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Exploring Space Lecture Series at the National Air and Space Museum

February 25, 2019
Dying Young: Massive Dead Disk Galaxy Challenges the Picture of How Galaxies Evolve

Hubble Image about gravity, “dead” galaxies and MACS J2129-0741. Image Credit NASA, ESA, M. Postman (STScI), and the CLASH team.

Last year I stumbled onto one of the coolest free events in Washington D.C. — the Exploring Space Lecture Series at the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall.

In this case, “coolest” meant 1) related to space stuff and 2) occurring beyond regular Museum hours after all the Ben Stiller look-alikes have been shooed out of their bathroom stall hiding spots and booted onto the sidewalks of Independence Avenue. “Free” meant “sponsored by two private sector companies that build rockets and provide launch services.” Very D.C.

The theme of the Exploring Space Lecture Series changes every year. In 2018, the Series focused on all the amazing things the James Webb Space Telescope will be doing for astronomy and cosmology after its hoped-for launch in 2021. The massive new space-based telescope is a spiritual successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

'Pandora's Cluster' Seen by Spitzer. Image credit NASA-JPL-Caltech

‘Pandora’s Cluster’ Seen by Spitzer. Image credit NASA-JPL-Caltech.

The Exploring Space presenters do not disappoint (mid-lecture references to spacecraft or services provided by one or more of the sponsors notwithstanding). But to discover the awesomeness, I first had to get through a ridiculously long and slightly troubling queue to enter the Museum. The line switched back-and-forth within the entry vestibule, spilled out of the building, and trailed down the exterior stairs.

In those 45 minutes of line shuffling, I had plenty of time to size up the other attendees of this first lecture of the year. Most of those in line looked like academics or engineers who had just been freed from their computers and anti-gravity workspaces a few blocks away at NASA Headquarters.

One man was mumble-practicing the question he planned to ask the lecturer. It was a very long question, the type that seemed to exist in place of the summary section of a dissertation that was never written. Looking at that guy, be-suited as he was, I thought I had identified the lecture’s most likely Off-Kilter Questioner (OKQ). I made an effort to sit far from him when I got inside the IMAX theater.

That first lecture was called “The Earliest Galaxies: Exploring Cosmic Sunrise with Hubble, Spitzer, and JWST.” The presenter was Garth Illingworth, professor emeritus in the department of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California Santa Cruz. I enjoyed everything about that presentation — the lecture, the slide, the jokes, the movie clips. However, I had not properly identified the most likely OKQ.

Audience question time arrived. Six seats away, which was far too close, in the calm sea of otherwise reasonable questions, the actual OKQ leaped to his feet. “What if someone already knows what dark matter is?” OKQ asked. He claimed to have arrived at this dark matter knowledge via spontaneous understanding.

Illingworth showed himself to be a seasoned presenter. His answer related to how peer review works. That was genius. OKQ scoffed. I learned so much that night, and it wasn’t all related to theories of the universe’s first galaxies.

Zeiss Star Projector on the Way to Retirement

Zeiss Star Projector on the Way to Retirement

The line to get into that first lecture put the fear of missing out in me, so I arrived in plenty of time for the early May Mars lecture, which was held in the Museum’s Albert Einstein Planetarium.

That’s right — FOR FREE!

The lights went down. I prepared to be wowed. I was. Before long.

Hoppy Price, Chief Engineer of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, offered a slightly surreal Powerpoint presentation at planetarium horizon level. The presentation addressed how humanity is in the process of getting itself, robots, and satellites to Mars. Next, the Museum’s curator of planetary science Matt Shindell shared vintage Martian landscape paintings. It was all very interesting especially from the perspective of “that’s really cool considering the human species has been around for 200,000 years and only 61 years ago did we first launch something into space.”

The more traditional wow’ing began when the regular staff of the planetarium took over the lecture.

The National Air and Space Museum is in the process of retiring its out-dated-yet-beautifully-illuminated Zeiss Star Projecter, which was given to the Museum in 1976. The Projector is headed to the Udvar-Hazy Center. The planetarium is going digital with, as its exuberant ad proclaims, “An 8K Full Dome System [that] projects ultra-high-definition visuals that are 16 times the resolution of your HD TV. Get ready to be immersed in brightness, clarity, and color that is out of this world!”

Sometimes, advertising is right on target.

The Exploring Space attendees were treated to a preview of the new digital system’s capabilities.

Mars Orbiter Missions and Natural Satellites. Image Credit NASA-JPL-Caltech

Mars Orbiter Missions and Natural Satellites. Image Credit NASA-JPL-Caltech.

The image above doesn’t convey the amazing experience of sitting in a comfortable recliner beneath a 77-foot dome, visually swooping toward and away from planets in our solar system, and following the myriad paths of natural and unnatural satellites of those planets. But it’s the best I could do.

With the new digital system, the views changed constantly and could be approached from any angle. It was dizzying. It was amazing. It was like flying.

It was the visual equivalent of me as a kid listening to a Walkman’s headphones for the first time. Suddenly, the music was everywhere around me. I couldn’t even feel the headphones on my ears. The air of the world was simply filled with music.

The Albert Einstein Planetarium’s new digital display was like that. The views were everywhere. I was transported. I was wowed.

University of Alberta Professor Robert Smith, Ph.D., whose excellent presentation was as entertaining as this gleeful picture suggests

University of Alberta Professor Robert Smith, Ph.D., whose excellent presentation was as entertaining as this gleeful picture suggests.

The last lecture I attended in 2018 was “The Historical Quest to See to the End of the Universe…Or Its Beginning.” Robert Smith from the University of Alberta was the funny, smart, engaging speaker with enlightenment to offer.

His task was to talk about the history of people trying to understand the universe’s size, its beginnings, and humanity’s place within it.

My favorite Smith quote of the evening was, “The most fascinating thing about the universe is that we think we can comprehend it to some degree.”

In a presentation that eventually wrapped back around to the James Webb Space Telescope, I learned so much.

There was Frances Burney, a patron of cosmology. Smith told a fascinating story about the contributions of this amazing woman who was born in 1752 and lived until 1840. My memory of that story was obliterated by this harrowing description of Burney’s mastectomy in 1810 that I found on Wikipedia. What a survivor that woman was! Smith also introduced me to James Hutton, who gave the world many things including the concept of deep time, the foundations of the modern study of geology, and Hutton’s Unconformity at Siccar Point.

Smith’s presentation was filled with information, laughs, eyebrows-raised-in-concern, and plenty of fodder for subsequent internet searches.

The Moon's North Pole. Image credit NASA-GSFC-Arizona State University

The Moon’s North Pole. Image credit NASA-GSFC-Arizona State University.

The Exploring Space Lecture Series for 2019 is coming up. It’s bound to be at least as good as the 2018 version. The focus in 2019 will be on the Earth’s moon and includes:

  •  March 28, 2019 – “Apollo Legacy” with presenter Farouk El-Baz who “was a guiding force in the Apollo lunar landing site selection process.”
  • April 24, 2019 – “The New Moon: Recent Advances in Lunar Science” with presenter Brett Denevi, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
  • May 22, 2019 – “Apollo Landing Sites Revisited: Modern Datasets at Familiar Locales” with presenter Noah Petro, a Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter scientist.
  • June 19, 2019 – “The Future of Lunar Exploration” with presenter Jim Green, NASA’s Chief Scientist.

More information about 2019 lectures, including links to sign up for them, can be found here. Tickets are free but must be acquired ahead of time and have been known to “sell” out.

One more neat thing about the Series: after each lecture concludes and as long as the weather cooperates, the Museum sets up a telescope on Independence Avenue. Anyone can have a peek through its lens for an extra-surreal, educational experience — getting a close-up view of the night sky while standing not only near a bright, busy street in the nation’s capital but also near all those Ben Stiller look-alikes.

Full moon photographed from the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Image credit NASA

Full moon photographed from the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Image credit NASA.

 

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Expect the Enema Bag Sculptures: Rachel Whiteread at the National Gallery of Art

December 31, 2018

This exhibit is not what it seems
I’m told that art is supposed to provoke a reaction. My first reaction to Rachel Whiteread’s exhibit at the National Gallery of Art was surprise. As I walked from room to room, amusement followed. Soon, amusement was leading me, or more like pulling me, into each new part of the exhibit.

I don’t think amusement was what Whiteread or the curators at the National Gallery of Art were going for. Clearly, I am not their target audience. If there had been a pre-test to determine my worthiness to view this exhibit, I would have failed it.

This is what happens when museums are free. No-cost museums mean simply anyone can walk in, lured by what appears to be a photograph of a not-yet-hung door in a Caribbean home, and opinionate about the difference between what they expected after not reading about the exhibit ahead of time and what the exhibit actually contained.

I sincerely apologize to the art-loving community for my complete and utter lack of refinement. Usually, in situations where I just don’t seem to be “getting” the art or the lecture, or I don’t understand the “transitional elements in the Mark Rothko-esque moth-loves-lamp meme,” I lurk near other people. I listen to the appreciative, knowing things they say, and I try to learn something.

Eavesdropping for knowledge was not possible at the National Gallery of Art on the day I saw the Whiteread exhibit. It was a Wednesday morning right after the museum opened. The only ones to talk with were the guards. This being me, I talk with guards all the time, or at least I give them the wide-eye about odd human behavior going on in an exhibit. But it didn’t seem right to chat with the guards about this exhibit. The only questions I could come up with were leading ones, and I would have been fighting a chuckle or a snort. The wide-eye would have been about me, and the guards would have been giving it to each other.

Instead of chatting, I spent an inordinate amount of exhibit time taking pictures and contemplating the difference between what I guessed certain pieces should taste like and what they would most likely actually taste like. The tasting-thoughts portion of the exhibit did not begin until after I was beyond the enema bag sculptures. Thank the Maker.

Just because I don’t get Whiteread’s art doesn’t mean people who can’t visit don’t want to see it. I can only hope enough good comes of my posting these pictures (despite the internal dialogue I offer below) that all the negative karma I’m accumulating on this page is somehow abated.

If that’s not how karma works, I’m in big trouble. Regardless…

Untitled Domestic, 2002, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Domestic, 2002, Rachel Whiteread

This exhibit is for me!

Untitled Torsos, 1992-1999, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Torsos, 1992-1999, Rachel Whiteread

Oh. Oh, what? Oh, my. I did not know there were so many types of enema bags.

Untitled Twenty-Five Spaces, 1995, Rachel Whiteread 2

Untitled Twenty-Five Spaces, 1995, Rachel Whiteread 2

These jellies do not wiggle.

Various Pieces, Rachel Whiteread

Various Pieces, Rachel Whiteread

This furniture store is very disappointing.

Untitled Library, 1999, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Library, 1999, Rachel Whiteread

Is it still a library if no one can read the books?

Untitled Yellow Bath, 1996, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Yellow Bath, 1996, Rachel Whiteread

I do not want a bath in the yellow bath.

Untitled White Slab, 1994 and 2017, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled White Slab, 1994 and 2017, Rachel Whiteread

Tongue depressor for a whale.

Flap, 1989, Rachel Whiteread

Flap, 1989, Rachel Whiteread

Huh.

Untitled Amber Mattress, 1992, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Amber Mattress, 1992, Rachel Whiteread

[…]

Untitled Bath, 1990, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Bath, 1990, Rachel Whiteread

I found one of the sinks Victor the Cleaner used.

Art is everywhere.

Study, 2005, Rachel Whiteread

Study, 2005, Rachel Whiteread

On Craigslist, I once gave away a desk like this for free.

Doorway 1, 2010, Rachel Whiteread

Doorway 1, 2010, Rachel Whiteread

Damn you, beautiful door of lies.

Night Glass, 2011, Rachel Whiteread

Night Glass, 2011, Rachel Whiteread

The buttons on this Nintendo controller do not work.

Untitled Hive II, 2007 and 2008, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Hive II, 2007 and 2008, Rachel Whiteread

This jelly house would taste like the screams of dying insects.

Untitled, 2011, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled, 2011, Rachel Whiteread

WAIT I LIKE THIS ONE I AM SO CONFUSED.

The Art of Burning Man Compliments of the Renwick

October 11, 2018

According to Jason the Handyman who ultimately decided to stay in Atlanta after Season 2, Episode 4 of Queer Eye, Burning Man centers around fire, art and community. I already like art and community. And I’m okay with fire as long as I have sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat and I don’t have to be in a terrestrial conflagration or burned by invisible rays emanating from a fusion reactor in the sky.

But it turns out Jason the Handyman wasn’t giving me the full story. The Burning Man primer at the Renwick has a different take on what that summer week in the Nevada desert is about. The primer tells me that among Burning Man’s ten core principles are  gifting and decommodification.

Whoa. Hold on. Those sound I’ll have to give away my dark chocolate. That’s s big red flag that tastes of less than 40% cocoa! Even more terrifying, the primer also tells me that at Burning Man I may encounter the playa chicken — a legendary carnivorous poultry reputed to live in the Black Rock Desert.

I’m out!

The Renwick’s “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” is as close as I’m going to get. The exhibit is in three parts. The first floor features costumes and models. The second floor has the big installations. And a leisurely picture-taking-filled 30-minute walk around the Golden Triangle neighborhood reveals the 6 outdoor pieces.

I quite enjoyed trying to find the outdoor pieces. The Renwick does a great job of providing a map to where the pieces are. It’s just sometimes hard to actually see what you are looking at even when it’s a big metal “XO” by the Farragut West Metro or a giant golden pyramid at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and K Street.

I’m always impressed by artists who are willing to put their works out in the unsupervised elements. Someday, these pieces will make their way to a museum, and only people with gloves and art degrees will be allowed to touch them. But someday is not yet today!

In honor of the Jason the Handyman’s Burning Man principles, I saw the indoor exhibit with family (my most immediate community). I gushed at numerous people about how cool the art was. And I saw the outdoor exhibit on a really hot, fireball-in-the-sky day. There was dark chocolate, too, but Jason didn’t say anything about my having to share it.

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” is at the Renwick Smithsonian American Art Museum until January 21, 2019 and in the surrounding neighborhood until December 2018.

Batting 0.454 For Ward 6 Week

August 12, 2018
RFK Stadium From Kingman Island on the Anacostia

RFK Stadium From Kingman Island on the Anacostia

I live in the best Ward in the City – number 6. We have more coastline than any of the other wards; we stretch into all four quadrants of D.C.; and we were able to rebuild successfully from the ashes of urban renewal disaster in the 1950s.

Our bus is the P6. This mighty marvel of human conveyance roams free in Ward 6, unchallenged by any lesser buses.

Suck it, Ward 4!

Once a year, Ward 6 celebrates itself with a week of events all around the ward. Let me clarify — FREE events all around the ward.

I’m all in for free. This year, I set out to attend as many of the eleven scheduled events as possible at the least cost to myself. I managed to get to 45.4% of them. I reveled not only in the free-ness of it all but also in the diversity of events. I visited places I had never before been to. I ate a senior citizen’s boxed falafel lunch. I consumed strange cheese. I rolled around in a pool of plastic balls. I baked in the sun.

In short, Ward 6 Week was fantastic and exhausting.

Funhouse (by Snarkitecture) at the National Building Museum

Funhouse (by Snarkitecture) at the National Building Museum

My first stop was the National Building Museum’s Funhouse exhibit. Snarkitecture, the designer of the exhibit, made a bold choice in the use of white as their base color. Someone who was not me made a similar choice about the color of linoleum on my kitchen floor. I have #QuestionsAboutTheJudgmentOfSuchPeople.

Signs around the Funhouse reminded visitors that it was not a playhouse. HA! Half the people inside the exhibit were between two and seven years old, an age range not known for its ability to care about “reminders” or “guidelines” or “consequences.” The Funhouse exhibit was beautiful undistilled chaos. My favorite part of the exhibit was the room with the Willy Wonkafied steampipe-looking mess of tubes for marbles. Pictures cannot convey the amount of delicious noise caused by no less than twenty people constantly reloading marbles into the contraption.

A member of the community was nearly lost in the pool ball.

A member of the community was nearly lost in the ball pool.

Free ticket value: $16

Later that day was the National Night Out event at Potomac Gardens. I could not find it. I’m sure it was there. I just could not connect myself to its existence. I mean, I found Potomac Gardens. I just couldn’t figure out how to get into the complex or where the free chips and selfies with firefighters were going to be.

In defense of the event and Potomac Gardens’s layout, fencing, and access points, my path through the City was already a bit of a mess by that point in the day. It’s not like I haven’t been to the Potomac Avenue Metro stop numerous times before. It’s just that Metro-me (the version of me that takes the Metro) is convinced that the Potomac Avenue Metro is next to the Anacostia Metro station. I know the Anacostia Metro stop is on the Green Line. And I know the Potomac River meets up with the Anacostia River. So Metro-me for years has been unable to shake the belief that the Anacostia Metro and the Potomac Avenue Metro are right next to each other on the Green line.

Makes sense, right?

Wrong. But that doesn’t mean I’m not counting the National Night Out at Potomac Gardens toward my “45.4% of events attended” claim, because I am.

In lieu of a relevant picture, here's a picture of a mushroom grove in Eastern Market

In lieu of a relevant picture, here’s a picture of a mushroom grove in Eastern Market

One thing led to another, and I scooted along to the next Ward 6 Week event that night — Books and Wine at East City Bookshop, a women-owned independent bookshop in Eastern Market. I was visiting for the first time! For the event, the store offered a surprising array of wines. Each was paired with a suggested book. My favorite pairing was Elif Batuman’s delightful yet subtle The Idiot in the company of a rosé. The lower level of the bookshop looked and sounded like a great author reading space, so of course I signed up for their events listserv.

Value of cheese, crackers and wine consumed: $12

Number of friends I got to hang out with: 1 (the friend bought a book, so my guilt at having consumed and imbibed compliments of the bookshop was assuaged!)

Wednesday’s Ward 6 Week highlight was tour guide Alexander Padro’s Shaw neighborhood tour with a focus on local recovery since the 1968 riots.

Fifty years on from the riots, the neighborhood bustles with people and bursts with architectural variety. I’ve lived in D.C. long enough to remain utterly fascinated by the ever-changing 7th Street corridor. The diversity of buildings in Shaw speaks to the neighborhood’s fitful recovery over the last fifty years, but I’m glad this part of D.C. escaped the multiple-block-sized mega-developments that have come to characterize much of the rest of development in D.C. over the last twenty years. Shaw will be stronger in the long run for this architectural medley and for its ability to hold onto its identity.

For more information on the 1968 riots, here’s a link to a great interactive Washington Post article.

Value: Alexander Padro has offered this same tour for free in the past! On the one hand, I think that’s fantastic. On the other hand, I got dinner with a friend afterward, and that meant I incurred a cost for this event: $ -26! I do not blame Ward 6 Week for this. I blame delicious Italian food and a Peroni at Al Crostino.

Number of friends I got to hang out with: 1

Thursday of Ward 6 Week was a beautiful-not-sweltering day in August, and I received a free surplus ticket to a Nationals game. What luck!

Nationals Stadium in All Its Glory.

Nationals Stadium in All Its Glory.

I took the Washington Post’s advice about avoiding pricey Nats Park meals, and brought my lunch. It turned out I didn’t need to. In addition to organizing Ward 6 Week, Councilmember Charles Allen’s office had an extra boxed lunch for me — falafel! Okay, it seemed like the lunches were intended for seniors, and I don’t have an AARP card, but I was encouraged to take a meal. Twice. So I decided those were surplus senior meals that were otherwise going to go to waste.

Mine was delicious!

It included a package of chocolate chip cookies. I ate those free cookies two hours before the start of the game and the “normal” time people eat dessert. You never know when Yellowstone might blow its top. But I’m pleased to report the start of the game arrived without a mega-volcano wiping out half of the United States and plunging the other half into post-volcanic winter.

Reeking of sunscreen, I wandered the shaded areas of the Stadium, which has something for everyone.

I came to understand that going to a Nats game is about more than a free boxed senior lunch, a seat almost in foul-ball range and barely avoiding buying a $12 bottle of beer. It’s about being surrounded by the salty delicious smell of baseball stadium hot dogs and trying to hold back your giggles as someone else’s 6-year-old declares to their surprise that they like cotton candy. And it’s about appreciating the craft of the game when Daniel Murphy manages to round all the bases in one go and slide on his belly safely into home.

The crowd went wild. There was falafel everywhere.

Free Nationals ticket value: Priceless.

My last stop for Ward 6 Week was a visit to Councilmember Allen’s office hours on Kingman Island. Technically, Kingman Island isn’t in Ward 6, but the island is an Anacostia River fixture, which made it fair game our week.  Robbie O’Donnell, with Anacostia Riverkeeper, offered an hour-long discussion and boat tour of the river.

The Walk to Kingman Island on the Anacostia.

The Walk to Kingman Island on the Anacostia.

It was a beautiful day to be on the river. Some of my concern about the shocking cost of water bills across the City was assuaged by seeing first-hand all the good the sewer overflow tunnel has done for the Anacostia. D.C. officials hope to make the river swimmable full time by 2025. For now, Swim Guide offers information about how safe it is to go in the water. Robbie also noted that since the 5 cent per bag tax began to be levied in 2010, plastic bags are no longer the number one item in the river by volume. They’ve fallen to tenth or so on the list.

The number one spot is now held by ball toys. Go figure.

The Anacostia is Too Pretty for Words.

The Anacostia is Too Pretty for Words.

Value:  Impossible to say, but this was one of the coolest, most inside-D.C. things I did during Ward 6 Week, which means it was worth even more than “Priceless.”

Number of friends I got to hang out with: 2

By the time Ward 6 Week had exhausted me, there was still one day to go. I wasn’t up for it though, no matter how cute the animals at the Mt. Vernon Triangle Petting Zoo were alleged to be. Councilmember Allen was still going full throttle though, always in a long-sleeved shirt and pants while I sweltered in less. He attended from beginning to end all the events I went to. He probably even has a selfie with a firefighter and a bag of chips at Potomac Gardens.

Total number of friends I got to hang out with this week: 4

Total amount of money I saved this week: About a bajillion dollars, I think.

Thanks to Councilmember Allen and his staff for making it all happen!

 

Clarion West Write-a-thon Meets Mount Kilimanjaro

June 26, 2018
Mount Kilimanjaro Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim - June 1, 2009

Mount Kilimanjaro (Photo credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim – June 1, 2009)

I’m pretty sure no one in the history of the Clarion West Write-a-thon has made this offer to potential sponsors: I will take a picture of your picture on Mount Kilimanjaro in exchange for a sponsorship pledge.

You must have questions. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe your mind just filled with the thought of having your picture travel to Africa and be carried in my backpack at least most of the way up Mount Kilimanjaro. You’ve thought of all the interesting sights your picture will see without any negative high altitude effects. Now, all you can think is GIVE ME THE LINK TO THIS AMAZING OPPORTUNITY.

Here’s the link to my Clarion West Write-a-thon sponsorship page including sponsorship levels.

I attended Clarion West in the summer of 2017. Clarion West is a 6-week residency program for science fiction and fantasy writers. Every year, eighteen people attend the program. At least a hundred others, many of them volunteers, make it happen. Clarion West students are taught by a different science fiction and fantasy author each week. My teachers were Daryl Gregory, Kij Johnson, John Chu, Connie Willis, Daniel José Older, and Pat Cadigan. They were amazing! There’s a special place in my heart for each and every one of them.

Clarion West Class of 2017

Clarion West Class of 2017 Featuring Kij Johnson (Photo credit: M. Huw Evans, June 2017)

The lessons were wide-ranging. My writing shifted and clarified in a positive way that otherwise might have taken me many years to accomplish. The friendships I formed were numerous — with classmates, teachers, administrators, volunteers, sponsors, and anyone who was a friend of Clarion West. The kindness of the Clarion West community was overwhelming. I had never felt so supported and encouraged by so many strangers for so long a time period as I did in those six Clarion West weeks during the summer of 2017.

Now, I feel supported and encouraged in the same way, except the other members of the Clarion West community are no longer strangers. Meanwhile, over the last year, my classmates have published many dozens of short stories and non-fiction pieces. They’ve been nominated for awards, including a Nebula and a Hugo! Several are in the process of getting novels published. Master of Fine Arts degrees are in the process of being acquired. Others are teaching and studying and reading and otherwise improving their craft.

Andrea and Nunataks in Alaska

Andrea and Nunataks in Alaska

Clarion West administrators say they operate on a shoestring budget. I looked at that budget, and I was amazed to see that the whole operation costs just $200,000. That’s everything Clarion West does throughout the year, plus a 6-week residency program for eighteen students! Ten percent of the Clarion West budget comes from the Write-a-thon, which I’m participating in this year to help future students attend Clarion West and to give back to the community.

I’ll be on a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro during Write-a-thon time. The novella I’m working on should be mostly done before I start the trek (it better be!) so I’m offering some Kilimanjaro-related sponsorship levels:

  • For a $10 pledge, I will take a picture of your picture chilling at Mount Meru camp before the hike begins. 
  • For a $25 pledge, I will take a picture of your picture at either Shira Plateau (elevation 13,000 feet) or on Mount Meru (elevation 14,977 feet) with Kilimanjaro in the background. 
  • For a $50 pledge, I will take a picture of your picture at all 3 locations listed above. 

There’s more information including picture acquisition details on my pledge page.

Sponsor me, and give a picture of you the opportunity of a lifetime.

No Sharks Were Harmed in the Making of this Picture of a Picture

No Sharks Were Harmed in the Making of This Picture of a Picture

 

Charm City Spec: My Kind of Reading Series

May 31, 2018
Three awesome authors

from left: A.C. Wise, Leah Cypess, Fran Wilde

Speculative fiction runs in Baltimore’s blood. Edgar Allan Poe must have started it percolating when he first moved to the city in 1829. Dashiell Hammet, who lived in Baltimore in the early 1900s and worked as a Pinkerton, must have kept speculative fiction on life support by adding a dose of mystery. Fast forward to the 1960s, and the Baltimore Science Fiction Society was born in the back of a Trailways bus. Or so I’m told.

Roger Zelazny, Joe Haldeman, Jack Haldeman, and Gardner Dozois were some of the more famous names associated with early efforts to put Baltimore on the speculative fiction map. Fifty years on, speculative fiction in Baltimore is going strong.

In 2018, the Charm City Spec Reading Series joined a long tradition of speculative fiction in the city. The series aims to spotlight not only Baltimore-area speculative fiction writers, but also those from out-of-town. Past readers have included Katherine Locke, Sunny Moraine, Catharine Asaro, Ariel S. Winter, Malka Older, and Tom Doyle. In April, Leah Cypess, A.C. Wise, and Fran Wilde joined their ranks.

I was lucky enough to get rockstar parking across the street from cafe-bookshop Bird in Hand, where Charm City Spec happens. There’s nothing like a bookshop that lets me eat vegetable soup and drink hot chocolate right next to the brand new books for sale. Bird in Hand’s relaxed atmosphere and independent spirit make them easy to love. They’re the perfect setting for the Charm City Spec Reading Series.

Leah Cypess reads

Leah Cypess

After a bit of chatting and the distribution of tarot cards for a later book giveaway, Leah Cypess kicked off the night. She read from her novel Mistwood, the tale of an ancient shapeshifter trapped in the body of a human girl. Cypess pulled from chapter 2, and I was immediately hooked. Mistwood is just one of Cypess’s four published novels. The author’s second reading was from On the Ship,” one of her many pieces in Asimov’s Science Fiction. That story is about an intergenerational ship making landfall for the fifth time after four unsuccessful attempts. During Cypess’s question-and-answer session, she talked about how Asimov’s editor Sheila Williams sent Cypess a series of encouraging notes to accompany rejections before Williams eventually bought a story. It was a heartening tale for writers.

A.C. Wise reads

A.C. Wise

A.C. Wise read from her novel The Ultra-Fabulous Glitter SquadronThe Glitter Squadron and I go way back. I fell in love with them three years ago as I prepared to interview Wise for Weightless Books. I’d never heard Wise read her work before, and she brought as much personality to the ass-kicking, monster-fighting group as I imagined when I read her debut novel in 2015. The Glitter Squadron superheroes use the full force of their extra-chunky heels, rayguns and spaceships to root out evil, especially when it comes in the form of eels. Wise is more than a novelist, too. Since 2004, over 100 of her short stories have been published. Like Leah Cypess and Fran Wilde, A.C. Wise offered the Bird in Hand audience an engaging, well-delivered taste of her work.

Fran Wilde reads

Fran Wilde

Fran Wilde read the entirety of her Uncanny Magazine short story “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand.” Wilde’s stage presence is compelling. Teeth filled her chilling reading. Introducing the piece, Wilde said, “I should tell you I was fairly angry when I wrote this.” That was clear from the reading, but it was still wrapped in a layer of awesome. “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” has been nominated for a Nebula award and a Hugo. Those aren’t Wilde’s first nominations. Her work has been recognized several times over the last few years with numerous nominations, and her debut novel Updraft won the Andre Norton and Compton Crook awards. The third book in her Bone Cycle series was published in 2017.

Yes, the reading series is awesome. Yes, the talent on display is impressive. Yes, I had soup and a hot chocolate for dinner. Yes, I still went to Insomnia Cookies across the street afterward for the sustenance I required to drive the 39 miles back to Washington D.C.  I cannot resist cookies or readings by great speculative fiction authors. The Charm City Spec Reading Series was everything I hoped it would be.

Alan Smale, Justina Ireland and Bryan Camp are next up for Charm City Spec. The authors will be at Bird in Hand to read and take questions on July 18, 2018 at 7pm for an evening that promises to be amazing.

Charm City Spec can be found at charmcityspec.com, on Facebook, and on twitter @CharmCitySpec.

Frederick Douglass’s Cedar Hill Home

February 28, 2018

I had to make a reservation to get into Frederick Douglass’s Cedar Hill home. Okay, that’s over-stating things. I wanted to make a reservation. Otherwise, what if I showed up and all ten spots on the National Park Service tour were taken? One thing would lead to another, and I’d be drowning my sorrows in cabbage and a patty at Caribbean Citations just when my waistline would be saying that’s not such a good idea.

Horned Hat Rack of Awesomeness

Horned Hat Rack of Awesomeness

Pie Cabinet. Yes, Pie Cabinet.

Pie Cabinet. Yes, Pie Cabinet.

But it turns out I was the only one on the Cedar Hill tour. That was super-perfect for me but unfortunate for the nine-person group that also reserved spots but didn’t show up. They missed out on that amazing feeling of being surrounded by a sense of history and actual objects that participated (at least peripherally) in events. Cedar Hill was never gutted as so many other historic homes and buildings have been. (Spoiler alert — the interior of Ford’s Theatre is a re-creation!) Seventy percent of Cedar Hill furnishings were in the house when Frederick Douglass lived there.

Mr. Barnes was my personal tour guide through Cedar Hill. What a treat! And what an effort on my part not to touch the furnishings!

A few years ago while I was consuming book after book of Civil War history, I read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The book was published in 1845. Connecting with the horror Mr. Douglass describes in his first autobiography has always been hard — not hard to imagine, but hard to want to imagine. Plus, I don’t like to think about how the United States Constitution once legalized enslaving people or how in the 150 years since that changed, people in the U.S. still have to fight for basic rights.

Photograph of Anna Murray Douglass (1813–1882), the first wife of Frederick Douglass

Anna Murray Douglass (1813–1882), the first wife of Frederick Douglass

I prefer to think about how good people make the world a better place. As one of those people, Frederick Douglass surrounded himself with other bold thinkers also bringing about positive change through sacrifice. When I read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the person who really stuck out to me — after Mr. Douglass, of course — was his wife, Anna Murray-Douglass. In 1838, the future Mrs. Douglass gave the man she loved sailor’s clothing to disguise himself and part of her own savings so that he might escape enslavement, which he did. I was glad to see that the importance of the first Mrs. Douglass was clear at Cedar Hill even though she only lived there a few years. (Rosetta Sprague Douglass wrote an article about her mother, and it’s an interesting read.)

The visit to Frederick Douglass’s home helped me understand there was a at least a bit of whimsy in the man. One example: I quite enjoyed the idea of his rounded-lid traveling trunks. They would always have to be placed atop the trunks of others when he traveled, thus giving Douglass easier access to his things and quicker unloading. No doubt, they were banned on various modes of transportation. People would have seen those rounded lids coming for a mile, and Mr. Douglass clearly didn’t care. That makes me smile.

The Growler

The Growler

Mr. Douglass’s Growler (or “man-cave” as Mr. Barnes suggested in the more modern vernacular) was another bit of fun. The Growler was a tiny brick shack set a couple hundred feet back from the main house. I love the idea that a world-renowned figure like Mr. Douglass might set up a small space just for himself — maybe to write, maybe to have a quiet moment, maybe to read — who knows? The Growler reminded me of my favorite cube-farm desk. My colleagues at the time thought that cube was ridiculous. It had just enough room for me and one other person but only as long as that other person kept their legs outside of the cube and in the cube-farm hallway. I loved that space. It was perfect for keeping out the riffraff, and I didn’t even have to physically eject them. Even the haters knew that my cube was only big enough for one person. Maybe Mr. Douglass was writing in his Growler. Maybe he was thinking. Maybe he was reading. Or maybe he was just trying to keep out the riffraff.

Cedar Hill View with Capitol

Cedar Hill View with Capitol

My favorite bit of fun had to do with why Mr. Douglass chose to build Cedar Hill where he did. I could appreciate that the view was spectacular and that the breeze might have helped with the heat and the bugs. But a two-mile commute into work including a river crossing must have been more than the average well-off man of the 1880’s was interested in tolerating. I asked Mr. Barnes if he knew why Mr. Douglass chose the location. The twinkle in Mr. Barnes’s eye was unmistakable. He said the answer lay in the fact the locals didn’t want Mr. Douglass in their neighborhood. That made me smile, too. Building a house atop the highest hill in a neighborhood that tried to keep you out sounds like the kind of fun I appreciate.

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought

My Frederick Douglass questions came at a price. I left Cedar Hill with homework from Mr. Barnes, who strongly suggested I consult numerous additional resources like the Library of Congress’s Frederick Douglass collection, Douglass’s three additional autobiographies, and Leigh Fought’s Women in the World of Frederick Douglass. My local library had a copy of Fought’s book, and I snatched it up. But worry not! The D.C. Public Library has twenty more copies for everyone else!

More information about Cedar Hill and Frederick Douglass can be found here on the National Park Service website. Reservations are only required for groups of ten or more. The only way to see the inside of Cedar Hill is to join one of the tours, and I highly recommend a visit.

 

 

 

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