Out and About (Sort of): Hope for Journalism by Howard Freedlander

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Last week I promised to continue the conversation about reversing the sad decline of local news and its detrimental effect on democracy as measured by informed citizen participation.

In recent years I’ve become a devotee of digital media, such as state-level websites like Maryland Matters and Maryland Reporter. They allow me to get my daily fix of Annapolis politics. The former offers original articles written by experienced staff journalists, while the latter typically has one staff-written article and an aggregation of stories from print publications throughout Maryland.

Both of these nonprofit electronic publications are funded primarily by foundations keenly interested and invested in the need for professional coverage of local and state government. They also fundraise through periodic appeals. Subscriptions cost nothing.

To put my money where my convictions are, I happily donate to one of the publications noted above. I remain somewhat bemused to observe how journalists-turned editors-turned business-owners unabashedly seek donations from readers, understanding, I believe, that donors cannot be allowed to influence the news product.

Closer to home, the Chestertown Spy and Talbot Spy, another nonprofit digital medium, has a business model that differs from Maryland Matters and Maryland Reporter. It carries local sponsorship advertising. It too offers free subscriptions. Last year, its ninth in existence, the Spy conducted a successful fundraising appeal.

Though I don’t pretend to be able to justify the feasibility of one business model over another, the common thread seems to be an infusion of privately-raised money. This similarity seems rooted in a commitment by donors—comprising wealthy owners, foundations, individuals and joint-venture entrepreneurs—to sustainment of information-gathering vehicles that preserve a democracy dependent on public accountability and oversight.

Traditional newspapers and magazines continue to rely on paid advertising and subscriptions.

I further suggest that communities on the brink of losing a valuable local newspaper coalesce to raise money to ensure the future of a community asset. While I realize that every community, large and small, has pressing social needs, I believe that the local newspaper provides an invaluable service to residents; it’s a bulwark against the diminution of democracy.

Like a local utility, a newspaper or website fuels and sustains the health of a community. Residents have a vessel into which they can pour their concerns and opinions.

To take the analogy to a local utility one step further, I would go so far to say that local journalism produces a form of “renewable energy” on the part of its readers. The democratic process works best when citizens become engaged in local matters based upon what they read and hear.

In an opinion piece written recently by Megan McArdle in The Washington Post, she wrote,” Journalism isn’t going away, exactly. There are business models that work, largely two: funding by donors or wealthy owners willing to operate at a loss, or subscriptions. But those models can’t support all the journalism now being done.

“The number of donors doesn’t magically increase just because more are needed. And subscription models have limits, because most people can only afford a few at a time.”

Pointing to the ability of digital media to produce an outlet that doesn’t require printing presses and large amounts of newsprint, McArdle wrote, “Once a digital article has been written, an increasing readership costs the publisher almost nothing; in economist-speak, the marginal cost is near zero.”

I must add a caveat to what might appear to be this column’s bias for digital media. My day is incomplete without feeling compelled to hold and read actual newspapers. But I’m paying increasing attention to digital news sources on my ever-present iPhone.

I’m just an unrepentant news junkie.

Like most everything else we do in our capitalistic society, we must pay for print and digital journalism, whether through subscriptions or donations, if we think it’s important to our lives and democracy.

We have choices.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

 

Out and About (Sort of): Local News Deficit by Howard Freedlander

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Our country has a crisis close to my heart. Print journalism is suffering from economic pressure that is stanching the flow of information to residents of communities throughout the country.

Our democracy, strengthened by coverage and hard-nosed oversight of local and state governments, is weaker and untethered; citizens are unaware of decisions and their justification.

As a former community newspaper editor, I understand that better informed readers are better citizens because they learn about their communities and became involved in public decision-making. Though annoyed sometimes by persistent public outcry or even simple questioning, policymakers realize that citizen participation improves the final product.

Not surprisingly, I devour print news. I yearn to be informed. I spend hours every day reading newspapers. I’m addicted. This addiction, however, is healthy. No intervention is necessary.

Recent media coverage of the declining health of local news coverage tells a sorry story.

According to an opinion piece recently written by Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott in the Washington Post, the number of newspaper employees in our country dropped from 456,000 to about 183,000, from 1990 to 2016. Closer to home, The Baltimore Sun employed in the early 1990s four full-time reporters and one part-time person covering Maryland State government, including the 90-day General Assembly. Now it has two reporters occupying desks on the bottom floor of the State House in Annapolis.

Who’s covering decisions and legislation that affects all of us in Maryland?

Who’s making sure that the sausage-making is above-board, free of corruption and conflict of interest?

Who’s covering public hearings and then bothering to stay afterwards to ask questions about what really just happened, and why? After all, we’re talking about a $46 billion enterprise funded by tax dollars.

News stories are going uncovered. Instead, news releases prepared by the entities involved in the outcome become the primary source of information.  

Accountability diminishes on the local level.

For example, Steve Cavendish, president of the Nashville (TN) Public Media, a nonprofit news start-up and former editor of the Nashville Scene and Washington City Paper, pointed during a PBS Newshour interview last week to a recent merger between LifePoint Health and RCCH Healthcare Partners near Nashville, TN in a deal amounting to nearly $6 billion and affecting about 1,000 employees. The Tennessean covered the story, according to Cavendish, with an Associated Press article written in New York. A local rewrite of a news release then followed at the end of the day.

Penny Abernathy, chair of journalism and digital media economics at the University of North Carolina, also appearing with Cavendish last week on the PBS Newshour, cited the loss of print advertising revenue and lack of ability to make up for this deficit through digital advertising and subscription revenue as the reason for the loss of 1,800 newspapers in the past 16 years.

Asked about the impact on consumers, Abernathy said, “Well, it means the rise of news deserts in which residents in communities, hundreds of communities, even thousands, in this country have limited, very limited access to the sort of news and information that’s been the lifeblood of our democracy, everything from when and where to vote, to topics such as education, health, emergency and safety information that we need.”

I believe the state of journalism is dire.

We seek information on social media. We satisfy ourselves with online websites that often feed our political biases. Local news is suffering from neglect. The longtime business model no longer works effectively, except in large newspaper operations like The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Though often maligned for its thin offering of local news and dependence on news releases, The Star Democrat is a vital part of the Mid-Shore community. It provides local news at its purest, including coverage of town and county governments, elections, high school sports, lively letters to the editor, civic organizations and obituaries.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the importance of weekly newspapers in Caroline, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties. They provide the glue that keeps a community engaged in current events and offers a forum for opposing points of view. Kent County News has been serving its primarily agricultural community since 1793.

The Star Democrat and our weeklies must live on. I would go so far to advocate that Mid-Shore residents should do everything possible to ensure its continued existence and avoid what has happened throughout the country.

We should subscribe. Business should continue to advertise. We should understand its importance to our community.

A news desert is undesirable.

Next week, I will continue this conversation. I will discuss alternative ways of funding news purveyors.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

 

Out and About (Sort of): Contentious Crossing by Howard Freedlander

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About a year from now, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA) will announce the location of the third Chesapeake Bay Bridge crossing, having chosen from 14 options in Cecil, Kent, Queen Anne’s, Talbot and Dorchester and Somerset counties. A no-build option also is on the table, so I understand.

Maryland Transportation Authority

The impact of a third span on the Eastern Shore will be monumental. Residential and commercial development will follow. Environmental effects will be severe. Quality of life, though an overused term, will take an irreversible blow.

Actual construction would be years off following completion of a federally mandated Environmental Impact Statement. I question how the State of Maryland would finance a $10-20 billion project at a time when public works projects of this size would require a large infusion of private money. Public-private (P3) projects are increasingly more common in the United States,

Nonetheless, the Eastern Shore should gird itself for battle. I say this, knowing that state law grants the Shore veto power over the selection of a crossing. However, state law can be changed, as an Anne Arundel state senator tried and failed to do last year.

As I’ve stated repeatedly in this column, legislative power is in the hands of Western Shore politicians. In this case, they are listening to constituents understandably upset over long waits from traffic congestion heading east and west over the current two Bay Bridge spans during the May-through-September vacation season.

As Eastern Shore residents, environmental groups and politicians prepare their arguments against a project that would undoubtedly change the rural face of Shore, I suggest that a particularly strong one is the real and overwhelming need to protect and preserve product farmland.  I’m not minimizing other excellent reasons for opposition, such as environmental degradation and increased real estate development. I’m just tacking one way for this column.

As John Piotti, president and CEO if American Farmland Trust, wrote recently in the Bay Journal, “Farmland is critical infrastructure akin to roads and bridges. It is the source of the food that sustains us. In addition, farmland provides open space, areas for recreation and habitat for wildlife. It also controls floods, suppresses fires, filters water and represents a vast carbon sink to mitigate and even help reverse climate change.

“Think Maryland’s Eastern Shore.”

According to Piotti, Shore farmland contributes more than $8.25 billion to the U.S. economy. Queen Anne’s County contains the most agricultural acreage and the largest farmland economy in Maryland. The largest percentage of land devoted to farming is in Kent County with a figure of 76 percent. The figure is 55 percent in Queen Anne’s County.

According to an academic study conducted in 2013 by professors at Georgia State and Marquette universities, interstate highways cause the conversion of 468 acres for each mile of roadway. I’m guessing it’s a little less for intrastate highways.

No bridge stands alone. It must be accompanied by an extensive road structure leading to and from the high-flying structure.  That’s the crux of the problem, apart from the thousands and thousands of cars dumped on the Shore as they hurry to coastal resorts.

There’s no telling if a persuasive argument such as the protection of productive farmland will win the day in the corridors of power in Annapolis. But increased and urgent preservation of farmland in the Delmarva peninsula just might thwart a land grab.

As a member of the board of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC), I well know of this organization’s success in preserving 60,000 acres in 29 years in an area ranging from Cecil to Dorchester County. State, local and land trust preservation programs are vital to keeping vibrant the agricultural economy on the Eastern Shore.

So, what am I proposing?

If a third Bay Bridge span is imminent—as measured possibly by a decade—then I suggest that a new initiative called Delmarva Oasis become part of our area’s consciousness. The intent is to preserve up to 50 percent of the land in Maryland’s Eastern Shore; currently the percentage is roughly 38 percent.

Delmarva Oasis makes particular sense in light of the threat presented by the potential construction of a third Chesapeake Bay Bridge span. It offers a way to protect and preserve valuable, food-producing farmland through the purchase of easements and the direct acquisition of land.

As John Piotti concluded, succinctly and sensibly, “We need to save the land that sustains us. No farms, no food, no future.”

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

Addendum:  A fair number of Spy readers have asked to view the original pdf file of maps associated with Howard Freedlander’s most recent column in the Chestertown Spy and Talbot Spy on the fourteen possible third bay bridge span options produced by Federal Highway Administration and Maryland Transportation Authority. Please review the document here. It is important to note that these maps are clearly labeled, as, “pre-decisional and deliberative.” The Spy appreciates the thoughtful comments on Howard’s piece about the impact of a possible new third span.

 

Out and About (Sort of): Pause Before Raising Wages by Howard Freedlander

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As the Maryland General Assembly addresses legislation proposing a hike in the current minimum wage of $10.10 to $15 an hour, I recommend caution as well as compassion. Like most things in the political arena, a decision aimed at boosting take-home pay and relieving poverty is not simple or straightforward.

Since I wrote last week that I planned to devote this week’s column to examination and analysis of the minimum wage by this non-economist, I’ve read extensive emails sent me by a friend and economist and spoken with business and non-profit executives. A housing specialist also offered input.

I am torn.

Every working person should make enough money to live not impoverished, able to pay expenses. Everyone should feel compensated fairly and valued. Everyone should feel proud of one’s output, unburdened by a supervisor’s unrealistic expectations.

Employers, particularly those who own small businesses or manage social-service non-profits, face a quandary when state government decides to raise the minimum wage. Eager to pay their employees a fair wage, they now may face a mandate. They also must confront simple economics: can they afford to employ as many people at a higher hourly rate and make a desired profit or continue providing services?

If the answer is no, then employers must lay off employees. They may have no other alternative. The result is undesirable: former workers either must find another job or seek unemployment insurance.

Employers might cut benefits. That too is hurtful.

Nonprofits providing necessary services to poor individuals are in a squeeze when compelled to pay higher wages. The needy clients cannot pay higher fees, prompted by higher-paid service-providers.

Having spent considerable time in Annapolis, I well realize that opponents of bills such as ones dealing with mandated minimum wages or benefits always claim that the world will fall apart should legislation viewed as onerous be approved and signed by the governor. I also know that these cries of alarm are sometimes rhetorical devices.

This time around, I suggest that minimum-wage opponents receive a fair hearing. Their voices need to be heard and regarded. Further, I suggest that if the General Assembly find the politics irresistible to increase the minimum wage from $10.10 to $15, it do so in phases.

Private and non-profit sectors need time to adjust to a new wage reality.

And one more thing: I believe that the minimum wage be set differently for, say Baltimore County, than it is for, say, Dorchester County. This is reasonable. The cost of living differs. The volume of business and ability to pay employees is markedly different in Towson than it is in Cambridge.

Leaders of Maryland counties must have a respected voice. Decentralized decision-making may be unreasonable; input, though, is vital.

An unavoidable consequence of raising the minimum wage in a small business typically calls for hiking the hourly rates of those folks earning greater than the existing minimum wage. This is just a reality. Personnel expenses thus continue to rise for a small business owner.

Complexity underscores the minimum wage debate. It’s just so tempting to raise pay and enable people and their families to live more comfortably. To argue otherwise seems so heartless. It seems the right thing to do in a churning economy.

I ask Senate President Mike Miller and Speaker of the House Mike Busch to consider the inevitable byproducts of a compassionate and politically pleasing legislative initiative. I wish I could jump on the bandwagon without any reservation.

I would like to be led by my heart. It’s just not rational.

Before I bring this column to a merciful close, I believe that raising the minimum wage should not be a stand-alone action. The legislature should combine an increase with additional incentives to build affordable and safe housing and provide job training and affordable day care. It simply makes sense if the state wishes to upgrade the income and output of workers in a holistic way.

At the risk of being redundant, I urge readers to pay heed to the Maryland General Assembly. What it does matters.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

Out and About (Sort of): Look to Annapolis by Howard Freedlander

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About this time every year, I suggest that readers pay attention to the deliberations of the annual 90-day session of the Maryland General Assembly. It may not be as dramatic and absurd as the goings-on of the U.S. Congress and our deeply flawed White House occupant—but, nonetheless, its impact is easily felt from Oakland in Western Maryland to Crisfield on the Lower Eastern Shore.

I must admit that state government may be the last refuge for consistently significant legislative initiatives that often draw bipartisan agreement and even a degree of comity among state senators and delegates who are as diverse as Maryland, with its urban and rural enclaves and varied political viewpoints. So, pay heed to the state’s 439th General Assembly, now nearly a week-old.

Before I offer my take on the critical issues facing our 188 legislators, which includes 60 new members, I must express my prayers to Sen. Mike Miller, an Annapolis legend who has served more than three decades as president of the Maryland State Senate. Diagnosed with an advanced form of prostate cancer, Miller, a wily master of the legislative process and political cunning, will continue to preside over the 47-person State Senate while undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

As a prostate cancer survivor, I have some inkling of Miller’s fraught medical prospects. Because his cancer has spread beyond the prostate gland, the gentleman from Southern Maryland lacks the option for surgery or radiation, the normal choices for those of us whose prostate cancer had not metastasized. As he said last week, Miller will be in good hands at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Many of us on the Eastern Shore with serious diagnoses of many types feel fortunate that one of the greatest hospitals in the world is roughly 90 minutes away. It is an invaluable safety net.

To keep this week’s column to a manageable length, I will focus on two issues that particularly interest me, If the spirit moves me, I may seek readers’ tolerance and write a follow-up next week.

Republican Governor Larry Hogan will try to persuade the Democratic General Assembly to debate how to draw up Maryland’s congressional districts in a fair way. Our state’s gerrymandered districts are a farce.

Democrats are awaiting a decision by the U.S, Supreme Court to uphold or negate a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals that the boundaries drawn for the 6th Congressional District are unconstitutional.

Hogan has recommended the creation of a nonpartisan commission that would oversee redistricting, beginning after the 2020 Census. I think the idea is a good and necessary one

I feel particularly strongly after the recent election in our 1st Congressional District here on the Shore and parts of Baltimore and Harford counties. I watched with dismay as Jesse Colvin, a Democrat, waged an energetic campaign against incumbent Representative Andy Harris, a Republican who has held the office since 2010—when the district was drawn to create a safe seat for a Republican while redesigning the 6th District in Western Maryland to make it more favorable for a Democrat.

Despite an all-out effort by Colvin, a first-time candidate who brought Republicans and Independents into his camp (not enough) and raised more money than Harris, he lost by 22 percentage points. Harris has a hold on the 1st District. As he said, he didn’t create a district favorable to him or any other conservative Republican; the Democrats did.

When a district is gerrymandered, no longer fairly representing voters at both ends of the political scale, democracy suffers. In the 1st Congressional District, for example, Democratic voters feel they are unrepresented by Andy Harris, who needs only to cater the needs of those who gave him a commanding victory. That is not to say that Harris would not help a Democratic constituent with personal concern, i.e. a passport or Social Security claim. The perception is that he feels no need to seek goodwill from Democrats.

Let’s take this one step further. Call it realpolitik. When Rep. Harris considers a congressional bill or regulatory action, he need not adopt a centrist position that would satisfy both Republicans and Democrats. He can vote with the ultra-conservative wing of his party, because he fears no retribution. Not when you win an election by double-digit percentage points.

Political observers of both stripes bemoan gerrymandering. They believe, as I do, that Congress is stuck in an uncompromising quagmire because senators and representatives represent extremes. The middle is increasingly unpopulated. Ignoring for the moment that members of Congress ideally represent the country’s interest, I realize that political science, as many of us studied in college, is based mostly in fantasyland.

Re-election is the primary goal. Maybe once in awhile the greater good becomes the primary objective, but not often.

I said nine paragraphs ago I would write about two subjects. As you can see, gerrymandering and its nefarious implications drew my passionate attention.  I will write next week about the minimum wage, which the General Assembling is considering raising from $10.10 to $15 an hour. An economist friend has provided me a reasoned analysis. I just need more time to digest it.

I hope that the General Assembly will think beyond parochial concerns and determine that a nonpartisan commission for the redistricting of congressional district makes sense for all voters. Currently, 21 states have some form of a non-partisan or bipartisan redistricting commission.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

 

Out and About (Sort 0f): Southern Migration by Howard Freedlander

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They travel south by car, car train, recreational van and plane. They travel alone. They seek warmth and comfort as rewards for lives spent working and rearing families. They are intent on escaping cold weather, snow and ice.

Some view Florida as ideal. Some don’t. Some prefer South Carolina. Some seek Caribbean islands or the southwest. They nestle down either in second homes or rental units (or RVs).

They consider the Eastern Shore their home base. Yet, they have roots and friends in their winter communities. They seem content. They don’t look back, except at weather maps to confirm their winter choices.

Of course, I am describing snowbirds who flock annually and mainly to southeastern United States. They make no notable noise as they leave their primary residences. They welcome friends to visit them and vacate, albeit briefly, the winter “up north” and its sometimes miserable weather.

Like actual birds, snowbirds from a geographic area in fact do flock to the same town or even the same housing community, as I’ve learned. Call it a nest, an oversized one, where the human birds savor familiarity as well as pleasant temperatures.

Simply, longtime friends spend all year together. I’d like to think that transitional visitors would make new friends, and maybe they do. Common bonds provide the glue that brings and keeps friends together, regardless of the locale.

Does it sound like tribal instincts? It feels that way to this home-bird.

Readers may wonder why I care enough about the snowbirds to spend so many words on them? Who gives a darn? Life isn’t static.

In my retirement career as a non-profit volunteer and status as a full time, all-weather Shore resident, I miss the snowbirds. Yes, I admit it. They sometimes call into meetings. They sometimes fly in for medical appointments—and then vanish again. Conversations that I would like to have with them are consigned to emails, texts and mobile phone calls.

Now, I’m not complaining. I’m just observing an annual anthropological phenomenon. A passage, as it were. Movement can define life.

Did I say I’m a bit jealous, particularly during snowstorms and accumulation of annoying ice? Easy to discern, I bet.

The term “snowbird” became commonly used in 1979, though used first in 1923 to describe seasonal workers who went south for the winter.

In recent years, when I have visited Florida, I’ve noticed a large number of Canadians. Understandably so. I can’t imagine enduring freezing temperatures when you have the option to spend four to six months in Florida.

Last year, when a friend, Paul Cox, and I traveled to Dunedin, FL, near Clearwater and Tampa, we watched the Toronto Blue Jays play thrice, including once in Sarasota against the Orioles. In the latter instance, I was struck by how much louder was the Canadian anthem than our Star-Spangled Banner, as sung by fans in the stands. Those north of the border have staked their claim in Florida, mining it for a respite and recreation.

Supposedly, Canadians comprise the largest percent of winter visitors in Florida.

Two years ago, as Paul and I watched the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros play in a brand new shared ballpark in West Palm Beach, including a game against the St. Louis Cardinals, I was amazed how many retirees wore team jerseys. Gray hair and paunches around the middle don’t hide a childlike enthusiasm for baseball.

Hometown loyalties are alive and well, however much money one has spent relocating to the complex state of Florida. You can’t forget your roots, right? Sports generate lasting loyalty.

Retirees are an economic development force in Florida. That’s been true for at least 100 years. According to the Aging and Research Center of Broward County (Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood), senior citizens’ spending power is $135 billion, $15 billion more than residents 49 and younger.

Unless Florida sinks underwater, it still will be an irresistible draw. Miami must cope with surges of water caused principally by global warming.

This trend has grown with the retirement of the baby-boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. I missed the outset by a year. Nonetheless, I still qualify, I think, at least by association with my younger wife.

The snowbird migration began for some in December, even earlier. They are settled by now in their comfortable nests. Friends are nearby. Life is good. Temperatures are pleasant. Snow and ice are in the rear view mirror.

Keep in touch, my friends the snowbirds. Do not send pictures. Try not to gloat about awful weather back here.

Godspeed.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

Out and About (Sort of): Desert Christmas Still Resonates by Howard Freedlander

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Today, 28 years ago, I celebrated Christmas with a hardy group of Maryland National Guard troops and feisty desert flies in Saudi Arabia. We were there as part of Operation Desert Shield, which preceded the 100-day combat action, commonly called Operation Desert Storm.

We were near Dhahran in Eastern Saudi Arabia.

The recently deceased George Herbert Walker Bush was President.  He initiated the first Persian War against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. General Norman Schwarzkopf led the Allied forces in 1991 in a fast-moving, lightning strike against the overwhelmed Iraqi troops.

My memories of Christmas Day in 1990 are crystal-clear. The Guard troops were amazingly resilient as they enjoyed Christmas devoid of decorations, gifts, family and festive music in deference to Muslim strictures. They simply sat around picnic tables telling jokes and filling the time with laughter and goodwill.

Though forbidden to display any holiday decorations in a Muslim country, the troops resisted in creative ways. For example, early in the still-dark morning, a soldier dressed up as Santa Claus strolled around the desert post. That same day, I saw a Christmas tree on top of a barrack. The village elders demanded that the tree be removed. And it was, sadly.

I couldn’t help but wonder how the troops smuggled in the Santa Claus costume and the tree. I marveled at American ingenuity—and devotion to a holiday so important to our nation, notwithstanding the outward aspects objectionable to the religious traditions of Saudi Arabia.

I smiled at the rebellious action in a country that we were protecting in an upcoming war.

An incredible experience overcame me on Christmas Eve. I attended a service conducted by a Lutheran chaplain. I felt comfortable. I felt warmly embraced by God. My secular sense of Judaism was forgotten for the moment.

My journey to conversion to Christianity took root in a Muslim country.

I learned on that Christmas Day, more than 6,700 miles away from home and family, that simplicity can be mystical and meaningful, without our normal accoutrements. I’ve never forgotten that fulfilling experience.

To Spy readers busy today celebrating Christmas, I wish you, your family and friends a joyful and healthy holiday.  Christmas, whether simple or ornate, brings hope, a soulful yearning for peace and friendship and kindness.

I am saddened, unfortunately, in this season of hope by our alarming lack of competent and moral leadership in the White House. No amount of holiday cheer shields me from concern about a great nation that has lost respect among allies and friends in a world that formerly depended on the United States as a reliable partner.

I could not end this column without tempering my normal optimism and eternal hope in response to the degraded state of a country led by a person unable to make reasoned decisions and retain top-quality advisers, such as the soon-departing Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

Mattis is a man blessed with honesty and character. He’s a learned man. A retired Marine Corps general, he was a warrior. He understood that war should be a last resort. He realized that peace is possible only with trusted allies. He harbored an understandable distrust of Russia, China, Syria and North Korea.

Christmas is special. It celebrates the birth of a person whose personal qualities were out of this world. He changed how we viewed ourselves and others. He offered us belief in our better selves in a way that threatened the status quo. He preached forgiveness and love of others, particularly the impoverished.  He extolled fairness and faith.

I trust that our country can return to the type of simplicity and goodness I experienced in a military outpost in Saudi Arabia. Naïveté aside, I believe that selfless leadership and moral behavior can make a difference in our complicated world.

Merry and Happy Christmas.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

Out and About (Sort of: What’s In A House? By Howard Freedlander

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After spending another wonderful Thanksgiving week in a big, old house in Rehoboth Beach, DE, surrounded by family, I wondered: what makes this structure different from any other?

I’m likely neither the first nor the last person, musing philosophically, who has asked this question. It prompts reflection about “community,” a group of people, related or not, who inhabit a house and give it life and personality.

Rehoboth Beach House

A house large enough to accommodate comfortably 10 people and provide a venue for mostly harmonious fellowship over several years becomes a special place. It’s not merely a cedar-shingled building with a cedar-walled interior; it’s a home containing wonderful memories and hosting additional good cheer and warm connections—over four generations.

Maybe it’s my age, but I’ve learned to appreciate a place, or places that bring consistent happiness.

For the most part, family members, ranging in age from five to 73, carry pleasant moods with them. They linger only briefly in crankiness or frustration. We always have to factor in human nature.

The ocean sits 200 feet away. It projects calm and peace, particularly in late November. Geese fly over honking all the way. Crowds of people are four months in the past. Thank goodness.

With the house as an anchor, children, parents and grandparents seem driven to avoid drama and celebrate togetherness. It takes effort, but it’s worth it.

Bear with me as I now take a leap of faith.

I believe too in the soothing, introspective space of a house of worship. For me, it’s a safe place to pray and connect with non-family members. It yields peace and self-awakening. Ill feelings disappear at the kneelers. Prayer dominates.

While I’ve heard Episcopal priests at Christ Church, Easton declare that those churches are just structures—that a prayerful venue can be anywhere—they also say it promotes community, enabling parishioners to support and befriend each other. For me, it’s a vessel for me to reach out to a higher power to seek intervention for those ailing or grieving and to express thanks for health, happiness and wisdom in our fragile, fractious world.

My prayers may be too ambitious.

My point is that bricks-and-mortar projects do matter. They do encourage, if not expedite an enduring sense of humanity, marked hopefully by unselfish relationships.

Just recently, as I listened on NPR to a woman whose house somehow escaped the devastation wrought by the horrendous Camp Fire in Paradise, CA, I learned about the intrinsic value of community. While this woman kept her house, she lost all of her neighbors; their homes were destroyed. She understandably wondered and worried about the loss of place; it had disappeared, at least for the present.

What makes a house become a home? The obvious answer is the presence of people. More sublimely, it means relationships. Hopefully understanding ones.

The big, old house in Rehoboth is more than a monument to cedar walls and shingles, a splendid fireplace and a superb view of the Atlantic Ocean.

To our family, it connotes closeness, fueled by love, humor, empathy, noisy grandchildren and plentiful food. Stories of family parties abound. My in-laws figure prominently.

Christ Church and Emmanuel Church in Chestertown are more than places of worship defined by Episcopal priests and ages-old liturgy and practice. It encompasses parishioners drawn not only by a shared religion but a sincere compassion for each other. I see it continually.

And then when I view the destruction by a raging fire in Paradise, CA, I see a town that is no more. It’s questionable whether former homeowners will return to an area where a sense of being vanished quickly in the wake of an unforgiving fire.

Is a burnt out town, resembling the worst of a war zone, recoverable? Is there sufficient human will to recreate a place special to its residents? It’s happened before throughout the world. I think about parts of New Orleans. I think about cities destroyed in recent years in Syria, or the French city of St. Lo during World War II.

Were I standing at a pulpit—or merely occupying this Spy space—I now would tout the constant goodness and grace of community defined by family or friends or neighbors, or faraway people and non-profits learning about terrible devastation. But I won’t do that.

It happens naturally.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

Out and About (Sort of): Sandy Rules by Howard Freedlander

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As Thanksgiving approaches in two days, with visions of a hefty turkey leg engaging my taste buds, I feel thankful for Sandy, our delightful dog.

Nearing her 10th birthday in January, she has captivated my wife and me for two-and-a-years. She is loving and lovable. This is not my first attempt at framing words to describe an affection that I never anticipated enjoying.

This Yellow (mostly white) Labrador Retriever is a natural people-pleaser. I realize that I am not the first person to express love for an animal that demands nothing but constant attention and gentle stroking.

Sandy Freedlander

Every walk around the neighborhood and throughout the town of Easton with Sandy is a pleasant adventure. Inevitably people stop to pat her and talk about a Labrador or other dog they once owned or still have. Some are near tears as memories of a deceased dog rise to the surface.

When Sandy and I encounter a person still grieving the loss of a prized pet, we both feel the sadness. Sandy seems to linger, quietly accepting kind pats and soothing talk.

I put a lot of slack in her leash. We need not hurry. Dogs bring happiness, albeit briefly, to a passerby.

Being around Sandy gives me a sense of peace. I relax momentarily. I marvel at how a dog can bring so much comfort and calm. I watch her wag her tail as a form of gleeful playfulness. She doesn’t hide her joy. Humans often do.

As I may have written previously, I never had a pet as a child. My mother did not like animals. She didn’t trust her sons to care for and about a dog. She lacked even a smidgeon of good feeling toward a dog. She had many strengths; being a dog lover wasn’t one of them.

My childhood home was devoid of unconditional love for a four-legged creature.

I rue the day when we have to give up Sandy to old age and death. She has filled our lives with pure happiness, a substitute of sorts for our children who are embracing adulthood and parenting.

Though my wife and I have owned two dogs and briefly adopted another one in nearly 43 years of marriage, I’ve never experienced the total joy and love stimulated by our chunky, enchanting Sandy.

I feel thankful to Sandy for prompting this prose and providing respite and relief from the daily dose of absurdity and nonsense emanating from our nation’s capital. I promised myself I wouldn’t write the prior sentence, but so I did. I couldn’t keep my literary tongue from wagging.

When I contemplated retirement seven years ago, I didn’t envision a life softened by the presence of a tail-wagging canine that seemed so easy to please, so darn lovable. I well realize that so many, many people are equally blessed with a devoted pet.

The late Thom Jones, an American author of mostly short stories, wrote, “Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, and filling the emptiness we didn’t even know we had.”

To continue my overly effusive description of our Yellow Lab, I feel privileged when I return home and find her waiting for me at the back door. She demands nothing but a cheerful hello and playful cuddling. She sits by my feet while I write my weekly Spy column. As if I needed any more inspiration.

I wish my “Spy” readers a joyful Thanksgiving. I hope this wonderful holiday brings delicious food and family togetherness. Like many, I find this holiday so much more enjoyable and stress-free than the universal and often hectic Christmas celebration.

I suspect that Sandy will be patrolling the family meal table looking for some tidbits (but no bones or mashed potatoes) that fall on the floor, typically from grandchildren’s plates.

Sandy is part of our family. She probably senses that.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

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