Earlier today, I had a little sit-down with myself to figure a few things out. You see, my inner critic has been working overtime in the past month or two, absolutely convincing me that the following were completely, and without question, true:
My words were no longer meaningful, and they no longer mattered with the masses;
Blogs were dead, stupid, antiquated, washed up, and no longer read (hey! just like me);
Your audience is sick of you;
You are pathetic to think otherwise; and
Hell, you are pathetic.
These thoughts stopped me from writing anything. I did not even write in my daybook. It was a ridiculous, self-piteous period of wallowing in negativity and doubt.
So, as I said, I had that little sit-down convo with me-truly, and I’m not going to lie, I let the expletives fly, as Seinfeld’s Kramer says.
It felt good. It really did. I needed to hear myself fight back against all that fake news that I have been self-spewing. I made the commitment to blog tonight, but with a purpose:
To not teach, preach, or inspire.
So, not only did I throw myself back into the fire, I threw away the crutches and dove in head first without a safety net.
Which brings me to what I’ll be doing here at The Baltimore Writer for the foreseeable future. Many years ago, I started writing “Rus Uncut” entries, and they were well received because they were so raw. I’ve tried a few times to get back to that, but I kept falling back into the teach-and-preach model.
So here we are tonight, willing (desperately) to give it another shot.
What does that mean? Probably some really boring blogs, some out-there thinking, and maybe some pretty pictures to keep you coming back to see something shiny.
It means all of this, maybe none of it, maybe some Franken-mix of a bunch of different things. And I’ve opened comments for you to join in with the uncut-ness of the whole thing.
But what I can promise you is that it will be raw, uncut, and authentic. All Rus.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I need to do this for me, though, so there. You are welcome to follow along, share your thoughts, or unsubscribe entirely and vote to have The Baltimore Writer completely scrubbed from the interwebs.
We’ll see how this goes. Thanks for whatever choice you make (except for the web scrubbing. That would suck for sure).
It all started last summer with a cool sticker at Open Works in Baltimore.
For five consecutive Fridays, I had the good fortune of working with 25 teens in Baltimore City through the Bloomberg Arts Internship Program. We met at Open Works, a collaborative space for creatives. In the main lobby, between the classrooms and the Greenmount Coffee Lab (highly recommended), local literature rested on a small wooden table. Sipping the daily roast, I walked over to see what literary opportunities were happening in Baltimore.
A small sticker, with the words “NASTY PRESS,” stood out. I picked it up out of curiosity, stuck it in my pocket, and returned to the workshop.
That night, I did a quick search on Facebook, and there they were. I was immediately drawn to their quick surge in Baltimore providing what I call “Literary Advocacy.” In just a few short months, they had created a space for locals to share their stories that, until now, had no real platform to be heard.
How appropriate to discover them in a place called Open Works.
I reached out to the founders of Nasty Press and asked them three simple questions. Here are their responses, just as they supplied them. Any attempt on my part to paraphrase would be ridiculous and, quite frankly, rude.
They’ve got a fundraiser happening at the end of the week as well. See below for more details.
The need for these voices to be heard cannot be overstated. I support Zoey, Em, and XoChitl in the work they are doing for all of us.
The Baltimore Writer:Please tell us the origins of Nasty Press, the purpose for starting, and its current state.
Nasty Press: After the election last November, the three of us separately noticed a shift in Baltimore’s creative energy. It felt almost like a power-outage. There were expressions of rage, sadness, fear, and joy all over social media, but it seemed like the artistic communal hub that we’ve each grown from was at a stand still. We each separately concluded that artists needed a push to re-direct their energy; that maybe they needed an unbiased, open and inclusive place to showcase their emotions and artistic responses about what was happening socially and politically, instead of only ranting on the internet. There needed to be a place without labels that doesn’t exclude anyone, but which uplifts the creative voices of Baltimore, no matter who you are or how you feel. We wanted to generate constructive discussion, even if that meant pissing some people off.
We are in the throes of formatting our second issue which tackles mental health and mental illness in the Baltimore community. We were blown away by the submissions we received and we can’t wait to release this issue to the public. Our FundRager will help fund the printing of the zine along with raising donations for select local non-profits.
TBW:What kind of space are you providing Baltimore citizens, and how might publishing their works further your mission?
NP: Much like collectives before ours in Maryland, we are cultivating space and time for voices that feel and are unheard. We provide a space for visual art (illustration, painting, drawing, etc.), poetic and creative writing, film and photography, and live music and performances. Our collective exists in print format as well a literal venue for local artists. We cater events toward current socio-political issues aiming to benefit the people that are directly affected. This past September, as a result of the potential ban on trans people in the military, we hosted a mini art fair in which we showcased visual art, poetry, and music from our POC and trans/queer family in Baltimore. This event was entirely free to participate in and to attend, and the artists kept 100% of their earnings. We are planning a similar but larger event in April 2018.
TBW:Your work is important, even essential. But you are just one opportunity where we need many. How might you encourage others to do what you are doing to strengthen your larger mission?
NP: We are transparent and tangible. We are open about the way that we operate, and we are accessible to all communities. We never have a cover charge at our events and no artist is ever charged to submit work to the zine nor to participate in our events. We are showing people in our community that it isn’t difficult to get the ball rolling; all you need is passion, drive, and friendship. You don’t need a degree or money, you just gotta stand up and speak up, and people will listen. Recently, we’ve met with organizations, such as Planned Parenthood of Maryland, to discuss future collaborations in hopes to generate more active socio-political dialogue in our community.
It started with a poolside conversation with a friend of ours who teaches in the Baltimore City school system. Hungry Harvest had partnered up with the schools in her area, and she was sharing — quite supportively — Hungry Harvest’s mission and the healthy impact they were having with children who lacked the finances and resources for a balanced diet.
My wife and I are no strangers to healthy eating. We’ve ventured on many vegetarian journeys (and for me, a few stints as a vegan), over the last few decades. We did it for ourselves, though, and it didn’t go much further than that.
Two things of importance here. First, we’ve also struggled with the lure of quick foods and the decadent experiences of some of the taboo delicacies. It’s easy for us to get sucked into that routine of convenient and tasty meals.
Second, we’ve looked at a lot of Co-Op deals with local farmers. Most of them are pretty good, if not outstanding. Nearly all of them, however, are asking for a full-season (usually 20-24 weeks) kind of commitment. And, the variation of fruits and vegetables you receive each week would leave us a little worried that we would be getting too much kale and not enough peaches, cantaloupe, and peppers.
When we did a little research into Hungry Harvest, however, we were immediately attracted to the work they do to support families in dietary needs in and around Baltimore. As well, you are on a week-to-week schedule with them, and you can modify your orders to supplement with fruits, vegetables, and even breads that are not in the package we ordered (they have everything from Mini Harvest, Full Harvest, to Super Harvest with conventional or organic options). You can even specify a full-fruit or full-veggie order. Their produce packages begin at just $15. So many options, and all of them are healthy and yummy.
The story behind Hungry Harvest is simple.
According to their website, Hungry Harvest has delivered over 3 million pounds of food, provided access to over 50,000 pounds of reduced-cost produce, and donated over half a million pounds of produced to their partner organizations, including SNAP.
Per their website, “Produce in a SNAP is a partnership between Hungry Harvest and Baltimore City Public Schools to bring fresh, affordable produce to food deserts in order to promote healthy eating and fight hunger. The goal is to allow food-insecure families and individuals who could benefit from affordable produce, including those on government assistance programs such as SNAP/EBT, WIC, and SSDI, to stretch their food budgets and put nutritious produce on their dinner table.”
To be honest, they exist because the statistics cited on their website are startling and speak for themselves.
40% of food in the US goes to waste.
16 million children in America struggle with hunger.
6 billion pounds of fruit and vegetables go wasted each year in the US.
Each year, American consumers, businesses, and farmers spend $218 billion, or 1.3% of GDP, a year growing, processing, transporting, and disposing food that is never eaten.
If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter behind the US and China.
If one-quarter of the food wasted were saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people globally.
And the list continues, but that was enough for us to realize that what Hungry Harvest is doing for our communities right here in Baltimore is making a difference.
By ordering food from them, we are supporting their mission:
“We believe that no food should go to waste and no person should go hungry. That’s why we source 🍐, hand pack and securely deliver delicious boxes of recovered produce a weekly and bi-weekly basis. For every delivery, we subsidize 1-2 lbs of produce for families living in food deserts through our Produce in a SNAP sites. We currently deliver in Maryland, DC, Northern Virginia, Philly, South Jersey, and South Florida.”
Amy and I just finished our first meal with Hungry Harvest produce, and we are excited to continue to support them every way we can. They have many volunteer and staff options available to be a part of their mission. As we continue to improve our health, it’s good to know we are helping a worthwhile organization like Hungry Harvest improve the lives of others as well.
Hungry Harvest offers many discounts and incentives. If you are interested in ordering produce from Hungry Harvest and want to save on your first order, let them know that you heard about them from Amy VanWestervelt. We are excited to do everything we can to spread the word of how they are helping so many in our own communities.
Late yesterday afternoon, I witnessed an unraveling of peace in my hometown, Baltimore. As I watched the events on television, with commentary by local news media that made the event sound more like a parade being covered than an act of uncivil disobedience, I could not tear myself away from the surreal de-evolution of events.
It all reminded me of an event that I was (peripherally) a part of last year, where I was at a large venue where police were called for an unknown disturbance with an open call to 911. In truth, two sets of parents were having a verbal disagreement stemming from a run-in between their children. When the police arrived, they did not know the full nature of the situation. They were a little tense and handled the situation rather aggressively, ending in multiple arrests. When I and a few others tried to broker some peace, we were told – forcefully – that if we didn’t cease with our efforts immediately, we would be arrested for interference.
We backed off without argument. Although we believed that our efforts were trying to relieve a tense situation, we did not want to make it worse. We listened to the officers in charge, and we avoided any escalation of what was already a very tense scene.
Unfortunately, this was not the case last night.
In the aftermath of a night of violent protests where storefront windows were smashed, cars were trampled on and demolished, police were pelted with bricks, rocks, bottles, batteries, bicycle racks, and even dirty diapers and burning trash cans, and Baltimore guests and innocent citizens were threatened and terrorized, we begin the discussion of why this happened, who is to blame, and how any of it might be justified.
I am profoundly disappointed…
Perhaps our greatest mistake today is to try and justify what happened. We can point fingers at the specific triggers for what transpired last night, but we are left with a circuitous and ironic argument that leads us nowhere.
A tragedy happened where an individual was taken into custody and died a week later. Six police officers are being questioned about the circumstances leading up to this individual’s ultimate death. A week after he died, 1,200 protesters took to the streets of Baltimore, threatening to “shut the city down.” We watched as they did just that. They marched peacefully in the afternoon, and city leaders shut down city streets as is often done for benefit 5Ks and marathons held for just causes.
But something happened when they reached City Hall, just after 5 p.m. There were speeches, but it never seemed like the culminating point to the protests. Instead, many protesters – with plenty of time remaining in the afternoon and evening – decided to continue their march to the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards, where there were no planned speeches.
Even before the protesters left City Hall, a small group took down the American flag and tried – repeatedly – to set it on fire. They failed, and somebody ultimately stepped in to pick up the flag and turn it over to City officials. In the media coverage I followed, I did not see or hear of any police officers at City Hall monitoring the demonstration.
Within 45 minutes of reaching City Hall, many protesters ran – sprinted – to the Inner Harbor and confronted police at Camden Yards who were not dressed in riot gear. They hurled rocks, bricks, and other heavy materials at police who were ordered to stand down and not fight back or make any arrests. As they put on their helmets, they just stood there, holding the barricades secure, and taking the hits.
The protesters then roamed the downtown streets, smashing windows, demolishing cars, terrorizing innocent drivers, and threatening citizens trying to get to the ballpark.
The order to stand down remained for another hour before police were finally granted permission to make arrests. Hours later, while Camden Yards – with 36,000 fans in attendance – was put on lockdown, the Mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, held a press conference and admonished the violent protesters. She opened with this statement: “After a week of peaceful demonstrations, I am profoundly disappointed to see the violence in our city this evening,”
She continued to cite statistics, such as 95% of the protesters were peaceful, and a “handful of outside agitators” were causing all of the trouble.
Therein lies the irony: let’s blame the violence on a few “outside agitators” when allowing a shut-down city riot for the purported actions of a few police officers.
I’m not sure if the 95% was a generic percentage to illustrate a point, but if you do the math, 5% of 1,200 protesters is 60. From the multiple perspectives of media coverage I followed last night, there was a much larger number than 60 causing the disruption.
If this were, indeed, true, then I think the bigger questions might be: Why couldn’t 1,300 police officers handle the 60 who were out of control? Why the sustained order to stand down? How in the world do you allow your officers to be pummeled with debris and not authorize them to make arrests?
Government officials, reporters, and social media posters kept saying the same thing: We are so proud of our officers for showing such restraint in the face of these protests.
What is that even supposed to mean? That we are supposed to applaud them for being “good” cops? Was this their collective punishment for the purported actions of a handful of police officers two weeks ago?
In the press conference last night, Mayor Rawlings-Blake gave a particular shout out to the individuals who stepped between the police and the protesters to broker peace. This sets up, fosters, and supports the classic “US vs. THEM” mentality. The power of the police was taken away from them, by order, and the protesters were allowed to spit in their faces, scream abusive slurs, and injure them. Yet, the focus is on the individuals who stepped between them?
I am profoundly disappointed…
By the end of the night, after the order to stand down was lifted, 34 were arrested and 6 police officers were treated for injuries sustained during the violence.
Before it was all over, 83 Southbound was shut down, as were many of the main arteries in downtown Baltimore; Oriole Park at Camden Yards was in lockdown; and Shock Trauma, the Maryland SPCA, and other organizations canceled events and fundraisers.
All of this, because of 60 individuals?
There is much to digest here. We could focus on police brutality, ineffective city leadership, or peaceful protests that turned violent. We could also focus on cover ups, misleading statistics, the busing in of protesters, the alternative agendas of several groups, or pro-violence perspectives.
We could focus on how there was no end game after the march concluded at City Hall, or how organizers were allowed to shut down the city under their own terms and rules, putting the lives of countless individuals at risk for injury or even death.
There is no doubt that, as we sift through the debris of everything that happened last night, we could spend a great deal of energy blaming others and trying to justify stand-downs, sit-ins, fight-backs, and flash-riots.
The truth is, it should have never reached this stage. We need stronger leaders who are focused on establishing a new foundation of trust and community within Baltimore City government and among its citizens. We are only perpetuating the problem by spending more energy on supporting protesters than we are on fixing the problems that exist within our own government.
I am profoundly determined….
Here’s what I think.
I support civil disobedience. I support protests and demonstrations to keep a good check on our government. But if I were a leader in charge of a community of any size, I wouldn’t be focused on how we can support the acts of civil disobedience. Our leadership now needs to be focused on what we can do to avoid the need for such acts of civil – and then uncivil — disobedience to occur at all.
After the incident that I experienced last year, we had a great deal of discussion about what we could do to foster a stronger relationship with our local officials, and what proactive measures we could put in place to ensure a situation like this didn’t happen again. I feel pretty good about how we are moving forward, and our focus is on the needs of our community to foster wellness and fairness for all.
I realize that City leaders are working with a much larger group of agencies and citizens; I know, too, that you cannot please all the people all the time. This is not about trying to placate the masses, though. It’s about building trust among the government, its civil organizations, and the community so that the expectations are clear, the consequences are transparent and fair, and the effort and energy from everyone is funneled in a constructive direction to build a better city – for its people, its businesses (small to large), and its guests. I don’t care how small or large the community might be; building trust is just as possible within Baltimore City as it is within a small community organization.
The leaders of Baltimore have to make a choice. They can continue on the path of leading the city behind a thick curtain of secrecy and rhetoric, thus furthering the promotion of distrust, tension, and division. Or, they can make the conscious decision to end the politicization of the work they do (or don’t do), stop relying on outside forces to get “between” their own agencies and their citizens, and put their energies into rebuilding strong relationships between the police, local government, and the communities they all serve.
I know that I don’t stand alone in having tremendous pride in Baltimore and the entire state of Maryland. I refuse to sit by idly and do nothing. I encourage all of you to rally in a different way. Join me in rallying for peace, for change, for transparency, for hope, for strong leadership, for a healthy investment in not just Baltimore City, but for the other 23 counties comprising our great state. Every Day. Not in reaction to a certain event, or to protest last night’s violence, or to focus on racial divides, or to say that our police forces are brutal, or to argue that our Mayor needs to be more transparent. Rally Every Day For Peace Among And For All.
If we focus on wellness for the long term, we will foster and receive wellness for ourselves, as well as for our children, for many years to come. Let this be the message we preach. Let this be the rally. Let this be the way for today, and for tomorrow.
Yesterday, I published my short story, The Christmas Rose. It’s been less than 24 hours since I shared it with my readers, and I wanted to answer a few questions about why I wrote it.
Q: The story is pretty long — almost 8,000 words. Most people aren’t reading pieces that take more than a few minutes to read. Why didn’t you cut it down to under 5,000 words?
A. It is one of the longer shorts that I’ve written. Most are around 3,000 words. I’ve been trained well by the competitions and requirements of the print journals where I submit most of my work. I knew this piece was going directly to the web and to an eBook format, so I worried less about the length.
There’s another reason, though. First and foremost, the story had to be told, and I couldn’t hold any part of it back to fit a generic reader’s tolerance for a sustained reading. In other words, it doesn’t fit into the criteria of a social media read (that’s one of the reasons why I created a PDF of the manuscript so readers could download it and read it at their leisure).
Q: Aren’t you afraid that it won’t get more widely distributed then? It seems like the length is a real roadblock to it taking off.
A: Then so be it. I know the formula of what makes things go “viral” in today’s fast-paced world. Maybe this is an “anti-viral” piece. I’ve stopped caring about that. I’m going to be 50 years old in a few months, and I have a lot of stories to share before I go. I’ve stopped worrying about what works in this immediate world. If my story is 50 words or 500,000 words long, then that’s what it is. I’ll let my present and future readers decide what they want to do with it.
Q: How long were you working on this story?
A: Not terribly long at all. The basic premise came to me about 3 weeks ago that “believing” in something, like Christmas or Santa Claus, is not just for kids. We have a responsibility to continue our efforts to believe in our power to change the world — whether that is the “world” in our local town or community, or an entire nation or nations.
In the middle of writing the piece, we took a trip down to 34th Street to look at the lights in Hamden in Baltimore City. We never made it because a flash mob shut the streets down as they sung “Silent Night.” I thought that was the greatest thing to happen. Shut everything down with music. Stop driving by the world and take a few minutes to celebrate the beauty with friends and strangers alike. Wonderful stuff.
Here’s the video that was released from that special night:
After I wrote the first draft, I knew there was very little I wanted to revise. It’s a Christmas story, all right, but it’s so much more about what we can do for others. Our nation is in a stressful place right now. We can focus on the pain, or we can focus on acts of kindness for all that can begin a genuine and long-lasting healing.
Q: Is any of it real?
A: None of it and all of it. Luther’s Village is a micro version of historic Lutherville; Hunter’s Valley is Hunt Valley. Emily Starling is an extension of the kind elders I knew in my neighborhood in Loch Raven and Towson who gave so selflessly to others.
Q: What about the Christmas Rose?
A: The Christmas rose itself (Helleborus niger) is not very “rose-traditional” looking. And, more importantly, it is poisonous. I loved the story behind the flower, but using this exact plant for my story just wouldn’t work. The hybridization of flowers happens all the time; it is not unrealistic to believe that Emily was able to create a hybrid that would be safe and offer a nice fragrance.
I think planting and giving flowers is the greatest gift we can give to others, both for now and for the future. I’ve always enjoyed the stories about the hope flowers bring. It doesn’t take much to bring a little color and hope to others, does it?
“Missed it by that much.” -Secret Agent Maxwell Smart
We decided that tonight would be a great night to take our annual trip to 34th Street in Hamden to check out the lights and lawns as only Baltimore can do. We left a little before 7 p.m., stopped at Starbucks to get a few holiday drinks (thanks, Wonderful Student, for the gift card), and headed down Roland Avenue, across Hamden’s famed 36th Street, and stopped abruptly. The line of cars started two blocks north of 34th Street, even before you made the left turn to travel the additional 3 blocks to get to the Big Show.
What the heck, we thought. Our drinks are full, the Christmas music was flowing freely on 101.9 FM, and we had nowhere to be. So, we decided to stay in line and begin the inch-by-inch crawl to the famed Baltimore block (not THAT block!) of lights and holiday magic.
It took about 75 minutes for us to make it to the intersection where the mystical show on 34th Street began. As we waited to cross the road and begin our oohing and aahing, a police officer, with full lights running, pulled up in front of us and got out of his car.
He proceeded to disappear in the masses of holiday walkers, and we were all stopped at a complete standstill. After a few minutes deliberating with two other officers who arrived at the scene, the first officer who blocked us stopped all traffic, set up traffic cones blocking the entrance to 34th Street, and gave us the big whistle and hand jive:
“You!” he pointed in my general direction. I looked a little to the left and to the right, then finally returned to his stare.
He nodded rather confidently and pointed away from the pretty Baltimore lights and directed me to fight with the angry traffic making its own way to– well, now to absolutely nothing.
We had waited nearly 75 minutes to be turned away. As Maxwell Smart would say, “We missed it by that much.” And that we did.
My wife, Amy, and I laughed, and I even think our son was a little relieved just to head home. All that time to get a sneak peek at some lines strung up and a few off-street attractions. Denied!
We made our way back along Roland, up to Cold Spring, then over to Charles, where we picked up Gittings and found THIS:
This photo does NOT do it justice at all. The house was covered — literally — in lights, and it brought back a smile to all of our faces. Our 2-hour trek had led us here, and as a result, we all benefited greatly (praise the Lord) from the beautiful display of lights.
We headed home, listening to more Christmas music, and planning out a different strategy in 2015. Until then, I think that we are happy in knowing we tried, and that there are plenty of other ways we can prepare for next year so that we can enjoy The Miracle on 34th Street — or any miracle, really… as long as it doesn’t involve so much traffic!