Down With Cursive

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Learning to form the irrational, non-intuitive shapes of the capital G and Q in cursive is something of a second-grade rite of passage. Or at least it used to be. As handwriting in general becomes increasingly passe, and as elementary school curricula become increasingly test-oriented, teaching cursive is slowly getting pushed out of the curriculum.

And who cares, right? Unless you’re getting paid to address wedding invitations, you probably haven’t used your cursive skills recently. People who freak out about kids not learning cursive are reactionary nostalgists — and I usually love nostalgia! But even I understand that times have changed, and typing classes seem like a much better use of kids’ school hours.

Recently, the neurologists started to weigh in (always a bad sign). Turns out that handwriting is more cognitively demanding than typing. When you’re typing without looking at the keys, you create “a distinct spatiotemporal decoupling between the visual attention and the haptic input.” That is, your typing hands are at a remove from the letters that appear on the screen. When they practice physically forming letters by hand, kids are also learning to recognize those letters when they read. Which is a fine case for making sure that kids still know how to operate the ancient technology of pen-and-paper writing. But that’s an argument for why we still need print; what, exactly, is the function of script? 

Are Dogs Driving Us to Distraction?

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According to AAA Mid-Atlantic, a recent study reveals that drivers who ride with dogs are engaging in distracting behaviors. Fifty-two percent of drivers polled admit to petting their dog; eighteen percent  reach into the backseat to pet them; seventeen percent allow their dog to sit on their lap while they drive; and, amazingly, three percent admit to having taken a photo of their dog while driving. No word on how many drivers actually let their dog take the wheel.

The study further reveals that though eighty-three percent of drivers acknowledge the dangers of riding with an unrestrained dog (to both the dog and other passengers) only sixteen percent use a pet-restraint.

Investing in a doggie seatbelt may seem down-right decadent to some, akin to diamond-studded collars or canine shoes, but upon closer inspection the practical usefulness of a pet-restraint becomes obvious. Perhaps you don’t want to treat your pet like a person, but you certainly want to protect her from injury, right? Perhaps one day driving with an unrestrained dog will be nearly as scandalous as driving with an unrestrained infant.

At the very least, can we all agree to pull over for all future canine photo ops?

Take This Chevette and Shove It!

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Last week, I asked my grown children if they remembered our whirlwind trip to the Food-A-Rama one night, 10 minutes before closing, when they were small. We divided and conquered every aisle with seconds to spare. They remembered better the torturous day we lost the car at the mall, and we reminded one another of some really good, really hard times.

At 26, I became a single parent of two toddlers, ages four and two, and a newborn, not yet eight weeks old. I’d caught my husband with his “woman on the side,” and in an instant, knew I’d leave. After I changed the locks on all the doors and filed for divorce—on the same day I caught him—it never occurred to me that his perspective of the situation would be radically different. In his mind, wives of cheating men simply resigned themselves to being long suffering, and stayed married for the sake of the children. My staunch belief that a happy mother equaled happy children cancelled the social teaching that staying in a miserable marriage served the kids’ best interest. My white-hot fury at my husband’s betrayal at a most vulnerable time—just after having delivered a third baby—coupled with my inability to become a polite shrinking violet, left no room for either discussion or reconciliation. I sent his “woman on the side” a thank-you note for “willingly taking my cross and bearing it,” along with the gift of his soiled laundry and dust-collecting sundries, more or less saying, “He’s yours, lady. Enjoy!” Angry at the unexpected turn of events, he divorced the children as I divorced him.

In the short term, a huge obstacle to getting my daughters’ ears pierced had been removed. (Ear-piercing a tradition for Italian baby girls but an act he’d considered mutilation.) So one afternoon, the kids and I launched our lives as a single-parent family at the mall, getting the girls’ ears pierced. Technically, I was still married, but I felt as though I had lost 175 pounds of dead weight. A long, minimally successful but epic battle over child support ensued. He paid the bare minimum, and I refused to give up the effort to increase the pittance.

Barely into adulthood, possessing not more than a shred of parental experience, I found myself armed with a degree in English, with a concentration in writing, a thin resume, devoid of any first post-college positions, a thinner wallet, an emptied bank account (he also divorced me from my savings), and three babies addicted to the bad habit of expecting three or more meals per day. I took stock of two things: First, I loved each child unconditionally; second, we lived in an ethnic conclave with my parents, extended family nearby, and an assortment of elderly widows who loved being additional nonnas or grandmothers, which made us luckier than many single-parent families.

Blissfully ignorant about the nearly impossible challenge of making a healthy enough living as a writer to support three children, overflowing with naive optimism, I bounced my brood around the poverty line for more than a few years. Because our two cars belonged to my soon-to-be-ex, I was forced to walk the children to and from the Food-A-Rama on Broadway with bags of groceries hanging off the baby’s stroller (and my arms), while keeping two toddlers entertained with stories and word games so they wouldn’t run ahead. During this early phase, turn-off notices from the utility company became ubiquitous.

The children and I survived exquisite chaos.
 
Thrilled that the girls would agree to play quietly in the living room, I left them to their own devices and honed my writing skills on a manual typewriter at the dining room table. I was landing regular story assignments–the children and I began to equate stories with money, but often the equation failed. One January, despite having six stories published, none of the publications had yet sent payments, and we found ourselves literally penniless. I wept while stacking and re-stacking the bills, praying that a check would arrive before the already extended BGE due date. That weepy night, I vowed to file criminal non-support charges against my ex, and kept my promise.
 
I soon learned that quiet children could translate into trouble, like my older daughter’s playing barber with a set of safety scissors. She chopped off half of my younger girl’s gorgeous curls. Crying over the lost curls, steeped in money woes fueling deadline pressure, I simply chopped off the other half, stuffed the pretty hair into a plastic bag for safe keeping, hid the scissors, moved the typewriter to a better spot to watch them more closely, finished my story, submitted it, then took the baby to a hairdresser friend for a fix. Hair, after all, grew back, but money didn’t, and I was determined to freelance my way into a full-time job, which I did eventually.

*
.
It was a post-soccer-practice trip to the supermarket on a school night, that’s an adventure I’ll never forget. We four arrived at the Food-A-Rama ten minutes before closing. Frowning cashiers suggested we return the next morning, but with an empty fridge at home, and three post-practice-hungry children in tow, this option was unacceptable to me. The clock gave us 10 minutes, I insisted, and much to the employees’ chagrin, the manager allowed us exactly that time limit to grab our grub.

Clock ticking, I raced a shopping cart to the front of the store, tore our ambitious list in four parts, kept one, gave each kid one, and said, “Go.” For eight minutes, we dashed around the store, to and from the cart like game show contestants, slam-dunking items, collecting every noted selection and then some. We laughed all the way home. As I unpacked the goods, I discovered that each child had improvised, adding favorites like toaster waffles and a jar of melted marshmallow. They’d sneaked the sugary candy-in-a-box cereal brands they knew I’d never buy on a normal day. Faulting them for their choices seemed pointless when dinner had yet to be prepared and eaten, homework checked, and baths taken, so we could all crawl into bed past bedtime, only to begin our routine again at dawn.

*

After a rare trip to White Marsh Mall, I couldn’t remember where the red Chevette was parked. My father drove 45 minutes, piled us all inside his Taurus and slowly patrolled each parking lot until we found it. He yelled at me the entire time, but diligently helped us search, all the while swearing I’d forget my head if it weren’t attached to my neck.

The bequeathed red Chevette has seared itself into all of our memories: the car that we renamed the “ShoveIt,” which transported us around town on a wing and a prayer. ShoveIt died every morning at the same spot on I-83 N, just before the North Avenue exit, and after about five minutes of pleading, “Please God, make it work,” and nonstop attempts to start the thing, it roared to life as mysteriously as it had died, and off we went.

At red lights, the three kids used to rock in the same direction to see if they could get the car to do the same thing. It did. One morning, we walked to the Chevette and found the door wide open–someone had attempted to steal our ShoveIt in the middle of the night but thought better of it.

*

Nothing came easily. We learned to laugh more often, perhaps as a defense–but it helped. Growing up in a single-parent family forced my children to learn responsibilities that children of two-parent households embrace later. They separated clothes and operated the washing machine and dryer before they hit double age digits. They learned the difference between wants and needs, understood the importance of family and extended family, and accepted that modern families could consist of a myriad of configurations. They accepted early not everyone got two parents.

I learned how to juggle responsibilities, nurturing my children and my writing dream–oftentimes dropping the balls, only to pick them up and continue.

Now my kids stand on the threshold of their own parenthood. I still work as a full-time writer. For me, their childhoods flashed like the illumination of Chinese fireworks at New Year’s Eve, a burst of brilliant, happy colors in the midnight sky. Only by the grace of God, only with the help of family, friends, and neighbors, only with the understanding that despite our imperfections, mistakes, missteps and faulty memories, we remained bound to each other by an invisible but unbreakable thread, we muddled through each day.

DIY Heatwave Project: Baking Bread with a Solar Oven

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When it’s this hot, most of us just want to lurk inside and curse the weather. But instead of thinking of the sun as our enemy, what if we tried to enlist it as an ally? That’s the premise behind solar cooking, in which the sun’s abundant, powerful energy is used to cook food without consuming fuels.

It’s mostly a trend in the developing world, where fuel (and/or time for gathering fuel) is often scarce. But weather like this got one local blogger wondering if it might just be hot enough to not just fry an egg, but bake a loaf of bread using one of those silver windshield shades as a reflective surface.

You can read the detailed account here, but we’ll just let you know now (spoiler alert) — it didn’t work. Something about the angle of the foil reflector. But still, it’s an inspirational take on how to keep yourself occupied when the temperature is oven-like. Try it out later this week, when we’ll be in the triple-digits once again…

Matthew Porterfield Wows with Photo-Mosaic

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Matthew Porterfield is primarily known around Baltimore for his films. His first feature, Hamilton, which he wrote, directed and edited on 16mm film, was released in 2006. Metal Gods, his second feature script, won the Panasonic Digital Filmmaking Grand Prize at IFP’s 30th Annual Independent Film Week in 2008. You may remember the recent ado about his latest film, Putty Hill, which was much acclaimed and shot entirely in Baltimore.

His vivid and massive 72-photo installation, Days Are Golden Afterparty, is assembled from pictures taken with a cellphone, printed at 20″ x 30″ and hung in a grid. A video montage of many of the same photos plays on a television monitor.

Matthew Porterfield is the winner of the 2011 Sondheim Prize. His photo-installation is on exhibition at the BMA until August 7.

I Love City Life: But Do I Know City Life?

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Fun-snacks-and-ice-cold-drinks-aplenty bash to beat the heat: Live Baltimore hosts an “I Love City Life” happy hour this evening to say thanks to folks who’ve sported the local city-life-loving slogan on bumpers or license plates.

Jot down the details: 6 to 8pm at Gaslight Square, 1401 Severn Street.

Maybe you recognize the widespread yellow sticker but don’t know that the message links to Live Baltimore, the only organization dedicated to marketing Baltimore as a terrific and affordable place to live, with the two practical goals of repopulating the city and increasing its residential tax base. (If you didn’t know the sticker matched the nonprofit, you’re not alone!)

Baltimore City native Carolyn O’Keefe dreamed up the saying to express her true satisfaction with life in the city. She created a bumper sticker and awarded it to friendly people she met–at gas stations, groceries, wherever. New face by new face and neighbor by neighbor, O’Keefe spread her pro-city message. Since 1999, when O’Keefe donated stickers to Live Baltimore, the nonprofit has proudly touted “I Love City Life” as catchphrase, theme song, and battle hymn.

Tonight’s happy hour will help raise awareness for the Baltimore Grand Prix, which takes place Labor Day weekend, September 2-4, and marks the first time the “Festival of Speed” has zoomed through town.

“We created this event to celebrate a marriage – of city lovers and car lovers,” said Live Baltimore Executive Director Anna Custer-Singh. “This happy hour is intended to thank all of our license plate holders and raise awareness of a new Baltimore tradition, the Baltimore Grand Prix.”

A 10 dollar cover charge includes appetizers and drinks from Dogwood, Taharka Brothers Ice Cream, live music, and a shot at two Grand Prix tickets.

(Those who own an “I Love” license plate get free admittance!)

Online pre-registration is encouraged.

Top 10 Ways to Cheat the Heat

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With local temps flaming above 100, and predicted to punish similarly until Sunday, Baltimore Fishbowl contributors got together to swap high-heat survival strategies. Here’s what our literally fevered brains came up with, and please share your own stay-cool tips below!

“Staying in bed all day, computer on lap. Naked. [Plus extra-large headphones.]” –Arlo Shakur

“Tomorrow is my wife’s birthday–we will be wandering around the artificially cool BMA, which is better than a movie because it’s free and you can stay longer.” –Robert O’Brien

“If you can’t beat the heat, just embrace it. Hang your laundry outside to dry, build a sauna out of sticks and Saran Wrap, and fry eggs on the sidewalk. Or alternately, do not, under any circumstances, leave the pool.” –Marta Randall

“Our whole neighborhood treats the pool on Wyndhurst like a communal dining room: Breakfast, lunch, cocktails, and dinner are served out of the kitchens of Evergreen and Roland Park and onto the umbrella tables. I think Papa John and Mt. Washington Pizza run dedicated delivery cars. We all just live there, and go home after dark, straggling down the street in our wet towels.” –Marion Winik

“I LOVE this heat. It keeps reminding me I’m not in England anymore!” –Mikita Brottman

“I’m a fan of taking my dog to any of the swimming holes in Patapsco State Park. There’s ample tree cover, so you’re not on the water in direct sunlight like you would be in a pool.” –Sara Lynn Michener

“I took the kids to the Gunpowder [Falls State Park]–a secret little spot where we like to dangle our toes, and drift on tubes. The air feels so much cooler under the tree canopy!” –Elizabeth Frederick

“I spray Solarcaine on my sunburned shoulders and chill out reading fiction or Googling celebrity nonsense, very close to the AC unit.” –Betsy Boyd

“At least today I don’t feel guilty about both cranking the AC and letting the kids watch TV. We are going nowhere. I did take them to get frozen yogurt for lunch–yes, that was our lunch.” –Susan Dunn

“I don’t have AC, so I spend a lot of time telling myself that not having it has helped me adjust to the heat. Also, dotting peppermint essential oil on my wrists/neck seems to help. Also, fleeing to the frigid Barnes & Noble in Charles Village, and staking out a seat for as long as possible.” –Rachel Monroe

Lax Movie "Crooked Arrows" Starts Filming Aug. 1

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Cinema’s latest underdog movie is sure to lure many lacrosse-crazed Baltimoreans.  “Crooked Arrows,” which starts filming August 1 in the Boston area, tells the story of Joe Logan (Brandon Routh, Superman Returns), a young Native American trying to modernize his reservation while winning his father’s approval.  The perfect way to do both, it turns out, is coaching the reservation’s lacrosse team.  Joe leads the boys to success and brotherhood, culminating in a final showdown against rivals at a private school, where they compete for the state title. 

In early daysproducers faced the perplexing problem of finding actors who could play both lacrosse and convincing roles.  This summer, open auditions for “Crooked Arrows” were held in Hempstead, NY, Norwalk, CT, Summit, NJ, and of course, Baltimore. At callbacks in Syracuse and Boston, two teams were selected and former Hopkins lacrosse star Jameson Koesterer and Onondaga native Neal Powless started coaching the ersatz teams this week.

The championship game will be filmed August 13, so lacrosse fanatics interested in roles as extras should consider a trip to Boston next month.  Producers promise the appearance of lacrosse “celebrities” (perhaps Ken Clausen? or Connor “Con Bro Chill” Martin?) and other goodies at the end game finale. With sponsors like US Lacrosse, Inside Lacrosse, Reebok and assorted beverage, automotive and apparel partnerships (read product placement), you can bet the freebies will be worth the trip.

The premise of the movie begs a few questions about the state of lacrosse today.  The sport originated with Native Americans, but over the decades has practically become a symbol of elitism and exclusivity.  “Crooked Arrows” could critically examine this issue of origin versus elaboration.  On the cultivated green grass and million-dollar turfs of East Coast prep schools, lacrosse has become a cultural juggernaut, an undeniable force whose influence has spread far beyond the boundaries of the field to play a role in everything from clothing to college choice. Despite all that it has become, lacrosse’s creation came hundreds of years ago on the vast plains of an untouched America. So to whom does the sport really belong?  Maybe “Crooked Arrows” will settle the question once and for all. 

Synchronized Swimming + Film Noir + Baltimore = ?

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I don’t know how many murder mystery/synchronized swimming performances you’ve seen lately, but I tend to believe Fluid Movement when they claim that this weekend’s Mobtown Murder Mystery will be “the greatest water ballet thriller in many years.”

If you’ve got an out of town visitor staying with you for the weekend, this is pretty much your ideal event. Your house guests will be able to appreciate how talented, imaginative, and just plain weird Baltimoreans are. Next week they can slink back to Boston or Houston or Toronto or wherever, and tell all their friends about the “live film-noir inspired daytime synchronized swimming extravaganza!!!” they saw performed in Baltimore.

The relevant details:  the show will splash your way this weekend (Saturday, July 23 at 3pm and 5pm; Sunday, July 24 at 5pm and 7pm) at Druid Hill Park Pool; it’ll repeat next weekend on Sunday, July 31 (5pm and 7pm) at Patterson Park Pool. Tickets cost $10. But for the full-immersion experience, consider attending the Benefit Show on Saturday, July 30 at 6pm (also at Patterson Park Pool):  you’ll get to watch the show, plus enjoy a pool party with food, drinks, and general silliness. That one costs $20, and is well worth it.

From Non-Profits to Novel Writing, Del. Dana Stein Keeps Busy

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“I like to do different things at the same time,” Dana Stein says. “It’s rewarding.”

For some people, that might mean taking up gardening on the weekends or playing tennis after work. But Stein’s roving interests have led him to a life that’s chock full of much more than just hobbies:  he runs a thriving non-profit, advocates for the environment as a state delegate, where he acts as deputy majority whip and a member of the environmental matters committee. And for fun last year, he wrote a novel.

The book, Fire in the Wind, came about because Stein was troubled by the fact that when he spoke with high school students about the dangers of global warming, many didn’t seem concerned at all. Stein figured that this might be because it was hard for them to imagine the impact of melting ice caps and increasingly extreme weather patterns. “It’s hard for them to visualize, because it’s too far over the horizon,” he explained in a recent phone conversation. But without formal training as a scientist or teacher, how could he make the issue relevant for them?

Fire in the Wind was born out of just this frustration. It took Stein four or five months to draft the initial version of his dystopian environmental novel, which imagines a near-future America (the novel is set in 2036) where climate change has led to widespread flooding, an internal refugee problem, and a radicalized environmental movement.

The fact that he’d never written fiction before didn’t stymie Stein, perhaps because he has a long history of jumping into new ventures with enthusiasm and vigor. A graduate of Baltimore County public schools, Stein went on to get the Ivy League trifecta — degrees from Harvard (B.A. in government), Columbia (law degree), and Princeton (Master’s in public affairs). But after several years practicing law in D.C., Stein found himself drawn by a new opportunity — the chance to do hands-on work with young people in some of Baltimore’s struggling neighborhoods.

Civic Works, the non-profit that Stein helped found in the early 1990s and continues to run today between stints in Annapolis, is an urban service organization along the lines of a hometown Peace Corps. Civic Works corps members gain skills — in green construction, in urban farming, in entry-level healthcare work — while at the same time serving their communities.

When asked which of the many Civic Works programs he’s most proud of, Stein cites Project Lightbulb, for which corps members go door to door in low-income neighborhoods, offering free energy efficient lightbulbs and other small — yet crucial — green home improvements. “Not only are you helping the environment,” Stein notes, “but you’re lowering costs for the homeowner.”

Notably, Civic Works aims many of its greening projects at low-income neighborhoods, primarily those surrounding the organization’s home base in Clifton Park. One of the message implicit in Civic Works’ projects is that working to improve the environment isn’t just a luxury activity for rich people with enough time and money to spend on organic produce and home weatherization. In fact, since much of the burden of environmental problems gets shifted onto the urban poor, it only makes sense to involve them in the solution.

Along these lines, Stein cites another Civic Works project, the Real Food Farm in Clifton Park, as another of the program’s successes. “We’re responding to a direct community need,” Stein says, pointing out that the area around the farm is what’s known as a food desert, meaning that residents don’t have access to fresh, affordable, healthy food. The farm doesn’t just provide the produce the neighborhood previously lacked; it also gets local residents involved and invested in the growing process.  Tyler Brown, who runs the farm, praises Stein for “creat[ing] a real vision for what the next step is in developing Baltimore into a city that’s on the cutting edge of sustainable practices” and f’or “really taking a chance on following through” not just on the farm, but on a whole host of issues.

But then there’s the whole other side of Stein’s life:  his political work.  “I guess what unites [these different projects] is commitment to community and to service,” Stein muses. He was elected to represent the 11th District (Northwest Baltimore County) in the Maryland House of Delegates in 2006, with the goal of affecting change on a broader basis.  As he describes his particular projects in the legislature, it becomes clear that his experience with Civic Works informs his work in Annapolis. He serves on the Maryland House Environmental Matters Committee, through which he’s helped enact legislation to promote renewable energy, set up the Maryland Clean Energy Center, and enable counties to adopt the international green construction code.

Most recently, Stein has found himself surprisingly compelled by an issue he’d previously had no particular interest in:  ensuring that Maryland citizens are financially literate. After the real estate collapse, bailouts, and financial crisis that marked 2008, Stein says, “I realized that maybe we need to study how well students and adults in Maryland are educated in financial topics.” So he set up a task force, made some recommendations, and eventually developed a financial literacy curriculum that will be a required component for public schools in Maryland starting this fall.

But do all the committees and task forces and lists of recommendations that make up the life of a legislator ever feel, well, slow compared to the work he does at Civic Works, where accomplishments are clear and concrete (more than 2 million pounds of trash removed; 25,477 trees planted; 21 playgrounds built)? For Stein, it seems, the two kinds of work balance each other out nicely. “Civic Works has a significant impact in certain areas. In the legislature, the impact is perhaps not as deep, but it’s broader,” he says.

And, in the end, for Stein all the work is just his attempt at making the world a safer, greener place for his wife and two young daughters. “I probably have always been a bit of a workaholic,” Stein admits. “But it’s great to be able to do work that you find personally rewarding.”