Exit Strategy

Facts are noisome things, standing as they do between belief — wishful thinking — and reality. The notion that the catastrophe in Afghanistan, for example, is all down to the Biden administration is without foundation in actuality, in the real world we all inhabit but might at times wish we didn’t.

That “it happened on Biden’s watch” is in fact not the same as “Biden created it.” The creation has been twenty long years in the making, beginning with an invasion that had no real exit strategy and ending with an agreement to withdraw negotiated without the participation of the Afghanistan government. The past administration’s sorry collection of ne’er-do-wells, grifters, and incompetents agreed to the 31 August deadline without getting much of anything in return. Perhaps they thought they’d still be at the wheel and could deny that what was happening, was happening; perhaps they hoped that they’d be turned out and would be able to blame it on the new administration.

Part of leadership is doing the job without blame-shifting, hand-waving, or excuse-making.  It’s all about execution. The Afghanistan withdrawal and its aftermath have happened, are happening, on President Biden’s watch. The president, to his credit, has been up front about where the buck stops: with him. He has made no excuses, nor has he bothered much to explain that this mess is not of his making; it’s simply his to clean up. He’s playing the hand he was dealt. Managing the current crisis is, as noted, all about execution. It hasn’t been flawless and never could be, but 122,000 evacuees over a ten-day period is impressive.


I’ve been thinking a lot about chemistry lately. Specifically, the chemistry of coatings (like paint) and substrates (like plaster). There’s a lot of chemistry involved, the kind of thing we don’t think about when we paint a room or repair damaged wallboard. There are the restrictions and limitations we’re familiar with: wait 2 hours (or more, or less, depending on the paint) between coats; don’t apply latex paint directly over wet compound. But there are other things most people, other than professional painters and plasterers, don’t know about applying paint, patching plaster, and more. How successful a particular wall repair will be comes down not just to the skill of the workman, but to the chemistry of the products he uses.

This is all front-of-mind for me because we recently moved to a 130-year-old house, with beautiful wood detail and solid plaster walls. Over time, the walls will show cracks that might widen as the house settles and plaster detaches from the wood lath underneath. Sometimes exterior walls have no lath, where plaster was applied directly to the brick. Many of the cracks are new, having appeared when our contractor used a sawzall to restore pocket doors that didn’t operate well, or at all. Opening up a few windows in the wall — to install a modern trolley-track — was a necessary step, but not one I wanted to watch. My mood wasn’t helped when I asked them to please exercise a bit more care and they flatly denied that the cracks had anything to do with the shaking walls.

Other cracks and deteriorating plaster are due to other things: leaks through the front wall or a flood from above, for example. In many cases the crack or blister — where a quarter inch of compound and paint visibly separate from the wall — is an older patch that was poorly applied. Chemistry: absent an application of a bonding agent to the older, drier plaster, the new patch will eventually separate when moisture is wicked out. Two pieces of sandwich bread aren’t going to stick together without a layer of peanut butter in between.

The contractor is gone now, and has been for months. And I’ve been repairing the cracks as I go, fixing each area before painting. I’ve learned a lot, and mostly about the chemistry of plaster: when to apply a bonding agent, which patching compound to use in each situation, where to use caulk instead of compound, and how to reattach plaster to the lath. This is a critical step in repairing cracked walls, because unless the plaster on both sides of the crack is stabilized — rendered immobile — the crack will return. No amount of gauze tape and drywall compound will ever hide it forever. But I’m confident, now, that the cracks near the pocket doors won’t reappear.

The Pagoda Trees of Bed-Stuy

Every neighborhood in Brooklyn has its own architectural style: Bed-Stuy with its three- and four-story townhouses; Brooklyn Heights with its narrow brick facades; Crown Heights with its porches fronting the street.  The area we live in has lovely tree-lined streets, hundred-year-old houses, a changing demographic and a growing number of new businesses: sit-down restaurants, take-out joints, coffee houses and juice bars. There is everything modern life requires: pizza joints, dry cleaners, laundromats, grocery stores. Fresh Direct and Peapod will deliver, too. Free community wifi is available if you don’t need high bandwidth.

Each street has its own character: one block is plain brick row houses, the next is barrel-front brownstones. Some blocks are all brownstone stoops with stone walls instead of railings; on other blocks, cast iron railings in differing states of (dis)repair. Sometimes the railings are wrought iron, a mix of new and old, especially where the rusted-out cast iron has been replaced with its less ornate cousin.

Directly in front of our house is a Japanese pagoda tree — Styphnolobium japonicum — that rises above the roof line and spreads before the neighboring houses, about sixty feet across. It’s a beautiful tree, tall and broad, shading the sidewalk and street, with white flowers that blossom for weeks. The tree flowers through most of the summer, so that every day in June and July — and much of August, too — someone must sweep the sidewalk to clear the carpet that will, if it rains, turn slick and become a slip hazard. Each morning I see my neighbor on one side sweeping in front of his house; sometimes he sweeps ours, too, and sometimes we sweep his. The gutter is thick with the flowers all week, waiting for the Friday morning street sweeping.

The house on the other side — immediately to the east — is vacant. Not abandoned, not derelict, just empty while the owner-siblings decide what to do with it. As a result the sidewalk in front is, for the most part, unswept; occasionally one or another of us will continue down the street to clear the walkway in front of all three houses. But the patio is another story: 225 square feet of wet flowers, now turned brackish and muddy with the rain from seasonal showers and tropical storms. The odor is of wet hay and horse barns, of mown fields and stalls that desperately need mucking-out.

The flowers have all fallen, now, and Henri last week cleaned up some of the mess; Ida promises to do more. Hercules redirected two rivers and cleansed the Augean stables in a day. Here in Brooklyn, the same cleansing requires at least two tropical storms and a wait in between.