Oops by George Merrill

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There was an incident years ago, when my son was ten. I handled a situation with him poorly in a way that I have been not been able to completely forgive myself. When I think of it, I feel the sharp pain of remorse. He was needy and confused then and as we had recently moved, was trying to figure out his relationship with two of his new friends. When I look back, I can see that I didn’t get it – all the more ironic since I am a clergyman and psychotherapist. I treated his concerns casually. Rather than taking the matter more seriously and encouraging him to talk about it I didn’t hear what he was trying to tell me. It was a lost opportunity. Simply put, I blew it.

He has not forgotten it nor have I. Time and a frank discussion years later have alleviated much of the pain of that time for both of us. And even though I know that blaming myself is not helpful either for him or for myself, when I think about it I’ll still instinctively castigate myself for not getting it right.

I’ve often wondered why it is so difficult even though I may know God will forgive me, and for the most part my son has, that I find it so difficult to forgive myself. It’s as if I hold myself to impossible standards of perfection. I should never make mistakes. I’m supposed to get it right all the time. Even as I write that sentence it sounds absurd. As I think about it, there’s a perverse pride in such thinking. Taken to its logical conclusion, I’m actually saying I’m perfect, or if not, I should be.

Getting it wrong, making mistakes of all kinds is so fundamental to the human experience that rites of forgiveness have been central to religious practices for centuries. For Catholics, there is the sacrament of confession and in Judaism, the observance of Yom Kippur. Both rites help penitents to own their failings, express their contrition with others, and to put things right with self, with God and our fellow man. Each of these rites has an implied assumption; not only am I never going to get it right every time, but my efforts are probably better spent in managing my mistakes with a combination of contrition and a gentle spirit.

I characterize my routine mistakes simply as ‘oops.’ These are the annoying glitches that insinuate themselves into daily life; the lost key, the grocery bag left at the market, missing receipts, forgetting to lock the door, stepping in dog doo and the like. I shrug, get irritated, mutter under my breath and feel relieved that no one else has noticed. After making the appropriate corrections, I go about my business as usual. To make case in point when I wrote about stepping in dog manure, I wrote it first as ‘dog dew.’ My wife said I was mistaken, that it was ‘dog doo’ that I stepped in. For a moment, I wasn’t sure I had it right and I felt slightly intimidated. I googled it. In fact, I had stepped in both.

Strangely, inadvertent mistakes (the one’s committed in total innocence, with not a hint of guile and even with good intentions) can go badly and cause pain to others as well as to one’s self.

Not getting it right can be a mortifying experience. People often remark that when they suddenly realize they’ve really gotten it wrong they wish they had died on the spot or that the ground would have opened up and swallowed them. That’s one powerful emotion.

Kathryn Schulz, in her thoughtful book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, tells a story of a mortifying incident suffered by a journalist friend of hers. He was a seasoned writer on environmental issues and attended a lecture by a prominent environmentalist.

She made a brilliant presentation although pessimistic in content. He noticed how although her prognostications for the future of the planet were grim, that she was also pregnant. In his write up he commented that she was pregnant indicating that what he saw was her affirmation of life despite the gloomy picture she painted of the future. His article was published, made first page news and was widely circulated. Great, except the presenter wasn’t pregnant. Forty years later and he was quoted as saying “Truth is, I’m still mortified when I talk about it.” It turned out the woman was gracious about it but the journalist could never quite forgive himself for an innocent mistake, kindly disposed as it was.

I suspect that deep down many of us are aware of our failings, but try hard to disown them because we ourselves are not easy with them. The result can be that we’re intimidated by people who come across to us as on top of their game, competent, all together. It’s as if their togetherness were a judgement on us. The word ‘loser’ that has become such a popular insult today I guess underscores the contemporary obsession that in order to be of any account, you have to always get it and be winners no matter what.

Regarding mistakes, a look at how scientists behave may be instructive for getting along with our mistakes more skillfully. Many scientific researchers will routinely publish results making them accessible to other scientists knowing full well that what they’ve put out there may be flawed. That’s part of the strategy. If flaws can be identified so much the better. In the long haul, they’ll stand better chances of getting their project right.

So, since we are never always going to get it all right, what do we do? Ask for help if our mistakes have been harmful to ourselves or others, if we can. If not, accept, shrug, forgive, and keep a sense of humor.

Remember, to air is human, to forgive, divine.

Oops!

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.

Dressing for Success by Nancy Mugele

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Have I told you that I am a member of the newly formed Talbots Advisory Council? Talbots – the women’s clothing retailer – not Talbot – the Eastern Shore county. Don’t tell Jim, but I was recently asked to be a member based upon my shopping history over too many years to count. In my role I get to preview catalogs and offer my opinions on the clothing, models, seasonal colors and layouts of the pages. After each month’s assignment, I am entered into a drawing to win a very generous Talbots gift card. And, while I really want to win a gift card, I am greatly enjoying the “advising” piece. Makes me feel like I am in my 20s again.

Some of you may know that I began my career in advertising in NYC. It was exactly like Mad Men, although it was the early 1980s — sophisticated clothes, two-martini long lunches, work hours that began at 10 a.m. but lasted well into the night, and two clients in Baltimore. My first account was Domino Sugar and that gave me a taste (pun intended) of what Baltimore had to offer. I had my first steamed crabs at O’Brycki’s, went to an Army-Navy football game at Memorial Stadium, ate my way through Little Italy, and was hooked. My second Baltimore client was Noxell Corporation and I moved to Hunt Valley to work there in 1987. I met Jim on an Amtrak train on a very snowy night 31 years ago last week, as I traveled to Baltimore to interview, but that is another story.

Women in the workplace had become the norm during the 80s; yet, we still needed to work hard to establish equality in our professional lives. Power dressing was one way to achieve it. It was “highly recommended” to me by my intense female boss that I wear heels and tailored suits (complete with shoulder pads) to work. She wore this uniform, religiously, every single day. (She did give me my first Hermès scarf though, so I cannot say anything negative about her.)  I chose Talbots clothing early in my career for affordability, and the classic and timeless looks that became the foundation of my professional wardrobe. Of course, I was also trying to communicate a certain seriousness with my clothing to combat my youthfulness. Thankfully, tailored suits were never a requirement in the school cultures I have most recently worked in, but, Talbots is still my go-to for three essential elements — skirts, coats and dresses.

Reviewing Talbots spring catalog pages for content, style, color and fashion reminds me of my days working on Cover Girl cosmetics at Noxell. I worked on lipsticks and nail polishes and was responsible for selecting seasonal shades and promotional vehicles. I once named an entire fall collection of lips, nails, blushers and eyeshadows after fabrics — Plum Wool being one of my favorite colors that season. I also remember well the retouching of the print ads and display units. Changing model’s eye color, whitening and closing gaps in teeth, and thinning noses are some of the things I ordered on photographs of seemingly beautiful models. While I am not proud of this today, given my work to help students understand media literacy and to think critically about images they see, altering photos and images remains an integral part of the fashion and cosmetic world even today. While advertisers still need to do a better job in this area, I applaud companies like Talbots and Dove for using real people and models who better represent all women and men in their marketing efforts.

I am pretty sure Talbots has invited many, many diverse people to be on their advisory council, but that does not bother me at all. I still consider it an honor and am crossing my fingers I win this month’s gift card!

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.

Outrage Costs by Al Sikes

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Oxygen is life-giving. When somebody remarks that a given person’s dominant personality “takes all the oxygen out of the room” they mean that the others in the room become lifeless.

Most American journalists and especially pundits have become lifeless — outrage has consumed them. Fighting Trump seems almost the only animating stimulus.

The Afghanistan War— little is said, even less is reported from the field. And the tax bill reporting tended to be binary with the wealthy pitted against everybody else. If Trump was for it then per force it’s inner-workings had to favor the rich. Yes, there are reporters who dig and dig and then write objectively, but you have to search them out.

But, let me return to the now 17-year war in Afghanistan and begin with a simple question. What do we expect from a free press when the nation is at war?

On a visceral level, have more soldiers been killed or maimed because journalistic assets have been misallocated? How many billions of dollars have been spent because our national civilian and defense leaders have not been sufficiently scrutinized?

There are a lot of government programs that defy outcome measurements. War is not one of them. We can ask and answer whether the enemy is diminished. Likewise, we can measure territorial gains or losses. We can also measure the health of our principal ally; how is the Afghanistan government doing today?

Most importantly, any government that chooses to wage war must be held accountable for the why.

But this is not a column about the Afghanistan war, but one about journalism. Suffice it to say, the human and financial costs of the Afghanistan war have been enormous.

We know in retrospect that the press eventually played a large role in ending the Vietnam War. Hard questions were asked and answered and even those who believed in the domino theory—if America lost in Vietnam, Communism would sweep over Southeast Asia—began to disfavor the war.

Wikipedia lists 47 war correspondents who covered the Vietnam War. Peruse the list, and you will find a wide range of print and broadcast journalists. Names like Peter Arnett, Ed Bradley, Bob Simon and David Halberstam are memorable names to those of a certain age.

We certainly know that some journalists dig deep while others shrink from comprehensive reporting and still others can’t leave their biases out of their reporting. And knowing this, it is clear that if only a few journalists cover a subject, the risk of incomplete and/or biased coverage is pronounced.

If there is one subject today that is comprehensively covered, it is Donald J. Trump. The outrage is palpable. The disproportionate weighting is equally palpable. But beyond outrage, one motivation is clear. Trump sells — it is entertainment masquerading as news. It is reality TV on the cheap. Trump’s tweets provide daily fodder — a reporter can grab the days narrative early in the morning. Even reporting from the security zone in Kabul is risky and costly and often encounters the opaque. Why risk life and brain when covering the ever-colorful President is so easy?

Obviously, the White House needs to be covered and especially this one, but what about the outcome of the programs heralded by the White House? Unfortunately, in the Trump era, the storyline is all too often binary. If Trump favors “it,” whatever the “it” is must be wrong.

There has rarely been as challenging a moment for both the nation and news organizations. Most news organizations have seen dramatic staff reductions as conventional media-business models have suffered from digital media competition. And foreign coverage is certainly expensive.

Realities are often uncomfortable. A reduction in resources requires ingenuity. At least to this writer the almost mono-thematic news coverage of Trump does not reflect well on the nation’s assignment editors.

My frustration peaked several Sundays ago while watching Martha Raddatz anchoring “This Week” on ABC. Ms. Raddatz is ABC’s Chief Global Correspondent. She has earned that title in her probing reportage on our Middle-Eastern wars. Yet, Raddatz on that Sunday morning was relegated to anchoring political panels on this and that Trump outrage.

My frustration has nothing to do with the content of Trump’s comportment. It is terrible. But, his constant provocations have become boring. So what if he bashes a critic? So what if he publicly berates a cabinet member? So what if he settles a claim against him by a porn star? Report it and move on.

The content of his Presidency is more important than his considerable personal deficiencies. And no content is more important than what he does or doesn’t do as Commander-in-Chief (CC). The CC has wide-ranging discretion, and his ways and means can place both the nation and its defenders in harm’s way.

I end with this unsolicited advice to the managers and editors who make news decisions. Trump is, if anything, titillated by his dominance of the news cycle. Why else would he serve up the days script in pre-dawn tweets? As you consider news priorities and assignments, don’t forget the ethos of good journalism — help people understand what they need to know.

*************************

Footnote: President Trump has decided that the nation’s top intelligence, law enforcement, and judicial institutions are the enemies and many of his supporters seem gleeful when he attacks them. To those who find this conduct appealing, please understand the ultimate price—cynicism. History chronicles the illnesses bred by a cynical public.

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. 

Sanctuary or Secession by David Montgomery

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Several commentators, including Ben Stein, have suggested that the Sanctuary Cities are repeating the Secession crisis that led directly into the Civil War.  There is an enlightening comparison to be made, but the facts need to be straight first.

The Sanctuary Cities are not yet at the stage of secession, their actions so far amount to an attempt at nullification.  Likewise, the states that have declared marijuana to be legal in defiance of Federal law appear to me to be attempting nullification.

The famous Nullification Crisis was prompted by South Carolina, but it was over a tariff not slavery.  It occurred during the administration of Andrew Jackson, a President almost as famous for his populism as Donald Trump.  The very protective Tariff of 1828 was enacted during the presidency of John Quincy Adams, and it was very unpopular in the South and parts of New England.  

The more radical opponents of the tariff in South Carolina began to advocate that the state declare the tariff null and void within its borders.  The compromise Tariff of 1832 provided insufficient relief, and in 1832 a state convention in South Carolina adopted an Ordinance of Nullification that declared both tariffs to be unconstitutional and unenforceable in South Carolina.  

Congress responded by passing the Force Bill, which authorized the President to use military forces against South Carolina, and a compromise tariff that was acceptable to South Carolina.

Leading up to the Civil War, it was actually the Northern States that practiced nullification.   In the aftermath of the Fugitive Slave Law, which declared the right of owners to capture escaped slaves anywhere, Pennsylvania and twelve other Northern states passed laws making it “a crime for any person to forcibly remove a black person from the state with the intention of keeping or selling him as a slave.”  The Supreme Court ruled against all these attempts at nullification by states.   Nevertheless, abolitionists defied the law by refusing to turn over escaped slaves and preventing their capture.

I have not yet read about a sanctuary city or state trying to clothe itself in the righteousness of abolition, but I expect it any day.  Where our ancestors overthrew slavery by nullifying laws that required them to return slaves, sanctuaries are determined to overthrow … what? … by nullifying laws that require illegal entrants to be detained and possibly deported.

So one question is, what are sanctuary cities trying to accomplish? If it is to prevent convicted criminals from being deported, that is a foolish obstruction of justice.  What claim does someone who violates the law after arriving in the U.S. have on a right to live here?  Those who have earned a chance are the dreamers who have respected the law and worked hard since being brought here, not the criminals among them.  If the purpose is to undermine enforcement of U.S. immigration laws and create open borders within the sanctuary jurisdictions, that is another and much more serious matter.

The next historical nullification attempt should give the Sanctuary Cities more pause about whom they emulate.  After the Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional in Brown vs Board of Education (1954), at least ten Southern states passed what amount to nullification measures and refused to follow the Brown decision.  

The Supreme Court explicitly rejected these attempts at nullification in 1958.  In a unanimous opinion, it held that Federal law “can neither be nullified openly and directly by state legislators or state executive or judicial officers nor nullified indirectly by them through evasive schemes…”

The first Nullification Crisis led to granting the President power to intervene with force to enforce laws that states claimed to nullify, and the states backed down.  The Supreme Court held that Brown vs Board of Education could not be nullified, and President Eisenhower sent the soldiers of the 101st Airborne to escort the Little Rock Nine into Central High School.  His action was violently condemned by the Democrats who then held sway in the South.

There is a great deal for Sanctuary Cities to learn from this.  

The first and last nullification crisis ended when the states backed down after President Jackson and President Eisenhower made it clear that they would use sufficient force to uphold the law.

The nullification practiced by abolitionists and endorsed by Northern States had a different outcome – it contributed to the confrontations that precipitated the Civil War.  The Declaration of Immediate Causes that South Carolina issued along with its secession ordinance in December 1860 stated that nullification attempts by the northern states were a cause of its action.  From there on, a series of confrontations led to an avoidable war in which 750,000 soldiers died on both sides.  Nullification inflamed tensions between slave and free states and made a gradual and peaceful abolition of slavery, such as Robert E. Lee and other slave and free state leaders tried to accomplish, impossible.

Thus I agree that there is an enlightening comparison between Sanctuary Cities and the secession crisis.  The Sanctuary Cities are turning the immigration debate into a confrontation between those who would nullify immigration laws and those who favor closing the borders and exporting them all, leaving no room for some compromise on legalizing the status of otherwise law-abiding and productive illegal entrants.   In this, they are just like the nullifying abolitionists whose moral fervor contributed to the disastrous outcome of the Secession Crisis and Orval Faubus who defied Federal law on desegregation.

Even I, firmly lodged in the middle group favoring some compromise, am outraged by sanctuary cities’ and states’ defiance of Federal law and willingness effectively to pardon convicted criminals and release them to continue their predation.  None of us want to face the choice between allowing that practice to continue and ending it by force.  One civil war was enough.

David Montgomery was formerly Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting. He also served as assistant director of the US Congressional Budget Office and deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Energy. He taught economics at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University and was a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.

 

Letter to Editor: Bidding Farewell from Tractor Supply in Chestertown

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I am a local born and raised here in Kent County MD and have worked for Tractor Supply for the past year and a half as a member of the management team.

It is with great sadness that I am writing this. As many of you may have already noticed, I have not been there in a few months. This is due to a severe medical condition diagnosed in early September of 2017. I will no longer be one of the wonderful management team members at Tractor Supply and will be leaving indefinitely to address and handle my medical needs on Feb 23, 2018.

At this time I would like to thank all of my loyal and wonderful customers and business partnerships for their business and a chance of getting to know the community. It was my pleasure to serve and help you with all your pet, livestock, farm, lawn garden, truck, home and personal needs while there.

I would also like to thank Tractor Supply for their full support during this time and say it was my pleasure to work for you. I enjoyed serving my local community and working for a company that gave back so much to a lot of wonderful programs in our local community such as 4-H, FFA, Humane Society of Kent County, Shop with a Cop with the Kent County Sheriff’s Department and Chestertown Police and so many more.

I have the utmost confidence that the managers and team members will be able to help you with your needs from this point out. As well as welcome the new store manager, and the new assistant manager to the team.

Thank you all for a wonderful year and half and your support

Michael Davis-Haithcock

The Life and Times of Jameson Jones (Chapter Three): In Unremembered Season by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Destiny is capricious: one day, you’re on a course that’s bright and straight as a Saharan sunrise; the next, it all turns out to be a mirage, ephemeral as moonlight…

Jameson Jones, newly-minted college graduate, isn’t quite sure what to do with himself. Camelot has crumbled and The Great Society has lost its luster. Martin is dead; Bobby, too. Richard Nixon has grabbed the spotlight and the orders of the day are racial strife, drugs, cultural wars, peace signs, and this thing called Vietnam. Jameson has a pretty high draft number (210), but the future is fuzzy. Only one thing makes any sense: Jameson hopes for the best and, still wrapped in Kennedy’s afterglow, joins the Peace Corps.

He looks the part: long hair, Fu Manchu mustache, bell-bottom jeans. He is assigned to a sports development program in a country he has barely even heard of: Tunisia. It’s a soft spot on the North African littoral, a slice of lemon wedged in between two giant neighbors. But it’s perfect. At the end of training, Jameson is offered a comfortable post in a coastal city, a tourist destination, but he stuns his supervisor when he opts to coach basketball and teach physical education in a small village in the remote mountainous corner of the country hard by the Algerian border. He’s all in.

His house in Kasserine is a few spare rooms off on open courtyard covered by a grape arbor. It has a cold water tap and a privy. The kitchen is a hot plate running off bottled gas. When Jameson wants fresh bread, he goes straight to the baker’s oven. He buys eggs in groups of four. When the open-air butcher shop has meat, the head of a slaughtered beast signals what is available that day. When he needs a warm bath, he spends an afternoon hour or two with the men in the hammem, the village steam bath where he is pounded, stretched, and scrubbed by one of the attendants. He recovers with an orange and a glass of mint tea. In summer, there may be no rain for months; in winter, a freezing wind blows down from the mountains. He is invited to a student’s home for a holiday feast and watches as a sheep is ritually bled and slaughtered in the street out front. He attends a friend’s wedding and waits with the other men until the marriage has been honorably consummated. At night, he plays cards with old men, drinking glasses of tea in a cafe. He is supremely happy.

One day, news trickles into town: a movie company is filming in another village down in the desert. Jameson is curious. On a whim, he heads south and when he arrives in the town, he is greeted by a stunning French women who is working with the production crew. She takes one look at his 6’4” frame and inquires if he wants a role in the film: “We need a tall alien.” She takes him out to the set and he sees dinosaurs and strange underground dwellings. It would require several days of filming and there’s even a modest per diem that sounds like a fortune to Jameson. But he has school to teach and a team to coach so he declines. Plus, the whole concept seems a little far-fetched. “What’s the film called?” he asks his host. “Star Wars,” she replies as Jameson boards the bus back home.

And so Jameson’s life remains on its modest arc. There will be no movie career, no Hollywood. Several months later, when the day comes that his tour is up and it’s time to finally leave the town, he is overcome by a beautiful sadness. As his bus pulls out of town, he is reading a passage from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet:

“If this is my day of harvest, in what fields have I sowed the seed, and in what unremembered season?”

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 www.musingjamie.com.

With Friends Like These….by Craig Fuller

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Mr. President, you should tell your friends to stop ‘helping!’”

The heavily scrutinized memo released by Republicans on Capitol Hill purportedly helping President Trump – or, so he says – actually does far more damage.

Here’s why for four reasons:

If read to the end, the memo concludes by revealing that an investigation was open by the FBI when it learned that a Trump campaign aide was bragging about the fact that they had access to Clinton emails. This had nothing to do with the “dossier” that the Committee questions.

The memo also revealed that a very involved process leading to the approved use of electronic surveillance of an American citizen was actually completed no fewer than four times with a special court agreeing each time that there was sufficient reason to engage in the surveillance of a citizen who was involved in the Trump campaign and believed to have contact with Russians and people connected to Russian intelligence.

Omitted from the discussion is the faulty notion that a work product associated with professional opposition research should be viewed with great skepticism. As one who has engaged professional investigators to conduct such research, I can tell you that these investigators are not paid to create political spin or campaign rhetoric. They work to learn what can be found that might raise concerns. In my case, the professionals were engaged to look into the background of the candidates with whom I was associated. Yes, smart campaigns actually delve into the backgrounds of their own candidates in order to learn what might be discovered by others. The fact something is revealed that could be of concern does not make it factually correct. But, when found by a professional using sources considered to be credible, these findings should be examined closely. If something potentially illegal is discovered, then once in the hands of the proper officials it should be investigated and not dismissed.

Finally, stepping up hostilities with one of the most respected law enforcement groups in the world seems a high-risk gamble. The FBI is not infallible, but to disrespect the work of the individuals that currently serve and those who formerly served in the FBI will have consequences. And, what do you know? It only took a few days to learn that while the Republican’s memo suggests surveillance began on this American citizen associated with the Trump campaign in 2016, TIME magazine was provided with information that this citizen was actually on the radar three years earlier and being looked at after bragging that he was an advisor to Russians back in 2013. I somehow doubt that we’ve seen the last of facts that support the actions of the nation’s leading investigative body.

This breakdown between a key Committee of Congress with important oversight responsibilities over our intelligence agencies, aided and abetted by the White House, and the very agencies of the Federal government they oversee is a serious problem that will not be quickly or easily resolved.

It is high time to stop encouraging friends to do really foolish things!

The author suggests this link for future reading.

Craig Fuller served four years in the White House as assistant to President Reagan for Cabinet Affairs, followed by four years as chief of staff to Vice President George H.W. Bush. Having been engaged in five presidential campaigns and run public affairs firms and associations in Washington, D.C., he now resides on the Eastern Shore with his wife Karen.

The Yellow Brontosaurus by George Merrill

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I’ve had the blahs for a couple of days. It’s a disagreeable feeling. It comes on suddenly like a runny nose or a cough. The cause of the blahs is unknown.

When I have the blahs nothing I can think of energizes me. And then, if something does, it feels like a lot of work to follow up on it for the little return I imagine I’ll get. The other part of this is that a million things go through my mind, but I don’t land on any one. I’m all over the place.

Routine things for which I’d normally given little thought, now seem onerous. I don’t feel much like engaging with people, but the thought of being alone is not appealing either. There is one thing that I instinctively do when coming down with the blahs, and that is to figure out why I have the blahs at all and particularly, at this time. Normally that’s good self-psychotherapy, but when dealing with the blahs I’ve found it useless. It’s a little like sitting around and trying to figure out why the fire started, but that really doesn’t help to put it out. In fact, the inaction may just feed the lethargy making things worse.

The blahs are common. Most everyone suffers the blahs. I guess it’s mostly in the western world, a society while obsessed with money, power and politics, doesn’t ’t really know how to just have fun. For a person like me who has fun writing personal essays and leans heavily on energy that ideas generate, with the blahs I feel like a runner with an ailing foot. What he wholly depends on is suddenly malfunctioning. I want to fix it, but the blahs have a life of their own. They’ve developed considerable resistance to “giving myself a good talking to” and other common-sense remedies.

For addressing the malady, psychologists suggest the equivalent of ‘take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” Get yourself going, they advise, get off your butt, walk the dog, call a friend, fix the flower bed, polish the silver and the like but, see, that’s the thing about the blahs; you don’t feel like doing any of those things. People with the blahs will frequently make others impatient and it’s common to hear someone tell them, “Get over it.” It’s a rather insensitive comment and I don’t know that it works, certainly not for me.

Do a kind deed for someone you know or may not know at all. This bromide is frequently offered as a sure cure. Promising, perhaps, but it usually goes full circle; you still have to mobilize the energy to think of what would be something kind and to whom you’d direct it. You’re back to zero.

When I’m seized by the blahs, I’ve noticed this much: I do a lot of “yeah, but” thinking. That’s the kind where you have an interesting thought and then knock it down, like playing whack-a-mole or swatting a mosquito. So, is there any way, if not to cure the blahs, at least to limit their duration?

I listened to a talk once given by a seasoned writer, an essayist, who offered this thought: The essayist can write about the things he knows best, or he can write about something he knows nothing about but wants to learn more. I wondered if by writing about the blahs with no clinical understanding of the condition, I might stumble upon something significant that could mitigate some of its effects and even contribute to the well-being of others.

With that slight spark of energy my thought inspired, I decided to go for it.

One thing occurred to me immediately. Having the blahs is a little like being a child for whom we can do nothing to please. Children in that kind of mood can drive parents nuts; adults having the blahs can drive themselves nuts. I recall several instances of that with my own children. I once made up a trick to head it off. It worked most of the time.

Imagine a petulant little boy, my son, half in tears and fussing, disagreeable for no apparent reason. Immediately my instinct was to offer him possible options.

“Would you like to play with Eddie?”

“No!” he’d reply emphatically shaking his arms and legs in protest, his lower lip prominently protruding to underscore his point.

“How about Sally?”

“No,” again.

“Would you like a cookie?”

“Nooo, I don’t want a cookie,” and so it would go. This was a dead end and I knew it.

Then it came to me out of the blue, an epiphany, and it turned out to be a decidedly inspired idea.

I suddenly held my hand up, palm forward, opened my eyes just short of popping them from their sockets as if I were alerting my son to something terribly urgent, and looking beyond him into the distance I said in a hushed voice, “Did you see that?”

His petulant look vanished. He turned around to look, and turning back to me asked quizzically, “What.”

“The Brontosaurus, only this one is yellow, not green like Freddy, the one in your book.”

“Well, where is he?”

“I think you may have scared him off when you turned around. He can’t be far. Let’s go find him. We must be very quiet, come on, follow me.”

And off we went, hunting. It was the day of the yellow Brontosaurus.

I know just what you’re thinking. This guy is full of guile, a deceitful father, disseminating fake news to this vulnerable and innocent child.

I’ll tell you this; of course, we didn’t find the yellow Brontosaurus. He was nowhere to be seen. We called off the hunt. However, by then not only did the cookie begin sounding great to my son, but so did the idea of having Eddie over to play. The search alone began to give meaning to his day.

A strong case can be made that the means justifies the end.

What has any of this to do with the blahs? This much. I think the blahs are exacerbated by the way the condition can keep us unfocused. I know with the blahs I go from thought to thought dismissing them all, straightaway.

I don’t want to give credence to the school that advises “get off your butt and do something.” I find that solution questionable. But, instead, I’d advise focus, stay with just one idea of the many orbiting around in my mind. Soon it would lead to some kind of action like hunting the yellow dinosaur with my son. You don’t have to find the dinosaur; just looking for him is enough. The search is more energizing than the finding or as the saying goes, the journey is more important than the destination.

Nothing is quite like finding a purpose; it’ll make your day and beat the blahs.

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.

State of the State of the Union by Craig Fuller

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We’ve come a long way since George Washington presented his State of the Union message to Congress with two minutes of remarks. Today’s State of the Union has become a major media event and provides a President with the chance to form his thinking about the future and present his priorities to the nation and the world.

So, just what is the state of the State of the Union?

Having watched most of them since the 1970s and having had the good fortune to actually contribute to the development of about eight of them during my time at the White House, I think many of the talking heads focus far too much on the second element of the three important phases of a State of the Union address.

The first phase involves a President becoming fully engaged in thoughtfully framing his thinking about the years ahead and the priorities of his Administration.

The second phase is the speech itself where content and tone are judged by one and all. The event favors the President who, speaking before the entire United States Congress, exemplifies the notion of being presidential.

And, the third phase is the Administration’s strategy around successfully driving the themes of the State of the Union into the public’s consciousness through a well-executed and disciplined communications plan.

Presidents have used the first phase in the weeks leading to the State of the Union to meet with members of the Administration, leaders in Congress, and thought leaders in our society. Indeed, in Ronald Reagan’s pre-State of the Union phase, a series of futurists to focus on the kind of future we as a nation might confront visited with him in the White House.

Trust me, thought leaders from all segments of our society will accept the invitation to sit with a President and reflect on the future along with the challenges and the opportunities we face. However, there is no evidence in the weeks leading up to the State of the Union address that thought leaders from different fields who might inform the thinking of the President and those around him about the future were part of this year’s process. Since this speech comes around but once a year, this is a missed opportunity of some significance.

When it comes to the content of last night’s speech, most would agree the tone was, well, down. Ironically, “toned down” is a style that brought compliments from commentators. Also, as the third longest speech in history, most would agree the speech was long. However, to my ear, it was short on any new insights, innovative approaches or reflective thought.

The script was adhered to. Also, remarkably one of the media’s pre-announced criteria for a successful “presidential” delivery. But, this made the factual inaccuracies all the more puzzling. Comments about economic growth or some kind of heretofore unknown substance called “clean coal” are harder to explain when written into a speech that will knowingly undergo the fact checker’s magnifying glass.

As for the very important third phase of the State of the Union triad, it is hard to believe we will observe anything resembling a well-crafted, strategically executed communications plan. Indeed, the White House was backgrounding on the distraction de jour – the Nunes memo – in the hours before the speech and White House staff will be even more heavily embroiled in this issue in the days that follow. There was even speculation again about whether or not the President would consider firing special prosecutor Mueller or, perhaps argue there has not been an adequate case made to require a Presidential interview with the special prosecutor. Dwelling on this during the run-up to the speech does not bode well for the communications effort going forward.

So, for those who like to score these sort of things, the trend – at least to me – does not look favorable. Having failed to take full advantage of the run-up to the speech and by planting all kinds of serious distractions complicating efforts to sustain the SOU messages, the Administration cannot get what it needed out of this speech to drive major Administration initiatives forward.

As January comes to a conclusion, Administration supporters probably are pleased with the speech and will not be moved by any analysis. Opponents may come away from the evening embolden to challenge the President in Congress and at the polls later this year….but, in fairness, I am not sure how much bolder most of them could become. And, for anyone still left in the middle, the evening did little to win over their support.

And, that is the state of the State of the Union….much ado about something that has left little more than a ripple in our tumultuous political sea.

Craig Fuller served four years in the White House as assistant to President Reagan for Cabinet Affairs, followed by four years as chief of staff to Vice President George H.W. Bush. Having been engaged in five presidential campaigns and run public affairs firms and associations in Washington, D.C., he now resides on the Eastern Shore with his wife Karen.