths. Women whose family finances were devastated by ever-growing families they could not afford.

Maternal Health. Women's health. Reproductive Health. My grandmother was a lifelong social worker whose training included family relations, family planning, and marital counseling. She was a well known speaker in Ohio and beyond. She helped to create the first mobile birth control unit that went into poor inner city neighborhoods in Cleveland. Maternal Health, as you may have figured out, was a forerunner of Planned Parenthood.

She did this at a time when it was scandalous, when even sending pamphlets through the mail was considered an act of pornography. She did this so that women would no longer be enslaved by a lack of choice in matters that had huge consequences. All I knew was that she wore "business suits" and went to an "office" in the city at a time when all the other mothers and grandmothers I knew stayed home in the suburbs.

Yesterday Jen Raffensperger, also known as local blogger Examorata, posted the following:

@examorata: Outside the Supreme Court, demonstrating on Hobby Lobby oral argument day. #religiouslibertyforme…

Jen was there as a woman of faith--the Unitarian faith--to support the rights of individual women to decide on matters of their own bodies, rather than assign religious rights to a corporation as a means to controlling individuals. Funny--Gaga was a Unitarian, and so were my parents. When I grew up and embraced Christianity I dismissed Unitarianism as the absence of faith. As I get older I realize how wrong an assessment that is.

So, the story in my family is that when I was born, my grandmother was beside herself. My parents already had two children, born three years apart. I was an "oops", who came along six years later. Here was my grandmother, promoting birth control to help couples plan reasonably-sized families, and her own son and daughter-in-law had three children!

She loved me anyway. She took me to see the Christmas lights at NELA Park, and she took me to the downtown department stores to see Santa. She let me drink iced tea at the Hot Shoppes at the mall even though Mother said no. She had me over for countless sleepovers. She let me sit at her antique vanity table and play with her fancy costume jewelry.

Today, and every day, I honor her and the work that she did. I can't believe that we are fighting these battles all over again, but fight we must. I love you, Gaga. I won't forget.





Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Lessons in Personal Branding

The other day my Sonicare electric toothbrush slipped out of my hands while I was brushing my teeth and bounced around briefly in the sink, splattering toothpaste foam everywhere. I didn't think, "How stupid of me!" or, "I can't believe I'm such a klutz!" No, in that crazy moment when I was trying to get a grip on a wildly pulsating object with slippery hands, I thought of just two words.

Mickey Gomez.

You may know her as the Executive Director at the Volunteer Center Serving Howard County, a talented singer and guitarist, mom and defender of All Dogs, or as a fiercely competitive celebrity bartender. But as a frequent reader of her blog, Life and How to Live It, and as a devoted social media friend/follower, I have to come to see her in a different light. She has developed a personal brand of sorts. I guess I'd describe it like this:

"Wild, spectacularly wild and unusual things happen to me."

It could be a hairbrush, eye make up, kitchen knives or dog toys. Nothing is simple, nothing is innocent. Mickey has built up such a reputation for personal calamities that friends routinely warn her of unlikely outcomes before she even attempts anything. She has taken something that happens to all of us in our daily lives and elevated it to a cause célèbre.

So, instead of cursing my fate as I unsuccessfully tried to wrangle a moving toothbrush, I felt a tinge of pleasure that I was having a Mickey Gomez moment. It's true. Once you have entered into that realm all of your little disasters will be exciting ways for you to connect with the Mickey Gomez brand. And then you don't feel quite so bad.

On the other hand, if you enjoy bragging about humorous and outlandish experiences, this may be a problem. Whatever it may be, it has already happened to Mickey, and on a grander scale. You mustn't begrudge her this; this is the greatness which has been thrust upon her.

However, I am going to go out on a limb and confess that I have one personal talent which (I think) she doesn't have: the gift of static electricity. Once Winter comes, I shock and am shocked by everything in our house: people, appliances, granite countertops. We have three cordless telephone handsets in our house. This year I have killed two of them just by picking them up. I have turned off, turned on, and reset the tv, cable box, wii system and DVD player with nothing more than one finger.

I am electric. It would be annoying if it weren't so unbelievably hilarious. Or maybe that's the other way around. Anyway, I have come to appreciate the humor more since knowing Mickey. And that makes my life, and how I live it, just a little bit better.

Thanks, Mickey.





Monday, March 24, 2014

Taking a Chance on the Future

Sharing my Letter to the Editor:


Merriweather Park Will Make Columbia Fun: Celebrates Nature, Arts and Arts Education

I am writing to express my support for the strong focus on arts and arts education in Merriweather Park. My husband and I are both music educators. Our one grown daughter just bought a house in Columbia, and our other daughter is a student in HCPSS. Art is central to the quality of life for people of all ages. The Inner Arbor team has created a brilliant design to encourage use of Symphony Woods, a property that has been sadly underused.

I am delighted by the innovative design and creative subtlety employed by the Inner Arbor Trust as they work to bring the experience of nature and art to all Columbians, young and old. Moreover, as a parent and arts educator, I am thrilled to see long term plans in Merriweather Park to celebrate the arts and to give the arts pride of place at the center of our community. My daughter and her husband recently bought a house in Oakland Mills, driven in part by the excitement in the revitalization of Columbia, which has been led by the Inner Arbor. As we work to support the plans for Symphony Woods in Merriweather Park, we are validating their choice to take a chance on the future of Columbia.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Does March Mean Musical Madness?

It's March, and the Spring season of musical productions at local high schools is upon us. Considering that I was raised on musical theatre, and that Margo adores musicals, it is amazing and really pretty silly that we don't go to more of them.

We were so impressed with last year's production of "The Music Man" at Oakland Mills High School that we made a point of coming back this year for "Once Upon a Mattress." It was fabulously entertaining. There is one more performance at two o'clock today--go!

I could write a pseudo-professional review here, but that would miss the point. OMHS has put together a team of teachers who know how to support the students and let their unique gifts shine. Philip Hale is working with an on-stage pit orchestra, Steven Fleming is the theatrical director, Joshua Konick of Oakland Mills Middle School is the Music Director. The orchestra ably supported the performers onstage. The dramatic direction allowed the students to use their talents to move the plot forward and entertain and engage the audience. The music direction resulted in some of the healthiest high school singing I have heard in a long, long time, both solo and ensemble. None of those things happen by accident.

There are more adults whose names I don't have in front of me: choreographer, lighting and sound, sets and costumes, programs, tickets, concessions, staff who supervise backstage, staff who clean and prepare the theatre and school is truly a team. A network of support to allow young people to take risks, create, enjoy, share, and how to work successfully as part of a team.

The best teaching is done with the goal of the students being able to take wing and fly on their own. I think that the true assessment is not in any paper and pencil test, but rather in moments like these.

Go see this show if you can today. Or choose another of the ones coming up this Spring.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Moving Day

The little girl who watched her mother pour loose change into the coin machine at the grocery store is moving into her first home today. She and her husband are now homeowners.

This little girl always got her Easter dresses at the Wise Penny second-hand store run by the Junior League. She never really had an allowance. She never got to shop at the Mall just for fun. She got a full scholarship for college and rose above the craziness of joint custody and financial instability: local girl makes good.

This little girl is not a little girl, but a young woman full of ability and promise. She can plan a move, cook a meal, write a blog post, mentor a teenaged sister, play the piano, and imagine worlds as yet unknown.

Today she is a homeowner. And I am her mother, overwhelmed by the gratitude that her life is secure, and joyful. Last night I walked through empty rooms lit by candles and imagined the hustle and bustle of movers as the furniture arrives. And the future holds dinners, and parties, and music: all the things that she loves. Long hours of writing in her journal as she relaxes in the courtyard--her haven in a busy and confusing world.

Motherhood is late nights and nightmares, bicycle crashes and heart break. It is worry and fantasy and the wish for a better life. It is moving forward and standing still all at once. Today I find myself in the eye of the storm. The swirl of activity surrounds me.

I see that little girl, the one who loved long walks with her Grandpère, fine architecture, and having snacks and drinks in the living room before family dinners. I see the young woman who honors me by calling me friend. I see a house which will be a home.

Wherever you are as you read these words, my wish for you is the same joy that I feel today: the feeling that those you love be safe, and happy, and blessed.


Friday, March 21, 2014

HiPiHoCo Returns

Remember this?

You didn't think it was going to be a one-time thing, did you? Well, maybe you were hoping it would just go away...

This has certainly been a Higgledy-Piggledy week in the old HoCo. And not in a fun, positive, we love-to-be-crazy kind of way.

Howard County and the Howard Hughes Corporation appear to be taking a page out of the U.S./Russia playbook. No, it's not war, but it doesn't feel the least bit playful, either. No sanctions have been imposed. Yet.

HCPSS continues to tout World Class Education and Model Schools, while a survey of teachers shows plunging morale. Faith in the Superintendent and Board of Education has gone down as well. Not to be outdone, Rebecca Amani-Dove, speaking on behalf of the school system, doesn't seem to have much faith in parents who support Arts Education.

Democratic Candidate for County Council from District 1 Wendy Jane Royalty wants everyone to know that the Primary Election is on June 24th, and to plan accordingly. A laudable concept, except that every active Democrat in Howard County will be far too exhausted from attending house parties to be able to drag themselves out of bed to vote.

Sara Toth, beloved Education reporter for the Sun, is escaping interminable Bd of Ed Meetings to go to A Better Place. Lest we think of ourselves in Columbia as having a corner on the market when it comes to idealistic, aspirational communities, Sara is going one better--she has accepted a job at the Chautauqua Institution, where she will be a lecture associate and the assistant editor of the Chautauquan Daily. Columbia vs. Chautauqua? We didn't stand a chance.

Mom and Dad are fighting, our siblings aren't getting along, we're up all night partying, and our best friend is moving away. As my mother would've said, "well, that's a heck of a note!"

And that's the news from Higgledy Piggledy HoCo, where the Winter has been strong, the promise of Spring is good-looking, and snow totals are above average.


P.S. There probably wouldn't be a Higgledy Piggledy HoCo without the inspiration of Marshmallow Man (Bill Woodcock) who writes The 53 blog. He's looking for more "Likes" on the blog's Facebook page. You can do that here. And while you are at it, I'd love it if you "liked" mine as well. Thanks!


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Many Reasons Why

I have been poor. I have been sick with no doctor. I have been at the emergency room because there was nowhere else I could go. I have been fired from a job. I have been overwhelmed by bills. I have overdrawn a checking account. I have used a credit card to supplement an income which didn't cover my expenses. I have borrowed money from friends that I could never repay. I have washed clothes in the sink and tried to dry them by an open oven door. I have shivered under multiple blankets because a landlord wouldn't provide adequate heat. I have poured a Baggie full of change into the coin counter at the grocery in order to buy dinner for myself and my child.

But when all is said and done, I was never completely out there with no one. I never would have ended up on the streets. For all the stress, terror, and helplessness I felt, if it had come to that, I could have called someone.

It becomes easy for people to judge the poor when they are continually depicted as "other". When you know how close you have come to being there, you know that the poor have a face and a name. You know what kind of desperate choices you make, fueled by fear and exhaustion.

I have drawn from my own experiences two things: gratitude for the financial and emotional stability that I have now, and a refusal to judge others whose lives are constrained by poverty.


Show me a prison, show me a jail

Show me a prisoner, man, whose face is growin' pale

And I'll show you a young man with many reasons why

And there but for fortune, may go you or I

Show me an alley, show me a train

Show me a hobo who sleeps out in the rain

And I'll show you a young man with many reasons why

And there but for fortune, may go you or I

Show me the whiskey stains on the floor

Show me a drunken man as he stumbles out the door

And I'll show you a young man with many reasons why

And there but for fortune, may go you or I

Show me the country where the bombs had to fall

Show me the ruins of the buildings once so tall

And I'll show you a young land with so many reasons why

And there but for fortune, may go you or I, or I

Phil Ochs - There But For Fortune


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Too Much

Some times I can't think of anything to write about. Today, there is just too much. There are so many ideas competing for attention in my brain that I can't begin to sort them out or do any one of them justice. So I am just going to lay some out for you to look at this morning:


  • A friend who is in constant pain, who has waited far too long for a heart transplant.
  • A boy who is bullied for carrying a My Little Pony backpack.
  • A very public conflict between Howard County and Howard Hughes Corporation, and
  • The future of Columbia's downtown.
  • A school system that marginalizes supporters of Arts education.
  • The unrelenting deluge of local political events.
  • The puzzling capriciousness of a middle school teacher, and
  • Bumps on the road of being the parent of an adolescent.
  • The future of my job teaching music to special needs preschoolers.
  • People who can look at those in poverty as "other" rather than sister or brother.


That is all for today. I'll work on honing in on one of these for tomorrow.






Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On the Record

This morning I read this article by Sun Education Reporter Sara Toth. A lot of work went into this. She has put in a lot of time drawing information from a variety of sources. I get the feeling that all sides were given an opportunity to speak their piece, as it were. And that is balanced reporting at its best.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Sara and her work. And yet I read this article with mixed feelings. Why? I noticed whose voices were absent: teachers. I feel certain that Sara would have included them if at all possible. So it seems likely that none are willing to come forward and speak on the record.

Why would that be? Teachers gave testimony about changes to the Middle School curriculum. Teachers gave testimony about changes to the school calendar. Teachers came out to support good faith negotiations with HCEA. So where were the teachers on reductions to music and arts instruction?

They were there at the meeting. Their silence is telling.

Rebecca Amani-Dove, of the school system, said there has been "no effort to hide things" from the public.

"I don't think there's been any coercion," she said. "That sounds very conspiratorial."

Yes. Yes, it does. And I can't fix how this looks, nor can Ann Faust or Bernadette Giroux, and certainly not Sara Toth, because to fix this we would have to see teachers and administrators willing to speak on the record. Look around your school. Whose job would you be willing to sacrifice, if reports of intimidation are true? Your music or art teacher? Your band or strings teacher? Perhaps your principal?


So parents are going to have to carry the torch on this one. It looks like it may be a long haul, as the comments from Ms. Amani-Dove suggest that the parents who turned up on Thursday night are considered to be just one small group whose concerns are of lesser importance than "the many". I didn't see one things in her words that said: we are listening, hearing, understanding and will respond to parents on this issue.

Many thanks to Sara Toth and the Sun for giving this issue the attention it deserves. I am hoping, however, that this is not the end of the story.


A post script. I am asking that if you respond in the comments about this issue that you use your real name. Anonymous comments have been popping up and I feel quite strongly that credibility is compromised by withholding identity. Thanks.-- JAM


Monday, March 17, 2014


Separated in 1989, divorced in 1990, I spent what felt like an eternity between those years and finding and marrying my husband in 1999. And during those years I spent a certain amount of time searching for my ideal mate. I won't bore you with how painfully educational that was. By the time I was nearing the end of my search, although I didn't know it at the time, I had pretty much narrowed it down to one essential quality: willingness.

You can find attractive people, intelligent, charming, well-mannered people with whom you share values, a sense of humor, or tastes in movies. But if that person does not possess the willingness to be in a committed relationship, it is all for naught. And by willingness I don't just mean, "yeah, that sounds good to me." I mean willing to show up and do the work.

When I got the news that County Executive Ken Ulman is taking a look at the Downtown Plan as a means to improving progress for Merriweather, it reminded me of what I really like about him and his team: willingness. As much as we all laughed at the image of earnest folks gathered around a conference table pitching plans to win over Julia Louis-Dreyfus, that little glimpse of such highly energized, creative people is no joke.

These people are willing to show up and do the work. No resting on their laurels for them. Yes, the framework of the Downtown Plan is there, but how things evolve in a community are organic, unpredictable. (Perhaps like in a committed, long-term relationship?) Honest examination of what is really going on, plus astute problem solving about how things can be improved, are the qualities that will make the Downtown Master Plan for Columbia a success in the long run.

If you have ever been in an unsatisfactory relationship, you can imagine how other folks might handle this:

"I gave you a Downtown Plan, what more do you want?"

"I'm just not as into Merriweather as I used to be."

"It's not you, it's me. I'm thinking of seeing other jurisdictions."

"You know I care about your Downtown, I just have other plans for that day..."

There's a lot out there for you to read about this. And you can mark April 17th on your calendar. You'll have the opportunity to come out and support Merriweather at the Howard County Planning Board meeting. You won't want to miss the chance to see Ian Kennedy (sans beard?) whose tireless commitment to Merriweather over the years has proven that he's another one of those guys who are willing to show up and do the work for our community.

Willingness: it's what makes a relationship work.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

HoCoHoller for Councilman Ball

In October of 2011, I got off the couch and walked to Walgreens.

"I made some observations about the route as I walked. The most crucial: why is there no crosswalk at Sohap? In order to cross in the safest and most legal way, I would have to go away from my destination to the crosswalk at White Acre. So now I have a new goal--who do I talk to about that?"

I can't remember if I talked to anyone about that, to tell you the truth. Then, at the end of an extremely trying week, the Calvin Ball Bulletin turned up in my email--the "Construction Edition". Clicking on the link, I discovered these words:

A crosswalk--yay! Okay, it isn't at Sohap, but it still makes the trip to Walgreens on foot safer and more convenient. So, a huge HoCo Holler to Calvin for moving forward on this. I continue to be a grateful constituent. And yet, once we get that crosswalk...

I'll have to get back off the couch again.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Saturday Morning, Columbia-Style

Breakfast this morning at Le Comptoir with Margo:

Clear skies, sunny, a feeling that Spring is right around the corner. Margo and I paid our first visit to the new lakefront pastry café adjoining Petit Louis Bistro. Much as I bemoan being the parent of a teenager, this morning was one of those great experiences where I felt the joy of being able to go out for breakfast together, walk around the lakefront, take pictures, engage in light, careless conversation.

As we sat enjoying our drinks we took in the view. There were people in it. An older gentleman and a little boy down on the dock were looking at two seagulls. A young couple in running clothes jogged by with their (very happy) dog. Margo started to laugh.

"Look! They're rolling down the hill."

I looked. Three children were rolling down the grassy hill in front of Clyde's.

When we finished, Margo asked if we could walk around a bit. We walked down past the Tomato Palace and Clyde's, near the water. A young family had spread out a blanket and were having a little picnic. Older kids were playing on the terraced lawn. We walked by the fountain and talked about wanting to see it turned on in the warm weather, with children splashing in it, or cooling hot little feet.

We kept on, walking down in front of the Rouse building and remembered going out in the porch there at our first Souper Sundae event to enjoy the view. We talked about progress on the building and the coming of the new Whole Foods. An older couple passed us, looking like veteran lake-walkers. It was a beautiful day to be out.

Since I have lived in Columbia, most of my trips to the lakefront have been marked by an almost museum-like quality. Everything beautiful and well maintained, but empty and silent. Today was different. It was clearly alive. Not for a festival or a concert or other publicized special event, but because it was a beautiful day and that is where people wanted to be.

I felt a sense of hope. Like the milder weather and hints of sun that make us think of Spring, a few children, teens, families, runners, grandparents, and walkers spoke to me of new life coming to the lakefront, and new life for Columbia.

I realized as we walked back to the car that we hadn't stopped to look at the People Tree, as is our custom. Why? We were too busy people-watching.


Friday, March 14, 2014

Three Good Things

Crazy schedule today, so no time to ponder and muse. Here are three good things for you Friday:


You can eat pie on Pi Day with candidate Tom Coale:

Plans are in the works for donuts in Oakland Mills:

County Executive Ken Ulman puts forward plan to streamline Downtown Plan process to help Merriweather and support building of affordable housing.


It has been a rough week. Having three good things to think about is probably the very best way to end it.


Thursday, March 13, 2014


You may already have read a statement from Howard County Schools which begins like this, "There have been widespread rumors over the past few weeks..."

And if you did, you might be tempted to believe this is all about misguided people spreading rumors. Except for one thing. The situation we are in right now is one entirely created by the school system. How?

Let's look at the Petition created by HoCo Families for Music and Arts in our School.

HCPSS did not ensure:

1. That any changes to the elementary curriculum and schedule be developed with significant and meaningful contribution from teachers, administrators, and parents.

2. That any such plan developed be shared freely and openly with the public with time built into the process for discussion and parental input before being put to a vote by the Board of Education.

And because they did not, the petition requests:

3. That, in order to guarantee the achievement of these goals, they shall be made verifiable through the appointment of observers independent of the board/central office staff, that is, one each from PTACHC and HCEA.

Now, you shouldn't meet these requirements simply to avoid having people spread rumors. You should meet them because it's the right thing to do.

I noted with surprise that "Vision 2018: Filling the Promise of Preparation was developed by capitalizing on the expertise of more than 2,400 stakeholders, including students, staff, families, and community members." I would love to know where that number comes from, who those people are, and if their input was in any way meaningful to the end result.

I read recently, "Diversity Is Being Invited to the Party; Inclusion Is Being Asked to Dance". When it comes to changes proposed for The Model Schools initiative, there has been so much secrecy that it is difficult to know who, if anyone, was invited to the party. The lack of "significant and meaningful" contributions from stakeholders makes it pretty clear that few were asked to dance.

I know some very intelligent local people who, if similar tactics were employed by the CA Board or the Columbia Association, the County Council or the County Executive would be up in arms. There would be talk of over-reaching, disenfranchisement, dirty deals in back rooms. What we are seeing now in the Howard County Schools is a steady dismantling of the power of parents to engage in the future of their children's education.

That's a big issue, not a rumor.






Wednesday, March 12, 2014


One particular Dave Barry column which has stayed with me is this one in which he describes Disney's rebranding of the heroines of their classic animated movies as "Disney Princesses." Like much of his work, it is both astute and hilarious. I came away with the feeling that, through rebranding, Disney hoped to get new generations of children (read:consumers) to buy into the Disney way of life.

I propose to you, with less hilarity, that the term "instrumental pull-out" needs to undergo a similar rebranding process. Not because you will be encouraged to buy products or see movies, but because 1. it in no way accurately describes what is going on, and 2. it may actually mislead or discourage the public.

Let's take the word "instrumental".

1a : serving as a crucial means, agent, or tool <was instrumental in organizing the strike>b : of, relating to, or done with an instrument or tool

Well, there's nothing wrong with that. These small group sessions are for students playing instruments. Also, participation in these classes is instrumental in the long-term success of the players. So, let's keep that.

"Pull-out." Okay, here's our problem. Nobody likes to be pulled. Pulling hair, pulling teeth, being pulled out of line. The connotation is negative, maybe a bit violent. And followed by "out", it becomes a process of removal, suggesting some is being subtracted, taken away. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Howard County invests in a large number of reading teachers, specialists and support staff at the elementary level, just so that young readers can receive small-group, differentiated instruction. We don't view that as a "pull-out" or an "extra". We understand it to be an appropriate way to teach reading and support academic growth. Teachers can monitor improvements, devise interventions, build relationships with students.

This is precisely the model used in hcpss music programs: school support, along with the free choice of students to participate and choose their instruments, and the flexibility of teachers and schools to affirm student choices. Student-centered, school supported.

Music teachers work cooperatively with classroom teachers to make sure that instrumental sectionals do not jeopardize student performance in other areas. Those who suggest that the "pull-out" system negatively imacts student progress are relying on Chicken Little arguments. The data does not bear this out. The system we have in place allows our teachers the flexibility to make sure that students don't fall through the cracks.

So data does not support claims of academic instruction being compromised. In fact, studies show that beginning instrumental lessons in the primary years improves what we think of as academic performance. Now think: many of our students will never have the financial means to pursue private lessons. Small-group, differentiated instruction in music is one of the biggest tools we have to bridge the opportunity gap. For many students this musical experience is the nourishment which allows them to persevere in other subjects which are more difficult for them.

All of this begins in the elementary years and the benefits to our students are lasting.

So, what do you think? What would be the best name for something that instructs, supports, and enhances our students? What words best personify the brand?

One thing I know without a doubt: it's not about pulling out. It's about helping up.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Howard County Public Schools Superintendent Renee Foose participated recently in a panel at sxswedu. I read the details here: In her talk Dr. Foose addresses the problem of various departments existing in silos, thus preventing them for working together to assess data and formulate it into something truly useful for classroom teachers.

This use of the word silos has become increasingly popular to describe "information silos" in business and other large organizations. For example,

Definition of 'Information Silo'

An information management system that is unable to freely communicate with other information management systems. Communication within an information silo is always vertical, making it difficult or impossible for the system to work with unrelated systems. (Investipedia)

It is quite true that who controls the information, and how the information moves, is critical to the success of an organization. That doesn't apply merely to Big Data. It also applies to little data, like changes in curriculum, changes in programming, changes in budgets, in salary negotiations.

As I reread Board Member Brian Meshkin's 2/25 blog post, the lack of specific details from the Superintendent leapt out at me. First, the lack of transparency about changes to the Title 1 Schools.

"Prior to the vote – in the afternoon session – we discussed the quarterly agenda of the Board of Education. When I had raised this concern during the worksessions, staff had said that they were looking at multiple options for expansion and would have a report later in the spring. So, since we were discussing the agenda for meetings “later in the spring”, I felt that it should be put on the agenda rather than swept under the rug, so to speak. This caused a measure of discomfort. Watch the meeting at and specifically the segment on the April-June 2014 Quarterly Agenda. I pushed hard to ensure that this will be on the agenda. The Board should review and approve such a substantial change. The Superintendent disagrees."

Second, the lack of data about budget issues."

Like anything, there are drawbacks in this budget. A major drawback was the lack of program details in the initial proposed budget. Gratefully, our PTA Council of Howard County and Operating Budget Review Committee successfully lobbied to have such information shared with the public. There are plenty of other downsides in this budget, like less specific program detail on spending year over year, difficulty in knowing what items are pre-funded with current year’s budget dollars, and certain uncertainties about how programs will be implemented (like the aforementioned expansion of world language in elementary school)."

Going back to our definition of information silo, "Information silos may also exist because managers control the flow of information and access to the silo, meaning that they have an incentive to maintain the status quo."

My experience as a parent with the Howard County Schools has been a positive one. Through the years I have seen countless examples of teachers, staff, and administrators sharing information to improve the educational experience of the students. I have seen multi-level cooperation between elementary, middle, and high schools. I have seen outreach between same-level elementary and/or middle schools that feed into the same high school.

Over the course of this year, however, it has become pretty apparent that control of information, and access to information, is becoming a critical issue we must address. Our problem is not multiple silos existing in isolation from one another. It is the one silo which maintains its immunity from transparency requirements and stakeholder input.If we don't get involved now to re-assert our rights to a healthy flow of information that silo may start looking a lot more like this.


Monday, March 10, 2014


"I just want my money back."


I looked up. The woman in front of me sounded tired, defeated. The manager looked confused. I looked at the gentleman waiting over to the side. He had received his carry out order and was signing his credit slip. We had all been waiting together.


"I've been waiting and waiting, and I never got my order. Now I have to go back to work. I want my money back."


It was a busy night at the little restaurant. One waitress ran between the tables, and the manager, usually at the front near the cash register, had been absent for an unusually long time. The three of us had waited. And waited. There were bags of carry out food lined up on the counter, but no one to check us out.


"You paid but you didn't get your order? You have been waiting?" The manager's eyes darted between the tired woman, and the two of us, now being asked, somehow, for corroboration.


"I ordered a cheesesteak roll. I paid for it. I never got it. I just want my money back. I don't even have time to eat it now." There was no trace of anger in her voice. More like disappointment.


"I saw you," the manager said to the gentleman, giving him his receipt. She looked over the woman's shoulder at me.


"She's been here the whole time I've been here," I said, feeling uncomfortable.


"She was here before I even got here," said the man.


The manager went over to the row of carry out bags.


"Cheesesteak roll? Here it is." She held it out to the woman.


"It has just been sitting there and sitting there. Please, I just want my money back. I have to go back to work now."


The manager went to the register, pulled out some cash and brought it to the woman. Then she gave her the bag of food.


"Here, you take it for free." She laughed, nervously. "I didn't see you."


At those words, all of the oxygen seemed to be sucked out of the room. At least it was for me. The woman in front of me, whose face I had never seen, seemed to square her shoulders against those words, almost wince. Then she took her money, her food, and turned to leave.


She looked at me, and at the other gentleman, now a part of this entire exchange.


"Thank you," she said quietly, and left.


It was a busy night at the restaurant, they were clearly short-staffed, and the manager had probably been helping the cooks in the kitchen. It's a small mom and pop sort of operation. It wasn't the best night for customer service, clearly, but there was no malice.


This was Friday night. Now it is Monday morning, and I am still thinking about it. We were white. She was not. And she had been invisible.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sunday Confession

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these:

'It might have been!'

--John Greenleaf Whittier

"Child," said Aslan, "did I not explain to you once before that no one is ever told what would have happened?" --C.S. Lewis



I had a brilliant idea for a blog post. It had been gathering momentum for almost a year. Over time, it seemed to be more credible and beautifully connected, like one long ball of yarn. I was more than a little pleased with myself. Today was the day I would unveil it.

And yet, despite the fact that all of the pieces fit into place, I sent out a query to a friend. I think I was expecting complete vindication, a pat on the back, or even a few more bits of evidence that would help prove my point.

I was wrong.

No, I was pretty spectacularly wrong. Everything which I had been carefully assembling over the months was just plain not true. Well, maybe some of the bits and pieces were fact, but the conclusion I had drawn was clearly not.

Wow. I had to stop to breathe a little bit. Even though I thought I was extremely well informed, I hadn't been. The relief I felt that I had taken the time to reach out to someone was immense. The gratitude I felt that I have such a friend who would tell me the truth: more immense.

Lesson learned. It is just way too easy to collect the scraps that you want to hear, or arrange whatever you have to conform to your own point of view. I think that much of the contentiousness and bad behavior we see in Columbia stems from charging ahead with our perfectly crafted world-views while being altogether unwilling to examine fully those inconvenient pieces that won't fit in our personal puzzles.

It is precisely that contentiousness and bad behavior which cause good people on our Village Boards to burn out. It is as though the People Tree is really engaging in some kind of centrifugal action which throws off those who wish to serve. It's a rough ride.

My friend, Bill, who kept me from making a complete fool of myself, and possibly hurting other people's feelings and/or making them angry, is not running again this year for the Oakland Mills Village Board. His blog post at The 53 this week explains why. I do not blame him. But it's a great loss to our village. His experience and abilities will be missed.

So on this Sunday morning I am grateful for good friends, good advice, and good people who serve their communities.



Saturday, March 8, 2014

Saturday Linkety-Links

Better than Friday Links, it's Saturday Linkety-Links! Well, not really making any claims of superiority, of course. I have been intrigued this week by amazing connections popping up between news stories. So much so that it brought on a case of advertisement nostalgia.

So, without further introduction, stories that taste great when you link them together:

Study shows SAT's not helpful in predicting college success. Followed quite soon after by announcement of significant overhaul of SAT's.

Frank Gehry comes out of the woodwork to denounce Inner Arbor Plan for Symphony Woods. Some members of CA Board who talk a lot like Frank Gehry want more control of Inner Arbor Board. See also local reactions.

A rather lovely trio: HCPSS has Spelling Bee. Howard County Library System supports Spelling Bee. Sara Toth of the Sun live-tweets Spelling Bee. @SaraAToth: (It's like watching the Super Bowl, guys, you seriously want to watch it.) #HCLSBee

A little commentary here. In reference to the SAT's, three cheers for the timely self-interest of the Educational Testing Service. Testing is a huge industry--their industry--and they can't possibly run the risk of people thinking they are unnecessary. Even if they are.

On the Inner Arbor news, I have little to say except for this: a concerted effort should be made to find out who solicited (wrote?) the Frank Gehry letter. If that person or persons should turn out to be on the CA Board, then I suggest they should be permanently disqualified from appointment to the Inner Arbor Board. Might take a look at local architects, too. (Self-interest?)

On the Spelling Bee--first, I was unable to find a link on the HCPSS Website, sorry. But it's clearly a school activity as all preliminary rounds happen in the school building during instructional time. Second, the Howard County Library System yet again shows why it is an award-winning library system in this prime example of putting itself right at the heart of educational events and initiatives. This is enlightened self-interest all around at its best. A special tip of the hat to Sara Toth who endured my suggestion that the word "algorism" had something to do with global warming.

I'd love to make Linkety-Links a regular weekend thing, so if you see any, let me know.




Friday, March 7, 2014

A Note of Thanks

To: Brenda J. Walker,

Vice President & Chief Operating Officer Cedar Realty Trust, Inc.


Dear Ms. Walker,

I am writing to express heartfelt thanks to you and to Cedar Properties for working with Howard County, the Village of Oakland Mills, and the owners of the Second Chance Saloon to keep this vital business alive in our community. This article by Luke Lavoie in the Baltimore Sun, "New Lease Close for Columbia's Second Chance Saloon" brought great joy to me and all of us who support this amazing mom-and-pop establishment.

I was thrilled to see our community come together around this issue. The outpouring of positive energy has been inspiring.

The willingness of you and your colleagues at Cedar Properties to rethink your decision and work with our community is incredibly meaningful to me. Your response to our petitions, letters, emails, and phone calls shows a commitment to be active partners in the success of our Village Center.

Thank you so much.



Julia McCready



Thursday, March 6, 2014

Bigger Than Tweets

Tuesday, February 25th was a long evening for our local reporters, striving to keep us up to date on candidate filings before the deadline. On the Board of Education race, the following tweets came at the end of the evening:

@SaraAToth: Will post these names again tomorrow, but in the meantime, your #HoCoMD school board contenders are ...

@SaraAToth: Bess Altwerger, Corey Andrews, Tom Baek, Zaneb Beams, Olga Butler, Allen Dyer, Maureen Evans Arthurs, Sandra French, Dan Furman ...

@SaraAToth: Leslie Kornreich, Christine O'Connor, Mike Smith and Cindy Vaillancourt.

@SaraAToth: Whoops, so that's 13 candidates. Missed Olga Butler the first time around. She ran unsuccessfully in 2012.

Wow. It took four whole tweets to make the full announcement. And that was before the "Siddiqui Switcheroo". I am excited to see the interest in the Board of Education race. And now I need to start learning about the candidates.

You might assume, from both my background and blog posts, that support for music programs will be the litmus test with which I judge them. Not so. Just as I wrote, in reference to teachers, "It's Not About the Money", I want to assert, in reference to the Board of Ed, "It's Not About The Music".

It is about transparency. Inclusion of stakeholders. Respect for the administrators, teaching professionals, staff, parents, and students that make up our school system. The reason we have an elected board of education is to ensure that the community's voice is heard. If our elected officials abdicate their responsibility to be fully informed and fully involved, then we have a Superintendent and Central Office Staff with absolute power.

You know what they say about absolute power.

Oh, I have heard the arguments about micromanaging, and I'm not buying them. The Board of Education is to direct the Superintendent, not the other way around. If you want to see micromanagement, a great place to look would be the CA board. I remember attending a meeting early on in Phil Nelson's tenure where they had him sitting at a little table by himself, as though he were a bad child in the Time-Out Chair. He never got to speak one word for the entire meeting. That is micromanagement, and it can be pretty scary.

I think we have a loooong way to go before we are in danger of anything even remotely close to that on the Board of Education. In our American way of thinking, systems like this should have checks and balances to preserve a balance of power. Our elected members of the Board of Education should be our advocates. If all the power is generated top-down, then our democratic system is thwarted.

There was a time, not too long ago, when the community felt downright disgusted by drama, disagreements and infighting on the school board. It seemed that having a school board that could achieve the appearance of professional courtesy was the most progress anyone could hope for. But if the appearance of outward civility is masking suppression of opinion, disregard of parents, and intimidation of teachers and administrators, then what progress have we really made?

We shouldn't, of course, hire a superintendent and then not allow him or her to do the job. But we also shouldn't elect Board of Education members and not expect them to do theirs. So as the election season gathers momentum, I am asking the biggest question: what do they think that job is?


Wednesday, March 5, 2014


Good morning, Howard County. Here is a little light reading for you:

Montgomery County Superintendent to Parents: Upcoming State Tests Useless

Today I am sending my daughter to school and they will test her and her classmates for no reason at all. Today, tomorrow, and for two days next week. Why? Because the Maryland State Departent of Education put "the system" first, and not our children. Spending time on MSA's when they do not align with the current curriculum is a waste of instructional time. It is a waste of our children's time.

"Too bad. That's just the way it is." We tell our daughter to take it all with a grain of salt. Don't stress. But that is what we always say about standardized testing. What do you say for extra-extra stupid and useless standardized testing?

I know what you say. But I don't use that kind of language.

The Hippocratic oath, revered by medical professionals, exhorts: first, do no harm. Is there an oath for the MSDE?


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Advice: Wanted or Unwanted?

In one of the well-known baseball strips, Charlie Brown says, "The world is filled with people who are anxious to function in an advisory capacity."

I'm feeling the burden of that right now. Social media gives all of us the opportunity to function in an advisory capacity--instantly. There are friends who legitimately seek out your opinion, and then there are retailers and news outlets who ask you how you feel because your participation is money in the bank for them.

Some days it is far too simple. People doling out opinions you disagree with are therefore tiring and unnecessary. Others who articulate beautifully what you yourself think are helpful and refreshing. Discussions where both parties truly listen before responding seem nonexistent.

Yet this morning I asked my friends on Facebook to help me figure out the dynamics of school closure announcements and the result was wonderful. We didn't all share the same point of view. But everyone was respectful, and I was really able to learn something. The experience lifted my spirits.

I'm going to spend most of my very cold day at home working on projects around the house, including making some progress on a rag rug I have been working on for months. When it is finished it will be colorful, a bit asymmetrical, slightly lumpy, and beautiful. I probably won't post any pictures of it because I don't want to subject it (or myself) to helpful advice or even constructive criticism.

Sometimes you just want to keep things to yourself. I think today is a good day to hunker down and do just that.


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Better Than Nothing

I think we have all had that relationship that isn't the best. Maybe it is ho-hum, or comfortable, or steady but a little cranky. Not quite the right fit. But we keep going, putting off the break-up, because it's better than nothing. Yeah. That.

I keep trying with the Oakland Mills Food Lion. I really do. I want to support our Village grocery store because I remember what it was like after the Metro closed and we didn't have one at all. And I see how folks in Wilde Lake feel at the loss of theirs, and the protracted grocery debacle in Long Reach makes me squirm. Nobody deserves that.

I want that darn Food Lion to succeed. But it just keeps letting me down. Someone this week said that it is nothing more than a convenience store. I can't agree, perhaps because a convenience store to me is 7-Eleven or Royal Farms. The Food Lion is clearly more than that.

But that is just about all you can say for it. More variety than a 7-Eleven, and better than nothing. My question is: can this store survive only as a store for those who have no choice? Is that a viable business model?

The other night I happened to be in Owen Brown, so I stopped in at the Giant to pick up a few things to surprise my husband with a steak dinner. I hadn't been there in a while. Walking in through the doors that lead to the produce section, I had something akin to a religious experience. It was like a cathedral of produce. So much variety, plenty of choices, an overall feeling of freshness, orderly displays. I wanted everything.

And this was just the Giant, mind you, not Wegman's or Harris Teeter or Trader Joe's. I had a little moment. By the baking potatoes.

I've been selling myself short. My life could be so much more. We just can't keep going on like this, Food Lion. I've really tried to make it work, but you're just not meeting my needs. You know I care about you. I just wish you cared enough about yourself to wake up and turn your life around.

It's okay if I keep my customer rewards card, isn't it? You know, just in case it's really going to snow and I need bread, milk and toilet paper?

Sigh. Breaking up is hard to do.