Out and About (Sort of) This Christmas Brings Mixed Feelings by Howard Freedlander

I’ve really tried to get into the Christmas spirit, mostly succeeding but not entirely. Something is holding me back. I think others are enduring the same ambivalence.

I’ve bought my gifts. I’ve changed the CDs in my car from Irish ballads to Christmas songs. The past Friday night I attended a wonderful concert of holiday music by the renowned American Boychoir. I listened carefully at church the past Sunday to an upbeat sermon about the essence of Christmas.

I love buying gifts, bringing me more joy in some instances than experienced by the recipients. It’s fun, while fraught with fear and anticipation about the recipient’s reaction. Standard fare at this time of year. I love listening to Christmas music; my mood typically brightens. A concert by young, trained singers is a joyful experience. Listening to our Episcopal priest discuss the birth of Christ and the circumstances surrounding it provides an abiding sense of hope and optimism.

Then, a friend’s year-in-review insert in his Christmas card brought me back into reality. He eschewed his typical concluding comment about politics (which frankly I don’t recall) by admitting he didn’t know what to say. Translated: like many of us, he hopes for the best from our next President while harboring ample skepticism. This is my take. I have prayed in recent weeks that Donald Trump would make more good decisions than bad ones.

Even I marvel about at my uncharacteristic pessimism. I consider my viewpoint as reeking of reality, sadly so.

After returning Sunday from church, I then read about the President-elect’s “thank-you” tour to states where he had won, in some cases unexpectedly. During this tour, Mr. Trump has seen fit to slam those who had opposed him. Sounds like a sore winner, doesn’t he?

Will he learn about charitable thinking, even at this appropriately spiritual time of year? Seems doubtful—his unpredictable, unconventional style draws millions of supporters. His victory confirms his popularity.

Taking a more thankful viewpoint at a time that demands a large dosage of grace and kindness, I will say nothing more about politics. Instead I will pay homage to two people no longer walking the earth with us: Mike Menzies and Jim Fretterd.

President and CEO of the former Easton Bank & Trust, Mike Menzies died in June 2014. He was a superb community banker and tremendous community leader. He loved serving his customers. He loved adding value back into Talbot County by contributing his prodigious talent and intelligence to several non-profits in our community. He is sorely missed.

At the end of November 2016, Lt. Gen. (MD) James F. Fretterd, longtime adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, died after struggling with poor health in recent years. This Caroline County resident was a dynamic, highly effective military leader. He engineered significant changes in this historic organization in terms of overseas deployments, diversity in the highest ranks never before seen in the Guard, application of the Guard’s capability to the former Soviet and newly independent Republic of Estonia and greater awareness in Annapolis and Washington of the Maryland National Guard’s role in its domestic and foreign missions.

I previously wrote about General Fretterd shortly after he died. I served and worked closely with him. He was my boss and my friend. I grieve his loss.

I wrote at the outset about my conflicted emotions about an otherwise cheerful holiday. With no intention of reviving dissonant opinions about immigration, I heard recently about a

Talbot County man who just gained U.S. citizenship. Two Eastern Shore natives accompanied him to the citizenship ceremony in Baltimore. While their stoic friend shed no tears of happiness about his new status, apparently others in the room became emotional, as would be expected.

Good things happen. Families too poor to buy presents receive heartfelt support during the Christmas season. People who can, open their wallets and hearts to those who can’t, who are suffering from poverty and family misfortune. Generosity flows during this time of year—and hopefully after the decorations come down, and the joyous music ceases.

Consider this column a look back at a year filled with plentiful happiness and good health. Family members are enjoying satisfying lives. And my wife and I gained a new, terrific addition to our home in the form of Sandy, an absolutely delightful Yellow Labrador. Her presence in our lives is comforting.

I already have commented on politics. I hope our new President will surprise me and millions of others as our 45th commander-in-chief.

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.

Breaking Takes by Al Sikes

Breaking News is the jargon of breathless cable TV network anchors; anything topical is suddenly breaking. Not one to shun a trend I will from time to time do my own version of breaking news, called Breaking Takes (on the news, of course).

Legacy

This last week featured news on various appointments threatening President Obama’s legacy. The announcement of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA resulted in the most vocal outcry.

Presidents need to understand that legacies are built by aligning all the branches. Edicts through Executive Orders, agency regulations and the like are easily overturned by either the next President or a judicial reversal based on constitutional overreach.

As dissatisfying as it often seems, America proceeds best when some level of bi-partisanship is achieved.

Fake News

Two weeks ago I lamented the state of journalism and especially fake news. In this week’s news it was reported that many brand-name companies support fake news through advertisements (at least inadvertently).

An example from the Wall Street Journal:

“Yoko Ono: ‘I Had An Affair With Hillary Clinton In The ’70s,’” read the headline in World News Daily Report, a website that peddles made-up stories. Next to the story? An ad for the 2017 Ram 1500 truck, made by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.”

Consumers should use the power of online networking to let advertisers know that this conduct is unacceptable. The brand name companies will say it is all inadvertent and the result of demographic ad-matching done by computer algorithms. They are right, but must begin to insist that algorithmic matching screen out fake news (this can be accomplished).

Savvy Moves

President-elect Trump has been criticized for nominating too many retired Generals to cabinet posts. The last time I looked, the military enjoyed, at 73% by Gallup survey, the most public confidence. Congress, often a springboard to executive appointment, was at 6%.
Warning to Trump: big business, the second most frequent source of appointees, is only 18%.

A Bit of Common Sense

Senator Joe Manchin, when asked about a replacement for the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), said “If I can’t go home and explain it, I can’t vote for it.” Infamously, the Democrat House leader Nancy Pelosi said, in reference to the then pending 2000 plus page legislation: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.”

My recommendation regarding the Affordable Care Act to the incoming administration: simplify while rationalizing incentives. President-elect Trump and Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, in particular, will find their legacies significantly influenced by what is done in the second re-engineering of approximately 20% of the economy and the 20% that most Americans find the most important.

Smart People

The Designators race to name our Age. Some call it the 4th Industrial Revolution and others the Exponential Age and the names don’t end there.

I would like to see a name that captures both the up and downside of technology driven phenomena while providing a nifty acronym for the wordsmiths.
Many say artificial intelligence guided robots will define our future, the next Age. Let me make a suggestion on how the public dialogue, on what seems like irreversible momentum, might actually be beneficial.

First, we need to confront the disruptive reality. America will not be great again (if we cede the point) because of Carrier-like vignettes that save relatively few jobs. The President-elect, who commands the bully pulpit, should insist that intelligence matters and will define both the potential of America and Americans. What about calling this moment the Age when Real Intelligence Matters or RIM. RIM provides endless narrative possibilities.

And, let me add that I use the word intelligence to encompass what we learn. On a personal level, while our attention is never far from our smart phones we need to be smarter than our phones or suffer the consequences.

Culture Leads Leaders Follow

Without embarrassment I note, my book will make a great holiday gift.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.

Out and About (Sort of): Impressed by EU (local), Retiring Senator and Space Hero by Howard Freedlander

Last week’s Talbot Spy interview with Hugh Grunden, CEO of Easton Utilities, offered a glimpse into a local utility that continues to impress this 40-year resident of a town improved by the presence of this non-profit company.

For the sake of full disclosure, Hugh and I are friends. Further disclosure: before we became friends, I found this local company the epitome of customer service.

Over the years, as a demonstration of my technological ineptitude, I repeatedly have called informational technology technicians at Easton Utilities for help. In each case, I was the recipient of incredible patience and professionalism. Not once have I been disappointed by an Easton Utilities employee.

And, yes, I have written numerous emails to Hugh thanking and commending the cooperative staff members.

In his Spy interview, Hugh Grunden spoke about customer service as the Holy Grail of the organization, for which he has worked 34 years. Knowing Hugh as I do (and have disclosed), I understand that his management style would ensure that customers receive prompt, courteous and skillful assistance.

During the interview, the Easton Utilities CEO referred, rightly so, to Talbot County’s demographic composition, specifically the large number of senior citizens living in this precious environment. He made this observation in the context of customer service, aimed at people who may or may not be proficient technologically.

I believe my IT skills were questionable even when I was younger.

There are many reasons to like living in Easton and Talbot County. One organization contributes mightily to our quality of life. Utility services—be they the core missions of water and wastewater, gas, electric, cable, internet, phone and Information technology—provide the unseen, unsung and invaluable infrastructure of our community. We cannot live fruitful lives without these services. Typically, we understand the value when something doesn’t work, or during an emergency.

Hugh Grunden is a skilled utility executive who is intensely focused on customer service. These words are not just a good sound bite. They are intrinsic part of the culture at Easton Utilities. And we all benefit.

*********

Though I’ve written before about the retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, I read last week about her final speech in the Senate chamber. She called for a revival of civility in the nation’s Capital. She’s not the only one in and out of politics who crave for less coarse and corrosive discourse.

In recent weeks. I’ve experienced social media “conversation” that is marked by vitriol. I’m referring to a Facebook page tied to a reunion at a major university. Though readers know that I did not vote for Donald Trump, I found myself trying to tone down rhetoric filled with hatred and criticism of the President-elect. While I may share dismay of our country’s future under the New York businessman, I am reluctant to sound like a sore loser unwilling to exercise some degree of civility.

Sen. Mikulski will be missed. She fought relentlessly and tenaciously for the citizens of Maryland. That was her hallmark. If your cause were her cause, you had a champion who viewed obstacles as challenges to be met and overcome.

*********

When I read about the death of 95-year-old John Glenn, former astronaut and U.S. senator from Ohio, I thought back to my junior year in high school. In February 1962. Though my global perspective was limited, I did know that our national morale was low. The Russians had beaten us to space in 1957. Our sense of superiority had diminished.

Attitudes seemed to have shifted dramatically—at least to this uninformed adolescent—when John Glenn piloted Friendship 7 three times in orbit around the earth and landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean despite life-threatening damage to the capsule’s exterior during reentry into the earth’s atmosphere.

Successful and, yes, heroic action by a battle-hardened U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, a fighter pilot in two wars, gave hope and inspiration to a country badly needing a psychological boost. This Ohio native embodied calm, fearlessness and expertise. The space program offered a view of the future and justifiable pride in American know-how and grit.

I hear sometimes that our country needs heroes. Maybe that’s true.

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.

The Simplicity of Being by George Merrill

The tumult of the presidential campaign frazzled me. For a while I believe I lost my soul. During the campaign, I was raging, criticizing, judging and oddly, feeling ashamed at times. It was depressing. I’m ready to nourish my soul. It’s been hungry for a long time.

To feed my soul, I try to surrender to the simplicity of being. I do this by settling into the moment, inviting awareness only of the now.

At the moment, I’m in my studio sitting in a chair, facing the windows. I spend at least half my days reading and writing here. My gaze wanders past a model of a square-rigger, outside to a large magnolia, then a good-sized crepe myrtle and finally to a statue of St. Francis. It’s late fall and Francis is compassed about by withering flowers that dallied cheerfully with him through the spring and summer. From there and beyond I can see across the creek to the opposite shore where a sailboat is docked. It has not moved in the twenty-seven years I’ve been here. Perhaps, as its sailors aged, the boat became too much to handle. It’s kept in sight though, like an ornamental seashell left to the life once lived. Here is my sanctuary.

Everything I see seems to stay the same. Yet. to say it’s not changing is illusory, for in fact it is changing and changing constantly. This is a littoral landscape, littoral meaning a shoreline, one that defines boundaries – the boundaries between the land and the sea, or in our case, the Bay. These boundaries are in constant flux.

Rachel Carson once described the shore as the “marginal world,” that shifting line that defines and redefines topography while functioning as the generous womb birthing an extravagant abundance of living creatures. Some hunker down in the mud, others move inland, or in the cases of the dipper ducks and turtles – inhabit both sides of the littoral divide.

I know the sea level is rising. Once the outer perimeter of my studio view was defined by a stalwart line of marsh grasses. The water rarely, if ever, rose significantly up their stems. Now it does. It’s as though the land has sunk (I think it has), but the tides are also flooding higher than they normally do. Change is the way of the world.

I know I’m living in a new era of social as well as ecological forces. I must learn to accommodate to them, to understand. If the reed bends, it won’t break.

My studio is my sanctuary, a place of safety and refuge. I dream there and wonder about things. The inmost recess or holiest part of a temple or church is also called a sanctuary.

There are two sanctuaries that I know of. One occupies time and space where I can take refuge and dream, like my studio. There is another. It’s a holy place that abides in the innermost recesses of every heart. It’s deep within me. When I’m fussing about everything, I forget it’s there. Of the people who retire there to take refuge and find safety, some return to tell us about what it’s like. I’ve gone there from time to time for refuge, as I am doing now.

While inhabiting that space, the natural world to which I’ve become so inured suddenly springs alive. It looks different. The familiar contours of the littoral landscape, or the thought of the fomenting of life seething in the muddy banks of the creek now seem like a fresh discovery. The effortless flights of raptors above and even insects going about their inscrutable business suddenly seem exotic, miraculous as if a spell had been cast over me and altered my vision. I enter a heightened state of awareness. I am finding my soul again where all things are made new.

he effortless flights of raptors above and even insects going about their inscrutable business suddenly seem exotic, miraculous as if a spell had been cast over me and altered my vision. I enter a heightened state of awareness. I am finding my soul again where all things are made new.

I leave my studio to take a walk. I feel alert, expectant. On the road I have a brief moment with a wooly bear.

As I walked the road, she was wiggling her way across it. We met in the middle. I stopped. We spent maybe two minutes together. She never acknowledges my presence, but just keeps going. I walk along with her, but I must go slowly. It’s good to slow down and not feel driven to go faster to keep up. I often lose my soul that way.

The wooly bear makes her way across the road and I’m sure she hasn’t noticed me at all. Her’s, as I considered it, is a hazardous journey. A passing automobile could stop her dead in her tracks. She is living her life to the full – living it in the simplicity of her being.

Fat and furry, she crawls along while undulating like Jell-O. She is colored deep brown with a copper stripe. Her destiny is simple. Once she’s crossed the road she’ll nest somewhere under a leaf or in the hollow of a log and spend the winter. As temperatures drop she will literally chill out – freeze for the winter duration and then in spring, thaw out and warm up to be transformed into a tiger moth. The reed that bends never breaks.

As I finish writing my thoughts (after feeding my soul), I look out my studio window. There’s St. Francis, as ever, holding a small bird in his arms and still surrounded by the remains of his loyal cadre of flowers.

This, for now, is the simplicity of being. It’s a good place be.

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.

Thanks for What by Al Sikes

Thanksgiving puzzles me. I thought I knew what it meant, but my emotional assuredness has been increasingly challenged by the assertion that Thanksgiving is our most important holiday because it is a secular one. Everybody, it is said, can comfortably celebrate Thanksgiving.

It is interesting that the words importance and secular are paired. Importance most assuredly stands apart from secular. It is however, clear that Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation making Thanksgiving a national holiday also made it a secular one. Our constitutional separation of church and state certainly means the State cannot proclaim a religious holiday.

History records the first Thanksgiving celebrations being started by the Pilgrims who inclusively reached out to Native Americans and offered blessings to God. Sarah Josepha Hale, the Editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, which enjoyed the highest circulation of any periodical, had promoted a day of Thanksgiving writing, “[It] is considered as an appropriate tribute of gratitude to God to set apart one day of Thanksgiving in each year; and autumn is the time when the overflowing garners of America call for this expression of joyful gratitude.”

I know that Thanksgiving in the Sikes household has long been centered on thanks giving as we directly and indirectly celebrated a transcendent power, not our own. But, enough with history and theology. I suspect we can all agree that Thanksgiving is indeed about giving thanks. I hope in this age of Selfies we pause to recognize more than ourselves.

Several days ago I was talking to a Hispanic friend, a newly minted citizen of the United States. She told me she was looking forward to preparing Thanksgiving Dinner and proudly proclaimed the main course would be a roasted turkey. A small moment for sure, but also a profound one.

Sarah Josepha Hale believed that Thanksgiving dishes, indeed common dishes, would help bring us together. At the time of President Lincoln’s proclamation, the Civil War raged. Lincoln called on Americans to celebrate “with one heart and one voice.”

I suspect that for many of us Thanksgiving is an expression of the great commandment, to love our neighbor as our self–to give thanks, to be gracious. So, let me end with several thoughts about the 2016 edition of our national holiday.

Every four years we celebrate Thanksgiving several weeks after an election. This year the election followed a raucous and often tawdry campaign that amplified differences. The President-elect was frequently the leading edge of the spear. There were, to be sure, many who welcomed the chance to respond with equally sharp and often degrading rhetoric.

As we move toward withdrawing the “elect” from the word President, we should also move away from ad hominem politics. To attack is the antithesis of thanks giving, regardless of who “casts the first stone.” And, we should all strive and particularly in the Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas seasons to more fully understand our blessings and the responsibility of blessings.

This year I am thankful that men and women who come from different culinary traditions join in the American tradition. Strength derived through unity is actually the motto on the Presidential Seal (soon to be used by the President-elect): E pluribus unum—out of many one.

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.