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January 21, 2010

“Parting is such sweet sorrow…”

Tony Soltero

I moved to Frederick County from Baltimore County in the late summer of 2002. I was starting a new job in Northern Virginia, and I decided to move here so I could be within viable commuting distance of anywhere in the Baltimore/Washington area.


In other words, I just didn't want to go through the rigmarole of moving again in the future. So Frederick County became my home, partly because of its relative convenience to the entire corridor, partly because of its affordability, and partly because of its high quality of life. And I have not been let down. Frederick County is the best value in Maryland, at every level.


When I moved here, I knew not a soul. This changed when I became involved in the Howard Dean campaign in 2003. I met a great many local people, and formed some enduring friendships. And it was through these circles that I eventually met John Ashbury. One of my new friends, future Frederick Alderman Kip Koontz, wrote regularly for The Tentacle, and referred me to John as a potential contributor. And thus I became a small island of progressivism in a sea of reactionary content.


It's been a wonderful experience. I had never done anything like this before. I wrote the occasional letter to the editor, and posted a lot on various Internet forums, but I had never written a formal, regular, organized opinion column before. And especially not about political matters – I was far more comfortable writing about baseball and Bruce Springsteen. But I thought I'd give it a try, and I found out that I enjoyed it. (Whether I've been any good at it or not is for others to assess.)


I also developed a newfound respect for those professional columnists who come up with three pieces a week. It's hard enough doing two a month!


I have heard it said that one isn't doing his job as an op-ed columnist if one doesn't make people angry. Well, I certainly got plenty of that. I also got the occasional kind words, even from political adversaries, which were always very much appreciated.


It was a casual decision to begin writing for The Tentacle. It became a part of my biweekly rhythm of life – oops, it's Tuesday, time to write something. After a while it became so ingrained into my habits that I couldn't imagine not producing a piece, even on those occasions in which I had no ideas.


And as casual a decision as it was to write here, it's been a gut-wrenching decision to stop. Over the last few months I postponed the decision every time, turning out one more column, and one more, and one more. I wanted off the treadmill, but I didn't know how to stop it.


Well, this is finally the time I've decided to end this enjoyable run. All of our lives change over time, and I'm no exception. So, after almost six years – I can't believe it's been six years – this is my last column for The Tentacle.


So, in the spirit of the former Cable 10 show Pressing Issues, I will offer one final thought.


I grew up in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is a poor island by American standards, but quite wealthy by developing-nation standards. The standard of living there is a motley combination of an industrialized nation and a third-world backwater. In a nutshell, car ownership is extremely high, but the roads are in mediocre shape for the most part.


As is true of most third-world locales, Puerto Rico has an extremely high crime rate. Just about everyone has been a crime victim or knows someone who has been. It's almost expected.


So, if you're a wealthy or middle-class Puerto Rican, you live in a gated community. That's the default. You invest heavily in cast-iron grillwork for your doors and windows and in sophisticated alarm systems for your home. Private security firms do a booming business. In the townhouse I grew up in, we had a gate at the top of the stairs that we locked when retiring for the night. An INDOOR gate.


What all of this means is that, yes, you're "safe," at least relatively speaking. But daily living becomes fraught with major hassles and inconveniences. If you want to go out to pick up a pizza, you have to go through five layers of security, punch alarm codes at a couple of doors, and look all around you at all times. So many local streets are closed off that main arteries become clogged with traffic jams that make the Washington Beltway look like a remote airstrip. And then there's the major bite all these security systems take out of one's wallet.


And remember, this is Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth. It's far worse in places like Brazil and Indonesia.


What's the lesson here? Well, to me it's the best argument for progressivism. When a nation has terribly skewed wealth distribution, even the privileged pay the price. Because spending one's time shuttling from sealed bubble to sealed bubble is not conducive to a high quality of life.


Social investments are investments in all of us. If we make others' lives better, we make our own lives better. That means not begrudging teachers and autoworkers their salaries. Few gainfully employed people commit violent crimes.


But the more we let our social safety net shrivel – a long-term trend that's barely been mitigated under President Barack Obama – the more we risk winding up living our own lives barricaded in fear, even – especially – if we have means. That's not "freedom."


And that is why I am a progressive. Because I don't want to see us become a third-world country made up of little affluent enclaves surrounded by squalor. We all lose.


So, with that final thought filed, I want to thank John for providing me this forum over the years, and letting me get my words out even on those many occasions when he didn't agree with them.


And I want to thank all of my readers over the years. Every time I wonder if anybody reads this column, I get feedback from somewhere unexpected. That's always refreshing.


Goodbye to all. It's been a pleasure.


Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
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