No, not like that. Despite the recent media hoopla surrounding NBA center Jason Collins' public discussion of his homosexuality, I am not following suit.
(As Kelly occasionally notes, rolling her eyes all the while, I am The Straightest Man On Earth. It's not that I'm traditionally hypermasculine in terms of belching, eating raw meat, and beating up people smaller and weaker than I am; it's just that I just don't find guys attractive. I'm not opposed to the IDEA of finding men attractive, but they just don't do anything for me. I love the idea of a banana, too--a sweet, nutritious fruit that travels well and comes in its own biodegradable wrapper? Brilliant!--but when it comes to actually eating them, yuck. Sorry, guys.)
I did, however, have a similar experience this evening when I delivered the sermon at our school's weekly chapel service. What made it similar was that I chose, for the first time, to reveal in front of the public what has long been known to me and those close to me. In fact, I chose to reveal it in the first sentence of my sermon:
"I am not a Christian."
The topic of the speech was doubt, and how the possibility of doubt is the only thing that allows faith to exist. I threw out quotes from Blake and Chesterton, from Andre Gide and Douglas Adams, and even whipped out a bit from the book of Hebrews to make my point, but I decided to go with the big reveal for the simplest of reasons: because it's true. And frankly, I was tired of passing.
Because of my first and last names, I've always been able to pass for a WASP, though Moses would have recognized me as a Jew, and when I came to Woodberry, which hosts a required nondenominational service every Sunday evening, I didn't bother to disabuse anyone of the notion that I was a Christian, though I haven't been one for a long, long time. Though I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church when I was 12, it wasn't long afterward that I started having significant doubts about my faith. I'd never been able to believe that the Bible was literal truth, but I kept believing in the book's metaphorical power. Eventually, however, I came up against the core of Christianity: the belief in Christ's divinity, death, and resurrection. And ultimately, the more I considered the whole issue of the Incarnation and God's plan for our salvation, I found myself having to choose: Either I could admit I didn't believe in the central fact of Christianity, or I could continue to profess belief in a God so manipulative and so callous that I couldn't in good conscience worship him.
Honesty won out. For the last 18 years at WFS, I've gone to chapel and sung the hymns and recited the prayers and responded to the call-and-response readings, but not because I'm a Christian. I've done it because I believe there's value in one of our school's main tenets: that our students should have "respect for things sacred." I have a deep and abiding respect for our nation's First Amendment; as Sarah Vowell puts it, to some degree the Constitution IS my religion. But though I fervently support your right to worship as you see fit, I am equally fervent in my belief that you must respect that same right for others. And the longer I stayed at Woodberry, happily passing as a Christian despite no real effort on my part to keep up my cover, the more I realized that I wasn't doing anything to teach our students about that respect.
So: tonight I came out. In doing so, I hoped to give every student who's wrestling with his faith or lack thereof a chance to see that he isn't alone--and that the struggle is worthwhile, whether you end up a believer or not. I'm no Jason Collins; I won't suffer any indignities for my proclamation, and I don't have the responsibility of serving as a symbol to millions of fans. But after long years of hiding in plain sight, I have to say I understand the appeal of speaking a simple truth about yourself aloud. To be honest, it feels good to be honest.10:36 PM
My mom recently visited us, and she brought presents, as moms do.
Several were dress shirts that my father had bought me in some apparent clairvoyant state, realizing that I'd just ripped a six-inch hole in one of my Oxford cloth workshirts, but others were books that Mom had scored herself. Soon after arriving, she handed Kelly an Alice
Walker book, explaining that she'd gone to the library book sale in
Pittsboro, NC, where the library sells its discards as well as donations
from the locals. While there, she discovered that one source of
donations was the estate of Doris Betts, who died last year.
If you read this page regularly, you'll know that Doris
taught me (and Kelly) creative writing at UNC; in fact, it was after our class's final meeting that Kelly and I made our first date (thanks to some sneaky matchmaking by Mimi Herman and others and a good deal of the Henderson Street Bar's beer.) You might not know, however, that Mom already knew her; back in the 1970s, Doris directed the North Carolina Fellows Program, where Mom was the
secretary. And since Doris was the one who had introduced her to Alice Walker, she
thought Doris' copy of a Walker book would be an appropriate gift for Kelly.
To me she gave a much more familiar book: a copy of The Verb 'To Bird'
I've actually sold or given away all my copies except my own, so Mom's
constantly on the lookout for copies that I can use as gifts. I thanked
her and noted that I was in need of one, but she said, "Oh, I don't
think you're going to want to give this one away."
I opened the book to the title page and immediately recognized my own
It was the copy I'd inscribed to Doris in March of 2003.
I don't know if I'm happier that Mom found it for me or that Doris kept
it for the rest of her life. But I'm not giving it away.
Sometimes when you offer gratitude to someone, the thing you're literally thanking them for may be very small, but the reason you're thanking them is very, very big indeed. So thank you, Mom. And thank you, too, Doris. 10:21 PM
Having had a wonderful birthday weekend with the wife and kids, it was time to catch up to the rest of my family back home in the Old North State. With Kelly, Ian, and Dixon all working, I thus spent part of my spring break visiting the people I grew up with.
On my first night in time, Mom had made me an old favorite: my grandmother's meatloaf. Mama Lou used to use a mix of beef, pork, and veal, but Mom has long left the veal out, replacing it with ground turkey. It was a delicious blast from the past. After we were done, we were greeted by the fourth member of my original household, my brother Dave, who brought with him a bottle of Tito's Handmade Vodka as a present for me. As he explained, "I've heard it's good stuff, and I know Tito was your favorite Jackson brother." Immediately, he produced a lemon and we prepared a treat that he taught me about: the Vodka Nick. Cut a lemon wedge; dredge one side in sugar and the other in ground coffee; toss back a shot of vodka and bite down on the coated lemon wedge. Mmmm. It's a moment of pure glee in your mouth.
I spent the next morning traveling around my old hometown, visiting a few friends like Miss Mary Jane, and passing by some of the places I used to hang out. This is the first: my folks' original Chapel Hill home at 621 Tinkerbell Road. Three bedrooms, a bath and a half, kitchen, dining room, living room, fenced back yard, carport. They bought it when I was a year old for $17,000. Of course, Dad had only made $4000 the year before--he was a geography teacher at Leroy Martin Junior High in Raleigh that year--but as a newly minted assistant to the Admissions Director at UNC, he must have felt the purchase was a reasonable one. The house was painted pale green during my childhood, but the door you can see just to the left of the big tree was painted orange. We've always liked having brightly colored doors on our houses; we must be descended from hobbits.
But not every place I visited was an old haunt. This sign stands outside a new place, a narrow strip of parkland that the town has created between the 15-501 bypass and the bed of Morgan Creek. Running down it is a strip of pavement for walking, running, or cycling, and if you follow the stream, you'll end up in one of my favorite places in Chapel Hill, the carefully preserved "rural buffer" known as Merritt's Meadow. (Apparently it's officially been renamed Merritt's Pasture, but it'll always be his meadow to me.) I've often said that Merritt's Meadow is a place I'd like to have my ashes scattered, but until this day, I'd never actually set foot in it.
Two panoramic views of Merritt's Meadow at the end of the trail. It was an odd thrill to be there.
While I was in town, I said the magic words that get my dad out of his armchair: "I need to buy some clothes." The next morning, we were in the car heading for the Brooks Brothers outlet in Garland, NC, one of the small towns near the Old Place, the farmhouse where his father and most of his aunts and uncles were born. As we approached, this water tower loomed up and proudly displayed the name of NC's largest county, I figured it deserved a tip of the hat for producing that many Cashwells.
...and here, in the tiny town of Ingold, is the house where my great-grandparents later lived; I just barely recall the layout of its interior, and the only thing I can definitely recall happening inside was my Uncle Guy producing quarters from my ears from time to time, but it's a beautiful old farmhouse and I wanted a picture, so I got Dad to open the sun roof for a minute.
And finally, loaded with cut-price menswear, we piled back into the car for the return to Chapel Hill. Given our location, the odds of our stopping for lunch at any establishment that did NOT serve barbecue were pretty slim, but we found this one outside Clinton and enjoyed some of Eastern NC's finest. Rooster and Doris did not disappoint us.
NEXT: some old friends and a few more scenes from the Southern Part of Heaven
To celebrate my birthday, Kelly took me to Richmond for the weekend. I then spent a a couple of days in visiting family and friends in NC. For once, I remembered to bring my camera.
Our first stop (after we picked up Ian and Dixon for a big, delicious lunch at the Boathouse) was Hollywood Cemetery--and yes, I did point out to Kelly that most fifty-year-olds would probably read something into the choice of a cemetery as a birthday sightseeing destination. Still, Ian (r.) has spent much of the last year doing intensive study of Richmond's cemeteries as part of his degree program (history, with a minor in anthropology), so he served as our tour guide.
As you can see from this shot (taken inside the columbarium), Hollywood sits on a hill that overlooks the James River. It's an old-fashioned park-like setting, intended by the builders as a spot not just for storing dead bodies, but for encouraging visitors to stay, explore, and even picnic among the monuments to the Old South's best-connected families.
Here, for example, one can see the ornate iron cage surrounding the coffin of former president James Monroe. To its left, topped by a greenish bit of statuary, is the column marking the grave of another former president, John Tyler, most famous for being the first veep to take office after his running mate died.
As Ian has learned during his studies, gravestones go through fashions just as clothes, furniture, and houses do. This "tabletop" style was apparently big for a while.
Another popular style was the carving of stone to look like wood, though typically not to the extent above. The log, however, was apparently one of a number of Masonic symbols, and a great many of the graves in Hollywood house Masons.
Some of the sculpture is very impressive. The lettering of "ATKINSON" alone would make this stone eye-catching, but the gigantic cross with PAX is hard to ignore. It seems a bit over-the-top now, but in context, it works pretty well--possibly because the cemetery is so full of Civil War dead.
I like this angel a little more. It stands over the grave of Varina Anne Davis, daughter of Jefferson Davis, who is buried beside her. And speaking of Jeff's grave:
I'll grant that a stone erected by a wife and daughter is hardly the place to look for unbiased historical accuracy, but this struck me as more than a little self-righteous. Interestingly, the front of the grave features a list of all the offices held by Davis before 1861--when he worked for the USA.
I have nothing intelligent to say about this. I simply couldn't look at the stone without feeling sorry for a kid who had to go through junior high with the name "William Gay Strange." I promise, Victorian seventh-graders were no kinder than the ones today.
Just down the side of the hill from Monroe's grave, looking over the RR tracks and the river, I found this strange little arrangement of twigs, tufts, and magnolia cones. I don't know what it means or who put it there, but I found it oddly affecting. Someone wanted to memorialize something and did so with bits of living things, not stone or cement; in a place where the overall purpose seems to be defying mortality through the use of materials more durable than human flesh, this struck me as a bittersweet acknowledgement that even stone doesn't last forever.
And here, too, the limitations of stone are apparent. A new plot has been leveled and cleared near a headstone reading "O'Kelly," and the plot is now re-seeded. The Song Sparrow above has no understanding of what's going on; all he knows is that there's food to be had there, and that eating it will help him stay alive through the last of the winter. Neither the seed, the bird, the body, nor the marker stone will last forever, but as it all falls apart, new life will spring from it, and that life will have its own beauty. All stone, like all flesh, is grass. But once it has been eaten, grass sings
Being of an age now where I can Dispense Wisdom and nobody can give me crap about it, I have decided to begin with a subject I've studied for some years now.
I have spent more than a little time sampling beers of various sorts, and there are quite a few of which I'm extremely fond. There are many I loved in my youth, particularly when I was in Manchester downing pint upon pint of the #42 brew at the Lass O'Gowrie
, and others to which I've devoted a number of more recent evenings, including the currently-on-hiatus-thanks-to-Hurrican-Katrina Dixie Blackened Voodoo Lager
. Still, at the moment I'd have to say my three favorite brews are domestics that I've tried in the last five years. Maybe it's just the timing, but in any case, here they are, in order of discovery:
1) Dogfish Head Raison D'Etre
. First offered to me several years back at the Georgetown headquarters of Robert M. Lloyd, with whom I made more than one trip to the Lass, this sweet, malty, complex brew is 8% ABV and will get the attention of both your taste buds and your brain. Highly recommended for those who think beer should have flavor.
2) Bell's Oarsman Ale
. A happy accident, this. I was in Richmond at the Village, where I opted to try a flight of several different beers, but the waitress found out that one of the brews I'd ordered was tapped out--literally. Without asking me, she substituted a four-ounce glass of the Oarsman instead, and I fell in love almost immediately. It's probably the most refreshing beer I know, thanks mainly to its tart finish--a fantastic way to leave your palate cleansed--but it tastes good before the end, too.
3) Ommegang Rare Vos
. My most recent discovery, handed to me by a former student who was bartending at the Shebeen in Charlottesville on the night of my most recent birthday. A lovely orangey ale, brewed in Cooperstown, NY, this baby has a serious nose--one of the rare beers I can enjoy both for its smell and its flavor. The latter is complex and strong--6.5% ABV--but not overpowering. It's sweet but not syrupy, perfumed but not saccharine, with a touch of citrus on top of a satisfying hoppiness. I want more.
So--go forth and check these out, if you're legally entitled to do so and feel a bit thirsty.
The surprising thing about turning 50--which I don't officially do until 12:07 p.m. EST, but who's getting technical?--is how similar being 50 is to being most other ages I've been. I'll grant you, there are a few physical differences, some of which I'm being reminded of even as we speak, thanks to a vigorous session on the rowing machine Wednesday, but it's hard to see the line between 49 and 50 as any more starkly drawn than that between 39 and 40.
What does draw a line in one's life? Events, mainly. Getting married. Having a kid. Publishing a book. Seeing a new bird. Standing atop a new mountain. Hearing a new piece of music. I saw a fantastic art exhibit at the Renwick Gallery a few weekends ago. It was called "40 Under 40," and it featured the work of a variety of terrific artists below that age, one of whom, Shawn Smith, obligingly let me interview him for ALONG THOSE LINES. I'm going to remember that exhibit for the rest of my life; I will have a great deal of difficulty remembering how old I was when I saw it. But ironically, thanks to the Smithsonian's arbitrary line-drawing, I'm not going to have much trouble remembering how old the artists were.
So: today I turn 50, and that's really very cool, considering how long individual members of our species have historically lasted. But when it comes down to it, I suspect this birthday won't stick in my mind as a big marker. There are things in life that will--standing atop Rainbow Point in a snowy Bryce Canyon with my dad... posing for a photo with Kelly on the Isle of Skye ferry so that we could help a lone young traveler persuade his parents that he wasn't traveling Europe by himself... watching my brother sit with the newborn Ian in his lap, totally pole-axed by the concept of a nephew... watching Dixon riffing on Gene Wilder after a jellyfish sting and trying not to smile too obviously... hearing Mom singing "American Lullaby"... climbing drunkenly onto the train in Manchester for the long ride home...
There's a lot that goes into fifty years, to be sure. But it's the content of the glass, not the capacity, that seems more important to me when I raise it in appreciation.
Happy birthday, everybody.
As I mentioned earlier, I've created a Twitter account (@PeterCashwell if you're interested), and after a couple of weeks, I must say I'm finding it an enjoyable way to interact online. Mind you, I've had an interesting few weeks in nearly every area of cyberspace lately.
Interestingly, this period began with a self-imposed hiatus from the web. The first weekend in February was a four-day holiday for my school, so with the new book's manuscript looking more or less complete except for some final editing, I ran off with Kelly to steal a few days for ourselves, reserving a room at DC's fantabulous Hotel Helix. This was an old-school getaway: we parked in Vienna and rode the Metro into town, hauling our luggage through the frosty (and sometimes snowy) streets ourselves, and we had, by mutual agreement, left our laptops at home. We would spend the next two nights in meatspace, interacting with our immediate environment exclusively through non-electronic means. Except for when we were in our hotel room, an environment where we just can't help ourselves and HAVE to have the Food Network on, because, y'know, it's Iron Chef America
and the secret ingredient might be eels again and we couldn't live with ourselves if we missed that. And yeah, I watched the Super Bowl. Sue me.
In any case, we were committed to traveling by foot and public transport, and to experiencing things by going and looking right at them. We started with a trip to the National Geographic Society and its new Birds of Paradise exhibit, which was co-sponsored by my good buddies at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Let's just call it spectacular and move on to the next museum, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, where my non-technological weekend got me into a technological whirlwind. We were there on Sunday afternoon for what turned out to be the final day of the "40 Under 40" exhibit, which featured a wide and wonderful variety of sculptures, crafts, and installations by some of America's most intriguing younger artists. I was delighting in quite a few of them when I came around a corner and was confronted with this:
The piece above is titled "Between 1 and 0" and is the work of Austin, Texas-based artist Shawn Smith. It's a three-dimensional recreation, rendered in hand-dyed and hand-carved pieces of wood, of a low-resolution internet photo of a campfire. The minute I saw it, I knew two things: first, that Smith shared my belief that there's a human instinct to carve the universe up into small and manageable units, and second, that the book wasn't finished yet. I absolutely had to interview him for Along Those Lines
As soon as we got home on Monday afternoon, I booted up the laptop, found Smith's website (www.shawnsmithart.com), and emailed him an interview request. To my surprise, he responded almost immediately, offering to talk with me on Tuesday. And thus, roughly 48 hours after first discovering his work, I was on the phone with him, talking about his work's use of lines and space and digital imaging for nearly an hour. I'm hoping to finish folding his interview into the manuscript tomorrow.
Perhaps it was that high-speed seek-and-find experience that inspired me to set up the Twitter account, but once I'd done it, I quickly discovered one of its main appeals: the opportunity to interact (or at least TRY to interact) with the people you are obsequiously following. I had, of course, hunted up the Twitter accounts of a variety of people I actually know, but Twitter allows you to exercise your inner fan as well. Among the first people I opted to follow were musical favorites like Robyn Hitchcock, They Might Be Giants, and the Mountain Goats, as well as writers like David Quammen, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and John Scalzi and comics creators such as Jill Thompson, Scott McCloud, and Gail Simone. And yes, I opted to follow a few goofy accounts, such as Feminist Hulk, The Late Thag Simmons, and Marco Rubio's Water Bottle.
And then they started talking back.
Not all of them. My first burst of fannish squee!ing came when one of Hitchcock's musical collaborators, violinist Deni Bonet, started following ME, but I was soon delighted to have provoked goofy responses from Scalzi and TMBG's John Flansburg. I felt even happier when I responded to a tweet by John Darnielle (the Mountain Goats' singer/songwriter/leader) that was using Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" as a template for a McDonald's ad. Apparently my "Was that Ezra Quarter Pounder?" cracked him up, because he claimed he was unable to express his awe at it. And even that was nothing compared to the giddiness I felt when I fired off a response to one of Quammen's tweets and actually entered into a conversation with him
. I mean, really, I exchanged a series of comments about the biological theory of recapitulation and our mutual failure to read one of Stephen Jay Gould's books on the subject with one of the world's absolute best science writers. If you'd looked at my face, and then at the face of one of the girls chasing the Beatles through the streets in A Hard Day's Night
, I strongly suspect you'd have seen the same expression on both.
And then it was off to Facebook, where I had recently joined a discussion group comprised of regular commenters at Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog at theatlantic.com. I've been tossing off smartass comments with the various members of the self-proclaimed Golden Horde (a/k/a the Lost Battalion of Platonic Conversationalists, a/k/a the Black Republicans) for some time, but at TNC's blog, most of us are known by the handles we've chosen--"Furious George," "Andy in Texas," and so on, so we know each other only through behavior and sobriquet. On Facebook, however, most of us go by our real names, so there's a certain amount of surprise in discovering who's who. And in my case, the surprising discovery was that one of the other members was named Sutker.
There are not many Sutkers out there, folks. Even the relatively rare name "Cashwell" is attached to about 1500 people in the USA, but there are fewer than 200 Sutkers out there, and the only ones I'd ever met were related to my mother, the former Suzanne Sutker. I opted to send this member a quick note, saying simply, "We've GOT to be related," and after some discussion of family names and migrations, we concluded that yes, we really are. Mom confirms it: she's actually met this cousin, though it was long ago and far away. But here we both were, throwing our ideas out into the same little patch of cyberspace. What are the odds?
And that's been my online life lately. I've connected with people I know. I've connected with people I didn't know but have long wanted to know. I've even connected with people I didn't have any idea I wanted to know.
Whatever else there is to say about living in the future, I'm at least expanding my social circle.11:06 PM
...but hey, there's a picture of me in my classroom and everything.
And yes, that's the tie I got from Aunt Susan. 4:47 PM
There's no easy way to say this, so I'll just come out and say it:
I joined Twitter.
If you're the sort who tweets, you can find me with relative ease, as my handle is @PeterCashwell (as you might expect).
I don't go into the depth that I go into in this space, but I'd have to admit that I'm already updating it more often. 5:23 PM
Thanks to a suggestion from friend of the blog Elizabeth McCullough, the book now has the whole title package--with a bonus colon included absolutely free!
I just hope it doesn't take me quite as long to figure out the next nine words.12:55 PM