Saturday, March 28, 2020

Life in Isolation, Report #1

Welp, we're on day 3 of national lockdown. NZ is up to 451 cases. The majority of them are still associated with overseas travel, but a few "clusters" of transmission have happened within NZ. One such cluster was an international cattle conference that took place in Queenstown 2 weeks ago; several infected people from the conference then attended Wanaka's agricultural & pastoral show, one of the biggest local events of the year, which had a crowd of 40,000. (Doh!)

So far only a dozen people are in hospital, but that's certain to change. The government's best modeling indicates we'll reach several thousand cases in the next week or two. After that, if the lockdown is working to stop community transmission, we'll hopefully start seeing a decrease.

Boy do we all hope for that. This has led to some community arguments over what is and isn't allowed in lockdown. What is the definition of "going out for exercise" in a town full of climbers, marathon runners, mountaineers, and other outdoor enthusiasts? The local coast guard has asked people not to kayak and boat on the lake, to spare volunteers from having to mount rescues in case of trouble. But what about mountain biking the multitude of trails accessed from town? Or driving to more remote but still "local" trailheads? Or surfing the Hawea wave? The debate rages in local Facebook groups, with some arguing we should all stick to neighborhood walks, others insisting mental health is important, and so long as distancing is kept, other activities should be fair game.

Our household is playing it safe and keeping to short walks down to the lakeshore. Well, plus a lot of time bouncing on our backyard trampoline, and occasional games in the empty lot next door.

For my own sanity, I worked out a daily school schedule for my son, and we've settled into a reasonable routine.

We get up, have breakfast, I shower and do a 20-30min yoga workout using free youtube videos. (I just finished "30 days of Yoga with Adriene", which I really liked, so now I'm on to another 31-day set of her videos called Revolution. I can't recommend these enough. Adriene is a terrific instructor, very practical/pragmatic with a nice sense of humor, and she's great at explaining different options for beginner/intermediate/expert in each pose. For me it's been a total sanity saver.)

9am: My husband heads into his home office for work. (His company has always worked remotely, so his routine hasn't really changed!) For me and the kiddo, the "school day" starts. From 9-10, my son works on a range of activities assigned by his classroom teacher. His school has done a spectacular job of setting up tons of online learning, for which I am tremendously grateful. While the kiddo works, I write.

10am: Free time, with the caveat of no screens. I play with him if he wants.

11am: The kiddo does another block of schoolwork, and I work on my algorithm project.

12pm: Lunchtime! And chores.

1pm: Music lesson: I'm teaching him piano, since that's the instrument I play best. I wish I had been smart enough to buy some beginner piano books before the lockdown, but oh well. Instead I print off beginner exercises and music I find online.

1:30pm: Japanese lesson! The kiddo and I decided to learn Japanese together, in hopes we can visit Japan someday post-pandemic. Our Kiwi friends tell us the powder and tree skiing there are epic. We're using Rocket Japanese, which I like so far. We have a lot of fun trying to beat each other's scores on the various games & quizzes.

2pm: "Physical education"...aka, get active for an hour. We trampoline, practice cricket bowling, run sprints, dance to music, whatever the kiddo wants to do that is active.

3pm: School day is done, now the kiddo gets screen time. He plays video games and Skypes with his friends or watches favorite shows. I catch up on news, email friends, do more chores (we are still trying to stain the outside of the house!).

530pm: My husband's usually done with work, so we make dinner and then go for a family walk to the lake, or watch a movie together, or something family-oriented.

Evening on the lakeshore


All good so far, but the lockdown is yet young. I keep thinking about how hard it must be for parents of very young children or rebellious teenagers, especially if both parents are also trying to work from home. It's been a touch exhausting trying to keep my energetic 11 year old from climbing the walls, and replacing all his in-person social interaction; yet I know I'm lucky compared to so many others. Hugs to everyone out there struggling to make it through another day.

This will all be worth it if NZ can stop this virus. In my dreams, the lockdown works and thousands of lives are saved. Domestic restrictions get lifted after a month or so, and within NZ we can return to socializing and domestic travel and tramping/climbing/kayaking/etc, even if our borders have to stay closed to stop new cases. This is perhaps too optimistic a dream, but hey. Hope is a nice thing to have.

In the meantime, for anyone looking for distraction, I've got books to recommend. I've been re-reading Sangu Mandanna's A Spark of White Fire, an engaging YA space opera that I've mentioned here before, in preparation for reading the sequel, A House of Rage and Sorrow. The first book definitely holds up the second time through; I'm just as captivated as I was before, and really looking forward to seeing how the story continues. If you want to escape the world for a while, definitely try this SF adventure with sentient space ships and difficult family relationships plus magic and meddling gods.





Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Heading into Lockdown

Over the weekend, COVID-19 case numbers in NZ increased to 102, and the first dreaded signs of community transmission appeared in Auckland and Wairarapa. To my huge relief, the government was swift to act. In an address to the nation yesterday, PM Jacinda Ardern raised the nation's immediate alert level to 3, with the understanding that over the next 48 hours the country will prepare to go into full level 4 lockdown (as of midnight Wednesday, NZ time).

Lockdown means all schools closed, all businesses closed except for health services, pharmacies, supermarkets, supply chain, police & vital govt services. We are all to stay home, no travel outside local area, no contact with anyone outside our households. If we go outside we must maintain 2m distance from anyone else. If needed, this will be enforced by police & military. The government will prohibit rent increases and evictions, work with banks to provide mortgage relief, and ensure basic income for all Kiwis. We will remain in lockdown for at least 4 weeks.

This is absolutely New Zealand's best and only hope of preventing the swamping of the health system and the resultant huge numbers of deaths. Will it work? Oh goodness I hope so, but only time will tell.

It's a little chaotic right now, as people rush to prepare. Despite the calls to "shop normally", supermarkets in bigger cities are apparently madhouses. Tourists who haven't yet left the country may not be able to get out in time, as many flights are cancelled. Kiwis who'd been traveling in different areas of the country are racing to get home, a process complicated by the ferries between North and South Islands having limited space.

But everyone agrees this is necessary. My eyes welled up when I saw the statement of support from NZ's main opposing political party, the more conservative National party. They have suspended all campaigning and expressed full confidence in the PM's actions, despite the severe economic consequences of a full lockdown. “We support any measures that will protect the health and safety of New Zealanders...we will work in a supportive and constructive way with the Government in the interests of bringing New Zealand through this crisis together."

Those of you in America will understand why I nearly wept upon reading that. Just...I can't even imagine seeing a similar headline in the US, and that both terrifies me and breaks my heart. The deep divisions of American society are about to quite literally kill people. Especially the "alternate reality" bubble that so many Americans have complacently built around themselves; the one in which the president is super-competent and the virus over-blown. I want to scream when I think of the months wasted, the insistent denials of the virus's severity, the eagerness to prioritize profit over people's lives, so that even now, too many people don't take self-isolation seriously.

I keep thinking of the line from HBO's Chernobyl miniseries, "Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth; sooner or later, that debt is paid."

In America, the debt is coming due. I fear it will cost far more lives than Chernobyl.

Yet I cling to hope. Regardless of government, each of us has some power to affect the virus's spread. When my husband and son and I went for a walk last night, we and the other families we saw called cheerful greetings from a good long distance and conscientiously steered well clear of each other. I've been messaging the parents of my son's friends to set up virtual playtime options. Local Facebook groups are filled with people offering whatever help is needed for those alone or requiring shopping assistance. All this is in no way unique to New Zealand, I am sure. Our actions are our own best hope, regardless of country.

So to everyone out there, wherever you live, I pray you stay healthy and safe. And please, so long as the virus is not contained, stay isolated.

It's okay to go outside if there's nobody else around

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Alert Level 2

In the 2 days since my last post, NZ is up to 52 cases of COVID-19. Two of them aren't related to overseas travel: we now have the dreaded first sign of community spread. NZ's PM addressed the nation today to unveil a 4-level alert system; we're currently at level 2. This means schools stay open, but every adult who can work remotely should start doing so. We're asked to stop all non-essential domestic travel, and those people in high risk groups (elderly, immunocompromised, underlying conditions), should limit contacts by staying at home.

As I watched the PM's announcement, my son was downstairs playing with a friend. Another little friend is supposed to come over tomorrow, and I already agonize: should I cancel that? It's probably safest to do so. Yet so long as my son's school remains open, he's exposed to some risk anyway, and this may be one of his last chances to enjoy ordinary playtime. I don't think we have long before the alert level rises and we all go into true isolation, for who knows how long. 

Looking at social media posts from friends all around the world, I can't help but recall the parts in Stephen King's masterwork of viral apocalypse The Stand where characters mourn the world that was. All the simple conveniences of life, but most of all the shared rituals of community, from baseball games and summer fireworks to crowded movie theaters. We're not anywhere near as bad off as survivors in The Stand, of course. Our favorite acts of community aren't forever gone for us, just gone for a while. We still have the internet to keep us together and build new rituals of connection despite physical isolation. But it's still a time to mourn, because when we come out of this crucible, the whole world will be different in ways we're not yet sure of. 

PM Jacinda Ardern finished her speech to the nation by calling on people to "be strong; be kind." Oh, how I hope we can live up to that. (For my part, I'm registering with the local volunteer network which will organize help for local community members.) 

In the meantime, if you're stuck at home and looking for a read that celebrates kindness and friendship in difficult times, I've got a rec for you:


Emma Bull's Finder is old-school elfpunk urban fantasy, a murder mystery set in a town straddling the magical border between human and elven lands. The protagonist, Orient, is a human runaway with a psychic knack for finding things. His best friend is an elven woman named Tick Tick who's a talented mechanic. When Orient is forced into helping the local police solve a string of murders, Tick Tick and his other friends aren't going to let him face trouble alone. Bull's typical excellence with character work makes the story really shine. Fair warning, it does involve a deadly plague and contains a heartbreaking death scene, so if you don't want that reminder of reality in your reads right now, keep it for another time. Me, I plan to curl up with it tonight. 

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Calm before the storm

I just read over the last post I made here, way back at the beginning of the year, and wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. So much for my attempted optimism about 2020, eh? A few days after Jan 1, I remember reading a BBC article about a new virus hospitalizing people in China. It was easy to dismiss beneath the deluge of terrible news about the bushfires in Australia, and the threat of war between the U.S. and Iran. I remember thinking, Oh gosh, what now--as if we need a plague on top of everything else! But even at worst, I assumed a "plague" meant something like SARS or H1N1. Sad for everyone affected, but society as a whole would plow on as normal.

Ha. Well. Here we are, in the kind of epidemic straight out of a disaster movie. New Zealand is not so badly affected yet. (Yet.) Our first confirmed case wasn't until Feb 28, and on Mar 14, when we still had only 6 cases, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ordered that everyone, residents and visitors alike, arriving into New Zealand has to self-isolate for 14 days. It's getting a lot harder to reach NZ at all, with Air NZ cutting way back on flights, and Qantas cancelling overseas operations entirely.

Today, March 19th, NZ is up to 28 cases, all of them still associated with overseas travel. No evidence yet of community spread...although I worry that is because NZ is only now rolling out more widespread testing. Until a few days ago, to get tested you needed to have both symptoms and a history of overseas travel (or close contact with someone who'd traveled from overseas). Given COVID-19's long incubation, slow progression of symptoms even in critical cases, and penchant for silent spreading in a community, I feared NZ's Ministry of Health was too complacent in their assumptions.

I guess we'll soon see. Aside from my qualms about their testing policy, I think Ardern and her government are doing a pretty damn spectacular job of handling the situation. They've been clear and honest from the start about the level of threat, the precautions people should take, and the expected impacts to the country. More importantly, they haven't been afraid to take action, even when the economic cost is stark. NZ's economy, particularly on the South Island, is heavily dependent on tourism. The 14-day self-isolation rule for incoming travelers essentially killed that entire sector. But as Ardern said, "I make no apologies"; she's putting the health and lives of New Zealanders as her highest priority.

Immediately after the order, the government rolled out a massive economic response package worth 4% of the GDP, providing wage subsidies, tax relief, and other measures to protect Kiwi jobs and help those who are unemployed or retired. I've also been hugely relieved to see the government has been working hard all this time to secure ventilators and prepare hospitals for the expected rise in cases. Thank God for competent government. It makes me mad and sad and horrified all at the same time that the US government, given just as much warning, has done almost nothing to prepare.

But I know for NZ the true test is yet to come. It's been surreal watching posts from friends in the US and Europe and Australia: the rising dismay, the empty store shelves, the lost jobs, the lockdown orders. Right now, in Wanaka life continues more or less as normal, except with a lot fewer tourists. Schools and businesses and restaurants are all open. When I passed our neighborhood cafe this morning, all the tables were full. There was a brief run on toilet paper and paper towels a few days ago, when one COVID-19 case was diagnosed in nearby Queenstown. But when I went shopping today, the Wanaka supermarket was once again well stocked:


Look at all that precious white gold! Complete with discreet little signs saying customers are limited to buying 3 packs.
Plenty of meat to go around. Only thing you can't find is hand sanitizer.

I know this happy state of affairs won't last. When my son came home from school today, he told me they spent much of the day preparing for remote learning in the event of a shutdown. The rumor mill claims the PM is poised to initiate a full lockdown at the first sign of community spread, or maybe even before. I'm guessing that's when the panic shoppers will truly panic.

On a personal level, we're about as ready as we can be. NZ is earthquake country, so we'd long since started building up a stash of nonperishable food and supplies. We bought a chest freezer, and ever since the first reports of total lockdown came out of China back in January, I've been buying a little bit extra every time I go to the store. My husband already works remotely, as do I, so no change there. My son is old enough he'll be pretty easy to homeschool and entertain; my heart goes out to parents stuck in their homes indefinitely with toddlers. Talk about the seventh circle of hell.

Preparations don't help anxiety, though. I've got plenty of family and friends in high risk groups. I worry about who will survive, and what our future will look like, as countries struggle to manage the long-term impacts. I hope desperately for a treatment or vaccine that will halt the pandemic and spare the world from the worst effects. I'm trying to continue progress on my writing and other projects, and not spend half my day refreshing news sites. (Boy is that hard, when the news comes in fast and furious).

Right now in Wanaka it feels like that last eerie calm before the storm. Best wishes to all of you overseas who are already feeling the impact; may we all come out the other side.

My son enjoying some calm on his school camp last week in the Catlins (part of the rugged, remote southern coast of NZ)

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

State of the Schafer: 2019 in Review (Picture Edition)

Happy New Year, everyone. We just got back from spending Christmas with family in Sydney, Australia, where thanks to the worst bushfire season in living memory, the sky mostly looked like this:

My little cell phone camera doesn't do the eerie colors justice. The sky was orange, the sun crimson.
We were lucky during our visit. Our arrival before Christmas coincided with a cool front that pushed smoke away from Sydney and allowed firefighters in the Blue Mountains the chance for vital defensive work. But the day we left, on New Years Eve, conditions worsened again as high winds fanned the flames. Homes are burning, people have died, thousands are stuck without power or safe exit routes--and the only thing capable of stopping the fires for good is heavy rain, which forecasters say likely won't arrive until February.

But Australia has always had fires in summer, some people protest. Yes, they have. But thanks to the changing climate, this year's fire season is far longer, hotter, and drier than in years past. Nor are controlled burns the solution--as this well-researched article explains, the situation is complicated. Plus, during extreme heat and wind, the amount of available fuel makes only a small difference to a fire's intensity; the primary driver is weather.

Even 2000km away in New Zealand, we're feeling the effects. I woke up this morning to a sky so yellowy-orange I thought for a second we were still back in Sydney. Nope. It's just Australian smoke pouring across the Tasman Sea to blanket us.

View from our house this morning. Again, the camera doesn't do the color justice.
Nor is this the only sign of changing climate we've faced here in NZ. While Australia is predicted to get hotter and drier, NZ's South Island is predicted to get warmer and wetter. We had a taste of what that might be like this spring, with epic amounts of rain leading to flooding that destroyed bridges and roads and briefly cut off the entire lower half of the South Island from the rest of the country. We're okay here in Hawea, where the town is on a hill well above lake level, but Wanaka isn't so lucky. 

Flooding in Wanaka in early December
At least the government in New Zealand is trying hard to anticipate climate impacts and address them, as well as reduce the country's emissions, with all political parties coming together to vote for the Zero Carbon bill despite disagreements. 

The most depressing part about the Australian fires is that this terrible season isn't a surprise; scientists have been sounding alarm bells for years. But the Australian government, like the current US government, has prioritized short term economic gain over everything else. Even now, the prime minister insists he won't change policies. The New South Wales government has at least agreed to compensate volunteer firefighters for their loss of earnings while fighting fires in dangerous conditions for weeks on end with no finish yet in sight. Hopefully other regions of Australia will follow that lead.

On a larger scale, I guess paying the cost is all we can do, if governments continue refusing to address the root cause. But governments are put in power by people, and I hope with all my heart that in 2020 more people will understand the stakes we face and vote accordingly. It's too late to stop the climate from changing, but it's not too late to limit the worst effects.

Perhaps it's both the blessing and the curse of humanity that we're so good at focusing on the here and now. There is always light amid the darkness, and savoring the small joys of everyday life is what keeps hope alive.

The fires and smoke didn't stop my in-laws from throwing a lovely Christmas party
Having a great lunch with my husband
With the help of my sister-in-law and one of our nieces, we solved the Wizard's Quest escape room at Escape Hunt in Sydney. 
Looking back over 2019, despite all the horrifying developments in world politics and climate, I have a lot of good memories to savor. We visited a bunch of cool places in New Zealand I hadn't seen before, like the wild southern shores:

Windswept bluff near Gemstone Beach
and the busy, beautiful city of Wellington (SFF fans and authors, you definitely want to come down here for WorldCon in August!):

Wellington is gorgeous on a sunny day
Plus we visited the cozy homes of Hobbiton in Matamata:

I would totally live here if I were a hobbit
and Rotorua's steaming geothermal field:

Don't wander off the trail

and the lovely alpine scenery near Glenorchy and Kinloch:

View from Kinloch, at the head of Lake Wakatipu
not to mention the incredible Milford Sound in Fiordland:

Mitre Peak in Milford Sound
In late September, I took my son to visit family and friends in the US, where we saw Hogwarts Castle:

My son loved all the Harry Potter stuff at Universal Orlando (and yeah, I did too)
We played in a really cool water park (Universal's Volcano Bay):


Plus took a cruise in the Caribbean with my mom and brother:

I realize I need to plant about a million trees to make up for the environmental impact of this...or better yet, contribute to the development of a planetary sunshade. I think we're unfortunately past the point at which lifestyle changes are enough to make a difference. It's technology that will have to save us.
While in the US, we visited familiar, much-beloved haunts:

Boulder, Colorado...I do miss the Flatirons!

Wandering the Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park
Delicate Arch at sunset
And also enjoyed some new adventures:

The kiddo on a long rappel on the Rock of Ages route near Moab
Our guide helps him negotiate a downclimb in the slot section

Back in New Zealand, we spent plenty of days enjoying Lake Hawea, just steps from our front door.

Lake Hawea's beach is rocky rather than sandy, but the rocks sure are pretty
I never get tired of the view from the lakeshore walking track

The very best way to see the lake
 Although the ski season came very late this year (more reason to hate climate change, arrrgh), I still enjoyed some great ski days.



So did my son, who's good enough now to ski the infamous Motatapu Chutes with panache.

Celebrating a successful ski of a very steep chute
He also took up trampolining, and competed for the very first time, which is pretty darn cool. He's excited to progress further in 2020.


I, meanwhile, returned to figure skating--a lot more cautiously than I'd like, thanks to my aging back, but I've been delighted to find I can still jump and spin. I'm training for my first competition in over ten years, eeek! (The NZ Masters Games in Dunedin in February of 2020.)

Blurry pic, I know, but hey. It's hard taking pictures in a dimly lit rink.
But Courtney, what about writing? you may ask, assuming anybody's still reading this extremely long post. Where's your next book? 

All I can say is that I'm still working on it. Or rather, working on them, plural. I've still got The White Serpent novella and short stories in the works--Tales from Ninavel, I'm thinking I'll call the collection as a whole. Plus, I'm still plugging along on my new fantasy adventure, The Dreaming Sea

I'm bummed that I didn't publish anything in 2019, but I also don't want to put out anything less than the best I can write. I ran into a couple roadblocks toward the end of the year, on both projects, and realized that I need to correct course, which means revising and rewriting. But I've got a path forward, and I mean to use it. I may not be a fast writer, but I get there in the end. I definitely will attend WorldCon/CoNZealand in Wellington in August, so readers and fellow SFF fans, I hope to see you there. 

What else is ahead for me in 2020? Oh, I've got a few goals:

1) FINISH MY DRAFTS. FINISH MY DRAFTS. FINISH MY DRAFTS.

Really, that's the biggest one. But okay, I've got a few more plans and dreams:

2) Compete in Adult Gold figure skating at NZ Nationals, assuming my back holds out
3) Complete a coding project I've been working on: a fantasy book recommendation algorithm that uses book content/theme/style rather than sales information to produce results 
4) Formally open a consulting company here in NZ for my algorithm work
5) Find ways to contribute to climate change solutions
6) Keep exploring NZ's amazing landscapes with my son and husband

So, yeah. Busy year ahead. But exciting, too. Best wishes to all of you in 2020--let's hope this year becomes the start of a better future for everyone.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

State of the Schafer: How is it September already?

Man, it's been an awful winter for viruses down here in NZ. My son's been sick 4 times, and I'm currently fighting off my own 2nd round of a cold. Plus, this week I had to get a booster MMR vaccine, as there's a pretty nasty measles outbreak going on in Auckland with almost 900 cases. Auckland is on the North Island, pretty far from our home in Hawea, but I'll be flying through the Auckland airport on my way to visit US family and friends in a few weeks. I don't have my childhood medical records, which means I can't prove I've had 2 doses of the MMR. Better safe than sorry, in my view (and the doctor's).

So anyway, what with all the sore throats and high fevers and headaches (not to mention some chipped teeth, bruised heels, and injured ligaments), feels like we've been living at the local medical centre. Thank goodness medical care for kids under 14 is completely free in NZ. All the doctor visits haven't exactly made for terrific productivity, though, on the writing front or anywhere else. Well, okay, if I'm honest, part of that lack is because on the rare occasions when everybody's healthy, we've prioritized hitting the ski slopes before the snow vanishes again. Gotta take care of our mental health too, right?

Writing Progress:

I'm reeeeeeeally trying to get a complete draft of The White Serpent done before my big US trip in a few weeks. Will I make it? Only time will tell. I'm currently fighting through a particularly tricky setup to the climax scene, with a few more to go after that.

Skating Update:

I'm still playing it safe with my back, which means no sit spins or double jumps. Mostly I'm working on that darn step sequence for my program, which involves a lot of turns known as counters. My precious, we hatesssss them...but arrrrgh, with enough practice, surely I can get my footwork to look decent. I hope. I am just not a naturally graceful skater, so it's hard. On the up side, my back is doing well enough I can safely practice layback spins. I've got a long way to go to regain full back flexibility, but hey. Baby steps:



I'm thinking if the sit spin continues to be dangerous for my back, then I may switch my main combo spin in my program from camel/sit/back sit to camel/layback/back camel. (A "back" spin means you change feet and spin on your non-dominant foot.) The trick to get a good transition from layback to back camel, which is something I haven't ever worked on before. That makes it interesting, and keeps me from feeling too sad about not doing sit spins. (The sit was always my favorite and best spin.)

New Zealand Life:

During the winter term, the local schools run a program where for six Fridays, the kids all go up the mountain for ski lessons. Parents get discount tickets for the day, and are supposed to be on hand to supervise children during their lunch break. Best school program ever, far as I'm concerned. I've certainly made the most of the ski time.

Happy after hauling my skis up to Treble Cone's summit ridge

Mmmm, fresh powder

Walking the ridge

More fresh lines in the Motatapu Chutes

One of my favorite chutes to ski

The long walk out of the Motatapu back to the lift 
I also did a little volunteering for this year's NZ Winter Games, since a friend of mine runs the cross-country events and asked me to help out. I'd never been to the local dedicated cross country area before, so it was neat to check that out and watch all the elite international athletes power through their races. Snow Farm is apparently the one groomed cross country ski area in all of NZ, although of course people do tons of backcountry hut trips and other off-piste x-c skiing all throughout NZ's mountains. I still want to get more into backcountry, but I think I'll leave the x-c racing to those fitter and more masochistic than I am. It sure looked tiring.

Snow Farm's meticulously groomed cross country ski trails

Upon finishing their race, elite skiers collapse exhausted in the snow

Reading Corner:

I just finished Tad Williams's The Witchwood Crown and Empire of Grass, the first two installments in his Last King of Osten Ard series. This is the follow-on to his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, which in my view is one of the great classics of epic fantasy. I first read the MS&T trilogy as a teenager and adored every word of it. Some might complain of slow pacing and over-description, but to me, the leisurely build-up, deep introspection, and detailed settings helped make both world and characters feel rich and real in a way few other fantasy series have matched.

Despite having a good experience with the interval novella Williams released in 2017 (The Heart of What Was Lost), I still worried the new books, returning to beloved characters like Simon and Miriamele and Binabik after so many years, might not match the magic of the originals. It's true that as a more experienced reader I spot more flaws and frustrations. (My goodness, but Williams does love for characters to spend tons of pages wandering lost through forests and caves. And while he does his usual terrific job of writing realistic women of a variety of ages and roles, in the new series he goes frustratingly old-school in choices of plotline for some of them...which is to say, slavery, abuse, and sexual assault.)

Yet as a reader I don't care, because the magic remains, at least for me. As soon as I started, I sank right into Osten Ard and never wanted the story to stop. This is why I didn't read the new books right away, although I've been snapping them up upon release. I was trying to hold out until the third one comes out next year. But in the end I just couldn't. And now I have to wait. Arrrrgh.

Friday, August 2, 2019

State of the Schafer: Starting Up Again

Okay, due to horrible flu viruses and travel and school holidays and various busy-ness, it's been a while. Real confession time, I've also been avoiding the blog because I keep wanting to post big long serious posts about politics and the inexorably changing climate and the desperate need for action. But the time and effort it takes me to create a nuanced, thoughtful, well-researched, persuasive post can perhaps be better spent in getting away from the keyboard to real-world actions, like calling representatives and volunteering with local groups. 

These little State of the Schafer updates are meant to be mostly for me and close family and friends, a way of keeping track of personal things in my life. I decided to stick to that, for now, although if you catch me in person, I'd be happy to discuss at length more serious matters.

Writing Progress:

I've reached the point in The White Serpent (the Cara novella) where I'm counting down scenes to the end. Seven more to go, woo! The draft currently stands at 31,291 words. I expect it'll end up around 50K. Often the words come faster and faster for me toward the end of a story, but I've learned the hard way never to count on any story coming easy. Each one is difficult in different ways; for me, that's part of why writing is such an addictive pursuit. The challenge keeps changing. Anyway, I shall forge onward.

Skating Update:

After so easily regaining my axel, I got all excited and started practicing double jumps. That might have been a bit premature. My back got iffy again, so I've had to stop the doubles, and take a break from sit spins, which are the most risky move for my lumbar spine. I won't lie, it's frustrating. Sometimes getting older sucks. More targeted core work may fix up my back enough to handle the doubles, or at least properly low sit spins, but I guess there's no guarantee.

Thankfully, other spins, single jumps, and axels seem fine for my back, as does footwork...and goodness knows I could use some practice on that. I've always loved jumping and spinning best, which means I tend to spend all my practice time on the fun showy stuff and neglect the finicky, more tedious things like choctaws and rockers and brackets. But a complex step sequence is a vital component of a competitive program, and my coach just finished choreographing mine, so now I have no excuse not to practice it. I still have hopes of competing later this year (I don't need doubles for that).

New Zealand Life:

During my son's school holidays, we went up to Auckland to renew his U.S. passport. To make the trip a bit more fun, we headed out to Hobbiton, which none of us had visited before. My son, who shares my love of Lord of the Rings, was quite excited to see the hobbit homes "just like in the movies!" I was a little worried he'd be disappointed in the experience, since the homes are exterior sets only, you can't go inside them (there's nothing in there!), and you're supposed to look but not touch.

But all three of us really enjoyed it. The set designers' attention to detail is just amazing, and the tour guide had a ton of funny and interesting stories about the movie filming to share. It was an overcast, sometimes rainy day, which made all the beautiful greenery seem particularly verdant. It truly does look like Bilbo and Frodo might pop around a corner to say hello at any moment. Behold:

Even in the dead of winter, Hobbiton has plenty of flowers

The kiddo is now too tall to be a hobbit! More than full foot taller than average hobbit height. Goodness, how the time flies.


I loved all the greenery. I think they should make a Hobbiton where the homes aren't just exteriors, but full-on houses...how cool would it be to stay a weekend in a hobbit home?



Bag End, with door invitingly cracked open.

The bench where Bilbo and Gandalf meet

I'd live in this one


Sam's house

View across the lake to the Green Dragon Inn

The Green Dragon. You can go inside this one, and have drinks and lunch. My son loved the buffet; they did a great job of marking gluten-free choices and had tons of things he could eat.
Anyway, the whole Hobbiton experience made me want to do a LotR movie marathon and re-read the book yet again. New Zealand sure knows how to do tourist attractions.

In other news, after a horrendously dry start to the winter, snow has finally arrived. This is a huge relief to everyone in town, since the conditions at the ski areas were the worst in a decade. But now at last the powder is accumulating up high, and I'm super psyched to finally enjoy some steep and deep turns.

Snow at last at Treble Cone