Sunday, June 26, 2011

Personal Heroes

I thought I might go on a bit about some particularly exceptional people in my life. I had thought about doing so a couple of months back, when the furor about the evils of unions for public employees was at fever pitch, but I figured it was more prudent to let things cool down a bit, so that I might write with a clearer head. I have very strong feelings about teachers, and I haven't been as angry in years as I was to hear some of the nasty rhetoric about them—particularly by a lot of pinheads on Facebook—during the early May "debates" about collective bargaining in Wisconsin. If you frequent this blog, you probably know that, when I'm not writing infernal tales of woe and dread, I work in the educational publishing business, and thus I have close ties to the education field. I feel very strongly about academics, and participating in this business is my way of contributing to education without actually working in the classroom—which, I might as well admit, would eventually lead either to my murder or my incarceration for murder. Hence much of my respect for those who are there on the front lines, giving everything they've got and then some to keep the youth of this nation from slipping ever deeper into the vast cesspool of stupidity, which has spread like a giant oil slick since the nobly intentioned but ultimately misguided No Child Left Behind Act became the law of the land just after the turn of the century.

Now, tell me. Could you read the above paragraph? Did you find any spelling, grammar, or usage errors? Did you discern any particular personal bias? Could you identify some of the liberties I've taken with formal English to write colloquially? Do you know what "colloquial" means? Does "hyperbole" mean anything to you? If you answered "yes" to any of these, thank a teacher.

I was fortunate to have been educated in a time when the economy in my community was booming, and educational standards were high due less to mandate than our community realizing they needed to be, and because education—and educators—were valued as the long-term assets they rightfully are. Now, you and I have both had good teachers and bad teachers, and sometimes, despite the best efforts of the good ones, neither of us do much learning. I usually attribute that to laziness on my part—probably yours too—but against all odds, the better part of the important lessons they taught me managed to stick. For example: At my job, I occasionally have to use algebra and/or geometry to accurately create a page for one of our publications. To be honest, a honey badger can solve simple math problems better than I can (I am very much in my right brain); however, while I can't recall particular formulas without serious research (and then with serious lapses of comprehension), I have somehow managed to recollect exercises in logical thinking that, in the end, have allowed me to re-invent algebra from the ground up and ultimately get the page done right.

Credit goes to Ms. Frances Harris, eighth grade, Martinsville Junior High School, and Mr. Glenn Sellers, 11th grade, Martinsville High School. No doubt, they'd cringe at my methods, but by god, they were the ones who presented me with challenges that, at the time, I knew were beyond my means, and essentially dared me to overcome them.

Smart, them ones.

Now, I'm not writing this as much to make a political argument as to highlight the dire need our society has for excellent educators. I'm going to tell you right now, you could not pay me enough to work in a public school—especially in an impoverished or otherwise challenging community—because, above all things, I value my sanity. Yet I personally know many, many individuals who lay aside their personal fears and biases; they draw on every ounce of creativity they have; they sacrifice the wealth they might otherwise gain in their field to pass on their knowledge to our young because they feel it's the right thing to do. Because they care.

Now, I will tell you, I've been there, at least in some limited capacity. I've taught adults, I've taught youngsters; I've extended myself far beyond my comfort zone to give a little bit back to a community that by and large did me right. Back in the 80s, one of my students in the Patrick Henry Community College program for continuing education (I taught art) was my 12th-grade English teacher, the late Mrs. Lula Johnson. Never was there a more gratifying moment: I got to challenge her the way she had challenged me. She knew I was going to do this and was absolutely sporting about it (the fact of which increased my admiration for her all the more). Of course, she was teaching me the basics of communication; I was teaching her the basics of a hopefully enriching elective. Some difference; yet it put me in the position of seeing things from the other end of the spectrum. I don't know that I've ever been more enlightened.

In eighth grade, I had a most wonderful art teacher. Although I was artistically inclined, I had always considered myself a far better artist than I really was; still, I did have at least some grasp of the basics, and Mr. Colie Johnson recognized my inherent strengths. Yet and still (his favorite expression), he always took it upon himself to challenge me to strive harder than I thought was necessary. No matter how much effort I put into a piece of art, no matter how deeply I drew on my creativity, he'd look at what I did, smile encouragingly, tell me I was doing beautifully, and then wonder if there was anything else I could think of that might make it work better. I was sometimes offended and occasionally quite indignant. What do you mean it's not perfect as it is? But his manner was irresistible; there was no choice in the matter. I had to make it better. Somewhere along the line, that became my philosophy in life: it had to be better.

In tenth grade, my biology teacher was Mr. Bill Vickers (who went on to become the principal of Martinsville High School). Now, I don't remember shit about Gregor Mendel or the phylogenetic tree of life or the finer points of natural selection. But I clearly remember the labs where we evaluated the merits of evolution vs. scientific creationism (because in those days you could do this without offending a bunch of overly sensitive religious pricks [note the personal bias]); debated whether marijuana should be legalized (and to what degree, be it medicinal or in general); and analyzed current social issues (such as whether we favored busing students to distant schools to fulfill integration quotas). Of course, we did actually study the more traditional aspects of biology, and to reinforce our learning, we often played games, such as Chalk Talks, which made the subject fun and, above all, memorable. Part of the class's appeal was that Mr. V. had nicknames for everyone in class. I was Polo (you know, as in Marco). We had Sir Slab, Ms. Red Nose, Jaypee, Bonneville, and all kinds of other colorful names. Mr. V. taught me more about critical thinking than any other teacher, either before or since. In fact, I credit Mr. V. with being perhaps the most influential individual in my life, apart from my immediate family.

Did you have a teacher like that?

We need teachers like that. We need individuals who can inspire our young people to strive beyond the short-term strictures of achievement tests. We need to give them every means at our disposal to make sure that this country regains its respected stature in the field of education. To me, it's an almost personal affront that our public education system has slipped from being the pinnacle of the civilized world to a transparent shadow of itself, and that here, even in this country, short-sighted politicians, media blowhards, and, yes, the ignorant masses have somehow taken it upon themselves to demonize some of the most intelligent, influential, and crucial members of our society.

Never was this more evident than when a Facebook "friend" with right-leaning tendencies went on, day after day, about those overpaid, elitist, lazy-ass teachers whose only function is to indoctrinate youngsters into the ranks of stupid liberals, and who spend every summer lounging on the beach on our tax dollars, and then have the gall to do all they can to retain their professional, personal, and political influence as a group. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, of course; but if your every post is riddled with spelling, grammar, and usage errors, and you can't piece together two coherent sentences—I'm sorry—your semi-literate rantings on this subject are not exactly credible.

Then there's the fine lady I know whose emotionally challenged son is more than a handful for his poor teachers, to the detriment of the rest of the class. Needless to say, in her eyes, all her son's problems are his teachers' fault because, for one thing, he's smarter than they are (in fact, he's smarter than most adults!) and they just don't recognize it, and for another, he doesn't really have any discipline problems, he's just bored. Well, you know, it may be that he's a smart kid at heart, but it's so much easier just to blame teachers for his problems than to actively get involved, work with the teachers instead of fighting them at every juncture, and, well, you know, maybe being a decent, forward-thinking parent.

So yeah, these things drove me to write up a little something in the defense of one of the most under-appreciated groups of individuals in the land. At my job, I work with a passel of former teachers. Over the years, I've kept in touch with a number of my former teachers. Sadly, almost all of them lament where the education system has gone over the past decade or so. The biggest complaint I hear is that all the creativity has gone out of the classroom in favor of teaching to the tests, which in itself has resulted in a marked decrease in kids' critical thinking skills and increased school administrators' motivations to manipulate the system just to keep their federal dollars coming in. What we, as citizens, need to recognize is that we are jeopardizing our own future by implementing short-sighted policies that discourage the best teachers—who appear to be leaving even decent school systems in droves.

Yes, by all means, let's look at areas where there's waste and do something about it. But we can't keep financially gutting our education system and not expect the direst consequences down the road. Our teachers need to be given every possible tool to succeed. Lord knows their jobs are already more than hard enough. No, not all teachers are saints or paragons, but in my experience, most of them really have a stake in your kids' futures. If you're a parent, get involved. Get to know your kids' teachers. Give them a hand. For God's sake, don't fight them. Or you, not they, are the problem.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

We All Scream

Spillway on the Dan River, viewed from the Riverwalk Trail.

It was up and out early, bound for Danville, for a bunch of new caches and a gathering of cachers at the Corner Cafe in Ringgold, VA. Ice cream and good company aplenty, plus first-to-find on a couple of new hides. As is pretty much the norm, while out on the trail, I encountered Lynn and Norm, a.k.a. Spring1, who took me in like a stray dog, and we conquered a few caches together.

Afterward, I snagged Ms. B. and headed out to Mahi's Seafood Restaurant in Greensboro for a superb dinner. It's been there in an all-but-hidden little corner of Lawndale Ave. for many years, even since I lived in that neighborhood back in the late 80s/early 90s. It's a little pricey (we poor 'uns had a coupon), very cozy, with excellent service and ambiance. I had oyster & shrimp creole, which was perfectly spicy (probably too spicy for those who don't enjoy fire as much as I do); Ms. B. ordered baked Tilapia Parmesan, which clearly treated her right as well. We ended the evening getting together with our good friends, the Albaneses, at their place to sample a few decent wines. Since we've caught a break from the oppressive heat these past few evenings, we decided to hang out at the nearby, ever-so-lovely gazebo on Lake Jeannette, only to spend most of our time cowering from the world's second biggest spider (the biggest lives in Burlington), which made it its business to perch above our heads, adopting a menacing fighting stance.

At least it never pounced on us. That would have been bad. Bad, I tell you.

Friday, June 24, 2011

No Dead Baby Jokes, Please

I found it just off the Palmetto Trail, near Lake Brandt, in north Greensboro. An old geocache had been archived, thus opening that area up for a new cache, so I decided to head out there and hide a new one. While I was scouting the area, I saw something peeking out from a dark hollow, and upon closer inspection, I determined that, yes, it was in fact a dead baby. Well, a dead, disembodied, plastic, eyeless, mindless baby head, at any rate. On first glance, it gave me a wonderful little case of the creeps. Little dude makes a cool cache guardian, as he's stationed only a short distance from the hide. Geocachers, you need not look inside the head for the logbook, as you'll find only an empty brain pan. The cache isn't published yet at, but when it's up, you'll find it under the moniker, "No Dead Baby Jokes, Please" (GC2YVWF).

"Cursed is the ground where dead thoughts live new and oddly bodied, and evil is the mind that is held by no head."
—Abdul Al-Hazred, The Necronomicon


Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day 2011

Dad died just over ten years ago—April 11, 2001. A great man he was. Seen here with a strange little dude, sometime in 1959.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Caches, Cemeteries, and Catses

Ms. B. at Old Union Cemetery, near Stokesdale, NC

Off with Ms. B. to Stonefield Cellars Winery in Stokesdale this afternoon, where both the wine and their resident cat make for quite the attraction. On the way over, we stopped for a couple of caches, then paid a visit to the Old Union Cemetery, off Harrell Road, where veterans of both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars are buried—which I had discovered quite some time ago on a caching outing. The graveyard is set back in the woods a ways, and the stones are so ancient that most are completely illegible. A scenic and very tranquil little historical spot.

Noah, the Stonefield Cellars Winery mascot, is a beautiful Bengal cat, with a very sweet temperament. I want one. And their wine is superb. Afterward, there was a new cache in Eden, so we detoured over to give it quick hunt. Ran into fellow cachers, Team Collab, and shared first-to-find honors with them. Yay.

Noah! My man!

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Wacky Tobacco Trail

The American Tobacco Trail is a 22-mile rails-to-trails project over in the Triangle area, a portion of which passes through the extensive Chatham County gamelands. My old comrade-in-geocaching Beth "Bog Turtle" Walton had come down from Illinois for a visit, so this morning, she and Debbie "Cupdaisy" Shoffner and I got together and trucked over to the ATT for a bit of hiking and caching. We put in about five miles on the trail and snagged a dozen caches, including a very evil multi called "I Had a Nice Visit—Again" (GC2RGXZ), one stage of which cost me an ungodly amount of hair from all the hair-pulling. (Yes, this is how we have fun.) Afterward, we discovered a most wonderful little restaurant called Ted's Montana Grill, which specializes in bison—a particularly fortuitous event for us, as Ms. Bog Turtle and I both can't get enough dead buffalo, and they really do it right here. I will mention that Ted's a reasonably classy restaurant, with fairly upscale ambiance; now here come Damned Rodan, Cupdaisy, and Bog Turtle, fresh off the trail (meaning definitely not so fresh), looking like something Bigfoot dragged in. An appealing incongruity, I think. Anyhoo, we enjoyed a very late lunch or early dinner (dunch?), and then it was back on the road for home.

I hope Ms. Bog Turtle enjoys the rest of her visit, and snags many caches.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

June Madness

It's a big month for adaptations of H. P. Lovecraft's short novel, At the Mountains of Madness. Italian filmmaker Michele Boticelli has made an intriguing, 30-minute animated version, capturing the essence of the story with unique style. It's a fairly admirable job, given how much of the novel is given to relating the ancient history of the denizens of the mysterious mountains. I'm quite taken with the film's ending, which neatly references numerous several other Lovecraft tales, such as "The Whisperer in the Darkness" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." You may view the entire film here.

Also, for the month of June, the BBC is presenting an audio version of the original story, capably read by Richard Coyle. It won't be available very long, so check it out while you still can. Link is here: BBC's At the Mountains of Madness

Thanks to Lovecraft E-Zine for pointing the way to these and many other blasphemous treasures.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bigfoot's Library

Despite the heat and unruly hordes of bloodsucking critters, it was necessary to hide a new trail cache. Thus, there is a new one, which has just gone live, out on what I call The Bigfoot Trail—a well-maintained but "unofficial" trail on Greensboro watershed land, a little ways north of town (see The Great Blue Heron Nursery for a bit more description). Each time I've been out there—four times in four days—I've heard something very big and very heavy splashing through the marsh, and I've come to the conclusion that it can only be Bigfoot. Thus, I hereby proclaim this trail the Bigfoot Trail, and that is my proclamation. Since cryptozoological horrors tend to enjoy scary literature (so I'm told), I've placed in a mysterious, dark hiding place a Bigfoot-sized ammo can full of scary books, including a couple that feature horror stories by ye old dude. Mind you, Bigfoot's Library is for premium geocaching members only, but if you're a devoted cacher, this sucker has your name on it: (GC2XMG1)

Be aware, the ticks are out in full force. I waded through one small patch of tall grass and ended up with three deer ticks embedded in my leg. The most insulting thing is that they laugh at all varieties of insect repellent; near as I can tell, you have to set yourself on fire to get them to shy away from you, and even then, it's hardly a sure thing.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


I recall seeing the box art for the 1988 horror flick, Scarecrows, back in the dark ages when I used to go down to the video store and rent VHS tapes, but I never actually bothered to check it out. This evening, I needed a horror fix in the worst way, and since the movie is available for streaming on Netflix, I decided to give it a look. Dang if I'm not glad I did. It's a solid, atmospheric little film, with fair acting, a decent story, and a particularly eerie musical score by Terry Plumeri. It's about a team of mercenaries gone bad, who have robbed Camp Pendleton of three million dollars or so and hijacked a private plane to make their escape. One of the team members double-crosses his compadres—creating a diversion on the plane and then bailing with the cash. The remaining bunch force the pilot and his daughter to put the plane down in a field so they can hunt down the rogue brigand and recover the loot. They find themselves at a remote, deserted farmhouse, guarded by several scary-looking scarecrows. Needless to say, the scarecrows aren't exactly what they seem. Creepiness and mayhem soon follow.

The storyline in no small way reminds me of Dead Birds (2004)—or rather vice-versa, since Scarecrows was made 16 years earlier—focusing on a band of murderous antiheroes, but whose characters are developed sufficiently to generate at least some interest in their fate. All of the action occurs over the course of a single night, and there's nary a trace of daylight to be seen before the end credits roll. The cinematography works well, especially the lingering shots of the scarecrows' faces following significant moments of violence and gore. There are no pat explanations for the events in the picture, and while some might feel this is a serious shortcoming, I believe quite the opposite. The "essence" of the supernatural menace is left to one's imagination; again, like Dead Birds, the narrative offers you enough information to draw your own conclusions based on its internal logic. In horror fiction, this particular quality is often exemplified in the works of Fritz Leiber and T.E.D. Klein—and both of them have strongly influenced my own creepy fiction.

No, Scarecrows is hardly a horror classic, but I would consider it slam-bang perfect drive-in movie fare—though in its day, it went direct-to-video, and even in 1988, drive-in theaters had become a rare and dying breed. It's nice to have this one available at the click of a mouse via Netflix, and it's definitely worth checking out. I'll even give this one four Damned Rodan's Fiery Martinis out of five.