Tuesday, December 31, 2019

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:


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.

Friday, September 6, 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.

Thursday, August 1, 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

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

State of the Schafer, GeyserCon Edition

Well, GeyserCon was a lot of fun. As cons go, it's on the smaller side, comparable to something like MileHiCon in Colorado. (This makes sense, given that NZ's total population and land area are also roughly equivalent to that of Colorado). I rather like the intimacy of smaller cons, which tend to feel like a laid-back family reunion rather than an overwhelming extravaganza.

Granted, the family reunion vibe can be a little nervewracking for an introvert who's brand new to the family. At GeyserCon, like any SFF con I've ever attended, much of the socializing happens in the hotel bar. When you enter and see a lot of tight-knit groups of friends deeply involved in conversation, and you're a stranger to most everyone, it's tough to overcome social anxiety and try to join an existing circle. SF author Kay Kenyon wrote a great post about how to handle con bars as an introvert that I highly recommend to anyone else who, like me, shudders at the thought of starting conversations with strangers.

Another big help is to have friends provide some online introductions in advance. Back when I first moved to New Zealand, SFF reviewer Paul Weimer gave me a virtual introduction to Jo Van Ekeren, who lives in NZ and is a veteran of many WorldCons. She offered to split a room with me at GeyserCon, and proved to be a most excellent roommate and guide to Kiwi fandom. One of my favorite memories of the con is talking about SF books with her until late into the night.

Fellow author and good friend Helen Lowe was working too hard on finishing the fourth novel in her wonderful Wall of Night series to attend the con, but she made sure to ask some of her friends to keep an eye out for me, which they very kindly did. Also, con Guest of Honour Kaaron Warren, who had a story in the Evil is a Matter of Perspective anthology along with me, sought me out to say hello, which was really lovely of her. When you're shy, it makes such a difference to have people actively reach out to you. I hope I can repay the favor to other newbies in years to come. 

As always happens at a con, once I got over my initial shyness, I met all kinds of lovely people who were unfailingly friendly and welcoming. Plus, the con programming (organized by award-winning Kiwi author Lee Murray) was great. One of my favorite talks was given by Peter Brownbridge, a Geothermal Inspector from the Rotorua District Council. The town of Rotorua is located within the caldera of a volcano, and an active thermal field lies beneath the streets. Peter's job is to respond to reports of geothermal events, identify damage, and arrange necessary repairs. The surprises range from geysers going off in people's gardens, to deadly hydrogen sulfide gas infiltrating buildings. It was really fascinating to hear about the challenges of living in an active volcanic zone, and how the city manages the consequences. 

I also thoroughly enjoyed Lee Murray's interview with Kaaron Warren. Kaaron is a wonderful storyteller; her writing portrays the eerie, haunting, and unsettling corners of human nature, yet in person she's quite warm and witty. After hearing her discuss her latest novel, Tide of Stone, which is about the keeper of a tower containing condemned prisoners who endure a horrible sort of immortality, I had to buy it. Another con Guest of Honour, Alan Baxter, who's a long-time martial artist, gave a fascinating talk on what it's like to fight hand to hand, and how you can capture the feeling of a fight using various writing techniques. 

It was neat to see the award ceremony for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards, which are the NZ equivalent of the Hugos. Congrats to all the winners! And since WorldCon will be held in NZ next year, 29 July- 2 Aug in Wellington, plenty of discussion was had about that. Prices for memberships go up in only a few days, so if you're at all thinking you might come, definitely register. (And yes, if at all financially feasible, you should come! It's going to be awesome.)

 In any case, GeyserCon was a blast, but all fun has to end sometime. The day I was to head home, I woke up with a sore throat, which only worsened as I traveled. By the time I got back to Queenstown, I had to accept the truth: the virus that had made my son miserable for 5 long days had caught up with me at last.

I've spent the last week flat on my back in bed, too sick to write or do anything much useful. My husband had to take on an unexpected extra week of solo parenting, poor guy. (Because he is a wonderful husband, he rose to the task.) 

At long last, I'm recovering. All I've got left is laryngitis and a slowly disappearing cough. I'm back to writing, and hopefully very soon back to skating and hiking and everything else, because boy am I sick of lying like a slug in bed. I did at least read some great books, and watch the best TV miniseries I have seen in ages (HBO's Chernobyl), but I'll leave discussion of those to another post. Much like my illness, this one is long enough already. I'll leave you with some I took while wandering around Rotorua. 

Lake Rotorua--water fills much of the volcano caldera.
Geothermal steam rising from behind the con hotel
Dead zone beside a hot spring
According to Geothermal Inspector Peter Brownbridge, this area behind the hotel was created when a manmade geothermal bore "went rogue" 
Rotorua Museum in Government Gardens, which are also known as Paepaekumanu
Steaming hot spring near the museum
View on my flight home to Queenstown. Alas, I was on the wrong side yet again to see Aoraki / Mt. Cook, but there's no such thing as a bad view of the Southern Alps.