Letter to Editor: Time to Raise the Revenue Cap in Talbot County

The Talbot County Council is once again wrestling with the question of what to do about the county’s property tax revenue cap. As things stand now and for the past several years, annual property tax revenues cannot increase over the previous year by more than 2% or the Consumer Price Index-Urban (CPI-U), whichever is less. Two percent might be a reasonable limit, but from 2010-2015, the CPI-U came in well under 2% in five of six years. Annual increases of 0.55% or less are negligible, especially when viewed cumulatively.

The revenue cap has stymied efforts to collect more property taxes, and kept Talbot County’s tax rate in last place statewide. The current property tax rate is 57.08Ȼ per $100 of assessed value. To be exact, even with the Educational Supplement, our tax rate is 43.8% below the statewide average. The property tax rate in the county with the second-lowest rate in Maryland (Worcester) is 46% higher than it is in Talbot. Our tax rate is truly an extreme outlier.

In the normal course of events, when property values and assessments increase, as they have since the end of the recession of 2007-2009, property tax revenues increase accordingly. But the course of events in Talbot County is not normal. Rather, it harks back to the dark, 20th-century days of the Constant Yield, when, the property tax rate actually fell from one year to the next because the county was prohibited from collecting any more property tax revenue than is had in the previous year.

Since education consumes almost half of the county’s annual budget, it is tempting to think of calls for revenue cap reform as the whining of greedy teachers and administrators. But think again. An insufficient annual budget squeezes many county departments. In fiscal year 2018, for example, 22 of 61 departments were not fully funded. An increase in property tax revenue would remind us that, as President John F. Kennedy once said, “A rising tide buoys all boats.”

What about the effects of a rising tide? A 1% increase, to 3%, would generate $344,000 in additional revenue for the county. A 2% increase, to 4%, would generate an extra $688,000.

And what about the cost? A 2% increase in the revenue cap, from 2% to 4%, would only cost the owner of a million-dollar home less than an additional $100 a year!

In the interest in meeting the needs of its citizens and continuing to provide the high level of services that we have come to expect, it’s time for the County Council to bite the bullet and raise the revenue cap. At the very least, the CPI-U loophole should be closed.

Pete Howell

Publisher Notes: Please Chip in for the Spy this Month

Precisely seven years ago this month, the Talbot Spy began its life as an online news source for a community I had fallen in love with as an undergraduate at Washington College in 1974.  The premise was simple enough. By using the extraordinary tools that the internet provided, such as the ability to use multimedia, easy reader access, and relatively low cost start up, the Spy could be a powerful and useful complement to a legacy newspaper of record and engage more residents in the daily affairs, the arts and culture of their region.

The business plan was also just as simple. Generate enough revenue to cover these costs and provide modest stipends for the Spy’s editors and writers.  There was no vision for media domination or commercializing the “product” to monetize investment. The payback would come with a community well informed and respectful of diverse opinion.

Nor was there any guarantee of success. While I had known Talbot County relatively well,  it was hard to predict if this was a value-added proposition for a community that prided itself on not being an early adapter to most things.

Seven years later, the Talbot Spy has 15,000 readers a month reading it on average five times a month. It has attracted over 200 sponsors and has been able to pay its editors and writers the small stipends they were promised.

More importantly, the Spy has been able to remain true to its mission and aspirations. Over 2,000 educational video programs have been produced, over 10,000 original content articles or local opinion pieces have been published, and 15,000 vetted reader comments have been posted.

With the increased awareness that the Spy was indeed a community asset worthy of philanthropic support, I made arrangements with the Mid-Shore Community Foundation to become the Spy’s fiscal partner, allowing us to receive funding from private foundations as a non-profit entity starting in 2013.

All of these ingredients have worked together to keep the Spy afloat over these years, but the reality is that we, like every nonprofit organization, must seek a highly diverse revenue flow, and must now ask you, gentle reader, to chip in.

For the balance of March, the Spy will not be shy about asking for this support. Taking a page out of the playbook of other fundraising programs online, we will have a “pop-up” appear for a few moments to beg the question of a modest monthly contribution or one-time donation to keep the Spy going.

I hope with your help the Spy can continue to serve Talbot County for many decades to come with your help.

Please make a contribution here.

Dave Wheelan




Op-Ed: The Explosive Cart before the Mental Health Horse by Fran White

It was not the firearms that killed those innocent seventeen Florida victims but the mentally disturbed individual who pulled the trigger! In addition to Nickolas Cruz and his automatic weapons, those who ignored all of the red flags of his disturbed behavior over many years enabled this tragedy to occur. The school administrators, who swept this boy under the rug by expelling him without community supervision and sent him into further solitude and isolation to fester his rage can be perceived as most responsible for the murders.

The most guilty accomplices of this crime are the so-called mental health clinicians who failed to provide this emotionally disturbed youth with the mandatory in-patient treatment that was so needed. His deceased, adoptive mother, due to her deep love of this boy, enabled his disturbed behavior by not facilitating hospitalization after over forty police visitations to the home before she died. Our government agencies, who are employed to protect citizens, are also most responsible for ignoring all of the social media postings and warnings from Nickolas and others due to profound incompetence.

Nickolas was a victim of bullies throughout his young life, and this form of behavioral cruelty provoked the rage and depression of this child. Indeed, he was not a personable and acceptable person amongst his peers but where was the compassion of others to notice the pain and suffering that Nickolas was experiencing especially last November when he lost his only parent who provided unconditional love? His fellow students chose to isolate and ridicule him and failed to actively and loudly alert their teachers and administrators of this dysfunctional peer. Indifference and Denial are the sins of those who failed to previously respond to this tragic event.

Are we only going to direct our political focus upon gun control laws, the believed explosive cart that the government and their constituents are targeting as the driven force that is responsible for these horrific deaths? Gun control laws alone will not eliminate any further school massacres, but the most relevant intervention that will prevent the loss of so many of our children is competent and well trained mental health professionals working in our schools and identifying troubled and disturbed children at an early age.

School personnel needs to be properly trained, not armed, in the identification and management of emotionally troubled students. Anti-bullying programs need to be part of and perfected in all school curriculums with a focus on incorporating character development programs such as Character Counts with a focus on teaching and reinforcing compassion and kindness to others by students, teachers, administrators and, of course, parents. Let’s not place the cart of gun control before the horse of mental health intervention! NOW is the time to act and not after we have another precious child die due to denial and indifference.

Dr. Fran White is a psychologist and marriage and family therapist who has been in private practice for over three decades. She was a columnist for her regional newspaper and has written about human behavior and problem-solving. Fran resides on the Eastern Shore with her husband, Tom, and is a grandmother of nine grandchildren. 

No Clearance / No Security by Craig Fuller

Consider how challenging it is to know at this moment just what the intentions of leaders in the government of the United States are across a range of issues from national security and defense to health care, trade, and energy. What do leaders intend to do about these issues? What is likely to happen that will affect us?

Hard to know, right? And, yet, we live in the most open and transparent country on the planet.

So, when we ask the intelligence community to understand the motivations and probable actions of our adversaries and our allies, always in less open and sometimes hostile environments, in order to accurately inform our US decision makers, shouldn’t we understand that this is an extremely difficult mission.

It’s not like there is no information. But, we don’t call it the “information community.” We call it the intelligence community because we require thousands of people to assess information from many sources, often clandestine, for the purpose of presenting carefully considered intelligence.

One of the most interesting aspects of my job many years ago in the White House was to read and receive the President’s Daily Intelligence Briefing from a senior CIA official. I cannot imagine a more enlightening daily dose of reality than this document and the accompanying oral briefing. Knowledge built over time is invaluable to staff and decision makers who take an oath to make choices that will protect the nation.

Much is being made of security clearances these days. While some high profile people now lack the highest clearances, the problem goes far beyond those in the headlines. It has been suggested that over 100 people inside the White House lack full clearances.

Here is the reality: developing the very best and most useful intelligence requires that those at the highest levels of government can be trusted with secrets. And, not only the actual intelligence provided; but, also the fact that we have it along with any knowledge of the means by which we gained it. The failure to act with discretion and in accordance with very strict laws, puts our own highly trained and vulnerable people at risk. The failure also discourages the very sources we rely upon from sharing information.

So, back to the people without full clearances….

There are several levels of security clearance, but the information flowing into the President and his top staff requires the highest clearances.

When someone lacks a clearance, people with the sensitive information do not know why. Thus, a clearance problem is within a range of issues that could mean placing into the hands of a non-cleared individual something they might inappropriately disclose.

For this reason, someone in possession of classified information in not supposed to knowingly provide it to an individual without proper clearances because being trusted with such information requires that you protect it.

It’s a very important principle.

Think about the phrase, “….now, don’t let anyone know that I know this, but…..”

If our nation’s leaders are going to benefit from having the most sophisticated intelligence gathering capabilities available to them for the purpose of making the best decisions possible, then they need 100% compliance with the laws designed to protect the secrets – no exceptions.

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

Tariffs: Trump’s Big Blunder by David Montgomery

The decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports is a very bad one. Protection of U.S. industries from unfair competition has always been part of President Trump’s message. It is what worried me most about him as a candidate, but until now his approach has been to eliminate ways that government is holding U.S. industry back. Changing course and erecting tariff walls like this could destroy all the good he has done with those positive economic policies.

The losers from tariffs include everyone who uses the products subject to the tariff, or products made from them. In the case of steel and aluminum, that is everyone. Protectionism only benefits the small number of owners and possibly workers in the industries being protected and hurts everyone else.

The case for free trade is very simple. Everyone gains if the United States specializes in those goods that it is better at producing, and trades them for what others are better at producing. Tariffs cause us to produce things that we are not so good at, so that we end up with less in total.

Tariffs do this by erasing the difference between the price at which we can buy steel and aluminum on the world market and the price that U.S. steel and aluminum companies need to receive to remain profitable.

Industries want tariffs because it costs more to produce steel and aluminum here than it does to import it. That is why tariffs are bad policy. Homely examples are in this case quite accurate: I could cut my own grass, but if I spend the same amount of time doing something that I am very good at, I can earn enough to pay my lawn service and have a good bit left over.

Protectionism also harms all the U.S. industries that use the goods being protected. As the picture below shows, steel is required in all the major U.S. industries, and the same is true of aluminum. They are necessary to make the machines that produce everything from automobiles to paper, they are incorporated in all major appliances, we could not generate electricity or build structures without them.

The entire purpose of these tariffs is to raise prices so that steel and aluminum companies can make a profit and replace imports with domestic production. Sounds like a great idea. But the higher price of steel drives up the price of everything else that consumers use: housing because of higher construction costs, automobiles because manufacturing equipment and materials cost more, energy as power plants and pipelines become more expensive, military budgets are stretched further because guns, vehicles, ships, airplanes and structures cost more.

There are a number of phony arguments for protectionism: somebody (usually China) is not competing fairly, it will put Americans back to work, it will fix the trade deficit, and national security is threatened.

They not competing fairly, so we have to retaliate. This is the most common and legally defensible argument for tariffs – some other countries are selling goods to us for less than their cost to produce the goods. The more accurate form of this argument is – they are being stupid so we have to imitate them. If China insists on selling steel or aluminum to us for less than it costs them to make it, why not just let them give us that gift? We can put the resources that would be required to produce the same amount of iron and steel to work in more productive ways – like making things out of iron and steel that we can sell for a profit without government tariffs or subsidies.

It will put Americans back to work. There are many ways in which President Trump’s policies are doing this – regulatory reform that lowers labor costs and increases productivity, tax reform that restores incentives for investment, and reform of Obamacare that removes a big tax that employers must pay to hire workers. But tariffs and protectionism do not. They may preserve jobs for specific workers in specific industries, but at the expense of jobs for workers in other industries that no longer have access to imports and find their costs increased to levels at which they cannot compete. One study, by the Consuming Industries Trade Action Coalition (CITAC), concluded that President Bush’s steel tariff cost 200,000 workers in steel-consuming industries their jobs in 2002 because of higher steel prices.

It will fix the trade deficit. The trade deficit cannot be changed by tariffs. Right now, we are borrowing immense sums from other countries so that the government can spend more money than it brings in. Just like a family that borrows in order to spend more than it earns, borrowing from overseas lets the United States purchase more from abroad than it earns by selling goods abroad. That is, borrowing equals the difference between imports and exports, and that difference is known as the trade (or current account) deficit. Tariffs may change what we import (and export) but as long as we are borrowing immense sums from overseas, the trade deficit cannot go down.

It is necessary for national security. No doubt, China is subsidizing exports and driving American companies out of the steel, aluminum and other industries. That does not amount to a national security threat, any more than Asian countries producing our televisions. By giving these subsidies, China is building an economy that can only sustain itself by constant increases in government-led investment, to produce goods to be sold on foreign markets at prices that fall further and further below their costs to produce. That is not a strong economy.

Our consumers are attaining a higher standard of living than would be possible if China were not making these gifts. The Chinese people are getting less and less for themselves as their government pushes greater subsidies into export industries. The Chinese government brings its day of political reckoning closer and closer by limiting domestic consumption in order to continue expanding its white elephant industries.

Even if China can sustain this kind of growth for a while, we have no need of an industrial policy to defend ourselves in modern wars. There is little likelihood we will face another World War II where victory went to the country that could produce the most and best armaments. If we do need to mobilize again, imports of steel and aluminum are available from many friendly countries, and the technology and mineral resources remain here. The national security argument is nothing but a smoke screen for the traditional pleas of the metals industries for protection from a global market.

This is not the first time that the steel industry has cried for relief. In 1969, 1978 and 1984 and 2002 protection was extended to the steel industry by Presidents of different parties. Sometimes the economy moves in directions good for US metals, and the demand for protection fades. Then things change, imports rise and the plea for protection returns. Most recently this happened with the end of the recession, with construction and investment taking off and steel and aluminum imports growing. That made U.S. steel producers look for a way to get a bigger share of the growing market, and getting some help for the government was the easy solution. They are in essence asking for the same subsidies the Chinese give, but paid for by consumers who, of course, are the ones who suffer in China too.

Protectionism is the Achilles heel of populism, where the right-minded desire of ordinary people to reclaim their culture and economic opportunities is unprotected from the arrows of economic nonsense. The drop in the stock market is the predictable and reliable indicator of the overall damage that these tariffs will inflict on the entire economy. Republicans in Congress have to remind President Trump that these tariffs will harm the very people who elected him, and take action to end them if necessary. That is good politics and looking out for the common good.

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

Letter to Editor: For A Sane Gun Policy; America’s Ready

A recent Quinnipiac Poll conducted in February this year revealed that American voters support stricter gun controls by a 66 to a 31 majority, the highest level it’s ever been. An 83 to 14 percent majority supports mandatory waiting periods; a 67 to 29 percent supports a ban on assault rifles and an almost 75 to 15 percent of Americans feels congress needs to do more to reduce gun violence.

If these figures are remotely indicative of our present situation, why is congress so intimidated by the gun lobby? The majority of Americans are for stricter gun controls and the country is behind a sane gun policy, so where’s the hang up?

George Stephanopoulos, president Clinton’s then spokesperson, once offered this thought, what he called “one small vote for the NRA.” He said of the organization that its members diligently call their congressmen, or write to them, vote regularly, are generous contributors to the organization and aggressively stand up for what they believe. In an ironic way, he offered the NRA member as a profile of a democracy’s model citizen. If that’s true of its membership majority, Stephanopoulos may be on to something significant.

The difficulty getting sane gun laws may lie less with the NRA than with a passive and disorganized electorate that feels outraged but hasn’t focused the outrage into well-organized political muscle.

I was surprised to learn that few actual candidates are bankrolled by the NRA. Instead, they strategically pour millions into negative ads against any unsympathetic candidates they identify.

According to Sunday’s New York Times of 2/25, “It’s really not the contributions,” said Cleta Mitchell, a former N.R.A. board member. “It’s the ability of the N.R.A. to tell its members: Here’s who’s good on the Second Amendment.”
“Far more than any check the N.R.A. could write, it is this mobilization operation that has made the organization such a challenging adversary for Democrats and gun control.”

The NRA also gains political potency by presenting a single focused agenda with an unambiguous message- great for sound bites: you’re safer owning a gun, and your government wants to take them away. They project a dominoes theory – let the government take our assault rifles away, and then they’ll take our shotguns and pistols, next.

Gun safety advocates clearly have the numbers. Now we need to seize the moment and get organized.

George Merrill
St. Michaels

Out and About (Sort of): Eloquent Fighter by Howard Freedlander

He was a nobody, simply viewed as chattel. He wasn’t content. He willed himself to become a somebody, armed with keen intelligence and steely resolve.

Even when he became known and revered, he still faced threats of being consigned to nothingness, to serving others involuntarily.

He escaped his country of origin, living in a country where friends raised sufficient money for him to become permanently free of the suffocating and dehumanizing restraints of slavery.

Of course, I’m describing Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey), whose 200th birthday was celebrated February 14, 2018. This anniversary was celebrated widely throughout the country two weeks ago.

I joined more than a 100 people as a living history interpreter and storyteller, Bill Grimmette, portrayed the 77-year-old Douglass on Feb. 12 at the Academy Art Museum in Easton. It was moving and thought-provoking. As intended.

Talbot County’s native son and former slave, who spent time as a young boy at Wye House on Bruff’s Island Road, came alive in Grimmette’s superb and nuanced performance. Douglass’ wisdom, determination, eloquence and humor permeated the room for an hour.

As is well known, Douglass became an accomplished and renowned writer, orator and abolitionist. He achieved even more prominence as a trusted confidant of President Abraham Lincoln. He provided a voice of conscience about the terror of slavery to a president during our nation’s regrettable Civil War. He successfully urged Lincoln to prod Confederate forces to treat captured black Union soldiers as prisoners of war, not mutilate and kill them. He threatened to stop recruiting African-American troops into the Union army if President Lincoln didn’t speak out against the treatment of black prisoners.

Convinced early of his self-worth despite treatment as a “nobody.” he experienced some lucky breaks–though they must be judged in the context of being mentally and emotionally repressed in an often violent, bigoted environment. Some examples of fortunate circumstances that came Douglass’ way were:

He leaves Wye House to become a slave to Hugh and Sophia Auld in Baltimore. At first, Sophia treats him well, teaching him to read. When her husband Hugh instructs his wife to stop educating Frederick, explaining that education can implant subversive ideas, Douglass learns the importance of knowledge. He also understands the utter necessity to escape slavery.

When he does decide to escape, he receives advice to pretend he is a sailor while sailing to his freedom. He understood he had to hide his slave status to become an ex-slave. He knew he had to flee the relentless slave-catchers.

He eventually went to England, becoming a popular speaker and unrepentant abolitionist. He gained his freedom, his manumission, through financial support from his British. Ironically, he had to travel abroad to gain his precious and legal freedom in his home country.

As Douglass became famous, courted by American political leaders, he never forgot his roots. He remained an unabashed advocate for civil rights. I suspect that he was discouraged by the regressive practices of Jim Crow. After Reconstruction, blacks faced stifling discrimination, often subtle but destructive nonetheless. Separate but (supposedly) equal education epitomizes Jim Crow at its cruelest.

I must admit I love learning history through historical actors, as I have done for years during periodic visits to Williamsburg, VA. I’ve gained invaluable insight into George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, James Madison—and slaves seeking freedom. Bill Grimmette gave me and others a view into the magnetic personality of Frederick Douglass.

Though Douglass wasn’t one of our nation’s founders, he gave voice and emotion to the stain of slavery. The founders had ignored this scourge, approving a U.S. Constitution that papered over an explosive subject.

One of Talbot County’s own became a national treasure.

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.

Inspiration is in the Air by Al Sikes

Inspiration is underestimated. At the seminal level, it is the reason there is a United States of America. It is the reason the Civil War concluded as it did.

Saints were inspired to act sacrificially and we lesser humans can all tell stories about those who inspired us. Never sell inspiration short.

Inspiration writ large is both simple and complex. Historians are able to identify it, but they need time to fully appreciate its immensity. And time is needed to understand how it moved both leaders who stepped up and those who walked along side them.

Seminal acts of inspiration are endlessly studied and reported. NPR notes, “Some 15,000 books have been written about Lincoln — more books ……… than have been written about any other person in world, with the exception of Jesus Christ.”

Simply, an inspiring moment is elemental and frequently visceral. Topically, three stories of the last week stand out.

Hands down, at the recently concluded Olympics there were two moments that literally took the breath away and reminded us of the enormous power of the Olympic spirit and individual motivation.

The first, in a report by Team USA began, “Five years ago, Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins did something that had never been done before. The two American women won a cross- country skiing world championship gold medal in the team sprint.”

At the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, the same two American women did one better. They won the first Olympic medal for the US. women’s cross-country skiing team — and it was gold.

In a final dash to the line, Diggins passed Sweden’s Stina Nilsson with about a meter to go, threw her ski across the line, then fell into Randall’s arms.

“Did we just win the Olympics?” Diggins gasped as she fell to the ground.”

“Yeah!” screamed Randall.

Around them teammates, US. Ski Team staff and fans went wild. “I broke down,” said Luke Bodensteiner, an Olympian cross-country skier back in the 1990s who’s now the US. Ski & Snowboard’s Chief of Sport. “l was on my knees in tears.”

The second moment of Olympic inspiration was described in two sentences by the LA Times: “It was a hockey game transformed into an anthem.”

“The winner’s gold glowed in triumph over ignorance.”

The women’s hockey victory was simply a puck being skillfully placed in the Canadian goal by Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson. The complexity is that the team achieved a stunning conclusion

to “their boycott-threatening fight for pay and benefits equal to the men.” They won the fight for equity and the game.

Inspiration, when paired with leadership, can be an extraordinary force. So let me turn to the third inspiring moment.

Tragedy is often the foretelling of inspiration. The bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942 foretold America’s entry into WWII and the eventual defeat of Hitler and his poisonous ideology. It took inspired and remarkable public and military leadership to achieve the victories over determined adversaries.

This last week’s school shooting in Florida and the inspired leadership by a handful of students who fight under the NEVERAGAIN banner is, in my view, the kind of inspirational moment that can breakdown untold barriers. It is already having that effect as political leaders reverse their rigid stands on gun control. While the story has yet to go beyond chapter one, the power of the movement is inescapable.

A similar moment of inspiration occurred after the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina in June of 2015. In the aftermath of the shooting, attention was turned toward Columbia, the State Capitol where the confederate flag still flew in a position of honor. The State’s Governor, Nikki Haley, led a bipartisan collection of peers, a law was enacted and the flag came down.

Reflecting on the remarkable event, Scott E. Buchanan, the Executive Director of the Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, noted: “The South Carolina legislature doesn’t move rapidly on anything, so the fact that this has all come about is remarkable. I think we’ll look back on this in future years and just be astounded.”

Whether in seminal moments or in Olympic contests or in the face of political resistance, never underestimate the power of inspiration and leaders who have the capacity to both understand and lead.

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. 

Einstein and a Hole in the Ground by George Merrill

I am sitting on a beach in Puerto Rico. Watching the waves break, my thoughts rise and fall. They can’t seem to be still. I’ve been reading about Einstein’s beliefs concerning religion and spirituality. He doesn’t believe in a personal God. He feels awe and a profound reverence for the mystery of nature and the workings of the universe. He calls this his religious feeling.

I look up briefly from my Kindle. I see a ghost crab digging a hole in the sand nearby.

The hole is perhaps twice the size of a silver dollar. His eyes appear as black dots affixed to the end of two stalks that extend prominently from his head. He emerges half-way out of the hole and then stops.  He’s eyeing me to see what I will do. I wave my kindle to test him. He shoots down the hole in a flash and is gone. A minute or so later he reemerges. I remain still so as, in a manner of speaking, not to spook the ghost crab. He is not but three feet away from where I sit. I am suddenly at a ringside seat, enthralled, watching first-hand what a ghost crab does during the day.

Unlike the Chesapeake’s bluecrab that scampers sideways on a flat surface, the ghost crab stands up on all 10 legs or if speed is required, just two.  He can move laterally at amazing speeds. He’ll turn on a dime while capable of doing 10mph.

I watch. He emerges from the hole again, assumes this same posture – half in, half out – but this time he makes a lightening quick gesture with the claw that had remained half buried in the hole. In a flash and in one swipe, he tosses out deposits of sand with it. The excavated sand looks round and as it land, like small marbles several inches from the hole. He remains still for a moment – not a twitch – as if perhaps to see what my reaction will be. I am amazed not only by the speed with which he tosses the sand up and out, but by the distance he throws it. The sand pile is tidy. This crab is no rooky. He knows how to throw a fastball and aim it just where he wants it to go

The sun shines on him from behind. He looks delicate, almost diaphanous, and as the sunlight shines through him he appears translucent while glowing a faint yellow. He appears otherworldly, as though he was molded of gelatin. Perhaps his transparency is one reason why he is called a ghost crab. The other is that ghost crabs are typically nocturnal.  I enjoy the good fortune to catch his performance in a rare matinee appearance.

He has captured my complete attention. I sit stone still. I don’t want to miss a thing.

Every forty seconds or so, he goes through this same drill: disappear down the hole, emerge, pitch out the sand he’s accumulated, position himself half in and out and then dart again down into the hole. No doubt about it; he is digging a tunnel efficiently and skillfully, the envy of any convict who ever dreamed of a subterranean escape from his confines.

I find that watching other creatures up close is a kind of otherworldly experience for me, like entering an alternative universe. The exotic ways of other critters, in this case the ghost crab, although he addresses the same needs to live as I must, he goes at it in a way I can only describe as mysterious.

I understand he prefers his big meal at night and goes out to eat most of the time. There no candlelight here. He can see in the dark with eyes that are situated above him that see 360 degrees. He gets the big picture in a flash. It would take me longer.

I know this may sound sexist but the females, when digging their tunnels do not perform their tasks in a workman-like fashion. They’re really messy. The male, as he digs his burrow, leaves the excavated sand in a neat pile on one side of the entrance. The female on the other hand doesn’t care a whit about being tidy and flings sand out in all directions like toddlers playing in a sand box.

However, the maneuvers grow more complex.

It’s not just that the male is more disciplined in his work habits, but his actions are informed by a darker purpose.  He is in fact sending a message to two parties. To would be intruders, his tidy little sandy mound tells them to buzz off. It also informs females that they are welcome to drop in at any time.

I note that the issues of personal privacy and availability to females are of the highest priority to the male ghost crab’s life style. The same selective frame of mind dominates the subject of conversation among crabs just as it governs their work habits in tunneling.

Ghost crabs do communicate by sound but are not great on small talk. They never gather to gossip or just shoot the breeze, like geese. They’re painfully single focused, always agenda driven.

On its right claw the ghost crab has what’s called a Stridulating organ. When the ghost crab strokes this against the bottom of its leg, it emits a squeaking sound.  I’m assuming it’s like the violin, able to produce a variety of notes. The repertoire, however, is severely limited.

Even in the aural communication the male ghost crab has the same agenda that’s reflected in his digging habits; leave me alone; females, excepted.

The ghost crab may be a loner but I suspect he’s also a swinger.

I had been watching him dig and tunnel in and out for about twenty minutes. Then he changed the venue and emerged coming all the way out. He stood still just inches from the entrance. I knew he’s was checking out the landscape. I assume he felt safe to wander from home. Then I saw him take off for a short distance down the beach. To think of a crab as graceful or to describe his short excursion as if it were executed with the sylph-like motions of the ballerina, you might think I’m exaggerating. I am not.

He skittered across uneven sand for a short distance with a fluid- like movement as if none of his appendages ever touched the ground. He stopped and stood still and I could see the little black dots of his eyes, unmoving, but taking everything in. He made a kind of pirouette and took off for a short distance at a forty- five- degree angle from his first direction.  He stopped abruptly maybe ten feet from me.

I felt that by having patiently held still and respecting his space I had earned his trust. He felt safe with me. I was enjoying a communion with this creature from a world so close to and yet so far from my own. I felt part of his world as though he were sharing it with me.

Above me four pelicans fly overhead.  They cast shadows between where the ghost crab stands and where I sit. In a sprint, so fast I can barely follow him, he makes for the entrance to his tunnel, darts in and is gone.

I don’t see him reappear.

I go back reading about Einstein. I think I’m getting his point.

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: There is a Straightforward Way to Deal with Mass Shootings by Carl Widell

To prevent mass murders, the United States needs to follow the lead of all other advanced industrial nations; while preserving the rights of hunters, we need to enact common sense laws limiting the sale of combat weapons. David Montgomery’s article on February 23rd, by straying into armchair psychoanalysis, irrelevant constitutional arguments and uninformed enforcement arguments confuse the debate and offers no solutions.

“Compared to 22 other high-income nations, the United States’ gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher,” states Carey Templeton, Associated Press. Gun deaths in the US are 50 times higher than in Britain, ten times higher than Australia, five times higher than France, and six times higher than Sweden. Australia, which has a hunting culture similar to our own, once had a gun death rate similar to ours. In 1996, it enacted strict laws forbidding the sale of automatic combat weapons. Australia’s gun death rate is now ten times lower than the United States. Maryland has enacted similar common-sense gun laws which limit the purchase of combat weapons but allow hunters to enjoy their sport. We need to expand these laws to the entire nation.

David Montgomery wanders off into armchair psychoanalysis and tries to link the mental disfunction of the killer at Stonemason Douglas High School with liberal philosophy, a common tactic of the National Rifle Association. This is ridiculous. The motives of Mr. Cruz are not and will not be known for some time. They are quite different from the motives of the murderers in San Bernardino, Las Vegas, and Orlando. The truth is that our mental health professionals are not at a point where they can reliably predict who will become a mass murderer and who will not. Tying prevention of mass murders to mental health prediction will not prevent more school children from dying.

Common sense gun laws are not a Constitutional issue, as Mr. Montgomery implies. Yes, Americans have the right to bear arms, but the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld laws which limit this right. Thompson submachine guns, as used by Al Capone, were outlawed in 1934, and the law outlawing them was upheld by the Supreme Court in the United States v. Miller in 1939. Maryland’s own gun laws were challenged and upheld by the Supreme Court last November. Common sense laws limiting the purchase of combat weapons are not a Constitutional issue.

Montgomery asserts that better enforcement would lower gun deaths. He is correct on this point, yet he seems unaware that the National Rifle Association, whose views he echoes, has worked quietly to limit enforcement of existing gun laws. The NRA originally opposed national background checks, opposed adding terrorists to the National Criminal Background Check System and has consistently advocated limiting funding to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives which enforces the gun laws. Better enforcement of laws like Maryland’s gun laws would help reduce mass murder, but in Florida, the 19-year-old Cruz was legally able to purchase an AR-15 with no checks at all. In Florida, better enforcement will not stop the killing of school children.

Preventing mass murders from combat weapons is not a mystery. All other industrialized nations have lowered their murder rates by enacting common sense laws limiting the purchase of these weapons. These rifles belong in combat, not in our schools.

Carl Widell is a local businessman. His daughters, Svetlana and Katya, graduated from St. Michaels High School. As a lieutenant, Mr. Widell led Marines in combat who carried the military equivalent of the AR-15 combat rifle.


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