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How I Met Ursula K. Le Guin

For years I harbored a fantasy, one that I did absolutely nothing to bring closer to coming true, that I would someday meet Ursula K. Le Guin.


Curiously, I do not know when or where this fantasy began. My brain's peculiarities are many, but one that I can count on is its powerful connection to place. I know where things are, and what direction they're in. In particular I remember where things happened. Just yesterday morning, wavering on the edge of a nap after a too-short night of sleep, I was overwhelmed by the memories of a location I knew well: the corner of our family room, downstairs in our house on Sugarberry Road. When they were building it, they accidentally put the hole for the doorknob on the wrong side of a door, and when they replaced it, the first door was simply left downstairs. My parents converted it into a desk by laying it across two low file cabinets. I clamped a fluorescent drawing lamp to its edge, ran the cord down the doorknob hole, and used it as my primary zone of creation for many years.

Lying in bed, I recalled the sensations that surrounded that desk: the dim light seeping in from the north-facing windows, with western light just barely winding through the trees along Battle Branch and ducking under the deck... the faintly amplified sounds of pencils moving across the hollow paneling that made the door's faces, and the splintery edges of the sides... the texture of the reddish shag carpet beneath my desk chair, and the smoother, more rubbery surface of the carpet in the back end of the room--better for wheeled toys and keeping LEGO structures stable. I remembered the weight and motion of the sliding glass door next to the desk, the extra second or two I had to hold down the On button of the lamp. All those details were there for me, half over the edge of sleep. 

We lived in that house from 1970 until 1976, from the summer after first grade to the summer after seventh, and at some point during that time, I came across a mention of Earthsea. It may have been during a viewing of a PBS show called Cover to Cover, during which host John Robbins would expose the audience to a children's book of some kind, using his skills as an artist to illustrate a scene while it was read aloud. Our fifth grade teacher, Ms. Fulton, would show us an episode roughly every week, and from it I learned about classics such as The Children of Green Knowe and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I have learned that Robbins did do a show about Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, but I have no memory of it. I don't know if I stumbled across the book in the Glenwood School Library, or if it turned up in the Chapel Hill Public Library during a visit one day, or if I didn't get around to picking it up until I had moved on to Grey Culbreth Junior High. It's even possible that I went straight for it at the Intimate Bookshop, drawn in by its beautiful grey-brown Pauline Ellison cover art, and bought my own copy.

I don't know where I read it, either. With many of the books I love, I know exactly where I was when reading (or at least starting or finishing them.) I know I first finished The Lord of the Rings in my brother's bed on Sugarberry. I read my first Doc Savage book in my grandparents' living room in Beaufort, SC. And I started Wuthering Heights in a slightly too-perfect way, on a dark winter evening, alone in a dormitory room in Manchester. But Earthsea somehow slipped into my mind without fanfare, occupying a space as though it had always been there. Perhaps it had.

But from the time I finished the first book, and the second, and the third, Ursula Le Guin was one of my favorite writers. And I'm not sure I could have told you why. With the other books I loved, their content seemed to be my own to play with. Even before I discovered fanfic or Dungeons & Dragons or fantasy football, I was creating my own adventures out of the pieces provided by other writers. On that old door downstairs, I learned to trace superheroes from my comics, and later to draw my own: Blackbird, and Bearcat, and Brother Earth. I started sketching my own fantasy characters like the Fellowship of the Rainbow, whose origins I hoped no one would identify, and created whole leagues of neighborhood sports teams, including my own Greenwood Hawkeyes basketball squad. Our colors were blue and orange, contrasting a bit with the blue and brown of our ostensible arch-rivals, the Glendale Beavers.

But Earthsea resisted this kind of looting. You couldn't really take a part of it out of the world where it already was. Sure, you could have dragons, or wizards, or dark elder gods, but they couldn't be THOSE dragons or wizards or dark elder gods. They were too organic, too well-woven into the fabric of the universe to be removed.


I re-read the Earthsea Trilogy, as it was then known, and as I grew older I slowly began to consume more Le Guin. I absorbed The Wind's Twelve Quarters, whose contents included the Earthsea story "The Word of Unbinding," a melancholy tale that would come to mind years later when I read Our Town, and the devastating "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," which is simply one of the best short stories ever told. And then in high school I discovered her 1976 novel Very Far Away from Anywhere Else, a novel about the kind of nerdish, uncertain, overintellectualizing loner that I was realizing myself to be, and about the challenges and comforts offered by that condition. If I am honest--and if there's one thing Le Guin always demanded, it was honesty--it may have been the most important story I ever read. It's not my favorite book; I pointedly do not HAVE a favorite book. But more than any other book, I think it was a bridge, guiding and carrying the person I was then to the person I am now.

Since then, I have read a lot of Le Guin: her stunning political parable, The Dispossessed, the sprawling Always Coming Home, the acclaimed The Left Hand of Darkness, the mind-blowing The Lathe of Heaven, the recent additions to the Earthsea Cycle, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, and The Other Wind, the whimsical Changing Planes, her version of the Tao Te Ching, and her final novel, Lavinia. And whenever I read, I thought about what I would tell her if I met her. It wasn't a crush--even if I hadn't known she was thirty-five years older than I, and married, this wasn't remotely romantic or sexual. I just wanted to hold the attention of that mind for a moment. Not long, not at all. A lunch, a cup of coffee. I'm not sure I would have even needed to say anything. I just wanted, for a moment, to be included in the tapestry of her perceptions.

But I did nothing. I didn't go to any SF conventions, or write her a letter, or travel to Portland. I didn't press upon my acquaintance with former Science Fiction Writers of America president Marta Randall for an introduction. I just read, and dreamed, and vaguely hoped. The fantasy became most intense in 2016 when I visited the Pacific Northwest for the first time. We were staying in Seattle, but my new birding pal, Tina, let herself be persuaded to take a day trip to the Oregon coast. We didn't go through Portland. We crossed the Columbia River at Longview, cut out to the coast, and took 101 down to Haystack Rock. It was a gorgeous, sunny spring day, and we were hoping the Tufted Puffins would be back on their nesting sites atop the rock. They were not, but I wasn't disappointed. Everywhere I looked, I could see bits of Earthsea, or the land of the Kesh, or Owen's lonely imagined island, Thorn. I recognized where I was. And I took pictures--the ones you see here. But we left Oregon that afternoon, and I didn't go back.

When Le Guin died on Tuesday, it was not a shock. She was 88 years old, and not in great health. I received the news with a deep breath, and a final confirmation that the fantasy I'd nurtured would remain a fantasy. But as I've spent the week working, and thinking, and trying to write, I've come to a realization about meeting her. Naturally, she herself penned the words that helped me come to this realization, the words the Archmage Ged spoke in the land of the dead about the long-deceased wizard Erreth-Akbe:

Did you not understand that he, even he, is but a shadow and a name? His death did not diminish life. Nor did it diminish him. He is there--there, not here! Here is nothing, dust and shadows. There, he is the earth and sunlight, the leaves of trees, the eagle's flight. He is alive. And all who ever died, live; they are reborn and have no end, nor will there ever be an end.
--The Farthest Shore

This is the story of how I met Ursula K. Le Guin. I thought it was a fantasy. But she helped me understand that it had been real all along.


8:05 AM


*Snow is falling outside, which has resulted in a day off from school, and for that I am grateful. Among other things, I still have a lot of grading to do before I turn in grades and comments for the semester, so not having to worry about classes for a day (and possibly two, given that the temperature's not supposed to clear the freezing point until noon tomorrow) is a welcome thing. Also, any excuse to lie around a warm house with wife and dog is a good excuse.

*I haven't installed many apps on the new phone, but one I made sure to get early on was Shazam, which "listens" to the song you're hearing but can't identify and gives you its title, artist, and source material. That proved useful the other day when we were trying out the new neighborhood restaurant. (That'd beThirsty's, a New Orleans-style joint that does very good gumbo and a nicely straightforward shrimp po'boy--no condiments except lettuce, so all you really get is a tasty baguette and some perfectly breaded and fried shrimp. We were a little disappointed in the cajun mac & cheese, but it wasn't disqualifying.) The music in the place was mostly jazz and Dixieland, but it wasn't all vintage stuff; some showed very clear signs of contemporary influence, especially when it came to percussion lines and production value. One such hybrid caught my attention, but I was too late to remember that I had a new tool for identification. Luckily, a similar song came around a few minutes later, and this time I had my phone in the air for Shazamming. Turned out it was "You Don't Love Me," a track by a Dutch singer named Caro Emerald:

Definitely well worth the space on my phone. Definitely.

*For reasons as yet unknown, I've been on a re-reading kick over the last few weeks. I started the year by finishing off Clockwork Boys by T. Kingfisher, but since then it's been old favorites: Justin Leiber's 1980 Beyond Rejection, a gender-flipping SF tale of bodies stolen and minds re-recorded, John Varley's 1983 airline disaster/time-travel jam Millennium, and now the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Lord of Light, a 1967 tour de force from Roger Zelazny that I haven't picked up in a very long time. I don't know why I've climbed onto the nostalgia wagon, but I'm certainly enjoying the ride.

*As I've noted before, I am not really a coffee snob, but I have to some degree landed in that role when it comes to family gatherings. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that I have become the Guy Who Brings the Coffee (and relatedly, the Guy Who Brings the Beer, as I am utterly useless when it comes to wine.) It's not universally consumed, but there are enough coffee drinkers in the family that a holiday gathering will typically demand we brew up fresh pots on a regular basis, and I have become the one trusted to supply the beans and do the brewing. Why? Well, it took me years to realize why my own coffee was better than my mother's, and it took her a few more before she asked me the relevant question:

Mom: Pete, why is your coffee always so good?
Me: Because I use enough coffee.

In my youth, Mom habitually made our morning brew with about a teaspoon of grounds per mug; plainly put, that's gonna give you some dark brown water. By contrast, when I moved out of the house, I started using a rounded tablespoon per mug, a plan aided considerably by a wedding present given us by our pal Christy, a brass Joe Spoon of roughly that measure. Mom has come around to my way of thinking, I'm happy to report, and I'm here to share with all of you one other coffee-related tip:

When you're in Richmond, pick up a bag of beans from the Black Hand roastery. It'll seem a bit pricey, since they sell you a full pound instead of the 11- or 12-ounce bags you get at the grocery store, but you will not regret it.

*The play is coming along. I've gotten some feedback on draft one from a couple of knowledgeable readers, and I've already added one brief scene as a result. I'm at work on a second scene, probably even shorter, and then it's off to the races to see if anybody wants to hear what it sounds like read aloud. It's still called The Kindest Cut, and I've worked out at least one song I want to use for the soundtrack.

*This time last year I was prepping for a trip to DC for the Women's March. I kind of wish we were prepping for a second one, but I'm taking comfort in the results of the special election in Wisconsin, where a Democrat just won a district that Trump took by 17% in 2016. Come on, Great Blue Wave.

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

9:41 AM

My, Like, Smart Phone

Got my Xmas present from Kel. Moto X4. I have never owned a smart phone before. This will be interesting and educational, I feel sure, but I do not foresee myself typing a lot of entries from it in the future.

7:27 PM


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