Michael Yockel

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Big Fish Q&A with Andres Alonso, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools

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At the outset of the past decade, Baltimore City changed its public schools superintendent with alarming frequency – a dizzying parade of six different bosses in six years. Given the dispiriting prevailing academic circumstances, few relished the job: a less than 50 percent graduation rate, a decades-long slide in enrollment, and appallingly low test scores compared to the national average.

In the summer of 2007, yet another new Baltimore City Public Schools CEO, Andrés A. Alonso, plunged into this apparent cauldron of failure. “We were just about as low as we could be,” Mary Pat Clarke, who chairs the City Council’s education committee, told The New York Times in December 2010. “He blew into town with a suitcase full of ideas. Now the school system’s in motion.”

Alonso set about implementing an ambitious reform program, dramatically altering the school system’s size, structure, and sensibility. In the past five years, he has shuttered underperforming schools; dismissed approximately 75 percent of the system’s principals; eliminated central office personnel by a third; established individual school autonomy by shifting central-office resources and decision-making to principals; introduced critical reviews of teachers based on their students’ achievement; and hired monitors to oversee state assessment testing in an effort to prevent cheating.

His top-to-bottom overhaul has resulted in soaring enrollment, increased graduation, decreased dropouts, and significantly improved test scores.

Still, problems — both perceived and real — vex Alonso’s vision for change. In recent months, The Baltimore Sun has revealed a school system that has allocated scarce financial resources to non-classroom-specific purposes: notably, $65 million to personnel for unused leave over five years; $14 million in overtime pay since 2009, including $78,000 last year alone for Alonso’s driver/security escort; and $500,000 for posh office renovations at BCPS’ North Ave. HQ.

Big Fish Q&A with Diana Morris, Director of Open Society Institute-Baltimore

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Almost two and a half years ago, following an engaged and engaging discussion at the central branch of the Pratt Library about how Americans talk — and don’t talk — about race, Open Society Institute-Baltimore director Diana Morris weighed in with a pithy, insightful analysis of our nation’s seemingly institutional racism.

“In America, we focus a lot on individuals; we don’t think about systems,” Morris noted in December 2009, prefiguring the current cataclysm surrounding the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. “Even in school, we don’t talk often about systems unless we happen to take a course in college about sociology. So that’s very helpful to me when I think through ‘how can we really talk effectively about the criminal justice system, which so adversely affects people of color and people who are poor.’ And that’s a system at work, and some of them are sort of unofficial or informal systems, and some of them are formal systems, but it’s more than just an individual bias. And we want to be able to convey that, because unless we can really pierce those systems, we’re not gonna really get effective change.”

Since 1997, Morris has brought a pronounced passion to effecting change in this city as overseer of the local outpost of gazillionaire philanthropist George Soros’ international Open Society Foundations. Specifically, OSI-Baltimore, according to its website, concentrates on “three intertwined problems: untreated drug addiction, an over-reliance on incarceration, and obstacles that impede youth in succeeding inside and out of the classroom. We also support a growing corps of social entrepreneurs committed to underserved populations in Baltimore.”

Big Fish Q&A with Baltimore Community Foundation President and CEO Tom Wilcox

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Since Tom Wilcox arrived here in 2000 to become president and CEO of the Baltimore Community Foundation (BCF), the city has witnessed a now-you-see-‘em/now-you-don’t burlesque of changes among its top officials – at City Hall, the police department, fire department, health department, public schools – that includes a mayor and a police commissioner convicted of low crimes and misdemeanors.  Simultaneously, the city, sometimes by accident and sometimes by design, also has witnessed dramatic improvements: notably, a decreased crime rate, increased student test scores, and, probably thanks to the Internet, greater transparency at various government agencies. Partial credit, certainly, goes to a handful of forward-thinking municipal administrators, who, given a forum, loudly declaim their achievements. More quietly, the progressive policies of the BCF and its nonprofit brethren – true “BELIEVE” types – have just as demonstrably enhanced Baltimoreans’ lives.

As head of the BCF, now in its 40th year, Wilcox rides herd on 600-plus varied philanthropic funds, organizing “grants, initiatives, and advocacy around a vision of a Baltimore with a growing economy,” according to the foundation’s website. Last year, the BCF dispensed more than $20 million in grants to hundreds of local, regional, and national nonprofits. Specific to the metro area, its Invest in Baltimore agenda, co-crafted by Wilcox, “encompasses and measures coordinated efforts to reduce poverty, stimulate economic growth, and assure a high quality of life in Greater Baltimore.” In essence, BCF shepherds donors’ charitable giving by matching benefactors to their particular areas of interest: neighborhoods, education (including scholarships), health, and the arts.

The Day Davy Jones Did Baltimore

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Twenty-five years ago, smiling profusely, exuding his ineffable English schoolboy cuteness, and sporting an aggressive mullet, Davy Jones parachuted into — of all places — Westview Mall on Route 40 West, not far from Catonsville, to hawk his just-published as-told-to biography, They Made a Monkee Out of Me. (Mind you, he didn’t literally parachute onto the premises — presumably, he was driven there by some factotum.)

A cooing legion of women — mostly middle-aged hausfrau hons with their understandably confused daughters in tow — rapturously greeted Jones, who obligingly charmed them with spirited patter, before settling in to sign copies of his exclamation-point-riddled, vanity-press book, dashed off one year after he reunited for a successful album and tour with former Monkees mates Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork. (Fourth Monkee Mike Nesmith had sniffingly declined to participate.)

Sweet but not saccharine, Jones dealt with each of his votaries graciously, chatting amiably, clasping hands, and even submitting to cheek kisses. More than an hour later, he sat down for a congenial interview in a nearby mall meeting room with, if memory serves, the only reporter who posted for the event — me, on assignment for City Paper, along with a staff photographer, both of us unabashed Monkees fans awkwardly attempting to maintain some semblance of professional cool.

Finally corralled by his handler, Jones bid us a good-natured goodbye, exited Westview amid the echoing sighs of a gaggle of lingering fans, and, quite likely, made his way to a similar scenario in a similar mall in a similar suburb of a similar city. Veni, vidi, vici — all that. Hey, this really happened.

Big Fish Q&A with Notre Dame of Maryland University President Mary Pat Seurkamp

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Fifteen years ago, when Mary Pat Seurkamp accepted the president’s post at what was then known as the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, the small Roman Catholic school — picturesquely sandwiched between sedate Roland Park and even more sedate Homeland in North Baltimore — smoldered with internal discontent. Not exactly what you’d expect from a decorous institution established by the School Sisters of Notre Dame — an order of nuns — as a women’s college in 1895. But the faculty and the administrative staff were still nursing an intense migraine from what they considered the four-year autocratic rule of Seurkamp’s predecessor, a member of the School Sisters who resigned suddenly amid the tumult.

The school’s first secular president, Seurkamp immediately set about restoring stability, prompting the head of the college’s faculty senate to tell The Baltimore Sun, “She’s really lifted the spirits of this place.”   

During her stewardship, Seurkamp has helped to engineer a significant transformation of Notre Dame, which comprises an all-women undergrad division, plus co-ed graduate and continuing-studies divisions. Under Seurkamp, the institution has overhauled its academic structure into the schools of Education, Nursing, and Arts and Sciences; increased its emphasis on health-care education by creating a School of Pharmacy and enhancing undergraduate and graduate programs in nursing; established a doctorate in education; pumped $120 million into capital improvements; and guided the school through a hand-wringing name-change process, as it morphed from the century-plus-old College of Notre Dame of Maryland (delightfully naughty acronym: CONDOM) into the slightly less unwieldy Notre Dame of Maryland University this past September.  

Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Chicago and South Bend, IN., Seurkamp earned her undergraduate degree in psychology from Webster University in 1968, her master’s in guidance and counseling from Washington University in 1969, and her PhD in higher education from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1990. Upon completing her master’s, she embarked on what has turned into a live-long career in higher ed, beginning at Gannon University in Erie, PA., and moving on to the Roman Catholic-affiliated St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., in 1976. There, she served in a variety of administrative capacities — vice president for Institutional Planning and Research, vice president for Academic Services and Planning, and dean, among others — until she signed on at Notre Dame.

In May of last year, Seurkamp announced that she would step down as president at the end of the 2011-2012 academic year, telling the school’s board of trustees, “Leadership requires us to build a strong foundation for the next generation of leaders…. I trust I leave to the next president core strengths from which new transformational steps will be taken.” 

The mother of three adult children and grandmother of three, Seurkamp, now 65, lives in Roland Park with her husband, Bob, the former executive director of the Governor’s Workforce Investment Board at the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation — and soon-to-be former “presidential spouse,” as he sportively terms it in an online business-networking listing. The couple plans to retire to a home on Sue Creek, near Middle River, in Baltimore County.

 

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence. 

Most problems can be solved by using our talents collaboratively and by trusting in God’s grace and wisdom. 

When did you define your most important goals, and what are they? 

In college I knew I wanted to work with young adults in higher education, and later I realized that my commitment was really to the education of students of all ages. 

What is the best advice you ever got that you followed? 

My husband reminds me every day, “Have fun in what you do!” 

The worst advice, and did you follow it? Or how did you muffle it? 

An advisor in college once told me there was no opportunity for women in higher ed. (Do you think I listened?) 

What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime? 

1) It is important to find meaning in your work. 

2) Students keep you young. 

3) Your pets can make any day better. 

What is the best moment of the day? 

Any time spent with my grandchildren — which I wish happened more often. 

What is on your bedside table? 

In all honesty, an alarm clock and a book (stacked up among many to read), plus a rosary that one of my favorite aunts gave me. 

What is your favorite local charity? 

Notre Dame of Maryland University — no surprise here! — and our partners at Catholic Charities, where many of our students volunteer. 

What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing? 

Get your doctorate, work hard, believe in yourself, and take advantage of every opportunity put before you. 

Why are you successful? 

I believe deeply in the importance of the work we do in higher education, which motivates me to be focused, committed, and, hopefully, strategic. None of it would have happened without a supportive family and great colleagues. 

Locally, a trio of longtime women’s colleges — Hood, Goucher, Villa Julie (now Stevenson) — has switched to a co-educational format. While Notre Dame of Maryland University’s graduate and part-time divisions admit both women and men, its undergraduate program steadfastly retains an all-women status. Why? What are the inherent benefits of a single-gender higher education? 

The education of women has been Notre Dame’s mission since our founding by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Although times have changed, the benefits of small class sizes, personal attention, and an atmosphere that encourages women’s intellectual and leadership potential remain relevant. 

Research shows us that women who attend women’s colleges are more highly engaged and serious about their academic goals. They are also more likely to enter fields like math and science, and then continue on to graduate school. As a graduate of a women’s college, I can say that it was a place where I learned to trust my abilities and my instincts. I still see that strong sense of competence and confidence in our graduates today. They go out into the world secure that they will “get things done.” 

Notre Dame is also a Catholic institution. Are such faith-based schools anachronisms in our multicultural society? What distinguishes them? Where do they fit? 

Notre Dame’s mission and clarity of purpose are as relevant today as they were when we were founded by the School Sisters of Notre Dame 117 years ago. There is nothing outdated about understanding that knowledge and faith are partners in pursuing truth. 

We welcome students of all faith traditions — because we are Catholic. When you visit our campus, you will meet students of diverse religious affiliations and cultural backgrounds. They come to Notre Dame because they appreciate the values of compassion, responsibility, and service that are not just inherent in our mission, but also woven into our curriculum and programs. Issues of faith are freely discussed, especially about how our beliefs inform our choices. As well, our students learn that education is not just about their own development or about their career, but also about one’s responsibilities to serve others. There will always be a desire among students for an educational environment that incorporates faith and learning, focusing on the whole person. 

You plan to step down as Notre Dame president at the conclusion of the current academic year. What is the single most important thing that you learned about higher education during your 15-year tenure? 

What has been reinforced for me is that there is no other factor that has the ability to transform an individual or society the way education can. Spending time with our students is always inspiring.

Big Fish Q&A with Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler

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Tangentially and directly, the political fortunes of Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler have been bound up with those of Governor Martin O’Malley and his extended familial clan. Back in 1998, for example, Gansler defeated O’Malley’s father, Thomas, to become state’s attorney for Montgomery County, after the elder O’Malley, curiously, switched parties to run as a Republican. Eight years later, Gansler assumed his current post, succeeding longtime Attorney General Joseph Curran, O’Malley’s father-in-law and First Lady/Judge Katie O’Malley’s father. Now, midway through his second term, Gansler is mooted as the man most likely to move into Annapolis’ Government House when O’Malley vacates the mansion in January 2015.

Although Ganlser has not officially announced his gubernatorial candidacy, neither has he pooh-poohed the possibility. Sometimes quietly, sometimes blaringly, Gansler, in his role as attorney general, has established a statewide reputation by aggressively prosecuting mortgage fraud, gang activity, environmental polluters, and civil-rights violators, while nurturing a nascent national rep as the incoming president of the National Association of Attorneys General. Not incidentally, his standing campaign committee has amassed a significant war chest to fund a future run for office. 

Born in Summit, N.J., Douglas F. Gansler (the “F” stands for “Friend”) moved with his family to Montgomery County when he was nine. He “proudly graduated from Chevy Chase Elementary School,” he reports with a smidgen of humor, and then moved on to Sidwell Friends School, excelling on its lacrosse team. Gansler graduated cum laude in 1985 from Yale University, where he was selected all-Ivy League and all-New England in lacrosse. In 1989, he earned a law degree from the University of Virginia. After clerking for a judge and briefly practicing law privately, Gansler served as an assistant U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia under now-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., from 1992 to 1998.    

Now 49, Gansler lives in Bethesda (“within five miles of where I grew up”) with his wife, Laura — a securities attorney at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority; co-author of the 2002 book Class Action, on which the 2005 Charlize Theron film North Country is based; and author of the 2005 book The Mysterious Private Thompson, a biography of cross-dressing Civil War hero Sarah Emma Edmonds — and their lacrosse-playing sons, 17-year-old Sam and 14-year-old Will. He works out of the Office of the Attorney General in downtown Baltimore.

Extracurricularly, Gansler coaches lacrosse in Bethesda, and, in 2009, launched Charm City Youth Lacrosse, which, according to its website, “provides lacrosse-skills training, league play, and mentoring to underserved” kids in Baltimore City — free of charge. More cerebrally, Gansler founded a book club, the Oracle Society, in 1989. The group has remained active ever since. As Gansler told to The Daily Record two years ago, “This is reading for enjoyment and then intellectual discussion…. It takes me out of the issues of my day and into somebody else’s story.”

 

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.   

Never be in a bad mood.

When did you define your most important goals, and what are they?  

Be a good husband and dad.

What is the best advice you ever got that you followed

The best currency is not money but what is in your heart and how you spend it.

The worst advice, and did you follow it? Or how did you muffle it? 

You don’t need a good left-handed shot [in lacrosse] since you can get by on speed. I muffled it by learning how to play lefty on the squash courts my first two years of college.

What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime?

1) Kids grow up really fast.

2) It is harder to lose weight when you get older.

3) Some people in politics truly are in it for the wrong reasons.

What is the best moment of the day? 

The best time of day is when I walk through the front door of my house at the end of the day or night.

What is on your bedside table? 

My latest book club book: A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.

What is your favorite local charity? 

Charm City Youth Lacrosse.

What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing? 

Do the right things for the right reasons and don’t compromise your values.

Why are you successful?

As clichéd as it might seem, I truly believe that government can make a positive difference for people.  

What do you consider to be the state’s most vexing fraud issue? Why? How is the Attorney General’s Office solving the problem?

The fraud perpetrated by the national banks in the foreclosure crisis, which directly led to the severe economic downturn. As a member and president-elect of the National Association of Attorneys General, my chief objective is providing relief to troubled homeowners as quickly as possible while preserving the flexibility to criminally prosecute offenders.

Which legislative initiative will you and your office work the hardest to pass in the 2012 General Assembly session? Why is this the most important issue? 

Same-sex marriage in Maryland. As the first statewide elected official to support same-sex marriage, I have fought for this fundamental right for years. It is an important issue because the current law clearly violates the United States Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and deprives many Marylanders of the basic privilege of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Describe the innate appeal of lacrosse. What distinguishes the sport from football, baseball, basketball, et al? Do your sons play lacrosse?

I have played lacrosse for over 35 years; both of my sons play at a high level; and I have coached for over 25 years. Marylanders are smarter than other people, because we recognize lacrosse as our official state team sport. It is elegant, physical, goal-producing, and fast. I started Charm City Youth Lacrosse three years ago because I believe that inner-city Baltimore kids should enjoy the same access to lacrosse as the kids who live in all the surrounding areas. 

 

NY Times Stamps O’Malley 2016 Presidential Contender

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Any Marylander who visited the New York Times website on Friday afternoon was immediately greeted with a powerful image. Staring out from among five head shots on the homepage’s main-story space, pictured with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton: the handsome mug of Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. 

In an online preview piece that will appear in the opinion pages of the print version of the Sunday Times, the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief, David Leonhardt, ponders the possibilities of who will cadge the Democratic Party’s nomination for President in 2016. O’Malley ranks high on the list. As pungent evidence of O’Malley’s not-so-distant White House ambitions, Leonhardt cites our governor’s shock-and-awe cameo during the run-up to the recent South Carolina Republican presidential primary, wherein MOM pointedly lambasted GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney.

With a mixture of stealth and bravado, O’Malley has been erecting the framework for a 2016 presidential bid, using as platforms both his elective office and his chairmanship of the Democratic Governors Association. In addition to the South Carolina foray, O’Malley, in the past several months, has ventured overseas on a trade mission to India; was stationed in a position of conspicuous prominence directly behind First Lady Michelle Obama during President Obama’s speech before a joint session of Congress on creating jobs; and is openly championing the initiative to sanction same-sex marriage in Maryland. 

No one should commission painting O’Malley’s presidential portrait quite yet, but in Leonhardt’s mind — and the minds of Democratic apparatchiks currently scheming the party’s post-Obama landscape — the governor is ready for his national closeup.

How Occupy Baltimore Can Get Its Mojo Back

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Last week, amid a welter of thumb-sucking front-page stories about the Ravens and their fans published in advance of Sunday’s AFC Championship game, The Baltimore Sun unveiled a revealing account concerning backstage whispers this past fall among local businesspeople and various city officials as the administration of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake groped to devise a policy to deal with the Occupy Baltimore protesters during their weeks-long encampment in downtown’s McKeldin Square. 

Key players: deputy mayors Kaliope Parthemos and Christopher Thomaskutty, mayoral spokesman Ryan O’Doherty, Rawlings-Blake’s chief of staff Peter O’Malley, and, tellingly, T. Rowe Price chairman Brian Rogers.

Looking down on Occupy’s makeshift tent town from his adjacent office aerie, the newspaper reported, Rogers grew increasingly exasperated with the group’s presence, ultimately firing off what, on the surface at least, sounds like a peevish complaint to Parthemos: “Is it legal to live/camp in a city park? There’s a difference between freedom of speech and what I see every day.”

Or, perhaps, more to the point, what he heard daily: numbing, interminable jams by Occupy’s resident drumming circles. Who can blame Rogers for beseeching the city to pull the plug, so to speak, on the relentless thumpa-thumpa-thumpa? The sound would drive anyone cuckoo. And not to put too fine a point on the matter, but anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that drumming circles, to date anyway, have not promoted a redistribution of the nation’s wealth, Occupy’s chief hobbyhorse.      

Evicted from the comfy confines of McKeldin Square, Occupy Baltimore joins its similarly ousted sisters and brothers in other municipalities as a laudable movement gradually fading from the news — a movement that, in order to achieve sustainability, might benefit from a reality-TV-style extreme makeover, or maybe just a nip-and-tuck. Begin with the music. Now that the infernal drumming has mercifully been silenced — given the fact that protesters no longer occupy any actual real estate — Occupy needs a theme song, a pre-existing anthem that seizes not only the imagination of its collective constituency, but also, more important, the fickle ears of the media. 

While Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” and Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” spring to mind immediately, none seems suitable to the purpose — too earnest, too dour, or too long. Better to choose something snappy, something fist-pumping, something with an insidiously memorable hook. Something that will induce the media — TV, newspapers, blogs — to embrace, with renewed ardor, the Occupy cause. Something like Twisted Sister’s 1984 hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

(Incidentally, Rolling Stone reports that dozens of musicians — including Lucinda Williams, Yo La Tengo, Crosby and Nash, Jackson Browne, Willie Nelson, Yoko Ono, Debbie Harry, and Third Eye Blind — will contribute tracks to a compilation entitled Occupy This Album, scheduled for release this spring. Too late!)

Conjure in your mind’s eye hundreds of thousands of Occupiers singing in unison the Twisted Sister lyrics, “We’ll fight the powers that be/Just don’t pick our destiny/’Cause you don’t know us, you don’t belong” outside this summer’s Democratic and Republican national conventions. Bring back harlequin-esque frontman Dee Snider as an amiable friend of the movement. (He boasts the requisite credentials; in 1985, he offered persuasive testimony before a 1985 Senate committee investigating allegedly objectionable pop-song lyrics.) Adapt the song for get-out-the-vote drives. Endless possibilities. 

Act now, Occupy. Do not dither. My invoice for rebranding consultation is en route.  

Big Fish Q&A with BSO Concertmaster and First Violin Jonathan Carney

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Jonathan Carney imparts a degree of verisimilitude to the hoary double-entendre riff “outstanding in his field.” Figuratively, as concertmaster and first violinist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Carney has been repeatedly celebrated for the passion he brings to his performances and the dedication he brings to his role of assistant conductor. Literally, as paterfamilias of a small clan that resides on a 50-acre northern Carroll County farm “in the middle of nowhere near the Pennsylvania border,” as he puts it, Carney can survey his homestead while — yes — out standing in his field.

Carney was born in Tenafly, N.J., located just outside New York City, where, he notes, “I spent most of my formative years wandering around.” Mind you, he was not exactly an idler, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the city’s renowned Juilliard School. (His DNA exudes musicianship: Carney’s father, mother, two sisters, and brother also graduated from Juilliard.) Via a fellowship, he continued on to study at the Royal College of Music in London.

At the invitation of principal conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, Carney signed on as concertmaster of the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1991, a post he held until 2002, while simultaneously serving in the same capacity with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (1993 to 2000) and the Basque National Orchestra (1995 to 2002). Carney returned to the United States to join the BSO as its concertmaster in 2002, frequently leading the orchestra, in addition to performing regularly as a soloist.

A prolific recording artist, Carney has covered the standard repertoire (Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Dvorak, et al), while also examining the works of contemporary composers such as Michael Nyman, John Cage, and Bruno Moderna. Backed by the Royal Philharmonic, he and his pianist mother, Gloria, performed as soloists on the 1997 CD Parlor Pieces. (Listen to Carney solo on “Romance,” from Shostakovich’s The Gadfly.)

His ax, so to speak: a 1687 Stradivarius. (Memo to violin gearheads: He plays the Mercur-Avery.) But Carney, 49, can handle a bat as well as a baton. On the farm where he lives with his wife, Ruthie, and their 14-year-old violinist daughter Grace – plus, when they’re home, 21-year-old daughter Hannah and 19-year-old son Luke – Carney has fashioned a baseball field. In fact, Carney, his wife, kids, parents, and siblings constitute the starting 10, including designated hitter, for a baseball team.    

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.
    
All things in moderation whilst living and learning.

When did you define your most important goals, and what are they?

I have many day-to-day goals, as Ruthie and I live by a 24-hour rule. In other words, we never plan more than a day in advance. I do have one very singular longterm purpose, though, and that is to practice. I had a bit of an epiphany when I was 15 — that if I was ever to become a violinist, or, for that matter, anything at all, then I better get my butt in gear and practice. I still do that more than anything else every single day.

What is the best advice you ever got that you followed?

Get plenty of rest before a performance (received at age 22 in London), and that practice does not make perfect, but perfect practice does (received in New York City daily from ages six through 18).

The worst advice, and did you follow it? Or how did you muffle it?
 
I generally make a point of not giving advice, so I am notorious at not following it, either, particularly bad advice, which is the majority of what you get offered.
 
What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime?

1) You are only as good as your last performance.
2) Good friends are hard to find.
3) My family is everything to me.

What is the best moment of the day?

When I first wake up and practice with my first cup of coffee.

What is on your bedside table?

A book on Ireland’s history.

What is your favorite local charity?

Two: the Baltimore School for the Arts and Mid-Atlantic German Shepherd Rescue.

What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing?

Although mine is one of the most difficult careers to be successful in, where else do you get to play all day for a living?
 
Why are you successful?

I have been very lucky to be at the right place at the right time — and I never say no.

During your BSO tenure, which has been the most challenging piece of music that you have performed? Why? And which has been the most fun to play?

I think that Stravinsky is a formidable composer to understand and serve, and that his Petrushka is his most demanding work. For fun, Mahler 5 is the bee’s knees.
 
You serve as artistic advisor for the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras and as an artist in residence (and board member) at the Baltimore School for the Arts. What characteristics distinguish today’s young musicians from those in past generations, notably yours?

Kids and young artists are coddled so much more these days. I would come out of half of my lessons crying. PC musical training is going to cause issues in dealing with the inherent problems within the profession. The Baltimore School for the Arts understands this, and its rigorous educational system places a child in a much better position for success in life. Not just as an artist, but as a person. It is singularly the best school I have ever had the pleasure to work with.
    
Your BSO bio indicates that, growing up, you occasionally subbed on electric bass in your father’s jazz group. Did you ever entertain notions of a career (or a side project) in jazz or rock/pop? What non-classical music do you listen to now?

Even though I grew up with so much music around me, my parents understood the importance of diverse life experiences, in addition to activities that encouraged musical socialization. An orchestra is a microcosm of society, and learning to thrive in one places a young person in a much better place to enjoy life. That is why it is such a shame that so much emphasis in our public education system has gone away from arts programs. I have been playing in orchestras since I was seven.

I enjoy my kids’ eclectic musical tastes. We have a folk festival called FarmFest every year at our farm, which my eldest daughter organizes. Each year it gets bigger. Last year we had a dozen bands playing for 12 hours to over 700 people. It is my favorite — and most stressful — day of the year.
 
Even though I have dabbled in stuff, I have never ever wanted to do anything else seriously other than play the violin.
 
 

Big Fish Q&A with WBAL Radio Journalist and Autism Activist Mary Beth Marsden

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About one-third of the way into Michael Kun’s wry 2003 epistolary comic novel The Locklear Letters, congenial, if often clueless, protagonist Sid Straw pitches himself as a prospective columnist to The Baltimore Sun, suggesting as potential subject matter “how it’s hard to look intellectual when you’re cracking open a crab with a mallet; how no one goes to Orioles games anymore because the team stinks; and how I saw the anchorwoman for Channel 2 news, Mary Beth Marsden, in the mall last week, and she’s even prettier in person than she is on TV.”
 
A Johns Hopkins graduate who now works as an attorney in Los Angeles, Kun also references Marsden admiringly in his novels You Poor Monster (2005) and My Wife and My Dead Wife (2004). Fact: He’s not a literary stalker. Like millions of others who watched Marsden on WMAR-TV from 1988 to 2009, Kun understands and appreciates Marsden’s innate affability and unpretentiouness — the sense that you know her (and like her), even if you’ve never met her.
 
“Mentioning her in my books has been something of an inside joke between us and hopefully maintains my Baltimore street cred,” Kun explains. “For whatever reason, Marsden reminds me of Baltimore as much as anyone.” 
    
Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Montgomery County, Mary Beth Marsden earned a degree in Radio, Television, and Film from the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1983, and then embarked on a media career, working as a TV news producer, anchor, or reporter in D.C. (1985-1987), Harrisburg (also the station’s “weather girl,” she admits, in 1987), and Scranton (1987-1988), before joining Baltimore’s Channel 2. (For a kick, witness her succumb to a good-natured on-air laughing fit at WMAR.)
 
After parting company with the station in 2009, Marsden, whose daughter Tess has autism, founded the website reallookautism.com this past July; via compelling and compassionate short narrative videos, the site, according to Marsden, serves as a “visual resource [that] presents different therapies and strategies … for working with children who have autism spectrum disorders.” Two months later, she signed on as afternoon news anchor with WBAL Radio.
 
Now 49, Marsden lives in Ruxton with her husband, former WBAL-TV reporter/photographer Mark McGrath (now a vice president/financial advisor at Stifel Nicolaus), and their three children: 13-year-old Jack, 12-year-old George, and 10-year-old Tess. Not surprisingly, Marsden surfaces again in Kun’s upcoming Everybody Says Hello, scheduled for publication this spring.     

 

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.   

Figure it out, make choices, and then go for it — find something to create and give thanks.

 

When did you define your most important goals, and what are they? 

Right now, my goal is to do the best I can and try not to waste time worrying. 

 

What is the best advice you ever got that you followed

I guess the best advice was from my father, who used to tell us all the time that life isn’t fair, so I never expected it to be.

 

The worst advice, and did you follow it? Or how did you muffle it? 

“Why don’t you grow your hair?” That’s advice from my mother, which I ignore every six weeks.
 

What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime?

1) There’s freedom in saying “no.” 

2) Prayer helps. 

3) Sometimes bigger is better, and sometimes less is more.

 

What is the best moment of the day? 

I have a few. Driving my daughter to school, we say very little to each other, and I think it’s meditative for both of us. After a workout. And whenever the kids are asleep (kidding).

 

What is on your bedside table? 

An iPad, the Bible, A Game of Thrones (by George R.R. Martin), Kleenex, eye shades, and always a glass of water.

What is your favorite local charity? 

Any local autism 501c3.

 
What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing? 

Be curious. And have an annoying need for answers and a belief that what you are doing not only satisfies your desire to know something new but also fills an important service of providing
information. Lastly, go for it, but don’t do it for money or fame.

 

Why are you successful?

It’s not really something I measure in myself. I have wins and losses. Hopefully, I learn from the latter and don’t sit celebrating the former too long.

 

To date, what have you found to be the most challenging aspect of switching from television to radio broadcasting? What has been the most surprising difference between the two media?

Remembering to turn my microphone on and off and stop calling my listeners “viewers.” Radio is amazingly immediate; television takes an army. On radio, I never have a bad hair day.

 

What motivated you to create your website devoted to autism? What do you hope to achieve with the project?

Our daughter was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) nearly six years ago. Last spring, I started producing “solution-based” videos of children with autism for reallookautism.com. I want everyone in the world to view them, but they are created first and foremost as guides for parents and teachers who are trying to help a child with an ASD.

 

When you and your husband want to indulge in a romantic dinner together — temporarily escaping the kids, escaping your jobs, escaping the myriad daily responsibilities of your lives — where do you go? Why that restaurant? And what is your favorite dish on the menu?

Mark and I do need to get out more and let the kids stay home and game themselves to death.
When we do, it’s often to a restaurant we haven’t tried before. Last time we ate out, we went to Rocket to Venus in Hampden. Good beer selection, nice salad.

 

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