A DIGITAL photograph of the one they call "Crazy Frank" appeared on my computer screen at home Wednesday afternoon as I clicked through The Sun's Web site -- swollen face, large ears, deep-space eyes, arms pulled behind him for the handcuffs. My son, who is 10, looked over my shoulder.
"What did he do?" he asked.
"They say he shot a policeman and a deputy sheriff, a couple of young guys, both engaged to be married."
"Yes, Centreville. Just a few miles past the Bay Bridge."
"What's his name?"
"What was the name of the one from last year, Dad?"
He meant: What was the name of last year's armed menace, last year's face-all-over-the-news? At 10, my son sees these horrors as predictable annual events. We might have been talking about last year's first baseman for the Orioles or the name of the 2000 Preakness winner. But we weren't.
"You mean Palczynski?" I said, uttering a name that hadn't been mentioned in the house since March.
You know this already: There's no way to protect your kids from the dark side. It's all out there, mixed in with the good stuff -- in this brave, new Information Age, more than ever. It's a fact of life. We all know this fact of life. But sometimes this fact of life slams open the door, cuffs you around the face and stays for a week.
Crime will get your mind racing in this direction -- John Darda's death near a popular cafe in Mount Vernon; the shooting of a college student outside a bar within walking distance of your house. Then a young guy in Columbia, who is diagnosed as schizophrenic, goes to the hospital, gets a few pills and is sent home; the next day he's suspected of killing his mother and her teen-age boarder. In Centreville, a man with a history of mental illness and assaults apparently gets his hands on a shotgun, and now two more police funerals are being planned.
It all happened before, and it all keeps happening. We're stuck with all these depravities, all this systemic dysfunction, and all the things that keep hurting us -- therapy for the mentally ill by pill; more incarceration than treatment for heroin and cocaine addicts; a spreading cancer of guns; a cycle of poverty in the midst of record-setting prosperity. No matter how high this society soars, how many rockets we send into space, we don't seem to be able to shake the dung from our shoes.
It's a fact of life -- some weeks more than others. Some weeks, such as the foggy, soggy ones in February, it's impossible to see the stars.
Scientists and engineers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab had a big celebration Wednesday night in Columbia. They deserved the champagne that flowed there at the party. They had managed to land a spacecraft on a 21-mile-long asteroid 200 million miles from Earth. We've reached the point in modern life where such a stunning technical achievement is taken for granted, so I'll just repeat the vital parts: Spacecraft landed -- not crashed, but landed -- on an asteroid 200 million miles from Earth. It took pictures and sent them back. It transmitted a weak radio signal even after the landing.
Can you still say "Wow"?
Can you still feel inspired by these things?
The same day the NEAR spacecraft landed on the asteroid Eros, I watched my son try to come up with an "invention that works" for a fifth-grade fair at school. With a few simple supplies -- duct tape, PVC tubes, a plastic bucket, a sheet of Masonite, a small coping blade, red spray-paint -- he was able to devise a pitch-and-catch device. Toss a tennis ball into the bucket, which is anchored loosely on a slanted board a few feet off the ground, and the ball stalls inside the bucket, then drops through a hole and bounces back to you. I made a fuss about it. I uttered a wow.
I celebrate creativity wherever I can find it, even in my garage. I need it, we all need it -- in doses large and small, like a tonic -- to fight off the dark side.
A lot of us had John Darda's death on our minds last week -- unspeakably tragic for the man's family and friends from City Cafe, deeply depressing for Baltimoreans who wonder when this epoch of violence city will end.
Then I drove to Northeast Baltimore and listened to prodigy Jermaine Gardner perform Beethoven's Sonata No. 18 on the baby grand piano in his parents' house. I was impressed by Jermaine and awed by Beethoven. That was not the first time a flood of notes in a lovely and logical line left me feeling exhilarated by the awesome potential of human beings to create. But it meant even more, coming fresh after another example -- the Darda death -- of the terrible potential for human beings to destroy.
I put some Beethoven and Mozart sonatas on my compact-disc player. I listened again to the powerful music from "Les Miserables" and suggested that one day soon my son might attempt to read the Victor Hugo book. I turned on the television and learned that a Loyola College student had been shot in the head outside Gator's on York Road.
A friend stopped by and upgraded my computer. To celebrate, I installed a new screen saver that dissolved from one Renoir painting to another -- "The Luncheon of the Boat Party" to "Ball at the Moulin de la Galette," and on and on. Insta-Cultcha on my desktop. Great stuff.
But, like so much of modern life, it came with a catch.
This "free screen saver" had a time limit; it shut down after two days. To continue to enjoy the dissolving Renoirs, I'd have to pay for a new download. In a mildly annoyed way, I was impressed with this entrepreneurial effort and the creativity behind it.
Still, I didn't bite. I downloaded the next available "free screen saver," and now Edgar Degas' paintings of ballerinas dance across my screen. They'll continue to dissolve, delight and inspire me -- until the same ingenious program shuts it down.
Or until I click on a Web site to get the latest news from the greatest nation on Earth.