On Longevity

Here’s a fun thing to do the day before you turn 40: go to this Social Security website, punch in your birthdate, and see the average number of years someone your age has left. (It’s 42.1 more for me, if you must know. Not quite “mid-life.”)

These landmarks trigger an involuntary plunge into reverie and reflection. It’s times like these I remember that—as is probably the case with most people—I wouldn’t have made it this far without a couple strokes of luck. I remember sitting helpless in a passenger seat as a teenager while a friend hit 75 miles an hour down a hill, went up on two wheels on a curve and into the left side of the road, and brought the car back down with a swerve, missing an oncoming vehicle by mere feet.

And there was the time I fell off the dugout at Memorial Stadium as a child and landed on my head. Turned out okay. And there was the boy in Rio de Janeiro with the eight-inch blade who robbed my wife and me on an abandoned side street (what were we thinking?!), becoming agitated as he began to discover a billfold I’d hidden. Then a car came around the corner and he took off running.

All of these scenarios could have either spelled the end or turned me loose with a great story to tell later. I got the stories. What are you going to do?

It’s a nice spot, here at forty. There’s so much to look back on, and, having just watched my father turn 80, I know there may be just as much or more to come. I think I can honestly say, though, that if I only last one more day, I’m satisfied with what I got. When I turned 30, I was dissatisfied, and I turned a lot of my life upside down to make room for new things. Taking those chances paid off. Personally and professionally, I achieved more in the last ten years than I thought I would in my whole life. I also found someone I was willing to stay with until the end, and we started a family.

In my early thirties, I didn’t want to take a breath in the same place twice. As I start my forties, my wife and son and I have settled into a home. We expect our second son in two weeks, at which point our family will be complete. Our goal is to keep a sense of adventure in our lives, but in the grand scheme of things there isn’t really any more to be gotten. From here on out, our family is what it is. We’re here, we’re healthy. We did it.

Accordingly, our focus shifts from anticipating what we have to gain to appreciating everything there is to lose, which is…everything. Through that lens, it becomes clear that all I’ve gained, all that has satisfied me, would have been impossible without my extended family, my friends, my community. In them I’ve found inspiration and support in pursuit of my dreams, and uplifting during moments of disappointment, despair, and confusion. They’ve given and given.

I want more years with them. I want to give back. Of course, I know that the longer I last (forget 82, I want the 94 my grandmother got), the more of my friends and family I’ll have to watch disappear. That’s okay—that just means I’ll have gotten the maximum time possible with them.

What if I should fall through a sidewalk cellar grate to my death tomorrow? (It happens! I’m right to be paranoid!)

That’s going to have to be okay, too. When I was in my twenties, I wasted a lot of time thinking about mortality, convinced that as I aged I’d become more and more graceful and accepting of the end. I didn’t. I’ve become more short-sighted, less self-possessed, more impatient. While I say that I’m satisfied with what I’ve got upon looking back, when the next moment comes along, I’m as greedy as the next person as far as what I want out of it.

That needs to change. How am I going to be okay with dying when I’m not okay with the guy in the car in front of me taking too long to realize he’s got a green light?

Through my children. What I see now in each of my children, beyond their own selves and limitless potential, is a mirror on my own character. It starts by watching your mouth, but the pride you take in simply refraining from dropping f-bombs in front of your children doesn’t last long. Eventually you realize they see and hear everything, and that no matter how meticulous your instruction to them in the profoundest questions and minutest details of life, what will remain with them is what you do and say when you think they’re not paying attention. (Oh, they are.) When I die, I want to die in the middle of being a good person. That kind of performance is a little easier when the people you care about the most are watching you constantly.

I’ll be forty when this second child is born. My father was forty when I was born. He’s still here (we all are, aren’t we!), and whether he meant to or not, he showed me how to be a good person. I hope I can do the same, and for as long, with my sons.

February 27, 2015 at 9:22 pm Leave a comment

How Many American Schoolkids are Poor? Way Fewer Than the Washington Post Told You.

It was one of those “now, wait a minute” kind of headlines: “Majority of U.S. Public School Students are in Poverty.”

The January 16 Washington Post article by Lyndsey Layton brought needed attention to a remarkable bit of education data: for the first time ever, over half of American public school students are now receiving free or reduced-price lunch.

“The shift to a majority-poor student population,” Layton writes, “means that in public schools, a growing number of children start kindergarten already trailing their more privileged peers and rarely, if ever, catch up. They are less likely to have support at home, are less frequently exposed to enriching activities outside of school, and are more likely to drop out and never attend college.”

The problem is, it’s not true that most American public school children are poor. Free and reduced-price lunch eligibility is a frequently-used proxy for poverty in schools. But it’s not poverty. (more…)

February 9, 2015 at 11:28 pm Leave a comment

GALLERY: Easter Eggs at Kenilworth’s Christmas Train Garden

A Christmas miniature train garden at a suburban mall is the last place I expected to get a mesmerizing dose of social realism. But when my wife and I took our two-year-old to see the trains at The Shops at Kenilworth in Towson, we found (little) people being carried away on stretchers from a car accident and a house fire, a funeral (surreally juxtaposed with a backyard pool scene), someone getting arrested at a Dunkin Donuts while behind him a man slept on a bench with a newspaper for a blanket, and a man with a big backpack standing by the tracks waiting to jump a train.

There’s also winking humor: three cop cars parked at the Dunkin Donuts and, if you look closely, R2D2 among the scrap metal at the junkyard. There’s also a trailer park with a guy in a ZZ Top beard eating KFC straight out of the bucket, someone going through a trash can, a beat-up old truck with a tree growing through it, a leathered-up moustache man restraining a vicious pit bull, women in tight dresses, and a man in a wifebeater sitting in a La-Z-Boy…outside. (I don’t know if the trailer park scene was done to be inclusive or to be mocking. Given the comparative sophistication of this train garden, maybe both.)

By any standard, this is a very impressive train garden. But these touches make it extra special. I can’t wait to go back next year and see if there’s anything I missed.

Click on the first picture to launch the gallery.

December 30, 2014 at 4:15 pm Leave a comment

How Radio Taught Me to Write Short in Print

ImageHere’s how I write a 2,500-word article: I write it to 4,000 words, then cut it back.

Know how I write a 1,500-word article? The same way.

I keep ending up at 4,000, so the shorter the assignment, the more kittens I have to drown. So I was thrilled to see Roy Peter Clark—whose “Fifty Writing Tools” greased my transition from academic researcher to journalistic storyteller 10 years ago—has published a book called How to Write Short. (more…)

May 13, 2014 at 12:14 pm Leave a comment

Resources for “The Lines Between Us”

2If you attended my April 23 talk about “The Lines Between Us” at American University, or if you just want to learn more about the series, here are some resources… (more…)

April 22, 2014 at 1:50 pm Leave a comment

Whose Heart is Baltimore Breaking, Really?

There’s a piece about crime in Baltimore over on Medium that’s gone viral.

It’s understandable why this article has emerged right now. In Federal Hill, robbers recently held up and pistol-whipped employees at a popular tavern. A Baltimore Sun editor was held up on a Canton street by a brick-wielding mugger who fractured the man’s skull and knocked out his teeth. In a home facing Patterson Park, burglars beat and stabbed a woman to death in her home. (She had chased one of the burglars out of her house in the early morning just last summer.)

The author of the Medium piece, Tracey Halvorsen, lives half a block from Patterson Park. She is scared.

“I’m tired of being surrounded by drug addicts,” she writes. “I’m tired of looking at 11 year olds as potential thieves, muggers and murderers on my walk home from the office.”

Halvorsen doesn’t want to leave. She loves her neighbors, loves walking outside and seeing “the overall sense of diversity” that city living provides. Baltimore has great restaurants, bright minds, fun bars.

But, she writes, “you just can’t ignore the crime. It’s the elephant in the room in Baltimore City.”

She pins it on the city’s elected leaders, saying she does her part by paying taxes, running a business, reporting suspicious activity, keeping her home “looking nice,” and keeping her outside lights on at night.

Then, this:

“All I know is when there are more police, there is less crime. When people get arrested for littering or loitering or being publicly intoxicated, they go do that shit somewhere else. And yes, I realize this may be a knee-jerk reaction and won’t solve all the problems. But I’m desperate for some kind of help. I want to feel safe.”

Crime, the subhed of the article says, “is why people leave.”

Some people, anyway.

I think Halvorsen is mistaking Patterson Park and similar neighborhoods for Baltimore City. In the 1980s and 1990s, Federal Hill and Canton were the first neighborhoods to attract large numbers of upper-middle class, mostly white homeowners. Patterson Park has been on the same track for years, although some would argue it’s still “in transition,” as it abuts a largely poor part of town that’s heavily black and increasingly Latino.

ImageI produced a series for Baltimore public radio station WYPR called “The Lines Between Us” about how race and class dramatically shape our experiences in Baltimore. We had a lot of data maps built for the series. Canton, Federal Hill, and the area around Patterson Park are veritable islands when it comes to drugs, shootings, and violent crime in general.

Horrific crimes like the ones that just happened in Canton, Federal Hill, and Patterson Park happen against the odds. In the rest of Baltimore, they are the odds.

The “other Baltimore,” which I assume she’s referring to when she says “they go do that shit somewhere else” (and where I assume she believes “they” are coming from) has been scared to death for decades. That other Baltimore is mostly black. There’s a lot of poverty there; but there are also a lot of working people surviving day to day, trying to get their kids a good education and keep them off the streets. There’s a lot of crime there, but there are also a lot of people who have to deal with that crime every day and have been working for decades to pull their community out of an intractable spiral.

And you know what? Despite all that, if you actually talk to them, many of them love Baltimore, too. They have the same love/hate relationship with Baltimore that Tracey Halvorsen does. They weigh the same benefits against the same dangers. But they have fewer resources to make that move out of the city–a move that is clearly at the forefront of many more wealthy city dwellers’ minds right now.

I see where Halvorsen is coming from, and I get the chorus of amens I’ve seen on Facebook and Twitter. I’m white and middle class, I’ve got a lot to lose, and I could easily find an affordable place to live far from the perils of the city.

But when I look more closely at the outrage in her piece, I see its potential to make things worse.

It’s tough to talk about white privilege in the face of crimes like the ones Halvorsen cites, with innocent victims killed and badly injured and stunned families left to grieve. I sympathize with Halvorsen and her fears that she’ll end up like them.

But so far, $32,000 has been raised for the victim of the Canton robbery and beating. The FBI is offering a $5,000 reward in the Federal Hill bar robbery. There’s also a lot that goes on, from individual decisions to local, state, and federal policy, that ensures–whether intentionally or not–that all the social ills stay where they “belong”: in the neighborhoods that people like Halverson and, frankly, I won’t live in. Halvorsen blames the mayor and city leaders, saying they ignore crime. But people in other Baltimore neighborhoods are upset with leadership, too, saying neighborhoods like Halvorsen’s get the resources while poorer neighborhoods are left to wither.

But what will pointing the finger at City Hall do about problems that have persisted through many mayors and many city councils? Perhaps pressuring city leaders can do something for some neighborhoods. Halvorsen says, “All I know is when there are more police, there is less crime. When people get arrested for littering or loitering or being publicly intoxicated, they go do that shit somewhere else.” That sounds a lot like a plea for “zero tolerance” policing.

Baltimore tried that; in 2005, over 100,000 people were arrested…and one out of four was released without charges. More arrests mean more racial disparities, which you’ll find in drug arrests and at every level of the juvenile justice system. (In fact, federal law insists the state measure those juvenile disparities and make plans to address them. The state can lose federal funding if its efforts fall short.) All the stopping and frisking in the world isn’t likely to stop crime, and it certainly won’t end the inequalities that drive crime.

Halvorsen says, “I realize this may be a knee-jerk reaction and won’t solve all the problems. But I’m desperate for some kind of help. I want to feel safe.”

Well, don’t we all.

Crime is not the “elephant in the room.” It’s all anyone talks about here. The elephant in the room is inequality.

February 7, 2014 at 2:49 pm 186 comments

Leave Black Friday Alone

Credit: flickr/tshein

Credit: flickr/tshein

It’s Thanksgiving, and the Internet is aflame with virtue. I’m not talking about the obligatory litanies of gratitude, written by people who are going to cut me off on the highway later today as I’m driving to my parents’ house.

I’m talking about the people showing off their astounding capacity to not “consume” for one day and the even more sanctimonious people telling me to keep it (“it” being my wallet) in my pants tomorrow. (more…)

November 28, 2013 at 4:02 pm Leave a comment

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NEWS
- A much prettier website with my journalistic highlights is at lawrencelanahan.com.
- Disappearing Ink released its first album, "There Is No Time and Nothing's Been," in December 2014. It's available on iTunes.
- After almost five years at WYPR, I'm back to freelancing. Editors can reach me at llanahan@gmail.com.
- The Art of Social Critique: Painting Mirrors of Social Life includes my chapter "New Possibilities and Old Limitations of Political Art in The Wire."
- You can still buy my 2004 self-titled EP.

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