We're moved. Mostly. There are a lot of small items still back in the apartment, and between now and the 30th, we'll be ferrying them to the house bit by bit. But in terms of where we're living and sleeping and eating, we've moved.
It's an enormous improvement.
I'm not sure we've acquired all that much additional square footage, but it's laid out differently, and even with bins and boxes still stacked and waiting to be unpacked, I feel much less enclosed. And speaking as someone with low-grade claustrophobia, less enclosed is a Good Thing. One thing Kelly and I didn't really notice until we got here was that the apartment had only three windows, one in the living room and one in each bedroom. Each faced southward, giving us a view of the parking lot and the building on the other side. I didn't really understand how oppressive that was until I was sitting in the new living room, able to see our big picture window AND the two windows in the dining room behind me AND the kitchen window just beyond that AND even a smidgen of the side window upstairs in my study. I realized at that moment that I am now surrounded by light and trees and sky.
The neighborhood is very different from any I've lived in before. I've spent many years living out in the country, and many years in a town with a few urban elements, and for the last three years I thought I was living in an actual urban environment. Maybe I should have considered how varied cities can be, which I should have known if I'd only thought about my year living in Manchester. I also lived in a city when I lived in Fayetteville, but again, it was nothing like this.
Basically, until now, I have never lived on a block. Except in Manchester, where I was in a dormitory, I have lived mostly on curvy and irregular streets carved out of the available landscape. Even our apartment complex was surrounded by winding streets and bordered on a creek with a small strip of parkland on the far side.
This neighborhood, by contrast, is actually set up as a grid, albeit an irregular one, and it's offering me a strange new set of sights. From my study upstairs, which looks out over the back yard, I can see an array of fences, small sections of yard, and the service road behind us where the trash and recycling cans go. I can even see between two of the houses behind us, and there I can get a glimpse of the houses the next block over. But what I can mostly see right now are trees, enormous shade trees. Our back yard is shaded by a quartet of massive oaks, with an understory containing a weeping cherry, a cedar, and an as-yet unidentified tree with shaggy bark and alternating leaves. Beyond our fence I can see the grand oaks in our neighbors' yards, and the wall of green covering the next block over. It's not at all wild-looking but it's far from tamed. 5:07 PM
And the birds are comPLETEly different.
I have been keeping yard lists since we lived on campus at Woodberry, and some things are consistent: the first birds to turn up after moving into a new home are almost always the common birds of the southeastern summer: American Robin, Northern Cardinal, Mourning Dove. And yes, they've appeared here as well. But the most visible birds here have been Eastern Towhees; we have a male who perches out front and calls to a female up on a wire to our neighbors' house. Both can be seen flying over and hopping around the back yard regularly. Gray Catbirds are also making regular appearances. We have a Brown Thrasher who has flown up out of the ground cover on a number of occasions. But the real surprises have been what's missing; first, I really would have expected at least one House Sparrow by now, given their ubiquity in other parts of Richmond, and second, I am actually shocked that I haven't seen or even heard a Carolina Wren yet. It's been a little over 48 hours since we moved in, and I simply can't believe I haven't heard so much as a single teakettle.
But what HAS turned up has been equally shocking, particularly in the way it's turned up. I have written before of my lifelong dearth of House Wrens, so you can imagine my delight at spotting one winging across the yard and diving into cover on our very first day here. I'll ask you to further extend your imagination to what I must have looked like yesterday when I spotted one taking a dirt bath in a bare patch near our deck. It was there long enough for me to come downstairs and get a naked-eye look from the kitchen (though it flew into the bushes just as I was calling Kelly over to see it.)
And this afternoon? Having retired to my study to enjoy the brand-new internet connection, I was keeping half an eye on the yard, and I can report looks at the Robins, the Catbirds, and the Towhees, and even a gilmpse of a couple of Song Sparrows in the big willow oak. What bewildered me was the sudden landing of a largish songbird on the lawn. Like the House Wren, it was using the dry soil of our yard for a dirt bath, but its long cinnamon tail was something I'd never seen in a yard before. I had seen it once or twice a year, usually in woodlands or parkland of some kind, and certainly never in any spot close to human habitation.
It was a Great Crested Flycatcher.
It's a yard bird here.
I'm going to put up a feeder at some point, and from then on we may see more of the usual suspects, but right now I'm glorying in the unexpected, celebrating the differences in perspective that can be enjoyed even when you've only moved a mile away from where you were.
I think I'm going to like it here.
It's been a busy week. For one thing, we've started the hauling. Many of our books and a variety of our other belongings have already made their way to our new house, and today I'm going to load up a few more items (the bicycles, primarily) to clear access to the closets here We have lots of boxes and lots of bins, but the thing we are (thankfully) supplied with in some degree of plenty is time; the movers don't get here for another week. By the 16th, I'm hoping that everything we don't use daily will already be packed up and out of the apartment.
We've already done the first load of laundry at the new place--hey, we're already paying for the water and power there, so why throw quarters at the current joint's laundromat?--and we've taken Ripley over to get acclimated to her new yard. I'd have to describe her response as enthusiastic. Since we rarely have her off the leash outside, we weren't entirely prepared to see her running around full-tilt for a good ten minutes. She even chased a stick I'd thrown, something we've never seen her do. She immediately seized it, ran to the opposite end of the yard with it, dropped it as she was reversing course, and sprinted back past me without a care.
The other big thing, however, is that I wrapped up my final year at Seven Hills. I've cleaned out my classroom and the teacher work room, so it's now basically a matter of me going in next week and turning in my keys and my Chromebook. For some reason the head of school didn't want to discuss my departure openly, which I can't say I agree with or understand, but I dutifully followed his request not to talk about it right until the last faculty meeting. When the head turned the meeting from our opening salutes to the more mundane matters of summer planning, he still hadn't officially said that we wouldn't all be there, and that was just too much for me. I gently interrupted and told the rest of the faculty how much I'd appreciated their collegiality and their work on behalf of our students, then stood up and headed out to the parking lot.
As I walked out, I saw my friend Adrienne, another of the teachers who won't be back next year. She had decided not to attend the meeting, instead opting to send a card to each member of the faculty, and had spent the afternoon cleaning out her own room. I stopped her on the soccer field to say goodbye, and we hugged and agreed we'd continue to be friends even after we stop being colleagues. And then I got in my car and drove home. Summer vacation has never felt like less of a celebration.
I do have a confession, though. I wasn't entirely quiet about the fact that I wasn't coming back. I had already decided that I wasn't going to lie to the students, but as long as nobody asked me, I was free to keep my mouth shut. That changed on the last day, when Arthur stopped on his way out the door to shake my hands. Arthur is a seventh-grader and a brilliant kid, though his status as a ringleader can make him something of force for chaos in the classroom, and he had been particularly enthusiastic about one of the games I introduced to the 7HS Game Club: Steve Jackson's hilarious game of world conspiracy, Illuminati. I therefore should have realized that if any student were to put together the clues that I was not returning, it would be Arthur.
"Are you gonna be back next year, Cashie?" he asked. Affectionate diminutives are the norm at 7HS, with art teacher Tom O'Keefe being called "Keefie" and even the Upper Program Head, Tim Franzak, known almost universally among the students as "Frannie."
"I'm afraid I will not," I replied evenly. He was the first student I'd told.
"Awwww," he said, and wrapped me in a bear hug. Then he was out the door and off into summer, and I was left standing there realizing that I probably won't be called "Cashie" in the future. I've never liked it, but somehow I may actually miss it.
And in truth, Arthur wasn't the first student I told. As the oldest teacher at Seven Hills by more than a decade, I often took it on myself to share with the students elements of our popular culture from before they were born. During break on our last school day, I opted to do indirectly, rather than by lecturing, and spent a few minutes with a piece of chalk imitating the example of one of my favorite television characters, BJ Hunnicutt of M*A*S*H
. If I couldn't tell my students goodbye directly, I figured the least I could do was leave them a note.
This morning I wrapped up calculating and writing my final grades and comments of the year. And, as it happens, my final grades and comments for Seven Hills School. And possibly my final grades and comments, period.
It's been an annual ritual for me since the end of the 1991-92 school year, but it's not one for which I have any actual fondness. For me, the best part of teaching isn't the planning or the assessment, but the time in the classroom. The before and after parts are a necessary evil, but evil they remain. Consequently, I can look at the possibility that I won't be doing it again without a twinge of regret. But the classroom time? That's less certain.
The thing that IS certain is that I will not be at Seven Hills next year. My head of school notified me a month ago that the school couldn't keep me on, and since then I've been making occasional attempts to find a new position while trying to finish meeting the demands of the old one. Now that classes are over and grades & comments are complete, all I have to do is supervise a few field trips and field day activities, put on a tie for graduation, and attend one last faculty party. There I'll say goodbye to the other departing teachers, as well as those the school can keep on (7HS has only 14 full-time faculty members) and head off into a rather uncertain summer break.
Though I've worked on one-year contracts since 1995, this is the first time I've ever left a job without leaving of my own volition. It's more than a little strange, at this juncture in one's career, to be negotiating such a change. Impostor syndrome makes occasional appearances, even though I know perfectly well that my skills as an educator had nothing to do with this decision; the teachers being released are those most recently hired, after all. At the same time, being let go makes it harder to muster the confidence you want to project when you go into a job interview. It doesn't help being past 50, when many of your contemporaries are thinking about retirement while you're starting over.
And starting over is definitely something I'm considering. The classroom has been my home for a long while, but I'm wondering if I wouldn't be happier working somewhere else--somewhere I wouldn't have to spend every Memorial Day weekend churning through grades, say. Where that place might be is of course something of a mystery. Most of my work outside the classroom took place many years ago, so my expertise may not be terribly relevant. Even if there were record stores hiring, I doubt I could earn enough of a living using my Record Bar experience, and the radio world has gone pretty thoroughly digital since I did my time in the booth at WXYC. I could definitely see myself enjoying a job in radio, but whether there's one to be had I can't yet say.
Anyway, that's what's coming up this summer: finishing up the school year, moving to a new house, and searching for a new job. I'll get to put up my bird feeders again, and my parents may finally be able to deliver the canoe they've been trying to give us for a couple of years now, but there's a lot still unsettled. There is one certainty: I really, really hate job-hunting. But that's the hell I have to go through. And once I'm through, I may find that through is exactly where I want to be.
April has been called the Cruellest Month, but April 2018 hasn't been cruel so much as it's been frantic. I've certainly had months where I've been traveling more (see: March 2015) or months where I've had huge tasks to accomplish (see: June 2015, moving), but this month I've found my brain in a state of more-or-less constant whirl. That whirl has involved some very pleasant stuff, some less pleasant stuff, and the inevitable anxiety about stuff that hasn't happened yet. Shall we pick that apart?PLEASANT STUFF:
I started the month with a interesting musical experience courtesy of the folks at Orbital Music Park, who organize occasional match-ups between musicians. I signed up for such a match-up, and on April 1st I hauled a couple of guitars down to to meet a few of the local folks. Alas, a couple of our assigned participants had to bail out, so it ended up being just me, one of the organizers sitting in on bass, and a drummer. I found myself cast in the somewhat unfamiliar role of bandleader, as the organizer didn't want to run things for us, so I had to suggest covers (Warren Zevon, XTC, Soundgarden), work on a little jam, and offer a few originals for the guys to play along with. I went with an old Terminal Mouse standby, "Camouflage," as well as one of the tunes I cowrote with Mimi Herman, "Something New to You," and "Clean Enough to Eat Off," which is probably the easiest song in my repertoire. I wish I'd had the chance to meet more folks, but I enjoyed myself enough to imagine I'll do another OMP session someday.
Dixon was back in town for a few weeks. He arrived on the 13th and moved back into our apartment so that he could begin rehearsals for ONE IN FOUR at the Firehouse Theatre. The show, which premiered last summer at the DC Fringe Festival, made its Richmond debut on the night of the 20th and ran over two weekends, providing delight, novelty, and occasional amazement to enthusiastic audiences, including us, family members, the cast's VCU-based social circles, Richmond theater connoisseurs, fans of avant-garde sci-fi comedy, and wandering members of the general public. Both Kelly's mom and my parents made it up to see the show (on the opening and closing weekends, respectively), and Ian and Adriana managed to rearrange their schedules in order to see the show and gather for grandparent visits, even as they were looking for a new apartment.
Birding has been good, with a variety of FOY species hitting the area in migration. I took my first bird walk with the Richmond Audubuon Society, getting looks at a family of nesting Great Horned Owls and several warbler species. A few weeks later I spotted several male Prothonotary Warblers (always a gorgeous bird to spot) and a female Hooded Warbler (my first) on a River Day at Pony Pasture.
In the midst of all our other theatrical involvement, Kelly and I got to see our bonus daughter Anna Grey Hogan in what will probably be her final performance at VCU, Into the Woods
. This was our first experience with the show, so we went in with no expectations other than "Sondheim" and "fairy tales," and we were quite delighted. The set was absolutely astonishing--the finest I've seen at VCU with no real competition--and the performances most impressive. NOT SO PLEASANT STUFF:
We started the month with our dishwasher and dispose-all still out of commission, thanks to the landlords' electrician-based fiasco in early March. That got fixed sometime around the middle of the month--they didn't call to tell us they'd done it, mind you--but the dishwasher is no longer working properly. Doubtless sitting idle and full of sink overflow had something to do with its breakdown, but our landlords have already proven themselves too incompetent and/or malevolent to handle repairs, so we're not optimistic about having it in good working order before we leave.
But we ARE leaving. We have served notice that we're not renewing our lease--and have gotten the office to sign a document to the effect that we have served that notice, because our landlords have already proven themselves etc. etc. That of course means we have to start packing, which hasn't been that easy while playing host to family members, seeing lots of shows, and dealing with various other concerns (like washing a lot more dishes than usual). It's also meant negotiating with moving companies, confirming details with our new landlady, and trying to help Dixon take as much stuff back to Carrboro as possible so that we don't have to pack it up.
Oh yeah. Taxes. Those happened, too. Guess what happens when you and your wife no longer have kids living at home and suddenly you're both working full-time.STUFF THAT HASN'T HAPPENED YET:
Finally, I've spent the last month alternately energized and anxious about this Thursday, when Anna Grey and a number of other local actors are gathering at the Firehouse to do a reading of my own play, The Kindest Cut. I have no idea what the reading will lead to, but the chance to hear people reading my words and inhabiting my characters is one I've looked forward to for a while now, and I'm already in full Party Host Mode, which Kelly defines as simultaneously thinking "No one will come!" and "There won't be enough food!" More on this later. 5:39 AM
It's spring break, and for the first time in a while, I'm not traveling. Instead, Kelly and I have taken the last week as an opportunity to rest, think, and deal with some of the things we haven't quite had a chance to deal with since we came to Richmond back in 2015.
We are not using the term "staycation," for the record.
For one thing, we're not entirely on vacation; we're taking care of a variety of tasks, not all of which are all that exciting. Getting the Forester's registration renewed, for example, was a necessary task, but not a lot of fun. There's also been the seemingly endless saga of our broken dishwasher and dispose-all, a tale for another time, but a tale that is, I assure you, even more exasperating than you're thinking. And, not unrelated to that tale, there's the fact that Kelly and I have been diligently house-hunting, trying to find a place to move this summer. At one point we were thinking about buying, but the volatility of the housing market in Richmond right now is almost terrifying. Houses go on the market on Thursday and are under contract before the open house is held on Sunday. It's nuts.
Thus, we spent much of the weekend visiting possible rental houses, found a couple that we liked, put in an application for one, and are (knock wood) going to be taking it over in a couple of months. It feels very, very good to have the search over so far in advance, particularly in comparison to our last search for living space. In 2015, when we were leaving Woodberry after 20 years, we were searching for a place to live from 75 miles away, and at the time I still didn't have a job, so we were scrambling to find something cheap and find it fast. Now that we're a little more stable in the financial sense, and a lot closer in the physical sense, the search was considerably less draining. Better still, the new place gives us some significant upgrades to our modern lifestyle:
*It's a free-standing house, so I can indulge my music-making hobbies at a reasonable volume without fear of disturbing the neighbors. Also, if we microwave fish, we're the only ones who'll know.
*There is a front yard and a back yard, and the back yard is fenced in. That gives Ripley both someplace to play and someplace to pee when we don't have time to give her a walk. It also provides me with the chance to put my bird feeders up again. Not being able to bring birds into view has been a decided drag on my sunny disposition over the last few years, so this will be a nice boost. Out back there are a few other features, including a low deck, a small patio, and a firepit, at least two of which I think we can use with ease.
*The house is a split-level, which offers us more square footage, a laundry room, a third bedroom, and (TA-DAAA!) a SECOND BATHROOM. After years of multi-toilet living, I can't express how happy I am to see the end of my one-bowl days approaching.
*We're not changing neighborhoods! Though we're about a mile away from our current digs, we're still close to most of the things we love on the South Side: Forest Hill Park, Crossroads Coffee, the WPA Bakery, and the mighty mechanics of Floyd's Auto. But we'll be even closer to some of the other things we love: Zata Coffee, Maldini's Italian Restaurant, Outpost (the local hipster grocery), Kitchenette (RVA's best spot for takeout catering), O'Toole's Irish Pub (for beer and sports viewing), and the newly-opened storefront of Happy Empanada. There are two drug stores, two gas stations, and a branch of the Richmond Public Library within easy walking distance, not to mention a fenced dog park.
*Kelly's commute will be fractionally shorter--maybe by as much as five minutes--while mine will be unchanged (if I use the toll bridge) or about two minutes longer if I use the free bridge.
All in all, I think it's going to be a good move for us, even if the rent will be higher than our current digs. In this instance, I suspect we'll get what we pay for. And I for one am ready to pay. 4:10 PM
In the wake of the shootings in Parkland, Florida, I have watched an idea growing. It's an idea that has been raised before, but never in as much earnest as in recent days, and certainly never by anyone sitting in the White House. It's the idea of arming schoolteachers. And it's an idea that is, um, not good.
I suppose it's not ridiculous on its face. There is the old cliche "Fight fire with fire," and it is demonstrably true that firefighters will control wildfires by creating firebreaks--in other words, by deliberately burning sections of forest in order to prevent the uncontrolled wildfire from moving through that area. But firebreaks are created by professional firefighters with an overall strategic plan for combating wildfires; we don't simply hand out matches to every hiker in the forest and tell them, "If an arsonist shows up, you better be ready to light those things." So how is the idea of giving teachers guns likely to solve the problem of gunmen in schools?
Let's establish at the outset that I am not a gun enthusiast. I don't hunt. I've never been in the military. I haven't even taken a shot at a target in several decades. But for all that, I've lived around guns most of my life. My father was both a Marine reservist and a hunter, so there were guns in the house throughout my childhood; I still remember Dad showing me where his service piece was stored in his closet and pointedly instructing me that I was under no circumstances ever to touch it without his supervision. I believe I had just turned thirteen. A few years later he took me and my brother out to the military target range near Butner to fire some weapons, including both the service pistol and a semi-automatic M16. (Dad has considered the likely models and believes this is accurate.) To say I was impressed by these weapons' power is an understatement; even four decades later, my respect for the destructive capabilities I saw (and felt) from these ordinary firearms is enormous--and no, I never went anywhere Dad's service piece.
After I left home, I lived for four years in Fayetteville, NC--home of Fort Bragg. Not only did my neighbors routinely have weapons at home (and often on their persons), but I routinely went to sleep with the sound of a turkey shoot going on roughly a mile away. (It was a couple of weeks before I asked Kelly what the hell that noise was every night, and why the cops didn't seem to pay any attention to it.) When we moved to Woodberry Forest in 1995, we moved to one of the only schools on earth where students are allowed to have guns. Not only does WFS have a skeet range (and skeet team), but hunting happens regularly on campus. Students must store their guns in the school's gun room, but it was a common thing for me to meet armed young men wandering back from the school's woodlands or fields, and the sound of gunfire was audible most weekends.
In other words, I am not a gun enthusiast, but I am also not unfamiliar with guns, or the people who use them, or the purposes for which they are used.
More important for this discussion, however, is that I am intimately familiar with schools.
Since 1969, I have spent exactly one year of my life outside of schools. If I wasn't attending one (1969-1989), I was working at one (1990-present), except for the year 1986, when I was grading standardized essay tests and applying to master's degree programs, so it's not like I spent the year avoiding the field of education. I've worked in both public and private schools, day and boarding schools, coed and single-sex schools, urban and rural schools, middle and high schools. In short, given that half-century of experience (and even ignoring my Master of Arts in Teaching, not to mention a certain family tradition of working in the field of education, one that includes my grandfather, father, and brother, not to mention a passel of cousins, aunts, and uncles), I feel pretty confident in opining about issues in education.
And arming teachers is a bad idea.
I've read estimates that a typical teacher must make at least 1500 decisions in the course of a typical class. These include decisions about phrasing a question (which words to use, which to avoid, which concepts to focus on, which to elide for the moment, etc.), directing a question (which student has a hand raised, whether Student A has answered a question more recently than Student B, whether Student A's past behavior makes him likely to have the answer or more likely to be making a joke, whether the mood of the class is such that a joke might actually advance the discussion, whether Student B's past behavior suggests that getting an answer wrong would produce emotional distress, and how likely it might be that THIS answer is wrong, etc.), responding to an answer (how accurate the answer is, how complete the answer is, whether the answer builds on or contradicts a previous answer, how to dignifiy the response in order to encourage the student to participate, etc.) and plenty of others. And all these decisions have to be made EVERY TIME YOU ASK A QUESTION.
The fact that most veteran teachers have internalized the process of making these decisions doesn't mean the process isn't ongoing. Basically, the teacher is a conductor, working with a score that is supposed to sound a certain way, and the students are the various members of the orchestra, making noises that might or might not be in sync with the score in front of them. The teacher must simultaneously listen to the ensemble and pay attention to both each individual sound and the player making it. It is, if done correctly, an enormously complicated task, and one that requires the conductor's full attention.
And now the conductor is also being asked to keep a handgun on his music stand and be ready to lay down suppressing fire if someone in the audience produces an AR-15.
Arming teachers is a bad idea.
I would be a terrible, terrible Marine. When I had the option of applying for an ROTC scholarship, I gently broke it to my father that neither my bad knees or my bad eyesight were likely to pass muster with the admissions board, but I think we both knew that my knees and eyes were still far better than my marksmanship and my temperament. That's one of the main reasons I chose not to go into a field that requires me to wield a weapon and respond to orders instantly. But I would argue that I am likely more familiar with firearms than many of my colleagues. And I would further note that I, like most of you, had past encounters with a number of teachers whose in-class behavior suggests that they would not be safe, responsible wielders of the weapons we're discussing. They might be able to return fire effectively if a gunman were to appear, sure, but how often would that occur in comparison to the number of times they might forget to lock up their classroom weapon, or leave the weapon on their desk by accident, or god forbid feel threatened and take up that weapon against a student?
In short, I will not be taking up arms in my classroom. If instructed to do so by my employer, I will resign. If required to do so by law, I will leave the profession. And I will not be the only educator doing so. 11:09 AM
Basically, if you try to make teachers become armed guards, you're going to end up having to train a lot of armed guards to teach.
For years I harbored a fantasy, one that I did absolutely nothing to bring closer to coming true, that I would someday meet Ursula K. Le Guin.
Curiously, I do not know when or where this fantasy began. My brain's peculiarities are many, but one that I can count on is its powerful connection to place. I know where things are, and what direction they're in. In particular I remember where things happened. Just yesterday morning, wavering on the edge of a nap after a too-short night of sleep, I was overwhelmed by the memories of a location I knew well: the corner of our family room, downstairs in our house on Sugarberry Road. When they were building it, they accidentally put the hole for the doorknob on the wrong side of a door, and when they replaced it, the first door was simply left downstairs. My parents converted it into a desk by laying it across two low file cabinets. I clamped a fluorescent drawing lamp to its edge, ran the cord down the doorknob hole, and used it as my primary zone of creation for many years.
Lying in bed, I recalled the sensations that surrounded that desk: the dim light seeping in from the north-facing windows, with western light just barely winding through the trees along Battle Branch and ducking under the deck... the faintly amplified sounds of pencils moving across the hollow paneling that made the door's faces, and the splintery edges of the sides... the texture of the reddish shag carpet beneath my desk chair, and the smoother, more rubbery surface of the carpet in the back end of the room--better for wheeled toys and keeping LEGO structures stable. I remembered the weight and motion of the sliding glass door next to the desk, the extra second or two I had to hold down the On button of the lamp. All those details were there for me, half over the edge of sleep.
We lived in that house from 1970 until 1976, from the summer after first grade to the summer after seventh, and at some point during that time, I came across a mention of Earthsea. It may have been during a viewing of a PBS show called Cover to Cover
, during which host John Robbins would expose the audience to a children's book of some kind, using his skills as an artist to illustrate a scene while it was read aloud. Our fifth grade teacher, Ms. Fulton, would show us an episode roughly every week, and from it I learned about classics such as The Children of Green Knowe
and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
. I have learned that Robbins did do a show about Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea
, but I have no memory of it. I don't know if I stumbled across the book in the Glenwood School Library, or if it turned up in the Chapel Hill Public Library during a visit one day, or if I didn't get around to picking it up until I had moved on to Grey Culbreth Junior High. It's even possible that I went straight for it at the Intimate Bookshop, drawn in by its beautiful grey-brown Pauline Ellison cover art, and bought my own copy.
I don't know where I read it, either. With many of the books I love, I know exactly where I was when reading (or at least starting or finishing them.) I know I first finished The Lord of the Rings
in my brother's bed on Sugarberry. I read my first Doc Savage book in my grandparents' living room in Beaufort, SC. And I started Wuthering Heights
in a slightly too-perfect way, on a dark winter evening, alone in a dormitory room in Manchester. But Earthsea somehow slipped into my mind without fanfare, occupying a space as though it had always been there. Perhaps it had.
But from the time I finished the first book, and the second, and the third, Ursula Le Guin was one of my favorite writers. And I'm not sure I could have told you why. With the other books I loved, their content seemed to be my own to play with. Even before I discovered fanfic or Dungeons & Dragons or fantasy football, I was creating my own adventures out of the pieces provided by other writers. On that old door downstairs, I learned to trace superheroes from my comics, and later to draw my own: Blackbird, and Bearcat, and Brother Earth. I started sketching my own fantasy characters like the Fellowship of the Rainbow, whose origins I hoped no one would identify, and created whole leagues of neighborhood sports teams, including my own Greenwood Hawkeyes basketball squad. Our colors were blue and orange, contrasting a bit with the blue and brown of our ostensible arch-rivals, the Glendale Beavers.
But Earthsea resisted this kind of looting. You couldn't really take a part of it out of the world where it already was. Sure, you could have dragons, or wizards, or dark elder gods, but they couldn't be THOSE dragons or wizards or dark elder gods. They were too organic, too well-woven into the fabric of the universe to be removed.
I re-read the Earthsea Trilogy, as it was then known, and as I grew older I slowly began to consume more Le Guin. I absorbed The Wind's Twelve Quarters
, whose contents included the Earthsea story "The Word of Unbinding," a melancholy tale that would come to mind years later when I read Our Town
, and the devastating "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," which is simply one of the best short stories ever told. And then in high school I discovered her 1976 novel Very Far Away from Anywhere Else
, a novel about the kind of nerdish, uncertain, overintellectualizing loner that I was realizing myself to be, and about the challenges and comforts offered by that condition. If I am honest--and if there's one thing Le Guin always demanded, it was honesty--it may have been the most important story I ever read. It's not my favorite book; I pointedly do not HAVE a favorite book. But more than any other book, I think it was a bridge, guiding and carrying the person I was then to the person I am now.
Since then, I have read a lot of Le Guin: her stunning political parable, The Dispossessed
, the sprawling Always Coming Home
, the acclaimed The Left Hand of Darkness
, the mind-blowing The Lathe of Heaven
, the recent additions to the Earthsea Cycle, Tehanu
, Tales from Earthsea
, and The Other Wind
, the whimsical Changing Planes
, her version of the Tao Te Ching, and her final novel, Lavinia
. And whenever I read, I thought about what I would tell her if I met her. It wasn't a crush--even if I hadn't known she was thirty-five years older than I, and married, this wasn't remotely romantic or sexual. I just wanted to hold the attention of that mind for a moment. Not long, not at all. A lunch, a cup of coffee. I'm not sure I would have even needed to say anything. I just wanted, for a moment, to be included in the tapestry of her perceptions.
But I did nothing. I didn't go to any SF conventions, or write her a letter, or travel to Portland. I didn't press upon my acquaintance with former Science Fiction Writers of America president Marta Randall for an introduction. I just read, and dreamed, and vaguely hoped. The fantasy became most intense in 2016 when I visited the Pacific Northwest for the first time. We were staying in Seattle, but my new birding pal, Tina, let herself be persuaded to take a day trip to the Oregon coast. We didn't go through Portland. We crossed the Columbia River at Longview, cut out to the coast, and took 101 down to Haystack Rock. It was a gorgeous, sunny spring day, and we were hoping the Tufted Puffins would be back on their nesting sites atop the rock. They were not, but I wasn't disappointed. Everywhere I looked, I could see bits of Earthsea, or the land of the Kesh, or Owen's lonely imagined island, Thorn. I recognized where I was. And I took pictures--the ones you see here. But we left Oregon that afternoon, and I didn't go back.
When Le Guin died on Tuesday, it was not a shock. She was 88 years old, and not in great health. I received the news with a deep breath, and a final confirmation that the fantasy I'd nurtured would remain a fantasy. But as I've spent the week working, and thinking, and trying to write, I've come to a realization about meeting her. Naturally, she herself penned the words that helped me come to this realization, the words the Archmage Ged spoke in the land of the dead about the long-deceased wizard Erreth-Akbe:
Did you not understand that he, even he, is but a shadow and a name? His death did not diminish life. Nor did it diminish him. He is there--there, not here! Here is nothing, dust and shadows. There, he is the earth and sunlight, the leaves of trees, the eagle's flight. He is alive. And all who ever died, live; they are reborn and have no end, nor will there ever be an end.
--The Farthest Shore
This is the story of how I met Ursula K. Le Guin. I thought it was a fantasy. But she helped me understand that it had been real all along.
*Snow is falling outside, which has resulted in a day off from school, and for that I am grateful. Among other things, I still have a lot of grading to do before I turn in grades and comments for the semester, so not having to worry about classes for a day (and possibly two, given that the temperature's not supposed to clear the freezing point until noon tomorrow) is a welcome thing. Also, any excuse to lie around a warm house with wife and dog is a good excuse.
*I haven't installed many apps on the new phone, but one I made sure to get early on was Shazam, which "listens" to the song you're hearing but can't identify and gives you its title, artist, and source material. That proved useful the other day when we were trying out the new neighborhood restaurant. (That'd beThirsty's, a New Orleans-style joint that does very good gumbo and a nicely straightforward shrimp po'boy--no condiments except lettuce, so all you really get is a tasty baguette and some perfectly breaded and fried shrimp. We were a little disappointed in the cajun mac & cheese, but it wasn't disqualifying.) The music in the place was mostly jazz and Dixieland, but it wasn't all vintage stuff; some showed very clear signs of contemporary influence, especially when it came to percussion lines and production value. One such hybrid caught my attention, but I was too late to remember that I had a new tool for identification. Luckily, a similar song came around a few minutes later, and this time I had my phone in the air for Shazamming. Turned out it was "You Don't Love Me,"
a track by a Dutch singer named Caro Emerald:
Definitely well worth the space on my phone. Definitely.
*For reasons as yet unknown, I've been on a re-reading kick over the last few weeks. I started the year by finishing off Clockwork Boys by T. Kingfisher, but since then it's been old favorites: Justin Leiber's 1980 Beyond Rejection, a gender-flipping SF tale of bodies stolen and minds re-recorded, John Varley's 1983 airline disaster/time-travel jam Millennium, and now the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Lord of Light, a 1967 tour de force from Roger Zelazny that I haven't picked up in a very long time. I don't know why I've climbed onto the nostalgia wagon, but I'm certainly enjoying the ride.
*As I've noted before, I am not really a coffee snob, but I have to some degree landed in that role when it comes to family gatherings. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that I have become the Guy Who Brings the Coffee (and relatedly, the Guy Who Brings the Beer, as I am utterly useless when it comes to wine.) It's not universally consumed, but there are enough coffee drinkers in the family that a holiday gathering will typically demand we brew up fresh pots on a regular basis, and I have become the one trusted to supply the beans and do the brewing. Why? Well, it took me years to realize why my own coffee was better than my mother's, and it took her a few more before she asked me the relevant question:
Mom: Pete, why is your coffee always so good?
Me: Because I use enough coffee.
In my youth, Mom habitually made our morning brew with about a teaspoon of grounds per mug; plainly put, that's gonna give you some dark brown water. By contrast, when I moved out of the house, I started using a rounded tablespoon per mug, a plan aided considerably by a wedding present given us by our pal Christy, a brass Joe Spoon of roughly that measure. Mom has come around to my way of thinking, I'm happy to report, and I'm here to share with all of you one other coffee-related tip:
When you're in Richmond, pick up a bag of beans from the Black Hand roastery. It'll seem a bit pricey, since they sell you a full pound instead of the 11- or 12-ounce bags you get at the grocery store, but you will not regret it.
*The play is coming along. I've gotten some feedback on draft one from a couple of knowledgeable readers, and I've already added one brief scene as a result. I'm at work on a second scene, probably even shorter, and then it's off to the races to see if anybody wants to hear what it sounds like read aloud. It's still called The Kindest Cut
, and I've worked out at least one song I want to use for the soundtrack.
*This time last year I was prepping for a trip to DC for the Women's March. I kind of wish we were prepping for a second one, but I'm taking comfort in the results of the special election in Wisconsin, where a Democrat just won a district that Trump took by 17% in 2016. Come on, Great Blue Wave.
Got my Xmas present from Kel. Moto X4. I have never owned a smart phone before. This will be interesting and educational, I feel sure, but I do not foresee myself typing a lot of entries from it in the future. 7:27 PM
I thought about making this, my last (and rather overdue) entry of 2017, an overview of the year that was. It was an exhausting, exasperating year, and it probably deserves some kind of summary, but at the same time, I find myself unwilling to make that summary right now. It's as though 2017 demanded so much of my attention, so much of my spiritual energy, that I resent its demanding any more of me. Dammit, I'm gonna write about what I want to write about, and no punk year's gonna stop me. And I want to write about books.
In late 2016, feeling perhaps a bit rattled by certain election results, I couldn't help but notice that the majority of the books I'd read were the work of white men. In and of itself, that's not really a problem, as many of the writers I love best are white guys, but I saw a potential trap in my reading habits: that it would be so easy to read nothing but white guys. Their interests are often my interests, after all, and they're published in enormous profusion. If I wanted to, I could completely ignore the writing of anyone but white guys and plow through a bunch of really excellent books in the process.
But in the age of Trump, ignoring the voices of those with less privilege struck me as not merely unwise but actively dangerous. If I'm going to call myself a supporter of the democratic ideal, I'd damn well better be ready to hear from all corners of the democracy. A few years back I heard some folks discussing a year of reading nothing but non-whiteguy books, but that was further than I wanted to go; as a writer of whiteguy books myself, I wouldn't want my writing to be excluded from the vast tapestry of American letters. I just want all the other threads to be woven into it as well. Thus, I set up a reading project for myself in 2017: that at least half the books I finished during the year would be the creations of people who were not white men.
How'd it go? Pretty damned well, honestly. As of this morning, having polished off Nnedi Okorafor's chaotically beautiful and fascinating first-contact novel Lagoon, I've completed 78 books for the year, and 44 of them were non-whiteguy works. (In some cases, the books were anthologies or collaborations, such as graphic novels, where at least one co-creator was a white male.) A lot of them were comfort reads, because let's face it, this year demanded some self-care, which is why I spent much of the spring summer re-reading favorites like Julian May's Pliocene Exile and Galactic Milieu series. I also went back to the original three books of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle, and I taught my eighth-grade classes what may be my very favorite of her novels, Very Far Away from Anywhere Else.
Similarly, I've often turned to comics for comfort, and this year I enjoyed a number of collections and graphic novels written and/or drawn by women: the hilarious superhero-culture scholarship of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, the heroic coming-of-age adventure of Ms. Marvel, the sunny grrl-power science nerdery of The Unstoppable Wasp, the continuing but surprising space romance of Saga, and the SF prison rebellion story that may be the purest distillation of anti-Trump power fantasy, Bitch Planet. I know I feel better for having read them.
In other cases I opted to read new books by familiar authors. I jumped back on the Colson Whitehead train with his gripping zombie novel Zone One, and went cheerfully into the Dark Age fantasy of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant. More poignantly, I finally finished the late Kage Baker's novels of The Company, which I began two decades ago with the beautiful and heart-wrenching In the Garden of Iden. Her publishers have done such a crappy job of letting the public know the sequence of those books that for many years I didn't realize I had read one out of order, and it took considerable time and research to piece the sequence back together so that I could finish it.
And yes, I did read some stuff from friends and acquaintances, too. Like I'd fail to pick up Abby Howard's first Earth Before Us book, Dinosaur Empire, or ignore Clockwork Boys, the first volume in Ursula Vernon's new fantasy series (written under the pseudonym T. Kingfisher). Also, though they're white guys, and I really only know them through Twitter, Mike Carey and Peter Gross created a truly astonishing fantasy metanarrative in their comics series The Unwritten.
The main delights of the year, however, came from discovery. Given the incentive to seek out new perspectives, I willingly picked up books by writers I didn't already know, and many were absolutely terrific. I feel lucky to have discovered N.K. Jemisin (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), Helene Wecker (The Golem and the Jinni), Nancy Farmer (The House of the Scorpion), Julie Schumacher (Dear Committee Members), and in particular Nnedi Okorafor (the abovementioned Lagoon, plus the novellas Binti and Binti: Home.) Having missed Susan Cooper's work during both my own childhood and my kids' childhoods, I finally got around to reading The Dark Is Rising, and after keeping it on my to-be-read list for literally decades, I at long last cracked open and blazed right through Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was pretty much everything I could have hoped for. 9:13 AM
If you're curious, my favorite whiteguy books of the year were probably the first one I finished, David Foster Wallace's essay collection Both Flesh and Not, and the longest one I finished, James McPherson's massive one-volume history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom. I also re-read C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia--like I said, this year required some comfort reading--and finished Bill Willingham & Mark Buckingham's comics series Fables. I should also mention Dan Chaon's tremendously unsettling psychological thriller Ill Will. So yeah, even if for once white guys were not the primary beneficiaries of my attention, they still got plenty of love.
All in all, then, I'm glad I made this effort. Will I do it again in 2018? An interesting question. See, the whole idea of affirmative action is to create opportunity for members of populations that have been denied it in the past. If they capitalize on that opportunity to the benefit of everyone, the wisdom of including those populations should become apparent to all. I've given (and will continue to give) whiteguy books plenty of attention. But having given more attention to the non-whiteguy world over the last year, I feel pretty confident that the one who has reaped most of the benefits is yours truly.
And with that, it's off to do battle with 2018. E pluribus unum, everybody. I've got your back. Let's do this together.