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Spades


Well, then.

Taking the last month off from blogging was not my original goal, but every time I started trying to type words on the screen, it was only a few keystrokes before I began a full-on George Carlin litany: "The thing about Trump is that he'll almost certaiSHIT PISS FUCK CUNT COCKSUCKER MOTHERFUCKER AND TITS."

I mean, I've been disappointed in my fellow Americans before. I've been ANGRY at them before. Heck, in 2004, I found out a relative had voted for Bush, figuring we shouldn't change leadership in the middle of a war. After the steam finished pouring from my ears, I simply pointed out that this was a war of choice that Bush had STARTED, and that by this logic, every President should start a war during his first term to guarantee his re-election.

But this, I think, is the first time I've actually been ashamed of my fellow Americans. 

Ashamed and slightly afraid.

The two are linked because the decision to cast a ballot for Donald Trump requires that one of two things be true.

First, a Trump voter may not understand what he's voting for. He may not have followed Trump's career over the past thirty-odd years. He may not understand that the one consistency in Trump's character is his naked, unyielding self-interest. His purpose in running for President was not to do anything on behalf of his country, his party, or his voters; his purpose was to enrich himself, either monetarily or in terms of ego gratification. His conduct over the last month--dabbling in conflicts of interest that would have disqualified any other candidate, upsetting international relations with casual phone calls, setting a murderer's row of foxes in charge of our nation's henhouses--makes no sense for anyone who puts his own interests second to principle, pragmatism, or humanity. The Trump administration shows every sign of making kleptocracy an art form, and the deepest recesses of our pockets have been opened up for his predation.

Making all this worse--and more ironic, if you're capable of achieving that much distance from the situation--is that the same people who voted Trump under the impression that their votes would flush Washington clean of the offal that has clogged it for years also voted to keep that same offal in office; the House and Senate remain in the hands of the same Republicans (with only a handful of exceptions) who've been clogging our national pipes. Instead of getting a new plumber or even a new plunger, they've supplied us with a shiny new toilet seat and are content to leave everything else alone. The expectation that said offal is going to work to rein Trump in is simply laughable; what has EVER served to rein him in? His fellow GOP candidates couldn't do it; the media couldn't do it; and the voters have shown no interest in doing so themselves. Mitch McConnell may have plenty of spine when it comes to obstructing a black Democrat, but he's a total invertebrate when it comes to dealing with Republicans in power. Hell, he's already refusing to recuse himself from the confirmation debate when his own wife comes up for a Trump cabinet post--THAT is exactly how much principle he has.

In short, the Trump voter may only now be starting to see the writing on the wall, despite the fact that it's been written in gigantic letters of flame reading MENE, MENE, YOU CANNOT BE FUCKING SERIOUS since the 1980s. That's a feat of ignorance that requires careful preparation over many years, and I am frankly ashamed that so many of my countrymen have been so diligent.

But there's a second possibility: they did this on purpose.

And that's the part that scares me. Because that means they knew about the misogyny, the bigotry, the cozying up to actual self-identified Nazis, the cronyism, the admiration for the very regime that hacked into the American political process for its own purposes, the obfuscation of finances and taxes and interests... they knew about all that.

And they voted Trump anyway.

Look, I'm a white, straight, married male citizen with a steady job and no immediately visible traits that would make me a target of abuse in Trump's America. And if I'm scared of what could happen, I can only imagine what nonwhite, queer, female, naturalized, impoverished, or disabled Americans are feeling right now. Whether this presidency was obtained through the actions of fools, or knaves, or both, it promises to be one that does real and potentially permanent damage to our nation, its reputation, and the planet on which it lies.

I'm not urging you to panic. I'm not urging you to be complacent, either. I'm urging you to be ready to pick up your spade and get to work. Organize. Speak out. When you can, vote. Protect the vulnerable. Disturb the powerful. Heed the words written a few years back by a great American--Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Hispanic American with colleagues of every gender, sexuality, and ethnicity:

"We're in the shit now. Somebody's got to shovel it."


3:18 PM
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Election Day 2016


Here's my Tweetstorm from last night.  


1 As a straight, white, married, middle-aged Southern male, I'm presumably right in the middle of Trump's target zone. Why am I voting HRC?


2 Well, for one thing, I'm pretty liberal on social issues. I have no love whatsoever for the religious right.


3 For another, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool feminist, so Trump's personal misogyny is disqualifying even if I liked his policies


4 But at the core, I just don't feel the terror some old white dudes seem to feel about demographic changes in the US.


5 It's kind of like the Copernican Revolution. The math is telling us a truth: we're not the center of the universe.

6 We never WERE the center of the universe. But we built our system to tell us that comforting lie for as long as possible.

7 But now the lie is no longer tenable. We can either cling to it uselessly, lashing out at those who speak the truth...


8 ...or consider the marvels contained by a universe where we're not the center--and therefore not alone.


9 To be the center is to be the lone pivot, with nothing and no one beside you. Isolated. Distant. Untouched.


10 How much better to be part of something--one of many planets orbiting many stars, making up a fantastic universe.


11 There's a reason our national motto is E PLURIBUS UNUM. No person, no group alone can make something greater than itself.


12 If you want to transcend yourself, you need others. You need more than just yourself. You need partners.


13 So that's what I want: to be a partner to those who aren't just like me. To make America greater than I can make it alone


14 I don't want to make America great again; it's great without me. But even if it's less white, less male, less straight...


15 ...I believe it can be greater than a straight white male America ever was. And I welcome those who'll help make it so.


16 Thanks. Let's get to the polls, y'all.

And I mean all y'all. /end




8:18 AM
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Thagomized


Things are still pretty busy, but here's my latest piece for Audubon, in which Thag Simmons meets the Ring-necked Duck.

Thag Simmons.jpeg


4:24 PM
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Lord of the Wings


It's been a busy fall so far, not least because I've been working on some pieces for Audubon.org, one of which went live today.

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If you've read this blog before, you'll know that Tolkien, birds, and Tolkien-related birds make up a significant portion of its contents. Here's hoping this latest commentary on those topics meets with your approval.


5:29 PM
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We Don't Need Another Hero


A few days ago, I was discussing what books my students could use for their independent reading journal assignments, and one kid raised his hand to ask if graphic novels were allowed. I said I saw no problem with them, and he expressed surprise: "You look like you wouldn't like them."

I blinked and said, "My first professional writing sale was a review of a comic book."

I suppose I could have said something else like, "I could name every member of the Legion of Super-Heroes before I was in 5th grade," or "I owned the issue of The Incredible Hulk where Wolverine first appeared," or "I was a member of F.O.O.M., for god's sake," but I doubt it would have made any more sense to a 6th-grader than what I actually said.

My point, however, is that whatever my appearance may suggest, I'm a fanboy. Can't deny it. That's why I'm so excited about the new Luke Cage series on Netflix (I started reading Hero for Hire when I was in 5th grade; I missed the debut, but started with issue #3 and was immediately hooked.) When I heard about Marvel's various superhero TV series, I was pleased to find out that Daredevil would get his own show, and I have to say that Jessica Jones was just a terrific series all around, but Luke is the guy I've really been waiting to see, and as played by Mike Colton, he's just about perfect. Mind you, I've seen exactly one episode so far...

But my fanboy status also inclines me to view the world through a certain lens, and that lens can sometimes be very helpful when I'm trying to wrestle with a complex question. For example, one complex subject I enjoy wrestling with is politics. I read a lot about it, and I try to stay active when I can; for example, I did a couple hours of canvassing this morning because I want Democratic voters to come out in big numbers this year. I also write about it reasonably often, sometimes because I'm uncertain about what I'm thinking, and other times because I know exactly what I think but want to express it in a way that might help other people understand what they're thinking. In 2008, I wrote a piece about the GOP's attempts to find Obama's kryptonite, and as I look at the 2016 election, I am once again moved to consider how comics might explain our situation.

Basically, the thing I haven't been able to figure out is why Trump is getting so much support. Not only has he been demonstrating obvious disqualifying personality traits, plus committing gaffes that boggle the mind, but he has also been caught repeatedly in situations that call his ethics, intelligence, and preparation into question. And given that his policies seem to have no consistency, it's really hard to figure out exactly what his supporters expect him to do if he manages to reach the Oval Office. All I could see is that they really, really like him and don't seem terribly interested in critically examining either his history or his current conduct.

But this morning, something clicked, and I realized just what Trump fans are. They're fans.

The superhero genre depends one thing: the adolescent power fantasy. Basically, when you're a young kid, especially a young nerd, you begin to understand that you have no power. Oh, you may have brains, or amazing ideas, or superb talents, but you don't have any way to exploit them; your decisions don't matter to anyone else, and you can't bend parents or teachers or even your friends to your will. What you dream of is the ability to have your way--the power to make things happen the way you want them to. And that's what makes superheroes so appealing: they DO have that power.

Better still, most superheroes have that power, but it's hidden. Superman's might is undeniable, but those around him are too ignorant to see it when it lies behind Clark Kent's glasses; the frivolous behavior of Bruce Wayne keeps the public from recognizing the skill and prowess of Batman; and who would guess that a loser like Peter Parker would have the proportionate speed and strength of a spider? In other words, the comics fan not only gets to see his heroes demonstrate what it's like having great power, but also what it's like being unappreciated. 

It's the latter that really makes the power fantasy work. You may not have the power to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but you don't have to have it, so long as you can imagine having it--and when the guy who really does have it is having girl troubles, or struggling with money, or feeling guilty about people he's let down, you begin to think Hey, he's not that different from me. He just has more power to change things. Sure, he's from another planet, or he got bitten by a radioactive spider, or has millions of dollars given to him by his real-estate mogul father, but he's basically just like me. And that means I'm just like him. Ha ha! You fools! You may laugh at my haircut or my awkward behavior around girls, but in reality I'm special! And someday, when I come into my own, you will look at my awesomeness and regret your insolence!

This, in sum, is the Donald Trump voter. He (or in too many cases, she) sees things about the current state of the world and wishes they were otherwise; that's not in and of itself a problem, because EVERY person thinks that. But the Trump voter doesn't approach the situation by thinking, Okay, how can we determine the causes of this complex problem and what can I do to help fix it? The Trump supporter instead focuses on how cool it would be if someone would just come solve the problem by throwing it into the sun, or maybe by using some fantastic gadget to reverse scientific law, or maybe by pulling off somebody's mask and revealing the bad guy underneath. Or, y'know, building a wall and making Mexico pay for it through pure will power.

Yes. Yes, it would be cool. If we lived in Gotham City.

But systemic racism cannot be thrown into the sun, and there is no single terrorist whose unmasking would end the evils of terrorism forever. Climate change cannot be fixed with something out of a utility belt. 

And Donald Trump is not the hero you imagine. He is not a hero at all. And when you look up past the brim of your MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN cap and shout "Save us!" he won't even bother to whisper, "No."


4:41 PM
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Back in 2005, I assembled a couple of lists for Woodberry's New Music Club: my lists of my favorite albums from the 80s and 90s. Having been recently reminded of this, I realized that I never managed to assemble the next list in the sequence, PC's Favorite Albums of the 2000s. I hope the list below will redress this long-overdue dereliction of my duties as a performer, critic, educator, and music snob. In chronological order, then, from 2000-2009:

Cake/ Comfort Eagle (2001): Not everyone enjoys the interplay of the band's funk-rock rhythm section, the flourishes of trumpet, or John McRea's seemingly arrhythmic vocal delivery, but I can't ignore any of them, let alone McRea's deadpan lyrical observation. There's no good reason for "Opera Singer" or "Meanwhile Rick James" of "Shadow Stabbing" to stick in your head, I suppose, but just try to get it out once it's in there. This album is probably the band's most consistent start-to-finish set of songs, highlighted by the fantasia of "Short Skirt/Long Jacket," the pulsing title track, and the relentlessly danceable "Love You Madly." If it appeals this powerfully to my love of words, my love of melody, and my love of rhythm, how could I not put it on this list?

Aimee Mann/ Lost in Space (2002): She's not the cheeriest songwriter out there, no, but Mann has a gift for framing emotional stress in unexpected ways, not to mention a voice that can shift from a pool of clear water to an irresistible current in only a few bars. The standout track is the hard-hitting "Pavlov's Bell," which makes a simple story of air travel into something far darker and more uncertain, but there are gems aplenty: the gorgeous "This Is How It Goes," a halting list of steps the narrator expects to follow as her partner spirals downward; the warm, dark metaphor of "The Moth"; and the haunting finale, "It's Not."

Sigur Ros/ Sigur Ros (a/k/a Black Cheetos) (2002): If pressed to pick the most original album on this list, I think I'd have to go with the one composed and performed by the Icelandic quartet, consisting of eight untitled tracks sung entirely in a nonsensical language. The surprise is that something so far out on a limb could be so effective. Thanks to their collective powers of melody and arrangement, plus a fantastic sense of dynamics, the band takes us on a series of journeys through landscapes we can't quite picture. Take a ride.

Coldplay/ A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002): By contrast, this is probably the most mainstream record on the list, and oddly, it's here for some of the same reasons. Chris Martin's confessional streak is front and center, but what makes these songs work is the combination of strong melodies and careful attention to dynamics: they build to something, or sometimes collapse into something, rather than just standing there. It's basically the standard rock quartet (drums/bass/guitar/piano) enhanced with strings here and there, but the careful interplay of the instruments on tunes like "Warning Sign" and "The Scientist" makes them sound far more varied. It's not a complicated record; but it is a rich one.

Fountains of Wayne/ Welcome Interstate Managers (2003): This was the album with their only real hit, the sniggering, insanely catchy Cars homage "Stacy's Mom," but that's hardly the best reason to buy it. Better reasons might include the beautiful and evocative "Valley Winter Song," the fuzzy power-pop nonsense of "Mexican Wine," the manic twentysomething anthem "Bright Future in Sales," and what's probably the only song I know about a quarterback dropping back to pass, "All Kinds of Time." These guys are simply geniuses in the realm of pop tunesmithing, and if you're not convinced by the time you reach "Supercollider," the lines "Gather round the gas tower: don't it kinda look like a bong? I heard it backward, hidden in a Pink Floyd song" should persuade you.

The Mountain Goats/ The Sunset Tree (2005): This was, for me, kind of the Mountain Goats' decade, and I went back and forth over which of their albums deserved inclusion here, but in the end, I had to go with this one. A loosely-structured concept album about singer/writer John Darnielle's memories of his years in the house with his abusive stepfather, it's a lyrical tour de force. Some images seem mythological and/or Biblical, such as "Lion's Teeth," but the sharpness of the more mundane litanies ("I spread out my supplies on the counter by the sink, looked myself right in the eyes: St. Joseph's Baby Aspirin, Bartles & Jaymes, and you..." in "You or Your Memory") is equally striking. It's hard to imagine a more haunting song than "Love Love Love" or a more anthemic chorus than that of "This Year" ("I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me"), but once you've given this album a listen, you'll find it just as hard not to think about the innocent denial of abuse in "Dance Music" or the defiant finale of "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?" ("Held under these smothering waves by your strong and thick-veined hand/ But one of these days, I'm gonna wriggle up on dry land"). A fantastic recording.

Regina Spektor/ Begin to Hope (2006): "Anti-folk" pianist/vocalist Spektor's hit single "Fidelity" gives you some idea of her sound, but not of her wildly creative composing. There's a touch of Kate Bush audible in her willingness to use her voice as an instrument, one capable not only of delighting but unsettling her audience, and her lyrical ideas ("Hey, remember that time I tried to save a pigeon with a broken wing?/ A street cat got him by morning and I had to bury pieces of his body in our building's playground"-- "That Time") are not always Top Forty material. She can throw out a big hook (just try not to sing along with "Better"), but she can also paint a miniature ("Samson") or work up an anthem ("Apres Moi," which Peter Gabriel would later cover on his Scratch My Back album). There's a lot going on here, and Spektor is just the gal to show it to you.
 
Richard Thompson/ 1000 Years of Popular Music (2006): If there's one musician capable of examining a millennium's worth of material, it's Thompson, whose status as a folk interpreter, songwriter, and guitar god leaves him equally comfortable interpreting British murder ballads ("Bonnie St. Johnstone"), Gilbert and Sullivan ("There Is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast"), or New Wave pop tunes (Squeeze's "Tempted"). Ably assisted by percussionist/vocalist Debra Dobkin and vocalist/keyboardist Judith Owen, Thompson serves up a stripped-down suite of music from across the centuries, and every selection offers a new kind of delight. Trust me, you've GOT to hear his cover of Britney Spears' "Oops! I Did It Again," if only to find out how much it resembles the music of the Italian Renaissance.

Cloud Cult/ The Meaning of 8 (2007): This loose collaboration of musicians and artists from the Twin Cities is for me the most recent discovery on this list, but I've certainly come to appreciate them thoroughly. Varying wildly in instrumentation and style, these songs share an emotional rawness that stems from the death of singer/songwriter Craig Minowa's young son. You might reasonably expect them to wallow in grief, but Minowa is instead moved to examine the larger questions of how death fits into the pattern of life. As a result, there are thumping, energetic songs such as "Please Remain Calm" and "Take Your Medicine," a pensive mixture of electronic percussion and organic strings and winds ("Chain Reaction"), and the gorgeous, uplifting "Chemicals Collide," which is on the short list of songs I want played at my funeral.

The New Pornographers/ Challengers (2007): Canada's indie-rock supergroup realized its enormous potential on this record, combining the voices of Carl Newman and Neko Case in a suite of songs that manage to be lyrically opaque without sacrificing singability. "My Rights vs Yours" opens softly and builds to an unstoppable force within four minutes. Case is featured on the stripped-down title track, as well as the vibrating "Failsafe" and the triumphant "Go Places," while Newman gets the lion's share of the vocals on "All the Old Showstoppers," but the best tunes blend their voices: "Myriad Harbour" is a rhythmic guitar exercise with back-and-forth chatter between the two, while the beautiful "Adventures in Solitude" makes a perfect finale--if only they'd finished the album there, rather than tacking on the comparatively lackluster "The Spirit of Giving" at the end.


HONORABLE MENTION:

Robyn Hitchcock/ A Star for Bram (2000): You knew Robyn couldn't miss this list entirely, didn't you? These songs are supposedly out-takes from the Jewels for Sophia sessions, but "Daisy Bomb," "I Saw Nick Drake," and the psychedelic nostalgia-wagon "1974" are at least as strong as anything on that album.

Wilco/ Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002): Jeff Tweedy takes the band to the outer limits of alt-country and finds it to be an unsettling but often gorgeous place.

The White Stripes/ Elephant (2003): The fact that "Seven Nation Army" has become a staple at sporting events shouldn't be allowed to diminish our appreciation for its potency. This is an album full of earnest emotions, snarling guitars, and rock scholarship that should be enjoyed on its own merits, which are many.

Foo Fighters/ Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace (2007): Song for song, this is the best thing the FF have put together, with hooks the size of marlinspikes and guitar power to burn.

Avett Brothers/ I and Love and You (2009): If you're looking for earnest examinations of love, you're not going to find anything more plainspoken than "January Wedding" or "I and Love and You," and "Laundry Room" is just plain gorgeous. See where the boys from Ramseur, NC, will take you.


SPECIAL JUDGE'S AWARD FOR INTERPRETATION:

The Oughts were a rich period for a particular kind of album, one where an established artist takes on material from other sources to see what he/she can do with them. I don't think these are entirely comparable to the other records on this list, but I can't deny that they are worthy of mention:

Johnny Cash/ American III: Solitary Man (2000) and American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002): Either of these could arguably be included at the top of this list on the strength of Cash's originals (the title track from the latter album in particular). Still, these albums are primarily reworkings of others' songs, such as U2's "One" and Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," and Cash's last big hit was his stunning treatment of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." Let's put them here and enjoy them.

Nouvelle Vague/ Nouvelle Vague (2004): Realizing that "bossa nova" is Portuguese for "new wave," this French combo reasoned that Eighties new wave hits would make dandy bossa nova tunes. Not just a novelty record, this album gives new life to everything from the Dead Kennedys to Joy Division to the Specials.

Patti Smith/ Twelve (2007): You won't be surprised that Smith can make "White Rabbit" her own; you may be surprised to hear her do the same with "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Pastime Paradise," or her fantastic reworking of George Harrison's "Within You Without You."

Glen Campbell/ Meet Glen Campbell (2008): There's painful irony in this release, which was intended to introduce Campbell to a new audience but wound up being something of a last hurrah before Alzheimer's sent him into retirement. Still, his takes on songs by Jackson Browne, U2, Travis, and John Lennon are fitting additions to his legacy.


9:31 AM
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Working Class Hero


If I'm a little tired this weekend--and I am--there's a good reason for it: I'm back at work.

That's not an entirely accurate statement. As most teachers will attest, we do not spend the summer months avoiding work. Some of us pick up different jobs--leading tour groups, or serving at summer camps, or doing volunteer work at libraries, or waiting tables--and some of us merely take on new tasks at home. I myself have spent the summer at work on the latest draft of my novel A Raven for Doves. I finished the draft late on the 25th of August, or possibly early on the 26th, and after my in-house copy editor was done with her pass over it, I made the last corrections on Labor Day. It's now sitting on an agent's desk, which of course means I'm now checking my email with a completely unreasonable frequency.

So yeah, I've been working. 115,000 words' worth of work.

But for the last two weeks, I've been working differently: first, I spent a week attending faculty meetings, and after Labor Day we plunged straight into Camp Week, the opening orientation and organization activities for new and returning students. Camp Week is a lot of fun, but since it puts me in direct supervision of students through four straight days of outdoor fun and indoor competition and exposure to heat indexes well over 100 degrees, it's a little draining. And on Monday, I go back to class. But again, with a difference.

Last year I worked four days a week at Seven Hills and spent my Wednesdays either writing, running errands, catching up on grading, or occasionally having a bit of fun. Not this year. This year I'm full-time; though my schedule gives me at least a bit of planning time every day, I'm not going to have the luxury of sleeping in on Wednesdays in order to recover from my labors on Monday and Tuesday. Still, though I'm teaching four sections, my preps have dropped from three to two--8th grade language arts and 6th grade US history--and I have my own classroom again. Better still, my new classroom has a dropped ceiling, which means I stand a decent chance of being able to hear what all my students are saying.

I'm hopeful that the lessons I've learned about middle-school teaching can be applied with relative ease, and that the preparations I made last year can be reused this year. It'll be sad to lose that extra day to get things done, but the 35% raise kinda makes up for it.

And as I think about it, Kelly and I did have one other project this summer: finishing our binge-watch of Parks and Recreation on Netflix. We watched the DVD of Season One a few years back and were not much impressed, but Ian & Adriana insisted that we needed to push ahead, that things would get better, that the arrival of Ben and Chris (whoever they were) would turn the show into something special. And by gum, they were right. No matter how improbable the show's events were, there was an endearing and unrelenting positivity in it--a refusal to accept cynicism as a philosophy. Sure, things went wrong, even badly wrong, for many of the characters, but defeat was never defining to anyone--it was merely one element in their various histories. And partly because of those histories Parks & Rec soon became one of our favorite shows ever.

Parks & Rec was, at its core, that familiar entity, the workplace sitcom, but it was not an ordinary workplace; it was a workplace where the work mattered. It didn't always matter all that much, but it mattered: "small, incremental change every day." That was Leslie Knope's philosophy of public service. And that philosophy made the people doing it feel as though they mattered as well.

In the finale, Leslie quotes Teddy Roosevelt: "Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is a chance to work hard at work worth doing." One of the best things about teaching is that you know the work is worth doing. People remember their teachers, good or bad, because teaching is, ultimately, important to the people being taught. Society may not celebrate you, or offer you gobs of cash for your efforts, but for any particular student, in any particular year, what you do is of great importance. And that's something I'll do my best to keep in mind as I dive back into the classroom.

So. Let's go to work.

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11:55 AM
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Old North Escape


I took advantage of several things last week: my summer schedule, my wife's patience, and my parents' generosity. Basically, I decided I needed a week out of the house to make a big push toward finishing the book. My parents agreed to put me up for that week, and my wife agreed to spend it tending to the needs the two other occupants of our apartment (Dixon and Ripley). I got a good deal of work done and am now within shouting distance of the book's end, and I also got to see a bunch of my North Carolina friends and family, some of whom appear below.

As you may know, the Cashwell clan and the Macknee clan have been friendly for lo, these many decades. (I think we met when I was in 4th grade, so call in 1972.) I was shocked to realize, however, that I had not met with one member of the Macknee family for a solid decade: Salem, whose daughter Abby we feted in Seattle a few months back. Though we're regularly interacting online, we had not actually seen each other (we calculated) since her parents' 40th wedding anniversary, and since they just celebrated their 60th, Salem and I reckoned it was time to fix that problem. I borrowed my dad's car and made my way to her place in Durham, where we enjoyed lemonade, a nice Mexican meal at Dos Perros, and a chance to look around the lake behind her house (which is where my parents keep their kayak, which Salem has on semi-permanent loan.)

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A few days later, I headed to the Open Eye Cafe for a meeting with musician and fellow CHHS alum Laura Thomas, who brought along her daughter Hannah, a UNC-Asheville senior who's been bitten by the birding bug. Laura patiently put up with our discussion of woodpeckers and cranes, and Hannah then showed a similar saintly streak by indulging us as we talked about the old days of the Chapel Hill music scene. And they brought a book to sign, too:

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That evening got to enjoy an evening of lively conversation and good music with old buddies Mike Beard and Bryon Settle, not to mention a visit with Mike's lovely wife and kids.

After taking a day off to recover, I got up early on Friday and hit the birding trail with Bo Howes (CHHS '83), now of the Triangle Land Conservancy. He led me to a parcel of Mason Farm out behind the Finley Golf Course clubhouse, and on our two-mile walk through the woods we were able to log a number of First-of-the-Year birds for me, including Indigo Bunting, Acadian Flycatcher, Prairie Warbler, Summer Tanager, and Blue Grosbeak. We also spotted several cooperative butterflies, including this one, which Bo identified as a "Red-spotted Purple," which is a color morph of the White Admiral:

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I spent Friday evening with my brother, hunting for a restaurant where we'd eaten as kids; as anyone who's visited Chapel Hill will now, there aren't many left. I'd already eaten at Breadmens and Allen & Sons earlier in the week, and we couldn't come up with any other places off the top of our heads. (Since then, we've recalled a handful of places we used to go, including Ye Olde Waffle Shop, and a few old joints that we didn't frequent in our youths, such as Linda's, Hunam, and the Carolina Coffee Shop.) We ended up at Squid's, where we had a passable seafood dinner and set up plans to get brunch with his family on Sunday.

DSC03426.JPGhat Sunday involved a drive to Dave & Pam's place in Raleigh, some excellent chicken salad, fresh asparagus, and plenty of coffee, as well as a chance to hang out with Aunt Susan for a few hours. I also got thumped in a game of PIG with my nephews, though Dave emerged victorious in the end.

By the time I was loaded up to go to the train station, I had knocked out another 15,000 words and was poised to finish things up this week. I snapped one last pic before I left, since I didn't have one of my host and hostess--well, not a recent one--and off I went. 

DSC03440.JPGI'm now home, where I've cleaned up one dog-related accident, eaten a tasty Cuban sandwich, and successfully got Dixon to an audition: just another day in RVA. But thanks to everyone down Carolina way, especially Mom & Dad; it was great to have a chance to get a little pine tar on my feet again.

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9:44 PM
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Why We Need Pete Dunne


I've been a fan of birder/writer Pete Dunne for many years now, and I've been fortunate enough to meet him. In fact, I got to benefit directly from his ornithological expertise back in 2004 when I went to the Cape May Bird Observatory's Spring Fling Weekend; I not only got to meet and talk with him a bit at the convention itself, but got to follow him out on a bird walk, one which yielded my first Worm-eating Warbler, among other things. I've enjoyed (and even had occasion to copy-edit) his columns for Living Bird, and his essay collection Small-headed Flycatcher. Seen Yesterday. He Didn't Leave His Name. is one of my favorite birding-related books.

But my main reason for appreciating Dunne's contributions to my birding experience is a single volume: Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion. I've mentioned this massive tome before, as I've been relying on it to settle birding issues for over a decade now, but I haven't really presented a full appreciation yet. Though it contains not a single illustration, its detailed descriptions of plumage, behavior, and habitat paint their own pictures of each bird you'll find depicted in your field guide. Dunne's greatest strength, apart from sheer facility with language, is his ability to draw comparisons; since he knows each bird in the book well (with the possible exception of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker), he can not only describe it in a vacuum, but help readers who know similar birds find the points of distinction that will allow for an ID. The field guide may include a lovely painting of a bird, but Dunne's text gives you a context for that painting: where you'll find the bird, at what time of year, in the company of what other species; what its flight looks like, how it behaves, what features of its plumage you might or might not notice; what it sounds like, what it doesn't sound like, and what its response to a birder's "pish" might be.

But how is this useful? you might ask. It's certainly not easy to use in the field, because it's massive. My hardcover edition is over 700 pages long, nearly two inches thick, and 7" X 9" in dimension; in other words, it does not fit easily into most pockets, and as it weighs three pounds all by itself, it's a bit of a burden even in a backpack. But it's not supposed to go into the field; that's what your field guide is for. That key word "companion" is what should give you a clue as to what to do with Dunne's tome. I myself usually leave it in the car when I'm birding, though sometimes I'll leave it in a hotel room or even at home, depending on where I am; when I'm out with my scope and binoculars, I'm sticking with my Sibley (or sometimes my NatGeo guide, or my Peterson).

When I come back from the field, however, I may well feel uncertain about an identification, THAT is the time to dig out Dunne and start boning up on the possibilities. A brief examination of PD'sEFGC has helped me settlemore than one ID well after the fact, such as when I logged my first Solitary Sandpiper at Robertson Lake, but didn't confirm the species until at least an hour later.

Last night, however, I was able to use it for a purpose I hadn't expected: to save me a trip. I subscribe to the E-bird Alert newsletter for Virginia, and every day I get a notice of any unusual species reported by birders in the Commonwealth. Since my continuing Fifty-Fifty Project usually inclines me to look for new birds in other states, rather than beating the bush for them in the state where I live, I don't always act on these alerts, particularly if it's a species I know I can get fairly easily in one of my thirteen liferless states. There are, however, birds that are simply so cool that if they turn up in Virginia, I'm going to go look for them, state borders be damned. (Last year's Brown Booby at Kerr Lake would be an example of this kind of bird.) 

This was the kind of bird presented to me in yesterday's list: a Northern Goshawk in Chesterfield County.

I live in Richmond itself, but the border with Chesterfield Co. is only a mile or two away, and the location indicated on the E-bird map was only a few minutes from my wife's workplace. In other words, this was not only an incredibly cool bird, one I've been wanting to get on my list for years, but a location so convenient that I'd be an absolute fool not to go see it. 

Still, there was the issue of why this bird would turn up on a Rare Bird Alert: they really don't come to Virginia in August. Heck, Goshawks are unusual in Virginia in the dead of winter; in the summertime, you won't usually find them anywhere in the eastern U.S. south of Pennsylvania. They're also solitary birds of heavy forests, which makes the well-populated (nearly 350,000 people) environs of Chesterfield County a highly unlikely spot to see one. The question was this: did I have to get up early on Sunday to go look for this sucker, or hd the birder who reported it made an error?

Luckily, she had included a couple of photographs, and when I spotted them, my doubts became stronger: the bird looked to me quite a lot like a young Red-shouldered Hawk. Red-shoulders are quite common in this part of the country--there's a pair nesting less than a half-mile from my apartment--and this immature bird had the requisite banded tail and a fairly chunky physique. The juvenile Goshawk in my NatGeo, however, had similar coloration and a banded tail, though the bands didn't look to be quite as clean as those in the photo. Still, these were two fairly different kinds of hawk; the Goshawk is an accipiter, a sleek, long-tailed, bird-pursuing machine, while the Red-shoulder is a buteo, more thickly built and inclined to pounce on prey from a lowish perch. Why would they be confusing?

Luckily, I had Pete Dunne to tell me (in the "Pertinent Particulars" section of the Goshawk entry) that the Goshawk is commonly mistaken for two other species: as an adult, with the Gyrfalcon, and as a juvenile, with the young Red-shouldered Hawk. In other words, this was an entirely reasonable mistake for a birder to make, and that gave me confidence to consider the other issue visible in the photograph: that the bird was perched on the railing of a suburban backyard deck. Given Dunne's comparative descriptions of the two birds--the Goshawk is "retiring" and "solitary," while the RSH is "fairly tame," found perching below the canopy and on suburban wooded lots--I felt pretty good about my decision to sleep in this morning.

In short, I recommend Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion not merely as a book that can help you when you've been out in the field, but as a book that can help you avoid going out into the field in the first place. How many other birding books can make that claim?


11:27 AM
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LBJs


*Another month of summer gone... I try not to revel in my months of summer vacation, but what else do teachers have to revel about? Believe me, it's not the salary or the social cachet or the professional respect afforded you by politicians. We work like dogs for nine months of the year so that we can use the next three to recover; if we didn't, we probably wouldn't sign up for another nine.

*And speaking of teaching, if you didn't already know, I am returning to Seven Hills School here in RVA, but now I'm on a full-time basis. This does mean giving up my free Wednesdays, which were awfully nice for running errands and occasionally writing, but the improvement in salary and benefits makes up for it. At last report, I was in line to teach 8th grade language arts and 6th grade US history, but that could all change very quickly...

*June was something of a creative struggle, but I'm happy to report that in July, I got back on track; the new draft of the novel is proceeding at an acceptably crisp pace. I didn't quite reach my goal of having 50,000 words done by August 1st, but since I reached 59k by the 4th, I didn't feel all that bad about it. I'm done with the second section of the book and am now looking at the third, which (yay!) is a section where I'll be able to use a lot of what I wrote in earlier drafts. Here's hoping I can get this thing finished off by Labor Day.

*I didn't watch the conventions on TV, which isn't all that shocking considering we don't really have TV. We've got a TV set, but it's used for watching DVDs and VHS tapes (yes, we still have a dual-purpose player), and streaming video from Netflix and Hulu. I suspect we could have found a way to watch on my laptop, but honestly, it was in some ways more fun to follow people who were liveblogging or tweeting about the events, and then following up in detail later. That's how I saw Michelle O's speech, and the Rev. Dr. William Barber's, and of course Khizr Khan's, which may end up being the single biggest speech of the campaign. And of course I watched bits of the speeches by Presidents 42 and 44, Joe Biden, and Tim Kaine, as well as numerous bits from RNC speakers: the various Trumps, a smattering of Pence, and even a bit of Scott Baio just for the sheer improbability of it. But yes, Kelly and I sat down with my laptop to watch Hillary Clinton's speech. There was no question of whether we'll be voting for her--heck, Kelly's scheduled to volunteer for her this weekend--but we both wanted to be able to say we'd watched a speech that, while not as moving as Khan's, as powerful as Barber's, or as well-crafted as either of the Obamas', was truly historic: a woman, speaking for herself, declaring her readiness to take the highest office in the land. HRC's basic competence has been assumed for so long that I think we risk missing just how unprecedented her campaign really is. Sure, maybe she won't be the best president ever, but if she can crack that last glass ceiling, she will double America's chances of our electing the Best. President. Ever. sometime in the future.

*And on the subject of the election--briefly--can I just note that I find it ironic, and not a little irritating, to hear Trump supporters claiming their support is based on a belief that we have to take the government back from the Washington "insiders." Despite their desire to upset the applecart, they are doing nothing to upset the part that actually touches the ground: Congress. All 435 members of the House are up for re-election, and a grand total of 62 (approximately 15%) of those races are viewed as "competitive," meaning that experts do not consider those districts "safe" for either Republicans or Democrats. In other words, even with Trump (and Sanders, and Johnson, and Stein) supporters howling for change, the vast majority of the country is perfectly satisfied with maintaining the status quo in their own districts. The Senate is a bit less settled, with between 12 and 16 of this cycle's 34 races viewed as competitive in some regard--but again, the majority seems to be happy with their own state's representation in Washington. All in all, then, I feel comfortable arguing that if you're voting for Trump AND your sitting Congressperson, you aren't really interested in change; you're just eager to deliver a middle finger to somebody.

*Along with Dixon and Kelly, I've been enjoying Stranger Things on Netflix, and one enjoyable element of the show has unquestionably been its 1980s setting. Some would argue that Winona Rider and Matthew Modine are in the cast primarily as nods to nostalgia for the period; I'm not sure whether I agree yet. Modine certainly hasn't been given much to do, which is kind of a waste, as anyone who saw his astonishing performance in Birdy could tell you. I go back and forth on Rider, who is certainly giving a glimpse of the emotional wildness that a mother losing her child might demonstrate, but at times the emotional pitch seems intense, but not varied--a high plateau, so to speak. The child actors, however, are kicking ass, and as Dixon put it, it's refreshing to be watching a show where you say to yourself, "Man, I wish they'd get back to the kids' arc." We've still got one episode left to watch, so we'll see if they can tie it all together in a satisfying manner, but so far I'm content recommending it.

*Oh, I have noticed one anachronism: the show takes place in early November of 1983. One scene shows teen loner Jonathan Byers going through a flashback: at some unnamed earlier time, he's in his room, playing the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" for his younger brother Will, who likes it, spurring Jonathan to promise an introduction to all the cool music he knows. Now, the Clash released that tune in 1982, so it's a totally legit thing for Jonathan to know and love. But among the litany of 80s bands Jonathan mentions in the flashback, one stood out to me as incorrect: The Smiths. 

I'll admit that I'm not a big fan of the band, almost entirely because of Morrissey's vocal stylings (though he's a terrific lyricist), but I can't deny they're worth mentioning in a list of 80s artists--just not in November of '83. I was living in Manchester that November, and I can say from personal experience that the Smiths weren't even especially popular in their home town--yet. To be fair, they'd only released two singles, one in May ("Hand in Glove," which did not chart) and one on October 28th ("This Charming Man," which hit #25). True, they were getting some love in indie record shops throughout the summer and fall, but they didn't really gather much notice until they won NME's year-end music poll and earned a cover shot in February of 1984. (I was a regular NME reader, and that was the first notice I ever gave the band, certainly.)

In other words, Jonathan is almost certainly sharing this flashback moment with Will at a time when the Smiths' entire discography consisted of one not-especially-well-known single that as best I can tell was never released in the USA. I would thus consider the scene extremely improbable. Oh, I can imagine a smalltown loner like Jonathan fixating on the Smiths once their first album came out in February of '84, sure, but before November of '83, where the hell would he even hear about them, let alone find a rural Indiana record store where he could buy their import single? Sorry, Duffer Brothers--not buying it.

*The dog is up to about 40 pounds--a little healthier for her, I think. She has also learned that if I change shorts or put on shoes, it means she's almost certainly getting a walk. Clever girl.

*Since I'm the one who recommended Watership Down as a summer reading book for 8th grade, I suppose I should start my re-reading now. Ouch. No. Please don't throw me in that briar patch.


7:57 AM
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