Monday, March 5, 2018

The Nooks and Crannies of the Inside Passage

Rumor has it the first seasonal worker of the summer has been spotted on the streets of Seward - a sure sign that summer is approaching. In a few weeks, I'll be headed down to Seattle to join up with the crew of the Discoverer, for another season exploring the nooks and crannies of Southeast Alaska. This year will be my fourth with the vessel, and my eleventh summer in the state overall.

In honor of another season as a guide in one of the planet's most captivating and untrammeled wild corners, I want to share a handful of memories from last summer - some of the memories that explain why I feel so lucky to be able to work in places like this. This is from two days at the end of July, part of a week when the Discoverer hosted a tour group from Japan.

Sunset, looking out over the bundled kayaks on the lowest deck

July 24, Glacier Bay National Park. At Gloomy Knob we spent about a half an hour watching the mountain goats - reasonably low, a few kids galloping along the cliff edge while their elders stand stoically overlooking our boat. Three hard-to-see eagles; which this trip are haku-toe-washiTodo is sea lion. Kuma is bear. Travis printed a bunch of Japanese/English field guides with two reams of paper he bartered from the Bartlett Cove front desk; slowly I'm figuring out what means what. Coming through Russel Cut, we find four bears!  Two on the beach, slinking behind rocks and in and out of the alders; a mother and cub, tucked even further into the foliage on the slope above. Mostly, the bears were present as bending branches in the alders, glimpses of bear-brown among the tree-brown and leaf-brown and dirt-brown. Kuma, kuma, lobbed back and forth - the one word becoming a plea for directions, or a photographer's frustration, or a binocular-wielding guest's delight.
The bears were frustratingly hard to see; the boat was restless; Alaska was hiding just out of their viewfinder. We moved on.

Bilingual Glacier Bay Wildlife

As we were pulling out of the cut, we spot another bear on the island, golden brown, pacing along the mussels just above the waterline. The call goes out - kuma, kuma, kireina kuma; the boat laboriously turns around in the narrow cleft. He is a beautiful bear, all whitish and brown, standing out so clearly from the dark mussels that in the late-evening dim he almost seems to glow. He stalks the tideline, flipping over rocks, the muscles in his humped shoulders rippling. The entire boat is on deck; the entire boat is silent. It's like the first bears were practice bears. The warm-up act, and now Glacier Bay is done with the previews. Turn off your cell phone; forget the popcorn. Here comes the real thing.  Don't look away.

Brown Bear, Glacier Bay National Park

One gentleman is walking around the deck with a huge camera around his neck, and both hands over his mouth, like he knew he was being too loud before. I think he's a bit of a riot. The park ranger is giving a talk now, with the aid of one of the Japanese translators; got a shower with hot water for the first time in four days.

The next morning fog settled into Cross Sound; you could barely see the shore from our usual anchorage. We debated delaying the skiffs; Lex and I ended up going out with our skiff group after only a slight delay. The fog looked like it was trying to lift, but as we went into the pass between the islands,  it settled in thicker than before. We kept close to the north side, going slow. A lakko - a sea otter -  popped up with a mussel in his paws; the sharp clack as he broke into it echoed off the side of the island. Near the far end of the channel, we ran into more sea otters, and sea lions - todo. The fog was starting to break up; but the cover of the mist seemed to tempt some of the big bulls to come even closer to the skiffs than usual, as though they were having as much trouble seeing us as we were seeing them. They come to the surface smoothly, bellowing an exhale, loud and sudden; the guests facing the wrong way would jump. Some of them definitely were checking the boat for fish guts; I had to warn the folks to be careful with their fingers. Maybe I need to add it bites to my list of need-to-know Japanese phrases.

Steller sea lion - probably disappointed we aren't a fishing boat.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Ethnographic Underpinnings of Court of Twilight

If I hadn’t ended up reading two fantastic ethnography books back-to-back,  Court of Twilight might never have been written in the first place.

Back in 2012, I was living in New Zealand, and working as a receptionist for a hostel in a remote part of the South Island. The closest bookstore was over an hour away on the other side of the Southern Alps, and the closest library wasn’t much better. However, there was a small lending shelf at the hostel, which became my primary source of reading material for the four months I lived there. As a receptionist, there were often several hours a day when the rooms had been cleaned, the laundry folded, the plants watered, and the lobby swept, when there was legitimately nothing I needed to do other than sit at the front desk and wait for someone to walk in about a room. Which meant I spent a lot of time reading.

Two of the books that came my way that season were ethnography books, which I ended up reading within the same week. Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey by Isabel Fonseca is a book depicting Roma culture in Europe. The author lived among Roma people, mainly in Eastern Europe, for several years in the 1990s, and the book recalls her experiences as a guest and participant in their culture. The title is a reference to a devastating Roma saying – bury me standing, for I have lived my life on my knees.

This is an excerpt: 

As we left Grabian, an old woman, so thin that her cheekbones seemed to be pointing out of her face, hung onto my sleeve. She wanted to show me something. She reached into her apron pocket and produced a fuzzy scrap of white paper, no bigger than a gum wrapper, folded down to the size of a thumbnail…She held it up close to my eyes, and I saw nothing – maybe a slight smudge of dirt.  I took it from her and checked the other side. Nothing. Apart from the grubby crease marks it was blank…
What had I failed to see? Written on that piece of paper, she claimed, was the telephone number of her son, a refugee in Italy. It probably had been once, written in pencil that had long since worn away. If she was illiterate, which seemed likely, and had never been able to read the characters, what she had seen there was already an abstraction. Anyway, I am sure that she did see and continued to see that telephone number. “Te xav to biav,” the old woman called after me as I climbed into the car: May I eat at your wedding.

The picture Fonseca paints is of a resilient society struggling against both the poverty and upheaval of Eastern Europe, as well as the discrimination they faced, and both the pride and difficulties the Rom face in being a people who consider their true home the road.

The second book is Meeting the Other Crowd: The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland, by Eddie Lenihan and Carolyn Eve Green. It’s a unique book of Irish folklore, set as a series of first-person accounts of events attributed to fairies, along with brief passages by the authors attempting to fit these stories into a framework that might explain the fairies’ habits, beliefs, behaviors, and motivations. The book takes a very open-minded view of the fact of fairies’ existence, treating them as an invisible culture that lives along side, and occasionally intersects with, the culture of the human inhabitants of Ireland. Many of the stories have the flavor of ghost stories (and if some of the accounts had happened in West Virginia, where I was raised, they would likely have been attributed to ghosts.) Most of the book is written in dialect, and keeps closely to the oral traditions that produced many of the tales.

An example, from the story ‘The Fairy Frog’ in which a girl has been taken to a fairy dwelling to assist a fairy woman giving birth:

He took her out, anyway, up on the horse behind him again, and off they went as fast as the horse’d go, and never stopped till they came to this grove o’ trees.
He pulled up the horse and he says, “Did herself give you anything that time they called you back?”
“She did,” says the girl.
“What was it?”
She was half afraid o’ him, that maybe he was going to rob her.
“Tell me,” says he, “what was it.”
So she told him about the bag o’ gold and the necklace.
“You aren’t the first one to get the line,” says he. “And if you’ll take my advice, and if you want to see your father and mother safe and sound again, take that necklace now and tie it around the branch o’ that near tree there.”

Reading the books pretty much simultaneously, I saw some very clear parallels between the literal invisibility of Lenihan’s fairies and the figurative invisibility of the Rom people. Both were societies that kept themselves separate from their neighbors, and considered themselves different in certain key respects. Relationships between their culture and the wider community were fractious, and prone to misunderstanding. Interactions between one culture and the other were proscribed by a set of rules and expectations. For example, fairy folklore stresses the importance of not eating fairy food, with the results of doing so ranging from an unbearable longing for it, to being trapped permanently on the fairies’ side of their vaguely-defined border.

In Bury Me Standing, Fonseca describes the Rom she lived with in Albania having similarly serious concerns about food.

“The real reason Gimi stayed outside when we stopped in at the house of Albanians was the food. Inevitably, and whatever the hour, our hosts would prepare a meal. It was impossible to decline the hospitality, but whereas for me it was at worst a nuisance, for Gimi it presented a danger. Gypsies everywhere do their best to avoid eating food prepared by gadje [non-Rom], which almost by definition is bound to be mahrime [unclean].”

I want to be clear that I didn’t intent my own fictional Others, trows, to be in any way representative of the Rom - or any other human culture, for that matter. What I did want is to use issues brought up in both works of ethnography – issues of belonging, invisibility, and erasure, and interactions across disparate cultures that can still go wrong even with the best of intentions on both sides – to help inform the background and culture of my own invented Others.

If you’re looking for more recommended books with perhaps a more literal treatment of Ireland’s rich cultural history and beliefs, I would recommend any of Juliet Marillier’s works. Daughter of the Forest is an engaging retelling of the traditional story The Six Swans, but embeds its magical elements nicely within a real-world story about family and betreyal. Heart’s Blood is another compelling standalone novel, where the magical elements are portrayed more as a burden than a gift. The Iron Druid novels by Kevin Hearne, starting with Hounded, takes elements of Irish belief and transplants firmly them into modern day America. The first books are a little more combat-oriented than I generally read, but the stories are engaging. I first got into the series through my enjoyment of Oberon’s Twitter account (Oberon being the narrator’s talking Irish wolfhound), which is worth following even if you aren’t into the books.

Fiction, and in particular fantasy fiction, inspired by Rom sources is a little harder to find. The only fantasy book I’m aware of in which Romani beliefs and characters are central to the narrative is Charles de Lint’s uncharacteristically gruesome horror novel Mulengro.   Outside of the fantasy realm, I can thoroughly recommend Oksana Marafioti’s introduction to modern Romani culture through her memoir American Gypsy, detailing her family’s immigration from Russia to Los Angeles when she was fifteen.

If you can recommend other books with an Irish or Romani connection, let me know! Or let me know what real-world histories, ethnographies, memoirs, and other real-life inspirations you've used, or seen used, in a fictional piece.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

2017 in a Nutshell

So as we creep towards the end of 2017, I wanted to summarize a few of the things that happened this year. Which was a lot – partly because a lot of things came to fruition this year that had been in the works for a while.

So, in no particular order:

Court of Twilight was published this fall! This is definitely the final stretch of a years-long process in writing and editing it. The first draft was written in 2013, and the book came out almost exactly four years later. It’s felt very satisfying to be finished with the book and hearing from readers who’ve enjoyed it.

Changeling has a second draft! While it’s still unclear if or when this will actually make its way to readers, I finished the second draft right before Christmas. This was another long-term project; the first draft was written as a National Novel Writing Month project in 2014, and it’s gotten only sporadic attention since.

I worked in Mexico! I was in Baja California Sur in January and February working as a guide on the Sea of Cortez. I saw my first blue whales, and we were running into big pods of dolphins about every week. I saw grey whales on their calving grounds. I skiffed around with playful juvenile sea lions, and saw tropicbirds and blue-footed boobies. And a ton of beautiful sunsets.  And at the end of the month I met up with my friend and amazing co-guide Teresa and traveled around the southern cape hiking, beach camping, and wallowing in natural hot springs. If you get a chance to travel to Baja, I would highly recommend spending time there.

I worked an amazing Alaska season! This was my third Alaska season guiding aboard the Discoverer. The crew on board this year were lovely, and we had a bunch of great trips. Probably the highlight was the week a Japanese tour company chartered the whole boat. They brought five of their own guides and translators, and a bunch of really, really good food. We got to stop at a bear-viewing location that I had never been to before, and watched brown bears fishing for salmon.  And got to watch a group of bubble-net-feeding humpbacks get streaked by an orca pod that charged through right where the humpbacks were trying to get themselves organized…

I wrote a few small things that turned out well! One is an article being published next month. And I wrote the first short story I’ve written in maybe eight years, of which I am super proud, and might be unintentionally hilarious to anyone who’s ever worked at the Glacier Lodge.

I‘m making an ops guide to Southeast Alaska! I journal every day when I’m guiding. Over the past three years, I’ve accumulated a huge amount of notes on the places I’ve visited while tooling around Southeast on a tiny expedition ship. Last spring I started compiling the entries by location, and I’ve ended up with a huge Scrivener file listing over seventy different locations I’ve visited, with info on bushwhacking and paddling routes, landmarks, wildlife sightings, and notes on the history of the area. It’s going to be a great resource for refreshing my memory on these locations as I revisit the sites this summer on various trips. And since most of these sites are bays in the middle of nowhere, (not designated wilderness, but close), there’s very little existing publicly-available documentation on them. (Yes, this is why you should visit Southeast Alaska on the Discoverer, because we know where the cool stuff is…)

I’m done with the requirements for my captain’s license! This is another thing I’ve been working on for a while. I first started working on boats ten years ago, as a deckhand on the Aialik Voyager back in 2007, then spent five years hopping on and off water taxis while working at a lodge that was only accessible by boat. Three years ago I joined my current company, working as a guide on the Discoverer.  At the end of the summer, I finally earned enough sea time to apply for my license. I spent the fall studying, and passed the exams earlier this month.

I worked a few winter kayak trips! I was lucky enough to meet up with a Seward-based kayak company, who was looking for someone to run trips for them in the winter. It’s slow, as it’s winter, and we’ve had a few of the trips turn into winter hikes because the seas were snotty, but it’s been lovely to be able to get out on the water in the off-season. On our trip yesterday, we ate lunch at the base of a 75-foot frozen waterfall, and three juvenile sea lions were following our boats on the way home. Tell me that isn’t an amazing day job? (Of course, the day before, I beached us a half-mile into the paddle, because the wind came up and my novice-paddler clients were getting blown into a giant sandbar. Ran the rest of the trip as a hike. And got frost nip on two toes from walking around on snow in rain boots. This is why guiding is like a giant lottery, and I can never bring myself to stop playing.)

I spent time with my grandmother. This isn’t an entirely happy update; my grandmother passed away in August. But I was able to spent over a month with her in March and April. I came back to see her twice on my breaks from the Discoverer, including just before she passed. If there are two things I can say that will in any way sum up the sort of person she was, it’s this: by the time she died she had happily given away most of the paintings hanging in her house to people she thought would appreciate them, and the day before she passed, she asked me to come over and fix her ceiling fan (which I did, and it was the last time I saw her).

So that was 2017. I hope you're finding some good memories to look back on as we start a new year, and I hope you have many exciting things to look forward to in 2018.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Real-World Science of Ignoring Gorillas

I want to take some time to talk about a few of the sources that helped to shape my novel, Court of Twilight. One of these  is a well-known cognitive psychology experiment, that's actually mentioned in the book by one of the characters. The experiment is also the titular illusion in the book The Invisible Gorilla, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. Written by two cognitive psychologists, The Invisible Gorilla is an explanation of erroneous assumptions about how our brains work - what the authors refer to as everyday illusions. The researchers discuss the effects these assumptions have on how we perceive our world, and also how we act based on those erroneous perceptions.

Image result for invisible gorilla book cover
The Invisible Gorilla cover image. Credited to ABSODALS/Getty Images

The Invisible Gorilla's cover is striking . A man in a business suit, reading a newspaper, stands obliviously next to a gorilla, who is also reading a newspaper. I think the visual image, as much as anything, was something I remembered when I was mulling over my own ideas for a story about modern-day fairies. Here is an image of something entirely unexpected (for a gorilla) but also something entirely normal (for a person). Aur gorilla is standing next to a rather urbane-looking businessman, who is either completely indifferent to his simian companion, or else completely unaware of him.

If you’re not familiar with the titular experiment, I would highly recommend you experience it for yourself. There’s a link to it here, at the Invisible Gorilla website.

No, go ahead, I’ll still be here when you get back.

Got it? Pretty cool. To summarize, the video shows two teams of players passing a basketball back and forth. The viewer is asked to watch the video, and keep track of the number of passes made by the players wearing white, while ignoring the passes made by the players wearing black. After watching the videos, the researchers ask the viewer how many passes they counted. And then, the researchers ask if the viewer saw anything unusual in the video – such as an actor in a gorilla costume walking through the middle of the players?

Although the gorilla is clearly visible in the video – it turns and thumps its chest at the camera, no less - about half of viewers fail to see it. The authors refer to this phenomenon as inattentional blindness. The brain, when concentrating on a task, shunts its attention to that task to such a degree that it starts ignoring everything irrelevant to that task - even things that are unusual, notable, and significant. Something else that Chabris and Simons note is that many people, when told that they did, in fact, ignore a gorilla walking through the middle of a basketball game, react with shock. Some study participants even went so far as to accuse the researchers of tampering with the tape, so certain were they that there hadn’t been a gorilla in the video they’d seen.

It’s a startling experiment – I was certainly surprised when I saw the video, posted on a friend’s Facebook page several years ago. And no, I did not see the gorilla either – which was probably a good thing, because I don’t know if I would have remembered the video if I hadn’t been one of the people on whom this rather suprising illusion worked. The illusion is startling mainly because we’re not used to distrusting the accuracy of our perceptions. Our brains, we’d like to think, present us with an accurate and infallible view of the world – with no omissions, paraphrases, or edits. When we do happen upon an instance where our brain’s editing, filtering, and paraphrasing mechanisms are revealed, it feels like a cheat. Like we’re getting the Cliff Notes version of reality, instead of the real thing.

When looking for a way to ground a traditional feature of fairies into a modern setting, using a beefed-up version of inattentional blindness seemed ideal. It gave me a way to ground the trows’ magical abilities (or liabilities) within a framework that had a real basis in psychology. I hope that the mention of inattentional blindness in Court of Twilight might also provoke some readers to learn more about the cognitive illusions discussed in The Invisible Gorilla. As Chabris and Simon say in the introduction to their book “When you finish this book, you will be able to glimpse the man behind the curtain and some of the tiny gears and pulleys that govern your thoughts and beliefs… Ultimately, seeing through the veils that distort how we perceive ourselves and the world will connect you – for perhaps the first time – with reality.”

The Invisible Gorilla is available for purchase here.  More information on Chabris and Simons' experiments on everyday cognitive illusions can be found on their website, The Invisible

Thursday, November 2, 2017

So it has been a ridiculously long time since I’ve added any content to my blog. I do have an excuse, of sorts - I wrote a novel, which has recently been published by a small SciFi/Fantasy publisher out of Washington, DC. Which means that for over a year now, getting that book edited and out the door has been the main focus for what writing time I have outside of guiding gigs. I am ridiculously happy with how the book turned out (I have a marvelous editor, and the folks at Parvus have been lovely to work with) and if you are at all into fantasy books, I’d encourage you to check it out via any of the links to the right, or through whatever bookstore you’d like. (And if you like it please leave a review - those are hugely helpful in helping connect Court of Twilight with readers who might enjoy it).

Court of Twilight is, for all intents and purposes, a a story of a girl who goes looking for her missing flatmate - and ends up finding an entire society of hidden beings living in Dublin, under the unsuspecting noses of most of the city’s inhabitants. It’s a story about isolation, friendship and family, and whether being a hero is still a good thing to be if you’re risking yourself for someone you don’t know all that well. Ideas that ended up in Court of Twilight came from all over the map. (It was written all over the map as well - the idea that became the novel started in New Zealand, the first draft was written almost two years later in North Carolina and West Virginia, and was finished and revised in Alaska. And some of the editing was done in the linen storage locker of a boat in Mexico.)

One idea I had for this blog was to briefly touch on a few of the elements that went into the novel - where the idea came from, why I thought it was appealing, and how I incorporated it into the story. In as non-spoilerey a way as possible, hopefully. And for the first topic -well, let’s say there is a reason why two of the three characters pictured on Court of Twilight’s front cover are translucent.

I’ve heard writing described as writers are fashioning the books that they themselves want to read - or would have wanted to read as children, if they’re writing for a younger crowd. Writers are our own book’s first audience. If we want to write something that’s meaningful to other people, it first has to be meaningful to us. I also think  this applies to writers who are trying to add scary or unsettling elements into their books. If a writer is going to write something unsettling - it has to be unsettling to the writer, first.

I have been frightened by invisible thing since I was a kid. It didn’t matter what it was, I was always much less frightened of monsters that I could see and give a name to than to anything that remained unseen and undefinable. The best example is in the TV shows that scared the daylights out of me as a kid.  One was the classic Star Trek episode Devil in the Dark. In the episode, Kirk and Spock are trapped in a mine, trying to evade an apparently murderous alien life form made of rock, and also trying to repair a sabotaged nuclear reactor that’s only hours away from exploding. Perhaps, compared to current CGI monsters, the rock alien the Horta looks more comical than dangerous. But at seven years old it sure scared the dickens out of me. I remember being afraid to go to sleep because I was certain that the alien (who actually turns out to be a sympathetic character by the end of the episode) was going to tunnel through my bedroom wall and eat me. Hidden in the rock, it could travel anywhere - and you wouldn’t know until it was too late.

I also watched a lot of old-school Doctor Who - mostly the Tom Baker years - back when the only way to get ahold of such things was through battered VHS tapes ordered from obscure branches of the county library system. One of my favorite episodes was the Pyramids of Mars. The episode features mind control, killer robots disguised as mummies, and trapped evil alien entities posing as Egyptian Gods. But to me, the scariest thing I remember about the episode was actually a force field.

Just that. Not the mummies or the explosions, the villainous Sutek or the archaeologist he’s possessed. The force field. Because traditional monsters, you can run from those. You can fight them, or outwit them, or negotiate with them, or any of the other things that Doctor Who and his companions did so well on screen. But it’s hard to do any of that when you can’t even see what it is you’re supposed to be fighting. It’s less like fighting an enemy, and more like a force of nature. Something you can’t see, or hear, or touch. Something that constrains your options, locks you in, and isn’t interested in having any sort of gloating conversations while your hero is stalling for time. It just is. You can’t fight it, you can only withstand it or work around it. And it’s an idea that I think has popped up in many of the characters - good and bad - that populate Court of Twilight.

Sound intriguing? I hope so. I'll be posting a little more about some of other elements that ended up in the novel - from Irish and Scottish folklore, to psychological theories about what we pay attention to and why - in the coming weeks.