Wednesday, March 26, 2008

(Almost) Everything I Needed to Know I Learned After Getting Lost

Aside from always carrying a compass, map, water and cell phone whenever I step out of the house, getting lost taught me a few of things about myself and about how to handle life in general and writing in particular.

1) Do the right thing. We don't always do the right or smart thing the first time. Or even the second. When I initially realized I was lost, I should have just sat still and waited for help. I didn't and it got me into deeper trouble. That being said, I'm not one to wait for good fortune to simply fall into my lap. We have to be proactive in our lives, use our brains from the start. In writing, the right thing is creating stories I like (because if I don't like them or believe in them, it will come through on the page), learning all I can about the craft and the business, milking my friends for information etc.

2) If you do screw up, or things go wrong, try not to compound the problem with further stupidity. I stopped moving once night fell, keeping myself relatively safe. And while I probably should have climbed downhill to the road rather than up to the rock, I got lucky. When I hand over a piece of writing to my crit partners, I know they'll tell me where I went wrong. I don't always agree with them, but usually I do. If more than one says "This doesn't work" I have to take a hard look at it and often will admit it needs fixing.

3) Never dismiss the idea of "luck." I know, up in #1 I said don't wait for things to fall into your lap. And I meant it. But we can make our own luck, up to a point. Me finishing my novel and letting it sit in my computer will not get it in front of people who can get it published. I need to be in the right place at the right time to have it looked at by the right person. That means contests, networking and doing research to sent it to the appropriate person. There's no guarantee my efforts will pay off, but with persistence and a little luck, who knows.

4) Planning and determination will get you over most fears. Don't give in to the fear of "what if" or "what if not." Do what you know you need to get done, and do it the best way you can. Tired and scared, I made my way up the hill to the clearing, not knowing if I'd made the right choice, not knowing if I'd have to spend another night out. But I had a plan, that by a certain time I'd try another tactic. Keeping that in mind gave me direction, a goal. I didn't dwell on what had happened to that point, other than to learn a little from my mistakes. I focused on the present, on what I could do now and in the future. I try doing the same thing with my writing. Every time I hit the Send button with a query or submission, my heart chatters in my chest and my palms get clammy. But I do it. Fear of rejection isn't an option if I want to make my dreams of being published come true.

What life lessons have you learned?

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Monday, March 17, 2008

I Should Have Taken That Left at Albuquerque--Part Two

I’m lost. I’m lost! I’mlost! I’mlost I’mlost I’mlost!!!

The words ricochet in my head like crazed pinballs. My brain runs in circles, neurons flailing in panic while my feet keep moving in the vain attempt to unlose myself. Adrenaline pumps through me and my heartbeat increases, creating the need to move, to do something. It was, unfortunately, the wrong thing to do.

The voice of reason finally penetrates the panic. If you calm down you could think this through with a modicum of logic.

I stop and take a deep breath. Then another. Better. I’ve already made two mistakes, one being getting off track in the first place, and the other by not stopping when I realized I was lost. Let’s not try for a third. Three strikes and you’re out, and all that.

I take account of my situation. The good news is, I haven’t been gone for long, an hour maybe, and my coworkers have noticed my lack of attendance. Chances are they called in some help. The bad news: it’s getting dark and I’m not prepared for a night in the woods.

Normally, hiking about in the wilderness would see me carrying a few crucial items, but since we were just going in and coming back out with S.G. (senior grunt), I had nothing with me except the red bandana I used to keep sweat and hair out of my face. My small day pack with my water bottle, whistle and wallet were in the vehicle. I could have used a sip of water, to say nothing of the freaking whistle. The wallet was less important, as convenience stores selling maps and Slurpees were few and far between out here.

OK, don’t dwell on what you DON’T have. What do you have, or what can you use?

My brain. A more rational look at my surroundings shows that the old growth forest thins out and opens up to a clearing not too far ahead. I head to the clearing, unsure of what it will provide, but I can at least pretend it’ll help. I break through the cover of the trees and onto an open slope. The brush is just over waist high, probably an old clear-cut. Looking out across the valley, there are two slopes adjacent to where I am and lowlands below and ahead. Far, far ahead. Upslope from me, the clearing is interrupted by a large rock or knob close to the top of the ridge.

Which way to go? Up to the clearing, to see more of the landscape, or down to the thicker woodlands? There’s probably a creek running between the slopes, possibly a logging road. But it’s getting too dark, too dangerous to move in either direction. A twisted ankle or worse is more worrisome than the thought of spending the night out in the woods. At least THAT instinct kicked in on time.

I hunker down under the brush and wrap my arms around my legs, containing my body heat as best I can. The evening cools quickly and the ¾ sleeved t-shirt I’d cursed during the heat of the day gives me marginal cover now. As the stars begin to show themselves and the temperature drops, I shiver. What I wouldn’t do for a blanket or a cup of coffee. I pull up handfuls of dried grass and shove them under my shirt. The extra layer is scratchy but adds warmth.

It’s too dark to see my watch face now, but the crystal clear night, the scent of earth and foliage are peaceful. Or would be if I wasn’t so worried. Not so much for myself. Now that my panic has subsided I worry about my family and friends. I know I haven’t fallen off a cliff or broken my leg or neck, that despite the rumble of hunger in my belly and the sticky dryness of my mouth and throat, I’m fine. But what about Scott? Surely they’ve called him by now. What about my family and friends? They’ll be worried, feel impotent, being so far away. Hopefully Scott hasn’t contacted them.

A rustling in the bushes interrupts my musing and stops my heart for a second. Too small for a cougar.

“Go away, critter,” I call out to it. I keep talking, singing, anything to make noise. My voice keeps the animal away, and keeps me company.

I nod off in fitful spurts, shaking myself awake at every little noise. It’s amazing how quiet the night is, how loud the scampering of small rodent feet sounds in the absolute dark. The night is uneventful, and as the sky begins to lighten I stand up to shake the grass out of my shirt. When it’s light enough to see, I decide to head up to the rock rather than down into the unknown ravine. I don’t know which would be better, but the rock is closer.

It takes longer to get there than I figured. Over an hour later I’m still fighting the brush, but I’m dead set on getting to that rock. Along the way, I ease a few young grass shoots out of the soil and chew on the succulent stems. Not much moisture to be had, but it helps. More time passes, and I’m halfway to the rock when I hear the distinct whup-whup-whup of a helicopter. I whip around, my heart racing and hope growing. It’s flying along the mouth of the valley, perpendicular to the slope I’m on, too far away to see any detail on it, not even its color, and I’m sure it can’t see me. I yell anyway.

“Here! I’m here!” I wave my arms and notice what I’m wearing. My light tan t-shirt and olive green cargo pants are perfect camouflage against the greens and browns of the mountainside. The copter flies up another ravine, disappearing along with the whup of its blades.

For a moment, despair winds through me, painful and consuming. But just for a moment. I’m nothing if not determined to neither die nor spend another night out here. They’ll come back, I tell myself. They have to.

Legs pumping against the steep slope, through brush that snags my boots and clothes, I set off for the rock again. By the time I reach it, I’m sucking air, sweating in the late morning sun. I pull up more grass shoots to alleviate the dryness. Before climbing onto the rock, I snap off a length of a branch. The sun soaks into me as I sit on my perch and strip the young leaves. I’d eat them if I knew that they wouldn’t poison me. Better to be hungry a little longer. Sweating and crying, I tie my red bandana around the end of the stick and wait.

They’ll be back. They have to come back. Have to.

I check my watch. Time means nothing and everything. I’ll sit here all day if I have to, but at the same time, I can’t wait forever. I’ll give the copter another hour. If they don’t come back by then, I’ll head downhill. There will be plenty of light to travel, and there could be a road or something.

I scan the skies, waving my bandana to keep cool. My persistence or stubbornness or, more likely, my dumb luck, pays off.

The helicopter comes around the edge of my valley, heading my way. The whupping is the sweetest sound I’d ever heard. I stand on the rock and wave my red flag.

“Here!” I yell, my brain still acknowledging that they can’t hear me, but I can’t help myself.

The copter flies closer, up one side of the valley. I wave frantically, scream until my throat sears. They come right at me, turn away, circle and come back. The blades buffer air down onto me as the helicopter drops and circles around my rock.

“Stay there,” a voice booms over an external speaker. “Someone will come for you.”

I nod and wave my bandana, tears making it hard to see as the copter rises then flies over the crest of the ridge just above me. A few minutes later, a man wearing a helmet and an orange and tan jumpsuit is at my rock. I leap down and hug him. He asks if I’m okay. I tell him I’m fine, just thirsty. He escorts me to the waiting helicopter and gives me some water. It was the red bandana they’d seen, he tells me. I nod and grip it tight in my hand.

The ride back to civilization is a blur. As we fly, I’m told I wasn’t too far from where I was supposed to be, as the crow flies. Well, if I was a crow all my worries would have been for naught. Unfortunately, I’m a direction-impaired human. We touch down in a clearing and there are about a dozen folks waiting. Including my husband. When it’s safe to exit the copter, we run to each other, both of us crying with relief as we hug.

“I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque,” I say against his chest. We laugh and cry a bit more. I tell him I was an idiot, he tells me he’s just glad I’m okay.

The rest of the people there are my coworkers, the rescue crew (whom I thank profusely), and to my embarrassment, a reporter. Slow news day in southern Oregon if one lost biology grunt merits attention. But I answer questions, saying it was just poor decision making on my part, and extol the greatness of the rescue crew and my coworkers. Thankfully, the reporter keeps it short and lets me go without much more damage to my pride.

After talking to my boss and calling my mother (but not my BFF. Sorry about that!) Scott and I get cleaned up and head back home so I can recoup. During the three hour drive north, I’m determined to never set foot off the road system again. Granted, it was only one night out in the wilds of the Oregon woods, but the potential for disaster was too real, too fresh to do anything but decide field biology isn’t for me.

Any bets as to how long that lasted?

Up next: (Almost) Everything I Needed to Know About Life I Learned After a Night in the Woods


Thursday, March 13, 2008

I Should Have Taken That Left at Albuquerque—Part One

Back in the day, I was a wildlife biology grunt. What that means is that I had my B.Sc. from an accredited university and was qualified to do field work for grad students and other researchers. Yes, five years of college yielded me the opportunity to walk around in the heat of a southern Oregon summer, the rain of an Oregon summer, clean out animal cages, count and measure dead fish, wash mud from benthic amphipods, and a host of other career building tasks, including working with black-footed ferrets (see earlier posts). And I loved them all. Most of the time.

One time I didn’t love it, and seriously reconsidered my career choice, occurred shortly after I’d gotten married. My new hubby, Scott, and I had been married for two months when I was scheduled to work on a northern spotted owl population/habitat job several hours from our home. Scott was working on his Ph.D. and had to stay in town, so I ended up moving away to live with fellow grunts for the course of the field season. Not the ideal way to start a marriage, being away from each other, but as science-types who preferred field work to office work, we knew our lives together would be filled with many hours, days and weeks apart. (Besides, the reunions were fun ; ) But I digress….)

So, I move off to southern Oregon in April of ’92 to begin a long field season of hooting for owls. There were two senior grunts who’d been on the project for a year or so acting as our immediate supervisors, all of us under one primary investigator. It was the senior grunts’ job to show us what we were to do over the next few months. This meant learning to read the maps and notations of grunts past, techniques for finding our way into and out of nest sites (big shock--the “finding our way” bit plays an important roll in this post), how to entice the owls and follow them, how to make proper notes, etc.

On a fine spring day, during the first week on the job, one of the senior grunts (can’t recall his name, so we’ll call him S.G.) brings me and another newbie or two into the hills of southern Oregon. We travel on pitted, gravel logging roads. S.G. gives us some tips on navigating these less than ideal thoroughfares, lest we get flattened by a laden log truck barreling downhill or fall off the edge of a cliff. Neither a good prospect, and no one wanted to do the paperwork for those scenarios. So off we go, up into an old growth forest, the traditional habitat of the elusive northern spotted owl.

As you can imagine, the scenery is superb. Dazzling blue skies, every shade of green and brown you can think of and some you can’t even name. The air is fresh, with the tang of pitch and warm undertones of rich earth to give you a hint of what early man must have experienced here. It is the forest primeval…except for the occasional log truck, but that’s neither here nor there.

S.G. pulls off at a cleft in the hillside at a known (to the researchers, not the general public) owl nesting site. Well, not the actual site, but where we begin our search. The nest itself is deeper in the dense forest. We take a compass reading (we each have a compass to get our bearings as well as for the whole “make it official” science aspect. Note: I forgot what the reading was while I listened to other pertinent instructions. Yes, this will be of importance in my near future.) and head up into the woods. With the road hidden beyond the foliage and thick trunks behind us, S.G. takes one of the sacrificial mice we carry that has been bred for a higher purpose than scurrying around a garbage heap and sets it on a branch. He hoots a couple times and within minutes a medium-sized brown and white owl is in a tree nearby.

Large dark eyes blink slowly at us, as if we’d woken him up. Which is possible, since they are nocturnal and it’s late afternoon so he’s just starting to rouse for the evening’s activities. The mouse shifts on its branch and the owl catches the movement immediately, his round head swinging in the rodent’s direction. With half a flap, the owl is off his branch and on the mouse. He sinks his talons into it, bites down on the neck, then flies off toward the nest where his mate is hopefully brooding eggs.

“Come on,” S.G. says, and we follow the owl through the woods.

We stumble over roots of trees that have been in existence before Oregon was a state, before the country was more than a few colonies. Sunlight dapples the thick carpet of fir needles, blinding us to the owl’s flight path now and again. We cross several ravines cutting through the earth, go up another, and after several minutes, S.G. has us stop. Panting from our trek, we look up in the trees. We’ve lost the owl. Damn.

“There.” S.G. points up at a branch ten or so feet away. The owl waits for us, eyes wide and blinking, beak empty. He’d already taken the mouse to his mate and returned for another. Obviously he’s been part of the study for some time and knows the routine better than we newbies do.

S.G. offers up another mouse (we carry them in a covered tin bucket with holes punched in for air) and the owl is on it in a flash. We set off after him and are able to track him to the nest—an untidy, thick mat of branches and down. The male sets down on the edge of the nest and we can just see the female peek over the top to take the mouse from him. Typical behavior in many species, the provision of food is a trait females will often test in their prospective mates. The newlywed in me gets a little misty-eyed. How romantic. Though I’d prefer a steak to a raw mouse, the intention is the same.

We all sit down and make our observations, both official and anecdotal. Talking quietly, as to not disturb the owls any more than necessary, S.G. gives us more pointers on what we need to do with our information. After several minutes, S.G. says it’s time to go. We are to leave one at a time and meet back at the truck. I go first.

It doesn’t take long for me to lose sight of my fellow grunts as I head downhill, and I’m sure I’m going in the right direction. I look at my compass. Yep, that’s the heading. Um…Isn’t it? I keep going and cross the ravine, not realizing I should have crossed later and turned up a ravine further downhill than the one I end up traveling.

After fifteen or more minutes of tromping through thick woodlands, where every tree looks exactly like every other tree, where turning up one wrong ravine cuts you off from sight and sound of your coworkers calling for you, I realize I’m lost.

In the woods.

With evening approaching.

In cougar country.


(To be continued…)


Thursday, March 06, 2008

Critters--Don't Bite the Hand that Feeds You

(Note: This was previously posted on Jody’s blog, I think, a while ago, but since I wrote it, I can re-post it here. Plus, I did tweak it. Carry on.)

My best friend Sharron was the first person I ever showed my attempts at putting words to paper. Not even my husband had read any of my stuff. (Come to think of it, I don’t think he has to this day. Hmmmm. Dear...?) Why Sharron? Though all the people “in the know” tell you showing your work to your friends and family will probably only yield over-gushing, possibly false gushing, I knew I could trust Sharron to tell me the truth. If it sucked, she’d find a way to break it to me gently, or at least make suggestions. I trusted her to be honest without being brutal. That’s a very important trait in a critique partner.

I eventually joined a local writers’ group to get more points of view. Want to know fear? Submit your work to a bunch of relative strangers and have them tell you to your face what didn’t cut it. Again, I appreciated their honesty and the constructive criticism, but man, that was the most tense two hours every other week I’d ever suffered through.

Between Sharron, Jody, Amy and my crit groups past, I not only learned to receive criticism, but how to give it. It’s very easy to find what doesn’t work on a piece, but sometimes finding something to praise is tough. What if it’s just okay? What if nothing in it makes you nod with its brilliance or laugh out loud? You can’t *not* say anything a la “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it at all”. Your purpose as a critiquer is to point out problems as well as what works. You just have to do it in the right way. “This sucks” doesn’t help the writer and it hurts feelings. I know, because I’ve received similar notations on my submissions. (Not from Sharron or my more recent CP’s.) But you can’t play false adoration either. Not every thing will shine all the time. I’ve read some pieces by my crit partners that come close, and I let them know how fabulous they are, but there are still a couple of things I end up questioning.

We may write all by our lonesome, but you cannot seriously seek publication on your own. I’ve learned to work with my crit partners, learned how to accept and give criticism, learned that revising isn’t horrible, nor does it mean you stink as a writer. I can take suggestions and not take it personally. I believe this has prepared me for the day when I must deal with my future agent and editor. I won’t be the petulant writer pouting about having to make revisions. I’ll listen carefully to what is being said about my work and recognize that they know what they’re talking about. Will I agree with every little thing? Probably not, but I certainly won’t fight them on every little thing either. I put the story down on paper, but it’ll take more than me to get it in the bookstores someday.