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Teachers with Guns

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.

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.

11:09 AM

How I Met Ursula K. Le Guin

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.


8:05 AM


*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.

Wave Hokusai-Katsushika-Under-the-Great-Wave-off-Kanagawa-1832.jpg

9:41 AM

My, Like, Smart Phone

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

Letters from 2017

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.

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.

9:13 AM


So I wrote a play.

This is new territory for me. Having written nonfiction, short stories, novels, poetry, and most other forms of writing, I guess it was inevitable that I would eventually drift into writing drama, but in some ways it surprises me that it took so long. I mean, I've been working in theater in some capacity for years, starting back when I was 15, and I've done practically everything that can be done in a theater other than costuming and makeup. Why didn't I write a play before?

Well, I should note that I've tried to write a play before. I adapted a favorite graphic novel (Kyle Baker's WHY I HATE SATURN) a few years ago, but when I discovered Baker didn't own the rights to it, I figured there was no chance of ever getting permission to stage it. I've also written some fragmentary bits that may turn into a play someday, but I suspect I'll need to change a few things (including the working title, "Crepuscule with Nellie.") But this was the first time that I'd been hit with an idea for a play and actually managed to get into a fully-constructed form.

The idea hit me after Kelly and I drove down to Alabama at the end of July. En route, we listened to Bill Bryson's audiobook of his Shakespeare biography, and I was reminded of something I learned while researching Along Those Lines: that Thomas Bowdler's famous expurgated edition of Shakespeare's plays was actually created primarily by his sister Harriet. Unfortunately, as an unmarried woman, she could not be acknowledged as the plays' editor. Not only would it have been unseemly for her to take on such an editorial role, Harriet could not be credited with removing the naughty bits from the plays because she would have to admit to understanding why they were naughty. 

That particular Catch-22 struck me, and I began thinking a play about the Bowdlers themselves might be better than the bowdlerized versions of Shakespeare's plays, and that led me to look more deeply into the family's history, which turned out to be fascinating. Despite their reputation as bluenoses par excellence, the Bowdlers were surprisingly unconventional in some ways--such as the fact that Thomas/Harriet's mother and older sister Jane were both published (albeit anonymous) authors, which was highly unusual in the late 1700s. Brother John was a retired businessman who spent his later years pushing for prison reform and resisting reform of the Anglican Church, while sister Frances was the only member of their generation who did not write for publication--but she turned up in print because of her friendship with diarist/novelist Fanny Burney.

Other than their names and publications, however, I opted to ignore the Bowdlers' history, creating my own versions of their characters and playing with the conventions of theater as I saw fit. I have added several original characters to the mix, cooked up an utterly ahistorical plotline, and thrown in a lot of jokes, and I don't apologize for any of it. I'm waiting on feedback from some trusted readers, some with theatrical experience, some with literary chops, some with both, but if I can wrestle the next draft into shape, perhaps I can figure out how to get this thing staged somewhere.

I'm calling it The Kindest Cut. We'll see where it goes from here.

6:52 PM

Missing Out

As former SFWA president, friend of the blog, and general all-around mensch Marta Randall is fond of reminding me, "The Golden Age of Science Fiction is thirteen." It is demonstrably true that in my case, at least, the things I was fond of circa 1976 are things I remain fond of, even if time and experience has proven to me that a lot of it was pretty bad.

I mean, I am almost always delighted when I'm in a used book store and stumble across an old Bantam paperback of one of Doc Savage's adventures. I first came across Doc in his short-lived Marvel Comics version back in 1972, but I wasn't really hooked until I found a copy of The Derrick Devil while visiting my grandparents. The fantastic gadgetry, the exotic locales and period details, the nonstop bickering of Ham and Monk, and Doc's total unflappability combined to make me a huge fan of Kenneth Robeson's creation. That didn't change when I found out Robeson didn't exist, except as a pen name for Lester Dent and and a handful of other pulp writers, and it certainly didn't change when I grew up, re-read one of my old Bantam books, and realized... man, that prose is just plain not good.

The point, however, is that this realization in no way makes me dislike Doc Savage. If the rumored Doc movie starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson ever materializes, I will be there. I will pay money. And if it's any good, I will say a prayer of gratitude to the cinema gods who previously rained down misery upon Doc fandom with the 1975 Ron Ely movie. 

It's that cinematic connection that has me thinking about adolescent fandom, because we're about to be presented a movie version of a book that is beloved by millions: the Ava Duverney film of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. I've seen the previews, and they look pretty darned good. I'm also excited by the prospect of seeing a fantasy/SF movie in which so many of the faces onscreen are nonwhite. Oprah Whitney is getting top billing, with Mindy Kaling also getting a starring role and Gugu Mbatha-Raw playing the mother of protagonist Meg Murry. Prominent white actors will be appearing as well--Chris Pine as Meg's father, with Reese Witherspoon and Zach Galiafinakis also in prominent roles--but Meg herself (played by Storm Reid) and her brother Charles Wallace are being presented as biracial, which has got to be some kind of first for a major motion picture.

(I'll admit to a little personal fondness for the idea of biracial representation. Though I can pass for a WASP with ease, my maternal Azhkenazi heritage has always made me root for characters with parents and grandparents in multiple categories.)

But for all my interest in the movie... I never read the book. Not when I was a kid. Back in 5th grade, Ms. Fulton would regularly show us episodes of Cover to Cover , which introduced me to many of my favorite books: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Children of Green Knowe, Ben and Me... I remember seeing them all read and illustrated by host John Robbins. And I vividly recall seeing the episode featuring L'Engle's book. When I next got to the school library, I flipped through it, and may have even checked it out, but I never got through it. I picked it up a couple of times over the next few years, because I genuinely saw plenty of reasons why I would like it, but for some reason it never quite grabbed me.

Well, over the last year, I've had cause to seek a fair amount of comfort reading--I can't imagine how the real world might have produced that need--and I've looked back at a number of old favorites. I re-read all seven of the Chronicles of Narnia over the summer, and I recently plowed through Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy (ignoring the later books in the so-called Earthsea Cycle, which I read as an adult.) I haven't lost my critical faculties at all; I recognize Lewis's misogyny and paternalism quite easily, thanks, and I appreciate the depth of Le Guin's worldbuilding even more now than I did when I first fell in love with her work. But there's no question that my very real affection for the work of Le Guin and Lewis, warts and all, rests on a foundation laid down before I first shaved.

And that foundation simply doesn't exist for L'Engle. I missed out. And now there's nothing I can really do about it.

I finally read A Wrinkle in Time last year, well after turning fifty. And it was... fine. There were elements I quite liked, but at the same time, so much of it seemed dated, or tame, or derivative. Obviously, it's NOT really derivative; it's simply so influential at this point that other creators in other media have used it as a source. But having come to it so late in life, I simply can't appreciate it for what it is in the minds of so many others. I hope it the movie kicks ass at the box office, and I hope I can glean from that cinematic treatment some of the joy I couldn't get from the book.

But man. I am so, so glad John Robbins did a show about A Wizard of Earthsea.

7:22 PM

Blue Virginia

I'm happy about the statewide victories by Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax, and Mark Herring. It's good to feel that my fellow Virginians have rejected the kinds of fanatical tribalism pushed by Trump-Lite candidates such as Ed "MS 13" Gillespie and Jill "Transvaginal Ultrasound" Vogel. But these aren't the most important victories of the week. Those might be explained away (as a number of conservative commentators are trying to do) by saying "Oh, Virginia's a blue state, with a bunch of socialist swamp creatures in the DC suburbs. Of COURSE a Democrat won there." I don't think that's true--witness the reliably red Richmond suburb of Chesterfield County going to Northam--but it's at least something that could happen in theory.

But it doesn't explain what happened all over the state.

Last Tuesday, in districts whose gerrymandering has been a major project of the state GOP, voters selected their representatives for the House of Delegates. That gerrymandering had been successful enough to leave the Republicans in firm control of the House, with an advantage of 66 seats to 34, nearly a two-thirds majority. That majority has encouraged the GOP to pursue victory in the culture war here in the Commonwealth, proposing laws that would defund Planned Parenthood, protect civil servants who refused to perform same-sex marriages, etc. And only the governor's veto has been able to stop them. In short, there's a reason why Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe broke the all-time record for vetoes by a Virginia governor in only 3 years, 2 months of service.

And on Tuesday? That powerful majority vanished in a puff of orange-colored air.

In district after district, angry Democrats took to the polls to send a clear message to the party of Trump. With plenty of fresh candidates, many of them women, offering challenges to Republican incumbents, the 34 sitting Democratic delegates were joined by new faces. Six were declared almost as the polls closed Tuesday night. Then a few more results came in, and a few more, and a few more, and suddenly Blue Virginia was whispering about the impossible dream--could we actually flip the House?

That's still unknown as of this writing. There are four races too close to call and the recounts have yet to take place; in fact, candidates can't even call for a recount until the results are officially certified on November 20th. One district in Newport News is currently showing a GOP lead of a mere 13 votes, so we can pretty much assume a recount will be requested there, and any race where the margin is less than 1% can legally go to one. But even without the recounts, Democrats currently hold 49 seats. Any change in the results would strip the Republicans of their control of the chamber. (They still hold the state senate 21-19.) And perhaps most importantly, even if the GOP clings to its majority, it will face not only the obstacle of a veto from Northam, but the necessity of complete unanimity. If even one Republican delegate refuses to go along with the party, the GOP cannot win a vote.

In other words, what I see as I look around the Commonwealth is the promise of better days ahead--unless you're a Republican. So long as GOP incumbents clings to the corruption of Trump, the cowardice of Ryan and McConnell, and the moral bankruptcy of Roy Moore, they will face the prospect of removal from office in 2018 and beyond. And nowhere is that more true than here in Virginia.

As Kelly put it, thinking of the 5th district's Republican Congressman, "I hope Dave Brat is looking at these results and shivering in a puddle of cold urine."

12:11 PM

50/50 Project Map Update

Howdy, all. I thought it was time to post an update of the map I posted a few years back showing my progress on the 50/50 Project. (You can make your own map right here.) For those of you who don't follow this blog obsessively, 50/50 is my continuing quest to see a life bird in each of the 50 states. Following last year's trip to the Pacific Northwest, I'm now standing at 37 states checked off. There are still a number of states I haven't visited (the Dakotas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Alaska) as well as a frustrating number I've visited without logging a lifer, and now you can see them all in living color!


(Red states are those where I've seen a life bird; pale blue states are those I've visited without seeing a lifer; dark blue states I have not visited at all.)

*Alaska is likely to be the final state on this list; I very much want to go there, but I suspect it will be easy to get a life bird once I do.
*Kentucky is probably the state I'm most worried about; I've got to somehow see a new bird despite the fact that I've already seen lifers in pretty much every habitat in the area, so the only birds left there are birds that are relatively hard to find.
*I've barely spent time in Arkansas, so it's not shocking that I don't have a lifer there.
*I'm targeting Wisconsin and Minnesota next. We have friends in those states whom we keep intending to visit, so they seem like reasonably tempting possibilities.
*Georgia. Fucking Georgia. I have family there. My grandparents are buried there. I have traveled there for work and for pleasure. I have been there dozens of times in my life, and have birded some parts of it hard. And I've got nothing. Sapelo Island? Been there. Okefenokee Swamp? Been there. Harris NWR? Been there repeatedly. And NOTHING new has appeared. I'll be back, and I'll be ready, but jeez, Peach State, give it up already.

Updates as warranted

8:31 AM

After two solid months of meme-related material, perhaps it's time to take a moment for updates on the writer's life. 

*The biggest news is the change of address for Dixon, who moved to his new digs in Carrboro, NC, three weeks ago. He starts a new job tomorrow, and he and his housemates are planning to establish some form of artistic collective there, so his upcoming adventures promise to be interesting ones. He has already put together an electronic-music soundtrack for a play (Dante Piro's "Level 4," which is set in a video game), which you can hear or even purchase from the folks at Bandcamp here. He's also working on finishing up a script for his current artistic collective, Nu Puppis, which hopes to stage it in December. We'll keep you updated.

*What this means for Kelly and me, of course, is a bit of a lifestyle change. Our apartment is small enough that going from three occupants to two makes a noticeable difference in space, so that's good. On the less positive side, we don't have a strong young back to take care of certain chores (taking out the trash, say), and the unfortunate fact is that Dixon was becoming a pretty damned good cook by the time he left, so now my own inadequacies in the kitchen are a bigger part of our routine. Dixon has been my regular sounding board for ideas about art and music and theater for a good while now, and I'm already missing our conversations about such topics, but I'm truly excited about the possibilities his move offers him, so I'll muddle through. Alas, the one person who cannot fall back on such comforting thoughts is Ripley, who's only in our house at all because Dixon insisted we spend time with her at the SPCA. She's not lying by the door howling or anything, but there's definitely a bit of separation anxiety making itself known; if Kelly's at home with her and I've been gone for a few hours, Ripley will reportedly climb off the sofa and begin pacing anxiously around the living room. Basically, when she gets her next visit with Dixon, she's going to lose her tiny doggie mind.

*It's been a fairly light summer for birding (perhaps the lingering effect of my big spring count and the tick bite and illness that followed it), but I did manage to get the year's first Northern Harrier during a trip to Dutch Gap Wildlife Reserve yesterday. It was particularly pleasant because I was leading a birding trip there for a student and his grandfather, and the former had never seen a Harrier; the latter had, but he knew it as a "Chicken Hawk." The weirdest FOY bird of recent months, however, came a week earlier, when I was down in Chapel Hill. I was dropping off some of Dixon's stuff, such as his dresser and his guitar, and spending the night at my parents' place. The weather was cool enough to make sitting on their screen porch just about perfect, so I took my morning cup of coffee outside and monitored their feeders for a while. The usual suspects appeared--cardinals, titmice, chickadees--but I was also able to see a small, drab bird flit into the small tree near the corner of the porch. Other than its small size and active behavior, I couldn't see many field marks, but its GISS was screaming "warbler." I got a glimpse of the thin bill, so that much was confirmed, but there still wasn't much in the way of field marks--except a small white patch on the edge of the wing: the "pocket handkerchief" mark. Yes, there in the leaves was a young female Black-throated Blue Warbler. It's not as striking as the adult male, but by gum, I'll take it.

*With the start of the school year, I have found myself staying on top of the academic stuff pretty well, but my pleasure reading has taken a HUGE hit. Since September 5th, I have finished only two books. One was a re-reading of Tom Standage's entertaining but feather-light A History of the World in Six Glasses, which examines the development of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola. The second was a delightful "graphic novel," which is a term I hate to use for a nonfiction book: Dinosaur Empire!, Abby Howard's first book in the Earth Before Us series. It's ridiculously informative, thanks to Abby's paleontological background, and you'll find touches of her trademark black humor throughout, but it's primarily intended to let young readers know just how cool prehistoric animals really were, and it succeeds on that level very well.

*I should note that I read all the time, and regularly fall asleep with a book in my hand, but over the last month or so I've been primarily re-reading bits of old graphic novels on such occasions. And of course I've been reading scores of student papers, but that's not really reading for pleasure. I mean, I don't do it if they don't pay me.

*At the end of July, Kelly and I took her new convertible Beetle for a test-drive to Huntsville, Alabama. NOTE TO TRAVELERS: this is not a city to target for a visit during high summer. It was over ninety every day we were there, and the humidity was impressive even to a native Carolinian like myself. Luckily, we spent most of the week indoors with our friend Q, who showed us such tourist attractions as Unclaimed Baggage, the nation's only place to buy all the stuff that gets lost during air travel. Some of it comes from suitcases, some from unclaimed shipments of manufactured goods, but whatever it is, you can buy it there: clothing, kitchenware, books, musical instruments, shoes, camping equipment, jewelry, and electronics galore. Computer and phone chargers are so numerous you can buy them for $0.99 each. I bought a Kindle for fifteen bucks. I haven't used it yet, but at least now I know I CAN travel without carrying dozens of books. We also found a high quality microphone, so when we eventually get down to recording our podcast, Kelly and I will sound good.

*One of Huntsville's main attractions is Lowe Mill, a retired textile mill now divided up into offices and stalls for artists of all sorts: photographers, potters, architects, painters, printmakers, cigar-box luthiers, you name it. Q's own textile-based business, The Foldout Cat, is there, with yarns, fabrics, crocheted and knitted items, and a variety of delicious baked goods. She also has several looms set up to do the specialized variety of weaving known as saiko, which is fun to do, as well as likely to produce cool materials. There is also a shop specializing in gourmet popsicles, some of which are alcoholic, so even if you don't enjoy the artistic offerings, you can still have a darned good time.

*It's been an odd season of writing. For reasons I can't really explain, I started writing a play. I think the spark of the idea was ignited while Kelly and I were driving to and from Huntsville, listening to the audio version of Bill Bryson's Shakespeare: The World As a Stage. I've been a Bryson fan for decades now, and I greatly enjoyed the chance to hear him sound off on the Bard's biography. I learned a good bit that I didn't know, such as the fact that the current Globe Theatre is almost entirely based on a description written and sketched by a single Dutch tourist, but I also got to thinking about the issue of playwrighting, and during some conversations with Kelly, the germ of an idea appeared. I came home, sat down, and began pounding out ideas. By the time school started again, I was about sixty percent of the way done, and now I'm closing in on the 80% mark. I'm hoping that I'll celebrate New Year's Day with a completed draft, and then I can try to figure out how the heck a guy gets a play produced.

*And if you dont already know, the subtitle of this entry is a play on the chorus of "Marduk T-Shirt Men's Room Incident" by the Mountain Goats.

10:34 AM


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