Mikita Brottman

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Woman’s Best Friend

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I met my dog online, at PuppyFind.com.

He went by the name of “Oliver,” and he was a fawn piebald puppy with huge bat ears and an endearingly inquisitive expression. Not only was he the cutest creature I’d ever seen, but he’d be weaned by the middle of August, which was exactly when we’d be ready for him. I e-mailed my partner, D, the photo, though it was a symbolic gesture only (how could anyone possibly say no?).

“Very handsome,” he e-mailed me back a few hours later, “but haven’t we already seen that one?” To D, the puppies were starting to blend into one another. To me, there were looking more and more distinct, and I’d never seen one quite as adorable as Oliver.

We paid the deposit to the breeders, Clem and Betty Disterhaupt of Stuart, Nebraska, and “Oliver”—all ears—was all ours.

The arrival of this young creature in Baltimore was preceded by the kind of anticipation—at least, on my part—that might herald the coronation of a young rajah. A trip to Petsmart produced a top-of-the-line puppy bed, a box full of toys, training snacks, a selection of leashes, harnesses and collars, and a pile of books about French bulldogs. The puppy’s delivery date was marked on the wall calendar, and the countdown began.

We had decided to call our dog Grisby, after a French film we both liked (I recall the name as David’s choice, though he’s equally certain it was mine): Touchez Pas au Grisbi, which translates along the lines of Don’t Touch the Loot! The movie, which came out in 1954, is directed by Jacques Becker and stars the aging French actor Jean Gabin. It deals with a band of jaded, world-weary French gangsters who spend most of their time sitting around a café mumbling about le grisbi, which is old-fashioned French criminal slang for “the booty.” We thought it would be a good name for a French bulldog because it contained a growling “grrr” sound, because it was French, and because it sort of meant “treasure,” but in a tough, macho way that seemed appropriate for a sturdy little bulldog, especially a boy. I still love the name, though now of course I’m not able to separate it from the being to whom it refers, and it continues to annoy me when people who’ve known him for years continue to call him Frisby, Grizzly, Grigsby or Grimsby.

When G-day finally dawned, I was so excited I could hardly function; I actually got into a minor argument with D about directions to the freight terminal at Baltimore Washington Aiport, and we never argue, so I must have been feeling tense. After driving around in circles for a while, we finally found the right bay. We signed some papers, turned over a credit card, signed more papers, and were finally handed a small, maroon-colored dog crate which we carried out into the August heat. I rested it on the hood of our car and opened the door. A small, curious face peered up at us. Reaching inside, I lifted out a small, velvety creature with markings the color of milky tea. He was squat and muscular, with a flat face, no tail, and ears so big they were actually shocking. I was instantly smitten.

At first, our little puppy was so cute that it was actually a serious problem. We couldn’t take him anywhere without attracting attention. French bulldogs seem to be rare in Baltimore, because on catching sight of him, strangers would dash across a busy street to get a closer look. A quick stroll round the block was impossible. To make matters worse, we live in the Belvedere whose function rooms on the ground floor are often used for wedding receptions on weekends. I soon learned the how fatal could be the combination of a French bulldog puppy and a crowd of drunken, sentimental bridesmaids, who would begin to throb loudly and coo maternally at the sight of a small puppy. It got to the stage that, on weekends, I would put Grisby in a bag—a sort of makeshift burkah—and zip it up, so I could sneak him out without being spotted.

Another problem was that, while he may have been the cutest little French bulldog on earth, Grisby did not seem to be especially smart. French bulldogs are notoriously, ridiculously hard to housebreak, and toilet training took the best part of a year. Since we live on the fifth floor, this meant five or six trips in the elevator every day, sometimes in an emergency, and if the elevator took a long time to arrive, the results were not pretty. The books seemed to be right about French bulldogs being stubborn and especially difficult to train; once the lesson is learned, though, it is seldom forgotten, and after that first year, there were no more “accidents”–
at least, none big enough not to be forgiven.

Yoga in the Park: A Pro/Con Meditation

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Advantages

1. Getting a tan while in lying in corpse position
2. Don’t have to leave the dog at home
3. Using the butt crack of a statue as your Drishti
4. Feeling super healthy compared to junkies nodding out on the bench
5. Easy to sneak in if you arrive late
6. Easy to sneak away if you’ve had enough
7. In Tree position, you can actually hold on to a tree.
8. In Pigeon, you can actually watch the pigeons.

Disadvantages

1. Stepping on dog poop
2. Cool hipsters gazing at you with contempt
3. Losing your glasses in the grass
4. Getting ogled by old men
5. Dogs licking your feet in corpse position
6. Ants in your shorts
7. Possibly stepping on a needle
8. Worrying somebody might steal your shoes

This summer, I’ve been excited to take part in the free yoga class that takes place every Saturday morning, 8.30-9.30am, in West Mount Vernon park. The class is sponsored by Merritt Athletic Club, and the instructor, Jude, is super-friendly and non-intimidating. Participants are all ages and levels, and there are four more classes left. Just bring your own mat and water bottle.

No Kids and No Regrets

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When I was at college, I always hung around with a group of five or six guys. We were punk rockers, and all swore we’d never have kids.
   
“What kind of a world is this to bring a child into?” we asked.

Additionally, we all agreed: No way were we going to be tied down to wailing brats when we could be out there doing whatever.

Twenty years later, weekly Facebook messages alert me that these same guys have just uploaded another 50 pictures of their amazing, incredible, wonderful children—children without whom, they convey in certain photo captions, they couldn’t see the point of living. In the end, I realize, they may not have wanted kids, but it wasn’t up to them—they were guys, and their girlfriends and wives knew better. In the end, it was just a question of time.

As the only girl, however, I had the choice. It was my call.

And I said no.

In 1976, Ann Landers famously conducted an anonymous survey of couples with children, asking them if they could live their lives over again, whether they would have had children. To her surprise, 70 percent of respondents wished they’d said no (like me). This was obviously not an objective exercise, but it does confirm a few of my assumptions. I was going to say it confirmed my “decision” not to have children, but the truth is, I never actually made a decision; it’s always been my default position. Unlike most women, perhaps, I’ve never had strong maternal cravings; I never played with dolls as a child, only toy animals. So when I fell in love with a man 23 years older who already had two grown children of his own, I wasn’t worried about the age difference. In fact, I couldn’t have imagined a better match.

I am now 44, and if I wanted to have kids, this year would probably be my very last chance. The truth is, I’ve never been less interested.

“When I hold my child,” my friend Anita—a new mother—tells me,  “I love her with an unimaginable passion. There’s no experience like it. When you have a child, your life is completely transformed.”

But why transform a life that’s perfectly fine as is? Plus, let’s face it: Babies grow up, and fast. As a psychoanalyst, I can testify firsthand that parent-child relationships (which, by the way, never end) are responsible for more heartbreak, neurosis, misery and disappointment than any other relationship in the human repertoire.

“But what will happen when you’re old and alone?” asks Anita. My response is: I’ll certainly have more freedom and peace than those older folk I know whose relationships with their adult children continue to cause them nothing but suffering. (And with my partner’s 40-year-old son currently sleeping on our couch, I’m wondering if I’ll ever actually get to be old and alone. Bring it on!)

Even when a child is young and (hopefully, though not necessarily) adorable, there’s still all that messy food, constant cleaning, laundry, all the bad smells, horrible noise and stuff all over the floor, not to mention the stream of interruptions and demands for attention. “But don’t you want a little creature to love and care for?” asks Anita. In fact, I already have one. My partner and I do not have children together, but we happen to be the proud owners of a small French bulldog, Grisby, about whom I am writing a woman-and-her-dog memoir.
   
Let me be clear: My dog is not my baby. I wanted a dog not in place of a child, but in preference to a child. My dog is not a child, thank God. I don’t have to worry whether he’ll get into a good preschool, or how I’ll pay for his college education. He’s not going to get a girl pregnant or get hooked on drugs. He’s not going to borrow my clothes, steal my credit card, crash my car or throw a party in my home while I’m away. He certainly won’t be sleeping on my couch when he’s 40, though I’d be perfectly happy if he were.

I don’t believe my relationship with my dog is a substitute for a relationship with a child, nor do I see it as a cover for something darker and more disturbing. Yet for some reason there’s always a suspicion that people “retreat into the world of dogs” because they can’t deal with human relationships, with all their problems and complexities. Anyone too attached to a dog—especially a lady of a certain age—is seen as a little bit ridiculous, a figure of fun. Such women are often seen as so emotionally “entrapped” by their dogs that they lose interest in other people, and there’s no more incentive for them to go out and make friends or seek help. In my experience, however, Grisby has expanded, rather than narrowed, my social world. He’s led me to take up jogging and rollerblading, too, so we can exercise together outside. 

Still, I must admit, as far as Grisby is concerned, I’ve turned out to be a pretty bad parent. I’ve done everything you shouldn’t. Grisby is allowed to run off the leash, jump on the furniture, eat from my plate, sleep in my bed, and lick my face. I kiss him on the mouth and feed him anything he wants—hot dogs, pudding, ice cream, cake, even chocolate. If he were a child, such a terrible upbringing would probably turn him into some kind of delinquent, or worse. Yet the sad truth is, a child doesn’t even have to have a bad upbringing for such a thing to happen. Read A Father’s Story, by Jeffrey Dahmer’s father Lionel, and you’ll learn that a parent can do everything right, and their child may still grow up to be a cannibalistic serial killer. The worst thing Grisby’s ever done to me is to take a dump on the bathroom floor.

Baltimore’s (Thrilling) Backrooms

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One of the things I love most about Baltimore is the fact that so many of its most interesting places are hidden from public view. Some of the city’s most charming venues, in fact, are the backrooms of stores, sometimes located up or down rear staircases. While most Baltimore residents know about the Owl Bar, hidden away behind the imposing front lobby of the Belvedere, other secret spaces are less well known.

A perfect example is An Die Musik, a classy little record store located at 409 Charles Street. Go to the rear of the shop, past racks of CDs and LPs, and you come to a flight of stairs; follow them up, and you’ll arrive at an intimate, comfortable concert space, home to a wide array of touring classical and jazz artists, as well as recitals by students from the nearby Peabody Institute. Minás Gallery on the Avenue in Hampden also hides a secret staircase. Go through the downstairs boutique that sells vintage clothing, accessories, jewelry and local crafts to a staircase at the back of the store, and emerge in a bright, pleasant gallery space also used for meetings, art shows, performances and belly dancing lessons.

Plenty of Baltimore bookshops hold readings, signings and other events. Not all of them have a backroom for the purpose. The coolest ones do. Atomic Books in Hampden stocks an inviting little bar hidden at the back of the store among the racks of LPs, a great venue for parties with an after-hours feel. Go through the mysterious red door in Normals Books and Records on East 31st Street, and you’ll come to the Red Room (now painted blue), a “laboratory for experimental cultural endeavors” which hosts sound performances, films screenings, lectures, and other eclectic goings-on.

Another odd and appealing space is hidden in the bowels of Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Cathedral and Read, opposite Milk and Honey. Ignore the dusty pews and stained glass windows, go up a flight of stairs to the side, and you’ll find yourself in an unusual venue sometimes used for music and theater performances. But my favorite secret space has to be Charm City Yoga’s Midtown location, at 107 East Preston Street, above Twin Diamond Studios. Slip through the door on Hargrove Alley painted with the elephant god Ganesh and follow the smell of incense up two flights of wooden stairs, and you’ll find two calm, well-lit yoga rooms where you can focus on inner peace. Namaste!

Medical Actor Melissa Daum Helps Doctors Perform More Compassionately

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Name: Melissa Daum (the au pronounced like ou in ouch)
Occupation: Standardized Patient   
Neighborhood: Remington
Years in Baltimore: 8

Melissa Daum plays many roles: she’s a grad student, yoga teacher, therapist-in-training, seamstress, and mural painter, but perhaps her most intriguing part-time job is as “Standardized Patient,” for the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In other words, the 28-year-old MICA graduate pretends to be a patient for trainee doctors, and not all of them know she’s acting.

According to Hopkins, a Standardized Patient is “a person carefully recruited and trained to take on the characteristics of a real patient, thereby affording the student an opportunity to learn and to be evaluated on learned skills in a simulated clinical environment.” Melissa, who’s currently completing a master’s in counseling at Pacifica Graduate Institute, won the role by passing an audition at the School of Medicine’s Simulation Center, where she competed for the job with professional actors. “They brought along headshots and resumes, but that’s not what the medical school needs,” she explained. “They need people who can be pretty real about it, who don’t turn it into a big performance.”

Beyond her relaxed attitude, Melissa has another advantage: She’s sophisticated but looks younger than her age, which means she can represent a wide range of characters from surly teenagers to overwrought moms. “One week I might be, say, a student who’s experimenting with drugs, and the next week I might be a 15-year-old girl who’s come down with a rash after a trip to the petting zoo. I get to wear my own clothes, but we’re supposed to dress the part, so if I’m playing a married woman, for example, I’m supposed to wear a wedding ring.” She’s given a case history peppered with details—some vital clues, others red herrings—but the facts can only be drawn out by the right kinds of questions, asked in a suitable context. It’s a way of helping young doctors practice their history-taking skills, their communication facility, and their all-important bedside manners.

The work doesn’t pay much—$17 an hour plus parking—but there are added benefits, like use of the Hopkins library and the chance to learn about the symptoms of different diseases and the stress impact they have. On top of that, it’s a lot of fun. “It satisfies my theater itch,” says Melissa, who worked as Elton John’s wardrobe mistress when he performed in Baltimore last March–and played lead in all of her high school productions. “There are these rows of doctors offices in the Simulation Center. Sometimes I go from room to room as a patient, and sometimes the doctor comes in to see me, surrounded by a group of medical students.”

She often works with the same male actor playing the wife in a married couple; they fit together well, and, like the stars of a sitcom, have developed a pattern of banter (though improvisation, they’re told, should be kept to a minimum). Recently, the pair took the stage at a pediatric dermatology conference, where they were asked to play the part of every doctor’s nightmare—entitled, wealthy parents, both attorneys, who think they know what’s best for their ailing kid. “I really got into it,” laughs Melissa. “I was looking up medical facts on my iPhone and telling them I thought my child’s condition was an embarrassment to the family. When I get into a character like that, I’ll start thinking about how that person will walk into the room and how she’ll put down her purse.”

But it’s not always easy. “You can’t be shy,” she says. “If you have to play a person who’s really depressed, or in pain, it can be a very uncomfortable situation, emotionally. You can’t meet the doctor’s eyes, you can’t smile at them. As medical students, they want to treat the symptoms of a disorder, but they’re dealing with a complex person, and that can be sometimes unpleasant.”

During her work as a Standardized Patient, Melissa has learned that, as medical students get further along in their studies, their people skills tend to get worse. “As they start to specialize, they get more interested in the technicalities,” she points out. “They want to try out new equipment and discover the pathology. They forget that they’re dealing with a real person with complex feelings. They tend to back away from emotions.”

After the simulation is over, she gets to wear headphones and listen in to the doctors’ critique of the students’ performance. She also listens to the students talk about the person she was portraying, as they attempt, as a group, to make sense of who and what they’re dealing with. Melissa gets to give feedback, too, which is where her therapy training comes in useful. She has to let the doctors know if they seemed awkward, nervous, or rigid, and whether she sensed them backing away from scary emotions.

As a Standardized Patient, Melissa’s learned a lot about medical training and how the young doctor’s mind develops. She’s learned something else, too. “Once I had to be a patient having my eyes examined,” she recalls, “and suddenly there was this whole group of students wanting to look down the ophthalmoscope. They kept sending their friends to see. I asked them what was so interesting, and they said it was the first time they’d seen eyes that were exactly like the ones in the anatomy manual. They said I had ‘textbook retinas.’”

B is for Bulldogs

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I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want a dog. For many years, it wasn’t a specific kind of dog I wanted, just a dog, any dog. When I imagined myself with a dog, I pictured a generic kind of Collie, wet nose and wagging tail, nothing more specific. Yet to tell the truth, although I say I wanted a dog, I hadn’t given much thought to what having a dog would involve. Plus, whenever I visited friends who had dogs, I never really found them very appealing, especially big dogs that jumped on me and drooled. For a couple of years, my closest friend had two German Shepherds. Her small house had been taken over by these huge, noisy creatures that shed hair all over the furniture. The house always smelled of dog, and frankly, so did she.

I should perhaps point out that I’ve always been drawn to animals that aren’t considered conventionally endearing—the kinds of animals that don’t get shows on Animal Planet (unless its “Nature’s Ugliest Mistakes”). I’ve recently written a book about the hyena, which is far and away my favorite animal, though I also like hedgehogs, porcupines, armadillos, rats, Tasmanian devils, African wild dogs, bats and rhinos. I’m drawn to unusual horns and oddly shaped ears, erectile manes and curly tails, don’t ask me why. Naturally, then, I’ve always been interested in the English bulldog, with its flat, jowly face and squat, muscular body, though the drool has always seemed like a drawback. I’ve always assumed English bulldogs slobber a lot, but perhaps I’m wrong.

The first time I ever saw a French bulldog was sometime around 1999, in the streets of Greenwich Village, which of all areas in the United States seems to contain perhaps the greatest concentration of the breed. Some people have suggested that French bulldogs are especially popular in the Village because, as small, affectionate lapdogs that are also solid and butch, they have a particular appeal to gay men. A 2005 article in The New York Times Style section described the French bulldog as a “gay vague” dog (as opposed to the Boston terrier, which signifies “straight,” and the Jack Russell, which apparently suggests out-and-out “gay”). What the dog signaled in Greenwich Village, however, was not my concern. What fascinated and enchanted me about this odd little creature was that at first sight it looked more like small pig than a dog—a pig with a flat snout, an underbite, and large, bat-like ears. I started looking out for these piglet-like dogs, and whenever I saw one, I’d think to myself, “There, that’s the kind of dog I want.” Finally I started to say it out loud to whomever I was with at the time. Then I learned what they were called: French bulldogs.

Notoriously, these charming little creatures were originally fashionable among prostitutes, so much so that during the belle époque in Paris, if a woman was seen walking a French bulldog, it was a sign she was looking for business. Not only did the dogs help attract potential clients, their easygoing character meant they had no problem taking short naps at hotels during the afternoon, when their mistresses were otherwise engaged. In this period, many prostitutes posed for paintings, postcards, and drawings with their French bulldogs at their feet, in their lap, by their side or under their dressing tables, the pups often sporting ruffled or feathered neckwear.

When the breed first appeared in Britain 1898, it caused a genuine scandal. The British bulldog had become such a popular symbol of the English character that the sight of this miniature French version with bat ears seemed like a mockery of everything the noble bulldog had come to stand for. The sentiment was summed up in the popular press: “We English, who have always felt a special affinity for our national symbol, must reject this little abomination that has been brought to our country.”

According to the American Kennel Club, French bulldogs are increasingly common. In the year 2000, they ranked as the 71st most popular breed in the United States; in 2010, they ranked 21st, though they are still nowhere near as fashionable as English bulldogs. It is not always a good thing when a breed’s popularity increases so fast; such trends often lead to a rise in puppy mills, backyard breeders and mixed-blood imports. Plus, some people who acquire Frenchies don’t realize that, as a “man-made” breed, they’re prone to various medical problems, including joint diseases, spinal disorders, heart defects, eye problems and deafness. Puppies have to be delivered by cesarean section, since they have such large heads, and their short snouts mean that anesthesia is always a risk. Their bulging eyes are subject to dryness and susceptible to injury. Like other flat-faced dogs, Frenchies don’t do well in hot weather: They wheeze, snort, grunt, have strange honking fits called reverse sneezing, and snore like a freight train at night. Their short jaws can cause dental difficulties, and their wrinkles can harbor bacteria that cause serious infections. I do wonder about this, and much as I love the way Grisby looks, I know that he is a product of artificial selective breeding, and his size, shape and temperament are the result of human choices that might not be in the dog’s best interests. Would he be happier if he had been born with a snout or with a tail?

I also realize that a number of people find French bulldogs hideous to look at, with their grossly foreshortened jaws, high foreheads and protruding eyes. The flat face is supposed to be especially anthropomorphic, designed to appeal to the human “cuteness” response, but many people find it grotesque and disturbing. On top of that, according to Jan Bondeson in his book Amazing Dogs, “Canine psychologists have pointed out that certain breeds of dogs are cleverer than others,” the bulldog, apparently, occupying the bottom end of the scale.

Despite all this, French bulldogs are affectionate, playful pets that don’t bark much, and have distinct personalities. They’ve recently become popular among celebrities, which might help to explain why the breed has suddenly become so fashionable among the public. Yves Saint Laurent had a series of brindle piebald Frenchies all named Moujik (Moujik II had his portrait painted by Andy Warhol), and Leonardo DiCaprio shares custody of a French bulldog named Django (likely after Django Reinhardt, the jazz guitarist) with his ex-girlfriend, the model Gisele Bündchen. Martha Stewart’s French bulldogs, Franceska and Sharkey, frequently appear on her television show and even have a blog dedicated to their adventures, “The Daily Wag.” Reese Witherspoon has a Frenchie named Coco Chanel; Christina Ricci has one named Ramon, and Michelle Trachtenberg has one named Mya. Malcolm McDowell, Hugh Jackman, Ahley Olson, Mario Lopez and Patricia Hearst are all French bulldog owners; Hearst’s French bulldog, Diva, won a red ribbon at the Westminster Dog Show last year. Comedian Patton Oswalt is sometimes said to resemble his Frenchie Grumpus. Celebrity chef Claire Robinson is often accompanied in the kitchen by her clean and well behaved French bulldog, Newman. Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is a French bulldog fan; his black-pied Frenchie Jackpot was the predecessor of his current fawn Frenchies, Boris and Ivan. Author Augusten Burroughs also has two French bulldogs, Cow and Bentley. Burroughs writes lying on his bed, where his bulldogs join him. “One is on top of my legs and one is next to me, and if I move positions then they move with me at all times,” he explained in an interview. “I am in physical contact with my two French bulldogs literally 24 hours a day.” This is not always possible for Grisby and me, but it is definitely my ideal, and Grisby always does his best to make it happen.

Mikita Brottman teaches literature at MICA–look for her regular Baltimore Fishbowl column, “On Culture,” chronicling the weird and wonderful world of Baltimore, with special focus on fascinating small things oft overlooked.

Atomic Books: The Center of Everything

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Whenever friends of mine come to Baltimore, they invariably demand that I take them to “that shop,” and they always mean the same place: Atomic Books, in Hampden. Now, Baltimore definitely has some great independent bookshops, notably Normal’s and Red Emma’s, which both have their own unique advantages, but Atomic Books is truly the center of everything. Okay, so you can’t hang out there with your laptop and a cup of coffee like you can at Red Emma’s or Read Street Books, but then, Atomic isn’t quite that kind of place (and there are lots of fabulous coffee shops right next door on The Avenue).

The store itself was founded on a different site in 1992, but closed in 2000 in anticipation of the Millennium bug. The new Atomic Books was opened on the Avenue in Hampden in 2001, and moved round the corner in 2008 to its current larger, brighter location in at 3620 Falls Road. It’s a small operation, which means the owners, Benn Ray and Rachel Whang, are the shop’s only full-time employees, although there are also a couple of dedicated part-timers.

Renaissance man Benn Ray is the author of his own comic Straight Talk Express, and draws the “Said What?” comic published every Wednesday in B: The Paper. A sometime teacher, City Paper writer and expert on graphic novels, he also publishes his own blog, Mobtown Shank, and is currently head of the Hampden Village Merchants Association.

Selling stuff isn’t all that goes on at Atomic Books. Ray and Whang also host a music club that meets twice a month to discuss new releases, as well as a thriving monthly book club. They also publish a blog, host readings, art shows, signings, book launches, parties and lectures, and even take fan mail for John Waters, whose recent signing (of his pithy new book, Role Models) was heralded by a line of fans reaching all the way round the block.

While everyone complains about Amazon and chain stores putting independent booksellers out of business, Ray and Whang, without any fuss or fanfare, continue to stock and sell all the latest books from independent publishers, plus fanzines, small press journals, underground magazines, LPs, lunchboxes, plush toys, posters, art toys, and a whole lot more besides. When you live near a shop like Atomic Books, why bother with Amazon?

Poe House Schmoe House: Lit Prof Says Let Doors Lock

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Baltimore Fishbowl readers may recently have learned that the Poe House at 203 Amity Street can expect no further financial support from the city. In certain quarters, this revelation will no doubt cause much brow-beating and hand-wringing, but I have always seen the Poe House as something of a “purloined letter”—that uncanny object which, as Poe aficionados well know, cannot be properly seen because it is lying right in plain view.

Poe is often seen as Baltimore’s native son; what better evidence for his local importance than the name of our football team: The Ravens. Poe’s 200th birthday in 2009 was commemorated by a number of local activities, including an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art called “Edgar Allan Poe: A Baltimore Icon.” Yet, as some might be surprised to discover, there were four other cities also celebrating Poe’s 200th birthday in 2009: Boston, Charlottesville, Richmond, and New York, all of which have at least as strong a claim on Poe as Baltimore (and in some cases, I would argue, their claim is stronger).

A quick reminder: Poe was born in Boston in 1809, and moved to Richmond the following year. As a child, he spent five years at school in the London suburb of Stoke Newington. He went to college in Richmond, and when in the army, he was stationed in Charlottesville, Virginia. He moved to Baltimore in 1833 and lived at the “Poe House” on Amity Street until some time in 1835, when he moved back to Richmond with his young cousin-bride, Virginia. He spent the rest of his life moving between Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York, and it was in New York, where he lived at nine different addresses, that he wrote most of his best-known works. In short, less than three of Poe’s 40 years on earth were spent in Baltimore. Even his death here seems to have been a mistake—the consensus historical view is that he was trying to get to New York from Philadelphia, but took the wrong train by mistake.

Let me hasten to add that I consider myself a Poe devotee. I subscribe to Poe Studies, I teach a course on Poe at MICA, and I have published articles on Poe’s philosophy (and Poe is definitely underrated as a philosopher). His work, I believe, speaks for itself. There is no need to make a fetish of the house he lived in, the room he slept in, the desk he might or might not have used. To the author, the material of everyday existence was nothing; what mattered was thought, language, and the infinite world of the imagination. So let the Poe House split to fragments like the House of Usher. As long as Poe’s works remain, very little, I would argue, has been lost.

Clean Living with Jennifer Aniston

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One of the fabulous perks of working at MICA is the chance to snap up amazing artwork before anyone else. A few years ago, in a basement studio exhibition at the college, I spotted the strange and wonderful painting pictured here. The artist of the piece is Chuck Wing, a former MICA student and ex-painter who now lives in L.A., where he works as a technician in the movie industry. This painting, which features recurring images of a “Friends”-era Jennifer Aniston overlaid with a Smurfette motif, is entitled “Lactose Intolerant,” and was originally accompanied by a large piece of sculpted cheese that I discarded, since it was a little unwieldy.

When I asked about the title, Chuck told me that, at the time he created the piece, Jennifer Aniston reigned supreme as television’s  “It” girl. His friends had crushes on her, he told me, and he seemed to be alone in his immunity to her cheesy, plastic appeal. Chuck saw Jennifer Aniston as Hollywood’s latest version of the Smurfette, who, as Smurf fans may recall, was manufactured specifically to serve as the love interest of every single Smurf.

Warhol is obviously a strong influence, as Chuck admitted, as are other pop artists like Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns, but there is a kind of mysterious sadness to the picture that makes it a true original. I like the painting so much, in fact, that I have re-designed my bathroom around it (see image), painting the walls bright purple to match the painting’s vivid fluorescence. I’ve always preferred taking baths to showers, so I got rid of the shower and installed a claw-foot tub, a bargain acquired from Second Chance Architectural Salvage. I refinished the tub myself, and painted it purple with gold feet. The black chandelier was purchased for a song on eBay. Since the faucet seems to have been lost in transit, I am still waiting to take a bath, but when I do, you can bet it will be a long, deep, hot one—with bubbles.

Give Rats a Chance?

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“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” wrote Gandhi, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” What, I wonder, would Gandhi make of Baltimore’s “Rat Rub Out Program,” with its so-called “rat abatement stations” and its logo of an evil-looking rat with a red line through it? We are constantly being informed that Baltimore has a serious “rat problem,” and that rats are a major health risk, a source of disease, contamination, and so forth. “Rat Rub Out Trucks” cruise the streets of Baltimore, boasting of their murderous crusade. Dismissed as vermin, rats are being systematically massacred by city officials in the name of “public hygiene.” Does anyone care?

Even if we all agree that rats are a problem, do they really need to suffer an agonizing death from slow acting poisons? And does the city really need to brag about this inhumane violence? While it may be true that rats are connected to the spread of disease (though not the plague, which was carried by fleas nestling in the rats’ fur), they are actually much cleaner than most human beings. Rats groom themselves constantly and wash their faces with water whenever they get the opportunity. They are gentle, intelligent creatures that will not attack unless provoked, and generally prefer to steer clear of human beings and go on living their lives in private, and at night. As this article from PETA explains, it is possible to live in harmony
with rats, and to solve rat “problems” without undue cruelty.

In China, the Rat is respected and considered a courageous and enterprising creature. Those born in the Year of the Rat are honored, and noted for their charm and attraction. Like rats, such people work hard to achieve their goals and acquire possessions. If we all counted ourselves blessed every time we came across a rat, the rat problem would be solved overnight, and Baltimore—at least, according to Gandhi’s criteria—would become a leading center of moral progress.

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