Monday, September 21, 2015

Surviving summer (progress report)

I did it! I survived the summer.

I know. It really doesn't sound like such a big deal. Everybody loves summer, right? Camping, hiking, swimming, sunshine. What could be bad about that? I'll tell you: I didn't get to do any of it. Admittedly, it's my own fault.

I should start at the beginning:

In my area of NorCal, summers are short. No, I don't mean we bend the laws of the universe and throw out the principles of physics that govern our seasons, or that we have our own California Calendar that ignores the rest of the world's seasons (though I'm not sure why not, since we seem to do anything else we want here, regardless of how bat---- crazy it is)... What I mean is that school summers are short. The kids get out in June and go back in early August. I don't know this for a fact, but I'm pretty sure my kids are getting stiffed out of at least three extra weeks of summer that I had back in the 70s and 80s. On the other hand, they do get a federal holiday every couple weeks, plus two weeks off for thanksgiving, and almost three weeks for Christmas, and they only go to school half a day every Wednesday.

Yes, every freakin' Wednesday is a minimum day, all year long. Why? I don't know. Nobody does. It's a mystery of the universe. Sure, I could go all conspiracy-theory about it and say the schools like making things difficult for working parents; that they like young kids going home alone. Or, I could say this has the fingerprints of the teachers' unions all over it, because it draws out the school year, shortens summer, and means more paychecks for the teachers. But I won't say any of that, because that would just be paranoid.

Anyway, back to the point: The kids (I have three, but only two still in school) are home for the summer, and that usually means I don't get much writing done. I pretty much gave up on trying a few years ago. I've been using that time instead to get caught up on other projects. Home maintenance, vehicle maintenance, maybe even building a canoe or doing something else creative. This year, I had the brilliant idea of building a loft in my house.

It looked pretty simple on paper. I had to tear down one small wall along the living room staircase, build a bigger wall, and then build a floor on top of that. This description is overly-simplified, but it seemed totally doable in six weeks or so, which is what I had by the time my permit was approved. I got some help from one of my sons in the beginning, but after the first week he lost interest. I kept chugging along, building the floor, installing wiring, sheetrock, texture and paint. I almost made it. I actually did the final painting the week that school started, and the carpet came about ten days later.

The loft is going to be my office, which is going to be great for my writing, but one thing I hadn't really considered ahead was the furniture. I've had to shuffle things around from room to room, and order a new desk. I'm still working on some other details. The good news is that I am back to writing. I've been working on revisions of books I wrote earlier this year (Iron Horse part 4, He Said/She said Part 2, etc.) and I hope to publish something by the end of next month. No promises, but I am getting close. And the fact that I've already written three books this year puts me way ahead of the game. (I like to aim for four books a year. I don't always hit the mark, and sometimes I don't publish one or two until the following year, but it's a solid goal).

So, despite being exhausted and physically and emotionally drained, I survived the summer. In fact, I made huge progress towards my goals for the year, and my future writing is going to be a lot more enjoyable. On the downside, I haven't done any sort of promotion in months. I haven't given any books away, run any ads, or even visited the writers' blogs and forums that I used to frequent. So now I have to start getting back to business. After all, that's kind of the point in having a writing loft.

So, I'll probably plan a few giveaways to coincide with upcoming books, and put out a newsletter or two reminding everyone that I'm still alive. I'll see what else comes up. But as soon as I have it figured out, I'll let you know. You do follow this blog, and my newsletter, right?

Friday, September 4, 2015

Alone: A show for true Survivors

Way back when, sometime around the turn of the century, I remember hearing about a new television show that was in production. The concept, as it was explained to me, was to abandon a group strangers on a desert island where they would be forced to survive with little or no supplies. That show was to be called Survivor, and I still feel disappointed when I remember watching the first few episodes.

It was immediately apparent that this show had nothing to do with surviving. In fact, even though billed as such, it wasn't even a reality show. It was a game show, arguably scripted, and the primary concern of each contestant was not how to catch a fish, kill a bear, or build a fire, but rather how  to make friends and then stab them in the back. It wasn't about surviving, it was about lying, manipulation, and betrayal. In short, it was television for sociopaths.

Well, I guess I'm on the outside here, because that show did very well among American audiences. It's not only still in production, there are several spin-offs. I don't plan on watching any of them. However, I have been watching History Channel's Alone. For any of you out there who feel the same disappointment with other so-called survival shows, this is one to check out.

The premise: Abandon ten survival experts on Vancouver Island. Allow each survivor a choice of ten pieces of equipment (choosing from a list of about 40 items), including such gear as an axe, a tarp, and a sleeping bag. Give them cameras to record their activities and place them approximately ten miles apart, so they are completely isolated and surrounded by impassable forests, mountains, freezing seas, and literally tens of thousands of black bears and cougars.

Pretty simple, huh? These guys are out there alone in the wilderness facing bitterly cold and wet weather, generally miserable conditions, and thousands of deadly predators. All they have to do is survive. Sounds easy, unless you've actually tried it. For example, have you ever tried starting a fire with only a ferro rod? It can be a lot harder than it looks, especially in northwest Washington state, where it can rain more than 250 inches per year! Some of these individuals chose to bring axes and saws, others brought a bow and a small supply of arrows, but when it came down to it, I was amazed at how difficult staying alive on this island proved to be. Many of them ended up surviving on kelp and seawood, and the occasional fish. One of the survivors even turned to field mice as a source of protein, and another was thrilled at the opportunity to boil up some slugs!

I won't tell you how the first season ends, but I can tell you that all of the long-term survivors lost a considerable amount of weight. I will also share this one spoiler: Over half the survivors were gone in the first week.

I have to be honest, I have always wanted to do something like this. As a kid in Montana, I spent a lot of time hiking and camping up in the woods by myself. My grandfather's ranch, where I lived until I was eleven, was up against a national wilderness. My parents were divorced and my mother usually wasn't home, so I had free run of the place. I built forts and tree houses, I climbed mountains, I rode horses (remember that scene in Disney's Brave when the little girl was shooting arrows at targets up in the trees from horseback? That was me. Except male, of course, and blond. I literally did that as a kid.).

Frankly, I'm not sure how I survived. I was up in those mountains alone with mountain lions, wolves, moose, and black/brown/grizzly bears. In fact, the area where I spent my childhood playing was a well-known drop-point for grizzlies out of Yellowstone. See, in Yellowstone Park, grizzly bears sometimes lose their fear of humans and start attacking us. When that happens, rather than kill them, the Forest Service shoots them up with PCP and drops them out of a helicopter in the remote mountains of Montana. Conveniently, those remote mountains were my backyard. Looking back, I truly believe it was only by the grace of God that I'm still alive. But I digress...

I have a lot of stories about the old ranch, but the point is that I always felt like I was just this side of Grizzly Adams. I was out there in the woods, often alone, doing everything short of literally living off the land. But I always had home nearby. I always knew that I was just a few hours away from food and shelter, and because of that, I never really got to find out if I could truly survive out there. Of course I was only a child at the time, and when I got really, really hungry I just headed for home.

While watching Alone, I couldn't help marveling at some of the decisions the survivors made. Each person took a different approach. Some I never would have considered. I found myself swinging back and forth between "Why on earth did he do that?" to "Wow, that was pretty clever."

I'm not sure I would attempt something like this at my age and stage of life. Most of my camping these days is done in a 25 foot trailer, or at the very least on a cot or air mattress. However, it was enjoyable as a vicarious experience and I even learned a few things that I can utilize in my own life, or even bring to my writing at some point. My family and I were drawn in, captivated, and we even learned a thing or two. That's value entertainment. I can't wait for Season Two.

By the way, they're taking apps on the website if anyone's up for the challenge!