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Greater Honeyguide About Peter Cashwell



 


If there's one experience shared by every birder, it's that of waking up in the dark, packing one's gear, and waiting for headlights to appear outside. That Friday's experience was therefore a familiar one, with the added deja vu of having been dropped off in last night's darkness by the same car that was coming for me in today's predawn darkness. Luckily, it wasn't a long wait, and when I clambered back into Tina's passenger seat, I could almost feel my own body warmth still emanating from the upholstery.

We made the necessary stop for coffee and sped out across the floating bridge over Lake Washington, watching lights twinkle off the surface from Bellevue and Mercer Island. I knew we were heading uphill from there, along I-90 and through the Cascade Range via the Snoqualmie Pass, but I had to take Tina's word for it: there wasn't enough light to see anything but the barest hint of mountains ahead. We blazed past Issaqua, where Kelly was doubtless still sleeping in the con hotel, and I settled in for the next hour, gradually watching the snow on the peaks become visible, then leaving it behind as we descended into the interior.

Our first stop came near Bullfrog Road's crossing of the Cle Elum River, where even in the dim grey glow of early morning, Tina was fairly certain we could spot one of her favorite birds, the American Dipper. I'd seen one only once, and very briefly, in Glacier National Park, so I was quite happy to take some time to look for my second one. Sure enough, we discovered several perching on logs in the stream, making their telltale teetering motions.

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By the time we were done, the sun was peering up over the horizon, and we took a short drive north to pick up the road into the town of Cle Elum. First, however, Tina had a little treat for me:

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As longtime readers may recall, Kelly and I were devoted fans of Northern Exposure, a TV show we followed rabidly for several years. I had mentioned that fact to Tina, and she decided we had enough time in our itinerary for a quick stop in the little town of Roslyn, Washington, which was the location for the outdoor shots of the fictional Cicely, Alaska. Nothing was open yet, so I was unable to stop in at Roslyn's Cafe (the apostrophe S was added for the TV show and removed later) or the town's other Cicelian landmark, Holling Vincoeur's bar & grill, the Brick:

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The Brick, as it turned out, is Washington's oldest continually operating tavern, which made me even sadder to miss a chance at sampling its wares, but we had things to see elsewhere. The first stop was the residential area in Cle Elum, where Tina had a line on some feeders where a Cassin's Finch might be. We drove around for probably thirty minutes before we spotted them, in the best possible location: in a yard where House Finches were also flying around, giving us the chance to make direct comparisons. In terms of color, patterning, and bill shape, the Cassin's is an almost perfect compromise between a House Finch and a Purple Finch, so once we actually spotted the bird, it was mostly a matter of checking our guides and working through field marks before we confirmed the sighting, which gave me my first lifer of the day.

Tina was obviously feeling a degree of personal responsibility for my list. In addition to her own extensive experience in the Evergreen State, she also brought a technological savvy I'd never had in a birding guide, using her smartphone's eBird app to keep her apprised of sightings, times, and locations all over the eastern side of the Cascade. She was also not a bit shy about pulling up her phone's birdsong app to see if what we were hearing matched what she had on record. (And yes, once or twice the phone got into a conversation with the bird.) She was also completely at home behind the wheel, and though I kept mentioning that I'd be happy to take a turn driving, the only contribution she asked for was for me to pay for the first tank of gas. From there on, we'd be splitting the cost of fuel.

After a bit more tooling around the Cle Elum river, she decided it was time to quit messing around and hit the high desert. This involved jumping back onto the interstate toward Ellensburg, which led to one unexpected discovery: at a local coffee stand, we encountered the Opal, a buttery-yellow apple variety that I'd never seen before. Despite its casual resemblance to a Golden Delicious, it was almost a diametrically opposed fruit: crisp, sweet, with just a hint of tartness, and nothing remotely mealy or bland about it. I grabbed several for the road, and we headed out into the countryside south of town on the improbably named Umptanum Road.

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As you can see, Umptanum Road led us up through a canyon to a dry plateau covered in sagebrush, which seemed to stretch all the way back west to the Cascades, interrupted only by a stand of windmills on the far slope. Scrub and grass were the only foliage, but there was bird life everywhere. Robins perched on branches and fence wires, and Mountain Bluebirds were flycatching everywhere we looked.

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Nor were the bluebirds alone. A Western Meadowlark made its appearance, firing off a definite non-Eastern call out in the scrub. And before long, from a shrub some yards off the road, we heard a relentless stream of birdsong, snippets of various species' calls remixed into a rhapsody by a bold male Sage Thrasher--my first. A bit further along, Tina pulled out her phone to confirm the presence of two rather shy sparrows, one a lifer (Brewer's) and one a welcome returnee to my list (Vesper). I was beginning to understand why she had been so insistent on showing me the high desert.

Neither of us was prepared, however, for the slim grey bird I spotted on a roadside power line. "Is that a shrike?" I asked, whipping my binoculars up to my eyes. Sure enough, it was, and not the fluttery-winged Loggerhead Shrike I'd seen in the southeast, but a long-billed, direct-flying Northern Shrike. It was still well before lunch and I'd seen three lifers on Umptanum alone. Unfortunately, our hopes of following the road up into the forested hills, where several woodpecker sightings had made, were stymied by a very simple sign, one reading "Road Closed." Like it or not, we were done with Umptanum.

Luckily, Tina wasn't done. We turned back toward the interstate and headed south toward Yakima; there were White-throated Swifts down there. She was sure of it. And yes, in fact, there were. We found this out when we pulled off I-82 where it crossed the canyon of Selah Creek. 

The canyon walls there are home to a breeding colony of White-throats, and we were treated to another great comparison, because there were dozens of Violet-green Swallows flying in amongs them. The swifts had the standard stiff-winged flight motion seen in the eastern Chimney Swift, while the Violet-greens made the same nimble twists and turns that--hey, where'd they all go?

Our birds, along with their comparisons, had suddenly vanished, and it took only a few seconds to see why: sailing down from near the bridge was a Cooper's Hawk, and everything else with feathers had taken rapid refuge in the nooks and crannies of the canyon. The sky, like the hilltops surrounding us, had gone totally clear.

DSC03180.JPGAfter such a satisfactory quest, one might have expected Tina to rest on her laurels for a bit, but that's not her style. It was time for another eBird pursuit, this time up to the west from Yakima. We followed US 12 up to Naches, then peeled south into the canyon of the Tieton River, passing the Oak Creek State Wildlife Area. We parked at a bend in the river where several not-entirely-lively-looking trees stood beside the road.

"This is it," said Tina. "There was a Lewis's Woodpecker here yesterday."

If there was one here today, I couldn't tell, but I took out my binoculars and scanned the area. Nothing was visible along the rock wall across the road, or in the trees across the river, though there did seem to be a crow flying into one of the dead trees near us, and--wait a minute.

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Though it looks dark and crowlike at first glance, it doesn't take long to recognize the improbable Lewis's Woodpecker. Its greenish-black back isn't especially startling, but its red face, dirty white collar, and boldly pink belly combine to make it one of the most bizarre--and memorable--birds of North America. This was my first and so far only look at one, so I'm glad it was cooperative enough to pose for me.

Sane persons would probably have called it a day at this point. We had, after all, driven nearly 200 miles, logged several dozen species (including over a dozen first-of-year birds for me), and picked up six new birds for my life list. It had been a triumphant day by any reasonable measurement.

But we are birders. We don't know the meaning of the words "sane" and "reasonable," at least in a context where birds are involved. And besides, the trip down the Vantage Highway would only add about fifty miles to our return trip. No problem!

The highway parallels I-90 on its way west from Ellensburg to Vantage, but it cuts through sagebrush desert as it goes, eventually running smack into the Columbia River. Other than windmills, there weren't a lot of landmarks, but the ones we saw did have fairly distinctive names:

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We pulled over at one trailhead and scanned the sagebrush gamely, spotting familiar friends like the Mountain Bluebird. Before long, we got a look at not one, but two Northern Shrikes sailing from shrub to shrub. And then a pair of Say's Phoebes--the first I'd seen in years--flew up for a look at us as well. But the best moment was the arrival of yet another Vesper Sparrow. And this one was remarkably unafraid. It flew up close, landed, and hung out on the ground near us for some time, giving us long clear looks at its field marks: the eye ring, the white borders along the tail, and even the chestnut wing patch that neither Tina nor I had seen anywhere but in our Sibleys.

And then, eventually, there it was: the Columbia, a river whose mighty stature often goes unappreciated by Easterners like me. There was no denying it now, however: it was a huge, sprawling piece of water, stretching as far as I could see from the top of the cliff on the western shore.

DSC03191.JPGThat was as far east as we would go. Tina and I climbed back into the Forester and headed back. There was still plenty of daylight, though, and as we came back near the Cascades, she decided we could take one last gamble: the chance of seeing a reported White-headed Woodpecker at the Cle Elum ranger station.

We arrived after the station had closed, so we were left to wander the parking lot and grounds alone, and there wasn't much to be seen. Birds were just about absent. The only sounds were the rush and roar of rush-hour traffic, or what passed for it in rural Washington. We ambled to the back side of the station, our steps cushioned by years' worth of pine needles, hoping for something to turn up, but after about thirty minutes, Tina was starting to check her phone and I was wondering if we'd be back in Columbia City by dinnertime so I could get Flying Squirrel Pizza to deliver a pie for me.

Naturally, it was at that moment that I was startled to see a largish bird light on the trunk of a ponderosa pine. It was quickly followed by another, and then by a third. I was just recognizing the birds' clear, inimitable field mark--a head of pure white, unlike that of any other woodpecker--when one of them flew into the sunlight and landed, perfectly lit, on the siding of one of the station's outbuildings. The White-headed Woodpecker was mine, the seventh lifer of the day.

We celebrated our good fortune with a second stop at the bridge on Bullfrog Road--and the Dippers were still there--and as the sun sank over the Cascades, we made our way back through the Snoqualmie Pass.

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It had been an all but perfect day, I knew, and one that couldn't possibly end better than it had begun or than it had continued. But once Tina had dropped me off, with promises that she'd be back at six the next morning, I should have expected that something would, at long last, have to go wrong.

And it did. Flying Squirrel Pizza, I was crushed to discover, does not deliver.

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7:08 PM
.................................

Where were we?

Ah, yes. Thursday afternoon. Columbia City. We were sitting in our Air BnB room, waiting. Kel, Q, and Jaspher were preparing to take an Uber to their con hotel for the next few days, while I waited for the arrival of Tina (a/k/a "Masterbirder,"), whom Friend of the Blog Ursula Vernon had recommended as a Seattle-area companion and bird guide. Right about 5:00, there was a knock on the door, and there she was, complete with the obligatory birder's vehicle: a Subaru. In this case it was a 2006 Forester, and as I have owned a Forester since 2003, two impressions immediately formed: first, that this was a person whose mindset I could understand, and second, that I would have no problem contributing to the driving when it became necessary.

Both those impressions were accurate, but as I would soon learn, only one was applicable.

With little fanfare, I bid a fond adieu to Kel and the Qsphers and loaded my pack and binoculars into the passenger seat of Tina's car. For some reason I had been expecting her to be much younger than I, but we were roughly contemporaries. As she was a decidedly open and talkative person, I rapidly learned that she and her husband Bruce, who worked for Microsoft, were Canadians, that she was trained as a biologist and as a dental hygienist, and that "Masterbirder" was a deliberately ironic choice of name, though her volunteer work with Seattle Audubon had certainly given her a certain mastery of the subject.

Despite occasional patches of traffic, she smoothly took us up over the ridge and down into the I-5 corridor, heading for the north end of town and a place called Discovery Park, which sits on a high headland. We made a brief stop at the north end of the peninsula, looking down at Shilsole Bay and getting distant glimpses of a few birds I'd seen over the last few days--Red-necked Grebe, for example--as well as the familiar blackless wingtips of the bird I'd been thinking was Thayer's Gull. Having heard me say that, Tina gently but firmly informed me that those grey-and-white wings belonged not to the Thayer's, but the much more common Glaucous-winged Gull (whose eyes are often dark, especially in young birds.) I faced this error without much emotion, as all it ultimately meant was that I'd traded one life bird for another. Still, I worried that I had not made the best first impression on a fellow birder.

Not that Tina mentioned the matter further. Instead, she drove us around to the southern side of the park so that we could follow the Loop Trail out to the point. This involved walking through woods and meadow, dodging the occasional bicycle, but mostly free to stop and look at anything that interested us. We spotted a few kinglets in the evergreens and soon located a few Savannah and White-crowned Sparrows out in the grass patches. In all honesty, however, I found it a bit hard to concentrate on the birding, what with the path's running close to the edge of a bluff standing several hundred feet above Elliot Bay.

DSC03137.JPGFrom the top, we could peer through Tina's scope and see just enough of distant birds to take reasonable guesses at their species. The Bald Eagle and Great Blue Herons were fairly easy IDs, but the flock of dark waterfowl gave us a long stretch of irritation, mostly due to their habit of paddling along in the light reflecting from the still-high sun. We were eventually confident enough to call them Brants, but I can't say it was a great look at them; more frustrating still, the only other time I'd seen a Brant was on my Cornell SFO trip to Cape May in 2011--and that look had been equally distant and unsatisfying.

Within a few yards, however, we reached the top of the trail leading down to the point, one which descended steeply through woodland and passed by occasional viewing platforms. The latter we used for periodic rest stops and searches for warblers; with a bit of pishing, we lured in several members of the extremely yellowy northwestern race of the Orange-crowned Warbler, and high in the canopy I spotted the telltale inverted black U on the chest of the Yellow-rumped Warbler--in this case the western "Audubon's" variant, with a yellow throat. Technically neither was a life bird, as I'd logged both species, but the varieties were new to me. 

After perhaps fifteen minutes of downward progress, Tina informed me that she was feeling a bit tuckered, what with having had an operation only a few weeks ago. I responded to the news with a) surprise, because even post-surgery she had been demonstrating an energy level decidedly higher than my own, and b) a suggestion that we didn't need to descend any lower, what with two more days of birding still ahead of us. She agreed, and we clambered back to the top of the bluff, where I was once again assaulted by scenery.

DSC03141.JPGWe were now nearly ten miles away from the BnB, but Mount Rainier had become no less imposing or any less spectacular than it had been from Columbia City.

Back at the car, Tina decided that wasting daylight simply wouldn't do, and she promptly took route 99 down through town so that we could cross the bridge into West Seattle. Rounding Duwamish Head, we then cut down to the shore south of Alki Point in hopes of logging some Black Turnstones. We didn't find any, but amongst all the beachcombers walking along the shore, we were given a look at one familiar species in unusual plumage:

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The late-afternoon birding wasn't amounting to much, but the sightseeing was excellent, and I was treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I've ever gotten to watch. 

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At one point a Great Blue Heron flew in to make the sight almost ridiculous.

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And over it all Rainier still loomed, glowing rosily in the western light.

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As darkness fell, Tina loaded me back into the car, seeming perhaps just a it frustrated that I hadn't seen a life bird with her yet. By contrast, I was feeling more than satisfied by the afternoon's results, and after she took me to her house, where she and Bruce stuffed me full of lamb stew and beer and wine, I was even more content. Besides, we'd be out in the wilds of Washington in just a few hours. There was still plenty to see.


11:30 AM
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Kelly and I are both introverts by nature, but we are capable of adjusting our psyches to extroversion on a temporary basis. At parties, for example, one of us can often chat in a convivial manner for several hours before having to spend twenty minutes in an unoccupied room looking at the contents of our host's bookshelves. Still, a full weekend at a convention hotel full of fangirls can be a bit stressful, so a few days of relative quiet beforehand might be a good idea.

And for once, we'd planned things out to provide just that kind of quiet before Bitchin' Party got underway. By arriving in Seattle early on Sunday morning, we'd given ourselves time to get our circadian rhythms more or less in sync with our environment. We'd also gotten to spend a couple of days as a couple, doing a couple's vacation, and now we got to spend a few days in a slightly more social mode before the con began on Thursday: Jaspher and Q were in from Alabama.

Like us, they had found an Air BnB residence, but it was up the side of the next ridge west from our own. The steep up-and-down (plus, yeah, a little lingering jetlag) left Kel and me a bit worn out by the journey (despite the view of Mt. Rainier), and by the time the four of us hiked down to Columbia City for sushi at Wabi-Sabi, Q and Jaspher were similarly fatigued. Still, we had a great meal and agreed to meet at the train station on Wednesday morning for an adventure in the city.

Our first stop was Pike Place Market, partly so that the three fiber artists in the crew (i.e. everyone but me) could visit the local yarn store. Having finished my airport read (Andy Weir's engaging can-do SF debut, The Martian), I instead chose to duck into a bookstore and grabbed Douglas Brinkley's biography of Rosa Parks and Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X, figuring they'd keep me busy for a few days, at least. We also opted to make a quick stop at the rest rooms, which displayed a disturbingly urgent bit of mosaic artwork:

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I don't think anyone can view this scene on the wall without thinking "That baby is going to explode any second."

Once the yarn shopping and pit stopping was over, it was time to head down for the second of our City Pass adventures, a cruise of Elliott Bay along the city's shoreline.

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(L-R: Jaspher, Kelly, and Q)

Our vessel, the Spirit of Seattle, had about 200 people on board, so we probably shouldn't have been shocked when one of them overheard Kel and Q talking about fannish matters and turned around to ask, "Are you here for Bitchin' Party?" Sure enough, it was another fangirl, and while the newcomer and our three con-goers chatted, I was free to again marvel at the nature of Seattle's commitment to Scenery.

First, there were still the Olympic Mountains across the sound:

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But when you looked back at the city, you could see the equally Scenic snow-capped peaks of the Cascade Range:

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Nor was the harbor itself Scenery-free. I'll spare you the mediocre photo of the life bird I spotted on the water (my first Red-necked Grebe), but let's face it, no photographer can ignore a group of basking California sea lions:

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I was also somewhat fascinated by the Imperial Walker-like cranes that loomed over the harbor, not to mention the pleasant LEGO-style arrangement of cargo containers:

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I was also happy to get this pic of Q and Kelly cheerfully sailing the harbor:

DSC03077.JPGUpon our return to shore, we moved a couple of piers northward to the Seattle Aquarium (City Pass ticket #3), which was filled with a variety of delightful exhibits. Alas, neither of the Giant Pacific Octopuses was all that giant (both weighed in at about 30 pounds) or all that active, as the loosely piled heap of tentacles below demonstrates:

DSC03105.JPGWe did, however, get to watch sea otters, and Tufted Puffins, and various tropical fishes, and jellyfish as well:

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Eventually, however, the most welcome sight became this one:

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Yes, it's a bench. One carved in the shape of a sea otter, but a bench nonetheless. We were tired and footsore and ready to head back to our rooms for the night. Thursday would be the day when Kel, Q, and Jaspher would move to the hotel in Issaquah where the con would be held (starting on Friday, at least unofficially), and I'd be on my own. Tom and John had graciously extended my reservation through Sunday night, so I wouldn't have to pack up yet, but once Kel left, I'd be more or less on my own until my birding guide, Tina, met me on Friday morning.

Or so the original plan went. That night, Tina contacted me to ask if I was free Thursday afternoon, because there were some spots in a couple of municipal parks that offered really nice birding. They hadn't been part of our planned excursions to the desert (Friday) or the Oregon coast (Saturday), but she felt bad about not showing them to me. With Kel & the others heading off, I saw no reason to say no, so Tina agreed to pick me up at 5:00 the next afternoon.

Late the next morning, Q and Jaspher appeared at our door; their reservation ended at 11:00 a.m., so we figured our room would be the best place to leave everyone's luggage before they took the Uber to the hotel. That also gave us the chance to make one more walk through the neighborhood; we wanted to show Q and Jaspher the beauty of the Lake Washington area, and we wanted to have one last helping of home fries at Both Ways Cafe. The former was met with approval, particularly when we found this odd but attractive vertical moss garden:

DSC03129.JPGThe latter, however, met with outright enthusiasm as the four of us downed piles of home fries, as well as omelets and coffee and anything else we could fit into our gullets. We also got to document the proper way to avoid waking up a tired Jaspher by carefully not breathing on him:

DSC03127.JPGBut soon it was time to mosey back up the hill. I figured--correctly--that we would all relax or perhaps nap briefly, and then I'd bid adieu to the trio for a couple of days. What I didn't figure was what I'd be up to myself during those days, because there was no way--absolutely no way--that I could have foreseen the experience of birding with Tina.


12:01 PM
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Our first Monday in Seattle saw an unexpected development, one which the natives could not stop discussing, often in incredulous tones: the weather cleared up.

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It would stay this way for the rest of the week: sunny and pleasantly breezy, with temperatures in the mid-to-high sixties. Though I dutifully brought my waterproof jacket with me whenever we left the B&B, it remained almost entirely dry the whole time. Every Seattle resident we met made sure to inform us, often with no preamble, that this was a drastically atypical stretch of weather, one that shouldn't be happening, and one that might indeed presage some kind of disturbance in the cosmic order. We would nod politely and go about our business, confident that we had the toughness to manage a week of sunny skies.

One tool we took immediate advantage of was the light rail system, which extends roughly from the SeaTac airport to the U. of Washington in the city. The nearest stop was about a mile from our lodgings, which wasn't a terrible distance, but the change in elevation was significant; Tom & John live on the slope above Lake Washington, so we had to go over the ridge and down into the valley to get our train. Still, once we hopped on, we got downtown with little difficulty (for $2.50 per ride, or $5.00 for a day pass) to go to our first tourist attraction: Underground Seattle.

(I should note that the US tour is one of several local attractions linked by the City Pass. If you buy the pass for $75, you get tickets to five city attractions for considerably less than the fees at all five. Kelly would end up making it to four of them, while I got to three, but we still saved on the package deal.)

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Underground Seattle is a fascinating and somewhat improbable walk through the cellars and passages under the downtown area--passages that were originally at ground level. They did not sink, however; as we learned from our cheery and garrulous guide, the entire city was rebuilt after the devastating 1889 fire, and the city fathers demanded that it be built one level higher than the original city. One reason: the low elevation had often left the town's residents dealing with explosive reverse sewage flow. The result was a higher, dryer, and safer city, but the only visible sign of the earlier passages are the glass bricks in certain sections of sidewalk. In the 1960s, however, one city father helped bring attention to the city's crumbling downtown (including the original Skid Row) by exploring and opening up the old city below. Though it's not for claustrophobes or people who hate stairs, we quite enjoyed our tour, despite the alarming presence of what appeared to be a Dalek in the gift shop:

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Emerging into the sunlight once again, we discovered an important truth about Seattle's location: the scenery is not just scenic, but Scenic. Nakedly, aggressively, even laughably Scenic. The harbor, for example, would be lovely under any circumstances, but just to take it up to another notch, someone decided to put snowy mountain peaks next to it.

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Perhaps when the weather is misty and grey, this degree of Scenic is not so apparent, but we were unable to stop commenting on it for the rest of the week: "REALLY, Seattle? You went THIS far?" We made our way up to Pike Place market, where fish are slung and tourists are trapped and foodstuffs of all sorts are vended--doughnut holes, dried fruit, fresh fruit, deli meats, you name it. Even a cube of frozen octopus and an entire monkfish on ice.

DSC03024.JPGThis rather macabre encounter with seafood was a surprisingly good warmup for our next appointment, which involved dinner with the incandescently talented Abby Howard. Abby is one of the many members of the Macknee clan, with whom the Cashwells have had an extended family friendship lasting nearly half a century. Her grandparents, Hank and Ermie, are among the most wonderful people on earth, and their kids (and eventually grandkids) have been part of our social circle since I was in fourth grade. Abby's uncle Gilly was one of my closest companions in high school and early adulthood, serving as a groomsman at my wedding, while her mother, Salem, remains one of my go-to friends on Facebook (for all that we haven't seen each other in years.) A few years back, Abby started a webcomic called Junior Scientist Power Hour, a sometimes-autobiographical weekly feature that showed her wonderfully dark, twisted sense of humor, as well as her fascination with extinction, biology, and Tom Hanks. JSPH helped her get a spot in the cast of Strip Search, a web TV series in which cartoonists competed for the sponsorship of the hugely successful Penny Arcade comic. I won't spoil the series for you, but I'll just say that Abby's relentlessly creative work and her take-no-shit attitude quickly made her a favorite among the viewers, and after the show ended she was able to leverage her fame to launch a Kickstarter campaign to support her new comic, The Last Halloween. In fact, the campaign was so successful that she opted to drop out of her college paleontology program and move to Seattle to cartoon full time. Though we hadn't seen her since her grandparents' 50th anniversary celebration, we knew we had to look her up while we were in town, if only so that we could bring her the one thing she couldn't find in the Pacific Northwest: grits.

We dined at a Vietnamese fusion restaurant called Long and had a delicious meal, after which she gave us the hardback copy of the new JSPH collection we'd ordered from her (and once it becomes available online, I'll let you know) and snapped the selfie above. We then bid Abby adieu, took the train back to Columbia City, clambered slowly up the hill, and slept. And when the next morning dawned, clear and gorgeous, we were able to appreciate the Scenery anew. For example, the horizon was clear enough that we could see a pure white child's-drawing-of-a-mountain at the north end of Lake Washington. I was delighted and demanded Kelly take a picture of me pointing at the legendary Mount Rainier:

DSC03036.JPGAs you more sophisticated geographers will know, I was confused. What I was actually pointing at was Mount Baker, which lies about 90 miles north of where I was standing. We couldn't see Mount Rainier from the lakeshore where we stood. We could, however, see the often downright Seussian foliage growing throughout the neighborhood:

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We continued on our way, stopping at Both Ways Cafe so that Kelly could order a Northwest Scramble of her very own, and I showed her the site of Monday's eagle attack. From there we headed southward down the shore, pausing for an occasional photo:

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And then, as we came around a point of land and got a clear look southward, I realized the nature of my error. Not only had I been mistaken about where Mount Rainier lies--not quite 60 miles to the southeast of Seattle--I was completely unaware of how very, very visible it becomes on those occasions where it becomes visible at all:

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Wikipedia claims Rainier is "the most topographically prominent mountain in the contiguous United States," and I for one am not about to dispute the point. At 14,411 feet, it is by far the highest mountain I have seen with my own eyes, and it would remain in my view for most of the next week. Our path for the time being, however, would take us back to the B&B to await the arrival of our traveling companions: Jaspher and Q would be arriving any time.


7:04 PM
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In a perfect world, this journal would have been updated daily, even hourly, while I went through a whirlwind of a week of travel, socializing, and intense birding, but the combination of a) whirlwind and b) recovery from whirlwind left matters undone until now. Still, the basics should be easy to get across: on the evening of Saturday, March 26th, Kelly and I flew to Seattle for a week (roughly) so that she could attend the Pacific Writers' Convention (a/k/a PacifiCon, but far more widely known as Bitchin' Party) and I could check off a state or two for my ongoing Fifty-Fifty project.

We arrived at SeaTac's airport at roughly 1:30 a.m. (4:30 a.m. according to our bodies), so there was every reason for me to assume that I was hallucinating the loudly beeping airport cart that whizzed by me carrying Iggy Pop, but it turned out he was actually doing a show in the area that weekend, so I must assume it was reality. Nonetheless, it was clear that we were in no shape to negotiate the light-rail system, so we took a cab to our Air BnB lodgings, punched the key combination on the door, and collapsed without taking much time to look the place over.

After sleeping in, however, we discovered that our hosts' Columbia City home offered not only a lovely basement apartment for their guests, but a full-sized Airstream trailer in the driveway (which IS available for lodgers who request it) and a view of Lake Washington, the freshwater lake just over the hills from Puget Sound.

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Sunday's weather was moist and grey, but the rain was fairly light--and we would eventually be shocked when it turned out to be the ONLY rain we encountered during our visit. We wandered the hills of the neighborhood, marveling at the beautiful gardens, many of them built on rock walls, and the mossiness of nearly everything. We also gazed longingly at the numerous attractive houses, many painted a shade of dark blue we'd rarely seen elsewhere. In fact, the house at right above is a lighter blue than most of those we observed. Architecture varied from bungalows to modernistic boxes, such as this blue beauty down by the lakeshore:

DSC02971.JPGA few bits of whimsy popped up, such as the house that looked like a steamboat:

DSC03049.JPGOur main purpose, however, was finding breakfast, which we did at the place our hosts had recommended, Both Ways Cafe, where I tried the amazing Northwest Scramble (eggs, salmon, cream cheese, spinach, scallions) and enjoyed a terrific biscuit and what may have been the best home fries I've ever eaten. (One of the secret ingredients: smoked paprika.)

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Our hosts, Tom and John (seen above with their dog, Buster), invited us to have dinner with them that evening, and we devoured a lavish feast of roasted vegetables, penne with meatballs, and something called a mazurka, which as far as I knew was a dance. What John served up, however, was a firm tart, almost a cross between shortbread and seed-cake, with a vein of raspberry jam running through it and a top layer of seeds and nuts. I wouldn't have ordered anything of the sort in a restaurant, but I'm deeply glad my sense of duty to my hosts drove me to try it--delicious. It also turned out, in accord with my mother's Rule of 400 People, that Tom had attended a writers' workshop at Bennington where one of his instructors was Max Steele, who had chaired UNC's Creative Writing program during Kelly's and my college years.

(Mom's Rule of 400 People: there are only 400 people in the world. The rest are just hired extras.)

Kelly slept in Monday morning, which allowed me to wander the lake's edge in search of birds. The life bird I'd seen the day before and logged as a Thayer's Gull was back (though later research revealed it to be the far more common Glaucous-winged Gull, my first official lifer in the Evergreen State), but I was also interested in the small gull with the clean yellow bill and greenish-yellow legs--my first look at a Mew Gull. Genesee Park, just below our lodgings, gave me another lifer, the mouse-brown Bewick's Wren, as well as a brief glimpse of a pale eye on a strangely shaped dun-and-grey bird I was pretty sure I'd seen once in California: the Wrentit. (This last remains in some dispute, as the Wrentit has never been reported north of Oregon, but I sure haven't come up with a better candidate.)

The day's big event, however, was watching several Bald Eagles, one adult and a couple of immatures, who were chasing a gull over the lake. (Below you can see the adult at right, the dark juvenile at left, and the pale gull between them.) I'd watched a lot of Balds over the years and had developed a sense that they are generally fairly lazy birds. They're big and powerful, sure, but primarily fish-eaters, so I felt pretty certain this gull was carrying a fish that they coveted, and the two of them seemed to be actively herding the gull, as though trying to get it to drop its prey. 

DSC02976.JPGLet's just say my certainty was misplaced.

A few moments after I snapped the above photo, the adult eagle hit the gull, punching it off course. I waited to see the splash below as the gull dropped the fish, but suddenly the eagle dove in again, and I realized it wasn't after a fish. There was no fish.

The eagle seized the tiny gull in its talons like a toy, and in an instant it was flapping toward shore, almost directly over my head. It landed in a tree just across the road and began tearing into its prey, loudly calling out its triumph.

DSC02984.JPGThe fierce scream you usually hear when a Bald Eagle appears on TV or in a movie is a lie; sound effects departments almost always substitute the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk. because the  high, chattering, almost giggling call that Balds make in these circumstances is, um, not quite a match for the murderous sort of events to which I was a witness that morning.

I stood there for perhaps twenty minutes, snapping pictures as the eagle tore into the gull's corpse, completely ripping away one wing and sending a shower of feathers to the ground below. American Crows, Steller's Jays, a few juvenile eagles and even another adult all gathered around the tree, hoping to grab scraps, but the big Bald was having none of it. Eventually I headed back up the lakeshore and up the hill to meet Kelly. We had brunch to eat and a trip into Seattle to make. We had to travel the dingy tunnels of the city, explore the dark history of its origins, and meet a cartoonist for dinner.


9:59 AM
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Bullshit: A Brief History


A little over a decade ago, I read a slim little volume called On Bullshit, in which philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt examined the phenomenon of bullshit and its role in our modern discourse. While it remains one of the most enjoyable and helpful intellectual efforts I've ever come across, at the time, I was primarily happy because it helped me to comprehend certain aspects of American politics that had been frustrating me; I knew, for example, that there was a difference between "I did not have sex with that woman" and "Mission Accomplished," but until I read Frankfurt's book, I couldn't quite put my finger on it.

The short version is that while both lies and bullshit are types of falsehood, they proceed from different assumptions about the truth. A lie is intended to obscure the truth--indeed, to replace it. Because it must withstand at least minimal scrutiny, a lie must be made to fit into the framework of the truth as well as possible; if a liar does not consider the truth when he is crafting his lie, he runs the risk of having his lie become visible, and that will defeat his purpose. In other words, the liar works to keep the truth hidden because he fears and respects the truth's power.

"I did not have sex with that woman" is a lie--a carefully constructed one, hewing as close to the truth as possible. Bill Clinton hoped to persuade people that he had done nothing untoward with Monica Lewinsky; knowing that his audience of Republicans would scrutinize his claim, and worried that his political fortunes would be damaged by the truth, he created a false statement. (Granted, you could consider it truthful if you define "have sex" specifically as penile-vaginal intercourse, but you can't count on even the most puritan Republicans to assume there are no other sexual acts, as the 2007 arrest of Senator Larry "Wide Stance" Craig proved.) Clearly, this lie was intended to prevent those who heard it from looking any further for the truth, and it was created by someone with a real concern for that truth, in the sense that he desperately wanted it to remain concealed.

By contrast, Frankfurt argues, bullshit does not have to be concerned with the truth, because the bullshitter has no respect for and often no regard for it. A bullshitter is not out to conceal the truth because he simply doesn't care about it. He doesn't even have to know the truth. He will say whatever is most convenient, not concerning himself with the scrutiny of his audience, because he believes the immediate benefits of saying it will outweigh any potential negative consequences if his falsehood is uncovered. And if what he says turns out to be true, well, that's okay, too.

"Mission Accomplished" is bullshit. When George W. Bush's administration put that banner on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in May of 2003, they knew the mission--the Iraq War--was far from finished. Though his government had been overthrown, Saddam Hussein was still at large and would not be captured until December. Post-invasion military occupation had been given almost no careful consideration, and it would be nearly two years before an Iraqi election could be held. American military personnel would remain in Iraq until well after Bush left office, with the majority of casualties among them taking place after the raising of the banner proclaiming the end of their mission.

This claim, however, is not intended to bear even the slightest scrutiny. As observers knew perfectly well, the banner was raised with US troops still fighting and dying in Iraq, with the long-term fate of the region still very much in flux; even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saw the phrase "mission accomplished" as "too conclusive," and took care to remove the phrase from his advance copy of Bush's speech, though the banner was still created and raised by White House personnel. In other words, "Mission Accomplished" wasn't intended to replace the truth, but to ignore it. The banner was a convenient fiction created to give Bush a political boost, and for purposes of creating a macho image, making a jet landing on an aircraft carrier to proclaim decisive victory over a tyrant is a pretty good visual. And given that the long-term consequences of the falsehood were minimal--Bush did sweep to re-election a year later, after all--the deployment of bullshit seems in this situation to have been a safe call.

There is, mind you, a certain degree of cooperation required when bullshit is used. It's a matter of definition that the bullshitter need not care about the truth, but bullshit creates no advantage when the audience does care. A sufficiently motivated audience will quickly uncover the lack of truth in the individual's statement, and their judgment may be harsh. 

If, however, the audience regards the truth with the same kind of apathy shown by the bullshitter, then bullshit carries the day. It will be used whenever the bullshitter feels the urge, since he knows that his audience has no interest in critically examining the bullshit he's serving up. And if the bullshitter is telling the audience what they want to hear, their interest in critical examination becomes even weaker.

Thus, one long-term consequence of the Bush administration's penchant for bullshit is that his supporters on the right were encouraged to disregard the truth about him. And their increased comfort with disregarding the truth has had some major impact during the Obama administration. Despite all factual evidence to the contrary--that the economy has improved markedly since 2008, with unemployment falling to 4% in my home state of Virginia, that health insurance is now extended to millions of people who didn't have it before, that the auto industry has been saved from the brink of disaster, that fewer American soldiers are dying in the Middle East thanks to a lie about WMDs--a startling number of people believe that our nation has been "destroyed." 

Obama's opponents have been so willing to hurl bullshit at him, with birtherism being the most notorious example, that they're not merely uninterested in the truth, but are actually hostile to it. The truth about Obama--that he's a pragmatic, moderately left-of-center technocrat with a definite willingness to cooperate with corporate interests--is not merely ignored by these people, but actively denied; he's not merely a Democrat, but an actual demon, working to bring down our nation, our faith, and our way of life, polluting our precious bodily fluids in the process.

And now there's Donald Trump.

Trump is a dedicated bullshitter. Even in the face of video evidence, he will flatly deny doing what millions of people just watched him doing. He doesn't care whether the falsehood is exposed or not. In much the same way, he doesn't care whether there's any actual way to do what he promises--to get Mexico to pay for a wall along its northern border, for example. He is a panderer par excellence, giving comfort those whose desire to deny the truth is now in conflict with the undeniable realities of the 21st century: that they are not the beneficiaries of the policies they have long supported; that they are no longer the arbiters of what America is; that those whose voices they have long ignored are speaking more clearly every day. 

This then, is the result of steady erosion: when the truth's power has been disregarded for so long, people no longer see any value in it. These folks are angry, and they're fearful, and the last thing they want to hear is the truth. 

What they want is bullshit, warm, fragrant, and plentiful. And Donald Trump is just the guy to give it to them.


8:21 AM
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Earlier today I read a very strange list with a rather obvious title: The Forty Best Books to Read Before You Die. (I mean, it's not like you'll be reading a lot of them afterwards...) It was odd in that it included 15 books I'd read, and that it included obvious classics (Gatsby, Catch-22), children's books (Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows), Edith Wharton, and Cormac McCarthy's The Road, not to mention multiple Tolkien books including The Silmarillion, which not even all Tolkien fans would list.

Nonetheless, I rather admired the listmaker's obvious disdain for following convention and listing personal favorites, and with that, here: 28 Books I Like That I Think You Might Also Like, In No Particular Order:


The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards
A beautifully told of a life on one of the Channel Islands. Rich, true, and not as simple as you might think.

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
Sprawling, gorgeous, rapturous prose of a New York that never was and you wish had been.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White
Arthur, Merlyn, Lancelot, and their companions get as medieval as you could ever want.

Cane by Jean Toomer
It's poetry, it's prose, it's red clay and pine smoke and evening shade and like nothing else.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
Seven interlocked stories in a perfectly captured teenage life in early-80s England. Remarkable.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
Essays from a great thinker and a marvelous engineer of the English language.

The Lecturer's Tale by James Hynes
Bold, hilarious, metafictional, and innovative satire of academia, with the best explanation of privilege I know.

Being Dead by Jim Crace
Audacious, brilliantly structured, and oddly sentimental while at the same time unflinching. 

Possession by A.S. Byatt
Two Victorian poets, two modern researchers, romance, libraries, and all good things.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
A memoir of gowing up and learning her dad was gay. As good as the graphic novel form has yet produced.

Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins
My introduction to our former Poet Laureate: whimsical, droll, and observant takes on life and language.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett
A hilarious and improbable version of the coming of the Antichrist and its ludicrous results.

The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen
Ideas about biology, geography, and indeed biography are spun like a kaleidoscope by my favorite science writer.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Richly drawn, psychologically sophisticated characters in a perfectly depicted milieu.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
A science-fiction apocalypse that's not quite apocalyptic and far too close to home.

Promethea by Alan Moore & J.H. Williams III
A comics series of magic, superheroes, and imagination galore structured as a grand fugue of pop culture.

Very Far Away from Anywhere Else by Ursula K. Le Guin
For all the teenaged nerds who finally met someone else with equal fervor and awkardness. A gem.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The best, funniest, most horrifying, most illuminating way for a young reader to grow up suddenly.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The modern African-American experience delivered by a father who won't stop looking at reality.

Kraken by China Mieville
A dark and unsettling urban fantasy of museums, ink, and the battle for occult dominance of London.

The Jack Tales by Richard Chase
Appalachian folk stories collected in a book that deserves to be read aloud to everyone.

Godel Escher Bach by Douglas Hofstadter
A playful, unique, and near-bottomless musing on recursion, beauty, humor, and number theory.

Watership Down by Richard Adams
Possibly the greatest adventure story ever told, and it's about rabbits. Go figure.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
Poetry, metafiction, and a narrator whose unreliability passes into the realm of Baron Munchausen. Astonishing.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson
A slow buildup of monasticism and science fiction that hits like a ton of lead and sends you where you didn't expect.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Prose like baklava, too sweet and rich and layered to devour quickly, but oh so delicious.

Microserfs by Douglas Coupland
A book that reads like the internet, piecemeal yet enormous, with a human center that won't be ignored.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Well, yeah. I'm not gonna leave this one out.


8:36 PM
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Back to the Forest


We had an interesting weekend: nearly eight months after our move to Richmond, Kelly made her first return trip to Woodberry. (I had made a brief visit in early September to finish up a bit of business.) The main reason for our trip was to see a Black Box production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, one which featured our cousin, but we also wanted to see a few familiar faces and places. (I also wanted to be able to tell everyone about Kelly's recent promotion/raise, but she's probably too modest to mention that.)

Not all the places were all that familiar. For example, the new math building was finally open. Having watched it go up during the 2014-15 era (and having watched its predecessor, the Gray Science/Math Building, go down in destruction before that) it was nice to get to see it being used by the students at last. 

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Classrooms, offices, and a shiny new lecture hall lie behind those columns, as does this decidedly more-Mad-Men-style-than-classical-architecture lobby. (Note also the mathematical relationship between the various wall panels and the window panes:

DSC02946.JPGThe building's main purpose, however, is in its basement, where the new Terry Dining Hall lies. We took two meals there, a relaxed Saturday night dinner of steak and mashed potatoes, plus plentiful choices in the salad bar area and even a permanent panini station. The layout is new, but the carpet remains just as, um, busy as that of the old Reynolds family dining hall, wherein I and my family consumed several thousand meals in our twenty-year tenure. 

DSC02944.JPGOne nice feature is the view. The building overlooks the Rapidan River valley, and from the third-floor lounge, one can look across to the hill where Grelen Farm lies. The first four years of our lives at WFS were spent living in the farm manager's house at Grelen--WFS rented the place for us--and though the current owners have made the property largely inaccessible today, it's nice to get even a glimpse of the big house there.

DSC02947.JPGThe lounge also features this painting, a rather startlingly colorful depiction of the Residence, the old yellow farmhouse that once housed the whole school and now houses the Headmaster and his family. In the eerie light of the canvas, the shadows look rather like tentacles, the window over the porch looks ominously like a singular eye, and the whole scene is filled with portent. Frankly, it's a bit more Lovecraftian than the typical landscape painter's take on the place. That makes it much more interesting, albeit much more unsettling.

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Our hosts were our pals and former next-door neighbors Greg and Shari Jacobs, who let us play with their dogs, eat their macaroni and cheese, and watch the Super Bowl on their big-screen TV. For Greg and me, it was a chance to get back to the many hours we've spent yelling at football players who can't hear us, but for the rest of the crew, it was more of a chance to watch us, and to enjoy the various anthems and entertainments presdented when the game wasn't being played. (I won't go into detail on that, except to say that I wish people were half as upset about Flint, Michigan's drinking water as they appear to be about the black berets worn by Beyonce's backup dancers.) All in all, Kelly and I had a lovely time, even if her commitment to the gridiron action is best expressed by the hoodie she's wearing in this pic with Greg:

DSC02955.JPG(For those having trouble reading the fine print: "GO SPORTS! I'M SUPER WORKED-UP BECAUSE MY TEAM DID STUFF! MOVE THE THING TO THE OTHER THING!")

Thanks for having us, WoFo. See you again soon.


5:07 PM
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Winter, Discontent, etc.


It's been a busy few weeks. 

First, Kelly celebrated the first anniversary at her new job by accepting a promotion to Acting Assistant Branch Manager, with a shot at taking the position permanently. (Getting her second raise of the year in the process was not an unwelcome development.) Basically, when her regional manager describes her as a "rock star" at work, the label seems pretty accurate.

I went through the time-consuming but necessary process of tallying grades and writing comments for all my students. This is in no way a new experience, but I do have to say Seven Hills makes the process easier in at least one way: instead of having all comments due on the same day, the deadlines are spread out: grades for Bridge (our version of 5th grade) and 8th grade students are due on Friday; 6th graders' are due on the following Monday, and those for the 7th grade come due on Wednesday. This gives both the teachers writing them and the administrators reading over them a much more reasonable opportunity to finish the comments in a timely manner.

My sixth-grade US History students have, for some reason, developed a fascination with the saga of the Malheur NWR occupiers, greeting me at the start of every class with, "What's up with Vanilla ISIS?" Part of this, I recognize, is the universal desire among students to talk about anything other than the actual lesson. At the same time, they seem genuinely interested in some of the issues being raised, possibly because we're after all studying the American Revolution, and ideas about what the government can and cannot do are kind of important in our discussions. Mostly, though, they're happy to learn more terms for disparaging the Bundy gang. "Vanilla ISIS" is far and away their favorite, but a few enjoyed "Wal-Martyr" as well. A recent reference to one of the remaining four occupiers as "Gunhaver" provoked some puzzlement, at least until I showed them the relevant video of the Cheat Commandos from HomestarRunner.com. Now they're walking around campus singing "BUY ALL OUR PLAYSETS AND TOYS!" so I can feel that my attempts at making them culturally informed are being successful

They're also starting to spout off occasional opinions about the presidential election, which, given the fact that most of them are 11 or 12 years old, don't have the benefit of broad experience or deep historical foundation. Still, given our nation's current level of political discourse, they're probably about as well-qualified to analyze the candidates' behavior as anyone. I myself have settled comfortably into a position where I don't feel the slightest concern about deciding who to vote for, which is frankly a little surprising.

My various political posts over the years have probably left little doubt that I am a firmly left-of-center kind of guy, and in an election where there are multiple left-of-center candidate, you'd probably think that I'd be thoroughly worked up about which one is deserving of my support. But in fact, the opposite has occurred, primarily because of the horrorshow that the modern Republican party has become.

Even if you ignore the damage done to our nation by the last Republican administration--and that's one hell of a thing to ignore--it's just about impossible to look at the seemingly dozens of GOP candidates without seeing them as a mob of unfocused reactionaries, raging against anything remotely outside their comfort zone. If you support the idea that maybe American Muslims are, y'know, Americans, with the same freedom of religion that belongs to Christians, you've got no place in the party; if you think perhaps police officers shouldn't be so quick to shoot unarmed black people, or god forbid openly claim that those people's lives actually matter, you've got no place in the party; and if you're of the opinion that providing preventive health care for millions of Americans might not be the greatest crime against our nation since slavery, you've got no place in the party (except maybe at one of Mitt Romney's parties.)

Consider, for example, that the three leading GOP candidates in this post-Iowa/pre-New Hampshire moment have all explicitly condemned the Supreme Court's decision on marriage equality. Donald Trump has complained that it should have been left to the states. Ted Cruz has proposed that Congress strip federal courts of jurisdiction over the issue, a plan that does at least have a certain creativity about it, whatever Antonin Scalia ends up saying when the dispute inevitably comes before him. And Marco Rubio has claimed that he will fill the Supreme Court with justices who will reconsider the issue and "interpret the Constitution as originally constructed," which should concern anyone who wouldn't have been allowed to vote or own property in 1789.

In short, I may have disagreements with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, just as I have had them with Barack Obama, but those disagreements pale when I compare them to the disagreements I have with even the most moderate GOP candidate. And when I consider what a Republican president, backed by a Republican Congress, could do to our country, I'm ready to vote for anyone who'll keep the White House unoccupied by anyone with an (R) next to his/her name. I don't know if Sanders or Clinton could actually fix all the problems facing the US (particularly with a Republican Congress), but I do know that those problems would multiply like Zika-bearing mosquitoes once Congress approves President Rubio's Supreme Court nominations: Cliven Bundy and Sarah Palin.

In short, feel free to argue for either HRC or Bernie to your heart's content I don't care. Maybe aspirin won't fix my headache; maybe acetaminophen would do the job better. But given that the other party supports either shooting up opium, sprinkling powdered black rhino horn in my tea, or sawing through my own neck, this November I'm gonna go with a little white pill.


11:43 AM
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Measurements


How much snow have we gotten so far?

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After adjusting your axes of measurement, that's just over the height of one large coffee cup from Crossroads. Call it 6+ inches on the Richmond scale.

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Updates as warranted.


12:42 PM
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