Monday, August 31, 2015


I attended back to school night on Thursday at my daughter's high school. I sat nervously in the auditorium with the other ninth grade parents, wondering what the experience would be like. I thought of how old my mother was when I began high school. I tried to imagine sitting there in the auditorium with her as a peer, chatting about having our youngest begin high school. Everything felt very new.

The ninth grade team leader began her presentation. I began to notice something unusual. Her talk did not include any educational buzzwords. There was no grit, no rigor, no testing, no data, no ed-reform talking points.

It was thrilling.

The team leader talked about what high school is like, what ninth graders are like, and what we, as parents, can do to support our kids as they evolve from children to young adults. She was clear that over-helping prevents students from learning independence and self-reliance. It was a good message to hear.

After being dismissed from the ninth grade parent meeting, I traveled from class to class meeting my daughter's teachers. After a few of the brief presentations, I began to cross my fingers--would I get through the entire evening without any educational propaganda whatsoever? Was it possible?

It was. The teachers talked about their course of study, over-arching goals, basic expectations. They answered general questions. I felt their enthusiasm for their subject matter, their love of teaching and enjoyment of the high school age group they teach. It was clear that they were there because they chose to be there.

By the end of the evening I was almost in tears. With gratitude. What a joy it was to be in a school that was about teaching and learning, the development of students as human beings, about supporting the relationships between teacher and student, parent and student. I wonder if this is what back to school night was like, when my mother came--about actual learning.

Of course,when my mother came there were no Power Point Presentations, no discussion of Bring Your Own Device, and no description of how Canvas is going to work. But, technology aside, the core message is pretty consistent:

  • They are your kids, and our students
  • Let them grow
  • Let them learn how to fail and recover
  • Support learning
  • Be involved
  • Work with the school
  • Communicate
  • Don't ever stop loving them.

I'd have to give this back to school night visit at River Hill High School a five-star rating. It far excelled my expectations for official school events. And it gave me hope that all is not lost in the world of education.


Sunday, August 30, 2015

Remarkable and Unique

Honoring the memory of the brilliant Oliver Sacks today by running the post from last August.


What Henry Knows

Today I'm going to talk about Henry. Henry has been on my mind a lot lately.

What? You don't remember Henry? Really?

That's okay. Some days Henry doesn't remember Henry, either.

This is Henry. His story is just one part of a documentary entitled "Alive Inside" created by Dan Cohen and his nonprofit organization Music and Memory. The film also features Oliver Sacks, author of Musicophilia, and Professor of Neurology at NYU.

"Alive Inside" follows the Music and Memory project, which worked with Alzheimer's patients and found music to be "a powerful tool for connecting elders to the people around them and restoring a sense of self."* In the video clip, Oliver Sacks says,

"The philosopher Kant once called music the quickening art, and Henry is being quickened--brought to life."

Science Friday featured the Music and Memory project and the documentary "Alive Inside" on their August 1st program. They interviewed both Dan Cohen and Oliver Sacks. The quotes from Oliver Sacks are taken directly from that broadcast.

In responding to Henry's experience with music in the film, Oliver Sacks says:

I've seen this happen with hundreds of people who don't have any direct access to their pasts but for whom music can act as a bridge...this has not just an emotional impact, though that's crucial, but says something about the brain's strange retention of music which is very remarkable, and uniquely human.

Interviewer: What do we know about what's happening in the brain when this happens?

Sacks: Well, when music is played or imagined many areas in the brain get activated. Some of them are hearing areas, some are visual areas, motor areas, many are emotional areas. There's no one music center in the brain. There are a dozen networks which hold together and, in this way, music is rather different from language. There are very specific language areas in the brain. And if those are knocked out, people can become aphasic, and lose language.

Whereas it is almost impossible to lose music; it's very robust.

I have listened to this portion of the interview over and over again. (Well, I had to, because I had to do that transcribing myself. You can listen here.)

The information Sacks is relating explains not only why music helps Alzheimer's patients, but also, in my opinion, why music is a essential part of our children's education.

Music connects. Music is the connection. Music travels within the brain to all the deepest parts of the self. Even when cognitive areas are damaged or degraded, the networks within us that are music can still thrive.

Look at all the areas in our brains that music can "quicken": hearing, visual, emotional, motor...So, in education: music can be the oxygen which allows the strictly cognitive paper and pencil work to "breathe" into the student and be meaningfully retained, the leavening which allows the learning process to rise, the glue that makes the learning stick.

Some day one of us, or more, may be like Henry. If it is me, and I am down and troubled, please fill my iPod with James Taylor, will you?

But let's do something in the here and now for our children. Let's stop letting people tell us that music, or art, or movement, or play are just something nice that you do. We know better than that, don't we?

Henry knows.

*Taken from Science Friday interview.


On a brighter note, here is what musical excitement looks like as we begin a new school year in Howard County. Shout-out to Instructional Facilitator for Music Terry Eberhardt for putting this together and sharing the joy.


Saturday, August 29, 2015

On Second Thought

So. Bridge Columbia.

After twenty four hours of reflection, my thoughts about the email I received from the co-chairs of the Oakland Mills Village Board have evolved a bit. What follows is complete and utter armchair speculation. You have been warned.

There has been nothing about this in the actual news. If the County Executive isn't announcing it, if the Howard County Times isn't covering it, that is a clue to me that this is very likely a non-story. This would explain why the lowest folks on the food chain are doing the announcing. Any movement on the Bridge can be interpreted to be a success for their term of leadership.

But it seems that this:

We are pleased to inform the community that County Executive Allan Kittleman has added the US 29 Pedestrian Bridge (also known as Bridge Columbia) to the County's Priority Letter submitted to Maryland State Transportation Secretary, The Honorable Pete Rahn.

may not be such a big deal after all. So, what is it?

Well, in the most simplistic terms.

  1. Kittleman runs on pledge to work on the Route 29 bridge
  2. He allocates zero funds for the Bridge.
  3. Councilman Calvin Ball calls him out for lack of commitment.
  4. Kittleman announces the addition of the bridge to a Priority Letter.
Is it as simple as that?

"You're not putting your money where your mouth is."

"Yes, I am. See?"

Oh, brother. I sincerely hope it's more than that.

Friday, August 28, 2015


Late yesterday afternoon I received an email from the Oakland Mills Village Board Co-Chairs with this announcement:

We are pleased to inform the community that County Executive Allan Kittleman has added the US 29 Pedestrian Bridge (also known as Bridge Columbia) to the County's Priority Letter submitted to Maryland State Transportation Secretary, The Honorable Pete Rahn.

Details of the project, outlined in the Priority Letter, dated August 25, 2015, request that the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) allocate funding towards the design phase to improve the present pedestrian bridge across US 29 with enhanced safety features and to improve and to incorporate transit services. The bridge provides a direct connection from Downtown Columbia to Oakland Mills. This funding request is a result of a Funding Roundtable that County Executive Kittleman convened in June with stakeholders, including representatives from MDOT.

Well. Wasn't it just last week that we were reading the Councilman Calvin Ball had written to the County Executuve asking for him to clarify his position on the Bridge and Mr. Kittleman proclaiming his "surprise" at receiving the letter? And didn't it seem that we were truly in a slump when it came to forward movement on this?

I was sitting around talking local politics the other night and the issue of Bridge Columbia didn't even come up. Now, I suppose someone there could have known this was about to go down but was honor-bound to protect the information. But I suspect that no one brought it up because no one was expecting any movement on this in the near future.

It's no secret that I am a fan of the Bridge Columbia project. I see it as a vital connection to and from an increasingly vibrant Downtown. Hats off to the Friends of Bridge Columbia who have believed in this and worked for it. Without them we wouldn't even be having this conversation. And it's no surprise that OM Village Board Co-Chairs Bill and Ginny have seized on a way to link this project with their re-invention narrative for the village.

It does surprise me that they are the ones who got to make this announcement: a late-breaking press release with their photos over the content of the letter. Why not the County Executive? Or just for fun, Mr. Kittleman and Dr. Ball together in an unexpected stab at bipartisan leadership? Indeed, how awesome it would have been if the Bridge Columbia folks had gotten to make this announcement, which, in my humble opinion, was really theirs to make?

What this announcement gets right is thanking all the right people-- Mr. Kittleman, Dr. Ball, the Bridge Columbia people. (And there's plenty of self-thanks going on, to be sure.) But I'd like to send out my personal thanks to certain individuals from the Oakland Mills community who sat down with the new leadership of the board as they came in (2014) and told them to put Bridge Columbia on their radar. Because, at that time, it wasn't. And the loss of momentum between one board and the next would certainly have damaged the chances for success.

So, "surprise"! It looks like Bridge Columbia is going places. The devil is in the details, of course. What comes on the heels of this announcement is more hard work, negotiation, and "getting things done." But I'm definitely allowing myself to get my hopes up. Not because Oakland Mills needs reinventing, because it's already awesome.

I'm excited because in Oakland Mills we value connections. And "uniting East and West Columbia with a bike, bus, and pedestrian bridge" is exactly the kind of connection that we're all about. So, cheers for the surprise. When's the party?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

What's the Message?

We're back to school in Howard County and already we have reports of young women being "dress-coded" for dubious reasons. And yes, it's young women. The enforcement of the "unduly exposes or reveals skin or undergarments" is being imposed primarily on teenaged girls who are dressing appropriately for the hot end of summer weather.

It is easy to think that this is happening to students who are deliberately trying to cause problems by wearing scandalously revealing attire. It isn't. It's happening to students who are at school, ready to learn, whose only crime is that their tank top straps aren't "enough fingers wide" or whose shorts don't quite meet that fingertip rule. It is happening to young women who are perhaps too curvy by the school's standards, whose legs are just a little too long. Maybe if her body were different, she could slip by unnoticed. Maybe.

I send my daughter to school to learn, not to have her body judged or shamed.

Yesterday I read this post by Alice Marks of HoCoHouseHon. In "Street Harassment and Freedom" she recounts a personal experience at the Mall in Columbia where a strange man got right up in her personal space and whispered sexually explicit things in her ear.

A man in the mall - who was bigger than me, and definitely threatening - decided it was his right to speak low and thick in my ear and reduce me to an object, a plaything, an animal. If you, jerk faces, think I was asking for it, you're even more deluded than you appear. You'd like to blame your behavior on those slutty women who wear what they want, sleep with who they want, take birth control, are feminists - but the truth is, I was just a woman in jeans with a red nose and a hacking cough, holding hands with my husband.

Make no mistake. The capricious and body-shaming enforcement of a dress code, almost exclusively on young women, and the actions of this strange man at the mall are two sides of the same coin. They say, "I can stop you. I can shame you. You are powerless. Your body is not your own."

As parents we have an opportunity to push back against a mindset which demeans both young women and young men. Girls are not distractions. Boys do not need to be slavishly protected from their own sexual feelings. The education of one group is not more important than that of the other. We have a responsibility to enter into discussions with teachers and administrators about what constitutes healthy boundaries for our teens.

Marks goes on in her essay to say,

When we own our bodies, when we make choices, when we have power, we are free.

That is the message we ought to be teaching.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Loose Ends

Five days of prednisone plus a brand new yellow jacket sting morphing into high-itch status have taken their toll on me. I've been up since four. My thoughts are all over the map. Add to that the switchover to a hectic out-the-door schedule for the rest of my family, and I'm lucky to have even grabbed a cup of coffee at this point.

Here is what is on my mind this morning:

Rutherford imposes "no recording" rule on press by Bryan Sears of The Daily Record

First thoughts: not sure which is worse, the fact that Rutherford did this, or the subsequent ill-treatment meted out by Rutherford's staff towards Mr. Sears for writing the article. A particularly low note in all of this:

Sears: Asked a question about how the admin will ensure spending on a program will be cost effective and the response was,"I call that a clown question, bro," (Boyd Rutherford)

Oh, really?

As you may recall, Mr. Rutherford is the same person who responded to a highly offensive statement by the Housing and Community Development Secretary by explaining that he had "gone off the reservation."

Maybe this is why he doesn't like to be recorded?

I just don't have the brain power to organize this fully this morning, but I will say that this is no way to treat the press. Especially Mr. Sears, who is courteous, professional, and thorough. It does look as though there are people on Governor Hogan's staff who bear deep grudges about past experiences in the previous administration, and are using their newfound power to dole out "payback."

The people of Maryland are not served by public servants engaged in petty power struggles with journalists. I believe Governor Hogan ran on transparency. What's going on right now doesn't look much like that.



Tuesday, August 25, 2015


We're having a yellow jacket problem at my house. I just got stung for the second time in a week. So now all of us have been stung twice. I am already on a five-day course of steroids for the first one. I seem to have the worst reactions of the three of us.

Naturally I would tell anyone who might be considering coming to my house right now that we're having a yellow jacket problem. While we might say that dealing with them is a home maintenance issue, and we have acted responsibly in having the exterminator come out twice and treat the affected area, it's more than maintenance. Insect stings make some people very, very sick. They can be life-threatening.

So we would want to give you as much information as possible, so you could make an informed decision. Not too difficult a course of action, right? We care about our friends and neighbors and feel a sense of responsibility for their well-being.

In the same way, parents and other members of the Glenwood Middle School community feel that the school system had a responsibility to inform them of mold issues in the school. Mold in the school environment isn't really good for anyone, but it is particularly bad for some people with mold allergies. You would definitely want to give people as much information as possible so they could make an educated decision.

Except they didn't.

I believe, and I think most people believe, that the responsibility of the school system is to provide a safe environment for learning. In this case that would have been open and frequent communication about mold issues in the middle school. Failing that, once parents reached out, hcpss should have jumped into action to get the lines of communication open.

You may think that since the first day of school has come and gone, that this story is over. I'm not so sure. Parents are still waiting for written responses and documentation they have requested multiple times. And reports of mold at other Howard County Schools are beginning to surface.

In the meantime, I just thought you should know: we have a yellow jacket problem at my house. We thought we had completely remediated it, but it turns out we had gotten some bad advice. So we called a reputable exterminator and we are now working to move things in the right direction. But if you are allergic to yellow jacket stings, or just don't like them, I would strongly encourage you to send me an email or call me on the phone instead of stopping by.

Lesson of the day: when you don't handle things the right way the first time, they will inevitably come back to bite you. Ouch.




Monday, August 24, 2015

First Day

I just deleted what would have been an overly-sentimental post about my youngest child starting high school.

You're welcome.

All over Howard County today there will be many momentous firsts. In some cases the children will have the first day of school jitters. In other cases, it will be the parents. And don't forget teachers, staff, and administrators--it's their first day, too.

At Glenwood Middle School parents must make a choice as to whether they trust verbal assurances that their children are safe from an ongoing mold problem. The factual information they requested has not been provided to them.

In many schools there are new administrators. There was a rather large shake-up and resorting this year.

My friends from the Ducketts Lane RECC have been dispersed and redistributed throughout the system.

Many of our best teachers took the buyout and retired in the Spring. The effect of their absence will soon be felt.

Along with that are the young, first-year teachers who will bring their energy and hope into the system. May their confidence be well-placed.

Today many photographs will be taken. There will be photo opps with school system dignitaries and local politicians. Fine words will be spoken. I suppose that some of that will make it into the Howard County Times. It's a big day in our community.

To me the most important words will not be spoken in public for an audience. They will be the soft "I love you" from a parent to a kindergarten child, a cheery greeting from a paraeducator, a reassurance from a classroom teacher that the classroom will be a safe place and the children's needs will be respected.

No photo opps will be more important than the picture each parent carries in his or her heart today. Very often it is the picture of this day and all the other days that led up to it. We mark growth and change on these first days of school. We realize that it means that our time with our children will not be forever. We acknowledge that entrusting them to the care of others is a risk we must take.

Well, I'm so glad I didn't write that sentimental post I had in mind.

Happy first day of school.






Sunday, August 23, 2015

Real Estate and Real People

I drove downtown twice Friday to try to get this picture. Alas, my timing was all wrong. But someone else had the same idea. (Photo used with permission.)
The Columbia Association has been looking for a new home for as long as I can remember. And then, about a year ago, they finalized their plans. Friday and Saturday were moving days. Now they will begin the task of settling into their new home in the Hillside Center, an office complex located off of Stevens Forest Road in East Columbia.

I could rail about just "how wrong" it is to move CA Headquarters out of Downtown Columbia. I could complain that it's always been in the same place, but I'd be wrong. It's just always been there since I have been paying attention. The last move was in 1992. There is a symbolism to having CA downtown, but that symbolism would have come with a cost.

Lakefront real estate is expensive. The Downtown Plan is moving forward, and CA made a choice to prioritize their financial resources. They chose people and programs over real estate. We can moan and sigh about it, if we really even care at all, but their reasoning is sound.

I think the reason I really wanted to snap this photo for myself has to do with the person who really turned me on to being a Columbia real estate watcher--Dennis Lane. Those of us who followed his blog know he would have had something to say about all of this, and he would have found a way to get the picture, too. A well-placed phone call, perhaps.

Something else Dennis would have been all over: HowChow is back from an adoption sabbatical of sorts, and he's asking about this sign:

Many questions as yet unanswered. Puzzles and mysteries and the joy of discovering the answers to local goings-on. I caught the bug from Dennis. He had a life-time of knowledge and experiences and a network of colleagues and friends to tap into. All of the rest of us benefited from his curiosity and zest for community life.

This is where the last pithy sentence should go. I don't have one.





Saturday, August 22, 2015

To Have and To Hold, Revisited

Today my friend Dylan Goldberg is driving 5,000 books into Baltimore City. Children's books, donated by people all over Howard County. You can read more about how this all began here. In honor of Dylan, Anna Mudd, Beth Panageotou, Courtney Watson, and others who worked on this project, I am re-running this post from August 21, 2012.


To Have and to Hold

I love books. I have loved books all my life. I remember the Little Golden Books of my childhood--Mister Dog, Hansel and Gretel, The Poky Little Puppy. I remember my mother reading to me at bedtime from a book of children's poems. Oh, how I wished that I had seen the battle between the Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat, or that there really was a Sugarplum Tree in the Garden of Shuteye Town!

When I was quite young, my grandfather gave me a book that changed my life. It was The Bennett Cerf Book of Pop Up Riddles. It was one of the first books that was ever given to me, to have for my very own. I was the youngest of three and had plenty of books in the hand-me-down sort of way. But this was a book that had been meant for me to have from the very start.

It was some book, alright. The pages were shiny cardboard, with brightly-colored illustrations that could open up, pop up, slide over and spring out. No one in my family had ever seen anything like it. My mother warned me to be quite careful with it. I had terrible fine motor skills as a child and I'm sure she thought I would destroy it through frustration or lack of finesse.

Not this book. I won't tell you how many years have passed, but this book has made it through me and my two daughters, and it is still completely functional. (Not perfect. A little "loved.") My daughters knew that they had to ask special permission to read it, and have heard me repeat Mother's admonishment to me countless times, "You have to be careful with it. Books are our friends."

Books are our friends. Scientific studies and anecdotal observations show that poor children have very little exposure to books in the home, if at all. It is one of the significant strikes against them when they begin school. The seeds of school success, fostered through many a bedtime read-aloud, are unknown to them.

Our schools have media centers, and our county has wonderful libraries. But I can tell you from personal experience that nothing can replace the feeling of having a beautiful book of your very own: your book, to read, and read again; to bring for Show and Tell; to sleep with, to dream about, and wake up with. To have and to hold.


Dylan and others in Howard County reacted to the unrest in Baltimore City by looking beyond the violence and seeing the crushing poverty behind the daily news headlines. What started out as an emergency response to get food, water, and other necessary supplies to those who needed them most grew into something more: a mission to serve children. And that's where the books come in. They will be distributed today to Teach for America first-year teachers who serve in some of Baltimore City's most difficult areas, and shared with children who may never have owned a book before.

If you want to help, the need is ongoing. There will be a concert on October 3rd to raise money for the Penn North youth center:

Join us for the first ever Artists Showcase Concert co-sponsored by Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia's Social Action Council and Music Ministry. The concert supports Penn North's new youth center in Baltimore City, a safe place for youth to play, study, and hang out.








Friday, August 21, 2015

Policing the Parents?

So the meeting at Glenwood Middle to discuss mold in the school building took place Wednesday evening. Amanda Yeager did a write up for the Howard County Times and Amy Aubert of ABC2 News also provided coverage. Parents present at the meeting have been giving feedback on their group's Facebook page.

One piece of information leapt out at me. Three uniformed police officers were present at the meeting. Why? The parents certainly didn't invite them. They can only have been there at the behest of the school system staff. In a time of budget austerity where we have to cut back on classroom positions, why would we need to pay three police officers for an evening of work?

Is there any evidence of parents at this school behaving in a violent or uncontrolled manner? No. Is there any evidence of Howard County parents in any school behaving in a way that would warrant police presence? No. Parents are sometimes disgruntled. They occasionally raise their voices and have been known to speak out of turn in a heated moment. And for this we need three police officers?

This looks more like an attempt at intimidation to me. And this isn't the first example of hcpss using "security" at public meetings in the past year. In fact, it seems to be getting more frequent. And from feedback I am getting from parents, I think it is likely that hcpss brought several members of their own security staff to the meeting, in addition to the police. Does this come from fearfulness? Is the Board afraid of the community? Is it another tool in attempting to control the message?

I do not know. I do know that Glenwood parents were offended by it. At the very moment when the school system should have been coming to make peace, they brought the police. It was a clear and powerful message to the members of the Glenwood community, and not a good one.




Thursday, August 20, 2015

Behind the Door

Okay, this isn't local but I'm from Ohio so it's personal. Republican Governor John Kasich is making headlines because of this:

And so if I were not president but king in America I would abolish all teachers’ lounges where they sit together and worry about how “woe is us.”

Good grief! So much of corporate ed. reform comes from people who know absolutely nothing about education. And here we have a man who is clearly obsessed with what goes on in the Teachers' Lounge. He doesn't know, so perhaps he feels excluded? No idea. But he doesn't know, so he just makes it up.

When I was eighteen I thought I might want to be a Congregational minister, because I wanted to write sermons and preside over macaroni suppers. Over time it became clear to me that being a minister entailed much more than that. There are budgets and meetings and crises of faith. Hours of hospital visits, anxious waiting, participating in the suffering of the dying. It's not all church pot lucks.

John Kasich's view of education would benefit from a similar dose of reality. He truly is a prime example of the damage one can do if one knows virtually nothing about education. Perhaps if someone had only invited him into the Teachers' Lounge during his formative years, much of this might have been avoided.

So, in case any of my readers share a similar curiosity, here's basic list of what goes on in the Teachers' Lounge.

1. Bathroom breaks.

2. Eating lunch.

3. Basic social conversations while eating lunch.

4. Drinking diet coke. Taking Advil.

5. Meeting with other teachers to plan or work on helping struggling students.

6. Personal phone calls to child's doctor, auto place, etc.

7. Grabbing something from vending machine because there's too much work to take a real lunch break.

"Woe is us"? Mr. Kasich, teachers are far too busy at work to sit around and think "woe is us." In fact, they are far too busy to give tours of the mysterious teachers' lounge, but I'm sure they would drop everything and do just that if it would help you broaden your educational horizons. Because teachers, you know, they're helpful that way.

And remember: asking questions is a good way of finding things out.



Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Compare and Contrast

There will be a meeting tonight, from 7-9 pm, at Glenwood Middle School in the cafeteria. I think it will be an extremely interesting meeting. On the one hand, you have school parents who have been tirelessly working to bring issues of mold in their school out in the open and get them addressed. In the other hand you have officials of the school system who say that students and teachers were never at risk.

On August 5th the Howard County Times published an editorial taking the school's system to task for their lack of transparency in handling the mold issue at Glenwood Middle. The editorial was clearly based on the excellent factual reporting by Amanda Yeager. On August 12 HoCoTimes published a letter from the Communications Director of the Howard County School System, which expresses her "disappointment" at the paper's editorial. She asserts that it is untrue that the school system withheld information from the community.

But upon what information is her letter based? She doesn't say. The letter presents no factual evidence of any kind. The tone is thoughtful and respectful, but it maintains a solid, "you'll just have to take our word for it" line of thinking. If you compare this letter with the Times editorial, Amanda Yeager's reporting, and the Facebook page created by the parents, something just doesn't add up.

Although I understand that there have been some efforts to paint these parents as troublemakers (some even going so far to say they are nothing more than a front for the teachers union?) this is not at all what is happening here. These are parents who would have been willing at every turn to have believed in the school system and supported it, if only they been dealt with honestly and respectfully.
They wanted to believe. They wanted to work with the school system. They still remain a bit incredulous that this was not possible.

I have my eye on this meeting tonight because, even at this late date, it provides an opportunity for the school system to "get right with" the community. Will they? That means taking responsibility. And taking responsibility means liability. And liability can be very expensive.

But the damage from this issue has already been extremely costly in terms of loss of community trust, bad publicity in the newspaper, on television, and on social media. Add to that the damage of sick children and staff, and it almost seems that transparency might have been less expensive.

As Levar Burton used to say on Reading Rainbow, "But you don't have to take my word for it." Read the articles in the paper. Read the information on the group's Facebook page. Read the editorial and the School System letter. Compare and contrast. Use the critical thinking skills you learned in school. I have respect for your intelligence and your ability to do that.

An educated and involved community will expect the best of its school system. I believe Howard County is such a community.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Inconvenient Truth

On Saturday I was surprised to see this exchange on Twitter.

The only reason I was able to see this is that Mr. Kittleman retweeted it. There's just one problem. Drinks at the Howard County Fair were never a part of any legislation on the table. So this pat on the back from the Beverage Association is factually incorrect. And I'm not the only one who spotted that. A local reader responded:
Help me understand. When was this ever in question?

And then, through the magic of Twitter, Mr. Kittleman's retweet was undone and disappeared. A bit later he replied:

In fairness, the ban did not extend to the #HoCoFair, but I am proud to have repealed the sugary drink ban.

Yes, yes you are. And the MD/DE/DC Beverage Association is proud of you too, Mr. Kittleman. As for me, I'd be happier if you had told the truth the first time before you got called on it, and refused to give the appearance of taking credit for something you didn't actually do.

Those pesky facts have a way of coming out.



Monday, August 17, 2015

Our Town

This morning while hunting through HoCoTimes for topics I discovered what looks to be an ongoing column about Ellicott City by Janet Kusterer entitled "Mostly Mainstreet". The August 12th post is a folksy mix of commentary on the new staircase, a suggestion to run a contest to name the parking lots, news on markets, music, the celebration of Wilhelmina Oldfield's 102nd birthday, and more. I love it. (Perhaps I see myself in it a little bit?)

So, where's the Columbia version of this? Is there a "Largely Lakefront" column that I've been missing? Surely we've got plenty of small-town news fit for print in the New American City. I think we deserve our own local storyteller with an eye to the smaller, more human stories, don't you?

If a Columbia equivalent to "Mostly Mainstreet" already exists, please let me know. Or, if it once existed and met an untimely end, I'd love to know why.



Today Howard County teachers and staff report back to work for a new school year. I wish them the best. May their working conditions be safe, comfortable, and conducive to personal and professional growth. May our school system provide them with what they need to do their job well. May Howard County Government value their contribution to our community.

May we, as a community, support our students, parents, and teachers throughout the school year.

Can I get an Amen?




Sunday, August 16, 2015

Surround Sound

I'm sitting outside in my new patio space for the first time ever. It is cool with just a hint of a breeze. The new striped umbrella my husband scored on sale at Ace yesterday is all set up to protect me, but the sun won't really make an appearance out here until later. Right now it's providing a cheery ambience.

On my left I can hear the hum of my neighbor's air conditioning unit. From my right comes a fairly frequent whoosh of cars on the road. Overhead, the occasional airplane. There's some kind of a steady insect buzz--cicadas? Footsteps, the beep of a car unlocking, engine starting. A motorcycle zipping by, getting louder as it approaches, then receding into the distance.

We can't hear any of this inside our house. Our double-paned windows protect us and the hum of our air conditioner insulates us from all the sounds of the world around us. There is light and there is darkness, but all the sounds of life are muffled. Our ship sails in silence. We are, somehow, adrift.

Reality is full of imperfections. It is lumpy and bumpy and noisy and often asymmetrical. (There goes that dang motorcycle again.) We take in the real world through the tiny straw of the Internet, which somehow feels more manageable than getting out and interacting with real and imperfect people and situations.

If I concentrate I can hear a bird singing under the heavy pulsating tones of the cicadas. I think I'd really rather hear the bird, but as there is no one to whom I can write and complain about the cicadas, I'll just have to live with it. Our own AC unit kicks on with an aggressive groan and settles back into an acceptable hum; my neighbor's clicks off and goes silent.

All of these sounds were always here. The missing piece was me to bear witness. All wrapped up in my cocoon of a modern insulated house. Believing that the norm was silence, unless I chose for it to be different. I push a button, I flip a switch, I control the universe of sound.

What hubris. What nonsense.

Both AC units have gone silent. The cicadas have pulled back a bit. The road noise subsides for a moment. I am beginning to hear more birds. So many layers. So many crescendi and decrescendi. To my right I briefly hear a human voice, the first such sound in the half hour I have been sitting here.

In the past sixteen years without an outdoor space to enjoy, I have gradually come to forget all of this. Normal for me was the hum of the furnace or the air conditioner. We retreat to our homes to get away from the world, but do we always draw nourishment from that? Does it become an act of sensory deprivation?

Oh! There's a dog barking. Another crescendo from the cicadas. An airplane. The opening and closing of a nearby door.

I think I'll come out here tonight to see if I can hear Merriweather. I mean, how cool would that be? Sometimes we can hear a bass line inside the house, not often. Enough to remind us that it's there.

I wonder how the night sounds are different from the day sounds.













Saturday, August 15, 2015


As I noted on June 22nd in this space, I decided to hang up my traveling shoes with the Howard County Schools and was looking to put down roots. After twelve years of being a traveling show, it was time. I'm excited to report that I'll soon be embarking upon a new educational adventure at Glenelg Country School, as an assistant teacher for three year olds in their Little Dragons program. I'm hoping to incorporate my musical background into the new position.

And--ta da!--We just finished having our back patio completely redone.

Now we need patio furniture and an umbrella. I am looking for leads on end-of-season local deals--got any? I'm hoping to enjoy this space from now until whenever cold weather makes it impossible. I have waited 16 years for this. The time for enjoyment is now.

Our HOA broke down and painted stripes in the parking lot. I am sure this is gratifying to people who think people other than themselves just don't park correctly. My daughter pointed out, once the paint had dried, that everyone was parking exactly where they had before. Not sure how much of a change that is. Looks mighty tidy, though.

It looks to me as though prices have gone up at the local Food Lion. Reinforcing this notion is the addition of many signs around the store exclaiming, "Look! Low price!" without anything to compare it to. Does this truly fool anyone?

We're all getting ready to go back to school at my house. We're trying to fit in those last few things we said we'd do over the summer. One more swim? One more snowball? Escaping to a movie on a hot day? Staying up late and sleeping in will soon be just a pleasant memory. In some ways we're never quite ready to move on, yet we do.










Friday, August 14, 2015

Complaints Department

I'd like to thank Kirsten Litkowski-Coombs for bringing the following letter to the editor to my attention yesterday. As both a local blogger and a member of the Town Center Village Board, she's clearly made it her business to read the Columbia Flier cover to cover and stay informed.

"Here's the way CA ought to be run," says the writer. What follows is an irate manifesto of negativity. One wonders what particular current issue stirred up the writer to the point that he felt these words must be said. The rhythm of the words suggests a clash of the cymbals at the end of each sentence, or perhaps a crack of the whip.

The writer also refers to the assessment Columbia residents pay as a tax. This is simply inaccurate. "Why do they spend our tax money on charitable donations?" he rages. I do wish that someone could straighten him out in this regard. Does Milton Matthews make house calls?

Underlying the many accusations in the letter is the demand that CA provide better, cheaper, more attentive service to seniors. I'd say that the writer sees service to seniors as the primary function of CA, and I'm guessing that's because he is one. This is a "me, me, me" letter. "I'm not getting my due."

This just makes me sad. Columbia is more than one age group. It is certainly more than outraged cries of "gimme!" Truth be told, I see this attitude most often amongst one particular slice of our population. And it made me think.

What if all letters to the editor included the author's name and age? I think it would be educational.






Thursday, August 13, 2015

Local Headlines

Good morning, campers! Some local news for you today:

  • A new bakery has opened in Columbia. Renata's Tasty Bites has taken over the space on Snowden once occupied by Linda's Bakery. You may already know her from Howard County Farmers markets. You can follow her on Twitter @RenataAlanovic.
  • The race is on! Retired Music teacher Robert Miller is running for the Howard County Board of Education. You can learn more about him here.
  • There's a blog party tonight for bloggers and their readers at Pub Dog, from 5:30 to 7:30. Learn more here.
  • HCPSS has responded to the editorial about mold with this letter by Rebecca Amani-Dove, Communications Director.
  • Andrew Conrad, Sports for the Howard County Times, is leaving. Again really cool, engaging, knowledgeable people are leaving our local paper. How can we provide incentive for good folks to stay?
  • The Howard County Fire Department held what looks to have been a wildly successful event for local bloggers. Take a look at what they learned in this write-up by AnnieRie.
  • Missing Columbia teen Iriana Calloway has been located safe and unharmed.

What local stories are on your radar this morning?


Wednesday, August 12, 2015


About twice a year we indulge in the evil goodness which is KFC. When I woke up this morning I remembered why--MSG. I have an incredible MSG hangover this morning. I won't go into detail, but I will tell you that my mouth feels like a hook and loop fastener.

My husband grabbed dinner because he knew I would be ducking out quickly to go to on Oakland Mills Village Board Meeting and that it would useful if I didn't have to worry about cooking. He was right. I had been practicing what I would be saying during Resident Remarks all day long. Dinner just wasn't on my radar.

One of the things I talked about last night was generational differences. How do we reach out to young buyers looking to buy a first home? We have to understand how they think. They are not just mini versions of us, freshly-cloned for our convenience.

As I looked around the room last night as I spoke, one fact was obvious. Despite the relatively good turn out, there was only one person in the room who was even close to the age group I'm talking about. It really concerns me that we're re-writing rules and changing process without their voices.

So why don't younger residents come to village board meetings? I'd say it's because the meetings are boring at best, contentious at their worst, long, often inefficiently run, achieve no concrete useful results. And people of my daughter's age just hate meetings. That's not how they operate. That's not how they get things done.

Our Village Boards are elected to represent all residents, and to be cheerleaders for the Village--the most articulate supporters of what we stand for. If they are going to change rules, for whatever reason, the most important thing on their minds should be the real human beings who will be affected. In the case of covenant enforcement, that might be older residents, residents who are struggling financially, and younger, potential residents.

I think that a preoccupation with rules and enforcement overlooks the human part of the equation. Getting hung up on the perfect system can lead to the perfect hangover when no one wants to take a chance on your community. Why would they?




Tuesday, August 11, 2015


Got out of the Bubble briefly yesterday. Yep, still such a rarity that I feel inclined to report it. My daughter is enrolled in a theatre camp at Round House in Bethesda this week. I went with my husband to pick her up at the end of the day.

First, to all of you people who commute every day, I'm sorry that I have never taken the time to stop and commiserate with you. It is brutal. The trip took an easy half hour to get there, over an hour to return. I have spent twelve years driving all over Howard County but that is nothing compared to this mind-sucking experience. (For one thing, Howard County is more scenic.)

Aside from that, I was reminded yet again how important it is to get out of the Bubble. You know you have spent too much time in Columbia when you wonder why all the streets and houses look so...old. Don't laugh. As we drove in towards Bethesda on the East-West Highway, passing the Trader Joe's, it felt like entering another world.

Old suburban neighborhoods. Houses with a variety of architectural detail. Old sidewalks. Small groups of shops. Things closer together with less empty space. But things are alive, bustling. We stopped in a huge, comfy Starbucks unlike anything we have here. Available parking was limited, but the ambience inside the space was awesome.

By the time we got to the major intersection in Bethesda, I was again struck by how the world is full of people who don't live like us and don't want to. Talk about mixed use! But it doesn't feel grimy and unsafe. It feels--dare I say--vibrant. Plenty of the teens attending camp have permission from their parents to go out on their own to buy lunch in the neighborhood. Some went to the Safeway to grab something, some to Starbucks.

Imagine. A safe, interesting, vibrantly urban downtown where you'd feel comfortable with your young teens stepping out to grab lunch on their own. Could we even wrap our brains around that here in the Bubble? You need walkability, a healthy retail and arts community, good transportation...

I am learning a lot from my daughter's summer camp. And yesterday was only the first day. Clearly I need to get out more.


Monday, August 10, 2015

Dear Howard Public Ed

To the readers and members of the Yahoo Listserv Howard Public Ed:

One of your members is copying and pasting material written by others onto the Listserv. My blog is one of them. While I appreciate the mission of your group to share information in order to add to a wider discussion of the issues, this particular method is unacceptable.

It is stealing.

My blog is being printed in its entirety without my name, and without a link to my blog page. And mine is not the only one. This shows disrespect to the writers. It is also illegal.

Every blogger wants to be read, and to contribute to conversations about the issues they care about. But the work they create is their work. Stripping away the identity of the writer is demeaning.

As an example of how independently written material should be referenced:

"From Village Green Town Squared - Mold An (sic)Truthiness" posted by pamythompson on Howard Public Ed

You'll see this includes title, author, source, and a working link to where the post in question can be read. Only in this case you'll find an example of one of your members misappropriating someone else's intellectual property.

I ask all readers and members of Howard Public Ed to take a public stand against this practice. Since you care about issues of education, transparency, and fairness, I hope you will also care about how local bloggers and journalists are treated by your group.


Julia McCready

Village Green/Town²


P.S. There are a number of excellent local blogs. I urge you to cast your vote in the Howard County Magazine's "Best of Howard" poll going on right now. If you don't see your favorite on the list, you are invited to write one in. (There are many different categories in the poll, but it isn't necessary to fill it in completely. You may pick and choose.)



Sunday, August 9, 2015


It's not local news, but I'm taking it personally. Trump says, Erickson says, Megyn Kelly gets trashed, Trump gets uninvited. Actually, that's not the part I'm taking personally. It's this.

Erick Erickson: ‘Most Monkeys’ Are Smarter Than Women

I honestly did not know that there were any men in the civilized world that still believed stuff like this. And, although deeply offensive, it's nothing compared to the onslaught of misogynistic comments on social media. Where does this all-consuming hatred for women come from? I asked that question on Twitter yesterday and got one response:

Fear, power, ignorance.

Much as I'd like to believe otherwise, there are men like this in Howard County. If you read enough comments or follow enough social media streams--poof!--there they are. They live here, work here, raise children here, vote here. And to them half of the world is inferior, to be hated, mocked, silenced.

This just hurts my heart. How can we hope to build vibrant and fruitful communities when this kind of poison lurks under the surface? And make no mistake, this is poison. It kills our ability to work together and do good. Isn't this bigger than a Democratic Party vs. Republican Party? Isn't it bigger than Eastern Howard County vs. Western Howard County?

Some people say, "why are we getting bogged down on this? We should be talking about the real issues."

Um, no. This is as real as it comes. And there's a lot of work to be done, even right here at home.





Saturday, August 8, 2015

Turning the Tables

Another episode in the continue saga of my crazy little house...

Air conditioning. We have it. When it's on it blows loud enough that you have to turn up the television. You can't always hear people talking if they are across the room. It cools downstairs extremely well, upstairs--not so much. This seems ridiculous, given that our house it so darn small, but, that's the way it is.

So, of the three residents of my house, I am the one who gets hot the fastest. I will be adjusting the AC to be cooler, while my husband will be going to fetch a hoodie in self defense. Recently I realized that a particular annoyance was that, although "my chair" was almost directly under an air vent, the air was blowing away from me. I could hear the air blowing but I wasn't getting any cooler.

This led to anxiety. Then, a sense of anger or panic. "Why am I not getting any cooler?"

I blurted out, "Why can't we reverse the angle on that thing so it blows on me personally?"

I was really just being funny. I didn't really think much more about it. The next day my husband got up on a step ladder, took the vent out, turned it around, and replaced it. Holy mackerel. I am now freezing. All. The. Time. Why do we have the air conditioning temperature set so low? This is ridiculous. I wrapped up in a blanket.

My husband is really enjoying this. The greatest revenge can sometimes be giving your wife exactly what she wants.

We've been able to raise the temperature. Everyone else is fine, and for once, I am cool enough. In fact, yesterday we had the AC off for most of the day with just the fan blowing. And I was fine. It's rather mind-boggling, that such a simple solution could be so revolutionary.

So today's post is a shout-out to people who really listen, like my husband, and to simple solutions. I think sometimes we overlook them in favor of impressive, complicated ones. But all it took was a screwdriver and a stepladder, and the rest of my summer is saved.



Friday, August 7, 2015

Imagination: Captured

Sometimes a pair of googly-eyes makes all the difference in the world. The folks at Healthy Harbor in Baltimore seem to know this. The Healthy Harbor initiative, whose goal is "a cleaner, greener future for our neighborhoods, streams, and harbor" has put a remarkable device to work in the Inner Harbor. A trash wheel. But that's not all. They have created an anthropomorphic personality for their very useful device on Twitter. (Note the googly-eyes.)

Oh my word, this guy is adorable. Move over, Colonel Gateway. Not only is this creature cute, he has a funny and engaging Twitter presence. I have come to be rather fond of him. In fact, I think they should open a merch store for him. Who wouldn't want a Mr. Trash Wheel t-shirt? He's already beginning to make a name for himself on social media, coming in second in a Baltimore Magazine poll of best local social media accounts. Can the Mobbies be far behind?
As if this weren't exciting enough for our hardworking Baltimore guy, he had a bit of an on-the-job predicament this week. On August 5th at 12:33 Twitter-time came this tweet:
Yes, in addition to all the normal stuff that gets siphoned off, a ball python turned up on the trash wheel. This was big news. Practically a social media circus. If you go back and follow the thread you can see how much real-time engagement was going on. It's hilarious.
In the end a professional was dispatched from the National Aquarium to take possession of the snake, and life returned to normal for our hero, Mr. Trash Wheel, after a suitable fifteen minutes of fame, that is. He continues to do his job cleaning the harbor and engaging the community around issues of a cleaner local environment.
But that's not the end of the story. As it often the case these days, media excitement spawned a new Twitter account:










Thursday, August 6, 2015

Mold Revisited

Yesterday the Baltimore Sun/HoCo Times released an editorial addressing the school system's handling of the mold issue at Glenwood Middle School. Read it. Entitled, "Howard school district wrong to keep mold investigation under wraps", it concludes:

The picture that emerges is of a school district that wished to keep the mold issue under wraps until it had found a way to put a lid on the problem. This not only raised risks, it was foolish at a time when a scrap of information can go viral on social media. It is not as if Howard County is a community backward in the ways of digital interconnectedness.

The school district is on the case. Two cheers. But a vestige of distrust now remains. The school district should take a lesson and move transparency, and enhanced communications, to the front of the class.

I'm glad the paper took this issue seriously enough to address in an editorial. This is certainly a public health issue that we can all agree on: schools should not be making people sick. But it strikes me as odd that such a big focus is put on how it was foolish to withhold the truth because social media makes a resulting scandal so easy these days. "They should have known better."

The school system has been spending an increasing amount of money on public relations capabilities. It has invested quite a bit of time and energy in controlling the message through "digital interconnectedness." What is missing from their approach, at least from this situation, is not a lack of savvy-ness.

It does not matter whether it's old school or new wave, really. The school system should be engaging with the public in an open, forthright way not because the world of social media makes it easier to get caught, but because it is the right thing to do.



Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Hungry in the Howard Building

Back in May I wrote a rather stern post about vending machines. The gist of it was that Howard County shouldn't be in the vending machine business at all. Local blogger AnnieRie responded that there was a history to why there were vending machines in county/government buildings. There had been a time when these places provided food service for employees, and over time this was phased out. The victims of cost-cutting measures, I presume.

What I didn't know--until yesterday--was that this very thing happened to the employees in the George Howard building, when County Executive Kittleman cancelled the contract with the food service operations and discontinued their café. I can see why wanting to have a healthier variety of choices in their vending machines has become of particular interest. The bigger choice employees had was taken away.

In the comments section yesterday, Board of Education member Cynthia Vaillancourt said:

I wondered why the Cafe disappeared one day. I had a meeting at the George Howard Building and was running late - and hungry - but planned to stop in the cafe. But it was gone! I was hungry and non-caffeinated ... and probably not my usual charming self. :) It was very inconvenient. I also thought how environmentally helpful it was to have a cafe on site so people did not have to get into their cars and drive to an off site location for lunch/snack/coffee.

So I think that this is a story worth pondering, and I wonder why it didn't get any press coverage at the time. Not only does it affect the employees of the Howard Building and visitors, it also speaks volumes about the priorities of the County Executive and how he operates. It also seems to me to have backfired. Why?

Well, because in the dispute over vending machines, Mr. Kittleman wants people to believe that the County is irrevocably bound to contracts with the vending machine company. I don't think that line of thinking would have turned up on the local Fox News channel all by itself. And yet Mr. Kittleman seems to be quite capable of discontinuing contracts.

In canceling the food service contract he both inconvenienced County workers and caused financial loss for the food service workers. I suppose he had some underlying justification--cost-cutting measures, perhaps?--but the fact is he is perfectly capable of addressing contracts with vendors. That's a part of his job.

Now that CB-17 is the law, how will he do that job? This story isn't over yet and I think we need to keep watching.








Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Contracts and Facts

The other day when I was talking about CB 17, Nutritional Standards, and vending machines, this question came up in the comments section:

Serious question, related to this topic. On last night's 10 pm news, Channel 45 had a story on this topic. The reporter made an interesting assertion: the current contract between the county and the vending machine operator extends through 2019. This bill can't force a change in what the vending operator does until that contract expires, unless the county wants to unilaterally break the contract, to its detriment. So this bill won't impact those vending machines for four years, by which time a majority of the County Council will be gone due to term limits.

I had never heard that asserted before. Is there anyone out there who knows whether it's true? Because if it's the case that this bill really won't impact anything for four years, this truly becomes a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

On the other hand, if it was just another case of shoddy reporting by the local media, then I'll don my "complete shock" look again. :-)

I didn't have the answer so I went to work to find out. I started by writing to my County Councilman, Dr. Calvin Ball. I received his reply last night and it is so thorough that I asked permission to share it in its entirety.


Thank you so much for your patience as I awaited the guidance from of our Office of Law so I could ensure accuracy. I’m happy to share some additional information regarding the status of the County’s contract with Black Tie Services LLP, our vending contractor, as well as the impact it may have on implementing CB17.

The contract went into effect on October 1, 2014 and will expire on September 30, 2015 (“Initial Term”). The County has the option to renew for four (4) additional one-year terms, unless sooner terminated. It’s been alleged by Channel 45 and others that the County cannot implement CB17 until 2019. It is true this is timeframe when the County would complete all terms under the contract; however, it is not the only opportunity the Administration would have to implement the nutritional standards.

The County would have at least two additional opportunities to implement CB17. First, the Administration may amend the contract to implement the nutritional standards under CB17. This would require consent from Black Tie Services LLP. Second, the County may terminate the Agreement for convenience and can do so without showing cause so long as we provide at least 30 days written notice to our Contractor.

I understand the comment from your blog stated the bill couldn’t force a change in how our vending operator conducts its business unless the County unilaterally cancels the contact, to our detriment. I’m unclear what is meant when they say “to our detriment”. This is not the first time under this Administration the County would have unilaterally cancelled a contract. In fact in April 2015, the Administration unilaterally cancelled our contact with the vendor of our café, Auction Café, in the George Howard Building. This contract was not scheduled to end until 7/31/15 and had 11 renewals remaining. Auction Café prepared and made available a variety of meals (breakfast, lunch, snacks) and beverages, healthy and otherwise which accommodated our County employees including the County Executive’s office, County Council and majority of County agency employees as well as visitors entering our main government building.

This was one of the catalysts for introducing CB17. Without the freedom or opportunity to order a healthy meal, snack or beverage, our employees and visitors are now left to select from the items remaining in our vending machines. The Administration emailed they would be exploring other alternatives, however none have been offered nor an explanation provided for cancelling the contract. It is likely this has lost revenue for the business, jobs for its employees and commission to the County. However, as it relates to this specific contract, CB17 and the nutritional standards, commissions would still be required to be paid to the County from the Contactor through the termination date. Furthermore, the County could then submit an RFP for a vending contractor that would implement the nutritional standards.

It would never be my intent for the County to terminate a contract or for a business to lose revenue. The terms of our agreement give us flexibility, in fact, to negotiate and amend the terms to implement the nutritional standards. Of course, that does require consent from our Contractor. If the Contractor is not willing to negotiate, we are still approximately 60 days from when the contract is scheduled to expire. We are required to give 30 days written notice if it would be our intent to cancel our current contract, which is the other alternative for the County implementing the nutritional standards.

As you can see, our Contactor would be afforded the option to amend the contract without its losing its business with the County and CB17 can be implemented if the Administration is willing to act. However, the Council does not have purview over negotiating or implementing contracts with our vendors. This is an Executive function.

I hope this answers your questions.

That's a lot to digest. I'll delve into this tomorrow.