Beaches by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Now that June is here, it seems like the right time to muse about the beaches in our lives. As I write this, my wife and I are attending a wedding in Cape May, that pendant piece of New Jersey separating the Atlantic Ocean from Delaware Bay. It’s a quintessential beach town: sand, lifeguard chairs, a boardwalk, rented bikes and peddle buggies, t-shirt shops. Sunburned faces licking ice ream cones; frizzy hair; time standing still, the hands of the town clock pointing squarely at summer.

Up and down the east coast, beaches are the happy margin of the continent. Florida is one long beach and the barrier islands of Georgia and South Carolina provide plenty of good sand. Some folks swear by the Outer Banks, while others prefer the sandy linings of Virginia or on across the Chesapeake Bay to the oases on the Delmarva Peninsula: Ocean City, Bethany, Rehoboth, and Lewes. Further along, you can stick your toes in the sand almost anywhere along the Jersey Shore, or on the beaches that run the length of Long Island, before leaping across Long Island Sound to the classic New England beachfront towns that dot the Connecticut and Rhode Island littoral. Like cold water? Head further north to Cape Cod or its offshore cousins: Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard, or Nantucket. The hardiest souls spend their summers along the rocky coast around Penobscot Bay or down east in Maine with the lobsters and cod or even in the maritime provinces of Canada, but that’s another, chillier story told to the doleful song of fog horns and bell buoys.

Back in my high school geometry class, I remember learning that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. While that may surely be mathematically true, I think a beach puts that theory to the test. Shorelines meander; so do beach conversations; life just seems to shed much of its straightness within earshot of the surf. I think that’s why some people are such Beachophiles: for months and months, they long for an excuse to shed their shoes and their shirts to read a good book, dig a hole, build a castle, sip a beer, or take a long nap in the sun with nature’s own sound machine running soothingly in the background. Points A and B recede into the background behind the dunes, the straight line between them erased like footprints along the tide line.

Now I know there are days when the clouds roll in and rain spoils summer fun. That’s life. But if you’ve rented a place for the week and packed the kids and their bikes and all your other beach paraphernalia into the car, a string of rainy beach days becomes more than just a casual annoyance. Looking out your rain-spattered window and feeling sorry for yourself isn’t going to solve the problem. Get creative: a good movie, some board games, or that good book you brought might just fill the gap until the sun comes out again.

And it will. I promise.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”

The Salt Leaf by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Last week, I was down in the Florida Keys fishing for tarpon. In case you don’t know, tarpon are locomotives disguised as fish. They are nocturnal feeders so fishing for them is a midnight-to-dawn affair, in this particular case under a full Florida moon. My first hook-up resulted in an hour and a half battle with a 160 pound monster that ended when the steel hook broke releasing fish and fisherman from their tenuous monofilament connection. He was ten feet from the boat; I declared moral victory.

But that’s a story for another day. Today’s tale is about the lowly mangrove, the ubiquitous shrub that thrives throughout the Keys and many other tropical climes as well. That the mangrove thrives at all is nothing short of a miracle because it roots in very salty water, water that is, in fact, saline enough to kill any other species. How does it do that?

Look closer. Mangrove leaves are a brilliant jade green. But interspersed among their green finery are bright spots of yellow. These are the salt leaves. By a science I do not pretend or presume to understand, these leaves are programmed to extract enough of the concentrated salt in the water rendering it sufficiently fresh to nourish the host plant. Theories abound about how this actually works. Some botanists posit that it is the roots of the mangrove that filter as much as 90% of the salt from seawater, thereby providing enough fresh water to feed the plant. However, other botanists believe that the alchemy of turning salt water into fresh water is done by the leaves of the plant. By some evolutionary miracle, each mangrove is programmed to produce a precious few salt leaves that are capable of excreting such enormous quantities of salt through glands on their surface that they, in effect, sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the host. I like that theory a lot.

One afternoon, I spent some time trying to count the number of salt leaves on a given plant. It was a futile effort. The roots of the mangrove are so intertwined that it’s impossible to distinguish one root system from another and anyway, after a while, they all began to look alike. So I did the next best thing: I estimated. Best guess? Maybe one leaf in a thousand is a salt leaf. Even if I’m off by a factor of ten, that’s still quite a burden to bear for a single tiny yellow leaf.

By the time you’re reading this, we will have marked another Memorial Day on the calendar. It’s the one day of the year when we officially remember and honor those men and women who were and are our nation’s salt leaves. Let’s pledge to remember what these heroes have sacrificed—some ultimately—for our greater common good.

There is another interesting aspect to the mangrove: the locals say it “walks.” As it thrives, its roots spread. Silt collects and eventually new land begins to form, land that is host to all manner of other species and all other manner of immigrant life. Life begetting life.

Thank those who sacrifice. Thank the salt leaves.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”

Golf Notes: Over Water by Jamie Kirkpatrick

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 9.08.34 AMThe fourth hole at the little golf club I belong to in Chestertown is a par three over water.  It’s not a long carry, but no short shot survives; misjudge the wind, under club, or hit it fat and you are doomed. You can make a mistake long…but never short. Yet another life lesson on the links: take an extra club; if you’re long, you’re still in the game. Hit it short and you’re wet…and dead.

I’ve hit it short a few times: a bonehead mistake in high school that haunts me to this day; a failed first marriage; a job that was so wrong that I was fired within a year (or would have been if I hadn’t quit). But I’ll say this for myself: I learn my lessons. Now, I always choose a longer club. I might not hit the green every time, but if I err, it’s not because I’ve underestimated the wind or all the water that lies between me and the green. I’ve just failed to execute. Strangely, I can live with that.

In today’s analytical world, the problem often lies in some perceived misconstruing of data—at least that’s where we aim to place the blame. We rarely accept responsibility for our faults and as a result, lessons that might be learned go their carefree way. Far better to be accountable: that way, lessons can be learned, errors can be corrected, obstacles can be overcome.

When I struggle on the golf course, I go to the range or the practice area or if I’m really wise, I seek help from the club pro. He’s a perceptive and unassuming young man who teaches or corrects with a gentle hand. But change never comes easily. I’ve learned that after a lesson, my game doesn’t improve overnight. It takes time to incorporate a new skill or to “unlearn” a bad habit. There’s even a lesson in that, too: I don’t expect miracles or immediate results. I’ve learned that progress takes two things: sweat and time.

Now I’m not suggesting that golf is all about struggle or overcoming obstacles.  On number four, for example, the sound of a ball landing softly on the green instead of splashing in the pond is something to savor, a moment of pure auditory bliss. The same is true about life. Many sages—Nietzsche, Frederick Douglass, Pope Paul VI, and Oprah Winfrey, to name just a few—have encouraged us to find beauty in the struggle or that without it, there can be no progress. I don’t disagree, but sometimes I believe progress can be evolutionary, not revolutionary. We only have to let progress happen, to let it unfold like a blossom in spring. The Eagles reminded us to “Take it Easy” while Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the greatest writers of our time, put it this way: “Don’t struggle so much. The best things happen when not expected.”

So: back to the tee on number four. It’s a beautiful day, the course is practically empty, the breeze is gentle. It’s early in the round but I’m with my friends and my swing feels fluid and easy. The pin is forward. I select a 7 iron and settle in over the ball. Everything is as it should be. I take the club away in a long, graceful arc; a breath of a rest at the top; a descending blow…

What sound did you just hear?

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”


The Great Cargo by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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I’ve been reading Richard Wilbur’s poem “The Writer.” On one level, it’s about a writer’s lonely struggle, in this case, Wilbur’s young daughter who is banging out a story on her typewriter up in her locked room. On another level, it’s about a father standing watch over his daughter who is growing up too fast. But at the metaphorical heart of the poem, a bird—a “dazed starling”—becomes trapped in the daughter’s room and only after many failed attempts finds the “right window” and clears the “sill of the world.”

My daughter is a painter and some years ago, she moved away to Los Angeles to practice her art. By all accounts, she has done quite well; her paintings now sell for five figures and recently she was chosen to do all the artwork for a line of cosmetics sold by a large national chain store. She has become successful and like the starling in Wilbur’s poem, she has cleared the sill of her world.

“Young as she is,” Wilbur’s poem continues, “the stuff/Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:/I wish her a lucky passage.” I know that feeling well. I haven’t seen or heard from my daughter in over three years. It is a great sadness to me, all the more because her leaving—literally and figuratively—was sudden and unexplained. At first, I thought it was only a temporary parting and that she would return to me and to her brother to resume her light-hearted place in our lives. But that hasn’t happened and with each passing day/week/year, I grow more uncertain about a reunion. I have given up wondering why: it’s too painful a question and I have tried to become resolved to the notion that I will never really know why she so abruptly abandoned ship. I haven’t been very successful at that.

Khalil Gibran, the mystic Lebanese-American writer, reminds us, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they do not belong to you.” I guess that makes parenting a great cargo, too, and some of it heavy. There is a universal investment of hope and love in our children, but there is never a promise of return. A parent’s love and support must be gifts freely given, not gifts given to get. I understand that, but that doesn’t mean that my own daughter’s silence and absence don’t hurt to the quick.

This is the last stanza of Wilbur’s poem:

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life and death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

I know it is important, even essential, to let go of our children. They have their own lives to live, but I guess I assumed the circles of my daughter’s life and my life would always somewhat intersect, not drift apart. For today, I will wish my daughter what I have always wished her: love, health, happiness, and success, however she chooses to define those ephemeral concepts.

But harder.

After careers in both international development (Special Olympics) and secondary education (Landon School), Jamie Kirkpatrick bought a home on the Eastern Shore in 2011. Now he’s a happily married freelance writer and photographer who plays golf and the bagpipes with equal facility. Jamie’s writing and photography have appeared in The Baltimore Sun and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He is currently at work on a new book called “Musing Right Along.

Why I Play by Jamie Kirkpatrick

Golf has been described many different ways, perhaps most memorably by Mark Twain as “a good walk spoiled.” I understand that sentiment but like to think I can transcend it from time to time. For instance, there was the time I launched a 5 iron from the rough on number 15 at my local and it came to rest inches away from the cup for a tap-in birdie. But generally, my game can best be described as one that vacillates between the good, the bad, and the ugly. I can live with that.

But I while I strive to improve, I don’t really care if I become a scratch player. I have goals; I admit that.

Screen Shot 2016-02-20 at 12.22.00 PMEvery year, I keep a ringer scorecard: the lowest score on each hole over the course of that year. Last year, I managed a 61, pretty good for someone with an uneven game and a 19 handicap. I would be happy if each round I played was south of 90, but I’m not quite there yet. But that’s not really the point. It’s not the quantitative analysis that keeps me coming back for another round. No; it’s the qualitative aspect of the game that, like the Supremes, keeps me hanging on.

I play most of my golf at Chester River Yacht and Country Club, a country club over on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that is longer on country than it is on club. It’s a relaxed place: there are no tee times and very rarely do we ever wait on other players in front of us. In fact, very rarely do we even see other players anywhere on the course. Four-hour rounds are common; often a friend and I can get around in under three. Even more importantly, the place is beautiful: herons stalk the ponds, eagles or ospreys soar overhead, and snapping turtles have been known to lay their eggs in the sand traps around number 12. At dawn or dusk, the course is a splendidly silent place, lit from within by a thousand glowing candles, an outdoor cathedral that beckons the pilgrim and recharges his weary soul

But even that is not why I play. I play for friendship. There is regular gaggle of golfers I play with on Saturdays at noon. We’re of roughly even ability, even temperament, and almost even intellect. (I say ‘almost’ because one of us has a couple of Pulitzers in his bag.) There is plenty of good fellowship on the course and in the bar. We applaud good shots and say little about bad ones; if any money changes hands, it is very little and immediately disbursed on drink by the winner. Bitterness never rears its ugly head; disappointment never lingers long.

I have given each my pals a nickname which I write down on our common scorecard to preserve anonymity and to keep things light. There is Eggman, a house painter so named because he is convinced that the egg proceeded the chicken; The Knife because his surname is Mack; Jim goes by Dan because his surname sounds like that funk band of the 90s, Steely Dan. “Crumpets” lives part of the year in London. Then there is Hoondog, Clark, Letters, and Rub; the last relates to the fact that the bearer once took a course in Swedish massage. I am called Steve because on occasion I hit low stingers that fly like bullets that reminded the Eggman of an old Steve McQueen movie. (NB: one cannot give one’s self a nickname; it must be bestowed by another, like a knighthood.)

We are friends on and off the course.  Although I am relatively new to the group, we have pushed each through middle age and on toward retirement. In fact, Crumpets just crossed that threshold; I expect his handicap will be going down this summer.

So that’s why I play: to be part of a couple of foursomes moving companionably along the fairways of life, avoiding the hazards whenever possible and occasionally tapping in for birdie.


After careers in both international development (Special Olympics) and secondary education (Landon School), Jamie Kirkpatrick bought a home on the Eastern Shore in 2011. Now he’s a happily married freelance writer and photographer who plays golf and the bagpipes with equal facility. Jamie’s writing and photography have appeared in The Baltimore Sun and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He is currently at work on a new book called “Musing Right Along.



Washington College Freezes Tuition

The dominant theme of Washington College President Sheila Bair’s inaugural address in September was the need to find fresh approaches to controlling the cost of higher education and reducing the toll student debt takes on borrowers and their families. Today she announced a major step forward toward those goals – Washington College will institute a one-year tuition freeze for students enrolled during the Fall 2016 academic year.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 10.36.32 AMPresident Bair has made affordability and access major leadership priorities at Washington College. She says the freeze is just the beginning of the College’s exploration of new strategies and alternative funding models that will give certainty to families and protect them against unaffordable tuition hikes.

Total student debt in America stands at $1.3 trillion, with forty million Americans carrying at least one outstanding student loan. Student debt is now the second largest category of debt held in the US, second only to home mortgages. The average student debt load in America is $29,000, with the average borrower holding four loans, and the default rate is nearly 12% nationwide.

Increasing levels of college debt lead borrowers to put off commitments that mark the major life choices, Bair says, like saving for the future, buying homes and cars, and even starting families.

Financial aid is important for almost all Washington College students, especially first-generation college students whose families often need the most help in paying for college. Every year, Washington College provides more than $23 million in grants and scholarships. Ninety percent of students are awarded merit-based scholarships and/or need-based financial aid.

Tuition will be locked at its current rate of $42,844. The freeze does not include room & board and related costs of attendance, which are scheduled to increase by 2%, two-thirds lower than last year’s adjustment. The student fee is also being reduced by 1.1%.

“Washington College is committed to containing the cost of attendance without sacrificing educational quality or institutional adaptability,” she says. “This tuition freeze will provide some financial certainty to our current students and their families, and is just the start of our dedication to making a world-class liberal arts education an accessible dream for all seekers.”

The freeze is the latest in a series of programs aimed at addressing one or more elements of access, affordability, and student debt. Other efforts include George’s Brigade, a group application program that provides full aid against the cost of attendance for high-ability, high-need students, and Dam the Debt, which seeks to lower debt levels for current students at Washington College.