A common sense staircase

Josh K. Elliott writes:

A Toronto man who spent $550 building a set of stairs in his community park says he has no regrets, despite the city’s insistence that he should have waited for a $65,000 city project to handle the problem. The city is now threatening to tear down the stairs because they were not built to regulation standards.

Retired mechanic Adi Astl says he took it upon himself to build the stairs after several neighbours fell down the steep path to a community garden in Tom Riley Park, in Etobicoke, Ont. Astl says his neighbours chipped in on the project, which only ended up costing $550 – a far cry from the $65,000-$150,000 price tag the city had estimated for the job. …

Astl says he hired a homeless person to help him and built the eight steps in a matter of hours.

Astl’s wife, Gail Rutherford, says the stairs have already been a big help to people who routinely take that route through the park. “I’ve seen so many people fall over that rocky path that was there to begin with,” she said. “It’s a huge improvement over what was there.” …

Coun. Justin Di Ciano, who represents Astl’s area, said the spot seems safer with stairs than without them, so he’s asked his staff to leave them for now while plans are made for a city-approved upgrade that won’t cost too much.

“I think we all need to have a bit of common sense here,” he said.

Every aspect of this story is great, maybe most of all because it is subsidiarity in practice—accomplishing good things on the lowest possible level and without needless intervention or interference from higher levels of authority.

Councilman Di Ciano’s plea for having “a bit of common sense” seems strange to me, since Adi Astl’s decision to solve a pressing problem in an immediate, neighborly, and cheap way seems like the most common sense thing imagineable.

Virgin America

I’ve wanted to fly Virgin America for a long time, but I’ve never had occasion to do so until today. Richard Branson’s charisma and the chic of the Virgin America planes set the airline apart in my mind, at least as far as regular airlines that normal people fly. The mood lighting, most famously, but also the custom-designed “Red” seatback screens for entertainment, food and drinks, and even seat to seat passenger communication or treat ordering made the experience feel both more premium and more memorable than any recent American, Delta, or other flight I’ve taken in the past few years.

Alaska Airlines acquired Virgin a year or so ago, if I remember correctly. That merger is underway, and Alaska made what seems to be a bone headed decision to keep the “Alaska” brand and kill off the “Virgin” brand. I doubt I’ll get another chance to fly Virgin before they disappear. Hopefully Virgin’s most distinctive elements are brought to Alaska.

Anyway, I’m in San Francisco for the next two weeks.

‘Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century’

Beth Teitell reports on the stresses that result from material abundance:

Tell me about it. That sums up Boston parents’ reaction to new research by UCLA-affiliated social scientists concluding that American families are overwhelmed by clutter, too busy to go in their own backyards, rarely eat dinner together even though they claim family meals as a goal, and can’t park their cars in the garage because they’re crammed with non-vehicular stuff.

The team of anthropologists and archeologists spent four years studying 32 middle-class Los Angeles families in their natural habitat — their toy-littered homes — and came to conclusions so grim that the lead researcher used the word “disheartening” to describe the situation we have gotten ourselves
in­to.

At first glance, the just-published, 171-page “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century” looks like a coffee table book. But it contains very real-life photos of pantries, offices, and backyards, and details a generally Zen-free existence. Architectural Digest or Real Simple this is not. …

Arnold said she was bothered most by the lack of time study subjects spent enjoying the outdoors.

“Something like 50 of the 64 parents in our study never stepped outside in the course of about a week,” she said. “When they gave us tours of their house they’d say, ‘Here’s the backyard, I don’t have time to go there.’ They were working a lot at home. Leisure time was spent in front of the TV or at the computer.”

I think we have a culture of material but not psychological or spiritual abundance. I’ve heard it pointed out that we really can’t describe ourselves as “materialists,” because a true materialist would be someone with love and concern for all aspects of the material in his or her life. We don’t seem to value material things, in fact. We accumulate, we overspend, we live in empty-ish homes, and we feel this terrible remorse without escaping into a life of liberty and lightness that minimalist and truly materialist thinking might afford us.

Novus ordo seclorum

In “Strangers in a Strange Land,” Archbishop Charles J. Chaput reflects on where the genius and strength of the American founders came from. In short, in an ability to live both as Christian and Enlightenment thinkers:

Memory matters because the past matters. The past is the soil out of which our lives and institutions grow. We can’t understand the present or plan for the future without knowing the past through the eyes of those who made it. Their beliefs and motives matter. For the American founding, there’s no way to scrub either Christianity or its skeptics out of the nation’s genetic code.

Nearly all the Founders were religious believers. Most called themselves Christians. In practice, John Adams and his colleagues in revolution were men who had minds that were a “miscellany and a museum,” men who could blend the old and the new, Christianity and Enlightenment ideas, without destroying either. Biblical faith and language saturated the founding era. Even Thomas Jefferson, stopped by a skeptical friend on his way to church one Sunday morning, would say that “no nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can [it] be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has ever been given to man and I, as chief magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example.”

Religion and sin, of course, can share the human heart quite comfortably. The evils of America’s past—brutality to native peoples, slavery, racism, religious prejudice, exploitation of labor, foreign interventions—are bitter. But they’re not unique to America or to religious believers. Nor do they define the nation. Nor do they void the good in the American experiment or its uniqueness in history.

Asked some years ago if he believed in “American exceptionalism,” the French political scholar Pierre Manent said, “It’s difficult not to, because it is the only political experiment that succeeded … the only successful political foundation” made through choice and design. “[I]f you are not able to treat the United States for the great political-civic achievement it is, you miss something huge in the political landscape.”

The good in our history is real. America’s “exceptional” nature, however, doesn’t imply superiority. It doesn’t even suggest excellence. It implies difference. It involves something new in governance and liberty, rooted in the equality of persons, natural rights, and reverence for the law. And it’s sustained—or was intended to be—by national traits of industriousness, religious faith, and volunteerism.

America is exceptional in another way as well: It’s the only society with no real history of its own before the age of progress. The continent, for the Founders, was not just vast and pristine. It was a blank slate for a new kind of political order, unlike anything that had come before. When the Founders stamped the words novus ordo seclorum—“a new order of the ages”—on the national seal, they meant it. And they proved it. A special genius of law, institutional structure, moral imagination, and an idea of the human person animated the American founding and its development.

From the start, religious faith has been the glue and rudder of the American experiment, its moral framework and vocabulary—at least as people have typically experienced it. That rudder and glue no longer seem to apply. We now really do have a new order of the ages. And it has shaped a new kind of human being.

Michael Novak has written on this dexterity of the founders in describing the founder’s marriage of faith and reason as the two wings that give flight to the American experiment.

Arts Fest Mount Nittany hike

It was a beautiful Arts Fest weekend, probably my favorite in more than a decade of visiting. I don’t make it back to Happy Valley every Arts Fest, but when I do I try to make the most of it. This year that meant a hike up Mount Nittany with family.

The view from the Mike Lynch Overlook over downtown State College and Penn State’s campus is simply incredible. I snapped the photo above as we took a breather after the hike up. And I snapped the photo below as we walked along Mount Nittany’s ridge.

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Finding sand crunch with the soil and debris of the Mountain as you walk along is a strange thing. I never remember the sandy soil of Mount Nittany, and so am always surprised by it. Growing up with the sandy shores of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware and Ocean City, New Jersey conditioned me to expect this sort of terrain at the ocean’s edge. It’s fun to find it in such an unexpected place.

Willow, weep for me

It’s Arts Fest at Penn State, and I’m enjoying it. I had to miss it last year for a conference, so it’s especially good to be back this year and see friends and return to hallowed places. One of those places it the site of Old Willow, Penn State’s earliest symbol and tradition—more on that below.

In the warm weather I like to make time to sit or splay myself out beneath the branches of Old Willow and take in the atmosphere. It’s still possible in this place to be totally at peace in the midst of the campus and near the heart of downtown State College, which is something like miraculous given how enormously the place has grown since Professor Waring planted the first generation of this tree in the 1859.

A great song to get transport you in mind, if not body, is Ella Fitzgerald’s “Willow, Weep for Me” from her 1959 “Hello Love” album. Here’s Ella’s rendition, and here’s Louis Armstrong’s.

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“Old Willow”

For decades, freshmen bowed to Old Willow as Penn State’s oldest living tradition. Legend claims that when Penn State’s first president, Evan Pugh, returned from a six-year sojourn in Europe, he brought back an off-shoot of a willow from the famous garden and grotto of English poet Alexander Pope. This sapling was planted on the Allen Street Mall, near Sackett Building, by Professor William Waring in 1859. Waring was the first superintendent of farms and grounds and was charged with the layout of roads, buildings, orchards, and landscaping. After wind felled the tree in 1923, an off-shoot of this tree grew until the late 1970s, when this third-generation tree was planted.