The darkest nights I’ve ever spent have been in a car, late at night, on a cold, lonely stretch of deserted highway.  Years ago, when my husband, Mark, was a resident at Johns Hopkins, we always spent Christmas with my family in South Carolina.  Mark didn’t get much time off, so we usually left at rush hour on December 23.  We spent almost all of the trip on roads that ended in “95” – first, the Baltimore Beltway, I-695, then I-95, then the D.C. Beltway, I-495, then back on I-95 all the way down to Florence, S.C., where we cut over onto a smaller highway to get to Columbia.

I-95 runs from Maine to Florida, and it’s one of those intense, stressful interstates.  If you’ve ever been on it, you know it can be a hellish racetrack, where you have to speed for your life just to avoid being flattened by an insane truck driver, where tailgating cars (oddly, almost always from New Jersey; no offense to New Jersey) flash their brights at you, and cars with Miami plates zip by at 90 mph, darting in and out of lanes in spaces you didn’t think a car could fit. 

And then, quicker than you can say, “Where’s my Zantac?” it can turn into a parking lot, where there are so many stopped cars ahead that by the time you start moving again, you don’t see any sign of a wreck.  From Baltimore heading south, the traffic doesn’t clear out until you get past Richmond, Virginia. 

But after that, on those long pre-Christmas drives, it wasn’t too bad, and as the evening grew later, we would start hitting some stretches of road where it was just us.  No other lights but our car.  Temperature in the 20s.  Dark, cold, and lonely out there on the highway. 

But every so often, we would see houses in the distance all decorated for Christmas.  Mostly little houses, with just a string of lights, or a homemade star with a flood light aimed at it, or a solitary decorated tree.  No fancy light shows, no inflatable snowmen or Grinches, no generators keeping snow falling in plastic snow globes.  We’re talking pretty humble stuff here. 

lights tree stringIt made me so happy to see those lights.  They were isolated bright spots, beacons guiding us down the road toward my family, who always waited up.  My mom would have a pot of soup and some warm bread ready for us, and those good smells filled up the house.  The house would be decorated, all the lights on, and my dad and/or my brother might even be standing out on the front porch in their pajamas, watching for lights, too — our headlights.

I started thinking about those long, cold, mostly dark journeys when I was writing an Advent devotional for my church, and this is what I have figured out: 

holiday lightsBasically, every time you hang a Christmas light outside or even turn on a porch light, you are taking a stand to the outside world against the darkness.  You are sending out a little dot of cheer, spreading a little hope, maybe boosting someone’s courage just a little bit, too. 

Why do we light candles and sing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve?  Why not just sing?  It’s a perfectly good song all by itself.  Christians around the world do it because it’s a visual – an “optic,” as the politicians might say:  To us, the lights are visible manifestations of our hope and faith that God can change a dark and cold world.  Has changed it.  Light means hope.   In the Bible, the book of John starts off by saying of Jesus: His life is the light that shines through the darkness—and the darkness can never extinguish it. 

I don’t know what you believe, but I hope you believe – because I do –that even in the darkest places, there is a glimmer of hope that can’t be killed.  That where there is evil, there is still good, and you can draw strength from it.  That even if love may not conquer all, it endures, long after hate does whatever it does – turns into a hard nugget and implodes, or disintegrates, or fades away. 

So – if you want to, that is, no pressure here — light up.  Send out a little dot of cheer, and take a stand against the darkness.

© Janet Farrar Worthington

 

I’m a mature adult, with important responsibilities and a certain amount of dignity… until Andy Gibb comes on my 70s lite rock Pandora station singing “Everlasting Love.” All of a sudden, I’m back in junior high, when he was a huge heartthrob. OMG! “We killed the pain, we blew away the memories of
the tears we cried, and an everlasting love will never die!” No, it will never die, Andy Gibb. I would have been so much better for you than Victoria
Principal – oh, hi, kids, Mommy’s just doing some improv, nothing to see here.

It is hard to carry on a conversation, or even remember your train of thought when a dog sits in the middle of the room and goes to town licking his or
her private parts, or has other issues, for example, digestive trouble.

I would love to go back in time and live in a mediaeval village, where the church tower is the highest point in the town and the bells of the church toll
the times of the day. If I could have hair dye, hygienic products and a lifetime supply of Charmin Sensitive toilet paper with aloe. And sunscreen, and
some type of moisturizer.

pumpkinPumpkins make me happy, but they also make me sad, because the minute you cut them to make a Jack-o-Lantern, they start to rot. I like fake pumpkins, because they don’t rot, and you don’t have to throw them away and feel guilty that you took a pumpkin’s life. But they’re fake, and fake pumpkins don’t support farmers, and they don’t have seeds that you can roast. They also don’t have guts that you can take out and get all over your hands and then pretend
to sneeze and gross out your kids. But fake pumpkins don’t die, and you can put them away in a cabinet until next year, a little orange friend just waiting for fall to roll around again.

The Human (body) Condition

If men are outside in nature and need to urinate, they just do it. Who can blame them? If I could, I would, too. There, I said it. Not on a building or car or anything gross, but behind a tree or large bush. However, I would bring hand sanitizer.

Why, when I use the brush to darken my eyebrows, can I achieve absolute perfection with one eyebrow – a glorious arch, worthy of Ava Gardner – and the
other one looks like it belongs on someone else’s face? It’s as if I have asked that one eyebrow very nicely to do something, and it says, “Oh, hell no!”  Why is this happening?  That would be a good title for my memoir.

When we were kids and one of us would yawn and not cover our mouth, my mom would say, “Cover your mouth! You can see Gibraltar in there!” It is so
ingrained that I have to stop myself from saying it to strangers.

Zombies

I am really getting sick of the zombie brain-eating thing. Also, do zombies poop? Because if they eat, they must poop. They probably don’t wipe.

Similarly, and I do have experience as a medical writer working in the field of urology, so maybe I have extra insight here, but I’m pretty sure that if
they have no heartbeat and no blood or body fluids, Edward and other vampires in the “Twilight” world wouldn’t have the hydraulic, mechanical or genetic
capability to sire a child.

©Janet Farrar Worthington

I made a Pandora station called Skyrim Soundtrack. It’s all music from video games, and I love it.  I made another Pandora station called John Williams film scores.  It’s got other stuff I love, especially Howard Shore’s music from all of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, and tunes by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who wrote the scores for movies like “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” — the good one, starring Errol Flynn — and “The Mark of Zorro” — the good one, starring Tyrone Power.

I vacuum my shower.  This may or may not be as gross as you think; one of our dogs likes to walk around in there, and always leaves a hair or two as a calling card.

When I was three, I kissed my parents’ little black and white TV screen because I thought Bob Barker was so handsome.  This was way before “The Price is Right” — we’re talking “Truth or Consequences” here.  I don’t know why I did this.

I love kids’ books.  I used to read them with my kids, and now that they’re older, I get them, read them, then try to get my kids to read them, too.  Ranger’s Apprentice, the Brotherband Chronicles, Percy Jackson, the Nicholas Flamel series, and for young adults, the Heir Chronicles.  I also scour used book stores for Nancy Drew books (nothing past 1980) to complete my collection.  My daughter, Blair, and I love reading Meg Cabot books, too.  She reads them first these days; she’s faster (see below).

I love Pop Tarts.  Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon first, cherry second.  I grew up in the South, where we err on the side of sweet.  I have learned that this is a regional thing; not everybody does this.  Living in the Southwest now, I have figured out that people here err on the side of spicy.  Chiles in everything.  It’s a lot healthier.  I try to stay away from stuff like chocolate chip cookies, coconut cake, custard pie, banana pudding, chocolate cake, frosted sugar cookies… you see a theme here?  I love them too much.  I’m weak.  And I have learned to love unsweet tea with lemon, something I thought I would never do,  Great sweet tea is the house wine of all respectable Southern establishments.  By itself, it’s kind of like syrup, but when you cut it with lemon — dang, it’s good!  And yet, I’ve managed to wean myself from it.  But by golly, I’m not giving up Pop Tarts.  In fact, a couple of days ago, we ran out, and I scoured the house, looking for that beautiful silver wrapper like a desperate nicotine addict rummages through ashtrays looking for cigarette butts to smoke. I started in my son Andy’s room.  The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  He loves them, too.

I do most of my reading in the bathroom.  This started when the kids were little, and it was the only place I could get any peaceful reading time.  Now, I have so many other things to do, I feel somehow less guilty if I just read when I’m in there.  It’s not just on the toilet, thank you for your interest; I just stand by the sink and read a few pages when I’m in there.  You know, when the shower’s all vacuumed, it’s otherwise pretty clean and kind of a nice place to be.  But what about the bedside table, you may ask?  Well, at night I pretty much just read the Bible and then do cryptograms.  Helps me clear my brain and get to sleep.  It works out pretty well for me, but it does take me longer to get through books (because I’m reading them in the bathroom a few pages at a time) than it should.

I love mysteries.  Books and TV series.  I just love the genre.  Favorites include, but are by no means limited to, Helen Macinnes, John Marquand, Agatha Christie, Dick Francis, Ngaio Marsh, Marjorie Allingham, Tom Clancy, Ellis Peters.  And binge-watching entire series on Netflix is the greatest thing ever.  For example, “24.”  The only way that’s even bearable is to binge-watch it.  Who could stand that kind of suspense over a period of weeks?  I come by this love of mysteries honestly; I got it from my dad.  When I was a kid, we’d all watch them on TV together; in fact, I’ve got the great TV mystery theme songs of the 1970s branded on my brain: Mannix, that lovely jazz waltz.  Barnaby Jones.  Hart to Hart.  Switch, with Eddie Albert.  Kojak.  Rockford Files.  Hawaii 5-O, from back when McGarrett was a Lord (Jack Lord, to be precise).

I don’t really like broccoli as much as I say I do.  I love roasted cauliflower, and cabbage, and turnips, and kohlrabi, and all kinds of vegetables.  But broccoli… I’ll eat it, God knows I’ll eat it.  But meh.

I just can’t stand cats.  I’ll eat ‘em, God knows I’ll eat ‘em — oh wait, that’s broccoli.  Just kidding!  When Denzel Washington bow-shot that cat for his supper in the awesome post-Apocalyptic movie, “The Book of Eli,” I thought I was going to hurl.  I don’t have anything against cats; I love watching funny cat videos as much as anybody.  But I’m allergic.  Even if it’s just cat residue on the clothes or furniture of a cat person: my eyes start to sting, my nose gets stuffy, my throat gets scratchy.  Cats know this, too, and in a room full of people who would love some quality cat time, choose me to rub against and purr.  Ugh.

I don’t know most of the films at the Oscars or on the New York Times bestseller list.  If it’s some tormented downer, no matter how deep it may or may not be, I’m just not interested.  Sue me.  That’s why this is called “True Confessions” instead of “Things I Pretend to Like Because They’re Supposed to be Culturally Relevant or Really Important.”  Life is too short, and there are so many sad things in it already, for me to want to put more dismal, creepy, or disturbing stuff in my brain.  The Greeks liked that sort of thing; they enjoyed the catharsis, and if Oedipus falling for a stranger who turns out to be his mother, causing him to put out his own eyes and walk around town blind, worked for them, I say, “Good for you, Ancient Greeks.”  Similarly, if Shakespearean audiences like seeing King Lear ruin his life and go mad, or watch Othello blow it with Desdemona because he is stupid enough to believe Iago, I say, “You do you, Theater-goers.”  Give me “Much Ado About Nothing,” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” any day.  Or the Minions from “Despicable Me.”  Or a good vintage Nancy Drew book.  Or a dog.  Especially a dog.

“The man who is well wears a crown that only the sick can see.” — Sir William Osler.

“Today is a good day to have a good day.” — Joanna Gaines.

Two of my favorite sayings just came true for me, when I had to stay overnight in the hospital after what I had hoped would be an outpatient surgical procedure.  The first was said by Osler, a legendary physician from more than a century ago, widely considered to be the Father of Internal Medicine.  Actually, I don’t know who coined the second phrase, but I heard it from Joanna Gaines on the HGTV show, “Fixer Upper.”

What Osler meant was that, you don’t know how good you have it until you don’t feel well.  The most basic things that you took for granted even a few hours earlier seem like privileges, and you think, “Oh, man, I was so fortunate, and I didn’t even know it.”  Then, if some or all of those essential things are restored to you, you realize that you have the makings of a good day.  A great day, even.

For example:  If you are lying in a bed and you don’t have these gripper things Velcro’d to your legs from ankle to knee, rhythmically squeezing first the left leg and then the right so you don’t get a blood clot, that’s a pretty good day right there.  If you want to get up from bed, or even turn over, and you can move your legs and your abdominal muscles are working even though you just had surgery, way to go!  If you want to get up, and you don’t have an IV connected to your left arm and a blood pressure thing connected to your right arm, along with the Velcro leg things mentioned above, congrats!  You’re free!  You are untethered, friend!

If you get up, despite having the IV pole, and manage to walk a lap or two around the nurses’ station on your hospital floor, fist bump!  If you manage to make it to the room toilet and something — even a few drops — comes out, you are on your way to having a good day.  In my case, the anesthesiologist told my husband I was “a lightweight” — meaning, the least bit of anesthesia just knocks me out, makes itself comfortable in my body, and doesn’t want to leave.  So when I managed to eat a Popsicle and drink a styrofoam cup of iced Shasta ginger ale — and thought those were the best things I had ever had in my life — they just sat there in my stomach, not getting absorbed.  Then they came back up.  Several times.  At last, when I finally achieved urine, it was a victory.  Things were moving along!  And then, my friends, if you have not had any food for 24 hours and you have had abdominal surgery and, when you go to the bathroom, you manage to achieve a small toot, let me tell you:  Tchaikovsky himself could not have written the cannon fire in the 1812 Overture to be any more triumphant.  The system is working!  Doctors and nurses really get excited when the old digestive tract fires back up.

But this is not about what happened to me so much as what it made me realize.  Just about everything is a gift of some kind.  We don’t always see it, but it is.  Tired at work?  Hey, at least (I hope) you got to get up, dress yourself,  eat whatever you wanted to, have a big cup of something with caffeine (which also means you don’t now have a righteous caffeine-withdrawal headache), and you either drove or walked or rode a bike or some form of public transportation to get there.   If you also had to get your kids and/or spouse up, maybe chuck some laundry in the washer, maybe put something in the Crock Pot for supper, you could look at it as a burden.  But I hope you will look at it as a privilege, because nobody had to do those things for you because you weren’t able to do it yourself.

The very best part about all this, and my recovery, is, as always, my family and friends.  My kids — Blair, Andy, and Josh, plus Kevin, Andy’s best friend, who’s visiting us this summer — have been wonderful, doing anything I needed them to do, and not letting me do much at all.  I am not good at not pushing myself, but they have done (literally) the heavy lifting when I really needed it.  Blair, my daughter, has been especially incredible, driving Josh to school, cooking meals, going to the grocery store, etc.  My friend, Marion, sent me a card that said she was wearing pajamas in solidarity with me (I love that!).   Cassie, Gena, and Leigh listened to me worrying about everything that could go wrong (and nothing did, as far as I can tell!).  I didn’t really announce it at church or among my friends, but the people who knew, like Bev, sent cards and called and checked in, and I was in their prayers.  My buddies in the praise band and choir were there for me.  Catherine fixed us meals that were feasts — twice.  My dad, my brother, Bradley, and sister-in-law, Carole, and mother-in-law, Sally, keep checking in.

And, as always, Mark was there, holding my hand before surgery, just sitting by the gurney in pre-op and being with me when the case before mine was delayed and I started to fidget.  When I didn’t bounce back right away, he was with me in the hospital room, and when it became clear that I wasn’t going to get to go home, he just slept there, wearing his same clothes, with no toothbrush or pillow.  He slept on a pullout sofa in the room, helped me get up to go to the bathroom in the night, cheered with me when I managed to achieve urine, then got up at 6 a.m., went home, took a shower, and went to work, where he spent the next nine hours taking care of his own patients.

If you have people in your life who give a crap about you, who love you, who take care of you when you’re sick, who do stuff for you when you need it, then be happy.  You have won the game, buddy.  If you’re fairly healthy on top of that, then you’ve got a lot of reasons to celebrate.  You’re wearing a crown that only someone who isn’t feeling as well as you can see.  You’ve also, I hope, got a lot more to be thankful for than you know.  Many reasons why today is a good day to have a good day.

P.S.  If I ever complain or feel sorry for myself, you have my permission to give me a swift kick — but gently, please — I’ve still got stitches.

I can’t stop thinking about Baltimore.  I reject the idea of thinking about black people versus white people.  That wasn’t my experience when I lived there, and I don’t believe it’s truly that way now, despite the protests, despite all the words of hate.  I remember once driving down to Hopkins Hospital, getting off the Jones Falls Expressway on Fayette Street.  I was stopped at the light, waiting to turn left, when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye.  Pulled up next to me in the next lane was a big  Ford Expedition.  The driver had his window down, and was waving at me to lower my window, so I did.

“What kind of mileage do you get on that thing?”  he said, indicating my Toyota Sienna minivan.

“About 22, maybe 23 miles per gallon,” I said.

“Damn!  I’m getting 8, maybe 9 miles on this thing.  It’s a gas guzzler!”

He asked me if I liked my Sienna, and I said I did, and that it could seat seven, that I’d hauled members of my daughter’s soccer team around in it to many games.  Then the light changed, and we went our separate ways.  The fact that I was white and he was black did not ever come up.  I remember the conversation to this day as yet another quirky Baltimore encounter, actually a fairly  typical Baltimore moment for me.

Another memory that comes to mind is a conversation I had prompted by a sales clerk, who was humming.  I knew the tune: “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”  I am about as dyed-in-the-wool Methodist as you can get.  I grew up singing in church, and I sing in three groups now at the Prescott United Methodist Church (two choirs and a gospel band).  Something just prompted me to ask her if she sang in the choir.  She did.  Soprano.  I sing alto, and I told her I sometimes don’t even know the actual melody, because I’m so used to singing the harmony.  She had been on a mission trip, and was thinking about becoming a minister.  We talked about that for a while, about faith, and service, and just loving the music. Again, we were black and white, but who cared — we shared the same God.  These encounters aren’t even that unique; there were many like this in my decade and a half in Baltimore.   There was so much more good than bad.

I’m not naive, and I hope I’m not stupid.  I know we have problems in our country.  I know there are terrible divisions, and tensions, and there are hurt and pain and bad memories all around.  I get that.  But I also know that as different as we are, there are points of common-ness, points where we share experiences, things we can just talk about, one person to another — as parents or drivers of large vehicles or people who love to sing old hymns.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m going to try extra hard to look past the things that are different and find the things that are the same.  How do wounds heal?  One cell at a time.  I may not heal any wounds, but by God, I’m not going to open up any new ones, either.

I love Baltimore.  Two of our three kids were born there.  We lived there, moved away, moved back, and have since moved across the country, but we put a total of 15 years of our lives into that city and it’s in our blood.  Mark and I moved there in 1987, our worldly goods in a U-Haul truck.  We moved into the Northway Building, in Charles Village, and thought it was the most sophisticated place we had ever seen, even in its faded Art Deco glory, with its brass mail chutes and 14-foot ceilings, elegant lobby and parquet floors.  We loved living on Charles Street, with its “glass-phalt,” one of legendary mayor William Donald Schaefer’s ideas, where glass was mixed in with the pavement so that it sparkled.  Those were the days of the dollar houses — grand old row homes in downtown Baltimore, being sold for a dollar to people who were willing to put in the sweat and money to fix them up.  Once, we walked all the way down Charles Street to the Inner Harbor.  We walked past the edge of Guilford, with its grand homes and tree-lined, twisting streets, past University. Turn left and we would have walked, as we often did, to Memorial Stadium, “The Old Grey Lady of 33rd Street,” or “The World’s Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum,”  where the Orioles used to play, in a neighborhood with Chinese restaurants and used bookstores, and where the Baltimore Colts once played, before they left town in the middle of the night. Past the monument to the Confederate Women (Baltimore is south of the Mason-Dixon line, and used to be considered more of a Southern city than it is now), past Johns Hopkins University.  Past North Avenue, where the neighborhood was a little sketchy but there were also some great old book stores.  Past beautiful Penn Station with the mechanically moving, non-digital train arrival and departure board that I never got tired of watching.

Past Mt. Vernon, with its Washington Monument — the original one, before that copycat one in D.C. — and its exquisitely beautiful Methodist Church and the Peabody Preparatory and Conservatory, with one of the most beautiful libraries ever. Fun fact: As a Johns Hopkins employee, I got a tuition discount and was able to take jazz piano lessons with the great Charles Covington, the foremost expert on Eubie Blake’s stride piano style (Eubie Blake, another source of Baltimore pride), a world-class musician and just a decent, humble, kind gentleman.   Past the Walters Art Gallery, which later made its admission free to the public just because it could.  It has many beautiful works of art, but I remember most its suits of armor and some kind of Mediaeval skeleton boxes with a message like, “What you are, I once was, and what I am, you will be.”  Reminders of mortality.

Past great restaurants that seemed so exotic to us — The Brass Elephant, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Louie’s Bookstore Cafe´ and the Charles Theatre,  across the street, the legendary bar Club Charles, past the Helmand, where I ate my first Afghan food, past Akbar Restaurant, where I ate my first Indian food, past Tony Cheng’s, the most elegant Chinese Restaurant (although our hearts really belonged to Uncle Lee’s, near Memorial Stadium).  Past the Lyric Opera House on Mount Royal (go the other way and you could wind your way to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where Baltimore’s world-class Symphony Orchestra plays).  Eventually we made it to the Inner Harbor.  This was before Camden Yards, before the Light Rail Line, before the Ravens existed as a Baltimore football team, and still, the Inner Harbor was the crème de la crème.  Shops, restaurants like Taverna Athena, past the Lady Maryland schooner, the newly opened Renaissance Harborplace Hotel with fancy stores like Brooks Brothers.  The National Aquarium, one of our favorite places in the world, with its rescued, three-legged giant sea turtle and its beautiful rain forest.  The Science Museum.

Turn left at the Harbor, and you get to Little Italy, home of several favorite places.  Sabatino’s, of course, the amazing restaurant owned by a family who later became good friends of ours, open til the wee hours.  Once, Mark and I saw Tony Bennett singing with the Baltimore Pops, then we went to Sab’s for calamari and pasta with olive oil and garlic, and there was Tony, having his late supper, too.  Vaccaro’s, the Italian bakery, home of the best pignoli and Amaretti cookies ever.  Home of row houses with white stoops, lovingly polished every morning by ladies who had lived there all their lives.  Home of backyard bocce courts, with lawn chairs set up to watch nightly battles.  Of an artist named Tony, who sat on one of the Four Corners (intersection of four great restaurants of Little Italy) and sold pen-and-ink sketches of Little Italy and took care of his elderly mother.IMG_0376

If we kept going East, we would wind our way to Eastern Avenue and on into Highlandtown, home of Matthew’s deep-dish Pizza, home of Haussner’s, which is no more, but which had to be experienced to be believed.   It was German food, eaten amid a collection of fine art and many Rococo pieces.  Weird, and yet iconic.  So Baltimore.  And then Greektown, block after block of Greek coffee shops and restaurants.  And then, south of Eastern Ave., Fells Point, home of cobblestone streets, 400-year-old houses, tiny shops, and on South Baltimore, past the Christopher Columbus statue, past the hospital where Edgar Allan Poe died, Jimmy’s restaurant, where Mark and colleagues used to go and have a beer at 7:30 in the morning, after working all night in the ER at Johns Hopkins Hospital during his internship.

I haven’t mentioned the Baltimore Zoo, the numerous crab houses, duckpin bowling (with smaller, bocce-sized balls and tiny lanes), snowball stands (everywhere else but Baltimore, these are called snow cones), the food markets in the city where we could walk and get produce, flowers, sandwiches, kimchee, fresh fish, and fresh-butchered meat.  I didn’t talk about Roland Park, an elegant neighborhood once considered the suburbs, where most of the Queen Anne-style houses were made from kits purchased through the Sears Catalog and delivered by rail.  Or Eddie’s Supermarket, where you could sign for your groceries with your four-digit number, and where I once stood in line behind John Waters, legendary director of movies like Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, and my favorite, Polyester (filmed in Odor-ama, with scratch-n-sniff cards) starring Divine and Tab Hunter.  I remember thinking, “Wow, his mustache really is pencil-thin.”

I haven’t told you how we saw Barry Levinson’s two great Baltimore movies, Diner and Tin Men, and drove around the Hampden neighborhood, block after block of row houses, looking for where they were filmed.  I haven’t talked about Mount Washington, a quirky neighborhood with a Tavern that made it into the Preppy Handbook.  The Domino Sugar sign, once the world’s largest neon sign.  Bethlehem Steel and Old Bay and Natty Boh, the hometown beer.  The Shot Tower, where they used to drop molten lead shot into vats of cooling water in the 1800s.  The Flag House on Pratt Street, where Mary Pickersgill and some other ladies sewed a giant flag that remained proudly flying during the siege of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812.  Francis Scott Key was so moved by the sight of this flag that he wrote the song, to the tune of a difficult-to sing drinking song, that is now our national anthem.

I have barely scratched the surface.

Baltimore is engulfed in riots tonight.  We’re watching it on TV and following the posts of our many friends who are trying to process what is happening to the city we love.  Because although you can take the people out of Baltimore, you’ll never take the Baltimore out of the people who love it.  Tonight, we’re crying for an old and very dear friend.

Hang on, Baltimore.  There’s too much good in you to let the bad keep you down.

 

We were already two minutes late for school, and Josh and I were two lights away from glory, or Prescott Mile High Middle School, whichever came first.  Right turn ahead: We had the green light!  Yeah, baby!  And then I put on the brakes because there was a woman in the crosswalk, crossing against the light.  Our green light!  She stopped in the middle of the street.  I stopped, too.  We made eye contact.   I made an impatient grimace and waved my hand for her to cross, about as ungraciously as I could.  I’ve been feeling guilty about it ever since.  I could have smiled and waved her across, and maybe made her whole day.  Instead, I probably messed it up.  I was George H.W. Bush in the 1992 presidential debate with Bill Clinton, impatiently checking his watch after an annoying question.   I was irritated, we were late, I took it out on her, and it felt bad even at the time.  Now it feels worse, because the whole way home, I was thinking: I have a hard little nugget of a heart.

Even when I do the right thing, it’s often not with a good heart, with joy and delight at the opportunity to help someone.  It’s with a grudging heart, like the Grinch pre-Christmas morning. There’s a lady who asks me for rides sometimes.  I always say yes, but I don’t like it.  The whole time, I’m sighing loudly in my head.  It’s not really even that inconvenient; it’s just the principle of the thing!  Let’s just stop and think about that one for a minute:  what principle?  My principal desire not to be bothered!  What the heck!  Prescott has panhandlers out the kazoo.  Just about every time I go to the grocery store, bank, or post office, there’s another one, holding a cardboard sign with the mandatory, “God bless you,” or “Anything helps.”  Yada, yada, yada.  I don’t like this.  And yet, every time I open the Bible, it’s as if God is just putting the message in my face, “Help the poor. Help the needy. Love other people.”  Aw, man!  Dang.  So, grumble, grumble, grumble, I give them a few dollars and one of the bottles of water I keep in my car.  When I do it, I am actually glad to have made the effort, but I sure didn’t want to, and I go through the exact same struggle the very next time I see one.  I’m Lionel Barrymore in It’s a Wonderful Life.  “Back in my day, we worked for a living!  We worked, I tell you!  And we walked to school, uphill both ways, in our bare feet!  On sharp rocks!  We didn’t have anything handed to us!”  Actually, I’ve had a lot handed to me, so I can’t even try to pull that one off.  I know how lucky I am, and I also know that I don’t know anything about the scruffy guy not making eye contact holding out the sign, and I don’t have the right to judge him.  But I still don’t like it.

I have given truckloads of stuff to Goodwill over the years.  But mainly I did it to get rid of my crap.  There, I’m confessing that, too.  So I have been thinking a lot, and having conversations with myself like this: “You did something that helped someone.” “Yes, but I didn’t want to do it.”  “But you did it.”  “But I didn’t like it.”  Does it count, on the big moral abacus in the sky, when you do something that’s good, but you don’t want to?  I thought of that story of  the boy who started throwing stranded starfish back into the ocean — or, like my Dad and I have done, saving stranded earthworms on the pavement by flinging them back into the grass after a rain — so they wouldn’t dry out.  A cranky old guy (cranky like me, except with testosterone) says something like, “Why bother, kid? You can’t make a difference.”  Then the kid says, “It makes a difference to this one,” and chucks it in the water.

I called my Dad and asked him what he thought.  He said, “If you do something through gritted teeth, you’ll come out stronger, because you worked through it.”  I also sought the wisdom of Claire Saunders, Associate Pastor at my church, Prescott United Methodist.  In the grand scheme, she says, “doing good, even begrudgingly, never negates the good done.  Offering someone a ride who needs it, even when the inside of your brain is beyond annoyed with it, still gets that person from Point A to Point B.  Giving someone a bottle of water might make a huge difference in someone’s life.  Who knows how far that ‘pay it forward’ type of action might travel?

“We are all a part of this big web of humanity.  We get the choice to be a positive influence or a negative influence on those we encounter on a daily basis.  That can be annoying as heck sometimes.  Which means that often, our ‘good’ is done with a grumble and an eye roll.  Doing good is good, but sometimes our own hardened hearts prevent us from feeling that same ‘good’ that we seek to offer others.”

So I guess the mission here is a two-parter.  One:  Try to do good when I can, especially when I just want to say “Bah, humbug!” and hide under a pillow, because the good deed does still count — even when the heart of the giver is a hard little nugget.    Two: Work on making my heart a little bit bigger and a little bit softer.