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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):

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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:

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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:

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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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The Center of the Universe


It's been a week of new experiences. On Tuesday, September 9th, the school year began here at Woodberry Forest School, and less than 36 hours later I was behind the wheel and heading south. That in itself wasn't a particularly new experience, but after spending the night at my parents' house in North Carolina, I got up on Thursday and drove through one of the relatively few parts of South Carolina I'd never seen. By 3:00 I was across the Savannah River and safely checked in at Statesboro's Holiday Inn, which provided a welcome, indeed necessary, place for me to shower. Why the necessity? Because the air conditioner in our Subaru was working only intermittently, and the weather in southwest SC had proven more than hot and humid enough to get me good and stinky.

Post-shower, I was happy to be picked up by my friend Debi, who gave me a brief tour of Georgia Southern's campus and then brought me to the Information Technology Building for the evening's festivities: a reading and talk by yours truly:

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(And no, I had not deliberately pandered to my audience by showing up in a dark blue shirt with yellow and white stripes. That was just serendipity--a word I would use more than once over the next few days.)

The reading went well, though I was unable to control my educator's instincts and spent part of the time drawing a diagram of the "ring species" phenomenon on the white board. I also signed a lot of books and shook a lot of hands. The crowd was a mix of GSU creative writing faculty and students, and after I finished, a few of the former took Debi and me across town for Thai food and lively conversation. As enjoyable as the evening had been, I was somewhat relieved to reach my hotel room, where for perhaps the second or third time in my life, I felt so tired that I actually turned off the lights without reading. And no, I didn't set an alarm.

The next day had very little on its schedule, so I took a leisurely breakfast at a nearby Panera, where I indulged in all the carbohydrates I'd denied myself all summer. Bloated by bagels and cream cheese, I decided to revisit one spot Debi had shown me the night before, the Georgia Southern Botanical Garden, which had been one of her daughter Brittany's favorite spots on campus.

DSC02210.JPGOnce a working farm on the outskirts of town, the gardens were now a mixture of forest, flower beds, and lawn, with several historic and renovated barns and other structures suitable for weddings and other functions.

DSC02218.JPGDSC02227.JPGI had logged the year's first Great Crested Flycatcher there the night before, and another turned up for me on Friday, along with an active and easily visible pair of Red-eyed Vireos, a sizable flock of Robins, and a few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. The trees, shrubs, and flowers were varied and plentiful, and I greatly enjoyed looks at everything from peppers to pitcher plants to pinecones--big ones.

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DSC02219.JPGI also spent a bit of time wandering the downtown area, where I discovered two important things: first, a comic book shop, whose stock was impressively large and varied, almost as much so as its mascot's costume:

DSC02236.JPGAnd second, I discovered the center of the universe: where Main Street intersects with Main Street:

DSC02242.JPGAfter dinner with Debi at Chops--a verrrry nice helping of shrimp and grits--I went back to the IT building--sans camera, alas--for the main event of my trip: the presentation of the 2014 Brittany "Ally" Harbuck Memorial Scholarship in Creative Writing. I spoke a few words of introduction, but the bulk of the heavy work was done by Debi, who presented the scholarship and its accompanying basket of books to this year's winner, Sarah Fonseca, and by the nominated students, each of whom read a short piece of his/her own work. To say there was some talent on display is an understatement. I was delighted by the opportunity to meet with many of the readers after the presentation, discussing everything from coursework to pop music to graphic novels (Sarah seemed especially pleased at my fulsome praise for Alison Bechdel's Fun Home.), and I returned to my hotel with a feeling of general satisfaction--and a plan for Saturday.

The plan was nothing new. As I've done many times before, I set out to see a life bird in Georgia. More than any other place, the Peach State has been consistent in offering me opportunities to see birds, but only species that I've seen before. I've visited parks, beaches, and wildlife refuges all over its territory, and because I've had family living there most of my life, I've been able to spend time there for literally decades. This time, however, I had a specific bird in mind, and therefore a specific location: Sapelo Island, the only place outside of Texas where an American can log a Plain Chachalaca. Though the bird is common in Latin America, its range extends only slightly north of the Rio Grande--except on Sapelo, where it was introduced as a game bird some decades back, and where it has established a small breeding population. My hope, then, was to take the ferry to the island--there is no bridge--spend the morning hunting down a Chachalaca, and hit the road back to my parents' place once the ferry got back to the mainland just after lunch.

That's not quite how it worked out.

TO BE CONTINUED!


11:16 AM
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Georgia on My Mind


Yes, I'm thinking about the Peach State, where I'll be in only a few days. On Thursday night, September 11th, at 7:00, I'll be doing a reading of my work in Statesboro on the campus of Georgia Southern University. If you're in the neighborhood, by all means stop by.

On Friday, September 12th, at 3:00, I'll be back on the GSU campus for a reading by three terrific student writers, including Sarah Fonseca, the winner of the 2014 Brittany A. Harbuck Memorial Scholarship in Creative Writing, and the other two finalists for the scholarship.

These two events are linked, as yours truly was honored to serve as judge for this year's scholarship. Brittany (a/k/a "Ally") was a bright and talented young woman, a student at GSU and a budding writer, when her life was cut short by a traffic accident in 2005. Since that time, her mother, the gracious and absolutely indomitable Debi Carey Harbuck, has done her best to give other young writers the chance to share their talents with the world. It's a bittersweet occasion, to be sure, but I'm proud to have known Brittany and even prouder of her mom, and it's humbling to be asked to offer my words and my judgment in this cause.


10:55 PM
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Freedom of Information


In my last post, I asked, rhetorically, what a police department would do if it was not interested in shedding light on the truth about a police shooting.

It would probably do something like this.

The chief of police for the Ferguson Police Department misled members of the media and the public when he asserted that his hand was forced in releasing surveillance footage that purported to show 18-year-old resident Michael Brown engaged in a strong-arm robbery at a convenience store hours before he was fatally shot by a police officer.

Chief Thomas Jackson distributed copies of the surveillance tape at a press conference on Aug. 15 in tandem with the public release of the identity of the officer who was responsible for shooting Brown.

When questioned by members of the press about the tape -- which apparently had nothing to do with the fatal shooting of the unarmed teenager -- Jackson told reporters that he was legally obligated to release the tape because members of the media had submitted an open records requests for it.

"We've had this tape for a while, and we had to diligently review the information that was in the tape, determine if there was any other reason to keep it," Jackson said at the press event. "We got a lot of Freedom of Information requests for this tape, and at some point it was just determined we had to release it. We didn't have good cause, any other reason not to release it under FOI."

...However, a review of open records requests sent to the Ferguson Police Department found that no news organization, reporter or individual specifically sought the release of the surveillance tape before police distributed it on Aug. 15.

In short, the FPD released the videotape because it wanted to.

Why would I make that claim? Because other materials requested under FOI have not been been released, including recordings of 911 calls and tapes of police dispatchers. But primarily, I make it because Chief Jackson was not truthful; he was not forced to release that information at all.

The next question, of course, is why the FPD would want to release the one piece of information but not release any of the others.

And yes, that question is largely rhetorical.

Selectively releasing material that make the victim look bad while withholding information that might NOT make him look bad (or might possibly make Wilson or the FPD look bad) could be called a lot of things. "Transparency" is not one of them.


2:30 PM
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A Brief Story About Ferguson


I'm still a long way from gathering my scattered thoughts on Ferguson, MO, into anything coherent, and with faculty meetings beginning a little over an hour from now, I kinda doubt I'm going to get to it in the immediate future, but I think there's at least one thing I can say with confidence: what bothers me about Ferguson isn't so much the single incident of Michael Brown's shooting, but the police response TO that shooting. The Ferguson PD (and the assisting police from the St. Louis area and the greater Missouri area) has shown, often very pointedly, that it is in no way interested in determining the truth behind this shooting, let alone sharing that truth with the public.

No incident report was ever filed by the FPD about the shooting.

No witnesses were interviewed by the police.

When journalists arrived in Ferguson to cover the story, some were harassed, some were arrested, some were threatened WHILE CAMERAS WERE ROLLING and some were even targeted for tear-gassing.

Just those basic facts make it hard to trust that the FPD was trying to ensure that the truth came out. Add to them the marked contrast in the way the FPD dealt with the two main figures in the drama. There was nearly a week's delay in so much as mentioning the name of the officer involved in the shooting--Darren Wilson, who has been out of sight in an undisclosed location for nearly a month now--yet the FPD somehow found time to release a video (against the advice of the Justice Department) showing Michael Brown shoving a convenience store clerk, an incident that even the police have admitted had nothing to do with his being stopped by police on the fatal day.

You can make your own judgments about the paramilitary response to the protests, the reports of looting, the establishing of a no-fly zone over Ferguson by the FAA, and so on, but when we narrow the focus to the actual shooting incident, it becomes harder and harder to give the police the benefit of the doubt. Consider the two main possible narratives:

1) Could Michael Brown have been the dangerous, threatening thug that the Wilson supporters claim he was? Sure. But if that were the case, wouldn't a police force interested in shedding a light on the incident have done a bit of, y'know, police work? Wouldn't it have written up some reports? Questioned some people? Wouldn't it have encouraged journalists in to see the truth, or even invited them in and demonstrated how Officer Wilson had no choice but to fire on Brown?

2) Could Darren Wilson have fired shots in anger at an unarmed man? Sure. And if he had, what exactly would a police force interested in covering up the truth have done?

I have an uncomfortable feeling that the second police force would have done exactly what the FPD has done: keep information from the public whenever possible, unless it makes the shooting victim look bad, and work hard to keep journalists from digging up information on their own.

And if you're concerned that this police behavior is systemic, rather than limited to a single officer or even a single PD, some things are starting to come out about how politics tie into the way the police handled this incident--and indeed, how the police handle their jobs throughout Missouri. I can't vouch for all of the information provided by Shaun King in this series of Tweets, but I have to admit that it would explain a lot.

I just hope someone is digging deeper into the story. I don't like what I've seen so far--not one bit.

UPDATE: And only about fifteen hours after I made this post, I note that the Department of Justice apparently doesn't like what it's seen so far, either.


7:35 AM
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End of an Era


Legally, yes, the big number was 18, but I think in many ways the more important number is 21, if only because all the years of underage drinking finally end in a glorious revelation that the person drinking legally today has been drinking ALL ALONG.

In short, we have not been invited to Richmond for Dixon's 21st birthday celebration tonight. We'll visit him on Monday.

But as of midnight, he reaches the historical age of majority, and given his status as The Youngest Kid In His Class Since Always, I'm sure he's more than ready to join his fellow VCU seniors in their public enjoyment of spirits. It's a bright new day.

Still, it's also the end of an era for me and Kelly. Ian and Dixon will always be OUR children, but there's no longer any pretense that either is a child. Hasn't been for a while, really. But Kelly still felt compelled to text Dixon and inform him: "THIS IS YOUR LAST DAY AS A TINY CHILD."

Actually, that day passed long ago, but we're parents. We linger on those days in our memories. Even as my mother is visiting us right now, regarding me as the big hairy man I've been for decades, there are still images in her head of my childhood, images she recalls with a clarity I cannot match, and I'm comforted by the fact that someone else is keeping parts of my past intact when I cannot do the job myself. That's our entire purpose as parents: to do the thing that lies beyond our children's abilities, and to teach them to do it for themselves.

We remember that you needed us, and we sometimes like to remember being needed. But I think we also enjoy not being needed. And when you're old enough to make your own lives, we have the chance to make more of our own as well.

Happy birthday, Dixon. We won't forget.

Dixon Penguin.jpg



11:56 AM
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That Ferguson Post


I said I was going to try, once again, to get some thoughts about Ferguson, MO, into some kind of readable shape, and honestly, I had every intention of doing it.

But then Charles Pierce just posted a piece and now nothing I do looks adequate.

Read it, please. Remember it. And if I ever write something that approaches it for quality, please be kind enough to let me know.

"They left the body in the street."


4:00 PM
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Post Hoc


I keep telling myself I'm going to write a big post about the events in Ferguson, Missouri, which have occupied a huge part of my brain for the last week or two, but every time I start trying to say something that holds together, there's a new development that makes me newly enraged and incoherent, and I'm back to square one. Maybe next time.

To keep myself from wallowing in inchoate rage, luckily, I've had old friend Tony Plutonium helping me recall more pleasant days, thanks to his recent series of posts about Rhythm Alley, the Chapel Hill club that he and his bride, Jenny Slash, used to own. (The retrospective begins here in mid-1985 and continues on through August of 1986, when they sold the club.) I was actually working at the Alley before they bought it, serving as bouncer (yes, honest) and sometime bartender for Judy, who had bought the place from Dave Robert when he moved his own Cat's Cradle club from its location up the alley behind Mama Dip's (just across the alley from Tijuana Fats restaurant). Tony & Jenny were regulars at the Alley and at the C.H. club scene in general, so I knew them and was excited to have them take over the place when Judy bailed out.

By that time, I'd more or less quit working at the club except as a musician. My various bands had already played a number of shows there; Terminal Mouse performed first as an opening act for the Pressure Boys (October and New Year's Eve of '84) and later as a headliner. Though our guitarist, Ronnie "Buck" Parks, was a professional graphic artist, I took on a lot of the work making posters for our gigs--probably because it was my senior year at UNC and I was the only one in the band who didn't have a day job. And when Tony did his retrospective and casually asked whether I had any posters from those days... let's just say the answer was yes.

May 25 PC 001.jpgThe above is, obviously, a complete rip-off of the classic National Lampoon "Buy this magazine or we'll shoot this dog" cover, but it does demonstrate the general level of smart-ass whimsy that I brought to the job of publicizing Terminal Mouse and my other groups, such as the world's only Wall of Voodoo tribute band, Great Wall of Doo Doo. For that, I put on my cartoonist hat and devised the artwork below, which both showed the band members' aliases (though no one has ever actually called me "Spittoon" to my knowledge) and provided reasonably accurate caricatures of Bryon Settle, Dan Munger, Mike Beard, John Plymale, and me. I believe it was Mike who insisted on including "Hence" on the poster:

Sep 28 Wall 001.jpg
I made use of anything I could find as far as collage and lettering went, and any posters that I didn't put up might end up serving as raw materials for the next one. Sometimes I'd be inspired after making one poster and make another one for the same gig, as I did here for our show on Friday, September 13th, 1985:

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Sep 13 Jason Crop.jpg

As you might expect, that particular change reflected TM's creation of a new song, "Cows from Hell," which rapidly became our signature tune. It also led me to incorporate cows (and Hell) into our promotional materials wherever possible, even to the point where they may perhaps have obscured the overall point of the posters, which was to let the general public know about this particular musical act that was performing at this particular place on this particular date at this particular time and how much they would just LOVE for members of that public to drop what they were doing and come to the show, preferably bringing large sums of money to spend on food and beverages at the location where the band was performing. Here's probably the most egregious example of that, advertising one of our shows at Halby's, a delicatessen in Durham that probably didn't have much business trying to be a venue for live music:

Mar 14 Halby's 001.jpgAs things progressed, however, Terminal Mouse was starting to fall apart--I'm not sure we ever officially broke up--and I was heading off into such things as married life. Tony & Jenny had become good friends with both Kelly and me by then, so when we needed a place to throw a combined bachelor/bachelorette party, they graciously offered us the Alley, where we gathered on Thursday, July 10th, with a host of our friends, some of whom had brought instruments. The expected jam session never really materialized, largely because I got into the beer rather early and was unable to do much more than wander onstage, pick up my electric, and amble through a drunken version of Robyn Hitchcock's apocalyptic country anthem "Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus." From there it was off to Tijuana Fats, where Wes Naprstek and T Davis plied me with mezcal until I ate the worm, and then later to oblivion, and then eventually to the altar.

But that didn't mean I quit playing music, or making posters. Bryon and I assembled a music-and-sometimes-performance-art duo (called, creatively, either "Elmo & PC" or "PC & Elmo," depending on the day) that elevated eclecticism and indecision to art forms, and I like to think our posters accurately reflected our aesthetic principles. Also, I got to keep putting on my cartoonist hat, which I considered quite handsome:

July 5 Hardback 001.jpgI even managed to arrange a few solo shows, probably because Bryon was still playing with the Pressure Boys and actually bringing in audiences and maybe even making money, and those posters ended up becoming some of my favorites. My first solo show prompted me to provide a resume, for some reason, but at least it also inspired me to draw myself in an inflatable suit:

May 26 Hardback 001.jpg

And then there's this one, which I love almost purely because of the dog photo. I swiped it from (I believe) an issue of the Washington Post Magazine, and if I knew who the photographer was I would praise his name to the heavens, because it's just a fabulous picture.

June 27 Hardback 001.jpgSo, thanks to Tony, I'm in a considerably better mood now than I would have been otherwise. Perhaps soon I'll be able to offer a cogent critique of American society and its enduring legacy of racism, but for the moment, I think I'll just have to think calming thoughts. Maybe I'll imagine myself in a pasture. Oh, look. There are cows.


2:08 PM
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A Month of Somedays


If you keep saying, "I'll write a blog post... someday," you will eventually discover that an entire month has passed without a blog post. That month was filled with quite a bit of activity, mind you, but there's still no good reason for me to have spent such a long time not writing. I do go through cycles of what I call input and output, however, which may explain things to some degree. In an output cycle, I'm writing all kinds of stuff, here and in various online fora, and sometimes for print, in effect pouring my brain's contents out for whoever would like a cup of them; at some point, however, I'm running on empty and have to brew up another pot of brain java, so I take some time to fill my head with new stuff: books, articles, music, movies, travels, performances, experiences, etc. Basically, the early part of the summer was a heavy output phase, where I was working to sell the book, to contact people, to put stuff out, and by midsummer, it was time to put in a new filter and start brewing. And here we are.

So what have I been brewing? Well, there's been continued use of the Shenandoah National Park's offerings. Following my trips with Kelly & her mom and with Mary Stevens, I've used my annual pass to make three more forays into the SNP's territory. The first was a delightful, if physically challenging, hike from the Skyline Drive, near the top of the Blue Ridge, down to the bottom of White Oak Canyon. Kelly and I met Mary at the bottom parking lot, took her car to the Ridge, hiked 2400 feet down to our car, and drove back up to drop her off. This driving-intensive strategy allowed us to see all three of the canyon's big waterfalls, which was unexpected, as I'd seen only the Lower Falls and was under the mistaken impression that there were only two of them.

It was also by far the most painful hike I've taken in a long time. Long stretches of flat trails, or even up-and-down trails, can leave me a little sore all over, and a long uphill (like the return hike after viewing South River Falls) can leave me badly winded, but the WOC descent was the longest sustained downhill I've ever done, and its demands were made not so much on my cardiovascular system but on my joints and particularly on my calves. Basically, when you clamber down five miles of trail, you spend three hours with your toes pointing down and your calves contracted, and when you're done, it's hard to do so much as raise your toes off the ground. Our hike took place on Saturday the 19th, and it was Wednesday before Kelly and I were able to walk more or less normally. The bad news was that my camera battery died before we even got to the trailhead, though I did get this pic of Mary next to the biggest orange fungus we'd ever seen:

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A week later, having recharged my camera, I went back to the park with my brother to spend a Friday night at the Big Meadows campground. This was a chance for us both to get out of our routines and spend some time together alone, which we haven't been able to do in a very long time. Both of us have busy family lives and jobs that eat our brains and our calendars; though I at least get long breaks and Dave gets to work from home a great deal, it's rare that our schedules overlap well enough to make a get-together possible, and when they do, we almost always commit to a big family get-together of some sort. I honestly can't recall the last time he and I got to spend an extended period where it was just the two of us, but a few months back he decided we should make such a time and agreed to drive up if I arranged the camping logistics.

Big Meadows is one of three designated campsites in the park, with about 200 sites; each has a firepit, and there are communal dumpsters, water spigots, and toilets, as well as a small camp store with firewood, ice, laundry facilities and pay showers. (You can do backcountry camping in most other areas of the park, but there you're on your own, and you have to hike in.) We arrived with our coolers full of goodies at lunchtime on Friday and set up camp, which was still relatively uncrowded at that point.

DSC01999.JPGAs you can probably guess from the photo, we'd picked an absolutely spectacular day, sunny and clear, and thanks to the Blue Ridge's traditional ten-degree difference from the lowlands, it was only about 75 degrees at mid-day. From the campsite, we took the car a few miles down Skyline Drive to the head of the Rose River Trail, a loop that Kelly and I had taken a few summers back. The trip was four miles in total, but before we took the fire road back to the parking lot, we took a brief 0.2-mile spur trail to the bottom of the eighty-foot Dark Hollow Falls, which may be the prettiest fall I've yet seen in the park.

DSC02037 Crop.jpgWhat can I say? Cashwell men like grey.

A lengthy battle with the firepit ensued, ending with enough flame to cook some Hebrew Nationals, and we retired in the darkness, where the overwhelming understanding eventually came through that I desperately needed a thicker sleeping pad between me and the ground. I was up well before dawn, and when the light finally broke, it did so in perhaps the foggiest conditions I've seen since my days in Scotland. The titular Big Meadows were particularly thick with the stuff, and though we did log my FOY House Wren during our walk through them, the visuals were often almost silly:

DSC02047.JPGFrom there we headed back down to the flatter part of Virginia and split up so Dave could get back home in time for his son's swim meet, while I made preparations for my next trip: a day hike with Kelly's brother David and niece Sara, who arrived from Fayetteville, NC, on the following weekend. Thanks to my previous four visits to the park, I had a pretty good idea what would work for two visitors without hiking boots, and on Monday we returned to the friendly confines of the Limberlost Trail, where, naturally, I got them to pose with the same weird volcanic rock formation I'd noted on every previous hike:

DSC02082.JPGThe rock formation, however, is not the main element that every trip through the SNP shares. No, that element is dark and furry and carnivorous, because the SNP is the best place in the eastern U.S. to see a Black Bear in the wild. Before this summer I'd seen them in several locations--Old Rag Mountain, White Oak Canyon, and the trail near Matthews Arm campground--but this summer has been an ursine bonanza. Mary and I saw one from the car returning from our birding trip, and another appeared while Mary and Kelly and I were driving to our White Oak Canyon trailhead. David and Sara and I heard from other hikers that there was one the trail ahead of us, but though David thought he heard something snorting in the woods, we never saw anything... until we returned to the parking lot, where a woman was standing beside her car, calmly eating a banana dipped in peanut butter.

"There's a bear over there," she said, immediately making all of us wonder why the hell she was standing so close to a hundred-pound carnivore while basically offering it food.

DSC02085.JPGOnce the bear had wandered off, we grabbed a quick lunch at a less foggy Big Meadows--dining at the same picnic table where Mary and I had eaten on our birding trip weeks before--and returned home to rest up for the next day's trip to a more urban setting: Richmond.

Neither David nor Sara had ever been to the 'Mond, so we planned a big day: shopping in Carytown, meeting Dixon for lunch at Burger Bach (where David, bewildered by the voluminous list of microbrews, asked the waitress for "an American beer"), a trip to the Fan Tastic Thrift Store (where Sara bought a Santa's sack full of stuff and Dixon found a few items you can see below), and a visit to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where an old friend of Sara's was working. Thanks to having an insider there, we were able to go behind the scenes in the museum library (where Kelly had to bite her lip to prevent herself from properly organizing the as-yet-unfiled documents) and get a look at some special materials, including a stunning collection of insect prints by E.A. Seguy.

DSC02117.JPGEventually we ended up at the VCU Chili's to meet with Ian and our other RVA-based relative, Kelly's/David's niece Memory, which led to this photographic family portrait:

DSC02121.JPGMemory led us to a restaurant in a north Richmond neighborhood we hadn't visited before, a lively (if a tad noisy) joint called Dot's Back Inn, which served us a variety of delicious foodstuffs and capped off the family reunion well.

Not that we were QUITE done with the input phase. There was still our congratulatory dinner with Anna Grey Hogan, Woodberry Class of 2014, who goes off to pursue a theater degree at VCU in less than a week. As a surprise, we brought along her buddy Dixon, who posed with her outside Thai Culpeper in the shirt and shoes he had purchased at Fan Tastic:

DSC02141.JPGAnd then it was time for Kelly and me to pack up for the big event of the summer: the Pressure Boys reunion show in Chapel Hill. On Friday and Saturday the 8th and 9th of August, the P-Boys headlined a two-night benefit gala for the Be Loud! Sophie Foundation, which of course involved nearly every human being we knew from Chapel Hill. To no one's surprise, they were great, even if we didn't pogo as furiously throughout the show as we might have in 1987; to the surprise of most of us, however, they wrapped up the final encore not with a furious ska-punk send-off, but with a soft four-part vocal performance using only Jack Campbell's bass and Rob Ladd's tiny hand drum to accompany their voices. Mind you, I knew what the song had to be once I saw them gathering with Bryon Settle and John Plymale to sing, and sure enough, I was right: the last track from the Specials' debut album, "You're Wondering Now." And when Je Widenhouse stepped up to deliver a beautiful trumpet solo, I knew the night and the month of whirlwinding from trail to home to city to home to club was over.

DSC02161.JPGAnd maybe, just maybe, it's time to start pouring cups again.

At least until New Year's Eve.

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10:59 AM
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By the Numbers


In case you're wondering, yes, getting a review in Slate does have an effect on a book's Amazon ranking. I'm still not quite at best-seller status, but there's no question that seeing your rank go up by an order of magnitude does make for a more chipper attitude. I also had a brief email exchange with Eleanor Davis, who created the artwork that accompanied the review, and she turns out to be incredibly cool and happy that I was so pleased by the art.

(If nothing else, working on this book has allowed me to meet three of the most talented and personable artists I've ever encountered: Ursula Vernon, Shawn Smith, and now Eleanor, whose upcoming book, How to Be Happy, should go on all your advanced-order lists now. Since I usually hang out with writers, educators, musicians, and theater folks, I feel lucky to have had such a run of exposure to people working in the visual arts.)

Today's big number, though, is 28.

Why? Because 28 years ago, on a remarkably hot and sticky day in Fayetteville, NC, I married Kelly Dalton, and thereby redeemed every stupid decision I have made or will ever make in the future.

One thing I've been doing this week, when I haven't been obsessing over my Amazon ranking, is scanning old photos, particularly those from our trip to Italy back in the spring of 2003. I think Kelly would join me in saying that our visit to Civita di Bagnoregio was one of the highlights of that trip, and this photo of the two of us sharing coffee in the garden at Antico Forno is one of my favorites.


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Happy anniversary, hon.




12:37 PM
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