Robert M. O'Brien

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Annapolis Legislates Lead Poisoning

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Statewide, more than 500 children were found to have “harmful levels” of lead in their blood as recently as 2010. The effects of lead poisoning are wide-ranging and long-lasting. And right now there is a whole bunch of lead poisoning legislation up for debate in Annapolis right now. Eight different bills seek variously to expand state regulations (expanding regulations to cover later-built homes, requiring windows be replaced as opposed to painted over, etc.), and to protect landlords from lawsuits.

After a recent Court of Appeals ruling overturned the $17,000 limit on damages in cases of lead poisoning, landlords have threatened to board up their units rather than to rent and take the chance of have to shell out upwards of a million dollars per victim. This argument – “If we can’t poison our tenants, how will we survive financially” – is a variation on the but-if-we-don’t-feed-our-chickens-poison-how-will-we-remain-competitive? argument used by the state poultry industry back in February, and it’s a little hard to sympathize with. On the other hand, if a landlord was in good faith following state lead regulations to a T, then how culpable is he? One of the bills says, basically, “not at all.”

While hashing out who owes how much for an instance of lead poisoning is certainly an important issue. Let’s not forget that what everyone wants is fewer cases of lead poisoning. It’s ultimately in the interests of both landlords and tenants – all Marylanders, really – to demand effective, definitive lead regulations that reduce the risk of poisoning to near zero.

The Circus Fires Back at Jada Pinkett Smith

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In response to a letter the actress sent to Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, asking her to ensure that Ringling Bros. refrain from the use of bullhooks to prod their circus elephants at their upcoming Baltimore performance, a spokesperson for the circus fired back at Jada Pinkett Smith, saying, “She doesn’t know the first thing about elephants or about how to take care of them.” In his opinion Pinkett Smith is being “misled” by PETA, the organization that distributed the letter. He invited the star to visit the elephants to see first-hand that the elephants are treated humanely, and not harmed by their handlers as her letter alleges.

But it’s really probably a more fundamental ethical rift. Which is to say, though the focus is on the billhooks, PETA (and, apparently Jada Pinkett Smith) views the involuntary servitude of these elephants as inherently unethical. So Pinkett Smith could show up to the circus to find the elephants in La-Z-Boys watching a Desperate Housewives marathon while their handlers fed them peeled grapes, and it probably wouldn’t change her attitude toward the use of wild animals in circus performances. It’s this basic difference of opinion regarding man’s rights over animals that keeps people on either side of the issue feeling like the opposition is out of its mind. On the other hand, it’s also what keeps us knee-deep in hot, nude PETA ads.

Video Americain Closes Charles Village Location, Not Because of Me

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After some bold promotional efforts (including giving away free rentals to customers who canceled their Netflix accounts and to those who “checked in” at the store on Facebook) Video Americain has had to partially surrender to the economy and the new Internet movie paradigm by closing its Charles Village location.

I just want to let everyone know that this wasn’t my fault; it was your fault. I didn’t get a Netflix account; you did. When my wife and I set out to watch all of Battlestar Galactica, we didn’t sign up for Hulu Plus; we rented the DVDs, disc by disc, from Video Americain. And you know what, they probably would have had to close a month earlier without all that money I’ve paid them in late fees.

So when you head into VA next Friday looking for a good deal at the liquidation sale, feeling like a graverobber, thinking what a shame it is to lose a local cultural hub, to resign one more formerly social activity to the inhuman digital garbage-pile of the Internet, I want you to think, “This wasn’t Bob’s fault; this was all my fault.”

Jada Pinkett Smith Writes a Letter to Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

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On Tuesday, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake received a letter from Jada Pinkett Smith. How exciting that would have been for her, had it not been an open letter all about elephants. The Baltimore native and actress called on the mayor to ensure that the city’s law forbidding the use of any “mechanical, electrical, or manual device that is likely to cause physical injury or suffering” on a performing animal be upheld during the Ringling Bros. Circus’s performance at 1st Mariner Arena. Specifically, Pinkett Smith is seeking to ensure that bullhooks not be used to prod circus elephants.

How funny. I was in the middle of writing my own open letter to the mayor demanding that she make sure Ringling Bros. not charge too much for oversalted popcorn and soda that is mostly ice. But Jada’s right — this is more important.

Pinkett Smith’s letter, distributed by PETA, claimed that not only are these elephants poked with painful bullhooks, but that several of them suffer from arthritis and yet are scheduled to perform in Baltimore.

It’s unclear how Rawlings-Blake will respond to the letter. According to The Sun, she is a big fan of the circus and even played “a ceremonial role” when Ringling Bros. came to the city in 2010.

Chris Hedges to Speak on the "Death of the Liberal Class"

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Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and activist Chris Hedges — who was arrested in November for denouncing Goldman Sachs in front of their New York office — will come to MICA on March 26 to give a free talk related to his new book, Death of the Liberal Class, which — if you couldn’t get it from the title — “examines the failure of the liberal class to confront the rise of the corporate state and the consequences of a liberalism that has become profoundly bankrupted.”

The only truly passionate arguments I tend to hear against the corporate state are usually delivered by a friend who has had one too many. So, if you’re like me, getting an assessment of corporatism and the liberal class by someone with decades of journalistic experience traveling the globe to cover stories for NPR, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times, among others, would be a real treat.

Chris Hedges will speak at the Brown Center: Falvey Hall, 1301 W. Mount Royal Ave on Monday, March 26 at 7 p.m.

Smoking in a Car: Child Abuse or an Inalienable Right?

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Maryland Senator Jennie Forehand has authored a bill to ban smoking in cars carrying children under eight years old. This is the kind of bill that sorts voters into neat, partisan categories. If you support it, you’re a big government liberal who thinks people shouldn’t be allowed to make their own decisions; if you’re against it, you’re a conservative ideologue who’s so obsessed with personal freedoms you can’t recognize that smoking in a car with a kid is child abuse, pure and simple.

That said, I’m a little nervous to say what I think about the bill. Okay. Promise you won’t be mad at me. I think that regulating behavior in a car strikes me as a little… opportunistic. Are you still there?

Also, I think a public health campaign aimed at changing people’s minds and making refraining from smoking in a car with children the societal norm would be preferable to unenforceable legislation that will only make car-smoking parents resentful and non-smokers even more self-righteous and judgmental. Wow, that was scary! but we got through it. And you’re still friends with me, right? Right?

Anyway, what’s your position? Are you an elitist, know-it-all liberal? an uncaring conservative? something inbetween?

March (and April) of the Penguins

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To promote the upcoming nature show Frozen Planet, Discovery Channel’s website is hosting a live 24-hour penguin cam throughout March and April where you can watch emperors, kings, Adelies, gentoos, and macaronis just sort of hang out in captivity.

It’s not what I would call “exciting,” but somehow I can’t stop watching this thing. Mostly, the adults just stand there. The young ones run around looking as if they haven’t given up on flying, waiting for a lift-off that will never come. Pretty tragicomic, really. Sometimes, a penguin waddles right up to the camera — what a thrill! The only thing missing from the broadcast is a Big Brother-style voice-over (“3:11 pm. Tuxedo has waddled away. Flippy confides in Oreo…”)

The Penguin Cam broadcasts from Sea World San Diego, but if watching it inspires you to get your penguin on locally, you could check out the Maryland zoo’s African penguins (a species not featured in the Cam), and for a price, you can even have breakfast with them.

New Study Reveals Correlation Between Wealth and Ethics

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Not to throw fuel on the fire of the burgeoning “class war” we’ve been hearing so much about as of late, but a recent study revealed that there is a correlation between wealth and ethics. Turns out the richer you are the less ethical you tend to behave.

Members of the upper class who participated in the study were signficantly more likely to lie, cheat, and cut people off on the road. And there really isn’t much of a brightside to the findings. The very rich are even “more likely to literally take candy from a baby.”

The study’s lead author links the rich’s apparent propensity for unethical behavior to their “more favorable attitudes toward greed.” Yikes!

I like imagining warning my son about rich neighborhoods when he is a little older. “Asher,” I’ll say. “I don’t like you hanging around Mt. Washington so much. It just makes me nervous. I don’t want to generalize, but the kind of people that live up there, they’re just… they’re just less ethical, okay. I’m not prejudiced; it’s a scientific fact.”

Maryland Same-Sex Marriage Opponents Aim to Put Issue to Referendum

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They told us they’d do it and now they’re doing it. A coalition of anti-gay-marriage groups has begun a signature drive to put the same-sex marriage bill that recently passed the Maryland legislature up for voter referendum in November. They’ll get their referendum if they can get 56,000 signatures by the end of June. With marriage-equality splitting Maryland voters nearly in half, I’ll think they’ll get it.

Oh, and in case you were wondering who is to blame for the passage of the gay marriage bill, it’s the “elites.”According to Maryland Marriage Alliance Executive Director Derek McCoy, the recent success of the marriage equality movement is due to “an elite group of politicians and supporters” who are out of step with “average” Marylanders. Not to be contrary, but you’d think that with such overwhelming support from the “elites” that the queer community would have had it a little easier up until now, right?

Of course, it’s just as likely that voters will confirm the bill as reject it in November. But to the church, even if the bill is upheld it won’t be required to perform same-sex marriages, though they may catch some heat for denying a lesbian communion at her mother’s funeral, as happened last week in Gaithersburg, Md.

Straight Outta Catonsville: Rapper "Height with Friends"

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Baltimore rapper Height — real name Dan Keech — hails from Catonsville, where, as a teenager in 1998, he started rapping as a member of the Baltimore County rap crew Wounds, a group that spawned several of Baltimore’s most interesting rappers and producers, notably Jones and Mickey Free. Since then he has released three records under his own name, two with an expanded line-up under the name Height With Friends, and one as part of the international — one guy is from Canada — rap group Shark Tank. This St. Patrick’s Day, he is opening for the wildly popular Pittsburgh-based mash-up artist Girl Talk at Power Plant Live.

Height’s body of work could be a guide for suburban rappers from economically comfortable backgrounds on how to take rap — a genre born among the poor and working class — and use it to tell their own stories, without falling into the trap of overly self-conscious irony or disingenuous posturing. Height’s even got a song called “Catonsville.”

Over the years, as popular rap has only gotten faster, his flow has gotten slower and more restrained, focusing on sharp, intense lyrics, rather than athletic showmanship, harking back to a classic style of rap that is otherwise almost totally unrepresented in current hip-hop. To potentially confuse audiences even more, he recently added guitar, drums, and trombone to his live show.

Increasingly, as Height has been soldiering onward amid an industry that doesn’t quite know how to receive him, his songs have focused on transmuting defeat into something paradoxically empowering and cathartic. Typical is this heartbreaking lyric from the Baltimore Highlands track “Travel Rap”: “Driving back into Baltimore to lay down these final takes. / My aunt is buying the album and my uncle is fixing my brakes,” or the Bed of Seeds track “Dreams Don’t Always Come True (Do What You Have to Do).” Such philosophical melancholy is common to blues and soul music — think Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” — but rare in the rap scene.

Height’s catalogue is also an increasingly detailed map of the Baltimore area; places like Prettyboy Reservoir and Druid Park Lake frequently make their way into his lyrics, endowing Baltimore’s nooks and crannies with a kind of monumentality usually reserved for cities like New York or San Francisco.

Height recently took a moment to answer some questions about his music and what it’s like to carve out your own aesthetic space in the underground music scene.

What prompted the switch to the “with Friends” format?

I’ve been doing the HWF format since late 2008. I never liked the idea that if there’s one guy rapping, he’s the star of the show and everyone else is a hired gun you shouldn’t even consider. Almost every rap album is a team effort with a lot of interesting people coming together to make it happen, and I wanted to imply that we’re a team, and that our creative process is worth thinking about… I also hoped this would subtly encourage the people behind the scenes to step out into the forefront, without totally making a new name and implying that it’s separate from our past work.

Your songs are often specifically rooted in Baltimore, I’m thinking of tracks like “Baltimore Highlands,” “Druid Park Lake,” “Catonsville,” and others. Is this deliberate? Do you feel the songs benefit from being regional?

The songs definitely benefit from being set in a time and place. I would probably try to give the songs a location no matter where I lived, but I think Baltimore has an endless amount of interesting places and names that I like putting in songs. Baltimore has a lot of personality, in an understated kind of way.

What’s your relationship with Girl Talk? When did you two meet?

I met Girl Talk on one of my first tours in 2000, when I did a show in his parent’s backyard. It was the last show before going away to college, for his band called The Joysticks. Shark Tank has opened for him recently, but this is the first Height thing opening for him since he’s become this world-renowned act.

How often do you perform on rap bills versus other types of bills? How do you navigate between worlds?

I started doing shows in 1999, mostly playing the punk/DIY realm. This fact seems to have been swept under the rug now, but at that time rap was still totally looked at as taboo, novelty music by that crowd. We made a tiny amount of headway in that scene with the first Height album, but the general feeling was that these rock people are never going to take us for more than a lark.

In the early to mid 2000s, there was an explosion of indie hip-hop, and suddenly every single town had open mics and battle nights, etc. We started to get pushed in that direction, but we felt like aliens for wanting to tour like a punk band and do our difficult music in an environment that’s all about battling, partying, local pride, etc… We weren’t able to make much out of that scene, and that scene’s bubble burst anyway.

These days, I think scenes matter less than ever, and that the Internet is the only scene, for better or for worse.

How are you received by these different crowds? Who “gets” what HWF is doing? (I’m thinking of your emerging aesthetic — kind of equal parts Cold Crush and Link Wray.) Can kids typically process it?

Almost no one gets what we do, yet. Not to sound like a sourpuss, but the majority of people in all scenes have an extremely limited palette. Cold Crush meets Link Wray is a perfect way to describe our last album, [Bed of Seeds,] but everyone I talked to didn’t really have a frame of reference for it outside of rap-rock they’ve heard on the radio.

The sound of Height has changed drastically many times over the years, and I’ve never felt that any phase we’ve gone through has been understood. If I had picked one formula and just pushed it for the past twelve years, maybe we would be accepted by now. That said, I’m always holding on to the hope that one day we’ll be doing the right thing at the right time and it will be our turn to be ‘got’ by some mass of people.

When’s the next album due out? Who’s working on it?

The new album will be out in June. We have a few special guests, but it’s mostly me doing the instruments and rhymes, Gavin Riley and Jen Rice doing back-up vocals and Frank Yaker and Mickey Free on the mix.

Height With Friends opens for Girl Talk at Power Plant Live on March 17 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20. They will perform at the Lit Show at the Creative Alliance on March 22nd at 8 p.m. — a live talk show hosted by Jen Michalski and Betsy Boyd. Tickets are $10; $5 for members.

Okay, So There’s More Work to Be Done Yet!

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I may have spoken a bit prematurely when I posted Monday about our governor and his increasingly high national profile. Despite his being chairman of the Democratic Governors Association and a fairly visible Obama-surrogate, his name escaped the president for a moment at an event on Monday.

It went like this: Obama said, “Jack O’Malley — where’s Jack — Martin.  Where’s Martin?  Sorry.  I was…” Like a good politician, Gov. O’Malley was quick with a joke to ease the awkwardness of the situation.

So O’Malley’s got some more work to do in terms of brand recognition, before he stakes his claim for the presidency. But there’s plenty of time for that, right?

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