Phubbing by George Merrill


Two of our children and four of our grandchildren joined us for Thanksgiving. The grandchildren, girls, range 17 years on down. Early in the day everyone winds up in the den. Most like to watch the Thanksgiving parade and, later in the day (why I have no idea) the dog show and so the room can get packed. The den’s not that big.

I’d been in the kitchen paring vegetables and after finishing up I walked into the den. Except for my wife and me, both our children and the four grandchildren were in the den – three girls and their Dad were on the sofa; Mom and one grandchild sat in chairs. The television was on. Ostensibly everyone was watching the parade or, in a perfect world, would have been.

Three of the grandchildren were texting. One was playing a video game on her iPhone and Mom and Dad were either texting or getting text messages. As for the television screen, it may as well have been blank. As for the audio part, it could just as soon have been the sound of the one clapping.

In the interests of full disclosure I confess I’m a Luddite and while I love my family, I find this behavior abominable. There’s no other word for it . . . well, maybe one and I learned of it only recently. It’s called phubbing and it is reaching epidemic proportions. The word is a conflation of phone and snubbing. It refers to individuals interacting with their iPhone (or other devices) rather than engaging with the human beings that they may happen to be with.

Phubbing is addictive. More and more and more people find it hard to resist. This is a serious. The phubbers have the frightening potential to transform us from homo sapiens, the typically gregarious social animals that we are, into hyped up phubbees, zoned out on the latest news blip, phone call or text message. All it takes is a tiny electronic blip or hum and we’re hooked.

Only last week The Washington Post reported studies about the many couples that are straining to maintain their love for each other while struggling with the allure of their androids and iPhones. This is not fake news, either. Researchers at Baylor University surveyed over 140 people and found that “almost half had been ‘phubbed’ by their partners, that is snubbed in favor of checking social media, news or texts on their iPhones.”

The managing editor of The Week Magazine, Theunis Bates, confesses to being caught up in the seductions of the electronic media and says he has been both a phubber and phubbee so he knows first hand the stresses involved.

Even should a phone not be in use, psychologists claim its presence alone in the middle of the table in the restaurant may cause interpersonal problems. Studies reveal that “simply leaving the phone out while dining . . . can interfere with your connection to your dining partner – perhaps because their eyes keep flicking toward the device eager for new alerts, suggesting that a piece of technology is more interesting than you are.”

Soon a kind of pavlovian response develops for compulsive iPhone users. Just by tapping a screen they are immediately rewarded with an “always updating streams of photos from family and friends, and tweets from the president.” Information varies widely and may include reports of the latest sexual abuse allegations being leveled at high-end capitalists, movie stars, clergyman and congressman. For the less discriminating phubbers there’s always a Trumpian rant or an endearing image of a friend’s new cat.

There’s mounting evidence that the rewards that this constant stream of data affords us are similar to the rush recreational drugs provide. Our electronic devices can turn us into addicts. As of 2015 there were an estimated two billion smartphone users with the number expected to rise by twelve percent in the next year.

Statistics are sobering. The average smartphone user checks in about eighty times a day either on Facebook, instagram feed or web links. I did however consult Google (I was alone when I did) to find out how many cell phone users there are worldwide. I want to emphasize here that it was my initiative to make the contact and only in the service of fact-finding. I want the record clear that I’m not addicted. I enjoy constitutional immunity.


St. Paul once said that we discover our strengths through weakness. I am a total electronic klutz, hopelessly inept with any electronic device. When trying to figure which icon to tap to retrieve a call or get weather, I behave like the centipede that gets flummoxed trying to decide which leg to put down first. I am not at all seduced by the lure of electronic beeps and buzzes. Actually I’ll frequently leave my iPhone at home because I find it intrusive and get irritated when I start messing with it. Being an electronic klutz has delivered me from the hand of the marketers and the snare of the phubber. The downside is that I’m often clueless as to what’s going on in the world that day. Hey, as I see it, maybe that’s not a bad thing. Most of it is demoralizing, anyway.

As with other addictive behaviors, confessional stories of personal struggles with phubbing are beginning to emerge, ironically, many on social media. Heather Wilhelm from the National Review writes to alert us as to what is happening: “Who among us hasn’t looked up at least once, smartphone in hand, slightly dazed, only to discover that precious bundles of minutes and hours have somehow slithered by, lost to all eternity, usually in exchange for no discernable enlightenment at all.”

In a more sober reflection I think that phubbing today does have an ominous side. It’s as if we in the post-modern era were like ten year olds who found a shiny nickel-plated revolver in the attic. We’re enthralled with its glittering properties, but have no idea how destructive it can be to ourselves or to those around us.

Phubbing may compromise our ability to be attentive, either to our environment or to each other. We’d literally become scatterbrained.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.


Trigger Warning: Christmas Should Be Remembered by Al Sikes


Trigger Warning: This column is about Christmas, not Holidays. If you are likely to be offended by Merry Christmas, read no further.

To those Trumpians who sense I am going to embrace his pugilistic insistence on Merry Christmas, you will be likewise offended. Trump’s personal behavior is antithetical to his stated belief.

Christmas was declared a national holiday in 1870. Calendar dates become Federal Holidays to recognize iconic figures (Presidents), or sacrifice (veterans), or national independence, or a transcendent figure. A nation’s ultimate health and continuity turns on not just what is recognized as important, but also an understanding of its meaning. Too often today polls and interviews show that many have little or no understanding of why they get a day off.

Importantly, we celebrate Christmas spirit. What is its source? Capitalism? Advertising? Or the word Holiday, which for most means a day off from work. Symbols and marketing aside, failure to understand Christmas diminishes us.

It is argued by some that greeting a person with Merry Christmas risks offending non-believers Yet, only a thoughtless person is not offended daily by cultural and related commercial excess. When a nation becomes unmoored from its history, yes even myths, it’s citizens become victims of unrestraint. Freedom becomes more theoretical than real as exploiting appetites replace serving needs.

Most who do not believe in the biblical Christ nonetheless acknowledge and welcome his message of love and sacrifice for his principles. Plus, our nation enjoys the inspirations that resulted in the American Red Cross, Young Men’s Christian Association, Habitat For Humanity, The Salvation Army, and tens of thousands of organizations and churches that educate and care for humanity.

So, please forgive me if I offend you. Forgiveness is central to Christmas, and I don’t want any of us to forget why it is celebrated.

Have a Merry Christmas!

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Editorial: Rest in Peace, but Not in Spirit, Colchester Farm


The Chestertown Spy has, regrettably, had to write a fair number of obituaries of local businesses who have decided to shut their doors since we started this publication. From beloved bookstores to favorite restaurants, we have grieved along with our readers over the loss of not only local commerce but local culture.

While some of these endings were the result of an unanticipated economic recession, there were ample examples of proprietors deciding in the later years of their lives to quietly retire. Nonetheless, the consequences of these lost businesses correspond with the experience of grief; a sense of loss, a sense of anger, a sense of losing what we feel is so vital for our identity and our community.

With all that in mind, it was extraordinarily painful the other day to make note here that the Colchester Farm CSA would be closing their operation by the end of the year.

From the earliest moments of the Spy, we have celebrated and continuously endorsed the importance of community supported agriculture. And while there remains a number of great CSAs on the Delmarva, the local personal loss of Colchester is a particularly painful one for the Spy.

Starting with our early partnership with the CSA in bringing to Chestertown the transformational documentary, Food Inc in 2009,  and shortly followed by one of our first videos on its operation, there has always been the greatest respect for its staff, volunteers and board members as well as very special affection for farm owner and visionary Charlotte Staelin, who started this grand experiment in 2003.

Our community is particularly indebted to the long-term tenure of Colchester’s agricultural master and farm manager Theresa Mycek who has been faithful to the Farm’s distinctive mission. A familiar face at the Chestertown Farmers Market whose unassuming ways masked an extraordinary work ethic and passion for locally produced food. It is of some small comfort that she will continue her farming practice on the Mid-Shore.

Unlike other startups, a CSA must depend on a certain amount of sheer human horsepower to ensure that the mission of the organization is successful. That meant in most cases that Teresa and her crew were in the fields in the early morning and would eventually retire at sundown for the vast majority of days of any given year. They did this not because there was a career track, a good health insurance, or pension program, but to prove that a CSA can provide an alternative model of farming that strengthens the relationship between farmers, community members, food, and the land.

And they were so right about that.

Even with the end of the Colchester Farm CSA experiment, the Spy remains optimistic that aspiring local farmers can find a sustainable business model in providing essential fresh and healthy produce to its immediate community. If they succeed, they might want to give Colchester some credit as being the first in Kent County to try and find that pathway.

A Twice-Widowed Woman (Second Stave) by Jamie Kirkpatrick


“This new state—that of actually being dead—is not at all unpleasant!” Mr. Wilmer (the former Jacob Marley of London, England) thought to himself. In fact, despite the fatal shock from the letter he had just finished reading, Wilmer now felt light as a feather and free as a bird as he flew through the spirit world, back down the Chester River, down the Chesapeake Bay, across the Atlantic Ocean, and directly onto the doorstep of his former business partner, the infamous Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, just at the stroke of midnight. He knew in the bones he no longer required that he had been granted his dying wish: it had blessedly come down to him to begin the haunting of the old miser. And similarly, in the blink of the eye he no longer needed, the now ghostly Marley knew exactly what to do: he wrapped himself in chains, frighted his hair, put on his death mask, and just as the clock struck twelve, began to pound on Scrooge’s heavy wooden door.

(Now, dear reader, you know full well all that happens next: Marley’s exhortations and dire warnings, spectral visits from three dreadful spirits (all quite friendly to Marley, if not to Scrooge), their lamentations, recriminations, and alarming prophecies, all these (and other) unearthly happenings right up until the moment when the old bugger awakens on that cold, clear morning, finds himself redeemed, throws open the window and calls to a boy in the street below, “What day is this?”

“Why it’s Christmas day, sir!”

“What an extraordinary boy!”

And, subsequently, you must know all that follows that delightful exchange, right up until the final happy scene when crippled Tiny Tim—goose-fed (“What a surprise, Mr. Scrooge!”) and sitting atop his father’s proud shoulders—loudly and affectionally observes to all those assembled ‘round the Cratchet’s festive table, “God Bless Us, Every One!”)

But that, of course, is another tale to be told by another writer, none other than the estimable Mr. Charles Dickens himself. This other tale—my tale—continues on in the pleasant house on the Water Street in humble little Chestertown where Mrs. Wilmer—now the Widow Wilmer as well as the former Widow Comfort—has found her poor husband slumped at the kitchen table, dead as a dormouse, a mysterious letter posted from England fallen from his cold, ink-stained fingers.

Now the bereaved woman reads the letter a second and then a third time before doing the only sensible thing she can think to do: she holds it to the candle still burning on the table and watches as it smolders, catches flame, and curls to ashes which she immediately sweeps into the bin because she sees no need to muddy the waters of what she reasonably assumes will be her late husband’s considerable estate with a mysterious and cryptic epistle containing only the sentence “I know who you are” and signed only with the initial “S.” Better to let the past remain the past she decides and to let the future take a happier and (let’s be honest here) less problematic—meaning less litigious—course.

And there is also the question of the new widow’s soon-to-be-delivered child to consider. She sees no need to ensnare his or her future in a sticky spider web from the past; would not the deceased Mr. Wilmer’s good reputation in town—along with a sizable inheritance—be a more fortunate legacy for the child than a passel of fulsome or embarrassing questions raised by an unknown hand from a foreign land? And, come to think of it, for herself, too? After all, a twice-widowed woman has her own future and reputation to consider!

And with those sobering thoughts in the forefront of her mind, the newly-minted and quite comely Widow Wilmer, rouges her cheeks, puts on her brightest shawl and best bonnet, and with the hint of a Mona Lisa smile on her pretty plump lips, sets off down the street to fetch the undertaker…again.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is

From South of Left Field: Trajectory – Be the Message by Jimmie Galbreath


Life, governments, societies, and organizations are all moving constantly along a trajectory. People have trajectories too. Since the only constant is change, we have no choice but to follow some kind of evolving path. Like the shark, we must remain in motion to live.

Much has been made of voting to ‘send a message.’ I have a question for the reader. Given a choice would you rather cast a single vote as a message or actually be the message yourself every day?

Not marching all over the place carrying signs, not writing innumerable emails and letters, not making phone calls or canvassing. Make yourself the message around the clock by making occasional single acts which combined with many others can become an irresistible force in politics. No worries about tear gas, police violence or arrest. It doesn’t take much time out of your life and calls for only a slight effort on voting day and a little attention in between. Write only when you wish and march only if inspired.

This path has not been followed in over one hundred years. It is a new experience, and it would scare the bejesus out of Washington and all the lap dogs that populate it. It isn’t illegal, in fact, it is what the Founding Fathers envisioned so long ago.

I am tired of living on the political treadmill that has been created by the politicians to wear us out and divert us. The very fact that so many of us want to be heard and yet feel that we aren’t important is telling us something. Stop thinking about it and just listen to your gut reactions. If you share my feelings of despair, anger, and disgust and find yourselves seized by a sense of helplessness, then we are together.

Our government is made of two parties that, like the laws they vote on, have so woven the turds with the tulips that it seems nothing generally desirable ever makes it into law. The issues thrown out by these parties are an artful balance that keeps us focused on just one thing because we have been conditioned to believe that only one thing can ever be done at a time. Since when are we so mentally deficient that we can’t see a larger picture? Why would any of us choose to believe that? Are we really completely satisfied with a sound bite or a meme? Have we been trained that well? I don’t believe it!

The growing anger and activism by both ends of the imaginary line the politicians play on reflect the gut sense that we are being betrayed. Let me say again, the IMAGINARY line. Right wing and left wing. Who decided this? The desire to have a path for going up the ladder isn’t a ‘right’ or ‘left’ anything. The desire to have a way to support our children going to college or training a marketable skill isn’t a right or left thing. Improving our safety by replacing desperation with hope isn’t a right or left thing. Who else feels manipulated? Who actually trusts a politician? I stepped outside my world for a moment and realized that I didn’t trust them, yet I listened to them and voted for them. I felt foolish.

How many of you have ever picked a candidate before they appeared in front of you in a primary? Who picked them? Why were they picked?

Our political system like our stock market is rigged to favor the elite class and restrain us. We can play at them but the game is rigged to favor the upper class. Occasionally someone breaks the ceiling, but it happens less and less. Does this image ring true to you? If these words paint a picture that feels true then what do we do with it? How can it be changed?

The laws and actions that fill the news can be changed. Every tax, every law, every regulation can be changed or reserved by those who have votes in Congress. Even the way the weaving of turds and tulips is done can be prevented by new laws. Our problem as common citizens is that we don’t have an organization free of control by the upper class to listen to us. The biggest problem is that we have been taught to wait on ‘the party’ to put up a candidate. We have been taught to wait on a leader to step forward. Don’t look to any other organizations outside the Republican or Democratic parties to respond to us no matter how they actually don’t respond to us. Do you feel they respond to you?

A new trajectory requires a new organization. Both parties today are dealing with ‘progressive’ movements that garnered the support of people screaming for something new. Both groups of ‘new’ voters rose like a newly formed and young army, and both are bleeding out their energy and focus by assaulting the existing organizations head-on. I don’t believe reforming these parties will yield results. They belong to the upper class, they are supported by the upper class, and they have a long, long history of going against the common voter on behalf of the upper class. It is sad to say we can’t outvote them with dollars. Income inequality is making sure of that. We can however out vote them. It is our only real power.

We need to deny these parties the only thing we have that they cannot do without. Votes. Find another party and join it. Join it in large numbers and use your votes within the party to select the new leaders that will step forward. Organize where the elite class has not established itself, then deny them entry. Don’t be put off by the quality of the old candidates because they can be replaced by new leaders who will follow the votes or arise from the new organization.

Find a party and be the message by not belonging to the old parties. Be dedicated to the new and don’t support the old. Remain firm in the new party and vote for it wherever you can. A large shift in registration and voting will drive change. Courage and focus by us all can shake Washington to the very ground. Don’t allow yourselves to be limited by just one issue. Hold a wider vision and reject anyone who says you can’t get more than one thing at a time. Be the message. Be the change.

Jimmie Galbreath is a retired Engineer originally from a small family owned dairy farm in Jefferson County, MS. He earned a B.S in Petroleum Engineering from MS State University, accumulating 20 years Nuclear experience at Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Station and Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Station. Along the way he worked as a roustabout on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, served 3 years active service as a Quartermaster Officer in the US Army, Supervised brick kilns first in MS than in Atlanta GA and whatever else it took to skin the cat. He now lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

2018: The Dawn of America’s Hereditary Aristocracy? by Tom Timberman


Contrasting Great Britain with America in 1776, Tom Paine said it’s the difference between “hereditary rights and the rights of man” and again, between “the privileges of class versus the equality of all before the law”


The tax legislation pending in the US Congress, scheduled for possible passage before the end of December, reflects a curious change in “democratic” America’s attitude towards wealth, class and their relationship to political power. This legislative path also contrasts markedly to that of the monarchical United Kingdom.  The British Government’s use of inheritance (and income) taxes to slow and then halt the continuation of a hereditary aristocracy would seem to depart sharply from that chosen by the present Congress.

United States

          President Teddy Roosevelt, son of rich parents, was a strong supporter of instituting a US inheritance tax, which he characterized as “…an instrument for enforcing equality of opportunity in the United States by making it difficult to pass great fortunes from one generation to another.”  In 1916, seven years after he left office, Congress passed an income tax and what are called “transfer taxes”, i.e. (1) inheritance, (2) gift and (3) generation- skipping (grandchildren and beyond). In 2017, they still exist,, but substantial restructuring may await.

Through the decades after 1916, efforts were made to repeal the inheritance tax, most notably by Andrew Mellon, the Secretary of the Treasury and one of America’s wealthiest citizens. It was defeated then and again in the 1940’s during Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration, who like his cousin Teddy, inherited wealth and a country estate (Sagamore Hill and Hyde Park respectively).

Congressional legislation introduced major changes to the inheritance tax in 1976 and 1987 when first 7% of estates paid taxes and then 11 years later, .03% did. In 2016, 2.6 million Americans died and 5219 or .02% of their estates qualified to pay the Federal Inheritance Tax.  The total revenue it produced was $19.1 Billion. The following table tracks the evolution of America’s “transfer taxes”.

1997 $600,000 55%
2000 675,000 55%
2002 1 Million 50%
2007 2 Million 45%
2010 5 Million 35%
2013 5.25 Million 40%

House and Senate Bills

11 or 22 Million (couples/parents) 40%

House bill full repeal 2024

United Kingdom

Those who watched the multiple TV seasons of “Downton Abbey” may recall that Lord Grantham’s constant worry was money: making his large agricultural estate profitable, finding an heir among his relatives, wealthy husbands for his three daughters and maintaining a large domestic staff. His challenge regarding the last became more formidable during and after World War I, when there was a huge exodus of people from domestic service.

The British Parliament recognized early the usefulness of an inheritance tax to pay off deficits and various wars.  In 1796 it passed Death Duty legislation on estates in England and Wales, but interestingly, not Ireland.  An earlier estate tax passed in 1694 was levied only on the deceased’s personal property and was subsequently repealed.

Great Britain’s early inheritance taxation philosophy was to target just the wealthy when national needs arose, and to charge the heirs, not the deceased’s estate.

Returning briefly to Downton Abbey itself, owners of similar enormous country seats started destroying them in the early 20th Century, culminating after World War II, with one in six gone  There were sound reasons to do so: they were expensive to maintain, cheap staffs were no longer available and their heirs didn’t want/couldn’t afford them.

Happily in 1923, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon’s heirs, the new owners of Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey) were able to pay the 500,000 pound Death Duty ($40 million in 2017).  Thus, it remains standing and is owned by the 8th Earl.

In addition to the practical reasons listed above, there was also an important socio-emotional reason for obliterating the structures.  The image the original builders wanted projected to the masses – wealth and power – no longer impressed and intimidated, quite the contrary.

1694 Tax only on personal property, wives and children exempt 1-2%
1796 Levied temporarily to pay for Napoleanic Wars, then repealed
1799 Income Tax (repealed frequently, reinstated permanently in 1841 10%
1894 Death Duty on capital value of land. Repealed after a government deficit was paid. 8%
1896 Possible to avoid all Death Duties through gifts made up to 1 year prior to death.
1919 Finance Act raised Death Duties on estates worth over 2 million L Sliding scale up to 40%
1945 Labor Party came to power and death duties raised substantially. 80%
1974 Bill passed giving exemptions for bequests given to spouses and charities
2008 Death Duties raised 4 Billion L
2014 Great Recession reduced take to 2.4 Billion L 28,000 estates of which only 5% paid Death Duties
2015 New 100,000 L Death Duty exemption for principal residence
2016 Only pay Death Duty if estate worth more than 325,000
2020-21 Only pay Death Duty if estate worth more than 500,000 or 1 million for married couple.

 Is American Society about to Embrace a Hereditary Aristocracy?

If the House/Senate Reconciliation bill passes, with or without the 2024 Inheritance Tax repeal, the estates that will benefit from the new, higher exemptions will equal .02% of the US population. The legislation also gives these wealthiest Americans substantial income tax reductions as well. Assuming the bill is successful in both Houses, the social structure of the United States will eventually resemble Great Britain’s  circa 1830. All that’s missing are the titles – and who knows?


In a Sightless World by George Merrill

  • I have an inner light. So do you. You’ll notice it mostly when everything else darkens.

I don’t recall exactly what age I was, but there was a period as a child when I was tucked into bed before I felt ready to go. I entertained myself by closing my eyes and pressing on my eyelids.

I’d place finger pressure on my closed lids. One or two cheerio-shaped images appeared and they orbited through this interior universe. They changed colors the way the Northern Lights paint illuminated colors across the blackness of night. The colors went softly to magenta. Then they streaked yellow and finally to muddy brown – the way streams look after rainfalls. Surprisingly, the cheerio-shaped images were colored the same light tan as they look in a cereal bowl at breakfast. The background colors remained soft pastel as they slowly morphed from one color to another. This visual display that entertained me long enough so that after several minutes I was ready to sleep.

I was feeling festive the other day and found myself counting my blessings. It’s seasonally appropriate. I was surprised and pleased that I came up with as many blessings as I did. I’ll mention two that are for most of us so ordinary as not to worth mentioning. I can see and I can hear. And seeing is a joy.

The mid-Atlantic fall season reminds me of the soft pastel colors of my childhood’s bedtime adventure. In Vermont, where we go to visit children, fall colors seem almost garish, deeply saturated, stunning in their own way, but different from the Shore. It’s the difference between brilliant oil paintings and softer pastels I’ve seen, each relishing color, but rendered in different moods.

I read a moving essay by the acclaimed poet and Vermont essayist, Edward Hoagland. He, at eighty, lost his sight and writes about what it’s been like for him learning to live in a sightless world. He is an author of books that he can no longer read. There’s cruelty in being deprived of the functional organs of our creativity; Beethoven, who for deafness, never heard his great symphony performed and had to be turned around to receive the applause of an adoring audience that he could not hear.

Unlike my childhood adventure in which I chose to invite my inner lights to glow, Hoagland had no choice. I could always return to see the day. Hoagland cannot.

“Blindness is enveloping,” Hoagland writes. “It’s beyond belief to step outside and see so little, just a milky haze.”

I’ve spent large portion of my life reveling in the joys of sight. I’ve been enthralled by the marvelous textures shadow and highlight creates and the panoply of colors in changing landscapes. I’ve been an avid photographer since nineteen forty-seven. I’ve been writing for over twenty years and been practicing both arts with my eyes. Hoagland’s story disturbs me. With so great a loss, how does he cope, I wonder? How would I cope? I want to know where that well is from which he draws his strength? He still engages in his life with curiosity and wonder while continuing, without self-pity, to come to terms with a sightless world.

There’s a line is his essay that might suggest what that is: “Like Plato’s cave, your brain consists of memories flickering on the wall. The phenomenologies of sight [for Hoagland] are now memories . . . you can’t size up a new visage, yet the grottoes in your head have more to plumb, if your sight was lost midlife or later. You can go caving.”

Like the ancient caves of Lascaux, the walls of our memories are inscribed with the story of our lives. Now settled in the cave’s shadows, Hoagland sees his own stories written on the walls. He can revisit them. He goes caving.

I understand this to mean that while mourning the loss of seeing new vistas, he returns to the old ones and finds in them mystery and meaning.

The events of our lives once lived and inscribed on the walls of our soul’s memory, when reviewed in the here and now, often reveal so much of what we’d overlooked. Memories like that sparkle like diamonds when held up to an inner light. Turned slowly and deliberately they reveal many more facets than we ever thought were there when we first took hold of them. They become, as jewelers say about the finest diamonds: “of the first water.”

We possess an inner light. For some it’s a spark. It’s waiting to be kindled. For others it’s more like a flickering flame that appears in their eyes, the way I’ve heard compassionate and loving people described. Hoagland, I believe, through his poems and essays, illuminated the natural world in ways that helped us to see more deeply into a world he is no more privileged to see.

As I conclude this essay the sun is near setting and the late afternoon light illuminates the oaks in soft orange colors reminiscent of Dutch painters.

I wonder what new sights Hoagland is seeing with his inner light. His inner light will illuminate with new light, the familiar scenes of his life.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.








Op-Ed: The Dumbing Down of Smart Growth will Fail to Preserve MD Landscape by Tom Horton


If you’re not yet worried about Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s abandonment of Smart Growth, you might want to read a new study on how Dumb Growth could cost Frederick County taxpayers some half a billion bucks.

First, a brief Smart Growth primer (which was once available on the Maryland Department of Planning’s website — until the website and department became a joke under Hogan): Smart Growth is the antithesis of sprawl, which is development outside areas planned and built for growth. Sprawl gobbles open space, increases air and water pollution, and costs more in new services than it ever offsets with taxes from new residents.

Sprawl, or Dumb Growth, can work politically, though, at least for a while. You just call it Economic Growth, or just Growth, which sounds fine to many people, especially bankers and developers and pavers and homebuilders — all of whom are good at electing candidates who’ll butter their bread.

That’s the way it worked in Frederick County for several years, until a more progressive slate of county officials took over in 2015 and began toting up the cost of “progress” under the former regime.

An August 2017 report done for Jan Gardner, the county executive, examined developments in the pipeline that will create 21,000 new housing units in the county, adding 50,000 new residents, 10,000 of them school age.

The fiscal bottom line: Taxpayers will fork out $340 million for roads and another $167 million for schools beyond anything that was planned or budgeted for, the county spokesman said.

A number of these developments also lock the county into agreements for up to 25 years, so that even if zoning gets stricter or developer fees are raised, the presently approved growth remains exempt.

The Frederick experience illustrates the perils of poorly planned residential growth, as well as the fallacy of believing it generates enough new revenue in property taxes to outweigh the demands it makes on government services.

This was one of the reasons that Maryland, under Gov. Parris Glendening in the 1990s, became a pioneer in pushing Smart Growth. Martin O’Malley, who preceded Hogan as governor, added teeth to Smart Growth in 2012 with a landmark law sharply limiting new development in areas that are predominantly farm and forest.
That law did not literally usurp traditional county power over land use; rather it dramatically curtailed, across rural landscapes, the use of septic tanks, on which sprawl development depends.

The law in recent years has begun to make a difference, and a major reason was the vigilance and “jawboning” of the Department of Planning, combined with the assistance it provided to counties in complying.

That threatens to unravel under Hogan, who announced in August to the Maryland Association of Counties that “Plan Maryland,” as O’Malley’s version of Smart Growth was called, “is off the books.” He was putting land use “back into the hands of local authorities,” Hogan said to applause.

The governor has also made it easier to develop using septic tanks again and given Cecil County a pass on complying with the 2012 anti-sprawl law.

He has not overtly tried to repeal the law itself, but in addition to Cecil, at least three more of Maryland’s 23 counties — Wicomico, Allegany and Queen Anne’s — have adopted plans or are pushing developments counter to the law.

But nothing is stopping any county whose citizens want to grow smartly. Charles County in Southern Maryland is a shining example after a six-year campaign to overturn a ruinous development plan.

As of 2016, Charles finalized a plan that stopped an estimated 339 major subdivisions on septic across 88,000 acres of open space. It also stopped about 123 new subdivisions in watersheds designated high water quality.

The new plan finally protects Mattawoman Creek, one of the Chesapeake’s best fish habitats; saves an estimated $2 billion on new roads; and cuts projected population growth in the next 30 years from 75,000 to 37,000.

Several Maryland counties have excellent compliance with the anti-sprawl law, while several others remain a mixed bag. For information on your county, contact 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide environmental land use group.

Rating Gov. Hogan environmentally is complicated by the reality that he is a tree hugger compared with national Republicans and the Trump administration, which set the lowest of bars.

He’s been good by any measure in important areas like Program Open Space, the state’s premier land preservation effort, and in aspects of air quality, such as greenhouse gas reductions. His transportation programs, though, remain far too road-improvement oriented, as opposed to pushing mass transit and mobility.

His environmental secretary, Ben Grumbles, gets high marks from environmentalists. His natural resources secretary, Mark Belton, might be good if nastier Hogan appointees would butt out of managing Bay fisheries.

The governor got a “needs improvement” grade on his 2017 report card from the Maryland League of Conservation voters; that’s the next to lowest of five ratings the group gives.

Hogan remains popular and has a good shot at re-election in 2018. But if the housing economy picks up, I fear a return to major sprawl development. In his re-election bid, the governor will face tougher questions about Smart Growth than he’s gotten so far.

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

My Family Table by Nancy Mugele


It’s just an old piece of wood

On top of four legs

It’s got a few coffee stains, and a thousand marks from “god knows when”

Ain’t too many things, that could stand the test of time

But this family table’s held together by love that never dies


So won’t you come on in?

Supper’s almost done

Go ahead and call your friends

‘Cause we got room for everyone

Let’s make some memories, ’round this 9 foot pine

Pull up a chair and stay a while, at the family table


It’s the cornerstone that held us all up

Through the best of times

And made our way when times got tough

We blew the candles out

In our walk through time

This family table’s, bound together by love that never dies.

“Family Table” by Niko Moon / Zac Brown / Ben Simonetti

My favorite holiday has come and gone, as has the passing of another year. (I may have neglected to tell you in my last column that my birthday always falls on Thanksgiving Weekend.) It is so joyful to have a very noisy full house to celebrate both events, and it is always bittersweet at the end of Thanksgiving weekend when, once again, the red roof inn is quiet. Through the years, many loved ones have gathered around my family table for our traditional harvest feast – great-grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins from near and far, boyfriends, girlfriends, in-laws, and, of course, the out-laws. Some are no longer with us, but often new friends join. The more the merrier as far as I am concerned.

Zac Brown’s song Family Table truly resonates with me, especially at this time of year. I pasted the words below so that you can read the heartfelt tribute to family gatherings around the dining table and the passage of time. He said exactly what I have always felt about the family dinner table – this family table’s held together by love that never dies. He also mentions that the table has a thousand marks from “god knows when,” which always makes me smile. To me, the marks atop our steadfast table represent heartfelt memories, both good and bad, from the pages of our lives. I do wonder, though, where several beer bottle cap markings on my tabletop came from, and when? Does anyone know how they got there?

Zac Brown’s song is so simple, yet so touching and inspiring. Just gather around your table, share a meal, and welcome everyone. Great advice! Oh, and Zac Brown follows me on Twitter now, but that is another story.

I inadvertently left my niece Amanda out of my Thanksgiving column two weeks ago and I heard about it a few times over the past two weeks. Amanda has always had a job at my house on Thanksgiving Day. She is in charge of lighting all of the candles in my dining room just prior to sitting down to dinner. And, trust me, it takes her a long time because I use a multitude of candles to create the perfect dining experience. Thanks, Amanda!

The week leading up to Thanksgiving made me pause on two other occasions to reflect upon the joy of being an aunt. Pronounced like taunt. My side of the family calls me AUNT and my husband’s side of the family calls me ANT. I answer to both but prefer the British pronounciation, as I am not keen on being called a bug. But, seriously, I saw my nephew, David, who plays ice hockey for Villanova, skate at Navy the weekend before Thanksgiving. It was such fun to be with my brother and sister-in-law who spent the weekend with us from Boston and brought Italian cookies from my favorite bakery in the North End, Modern Pastry. And, it was especially fun to pack David a bag of snacks for his bus trip back to school – something I have not done for my own children in many years.

In other happy family news, my nephew Matt and his wife Brittany welcomed a baby girl – Layla – the week before Thanksgiving. They live in Minnesota and were at my family table with their two young sons last year. I am so grateful they have a healthy baby girl and I cannot wait for Layla to join us next Thanksgiving at the family table. I love being an aunt but being a great-aunt is even more fun!

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving and that your family table was filled with laughter and love. I am so grateful that my family table will be full once again later this month!


Nancy Mugele is the Head of School at Kent School in Chestertown and a member of the Board of Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s.