Birds of a Feather by George Merrill

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I met a wren one morning. She stood on my studio doorstep. Appearing so fearless, she surprised me.

Various kinds of wildlife pass by my studio window all the time; deer, turkeys, otters, groundhogs, rabbits, buzzards, eagles, owls and ospreys. I hear the frequent whimper of squirrels. I have never understood what troubles them that they sound so plaintive.

I am surrounded by trees that whisper in breezes. The magnolia tree is different; its large leaves strike each other emitting not a soft rush as conifers or hardwoods do, but a kind of rattling you hear when wind blows though venetian blinds.

While my relationship to regional wildlife is a fond one, except for ticks, it’s typically distant.

It was unusual for me to see wildlife as close up as the wren. As I approached, I fully expected she would fly away. Instead, she flew and lighted even closer to me on the railing by the steps. She looked at me. I stood still for fear of spooking her. Now she was barely more than three feet from where I stood. A fledgling, I was sure. On her head, I could see unruly strands of nap rather than smooth feathers. I reckoned that this was perhaps one of her early explorations of the neighborhood. She still possessed that precious once in a lifetime gift, the innocence of youth that revels in curiosity and wonder while finding the world irresistibly enchanting.

I didn’t move. In the background, I could hear the loud and insistent chirping of another wren. Perhaps it was Mom or Dad calling for her to come back home “this very instant” the way impatient parents yell at children who heedlessly wander away.

I moved my hand toward her. She turned her head side to side, first eying my hand from one side and then from the other. I suspect she may have been wondering if this was the best time to get out of there. Was she as curious about her proximity to me as I was to her?

Fidgeting some, she remained on the spot. Since she flew up from the doormat onto the railing, I knew she could fly. I was glad she wasn’t staying just because she was injured. Maybe I was flattered that given the choice to stay or leave, she found me interesting enough to hang out for a few minutes to see what I was all about.

Finally, she flew away – back home I assume. However, her leaving did not in the least silence the raucous chirping of the other wren somewhere in the distance. Some parent was probably lecturing this hapless bird brain about never crossing the street alone and especially sitting on some stranger’s doorstep. It’s sad as I think about it, though; that with so many of our wildlife neighbors conditioned to be wary of us, and we of them, man, beast and bird alike are consigned to regard our differences as dangers rather than opportunities for discovery. A peaceable kingdom is not immediately in the offing, but for mutual ecological survival, better it gets on the agenda sooner than later.

Today among our own species, citizens of the same country or even individuals in the same family, differences become occasions for suspicion. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in racial discrimination of blacks by white Americans. We also see the LGBT community being maligned and treated as moral failures while they justly appeal for respect and equality in a predominantly heterosexual society.

After 200,000 years on the planet, we still don’t know how to regulate differences except with violence and by discrimination. It’s as if we’re evolution’s immature adolescents, clinging to personal identities that affirm nothing more enlightening than, “I’m not like them.” This is an old problem, old enough to have been highlighted in Luke’s gospel written over 1900 years ago. We are slow learners. Hopefully we’ll be late bloomers. The parable is instructive

Luke’s story goes roughly like this. Two men go up to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee, a religious elite of that era. He is full of himself and looks down on everyone, or as my grandmother liked to say, “puts on airs.” He prays: “I thank you God that I’m not greedy, dishonest or an adulterer like everyone else or like that tax collector over there.” In those days, a tax collector was considered a social pariah. “I fast, and tithe generously,” the Pharisee’s prayer concludes.

What a guy!

The tax collector, on the other hand, stands apart from him, doesn’t even lift his head to heaven, but instead beats his breast, saying “God have pity on me, a sinner.”

Jesus likes the tax collector better and declares that the tax-collectors is the one that’s right with God.

Not for a moment do I interpret this story as endorsing self-denigration as a direct route to holiness. However, I do read it as a statement that humility, is. Arrogance and humility play out very differently in the human equation as much as they do in divine-human confrontations. It’s the difference between believing in possibilities – being open – or dismissing others contemptuously, as a bigot does. In humility, there’s also a suggestion of reverence, a sense of the integrity and potential goodness we are prepared, at least for starters, to impute to others with whom we deal. Stereotyping is a form of arrogance – thank God, I’m not like him.

A long way from a young wren sitting on my door step, you say? Not really. I was closer that morning than I have ever been to a wren in the wild. The wren’s openness made for a meeting between species. She had not responded fearfully as I’d fully expected, but behaved curiously, instead. And indeed, it turned out to be a moment for a mutual regulation of differences. I don’t normally talk to birds nor do any birds let me close enough so I can.

Imagine if gays and straights, blacks and whites, or that Muslims and Christians could feel sufficiently safe to confide with each other what it’s like to be the kind of people we are. It’s heartwarming to think how, in the last analysis, we might discover we’re more birds of a feather than we’d ever imagined.

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

Op-Ed: Time, Treasure, and Talent by Darius Johnson

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I’ve had a sour taste in my mouth over the state of education in our world. Especially its impact on Kent County Public Schools and the surrounding community. I have read and witnessed accounts from citizens in response to our schools, which has made me question how much of a community we really are.

As an optimist, I try to gravitate towards the positives and opportunities that present themselves. I attended KCPS from 1997-2011, and I have seen and felt the dividends of the school systems’ hard work for the youth. Due to that, I feel the will to express my thoughts, experiences, and encouragement for those who share my concerns about our schools and community.

When our education is jeopardized due to politics, as in recent events with the education budget, I believe that the community is equipped, qualified, and responsible for filling the gaps in resources through philanthropic and grassroots efforts. In these current times, what other option do we have? Citizens naturally have the resources of time, treasure, and talent to contribute to our society, and those are the keys to any act of philanthropy.

With that in mind, we (Kent County) have enough people and local resources to impact each one of the students in our schools, while supporting faculty and staff who teach, discipline, coach, feed, counsel, and love the kids as if they were their own.

Roughly, there are 20,000 citizens in Kent County, 17,000 who are adults and 3,000 under the age of 18.

Now, imagine if each adult spent 10 minutes of their time, each year, in the school or afterschool programs with students; collectively, a group of (5) adults could provide close to (1) hour of enrichment per year. Extrapolating this to the rest of the adult population (17,000 or 3,400 groups of 5 adults), Kent County’s adult residents could collectively contribute over 3,000 hours of enrichment to its young people each year.

Furthermore, a teacher can average between $19 and $25 dollars per hour (not considering summer hours, vacation, etc.) for his or her work. If those 3,000 community hours are valued at the same rate as a teacher’s hourly wage, the community could be investing between $57,000 and $75,000 of pro-bono time to students each year.

Likely, that will not happen at such a scale, but the idealism of it is inspiring. Especially when it results in the youth being exposed to real-life examples of career paths, tutoring, and a sense of greater connectivity to their community.

A real (similar) example of this scenario in motion is Character Counts Kent County, which contributes 3,600 volunteer hours per year with only 103 volunteers AND they represent less than 1% of Kent County’s adult population. Kudos to them! Their devotion to the youth year-after-year should inspire us to visualize and realize the impact that can happen if we all volunteer.

So, what’s stopping us? Yes — it would take a great deal of community effort to offset the funding deficit for our schools, but is there any harm in trying? Just 10 minutes of your time can go a long way…

A Product of Expectations

I couldn’t tell you who the commissioners were when I was in school, but I still remember the people in the schools and community who had a direct impact on me.

So, what I will do, is tell you about some folks who influenced my peers and me, as products of Kent County Public Schools:

Mrs. Valerie Anderson — she taught us how to type accurately and quickly using Appleworks during elementary school. We had those old Mac computers with the bulky, round, colored backs. We had no clue how important those skills were, but we had fun competing for the best times and accuracy scores. Many of us use those skills daily as teachers, nurses, accountants, and more. Mrs. Anderson also coordinated a small, afterschool group for a few African American Students. There were no more than 10 of us, but I remember exercises where she taught us to carry ourselves with confidence when we walked. She also taught us to be respectful when we talked and greeted others. Mrs. Anderson and the other administrators and teachers were building character, technical skills, and soft skills at Worton Elementary School (WES), “Where Everyone Shines.”

Mr. Ed Stack — his Social Studies class is the best class that I have ever taken to this day. I know so because that was the hardest that I have ever I worked in a class. He knew how to engage and excite us. I also remember him teaching us the Cornell Method for note taking. I NEVER had a teacher educate students on methods to take notes, and it taught us how to digest, synthesize, and communicate the information that we gathered. Reflecting now, it’s funny that we learned how to type in elementary school but still had to write notes by hand in Mr. Stack’s middle school class. I’m glad that we did though. Nothing sticks with you like written notes, and the Cornell Method is still stuck with me to this day. Once again, KCPS builds character and the skills that we need, to be successful.

Mr. Stack also created History Corps, later known as Discovery Corps. An afterschool program for students who found enrichment though historical, geological, and environmental learning activities such as hikes at Gettysburg Battlefield and the Appalachian Trail, or landscaping and ecological restoration at Wilmer Park. Those experiences were amazing and touched a lot of us kids. It made us feel like we were a part of our community. Not just some middle school kids. Some of us would have never had experiences close to that on our own, and many of us are still very close thanks to those times!

Michael Harvey – my college advisor and Business professor from Washington College. He taught me chess at Union United Methodist Church on Saturday mornings when I was in middle school, and he even founded Imagination Alley for elementary school students, which stretched my creativity at a young age. He even drove from Kent County to Baltimore to visit me several months ago just to catch up. I don’t think that there are too many communities where (1) person can have such a broad, lasting impact on someone. Thankfully, Kent County is small enough to enable that to happen, and it has potential to do more.

Reflecting over the past several years as a KCPS supporter and alum, I give so much credit to those who have impacted us through education and volunteership. I only gave three personal examples, but there are dozens more that my peers and I can pay homage to.

We need more of those examples of mentorship and support. Today’s youth need to feel connected to a real community. Not one that has to proclaim itself as “social.” Whether we have fully-funded schools or new county leadership, if we don’t recognize the value of our personal interaction with young people, and each other, we will fail as a society.

I encourage everyone to start with just ten minutes, to share your work or perspectives on life in the schools. Then grab a friend and go back again. Maybe recruit a student to intern or shadow you or offer to help with homework. Anything helps! We have the power to make a lasting impact on our community, and we have the responsibility to strengthen our legacy. We are a product of our expectations; not the environment that currently threatens our growth and sustainability.

If we expect the best from Kent County, then we must give our best to where Kent County starts for each of us. Our schools.

Darius Johnson is a graduate of Kent County High School ’11 and Washington College ’15, where he received the Vincent Hynson Scholarship for his humanitarian values which emulates those of the late Vincent Hynson. He currently works in the fields of workforce development and education consulting as director of the ACE Mentor Program of Baltimore and Outreach Manager for the Maryland Center for Construction Education & Innovation.

Collective Joy by Nancy Mugele

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Photo credit — Geoffrey DeMeritt Photography

Although my word this past academic year at Kent School was BELIEVE, I have been thinking a lot lately about COLLECTIVE JOY. The term was coined a decade ago by author and columnist Barbara Ehrenreich who wrote Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. In this scholarly history of dance, the author explores the human impulse to dance, and its seemingly constant suppression throughout history. (I always wanted to dance on Broadway, but that is another story.)

Ehrenreich writes about “the desire for collective joy, historically expressed in revels of feasting, costuming, and dancing.” Communal celebrations and mass festivities date to Medieval times and are central to Western tradition. In recent centuries, however, Ehrenreich asserts that the festive tradition has been repressed, but, she states, “the celebratory impulse is too deeply ingrained in human nature ever to be completely extinguished.”

I credit Ehrenreich with naming a condition that contains so much spirit and ability to inspire. In her definition, collective joy involves “music, synchronized movement, costumes, and a feeling of loss of self.” Brené Brown also wrote about collective joy, and collective pain, in her recent book Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Brown encourages us to share collective joy. “People with a sense of true belonging also spend time sharing emotional experiences with large and diverse groups—whether those groups are found at sporting events, live music, church services, or vigils,” writes Brown.

“The more we’re willing to seek out moments of collective joy and show up for experiences of collective pain— for real, in person, not online — the more difficult it becomes to deny our human connection, even with people we may disagree with.”

Collective pain struck last week as both Kate Spade, creator of iconic handbags and founder of her namesake company, as well as celebrity chef and CNN personality Anthony Bourdain took their own lives. The world was surprised and saddened. If you cannot find the joy in your life please find someone to share your struggle with. We all need each other to create collective joy. Share in it. Your happiness depends on it.

A research study in 2017 supports this. “Collective assemblies (like games, concerts, or plays) contribute to greater meaning, positive emotions, and social connection in our lives.”  Thankfully, collective joy abounds in our culture, and I had the pleasure to see it play out in all of its glory in three distinct ways within a 24 hour period last week.

Take the Washington Capitals. After over 40 years, and for the very first time, the franchise finally won the coveted Stanley Cup, ice hockey’s highest honor. Fans inside, and outside of, Verizon Center, dressed in head-to-toe red, demonstrated collective joy in a visible and tangible way. Strangers drawn together by a singular drive to witness their team reach the pinnacle of the sport. I watched the crowds in DC from the comfort of my couch, but I could not help grinning ear to ear as I watched the Caps revelers – one daughter included! Joy is contagious, and it certainly was that in DC well into the wee hours of the morning as we watched and cheered each player who hoisted The Cup.

The very morning after the Caps were triumphant, Kent School graduated the Class of 2018. Collective joy abounded in the M.V. “Mike” Williams Gymnasium as families and friends celebrated an incredible group of 8th Graders. The love in the gym was palpable, and the joy I saw mirrored in the faces of the graduates and their proud parents will not soon fade away from my memory. Collectively, and singularly, each and every guest at the event held hope for the bright future of our graduates — whether they belonged in their family or not. Collective joy, collective hope and collective love together in one room — a very powerful threesome.

Later that same evening I got updates, complete with photos and video, from CMA Fest in Nashville where my daughters were on the floor in the third row, dancing and singing with thousands of country music fans. (Yes, the Baltimore daughter, who was in DC for the Caps, got on a plane very early the next morning to get to Nashville for sisters’ weekend — planned well before the Caps made history.) A year ago, Jim and I attended CMA Fest with them, and I can tell you firsthand that the collective joy at a four-day country music festival is good for the soul!

So much collective joy in such a short period of time. And, Justify won the Triple Crown the day after all of the above. I am overjoyed!

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.
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Automated Vehicles Could Eliminate the Need for Another Bay Bridge by David Montgomery

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Signs announcing opposition to a third span over the Chesapeake Bay are already popping up in Queen Anne and Kent County.   Governor Hogan initiated a study of the need, possible location, and potential cost of a new span in 2016, and consultations with potentially affected communities began earlier this year.

There is no question that the Bay Bridge is subject to time-wasting congestion during our evening commutes back to the Eastern Shore and on summer weekends when vacationers head to the beaches.  The number of vehicles trying to cross the bridge is projected to increase by over 30% by 2040, ultimately turning congestion into gridlock.

Relieving that current and projected future congestion is the reason given for building an additional span over the Bay.  But more construction may not be necessary if automated vehicles take over the market as other projections suggest.

I have been working with an organization known as SAFE (Securing America’s Future Energy) on a study of the potential costs and benefits of automated vehicles for the past year.  It was released on June 13. These are some highlights.

New cars already incorporate many new technologies that automate driving tasks:  adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assistance, collision avoidance, and self-parking to name a few.  Many experts and auto companies foresee rapid improvement in these fledgling technologies, to the point that vehicles could drive themselves with little or no need for driver intervention.  Google and Uber are already ordering and testing such vehicles (as news of a recent pedestrian fatality caused by faulty programming of hazard detection and response logic made everyone aware).

In our study, SAFE projected that with favorable technology advances and market conditions, over 90% of passenger miles traveled by 2040 could be in fully automated vehicles.  The capabilities of those vehicles would make it possible to move all the projected traffic over the Bay Bridge in 2040 with zero congestion and no new construction.

Some preliminary projections from the Maryland Department of Transportations set the context.  The Bay Bridge now carries more than 70,000 vehicles a day. MDOT expects that to grow to 92,000 by 2040.  The average traffic volume during weekends in the summer is forecasted to grow to 125,900 vehicles per day by 2040, a 31 percent increase from 2013.

A December 2004 Transportation Needs Report from MDOT analyzed hourly congestion levels, which are what really matter. With the level of traffic projected for 2040, about 5,750 vehicles per hour would attempt to cross the bridge during the weekend peak period of 2 – 5 PM.  Peak weekday traffic going eastbound would be over 4000 vehicles per hour between 4 and 5 PM.

MDOT estimates that when fewer than 2000 vehicles per hour are crossing in the three westbound lanes there is no congestion and when 2000 vehicles per hour are crossing eastbound there will be only occasional slowdowns.

When more than 3000 vehicles per hour attempt to cross in either direction, traffic breaks down and stop and go traffic is the rule.  With that constraint, the levels of traffic projected for 2040 would be catastrophic.

An MDOT study guessed that a new span could cost up to $6.85 billion, and would require other road network upgrades.  With the time required for planning, debating and construction, it is unlikely that would do anything for congestion for at least a decade or possibly longer.

 

Vehicle automation that we are likely to see could make that new span unnecessary by the time the money is spent.

There are three major ways in which vehicle automation can reduce or eliminate congestion.   The technologies that are required include detection of surrounding vehicles and communication of traffic conditions together with automatic control of speed, braking and lane changing.  These automated capabilities would

  1. Allow vehicles to travel safely with much smaller distances between vehicles
  2. Eliminate the accordion effects created by lane changing and human reaction times for braking and accelerating
  3. Prevent accidents that are the major cause of congestion not caused by inadequate capacity.

Just the first of these benefits, shorter headway, would dramatically increase bridge capacity.

With anything over 2000 vehicles per hour now causing some form of congestion, and potential peak traffic of 5750 per hour during weekends in 2040, the capacity of the bridge would have to be nearly tripled to avoid weekday and weekend congestion.   The worst forms of congestion now appear when traffic exceeds 3000 vehicles per hour, and just to avoid those conditions capacity would have to be doubled.

Building an additional bridge with the same one-way capacity as the current bridge would provide just barely enough additional capacity to accommodate weekday rush hour traffic without congestion, and would still put weekend traffic into stop and go conditions much of the time.

In contrast, cutting the distance between vehicles in half at highway speeds would double the number of vehicles that could cross the bridge with no congestion.  An automated vehicle will be much faster than a human being in braking to avoid a rear-end collision, and communication between vehicles will give it advance warning of traffic conditions far beyond line of sight.  

It is straightforward algebra to determine that if the bridge can handle 2000 vehicles per hour with current distances maintained between vehicles, it could handle 4000 vehicles per hour with half that spacing and 6000 vehicles per hour with one-third the spacing.  From my calculations, the current capacity of the 2-lane eastbound bridge translates into about a 3-second distance between vehicles when traffic is flowing smoothly. If the faster reaction times and ability to observe distant changes in traffic flow characteristic of AVs reduced that to a 1-second distance, the needed tripling of bridge capacity would be achieved.

Thus if AV technology and the share of AVs in the total vehicle fleet progresses to the point that headways can be cut to one-third of the current prevailing distance, there would be no need for a new bridge.  All the needed additional capacity would be provided at no extra cost by the automated vehicle fleet.

What does that imply as a prudent course of action now?  

First, the advancement of AV technology and introduction of automated vehicles should be monitored carefully to determine how introduction of AVs is changing capacity requirements.  For example, traffic studies have found that even if as few as 10% of the vehicles crossing the bridge have automated capabilities, they can smooth out traffic flow.

Second, traffic systems on the bridge should be updated to take advantage of automated capabilities as soon as they appear – for example, creating reserved lanes for vehicles with collision avoidance and automatic cruise control systems once there are enough to utilize such lanes fully.  

Third, traffic management measures like congestion-varying tolls could be used to spread out traffic on the existing bridge, until enough AVs are on the road to increase its peak capacity.  These have been proven on Virginia freeways and would work even better if automated vehicles obtained real time information on tolls.

With this combination of incremental improvements in capacity as AVs become more prevalent and the ultimate increase in capacity from a fully automated fleet, the disruption and expense of a third span over the Chesapeake might be avoided completely.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy. He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America, David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

A Word of Warning on County Council Candidate Jim Luff  by Jay Falstad

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All elections are important but local elections especially so, because they affect our everyday living. The upcoming primary election involving Mr. Jim Luff should be considered as one of Kent County’s highest priorities and Mr. Luff’s candidacy, I believe, should be viewed with a dim eye.  I don’t have anything against Mr. Luff personally, and I’m sure he’s a decent enough guy, but his policy ideas, especially on land use issues are simply out of whack for the rural areas of the Upper Eastern Shore.

Being involved for nearly twenty  years in Queen Anne’s County on land use and political matters, I have seen Mr. Luff’s positions up close. Over the years, Mr. Luff has advocated for the sorts of development proposals that gladly invite uncontrolled development of the type that leads to school overcrowding, congested roadways, and general environmental degradation. His ideas could prove to be ruinous to Kent County’s sense of place, close-knit communities and agricultural landscapes.

His track record speaks for itself. Over the years, he is on public record numerous times as being strongly supportive of the massive 1,100 unit Four Seasons project on Kent Island, the largest subdivision in Maryland Critical Area history. This project on the banks of the Chester River that has been fiercely opposed by local residents, and a project where the developer has already been cited for major environmental violations before they have succeeded in constructing even a single dwelling!

In 2010, Mr. Luff publicly testified in favor of the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center (also known as FASTC) in Ruthsburg – a proposed Federal project near Tuckahoe State park (it was referred to as Little Aberdeen by locals in the area) that would have devastated nearby family farms and upended an entire agricultural community with near-daily explosive detonations, automatic rifle-fire, high-speed auto exercises, and much more.

During the Queen Anne’s County Comprehensive Plan review (where I served on the Citizens Advisory Committee), it was Mr. Luff who advanced and advocated for a giant industrial park near preserved agricultural land in an area of northern Queen Anne’s County that had no water or sewer service, and in an area where nearby landowners didn’t want an industrial park. Mr. Luff’s proposal was so outlandish, it was dismissed early in the Planning review process.

In 2011, Mr. Luff advocated for weakening the Queen Anne’s County’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) to allow developers to proceed freely with construction projects despite their negative impacts to school crowding and traffic congestion, and thus, throw open the doors to development like you’d see in Glen Burnie.

Fortunately, citizen-sponsored referendums prevented Mr. Luff’s policy views from being implemented. Under the influence of powerful developers—and before that, through the McCrone Company where he worked—it was Mr. Luff who routinely favored development projects at the expense of everything else, including the quality of life of existing residents.

Last year, Mr. Luff invited the mayor of Middletown, Delaware to a Kent County Economic Development Commission meeting, and praised Middletown as an example of what good development could be. Is he serious??? Is Middletown what Mr. Luff envisions for small towns in Kent County such as Chestertown, Galena or Millington?

In short, there isn’t a development project that Mr. Luff hasn’t supported. Big box stores and overcrowded schools are fine by him, and so long as development is defined as “jobs,” Mr. Luff will likely favor it regardless of how it impacts a community.  Please do your research. Google “Jim Luff, Queen Anne’s County”— scroll through the stories and you’ll get a glimpse of his radical pro-development views.

If you like the look of uncontrolled development like that on Kent Island or in Middletown, then Jim Luff is your type of candidate…But, if you think Kent County, with all of its unique character, its small towns, its vast open areas of fields and forests are worth protecting, preserving, and celebrating, I urge you to consider someone else.


Jay Falstad owns Calico Fields Lavender farm in Queen Anne’s County and is the Executive Director of Queen Anne’s Conservation Association.

 

New Steps by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Rob built new steps for our house last week. I “supervised.” I watched him measure twice and cut once. I watched him level the job to perfection—not a simple task given the way things slant and lean around here. I watched him drill holes, drive nails, and set screws to create a solid, stable platform on which to stand or (as is often my wont) to sit. I watched him bull nose the treads and paint the risers…I thought I had a momentary vision of DaVinci, flat on his back, working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And when he was finished, he stepped back and looked upon what he had wrought and said, “Nah; off by an inch.” And he started over.

Rob would be the first to admit that he’s a perfectionist. It’s a quality that I greatly admire but don’t remotely share. I can live with imperfection which, in my case, is a good thing. Still, a craftsman like Rob doesn’t earn his stellar reputation by producing shoddy work. The same is true of my friend Eggman the painter. He’s an old-fashioned miracle up on a ladder, sanding, scraping, taping, priming, laying on a first coat, then a second, before he details and touches up his work. Even then, for Rob or Eggman, the work isn’t done: saws and tools and brushes need to be cleaned and stored, everything returned to its proper place, ready for the next job. That kind of organization and care is another quality I admire but don’t share. I put down my screwdriver and five minutes later I can’t for the life of me find it.

But back to our new steps. It doesn’t take a genius to see their metaphoric value. The old steps were worn out. The wood was rotting in places, the paint was chipped; truth be told, they were an accident waiting to happen. As a portal to our porch and house, they sent entirely the wrong message: this house is tired, it has lost its charm, it isn’t loved and cared for by the owners. Talk about fake news!

We all need new steps from time to time. It’s so easy to follow old, familiar patterns, or to overlook problems, or to take the easy way out of banal responsibilities. Why not put something off until tomorrow? Maintenance isn’t sexy; let’s just buy something shiny and new and never mind those old porch steps. We’ll get to those someday…

Of course, there’s this, too: new steps lead in new directions. That journey of a thousand miles really does begin with a single step. It may be a hard one to take sometimes, but unless that initial stride is made, there is no progress, only decay. I can’t honestly say I was thinking those thoughts as I watched Rob labor away on our new steps, but the message he left behind after he packed up his tools and drove away is crystal clear: new steps lead to new beginnings.

Be like Rob: make new steps.

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” will be released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

Out and About (Sort of): What’s Behind The Wall? By Howard Freedlander

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As I viewed the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall a week ago on the grounds of VFW Post 5118 in Easton, I looked at the 58,000 names of men and women killed in Southeast Asia and starkly envisioned in the black background of the haunting tribute the turbulent 1960s.

I spent the rest of the week trying to make sense of a violent decade marked by war abroad and civil upheaval at home.

Allow me to share my thoughts. They might echo yours. They might rankle.

Like others born at the end of World War II, I spent my adolescence and young adulthood in the 1960s. While coping with my own growing pains and angst, I felt buffeted by catastrophic events. The decade was historic for its tragedies, its divisiveness caused by the Vietnam War, fractious race relations, the impact of feminism and a revulsion by some toward academic institutions and the government.

To this day, I cannot understand what begat the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. I wondered then if there were some unconscionable and undetected strain in American culture that led to the extermination of excellence.

I understand that many may disagree with my imposition of “excellence” on these three gentlemen. I stand by my opinion. They were remarkable.

As I traveled through life, I’ve certainly perceived an underlying resentment toward high-achievers, people whose skills and intelligence supersede the attributes of the rest of us. But this is fueled by jealousy. It doesn’t normally engender violence, just disdain.

Back to the wall, so dramatic in its somberness.

My first reaction was one that engulfed me despite my best effort to avoid it: was the Vietnam War worth the loss of 58,000 lives and thousands who were maimed physically and mentally? This nagging question is not intended to besmirch the bravery and patriotism of our troops.

The war, like the decade, was complex. It was meant to contain the spread of communism in Asia. That was a noble objective that placed us in the middle of a civil war between North and South Vietnam. As documented, our political and military leaders lied to American citizens about the inability of the world’s greatest power to change the political equation in Vietnam. As time went on, despite hard-fought victories, we lost mightily on the field of public opinion.

As our troops fought courageously in the jungles and rice paddies of a divided South East Asian nation, back home the nation was engaged in protests staged against the war in cities and major universities. We were a nation at war with itself. While conversation and actions were harsh and disruptive, women, for one, made strides in the business, political and academic worlds.

As I strolled along the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall, I saw what is commonplace at the actual memorial in Washington, DC: flowers and a note left by a veteran in memory of the loss of five fellow soldiers. That’s symbolic of the compassion and healing power of this unusual and poignant tribute to the dead.

Whatever passions were stirred by an immensely unpopular war, the Memorial Wall offers a quiet, contemplative place to pay homage to our nation’s fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guard members. It even summons forgiveness on the part of those who mistreated our returning veterans.

Our country’s history comprises many historic decades. Our own lives pass through phases, variously pleasant and unsettling. Last week’s 50th anniversary of the death by gunfire of Robert F. Kennedy at a hotel in Los Angeles, following a campaign victory speech during his quest for the Democratic nomination for president, drew me back to my adolescence and young adulthood in the sizzling 60s.

I recall I was just beginning to like Bobby Kennedy. In contrast to his brother, the president, he seemed so strident and pugnacious. I learned that in many ways he was more passionate and sensitive than his charmingly smooth older brother.

I thought maybe another Kennedy could have become president. It was not to be.

Just two months prior to the killing of Bobby Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a giant among civil rights leaders, was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee. He led the rocky and risky crusade for racial equality, fighting forces of discrimination that still exist.

Dr. King’s “I have dream speech” was an unforgettable call for national unity. He strove ceaselessly for racial equality. He awakened the national consciousness. Yet, equality remained elusive. He died pursuing his dream.

When Robert Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968, dying the following day, I was a young reporter at a community newspaper in Ellicott City in Howard County. Still shaken by the murder of the Rev. King, I was dumbfounded and shocked by the assassination, only two months later, of Sen. Kennedy. I immediately wrote an editorial and submitted it to the editor. He rejected it for reasons I cannot recall. He likely considered it too emotional.

So, here I am 50 years later, writing that editorial. This one is probably more reasoned and mature. After all, what does a new reporter just out of college know about depth?

Viewing the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall transported me back to a difficult and disruptive decade.

The journey was well worth it.

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.

P.S. I Love You by George Merrill

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For me, receiving mail has lost its magic.

I once loved anticipating mail. Getting it now is perfunctory, like bringing in garbage cans. Today I receive mostly advertisements printed on intrusive cards some larger than four by five. They hardly fit in the mail box. Then there’s the relentless stream of bills. The joy of anticipation is gone. Once, the excitement of getting the mail was finding a real letter, handwritten, addressed to me. Few if any write letters any more. The world of communication, once a twist of the wrist, has gone electronic. We are literally, snagged by the web, trapped in the net.

I once read that in sixteen-eighty in London, England, the mail system functioned 24/7. If Mrs. Dalloway invited me to take tea with her at 4:00 pm, I’d receive her invitation at 10:00 am. I would post my response straightaway and she’d receive it by noon. Anywhere in London for a penny. It got pricey if you posted out of town, and there was a caveat: the receiver paid postage, not the sender. Considering all the junk mail I receive, wouldn’t it be neat if the post would not surrender my mail to me unless I first paid up? Just say no, would do the trick.

In colonial times, communicating with kin overseas was stressful and cumbersome. A ship’s officer arriving in port with letters without stamps would advertise in the local newspaper. They’d list the names of those having mail and for them to come collect and pay for it, if not already paid for by the sender. I would imagine a husband in London, sending a letter to his wife in Annapolis, would cost her an arm and leg to claim it. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it sure ups the ante in the family budget no matter who pays.

Aviation promised more speedy mail delivery. In its infancy, however, the pilot was more at risk than any mail man was when a junkyard dog tore after him. Without instrumentation, pilots became disoriented when flying through clouds. Pilots might swear they were flying level but in fact were in deep descent. Crashes were frequent.

I remember three chapters in my life when receiving mail was exhilarating. The first was during WWII. I’d receive V-MAILS, letters from my father while he was at war. The return address read cryptically: “Somewhere in Europe.”

Then came my cereal box years. Cereal makers, like those producing Wheaties and Kix, offered toys like the ‘secret decoder ring” that broke all codes or another ring that, by changing color, “foretold weather.” Mailing off a quarter with the box top would assure that I’d possess one of these wonders. After I’d mailed off my submission, I would begin counting the days and even intercept the mailman before he reached the door.

In late adolescence, I was in and out of love. For some of these loves, letters were part of the romance and I came to expect them. The wait for letters was excruciating. I now marvel at how verbose lovers are at eighteen. I simply couldn’t write enough to shape the nuances of my emerging passions and give a voice to my excited sentiments. Run-on sentences were the name of the game.

In today’s post-modern world, hand written letters have been eclipsed by email. Email is fast, economical, and costs the same to send anywhere in the world. Emails arrive almost instantly and like mice, seeing one always means there’s lots more. Some are bizarre. I used to get regular emails from a barrister in the Caribbean who’d address me as ‘Dearest.’ He’d urge me to respond immediately as he was keeping fifty thousand pounds in trust for me.

Email, especially texting, has spawned a form of hieroglyphics designed to reduce words to their marrow. It makes electronic messaging even faster, by lessening the time a writer spends composing texts. For the uninitiated, these symbols are inscrutable and seem more like the periodic table or scientific equations than real words or even sentences. Even the tender sentiments they purport to communicate become tepid and as ho hum as yesterday’s alphabet soup.

How about instead of emailing or texting your loved one, “I can’t wait to look into your eyes and savor the soft scent of your perfume,” you write ‘ILU/ILY’ which means “I love you.” ‘XOXOXO,’ means, I want to hug and kiss you. It works for some, but not for me. Is this only because I’m a luddite, that I’m so old a dog I disdain new tricks? I’d say it’s more than that. It’s about nuance and in my opinion, next to facial expressions, only words can hone our emotions to such fine tolerances.

Tweets serve communication the way fireworks light up the night sky: while they catch your eye, they quickly fizzle. No nuance, here.

Letters take a lot of time and thought to write. It would take me the same time to write one letter by hand than to dash off twenty emails. In communicating with a spouse, loved one or friend, the nature of affection encourages the sharing of many different thoughts and feelings like pillow talk that is lengthy and meandering.

Electronic communication is a boon for commerce. It’s great for communicating data or gathering information, arranging appointments, ordering holiday gifts and getting directions to unfamiliar places.

When kissing my wife before bedtime, however, I can’t imagine holding her and saying ‘ILU/ILY.’ Nothing beats a plain old fashioned, breathy, “I love you,” whether it’s carefully written long hand or whispered softly in an ear. Consider something as sensual as hugs and kisses; when reduced to a formulaic, ’XOXOXO,’ it loses all its pizazz.

A simple ‘PS, I love you,’ works better.

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.

Open Letter to WC President Landgraf on Kent County Schools by William Short

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Dear President Landgraf,

I would like to address your comments, which were most welcome, at the Kent County Commissioners‘ meeting on June 5, 2018; and, your letter to Commissioner Pickrum dated June 1, 2018. concerning the $580,000 shortfall in the budget for The Kent County Board of Education. As the President of Washington College, you are one of the pillars of this community, and your words in a public forum have weight. I want you to know that I listened to you and have thought about your words. No one wants the schools in Kent County to fail, most especially the Commissioners; in fact, we are all products of this school system. We were all born and raised here, and this County has deep familial and cultural roots for each one of us.

During your tenure at the Educational Testing Service [ETS), you led the financial turnaround of the organization from near-bankruptcy to create a $1.6 billion global, technology-based concern. In this endeavor, I’m sure you faced some tough business decisions that affected the lives and livelihood of individuals globally. Therefore, you can understand the dilemma of the Commissioners being forced to decide on investing on economic development or investing in our children. At first blush, it seems to be an obvious choice — except, it is not. You state in your letter, “I would like to have more of our faculty and staff choose to live locally, rather than commuting from Annapolis and Middletown.”

I could not agree with your more; however, without proper economic investment, where will they be living and what sorts of commerce will they have locally? The “economic development or education investment” the question is as perplexing as the chicken or the egg causality dilemma.

After thinking about your comments, I believe the communities frustration of this issue stems from approaching it the same way, but expecting a different solution.

In your letter you state, “The investment in public education is the single greatest way to help the college and every other business that calls Kent County home.” I could not agree with you more, and every business, and every person pays their fair share of property tax, with the exception of Washington College. If Washington College paid county tax on the full assessable base of all its properties, the County would receive $837,382. Washington College actually pays $65,541, so there is a loss of $771,841 due to the tax-exempt status of the properties. These figures do not include State and town taxes.

I’m not suggesting that Washington College should not receive benefits offered by the State, but if Washington College gave less than 5% of the interest made from its endowments, Kent County could work to match those funds to meet this continuous shortfall facing our educational system. If Washington College could commit to meeting the County half way ($290,000), this could open the gateway for the County to partner with the College to find a new solution to this issue. Our economic investments will mature in 10 years; so, will Washington College partner with Kent County for the upcoming 10 years [$2.9 million) to make a community for your faculty and staff to live locally? As you aptly said, “Our decisions about funding public education have lifelong consequences.”

With respect,

William Short
Commissioner of Kent County