Columns

Dario’s Party

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Cocktails with Dario Franchitti, Radcliffe Jewelers, September 1

We weren’t very psyched about the Grand Prix, what with the cutting of the trees and the noise and the inconvenience. But we’ll concede that it seems like the weekend was a success: the bars and restaurants were packed, the hotels were sold out Friday and Saturday nights and the city got a public relations boost. If we have to have it (and with a five year contract, we do) better for it to succeed than fail.

One big success came Friday night. Racing’s striking star Dario Franchitti stepped out that night after practice to mix and mingle at Radcliffe Jewelers in Pikesville with jewelry lovers and race car driving fans to raise money for the The Herman & Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai. 

Five Minutes with Dario Franchitti

Have you ever had a speeding ticket?

I’v had a couple.

Would you mind telling me how fast you were going?

 I’d rather not.

What do you find most annoying about regular drivers?

When drivers are not paying attention. It doesn’t matter if you are going 30 (mph) or 120, you need to focus and not talk on the phone.

What is your pre-race routine? 

About an hour before the race, I try to clear my head. I do some stretching and spend time getting focused on the race.

Do you have a favorite movie of your wife Ashley Judd?

Well, I think they are all pretty good.

 

 

Sartorial Baltimorial Picks Prix Party Pics 

 

 


 

 

Joint Custody: The Best of Both Worlds

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The day of the swim meet, it was 99 degrees in the shade. My son and I had been up since 6 a.m. to make time to dress and eat breakfast before friends picked us up at 7 to carpool an hour to Carroll County for the meet.

The only glimmer of hope I had that bright morning, as I hugged my coffee cup and yawned, was not inspired by the sun’s radiance, but by the thought that next weekend I wouldn’t be at a meet. It would be my ex-husband’s turn to attend.

*
Nothing had turned out as expected. When I became pregnant, my husband and I read and planned for a natural childbirth, complete with hypno-birthing. My labor was induced, lasted for 52 hours, and involved Pitocin, an epidural, and forceps. I’d expected to have a girl with brown curly hair like mine. I gave birth to a beautiful fair-skinned little boy with blond hair and remarkably bright blue eyes. I’d expected that my child, his father, and I would spend our time dancing to 80’s music, discussing arcane cultural issues, and watching movies. I’d expected we would stay married and raise our little boy together. I was wrong.

I separated from my husband when our son was two years old. We divorced two years later. After we separated, my ex moved back to Boston. I relied on my wits, my pocketbook, and a series of newfound friends and paid caregivers to get through the next three years.

I lived through many long and sleepless nights with a very attached young boy attached to me. I moved his trundle bed into my room so he could stay close. I learned television was my friend. My son would crawl into my bed between 5 and 6 a.m. and turn on the TV. I would “watch with my eyes closed” for a few hours until I was able to drag myself out of bed.

The years passed quickly — although there were days that seemed interminable. Once my son returned home from preschool and told me, “It’s not fair that you and daddy don’t live together. Everyone else lives with both their parents.” I’d vowed to be honest with him, so I said, “You’re right. It’s not fair and I’m sorry. But we are better off living apart and working together to care for you.” He cried and I held him. When he fell asleep, I went to the bathroom and cried so much that my eyes were still swollen the next day.

At that point, though, my ex and I weren’t really working together. My son and I were in Baltimore, and he was in Boston calling his son daily, visiting every few months — and doing what he needed to do to move back to our town.

With my village of friends and caregivers, my son and I survived his toddler years. Though I relished my freedom and the tranquility in my single-mom household, there were times when I would have loved a partner to help. I get debilitating migraines once a month, and there were many days when it was all I could do to feed my son something vaguely healthy, go back to bed and bring him with me, then attempt to take him to pre-school before coming back home to collapse.

Several times when my son was ill, I was up all night changing and washing pajamas and bed sheets. Then going into work in the morning. There were other times when I wished his father was around — for example when it was time to teach my son to pee standing up… Trying to teach my son things better taught by his dad would often leave me feeling sorrowful — yet in the end capable.

When my son was five, his father moved into an apartment a mile away from us. Our new phase of active co-parenting began.
*
My ex-husband and I had decided that, to the extent possible, we would work cooperatively and supportively to raise our son. I hoped to spare my child the mixed blessing and sorrow of the “two birthdays, two Thanksgivings, two Christmases” that some divorced couples embrace. My ex and I shared many values and were going to do our best to share holidays, too, and not to speak ill of each another.

To a great extent it has worked. We celebrate my son’s birthday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas together. We attend school functions together. His girlfriends have attended with us. (Neither my ex-husband nor I questions the wisdom of the divorce in the least.) Our divorce resembles Demi Moore and Bruce Willis’ in some ways, although neither my ex-husband nor I resemble Demi or Bruce. And there is no Ashton Kutcher on hand, either, much to my chagrin.

I still do the bulk of the care-giving because frequent transitions between houses can be difficult. My son thrives on routine — I do what I can to provide that. My home is closer than his father’s place to many of his friends, which allows for spontaneous play dates. It is closer to his school and our pool. My son is with me Tuesday through Friday afternoon each week. Every Monday evening he spends at his father’s apartment. We alternate weekends. Honestly, there are weeks when I wish my son would spend more time at his dad’s, and times when I wish I had as much time as his father to date and do other things — but neither decision would be in my son’s best interest. That’s my priority.

My son likes the arrangement. And, as it turns out, so do I. The wonderful thing about joint-custody is that it enables parents to regain their adult lives. When my son was born, caring for him was all consuming (as it should be). There was little time for anything that didn’t involve him. Since my divorce and shared custody, I get to do wonderful adult things. I see movies that are not produced by Pixar or Disney, and don”t involve a boy wizard. I see plays. I catch bands, attend readings, and dine and drink with friends. Sometimes I go on dates.

Then, the weekends my son is with me, we spend a great deal of time together. We watch lots of movies by Pixar or concerning a boy wizard. We play games, we have “dance parties,” we cook, we go to the farmers’ market. Because I have the opportunity to pursue more adult pleasures the other weekends, I come to the weekends with my son excited and engaged. I look forward to them; I am present.

It is not perfect. My ex-husband has turned my son onto Dungeons and Dragons, online fantasy gaming, and Escape from New York. This wouldn’t have happened on my watch. I counter by ensuring that my son learns to play The Ramones and Clash songs on his guitar, gives money to anti-war groups, and hones his dance skills. If my ex-husband and I both succeed, our son will be the best rocker and dancer at all the D&D and Magic: The Gathering tournaments in his future.

Imperfect as it may be, I feel that in many ways, I get the best of both worlds. And in many ways, so does my son. He gets the best of both his parents — we each share things with our son that we love (and which the other parent may detest). There is little resentment or discord between his father and me — unlike when we were married. And when there is, well, we don’t have to spend endless hours together, which makes it easier to both bear and to forgive.

Now, when some particularly onerous event comes up–an all day birthday party, an Orioles game, or the desire to re-watch all episodes of “The Suite Life on Deck” in one weekend–there’s a 50 percent chance that I will be somewhere else entirely, which are odds I’ll take any day.

Which Hurts Worse? Sibling Revelry in the Emptying Nest

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If you are sending a child to college this month, you may be feeling a little sensitive about the imminent outsourcing or termination of most of your parental duties. However, you are not the only person in your house to be affected by the upcoming changes. For example, since all four of her half-siblings moved out by the time she was eight, my daughter Jane has been raised as an only child. The darling of the entire family, she will never experience the ruthless machinations of a fully operational sibling regime. Our own began to crumble in 2006 when the children of my family lost their dynastic leader, my older son Hayes.

When Hayes departed for college a few states south, it took two cars to fit all his stuff, so his brother Vince chauffeured me and little Jane in my car and King Hayes followed in his Jeep. Vince was so excited about his learner’s permit. It was exciting for me, too, especially when he did things like darting into the left lane on the DC beltway when traffic was so thick Hayes couldn’t follow us.

“What are you doing, Vince?” I cried, and a few minutes later, when Hayes still hadn’t reappeared, I called him on the cell phone to make sure he knew the name of our exit. He answered me with a stream of recriminations, though he knew I was not driving and what had just happened was out of my control.

Soon afterwards, Vince got annoyed by my direction-giving and began shouting that I was crazy and he would never drive anywhere with me again. Right then, Jane began whining from the backseat that she needed to go the bathroom. “Now! I have to go now!” she insisted.

A gas station appeared on the right and our maddened group swerved into it. The boys got out of their respective cars.

“Dude!” said Vince to his older sibling. “I’m so sorry about what happened back there!”

“Dude,” said Hayes magnanimously, clapping his back, “it’s cool. I wasn’t mad.”

“God, Mom is such a freak!”

“For real! Let’s go in and get some beef jerky.”

In disbelief, I watched them start to head into the gas station. “I’m hungry too!” said Jane. Her main man Hayes turned around and tossed her up on his shoulders. “I’ll get you a snack, babe,” he said.

“Didn’t you have to go to the bathroom?” I called after her. Damn kids.

In the weeks after we left Hayes in his dorm, things were weird and sad. Certainly ganging up on Mom wasn’t the same. A two-man junta, particularly if one of the corps is Cindy Lou Who, is very different than three against one, or five against one if step-sibling reservists are on tap. And the house was just so quiet without the beatings and rough-housing, without Hayes’s famous game, “Which Hurts Worse?”

Meanwhile, I kept staring wistfully at the leftovers piling up in the fridge; I couldn’t seem to adjust the quantities I cooked for dinner, and Hayes was the only one who ate leftovers anyway. Not only did Vince revile anything encased in tinfoil, Saran, or Tupperware, he was always at band practice at dinnertime and favored pretzels dipped in Tabasco sauce when he returned. Jane, on the other hand, ate pasta with butter and cheese. She also ate pasta with butter and cheese.

One day I ran into Vince’s guidance counselor in the high school parking lot. “Vince seems so different this year,” she told me.

“Really?” I said. “Like how?”

She thought a minute. “Well, the other day I saw him in the hall, and he gave me a smile and said, ‘Hello, Mrs. Dzwonczyk.’ He never did that before!”

Wow, I thought. That is hard to believe.

When I reported this conversation to a friend who was in a similar situation, she suggested that some sort of gravitational shift was underway in our families. She had never realized how exclusively her family’s dinner conversation focused on her older son until he left, and they started to talk to the younger one. “Dungeons and Dragons is so interesting, once you understand it,” she gushed, aglow with her new crush.

How far can this go? I wondered as I stared at a plate of homemade sushi rolls leftover in the refrigerator. “Vince,” I said, “isn’t sushi one of your favorite foods?”

He thought a minute. “Yeah,” he said, “give me that,” then settled down beside Jane to watch “The Fairly Oddparents.” Well, well, well. It seemed Vince had begun to notice a few job openings around here: Eater of leftovers, friend of little sisters, greeter of guidance counselors.

So it goes every fall. The parents go around whining about their emptying nests while the little brothers and sisters move up a peg in the pecking order, unable to believe at first that no one’s swatting them down.

“Do you miss Hayes?” I asked Vince one day while we were watching a movie on television. It was exciting for both of us to learn that our television received channels other than ESPN, the official network of the Hayes administration.

“Well,” he said. “He hasn’t been gone that long.”

“But you lived with him every day of your life for sixteen years, and then he just disappeared.”

Vince looked around at the wide open plain of the living room, vacant of rampaging bison and marauding tribal leaders. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s what I mean.”

*
These days, the boys live half-way across the country from each other and are together only on holidays and vacations. As a college senior, Vince is four inches taller than his brother, an indignity which Hayes may be subconsciously addressing as he transforms himself into a solid wall of bulging muscle, accomplished by adopting the menus and workout routines of Paleolithic man. (If you have a 23-year-old son you have probably heard of this delightful fad.) When they do get together, they mostly just drink and carouse, old friends rather than ruler and subject, or even rivals.  I believe they indulge in an argument or two for old times’ sake, late at night after most of the beer is gone.

They are both much nicer to me than they used to be, though they still answer each other’s phone calls when they won’t answer mine and sometimes I actually have to ask Vince in New Orleans to call Hayes, who lives down the street, or vice versa, to deliver a message.

I keep a black-and-white picture on my dresser of Vince in a swimming pool at about age five, wailing into the camera with scrunched eyes and wide-open mouth. For a long time I didn’t even notice that Hayes was lurking behind him in the background, smirking evilly, until Hayes himself pointed it out, again smirking evilly. When I showed Vince, he seemed filled with nostalgia. He made the same comment Hayes had. “That’s it,” he said, grinning, “that was our childhood.”

Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.

100 Grand to Skip College?!

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Attention, young entrepreneurs: In San Francisco, Peter Thiel, who is a co-founder of online home run PayPal, has started what could be a revolution in the higher education community. He is offering $100,000 to students–high school graduates and college students under age 20–not to go to college.  So, what do you have to do for the money?  Have a good idea, and try to turn it into business.

As recipients of the “20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship,” fellows embrace the life of young entrepreneurs for two years–they develop new scientific and technical projects, learn about business models, and begin to build the technology companies of tomorrow.  In addition to the cash, these kids receive another huge payday–they spend their time working with real life entrepreneurs and scientists, as mentors for their projects.  Project areas this year include biotech, career development, economics and finance, education, energy, information technology, mobility, robotics, and space.

Being selected may be less likely than being struck by lightning, but for those young people out there who are smart and creative, and have a great idea, why not try?  As Thiel promotes his scholarship, he reminds students (and their parents) that college will still be there waiting after the two years are over; and with $100,000 stipend in the bank, these Thiel Fellows can actually pay for it.

Applicants are asked to “design a project to change the world.”  Okay…that’s not intimidating, right?  But when you are 18, maybe it’s not!  Kids are so full of promise and creativity, perhaps it’s the perfect time for them to take a swing.  Thiel is all about innovation–his plan is to shake things up, challenge the traditional ways of doing tech business, and disrupt the status quo.  Although he finished college, and grad school, before making his own business millions, he thinks that the current college debt load is such a risk to future entrepreneurs that he encourages young entrepreneurs to skip that step, if they can.

This year, the inaugural year of the program, Thiel chose 24 students from more than 400 applicants, who came from many different countries, high schools, junior colleges, community colleges, four-year colleges, and grad schools.  For these kids, the next two years will be life changing, whether they launch their fortune-making businesses or not.

The List: Apply to at Least One Dream School

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My daughter has spent untold hours in her room over the last two weeks of summer.  She’s not hiding, or pouting, or avoiding the rest of the family.  She is working on “the list.”  Emily is a rising senior in high school, and the reality of the college application process has hit her like a pie in the face, kind of sweet, but certainly messy. 

High school has been great for Emily.  She’s done a lot of terrific growing up.  We think she’s pretty mature for her age, makes good decisions in social situations (something not all parents of 17-year-olds think), and has a star-bright future.  Her junior year grades, however, were not what she was hoping for.  This sad fact has an impact on “the list,” the colleges where she plans to apply.  

I have had to check myself in conversations with her about my emotional reaction to her list, but finally I couldn’t bear it.  I had to tell her–I think she is smarter than the schools she is planning to apply to!  I know she needs to be realistic, but it can’t all boil down to GPA, can it?  We are all transfixed by the computer screen when we look at Naviance–the software program that compares Emily’s GPA and SAT scores to those of other graduates from her high school, and charts how those kids fared in the application process at specific colleges and universities–accepted, rejected, deferred.  But, it cannot be this formulaic, can it?

Oh sure, there are some good choices on the list.  A few selective liberal arts schools–proper “reaches.”  But then it all falls apart.  I thought, somehow, that the list would flow something like:  three or four “reaches,” three or four “as-likely-as-nots,” two “safeties.”  Well, Emily has a couple reaches, and then whoosh.  She falls off the ledge!  I know this is not the time in her life for me to tell her what to do, but come on!  Ramp it up a little!  Speaking hypothetically, if she doesn’t get into the so-called reaches, then we must assumed she is going to end up at one of the others on the list–a less brilliant outcome than perhaps we had hoped for.

Our younger daughter, Grace, put it to me straight, though.  She said, “Mom, you just don’t want to tell your friends if she goes to one of those schools.”  Is that it?  I don’t think so.  I mean, I’m sure that’s true, but only a tiny, shameful little bit of the truth.  The bigger part of the truth is that I don’t see a fit for Emily on her list–a place where she will likely get in that deserves her, all that she is.  The list has to get better–it has to change so that it holds a picture we can smile at when we look in the middle.  Sure, we’d be happy if she got into her first choice, but there is a reason we call them “reaches.”  Her list has got to grow so that when we picture her at number 4 or 5 or 6 down the line, we can still feel good, she can still feel good.  I don’t know how to say this to her without sounding critical.  It may be impossible.  But I have to try.  Maybe she doesn’t see herself the way I do–better.          

Rambling Roland Park Beauty

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HOT HOUSE: 204 Ridgewood Road, Baltimore 21210

A uniquely designed shingle-style mansion in Roland Park, built in 1900.  Over five thousand square ft. house on a one acre lot, with eight bedrooms, five baths, six working fireplaces and porches with views: $1,195,000

 

What: Holy gables, batman! A prime example of this great American architecture style. What’s special, besides the wide, domed gable in the front, is the amount of natural light that floods the interior from large, well-placed windows on the south-facing rear of the house. Porches wrap the house and overlook landscaped gardens, sloping lawn and trees. Enter the grand foyer, where sunshine from a huge, leaded glass window at the top of the double-wide stairs pours down to illuminate the ground floor. Sightlines are nicely designed, there are views of porches and sky from nearly every room. Large dining room to the right of the entrance hall, with the gourmet kitchen behind — it’s distinctive turquoise cabinetry might not be your first choice, but it works. Left side of the entrance has the living room, opening to a family room behind. All these rooms are big, (like 20’x15)’ so you may need to up the furniture budget.

Upstairs, many bedrooms, brochure says five, you could call it eight. The master bedroom has walk-in closets and en-suite bathroom, all on the old-fashioned side.  Bathrooms could use some updating too, showers are small. On the upside, there are several very functional claw-footed bathtubs.  The third floor has a wonderful artists studio, with windows on three sides, a few other bedrooms and a fantastic long narrow, light-filled room lined with built-in cabinets and drawers, like a butler’s pantry. There are also several enclosed porches with leaded glass windows. Hardwood floors throughout, unfinished basement, four-zoned radiator heating and a/c.

Where: Ridgewood Road leads off of Roland Avenue heading south, turn right just a few feet before Cold Spring Lane. Many of Roland Park’s prettiest houses are here, and there are sidewalks wide enough for dogs and strollers, making the ten minute stroll to Petit Louis or Eddie’s a pleasure. Literally two minutes to 83, via Cold Spring Lane, so a 10-minute drive to downtown Baltimore.  

Why:  The third floor artist studio, the porches, the back yard, the wide and generous spaces, the wonderful windows.

Would Suit: Executive family new to Baltimore, can’t believe what $1.2 million gets you here.  Landed Baltimore family, ready to ditch the starter home, not ready for the Valley.  Architecture buffs.

Why not: You can hear, but not see, Cold Spring Lane behind the wooded backyard. 

True Confessions: A Writing Workshop Confidential

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In most occupations, if you have an accident at work, you end up in the hospital. When a creative nonfiction teacher has a little job-site snafu, forget the ambulance. There’s plenty of trauma, but not the kind they can handle at the ER.

I’d logged just a year of campus experience when I taught a boy and girl from Florida who’d been friends before college. He was a lazy loudmouth, she a quiet, serious type who’d been ROTC in high school. They were an odd couple as friends, but at least they had each other.
One day in workshop, Mr. Faux Gangsta read us an essay about the night he’d been babysitting the youngest child of a neighbor. Once the little girl was asleep, he smoked some pot he found in a kitchen drawer, then ended up having sex with the mom when she got home. All of this was described in great detail–I had probably written “show, don’t tell” on one of his previous papers. By the end of the story, his friend was staring at him with her mouth open.

“Yes, it was your mom,” he said, smiling broadly and waggling his finger. She bolted from the room.

“Oh Christ,” I muttered as I rushed after her, shouting over my shoulder that everyone, even the non-smokers, should take a cigarette break until further notice.

When the class is personal storytelling, going to school is rarely boring.

I was a child of 41 when I started teaching, pregnant with my daughter Jane. I had no idea that my MFA in creative writing qualified me to do anything income-producing at all, but when my husband’s college found itself desperate for someone to teach a scheduled writing class, I suddenly learned I had the credentials.

Though I was extremely nervous and sure I had nothing to say, I drew up a syllabus, ordered some books, and drove to Harrisburg two nights a week as my belly pushed ever closer to the steering wheel.  I began by assigning the students journalistic pieces, and that went okay. But when we started to work on memoir material, the class caught fire. As it turned out, I had a student who’d grown up living with her family in a bizarre rural religious cult. She was now a stripper. Another had racked up credit card debt in the tens of thousands of dollars before turning twenty. Another had lived through the horrors of high school as a gay teenage harpsichordist.

I had found my calling.

*

Believe it or not, back when I was a student, there was no such thing as creative nonfiction. You could study poetry or fiction, maybe playwriting, but it wasn’t until 1994, more than 10 years after I finished graduate school, that the first classes in the genre were offered. That was when people started realizing that 16th century author Michel de Montaigne and NPR commentator David Sedaris were doing about the same thing.

By then I had stumbled onto the form myself. My first personal essay, though I didn’t know that term, was called “How To Get Pregnant in the Modern World,” and described recent experiments I had been doing along those lines. No made-up plot or characters, no gimmicks of language, a voice very close to my own–what the hell? Was this allowed?

Finding my form as a writer was an incredible relief to me and the excitement carried me through dozens more essays and one book-length memoir. I ventured past humorous storytelling into darker territory: the role of drugs in my relationship with my sister, the sorrow of losing my father in my mid-twenties, my battles with weight, body image and eating disorders, the dream-turned-nightmare of the pregnancy that ended in stillbirth. At first, some subjects seemed untouchable, as I imagined the exposure I would endure, and the shame, and the complexity of getting these difficult, multifaceted stories down right. Eventually I learned to recognize that “don’t do it” reaction for what it is, camouflage and barbed wire around the entrance to the place you are looking for, whether you know it or not.

*

When my husband took a job teaching at MICA, I joined him there. Though at first it was all beer pong and raves and sex in the city, the essays of the art students eventually took a heartbreaking turn. A girl wrote about growing up hungry. Another had been pushed down the stairs by her father. Another had run away from home and was living off the grid in a national park on the Tuesday morning some hobo with a transistor radio told her planes had hit the World Trade Center. She called her mother for the first time in a year.

Absolute silence followed the reading of some of these pieces in class. Sometimes students were crying, or staring fixedly at their desks. I too felt panicky, especially after that disaster with the Floridians. I was not a trained counselor or even a good role model–did I have the skill to steer a group of young people through the waves of anxiety, emotion and judgment swelling around me?

By the time I got to the University of Baltimore, where I teach now, I had figured out my shtick. My students can write about almost anything, and I encourage them to be as brave as they can stand, to forge through the camouflage and barbed wire. But the class doesn’t offer therapy, at least not for the soul. Only for the story.

So, for example, it is fine to lay the smack down about your ex-boyfriend the psychotic control freak and the horrible things he did to you–or the cherished love you found making out with your roommate. But all you’re going to get from me and your fellow students is advice on how to make it a better story. “I don’t understand what happened that night at the Dairy Queen,” you’ll hear. Or, “Dude, you never explained why you even dated her!” The only way readers will be interested in the assholes these people became is if you take the time to show them as you first fell in love with them, wry smile, wild hair, bass guitar, scarred wrists, golden retriever and all. We have to fall in love too. And the only way we can really engage with the story of your betrayal is if you figure out your part in making it happen–how you played into it, or wanted it, or were too weak to get out when you should have. That’s a story people want to read. And if you can find a few moments of black humor, so much the better.

While I insist that we are doing craft work, not therapy, the students eventually figure out what I learned from my own writing–they are pretty much the same thing. When you write about your problems, you are in charge of them–they are your little puppets, instead of you being theirs. And if you can figure out your role in bringing them on–“self-implication,” as we call it in the workshop–you have taken a huge step toward freedom. This is what I hope for all the broken-hearted kids who have had to take my “love medicine,” for the boy who kept bragging about black-out drinking, the girl with the marriage she’d kept secret from her parents, for the boy who survived the world’s most protracted and ridiculous armed car-jacking.

Still, every once in a while, the needle goes off the charts and I feel like half the class is going home with post-traumatic stress disorder. Fortunately, once you’re in the memoir business, PTSD is just another thing to write about.

Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.

Big Fish Q&A with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

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When Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake presided over Harborplace’s 30th anniversary ceremonies in July 2010, she unabashedly declared, “I remember being here when I was 10 when Harborplace opened. It was a fantastic day. I also used to work here as a puppet master at the Puppet Master.”

As a rule, politicians should probably avoid uttering the phrase “puppet master.” Even more important: best not to confess to operating as one in public. And yet, in this case at least, the admission was entirely harmless. While the job does not appear on Rawlings-Blake’s resume, as a young woman she worked as a puppeteer. Conjure in your mind Punch and Judy, Lamb Chop and Hush Puppy, and the Muppets; banish from your brain guileful, covert political manipulator.

The daughter of Howard “Pete” Rawlings (chair of the Maryland House of Delegates’ Appropriations Committee) and Dr. Nina Rawlings (a pediatrician), Rawlings-Blake was born in Baltimore and raised in the city’s Ashburton neighborhood. After graduating from Western High School in 1988, she earned an undergraduate degree in political science from Oberlin College in 1992, followed by a law degree from the University of Maryland in 1995. At that point she embarked on dual careers in public service and legal services: elected to the Baltimore City Council from the 4th District in 1995, two years later signing on as an attorney with the local Legal Aid Bureau.

From 1998 to 2007, Rawlings-Blake worked as a staff attorney for the Baltimore Office of the Public Defender, while continuing to serve as a council member, moving to the reconfigured 6th District in 2004 after the city switched to single-member district representation. She ascended to City Council president in 2007 and mayor in 2010, in both cases succeeding Sheila Dixon.

Rawlings-Blake, 41, lives in the city’s Coldspring neighborhood with her husband, Kent, and their daughter, Sophia.

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.  

Make it happen.

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

I defined my goals at a very early age. I have so much love for Baltimore that I grew up knowing that I would use my skills and talents to make our city better. My most important goal is to make Baltimore a better place for my family and all of our families. Our city should be a place where families can choose good schools for their kids; where our streets are safer and families feel more secure in their homes; where neighbors work together and businesses choose to invest and create jobs.

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

Watch and listen to everything around you. Know your community and neighbors, and get involved in anything that can help you make the lives of others better. 

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

“Quit politics.” I heard that right after I was elected [to the City Council] in 1995 and started studying for the bar exam. An older lawyer told me that I could be one or the other, and people wouldn’t respect me as a lawyer while I was in office. I studied hard, passed the bar on my first try, and practiced for about 10 years on behalf of indigent clients in Baltimore.

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

I’ll name two. 1) That the squirrels that my mom named Michael and Suzy weren’t the same two squirrels every day when we saw them. 2) Unfortunately, that your metabolism really does slow down after 30.

What is the best moment of the day?

When I wake up and see my family.

What is on your bedside table?

My BlackBerry.

What is your favorite local charity?

 The Maryland Food Bank. 

 

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

Work hard, be honest, and protect your integrity.

Why are you successful?

I’ve been a successful public servant because I have a passion for helping others. The people I serve know that they can count on me to be honest.

Which book, film, TV show, or video game have you introduced to your daughter that has had a profound, positive effect on her? Describe that effect.

Sophia loves black history books, and a biography of [Olympic gold medal winner] Jesse Owens inspired her to begin to run track.

Orioles’ players have “at-bat” music, a song snippet–personally chosen by each team member to represent him–that plays over the Camden Yard sound system when they step into the batter’s box. What would be your at-bat song?

DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win.”

If re-elected mayor, which item will be foremost on your agenda–the specific initiative you immediately strive to accomplish?

My top priority for the next four years is addressing those issues that have the greatest impact on all of Baltimore’s families. We must redouble our efforts to create more jobs, make our streets safer, provide children with a quality education, and empower our neighborhoods. All of these issues hold equal value and must receive equal attention in order to move our city forward.

Downsizing with Elegance

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HOT HOUSE: 230 Stony Run Lane #3F Baltimore, MD 21210

Large, airy condo in the grand old Gardens of Guilford apartments near Johns Hopkins University.  Two bedroom, two bath, 1,510 sq. ft. home with stunning roof terrace: $299,000

What: A rare find. A large, well-maintained apartment in one of the most desirable buildings in north Baltimore. The Gardens of Guilford were built in 1924, a good year,  as America was riding a pre-Depression high and construction budgets were lavish. Its distinctive Mediterranean style–rounded roof tiles, thick walls, big windows, stucco exterior–whispers “old money.” Through attractive gardens and up two flights of stairs, #3F opens into an apartment that’s full of light and charm. A large, sunny living room to the left of the foyer has a wall of windows and French doors that open onto the roof terrace–easily the crown jewel of the building. Beautifully designed, generous in size and luxurious in planting, the terrace could comfortably accommodate a dinner party of six to eight, cocktails for twenty. A trickle of water runs musically into a small fountain. Dappled shade from tall trees creates a real feeling of oasis in the city. It’s hard to leave the terrace to go inside, but once there the apartment is a delight. The living room has a cozy fireplace and built-in bookcases. Walk through the open dining room into a nicely modernized kitchen, both with good-sized windows. Two hallways lead off the main area, one leads to the smaller of the bedrooms  (13×13’) and a new bathroom with glassed in-shower. The second hallway leads to a very big (13×19’) second bedroom, currently a chic office, with an expanse of windows running along one wall. Another wall has built-in cabinets with square doors, running floor to ceiling and providing a wealth of storage. There’s a good-sized closet here as well, and a second bathroom is out in the corridor.  Apartment has forced air heat and central air too, for days when even these amazing windows aren’t enough.  

Where: Tucked in between St. Paul Street and University Parkway, in the beautiful, quiet neighborhood of Tuscany-Canterbury. A very short walk to Johns Hopkins University, Charles Village and Baltimore Museum of Art. To get there, take 39th Street off of St. Paul Street or University Parkway to Stony Run Lane. Stay straight at the stop sign to Gardens of Guilford. Entrance is on the right at top of circle labeled 3.

Apartment is on the third floor to the right.  

Why: The roof terrace alone would do it, but this place checks a lot of boxes. Secluded yet convenient. Stylish yet dignified. Safe, secure and very walkable. 

Would Suit: Bronte Mitchell, the environmentalist who hooks up with Gerard Depardieu in Green Card, the ‘80’s romantic comedy.  If you haven’t seen it lately, then think Hopkins professor. Also, downsizers and/or travelers–it’s an ideal turn-the-key-and-go type building. 

Why Not: Watering the roof garden might become a chore… 

Lessons for Our Children

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My mother died last week. She had lived an excellent, long life, and died well–in her home, without pain, surrounded by her children. Now, we are left to celebrate her life, mourn her loss, and reflect on what made her the very special woman she was. As we raise our own children, many of the lessons she taught us are repeated without thought, as instinctively as any daily habit. But sometimes, it helps to write them down, both so we don’t forget them, but also so that we can share the wisdom. As we ready our children to go out in the world, I can think of no better preparation than to make sure they have a firm grasp on these basic lessons, handed down from our parents. If they can master these skills, and understand these truths, they will be ready for what lies beyond the college experience–real life. So, here are a few of the things my mother taught me:

There is something greater than yourself, however you name Him.  Know that you are not your own creator.

Respect yourself and others.

Be grateful.

Family is your beginning and ending.  Nurture it.

Grammar matters.

Have fun, life is short.

Work hard and make good habits.

Life is not fair, so don’t wait for an equal piece.

Love mother Earth.

A person’s worth is not reflected in his bank account.

Smart takes effort.

Gold stars are earned, not given.

If you serve others, you serve yourself.

Always know the cardinal directions.

Testosterone is real.

Time is time and money is money – don’t confuse them.

Marry the one you love.

Don’t get in the car with a drunken sailor.

Put your napkin in your lap, and don’t speak with food in your mouth.

Flesh wounds heal, but angry words can last forever.  Choose your words carefully.

Don’t charge more than you can pay at the end of the month.

Learn how to cook real food.

It’s not always what you say but how you say it that matters.

A simple gesture of kindness can change someone’s whole life.  Take the time to do for others.

Pray.

It is never too late to send a thank you note.

Don’t give up.  Try harder.

Things are just that.  People are what count.

There is no substitute for good manners.

Don’t spend principal.  You are holding it for the next generation.

Leave a bathroom cleaner than you found it.

People will remember your kind actions longer than your kind words.

There is beauty in everyone if you look for it.

I am comforted to hear my mother’s voice in these words.  My children would do well to listen. 

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