Letter To My Congresswoman

I’m an American high school teacher, so as you can imagine, this last week has been a time of turmoil. And for the first time — a fact which I find shameful– this latest school shooting has actually driven me to do something. I wrote my representative in Congress, Martha McSally, who is currently running for the Arizona Senate seat that will be vacated by the retiring Jeff Flake, about gun control.

I should have done this many times in the past, and I can’t justify my own inaction. I’ve argued about this topic for years, but to say that I’ve never voiced my opinion to the people who can actually do something — well. I’ve done it now. Sent the email ten minutes ago. I will also be sending a version of this to every candidate who runs for McSally’s seat — one which will probably be hotly contested, considering the political climate in this country and the fact that this is a Democratic area with a Republican representative — and I welcome anyone who wants to use this as a framework for their own letter. Steal it, steal a paragraph, steal everything you want. Do more than I have done. Let’s see what we can make happen.

February 23, 2018

To Representative McSally:

I am an independent voter living in Tucson, in the 2nd Congressional District for Arizona. I am an educator: I have taught high school English for eighteen years, for the last four at Sonoran Science Academy, one of the premier STEM charter schools in the state – the only high school in Tucson which Governor Ducey visited this past year. I am writing to you despite knowing that you are currently very busy, seeking a new job in addition to performing the duties of your current position, because you should know that I will also be seeking a new position, and quite possibly a new profession, unless you and your fellow Congresspeople can do the right thing. Unless you bring some sense to the debate over gun control, and specifically firearms in schools, then Tucson, and Arizona, and this country will lose thousands of outstanding teachers and educators. Like me.

The sense I seek – the sense I demand – in this debate has three elements, one positive change, one negative stance, and a general direction. The positive change is simple: Congress must repeal the Dickey Amendment of 1996, which prohibits the Centers for Disease Control from performing any research into gun violence in this country if said research “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” I find this law appalling, entirely apart from my stance on gun control, because it is nothing more than enforced ignorance: it is a law passed by our government intended solely to limit and suppress knowledge. It flies in the face of science because it presumes an outcome and refuses the research for fear of that outcome – but it is entirely possible that the outcome of that research would be evidence against gun control! There is absolutely no reason to prevent the CDC from investigating the causes of gun deaths, and 30,000 reasons to allow that research to go forward, every year. I say that as an educator, not as an advocate for gun control; the truth is always better than ignorance, and I for one would gladly change my stance on gun control if the evidence supported such a change. Congress must allow the CDC to dispel our ignorance, to teach us why this problem is unique to the United States. That knowledge, suppressed for twenty years, is why this debate is still so acrimonious: because we do not know the facts behind it. We do not know if the right to bear arms is a cause of those 30,000 annual deaths, or if it prevents even more deaths while contributing to none. We are left searching for reasons, for answers, while the body that could provide us with several of those answers sits with its hands tied. Please: make this the first action you take regarding this debate. Jay Dickey himself regrets his namesake law and argued for its repeal in 2012, after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Strip away the veil of ignorance, and let us know the truth. Repeal the Dickey Amendment.

The negative stance I would ask you to support has to do with a common reaction to the atrocity of school shootings. I have been a teacher since 2000, and I was in school to become a teacher when the massacre happened at Columbine; I have watched, again and again, as maniacs with firearms have devastated communities by targeting our children. Every time this happens, whether the debate remains local or expands to include the entire nation, at some point, someone will suggest arming the teachers. This time the suggestion came most clearly from our president, Mr. Trump. He Tweeted that “Highly trained, gun adept, teachers/coaches would solve the problem instantly, before police arrive. GREAT DETERRENT!” Allow me to state, unequivocally, that this is false. Highly trained teachers is what this nation already has, but we are, as we should be, highly trained in education, not in combat. I would never presume to lecture you, who have been in combat, on what that experience means and what training and preparation went into making it possible for you to fight for our country, but I am entirely and absolutely sure that I do not have what you had. I do not have the training, I do not have the preparation, I do not have the will to fight. My classroom is not a battleground, and I am not a warrior. What’s more, I will not become such. Turning me from an educator into a fighter would destroy too much of what I need to be successful in my profession: it would change my relationship to my students, it would change my view of myself and my role, it would change the priorities for my continuing professional development and the allocation of resources. It would make my position untenable for me, and if it ever becomes policy, I will quit. I will quit immediately and without reservation, and I will not be alone: please recognize that thousands and thousands of teachers feel as I do. The country already has a teacher shortage, and a longstanding problem with hiring and retaining quality educators; do not make it worse by misunderstanding who we are and what we do. I will never carry a weapon in school, and I will never fire on a student. Don’t ask me to.

Lastly, I would ask you to join me in moving the gun control debate in a general direction that I hope you will be able to support. I recognize the right to self-defense and the concomitant right to keep and bear arms. I oppose authoritarian government, and applaud the democratization of physical force through the private ownership of firearms. But the reality is that the ready availability of firearms, particularly of weapons that have uniquely destructive properties, allow for the unequal and devastating use of force in a way that reduces individual rights: one 19-year-old man’s ability to purchase an AR-15 and “countless” magazines has taken the right to life, the right to liberty, the right to pursue happiness, away from thousands of students. While of course such simple measures as a waiting period for semi-automatic rifles, or an age limit of 21 on the purchase of long guns, or a limit on magazine capacity, or a universal background check system, would not stop all massacres and would not affect the majority of gun deaths, the simple fact that such measures would stop some massacres, and would reduce gun deaths, without materially affecting the right to bear arms or the ability of Americans to defend themselves, makes these measures requisite. It makes them necessary. It makes their continued absence a failure and a dereliction of duty. I myself was inspired to write you, an action I have not taken in the past, by the political will and activity of the victims of the Parkland shooting; I consider myself to be derelict in my duty in not having taken up this cause in the past with the same vigor and determination that these teenagers are showing us now. I am a teacher; I am an adult; I should have been fighting this fight, not waiting for children to fight it for me. Had I fought for these measures in the past, had everyone who agrees with me done so, had all the congresspeople and elected leaders in this nation done what we all (I hope) know to be the right thing, then this particular massacre would not have occurred. That weighs on me, and though I don’t hope it weighs on you, I hope you can empathize with me about it. I hope you can understand the determination that I now have, that this situation not continue as it has in the past, that we not let this moment sink back into oblivion and change nothing and do nothing. I will not take up arms and fire on a student: but neither will I be silent while madmen do exactly that.

I hope you can agree with me on these three actions: to repeal the Dickey Amendment and allow the CDC to investigate the causes of gun violence; to oppose the absurd idea that our schools should encourage or require teachers to carry arms as a means of defending students from attack; and to press for some common-sense gun safety measures that would help to regulate arms without removing any citizen’s inalienable right to self-defense. Please believe that my vote, and my support, depend on that agreement.


Theoden Humphrey

Two Books by John Wyndham

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Two by John Wyndham: Re-Birth and The Secret People


I’ve gone up and down with John Wyndham. A couple of his books – The Midwich Cuckoos and Day of the Triffids – are outstanding; Chocky was just okay. Generally I like his storytelling, and his ideas are wonderful; but they can’t all be gems, no matter who the author is. No problem. Really, this fits in nicely to the Golden Age of Science Fiction, where Wyndham deserves a place, since even Heinlein and Asimov wrote some stinkers. I like Wyndham, though, and I like that I keep finding his books in cheap paperback editions from the 60’s and 70’s with interesting cover art. That cover art was what made me pick both of these.

So I had two of his novels to read, and once I read them, well – to be honest, my opinion of Wyndham went down. This has been mitigated now by the fact that one of these two, The Secret People, was one of his earliest works, written in 1935; my first book isn’t very good, either. But that’s not enough: because this book wasn’t just “not very good.” It’s a stack of crap in a cover.

We’ll start with the good one, though. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) Re-Birth, from 1955, (Published in Wyndham’s native UK as The Chrysalids, which is a way better title but I assumed they changed it because the American public’s response was overwhelmingly, “Wut’s in tarnation’s a chrysalid?”) is a great book in two ways: it has a post-apocalyptic setting fully as interesting and disturbing as A Handmaid’s Tale, with the same kind of theocratic hypocrisy in full bloom. Told from the point of view of a young boy whose father is a pillar of the community, it has that excellent innocent perspective that makes social commentary novels genuinely effective, from The Giver to To Kill a Mockingbird. We learn how screwed up the society is as the protagonist does, and it works extremely well. There’s a nice twist, too: because we find out that the main character, David, is actually one of the forbidden people, one of the untouchables, as it were, but in a way that enables him to hide it. So we get the view of the society from both a child’s perspective and an outsider’s perspective, and it’s very well done.

The society is an agrarian theocracy after the world-shattering nuclear war; it is probably somewhere in Greenland, though that isn’t entirely clear. (That maybe my poor grasp on world geography – or, honestly, it’s been a couple of months since I read it; I may just not remember.) The society has an absolute rule against genetic mutations, which are more common because of the radiation; anyone who is born with any king of imperfection is essentially exposed to the elements. (Turns out they don’t always die, but that’s not for the society’s lack of trying.) David is a genetic mutation, but not with any physical alteration, and so he slips through the net, and eventually finds several others who are like him.

I don’t want to spoil it any more than that, because it is essentially worth reading. I didn’t really like the ending, though. We get two glimpses into other societies, one of the outcast genetic mutations who have survived on the fringes of the theocratic society, and one highly advanced society from another part of the world; and frankly, both suck. The book as a whole just made me dislike people. Which, I mean, that’s fair, but it’s not always the kind of book I want to read; I also felt that this one didn’t hold out any real hope for a better world or better people. I guess there’s a small chance that David and his friends are the hope, but they continue to be a part of the crappy societies, so I don’t really see it.

But I did like the characters a lot, and I thought the society and the central conflict over genetic “perfection,” with the underlying theme of questioning that very concept – what exactly is the “correct” genotype? Or more importantly, the correct phenotype? At what point does variation become too far from the “norm?” – all that was great. If you’re a Wyndham fan, go ahead and read this one.

Don’t read The Secret People. Not anyone, not for any reason – not even for that epically bizarre cover. Because the cover is a lie! There aren’t any weird dirt-people with mushroom horns! They’re just short! I wanted freaky gnomes and dwarves and stuff, but what I got was – crap. Racist crap.

So The Secret People, originally published in 1935, is a lot like an H. Rider Haggard novel, except Wyndham wasn’t as good a writer. And they both had crap ideas. This book starts with a couple of poorly explained technological advances to get us in the sci-fi mood; the main character is an international playboy with his own jet plane – and I mean, it’s a rocket ship with a cabin and everything, that flies in atmosphere – and at one point, he picks up his newest Bond Girl and flies over the inland sea that is being made where the Sahara used to be. Sadly, they crash into the water, and through a series of mishaps, they find themselves in an underground world peopled by strange beings! Living under the Sahara! SO WEIRD!

Except they’re not. They’re Pygmies, from Africa, who apparently wandered into underground caves centuries ago, and just kept wandering. And just like Haggard, who had a serious case of TheWhiteManIsTheRightMan-itis, Wyndham describes these “secret people” as essentially savages who have been unable to advance their civilization in any way past their original stone-tool-and-superstition society. The modern Eurotrash heroes get chucked into a prison cavern with all the other surface dwellers who have found their way underground now that the inland-sea-over-the-Sahara project has compromised the Secret People’s secrecy, and then they have to find their way out and back to the jet plane, which is their only hope of surviving. Because, you see, the inland sea has started leaking into this vast underground cavern world, and the whole place is going to drown.

But that doesn’t matter! What matters is who gets to the plane first: the heroes, our playboy and his Bond Girl, or the sinister criminal element, who were already in the cavern when our heroes arrive, and who are both rapey and swarthy – an unforgivable combination. But that’s okay, because they’re also stupid and cowardly and everything else you would expect from a swarthy criminal type, and so yes, our heroes are the ones who make it out alive before all of the Secret People drown. Which, y’know, is a happy ending.

Terrible book. Don’t read it. Go for Re-Birth/The Chrysalids – or even better, read The Midwich Cuckoos.

Book Review: Mortal Engines, Hungry City Chronicles #1

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(Also, see that hot air balloon on the cover, with the tiny gondola the two characters are in? Not at all how the airships are described.)


Mortal Engines (Book One of the Hungry City Chronicles)

by Philip Reeve


I kind of hated this book.

Not everything about it. Some things in here are wonderful. The concept is fantastic: a future world where cities are mobile, enormous steampunk structures on wheels, rolling around in the wasteland that is all that remains of our world, destroyed (of course) by World War III and hyper-advanced war machines. These cities follow a philosophy of “municipal Darwinism” (great name), which teaches that the largest, strongest city will devour the smaller cities. It’s a “town eat town” world, and the mobile towns do exactly that: they capture the smaller, slower towns, swallow them, tear them apart and use their raw materials as fuel and building materials to maintain and expand the larger town.

That’s a cool idea.

The main town in the story is London, and London is now governed by four Guilds: the Historians, the Navigators, the Merchants, and the Engineers. The Historians, who comprise both doddering old museum relics and Indiana Jones-style explorers who search through the wreckage of ancient civilizations to find useful artifacts from the time before the wars that ended everything (This is our time, of course, and the Frankenstein We-let-our-technology-advance-too-far-and-it-destroyed-us theme is vigorous in this book), are sort of the main protagonists, and the Engineers, who care about nothing but power and control, as those engineers would, are the antagonists. There is also the Anti-Traction League (the moving cities are called “traction cities”), which have settled in parts of the world not dominated by moving towns nor devastated by ancient wars, and they oppose the traction cities as a whole.

This is fine and good. I was a bit annoyed by the stereotypes of the heartless engineer and the hapless-but-wise-and-kind historian, but I like the plotline that involves the Lord Mayor of London and his megalomaniacal schemes, and the discovery of a new doomsday weapon that allows his city to destroy any other; the weapon is actually a rediscovery from the ancient times, and I thought the book handled that well, particularly at the end. (Though there are some pretty severe plot holes, especially regarding the time lapse between the ancients and the traction city era:  it’s been like two thousand years. So really, the ancient technology? It just wouldn’t work. At all.) I like the Anti-Traction League, and I particularly like the subset of non-city-dwellers who live in the air: this being a proper steampunk novel, there are airships galore, and even a flying city, and those parts were great.

No: I hated the characters. The specific characters who play the roles of hero in this book are half crappy, and by the end, half dead. I won’t say which group is which so as not to spoil, especially since this book is now being made into a movie by Peter Jackson, who probably won’t be able to save this thing, in my opinion. However, since the book won oodles of awards, I suppose most people liked the characters a whole lot more than I did. But really, they aren’t good characters: there’s one who should hate everything London is doing and all that it stands for, but at a crucial moment, this character freaks out on those who want to stop London from destroying everything good with its doomsday device; and then later the character realizes, “Hey, wait – London sucks! I should do something about that!” But this epiphany comes at an entirely random time, and is annoying because of that; I would think that the betrayal by a Londoner whom the character worships would have changed the character’s mind, or maybe when the two main characters are tricked and enslaved by a traction city; or maybe when they are captured and abused and threatened and nearly killed by a bunch of half-insane traction city pirates. No: it’s while the character is – climbing stairs. It’s ridiculous.

The other big problem for me was the writing. Half of the characters, good and bad, are entirely unbelievable; their emotions and motivations don’t make a lot of sense. There are a ton of cliches and platitudes, and some of the descriptions and action sequences are just not well done.

And then, at the end – he killed the fucking dog. That’s right: Philip Reeve kills the dog. No reason, either; we already hate the people who do it, and the character who I suppose is intended to be inspired to murderous vengeful rage by the death of the dog WAS ALREADY AT THE POINT OF VENGEFUL RAGE. It’s an entirely gratuitous dog-killing. And I don’t mean to overstate how much this bothered me, because I was already annoyed by the plot holes and the poor characterization and the mediocre writing – but really, that moment just took the cake. And then for the next thirty pages until the very end (when almost every other sympathetic character dies, too), Reeve kept mentioning the dead dog: the dog’s owner kept looking around for the dog, kept expecting to hear the dog’s footsteps, but no, because the dog was dead.

Screw you, Reeve. Dog killing crap writer.

No, that’s too strong. But really, I didn’t think much of the book. I wish someone else had thought of this idea and done a better job writing it. I hope the movie is better, but I won’t be watching it: because they’ll probably kill the dog.