Back Talk by George Merrill

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I can’t walk the same distances I once did. Now I take a more leisurely pace and cover less turf. When I was younger I may have covered more territory, but I saw less of it. As my perimeters shrink, my vision broadens.

This is about how my unruly back reconnected me to neighbors, some I’d met, two for the first time.

Again, as it has over the years, my perverse back is dictating the terms of my life. Of the manifold gifts with which my creator has blessed me, a strong back is not one. I can only assume I was issued a leftover, a rebuilt, but not the custom fitted kind that do well and accommodate an individual’s peculiarities. Mine overreacts. It talks back.

I really shouldn’t complain. Generally, it has worked for and with me. At times, my back has even showed a willingness to rejuvenate itself, putting me back on my feet walking with my customarily brisk pace. Not recently, however.

As a result, my awareness has shifted. Getting there (wherever ‘there’ might be) is not as big a deal as it once was. It’s what I discover along the way that’s become the big deal.

Right now, my walking consists of several trips a day from my studio up the driveway to the mailbox and back. A ten-minute walk. Once I leave the studio, I am surrounded by trees. I see some of them from the studio windows and a host more leaving the studio and going to the mailbox. Since it’s no big thing about my destination – a regular mailbox – it’s what happens on the way that’s been energizing. Noticing the trees for one thing.

Of course, living here thirty years I have seen the trees before, but in not the same way. On one trip to the mail box, I hugged a large conifer tree. I’d never hugged a tree. What I had not noticed before was how large the boles of most of the conifers were. The trees must have been there fifty or sixty years. Performing the hug, I couldn’t get my fingers to touch when wrapping my arms around the trunk.

All those years I’d driven down the driveway past the pines, I’d never noticed how, when viewed close up, the bark looks like an alligator’s hide. The bark has the appearance of an assemblage of wood chips, secured to the tree like miniature wooden shingles. Ivy makes its way up some trees, weaving its vines under the wood chips, making it impossible to pull the ivy loose.

The rough tree bark does not make a hug feel like the warm-fuzzy I might wish. I felt self-conscious, too, and looked around to see if anyone was watching. Just squirrels, some sweet gum trees, two maples and more conifers.

When I’m walking unhurriedly, I like to stop and pan the area like a cinematographer seeking the broadest view of the landscape. It also rests my back.

That’s when I saw a large clod of dirt moving across the path directly in front of me. It alarmed me at first. It was about half again as big as my open hand and its movement was slow and unsteady. Moving closer I could see that the lump of dirt was riding on the shell of a huge turtle that I assumed to be a snapping turtle. My suspicions proved correct. I tried moving him to the side of the road where he would be out of harm’s way. He was not grateful at all. As I nudged him with my foot over to the roadside, his neck shot out. Fortunately, he went for my foot which was well to his stern and out of reach even as he moved sideways to get at it. He hissed menacingly at me. Don’t tread on me was written all over him.

I found a stick and tried nudging him to the roadside. He made a grab for the stick, momentarily bit down on it with a crunch, growling and hissing and, I’m sure, if that stick had been my toe he would have had it for breakfast. I retrieved the stick, kept poking at him until he fell into the narrow culvert, shell side up. He was home free.

Despite his thankless rebuffs, I was committed to his safety. I made it to the mailbox feeling like the good Samaritan despite no show of appreciation from the turtle. Fortunately, goodness has its own rewards.

I decided to go left on the intersecting road and walk a little further to my neighbor’s mailbox. Along the road between mailboxes is a gully. It was filled with water from the rains.

As I walked along I’d hear a ‘squeak’, and then a ‘plop’ as a basking frog, alarmed by my presence, made for the water. Walking further, the same: a squeak’, a couple of ‘croaks’ and ‘plops,’ frog after frog abandoned his day in the sun to take refuge in the water. I had no idea my presence could be so intrusive. After all, I didn’t even know they were there much less see them and still they were offended at my simply walking the road and minding my own business. I was beginning to feel like a pariah.

My day was redeemed when, returning to my own mailbox, I saw at the entrance to the driveway a good-sized butterfly. She was not gloriously adorned like a monarch; in fact, she was plain with her blue-black wings that had a small smidgen of white at the base of each. She was standing on the ground, her wings fluttering occasionally, as if to maintain her balance. She rocked slightly forward and then backward, as though she were trying to gain a footing to take off. I stopped close by, my foot inches from her, fully prepared for another rejection. She took wing and flew in zig zag circles, but, to my surprise and delight, quickly returned to exactly from where she’d taken flight; near my left foot. She obviously did not think I was a danger or some kind of creepy man to hiss at or flee from; for that moment, I was just a neighbor out there standing by my mailbox.

As a part of my healing I’ve found checking in with the neighbors now and then is important. It’s easy to forget they are so close and except for one turtle with an attitude, most are a comfort. In that brief walk, my world grew slightly bigger.

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.

In  the Garden by Nancy Mugele

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I don’t have the patience for formal gardening. Don’t tell my friend, Baltimore writer Kathy Hudson, who, among other things, writes a regular feature about beautiful gardens for Style magazine. Kathy and her friend, Penney Hubbard, who In 1969 began to create a garden at her home north of Baltimore which became recognized as one of the finest in Maryland, penned a gorgeous book about the Hubbard garden. I highly recommend On Walnut Hill for transporting us into the garden, through stunning photography and text detailing its beauty in each of the four seasons.

I recently read a post by one of the editors of Well-Schooled, a site for educator storytelling, which I am honored to write for. In her reflection “In the Garden,” Ari Pinkus states: I imagine education as a diverse garden culture where we are the stewards.  This metaphor fits Webster’s definition of a garden as a “rich well-cultivated region,” and its definition of culture as “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.

I love the imagery of education as a garden, planting seeds of learning in our students which we cultivate over time. Teachers, responsible for the care and feeding of their seedlings, transmit knowledge to generations of learners who blossom in vivid color before our eyes.

My Kent School colleague Tricia Cammerzell, is an accomplished poet who writes when she says she has “a quiet mind.” I recently read her poem “In the Garden,” inspired by her own garden and the memories she has of her father working in his garden – transferring his knowledge to her. Gardening and muscle memory combined in a poignant tribute.

These three in the garden reflections have been on my mind for the past two weeks, especially as Kent School’s unparalleled environment for learning is blooming with spring color seemingly overnight. I stopped into The Mill at Kingstown this week to add herbs and flowering plants to my porch. Mother’s Day weekend always signals to me the start of hanging basket and flowering pot season – that is another story, but I am now finally gardening. Well, that is if you can call watering porch plants, gardening.

In addition to the order of potted plants and herbs on my porch, I prefer an impressionist landscape, complete with the messy mix of untamed native plants and grasses growing wildly in unexpected places outside of the porch. I love wildflowers constantly in bloom, untimed, unordered and unburdened by boundaries. This less formal nature culture is also a metaphor for education which values creativity, perseverance, resilience, and grit.

Whether a formal garden or potted plants on the porch are your ideal, this quote from Sitting Bull sums it all up so eloquently.

Behold, my friends, the spring is come;

the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun,

and we shall soon see the results of their love!

Wishing you love in the garden this spring.

Nancy Mugele is the Head of School at Kent School in Chestertown, a member of the Board of the Association of Independent Maryland and DC Schools, a member of the Board of Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s, a member of the Board of Chesapeake Charities, and a member of the Education Committee of Sultana Education Foundation.

The Belt by Angela Rieck

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I have fostered and rehabilitated many dogs over the years and I have learned a lot of tricks. One of them is a belly band for incontinent or un-housetrained male dogs. A belly band is a strip of cloth about 5” longer than the circumference of the dog’s belly. I sew Velcro strips at each end, place a urinary incontinence pad inside, wrap it around his private parts and voila! Any undesired urination goes into the pad. (Just remember to take it off when he goes outside!) When one of my elderly male dogs lost his flawless housebreaking, a belly band was a small price to pay to have one more happy year with him.

In an effort to move forward with my life, I decided to date. Since I had been out of the market for over 26 years, I was inexperienced, ineffective and confused. The numbers were against me as well. While over 60% of widowers are in a serious relationship within 2 years, only 19% of widows are. Some of it has to do with the numbers. Of the estimated 600,000 people who are widowed each year, 2/3 of them are women. There are a lot of great widows out there and my tepid desire to dating added to the challenges.

But, to my surprise, one day I saw a man out of the corner of my eye notice me at Target. I observed him follow me while I went shopping, but when I turned around to smile at him, he was gone. At the checkout stand and I saw him quickly maneuver to get behind me. I tried to muster my best unawkward smile and he returned it. He started to take the items out of his cart and then he saw it. I had come to the Target to buy urinary incontinence pads for my dog. The shrink wrapped bright green package was jostling all alone on the conveyor belt.
The man’s face instantly reflected a look of panic, trying to decide whether to go to another counter or ignore me. I had one moment to say something, but somehow, “they are for my dog” seemed akin to the “dog ate my homework.” He mumbled something, gathered his things and made a mad dash to the next aisle.

The bright green shrink-wrapped package continued its slow, bumbling journey down that belt. The check-out person waved it in the air and asked if I wanted a bag. I said no.
Potential date averted.

Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.

Letter to Editor: Jay Jacobs Got it Right with “War on the Shore” Report Description

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Del. Jay Jacobs did set the record straight with regard to his War on Shore report description. He couldn’t have said it better. Some background is necessary. The Oyster Futures Workgroup was assembled from diverse cultural stakeholders. To which Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) was a participant. The OFG reviewed scientific models and made policy recommendations to the MDDNR with regard to the Choptank River complex. MDDNR accepted those recommendations.

This past legislature session saw CBF sponsoring a bill HB-298 that cut the knees off this groups time consuming hard work and rendered their time-consuming hard work useless. As a member of the Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC) CBF sponsored legislation each of the last 3 years that went behind the back of this culturally diverse group. Simply put, CBF felt it can act on its own, because it does not have control this multi stakeholder group created to advise on complex oyster issues.

The oyster mega-sanctuary network was sold to the seafood industry as a cure all. These sanctuaries would act as breeder reactors, naturally producing vast number of larvae that would spill over repopulate the oyster bars throughout the bay. Ten years later we have not seen any hard-scientific evidence of a signal or trigger that this phenomenon ever took place.

If CBF really wants to support Maryland’s oyster harvesting heritage then they should stop engaging in activities that promote the singling out of a culture and class of people for perpetual persecution.

Jim Mullin
Maryland Oystermen’s Association

Alternative Universe by Al Sikes

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Amazingly, a real estate developer, reality TV personality and propagandist has created an alternative universe. Must have been something broken.

The setting: the White House. The big house is well known to older generations, but the 21st Century script and staging are maddeningly alien. Older generations are accustomed to decorum (even if it is deceptive), while their preferred media are press conferences, newspapers and the nightly news.

Most older Americans expect familiar patterns to change; they anticipate the old world yielding to the preferences of the young. But, as it turns out the shaper is not young, he is in his seventies.

Just as the traditional media is shrinking under disruptive technology and economics, along comes Donald Trump with what has turned out to be a debilitating gift. He is the news. You can close down those costly foreign bureaus and expensive investigation departments – just cover Trump. Outrage or pandering will do.

The President, however, is not that easy to cover if indeed the intent is to cover, not just him, but his policies as well. It is easy to voice outrage or pander to his narcissistic needs, but actually covering his Presidency is not so easy. Unless, of course, the Steele Dossier brackets your curiosity.

How many thoughtful or probing stories have been served up on his Mideast policies and diplomacy? Or, on our face-offs with China or North Korea? Or, on the broader implications of his tax, trade or fiscal initiatives? It is much easier to script and produce a soap opera with familiar themes and actors.

The Trump phenomenon is, if nothing else, wrenchingly revealing. It has revealed institutional weaknesses in stark terms. Political parties, news media, and Congress are not just weak in the minds of Americans, they are complicit. Complicit in America’s decline.

Workers buffeted by trade and technology see two political parties that are orchestrated by their bases. The Republican Party seems anchored to social issues and tax reduction, while the Democrat Party seems enamored with utopian dreams and identity politics.

The news media and its consumers were ripe for the Trump counterattack: fake news. Indeed one critic, Matt Taibbi a Contributing editor of Rolling Stone, commented, “….news that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is headed home without issuing new charges is a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media.”

And, as one friend noted, Members of Congress seem mainly to be good at saving Post Offices that should be closed. Why not? As manufacturing moves away and school districts consolidate, often the only vestige of a saner time in rural America is the Post Office. And to borrow a phrase, it takes a Congressman to save a Post Office. Who else can draw on yet more debt to save the bankrupt?

There is, of course, hope. America has proven to be adaptive and resourceful. As she lost her business strength in hardware, her entrepreneurs turned to software. Old cities are reinventing themselves. New educational initiatives are pushing its bureaucracy.

But in matters political, the reinvention is much more difficult because the powers that be are excellent at hunkering down—that phenomena attacks political science. They have erected walls of protection. Just as Congress protects the Post Office, State Legislatures have mastered gerrymandering and laws that make it difficult for new political movements to get on the ballot.

Maybe there is a gift in Trump’s Presidency. Maybe the wider public will be “woke” (aware and enlightened) to the perils of political rigidity in a disruptive era and discipline the politicians. But, as I pen these lines, I am reminded of the parting words of Mayor Frank Skeffington in the movie The Last Hurrah. As friends of the terminally afflicted Mayor surrounded his beside, the Catholic Cardinal suggested the Mayor on reflection would probably have lived his life with greater integrity. The Mayor’s final words: “Like hell I would.”

There are 21st Century scripts to be written and what a fight they will feature. The irrepressible energy of disruption tangles with the immovable, political parties. If film writers and the news media can step back, take a deep breath, and fend off biases then there are great stories to be written and news to be reported.

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. 

Out and About (Sort of) Family Feeds Land Carefully by Howard Freedlander

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After often hearing about the innovative Hutchison Brothers farm operation in Cordova, I finally got to meet two of the brothers and one of their sons. I experienced their down-to-earth manner in discussing widely acclaimed success and a sincere, time-proven fealty to improving the land.

Profit is number one, followed closely by environmental sustainability. Simply, the family is quick to use excess funds to adopt creative best management practices to nourish the land and upgrade water quality.

For its environmentally stewardship over the years, often leading the farm industry on the Eastern Shore, Hutchison Brothers is the 2019 recipient of Horn Point Laboratory’s (HPL) Chesapeake Champion for the Environment Award. It will be presented on Thursday, May 30, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., at the Waterfowl Chesapeake Building in Easton.

The seventh annual winner of this honor, Hutchison Brothers Farm, will be the first farmers to receive it. That’s noteworthy.

When I met recently with Bobby Hutchison, his brother Richard and nephew Kyle to write a freelance article for HPL, I found myself impressed by a sophisticated farm operation that is driven to produce better and better yields—naturally so—while equally devoted to conservation.

Nitrogen (fertilizer), as well as phosphorus, have long been considered primary culprits in degrading the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Environmental groups have frequently criticized farmers for their obsession with yields and supposed indifference to the impact of nitrogen on water quality. This criticism would not apply to the Hutchisons.

So what have the Hutchison Brothers done in its usage of nitrogen?

The family, for example, uses of state-of-the-art equipment to allocate fertilizer in a way that discourages excess, using only what is needed in particular fields. Some fields, already richly productive, need less nitrogen than other fields containing poorer soil.

Tom Fisher, an HPL scientist who has worked closely in the past few years with farmers to use best management practices to enhance water quality, said, “Many of the (the Hutchison Brothers’) new ideas are based on putting the right kind of fertilizer on the right place, and the right time that crops need fertilizer. This should be a win-win, reducing farmers’ fertilizer costs, decreasing losses from their farms to nearby streams and improving downstream water quality.”

I’m no farmer. That’s clear. But I understand the decision-making necessary to balance need and soil management. Profit, investment and environmental benefit—this triad requires a tricky thought process.

I’ve attended every Chesapeake Champion celebration. My wife used to work at HPL. Each one is different and impressive. Recipients–from restaurant owners committed to farm-to-table ingredients to landowners who have established wildlife refuges, to a longtime volunteer and leader in a local environmental organization, to a creator of an unusual and well-respected inventory of Maryland plants and fauna—have made a substantial commitment to preservation of our area’s rural character.

The Hutchison Brothers bring another dimension to the constellation of Chesapeake Champions. Yes, they love their 3,400 acres, Yes, they love being a successful farm operation. And, notably, they have combined pursuit of high yields with consistent land stewardship

Farming is a serious business subject to the vagaries of the weather and international market conditions. It requires skill in planting, marketing and cost control. It requires risk and flexibility. It requires humility and perseverance.

When the Hutchison Brothers receive the Chesapeake Champion award, they surely will feel proud. They also will believe that their focus on financial success and environmental stewardship is feasible.

Boom by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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I arrived on my family’s doorstep three years after the end of World War II. My parents and my three older—much older!—siblings were undoubtedly surprised. I didn’t really understand why; I was just one tiny drop in that flood of natural immigration now known as the “baby boom.” The war was over and won: let the good times roll!

If you want to get technical about it, a baby boom is simply a period marked by a significant increase in the birth rate of a particular geographic area. In my case, that increase was caused by several factors: all those veterans returning from the war, victorious and grateful to be alive; the passage of the G.I. Bill which encouraged home ownership and higher levels of education; a strong post-war economy; and perhaps most important of all, a renewed sense of optimism in the American Dream. The soundtrack of that dream had decreased in volume to a mere whisper during the Great Depression but in the wake of the war, it got turned back up to a full-throated roar…or maybe that was the sound of all those wailing babies.

The Baby Boom in the United States lasted for about 17 years. During that time, 65 million babies arrived on other doorsteps around the country—that’s one about every seven seconds. If the Great Depression and the World War had put a temporary halt to making babies, peace and prosperity more than made up for lost time. The world looked like it was going to be a safer place and the suburbs beckoned with lots of room for bigger families. Rosie the Riveter didn’t need to go to work anymore and we all thought father knew best. It was a time of great blessing made possible by lots of corny advertising on television and a new-fangled invention known as the credit card. Just look at all those happy little Mouseketeers on their way to becoming happy consumers!

Of course a shadow lay across the land but we refused to see it. I guess we didn’t want to think about the day when all those boomed babies would have babies of their own before they became old enough to retire and collect social security checks. I mean, why buy an umbrella when the sun is shining? A ‘Dependency Ratio?’ What’s that?

I’ll tell you what it is: it’s a stretch mark on the belly of the segment of the productive part of the population that is still going to work every day. Simply put, there are now a lot more of us boomers who are no longer working than there are Millennials or Gen Xers who are, and that ratio is only going to increase in the next couple of decades. According to the Census Bureau, the dependency ratio will reach a record-breaking high in 2020 and will continue to rise in the years beyond. Cue all those Malthusian economists who warn of dire times ahead when overcrowding, food shortages, and an overtaxed healthcare system lead us all down the dismal road that leads to Dystopia.

Sorry; I didn’t mean to go all doom and gloom on you. There are solutions available but they will require a measure of sacrifice and a larger portion of bipartisanship than what we’ve seen on the dinner table for quite some time. I’ve yet to be convinced that capitalism is endemically equipped to resolve the riddle because wealth just doesn’t seem to trickle down like it’s supposed to. And as for progressive socialism, that ideology just doesn’t seem all that compatible with our optimistic and hard-working old friend, the American Dream. You know which dream I mean, the one all of us Boomers lapped up like mothers’ milk.

So what is the solution? I’m listening…

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 published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Letter to Editor: Harris’ Vote Weakens Pre-Existing Condition Protection

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1st District Representative, Andy Harris, voted against H.R. 986, a bill which would have repealed an executive action by President Trump that weakened health insurance requirements designed to protect patients with pre-existing conditions.

Harris has been consistent in his desire to strip pre-existing conditions protection from health insurance policies, a position which can be catastrophic for those citizens with pre-existing health conditions. Harris’ solution, as he has repeatedly voiced in the past, is to place all patients with pre-existing conditions into a high risk pool of insured, thereby allowing them to be charged higher premiums. T

his position fails to understand that insurance works best when the insured pool is large and diverse and all share in the risks of being ill. What senior citizen does NOT or WILL NOT have a pre-existing condition? One republican friend, nearing retirement, told me “Just try hang on until you reach 65 and then Medicare will kick in” That my friends is not a sound health care policy.

Let’s face it, the only group that Harris’ plan protects is the insurance industry.

Harris voted with his republican minority in the House by voting NAY. Fortunately, the bill passed with 230 (228 democrats and 2 republicans) voting YEA and 183 (all republican) voting NAY, mostly along party lines. A Nay vote was a vote to further weaken health insurance coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.

What is House Bill H.R. 986?

This bill would repeal an October 2018 guidance issued by the Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) related to “State Relief and Empowerment Waivers” under the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). The guidance loosened restrictions of Section 1332 state innovation waivers, which became available to states in January 2017 under the ACA, by expanding the definition of coverage to include short-term plans and allowing existing state legislation about enforcing Obamacare satisfied the waiver requirement.” www.countable.us

For more information on this Bill go here

Chris Koch
Talbot County 

Smartphones by George Merrill

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On trains, on busses, on airplanes (before takeoff), in parks and at restaurants…even in churches and at ball games, the presence of smartphones is as ubiquitous as mosquitos on a summer night. At the dinner table with the family assembled during holiday gatherings we see smartphones placed accessibly where forks and napkins once rested. Like a predatory animal, the smartphone is ready to spring, but by no means on an unsuspecting prey – this is a prey half anticipating and even welcoming the next assault. With solitary souls sitting contemplatively in their living room by a cozy fire, we can rest assured a smartphone is somewhere within reach.

For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, smartphones remain post-modern man’s constant companion. Few leave home without one.

I’ll never forget last Thanksgiving when I went into the den and found my step-daughter, her husband and four teen age grandchildren lounging in various kinds of repose; the adults typing on computers, the four grandchildren texting while the football game on TV played vainly to the den’s unheeding fans who were otherwise occupied in cyberspace.

Welcome to the digital age.

In 1654, philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote; “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in room alone,” and I would add, be anywhere without his or her smartphone.

I am not a digital junkie. I would love to brag that I was able to beat the seductions of electronics, that I was above the mediocrity that it sows and that I live my life intentionally conscious of my thoughts and whereabouts. That is not the case. I simply can’t get the hang of how to use a smartphone.

I compose essays on a computer. I send emails. I text, but I could hand deliver my message to Baltimore from St. Michaels in less time that it would take me to text it. I carry the phone with me only occasionally. I check the weather to see what to wear that day. I simply cannot manage the several digital techniques required to negotiate a smartphone’s functions much less keep abreast of the new terminology that identifies its ever-increasing applications. Even with Facebook I’m always fearful that I’ll get snagged in some advertising pop-up or press the wrong button to inadvertently become friends with someone I really don’t like.

In short, it’s not character that has kept me from being seduced by the immediacy of the digital world, it’s that I’m electronically challenged. I write essays on my computer and use the spell check so my manuscripts are mostly ‘tdypo’ free. Not always.

My wife, Jo, is a digital whiz. She’s as at home in the digital era as crabs are to the Bay. She can buy, sell, enquire, research, and do most of her Christmas shopping on line. She can stay in constant contact with grandchildren or just play games, do word puzzles and happily entertain herself for hours with her smartphone.

I am a grunt in this online world, a wayfaring stranger often lost in the wilderness of cyberspace.

St. Paul once observed that our weaknesses can be our strengths.

There’s growing concern about the effect electronic communication is having on our psyches and on our culture. What is at risk is our ability to be focused, be alert and attentive to what may be going on at the moment. In short, the digital era with all its conveniences is invasive, and like a persistent fly, constantly demands our attention. The smartphone is messing with our minds.

Georgetown computer-science professor Cal Newport is not optimistic that will power alone can easily tame the “ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape.” He recommends a month long digital detox, a period of purification to declutter the mind by taking a complete break from all optional technologies. His observations parallel the process of achieving sobriety in alcohol addiction: those in recovery learn that one drink is too many, a thousand is not enough. For Newport, one technology can be too many, a thousand is not enough. Few, if any, alcoholics believe that after detox you can manage controlled drinking. Newport on the other hand, claims that after digital detox, and a period of total abstinence, one may slowly reintroduce technologies carefully, a little like learning to sip rather than gulping. He holds that controlled messaging is possible.

I confess that I am speaking with forked tongue in this matter. In writing this essay I was not sure I knew what the difference was between an iPhone, smartphone and an android. I googled my question and got an informed enough answer so I understood the general idea that they are, for practical purposes, similar although they may perform different tasks.

The glut of information immediately available to us in the digital age is both a blessing and a curse; it presents problems of its own. The ability to assimilate information is no indicator that we’ve learned anything. To “know” is more than having factual data at hand. A reflection on this very issue long before our digital era is found in T.S. Eliot’s poem, Chorus’s from the Rock:

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

A young boy once asked his father; “Dad, where did I come from?” His father long dreaded the day, but he’d prepared himself well. He researched the data appropriate to teaching a youngster about human sexuality. He went on at some lengths with the boy, from physiology, psychology, biology and even romance. The boy remained attentive, but began to look perplexed.

“Any questions?” the father asked.

“I thought we came here from Chicago.”

Wisdom is in understanding the question first. Learning the appropriate answer follows.

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.

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