Sunday, March 3, 2024

How old is your city?

So I was chatting with friends on Facebook, as one does, and the definition of "old" came up -- not in terms of people, mind you, although we talk about that a lot, too, but in terms of cities. Specifically, how Europeans marvel at the way Americans marvel at their castles, and how new most of America is in comparison.

I mean, Europe has some really old cities. The oldest city in Europe is generally recognized to be Plovdiv, Bulgaria, founded in 6000 BCE. Athens, founded in 3000 BCE, is a relative newcomer. (The oldest city on that list that I've been to is Seville, Spain, founded in the eighth century BCE.) In short, Europeans think it's normal to share space with really old stuff.

Compare that to the oldest city in America -- St. Augustine, Florida, founded in 1565 CE. Second oldest? Why, that would be Santa Fe, founded in 1610, give or take a year or three. It's also the oldest state capital in the country, and the loftiest, at 7,199 feet above sea level (yes, we're higher than Denver). 

In 1882, Santa Fe had already been a capital city for more than 250 years.
Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain 
And yet those people on the East Coast are so impressed with how historic their cities are. I mean, I used to be impressed, too. I grew up near Chicago, which was incorporated in 1837; cities on the East Coast are venerable by comparison. New York City was founded by the Dutch as New Amsterdam in 1624; the English seized it from the Dutch 40 years later*, and it stayed in British hands until we declared our independence from England.

This topic always seems to crop up around Thanksgiving, when the annual bickering starts over the first Thanksgiving. It was the Pilgrims, right? Plymouth Rock and all that? Eh, not so fast. The famous feast in Plymouth happened in 1623, but Berkeley Plantation in Virginia claims their Thanksgiving occurred in 1619.

Note, if you will, that 1619 is nine years later than the founding of Santa Fe.

Last fall, I attempted to point this out on a Facebook post about the Berkeley Plantation event. Other commenters were not amused. "We're talking about colonial America," one fellow said. So if the Spaniards founded it, it doesn't count?

Another person put it more bluntly: "What's your point?" 

To which I replied, "I'm told I don't have one." See, I'd belatedly remembered that famous quote by some Virginian whose identity has been lost to the mists of time: 

To be a Virginian, either by Birth, Marriage, Adoption, or even on one's Mother's side, is an Introduction to any State in the Union, a Passport to any Foreign Country, and a Benediction from Above.

And you thought Texans were impressed with themselves.

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Don't get me wrong - I lived in Virginia for more than 30 years, and both my kids were born there, so I guess I qualify as a Virginian by adoption. And it's a lovely state (sorry, commonwealth). But ... yeah.

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*Among the English sailors who liberated New Amsterdam was Capt. Edmund Cantwell -- the first Cantwell of our line in America. I guess that means I could join the DAR if I wanted to?

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These moments of state-pride blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!

Sunday, February 25, 2024

By Grabthar's hammer: Sci-fi in New Mexico.

 

Lynne Cantwell 2024
The New Mexico state legislature has wrapped up its annual session, so I've finally had a chance to learn the answer to a question that's been bugging me for several weeks: Why does Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham have an R2-D2 in her office?

See, our office is on the same floor in the Roundhouse as the governor's. There's a small gallery behind her reception desk that I pass on my way in to work, and you can see that R2 unit from the hallway.

It turns out that it's part of an exhibit on science fiction and New Mexico's connection to it. Now Albuquerque is the place for Breaking Bad fans (just check out the plethora of merchandise for sale in any tourist trap there), but a whole lot of movies have been filmed all or partly in the Land of Enchantment. Not any of the Star Wars movies, alas, according to this list on Wikipedia, even though there was some talk about Episode VII being shot here while the production crew was scouting locations.

Nor was Galaxy Quest filmed here. Nevertheless, the governor's office has on display a costume worn by Alan Rickman in that movie (and happy belated birthday to Alan). 

Lynne Cantwell 2024
Apparently the only connection between these props and this state is that they're on loan from the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamagordo. That's the closest town to White Sands Missile Range, the site of the world's first nuclear explosion, in 1945. (Oppenheimer was actually shot in New Mexico, although not at the Trinity site.) 

The exhibit in the governor's gallery also features info with a much less tenuous connection to the state: sci-fi authors from New Mexico. 

Lynne Cantwell 2024
Some, but not all, of the books in the display case were written by New Mexican authors. And I've gotta say that they missed a whole bunch of folks, including but not limited to George R.R. Martin, Walter Jon Williams, Robert Vardeman, and -- the most glaring omission, to my mind -- Stephen R. Donaldson. (I mean, Stephen McCranie? Who the heck is he? Maybe the exhibit's creators should have asked fans of the genre for input.)

The exhibit is up until April 29th, and admission is free. In fact, the Roundhouse has an extensive collection of work by New Mexican artists, and you can see all that for free, too. I know most tourists don't include state capitals on their itineraries, but ours is worth a stop if you're going to be in Santa Fe anyway.

We missed visiting the space history museum when we were in Alamogordo last fall. Now I'm wondering whether to go back. I have a few other things I want to see in the state first, though.

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These moments of speculative blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!

Sunday, February 18, 2024

What Jimmy Mender did.

I had a great blog post idea teed up for tonight, but it can wait. I'd rather talk about a good friend who I've never met in person who died this week. 

I've been trying to remember how I met Leland Dirks. I think it must have been at Indies Unlimited. He wasn't on the staff with us, but he was a regular at the site, and he had a story in at least one of our flash fiction anthologies.

The indie author revolution has been both good and bad. The good: Today, anybody can become a published author. When Amazon and other digital publishers opened their doors, traditional gatekeepers, in the form of agents and publishing houses, became irrelevant; good writers could develop a readership by publishing their words themselves. 

The bad: Anybody can become a published author. Even terrible writers. 

And I admit that I have been a snob. Indie authors are encouraged to support each other by talking up one another's books, the theory being that your readers could cross over to the writers you talk about, and vice versa. I've always been a little leery about this blanket promote-everybody approach. What if the other author is a lousy writer? I don't want my readers thinking I recommend crappy books. (Note to my author friends: If I've ever passed along info on one of your books, rest assured that I do not think you write crap.)

Longtime hearth/myth readers may remember that I ran a book review blog called Rursday Reads for several years. In that period of time, I reviewed several of Leland's books -- some "co-authored" by his Border collie, Angelo. So believe me when I say that he did not write crap. Far from it. He wrote with sensitivity and heart. And he almost always included a dog or two.

Not only was Leland a wonderful author, but he was also a gifted photographer. He lived in southeastern Colorado in a house he built himself, and every day he would post photos and videos on social media of his canine companions, the local wildlife (the magpies and coyotes gobbling Maggie's stale kibble were always good for a laugh), and the mountains around his home. I got to know that landscape better than the view around my own home.

But back to the books: My favorite -- the one I thought of immediately upon hearing of his death -- is Jimmy Mender and His Miracle Dog

I reviewed it for Rursday Reads, but my review really doesn't do the book justice. The main character is Paul Young, a gay writer who lives in San Francisco. He meets a former cowboy and ex-Marine named Jimmy Mender. Paul is immediately smitten, but Jimmy is not sure whether he swings that way. They have a lovely week together, and then Jimmy just up and leaves town. Paul is devastated. Then by a twist of fate, he's offered a job as the anonymous author of an advice column, which he agrees to take on one condition: the column must be renamed "What Would Jimmy Mender Do?"

Some years later, Paul receives a package from Alaska. It contains several notebooks -- journals that Jimmy kept after he left San Francisco. They're accompanied by a note saying that Jimmy has died, that he wanted Paul to have the journals, and that Jimmy left a couple of other things to Paul if he'd like to come to Alaska and collect them. So Paul journeys north, using Jimmy's notebooks as a guide, and learns not only about Jimmy but about himself, too. And of course, there's a dog.

I'm rereading the book now, and I'd like to share with you the dedication that Leland wrote:

This book is dedicated to all the real life Jimmy Menders out there. Some of them are teachers, some of them are moms or dads or brothers or sisters or uncles or aunts or friends. All of them practice the most powerful yet simplest form of magic: Love.

Leland himself was a real-life Jimmy Mender. Since his passing, many people have come forward on social media to talk about how kind and helpful he was, and how much they're going to miss him. 

I hope he's in a place where he can hear how much he meant to people -- how many lives he touched, all over the world. And I very much hope that wherever he is, he's been reunited with his beloved Angelo and Suki.

Rest in peace, my friend.

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These moments of bloggy remembrance have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe, y'all.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

The state of American fiction.

I had a day off from work yesterday (not always a given during session), so I saw a movie, and you get a blog post about it.

By http://www.impawards.com/2023/american_fiction_ver2_xxlg.html, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75101757
(Sorry about the gnarly cutline. I don't want anybody coming after me for copyright infringement.)

American Fiction has already won numerous awards, and supposedly there's Oscar talk for Jeffrey Wright, who plays Thelonious "Monk" Ellison. Monk is a literature professor at a West Coast college who is forced to take a leave of absence after a student complains about him writing the N word on the board (it's in the title of a Flannery O'Connor short story). That incident is the tip of the iceberg; Monk is tightly wound due to his agent's inability to sell his latest novel (a retelling of Aeschylus). Despite his literary cred, his novels keep getting categorized as "African-American Studies" because he's Black. And his attendance at a literary festival in his hometown of Boston only makes it worse when he sees that the biggest draw is a novel by a Black woman -- a graduate of Oberlin -- whose novel relies heavily on stereotypical Black narrative elements and street slang.

Monk's visit to his family home is one of the film's revelations. He comes from an upper-middle-class -- maybe even upper-class -- background. His sister is a lawyer; his brother is a plastic surgeon. The family home is a lovely old house in a lovely old-money neighborhood. The family owns a beach house. His mother employs a woman who's clearly been with the family since the kids were small. Everything is so far from the streets that it's no wonder that Monk is frustrated about the state of publishing for Black writers. But then his mother's health begins to degenerate. There's talk of having to sell the beach house to cover her care. And Monk decides to give the White publishing establishment what it wants: a novel full of Black stereotypes that he calls My Pafology. He writes it as a joke, and he insists that his agent send it out.

Of course, it's snapped up immediately for a huge advance. Monk needs the money, but he doesn't want it -- not on those terms. So he tells the publisher that he wants to change the title to Fuck. He figures that will kill the deal. But of course it doesn't. And Monk -- the upper-middle-class college professor -- is forced to do marketing for the book using a persona that his agent came up with on the spur of the moment: a Black criminal who did time for a felony and is now on the lam.

The movie is being marketed as a comedy, and there are definitely funny moments. But there's a lot more to American Fiction than that. There's family drama, and there's Monk's character development. There are sweet moments, too. 

And there's the critique of the publishing industry that drew me to the movie in the first place. The film's thesis is that publishers pigeonhole serious writers of color as "African-American Studies" while glorifying the "raw", "visceral" and "real" street life of poor Black people that Monk has made up. Undoubtedly there are people living that life. But Monk insists that there's more to being Black in America than that, and he maintains it's a failing of White folks that we ignore it in favor of sensational stories about drunks on crack in the 'hood who shoot each other as a way of life.

As an aside, I enjoyed actually seeing Wright, who I knew only from his voice role as The Watcher in Marvel's What If... shorts on Disney+. There's also a very funny appearance by Michael Cyril Creighton, who's also in the cast of Only Murders in the Building. And Leslie Uggams plays Monk's mother.

I wouldn't call American Fiction a perfect film, but it's very good, and it has some important things to say about the state of publishing, not just for Black authors but in general. I hope it's not consigned to the same fate as Monk's serious novels: critically acclaimed but lost in the shuffle. I enjoyed it. Go see it.

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It wasn't lost on me that I'm a White woman who saw the movie as part of an audience of White people. Maybe we'll learn something from it?

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These moments of bloggy movie reviewing have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!