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Not Out of the Woods Yet

I have a big development to announce, here in a year of numerous other big developments. Among the latter:

1) Kelly has taken on a new (full-time!) librarian position in Chesterfield County, VA, just south of Richmond. She's staying with a friend for the time being, commuting back here on weekends.

2) Ian has quit his job at Chili's, which he'd held for over two years, and going in search of something where his B.A. may be of more use.

3) Ian's girlfriend, Adriana, is finishing up her Associate's Degree and preparing to go after her own B.A., though she's not yet 100% sure where. She's hoping to stay in Richmond, but that's not a guarantee, and Ian seems fairly likely to follow her wherever she goes.

4) Dixon graduates in May--yes, we're finding it a little hard to believe as well--and is giving serious consideration to moving to Chicago, whose theater/comedy scene offers opportunities that suit him better than those in NYC or L.A. (Also, he doesn't like to drive and is staggered by the cost of living in New York.)

And that brings me to my news: this will be my last year at Woodberry Forest School. I've been on the faculty since 1995, and a twenty-year hitch sounds about right to me. I'm still looking at opportunities elsewhere, but if none of them come to fruition--or if Kelly decides that she really likes her job in Chesterfield and wants to stay there--then I'll most likely be heading down to the RVA area this summer.

In other words, by Christmas, every single member of the immediate family may well be in a different job AND a different town than the one he/she was in at the start of 2015.

I've still got a whole spring and a smidgen of winter to deal with before I depart the Forest for good, but it's both nerve-wracking and exhilarating to be able to see the edge of the trees. I'm looking forward to seeing the sun.

10:53 AM

Carolina Blue

Before the day finally came, most of us had told ourselves we were ready for it. I know I had. But sadly, we don't always listen closely to the things we tell ourselves, and all too often we find ourselves unprepared for even the most inevitable day. That was how I and many others felt this morning when we learned that Dean Smith had died.

You've probably seen the testimonials from former players, from colleagues, from sportswriters, and even from the White House. In that company, there's certainly nothing I can contribute by raising my own poor voice to praise him. Even before his legendary memory for names and faces began to fail him in the last few years of his life, Coach Smith would have had no reason to recall a kid who attended his basketball camp a couple of times and sat in the corner of Carmichael Auditorium for home games. And though I may wish otherwise, I have no reason to believe that he ever read my essay about him, "Seventeen Things I Learned from Dean Smith," published in Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond. No, I'm not naive enough to believe that I can contribute anything to the choir currently singing.

But if there's one lesson Coach Smith taught, it was a lesson he himself learned from his father, and it's that lesson that I take to heart now. I wish to celebrate the life of Dean Smith not because he needs me to do it or because I will do it particularly well, but because it is the right thing to do. When a man you admire passes on, you take the time to acknowledge him, and your admiration for him. In doing so, you call attention to the importance of others in your life, and to the beauty of the living music into which all our voices are woven. You point to the passer.

"You should never be proud of doing what's right," Coach Smith once said. "You should just do what's right."

I'll keep trying, Coach. But I hope you'll forgive me if I'm still proud of you for doing it.

9:27 PM

The New Normal

Today is different. Today is not the same.

Aside from being a line from Peter Gabriel's "Family Snapshot," the above indicates that things are changing chez Cashwell/Dalton, and I figure you nice people might be interested in the nature of those changes. Especially since there are, I feel fairly sure, people out there in a quiet panic about them. That said, I suppose the first thing I should tell everyone was said best by Douglas Adams:


Really, even mild anxiety is out of order, because Kelly and I are fine. She's fine, I'm fine, and the third entity that is Our Marriage is fine. Better than fine. We're at 28.5 years of wedded bliss and counting. Honest.

But for the next few months, we're not going to be spending as much time together as we'd like. After finishing her Master's in Library and Information Science in December of 2012, she began searching for a full-time librarian position. And kept searching. She kept her part-time job cataloguing at the public library in Orange, and even acquired additional part-time jobs in Culpeper County and at WFS, but it soon became clear that every full-time library position in this vicinity was already filled by a librarian who was clinging to it like a barnacle to a hull. After months of searching, she started looking further afield, hoping to scare up something within reasonable commuting distance, which for her was under an hour. And the months continued to go by. Eventually she decided it was time to spread her search area even wider, and finally, in early 2015, she got an offer: a full-time professional librarian position, with all the rights, benefits, and privileges thereto.

But it's in Chesterfield County.

Therein lies the reason for the abovementioned change. The library where she'll be working is south of Richmond, over 90 miles from Woodberry's campus, and the shortest route Googlemaps lists is nearly a two-hour trip. Basically, to live here and work there would involve spending three and a half hours in the car every day, not to mention putting almost 200 miles a day on a car that's closing in on 200,000 miles already. Kirby, the aforementioned car, is a total stud, and if any of y'all are considering the purchase of a Subaru Forester, you may accept our enthusiastic recommendation, but no sane car owner wants to put a ten-year-old vehicle through that kind of wear and tear.

The alternative would be for me to move, but oh yeah I teach in a boarding school where I'm on call every day and do a weekly dorm duty from dawn to midnight so no. The school requires me to live on campus anyway, so I'm committed to being here at least until our year-end faculty meeting in June. After that, we'll look at our options and see what we can do that will allow us to live in the same place. What will that be? I'll let you know.

But in the meantime, Kelly's staying with a friend in Henrico and driving Kirby a much more reasonable 20-odd miles to her library. She'll be back here on Friday and will spend the weekend with me, and then on Sunday it's back to the RVA. It's different. It's not the same. Yes, she will get to see a lot of our friends there, not to mention the boys, and their girlfriends, and an advisee who's attending VCU now, and she does get to hang out at Richmond's fantastic restaurants and clubs and theaters and shop for groceries someplace other than the Orange Food Lion, but it's not ideal. Mostly it's not ideal for me. At least I can take some solace in the fact that I'm about to enter a two-weeks-with-no-breaks period of preparation for our production of Don't Drink the Water, which goes up on February 12th, but by the time Kelly gets here for Valentine's Day, I suspect I'll be more than ready for a few hours off.

But that's how it's going to be for a month or three. I'm hoping to get to Richmond a few times myself once the play closes, but it's mostly going to be me hunkering down in the trenches here while Kelly makes conjugal visits on the weekends. And yes, I'm hoping that my use of the term "conjugal visits" doesn't mean I'm already viewing this as a prison sentence.

And that's the new normal. For a given definition of normal, anyway.

2:11 PM


*I haven't posted one of these in a while--heck, I haven't posted one of anything in a while--so if you don't already know, it stands for "Little Brown Jobs," a/k/a the small unidentifiable songbirds that are encountered on any birding outing. Here it stands for thoughts that somehow didn't lead to anything of any greater length or significance, but which somehow had to be recorded.

*I've been on a social media sabbatical. During the month of January (or at least since about the 5th) I've been refraining from hanging out on Facebook, Twitter, or any of my various other online hangouts. It's been helpful, in that I haven't been distracted from real life by any of the various Tweetstorms that inevitably arise when I'm twittering, but while it has probably helped me get ahead (or at least keep up) on things like grading and writing comments, it hasn't freed me up to get anything written, which was kind of my hope. On the plus side, I've gotten a bunch of stuff read.

*The reading has consisted of several novels, plus a quickie nonfiction book by a favorite author: Neal Stephenson's Anathem, a massive SF tome that came to me for Christmas; Ebola, an updated and expanded chunk of David Quammen's longer work Spillover focusing specifically on the disease that most recently made headlines across the USA; and The Magician's Land, the third volume in Lev Grossman's terrific Magicians trilogy. Okay, I also read the fourth collection of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga comic, and even re-read Dan Jenkins' seminal (in more ways than one) book of seventies football and porn, Semi-Tough. Let's just say that the former remains a terrific series, while the latter has a few elements that haven't held up well since Playboy published the book forty years ago.

*The month's birding has been relatively subdued. Right now I'm standing at 35 species for the year, most of them observed on my feeder or elsewhere in the yard. I did have the chance to spend an afternoon at Robertson Lake on campus, and there I found my most noteworthy birds so far this year: a pair of Bald Eagles and a trio of migrating Common Goldeneyes. The latter is a species I'd never before logged in Virginia, let alone on campus; I'd seen them only in Ohio, Utah, Maryland, and Vermont. I'm still holding out hope that the Purple Finches will return to my feeder, but I haven't seen them since early December.

*And finally, the big news: Kelly has a new job. After years of unsuccessful searching for a full-time librarian position in the vicinity of Woodberry, she finally obtained one in Chesterfield County, which is just south of Richmond--in other words, about 90 minutes away from here. We were thus faced with a choice: have her spend three hours a day in the car (not to mention putting 750 miles on the car every work week) or find someplace for her to crash during the week. We opted for the latter, so she'll be spending the first week staying at a friend's place while she tries to decide whether she'll stay or try to find a place of her own for a bit. At the end of the school year, we'll try to decide what our best option might be.

*And yes, that may include my looking for a new job.

*And by coincidence, Ian recently found a new job, so he'll be leaving his longtime position at Chili's at the end of this month.

*And of course Dixon graduates in May.

*In short, within the next six months, every member of our family may end up working in a new job. It's a time of flux in the Cashwell/Dalton household, let's just say. Maybe I should post a picture of something to take my mind off it. Hey, here's a pic of Kel and me with our former advisee, the spectacularly talented Anna Grey Hogan, following her triumphant performance as Liza That Was in the Richmond Triangle Players' production of We Three Lizas! Take a bow, Anna Grey!


7:54 PM

Before I say anything else, I want to be clear: I'm a fan. I bought the first album. I loved the first album. I sweated out the long months before the second album, and when it came out I played it almost as often as the first album. But in the end, it's the first album that stays with me. I have enormously fond memories of every song on it, and some of them remain evocative enough to put me in a particular time and place. Yes, I close my eyes and I slip away.

But by all that is holy, radio programmers, I say unto you QUIT PLAYING ALL THAT GODDAM BOSTON.

Yesterday morning, I slid into the driver's seat and turned on the car radio, which was tuned to Charlottesville's album rock station, WWWV, better known as "3WV." A song from Boston's self-titled debut album was playing.

This isn't shocking, as AOR stations in general and 3WV in particular have been stuck to Boston like barnacles to a supertanker since it came out in 1976. It is the best-selling debut album by any American artist ever, and by any measure it is one of the most successful rock records of all time, having sold in excess of 17 million copies in the US alone (thank you, Wikipedia.) The albums that have outsold it are generally the ones where I don't need to mention the artists' names to let you know what we're talking about: Thriller. Dark Side of the Moon. IV. Rumours. And its cover, with a fleet of guitar-shaped spaceships evacuating entire cities from a doomed Earth, has become downright iconic:

boston debut.jpgThis particular song from Boston, "Rock and Roll Band," is a passable piece of anthemic rock mythology, though it is woefully inaccurate with regards to Boston's own success story. They were the brainchild of guitarist/songwriter Tom Scholz, a gifted musician and engineer whose homemade demo tapes were good enough to earn a recording contract with Epic Records. There were no years of travel from gig to gig, no nights spent in the van, no overdoses on road food. Scholz had to put the band together in order to have someone to play the songs live after the record was released. The song is somewhat interesting in that it was never released as a single, but it's considered "classic" enough to enjoy regular airplay, arguably almost as much as the three songs from the debut album that WERE released as singles: "More Than a Feeling," "Peace of Mind" and "Foreplay/Long Time."

Having heard it more than often enough, however, I switched stations. Turning to Kelly, I announced, "You know, I think it's finally happened: I'm tired of Boston's first album."

I don't know why I was surprised. We're talking about a record released nearly 40 years ago, and one that is played incessantly. But it's one that I've long considered the perfect blend of hard rock and melody, a beautifully crafted piece of popular entertainment. "More Than a Feeling" was one of the first songs I learned to play on the guitar, and only my recognition that Brad Delp's voice cannot be duplicated by ordinary human beings has prevented me from trying to play it live. It's an album I could easily play in my head from start to finish without missing a lyric or a drum fill, and one I cannot ever condemn.


Boston's debut album has only eight songs on it, and six of them (excepting only "Something About You" and "Let Me Take You Home Tonight") get regular airplay, despite the fact that this is an album that most of the audience already owns. And there are only three or four songs from their other albums that you'll ever hear on the radio: "Feeling Satisfied" and the title track from Don't Look Back, plus occasionally "Amanda" and "We're Ready" from Third Stage. I don't think I've ever heard anything from their three other studio albums.) Basically, then, there are between eight and ten Boston songs that might be heard on the radio. And at least a couple of them can be heard Every. Single. Day.

Don't believe me? Yesterday evening, on the way home from the same trip that began with "Rock and Roll Band," I turned on 3WV again and laughed aloud. "Don't Look Back" was playing.

"Well, at least it's not the first album," I said to Kelly, and switched off the radio.

And tonight, when I got in the car to come home from work? On went 3WV, and on came "Foreplay/Long Time." And off went 3WV.

Radio folks, this isn't hard. There are dozens--scores--HUNDREDS of great songs by legitimate classic rock artists that you can put on the air. You want some suggestions? The Rolling Stones alone have released over twenty studio albums; try a deeper track like "Monkey Man" or "Dead Flowers" or even a recent tune like "Rain Fall Down" off 2005's A Bigger Bang. Jethro Tull doesn't get nearly enough radio play, and they've topped twenty albums as well; give a spin to "Look Into the Sun" off Stand Up, or something off Songs from the Wood. You want to play American tunes? Fine! How about some Allman Brothers? No, not just "Rambling Man" and "Midnight Rider." Spin "Trouble No More" or "One Way Out" for a change. What about Steely Dan? Only nine albums total, but there's plenty of stuff that hasn't been played to death. "Barrytown" from Pretzel Logic is an underappreciated gem, and you won't find a nastier guitar than Larry Carlton's work on "Don't Take Me Alive" and "Kid Charlemagne."

In short, radio people, it's time to broaden your horizons. If you want to stay in the classic rock ghetto, be my guest. It's sad that you won't be digging into the rich musical offerings of Janelle Monae or the Magnetic Fields or the Carolina Chocolate Drops or American Aquarium, or even the great underappreciated music of the same era as classic rock: Brian Eno's breathtaking Before and After Science, XTC's amazing Black Sea, Television's Marquee Moon, the Isley Brothers' Go For Your Guns, and so on. But for crying out loud, an allegiance to classic rock doesn't mean you have to spend your lives spinning the same handful of songs off the same record. No matter how good it is.

Please. Come away from Boston. For our sanity. I'm listening to some friends, and they've got lots of tunes.

9:59 PM

The Year in Books

I've been keeping track of the books I read since 1996, and looking back at the end of the year is always an instructive experience. The annual list includes every book I read, in any category--fiction, nonfiction, drama, comics, poetry, whatever. The only exceptions: picture books or collections of newspaper comic strips (except archival tomes such as Fantagraphics' collected Peanuts and Pogo multi-year volumes). And I don't count comics collections when I re-read them (which I will often do as bedtime reading). When I re-read anything else, however, it appears on the list, albeit with an asterisk; I've found that this signifier gives me a bit more impetus to read new material.

As reading years go, I'd have to say that 2014 was a bit of an odd one, but it wasn't entirely out of line with my past experiences. I didn't finish as many titles as I have in years past, but that's a trend I've noticed recently. From 2004 through 2007, I read furiously, finishing over 100 books per year, but in 2008 through 2011, I slipped down into the nineties. Since 2012, however, I've been steadily finishing only seventy-odd books per year. I'm not sure what's driving the shift, but if I had to guess, I'd estimate that I've been spending more time on the internet than in the past. (I joined Facebook in 2009, for what that's worth...) Alternatively, the change might be work-related: In the fall of 2011, I stopped teaching speech and went to full-time English teaching; has the increased number of papers kept me from reading as many books?

The weirdest thing, however, has nothing to do with the total and everything to do with the subject matter. In this year when I published my second nonfiction book, I read only five nonfiction books (two of which were re-reads) That is decidedly odd for me. Then again, maybe I had spent so much time in the nonfiction realm because of my own writing that I felt it necessary to wander around in the fiction section for a change.

That fiction section contained a fair number of re-reads, too. For some reason, over the summer I decided to revisit Larry Niven's Known Space short stories, along with three novels (World of Ptavvs, Protector, and A Gift from Earth). They were among the first hard SF stories to grab me, but I'll confess that the mind-grabbing elements of Protector didn't make up for the lengthy discourse on spacecraft trajectories in the second half of the book. I also spent a little time looking at old favorites by Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein, as well as perhaps the favorite SF novel of my adolescence, Jack L. Chalker's Midnight at the Well of Souls. Time has not been kind to Chalker's writing, alas, and I can now see much clunkiness where once I saw smooth and satisfying prose; the ideas, however, remain as potent as they ever did, and the Well World remains one of my favorite mental playgrounds.

When I wasn't re-reading fiction, however, four of the novels I selected were among the best I've come across in recent memory. The first book I finished in 2014 was G.B. Edwards' remarkable 1981 tale of the isle of Guernsey, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. How I missed this book when it came out I don't know--oh, wait, yes I do: I was finishing high school and paying little attention to contemporary fiction. But thanks to my old Readerville chum D.G. Strong, whose praise for Edwards' work has been vocal and uninterrupted for some years now, I finally picked it up and can attest to its merits: it somehow manages to be simultaneously fresh and old-fashioned, an engaging novel that reveals its secrets in a way that is both fair and satisfying to the reader. It is a wonderful, wonderful book.

From there I fell into a work whose prose was just flabbergasting. I cannot recall the last time I stopped and read aloud passages to my wife so often as I did while reading Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale. (I suspect it was probably while reading John Crowley's Little, Big, but don't quote me.) I'm not 100% sure I like the ending, and I certainly don't have great things to say about Mr. Helprin's work in the political realm, and you couldn't pay me enough to watch the movie they recently made from this book, but oh my god is this a breathtaking piece of writing: rich, descriptive, fiercely imagined, and never, ever dull.

Dan Simmons, whose work often delights me, hit my sweet spot once again with The Abominable, which treads the same borderlands he explored with The Terror, namely those between history, adventure, and horror. With this book, he stays more within the boundaries of the first two (as opposed to his repeated visits to the latter territory in The Terror), creating a yarn filled of mountaineering excitement, historical mystery, and edge-of-your-seat set pieces. (I mean, it's about climbing Mount Everest. Of COURSE there are cliffhangers. Some literal.) A guy who can write an exciting rock-climbing sequence can handle my mountaineering fiction any day.

Finally, I at long last cracked open a second book by James Hynes. Back in's heyday, I led a discussion on Hynes' audacious and hilarious satire of university English departments, The Lecturer's Tale, which was both scathing and illuminating. (Probably the first book I ever encountered that attempted to address the concept of privilege, it was also noteworthy for including the only fight scene I know that continues into the footnotes.) It wasn't until I found a copy of Kings of Infinite Space in Richmond that I dove into his work for a second time, and I was not one bit disappointed. Here Hynes takes on the world outside the ivory tower, the kingdom of cubicles and underemployment, and he's just as fearless as ever when it comes to following up on his wildest ideas. Bold, hilarious, and thoughtful, it's a book I recommend without hesitation; hell, Hynes even manages to end it with a punchline.

Add to that the start of several promising series by Lev Grossman, Ann Leckie, and Mira Grant, plus a trip back through an old favorite (Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man), and I'd have to say it was a dandy year for fiction.

And comics? Oh, hell yeah. Several favorite tales from long ago were finally collected and reprinted, including Miracleman (by Alan Moore, Garry Leach, and Alan Davis), Flex Mentallo (by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely) and the indescribable Bojeffries Saga (by Alan Moore and Steve Parkhouse). I finally obtained my own copy of Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen's terrific Secret Identity, and I continued to enjoy a variety of continuing (or recently-completed) series:
Chew by John Layman and Rob Guillory
Locke and Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Misfile by Chris Hazelton
I also discovered several enjoyable titles that are still being published... at least for the moment:
Ms. Marvel by G. WIllow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

And last but not least, I discovered a frank, hilarious, and utterly delightful autobiographical comic by Erika Moen: DAR: A Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary. It's collected in two volumes, and if you can get your hands on it, I highly recommend you do so.

On to 2015!

11:43 PM

Throwback Thursday-ish

"Tradition" is a rather strange word to use in certain contexts. My classroom, for example, is just around the corner from the lobby of Armfield Hall. In the middle of the lobby's floor is a large depiction of the school's seal, and the story among the students is that if you step on the seal, you will not graduate. The story is couched as a Woodberry tradition, and at this school, the word "tradition" is so powerful that people will use it as though it were an actual argument: "We can't stop doing that! It's tradition!"

The strangeness, of course, is that Armfield Hall was opened in 1997. I was already employed here when that seal was set in the lobby floor. In other words, this "tradition" was created wholesale by some nameless student(s) within the last 17 years, but the boys still consider it as weighty and meaningful as any other way of doing things here.

A similarly newfangled tradition is Facebook's "Throwback Thursday," which encourages people to post old photos on Thursdays. Obviously, it's hard to view something on a ten-year-old social media site as "traditional" in the, well, traditional sense, but it does at least give people an excuse to share old and occasionally amusing photos in a setting where others can appreciate it. Having considered the exercise in that light, it occurs to me that there's not reason to keep such photos on Facebook when I can share them with you nice people. Even if it's not Thursday.

Tinkerbell Tree 001 JPEG.jpgThis is the dogwood tree that stood (and may still stand) in front of our house on Tinkerbell Road in Chapel Hill, NC. It was one of the first trees I figured out how to climb, and Mom dutifully got a shot of me in it here, probably around 1969.

1976ish JPEG.jpgIf you've ever wondered whether Mark Hamill's haircut in "Star Wars" was a 70s style, I think the above pic should settle the issue. I look like I'm about to go into Toshi to pick up some power converters.

Colonels 1976 001 JPEG.jpgBut as I hit puberty in about 1976, a few other things were happening besides just my hair was getting longer (and curlier). For one, my skill as a basketball player was approaching its peak. This is my official photo from the Chapel Hill rec department in the winter of '76-'77, when I played center for the Colonels. Coached by Art Finn, we put together a terrific season, combining my passing out of the low post, David Finn's slashing to the basket, and Arnold Stone's deadly jumper. Arnold and I would go on to play at Culbreth Junior High the following year, but never with as much success.

Beech Mountain Jan 77 JPEG.jpg
This was taken at Beech Mountain in January of 1977. I had grown five inches over the summer and was probably as skinny as I've ever been in my life, so naturally I insisted on wearing my father's shapeless old football warmup jacket from the 1955 Albemarle HS Bulldogs. Also, you can see that things were starting to happen on my upper lip.

Moustache November 1980 JPG.jpgBy November of 1980, the lip thing had reached crisis proportions. Here I am behind the bar of our house on Smith Avenue, sporting about as much Seventies cheese as one teenager could manage: mustache, aviator frames, and alligator shirt. (Actually, the mustache I'd grown for the summer production of The Boy Friend, in which I played Percival Brown, the millionaire.)

Halloween 1983 001 JPEG.jpgLuckily, by Halloween of 1983, the rest of my face had caught up. I would actually shave the beard fairly soon after this, a personal grooming choice which altered by social life in Manchester to a great degree, as I later learned that many of my dormmates had been avoiding me for fear of terrorism.

Hope Mills Lake 1992 JPEG.jpgAnd finally, here I am in early 1992, having recently entered parenthood. That's Ian in the stroller, lounging with me, Kelly, and our friends Peter and Islabeth at Hope Mills Lake.

That's all the Thursday I've got on hand, but keep your eyes peeled; the past isn't even past, after all.

3:06 PM

My Monthly Update

It has not escaped my notice that I'm updating this journal more infrequently than in the past. The main reason, as you might expect, is a string of commitments to things like work and family, a string that is preventing me from getting much written here. (To be honest, it's preventing me from getting much written, period.) When I haven't been scrambling to get a project done for class, or to get caught up on my paper-grading, or to make it down to Richmond for one of Dixon's THREE productions in the last month, I've been trying to get WFS's winter play off the ground. I'm happy to note that auditions went well, and that we'll be presenting Don't Drink the Water in February, but I'm also pretty tired.

On the plus side, I did get new glasses.

141106-204306.jpgWith any luck I'll be able to chime in with a few more updates over the next few months, but in the meantime I'll just ask y'all to be patient with me, and to remember that Along Those Lines makes a GREAT Christmas gift....

9:49 AM

If you don't follow me on Twitter (I'm the imaginatively-named @PeterCashwell) you may have missed my heartfelt response to this morning's meeting with my employers' insurance agents. I found myself alternately infuriated, despairing, amused, and impressed by the sheer bureaucratic perfection of the exercise. It was honestly an almost perfect replication of a scene from Kafka, played out amidst a crowd of confused employees clutching forms for their Flexible Spending Accounts. The dramatic center of the scene, however, was a brief Q&A about coverage in which I asked what I thought was a reasonable question. The answer? Well, you should be the judge of that:

Representative: "Your wellness visits are preventive, so they are 100% covered when you go to see your doctor for a checkup. But while you're there, if you ask him about your sniffles or your sore shoulder, that's now an OFFICE visit, so you pay your copay."

PC: "What if you go in for a checkup and the doctor discovers something while you're there?"

Rep: "That's a very good question. Once he diagnoses something, it's an office visit. You pay your copay."

PC: "So it's preventive IF there's nothing to prevent."

Rep: "Correct."

PC: "In other words, my primary care physician is Doc Daneeka."

Okay, I didn't say that last part. But I wanted to, because this is a beautifully constructed Catch-22. Preventive visits are covered, as long as there is nothing to prevent. But if there's nothing to prevent, how can such a visit be preventive? It's a seamless Mobius strip of logic, guaranteeing that the only people whose visits to the doctor will be covered are those who don't need to visit the doctor.

And it's not like this is hidden. The rep told us outright, "The time to go in for a wellness visit is when you're healthy." While there's a certain sense in that, at least, her partner took the whole thing in an even more twisted direction:

Partner: "If you've got high cholesterol or something, tell the receptionist when you get there, 'I don't want my cholesterol checked this time,' and you won't have to pay the copay."

I have high blood pressure, which is known medically as "essential hypertension" and colloquially as "the silent killer." I've been controlling it through medication and some alterations in lifestyle, and on my most recent visit to my physician, it looked pretty darned good, if I say so myself. But my hypertension also the main reason I go in for wellness visits: to make sure that I actually AM well, and that my BP isn't sneaking upward without my notice--a very real and very dangerous possibility.

But this also means that, in a very real sense, I cannot go in for a wellness visit when I'm healthy; medically speaking, I'm NEVER healthy. My problem is "essential," not something separate from me, and moreover it's one that will be detected at Every. Single. Checkup. Going to a doctor's office and NOT getting a BP check is all but unimaginable. If I tell the receptionist not to break out the sphygmomanometer (yes, I looked that up), I'm flying in the face of standard medical practice, not to mention denying my physician a basic tool for detecting any problems. I'm basically saying, "I'm here so you can make sure I'm not ill, but you're not allowed to detect any illness."

If I get my BP checked and confirm that I'm healthy, I'm sick and I have to pay for the visit; but if I don't get my BP checked and confirm that I'm sick, I'm healthy and I don't have to pay.

That's some catch.

But aside from that, our healthcare system is in great shape! At least until we examine it, that is.

10:04 AM

Not the Center of the Universe

As Saturday, September 13th, dawned, I was already on the move, loading my gear into the Subaru and streaking eastward on I-16. There was time to get a little gas, and to snag a chicken biscuit at Hardee's, but I was under a deadline: by 8:30 I had to reach Meridian, Georgia, and the dock where I would meet the 9:00 ferry to Sapelo Island.

Sapelo is isolated in a variety of ways. One way is physical. There's no bridge, so the ferry is the only way to reach it, and it's not a car ferry; once you get there, you're either taking a tour bus, renting a vehicle, or hoofing it, and I still didn't entirely know which I'd be doing. There's also a certain isolation of access. You can't take the ferry unless you're staying there--either visiting one of the island's residents (whose name you must provide) or using one of its rental properties--or taking an approved tour. There are apparently private tours, but I had signed up for one through the state of Georgia, and the state provided one more form of isolation: information. Plainly put, a lot of it was kept away from those who might want it. I'd been digging around on the internet for weeks just to locate the phone number of the person from whom I could buy a ferry pass, and the web had almost no information about where to search for chachalacas or how to get there. All I could do, I finally reasoned, was show up at the ferry with my glasses and field guide and hope I could get lucky.

The fact that showing up at the ferry was so difficult should have tipped me off about the difficulty of spotting a chachalaca. When I reached the Sapelo Island Visitors Center in Meridian at 8:30 sharp, there was no sign indicating where the ferry was, or where ferry visitors should park; in fact, there was not a space left in the parking lot. I followed the road toward the water and parked along the side when I saw a large white boat at the end. Once I'd stowed binoculars, spotting scope, field guide, camera, and two bottles of water into my backpack (along with the scope's tripod, which poked out the top of the pack by a good four inches even when completely collapsed), I marched down to the ferry only to be told my name wasn't on the list. I explained that I'd made a reservation a week beforehand, and the young man with the clipboard asked which tour I was on. "I made the ferry reservation through the state," I said, unaware that I'd signed up for any tour at all. "Well, you need to check in at the visitor's center," he replied. "Where are you parked?"

Eventually I found that if I parked on the opposite side of the street, I'd be in visitor's territory, as opposed to the side reserved for the cars of island residents. This was in no way shown by any sign. Nonetheless, as I marched back to repark, then strode up the stairs to check in at the visitor's center, I began to feel as though the lack of signage was completely in line with the rest of the experience; clearly, everything was on a need-to-know basis here, and the assumption was that I had no real need.

Fifteen dollars and ten minutes later, I was on the upper deck of the ferry, slathering on sunscreen and waiting for my binocular lenses to clear. The heat and humidity were high enough to send everything I owned into a form of shock, having been contained in an air-conditioned environment for the last four days. (I wasn't feeling that great about the weather myself.) Nonetheless, the lenses on my optics eventually cleared enough to show me that I was in an absolutely stunning place.
DSC02247.JPGThe all but windless conditions left the water unruffled under the brilliant morning sun, and the marsh grass extending to the horizon was filled with the sounds of life. There were porpoises cresting in the channel behind the ferry, and my species list for the day started filling up almost immediately: a Great Egret on the bank, a Laughing Gull on a piling, a Wood Stork soaring overhead, a Tricolored Heron wheeling down into the marsh. And then I looked off to the east and was absolutely stunned.

A great bird, wings and neck extended, was headed south along the water's edge, and even in the glare of the sun I could see that it was rosy pink. I had a moment of uncertainty, as this was not a color I should be seeing on any bird in this region, but recognition quickly snapped into place: at the end of the long neck was a long bill, flattened at the end. I was seeing, for only the second time in my life, a Roseate Spoonbill.

It wasn't supposed to be there. Range maps in my field guides put the Spoonbill along the Gulf Coast and at the southern end of Florida. I'd seen a flock of them nesting in Louisiana back in 2009, but I hadn't even considered the possibility of spotting one here. Still, there was no question of its identity. It was huge and pink, for god's sake; how could it be anything--oh, right. I had a camera.

My temporary paralysis led to a rapid search of my pack and a desperate attempt to get the bird in my viewfinder before it vanished. I succeeded, but as you can see, just barely. It's at the far right-hand edge of the picture:

DSC02250.JPGIt wasn't a good photo. It wasn't a life bird. And it certainly wasn't a chachalaca. But if you can't be happy with a day where a spectacular, unexpected bird flies out of nowhere into your field of view, then dammit, you should quit birding now and find a hobby where surprise is discouraged.

The ferry ride was wonderful, as most ferry rides are, and I enjoyed the full Walt Whitmanesque experience of watching the play of light on water and the play of birds in the air. A variety of terns were in motion around the boat, including Sandwich, Forster's, and Royal Terns (seen here):

Once I got to the island's ferry station, however, I came back to earth somewhat. For one, I could now gauge the distances better, and I could see that Sapelo's scale was not something I'd appreciated properly. I had to be back at the ferry by 12:30 to get back to the mainland, and I could see now that walking even as far as the lighthouse would eat up most of my morning--and that presumed that a chachalaca, a bird of the forest, would be hanging out near the waterside. Luckily, there was a tour bus, an air-conditioned tour bus at that, and my ferry ticket was good to get me onto it. Unfortunately, even though I asked the driver about birding and was assured that we'd stop at some places where I could look for chachalacas, the tour was not intended to show the natural features of the island so much as the historical and cultural features. We therefore got a look at some intriguing places, including the ruins of the sugar cane mill that drove the original settlement of the island, as well as the only operating store, the post office, the peculiarly-named Behavior Cemetery, and the mansion occupied by Sapelo's former main landowner, R.J. Reynolds:

Though the stop at the post office did allow me to see the year's first Common Yellowthroat, as well as what must have been several dozen Eastern Kingbirds all hunting insects from the same wire, I had only a brief bit of time to do serious birding, and that was in non-chachalaca habitat: along the sand of Nanny Goat Beach. With my scope on my shoulder, I was able to log a healthy mixed flock of Brown Pelicans and Royal Terns, as well as patiently waiting for several small shorebirds to get close enough to me to reveal themselves as Sanderlings, already out of their breeding plumage for the year. But that was it. I still didn't have a life bird in Georgia.

I got back on the bus, back on the ferry, and back on the mainland. It was 1:00 and time to move north; I'd be spending the night at my parents' house in North Carolina, and I had about probably seven more hours of driving ahead of me. But I also knew that between Sapelo and Savannah lay a terrific birding spot: Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. I couldn't get a chachalaca there, true, but might I come up with some other life bird? A Purple Gallinule or something, maybe? Hell, I'd already logged a Spoonbill for the day. What did I have to lose?

Harris Neck, an abandoned WWII airfield, is a prime breeding ground for the Wood Stork, and they were there in quantity, but I was also treated to a delicious cool breeze and some spectacular blue-green scenery:

There was more. Common Moorhens in the shallows. A pair of Wood Ducks close to shore. A Pied-billed Grege actually in flight, as I almost never see them. Anhingas fishing in Woods Pond. Cattle Egrets, touched with butterscotch. And stepping delicately on the far shore of one pond, a gawky white bird with a bicolored bill. I nearly jumped. There are only two American wading birds with two-colored bills, and as I looked more closely at this one, I saw that the tip of the bill was dark... and the base was pinkish.

Now I was excited. A pink bill with a dark tip is a field mark of the only American heron I have never seen, the Reddish Egret. It comes in both rusty-red and white plumages, but the bill is always the same. Like the Spoonbill, it's a bird of the Gulf Coast, but I already had proof that such birds could turn up in Georgia. Clearly I had to get a better look. And look I did. Hard. I even attempted a "digiscope" photo, pressing my camera to the lens of my spotting scope, and getting the following crude image:

DSC02280.JPGThe base of the bill was definitely pinkish... but the legs were wrong. They were a definite yellow-green, not the slate grey of the Egret's legs. And the bird wasn't feeding like a Reddish Egret, which charges around the shallows with its wings extended, trying to herd prey into its reach; instead, this bird was carefully picking its way around the rim of the pond, pausing, then stalking further along. In other words, it was feeding like the other American heron with a two-tone bill: the Little Blue Heron. I'd already seen an adult Little Blue at the same pond, so the sight of its offspring, which is pure white, should not have surprised me, but I was once again keenly aware that I remain liferless in Georgia.

I settled back into the car and began the long drive home. Georgia remains a fascinating, if in some ways frustrating, place to bird, but knowing that I can see what I have seen there before, I'm not about to stop looking for what I haven't seen yet.

10:29 AM


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